Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and Colonialism

Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles is a somewhat entertaining novel. However there is more to it than meets the eye. In many ways it may form part of the debate over the relationship between science and daily life. Ironically it may be a philosophical novel.

The author applies natural scientific methodology to the business of solving crime. Although he may have stretched this methodology to such an extent that he may have successfully lent the novel a slightly comic character he still conveys the importance of science in the solving of problems outside the strictly scientific area. In this way his novel is a refutation of those who argue that natural scientific inquiry cannot apply to areas that stand outside the inferences displayed in this novel in our daily existence. As The Hound shows the activity of science and daily life are not necessarily that distant from each other. Indeed science grew out of the daily activity of people in the maintenance and development of their struggle for existence.

Clearly Arthur Conan Doyle has been heavily influenced by the Gothic genre of Edgar Allen Poe. There is in Conan Doyle’s novel a curious yet ambiguous relationship between the scientific and the supernatural. Some of the characters in the novel are of the view that the cause of the deaths in the novel have their source in the supernatural or mystical. While Sherlock Holmes does not disagree he still rigidly adheres to his customary logical methods based on the facts. Clearly Sherlock Holmes prefers to exhaust the quasi-scientific before being forced to resort to the supernatural dimension for an explanation. This is an approach that makes sense. It is one that would tend to be used by contemporary science. In The Hound what seemed to be caused by the supernatural is instead caused by natural conditions.

Now The Hound, as I already indicated, has a distinctly Gothic quality. The Gothic atmosphere adds a more mysterious character to the story. The author introduces the Gothic at a time when he was, apparently, showing a concern for the occult.

In Conan Doyle’s novel the Devonshire moor, featuring in the book, takes on a pervading mysterious presence of its own. Virtually a pantheistic quality. It is as if the moor and its weather has a being of its own that pervades the diverse aspects linked to the moor investing them with mystery -- the hound, and the residences situated near it. The city is contrasted against the moor. The former is viewed as rational and comprehensible (colonised) while the latter is viewed as irrational and incomprehensible (uncolonised and free). It is as if there is an enduring struggle between the irrational and the rational. Even so the frontline distinguishing rationality from its opposite seems, in this novel, to be fluid –even ambiguous. Even individuals, such as Watson, seeking a rational comprehension of events find the apparently irrational too much for them. Sherlock Holmes’s clear outline of events shows that the particular succession of events has a perfectly rational character. It transpires that the moor and everything associated with it is natural and rational. This leaves the reader to conclude that all reality may in general be capable of explanation from within a rationalist perspective.

This novel portrays a world consisting of tension or even conflict between the rational and the irrational or the natural and the supernatural. However it is painted by Conan Doyle as a false conflict based largely on ignorance. Yet The Hound of the Baskervilles may convey to the reader that belief in the supernatural renders reality more mysterious and thereby exciting and interesting. In a sense there is an underlying philosophical theme at work in the novel as to the meaning of being. However it is presented in a more metaphorical form – art.

The portrayal of the prehistoric architecture and its people in a mystical context adds further to the atmospherics of the novel. Yet again there is the suggestion that the prehistoric people who dwelled on the original sites had a richer and more mysterious relationship to the moor and nature generally. They represented freedom and were liberated from the alienation of the controlled city. In the novel the cultural distance between us and them is presented as vast. Yet through the novel the author may be suspected of hinting that the moor is seeking to convey to the reader the mystical nature of these prehistoric ancestors as a means of establishing a relationship with the mystical past and the modern present. This would tie in with Conan Doyle’s apparent interest in the occult around this time.

It may be that Arthur Conan Doyle in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, in this novel, is seeking to show that there is more to life than mere science and the deployment of the scientific method to solve crimes. When Sherlock is not employing the scientific method it is as if there is nothing else for him to do that makes life meaningful. This is why he sometimes engages in trivial pursuits. After scientific inquiry there is just trivia. His use of morphine to obliterate ennui is a further example of this. The Hound Of The Baskervilles may be hinting that the mystical invests life with meaning and thereby excitement. Sherlock Holmes has become prisoner of his own logic. Outside of the world of logic Sherlock’s life is meaningless. Turning reality or problems into logic renders reality outside of this exercise meaningless. In other words a rationalised world is a world without meaning. It is a world without any motivating factors thereby generating stasis. This exposes the limited and unbalanced nature of the Holmsian version of reason. It is a narrow form of reason that requires irrationalism to maintain itself and its expansionism. It is an artistic expression of 19th century British colonialism.