Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sherlock Holmes Syndrome


I’m sick of Sherlock Holmes.

Let me clarify.

I fell in love with this character several years ago when I began reading the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle canon. Do you ever have those moments when you discover a character or a book and you think: this was created for me? I had that with Sherlock Holmes.

I loved him even with all his flaws, sexism, and drug addiction. I loved the world he inhabited, I loved Watson, and I was madly in love with Irene Adler. Even the stories where Conan Doyle was clearly phoning it in, I enjoyed. And for a while, I loved the fact that pop culture had rediscovered this character and seemed to create new renditions of him every year.

I am now sick of what I call Sherlock Holmes Syndrome. I am sick of eccentric, often neurotic, always brilliant white men who see things that we mere mortals cannot see. I’m sick of the mass media’s apparent belief that mental issues, depression, anxiety, psychopathy and neurodevelopmental disorders are magic. I’m also sick of the blanket use of autism, often incorrectly, as a signifier for Otherness and as a vague superpower.


Look, I still love this character. And I’ve spent more time thinking about and debating Sherlock Holmes’ mental issues than I care to admit. At the end of the day, we don’t know if the canon Sherlock Holmes suffered from anything other a drug addiction and “the outbursts of passionate energy when he performed the remarkable feats with which his name is associated [which] were followed by reactions of lethargy during which he would lie about with his violin and his books, hardly moving save from the sofa to the table”[i]. But that has not stopped contemporary interpretations of this damaged yet dazzlingly clever man to diagnose him with everything from Asperger syndrome to encephalitis.


The Sherlock Holmes Syndrome has expanded far beyond the actual character of Sherlock Holmes. Will Graham of NBC’s Hannibal is another troubled white man in his thirties who, like BBC’s Sherlock, is allegedly autistic, which grants him the ability to mentally recreate crime scenes. His recreations and narration during them are reminiscent of Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes and his ability to predict exactly what an opponent was about to do. Like the canon Sherlock Holmes, he suffers from what Conan Doyle would’ve referred to as “black moods.” We just call them blackouts or hallucinations and you really should get that checked out by a non-serial killer professional.

Sherlock Holmes Syndrome can even affect characters that are not crime-fighters or detectives. Ichabod Crane from FOX’s Sleepy Hollow exhibits several effects of this syndrome: he’s eccentric (by our modern standards. He was a normal man in his time period of 18th century), British (not all those who suffer from Sherlock Holmes Syndrome are British but it certainly helps), white, charming for all his oddities, and possesses a convenient glossary of knowledge and minutiae that the secondary characters do not.  In the episode “The Lesser Key of Solomon,” Ichabod reveals that he just happens to have a photographic memory (rather similar to the mind palace of the Sherlock Holmes of the BBC) that helps him and Abbie track down the evil Hessians. In “John Doe,” we discover Ichabod speaks Middle English, which just so happens to be the language the mysterious sickly boy who randomly appears in town speaks. Multiple plotlines are possible simply because of Ichabod’s background and knowledge of the supernatural. Like Sherlock Holmes, he has collected minute details through his experiences and research. 


I know there are more examples of these types of men in our current pop culture (please let me know of the others that I am overlooking) and I am just so tired of these conveniently genius white men whose brilliance is so dazzling, it’s almost inhuman. I’m tired of mental illness as a trope in pop culture and I’m also tired of Othering these men through either neurological/mental differences and/or their often vague sexuality (Ichabod is the only apparently totally straight character mentioned here).

Look, we’ve questioned Sherlock Holmes’ mental capabilities, alleged disorders, and sexuality since he first appeared to us in 1887. Part of what is so interesting about this character is what is not said to us by his trusty Boswell, John Watson. The eccentric genius as queer is nothing new so why do we keep relying on it so much? And why do writers, actors, creators, fans, etc. seem so fixated on this trope that we rehash him out over and over again?

The third series of Sherlock is supposedly coming out next month on the BBC and, while I know I will tune in, I’m rather indifferent to the whole thing. I want to know the reveal of the last series’ cliffhanger but other than that, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has overstayed his welcome with me. Even the Sherlock of CBS’s Elementary, which I actively enjoyed as the closet to canonical Sherlock Holmes I’ve seen in years, has done little to impress me this season.

I keep tuning in these shows, however, which I suppose proves that I have fallen under the Sherlock Holmes Syndrome as well. I just wish I didn’t feel so tired after finishing the latest episodes.

[i] See “The Musgrave Ritual” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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