“And it is always eighteen ninety-five”


Let us begin again in Plato’s Pharmacy[1] The great inventor is presenting his invention to the King—writing is presented to the authority. The King’s reply, announced Derrida, “will be incisive”: for since its very first appearance, writing comes from outside and below, from a position antithesis to that of the authority. It therefore attains an anti-authoritarian quality. The King is hesitant, for he cannot control it: the pharmakon, the drug, at once heals and poisons; it never seems bounded in any assigned meanings and contexts, always on the move, building and destructing; it is always open to new interpretations, and sporadically so.

Such an observation, however, does not seem to justify the existence of writings that are in deference to the authority. Official and ideological writings, despite being at first glance the obvious choice, exerts little leverage against the argument above. A King’s pamphlet extolling the King is, in most circumstances, immobile, dead. If it is well-crafted, a Derridian would add, a representation of the King would create a duplicate—where the poisonous effect of writing again creeps in.

Let me, then, pick a less obvious example. The affiliation with the authority has to be intricate. Any piece of conservative writing should at least have the pretense of mobility; executed well, it would seem to be alive and adapting, while never leaving the confines of its original context. I am referring to the BBC series Sherlock.

But by all means, you would object, Sherlock is modern. You would immediately point out that the story does not takes place in Victorian Britain, but in contemporary London, among steel and concrete: no more flickering gas lamps and poisonous fog. You would say that Dr. Watson keeps not a journal, but a blog. People, privileged by technological advances, travel by planes and tubes, call for ambulances and a new Scotland Yard, walk around with mobile phones, experience traffic jams after getting to their offices in skyscrapers. The transposition of Sherlock Holmes into the twenty-first century is considered at worst successful, and at best immaculate. “Conan Doyle’s original stories were never about frock coats and gas light,” said one of the screenwriters, “they’re about brilliant detection, dreadful villains and blood-curdling crimes—and frankly, the hell with the crinoline.” [2]

To say that modernity cannot be defined by its appearance, however, would grant the show too much credit. The show does not even look completely contemporary. “The hell with the crinoline”—but the fact that Sherlock wears a distinctively classic coat cannot be easily dispensed. A piece of dark, long and essentially retrograde clothing as “the new sexy” is telling of our “modern” fashion industry; the lapel and the scarf isolates a man from his time. The establishing shot of London, characteristic of tilt-shift photography, blurs the skyline, as if the fog still lingers in the modern era. Detective Lestrade, working in the countryside in The Hound of Baskerville, reinforced the stereotype, “it’s good to get London out of your lungs!” [3] London, it is true, no longer reeks of garbage and gas lamps. Its citizens, however, seem to be allowed either black or white cars, or can only take the cabs with the characteristically rounded outline. They are left with two architectural styles: skyscrapers with glass panes as walls, or classical, even Gothic buildings. [4] The living-room of 221B Baker Street almost looks like an antique shop, and on the shelf sits a skull; modern appliances like the refrigerator are tucked away in the kitchen, and Sherlock proceeds to put a bag of thumbs and a human head in it. “Where else am I supposed to put it?” he said, referring to this invasion of Gothic elements. The aesthetic surface of the show has barely been scratched; its acclaimed modernity, however, is already in disintegration.

You can, of course, accuse me of overlooking one of the integral innovations. Much has been touched by technology, and surely Victorian England does not have text messages. But the characters do not make use of smartphones much more than Victorians make use of telegrams: Sherlock, as announced early in the show, “prefers texting.” [5] The famous telegram in Adventure of the Creeping Man, written by Conan Doyle, reads “come at once if convenient—if inconvenient come all the same.” [6] The modern Sherlock changes “come all the same” to “anyways,” and added “could be dangerous”—as if this audience could not register the urgency. [7] He then calls the serial killer, a privilege of technology, whereas a Victorian Sherlock could only rely on telegrams and newspapers to lure the killer in—either way, the case is solved. Mobile phones and blog posts are a stand-in for historical methods of communications. Human interactions, established by Doyle, remain unchanged.

The disclaimer “based on the novels of Sir Author Conan Doyle,” then, is much more substantial than it appeared to be. The producers keep invoking his name. “Flagrantly unfaithful to the original in some respects,” admitted The Independent, “Sherlock is wonderfully loyal to it in every way that matters.” [8] One needs only to look at episode titles to see how closely they follow Doyle’s footsteps. Most of the plotlines display a surprising degree of fidelity, which makes the differences almost feel like a salute, a tribute to the novels. An alternative version of Sherlock, where artistic liberty is properly utilized, is not at all hard to imagine. Sherlock, in essence, is the British idea of a superhero, somewhere between King Arthur and James Bond. Possibilities are endless. Warner Bros’ 2009 film, though not completely liberated, portrayed a detective with a much more modern feel, who, despite his fake British accent, seemed to have jumped out of an American action movie. The choice to constrain the BBC show within Doyle’s framework, of course, is partly made to appeal to the true Conan Doyle fans, the “Sherlockians,” who handle the original text as if they were handling the Bible, or James Joyce: in reverence, and vigilant against the wrath of deconstruction. They call the novels “canonical,” and are more than happy to see a group of like-minded producers, betraying their nostalgia of a previous era. The Victorian Sherlock Holmes is preserved under a modern pretense. The “canon,” the authority, is omnipresent, and creativity marginalized; the King is dead, but long live the King.

Hence, Sherlock represents an unrepresented phenomenon. Despite Derrida’s claim, it is deferential to authority, and cannot, or rather, refuses, to escape from its historical context. It would almost be convenient if this unchanging, undying product of culture were a failure; it is, by every meaning of the word, a huge success. If popularity is less convincing a criterion, we have in front of us a worldwide acclaim by the critics. Its success renders it all the more dangerous: an unsuspecting audience, placated by its “innovations,” consumes the poison it carries. For a formal imitation of a canonical work can never be achieved only by formal means; part of the Victorian mentality has to be carried over. At times, it could be even more Victorian than the Victorians.

There is, conveniently, still a war in Afghanistan; the Battle of Maiwand that wounded Watson in the nineteenth century still haunts the doctor—and the Occident—in much the same way. What was the anxiety of an empire fighting its colonial subjects, now becomes the anxiety of the Western civilization maintaining world order, and in both cases Watson is looking for a solution. In Doyle’s version:

I was struck down by enteric fever, that curse of our Indian possessions. For months my life was despaired of, and when at last I came to myself and became convalescent, I was so weak and emaciated that a medical board determined that not a day should be lost in sending me back to England … There I stayed for some time at a private hotel in the Strand, leading a comfortless, meaningless existence, and spending such money as I had, considerably more freely than I thought. [9]

The illness, the problem in the colonies, “thate curse of our Indian possessions,” plagued Watson. The war that supported imperialism left the man “despaired of” his life, and his military career was irrevocably lost. It was an identity crisis. He was sent back to London, where his extravagant way of life did not help at all to reconstruct his personal identity. As such, the problem Watson faced was that of the Empire: empire-building was an expensive business, but the Empire could not be defined or maintained by tapping ever deeper into the national treasury. The proposed solution was the encounter of a perfected rationalism, which Sherlock Holmes embodied. Watson’s, and symbolically, the Empire’s identity, can only be regained after studying “the science of deduction,” the process of carefully analyzing the facts and reaching a precise explanation.

The modern Watson, in this sense, surpasses the Victorians. He fought in Afghanistan, was wounded, and upon returning to England sunk into crisis. The solution, however, does not quite come from Sherlock Holmes. Instead, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, praised John for his “bravery as a soldier.” After looking at his hand, Mycroft gives a summary of John’s character:

You have an intermittent tremor in your left hand. Your therapist thinks it’s post-traumatic stress disorder. She thinks you are haunted by the memories of your military service. Fire her—she’s got it the wrong way around. You’re under stress right now and your hand is perfectly steady. You are not haunted by the war, Doctor Watson, you miss it. [10]

The identity crisis caused by the war, in other words, could only be solved by returning to the battlefield. John, then, becomes a warmonger, an embodiment of the Victorian image of a soldier-hero. Later, when chasing a suspect, John completely forgets about his injured leg, and hence a life of adventure begins. Mycroft might have taunted that bravery is merely euphemism for stupidity, but he was portrayed as the antagonist in the scene. John’s moral righteousness, his loyalty and fearlessness when rescuing Sherlock, is at full display in subsuming episodes. War and its problems persists, but the new solution is characteristically more conservative. The audience might either overlook the nuance, or mistake it as a concrete and reasonable extension of the novels; imperialism speaks with authority.

But the prime exhibit of a man out of his time is Sherlock, the self-nominated sociopath. In the novels, he successfully deduced everything about Watson; in the show, however, he was off by one: he did not realize the possibility that the name “Harry,” engraved into Watson’s phone, could belong to Watson’s lesbian sister. [11] The tone of the discourse is set: homosexuality exists only in the margins, whether in Sherlock’s deductions or in the conversations, hinted at and joked about, but never shown and often hastily denied. Sexuality is discussed in A Scandal in Belgravia, written after the original story A Scandal in Bohemia[12] In both stories, Sherlock’s attitude towards women has a distinctly Victorian tint: that their intuition can sometimes surpass that of men’s, but are sources of trouble, of the weakness of sentimentality. Sherlock, one should add, shares the Victorian grudge against workers. The serial killer in A Study in Scarlet drove a carriage, but it was merely his new job after he decided to commit murders, and was eclipsed by the fact that he came from United States, a former British colony; in A Study in Pink, however, the cabbie has always been a cabbie. Sherlock dramatizes his identity: “Who passes unnoticed wherever they go? Who hunts in the middle of a crowd?” [13] These traits, disturbingly, can be used describe almost any unappreciated workers, all of whom have the capability of committing homicide. The first-time the criminal mastermind Jim Moriarty appeared, he dressed as an average “IT from upstairs,” and therefore “passed unnoticed” by Sherlock. [14] It is a classical theme of modernity to speak of the unseen murderer among us; [15] it is a wholly different matter to speak of the unseen murderer from the lower class. Even when Sherlock introduces his Homeless Network, the beggars he pays in return for information about the city, he tells Watson that he is “investing”—he is therefore a capitalist. [16] The classical Holmes said that they need “some organization,”[17] but the modern Sherlock gestured at exploitation.

It was Vincent Starrett, a Sherlockian, who captured our sentiments towards Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, in his poem 221B:

Here, though the world explodes, these two survive,

And it is always eighteen ninety-five. [18]

An acclaimed TV show, beneath its pretense of modernity, is voluntarily deferential to its authority; it seldom escapes, and at time surpasses, its Victorian background; social values, dead since the last century, are revived and radiant. It was Derrida’s claim that writings are inherently anti-authoritarian, on the move, unrestricted by historical contexts; it was in Sherlock that we found an exception to this claim, an exception loaded with global influence. If Derridians are still not convinced of its existence, consider Sherlock’s opinion about writers. After an argument with John on whether one should have knowledge of the solar system, Sherlock, triumphant, criticized his personal biographer: “Put that on your blog—or better still, stop inflicting your opinions on the world.” [19]—writers are said to be anti-establishment, but Sherlock’s criticism is a curious rationale for conformist writings.

[1] Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1981), 65.

[2] BBC, “Press Release: BBC Drama announces Sherlock, a new crime drama for BBC One” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2008/12_december/19/sherlock.shtml), last modified Dec 19, 2008.

[3] Sherlock: The Hound of Baskerville, episode no.2-2, first broadcasted 2012 by BBC, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.

[4] Balaka Basu, “Sherlock and the (Re)invention of Modernity,” in Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010), 199-200.

[5] Sherlock: A Study in Pink, episode no.1-1, first broadcasted 2010 by BBC.

[6] Sir Author Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), 587.

[7] Sherlock: A Study in Pink.

[8] Tom Sutcliffe, “The Weekend’s TV: Sherlock, Sun, BBC1 Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers, Sun, Channel 4” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/the-weekends-tv-sherlock-sun-bbc1amish-worlds-squarest-teenagers-sun-channel-4-2035302.html), in The Independent (July 25, 2010).

[9] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Study in Scarlet,” in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), 3-4.

[10] Sherlock: A Study in Pink.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, episode no.2-1, first broadcasted 2012 by BBC.

[13] Sherlock: A Study in Pink.

[14] Sherlock: The Great Game, episode no.1-3, first broadcasted 2010 by BBC.

[15] Michael Saler, “Mass Culture and the Re-enchantment of Modernity, c. 1890-c. 1940,” The Historical Journal vol. 46, no. 3 (Sept 2003), 608.

[16] Sherlock: The Great Game.

[17] Doyle, “A Study in Scarlet,” 41.

[18] Vincent Starrett, “221B” (https://allpoetry.com/poem/8599039-221b-by-Vincent-Starrett).

[19] Sherlock: The Great Game.

I have written this essay in the style of Theodor Adorno.