Sunday, September 14, 2008


I am wholly against the idea of a canon of "great" works that constitute English literature. For me, the quality writings of any time both entertain and instruct: they score highly on that scale which measures how well a written story might pass the time pleasantly and, in the process, tell us much of the world to which the writer belonged. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle reveals much in his writings about the optimism and certainties of late Victorian society. The link between God and Man might have been broken by Darwin's evolutionary discoveries, yet Doyle and others were still able to take refuge in the popular Theosophy of the day.

For some, it appears incongruous that Doyle, the creator of fiction's greatest logical mind, Sherlock Holmes, should in his personal life rather naively believe in fake mediums--and on one famous occasion even assert his belief that a photo of faeries was real rather than doctored. However, this is to misunderstand Doyle. On the one hand, he was a medical doctor and trained in science; on the other, he maintained throughout his life a belief in the reality of supernatural happenings. He even wrote a Professor Challenger novel about it: "The Land of Mists". Indeed, although the Holmes stories reflected Doyle's scientific training, their fascination often subtly lies in the grotesque and horrific events that unfold. In the course of these stories there are vitriol throwings, a woman that is mauled so badly by a lion that she must always wear a veil, a would-be phantom hound, dead faces contorted in horror and living faces leering out their evil on an unsuspecting world, a creeping man who takes on the attributes of a chimpanzee by the use of a monkey gland preparation, an old lover tortured into the shape of a cripple--and many other incidents of the same "grotesque" nature. Consider also the evocative titles: "The Man with the Twisted Lip", "The Crooked Man", "The Hound of the Baskervilles", "The Creeping Man", "The Dancing Men" and many others. These are titles that almost tell a story in themselves! There is the wish to shock, confound and horrify. It is possible that Doyle eventually tired of his famous detective because he became irritated by the need to always find a rational explanation for the Holmes mysteries. Elsewhere, he allowed his imagination far more leeway.

In his "Tales of Terror and Mystery" there are many out and out supernatural stories. Very memorable is the story of an Egyptian mummy that comes to life in the apartments of an Oxford undergraduate and terrorizes the local community. More interesting as a way of examining Doyle's mind is the tale where an aviator flies higher than ever before and is accosted by monsters that live high in the sky. There is a good dose of existentialism in the way in which Doyle uses his science in this story to conclude that anything can happen. We are not living in a universe of immutable laws here and everything can change from moment to moment--even the laws of nature themselves may alter! No doubt, a belief in science and the way it would eventually "explain" what had previously been regarded as "supernatural" lay at the root of much of what Conan Doyle wrote: even if, more than a hundred years later, many of his Victorian certainties and simplistic beliefs in progress and Science now appear somewhat naive to us living through the reality of a quite new and profound technological revolution.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love Sherlock

1:19 AM  
Anonymous Shepherd said...

Love Sherlock

9:52 AM  

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