Saturday, July 15, 2017

What is it that we love in John H. Watson?

One of those big-con moments I've always found unpleasant is the fan who steps up to the celebrity Q & A and decides to speak for all fans. It might be a simple expression of gratitude or love, most likely something positive, but it is that completely narcissistic preface that gets me every time: "I just want to speak for all of us and say . . ." Nice of you to appoint yourself our representative. I might have chosen differently.

In Sherlockiana, we tend to get equally positive, equally sweet attempts to capture some part of all of us and put it on display for others to nod at and, hopefully, agree. In 1946, a fellow named Edgar Smith did it in the classic intro to that spring's issue of The Baker Street Journal, in an essay he entitled "The Implicit Holmes."

"What is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes?" Smith asked in his opening sentence.

He then proceeded to wax nostalgically about the Victorian age at the start, with all the longing of someone who believes "Make America Great Again" is a knob we can turn to travel to a mythical past. Three paragraphs in, however, he gets to the meat of it: "there is more than time and space and yearning for things gone by to account for what we feel toward Sherlock Holmes." And then he goes for it.

Sherlock is "a symbol, if you please, off all that we are not, but ever would be." Or "more simply, that he is the personification of something in us that we have lost, or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street . . . it is we ourselves." And that does account for a lot of us. Sherlockiana has its share of bright narcissists. But just as BBC Sherlock ripped the Victorian period away and proved, once an for all, that Sherlock Holmes can exist out of time, something else has been coming our way for a very long time now. Something, or someone, that Smith left noticeably absent from his 1946 essay -- a year marked by the premieres of the movies Dressed to Kill and Terror by Night, featuring a certain version of that very someone.

John H. Watson. Built in the 1880s publishing world, destroyed by a movie industry that didn't know what to do with him, and rebuilt in TV shows featuring actors like David Burke, Edward Hardwicke, and Martin Freeman. Being written about during all that time, but over the distance between 1887 and 2017, becoming more interesting, more developed than the mysterious everyman narrator we were first handed so long ago.

What is it that we love in John H. Watson? There is a question I would hate to try to answer for fear of being like one of those presumptious Q&A fans at a con. There are a lot of things to love about John Watson, probably more than there are about Sherlock Holmes, depending upon who you are and what you see him as. There are a lot of answers to that question. Too many for easy theorizing about our peers.

As John develops further over time, perhaps there will come a single definite answer: friend, lover, man of action? Sliding scales of each of those and more? Edgar Smith concluded that the Sherlock Holmes we loved was "the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves." Is Watson much the same, when we are not Sherlock inside? Or do they make a matched set?

"What is it that we love in John H. Watson?" is a harder question to ask than its 1946 predecessor, I think, but well worth the pondering.

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