Friday, October 4, 2019

Delusions and tiger cubs

One of the things that modern story-tellers have really tried to push on Sherlock Holmes is that he's a real jerk. No social skills, just the rude pushing of facts on people they don't want to hear. It coincides with the trend in saying that there's something not quite right in Holmes to make him as smart as he is. And both trends really seem to come from the same place.

Because Sherlock Holmes of the original Canon is not that guy.

So let's start with a horribly sexist statement from Sherlock, factor in the Victorian mentality that spawned it, and take the sexism out.

"You remember the old Persian saying, 'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a [person]. These is as much sense in Hafiz as Horace, and as much knowledge of the world."

It's really a brilliant statement, acknowledging that Western culture doesn't have the monopoly on smarts. Holmes liked to gather his wisdom from everywhere. But let's get back to the first half, that part about delusion being as dangerous as stealing a tiger cub.

What we've found, as our networks connect us with more of the human race than ever before, is that delusion can be a very powerful force. We will cherry-pick information to feed a cherished delusion, and we see many a delusion that only exists because our egos won't allow that we might be . . . just possibly . . . wrong. The less wrong anyone claims to be across the board, the more delusional they definitely are.

And Sherlock Holmes is a guy who is actually paid to undo delusions. Got a demon hound killing people in your family? Probably a delusion, call Sherlock Holmes. Got a special club that pays you money to copy encyclopedia entries? Might be someone deluding you, call Sherlock Holmes. Got a fiancee who disappeared on the way to the church? If you don't recognize that you're dating your own step-father, there might be some pretty big delusions going on.

In that last case, Canonical Sherlock actually goes out of his way not to upset somebody by telling them the truth. "A Case of Identity" is perfect evidence against the whole concept of Holmes being a truth-forcing jerk. He's actually trying to be kind.

Delusion has become more dangerous than ever, and we really need the truth-seekers, the investigators, and the Sherlock Holmeses of our world right now. And as Watson found out when one stuck its head inside his tent, sometimes you have to figure out how to deal with a tiger cub. (The one true tent joke of the Canon!)  And that can be a real challenge.

Sherlock Holmes's reputation for being a guy who snatches away delusions has cost him some esteem these days that he didn't have to deal with, back when Basil Rathbone played him and most people seemed to accept that a person smarter than them could exist without harming their own self-esteem. Which is ironic, as we need his sort now more than ever . . . hmmm.

John Watson saw a man once, and questioned himself hard over the possibility that he was deluded. As he wrote in The Hound of the Baskervilles, "I saw the figure of a man upon the tor. Do not think it was a delusion, Holmes. I assure you that I have never in my life seen anything more clearly."

At a time when demon hounds were supposedly running rampant on Dartmoor, Watson held to what he knew was true, and he held fast to it. There was a man on that tor. That man was no delusion. That man, and everything he would bring to Dartmoor.

That man was Sherlock Holmes. Are we deluded that humanity is capable of producing such a person, at a time when delusion is everywhere? I think I'll stick with Watson's view on that.

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