Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can I be complimentary, my dear Watson?

We celebrate flashy, insensitive Holmes, but it’s his sidekick’s common sense, bravery and friendship that we should admire

“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” says Sherlock Holmes on first meeting John Watson in A Study in Scarlet.

Dr Watson, as Holmes correctly deduces, has indeed just returned from the Second Afghan War, after receiving a bullet from an Afghan musket at the disastrous battle of Maiwand, followed by a nasty bout of enteric fever.

Watson’s verdict on the war in Afghanistan is dour: “The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster.”

It seems somehow appropriate that Watson should be a wounded veteran of Afghanistan, for his is a peculiarly British sort of heroism that spans the ages: loyal, phlegmatic, doughty and modest.

Dr Watson, MD, may be the most unfairly overshadowed character in English literature. Guy Ritchie’s latest remake of the tale — starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson — has done something to redress the balance by giving Watson his own personality. But in the popular imagination, thanks largely to his representation on screen in the Thirties and Forties by goggle-eyed Nigel Bruce, Watson is a mere sidekick, a genial bumbler whose role is to ask the most obvious questions as foil to Holmes’s genius.

The real genius of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories lies not in Holmes, but in Watson, whose common sense, innate bravery and gentle friendship mark him out as the Victorian Everyman.

While an addict of the Sherlock Holmes tales, I have never had much time for Holmes himself — a cocaine-abusing, patronising, ascetic, asexual know-it-all with a taste for lofty pronouncements that sound impressive but which, when examined, mean nothing at all. “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This is nonsense. Rule out the impossible, and all you have is a vast array of possibilities, one of which might be the truth.

Holmes, so sensitive to physical clues, seems incapable of gauging the emotional reactions of others. Dr Lisa Sanders has made the intriguing case that Doyle, as a trained physician, described the symptoms of autism in Holmes some 70 years before the disorder was identified by the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger.

Holmes does not make conversation; he offers disquisitions. He knows a lot about very specific subjects (the differences between 140 varieties of tobacco ash), but nothing whatever about contemporary literature, philosophy and politics. “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge,” observes Watson. Worse, Holmes is not interested in learning what he does not know. “What the deuce is it to me?” he demands, on being told that the earth travels around the sun.

In all these respects, Holmes is the polar opposite of Watson, who is gregarious, eager for knowledge and happy to converse on any subject with no pretensions to expertise. Where Holmes is drug-addict thin, Watson is an excellent trencherman, prompting Holmes to remark, with typical insensitivity, “You have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”

Conan Doyle did not much like Holmes either, which may explain his decision to kill off the detective by pitching him over the Reichenbach Falls and his reluctance to resuscitate him despite the public clamour. “His character admits of no light and shade,” he grumbled.

Watson is, in some ways, disguised autobiography, for Doyle was himself the antithesis of Holmes. Holmes is bleakly rational; Doyle was romantic and superstitious. Holmes plays his violin, alone; Doyle hurled himself into team sports, and once took the wicket of W.G. Grace. Doyle doted on and depended on the various women in his life; Holmes thought that “women are never to be entirely trusted”.

In the contrast between the characters of Holmes and Watson, Doyle was not simply establishing the quintessential buddy partnership from which all others derive — Butch and Sundance, Batman and Robin and, most recently in the television series House, in which the deductive, medical-mystery-solving hero’s name is a play on Holmes (Home = House) and Dr Watson is Dr Wilson, his beleaguered ever-tolerant helpmate — Doyle was also making a point about character itself.

Holmes is flashy, brilliant and extraordinary, but it is Watson’s blunter, quieter virtues of simple decency that we are called on to admire, and it is his voice that we trust. Being right is all very well, Doyle seems to say through Watson, but being good is better. Watson is the man you would want to go into the jungle with or, for that matter, into the Afghan mountains.

Like many returning from Afghanistan today, Dr Watson dwells not on his own trials and injuries, but the bravery of his fellows. “I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines.” One cannot imagine Holmes saying anything like this. All sinew and synapse, the great detective imagines war as a virtue.

In one of the last Holmes stories, His Last Bow, the greatest double-act in literature look out over the sea, having stymied a German spy plot in the run-up to the First World War.

“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same . . . It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind nonetheless, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

Holmes is both right about Watson — a fixed point of honour through the changing ages — and utterly wrong. One suspects that good old Watson, his shoulder shattered by an Afghan bullet, knows that Holmes does not understand what war is really like; but he is far too British to say so.


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