Response to a Friend's Question About Sherlock Holmes
You ask if I agree that Holmes is the first character in fiction
who is above the story's turmoil. Maybe the first HERO. He's not
always above it, but Watson makes a big thing out of those moments
he gets pulled in precisely because he is usually detached. Of course,
that IS part of the story: The oddness of someone who has made himself
into a kind of detached intellectual machine.
I suppose it could be argued that there are many detached characters
in previous literature, but seldom, if ever, the protagonists. I
think you will occasionally find characters in Dickens and elsewhere
who talk the detachment talk and make things happen like a puppeteer
pulling strings, but they are usually the villains or, at best,
Deus-ex-machina friends of the hero, never (that I can recall) the
heroes. In fact, Holmes is a lot (in style) like the James Bond
super-villain and, of course, a lot like Moriarty. It wouldn't surprise
me to find earlier examples, but none come to mind (other than Holme's
immediate models, like Poe's Dupin).
Dostoyevski has characters (e.g., in The Possessed) who strive
for a similar detachment and sound very aloof and intellectual,
but they are usually exposed, eventually, as full of suppressed
passions and emptinesses, etc. (There are occasional hints of this
in Holmes.) These Dostoyevski characters are probably descendents
of the Byronic hero, full of aloof irony. They also imbibe Nietsche
and sometimes nihilism. Turgenev toys with this too (the nihilist
hero of Fathers and Sons), but Dostoyevski is probably the richest
source (much of it pre- Holmes) for an array of characters who achieve
or feign intellectual detachment in various ways. Some of them are
treated sympathetically, some satirically, often a mix. Some progress
from apparent detachment to dissociation and insanity. Some clearly
LACK the detachment, but strive for it (Raskolnikov in Crime and
Punishment, Ivan in Brothers Karamazov). One exemplar of feigned
detachment would be the inspector in Crime and Punishment. I suppose
it could be argued that Holmes is an idealization of the sort of
aloofness that is indicated, but always undermined in Dostoyevski's
Tolstoy has at least one character whose presence is very much
like that of Holmes: Prince Andrey in War and Peace, but, as with
Dostoyevskian characters, Andrey's intellectual aloofness is soon
exposed as a vacuuousness of spirit, boredom, inner deadness from
which love saves him. Alexie Karenin (Anna's husband) is another
exposure of the human frailty underlying apparent rational aloofness.
Iago has some of Holmes' talents. But, aha!, so does Prince Hal,
a rather calculating hero.
Probably more and closer ancesters can be found in French literature
-- for example, 18th century experiments with the rational hero
(or monster), cold social manipulaters, brilliant seducers, "pure"
logicians who try to apply that purity to every aspect of life.
Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James are fascinated by the possibilities
of the detached hero or villain.
We're so used to the Holmesian aloofness as the mark of a certain
sort of hero that we probably can't readily see what a novelty it
was -- not the aloofness, but its being viewed as heroic. After
all, Holmes is something like the scientist that Wordsworth pummels
for botanizing o'er his mother's grave. The notion of someone unfeelingly
analytical, more excited by the game than moved by the emotions
of the pieces in the game, is not new, but it was, before the 19th
Century, associated with Satan, though God perhaps shares this quality
in the book of Job.
Perhaps it could be argued that Holmes as hero helps introduce
the modernist notion of the scientist as hero -- and the ambivalence
about such heroism (Verne's scientists, often mad, as are Wells')
and the reversal in 20th Century Western science fiction, where,
again, science is often the villain.
Much of the later development of detective fiction came from working
variations on this by introducing the detached hero, then involving
him in unexpected ways. For example, the greatest of the unriddling
detectives (as opposed to the tough-guy detectives ala Chandler)
is Whimsy, who is delightfully detached and keen for getting at
truth no matter what the human expence, but again and again slips
into compassion or disgust or love, usually (being a gentleman)
trying to fake continued aloofness, but often failing. And then
there's the Nero Wolf game, which is to get his character involved
(e.g., angry), but nearly always for the "wrong" reason,
so that he seems all the more aloof. For example, he'll be aloof
until some odd and seemingly irrelevant angle of the case attracts
him (e.g., he might be upset if the murderer, in the course of murdering,
destroyed a rare vintage wine or rarer orchid), which emphasizes
all the more his aloofness from the human angle. But even Wolf slips
into involvement, and a big thing is always made of it.
The best known reincarnation of Holmes in our time is probably
Spock on "Star Trek." Holmes was apparently a Venusian.
He probably wore his hunting cap with the ear flaps down to conceal
his pointed ears. Early appearance of a UFO alien in English literature.