What is it about Sherlock Holmes that attracts our interest? Do we all yearn to be high functioning sociopaths, as he defines himself in Season 3’s “The Sign of Three”? Do we venerate the extraordinary, the superhuman? Is he the ultimate intellectual superhero?
His powers may be uncanny, but they aren’t supernatural. Despite his transcendent qualities, he is unmistakably sublunary. We can hardly identify with him emotionally, unless we’re Stoic in the original sense; that is, unless we see emotions as misunderstandings or false judgments about reality. They belong to misapplied mythology, not to any truth; nevertheless, we experience and suffer them, and to Sherlock, this is likely our most humorous characteristic. Until, of course, the BBC series (and that’s my impetus for this brief exploration) chooses to humanize him and have him be a spokesperson for the power and necessity of friendship. It’s not that he doesn’t experience emotions, he’s just remarkably efficient at tucking them away deep in his mind palace. Rather than dwell in those colorful, confining rooms, he wanders the halls of cold Reason, which is why he is able to solve murders as Watson saves lives.
So why are we in awe of his proclivities? Like I once read about Hamlet, Sherlock is a most “affable misanthrope.” Except it’s not true that he hates humanity (Hamlet, too, but we’re not going there). He may have positioned himself above them, but it’s undoubtedly a defense mechanism against some threatening insecurity or anxiety. Sherlock isn’t immune from being born and brought up in “civilized” society, though it is fair to say that he navigates it in singular fashion. Because he can and does access the parts of his mind that most of us foreclose, the mythology he creates around himself works. He can evade all self-doubt and pursue the heavy drama and excitement that he craves, with himself at the center, the world revolving around the massive orbit of his self-inflated ego and intellect.
This is why he has to kill Magnussen in the Season 3 finale. It could be compassion for Magnussen sharing his curse, or envy for Magnussen stealing his gift. It could be Sherlock killing the ego he loathes, embodied by Magnussen, or saving the ego he can’t live without, his own. Or he was just fulfilling his vow to always be there for John and Mary. By the way, the Lazarus Moriarty thing…set-up by Mycroft? By Sherlock himself? Mycroft is the Commissioner Gordon to Sherlock’s Batman, as he gave the whole speech about England needing Sherlock.
Regardless, Sherlock’s world would be too dull if he didn’t turn everything into a case ready to be solved. And perhaps that’s the key. Sherlock is the true detective. He is the truest form of our greatest delusion: that life makes sense. That all the pieces around us add up to a solvable and then visible puzzle. Sherlock feeds into the fantasy that, in the end, with a bit of luck and a lot of logic, we will prevail in our quest to conquer life’s mysteries. No case is too great for Sherlock, and in that, he stands as humanity’s hope of cracking life’s code.
But as he admits during his best man speech, he is ridiculous. So too our hope. Of course, that doesn’t stop him, and it certainly shouldn’t stop us.
Note: Sherlock Season 3 was part of my recent Netflix binge, which I’ve noted a few times already. I watched the first 2 seasons upon their release but never got around to the third until now. Hence the very late reflection on it.