The Romance of Reason: Sherlock Holmes Goes Viral

I set out  with noble intentions for this blog. I vowed to avoid meandering too long on the same show or topic. Then, fate intervened and I found this “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes” flier at my local library:

…followed by another at my local coffee shop a few days later. Who am I to argue with fate or, for that matter, the furtive global take over of one Sherlock Holmes?

For those of your unfamiliar with the dramatic imagery or slogan, the flier is part of a viral campaign launched by fans of the BBC’s Sherlock. Posters, graffitti, buttons, shirts – you name it – have turned up across the globe in support of the show and its title character.  In a recent post, I focused on the ways in which the classic Sherlock Holmes character has been modernized, and that is part of the discussion when looking at this movement, but there is also another central question at the heart of the debate: what make the Sherlock Holmes character so timeless? Or, at the very least, what values, concerns, or ideals of contemporary society echo the 19th century culture Sherlock was born into?

The origin:

Let’s back up a bit to how the movement that launched a thousand(or is it a million?) hashtags was born. The idea was inspired by the final installment in the second series of Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall.” In the episode (SPOILERS! obviously), Sherlock is framed to look like a fraud by evil genius, James Moriarty. Sherlock’s fame, in part created by best friend and blogger John Watson, is turned against him. In order to save his friends and escape an elaborate trap set by Moriarty, Sherlock  fakes his suicide. Before he jumps, a tearful Sherlock tells John that he was a fake, asking John to tell anyone who will listen.

The viral campaign originated with one Tumblr user’s (earlfoolish) suggestion that fans launch a “tribute campaign to show [their] love and support.” The movement imagines the fans into the world of Sherlock, defending the name of the consulting detective as if they were readers of John Watson’s actual blog. The call-to-arms is complete with an in-character post from earlfoolish reacting to the “death” of the famous detective:

So… I guess you all have heard/read/seen the news. It’s been pretty hard to miss it – the death of Sherlock Holmes. I’m gutted but I’m doing my best to keep it together. I don’t know about you guys, but I refuse to believe it. That he was a fraud. He just can’t have been, can’t have! I saw him at a crime scene once, I had followed the sound of sirens in hope it’d be one of his cases, and there is NO WAY he was a fake. You can’t make that sort of shit up, he was too good! He was an inspiration for all of us to be more observant in our every day lives, and I won’t accept the so called truth about Sherlock that is all over the media. I know you feel like I do, and now it’s our turn to show that we haven’t lost faith in him. Sherlock might be gone, but I won’t sit silent!

Earlfoolish suggested a guerilla art campaign in the vein of artist Amanda Palmer’s “Who killed Amanda Palmer?” movement, which encouraged fans to use street graffiti to promote an upcoming album. Another example is the use of “Frodo Lives!” as a counterculture slogan appearing on city streets, buttons, bumper stickers, and t-shirts in the 1960s and 1970s.  Earlfoolish’s idea was to utilize all of those techniques, but to also update the DIY guerilla campaign for the 21st century. The result has been mind-boggling in its scope and innovation. Check out the Tumblr tag for examples. They range from the public to the cleverly mundane:

Historic Belief:

This isn’t the first time fans of the detective have backed up his existence. There has been confusion (some deliberate, some not so deliberate) over Sherlock Holmes’ existence as a real person since his “birth” in 1887. This Straight Dope article from 2003 answers the question for a confused reader of The Seven-Percent Solution, which recounts a meeting between Holmes and Sigmund Freud.

Let’s call it the Game. The point is to pretend that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real, that Watson wrote the stories reporting actual events, and that Conan Doyle was merely Watson’s literary agent. Essentially, one applies Holmes’s own methods to analyzing the stories, trying to explain the inconsistencies, fill the gaps, and identify the other characters and events.

There are whole societies of “Sherlockians” devoted to finding these inconsistencies, and treating the stories as non-fiction. Membership to the most prestigious of the lot, the Baker Street Irregulars, is by invitation-only. The article dates “the game” back to 1902, when an open letter to Dr. Watson was published in the Cambridge Review, pointing out inconsistencies with dates mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles, but that was only the start. Articles treating Holmes and Watson as real people continued to be published in respectable magazines and books, including scholarly biographies for both men in 1932. Such scholarly publications, notes the article, “created a highly specialized and possibly unique form of literary criticism,” somewhere past parody and suspiciously close to sincere.

Dorothy L. Sayers, herself known for writing the Peter Wimsey mysteries, set forth the rules of the Game. “It must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s; the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”

“‘Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity,” a scholarly article published in 2003 by Michael Saler, claims that Sherlock was the first character (and world) in modern literature to be treated in this way, setting a template for such fan infatuations as Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Star Wars.

Saler divides Sherlock’s believers into two categories: naive believers, readers who thought Sherlock was a real person, and ironic believers, “who were not so much willingly suspending disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence.” Our interest lies with the latter, though surely they are intertwined. The naive believer who wrote to Sherlock Holmes, asking for help with a case or financial assistance, was a perfect detail for the ironic believer’s pretense, while the ironic believer’s seemingly sincere belief in the legitimacy of Sherlock and his world may have contributed to confusion for the casual reader.

The Romance of Reason

Saler argues that Sherlock’s popularity stems from the character’s ability to meld the seemingly antagonistic values of “modernity” and “enchantment” by using reason in a fantastical way.

He expanded the definition of rationality beyond a narrow, means-end instrumentalism to include the imagination – he calls his procedure ‘the scientific use of the imagination.’

Doyle was writing at a time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) of great cultural pessimism, when many “mourned the apparent absence of communal beliefs and higher ideals in an age that seemed dominated by positivism and materialism.” Sound depressingly familiar?

The character of Sherlock Holmes, however, represented and celebrated the central tenets of modernity adumbrated at the time – not just rationalism and secularism, but also urbanism and consumerism. The stories made these tenets magical without introducing magic: Holmes demonstrated how the modern world could be re-enchanted through means entirely consistent with modernity.

This is an attractive idea: that you don’t have to choose between reason and romance. In this context, the ironic believer’s practice of treating Sherlock as a real person is a celebration of this synthesis. It is a way of rebelling against disenchantment as the only modern (i.e. rational) method of interacting with the world. Perhaps this is one of the reasons BBC’s Sherlock, where modernity is fused into the very form of the piece through fast-paced editing and clever special effects, has struck such a chord with viewers. Sherlock uses modern tools – mobile phones, computers, lab equipment – to solve his mysteries, imbuing them with a sense of wonder. Through the eyes of Sherlock, the mundane – a shade of lipstick or nicks on a cell phone – is given meaning, clues towards a greater truth.

As far as I can tell, we live in a world of cynicism. A world where it is popular to blame cell phones and Facebook and IPods for a perceived growing disconnection amongst the people of today, and where we are surrounded by an ever- growing accumulation of stuff that seems to have little real meaning. Maybe that’s why it is so tempting to fall into the world of Sherlock Holmes – where technology is wonderful and the mundane has meaning – and why it is so tempting to bring a bit of his world back into our own. “There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace,” said Holmes to Watson. I, for one, believe in Sherlock Holmes.

For more Sherlock analysis (because there will never be enough), check out my reviews of “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three.”

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3 thoughts on “The Romance of Reason: Sherlock Holmes Goes Viral

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