The Importance of Being Watson: The half-hearted need not apply
by Margaret Whitmer (MEW)
Where would Sherlock Holmes be without his Watson?
Not at the top of the bestseller list after 130 years.
Holmes’ “adventures” – had they been written by himself – would be about as dry as toast without jam. As flavorless as mashed potatoes without gravy.
Consider this iconic passage from “A Sign of Four”:
“Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. (Said Holmes) You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”
“But the romance was there,” I remonstrated. “I could not tamper with the facts.”
“Some facts should be suppressed or at least a just sense of proportion be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes by which I succeeded in unravelling it.”
I was annoyed at this criticism of a work which had been specially designed to please him…I made no remark, however, but sat nursing my wounded leg.
This passage may perfectly sum up the archetypal Holmes/Watson dynamic.
Poor, underappreciated Watson! Yet how vital is his “romantic” viewpoint!
It is only by seeing the cold, clinical reasoner through Watson’s “romantic” eyes that readers come to admire him as much as Watson does. Without his only friend, Holmes would be viewed by most people as a very unpleasant person.
Even Watson found him hard to understand at times. In “The Greek Interpreter” he states:
“I had never heard him refer to his relations and hardly ever to his own early life. This reticence…increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.”
Holmes regarded emotion as an excellent means of drawing the veil from people’s motives and actions. But emotions being subjective are unreal and illusory.
People then base their actions on these illusions and for that, Holmes disdained them for their failure to see things as they are.
Yet what truly creates the depth of human life? Love, hate, revenge, minsunderstanding, joy – in other words, emotion. Without it, humans become – well – less than human.
This archetypal pairing of the cold, one-dimensional thinker coupled with the often put-upon close friend who keeps him/her anchored to humanity continues to play out in popular culture.
Some current examples include Dr. Gregory House/Dr. James Wilson; Temperence “Bones” Brennan (a female Sherlock Holmes)/FBI Agent Sealy Booth; Sherlock/John on Sherlock (a 21st Century update of Holmes on BBC Channel One); Mr. Spock/Capt. Kirk on Star Trek and Data/Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
These Holmes/Watson pairings run on a continuum in terms of sympathy (or lack thereof), with Dr. House at one end of the spectrum and Data at the other.
What differs with these modern Holmeses is that they are not viewed through the filter of Watson’s eyes. Our sympathy toward them, however, still largely arises from how their Watsons react to them.
Dr. Gregory House
“House” debuted in 2004 and was the most watched show in the world in 2008. The lead character is an unconventional, misanthropic medical genius whose creator, David Shore, openly admits is based on Sherlock Holmes.
Similarities start with their names (House/Holmes). House relies on inductive reasoning and psychology and disdains cases he finds uninteresting. His relationship with Dr. James Wilson echoes that between Holmes and Watson.
His investigatory method is to eliminate diagnoses logically as they are proven impossible; Holmes did the same. Both play instruments. Both at one time took drugs. House even lives in a second story apartment on Baker Street!
In season two, House is shot by a crazed gunman credited as “Moriarty.” In season four, he receives a “second edition Conan Doyle” as a Christmas gift.
In season five he picks up his keys and Vicodin from the top of a copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. He also uses a book by Joseph Bell, Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes. The book was given him by Wilson, who claims its source as a patient, Irene Adler.
Now that’s true homage!
I place House at the far left of the sympathy continuum because he is portrayed as being routinely cruel to people, including his best friend Wilson, who often is the victim of mean practical jokes.
I don’t recall any time that the original Sherlock Holmes was cruel to John Watson. He was impatient with him and misled him at times. But he also made it clear how much he appreciated him and relied upon him.
House can be so unlikeable at times that one often is left wondering why Wilson puts up with him at all. This, perhaps, is what occurs when one is viewing the Holmes character as other people would, rather through the doting eyes of an admiring companion.
This new 21st Century Sherlock was created by Mark Gatiss and Steve Moffatt, two more lifelong devotees of the Doyle Canon. In the three-episode mini-series that ran in 2010, they make so many references to the Canon it would be impossible to list them all.
A second three-part series is expected this fall.
This brief series garnered a worldwide audience, particularly among young people charmed by the well-drawn relationship between Sherlock and John. If this makes any of them actually pick up the original stories and read them, so much the better.
The writers’ goal was to lift Holmes from his dusty Victorian niche and make him a modern “cutting edge” man again – as he was when Doyle originally wrote the stories. In my opinion, they brilliantly succeeded.
Their Sherlock is not as cruel as House, but he is not above making cutting, disdainful remarks to those he considers beneath him.
Perhaps to appeal to its young fan base, this Sherlock is edgy, arrogant, thrill-seeking, alpha and believes rules are for other people. Failure is no option. People mean little to him. All that matters is “winning” and proving he is right.
John is Sherlock’s moral barometer, reminding him that sometimes people do matter and encouraging him to make more effort toward sparing their feelings. While Sherlock may take John for granted at times, John remains loyal.
John also saves Sherlock’s life on one occasion because he’s so bent on proving he’s right he doesn’t realize how foolhardy he is being.
Temperence “Bones” Brennan
This show is unique in that the Holmes character is, in fact a woman. Like the original Holmes, she is based upon a real person: Forensic anthropologist Katherine Reichs, who not only co-writes but also co-produces the series.
Like the original Holmes, House and Sherlock, “Bones” is a brilliant scientist. She is not so much heartless as she is emotionally impaired. She hides behind science because exposing herself to the bewildering morass of emotion terrifies her.
She is Aspergerish. She doesn’t pick up on normal social cues. She finds it hard to recognize humor and plays on words. She doesn’t understand that sometimes gilding the plain truth is kinder. There is no delete button between her brain and her mouth.
She wants to understand how normal people behave, but finds it difficult. Instead, she relies on her “Watsons”: FBI Agent Sealy Booth, and her best friend Angela Montenegro, to explain how “normal” humans interact and makes attempts to follow their advice, sometimes with disastrous, touching or humorous results.
Unlike the real Holmes, she is not asexual, but her relationships are always unsuccessful, either because she chooses the wrong person or because she must sacrifice the relationship in favor of her single-minded devotion to her work
From this springs much of the drama that is necessary to make any slightly “inhuman” character interesting.
Mr. Spock is the brilliant “science officer” aboard Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.
I place him at the softer end of the Holmes spectrum because he tries to understand human emotion, but due to his basic nature, finds it difficult to express.
He is part human and part Vulcan. Vulcans are incapable of expressing emotion and Spock leans heavily toward that side in personality. His human and Vulcan side are constantly at war as he tries to keep his emotional side suppressed.
One could argue that the original Holmes also is half human, since he seems incapable of expressing emotion, either. He needs Watson to do that for him.
Pathos arises as the result of Mr. Spock’s greatest antagonist, Dr. Leonard McCoy, who constantly mocks his refusal to express emotion in favor of maintaining an objective scientific viewpoint.
His Watson is Capt. James Kirk, to whom he is devoted and who is equally devoted to him. Kirk doesn’t antagonize Spock because he is “different,” but admires him for the many positive qualities he does have.
“I chose to believe that I was a person, that I had the potential to become more than a collection of circuits and subprocessors.” – Data
Data actually is a machine. He is an android in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Since the original Holmes is often referred to as a machine, Data fits comfortably here.
Of all of the Holmesian archetypes, Data may be the most sympathetic. Because he is a machine, he cannot express emotion, however, he wishes that he could.
He constantly asks his Watson (Geordi La Forge) and other human crew members questions about why humans behave as they do and tries to act human himself. He even attempts a love relationship and has a cat named Spot. Like “Bones” Brennan, Data doesn’t understand humor and his attempts at jokes fall flat.
In season two, Data actually plays Sherlock Holmes in a holodeck simulation program.
Since he has read all of the Holmes stories, he is able to solve the mystery within minutes. Geordi explains the fun is in the mystery itself and instructs the computer to create a program capable of defeating Data.
Alas! The program created is Moriarity, who tries to take over the ship!
As the series progresses Data receives advanced programming that allows him to feel emotions. At times these emotions so utterly overwhelm him that he must turn his “emotion chip” off when feelings might get in the way of his work.
Which brings us to the ultimate question: To feel or not to feel? Is it better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous emotions? Or to hide behind the cold, clinical mask of absolute rationality and by opposing emotions, end them?
Perhaps it’s best to let the cold and clinical Holmeses of the world get the job done, while the Watsons stand vigilantly by, feeling for them and gently guiding and correcting them when they occasionally go too far.