Fricke, Analysis 2: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: scientist, chemist, violin enthusiast—and undoubtedly the most famous detective in literature. His eccentricities are many, his knowledge profound, and his knack for solving crimes inexplicable. And yet, his social inadequacy and his experience with matters of the heart prove that Sherlock Holmes isn’t an expert in all areas of life. In fact, upon further scrutiny, his knowledge proves to be quite specialized, serving the specific purpose of helping him to solve crimes as a consulting detective. The extent to which this is true is especially apparent when, in A Study in Scarlett, Sherlock reveals that he didn’t know that the earth revolved around the sun. How could this be! Surely a genius such as Holmes would know this most basic of facts . . . but the knowledge does nothing to help him solve a mystery, and so he promptly purges this knowledge from his mind, lest it take up space for more meaningful knowledge (like which reagent is precipitated by hemoglobin, and nothing else).

It has been widely speculated that Holmes’ character has ASD or the now somewhat obsolete Asperger’s, and it’s a simple matter to see why. He has highly specialized interests, difficulty relating to others, and will talk at length about topics that seem to interest only him (without him realizing he’s the only interested party). The fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and not an actual person adds difficulty to the question of diagnosis. However, I think it would be hard to make a concrete diagnosis anyway, especially given the incredibly diverse nature of ASD. Is Holmes autistic, or does he merely have personality “quirks”? It brings to mind the discussion about who decides what neurodivergent is (hint: it’s not the neurodivergent).

I stumbled upon an interesting article after completing the reading. Author Susan Loftis warned that although talking about Holmes as having ASD may seem like a positive notion at first, it could feed into tropes about autism that perpetuate harmful stereotypes:

Furthermore, the presumably redemptive fiction of the autistic hero often proves oddly dehumanizing: even as his incredible feats of deduction are praised as a work of genius, Holmes is objectified by his beloved Watson, who constantly compares the brilliant sleuth to machines and repeatedly describes him as “inhuman” (2014).

We talked about this when discussing Raymond in Rain Man. It seems authors and film makers struggle with the problem of how to represent autism with a character that doesn’t play into tropes and stereotypes, while simultaneously making it clear that the character is autistic. I guess it might be too much to ask to consult with actual people with ASD /sarcasm/. Though to be clear, I’m not trying to put Doyle in the hot seat. Asperger’s wasn’t even a thing when he created Sherlock Holmes, so playing off of the stereotypes of Asperger’s wasn’t even possible, not on purpose anyway. Still, current media has formed a template of sorts and Holmes happens to fit into quite nicely. He’s the detective savant; aloof and cold, and just a little too familiar with crime. How long will such an individual be satisfied with merely solving crimes? It’s this sort of mindset that adds to the troubling and harmful notion that those with ASD are dangerous and cold-blooded, a sort of mystery in itself. “The other characters dwell on Holmes’s autistic traits as symbols of mystery and exoticism, thus casting the character with autism as a puzzle in need of a neurotypical solution” (Loftis).  It’s at this point that people stop viewing neurodivergent individuals as human, and start to objectify them in their fascination.

              Loftis is pretty critical of the portrayal of Holmes as having Asperger’s. I think her comments are justified, but I also feel that it is still important to keep trying to get it right. Though the dangers of stereotyping are many, representation in media and literature is still vital.

 

References

Loftis, S. (2014). The autistic detective: Sherlock Holmes and his legacy. Disability Studies Quarterly, 34. http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3728/3791

 

Also interesting: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/magazine/06diagnosis-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1

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2 thoughts on “Fricke, Analysis 2: Sherlock Holmes

  1. schillererica

    I, too, was struck by Watson’s discussion of Holmes as “inhuman” or as a “machine.” As a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work and a frequent reader of his works, I was struck during this rereading not only by how many autistic traits the detective seems to exhibit, but also by how much the other characters’ treatment of him echoed the other examples we have seen in previous works we have discussed.

    Now that the idea has been brought to mind, it seems obvious that Sherlock Holmes could be on the spectrum. His behaviors and the way he interacts with his world of Victorian London are startlingly reflective of that implication: his enthusiasm for anything involving his work, his disinterest in all other pursuits, the other characters’ frequent dismissal of his “bizarre” habits or supposed eccentricities, his disregard for social mores, his rigid schedule and the regularity of his pursuits (Watson lists maybe three or four things Holmes does with his time, outside of his work, and one of them–walking through London–involves his work in a fashion), and his dislike of anything that breaks the routine or habit.

    There are, however, things about Holmes that don’t seem to fit a diagnosis of ASD. His empathy and understanding of the other characters is what particularly struck me. If Holmes is autistic, why does he appear so empathetic and considerate of others? His treatment of Watson, in particular, shows remarkable emotional understanding, and Watson himself often remarks on Holmes’ emotions or communication. Indeed, he seems to be remarkably communicative of his feelings and thoughts right off the bat–and social mores seem to be completely within his wheelhouse. Holmes is friendly, charming, and though his intelligence and superior reasoning skills often annoy Detectives Gregson and Lestrade, they seem only to find his work habits bizarre. In social situations–such as when Gregson comes over to announce he’s “solved” the case–Holmes is quite perceptive and seems perfectly capable of navigating any situation just the same as his friends and acquaintances. Of course, there’s no telling whether this is simply a learned understanding, something he’s acquired over time, but it seems to me that something about Holmes’ emotional and social behavior doesn’t quite “fit,” or is just a bit “off” for someone on the spectrum. Perhaps this is Watson’s telling coloring his behavior–but then, we may never know. Regardless, the mystery of Sherlock Holmes’s mind is certainly worth discussion.

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  2. kaitlynschweda

    I think that your post brings up some really thought provoking issues. Reading “A Study in Scarlett” makes it easy to see why it’s widely spectated that Holmes’ character has ASD. Much like the article you found, I read a piece in the Huffington Post that suggests viewing Sherlock Holmes as an “autistic savant” can harm society’s (already poor) understanding of autism.
    “If people are lead to regard Holmes as the autistic archetype, then it minimizes the full range of behaviors that people with ASD exhibit. People with autism won’t be seen as needing understanding and support, instead they’ll be expected to be geniuses with a quirky forthrightness unencumbered by social inhibition, when the reality is far more complex.”
    While the Huffington post isn’t the most credible source, this quote brings up a good point. As we saw in Rainman, society’s understanding of autism is already lacking. Sherlock Holmes is well known for his quirks and sometimes peculiar behavior but there’s no evidence that the writer intended for this to be signs of autism (especially since the diagnosis didn’t exist when the original stories were wrote). This article suggest that strongly associating Holmes with autism may influence the understanding of ASD. If the general public begin to associate this character with what they think is ASD, they won’t understand the entire spectrum. Instead, they’ll associate quirks and seemingly odd behaviors with autism without understanding the full diagnosis.
    I don’t think its society’s fault for making assumptions about ASD based on literature or movies but I do think it’s dangerous for those who actually have autism. Stereotypes based on pop culture cause problems for a variety of people struggling with a multitude of diagnoses. For example, I have two best friends with physical limitations that leave them in wheelchairs. After the movie “Me Before You” came out, a lot more people made the assumption that my friends needed help in public when in fact, it’s the complete opposite for them. However, people see a movie where a man in a wheelchair needs extra assistance then they see a girl in a wheelchair in public and make the assumption that she’ll need the same extra help. The same goes for those with ASD. If people hear that a person has autism, they’ll reach into their ASD schema and make the connections based on any pop culture reference they can find. If they’ve only heard that Sherlock Holmes showed signs of autism, they’re more apt to make assumptions based on his quirks and behavior. This could create a big problem if the person with autism is on the low functioning end or has completely different quirks then Holmes.
    To go off your last point, I understand that representation of ASD is important in media. However, I think that diagnosing a character without the author’s intention has the potential to cause more harm than good in the specific case of Sherlock Holmes. Like you said, it’s important for media to get this diagnosis right so I think it’s best to associate characters with autism based on ones who specifically are intended to represent it.

    Citations:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mat-greenfield/sherlock-not-autistic_b_4548520.html

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