The Value of Literary Role Models

Anyone who knows me will say this is true about me: I love Sherlock Holmes.

Madly, to the point of obsession.

My first exposure to Sherlock Holmes was probably from Star Trek: TNG, actually, where Data and Geordi muck about on the holodeck and end up giving Moriarty sentience.  I still love this episode more than it’s probably healthy to.  When I was twelve, I had further significant exposure: a point-and-click adventure game that I found fiendishly difficult, a poorly done dramatised version of “The Adventure of The Dying Detective” in our school reader (which we actually weren’t reading but I read everything in the book whether we were supposed to or not, even if most of it was very lame), and a cassette tape for car trips which had a reading of a couple of stories on it.

But, I mean, he’s Sherlock Holmes.  You cannot fail to know who he is.  He is far too much of a legend.

The cassette tape made the most impact on me.  On one side was “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”  This is a great story, and still one of my favourites, although Holmes’s logic that “well, he has a big hat, therefore he has a big head, therefore he is highly intellectual” doesn’t actually hold water, but it’s such an insignificant point in the story I can forgive it entirely.  It’s a Christmas story, it’s told backwards, it’s clever, it shows Holmes at his best.

The other was “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” which is… well, it’s not a bad story.  Not one of my favourites, either, but it’s a perfectly good story.  What caught my attention at the time, though, was the bit at the beginning in which the good Dr. Watson (truly, one of literature’s most underappreciated characters, because he is a bad ass motherfucker, make no mistake about it) lets off a little steam about what it’s like to have Sherlock Holmes as a roommate:

But with me there is a limit, and when I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs. I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime; and when Holmes, in one of his queer humours, would sit in an armchair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.

When I was twelve, I had no idea what a patriotic V.R. was, but the idea of Sherlock Holmes, the great and genius detective, casually shooting designs into his wallpaper with a revolver, shocked me a good deal.  Everyone, of course, knows Holmes, and everyone has a preconceived conception of what sort of character he is.  This didn’t jive.  I listened to Blue Carbuncle many times because I loved the story, but I listened to the beginning of Musgrave Ritual because this new bit of information fascinated me.

The summer I was sixteen, I think it was, I went to the library and checked out a massive tome containing several collections of the short stories, as well as The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I gorged on it.  I read through the whole thing, said “Wow,” and flipped back to the beginning to read it again.  Sherlock Holmes was not the man I had been led to believe he was, being far more eccentric and unconventional and, well, bohemian as Watson himself terms it.  I had never been much for reading mysteries.  I could not get enough of this.

I discovered one other thing, during this reading: Sherlock Holmes was a user of cocaine.

And this shocked me, too.

…while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.

So Watson says in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

Cocaine was perfectly legal then, available over-the-counter at any chemist’s.  Its dangers were only dimly beginning to be realised — Watson’s distinct discomfort with his friend’s drug use, and his strong feeling that it cannot be good for him in the long run, are actually somewhat ahead of conventional medical wisdom for the time.  And yet Holmes, in the early stories, uses cocaine between cases.  Why?  Because when he has a case everything is fine.  When he has nothing, life is boring, life is unbearable, and the cocaine (and arguably, morphine at times) makes it better.

He’s self-medicating.

Says Sherlock Holmes himself, upon introducing himself to Watson for the first time:

“I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.”

And this, this is one very good reason among many why I remain obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes has been “diagnosed” by various medico-literary experts as everything from bipolar to ADHD to high-functioning autistic to just a plain old ordinary addict.  Take it with a grain of a salt.  He’s a fictional character, he has whatever personality traits Doyle deigned to give him, and he’s very much based upon the typical portrait of the poor artist in an unconventional lifestyle with unconventional points of view, a confirmed bachelor living by his wits, and this isn’t even a literary convention that’s changed much over the years.  A similar sort of shorthand today would be to give the character a stash of pot in which he occasionally indulged, or to have them be a chain smoker, or some such thing.

I don’t care what it is.  I don’t care why it is.

All I know is that when I was sixteen, and first read these, I saw something in Sherlock Holmes that struck a chord: an occassional and persistent inability and antipathy towards dealing with real life.  The cases?  They are not real life.  They are adventures.  He listens for a while and smokes a lot and  jumps up from his chair, dragging his loyal and long-suffering ex-army surgeon friend, along with aforementioned friend’s service revolver, off to brave danger and intrigue and occasionally to dip a toe into the wrong side of the law.  It is exciting.  It is all-encompassing.

And it’s all he has.

He has no interest in society.  Without cases, without the rush of adrenaline, he retreats into himself, into his violin and his tobacco and, yes, his cocaine, because he will not, cannot cope with life.  By his own admission, he will lie on the couch and refuse to move and eat and simply suffer, he acknowledges these spells and gets through them as best as he can, because what else can he do?  What else can anyone do for such a case as himself in the 19th century?

And I’ve long seen the same in myself, before I could positively say so.  I get in the dumps at times, not because anything is wrong but because things are going on in my head that I cannot explain effectively to anyone.  When, in high school, I would retreat into my room with the lights out and my headphones on and listen to Wagner or John Williams soundtracks very loudly and on repeat for hours, it disturbed my parents.  Of course it did.  In retrospect they might have been more reassured to hear their teenage daughter moping to something other than things like Mozart’s Requiem, as that might have seemed more normal.  And then the fit would pass (it was intense anxiety, I can say in retrospect, though I couldn’t name it then) and I would emerge, and my parents brought me to the doctor and I admitted to feeling awful a lot of the time, but the antidepressants did nothing because the depression I felt was just a symptom, not the condition, and the counselling was not terribly helpful because I was not exactly depressed.  I can say that now.  I retreat from the world because I cannot cope with it, sometimes, because it makes me too anxious to consider doing anything else.  My reasons may not be what Holmes’s are, but our solutions are, unfortunately, the same.

And, unfortunately, neither are particularly effective in the long-term.

Yesterday I came home from work in a fit of anxiety of despair and the intense fear that it would never be better, that the two weeks of clear thought and functionality I had never had before would never return to me.  I curled up in bed and did not move, for an hour.  I didn’t sleep.  I just lay there and was miserable and wanted to die.  There were, surely, aspects of a panic attack there, but not entirely.  I don’t know how to categorise it.  I felt awful.

I took a clonazepam, hours early, a whole instead of the half I’ve been taking at night because I sleep better that way, and I felt… well, better.  Eventually, better.

And then, I thought, what is the difference between this and Holmes’s cocaine?

I have a prescription for mine.

That’s really the only difference.