I spent this weekend at Ad Astra, a sci-fi/fantasy/horror/etc. convention, and somehow, I ended up on six panels. The first and the last, which technically had nothing to do with each other, have set me thinking. The first panel was “Introversion is not a Bad Word”; the last was “So Much Sherlock.”
Introversion has been coming up a lot lately in various articles and books, as well as a TED talk by Susan Caine. People are beginning to observe that introversion is not the defect many have assumed it to be for the last century or so; introverts simply have a different way of approaching the world and generating ideas about it. The old Myers-Briggs cliche is that extroverts get their energy from social interaction, while introverts get theirs from being alone. Cliche or not, it’s a pretty good definition. As the people on the panel observed on Friday evening, extroverts also tend to develop their ideas by talking, while introverts develop theirs by thinking. The results are the same in both cases, but the extroverts end up praised as indulging in “constructive conversation” and being “proactive,” while introverts are criticised as anti-social, not team players, and even slow on the uptake. In a world dominated by extroverts, introverts are treated almost as handicapped.
My first panel dealt with this frustrating social situation. My last was devoted to a discussion of Sherlock Holmes and the current revival of Holmes-focused stories. One topic that came up more than once was our apparent need, especially in North America, to diagnose Holmes and other Holmes-like characters with brain damage or some sort of mental illness.
I have no problem with telling stories about people with mental illnesses; in fact, I think there should be more such stories and much less of a tendency to treat mentally ill people as diseased and contagious. However, there’s a difference between a story of a person who happens to have a mental illness and a story of a brilliant but eccentric man or woman whose eccentricities are automatically explained away as something that in a less useful person–one who didn’t solve crimes every Monday evening at 8:00 p.m., for instance–would need to be cured or controlled. Even if we just stick to television, we find this impulse everywhere. In the BBC series Sherlock, some characters describe Sherlock as a psychopath; Sherlock calls himself a sociopath. The title character of Monk has OCD, Walter of The Finder is brain-damaged, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is broadly hinted to have Asperger’s, and House of House is occasionally diagnosed by other characters with Asperger’s or sociopathy. Temperance Brennan of Bones went through an extremely traumatic childhood and can probably been seen as suffering from PTSD. It would not surprise me if in the pending American show Elementary, which transplants the Holmes story to New York, Holmes were portrayed as having something the matter with his brain.
On the Holmes panel, someone observed that Holmes wasn’t a sociopath; he was an introvert. In both the original stories and the BBC series–even, in fact, in the Guy Ritchie movies–Sherlock Holmes goes inside his own head to reason out the answers to the problems with which he is presented. His powers of deduction work because he does, in fact, think and act like an introvert. A good contrast (again sticking with TV, since we’re already there) would be the Doctor of the British series Doctor Who, currently being produced by Stephen Moffat, who is also responsible for Sherlock. In at least his last two incarnations, the Doctor has been the epitome of an extrovert; he is a genius who needs to talk everything out, and he draws his energy from his relationships. Holmes is the opposite; in the original stories, he frequently keeps his deductions to himself until the big reveal at the end, and though he does have a sort of symbiotic relationship with Watson, he usually has his ideas sorted out before he confides in his one friend. He doesn’t tend to launch into long, rambling speculations during which he has a series of revelations. The revelations happen before he opens his mouth.
I wish we could just let Holmes be Holmes. Yes, he’s outside the norm. He’s eccentric. He’s interested in the wrong things; he can differentiate between different types of tobacco ash but doesn’t know that the earth travels around the sun. His fascination with puzzle solving borders on obsession. But it’s his position outside the norm that allows him to be as effective as he is at what he does, and arguably, it’s why so many readers angrily cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand when Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off. Without his eccentricities, Holmes would just be a very smart man with a cocaine addiction. Moreover, without his introversion, Holmes would not be able to solve crimes at all.
Is it really necessary for eccentricity or introversion to be explained away as something that could, in an ideal world, be “fixed”? Holmes marginalises himself; why do we have the urge to portray him as someone marginalised by disease or defect? Does the impulse to stand apart even have to be a defect? As Caine says in her TED talk, for millennia, we have revered people who remove themselves from civilisation and go out into the wilderness. We call them mystics, sages, prophets. I would take it further; look at folklore and mythology, and you can see that we also call them heroes. The hero is the one who goes off alone into the dark. There are very few stories about heroes who are the life of the party. Yet nowadays, being the life of the party is “healthy.” Internality makes one a little bit weird. It’s more important to talk than to listen. Mental illness is clearly the only explanation for the urge to go off alone into the dark.
Let the brilliant, eccentric problem solvers of fiction have both their brilliance and their eccentricity, please. Why shouldn’t they be different because they want to be, not because they have to be due to some tragic accident of genetics? In a way, “eccentricity” is only another word for “creativity”; the eccentrics of the world just look at things from their own beautifully wacky perspectives. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason we shouldn’t let them do so. If we don’t want to live in a universe full of little clones who never deviate from the norm, we’ll stop trying to find something fundamentally wrong with Sherlock Holmes.