George Bernard Shaw's cynically disdainful opinion that Sherlock Holmes was not much more than a "drug addict without a single amiable trait" has rarely been shared by most doting mystery buffs. Despite Holmes' manifold personality foibles and some unsalubrious habits, the fictional character has existed in an aura of unprecedented veneration for more than a century.

What can we make of this exceptionally inscrutable and sapient man who was as complex, or more so, than the enigmatic conundrums he unraveled?

Holmes once told his associate Dr. Watson, "I am a brain... and everything else is a mere appendage." Sherlock Holmes revered the human intellect in general , and (rather supercilliously) his own perspicacity in particular. He probably agreed with Watson who observed in "The Scandal in Bohemia," that "Holmes was the most perfect reasoning and observing machine the world has ever seen." That crime detection became Holmes' professional domain was a result of his singular ability to reason, imagine, discern, deduce, infer, and synthesize in ways few others could. He explained in "A Case of Identity" that he had "trained...(himself) to see what others overlook." He even reproved Watson who "knows my methods," in "The Blue Carbuncle"and was asked by Holmes to examine a hat, then expound upon the attributes and lifestyle of the owner. A frustrated Watson examined the hat and replied that "I can see nothing." Holmes rejoined him, ,"On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see."

Sherlock Holmes did rely mostly "on that absolute logical proof which was so dear to him," but at times he even went beyond analytical dialectics as evidenced in "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder"-- "All my instincts are one way, " he told Watson at the onset of their investigation, "all the facts are the other." Holmes' initial impulses in the case turned out to be correct and what seemed to be origionally veracious and logical turned out to be erroneous.

Holmes was certainly a multi-faceted thinker. Paradoxially he was only selectively knowledgeable. Watson tells us, in "A Study in Scarlet" that of "contemporary literature, philosophy and politics, (Holmes) appeared to know next to nothing." However, the detective had become an expert on such subjects, among others, as types of tobacco ashes, typewriter prints, and as is revealed in "The Priory School," the 42 different impressions left by bicycle tires. Afterall, Holmes considered "a man's brain (to be like) a little empty attic...(to be stocked) with such furniture as you choose." Though he never disregarded trivia, "which could mean volumes," he deplored, scoffed at, and sometimes derided what he considered to be unessential and useless facts because they were an encumbrance.

Watson described Holmes as having a "cold, precise, admirably balanced mind." Any emotional display, particularly explosive outbursts, were abhorrent to him. And yet, here is a contradiction. Watson states that " there is red-hot energy which underlay Holmes' phlegmatic exterior." In addition, the detective seemed to be subject to radical mood shifts. When involved in a case, he became ebullient--for as he explains in "The Red Headed League" the problems saved him from ennui. "My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence." When not absorbed in solving a perplexing mystery, he would become lethargic,despondent and as Watson observed in "The Copper Beeches," "disputatious rather than meditative."

Holmes was often arrogant,sardonic and censorious but he was ready to be as captious and caviling of himself as he was critical of others. He said, with some petulant self-rebuke when he initially overlooked the "obvious" in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," "I think, Watson, that you are now standing in the presence of one of the most absolute fools in Europe." This very cool man became obsessed to "repair the consequence of my own blunder."

Holmes' utter impatience with human error,especially his own, resulted from impudent self-confidence and unequivocal expectations of his own superior cognitive invincibility. Despite this generally steadfast conviction, modest statements from time to time are remarkably observable. In "The Devil's Foot," for example, when faced with a problem that seemed to have supernatural elements, Holmes declared, "I fear that if the matter is beyond humanity, it is certainly beyond me." He resolved the mystery anyway.

What emerges from the stories, then, is a multiplex, oten contradictory personality: lackadaisical though energetic, sloppily disorganized in personal habits yet neatly methodical in thought, selectively officious yet aloof, haughtily self-assured but also self-critical. Holmes is a condescending snob who is no more impressed by a king or a person of great affluence and/or political power than a Stockbroker's clerk or a governess. He is a frigidly unemotional being with the capcity for caring deeply and respectfully, and even a bit affectionately for the very few people close to him. One characteristic seems to be uniform. Holmes was a man of conscience-- tenaciously dedicated to extirpating all that was nefarious in his world and expurgating what was morally odious.

Ultimately, what is presented in the stories is a person the readers think they understand so well but who is actually inexplicably abstruse. The dilemma for the reader is correctly and succinctly expressed by W. Somerset Maughham who perceptively remarked that "you know no more of Sherlock Holmes after you have read 50 stories than you did after reading one."


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