!My first introduction to the character of Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a pleasant one. We had to read “The Speckled Band” in a High School English class. Early in the story, Sherlock deduces that another character had taken a long ride in a dog cart (a kind of carriage) to reach london. He could tell this from the particular spattering of mud on the character’s clothes. I deduced (well, concluded, at least) that Holmes was an irritating know-it-all, and left him to his stories.
Years later I picked up a collection of Holmes stories and decided to give the detective a second chance. I’m glad I did! I quickly realized that there was so much I had missed as a teenager, and while Holmes is indeed a irritating know-it-all, he is all the more beguiling because of his flaws. I am now an unabashed fan!
One of my favorite TV shows is Sherlock, the BBC version of the Holmes tales in which the characters from the stories are brought into modern day England. Until recently, if you were to ask me why I enjoy the Sherlock Holmes so much, I’d have a hard time explaining it. Luckily for me, blogger Michael Saler had explained it better than I ever could.
The solution to the case is one that is neither impossible nor even improbable: Holmes made reason enchanting. In the modern age, reason is often seen to be the panacea for our ills, but it can also be the source of them. Rationality seems to “disenchant” the world, removing the elements of wonder, surprise, and purpose that allegedly characterized the “premodern” world. “The disenchantment of the world” was a much-discussed issue in the late nineteenth century, one that vexed Conan Doyle. His detective, however, re-enchanted modernity through the distinctive use of reason.
Unlike many contemporary scientists and logicians who disdained the imagination, Holmes brought reason and the imagination, logic and intuition, together in a new synthesis that he called “the scientific use of the imagination.” He made critical thinking into a romantic adventure. Through his discerning eye, every detail of modern life, from newspaper advertisements to the footsteps of a giant hound, became charged with meaning, possibility, and wonder.
Isn’t this, really, the appeal of people reading and body language? We’re excited by it because it reveals to us that even the tiniest details of our behavior have the potential to be revelatory. We understand that by paying attention to what people do, particularly those things we most commonly overlook or take for granted, we can gain a glimpse of what people are.
As some of you know, in my day job I am a professional “mentalist.” I’m an entertainer who uses psychology and misdirection to “read” minds. I think Saler has explained perfectly the artistic potential of my particular form of entertainment. A good mentalist reminds people that there is a more detailed and enchanting picture beyond the one we typically see of everyday life, and that if we truly pay attention, that is the picture we will see.