Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence. (T.S. Eliot)
In his classic essay ‘Clues’, Carlo Ginzburg ties Sigmund Freud, Sherlock Holmes and the art critic Giovanni Morelli to a late-19th century “semiotic paradigm”, in which the clue—the symptom, the tick, the insignificant detail—sheds light on psyche, artwork and criminal alike.
For reasons that Perry Anderson has recently pointed out, it is hard to say just what ‘Clues’ is about. The origins of science? Social control? The abstraction of the written word? Certainly one of the essay’s own ticks is to portray Holmes—pace Eliot—as more real than Doyle. One of its conclusions, meanwhile, is that Holmes’ technique of noticing is in and of itself scientific, insofar as it systematizes human behaviour.
Ginzburg’s method is ingenious, itself a virtuosic piece of historiographic hunting. But my own recent bibliographic detective work suggests another, more conjectural and perhaps even Romantic Sherlock.
As the Beeb’s faithful are soon to discover, Sherlock performed some jiggery-pokery in order to make himself less splattable—a translation of his failure to drown with Moriarty in the Reichenbach Falls. What the next series probably won’t reproduce so faithfully is Holmes’ mode of employment when he re-emerges to shock Watson and solve a very messy Park Lane murder. Here is the relevant passage, in Watson’s voice, from ‘The Empty House’:
A tall, thin man with coloured glasses, whom I strongly suspected of being a plain-clothes detective, was pointing out some theory of his own, while the others crowded round to listen to what he said. I got as near him as I could, but his observations seemed to me to be absurd, so I withdrew again in some disgust. As I did so I struck against an elderly deformed man, who had been behind me, and I knocked down several books which he was carrying. I remember that as I picked them up I observed the title of one of them, “The Origin of Tree Worship”, and it struck me that the fellow must be some poor bibliophile who, either as a trade or as a hobby, was a collector of obscure volumes. I endeavoured to apologise for the accident, but it was evident that these books which I had so unfortunately maltreated were very precious objects in the eyes of their owner. With a snarl of contempt he turned upon his heel, and I saw his curved back and white side-whiskers disappear among the throng.
Of course, the wizened old man is none other than—gasp!—Holmes himself.
And on to further glorious adventures…
But there remains a mystery here, for no true bibliophile could read those lines without wondering about the “Origin of Tree Worship”. Sure enough there are clues dotted around to the identity of this “obscure volume”. For one thing, although ‘The Empty House’ was published in Newnes Magazine in 1903, it was set in 1894, so we have a rough date, or at least a terminus ante quem for the publication. For another, just before Holmes reveals himself, he says to Watson:
Maybe you collect yourself, sir; here’s “British Birds,” and “Catullus,” and “The Holy War”—a bargain every one of them. With five volumes you could just fill that gap on that second shelf.
So presumably to make up the five volumes we have: one of the many editions of Bunyan’s Holy War; the three volumes of either Yarrell’s or Seebohn’s British Birds; and a Catullus. And the last of these gives away the “Origin of Tree Worship”, because Catullus #63 deals at length with the tree god Attis.
Catullus’ extremely strange poem was the subject of plentiful speculation and scholarship in the late nineteenth century, but of particular relevance is the edition by one Grant Allen, published in 1892 and notable not only for its “orgiastic” rhymed translation of the poem, but also for its anthropological appendix on ‘the Origin of Tree Worship’.
Having tracked it down, the next step was to locate a copy. And sure enough I found one on Abebooks—a fine volume printed in the fashionable French style, now sitting in front of me and only adding to the odd reality of Holmes.
Why might Holmes have been traipsing around London with such an exotic book? Of course, it could just be part of the scene-setting, emphasizing the strangeness of the old man portrayed by Holmes. That would certainly chime with the almost absurdly esoteric nature of the book’s disquisition on tree worship, in which Allen attempts to tread a path between Spencer’s and Frazer’s anthropology of folklore. But, thinking of Morelli’s method of paying attention to the seemingly insignificant, I suspect there’s more to the reference than meets the eye. The book, I think, is no less than a clue to the real Holmesian method.
When Ginzburg is attempting to delineate the art of abstraction—the scientific spirit—that he says arose in the early-modern period, his paradigm is not mathematics or cosmology, but textual criticism—philology. The text, says Ginzburg, became the most abstract of entities, and therefore the most amenable to abstract reasoning. Modern criticism was born with the purification of ancient texts, and natural philosophers—notably Galileo—took this as a model. Thence to Holmes, and to Freud and Morelli too.
However, Holmes’ copy of “Tree worship” offers a different model of textual scholarship. As Allen writes in the introduction:
It must be remembered that Mr. Ellis does not generally attempt to reconstruct conjecturally the original text of Catullus, but merely in the most conscientious spirit of textual criticism to reach by the comparative method the probable readings of the archetypal manuscript discovered at Verona about 1320, but long since lost. From this archetypal manuscript, all our existing copies are derived. It is perhaps allowable, however, for less serious students, to hazard now and again a pure gess as to the words Catullus actually wrote.
…we can’t now even arrive at a plausible guess as to what Catullus really wrote. Fortunately, however, the context renders the drift of it perfectly clear, so that, though we don’t know what Catullus wrote, we do know perfectly just about what he meant, which, after all, is a a vast deal more important.
Concluding, Allen calls for “sympathetic” study of the text, placing himself in the tradition of Romantic textual criticism, in which knowing the mind of the author is superior to the scientific recreation of actual inscriptions of his or her texts.
And isn’t this sympathetic approach just what defines Holmes—far more consistently and crucially than the spectacular but superficial spotting of details, which after all only forms a scaffold for the interpretation of human motives? ‘The Empty House’ itself ends with a perfect example of this propensity—a far cry from the BBC’s brilliant caricature:
I think that it is not difficult to explain the facts. It came out in evidence that Colonel Moran and young Adair had, between them, won a considerable amount of money. Now, Moran undoubtedly played foul— that I have long been aware. I believe that on the day of the murder Adair had discovered that Moran was cheating. Very likely he had spoken to him privately, and had threatened to expose him unless he voluntarily resigned his membership of the club, and promised not to play cards again. It is unlikely that a youngster like Adair would at once make a hideous scandal by exposing a well known man so much older than himself. Probably he acted as I suggest. The exclusion from his clubs would mean ruin to Moran, who lived by his ill-gotten card-gains. He therefore murdered Adair, who at the time was endeavouring to work out how much money he should himself return, since he could not profit by his partner’s foul play. He locked the door lest the ladies should surprise him and insist upon knowing what he was doing with these names and coins. Will it pass?