Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Final Problem: Sherlock Holmes, Trauma, and the Nature of Identity

Here's a paper I wrote for my class on Victorian literature and art. Enjoy!

There are two ways for the whole to relate to its parts. In one, the whole occurs as a function of the parts, where parts combine and rearrange themselves mechanically to create a generalization, an abstraction. In the other, the parts occur as a function of the whole. Here, the parts are expressions of the whole, which is present—wholly—in each of those parts. Here, the whole reproduces itself, even perpetuates itself—through the parts. The parts are the way the whole “wholes.” In the first, the whole is an abstract, generalized concept, ultimately unreal. In the second, the whole is the reality of the part, not “apart” from it, reproducing its own qualities intensively throughout. In one, the whole occurs as the uniform abstraction of what parts have in common. In the other, the parts express—in their differences—different metamorphoses of that whole. In one, the whole is something reached by a consensus, a least common denominator. In the other, the whole expresses itself through the differences of the parts. One opposes identity and difference. The other furthers identity through difference.

Following the example of Henri Bortoft, I will call the first relation of whole to part “unity in multiplicity” and the second “multiplicity in unity.” (Bortoft Location 1031) For “unity in multiplicity,” unity holds itself inviolate and can only relate to multiplicity as something “outside.” Thus, the only unity is that of the atomistic part. For “multiplicity in unity,” however, multiplicity is something in unity, not opposed to it. Multiplicity, together, makes a unity that is not inviolate but instead composite. Unity in multiplicity sees multiplicity as a threat to unity. Multiplicity in unity sees multiplicity as unity’s necessary sustenance. One identity is exclusive; the other is inclusive.

These two models of relating the whole to its parts can occur in human beings both individually and in groups. As such, we can read history and the products of history as the interactions of these two models of identity. Exclusion, or unity in multiplicity, sees difference as a threat. If a nation, a culture, or a person has an identity, this model sees the intrusion of another identity as a threat to the first. Partes extra partes, anything foreign, anything deviant, threatens the coherence of the party line. On the other hand, inclusion as partes intra partes sees every different identity as an elaboration of its own. The “other” here is always an extension, a perpetuation, a metamorphosis of the “same.”

However, a political mindset bent toward inclusion in this sense has never existed. Every culture, to be itself, sees the other as a threat to that “itself.” This is obvious for autocratic or authoritarian governments. However, even democratic cultures—in their talks of bi- or non-partisan politics—cannot get away from a “partisan” model, where even if there is to be “tolerance” of one side for another, the sides remain separate. And even if one side were to disappear or be absorbed into the other, this is always at the expense of the side that disappears or is absorbed. A model in which one political perspective becomes itself more by becoming the other has never entered consciousness. The other and the same are always opposed.

However, this unity in multiplicity is nevertheless only a permutation or metamorphosis of that multiplicity in unity. Exclusive identity is a way inclusive identity forgets itself. However, this observation means that we can treat an ostensibly “exclusive” relationship of whole to parts as one where that relationship is inclusive. A “self-subsistent” whole is always undermined by the wholes of its parts and, indeed, can only say it is a whole in the inclusive sense of the word. Every identity is constituted by difference, and the more it pretends to define itself, the more violently unconscious is that constitution.

This paper will examine the relationship between these two models of identity. If it is true that exclusive identity is only a permutation or metamorphosis of inclusive identity, the question arises: why does it conceal itself in this way. Why does identity pretend to oppose itself to difference when it strongly depends on it? We seek to discover this origin, and thereby we undertake a “genealogy of exclusion.” And to discover where the illusion of “unity in multiplicity” begins, we must find the ways a totalitarian unity relies on what opposes it. In Freudian terms, we must find the return of the repressed. By doing this, the original act wherein multiplicity in unity veils itself becomes apparent, repeats itself like a forgotten trauma.

As a part of this, we are also seeking way to heal and integrate this trauma into the body politic of modern identity. We are seeking not only the original veiling of inclusive identity in exclusion, but also the means whereby that inclusive identity can unveil itself once more. By finding the emergence of the repressed inclusion, we are looking for what happens as it does so, that we can discern how to re-enact this process for the sake of healing and insight.

But we must find a starting place for this analysis. In pondering the history of identity in the sense we have been describing it, we realize that the model of exclusive identity has never been more dominant than in the Victorian era of British history. In this epoch, the triumph of unity over multiplicity became absolute and unquestioned: the few control the many, the rich beat down the poor, men control women, the sun never sets on the Empire. Britain, as the ultimate avatar of “identity,” opposes any dissenting threat to that identity. There can be no dissent, no rebellion, no contrary social mores. Difference is outlawed.

This period will be our starting place. We must find a place in the Victorian relationship of part to whole wherein an authentic relationship of multiplicity to unity occurs. And while there are a few places that could serve for this purpose, for ease of analysis, I will choose the Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is a character who defies Victorian convention: he is improper, wears disguises, is a drug user, and associates with the lowest strata of society. And yet, as a detective, he ultimately serves the law and order of Victorian society. In fact, he is indispensable, as any casual reader of the canon will know. This makes Sherlock Holmes an incarnation of a reliance on difference, of multiplicity in unity. Sherlock Holmes therefore is the return of Victorian society’s repressed. The bulk of this paper will, therefore, consist in reading the Holmes canon to discern the return of inclusion from inclusion.

However, in reading the Sherlock Holmes canon, we will read it in a way proper to multiplicity in unity. Only such a reading will be appropriate for the subject at present, which is the self-forgetting and return from repression of that inclusive identity. To do anything else would be to oppose ourselves to the text as something outside, an act that implicitly exclusionary. By doing this, we would only ourselves with the dynamic we are trying to study. However, by reading the text in an inclusive way we will come to realize the ways in which things beyond the text can perpetuate themselves in the text through its movements, not unlike the flow of water in and out of an eddy in a river.

But how can we do this? By reading it for a wholeness or identity in the text that transfigures itself into all of its parts without losing that identity. We will look for that element in it which reproduces itself in each of its parts, that in it which organizes and orders the canon as a whole, as a gestalt. Naturally, this is not a meaning or even a set of meanings but rather a movement. For inclusive identity, as something that perpetuates itself through its parts, is far more like a verb than a noun. Inclusive identity is what happens when you slice an apple with a knife: here, the wholeness can be reduced to neither the apple nor the knife nor the counter but instead the slicing. Reading Sherlock Holmes in this way, we will read it for the verb that occurs throughout the text, for which all the entities in the text (whether they be words, sentences, chapter headings, characters, settings, etc.) only serve as an expedient means.

But we cannot read the whole canon in this way. This would be ungainly and impractical. Instead, we will look for a place in the canon where this implicit movement, this “verb,” this inclusive quality, comes most fully into view. This is following the scientific method of Goethe, who looked for the archetypal manifestation of what he was studying, not abstracting from it from many iterations of it, but seeing where the “Ur-Phenomenon” of that object of study comes most fully to the fore. It is our thesis that this inclusive quality reveals itself most clearly in The Final Problem and The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with the conflict between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, and most specifically with the literal events involving Holmes’ apparent death at the Reichenbach Falls. Once we uncover this movement, we will then apply our discovery to features of the whole canon and, thereupon, to the whole Victorian epoch and the history of identity as a whole.

If we take Sherlock Holmes as an embodiment of the return of inclusive identity from repression in exclusive identity, we could say that Professor James Moriarty is the inversion of exclusive identity. In The Final Problem, Holmes describes him as the paragon of Victorian values:

“His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the Binomial Theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the Mathematical Chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearance, a most brilliant career before him.” (Doyle 440)

Moriarty, as the Victorian Wunderkind extraordinaire, is the perfect embodiment of exclusive identity. He is a “man of good birth,” inducted by default into the upper strata of the Victorian society that championed it. He received “an excellent education,” and not only that, but pursued a career in mathematics. Mathematics is the science of exclusion. Mathematics and logic implicitly or explicitly rely on Aristotle’s “law of excluded middle,” where one term is either equal to another term or unequal, where difference is always opposed to identity. James Moriarty is a caricature of exclusive identity; in a sense, he is exclusion

But if one excludes the middle, one can only ever leap to the other side. For Moriarty has abnegated his Victorian mores:

…the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. (440)

Moriarty is the embodiment of Victorian exclusive identity, but he abandons that identity. However, he does not abandon exclusion. He has merely flip-flopped. The Victorian paragon he once was, he now opposes; what he once opposed, he now is.

This exclusionary quality even appears in the description given of his countenance. In the first conversation he has with Holmes, Moriarty appears, “clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features.” He moved from side to side “in a curiously reptilian fashion” and peered at Holmes “with great curiosity in his puckered eyes.” These descriptions are of a predator. Moriarty, with no hair, no pigment, no joy, has opposed himself to the milling throngs of life. He is an observer, a detached analyst, a mathematician of being. All this can be summed up by saying that Moriarty “stands back,” for he does not participate. He waits, watches, and then pounces.

The first words that Moriarty says to Holmes evince this reptilian quality: “you have less frontal development than I would have expected…It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one’s dressing gown” (441) Whatever else this means, the surprise Moriarty shows at Holmes for having “less frontal development” points to the reality we have been alluding to. For neither Holmes nor Moriarty have frontal development. Holmes, of course, is the detached observer, always noting developments, reading the crime scene, etc. However, Moriarty’s eyes, as we have seen above, are “puckered.” That is, they do not look toward the front but instead inward, backward, restrained, retained. They hold onto themselves, never leaping but only, as Nietzsche would say, “blinking.” (Nietzsche 13) And all exclusion “blinks.” It stands back, never acting but only watching, erecting an absolute barrier between thinking and doing, between identity and difference. Identity cannot change without losing itself: to itself, it must be changeless. And Moriarty, the professor of mathematics, with his restrained eyes, perpetually thinks himself.

As such, an exchange on the possibility of knowing then takes place:

“‘You evidently don’t know me,’ said he. “ ‘On the contrary,’ I answered, ‘I think it is fairly evident that I do. Pray take a chair. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.’ “ ‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he. “ ‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied. (Doyle 441)

Here, Holmes and Moriarty perfectly know each other. Any action the one does is foreseen by the other, and so neither does anything. The intellect has stalemated action; identity has trapped difference. This recapitulates exclusive identity as a whole: it traps the possibility of change. In this game of identity, no change can ever take place, since change by its very nature violates identity. The next lines put this sentiment in startling brevity:

“ ‘You stand fast?’ “ ‘Absolutely.’ (440-441)

In exclusion, the only option is to “stand fast,” to remain what one is, to never relinquish the hold one has upon himself, to never become but only to be forever and ever. As if to further elaborate this point, Moriarty then takes out—not a pistol—but “a memorandum-book in which he had scribbled some dates” (442). Moriarty, who then goes on to recount the places and times that Holmes had crossed his path, is doing what exclusion always does and never stops doing: think. Mathematically, abstractedly, Moriarty has forgone action.

But this cannot last forever, as we see in one of the following paragraphs:

“‘Tut, tut,’ said he. ‘I am quite sure that a man of your intelligence will see that there can be but one outcome to this affair. It is necessary that you should withdraw. You have worked things in such a fashion that we have only one resource left. It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure. You smile, sir, but I assure you that it really would.’ “ ‘Danger is part of my trade,’ I remarked. “ ‘That is not danger,’ said he. ‘It is inevitable destruction. You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organization, the full extent of which you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realize. You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden under foot.’ (442)

The stalemate of exclusion does not continue. Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, two embodiments of exclusive identities, each seek to destroy the other, and here we can discern a movement away from exclusion altogether. Exclusion, in its nature, seeks to end what it excludes, to ignore it, to suppress it, even to kill it. However, to do this is to kill itself, for an exclusive identity with nothing left to exclude loses its reason to be. Exclusion is therefore literally suicidal. In perpetuating itself, it inches closer and closer to its own death. By eliminating every enemy, by killing what does not fit its model, it is left with no referent by which it can define that model. In a struggle like this, one is either killed or loses one’s footing: what Moriarty correctly discerns as “inevitable destruction.” Exclusion will give way, like it or not.

This is what Freud observed when he discerned the existence of a “death drive” in the human psyche. In his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he noticed that in the compulsion victims of trauma have to repeat that trauma in a disguised, symbolic way, a drive more fundamental than all others is showing itself: the drive to return to “an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or another departed and to which it is striving to return by the circuitous paths along which its development leads” (Freud 613). Let us read Freud’s “old state of things,” this state devoid of tension, as the original condition where identity perpetuates itself through difference. This is pure movement, loose, fluid, lithe, uncontaminated by the fixity of exclusion. Exclusion repels, steels itself, defends, and as we have seen, it necessarily seeks its end. Freud’s death drive, then, would be the way the original contradiction of identity in multiplicity seeks to right itself, to liberate of difference from the prison of identity, to bring the life of difference. to an identity cut off from it.

The repetition of trauma, then, is the way difference seeks to perpetuate itself in and through a stubborn identity. This makes sense, of course: trauma is always some violation of a perceived boundary, a safety compromised, a bubble popped, what Freud calls “any excitations from outside which are powerful to break through the protective shield.” (607) Freud notes that war veterans who have injuries rarely experience trauma, whereas those who don’t sustain those injuries endlessly repeat the trauma to process it (610). We can see the injury as the mark of difference on the stubbornness of the body’s identity, and we can read trauma in the uninjured veteran as an attempt of difference to establish itself freely through its exclusive contours.

As a side note, we should note that the characteristics we have noted of Holmes’ and Moriarty’s identities bear the mark of dissociation from an early trauma. Both aloof, both unconcerned with human relationships, both somewhat “inhuman,” they nevertheless seek out fast-paced dangerous situations somewhat compulsively. As such, we could read Holmes and Moriarty’s penchant for crime (whether that shows up as solving or perpetrating them) as ways to relive an early violence against their person. On this note, it is worth noting that the otherwise absurd work Ms. Holmes of Baker Street hits wrongly on the right chord when it asserts that Holmes is a woman in disguise: Holmes does have a crisis of identity, but it is one of trauma and not one of sex or gender (Bradley et. al. 1). Holmes is also addicted to cocaine, and addiction is common for victims of trauma. As such, both are trying to understand, to process, to “master’ an original violence. And this is dangerous for them, as it often is in repeating dangerous traumas.

As Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty make their way to their “inevitable destruction” at the Reichenbach Falls, this trauma—and the difference in it that seeks to weave freely through identity—is compulsively trying to consummate itself. More broadly, the tension of exclusion is here striving to give way. This can happen in two ways. First, identity can perish altogether: it can die, losing itself in the waterfall’s crags and foam. However, it can also maintain itself through the release of tension, coming to terms with difference by realizing not exclusive but inclusive identity. In one, identity would rather die than include; in the other, identity is reborn in inclusion. And we notice that Moriarty and Holmes embody these responses, respectively.

Although The Final Problem ends with Holmes ostensibly perishing in the depths of the waterfall locked in mortal combat with Moriarty, as the subsequent story The Adventure of the Empty House makes clear, Holmes survives. Specifically, won the fight against Moriarty and hurriedly climbed down the cliff side to safety (Doyle 456-457). Reading the waterfall as the portent of exclusion’s extinction, the way it swallows Moriarty and not Holmes points to the two ways that identity responds to the threat of inclusion. Moriarty, as one who flip-flops from the upper crust to the sordid underbelly of society, dies. But Holmes lives. And this happens because Holmes can entertain the possibility of identity in and through difference.

Holmes is removed and abstracted, yes, but he can also impeccably impersonate people very different from himself. He is an actor. Moreover, he can discern the significance of the concrete, reading the significance of a stain on a boot or the length of one’s fingernails in solving a crime. These factors point to a peculiarity of Holmes’ character: he is able to contain tension. As an actor, he can keep track of both his identity and the identity of that person he is impersonating. This is multiplicity in unity, inclusive identity, identity that persists in and by means of change and difference. This propensity toward inclusive also shows up in the details of his observational method: he does not only notice the bric-a-brac of what he sees but the way those bric-a-brac combine to create the details of a scene. He sees neither just the individual details nor the abstracted whole but instead the ways in which those details contribute to the whole. Without its inherent multiplicity, without the relationships that those multiple parts form, without the inclusive factor that arises thereby, he would be able to do no work. In both impersonating and deducing, he can contain the tension of difference in the cauldron of identity.

Speaking in terms of trauma, this means that Sherlock Holmes embodies the healthy response to it. Typically, the trauma repeats itself compulsively in a way that the person is unable to consciously understand. He just does it; he does not know why. He acts out and then pulls himself back to the conscious attitude, in a cycle. He is unable to integrate the trauma’s perspective into his identity. He is unable to entertain the difference the trauma is trying to weave through his being. And in this way (often literal muscular) tension emerges, a defense, a rigid wall against difference that integrates the identity even more. Holmes, however, is broad enough in his identity that he can maintain it between both poles. He can “be both” consciously. And it is only this that enables the trauma to weave difference throughout an identity without killing it altogether.

In the waterfall drama, this means that Sherlock Holmes undertakes the same descent that Moriarty does, but with one crucial difference: he holds on. In descending into the bottom of the waterfall, where exclusion must necessarily give way, he retains his hold. That is, he remains conscious. He keeps a hold of himself; he doesn’t let go. And yet he uses this grip not to ascend but to descend. In other words, he does not try to escape the pit; he goes right into it. That is, what Moriarty does involuntarily, Holmes does voluntarily. Moriarty’s compulsion is Holmes’ volition. Moriarty falls; Holmes climbs down. In terms of identity, this means that Holmes faces the pain of his original trauma, the unbearable movement of difference that threatens self-contained identity, and does so with his identity intact. He does not die but instead only pretends to die. In the Heideggerian vocabulary, he has authentically and resolutely let himself be called forth to his ownmost Being-guilty (Heidegger 353). He “plays out” death and, freed from the compulsion to seek it, rejoins the land of the living.

We thereby arrive at the following formula: Moriarty is identity that comes to terms with difference by losing itself; Holmes is identity that comes to terms with difference by perpetuating itself through difference. In other words, Moriarty is the death drive fulfilled through death; Holmes is the death drive lived through and satisfied without having to die. Moriarty is the futility of literal death; Holmes is the hope of life within and beyond death.

If we now come to our original question, we can ask: what does the emergence of inclusion into exclusion teach us about the origin of exclusion? We have discovered that inclusion emerges into exclusion by a descent: into trauma, into pain, into the threat of difference’s movement, either through literal death or a figurative death whereby unity rediscovers itself in multiplicity. This descent is also an immersion, a headlong rushing into, an enclosure. Each permutation of this movement is one that goes from the expansive toward the compressed, from the outside in, from the above down. It is one of compression, of condensation, of densification. As Holmes must descend into the waterfall’s depths to be “reborn” in this way, identity must always descend to perpetuate itself beyond exclusion.

However, if identity must descend, must intensify, must condensate, to free itself into inclusion, this suggests that the original problem that precipitated inclusion’s self-forgetfulness is descent, is intensification, is condensation. We therefore suggest that exclusion is the repetition of an original, primordial descent, intensification, and condensation. Moreover, notice that these are all words we could use to describe tension, and tension always occurs together with some trauma. Therefore, if trauma can be read as the attempt of difference to weave itself freely through identity, might we also suggest that this is traumatic not only for the exclusive identity proper to the person but also the inclusive identity that weaves through him or her? The trauma repetition compulsion, then, is not proper to exclusion itself but, instead, the inclusion that ontologically precedes it, that lies within and around it, what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls “the anonymous existence, of which my body is continually the trace” (Merleau-Ponty 370). Trauma repetition, and therefore all tension, is therefore a battle between inclusion and the exclusion that occurs within it as something that “it” surely sees as a cancer.

We therefore suggest, finally, that exclusion was imposed on inclusion as something that upset its freedom of movement. This is the trauma that exclusion violently resists and inclusion vehemently pursues. Exclusion longs to perpetuate itself as itself; inclusion longs to perpetuate itself as other. Inclusion sees the imposition of exclusion as a violence that it strives to repair; exclusion sees this reparation as violence. And while they are both right, they are also both wrong. For the more that exclusion strives to perpetuate itself apart from inclusion, the more inclusion resists those efforts by trying to weave through exclusion. Neither acknowledges the possibility, nay, the reality that trauma is the way inclusion repeats the pain of being passively violated by exclusion by actively violating what has violated it. No one except Sherlock Holmes, that is.

For if trauma is really the way inclusion mimics its violation by exclusion, the way it revenges itself on that exclusion, both sides of being are traumatized. Inclusion feels victimized by exclusion and exclusion feels victimized by inclusion; neither accepts the other. In our presentation of Sherlock Holmes’ death, we observe that he does what very few iterations of being anywhere do: accept the violence done to him as a revelation of his own being. This ends the war: for as soon as exclusion stops fighting, inclusion has nothing to fight for anymore, for inclusion is paradoxically in a war against war. By accepting inclusion as a part of its own being, exclusion forgets itself and so gives to inclusion a cathartic repetition of its own self-forgetting in exclusion. By forgetting himself, Holmes undergoes the original and perpetual pain of being for his own separate existence. And in doing so, he not only heals himself; Holmes heals being.

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