The Man on the Tor

A Toast to Sherlock Holmes

Ladies and Gentlemen, here he is, the Prince of Detectives, the Napoleon of Crime Fighters, the Finest Mind of the Victorian Age, a glimpse (if you’ll believe it) of the next stage of our evolution—ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Sherlock Holmes.

There he is, the lean figure in the deerstalker hat, impeccably dressed, smoking a fine pipe. He’s learned in sciences and in the arts, especially chemistry and music, in which fields he’s written authoritative little monographs. He lives frugally, but cultivates as fine a palate as he is able. He’s at his ease with the worth of men, and has met the Queen herself. His conversation is engaging but not demonstrative. His brother is a respected civil servant. Holmes is an artist, an academic, an effective worker; he keeps his wits and his poise about him at all times, and always carries himself with dignity. In a word: Sherlock Holmes is a gentleman.

For all that, he’s not quite a man you or I might feel readily at ease with. Oh, but he’s a strange one, this Mr. Holmes. Strange and discomforting. Of course he would be. He is a truly logical man, true intellect, who proves over and over that the physical world can be dissected and reassembled by the mind. He is the purely objective critic, drawing the scattered and disordered details of a case into a strict syllogism; when all the facts are accounted for then their logic is (to him) apparent. Obvious. Elementary.

Who is Sherlock Homes? One moment we see him departing, tall and distinguished in evening dress and a tall hat. When next he appears he’s staggering through the door of 221B Baker Street, breathless and windblown, looking for all the world like the most disreputable sort of vagrant. Whilen evening dress, he thinks nothing of gunning down a murderer with Watson’s revolver; disguised as the vagrant, he still addresses a lady with utmost courtesy.

His own form—his own physical presence—he adjusts and changes with the same easy confidence he uses to determine the direction of a bicycle from the imprint of its tracks, the origin of a poison from the rictus of a face. He’s an actor without a stage, a shape-shifter. There is no confusion of identity here, though, no worrisome loss of self when assuming another form. Under all his guises lurks the keen mind of Sherlock Holmes.

If you want to understand Sherlock Holmes—if you want to understand what sets him apart from the mass of amateur detectives that swarmed in his wake—you must realise this: Holmes is an untrammelled intellect. Any hypothesis, however attractive, that does not strictly arise from logical necessity and present an elucidative form has no interest him.

This is why he had no interest in whether or not the earth revolved around the sun; to build a slow, pure, logical system anything that cannot be proved by direct observation—and, more importantly, anything which has no direct bearing on that logical system—must be discarded. No, he has no time for speculative leaps, no interest in anything that can’t be simply, systemically ordered. And in 189- it still took quite a lot of maths and theorising to prove the earth went round the sun, whatever the textbooks say.

But what about emotions and finer feelings? What about love? Even Spock occasionally came unglued. Doesn’t Holmes love anybody? So there are whispers about Irene Adler, the spy and counterspy, whose picture Holmes keeps and whom he calls “the woman.” But here the gossip-mongers must be disappointed: his regard for Adler is Platonic—and that is the correct technical term for it—the regard of one bright intellect for another. He recognised a mind as sharp as his own, and honoured the memory of the encounter. His regard with Adler was precisely as his regard for Moriarity.

Well then—it must be said—what about Watson? Two men sharing a flat and clearly sharing a nudge nudge wink wink close friendship? Here, again, the tabloid reporters must leave discouraged. There’s little interpretive help to be had using today’s norms of suggestiveness. In the London of the 1890’s, the age of Wilde and the aesthetes, gay relationships were tabooed but hardly a secret. Nor is there anywhere in Watson’s records any of those innuendoes and double entendre the late-Victorians used to indicate such a relationship.

In fact, when looked at squarely, it seems that Holmes—for whom the impulses of the body were merely of secondary or even tertiary importance—may be, as Professor Tiffin has argued, literature’s most prominent asexual. His chief virtue is not love but humanitas, the civilised respect a gentleman shows his fellow-beings, a philosophy rather than emotion. His chief vice—and how often he falls prey to it!—is vanity: the sin of the mind.

Yet all his logic, for all his intellect, there is something of a mystic about him—a burning conviction like that of the great ascetics. If, as even Conan Doyle himself believed, there is another world besides this one, whether spiritual or intellectual, then Holmes has pursued it with devotion. His life was spent in excising the distractions and delusions of the physical realm—impulse and emotion, chaos and decay.

It is not quite mere fancy when he claims to have hovered over the Devonshire moors in spirit; the logical analysis of the map was for a time more real than strong coffee or black shag tobacco. When his mind is active, he ruthlessly denies his flesh, to the point that the good Doctor Watson is alarmed for his health. And when the intellect cannot be engaged with logic, still Holmes persists in tormenting his body and exacerbating his mind with the terrible cocaine.

Of all the great detectives, Hercule Poirot is perhaps Holmes’ spiritual successor—Poirot, with his need for solitude, his insistence on the supremacy of the mind, his conviction that “the little grey cells” could reconcile apparently contradictory facts and expose the secret desires and workings of the human heart. The fastidious Belgian differed from Holmes only in this: he chose not the way of the ascetic, but the libertine.

So how to account for Mr. Sherlock Holmes? It’s simple, really, simpler than perhaps we in these post-Freudian days would like. Holmes chose to set great intellect to the darkest problems of humanity: he has chosen to understand crime. Logically, purely, systematically, he tries to expose and rationalise the worst, most elaborate atrocities that Conan Doyle’s romantic mind could dream up.

We can approach Holmes most easily when he’s in Baker Street, sitting down to another breakfast from the indefatigable Mrs. Hudson, silver tea service on the table before him, laconically goading Watson into another botched attempt at deduction. And we thrill with him when his keen mind is animated by a fresh case. As the great Christopher Morley put it:

[W]e are epicures. We must begin in Baker Street; and best of all, if possible, let it be a stormy winter morning when Holmes routs Watson out of bed in haste. The doctor wakes to see that tall, ascetic figure by the bedside with a candle. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!”

But perhaps the greatest, most essential Sherlockian tableau—one which no film version can capture—comes when we are hardly aware of it, when he is seen the way he sees the world: entirely from without, distinctly Other. It comes from Watson’s own report, ironically written to Holmes, revealing the essence of the Great Detective and his intellectual project:

The moon was low upon the right, and the jagged pinnacle of a granite tor stood up against the lower curve of its silver disc. There, outlined as black as an ebony statue on that shining background, I saw the figure of a man upon the tor.

Do not think that it was a delusion, Holmes. I assure you that I have never in my life seen anything more clearly. As far as I could judge, the figure was that of a tall, thin man. He stood with his legs a little separated, his arms folded, his head bowed, as if he were brooding over that enormous wilderness of peat and granite which lay before him. He might have been the very spirit of that terrible place.


The image is redolent of Rodin’s Dante, dispassionately contemplating the circles of Hell. Holmes ventures into realms of darkness and terror, the nightmare and the phantasm; even Holmes fanfiction that flamboyantly allows fantasy and the supernatural has nothing on the original tales for sheer atmosphere and horror. Holmes is at his best not merely on the streets of Victorian London, but in the Gothic itself, surrounded by the tropes and topoi of the genre. The depraved dignity, the sinister foreigners, and dark hereditary secrets of The Sign of Four; the screaming maidens, dark, oppressive houses and hideous, creeping terror of “The Speckled Band”; the unutterable, rictus terror, the brooding atmosphere of black magic, of “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”; and, best of all, the haunts and ghosts and doubles, the dark-eyed femmes fatale and the ancient, crumbling parchments, and the bleak, moonlit landscape where nameless things lurk, in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Into this thicket of Gothic monstrosities Holmes strides, dispelling the shadows with the quick foil of his intellect, cowing the nightmare terrors and unspeakable acts into calm, logical order and progression. Holmes himself dispenses justice on the crimes and creatures of the night: he coolly, resolutely exposes them to their own helplessness and irrationality before a well-ordered mind. At the heart of every horror lies demonstrable fact, every fact is subject to the laws of reason, and reason litigates against the depravities of mankind.

So, ladies and gentlemen, raise your glass to a gentleman, artist, and ascetic—to a scourge of criminals and master of mysteries—to a great, pure intellect and a genius of terror—to the finest detective and logician our literature has known—ladies and gentlemen, to Sherlock Holmes.

9 thoughts on “The Man on the Tor

  1. — Mr Pond, John Patrick Pazdziora is brilliant, Just simply Capital man … most enjoyable read evening last…
    excerpt review The LONDON TIMES Newspaper

  2. This. Is. Outstanding.

    I learned a lot about the great detective, which is helpful–thus far, I’ve figured that a ten-years-ago read of Hound of the Baskervilles and an equally long past watching of the bawdy parody Without a Clue did not provide acquaintance enough with Mr. Holmes to allow me to comment much. Should go read some of the resources posted the other day, I suppose, if I could only find the time… where the devil has all the time gone? 🙂

  3. Holmes would probably love being toasted. This is true. And yet, while Holmes is unquestionably brilliant, and beyond all doubt a gentleman, it’s possible to take him at his own word too much. He claims to be a creature of pure intellect, but there is a great deal of passion under the surface. For example, he verges on horsewhipping the caddish stepfather in “A Case of Identity,” and he doesn’t hesitate to let his own ideas of justice override law if a brutal husband is killed (“The Mystery of the Abbey Grange.”) And of course there is the passage in “Three Garridebs,” right after Watson has been shot:

    “It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.”

    It’s probably that passage more than any other that led into the many readings of Holmes and Watson as a “couple.” The contemporary BBC Sherlock pitches this very nicely, with Watson resignedly, if futilely, trying to dispel that impression with “we’re not. . .”

    Conan Doyle actually met Oscar Wilde and was deeply impressed: he described the dinner, many years later, as a “golden evening.”

    It’s a good thing Holmes has the passion for justice and the deep affection for his friend undergirding the formidable intellect. Otherwise, he might be the passive Mycroft, who can work out an entire problem but can’t be bothered to leave his armchair, or the equally brilliant but cold Moriarity.

  4. What a splendid toast to our beloved Holmes, Mr. Pond–thank you! This is so evocative of the setting that I wish it were a late October night with clouds scudding across the sky as the moon bathes the world in reflected light….

    Two things you write above I find especially striking and you put so remarkably well:

    “if you want to understand what sets him apart from the mass of amateur detectives that swarmed in his wake—you must realise this: Holmes is an untrammelled intellect.”

    and: “Yet all his logic, for all his intellect, there is something of a mystic about him—a burning conviction like that of the great ascetics.”

    These are two points I discuss a bit as well in an article I have appearing in the forthcoming Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes collection (the article is “The Dog That Did Not Bark: Learning How to Read ‘The Book of Life'”). On the first point, I’d underscore your point about “untrammelled intellect.” As the world’s only “consulting detective,” Holmes has insisted upon the mental independence that is at the heart of his efficacious methods. He works on his own terms or not at all. Those who can see that and value it will hire him. “The advantage of being unofficial,” says Holmes [in “Silver Blaze”], is that “I follow my own methods and tell as much or as little as I choose.”

    On the second point, I’m so glad that you note Holmes’s “burning conviction”! He’s not merely, as Watson puts it in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” Holmes is a most passionate character with a devotion to truth and justice rivaled by few. Stamford, an old acquaintance of Watson’s who introduces him to Holmes, says that Holmes is “an enthusiast in some branches of science” and has “a passion for definite and exact knowledge.” Watson himself recognizes this: “[H]is zeal for certain studies was remarkable. . . . Surely no man would work so hard or attain such precise information unless he had some definite end in view” (quotations from A Study in Scarlet).

    Machines do not show passion, enthusiasm, or zeal–Holmes is indeed a man with “burning conviction.” This passion seems to come from two sources: (1) Holmes’s actualization of his talents and (2) solving crime for the public good. Here is Holmes in his own words on both of these points:

    (1) Holmes swells with pride when his colleagues recognize his extraordinary talents in solving a difficult case, and he explains that he created his profession because he “crave[s] mental exaltation” and “[t]he work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for [his] peculiar powers, is [his] highest reward” (The Sign of Four).

    (2) Holmes states that it is “our duty to unravel [‘the scarlet thread of murder’], and isolate it, and expose every inch of it” (A Study in Scarlet and “[i]t’s every man’s business to see justice done” (“The Crooked Man”). When preparing for the possibility of death at the hands of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock reflects that his life had not been “lived wholly in vain” because he had improved the lives of his fellow countrymen without ever knowingly using his “powers upon the wrong side” (“The Final Problem”).

  5. RRoss, thanks–do you have a scan of that article, perchance? 😉

    Jenna, your cultural and literary well-being will be thoroughly enriched by familiarity with the Holmes stories. Conan Doyle was a master of his craft, and his weaknesses are less apparent in the Holmes stories than in some of the other works.

    Moonyprof, very well said. Of course I’m not simply taking Holmes’s word for the matter: it’s a confluence of Holmes’s own statement of method (which, as a Victorian man of letters, he would be precise and exacting about), Conan Doyle’s stated intention for the stories, and of course Watson’s observations of his friend. The remarkable thing is how little to romanticize Watson could find. The cases themselves are filled with lurid and sensational detail–Watson was a romantic of the old school–but Holmes himself remains perpetually aloof. He’s a Vulcan prototype in some ways; it’s no coincidence that Spock quotes Holmes’s dictums with approval.

    So where does this leave Holme’s friendship with Watson? It is deep and abiding, profoundly important to him, but I think it falls in line with his other deep enjoyments–music, the arts, good food. For good or ill, he doesn’t allow these to intrude when his mind is working, except insofar as they will allow the mind to work–playing the violin, say, or sending Watson to make notes on the Baskerville case. Bu tit’s important to understand that humanitas is the central, logical structure of Holmes’s intellect, and that it sees friendship as a rational virtue.

    cbiondi–great comment. To pick up on your points, I think (1) catches what I said in the article exactly: there is a transcendent, Romantic exaltation in the working of pure intellect. Do you think, then, that there’s something (neo)platonic in Holmes’s conviction–the superiority of the mind over the body?

    And (2), I think, points out neatly the great and overriding virtue of the Victorians. Justice, and individual dignity, and the sense of quietly working to improve the world for one’s fellows, were seen as logical, rational, and necessary. It was one’s duty because it was logically correct.

    So naturally Holmes, as the supremely rational man, would have a passion for justice; I don’t think Conan Doyle could or would have conceived the character any other way. Moriarty, then, represents a form of degeneration: he looks and acts like a rational gentleman but there is something missing. The sense of humanitas is absent. Certainly there is something grim, even pessimistic, when Holmes and Moriarty destroy each other.

  6. Your mention, Mr. Pond, of Spock’s approvingly citing Holmes reminds me that in one of the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episodes Data takes on the character of Sherlock Holmes with Geordi as Watson (and I, er–massive Nerd Alert–actually own the Data dressed as Holmes action figure….):,_Dear_Data_(episode)

    Yes, I do think there is something neo-Platonic in Holmes’s conviction; kind of like the whole transcendental love/beauty thing from Plato’s “Symposium.” That certainly fits your discussion of Holmes vis-a-vis Irene Adler.

    But…. as you note, though he often neglects and pushes his body to the limits of endurance for the sake of the intellect, it’s ultimately for the sake of the human good here. That’s why Sherlock is morally superior to Mycroft (though I do admire Mycroft in some ways)–he gets “out of the armchair” that Moonyprof notes above, because he cares about justice. In “The Greek Interpreter,” Watson is surprised that Mycroft, whose reasoning skills surpass those of Holmes, is not known in the detective world. Holmes explains that Mycroft would be the best detective “[i]f the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair,” but since it doesn’t and Mycroft is lazy and “incapable of working out the practical points which must be gone into,” he works as a government auditor.

  7. Mr. Pond, this is wonderful; you have inspired me to reacquaint myself with the Man on the Tor. There was something in your portrait that struck a long unsounded sympathetic chord and I found myself turning to Emerson’s essay on Self Reliance, with which Holmes might have agreed:

    “These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

    Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

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