Friday, May 3, 2013

Freud and Holmes (re-updated)

Freud’s published case-histories  are classics in the literature of detection.
-- Peter Gay, Freud, Jews, and Other Germans (1978), p. 50

My course is a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures.
-- Vl. Nabokov, Lectures on Literature

There is a natural affinity between the figures of Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes.  The movie “The Seven Percent Solution” had the good idea of bringing them together to work on a case.    The adjunction was by no means arbitrary -- both Freud and Holmes are intimately connected with cocaine (for which the phase “7% solution” occurs in the memorable opening to The Sign of the Four).

It is my personal view that both Freud and Holmes are semi-fictional characters.
Each could qualify as the other’s Smarter Brother.

Jeder  des andern  klüger Bruder

Für psychologisch tiefgreifende Krimis,
in pikanter amerikanischer Mundart,
und christlich gesinnt,
klicken Sie bitte hier:


Both were known for wringing solutions  out of small details.   To some extent, that’s just like good police work.  Only, most investigators do not really manage to draw such dramatic conclusions from a speck of rare Turkish tobacco, or an innocent-sounding slip of the tongue.   There is something more.  And so, taught at the feet our our masters, let us ourselves give their remarkable ability a second look.

A striking feature is that they notice strange details, and magnify them in their minds, which no-one else notices.   As in the movie “Blow-Up”, there is something uncanny about knowledge derived in this way.  It smacks, indeed, of the paranoiac, who is able to make a strange sense of it all -- one that eludes everyone else -- via codes he detects in newspaper advertisements or the patterns of clouds. 
It may lead, like the glittering insect that opens “El laberinto del fauno”, to magic and to madness. (For our essay on the subject, in a cinematic context, try this:  Take Shelter.)
The allusions to cinema are in point, since I am speaking now, not of the mind-insides of the actual Freud and Holmes, but of the effect they have on us, as characters.   Their resonance for us is in part derived from our unconscious thought that the odd details they espy, sticking out at odd angles from the weft and web of everyday life, are signals from another world -- signals that may not even be intended for our ears;  in any event  we almost never understand them.   It is as if, long ago, and at an age at which language itself had been only imperfectly acquired, we, pausing perhaps outside our parents’ bedroom late one evening after we were supposed to be in bed (but, strangely unable to sleep, had crept out into the corridor) -- as though we had (crouching in the dark) overheard strange uncouth noises -- nothing definite -- emerging muffled through the door …. straining to hear … (there it is again!) -- and fantasized about what it all means.
But Freud and Holmes emphatically do not represent for us that baffled and eavesdropping toddler:  their example is rather that of having transcended that infantile fantasy, and diverted the cathexis from it  triumphantly into their own work.   My own enthusiasm for these two figures must stem partly from that; for indeed, by now, my own work has come to require the teasing of dark meanings out of confused and cryptic comms, on whose interpretation  actual lives may depend.

~  Aviso ~
Mr Sherlock Holmes  leads with his head,
while the Murphy brothers
lead with their heart.
You can sample their excellent detective adventures  here:

Freud himself (his biographer recounts) was fond of relaxing with whodunits (particularly those by Dorothy Sayers);  but the greatest mysteries he observed were those in life.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin Sigmund Freud, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

The meaning for us, of Freud as of Holmes, is more a matter of a lingering taste, that we savor, than of any substance remembered and assimilated in detail.
Re-reading the Holmes stories in adulthood  is disappointing.  Logically they are quite threadbare;  there is little in the way of actual deduction, as opposed to deus ex machina (“Behold this speck of tobacco!  I just happen to know that it is a rare blend produced only in the mountains of Tibet;  hence the murdered gentleman must be the exiled Prince of Nepal, whom I once met at a fancy-dress ball disguised as a penguin,  and who, like the corpse, was only four feet tall.”)  There is less actual sifting of evidence than in a run-of-the-mill police procedural.
Re-reading Freud (more critically and carefully, in tandem with biographical and explanatory apparatus) is likewise something of a let-down.  Oh, it is all dense enough, and with ever a sense of insight … but you become aware of nagging gaps.   Quite apart from the fabulous (in both senses, alas) late work :  go right back to the Traumdeutung.   The individual interpretations  proceed from inspired guesses;  but the ratification of their validity is often by way of implausibly handy corroborative knowledge from the patient’s innermost private life or even childhood.  You get the impression that Freud must have attended a lot of Viennese dinner parties, where the guests are all friends and relatives and ex-nannies of his patients.  “I hear Dora has been feeling out of sorts ever since her lesbian encounters with the nursemaid.”  “How’s Wolfie doing?  Haven’t seen the chap since I threatened to cut off his widdler.”

Elementary, my dear Sigmund.

Hmm... "Elementary".... A revealing choice of words ...

Psychology in the Holmes stories is either shallow or absent.    He is an Asperger’s-savant for tiny yet telling details, but he does not see into souls.   (For the greatest possible contrast:  cf. the detective-priest Father Brown.)  Matters are always thus, in most juvenile adventure literature (of which the Holmes stories are splendid examples).   More surprisingly, there is surprisingly little ordinary everyday or novelistic psychology in Freud, either.   He too notices arcane semiotic details, and (above all) makes ingenious connections (going much farther in this regard than Holmes could dream of).   Yet in his writings, we don’t get much sense of what individual people are like.   Indeed  Ernest Jones, his admiring biographer, finally concludes that Freud, though an analytic genius, wasn’t really much of a Menschenkenner.


Another point of similarity:  the inter-resonance of the titles in their case-files:  from “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, “The Adventure of the Twisted Lip”, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”,  vis-a-vis the “Traum von Irmas Injektion”,  the “Traum von den Maikäfern”, and the eminently Holmesian “Traum von der botanischen Monographie”.


The delicately (surgically) probing stance  of the analyst is well-illustrated in the (excellent) early story, “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”.  Holmes’ aristocratic client dismisses a question:  “The incident was too trivial to relate, and can have no possible bearing upon the case.”   To which Holmes, quasi the Doctor, patiently and insinuatingly replies:  Let us have it, for all that.”
This, note, originally  published in 1892, thus antedating the great analytic talk-therapy publications of Sigmund Freud.


Freud and Holmes are connected as welby a thread of mesmerism.
In “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”, after Holmes has (in his signature, mildly provoking way) asked  whether a certain man he’d never seen  had a wooden leg:

Something like fear sprung up in the young lady’s expressive black eyes.  “Why, you are like a magician,”  said she.  “How did you know that?”  She smiled, but there was no answering smile in Holmes’ thin, eager face.

Not, note, “You are a genius”;  rather, she strikes an occult note.  The tableau (pretty, young patient/client;  ascetic older man probing for hidden evil) is reminiscent of Freud’s early days with Breuer, when he used hypnosis.

Or again:  The detective, like the analyst, as Magus.
In “The Empty House”, the opening story of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watkins is talking with “an elderly, deformed man”:

I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me.  When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me  across my study table.  I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted…

Again:  Watkins doesn’t complement Holmes on his skill, but is overcome by the spookiness of this revenant (for it is Holmes apparently back from his death at Reichenbach Falls) and shape-shifter.


Other points of contact:
Holmes assumes, as a matter of course, that his readers -- of course! -- understand German, and is not averse to quoting Goethe without supplying any translation.  As, in The Sign of the Four:

“Wir sind gewohnt 
dass die Menschen verhöhnen
was sie nicht verstehen.”

(An epigram that could well describe the fate of Freud, during much of his lifetime.)

Indeed, the Germans (with their customary thoroughness) do a better job treating of the Holmes stories on Wikipedia, than do the anglophones.   The English wikiarticle on The Sign of the Four  is a flip disgrace;  while at the German site you get a proper précis of the plot:


Sherlock Holmes und Dr. Watson werden von Miss Mary Morstan beauftragt, bei der Suche nach ihrem verschollenen Vater zu helfen. Dieser war Offizier in Indien und verschwand vor zehn Jahren bei seiner Rückkehr nach England.
Ein anonymer Brief bringt die drei auf die Spur von Thaddeus Sholto. Von ihm erfahren sie, dass dessen Vater mit dem Gesuchten befreundet war und zusammen mit ihm in Indien in derselben Kompanie gedient hat. Außerdem berichtet er vom Tod der beiden Männer, von einem Schatz, den diese mit aus Indien brachten und wie er und sein Bruder den Schatz entdeckten.

Falls Sie im Doktor-Justiz-Sammelsurium
weiterblättern möchten,
Bitte hier klicken:


Both Freud and Holmes are men of wide and arcane learning;  but there is a different overall tint to each.  Freud is, by and large, literary and antiquarian;  Holmes, a keen follower of current colonial adventures, and something of a practical engineer.  When the beryl-encrusted coronet, pilfered during the night,  is discovered in the hall with a piece broken off, Holmes mischievously asks its bailee to break off another chunk himself;  this challenge is declined in horror.   Holmes then gives it his best, to no avail, and explains:  “Though I am exceptionally strong in the fingers, it would take me all my time to break it.  Now, what do you think would happen if I did break it?  There would be a noise like a pistol shot.  Do you tell me that all this happened within a few yards of your bed and that you heard nothing of it?”

Whether this description be accurate, I cannot say, never having personally rent a crown by brute brawn;  but the point is, the feat is presented as the sort of thing Holmes knows, presumably as he experiments with such things in his study, noting down the results;  whereas Freud would never so bestir himself, and thus is not so expert in matters of materials science.

-- But why note differences, when the point of this post was to show parallels?
-- Well, I never said that they were twins;  brothers, merely, under the skin.  And the difference of technical skills is more a matter of parallax  than of disparity, producing a more rounded fraternity, like William and Henry James …


Oh dear, that last dodge was pretty specious;  this essay is falling apart.  Get me rewrite!!
Yet more, I now must needs, in all conscience, note a glaring disparity between the two men.
It is a matter widely known tacitly -- and embodied by Murphy explicitly -- that no true detective can ever marry;  and an analyst is a detective of the mind.  Yet der Sigmund was happy in a stout Hausfrau, and fathered a passle of apple-cheeked crumb-snatchers.  How to explain this outrageous derogation from the ascetic ideal?
Well, as I admitted earlier, Dr. S. Freud is only semi-fictional:  he had one leg in reality, and that leg got the better of him here.  It happens to the best of legends.


Miscellaneous rapprochements:

… Ernest Jones, the docile and deferential My Dear Watson to the Sherlock Holmes of the Unconscious …
-- Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985; 2nd edn. 1993), p. 78


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[Update 1 March 2014]  Compare now this:

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