||[Jul. 3rd, 2009|09:31 pm]
ON DETECTION, REASON, AND HISTORY|
The figure of the detective, as he first takes form in the recognizable archetype during the 1840's in Edgar Allan Poe's three C. Auguste Dupin* stories ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Mystery of Marie Roget", "The Purloined Letter") is in his essence an Enlightenment creature. His art is ratiocination-- the careful survey of available facts to create a picture that reveals a solution, in his instance, the heart of the intrigue. Indeed, the process exhibits the Victorian obsession with cataloguing, as if to place an event or phenomenon within a logic system is to gain mastery over it.
The fundamental execution of this attitude is in the detective's cultivation of self. There is little room for emotion or impulse in the rational man. In Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia," Watson writes of the famous Mr. Holmes:
"All emotions...were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind...They were admirable things for the observer-- excellent for drawing a veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which
might throw a doubt on all his metal results."
(Ironically, this story details the rare crack in the sleuth's legendary stoicism.)
However, the roots of this distrust run deeper than merely the desire for a clear head. The Enlightenment detective is possessed by an anxiety that pervades his age, a categorical crisis: that man, for all his advances, is yet not far removed from beast, subject to being overtaken by his emotions and driven thus to atrocity. How appropriate that the culprit of the shocking violence at the Rue Morgue is in fact a primate, the avatar for the fear of his own urges! An eternal war between instinct and will is waged within man, and by reason alone may he suppress the basest parts of his being.
Yet for all his worship of reason, the detective is in a sense profoundly devout. At the center of his craft is the faith that there is an Order that governs things, and that by precise enough observation it may be discerned (in Poe and Doyle's work, this Order is often equated with the predominant social order of the times-- the State, the Crown, etc.).
In this light, the true villainy belongs not to the petty thieves, marauders, and blackmailers (whose acts are generated by the baser impulses), but what Poe dubs in "The Purloined Letter" the Monstrum Horrendum, "an unprincipled man of genius." This figure is represented by Holmes' nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, the "Napoleon of crime" described in "The Final Problem":
"His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by Nature with a phenomenal mathematical facility...But 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."
The Monstrum Horrendum embraces crime in spite of his rationality, and in doing so threatens the detective not only as a rival but as a challenge to his entire ontological system. He consciously defies the Order Of Things; in this, he is unexplainable, almost satanic. Moriarty's criminal misdeeds are the lesser offense. His true transgression is to scoff at the sanctity of Order, revealing its transience and artificiality.
*Dupin is something of a contradictory character, for though his cataloguing habits are even more obsessive than the more refined figure of Sherlock Holmes, he is also prone to bouts of Romantic fervor, drifting madly through the nighttime city in the pulse of the urban organism.