Sherlock And The Problem of Life

Sherlock And The Problem of Life January 19, 2012

Warning: What follows will contain major Spoilers for those who have not seen the new series of Sherlock.

In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Professor Moriarty represented the mirror image of Sherlock, the criminal mastermind who rivaled Holmes in ability. There is much to this in the new series version of Moriarty. He was not sure, but in the end, both of them realized this is so.

This version of Moriarty has developed into a rather interesting mixture of evils, becoming one of the most compelling presentations of Moriarty put on screen. People will recognize elements of the Joker and the Riddler, but, if they look closer, they can see lying beneath those two figures lay the figure of Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov. He wants to prove himself to the world to be superior to all. He wants to be challenged, and through that challenge come out on top, proving himself above everyone else around him. He saw in Holmes his greatest challenge. It is because Holmes, like him, faces the question of life itself. The angst of existence challenges them both to act. In this way, they share the same problem, the same final problem: staying alive.

Both Holmes and Moriarty are “supermen” living in the world of the ordinary. They both need challenges in order to find their place in life. But there is a difference – Holmes is on the side of the angels while Moriarty is on the side of the devils.

This one difference is major – for being on the side of the devils, no matter what one does, there is no ultimate sense of accomplishment. Evil corrupts, and the meaning of life will evade such a “superman.” Moriarty, in the great tradition of the supermen of Dostoevsky,  can only claim one end, that of death. Evil is self-destructive, and the only way a superman can prove themselves superior, following the path of evil, is through suicide: it’s their ultimate victory as they denounce life itself.  They find out they are their own greatest enemy, the one who is keeping them from their own greatest victory:

While Holmes has difficulty with life, he finds meaning not only in justice, but also in working for and helping his friends. He might not realize how many he has; he might not realize how many people have come to care for him. Indeed, his problem accepting friends means he can hurt them, saying he has none.

Moriarty, in his evil, makes him realize he has them, with the three most important of them being Doctor Watson, Inspector Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson. Moriarty threatens their lives: Sherlock must die if he wants them to live. He must go down in flames – seen as a fake in the world and then take his life. Only then can Holmes’ friends live.  This leads Sherlock to embrace the common problem he shares with Moriarty, but he comes through it differently. Being on the side of angels, he is on the side of life. If he must, he would sacrifice himself for their lives; but it is not necessary – he only has to make it appear he is dead. He must disappear – die to the world — for their sake. The final solution to the final problem is not suicide, but death to pride, death to the egotistical shell of the self which has created his problems in the first place.

In the end, Moriarty realizes he must die. If he lives, Sherlock is going to live, if he dies, only then does he think he has the power over Holmes, to destroy him, to make sure that death reigns victorious.

Suicide and self-sacrifice, even if they appear to be the same, are fundamentally different, for suicide is about the triumph of death for the sake of pride while self-sacrifice allows for the death of pride and its egotistical shell for the sake of  others. Suicides are done to punish the self and the people around them, while self-sacrifice is not punishment, but the lifting up of the true self as one embraces the value of life. There is every difference in the two despite their accidental similarity.  And this is what we see played out in the first two seasons of Sherlock.  The problem of life and the two alternative solutions. One is mad and crazy and nihilistic, the other, though sometimes tempered with a self-destructive edge, realizes the true superman is the one who embraces the difficult path so that life can thrive. The true superman loves, the fake hates.

This, I believe, is what makes this version of Sherlock shine.  Yes, there is great acting and great scripts being employed and they both are important. But it is the Dostoevsky-like twist which raises the series beyond mere pastiche and into one of the great dramas written for television today.

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