Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues (Part One)

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues

(AKA Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction)

Part One

In the story “A Scandal In Bohemia,” Sherlock Holmes tells his friend Watson, “You have not observed. And yet you have seen.” According to Holmes, while Watson is surrounded by the same sense data as Holmes, he does not register and process the details. Watson, unlike Holmes, is insufficiently attuned to his own senses and the data obtainable from it.

Holmes’ great attention to sense data is one of his key detecting skills and is displayed at the beginning of most Holmes stories. In a common opening to the stories, he notices people’s physical features, expressions, clothing and possessions and draws many inferences about those people based on what he notices. He is similarly observant about all aspects of material reality and uses his observations of them throughout the stories to determine how crimes have been committed and who committed them.

Although the Holmes stories speak of this process as deduction, in fact it’s an act of induction: Holmes reaches likely conclusions based on his prior observations.

As he also tells Watson in that same story, "I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Holmes only theorizes when the data is sufficient to support his ideas. Although he acknowledges that error is possible in drawing conclusions, the conclusions he draws are nonetheless based only on facts, never on pre-defined suppositions or ideologies. Given a small margin for error, his conclusions are therefore themselves almost always facts as well. One might say that—in theory—Holmes never theorizes. Instead he moves from one clue to another until he can draw a correct conclusion.

After graduating last in his class of 34 cadets from the U.S. military academy in 1861, George Armstrong Custer would almost certainly have played no major role in U.S. history had the Civil War not just broken out, leading to a need for officers, even those who had performed in school as pathetically as class clown Custer had.

Once in active service, however, Custer distinguished himself quickly. He first made a name for himself in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 after overhearing General Barnard say, in considering how to cross the Chickhamony River, “I wish I knew how deep it is.” Custer astonished everyone by riding his horse right into the river. “That’s how deep it is, General,” he is reported to have said from atop his horse mid-river. He was soon thereafter allowed to lead an attack across the river.

It was this moment of reckless induction that first gained attention for Custer and defined the key characteristic of his military career. As Evan Connell pointed out in his account Son of the Morning Star, Custer made his military fame through one battle tactic only. In battle, Custer charged. Yet as others have pointed out, the charges he led were always meticulously and inductively planned. Custer always studied details of the battlefield and enemy closely before deciding whether a charge was possible, and if so, where would be best to charge.

But make no mistake: Custer was committed to charging. Despite the fact that his flamboyant, foppish dress (he preferred cinnamon-scented hair oil that made his long blond hair sparkle as it hung down in ringlets below his hat) often alienated soldiers under his command, he won them over by his willingness to stand at the front of the charges he led, instead of lurking behind the troops as other military leaders often did. Custer managed to succeed repeatedly with his capable battlefield inductions and thoughtfully reckless charges. Careful inductionist that he was, however, he acknowledged that his success and survival were in some ways a matter of luck.

Both Holmes and Custer, in their entirely different and obsessive ways, are pragmatic inductionists.

One key difference, among many, between these men is that Holmes, as a fictional character, never had to put his methods to the test in the real world. Not so for Custer, unfortunately.

It’s incorrect, however, to think of Holmes as a superhero detective who solves every case and makes no mistakes and has no weaknesses. Along with the emotional torment he goes through when lacking an engaging case, Holmes turns out despite his belief in facts to have his biases and ideological pre-suppositions.

Perhaps his key bias is against women. In fact, the story “A Scandal In Bohemia” is designed for Arthur Conan Doyle to teach both Holmes and his readers a key lesson: generalized biases against others, stereotyping and dismissing their abilities based on considering them part of a general category of human beings, is an error. And it’s an error that careful attention to the principles of induction can correct.

In “Scandal,” the story opens with Watson discussing the admiration Holmes has for one particular woman, Irene Adler, in contrast to Holmes’ often generally dismissive view of women.

Holmes, in this story, is going to be defeated by Irene Adler, precisely because his view of women clouds his inductive capacity when he encounters a woman whose inductive and other skills are at least as great as his own.

(End of Part One)


Michael Theune said...

Can't wait to see where you go with this, Mark--very interesting!

I should just be patient and wait to see part 2, but I can't help but bring up Trifles, the play (from 1916) by Susan Glaspell, a feminist detective story of sorts in which two women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, figure out what transpired due to the fact that they see and understand things differently than the men. Those interested in your topics of gender and induction might want to check it out...


mark wallace said...

Thanks for the Glaspell suggestion, Mike. It's a good one. She also turned the play into the 1917 short story "A Jury of Her Peers," easily available in many collections of American short fiction and one I teach in my class on the short story.