Sunday, June 7, 2009

Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction (Part Two)

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues

(AKA Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction)

Part Two (Part One can be found on the blog post for Wednesday, June 3)

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” 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.

At a key moment in the story, Holmes bases his attempts to retrieve a photograph from Adler on his stereotyped conception of women’s behavior. As he explains to Watson, “ When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. In the case of the Darlington substitution scandal it was of use to me, and also in the Arnsworth Castle business. A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box. Now it was clear to me that our lady of to-day had nothing in the house more precious to her than what we are in quest of. She would rush to secure it. The alarm of fire was admirably done. The smoke and shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully. The photograph is in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell-pull. She was there in an instant, and I caught a glimpse of it as she half-drew it out.”

It’s important to understand that Holmes’ generalization about women in this instance does lead to temporary success. Adler acts as Holmes suggests women do by definition. Holmes manages to witness all this because he has disguised himself as a clergyman who came to Adler’s aid and was wounded when her carriage was surrounded by street toughs (themselves actually also acting on Holmes’ orders). She brings him into her house to help him.

Holmes’ mistake is that, while watching her behavior, he is unaware that she is watching his just as capably. After the incident, Adler realizes that Holmes has figured out her secret, and she succeeds in escaping him.

Not only is Adler as capable an inductionist as Holmes, she is also equally adept at another of Holmes’ key methods for solving crimes: acting ability. Adler disguises herself as a man, a “slim youth” as Watson describes her, in order to follow Holmes and find out what he’s doing. In a letter to Holmes that he receives after her escape she notes: “But, you know, I have been trained as an actress myself. Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives.”

Holmes is defeated by a woman with the capability of disguising herself as a man. A woman who has all the talents he has, with one great advantage over him. She does not underestimate her opponent, as he has, based on stereotypes of gender. As she implies in her letter, gender is less a condition of biological fact and limitation than one of costume and performance. She defeats Holmes because she understands gender better than he does.

Holmes’ astonishment at her ability and her defeat of him genuinely leads him to rethink his attitude towards women. Watson concludes the story by noting, “And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman's wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.”

Custer encountered a similar problem to Holmes, a moment when his inductive abilities were undone at least partly by stereotyping an opponent. His mistake took place in the real world and the consequences were much worse, leading to his own death and that of more than 200 of his men.

Up to the day of his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s role in the Indian Wars had been complicated and troubled by some of his behavior and by political difficulties. He was suspended from command for a year after being accused of going AWOL to visit his wife. After the end of the Civil War, Custer had supported the policies of President Andrew Johnson, earning him the longtime enmity of the General who soon became President, Ulysses Grant. In Washington DC, Custer was at a one point accused of perjury. It was only by begging Brigadier General Alfred Terry for reinstatement that Custer was allowed to lead the 7th Cavalry to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In fact some people have suggested that Custer’s desire to regain his command, his image, and freedom from Terry’s patronage contributed to his reckless approach on that particular day.

There was however at least one other key difference that contributed to his fate. Custer did not think of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors he was facing in the same way he thought of the Confederate Troops he had faced during the Civil War. Perhaps because of bravado, but more so probably because he really did believe it, Custer claimed that he could "could whip any Indian village on the Plains" with the 7th Cavalry. He even turned down an offer from General Terry for an additional four companies from the 2nd Calvary. Custer believed he didn’t need those troops because he was only fighting Indians.

Custer was less thoughtful about his inductions in this particular war context. He allowed his ideological convictions about Indians to overcome his usual reasoning. If he had been facing an army of white men, he likely would have behaved differently.

It might seem therefore that the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer blues all adds up to one lesson: letting cultural stereotypes stand in the way of careful inductive reasoning is a mistake, sometimes a fatal one.

It turns out that the lesson isn’t that simple.

(End of Part Two)


Don Zirilli said...

I hope that first picture is from Little Big Man.

I am desperately awaiting the next installment already.

Joe Safdie said...

Yeah, I'm enjoying this -- I think the "serial blog" is a great idea.

I'm waiting for the part where Mark reveals that there's no such thing as pure induction, and that everyone has biases or prejudices or ideologies that affect what we can notice or perceive. Bummer!

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, guys.

Don, the photo above is actually a photo of the actress who played Irene Adler in the version of the Holmes stories from the 1980s and 90s in which Jeremy Brett starred. Photos of the actual Irene Adler don't exist, as we all know, because she didn't either.

Anonymous said...

This is a very helpful and pithy analysis! I'm about to do a small tutoring lesson on "A Scandal in Bohemia" and was trolling the internet for extra tips--I came up with most of the lesson myself since the teaching suggestions online are so inane. Your blog posts bring the central issues together so neatly!