The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: asexuality

Elementary (S1 E1) and the Freudianization of Sherlock Holmes

A while back I mentioned the CBS series Elementary in relation to the Freudianization of the character of Sherlock Holmes in contemporary retellings. Now I want to look a little more closely at this series. By Freudianization I mean the exploration of sexuality, the centrality of libido,the search for primal scenes and childhood traumas, the assumption that work is a sublimation, the imputation of an unconscious driving behaviour, and so on – all things that Conan Doyle felt no need to go into or to have to explain away. My point is that the Sherlock Holmes of Doyle’s stories is unrepresentable according to contemporary narrative tropes, and both Sherlock and Elementary demonstrate this. Sherlock is the series I have looked at most, but in the paper I am currently writing on this series, I will also mention Elementary, and how this series faces the same difficulties when it comes to depicting Holmes, particularly with regard to his sexuality.

It’s not a hard argument to make. Remember the first episode of Elementary? Remember the very first line Sherlock speaks? It is this:

Do you believe in love at first sight? I know what you’re thinking: the world is a cynical place and I must be a cynical man.

And he continues into a speech about how much he loves her (Joan Watson), who has just entered his apartment and introduced herself to him. It turns out Sherlock is rehearsing a piece of dialogue from a film or TV show. However, we don’t know that during the speech: he’s staring at Joan intently, and she’s taken aback but intrigued (going by facial expressions; she doesn’t say anything). Not only do we not know that it’s a rehearsal, but the reason he is reciting this speech is never revealed. Why would he be learning this speech? How on Earth can this square with Holmes’ famous brain-attic theory:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that this little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for any addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. (A Study in Scarlet, Pt. 1, Ch. 2)

In episode 2 of Elementary, Sherlock gives a variation on this speech, so he too subscribes to the brain-attic theory. How, for a detective, can we envisage learning a romantic speech from a film or TV show to be a useful fact, worthy of a place in the attic? No obvious answer suggests itself, and Elementary never actually makes any effort to explain why Sherlock is doing this.


Sherlock declaring his love for Joan at their first meeting

So why is he doing this? At a plot level there is no reason. It’s a non-sequitur. But it sets up the theme of Sherlock’s sexuality that is central to Elementary. Unlike Sherlock, this series doesn’t claim that Sherlock is celibate. They get that one out of the way immediately, in this first scene. He says:

I actually find sex repellent. All those fluids and all the sounds, but my brain and my body require it to function at optimum levels, so I feed them as needed.

This is the official line throughout the series: Sherlock has sex, but he doesn’t like it, though the second part is not so clear-cut. Joan makes it clear she doesn’t believe that he doesn’t enjoy sex, and the viewers sometimes doubt it, too. So that is partly how that opening speech functions: making it clear right away that Doyle’s approach just doesn’t fit our conception of a man, and dispelling it.

It also introduces the possibility of sexual tension between Sherlock and Joan: how is she reacting when he declares his love for her? It’s not clear. She gives nothing away, but she seems intrigued by his declaration.

elementary Joan.png

Intimate over-the-shoulder shot of Sherlock and Joan in their meeting scene.

Maybe the most interesting element of the speech part of the meeting scene is its functional inutility. From a plot point of view, it never happened: the speech wasn’t real, it was a rehearsal; and the rehearsal wasn’t real, it wasn’t for anything later in the episode. So we have to conclude that its thematic meaning is very important because a) its plot meaning is nil and b) it is placed at an important point in the narrative: the very first meeting of the two lead characters.

The possibility of Sherlock having an identifiable sexuality is what is at issue here. Unlike Doyle, the makers of Elementary can’t see a pure distancing of the character from sexual and romantic concerns being acceptable, so they’re establishing right away his plausibility as a romantic lead. The formal meaning of the scene (it has none) is unimportant, as its experiential meaning (the viewer experiences, for that minute before we find out what’s going on, the scene as a standard romantic one [formal and experiential meaning are notions taken from Stanley Fish]) is what resonates, and what can’t be undone by recognition of the narrative insignificance of the scene.

There’s a very similar scene in Sherlock, albeit much later in the development of the series. I might write on it later, but both series are similar in needing a sexualized Sherlock while also being somewhat beholden to a source text that does not allow for such a figure. Over the course of their development, they work with this tension, but can never resolve it, because the source is uncompromising, and so are contemporary models of building character in narratives.


Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality


Freud, biographer of Leonardo

Sigmund Freud is a fascinating writer because of the enormous influence he has had on contemporary culture. Sometimes it seems as if our whole sense of what a human being is and does underwent a revolution with Freudian theory, and I’m not just talking about intellectual and academic discourse, I’m talking the tropes of popular culture that seem to have become increasingly Freudian. This is something that particularly fascinates me in the diachronic study I have been making of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes: it is clear that modern retellings like Sherlock and Elementary have to tackle questions about the detective’s sexuality, his unconscious, and the personal psychic development that leads to his unorthodox character, whereas Doyle was perfectly comfortable with the idea that Holmes had no sexuality, no unconscious and underwent no personal development. This is something I go into in more detail in an upcoming publication.

But it comes back to Freud: the stories we tell about ourselves are different now that Freud’s works have made their way into popular culture. One of Freud’s most compelling narratives is the essay on Leonardo, the original Renaissance Man. Freud himself considered this “the only beautiful thing I have ever written”. One thing that interests a semi-Victorian such as myself is the sense in which Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of a Childhood Reminiscence is a throwback to Victorian “Great Man” studies of the Carlyle type. Freud actually calls Leo a “great man” as well as a “universal genius” (in Strachey’s translation), and is throughout open about his admiration for his subject. More generally, he states that he’s interested in making biography into a branch of psychoanalysis.

A further point of interest in the essay for me is that Leonardo is a historical figure who does resemble Sherlock Holmes in one notable respect: he is, as far as behaviour goes, totally asexual. I say “behaviour” because for Freud he was a non-practicing homosexual. There’s no entry for asexual in The Freud Reader (ed. Peter Gay, Vintage, 1995), but Freud essentially did not accept the category of asexuality, speaking of the “historical probability of Leonardo having behaved in his life as one who was emotionally homosexual”. Even though he believes Leonard lived a wholly celibate life, he does not translate this into an identity, but assumes he must have been homosexual.

The first point Freud makes about Leo’s chastity and apparent dedication to the pursuit of knowledge (both artistic and scientic – he was a real Renaissance Man and just because we think of him as first and foremost and artist does not mean that he dedicated himself more to art than to science) is that it was a sublimation. This is one of Freud’s key ideas, especially from the point of view of a literary scholar. It occurs when the sexual libido that Freud sees as the fundamental drive of a human (ignoring the later development of the death drive for the moment) is sidelined into any activity, and it is fundamental to Freud’s understanding of writers, artists, scientists, etc.

The methodological importance of sublimation for Freud is that it immediately leads to a question: why? Sublimation is not a natural occurrence, but only takes place in culture, and always in response to a certain circumstance. In recreating such occurrences Freud is at his most audacious, creating psychic lanscapes with a verve and a sweep of vision that impresses, even if it doesn’t always convince. For a self-declared scientist, Freud tends to go far beyond what the evidence warrants. But that is a familiar complaint – it’s important, but the simple effectiveness of Freud’s theories in the marketplace of ideas demands we don’t limit our analysis of them to the scientific truth they contain.

So, regarding Leo, why did he sublimate his sexuality into the pursuit of knowledge? Almost nothing is known of his childhood, but one of his notebooks contains an account of a childhood dream, too complicated to get into here, which Freud reads with great ingenuity to posit that Leonardo’s father was absent during his early childhood. (Leo was illegitimate, but the evidence, such as it is, suggests he lived with his father – Freud acknowledges this evidence, but nevertheless feels that his reading of the dream trumps it.) Freud further posits that Leo’s mother was sexually frustrated and developed an overly intense and eroticized bond with her young son. Because Leo came to desire his mother, he also wanted to replace or gain ascendency over his father. The rebellion against the father Freud apparently sees as central to all intellectual achievement: “His later scientific research, with all its boldness and independence, presupposed the existence of infantile sexual researches unintibited by the father, and was a prolongation of them with the sexual element excluded.” So the absence of the father is necessary for the development of an independent intellect. It is often said that Freud’s thinking is infected with misogyny. That is a point that can be convincingly made, but one should also note that his attitude to the father seems to place men in a particularly invidious position, as a dark, brooding and stultifying presence contrasted with the erotically tinged nurturance of the mother.

So Freud’s theory of how Leonardo came to be a genius and a (theoretical) homosexual is one based entirely on nurture, not taking nature into the equation at all. In some ways it seems inadequate, given that even if Freud’s presuppositions about Leo are right, his circumstances are not that unusual. But Freud’s model of explaining how genius came to be, and particularly the childhood family circumstances, are now the norm. Thus in Sherlock, the relationship of rivalry and ambivalence with the older brother and quasi-father (Mycroft) has taken centre stage, and season 3 also saw the “Redbeard” motif introduced, wherein Sherlock’s childhood love for a pet dog that died is introduced as an implied reason for his asociality/aromanticism/asexuality. For Doyle, Sherlock’s family background was irrelevant, and is never mentioned, though Mycroft does enter into a couple of stories, mainly as a plot device. But why not go the whole hog, and use the Leonardo essay as a basis for a full Freudian explanation of Holmes’ character and his genius: absent father, over-affectionate mother, repression of sexual love for the mother, sublimation into work, remaining libido directed towards other men etc. Elements of this narrativization of the character are found in Elementary and Sherlock, as if they adapt not only Doyle, but also Freud.

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