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Sherlock Holmes, the Superhero

Lessons on finding special powers in the most unlikely places.

A battle rages within many college students of my acquaintance between a certain bravado meant to signal there’s nothing they don’t know and a looming suspicion there’s nothing they do. It’s the same battle that rages in the rest of us, but with age we grow more adept at concealing it. The struggle is intensified in my students by the fact that they are also cadets at a military academy, where initial training impresses upon them their radically diminished authority and where the predetermination of their first job (second lieutenant in a time of war) understandably tempts them to test the immediate application of whatever knowledge comes their way.

The tension is especially acute in first-year students, who reside at the bottom of the institutional hierarchy and who are bombarded on arrival with new facts, terms, and concepts that can eclipse whatever it is they thought they knew about the way the world works. I have therefore begun the custom, on the first day of the semester, of asking the plebes in my introductory literature class what they know best. I emphasize that this knowledge need not be academic in nature. Often what plebes think they know best is physical—a particular sport or craft—but the responses have ranged from Roman history to the high jump, from fly-fishing to the Beatles.

Many students do not rate their knowledge very highly; they divorce their private or extracurricular expertise from knowledge they acquire in a formal academic context. They don’t yet know how to value what they know, and they can’t imagine that what they know has anything to do with what I know, or with what they might discover while reading Shakespeare or Ovid or Thomas Hardy or Dashiell Hammett or any of the authors we might encounter in class. Moreover, divorcing mind and body, they often doubt the possibility of mastering both pen and sword.

A problem like this one, I realized not long ago, demands some special assistance. Thus, with all the earnest discretion of a Victorian lady in distress, I have appealed to none other than Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Although it involves no blackmail, missing persons, or stolen jewels, my case poses no difficulty: Holmes is nothing if not adaptable. Indeed, he is one of fiction’s most versatile figures. I’m referring not simply to his penchant for disguise but also to his remarkable afterlife in literature, television, and especially the movies: fighting Nazis in a series of films from the 1940s and, only last year, foiling a nineteenth-century plot involving a rather twenty-first-century weapon of mass destruction in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. In his review of Ritchie’s movie, New York Times critic A. O. Scott called Holmes “a proto-superhero, amenable to all kinds of elaboration and variation.”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s mastermind endures because, as he informs an astonished thief in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” And I’ve taken to visiting 221B Baker Street on the first day of class because I can’t think of anyone who leverages knowledge more effectively.

I ask my students to read a passage near the beginning of A Study in Scarlet (the detective’s first appearance), in which Dr. Watson vainly attempts to itemize precisely what Holmes knows: next to nothing about literature, philosophy, astronomy, and politics; “practical” but idiosyncratic facts of botany, geology, anatomy, and British law; the most minute details of chemistry and “sensational literature.” After concluding his list by noting that Holmes not only “plays the violin well” but is also “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” Watson throws it into the fire “in despair” of ever figuring out what kind of profession could possibly require this eclectic catalogue of “accomplishments.”

At first, Holmes himself manifests a ruthlessly economical attitude toward knowledge: He tells Watson that the brain “is like an empty attic” into which only a limited stock of furniture can be made to fit. For this reason, he wants to know only what is “useful” to his work and endeavors to “forget” everything else. As soon becomes apparent, however, almost nothing is irrelevant to the detective: Latin, French, rare books, the plays of Shakespeare and the work of Carlyle, world politics, history, zoology, geography, psychology … Holmes reveals a familiarity with all of these subjects and more in his adventures.

In the end, however, determining exactly what Holmes knows is beside the point, for it is not the amount of knowledge he stores in his prodigious “brain-attic” but the way in which he uses it that distinguishes him. Holmes reveals the underlying principle to a skeptical Watson after surprising his friend with an allusion to Darwin on their very first case together: “One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature.”

It is to channel Holmes’s capaciousness—his mode of engaging with knowledge, even of the most surprising kinds—that I set the idea of him before the plebes. I use the detective’s example—that of a man who fully realizes his innate gifts, but only through rigorous discipline—to convince my students that they can learn to distinguish information from noise, differentiate the red herring from the important clue, and synthesize seemingly unrelated spheres of knowledge. I hope to help them see that they are capable of reading evidence, just as Holmes encourages Watson to decipher a man’s identity from his hat:

“I can see nothing,” said I, handing it back to my friend.

“On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in your inferences.”

To be sure, this is no easy task. My students are of a generation deluged from the very start by enormous quantities of unfiltered information swirling in a virtual world. Yet, as Holmes reveals again and again, even in the absence of perfect knowledge, one can learn what to look for, where to find it, and how to make sense of one’s discoveries. Think of the police inspector in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” who marvels that Holmes has located a bullet hole in a window sash:

“By George!” cried the Inspector.

“How ever did you see that?”

“Because I looked for it.”

Both men have access to the same field of evidence, but only one knows how to coax a story from it. That is the point of foils like inspectors Lestrade and Gregson, who can assemble the basic facts of a case yet lack Holmes’s powers of analysis and synthesis.

What Holmes—not Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character, but this creation that almost from its birth seemed to outstrip the imagination of its creator—seems to have mastered is a certain mental agility. Another term for this attribute might be “operational adaptability,” one of the keynotes of U.S. Army doctrine in recent years. As General Martin E. Dempsey, leader of Training and Doctrine Command, explains in his Foreword to the most recent Army Capstone Concept, developing leaders who possess “operational adaptability,” and are therefore “comfortable operating under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty,” requires the cultivation of “a mindset based on flexibility of thought.”

Perhaps “flexibility of thought” is not an aptitude historically associated with the military mind—tenacity, maybe, but not a Holmesian suppleness. Yet this ability to use what one knows in order to see what others cannot is precisely the power that future military officers preparing to operate in complex, volatile environments need. There is, after all, almost nothing that is not useful to such work.

In Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes accomplishes his feats of mental agility in ways that sometimes befuddle an observer like Dr. Watson, who reports that his friend’s intellectual motor often requires the lubrication of music. Playing the violin helps Holmes to think clearly and to work out complex puzzles. As I discover frequently with my students, you never know what someone’s violin is—what secret, out-of-the way, seemingly irrelevant knowledge or skill animates the whole.

When I told one of my students that Holmes is my superhero of the moment, he gently suggested that, technically speaking, the detective is more akin to an “action hero” because his powers, while astounding, are not superhuman. This student has been schooling me for several months now in the subtleties of superheroes and superpowers while he writes a senior thesis on comic books. Yet he didn’t always want to write about comic books; or, more precisely, he didn’t always know he could write about them.

Last spring, when we began to discuss the project, he told me he wanted to write about heroism in American literature, a rich, dizzyingly broad topic. During our conversation, as we attempted to define cultural heroes and anti-heroes, I had occasion to mention Batman (and thereby nearly to exhaust my knowledge of comic books). But I had inadvertently opened an encyclopedia, and I soon realized that my student had been unintentionally concealing a wealth of information in fact directly related to his interest in American heroes. He had not sufficiently valued this private storehouse of information or imagined the ways in which it intersected with what he thought of as a discrete academic pursuit.

Now, my student is teaching me the difference between the golden age and the contemporary comic-book industry, between powers accidently acquired and powers with which one is born, between Sgt. Fury and The ’Nam. And a young man who seemed initially a bit reluctant to disclose this arcane knowledge is discovering, as I hope all my students one day might, that his “brain-attic,” as Holmes would put it, is rather smartly furnished.

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.