naive v. ironic distinction is… just annoying

Sorry for the hiatus.  In a flash of nostalgia for my previous life in Spain, I ran a google search for “Sherlock Holmes Madrid,” not expecting to find something so relevant to our class.  It’s funny to see “Jack the Ripper” translated as Juanito el Charcutero, which literally means Johnny (which is, I guess, a way of saying Jack) the Pork Butcher.  But anyway, I found a dismally reviewed, for-profit Sherlock Holmes movie… from Spain.  It’s called Holmes and Watson, Madrid Days, and it follows Holmes and Watson as they hunt down Jack the Ripper in Madrid.  I don’t understand why the title is in English,  when all the dialogue is in Spanish.  The film garnered a 4.2 rating on IMDB, and received at least one pretty bad review.  Don’t understand Spanish?  Don’t worry; “lamentable” in Spanish means… “lamentable.”  And that’s the description that the critic gave the trailer, at least.  From what I can see, the movie seems just an excuse to show shots of the Buen Retiro Park (incidentally, last year I used to live just about five minutes away from here).  Another funny review has a title that can be translated into “Holmes Discovers [the classic regional] Stew of Madrid.” And indeed, check out the hilarious trailer, in which the men, for some inexplicable reason, are sitting in a candle-lit Turkish bath with a towel across their loins (~0:47).

Aside from that funny tidbit, for this week’s blogpost, I am going to rant a little.  A lot of things irritated me about Michael Saler’s article, “‘Clap if you Believe in Sherlock Holes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity.” I got the overall message of the article loud and clear, since Saler seems to repeat his main point over and over and over and over again: Sherlock Holmes’s appeal lies in his ability to use the rationale stressed by modernity to find enchantment in every day life, which we readers are all capable of doing as well.  This resonates just fine with me, as it syncs quite nicely with the way I live my own life.  Except my version of finding enchantment in reality specifically involves people, which means that I will use (and have used) my detective skills to figure out certain details about the people who intrigue me, so that I can figure out the way to best amuse myself with this information…

Anyway.  Aside from my Holmes-like ability to deduct information about the people in my life, I am also a big-time reader, as you might have gathered from my previous posts.  That’s not to say that I read a lot, but mostly that I stake my identity on being a reader.  And while I do stake an enormous portion of my identity as a reader, I just cannot understand or stand the readers featured in Saler’s article.

First and foremost, I do not understand the easy distinction that Saler creates between “naive” and “ironic” believers of Sherlock Holmes.  It is very obvious to me which of the two Saler values more.  According to the scholar, the “naive” reader of Homes “genuinely believed that Holmes and Watson were real” (609) — how laughable!!!  So these were the types of folks that would write letters to a Mr. Sherlock Holmes for help with various things, including financial assistance.  Saler tells us of the trends in publishing that might have led “less sophisticated” (611) readers, largely from working class backgrounds, that would lead to such a phenomenon.  Just because layers and layers of authorship are involved — after all, Doyle writes in the voice of Watson, who relates his experiences with Holmes in a supposed private diary, that readers finally see — I can see how readers might believe that Watson’s diary is a true account of interactions with a true Holmes.  So these people believe that a living, breathing, needle-marked Holmes walked the streets of London.  Okay.  Fine.

But Saler talks again and again of the “ironic” believers.  And I don’t understand this notion.  What does it mean to be an “ironic” believer?  Either you believe, or you don’t.  You either believe in the existence of Sherlock Holmes, or you don’t.  You believe that he is a living, breathing person, walking down the streets of London — or you don’t.  Do I believe in Santa Claus?  No.  Do I wish he existed?  Sure.  Can I pretend that he does?  Okay.  Does that make me an “ironic believer” of Santa Claus?  No — it makes me a sad, wishful person.
The “ironic” readers, according to Saler, “pretended that Holmes was real — but for whom this pretence was so earnest that the uninitiated might not recognize it as pretence. . . . But the tenor of ironists’ writings changed over time, from outright parodies to more solemn, quasi-scholarly investigations.”  Key word in Saler’s definition is “pretend.”  These folks — who are clearly more educated and have more leisure time than the aforementioned “naive” readers — go around pretending, and they pretend so much that other people become confused.
While Saler seems to value the latter type of reader, I’d rather side with the “naive” type.  Because at least the naive readers do not go around making other people feel bad. The ironic readers are disrespectful!  Towards the author of the character they love so dearly, in fact.  As we learn in this article, Doyle-as-author is so neglected by these Sherlock Holmes devotees, that when Doyle’s son, Denis, attended a Baker Street Irregulars dinner in 1940, he was alarmed to see that his father’s name was not mentioned even once at this Sherlock Holmes Lovers Fest, as the members spoke of Holmes instead as a real man.  But Denis was reassured by a member that “this was the highest compliment an author could obtain: not even Shakespeare created characters that were seen as more real than their creator.” (617)
Really?  Readers like these are why people hate English majors.

sad boy

My eyes were quite pleased upon seeing Johnson’s name everywhere in the Trumpener reading.

Because my impressions of Johnson were formed a long time ago – shall I say I was brainwashed? – and they are nestled amidst very pleasant memories in my brain.  Of collegiate possibility, of mentorship.  Or new learning, New England.

And because of all these positive associations, I can just ignore things I don’t like.  As a result, I can feel vaguely indifferent upon reading, over and over again, that Johnson’s travel-guide-of-sorts through the Hebrides was, in effect, a racist diatribe against the Scottish.  (It’s bad to be racist.)

Instead I’ll focus on the things that feel right, like the following quote, which just seems like harmless, straightforward description of the era:

One “of the first full-dress professional men of letter,” Johnson “is both grandly generalizing sage and ‘proletarianized’ hack.”  With its enforced, continual productivity in a multiplicity of genres, his career typifies the tenuous livelihood of professional literati in a commercial society.  Yet Johnson’s philosophical prose style and his elaboration, in Lives of the Poets, of a new, biographically based account of authorship (which insists on the links between an author’s life experience and his poetic production, and on the power of art to transcend even tragic material circumstances) work to counter the effects of the market.  79

This quotation contains quite a bit.  It describes “authorial intent” as one of those literary preoccupations frequently associated with the 18th century.  It expounds that a focus on authorial intent was directly in opposition against the rapid change of 18th century Britain, which entailed explosive growth and an increasing commodification of just about everything, definitely including literature.  The fact that Thomas Chatterton represented a youthful, rustic idealism – he was from Bristol – that was shattered by the disappointment of London’s rejection made the young poet a darling of the Romanticists.  Wordsworth and Keats both loved him; and he became forever immortalized in this beauty of a painting.

I have to admit that it has been very difficult for me to judge the few Chatterson pieces I’ve read, because old spellings really throw me off, and as a result, I find myself unable to speak to the talent that is supposedly inherent within his Rowley poems. Criticism here and there will tell me why the Rowley poems are so good – (ever the authority) tells me that “Chatteron’s Rowley uses language to convey a reality not of cognition but of the imagination. His verse, whether dramatic or lyrics, excels in its sense of occasion, physicality, color, and incantation” – but truth be told, I can’t make sense of this.

What I do notice, however, is how many of the criticism pieces talk about Chatterton’s personality.  I’m not citing them right now out of laziness (sorry), but right off the top of my head, the words most frequently associated with him have been: pride, pride, fame, precocity, tragedy, poverty, pride.  It’s only the apologetic view of Chatterton that would claim that he wasn’t terribly interested in fame, but rather in the beauty of the work alone, which would supposedly explain why he decided to share the credit for his own poems with the persona of the 15th century monk, Rowley (who, pay attention people, has the same first name as Chatterton!).  But I think that by designating Rowley as the rightful author of some of these poems, Chatterton is actually able to claim for himself double the glory – as both discoverer of the Rowley manuscripts, and as translator.

But I can hypothesize all I want, as can all the rest of the scholars.  Thomas Tyrwhitt published Poems, supposed to have been written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and Others, in the Fifteenth Century (talk about a creative title) in 1777; Warton included substantial chunks of “Rowley’s” work in his 1781 History of English Poetry.  I think the existent narrative about Chatterton, the tragic tortured genius, is just that – a narrative – because he never had the opportunity to define himself apart from his early death in 1770.

I can read Johnson how I want, and the world over will carry on postulating, as it will, about Chatterton.