I’ve been very impressed by the BBC’s modern recreation of Sherlock Holmes as Benedict Cumberbatch. What struck me today was how he successfully unites in one character traits that provoke our admiration and censure.
We look up to him as a paragon of detective excellence, effortlessly piecing together the parts of a fiendishly complex puzzle and cracking the “impossible” case. We’re awed by his leaps of logic that leave others flummoxed and wondering why they couldn’t think of that. In terms of pure, raw intelligence, he is breathlessly exciting and stunningly triumphant.
Yet, we simultaneously feel superior, even look down on him, as socially incompetent: crassly denigrating those who should be his closest friends and deserve a level of respect. His stinging put downs make us wince. His cruel “using” of others, particularly females who are deeply attracted to him, in order to further his own ends, is reprehensible and a clear character flaw.
Surely, this melange is what makes viewing the drama so compulsive? If he was merely one or the other, we would quickly lose interest, but because he can simultaneously cut the Gordian knot of any crime scene and Medusa-like freeze others to stone, we wait eagerly to see what he will do next. Of course, Sherlock is definitely not a villain – he is too committed to using his powers for good and implacably resists the temptations of evil, which is obviously crucial in retaining our sympathy.
So, I struggle to think of any other hero who holds in tension such extremes. Can you think of any? What do you think of Sherlock Holmes?