Sherlock Holmes in the Prism of Borges

by Suzanne Jill Levine

I couldn’t help viewing with Borgesian bifocals Guy Ritchie’s latest “avatar” of super thinker Holmes played by a louche neurotic Robert Downey Jr. whose dependable sidekick Dr. Watson is updated by an edgy Jude Law, the best looking Watson to-date. The good doctor in this version threatens out of exasperation to abandon but still stands loyal (like his staunch original) to his cocaine-addicted comrade. These current reincarnations of the famous pair are far sexier and more physical—veritable James Bonds of the fist and the gun, with a taste for the ladies—than Conan Doyle’s restrained if jocular Victorian duo. There is also an explicit homo edge—Downey interprets Holmes as a rakish dandy when he’s not hallucinating or fiddling—as when the two men meet with the doctor’s fiancée (whoever thought of Watson as the marrying kind?) whom Downey succeeds in alienating. After all, she gets between him and his handsome pal at the Royale, Oscar Wilde’s favorite Cafe.

In his own stories Borges improved on the mechanical duality of Conan Doyle’s complementary doubles who, in Borges’ view, were merely replaying another gimmicky twosome, idealistic Don Quixote and earthy sidekick Sancho Panza. Interestingly, Guy Ritchie’s version (Holmes’s nemesis played by a sinister Mark Strong has a Draculesque touch) dilutes the complementarity by making hero and sidekick more identical, adding a dab of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The doubles multiply with the chick-flick addition of two ladies, the doctor’s aforementioned fiancée and Holmes’s love interest, a seductress/villain played by Rachel McAdams (at the service of evil Moriarty) who is a double agent, obeying her menacing employer yet yielding to the charms of Downey’s Holmes, taking her cues perhaps from Bond’s Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

Getting back to Borges: the film is a veritable amalgam of the detective genre so dear to Borges who paid homage to it with his ‘Death and the Compass’—a tale of two with one homo-suicidal mind. Indeed its most Borgesian dimension is its borrowings from Poe, Christie and most especially G.K. Chesterton’s ‘nightmare’ titled The Man Who Was Thursday: the film’s climactic scene occurs in Parliament, suggesting Chesterton’s vast political conspiracy which turns out to be the work of one man with many masks. Chesterton’s Catholic touch doubtlessly helps paint a dark foreboding London as a nightmarish labyrinth whose center is occult.

The match between Holmes and Moriarty is between reason and magic: science battles against the supernatural as rapid fire foreshadowings and explanations incessantly sweep the narrative back, forth, and around each crime. Endless repetitions of plot and characterization, spiraling variations transcend the individual—detective and criminal are potentially interchangeable in an ongoing cycle that also transcends this film. Whether or not they recognize it, Borges has possessed the unconscious of filmmakers and spectators alike, this spectator, certainly.

Suzanne Jill Levine is a leading translator and scholar of Latin American literature, whose publications include The Subversive Scribe, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, and hundreds of contributions to major anthologies and journals including the New Yorker, and over 20 volumes of translations of the most original writing from Latin America. A professor at the University of California, her many honors include National Endowment for the Arts and NEH fellowship and research grants, the first PEN USA West Prize for Literary Translation, the PEN American Center Career Achievement award, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. She is currently general editor of five volumes of the works of Borges for Penguin Classics.


Resa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Resa said...

I wouldn't think it would be a problem to think of Watson as the marrying kind; he married Mary Morstan (who was actually a client of Holmes') in the stories. Note also the "gypsy" scene: "brothers not in blood but in bond."

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