Literary Portraits IV. Conan Doyle
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Literary Portraits IV. Conan Doyle is an article written by Haldane MacFall, published in The Canadian Magazine in august 1904.
Literary Portraits IV. Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has the prize-fighting conception of life — he estimates man by his brute pluck, his so-called sporting instincts, and by the acute cunning that he brings to the game. The wide universe, with its vasty significance, passes before his eyes, that are wholly indifferent to it except in its eternal warfare for the survival of the fittest; it is the bugle alone that calls him to attention. And yet, to show how large a part this fighting instinct plays in the human imagination, his work is perhaps amongst the best known of any living writer's in our England of to-day. There is scarce a man, woman or child but knows whom you mean if you speak of Sherlock Holmes.
Now, make no mistake about it, that is a very triumphant thing to say of any man's creation; it is to say that he has created a world-type. Sherlock Holmes is known also in nearly every foreign tongue of Europe. And this is all the more remarkable when we remember that Conan Doyle's stories of Sherlock Holmes are largely devoid of literary style; there is no grip of the music or rhythm or other emotional quality that makes of prose a splendid art; and there is little grip of character — not a single character besides Sherlock Holmes lives in the memory — he simply creates a cunning fighting human machine, who talks the story through its narrative length. Of the pulsing life and thrilling blood, of the live bone and the sensitive flesh, moved by the breath of subtle emotions that make of the body a live human entity, there is small trace. The manner of writing is bald as a guard-report, as unquickened as a statute-book ; the descriptions as unimpassioned as an inventory. But always there is that statement of the eternal warfare of life; and though that statement is not a full and true statement of life, it is an obvious part of life, and a part that lies at the base of every human instinct.
The reason that it is not an artistic statement of life is due to two facts: Conan Doyle has not that sense of the musical quality of words to transfer emotion; he tells everything in exactly the same manner, whether it be love, or war, or anger, or sighs, or thunder, or whispers-everything is in the same word-colour. Secondly, in his survey of life, he sees only the struggle of brute strength and of intellectual strength; and the man who can see no further into life than that cannot see life in its fulness.
It is, of course, absolutely true that the fittest survive. It is as absolutely true that the struggle is eternal to be the fittest. And it is to a certain extent true that the prize-fighter and the swash-buckler breed courage for the struggle of the race. But they do not breed the best sort of courage. And if it comes to that, the man of meanest physique with a revolver in his hand is the master in the death-grip with the most powerful prize-fighter ever bred, In fact, this worship of prize-fighting, this over-rating of what is called sport, is not only disproportionate to the value of essential manhood; but, what is far more serious, it breeds the lowest form of the community — the crowd that goes to see others fight, always a low tribe.
It is true that the fittest survive in the mighty struggle for life. The Best are the Fittest. But — mark the law! — it is not the individual that survives to attain the mastery, but the race. Thus, even if you were the most exclusive and aristocratic of apes, tracing your lineage to the first ape — nay, even to your uttermost beginnings in the ooze, you would go under the heel of, and become subject to, the most rude bucolic community of men; and this, though ape to man, you had the greater body's strength, the deeper conceit, the fiercer wish to slay. The master people must be strong of body; but it is not enough. If strength of body made the overlords of the world, then the lion and the tiger would have been overlord to man, and the negro would have overborne the white man. But man's brain wrought the knit brotherhood of the clan, and weapons and wondrous defence, and the science of war; so that the brute force of the lion and the tiger went down before the lesser brute force that was guided by higher cunning than theirs; and the brain's strength came to be above the body's strength; so that the fierce courage of Mahomet's black legions that charge out of the desert withers and they are mown down like grass before the level fire and the ordered volleys of the white troops.
But the cunning of the intellect is not enough. It is clear that a man may have giant's strength of body and be in brain a giant, and yet be an utter criminal; and were these forces to determine the position of the master race he would, as a matter of fact, reach the master place in proportion to his criminality and his ruthlessness. A race, then, may be strong of body and strong in cunning; but, foot to foot with such as are of the like strength of body and cunning, it will go down before the overlordship of such as are strong in conduct, for the close-knit faith and trust of a race in its fellows must overthrow a race of which the members seek but their own individual advantage — conduct being one's relation to the others in the community. And he that has not discipline, he who debauches his powers and makes license of his body's gifts, and loosely scatters his brain's will, falls to inevitable disease of his faculties. His nerve grows weak, and the will, which is at the centre of life, grows enfeebled and melts to water, so that he arouses ill-will and contempt amongst his companions; and the enmity of the commonweal blots him out.
The master people, then, must be strong of thew, but stronger still in thinking, and stronger still in conduct and in will; but, even so, these are not enough, for the will that acts against the conscience becomes but a bully's strength, and will reel before it finish. It is through the conscience that man shall achieve purification in his search, which is the eternal search, for the godhood within him that leads to the fullest life. For instinct is the mystic centre of life, and conscience is the clean guide of instinct, to lead it to the mastery; and the conscience will get through where the unspurred body's strength would fail. That race will be the overlords of the earth which is spiritually the strongest, together with the strongest conscience and the strongest will to act its noblest instincts, in the strongest body, with the clearest intellect.
The master race may not ignore any of these sources of strength, and the failure of the one will lead to the weakening of the others. To the greatest race Life gives its force and its wisdom — not to the rich, but to the alert; not to the arrogant, but to the ready; not to the paltry and self-seeking after ease, but to the noble and the united and the strong, to the clean-hearted, the vigorous of soul. And they that fall away from the potentialities of the godhood that is in them fall below and take rank beneath, according to the measure of their insignificance, breed by breed, nation by nation.
So that a people's strength shall be in the number of its splendid companions. Hate turns the blood to blackness and the will sour, and kills the body's clean nourishment; but the merry heart makes the body's health. The masterfolk have good-will for their breath, and are a jovial folk and bland. Your surly man of aloofness and of mystery deceives but himself and other fools — and the honour of fools is not worth the reaping. The masterfolk do not, in their secret aspirations, long that their companions may be less than they — the masterfolk seek companionship only with the masterfolk, and their pride is in the strength of their splendid companions. To pine for the strong man over them is the mark of the weakness of the slave-folk.
But if a man have not the strength for many companions, let him reject first the weakest — the vigorous of body before the resolute of still — the resolute of will before the upright in honour — the loyal last of all. For the spirit will go through the scorch of trial where the body would but burn. And Conan Doyle, in some vague measure, feels this mighty truth, even whilst he belauds and cries "Worry!" to the prize-fighter and the cunning within us. His historical romances are, in a fashion, more artistic in the phrasing than his Sherlock Holmes; but we forget them, they die out of the memory. It is in Sherlock Holmes that his repute will live. And Sherlock Holmes, for all his physicat courage, for all his elaborate cunning, when the lust of fight is not upon him, for his recreation and his soul's stimulant has to fall back upon the hypodermic syringe and cocaine! So some mighty Clive conquers India and — drowns life in a drug bottle. So some Napoleon conquers the world and — fumes his life away in childish complaints in St. Helena. And so many a man who passes before our eyes to-day in conceit of intellect goes to a stealthy drowning of his genius in a wine-bottle.