7/12/10 - sir arthur conan doyle

In today's excerpt - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In later life, Conan Doyle converted completely to 'spiritualism,' rejecting the rational and consulting mediums to visit with the dead. The backdrop for his spiritualism was his father's own desperate alcoholism, and the death of his brother and son in the horror of World War I:

"Arthur Conan Doyle's books strike the reader as part of a (possibly unconscious) project—a series of attempts to articulate systems of thought which might make sense of the chaos of life and the human condition ('this circle of misery and violence and fear', as Holmes puts it in 'The Cardboard Box'). First comes the ratiocination of Baker Street, inspired by the techniques of Conan Doyle's old university teacher Dr. Joseph Bell (who, in 1892, reviewed the original Holmes adventures, calling his former clerk 'a born story-teller'), then extreme patriotism (in 1899, [George] Bernard Shaw boasted that he had converted Conan Doyle from 'Christmas-card pacifism to rampant jingoism') and, finally, the magical world-view of spiritualism, a philosophy which could render even the slaughter of the Great War explicable. In 1914, Conan Doyle was praising the 'glorious spectacle' of mass enlistment and imagining that 'our grandchildren will thrill as they read of the days that we endure'. Twelve years later, following the deaths of his brother and his eldest son, he had come to see the trenches as 'God's first warning to mankind' ('ten million young men were laid dead upon the ground . . . twice as many were mutilated'), even claiming to be glad that his son was killed ('am I not far nearer to my son than if he were alive . . . ?'). Spurning 'Victorian science' for having 'left the world hard and clean and bare, like a landscape in the moon', the doctor was reduced to arguing that 'have always held that people insist too much upon direct proof'. ...

"The figure behind much of this is surely Arthur's father, the artist Charles Altamont Doyle. A chronic alcoholic who, according to Andrew Lycett's biography Conan Doyle: The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes (2007), was sometimes to be found dragging 'himself around the floor . . . unable to remember his own name', and who, 'when nothing else was available . . . drank furniture varnish'. He spent the last twelve years of his life in an asylum, or 'Convalescent Home', as Arthur disguised it in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, where he wrote that the old man's 'thoughts were always in the clouds . . . he had no appreciation of the realities of life'. Russell Miller, another recent biographer, adduces Charles's confession to his doctor that he was 'getting messages from the unseen world' and also, significantly, his belief in fairies. ...

"When one thinks of Charles Altamont Doyle (who on occasion stripped off his clothes in the street with the intention of selling them to buy drink), ... It is as though Conan Doyle began his writing life by assuming a position which repudiated all of Charles's weaknesses, associating himself instead with the substitute father of Bell before gradually -- painfully -- giving himself over to a worldview that vindicated his parent's supposed insanity and which reduced Bell's rationalism to blinkered, pharisaical refusal to accept the truth."


Jonathan Barnes




The Times Literary Supplement


June 25, 2010


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