Critical Inquiries are not Settled by Consulting the Oracle, or
The Show Going on in Our Heads
I’ve had many comments recently that I “read too much into things” so I decided to do a little meta about the joys and sorrows of ”The Intentional Fallacy.” The concept of the Intentional Fallacy appears in a 1954 essay by two literary critics, Wimsatt and Beardsley. Simply put, the intentional fallacy swims around the ideas that 1) a work can only be judged a success the author achieved what he intended to do and 2) we can actually know what an author intends. How to judge the quality of a work is not a question that usually interests me but their essay raises key issues for fannish readers. I’m going to focus on the question of who gets to decide what Sherlock means. Wimsatt and Beardsley give us good advice in the end. “Critical inquires,” they tell us, “are not settled by consulting the oracle.” In other words it’s not up to the creators of Sherlock to tell us what Sherlock means. In fact, they actually cannot.
So Johnlockers, don’t be upset about Martin’s comments below:
…Your longtime partner Amanda Abbington plays Watson’s love interest, Mary Morstan, in the upcoming series of Sherlock – which, of course, doesn’t bode well for the perceived romance between Watson and Sherlock. Some fans were so distraught they tweeted her death threats.
It’s ridiculous. To me, they’re not fans of the show – they’re fans of a show going on their heads. Obviously I love Amanda and I want everyone to react positively to her; she plays a fantastic character and brings a hell of a lot to the third series. If people want to imagine John and Sherlock fucking they’re more than welcome to, but it will have no bearing on what we do in the show.
-Martin Freeman (x)
This doesn’t mean that Johnlock isn’t canon. It simply means that one creator (a lead actor) thinks that John/Sherlock has nothing to do with the show. He may be right insofar as what happens plot wise in the script but there is much, much more that makes meaning in a television show than plot.
from “The Intentional Fallacy" by Wimsatt and Beardsley
The poem Sherlock is not the critic’s own and not the author’s creators’ (it is detached from the author creators at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem Sherlock belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, Sherlock Holmes, an object of public knowledge.
What I want to emphasize here is that neither Mofftisson nor Ben nor Martin— not any of them is the definitive source of what Sherlock actually means.
The viewer (or the meta writer!) MAKES meaning out of the textual evidence in Sherlock. One kind of evidence for the meaning of a work is, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley:
…discovered through the semantics and syntax of
a poem Sherlock, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general through all that makes a language and culture…
Meaning is created not only by the dictionary sense of words, but what those words mean in culture (thus the underwear/pants problem) and how they’re said and in what context. Syntax matters. Film grammar matters. Props, objects on the set mean things on their own (a harpoon) but that changes when viewed in relationship to other objects or people (a harpoon pointed at Mrs. Hudson) on set. So what the camera records— objects, gestures, the intonation of an actor’s voice, the motif of a character’s theme song, all contribute to meaning but just as important is the syntax of the medium, of film— cuts, shots, edits in the film, the filters used on the camera, as well as the grammar of the soundtrack and on and on. Every element of Sherlock shimmers with significance.
For W&B a second kind of evidence for meaning is
…not a part of the work as a linguistic fact: it consists of revelations (
in journals, on blogs for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why t he poet Mofftiss wrote t he poem‑to what lady Sherlock for what audience, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother.
Moffat famously said once that he doesn’t write Doctor Who for Doctor Who fans. That is a secondary kind of evidence as to the show’s meaning. I use that kind of evidence A LOT for my metas because I find it fun to explore what the author, Moftiss, reports what they mean about Sherlock versus what’s actually in Sherlock. Sometimes, to prove a point to an audience who cares very much about definitive evidence I’ll play into the fallacy and say ok— EVEN Moffat says this is what he meant to say. People find that powerful and definitive but I use it as a discursive gimmick.
W&B offer us a third kind of evidence
…an intermediate kind of evidence about the character of
the author Mofftiss or about private or semiprivate meanings attached to words or topics by an author Mofftiss or by a coterie of which he is a member The BBC. The meaning of words is the history of words, and the biography of an author, Mofftiss his their use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him them, are part of the words history and meaning.
That’s why I find The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes so interesting— it’s a way to code and decode Gatiss’s erotics with regard to Sherlock Holmes— his own private, or semi-private meanings.
So I’m not going to go into the W&B essay any further or explore what’s problematic about it or worry too much about the nuances of what they meant. (See what I did there?) They gave us words and concepts with which we can make sense of how we make meaning.
The good news is there is PLENTY of evidence for Johnlock. There will always be evidence because everyone— EVERYONE agrees that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson love each other. Whatever THAT means.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.
Makes me feel a little better about being in the johnlock fandom, which as of late, has unfortunately been tarnished by the shitty bunch sending out death threats to all and sundry