Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Inside Sherlock's mind palace

That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

(Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Study in Scarlet’)

It was an interesting choice, on the part of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, to make their Sherlock Holmes wired. In Conan Doyle’s original, Watson was frequently the eyes and ears of the detective, most notably perhaps in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which largely consists of reports sent by the doctor back to Baker Street. Now not only Holmes gets out of the house a lot – with the effect of making his assistant frankly quite irrelevant, other than as a comic foil, blog biographer and occasional dude in distress – but also intervenes on the outside world through his mobile phone (hello, Blackberry product placement) and queries the information networks to make sense of clues by means of his laptop.

The original Holmes, by contrast, had to rely mostly – if not solely – on his well-cultivated memory. In the famous passage in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ excerpted above, he describes the human mind to Watson as an empty attic to be carefully furnished. He explains:
A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.
As a consequence, Watson wryly observes upon first meeting Holmes that ‘his ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge’.

There is very little of that epic, deliberate forgetting left in the new Holmes. There are also interesting questions surrounding his actual need for information technology, since he appears to be carrying Google inside his head anyway. In ‘mind palace’ mode, as first evidenced in the episode The Hounds of Baskerville, Holmes is able to tap into a virtually limitless amount of information, and form semantic connections that would elude an ordinary search engine, were it to be interrogated in the customary way. The rather dull approach used to visualise this activity is to show Holmes standing in a room with his eyes closed, manually sorting through floating electronic text in a manner reminiscent of the console operated by Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

(From here on in, a global spoiler warning to the finale of series 3 applies.)

Of much greater effect is the dramatisation of the mind palace in the long sequence of His Last Vow in which Holmes gets shot in the chest and has to quickly mobilise all of his knowledge and intellectual resources in order to give himself the best chances to survive. As Watson had muttered to another non-playing character in Baskerville, Sherlock’s mind palace operates on the principle of the classical art of memory, that is to say by means of places or loci in which to deposit the things to be remembered within an intimately-known imagined architecture. In the episode, we actually get to visit the palace, which partly consists of the building in Baker Street (also symbolising safety) and partly of a series of locations hidden behind closed doors along a corridor. And because the particular knowledge to be retrieved is literally a matter of life or death, the urgency turns the palace into a memory theatre in the Renaissance tradition, in which to stage dramatically the knowledge process.

Impressive as the sequence is, the show’s best riff on the history of the arts of memory comes at the end of the episode, when Holmes learns to his dismay that the vast library of incriminating information held by his adversary in his sanctum at Appledore is in fact a mind palace even grander than his own; and that those glasses that he imagined to be cybernetically connected to a remote index of this library were in fact just an ordinary pair of glasses, put on and removed as a tic, or for effect. It is a very satisfying twist, which leaves Holmes utterly outdone: not only because the lack of a physical or digital archive means there is nothing for the secret service cavalry that he has summoned to seize, but also because he has been shown the proper use of a mind palace, which consists not in supplementing the technology, but replacing it.

The ancient art of memory inaugurated – as the legend goes – by the poet Simonides of Cheos, was conceived of and practised long after the invention of writing. By seeking to restore the primacy of the oral/visual mental faculty, it was a paradoxical attempt to do away with the technology altogether, as if nowadays somebody suggested taking up calligraphy as a replacement for word processing and computing. In filling up his ‘mind attic’ as if it walls really were elastic, contra Conan Doyle, the latest Holmes is possessing of a similar hubris. But he never takes it to its logical consequence by disconnecting from the networks altogether and taking up proper residence in his grandiosely furnished palace.

In a grimly disappointing resolution, Holmes’ response to this revelation is to shoot the villain in cold blood, thus sealing his own defeat. By destroying that brain, he has destroyed the mind palace within and every trace of the sinister and damaging information it contained, forever – but he has also extinguished an ancient cultural project that he himself cannot see through. What that act of violence ultimately signifies is how hard it is to come to terms with the idea of a mind unplugged.