Thursday’s discussion concerning elitism got me thinking. In class, I contrasted the order and purpose of the detective novel with the seeming purposelessness of Ulysses. Detective novels are accessible and predictable, even though they often succeed in surprising us. Ulysses, alongside many of the other modernist texts published in The Little Review, is difficult and incredibly intimidating for readers of all sorts. Given Margaret Anderson’s attitude in “Ulysses in Court,” it’s not surprising that many people are angered by the inherent elitism of her magazine and its literary offerings. But Margaret Anderson reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous fictional detective of all time. They both have superior intellectual capacities that set them apart from the general public, they are both driven and obsessive in pursuit of their goals, and they both make others feel ignorant and inferior. So why is it that we hate Margaret Anderson (and the modernist texts she supports) but we love Sherlock Holmes? In my opinion, the distinction comes down to motive (not, as a friend suggested, substance abuse).
Holmes’ actions may be motivated by his own arrogance–each case is yet another chance to prove his intelligence–but he is also driven by his desire to solve the puzzle at hand. We, the readers, as well as his fellow characters, share in this desire: we also want to know what it all means.
In contrast, the motives of Anderson and her fellow modernists are far less clear. Any attempt to consider them inevitably leads me to grand, far too challenging questions on the nature of art. What is it? What is it for? What should it look/sound/taste like? Such questions are just as baffling as any mystery Arthur Conan Doyle can cook up. In fact, they are far more intimidating because they remain unresolved.
Which leads to the next facet of Holmes’ motives: restoring order. This is just another way of saying solving the puzzle, but it has wider consequences for the readership/public. Each detective novel begins when our calm, familiar world is disrupted by a baffling, often grisly crime. The only way we can restore our sense of order, peace, justice, and safety is to keep reading and look for answers. Conan Doyle’s novels, part of the Great Detective sub-genre, don’t assume fair play, so there is very little chance that we the readers can independently solve these mysteries. We have to put our trust in the intelligence and competency of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, no matter how much he may challenge our own confidence by proving us to be ignorant and unobservant, always succeeds in solving the mystery and restoring order to our world, reassuring us once again.
The Little Review has no such goal. Joyce’s writing disrupts our ordered, familiar world through its innovative and unpredictable techniques. We discussed in class how even savvy scholars like ourselves need guides–annotations, secondary sources, professors–to tackle the overwhelming task of reading Ulysses and emerging with our sanity and confidence in tact. Further, when we reach the end, there will be no clean, elegant resolution like the ones Holmes provides. That is not the kind of ending Anderson and Joyce would create and its not the kind of ending their desired readership should expect. These people–they publish writing that unsettles our familiar worldview, flesh it out with obscene behaviour, and refuse to explain themselves.
What Holmes has going for him is that, intentionally or not, he uses his intellectual superiority for good instead of art. He repeatedly proves that reason triumphs over chaos. Modernist art, particularly Ulysses, actively disrupts or disproves a logical, rational worldview. The carefully ordered thought process that Holmes relates to Watson again and again radically differs from the stream of consciousness style that Joyce employs. What is most intimidating of all is the acknowledgement that the modernist view, with its disarrayed thoughts, obscure philosophical problems, and unsolved crimes, is more in line with our lived reality. Perhaps this is why the most contemporary Sherlock Holmes series, BBC’s Sherlock, presents an unresolved ending that has left audiences in confusion and suspense, and ending more appropriate for a society that has undergone the modernism and post-modernism. But then again, we all know Holmes will come back and explain it all.