Did Sherlock Holmes Have Asperger Syndrome?
Does Conan Doyle teach us as much as Sigmund Freud?
Posted Oct 13, 2011
"Mrs. Hudson, you're underfoot!"
Sherlock Holmes's long-suffering landlady and housekeeper often saw, at close range, how impatient, insensitive, inconsiderate, and indifferent he could be with people.
His obsessive interest in the craft of crime-solving crowded out almost everything else from his life, including the possibility of warm and reciprocal relationships. His colleague Dr. John Watson was the only person privileged to share his personal space, with the possible exception of his brother Mycroft. And the relationship with Watson was bounded to that of wizard and apprentice.
His remarkable powers of observation, memory, relational thinking, and deduction made him a master of his craft, but he was famously incapable of relating to people as other than actors to be analyzed and explained.
These three core characteristics have led many to speculate that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his creator, had — more or less unconsciously — diagnosed him with what's now known as Asperger (or Asperger's) Syndrome.
But wait — we're not talking about a real person here. Holmes was a fictional character, created for the amusement of Londoners in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods. How can a fictional person be diagnosed with a developmental disorder?
To that, I say: So much has been written and said about him that he may as well have been a real person. We know more about Holmes the person than virtually any real historical figure, including Queen Victoria. In parallel, even if Jesus Christ didn't actually exist, so much is believed about him that he might as well have.
People of the modern age, including to some extent those in England, usually don't appreciate the grand scope of Holmes's presence in England of the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was the Elvis Presley, the Michael Jackson, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his age, all rolled into one. When Conan Doyle decided to kill him off in one of his episodes—which were serialized in London's "The Strand" newspaper—the public outcry and lament were deafening. None other than Queen Victoria wrote him a note urging him to bring Holmes back, almost as a patriotic obligation. He did.
And, judging by the pace of the conversations within and between the various Sherlock Holmes historical societies and fan clubs, he's as good as real. Their debates about the Asperger question are ongoing and diverse.
My purpose here is not to join those debates. I won't mind if the question is never settled. But beyond the immediate question, I see a fascinating proposition: The best writers down through history may have taught us as much about human nature as have our psychologists.
In fiction writing, it's called "characterization" — the art of elaborating the psychological make-up of a person as a distinct, recognizable, and believable personality package. Astute fiction writers, and even comedy writers, speak of a "character key," by which they mean a particular personality quirk, a flaw, a gift, an attitude, a driving purpose or value, or an unusual behavior that defines the character as unique and recognizable in the mind of the reader or viewer.
Holmes had two memorable character keys, each one needed to make the other believable: his keen, almost eerie power of observation, analysis, and deduction; and his utter indifference to the messy aspects of "human nature." Once the author builds the character, he or she uses these character keys to enable the reader to recognize and place the character within any given context. It's a cardinal sin amongst skilled authors to "mess with" a character once it's established.
So, how did Conan Doyle manage to craft this character over 100 years ago, considering that the Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Hans Asperger didn't show up to propose the syndrome until 1944?
Well, for starters, Conan Doyle had several of the elements of the character in his own experience, and possibly in his own head. He was a brilliant intellectual, educated at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. He became a physician, which placed him in frequent contact with the whole spectrum of normal and abnormal people.
And, he probably had a very useful role model, in his old university professor Joseph Bell. Conan Doyle reportedly wrote to Bell, "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes. Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man." The Wikipedia biography of Conan Doyle indicates that his old school mate Robert Louis Stevenson immediately recognized Bell as the character model for Holmes as he read the stories in faraway Samoa.
Conan Doyle was also a super-achiever—a polymath—proficient in many sports, keen to travel the world, and willing to relocate in the service of his developing career. Holmes was often characterized as wiry, unusually strong, and agile when dire circumstances demanded it.
As a writer as well as a trained scientist, I often ask: Is fiction really fiction? Is our knowledge of human beings limited to the truths we discover in research laboratories, or would we be better advised to think of all of life as the laboratory?
Sigmund Freud and Conan Doyle did their best work at about the same time. Which of those thinkers, and their intellectual descendents, have taught us more about people?
According to Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama: "Who can say which will be more important in the end: Landing on the moon or understanding the human mind?"