October 15, 2010

Cocaine a metaphor for empire? Elementary, my dear Watson

South African author and academic Jane Taylor, a visiting fellow of creative writing, spoke on the connection between Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, poison, and colonization in Classics Monday.

The Holmes series had a subtext of imperialistic ventures, Taylor said. Poison represents the infiltration of a system in the Holmes series, she said.

The scars on Holmes’s body­—due to his cocaine addiction—were “a metaphor for the permanent frontier between the colonized and the colonists.”

Poisons from Africa and Southeast Asia were introduced into British society at the same time Holmes, who had an extensive knowledge of poisons, was writing, according to Taylor.

“The Victorian imagination was deeply engaged with the problem of poison: how to detect it, how to classify it, how to control it, even at times, how to use its seductions,” Taylor said.

Taylor said Conan Doyle’s writings began a “new regime of empirical knowledge.” A large portion of the lecture was devoted to a comparison of Holmes and Hamlet.

“What I am considering here is not simply the representation between two literary figures. What I am interested in here is the practice of forensic sciences in Western culture and literature. During the 15th century, the conception of evidence as we understand it was yet to be invented. Trials were by fire and water, where body became the evidence,” she said.

Taylor also discussed the influence of Doyle’s works on Freud and the psychology of poison.

Second-year comparative literature major Anastasia Klimchynskaya said the talk was fascinating. “I’ve always liked Sherlock Holmes and literature,” she said. “I like the connections between Holmes and Hamlet. I’d never thought of that.”