Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part nineteen: sharing the mystery

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

“My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.” 
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
The character of Sherlock Holmes has been an icon to me since I was a child. It was not just his ability to solve crimes that captured my imagination, but that his need to do so was so personal. Conan Doyle understood this need in people to unravel mysteries, bit by bit, as an evolutionary process. Like many Victorians, Conan Doyle was fascinated by evolution and his own ideas of evolution can be discovered in his work. The Victorian age, too, was very much one of independent research and discovery.

We cannot see the Holmes character as someone wishing to free the world of crime for the good of the public. For Holmes, the lack of a crime to solve would have him reaching for the needle. Why would such a character pick crime as the means to exercise his mind? When he solves a crime, the story ends. He inductively gathers apparently disparate pieces of evidence and molds them into the only theory that can account for all of these details: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." Conan Doyle has him say. Then Holmes can move on to the next mystery.

If Homes had been cast not as a detective, but as an academic, the stories would not have worked: He probably would have only solved one mystery and having written this up as his Ph.D. thesis would then have perhaps decided to turn it into a book. Or it might serve as material for a number of lectures and subsequent papers on the same theme. His ambition and drive might have been expressed by seeking tenure at some university; he might have become involved in various forms of academic empire building and the last thing you would expect him to say about anything would be, "I don't know, it is a mystery." He might also assume some sort of moral high ground saying that everything he does is for the public good. When the press reports on any of his work he would be written as the sage passing down (unexplained) expert opinion to the masses. The masses, however, will soon tire of this and seek out mysteries for themselves, instead.

So we see television programs about aliens instructing the Egyptians on how and why to build the pyramids, or pre-Columbian texts that seem to suggest the world should have ended in 2012, or lost continents inhabited by sages. Up until recently, I attributed such programs as an unwillingness to accept that the human being is capable of many wonders and the idea that such knowledge must then have come only from God, or from advanced aliens who travelled millions of miles across space in order to teach human beings how to build big earth or stone monuments.

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the role and function of the "academy" is served by Inspector Lestrade who rarely strays from the dogma of his position. In our world, the truly great academics survive in spite of the university, not for it. They not only reveal what remains as mystery, but inspire others to look for themselves and seek new ways in which to do this. I know a number of such people. Of course they are in the minority and most people do not find them. I have said that my study of Coriosolite coins took me about ten years. What I don't think I have mentioned in print before is that it also took my about ten years just to find my subject. I could have written many things about Celtic coins that were already known by a few; I could have been a popularizer of the subject. If I had been an academic, I might have chosen to get lots of papers published by journals for career purposes. None of that interested me. I wanted a real mystery to solve. Nowadays, I hope to inspire others to do the same. Sharing the mystery is more important, I think, than sharing the solution. Of course the mysteries would be solved quicker if more people were working on it. Fortunately, there is always another one waiting around the corner if you don't get hung up with those already solved.

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