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THE CASE OF THE MEN IN THE MIRROR

In the paper, “On Coca” (1884), Freud wrote, “The psychic effect of cocaïnum muriaticum in doses of 0.05–0.10g consists of exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which does not differ in any way from the normal euphoria of a healthy person.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, published six years later, opens with the memorable scene of Sherlock Holmes injecting cocaine into his sinewy forearm with “his long, white, nervous fingers”, as an enthralled Dr Watson watches. Holmes suggests that his friend try out the drug, at which Watson replies, “No, indeed.... My constitution has not got over the Afghan campaign yet.”

The good doctor promptly equates cocaine with the Afghan war — from which he had returned injured in A Study in Scarlet — ostensibly because both are harmful. But is there a Freudian slip here? Could he be thinking, inadvertently, of the “exhilaration”, induced by war, as by cocaine? After all, his author would become a celebrated public figure in England on the basis of his robust contributions to the Boer War of 1899. Perhaps Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, creators of the recent BBC series, Sherlock, which is sending tremors all over the globe, had not been inventing when they made Mycroft Holmes welcome Watson back to the world of violence that is contemporary London with the words, “You’re not haunted by the war, Dr Watson, you miss it.” Conan Doyle had said it all before.

That prodigious author was born this day in May more than a century and a half ago in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was three years younger than Freud, who had been born on the sixth of the same month. The two contemporaries had never met and yet their respective attempts to unlock the mysteries of the human mind have so much in common that the literary detective is liable to be thrilled by a gratifying sense of the uncanny in reading them. It would be easy to imagine Holmes pronouncing the following sentence, provided one adds drops of brusqueness to it: “…I must ask you to tell me frankly and without any criticism everything that occurs to your mind after you focus your attention, without any particular intention, on the forgotten word” (Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, translated by A.A. Brill). And like Freud, Lionel Dacre, the eccentric collector in Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Leather Funnel”, calls the “psychology of dreams” a “science in itself”, and uses it in a rather ingenious way to uncover what happened at the trial of the famous murderess, Marie Madeleine d’ Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, in medieval France.

Most of Conan Doyle’s gripping short stories are remarkable for the way they set out to explain the irrational in the most rational possible way. In his later years, when Conan Doyle became a vigorous advocate of Spiritualism, which he chose to call Spiritism, people wondered how the inventor of the science of deduction could turn to the world of hauntings and séances and ectoplasms. But his Tales of Terror and Mystery has a strong affinity with the adventures of Holmes that is most evident in the style, which is so matter-of-fact that it makes even the most sensational happenings appear normal. In the tales, Conan Doyle uses a typically Holmesian method in unravelling the plot. What seems frightening or paranormal at first — like the monster inhabiting the Blue John Gap, or the piping voice of an invisible woman heard nightly in the room of the widower, Sir John Bollamore — is later revealed to be a physical phenomenon as the surrounding mysteries are chipped away slowly through confrontation and analysis. The “terror” of Blue John Gap turns out to be a blind prehistoric creature trapped in the subterranean caves, as the devil of Dartmoor had proved to be a poor hound. To cure patients of delusions, Freud too was bringing the repressed demons of the mind to the surface by following a method of clinical analysis.

Freud had his famous spat with Jung when the latter turned to spirituality and occultism, which, according to Freud, were unscientific. Doubtless, he would have thought the same of Conan Doyle. But Conan Doyle, a solid product of the Scottish Enlightenment, would have had his reasons for believing in what he believed. When the narrator of “The Leather Funnel” calls the psychology of dreams a “science of charlatans”, the redoubtable Dacre replies: “The charlatan is always the pioneer. From the astrologer came the astronomer, from the alchemist the chemist, from the mesmerist the experimental psychologist.... Even such subtle and elusive things as dreams will in time be reduced to system and order.” In Conan Doyle’s own day, Freud was ordering dreams. Which goes on to prove that if the impossible is eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Life beyond death is improbable, but true. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has lived on for 153 years. And Freud for 156.