restricted access 5. Cuvier, Helmholtz, and the Visual Logics of Deduction: Poe, Doyle, Gaboriau

From: Optiques

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Chapter 5 Cuvier, Helmholtz, and the Visual Logics of Deduction: Poe, Doyle, Gaboriau Long before one could hire a private eye to act as paid organ of sight; before the Serie Noire in France concretized a semantic link between mystery and darkness; before a magnified eye became an immediately recognizable symbol of detectives and their tales-the roman policier had established its own narrative logic ofvisuality. With its dual parentage of nineteenth-century French popular fiction (from Balzac's 1841 Une Tenebreuse affaire and other 'judiciary novels" to the serial fluff of Paul Feval's 1863 Les Habits noirs) and the Anglo-American gothic novel (from Radcliffe to Poe), the roman policierinherited a conventional metaphorics in which truth is equivalent to light, knowledge to visual revelation. As this book has been proposing, however, such a simple formula fails to take into account important variations in nineteenth-century conceptions of vision, variations that shaped both scientific and literary conventions and forms. An exemplary model of the modern epistemological subject, the fictional detective allows us to reexamine the preeminently visual logic of observation and inquiry. For if "eureka" is the cry of triumph for a Balzacian scientist-sage, "I see" marks the moment at which the roman policids mystery-solver has attained the knowledge necessary to re-create the steps of a crime. From the first universally acknowledged detective story, Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), the work of the fictional detective has consisted in seeing what others are unable to see.1 The detective Dupin's famed confidence contrasts with the apparent blindness of all around him, while Holmes's avowed mission to trace "the scarlet skein of murder running through the colourless skein of life" reminds us that solving a mystery requires a certain visual aptitude, both rare and specialized . Consider the classic instance of Watson's frustration with his mentor 's superior insight: "I had heard what he had heard," writes Sherlock Holmes's assistant, "I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened, but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque! "2 Like Poe's Dupin, Holmes possesses a certain kind of 86 Chapter 5 vision that allows him to perceive the broadest implications in the simplest facts. Most often, these facts are visible ones, as in "A Scandal in Bohemia ," where Holmes amazes Watson with spontaneous insight into the latter's private life. Holmes explains his process of deduction: "my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, ... the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it" (5). When Watson protests that his eyes are as good as his mentor's, Holmes replies: "Quite so, ... You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear" (6). But what is, exactly, this "clear" distinction between sight as visual perception and vision as observational process? Given that Holmes often closes his eyes to think through a case, and that Dupin finds darkness inspirational of clear thought, it seems that mere ocular registration has little to do with the detective's superior vision. Certainly, Holmes seems to set the work of the mind above the work of the eye. In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," he comforts Watson, who has been complaining that when faced with a man-or a clue or a hat-he can see nothing. Says Holmes: "On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences" (156). Holmes opposes the logical act of reasoning, with its steps and abstractions, to a certain immediate sensory knowledge that Watson seems to want. "Observation" appears to entail mental action alone. Yet, that action is rooted in visual perception: it is "from what you see" that you are to reason. The recurring thematics of vision in Doyle's texts (Watson is often "all in the dark," wondering if Holmes "can see a spark where all is dark to me"), coupled with Holmes's rigorously optical methods (his magnifying glass becomes a trademark), keep the detective's eye from being eclipsed by his mind. Rather than take the detective genre's double interest in visual and mental functions...