Holmes at Home

The following article first appeared in the March 26, 1965, issue of Commonweal.


After threshing about wildly for half the night (well, not a second less than fifteen minutes anyway) trying to think of something to say about “Baker Street” that would be worth bothering a printer with, I fell into a fitful doze. I must have been brooding about Hemingway’s famous boast that he had out-boxed the messrs. Stendhal and Turgenyev but would hesitate to enter a ring with Tolstoy, and had fused this with my normal discontents, because when I awoke I found I had typed—or rather, goose-quilled—the following paragraph:

Although I once fought a draw with St. Beuve, and later took a truly popular split decision from Matthew Arnold, I have been getting that obsolete feeling more and more lately. For some time now, I have been in training to challenge Edmund “Bunny” Wilson for the championship—normally nothing would get me into a ring with Bunny unless I get a lot better, but I am a strange old man and maybe I am better than I think—but just recently I’ve begun to wonder whether it is worth all the effort: the road work and the sparring partners who try to take you out in one...

The sources for this piece of automatic writing were not hard to trace. The style had obviously been borrowed from Lillian Ross, whose famous interview with Hemingway I had recently been re-reading with the old slack-jawed amazement; but the thought was recognizably my own. For a number of reasons which I won’t go into here, a conviction has been growing that criticism as we know it today may be on the way out. It is certainly redundant and obsolete—who needs a hundred oracles belching dark contradictions from separate caves when you could have one oracle belching dark contradictions, etc.—and now it seems that the British have actually perfected a new critical machine...

Well, perhaps “perfected” is putting it too strongly. The muggeridge II has certainly superseded the American macdonald, and it produces more words per month than the old sontag, but it still has a few bugs. For one thing, it is not very good at fiction; it tries gamely, with gears clanking and little iron jaws masticating like fury; but its aesthetic sense is still in the rudimentary stage. It registers stupidity and cant accurately enough, but is all at sea with nuance.

Perhaps the outstanding feature of the new muggeridge is its formidable second-strike capacity. Woe to anyone who controverts it—the muggeridge strikes back with the speed of a cobra, with a suave giggle and lick of the forked tongue. The macdonald was good in this respect, but hopelessly wasteful: it used to try to answer its enemies point by point. The muggeridge simply giggles and licks, and its enemies become instantly paralyzed.

The muggeridge’s extraordinary output also enables it to review the same book in several places at once, which dears up a lot of silly confusion. The old machines used to disagree sometimes and then they fought like old tin battleships, circling slowly and pelting the landscape with shot. It was a mess. One hardly knew what to think.

Nowadays, none of this is necessary. Simply install a muggeridge in your office (the only thing a muggeridge will not fight with is another muggeridge). Several magazines have already purchased one—and these magazines among our best. An imported criticism machine adds a cachet that anyone can fed proud of.

And perhaps future models will prove even more efficient. The new muggeridge is already much smoother than the old one—the old one which wrote that Churchill was senile at a time when the information could be of use to no one and could only cause pain, and which sneered at Queen Elizabeth with a peculiar, chop-licking relish that even anti-monarchists found it hard to warm up to. The new muggeridge doesn’t do things like that. Or if it does, it prefaces the assassination with words like, “Dearly as I love you Americans”... the new muggeridge has had what Cyril Connolly calls a “gland of charm” built into it.

The muggeridge II has not so far as I know been fed any movies or plays yet. But I see no reason why it should not process them with the same success, since there is nothing specifically literary about its methods (its prototype was, I would imagine, a political gossipwriter, which was later found to work just as well on books). If a muggeridge II was faced, as I am right now—and have been right along, daughter—with the task of reviewing the musical “Baker Street,” I don’t see why it shouldn’t click out something like the following: “I never cease to be amazed at the patience of Americans. I never cease...”, whir whir (tell him it’s a play. About Sherlock Holmes.) “When I was a boy, I remember” . . . (better just let him talk—he’ll get round to it in a moment) “but I never thought I’d live to see the day” (hasn’t he got a lovely accent, though?) “Now, as to this so-called play. Poor Fritz Weaver has been cajoled into doing the impossible: playing this degenerate, not particularly interesting monument of Victorian sexlessness—a countryman of mine I fear, but I don’t boast about it—and poor Inga Swenson, forced to make love to this sexless eharlatan—I myself am quite sexy, thank you very much. In my day we didn’t talk about it, that’s all—and poor Martin Gabel as the sexless Dr. Moriarty. Poor everybody. Not excepting poor me.”

This kind of thing is tough to compete with; if Commonweal ever decides to install a muggeridge II, my days are probably numbered. Meanwhile let me just add to the above that “Baker Street” is an uncommonly weak musical with one of the poorest scores I have ever heard on Broadway. Fritz Weaver talks his songs, which helps—except that the words aren’t particularly good either.

Sherlock Holmes is not really a good subject for a musical. The satirical possibilities have been mined to a faretheewell by Leacock and others; and the detective side was done very well in the old Basil Rathbone movies, with all the advantages of screen magic, and none of the encumbrances of music. Presumably, this was not discovered until too late. Anyhow, the fog is excellent.

(And now tell me the news, daughter—is it true that Bunny Wilson has a glass jaw? I am a strange old man to put it mildly and if I remember to keep my guard up, I may win the championship yet.)

The late Wilfrid Sheed, formerly a Commonweal columnist, drama critic, and literary editor (1964–69), was a novelist and a critic. His last book was The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (Random House).

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