John Singer Sargent and the Haiti Earthquake

John Singer SargentFour years ago today was the 7.0 M earthquake in Haiti that killed over 200,000 people. The death toll was so high because it struck the most populated area of the country. In all, over three million people were affected by it. I think Haiti is an embarrassment to the west. There is no reason for us to allow its people to live in such poverty and suffer so much. But of course, that’s the modern American way: people are divided into the winners and the losers—the producers and the moochers. If someone was a winner, they would be smart enough not to be born in Haiti. The country is still suffering as a result of that earthquake four years ago. But you won’t see it covered much in America. Al Jazeera America did a pretty good job of covering it the last couple of days, as far as I could tell. For more information see CEPR’s Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch.

On this day in 1729, the conservative icon Edmund Burke was born. Actually, he was fairly liberal until the French Revolution. And then he saw that some people we behaving badly and so he ran back to the womb of conservatism: faith in aristocracy. In other words, he was a reactionary. But it’s important to remember that although people like David Brooks and George Will like to quote Burke, there is little that connects him to the modern conservative movement. Regardless, if you ever feel the need to read Burke, read William Hazlitt instead.

Other birthdays: sculptor Francois Duquesnoy (1597); novelist and playwright Frances Brooke (1724); French painter Jean Beraud (1849); writer Jack London (1876); singer Tex Ritter (1905); philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906); singer-songwriter Ray Price (1926); screenwriter Alan Sharp (1934); boxer Joe Frazier (1944); actor Kirstie Alley (63); one of the worst people in the world and a substantial reason our politics is so bad, Rush Limbaugh (63); crime fiction novelist Walter Mosley (62); radio personality Howard Stern (60); actor Oliver Platt (54); probably evil businessman Jeff Bezos (50); and multi-media artist Rob Zombie (49).

The day, however, belongs to the great painter John Singer Sargent who was born on this day in 1856. He was primarily a portrait painter, and an extremely successful one. Those are mostly what you see when you see him in a museum, because that’s what people paid him for. But his landscapes and city paintings are quite different, and I think much more compelling. A good example of this is the following Street in Venice, that I think is just wonderful:

Street in Venice - Sargent

Happy birthday John Singer Sargent!

Deep Thoughts on Sherlock Season Two

SherlockI finally got around to watching the second season of Sherlock. It is a well made series. But there is a real limit to how much of it I can take. The biggest problem is what they have done to Holmes himself. In the original stories, he is brilliant and arrogant and flawed; but he really does care about humanity. This Holmes is more or less a psychopath. His motivations are exactly the same as those of Moriarty: simple amusement. There is no moral underpinning of Holmes; he could easily have been Moriarty.

This is all seen in the way that the show deals with Homles’ drug “problem.” In the first episode of Sherlock, it is implied that Holmes used to use illegal drugs—presumably cocaine. But now, he uses cigarettes as a substitute. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Are we really to believe that the brilliant Sherlock Holmes couldn’t manage his illegal drug habit without Lestrade and company figuring it out? Regardless, it is kind of a brilliant thing. When Doyle was writing, the use of cocaine was seen very much the way that cigarette smoking is seen today: a nasty habit. I doubt seriously that the producers are aware of this; they are just taking the easy way out of a difficulty with the original character in the modern world. In other words, they lucked out. (However, any period Sherlock Holmes—for example, the Robert Downey versions—that don’t deal with cocaine are simply cowardly.) We have a really screwed up society where psychopaths are perfectly fine for a modern day Sherlock Holmes, but brilliant and otherwise law abiding people with drug addictions are terrible. And in Sherlock, they have swapped an arrogant man who really did care about people but who also injected cocaine and morphine from time to time, into a man who doesn’t care about people but who has more acceptable vice.

The last episode—which was nonetheless great fun—doesn’t make much sense. It is based (loosely as always), on the short story “The Final Problem” where it looks like Holmes and Moriarty have both fallen to their deaths over the Reichenbach Falls. In this case, Moriarty has destroyed Holmes’ reputation and is now making him commit suicide to cement the reputation. He does this by threatening to have Watson, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade murdered if he doesn’t. There are lots of problems in this episode. First, we’ve never gotten any notion that Holmes cares one wink for Hudson or Lestrade. What’s more, in order to set up the destruction of Holmes’ reputation, Moriarty has to destroy his own, killing himself and being forever known as a mediocre actor whom Holmes hired to played the part of “Moriarty.”

In the end, Moriarty—who was the most interesting character for most of the series—turns out to be whatever the plot requires. In particular, he is brilliant when he needs to be and clueless when he needs to be. He doesn’t think of major things in this episode. If he were this careless throughout his career, he never would have become the criminal legend he is supposed to be. And that’s especially true in terms of the fact that while he thinks to follow the three Holmes “friends” throughout his fiendish plot, he allows Holmes himself the latitude to work out an entire fake suicide. I will come back to this in moment.

The whole dynamic of Holmes and Moriarty is supposed to be like God vs the Devil. And just like that more ancient pair, it is clearly one-sided. Holmes always seems to think one move further out in the chess game than Moriarty. That would be fine, except that Moriarty (just as the plot requires) is always way ahead of Holmes except when it matters most. Arthur Conan Doyle only made up the character of Moriarty as a way to kill off Holmes. In Sherlock, he is central to the series. So I don’t see why they’ve killed off the character. Holmes needs Moriarty and Moriarty needed Holmes. Thus it made no sense for Moriarty to want to kill or otherwise destroy Holmes in the first place.

Now about that fake death of Holmes… I don’t mind fake deaths. But in this episode of Sherlock, we see him quite clearly on the ledge. We see him crying, which we would not see if he knew he were faking his death. We see him step off and fall to the ground. It is broad daylight. There was nothing blocking the view. We see Holmes clearly dead on the ground. There was no way for a fake body to be pushed off and then replaced by the made-up Holmes. Yet clearly, that is what is going to be claimed. The chemistry girl who is in love with Sherlock clearly helped him out with all that. I have no problem with that. But I do have a problem with it being directed in a way that clearly deceives the viewer.

Note a few things. Holmes’ hands are waving while he is falling—so it isn’t just a dummy who is falling. Also, he drops his phone before falling. I get that. Later, someone (the chemistry girl, most likely) ran back up to put it there because it couldn’t fall with him because he had to have been using the phone from somewhere else (because he could see Watson when he was talking to him). I assume that the producers will feel they need to explain how Holmes faked his suicide, because of the way the episode was written—especially Holmes telling the chemistry girl that he needs her. Thus the show will claim something like this:

  1. Watson’s view was obstructed, as though that matters;
  2. Holmes kept telling Watson to stay back, so he couldn’t see it wasn’t Holmes;
  3. There will be something about the bicyclist who stopped Watson from getting to Holmes’ body right away.

The big problem is that there are lots of people around when Holmes falls. Are we to believe they are all in on it? Were they all the Baker Street Irregulars dressed up to look like middle class people? I actually expect it to be something like that. It is rubbish.

Given that Moriarty is most definitely dead, the series will probably get better. Remember that Moriarty has only become a big character since Doyle wrote the books and stories. He was never meant to be more than a plot device to kill off Holmes. And as much as the character was a delight in Sherlock—he really did make the rest of the characters seem dreary—the show was constantly implying that every criminal case that Homles was involved in was actually backed by Moriarty. That’s just silly. So hopefully, the show will go back to what I first liked about it: the focus on a really likable modern day Watson.