Mary bein like “john I get that you want Sherlock to help with the wedding but why do we have to go to baker street Every Day like……you don’t even do anything you just sit around and talk to sherlock” and john just being like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I’ve been a little obsessed with paranoid readings ever since shaolingirl left this comment on my meta. I mentioned TAB only briefly in my reply, but as several people have pointed out (most google-ably @mild-lunacy and @baudown) paranoia and conspiracy are a key element of this episode.
I’m going to leave aside the central conspiracy of the episode - the league of furies - and talk about two scenes/references. First, this scene in the Diogenes Club:
It’s played as a laugh, but it’s worth noting John’s behavior here because it’s pretty out of character. The “real” John doesn’t express suspicion towards any group of people that I can think of, but in under sixty seconds “dream” John displays a paranoid antagonism towards no less than six groups: anarchists, socialists, feminists, suffragettes, Scots and Serbians.
Obviously the real John is not afraid of suffragettes. The specifics of his paranoia, like so much else in the episode, are symbolic of something else. But what?
[Q]ueer studies in particular has had a dinstinctive history of intimacy with the paranoid imperative. Freud, of course, traced every instance of paranoia to the repression of specifically same-sex desire, whether in women or in men. The traditional, homophobic psychoanalytic use that has generally been made of Freud’s associations has been to pathologize homosexuals as paranoid or to consider paranoia a distinctively homosexual disease. In Homosexual Desire, however, a 1972 book translated into English in 1978, Guy Hocquenghem returned to Freud’s formulations to draw from them a conclusion that would not reproduce this damaging non squitur. If paranoia reflects the repression of same-sex desire, Hocquenghem reasoned, then paranoia is a uniquely privileged site for illuminating not homosexuality itself, as in the Freudian tradition, but rather precisely the mechanisms of homophobic and heterosexist enforcement against it. What is illuminated by an understanding of paranoia is not how homosexuality works, but how homophobia and heterosexism work - in short, if one understands these oppressions to be systemic, how the world works.“
Let me repeat the key part: What is illuminated by an understanding of paranoia is not how homosexuality works, but how homophobia and heterosexism work.
John’s paranoia in the scene above stands in for a more-subtle paranoia stemming from homophobic self-repression. Unlike the fear of Scots and Serbians, the “real” John does display this paranoia. Excerpting from my meta:
While Sherlock never responds to assumptions that he and John are dating, John nearly always does. It is always John who brings up that their actions may be read queerly, saying “people might talk”. He notices queer coding as well, and has an uncomfortable relationship with it. After reading about himself in the newspaper, he remarks: “Bachelor John Watson? ‘Bachelor’? What the hell are they implying?” In another scene, he objects to Sherlock labelling a character as gay based on how he presents himself: “Because he puts a bit of product in his hair?” John protests. “I put product in my hair.”
Whether or not you read this as internalized homophobia, simple discomfort, or frustration with stereotyping - none of which are inconsistent with John being queer himself - these examples make clear that John is hyper-aware of queer readings.
The Abominable Bride draws our attention to the Freudian reading by referencing Freud himself, in the second scene I want to talk about:
JOHN: Why are you so determined to be alone?
SHERLOCK: Are you quite well, Watson?
JOHN: Is it such a curious question?
SHERLOCK: From a Viennese alienist, no. From a retired Army doctor, most certainly.
The “Viennese alienist” is unquestionably Freud. There’s some great meta on TAB’s references to The Seven Percent Solution, a film in which Sherlock Holmes is treated by Sigmund Freud for paranoia, for instance this thread by @deducingbbcsherlock and @baudown. Also, just generally, the very premise of the episode is that it’s a dream in which we explore Sherlock’s fears and desires. Of course it’s Freudian!
The direct reference to Freud comes in the middle of the greenhouse scene, in which John questions Sherlock about his impulses. The phrase “impulses” is somewhat euphemistic, but the reference to Freud makes clear to those willing to see that we’re talking about sexuality.
But are we just talking about Sherlock’s sexuality? I’d like to focus in on John, who as I’ve said before is a symbolic representative of the fan/fan-author/reader with trust issues. It’s telling that it’s John in the Diogenes Club who is paranoid. And it’s fitting that the mention of the Viennese alienist comes just a bit before this beautiful metafictional line:
HOLMES: Well, there you are, you see? I’ve said it all before. WATSON: No, I wrote all that. You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine. HOLMES: Well, exactly. WATSON: No, those are my words, not yours! That is the version of you that I present to the public: the brain without a heart; the calculating machine. I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up, but I do not believe it.
John is not just a queer man struggling with internalized homophobia which finds outlet in paranoia. He’s a symbolic representative of all of fandom, perpetuating the interpretation of Holmes as a “brain without a heart” while at the same time obsessed with the paranoid reading, constantly asking questions about Sherlock’s impulses, about whether or not the text is queer.
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