The Diogenes Conspiracy, or: The Ancient Greek Who Trolled Society’s Normative Assumptions and Spiritually Foreshadowed TJLC
Okay. So, to start off here, I’m going to just quote at great length from Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol. 2: The Uses of Pleasure. (Wait! Don’t go! It gets to somewhere interesting, I promise!) I’m reading it as part of my literature review in preparing to conduct my Masters dissertation research, of which you will hear more if you’re tuned in to Sherlock fandom (specifically TJLC) on Tumblr in the coming months. I’ll be asking for this community’s help with that at some point soon. That’s later, though. Right now, this is just something that I came across and then almost threw the damnable book across the room. I absolutely would have, were I not in the middle of a very quiet library.
Anyway. This is from Foucault’s discussion of sex and sexual ethics in ancient Greece:
“The scandalous gesture of Diogenes is well known: when he needed to satisfy his sexual appetite, he would relieve himself in the marketplace. Like many of the Cynics’ provocations, this one had a double meaning. It owed its impact to the public character of the act, of course, which went against every convention in Greece; it was customary to assert the need for privacy as a reason for making love only at night, and the care one took not to let oneself be seen engaging in this kind of activity was regarded as a sign that the practice of aphrodisia [a blanket category used to describe all manner of sexual acts and actions in which the Greeks participated] was not something that honored the most noble qualities of mankind. It was against this rule of privacy that Diogenes directed his “performance” criticism. Diogenes Laertius reports that in fact he was in the habit of “doing everything in public, the works of Demeter and Aphrodite alike,” reasoning as follows: “If breakfast be not absurd, neither is it absurd to breakfast in the market-place.”
Obviously, the name ‘Diogenes’ immediately had my ears perked up, but the implications of the discussion are complicated and fascinating enough in the context of Sherlock— and indeed ACD’s original use of the reference—to merit a closer look and more analysis. I also hope that this might be a jumping-off point for other meta writers to look into the implications of this name and its associations in the show/canon. If this quotation has been discussed elsewhere, I’d love to hear more about it, too!
Okay, so The Diogenes Club is immediately associated with Mycroft and therefore with secrets. Institutional secrets, even, as Mycroft occupies a minor position in the British government— or is the British government, depending on who you ask. Almost the first thing that we know about Mycroft once his relationship to Sherlock is revealed in ASiP is that he’s involved with espionage. “He is the British government— when he’s not too busy being the British Secret Service or the CIA on a freelance basis.” From there on in, it’s pretty well-telegraphed that Mycroft is the smartest— or at least best-informed— person on the show. He has access to private information, can see everything happening within sight of a CCTV camera… he knows all the secrets, but his primary association is still with secrecy.
The Diogenes Club is also emblematic of the societal establishment: it’s an old boys’ club if ever there was one. Everything about the club, from its strict rules against speaking to its silent, useful servants to its sumptuous, rich interiors, speak of a very traditional kind of British cultural hegemony designed and controlled by the very wealthy, white straight cismale establishment that seeks to keep itself in control through strictures leveled against any difference from that ‘norm’.
In Conan Doyle’s world, this hegemony arguably exerted even more structural power to silence and punish difference than it does now. Or at least, the power that it had was connected 1 to 1: engaging in sodomy/buggery/homosexual relations was itself a criminalized thing, aside from the more insidious cultural punishments for queerness that are still very much present in many people’s lived experiences.
So the fact that he chose to name Mycroft’s club in reference to the figure of Diogenes is perhaps significant. Because in looking more closely at the quotation from Foucault, we see that Diogenes was not actually a keeper of secrets— a guy who upheld societal expectations and notions of propriety and privacy— but sort of a freaky exhibitionist who took issue with the very idea that something that could be done in private acceptably could not be done in public with the same level of acceptance. It seems odd to connect the name of Diogenes with the oppressive heteronormative establishment and the value of silence and privacy and secrecy implied by The Diogenes Club if it’s not some sort of sneaky indictment against that secretive hegemonic norm. I don’t presume to know what ACD was thinking with this, but it is an interesting connection.
What I am particularly interested in, however, is how Diogenes might relate to TJLC and the stated/presumed intentions of the writers in allowing John and Sherlock out of the closet for once and all. There’s a lot of resistance to this reading of the text (as I’m sure you’re all painfully well aware) that comes from an overarching heteronormative blindness that makes it almost impossible for people not in-the-know to see a fairly conventional romantic arc when it is literally wiggling its arse in their faces. (This has been made all the more clear to me in the aftermath of TAB.) That is, as I understand it, the premise upon which TJLC is founded: that in telling this story ‘the right way,’ Moffatt and Gatiss are seeking to make it clear that Holmes and Watson are queer and in love— not only in THIS version of the story, but in EVERY version. I’ve sort of written about that a bit, and the tiny amount that I’ve written isn’t even a fraction of the brilliant critical work by others in this fandom. (That link’s only one of the hundreds of astonishing meta-analyses I’ve read ‘round here, by too many people to easily name.)
Diogenes spoke out in criticism of the expectations of his society that made sex something explicit, secretive, and therefore taboo. The conventional Greek expectation of keeping sexual practice a secret because it was “not something that honored the most noble qualities of mankind” sounds to me a lot like arguments I hear from people who are resistant to a queer reading of Sherlock and John’s relationship on the show and— by extension— a queer reading of the characters throughout their 130 year history: “it’s fine if you want to ship it, but they’re never going to make it canon because that’d just be going too far.” Or “I don’t think they’d actually make them gay on the show— I don’t know how well most people would respond to that.”
It’s fine as long as the queer subtext stays subtext. Keep it in the dark, keep it on the DL, and throw the occasional bone to the fangirls. (All of this is going to be part of the research I’m going to ask for your help with, btw, so if it sounds fun/interesting to you, stay tuned!) But to actually allow a gay romance and relationship to be actualized on one of the biggest television shows in the world between two of the most iconic characters in English literature? It will never happen, because the majority of the audience (presumptively the casuals and the straight folks? I honestly don’t know where these people are…) would not like it. They’re never going to risk something like that with a show this big.
Leaving aside how terribly, offensively hetnorm that whole thing is (and that’s such a huge part of the dialectical argument of TJLC), the inclusion of this reference to Diogenes seems to fly in the face of those arguments. If we take his quotation about breakfast and replace the food with queerness (and hey! Look! There’s that pesky food = sex metaphor again! In ancient Greece, no less!) we see something interesting:
Original: “If breakfast is not absurd, neither is it absurd to breakfast in the market-place.”
Subtextual: “If [being gay] is not absurd (read: perfectly fine/societally acceptable), neither is it absurd to [be gay] in the market-place (read: in public, on your goddamn television set, in your iconic detective fiction).”
Diogenes is openly criticizing the hypocrisy of a society that says that certain acts are acceptable in private, but cannot be condoned in public. It’s so easily applicable to the heteronormative dialogues of “keep it in the bedroom” and “it’s fine if you’re gay, I just don’t want to see it waved around in my face” that it’s almost laughable. Diogenes—demonstrably a TJLCer from way back—knows that if we’re living in an ostensibly progressive society that is supposedly moving all the time towards equal rights for queer folks, but where showing a gay relationship as a central premise of a popular television show is still considered too big of a risk to actually be done, our society is not actually progressive.
“Why would anyone mind?”
If it’s chill to be queer, then it’s chill to be queer. You don’t get to qualify it with locational or circumstantial strictures.
The Diogenes Club is all about secrecy and silence, and yet its namesake was the dude who basically coined the phrase ‘say it loud, say it proud.’ I don’t know if Doyle meant to introduce that tension in the original stories, and I don’t know if Mark Gatiss spends his weekends with his nose buried in The History of Sexuality (although that wouldn’t precisely shock me, tbh) but in the grand endeavor of critiquing the hypocritical assumptions and expectations of an irrepressibly heteronormative society that has co-opted Sherlock Holmes for far too long, they nevertheless have an ally somewhere in ancient Athens. \o/