Pop Culture, Big Ideas: ‘Sherlock’, Yin and Yang, and the Purpose of Life

The later seasons of BBS’s Sherlock are steaming piles of sleep inducing shit. But a nice side effect of being disappointed by a beloved show is the inspiration to revisit fave episodes and wash the taste of boredom out of one’s brain. When it comes to Sherlock, my favourite episode by far is ‘The Great Game‘.

I love Andrew Scott’s mercurial handling of Jim Moriarty – so different to the usual dull and posh iterations of the character.

tumblr_mguassitz01rs47j0o4_500I love the devilishness of Moriarty’s scheme: using his victim’s voices to disguise his identity. I love the intricacies of the plot, which hang together in a very satisfying way (something that isn’t always true of the series). I even love the ridiculous cliffhanger ending.

But what I love most about this episode is the exploration of Holmes’ and Moriarty’s history together. The pair have been courting one another since their school days, but they’ve been doing so blindly. That is, Jim wasn’t looking for Sherlock, and Sherlock wasn’t seeking Jim. Each was simply seeking a challenge they worthy of himself.

This process of seeking each other out is also a process of mutual creation. Moriarty’s criminal games help crystallise Sherlock’s role as detective, and Sherlock’s willingness to play the game spurs Moriarty on in his criminal quest.

When Sherlock realises that it is himself, specifically, who is being challenged he says: “The curtain rises… I’ve been expecting this for some time”. He knew that his high profile escapades in the name of law would call forth an equal response in the name of chaos and disorder. Moriarty tells Holmes “we were made for each other, Sherlock!” – made for each other, and by each other.

This kind of thing isn’t exactly unheard of in the crime fighting and superhero genres:

But what’s different in ‘The Great Game’ is how the give and take between villain and hero stretches so far back into the past. It invites the speculation that Sherlock’s habit of (mostly) serving the law and Moriarty’s habit of violently disrupting it are completely contingent. Perhaps they both have the same basic character structure and drives – heightened intelligence, a lack of ordinary emotions and empathy, a tendency to get bored, seeking out challenge and excitement – but circumstances have led one to serve order and the other disorder.

So damn bored

Maybe Sherlock’s first real challenge came in the form of a Draco Malfoy, so he got a taste for undermining bullies and thereby helping their victims. Perhaps Jim’s first challenge came from a Hermione Granger and so he developed a taste for fucking up the plans of the righteous. It could go back much further into tiny details of childhood, a billion little variables pushing the two men towards their roles and towards each other. Until Moriarty murders Carl Powers, leaves his shoes – casting bait for his hated lover – and Holmes bites.

I’d bite you Benedict, I’d nibble

This deep connection between Holmes and Moriarty got me thinking about Taoism, specifically the idea of yin and yang. According to Wikipedia (snobs back off), yin and yang boils down to the idea that opposite or contrary forces can actually be complementary. That, in fact, they are deeply interconnected and bring one another into being.

Who is yin and who is yang in the Sherlock-Moriarty tango is difficult to say. According to Encyclopedia Britannica

Yin is a symbol of earth, femaleness, darkness, passivity, and absorption. Yang is conceived of as heaven, maleness, light, activity, and penetration.

So, depending on you erroneous notions about gender and the where your poetic license was issued you could easily argue either way. But, whichever cosmic forces they best embody, Sherlock and Moriarty certainly seem to be deeply interconnected, each causal in the other’s development.

So far, so spiritual. But what about the universe as understood by science, rather than sages. Are there deeply connected yet seemingly opposite natural forces at work that our hero and villain might represent or even serve? The answer is an unequivocal maybe.

According to MIT physicist Jeremy England life itself might arise through just such a dance of seeming opposites  in this case, order and chaos. While the universe is on a steady march towards ever increasing entropy and disorder, the evolution of life on earth presents ever increasing movement away from entropy. What’s more, England theorises that particles will tend towards life-like behaviours – organised structure, self-replication – wherever there is a strong external energy source (like the sun) and surrounding ‘baths’ in which to dump energy (like the ocean and atmosphere). So, life and hence order could be defeating entropy all over the universe!

But the kicker is this – while life itself represents a reduction in entropy, the net effect of life’s existence in the universe is a significant increase in entropy:

“A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.”

So, if England’s theory is true (and there is some interesting experimental and theoretical evidence I barely understand that apparently supports it) then disorder creates order creates disorder; non-life gives birth to life which augments non-life; the boundaries blur into one system.

Where does that leave Sherlock and Moriarty? If we define the eventual end of the universe as its ultimate ‘purpose’, we might argue that chaotic Moriarty is, in fact, on the side of the heat death angels. Then again, by preserving entropy-increasing life perhaps Sherlock is the true agent of disorder. Or do they both weave into one? One tiny thread in an everweaving tapestry, yin and yang dancing a battlewaltz of perpetual creation and destruction.

The only reasonable way to find out is to watch that episode again, so bye and you’re welcome:

Maybe the most frustrating GIF ever

<– Read the previous edition of Pop Culture, Big Ideas

2 thoughts on “Pop Culture, Big Ideas: ‘Sherlock’, Yin and Yang, and the Purpose of Life

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