IN 1886, AN unpleasant man strapped to a bomb wandered into a novel; he had a detonator in his pocket. Thanks to him, we ended up with Hannibal Lecter. And the Unabomber. This was a new kind of human: the condescending scientist, with a peerless intellect and a slow athletic pulse, who is morally insane. (Bear with me — this is a review of the new Sherlock Holmes film, A Game of Shadows.)
In 1894, a man blew himself up, accidentally, while trying to commit a meaningless crime. Martial Bourdin was a French anarchist, apparently intent upon exploding the Greenwich Observatory. The crime struck Joseph Conrad as so utterly nonsensical that he wrote a novel. In The Secret Agent, Martial Bourdin is replaced by a virtuous man incapable of coherent moral action: mentally defective, duped into committing an absurd act, by people ignorant of their own reasons.
Published in 1907, the novel sold poorly, but became a much-studied text after 9/11.
Nihilism predates Conrad, of course. Ivan Turgenev gave us our first great fictional nihilist, Bazarov, in 1862. The murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 rendered this mangy type — aimlessly sowing trouble across Europe — suddenly non-trivial. Many were very clever. Many were not. Martial Bourdin managed to blow himself up accidentally, and Conrad’s fictional version is expressly an imbecile.
Another character in the The Secret Agent, however, is our man: the icy, disdainful genius, carrying a bomb instead of a moral compass. The Professor.
He is not a professor at all, and he has no name. His expertise is explosives, and his life’s goal is to design the foolproof detonator. (He fails here: the bomber — a fool — has to be scraped off the sidewalk with a spade.) The Professor is scrupulously amoral. He is superior, and destroys only to annihilate weakness. In fact, he berates another anarchist for having principles.
Where were we? Oh yes: The Professor inspired one of the more peculiar crimes of the late 20th century: The Unabomber — Ted Kacyznski — an unhinged mathematician from Harvard, was obsessed with Conrad’s character.
As are we. He has become a type: the academic virtuoso, distant and condescending, with an urgent but oddly meaningless homicidal urge.
This figure has evolved, subtly. His mood has improved. He has become twinkly. (Kaczynski, with his sour ressentiment, is a throwback to the original.) Also, he has calmed down. Permanently. Hannibal Lecter’s pulse does not quicken even as he bites off a nurse’s tongue.
Cormac McCarthy perfected this character in Blood Meridian: the Judge, a charismatic genius whose hobbies are natural history and scalping.
He has at least one analogue in modern history: the press agent for death, whose doctorate in literature — “Wilhelm von Schütz as Dramatist: A Contribution to the History of the Drama of the Romantic School” — is chillingly irrelevant: Joseph Goebbels.
Conrad’s Professor was first. He is often misinterpreted. The Unabomber got him wrong: the Professor’s hero would have despised Ted Kaczynski’s putative agenda. Edward Said considered him the archetypal terrorist, which is incorrect for the same reason: most terrorists pretend to have a political goal beyond the extermination of the weak.
You might argue that the Professor — scorning the mundane, determined to impress his unrecognized genius upon the world in an act both indelible and meaningless — is an abstract expressionist. Not a very nice one. Perhaps Jackson Pollock or Clyfford Still.
The Secret Agent is set in 1886, but based on a true event — the Bourdin explosion — that occurred in 1894. The new Sherlock Homes film opens in 1891, midway between this fiction and this fact: just when the figure is stepping into history to cause us a century of distress.
Professor Moriarty is a fascinating character (in a much less fascinating film). It seems all professors are alike: obsessed with creating chaos, bent on the production of peerless, beautiful bombs, and — in Sherlock’s own words — “morally insane.”
The actor Jared Harris, son of the great Richard Harris, has studied his psychopaths. Moriarty’s child-like fascination, augmented by theoretical genius and freezing moral indifference, recalls a certain cannibal. Dr. Lecter’s scientific focus is internal — the human psyche — whereas Dr. Moriarty’s looks like the opposite — celestial mechanics — but both fields are in fact the cosmos. These are men who aim to master everything.
Moriarty doesn’t dine on humans. His obsession is restricted to what this kind of person actually cares about, both in fiction and in real life: bombs.
(In the original stories, Moriarty has the same profession as the Unabomber: he is a mathematician. Small world.)
You don’t have to be a cannibal to be truly unnerving. Director Guy Ritchie is at his best suggesting the insanity of the century to come, and the place of Professor Moriarty in the scheme of world war: the Professor intends to start one.
Yes, Moriarty has a motive, as he does in Conan Doyle, but I won’t spoil it for you. Hint: it’s boring. Harris is savvy enough to downplay this in favor of more fetching attributes: the Krupp-like fascination with bombs for their own sake, and that icicle dripping like Chinese water torture at the center of his genius — the chilly, tick-tick-ticking of his exquisite, homicidal madness.
Sherlock’s own brilliance is mundane — he is a high-IQ show-off and an indifferent clown — but his brother, Mycroft Holmes, possesses enough genius and inspired silliness for a dozen families.
Mycroft was always my favorite character: brighter even than Sherlock, he is a bloated wastrel who spends most of his time lolling in his club like a walrus. He is simply too lazy to employ his astonishing gifts. He is my role model. Mycroft in the original was Seymour Glass to Sherlock’s Buddy Glass: the even-greater genius, generally offstage accomplishing nothing, too brilliant to be gazed upon.
Played by the English national treasure Stephen Fry, Mycroft is a corpulent nudist (always intriguing), and his idleness has potentially disastrous global consequences. Conan Doyle hints at an important job, but in this film he is given genuine power: he is an advisor to royalty. Mycroft’s inability to act here — his moral paralysis — matters. Moriarty explicitly relies upon it in his plan to tip the cosmos into total war. (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I’ll be happy when I can mothball that quotation.)
The rest of the film is less wonderful. The wit is forced, and the timing is off. Certain bits stand out: a superb hangover augmented by bagpipes; Sherlock Holmes in Frank-N-Furter drag (finally — the Watson/Holmes erotic tension has been with us unsubtly for a film and a half); and the outlandish ubiquity of vintage mind-altering drugs.
Also, the slo-mo ballistic effects are really something — perhaps the first aesthetic advance in projectile choreography since bullet time was pioneered in the original Matrix. And Moriarty’s pet thug is grimly amusing: Paul Anderson as the vulgar, surly Sebastian Moran, champion sniper (in Conan Doyle, the second most dangerous man in Europe).
In short, the film gets the gunpowder right. This is appropriate, since what we are really celebrating here is the return of an old friend: a homicidal genius with a quick bright eye but a lizard’s pulse, diabolically intent upon blowing into splinters everything rational and good.