1. Reading in the dark

Imagine, if you will, a hotel
room fronting Niagara Falls. Helen
Keller has been brought here by
her teacher, Annie Sullivan,
to meet their good friend Dr. Bell,
inventor of the telephone,
who has long worked with the deaf.
Helen, thirteen, already known
around the world for having thirsted
at the well of knowledge in her own
backyard, where Sullivan had spilled
water in one hand and spelled
the word into the other, now
lets him lift her hand in his
like a receiver, and gently press
it flat against the window’s ear.

The glass is cold. And through her splay
fingers a liquid thunderbolt
of vibration charges and discharges
at once, so thrilling in its force
that she nearly tastes the spray—
though, one must add, the girl is made
of words more than of anything
by now; she feels what she’s been told.

Teacher gave her half the world
she knows. How to fathom, then,
the ingratitude that surfaces
in dreams? At Radcliffe, later, where
Teacher sits through every class
and unabsorbedly (for she’s
a medium, a conductor, and what
greater sacrifice?) transmits
directly to her charge’s hand
all the professors’ lectures, she
appears sometimes in Helen’s nightmares
as a quarrelsome tormentor,
driving her to “an abyss, a perilous
mountain pass or rushing torrent.”
Once “I saw her robed in white
on the brink of Niagara Falls.”
Her costume seemed to be an angel’s.
When she dropped into the whirlpool,
Helen, frantic, dove in to pull
Teacher from danger; the figure wrestled
out of her arms and swam to shore
untwinned. And this—the unthinkable
thoughtlessness of one who loved her—
was the purest terror.

But how lucky she is! Instead of toys
they bring her famous men: William
James, W. E. B. Du Bois,
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain.
One day she’ll touch Caruso’s voice.
Somebody in Gardner, Maine
has named a lumber vessel for her.
Hers is a fate that launched a ship.
At her fingertips, the Braille
armies of words amass: she scans
the Iliad in the original.
(What is original? She hasn’t
dared to ask since, at eleven,
a story she had thought she thought
up wholly by herself had proven
to be the tale of a “plagiarist.”)
Sometimes she is just as glad
not to tire Teacher, and will work
late into the night—but then,
she writes to kindly Mrs. Hutton,
“one wearies of the clash of spears
and the din of battle.” No one hears
the punctured pages turning as
she soldiers on alone, the blind
reading the blind: the lovely Helen
following Homer in the dark.

2. The final problem

Across the ocean, an oculist,
Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle,
plots the ultimate crime. He boasts
to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes …
& winding him up for good and all.
He takes my mind from better things.”
Twirling the weapon in his hand,
he pens the title: “The Final Problem.”

Deflecting blame, perhaps, he sets
the end on foreign soil. A train
of reasoning takes Holmes and Watson
to Switzerland, fleeing that regal
rival, the “Napoleon
of crime,” the spider in a vile
network of radiating evil.
(Too bad. Had Conan Doyle more art, he
would have created Moriarty
long before.) Face to face
at last, detective and nemesis—
their twin defiance heightened by
the pointed altitude of the Alps—
peer at each other in a bliss
of imminence. The great men tumble
in a wrestler’s grip together
down the Reichenbach Fall—unseen
by Watson, who runs up too late.
Yes, that’s very good. He’ll call
helplessly down the abyss
to hear nothing but his staggered voice
crack open on the cliffs in echo.

Yet, blinded by the cataract
of his invention, Conan Doyle
can’t see the problem isn’t final.
Holmes can no more (the public’s logic
runs) have perished in those falls
than Falstaff had on the battlefield.
Or had at rough words of Prince Hal’s.
Like Shakespeare, who obeyed the queen’s
command to resurrect his rascal,
in time the doctor bows to pressure,
dries off his hero, sends him home—
and calls the stories His Last Bow.
It’s not, of course. Some characters
wake perpetually in the middle
of their lives: the rooms in Baker Street
are forever fixed in place
like letters Holmes speared with a jack-
knife to the mantelpiece; his fiddle
case is never closed.

Left unsolved: how a B-plus
stylist, Conan Doyle, who preferred
what he called “psychic research,” and,
touchingly gullible, obtuse,
finished up his own career
believing in fairies, should have had
the cool to track down the great sleuth
within himself, the cynical
logician who could see in the dark.
Liar, master of disguise,
Holmes elegantly cloaks the thin
transition of two eras: loyal
subject of The Exalted Person
(unnameable Victoria), he’s
already prone to modern ills.
Ennui is The Final Problem—for which
there’s but a seven-percent solution,
or target-practicing indoors
(poor Mrs. Hudson!); with the flair
of one in deep despair, he marks
the whole wall in a manly Braille:
“V. R. done in bullet-pocks.”

How in the world could Conan Doyle
originate a deathless myth?
“When you have eliminated all
which is impossible,” as Holmes
repeatedly explains, “whatever
remains, however improbable,
must be the truth.”

3. Hearing shadows

President Garfield has been shot,
and Alexander Graham Bell
hops on the train for Washington
to find the bullet. It’s lodged somewhere
in the body of the President,
and though he’s not a medical man,
Bell hopes to provide a tool.
His “induction balance,” as
he calls it, like his “photophone,”
is work that follows in a line
from the telephone—which made his name
six years ago. Disengaged
sometimes from himself, he wonders
if he really had invented it.
Or was it someone he’d read about?
That’s not a doubt to speak aloud,
with everybody and his brother
daring to claim the patent. “The more
fame a man gets for an invention,”
he once confided to the page,
“the more does he become a target
for the world to shoot at.”

The photophone has given him
a synesthetic thrill he’s known
only in poetry. (And though
he’s far too busy to notice how
he phrases things, that letter to
his father last year was poetry.
“I have been able to hear a shadow,
and even have perceived by ear
the passage of a cloud across
the sun… .”) Insert selenium
in the telephone battery; then throw
light upon it, thus altering
resistance, and varying the strength
of the current sent to the telephone.
An image, then, may have its own
correspondent sound. Simple.

“Watson, come here, I want to see you”:
that’s all that people can retain,
tending, as people will, to miss
the point. It wasn’t just Tom Watson
on the other end of the line,
it was the Telephone in Real
Form he’d wired at last to an
Ideal one floating in his brain.
The question is if he can do
the same again: the deadly ball
sits humming somewhere silently
for his machine to answer it.

He’s swept into the White House by
a private entrance. How to enter
the President’s body without harm?
He scans the skin with his instrument,
hoping to trigger an alarm.
Three days later, the victim drained
of a once florid cheer, the bullet
like a whole note sings a clear
tone for one measure. Bell returns
to his lab in Massachusetts, fiddles
in vain, more misery intervenes:
his baby boy is born and dies.
Then Garfield does. The autopsy
reveals the bullet had always lain
too deep for a safe extraction—
which hadn’t, in fact, been necessary.
A death caused mostly by infection:
doctors’ unwashed hands.

In the history books, poor Garfield
is footnoted for being killed.
But Bell goes on to reinvent
himself, a man who—as he’d said
when the telephone was still afloat—
is lost in fog, and yet can tell
his latitude and longitude.
He takes notes on condensing fresh
water from real fog; conducts
genetic trials on sheep (but fails
to name any of them Dolly); constructs
one flying machine—less like a plane
than a giant paper honeycomb—
after another. “I have not
the shadow of a doubt,” he writes
in 1893, “the problem
of aerial navigation will
be solved within ten years.” The Wrights
will get there first. But in his way,
as always, he’s right on the money.

4. A tangled skein

“From a drop of water,” Watson reads
aloud from a magazine, “a logician
could infer the possibility
of an Atlantic or a Niagara
without having seen or heard of one
or the other.” He slaps this down
on the table. “What ineffable twaddle!”

It’s his first wrong move. The essay’s
author, we’ve foreseen, is Holmes,
his brand-new roommate, about whom
this “Study in Scarlet” proves the first
in scores of chronicles that he—
that is, Dr. Watson—writes.
Dr. Conan Doyle’s rough draft
called it “A Tangled Skein.” And we
might too, this craft of authorship.

So let them, on my tangling lines,
call the overloaded switchboard
for souls they’re linked to, all at once:
Keller and Sullivan, Conan Doyle
and Watson, Bell and Watson, the two
two-watt Watsons, Sullivan
and Watson (either one will do:
all three are listening to this list
and taking notes), Holmes and Watson,
Holmes and his flip side, Moriarty
(not yet heads-first over the falls),
and since the distinction’s always fine
between detection and invention,
Holmes and Bell, then Holmes and Bell
(a Dr. Joseph Bell) whom Conan
Doyle had partly modelled Holmes on.

What are they saying? Something about
“the scarlet thread of murder” that runs
“through the colourless skein of life.”
That’s Holmes—who, in his arrogance
(but no one else can do it right),
kills himself a little with
more cocaine in his scarlet vein.
Something more about resentment
of whatever we have cause to call
ourselves. And yet we’d ask for foils,
for second fiddles, for noble, dim
Watsons as constant witnesses.
Holmes to Watson: “It may be that
you are not yourself luminous …
but you are a conductor of light.”
Bell to Watson: “Come here, I want
to see you.” Holmes to Watson again:
“Come at once if convenient;
if not convenient, come all the same.”
And this: “Come, Watson, the game’s afoot!”

And what’s the game? Something about
taking a message. A scarlet thread
of reception branches in the brain,
a filament, brilliantly unclear
except for clearly being there—
like the lightbulb waiting to switch on
in the head of half-deaf Edison—
and Conan Doyle is not entirely
wrong, as he joins the conversation,
to add: “I felt that my literary
energies should not be directed
too much into one channel… .”

Bell bellows into the phone: “Hurrah!”
(Nobody can convince him
to settle for a simple “Hello.”)
“Hoy! Hoy!” These days, an older man
embodying an anagram
(as a boy A. Graham Bell had gone
by the alias of “H. A. Largelamb”—
destined, it seems, to experiment
on sheep), he doesn’t use the phone
very often any more. The ring
annoys him at the dinner table;
besides, his wife—the winningly
named Mabel, the original
Ma Bell—is deaf. She writes to us
instead, an essay on the art
of lipreading. A misnomer. The kiss
of unheard words with thought must come,
she says, by marking body clues
(eyebrows, hands); on the lexicon
of context; and, since very little
is ever understood at once,
on empty-headed readiness
to miss a detail. You can feel
your way back to the blanks.

Which is the decoding task of Holmes.
The scarlet “Rache” the victim scrawls
on the wall is quickly misconstrued—
if you only read one language—
as “Rachel.” But it means revenge.
One letter. What he seeks may hinge
on anything. The dancing men,
a child’s line of stick figures, turn
murderous with a hypothesis—
the commonest figure must be “E”—
and Holmes unlocks the cryptogram
so well he tricks the criminal
to present himself for arrest in his
own dancing language: “Come at once.”
The flesh made word, the word made flesh.

Half-blind Annie Sullivan,
nineteen, untaught, is summoned to
Tuscumbia, Alabama to tame
a child who doesn’t know the name
of anything. Then she has a thought.
“I had no idea a short while ago,”
she writes a friend, “how to go to work;
I was feeling about in the dark;
but somehow I know now, and I know
that I know.” She’s going to pretend,
for now, that Helen understands.
Keep talking. From a drop of water,
a single word, a Niagara
untangles in their hands.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 4, on page 34
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