I would go insane, but why make a special trip to get back to where I grew up?
Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
On the other hand, courage leads to openness. Openness leads to empathy. And empathy leads to love.
(Pictured above: Some notable “Moriarty”s)
The Napoleon of Crime
"He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organised. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed—the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organised and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught—never so much as suspected."
This is Sherlock Holmes’s description of his nemesis, an antagonist constructed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle specifically for the purpose of being an equal and opposite to the great detective.
The name is synonymous with genius turned to darkness. The archenemy of our hero, in whatever form Moriarty appears, audiences feel uneasy watching him compete with the great detective.
I say “in whatever form he appears,” because it seems generally, when television writers choose to revive Sherlock Holmes from his slumber, they also deem it necessary to bring back his old enemy, Professor Moriarty.
In later works, of course, such as the BBC series “Sherlock,” people re-conceiving the character have chosen to imagine future possible conflicts between the detective and his arch-enemy. Giving the villain an expanded role makes sense; I suspect that many readers were deeply unsatisfied with the vagueness that Doyle deliberately applies to the struggle with Moriarty, and wanted a lengthy conflict between the two enemies that they could sink their teeth into. In the BBC series, in fact, Moriarty is the main villain for the first two seasons (the first two series, as the BBC calls them).
I prefer to evaluate the character of Moriarty through the other mediums he has appeared in since the conclusion of the Sherlock Holmes short stories by Doyle, and also through the influence he has had over the development of future characters. The problem with judging Moriarty solely by his initial appearance is that Doyle felt he could not afford to overuse the villain.
The Point of Moriarty
Every hero needs a villain. And one cannot be a truly great hero without a truly great villain. For most of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes bandied wits with opponents who were frankly ill-equipped to deal with an intellect of Holmes’s caliber. He was the archetypal “great detective,” after all, the most famous, well known and imitated of that character type.
But for the audience to ever really fear for Holmes’s victory and safety, he would need to fight an enemy with wits that could rival his own, and ruthlessness that recalled the most famously ruthless European political figure in memory at the time, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Specifically introduced in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” for the purpose of killing Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty has grown into perhaps fiction’s greatest example of the archenemy concept.
To underline the point that these two rivals were intended to be so closely matched, it is worth noting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt that he had to make do, in his original stories, with only a single direct conflict between the two, ending in both of their seeming deaths, because to do anything else would undermine either his hero or his villain. After all, if Moriarty could repeatedly elude Sherlock, the great detective could not have been so great. And if Sherlock could have continually opposed the professor without risking death, the professor could not have been so formidable as to actually end the saga of Sherlock Holmes.
The very name of Moriarty seems almost to be Doyle’s way of patting himself on the back for so artfully putting an end to his hero. The name “Moriarty” shares the same sounds with the series of words “Mori art ti,” which translated from Latin mean “to die is an art.”
The Appeal of Moriarty
“You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration of his skill.”
Before Moriarty, there was generally no need in detective stories for the hero to be chasing a particularly clever villain. The general perception of murderers and rogues, after all, is that they take the shortcuts they do in life because they are too lazy and stupid to do otherwise. To turn that conception on its head, and popularize the notion of the “evil genius,” then, has been a major aspect of Moriarty’s influence on subsequent fiction.
If you have seen “Breaking Bad” and marveled at the machinations of Gus Fring, if you have seen “The Usual Suspects,” and been impressed by the incredible story-telling inventions of Keyser Soze, if you have chuckled at the cruel crimes perpetrated by the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” then you have borne witness to the beauty of the criminal mastermind. The best details in all of these examples are things we see in Moriarty too. All of these men plan to the last detail (no matter how often the Joker says he’s not a schemer), all of them are unrepentantly devoted to their dark goals, and perhaps most importantly, we have little, if any, idea of what’s going through their heads.
Whether the truth is obscured by grim, stoic silence (Gus Fring), by an impenetrable smokescreen of lies (Keyser Soze), or by simple madness (the Joker, of course), nobody in the audience can understand the way any of these guys think. It would be a miracle if we anticipated their moves at any point in the story; the point of the criminal mastermind is that none of us think that way, and few of us are capable of approaching that sort of skill.
Criminal masterminds actually lose some of their stature, some of their power to awe and intimidate, if we fully understand the workings of their mind, their plans, their motivations, and their insecurities. Sure, go ahead and show me a flashback to the drug kingpin’s friend being murdered, as long as you don’t give me long motive-based monologues. Go ahead and give me a speech about the justice of chaos; just make sure that it doesn’t make any actual real sense.
Because if we really understand and sympathize with these guys, there’s a real danger that they’d start to lose what they were there for. They wouldn’t be symbols to fear and dread; they would be villain protagonists, like Michael Corleone from “The Godfather,” who by the end, I frankly pitied, or even worse, like Walter White, who has become nearly impossible to like as “Breaking Bad” has worn on, without gaining any of the air of enigma that helped make Gus Fring so breathtaking a character.
The Evil Genius as Philosopher
At one point in his description of his infamous adversary and would-be murderer, Holmes describes Moriarty as being a “philosopher,” as well as an “abstract thinker.” This phrasing, I think, is important, because it encapsulates some of the appeal of the evil genius concept itself. As Dr. No says in the James Bond film “Dr. No,” “the successful criminal brain is always superior.” This point is apparent in many great villains, particularly in evil geniuses like Moriarty.
Logically, we must realize that the evil genius is a thinker, not an idiot. And yet he has consciously chosen evil. Moral philosophers going back as far as Aristotle, though, believed it was impossible for men to genuinely choose what they know to be evil.
So when someone so much smarter than the average chooses to do wrong, it can make us question our own worldview, and commitment to morality. That’s what makes such a villain, depending on how they’re used, a great threat to the hero morally, and an unforgettable bad guy for the audience.
The best villains make us fear for the hero’s life, perhaps even for his sanity, and most importantly for his continuing ability to carry out the struggle against evil. No one who has seen the movie “Return of the Jedi” will ever forget the way the Emperor challenged Luke’s moral code, undermined his faith in his friends and the Force, and almost made him give in to his anger, with what was really only a brief conversation.
People reading or watching these scenes will understand from watching, both that the hero is incorruptible (or the villain would likely persuade him with his usually superior intellect), and that despite the hero being motivated by one thing, the villain is motivated by something else. On some level, this is perplexing, because we realize, in the back of our minds, that someone with better reasoning ability is choosing this unconventional moral idea. And if the antagonist is truly so clever, maybe he’s right.
"Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases."
This aphorism is the first truly controversial one to go on the blog, and seemingly very much more specific in its implications than the other aphorisms thus far. It indicts the healthcare industry for caring perhaps more about profits than about factual truth, or even actual health. Whether you agree that it’s true or not may say a great deal about one’s position on the direction of modern healthcare in general. The government has been able to do little to change the way pharmaceutical companies devise drugs, although that might be because they seem to have done very little to try, other than apply the procedures of the Food and Drug Administration, an organization that addresses an entirely different problem than that which the aphorism suggests.
When my father came into this land
Shortly before he’d had me, his lad,
He had trouble with his bootstrap hand
He was told his accent was quite bad
An obstacle to a gainful job
And so our pulling up might be slowed,
Unable to call some “uncle Bob”
To help him carry the heavy load.
But twas not in vain he’d left his kilt
In his home country, with kith and kin
My father would not just let his lilt
Keep him from the bread he had to win
He had not burnt his bridges, but then
No bridges home for him had been built
He would not, could not go home again
He was now invested to the hilt
He and my mother, his bonny lass
Had embarked alone on their own way
This was merely a benchmark to pass
Putting down roots and making some hay
Turned out the rejection was no loss
My father these days might proudly say
Nowadays those same folks call him boss
Because that’s the job he has today
I’d rather not know right from wrong, if I could help it,
So I could choose between the two based on their merit.
I will ignore right and wrong, both at work and at play.
If I were to observe them, it might hamper my day.
I see the world for what it is, and what it may be.
I stand apart from eras past: worlds lie within me.
So mighty, you stand there alone, big and bold and blue
Committed to defend our relative values true