Sherlock Holmes and the Shanghai Gesture

by Rodger Jacobs

23 April 2009

Basil Rathbone as Holmes & Nigel Bruce as & Dr. Watson 

A Case of Perpetual Intertextuality

Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes & Jude Law as Dr. Watson

“Unless the characters are trademarked, as Edgar Rice Burroughs had the foresight to do with his creation, Tarzan Lord of the Apes.”
“But,” I sputtered, “Burroughs created Tarzan in 1912, the same year Rohmer created Fu Manchu! Tarzan is protected from “parodic rejoinders” but you and I and Fu Manchu are stray orphans that can be picked up and moved about by any writer at whim? That’s madness, Holmes!”
“Tell me something, Watson: do you perceive any difference whatsoever between the creation of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and the so-called dreaded Yellow Peril that he represented for a paranoid world of 1912 and, say, the equally elusive specter of Osama bin Laden in a post 9/11 world? One was cut from the cloth of the other, a perfect intermingling of art and politics.”
“Or art and mind control.”
Tales From the Public Domain
Holmes moved to a side table piled high with papers, clippings, and research materials, and began sifting through the detritus in search of something. “Judge Alex Kosinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said that overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity, he said, is impossible, Watson, without a rich public domain. Ah ha! Here it is!”
With a flourish of dust, Holmes extracted from the clutter on the side table what appeared to be a garish American comic book with the improbable title Tales From the Public Domain: Bound By Law? I scoffed as Holmes pawed at the pages, found what he was searching for, and read aloud: “Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before.”

“I say, is that a … comic book, Holmes?”


cover art

Bound By Law?

Keith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins

Tales from the Public Domain

(Duke University Press)


cover art

The Songs He Didn’t Write

Derek Barker

Bob Dylan Under the Influence

(Chrome Dreams)

Holmes gazed languidly at the cover. “Yes, I suppose it is that, Watson, a monograph from Duke University on an extremely complex topic: intellectual property, the public domain, and free speech. In a digital world of remixed culture, every garage band and self-published poet and internet film-maker needs to understand the strange twists and turns of intellectual property law lest they find themselves on the wrong side of an infringement suit.

That the heady issue should be addressed in comic book form in no way negates the fact that this comic book—that you so scoff at—was created by three of Duke University’s brightest legal minds and is absolutely a must-have for anyone dabbling in the creative arts in contemporary society.”

Holmes sat down on the edge of the bed. His eyes were glassy and his hands rested on his bony knees, sometimes flopping about mindlessly as he spoke like a fish gasping for air on a dock.

“Consider the case of Bob Dylan, Watson,” he said through a morphic haze.

“Bob Dylan? Ho!” I laughed. “We’re going all over the map here, Holmes. Perhaps you should lie down before you become totally discombobulated.”

“It’s all related, Watson; intertextuality, a text’s quality of interdependence with all previous and future discourse. As an artist, Dylan reminds me much of Professor Moriarty. He is a shape-shifter, constantly exploring new and different sounds but at the root of it all there exist a small handful of interconnected music forms and traditions: blues and folk, Appalachian music – previously referred to disparagingly as Hillbilly Music – and even Talking Blues, a musical subgenre that harkens back to West African musical tradition before it was repopularized by the American singer Woody Guthrie.”

“And heaven knows Dylan is a Guthrie fan.”

“Precisely, Watson! Now you’re getting it!”

“Getting what, Holmes? All I’m getting is a splitting headache!”

Bob Dylan Under the Influence
Holmes pounced off the bed and began pacing the room furiously.

“In Dylan’s music there are persistent references to people and places of abstract myth: Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie, the Battle of Jericho, the mighty Mississippi, John Wesley Harding and Ruben Carter, cotton fields dripping with blood and sweat, and the ghosts of long-dead bluesmen. Dylan relentlessly returns to the past to create something new. The only original artist, Watson, is the first creator of cave art and even he was probably copying someone else. This creates a very exciting prospect—”

Holmes reached under the Persian pillow and extracted a thick paperback book. I gazed at the title on the cover: The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence. “Where on earth did you find this, Holmes, and to what end—”

“The author, Derek Barker, is an Englishman, Watson. Such is his status as an expert on all things Bob Dylan that he regularly advises premiere auction houses like Christie’s in London and New York on the authenticity of Dylan memorabilia. This exhaustively researched volume contains entries for 550 songs that Dylan has covered from the works of other singers and songwriters: material covered in concerts, private party sessions, informal coffee house appearances.

It’s a veritable encyclopedia of Dylan’s musical influences with biographical information on the major influences such as W.C. Handy, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, John Koerner. It is an absolutely indispensible addition to Dylan lore; not exactly light reading for the bedside table, mind you, but deserving of an accessible shelf in a collection of studies on the topic at hand, which would be, naturally, intertextuality.”

The man was on his feet and pacing the floor once more. “What if you were to substantially rewrite our adventures, Watson? Revise them with an eye to what came before, who influenced my skills of detection and my cunning use of logic? If we drill down that deep, Watson, we may finally unmask the true identity of Professor Moriarty.”

“Or give ourselves a migraine headache. I say, Holmes, I still don’t understand how all this gibberish about intertextuality is supposed to make me understand The Shanghai Gesture, all you’ve done is gone on and on and on about cave art and copyright law and Duke University professors writing a comic book, Tarzan and Fu Manchu, Gone with the Wind, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes!”

Holmes fingered the collar of his Inverness cape, hanging on a coat rack near the door.

“I can sum up how I feel about The Shanghai Gesture thus, Watson: What if I was to tell you that another medical professional was vying for your position as my personal physician and assistant?”

“Who might be so damnably foolish to solicit such a thankless occupation?”

Holmes turned to me with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

“Wake up, Watson, wake up! His name is … Doctor Benway.”

I was suddenly as nervous as a cat shitting razor blades.


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