Saturday, July 4, 2015

Believing in Sherlock Holmes . . . still.

Remember that great Sherlock meme from a couple of years ago?

"I believe in Sherlock Holmes."

It was a very cool thing that sprang out of the finale to season two of BBC's Sherlock, in which Moriarty had completely discredited Sherlock Holmes as a fraud and the detective had, to the world's eyes, committed suicide at being ruined so. But the idea that someone out there still knew the truth, even when superficial evidence pointed otherwise, resonated with fans of the show, who did know the truth. And the best way to express that?

"I believe in Sherlock Holmes."

I was watching a documentary called "An Honest Liar," about a well known skeptic named James Randi last night, and it made me think of that meme again. At the point in the film when it got to his debunking of a prominent faith healer of the day, I was at first reminded of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle . . . Randi is a big Houdini fan . . . and how no matter how much Houdini tried to debunk fraudulent spiritualists, Conan Doyle wanted to believe that such a thing existed.

That's the problem with debunking frauds, myths, and mass delusions. Usually those things exist because they fill a need in those people that hold tight to them. Belief is a very irrational thing, a tool the human mind uses when it doesn't have all the facts, when choices must be made without the proper tools to make them. And if we use belief too much to make our choices, eventually we start making that single aid our go-to shortcut instead of using rational analysis.

So what do we believe when we believe in Sherlock Holmes?

At the time that meme was going around, it was a bit of a cult of personality. A love of the character Benedict Cumberbatch played for two seasons, a way to hold tight to the anticipation that the character would be back for a season three and restore his good name. But Sherlockians have believed in Sherlock Holmes for a lot longer than just the between-seasons time of a single TV show.

Watching "An Honest Liar" and seeing James Randi's battles with Uri Geller, the spoon-bending trickster who claimed he could bend metal with his mind, I couldn't help but thinking of what was always at the core of our friend Sherlock Holmes . . . the triumph of truth over falsehood. But even as Randi demonstrated how Geller performed his frauds, there were still people who wanted to believe a man could bend spoons with his mind. Even "scientists" in the field of parapsychology, who thought Randi's exposing flaws in their methodology set back the study of psychic powers they steadfastly believed to exist.

If you think about it, the same thing probably occurred when Sherlock Holmes solved The Hound of the Baskervilles. You can bet there remained Dartmoor locals who still held that the demon hound from Hell was still real, even after Stapleton was exposed and his dog shot. "The Hound is still out there!' they might claim, keeping their lives a little more exciting, reinforcing their religious beliefs in a waiting Hell, or just because their father always told them the story when they were young. And, of course, there would still be those who said, "I believe in Sherlock Holmes's explanation."

These days we see a lot of those kinds of disagreements. And because the word "believe" can be used in describing both notions, some would even say they are equal. But all beliefs aren't equal.

Saying "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" is a funny thing. It sounds a lot like you're saying "I believe in Santa Claus," and that you're a child who naively thinks a story they heard when they were too young to know better was true. It's not something any politician would say on record, not something anyone who was jittery about what people think would state publicly. It worked as a fandom meme, but beyond our happy Sherlock-o-sphere?

What does it mean to believe in Sherlock Holmes?

He started out as a fictional character. He grew to a fictional character with a resonating reality that touched a great many people. He came a legend, and beyond that . . . a symbol.

Sherlock Holmes is a symbol for our hope that a person can find out the truth in a given situation. A symbol for our confidence that our studies, our sciences, and our simply paying close attention can show us the hidden truths of so many mysteries. Sherlock Holmes isn't just a symbol for drug addiction or Asperger's awareness or magically smart geeks who do things we can't. He's the symbol for the best of what we can be when faced with seemingly unsolvable problems. A symbol that reason can win our over superstition. There are no vampires or ghosts in the world of Sherlock Holmes, no matter how many pastiches try to shove them in there as a creative crutch. Because Sherlock Holmes solves ghosts and vampires.

He has the explanation.

Believing in Sherlock Holmes is believing that there is an explanation.

Which has always made him the coolest guy ever, wrapped in a Cumberbatch package or otherwise.

I believe in Sherlock Holmes. You probably do, too, or else you wouldn't have finished reading this little discourse. Every now and then, it's good to think about just what that phrase means to you.

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