Viewing lines from the Sherlockian Canon in isolation is always a marvelous thought experiment, and nothing isolates lines from the text like Twitter. This morning Scott Monty dropped this classic quote from "The Adventure of the Red Circle:"
"Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for last."
In a pawky mood of the moment, I replied with "Always sounds grander if you don't think of the last lesson as 'Whoops! Shouldn't have done that!'" But once I was set on the course of actually thinking about that line, I couldn't stop. I mean, we usually assume he means "insert your afterlife here" and take that as the greatest lesson. But is the afterlife necessarily a lesson?
My mind immediately shot to that scene from the South Park series where the director of Hell was explaining to the new arrivals, "I'm afraid it was the Mormons Yes, Mormons were the correct answer." So in the South Park universe, the last lesson for most was that you should have been a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. But for Sherlock Holmes?
The emphasis of the quote is really on life-long learning, and not what comes after, but it does reveal something of Holmes. I like to think of "Red Circle" as occurring on Sherlock Holmes's birthday due to his other actions in the case but that line sounds like the sort of birthday contemplation one might have as the years pass and one feels mortality's full weight.
We know that Watson's literary agent, Conan Doyle, was heavily concerned with matters of the afterlife, so he would have seen death as a doorway to an existence he was very curious about. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand? When you think about his work, and all of the death scenes he got to have a look at, Sherlock Holmes's final questions might have taken a different tack.
What did death feel like? How did the murder victim look upon his killer in those last moments? Was there an awareness, an ability to observe that which the eye did not normally see? Thinking about how much focus Sherlock Holmes put upon his profession and how he seemed to apply all lessons he learned in life toward that art of detection, might he not have see some detective purpose in in that final act?
"It is a series of lessons with the greatest for last." In Holmes's mind, we are going to learn something in passing, something greater than everything we have learned before . . . and, apparently, were to learn after. The last lesson would have to be the one where a person gained all knowledge, so no further lessons are necessary . . . plainly the greatest lesson, gaining all knowledge.
There's a concept I always like to play with that I call "God's library," where books and publications exist that contain all the unknowable facts. Want the actual statistics on how many toilet paper rolls in private homes are installed with the paper coming over the top of the roll versus under the bottom? With graphs by month and year since the invention of toilet paper? It would be there. Roger Ebert reviews of every movie ever, even the ones he never saw? It would be there. Tasteful nudes of all your high school teachers painted by Tiziano Vecello (or "Titian" as the English like to call him)? That would be there, too. A mind palace greater than the universe itself, containing all that is or ever could be . . . that would be the dream of a man like Sherlock Holmes. Maybe even his heaven, unless you consider the dark side of all knowledge. (Maybe your high school teachers didn't look as good as some of mine.)
Perhaps we should all just concentrate on the series of lessons that Holmes was really emphasizing with that quote and let the greatest one just come when it does . . . but now and then, you just have to wonder about it, as with everything Sherlock.
Which is part of what makes this such a great hobby. So many lessons.