Saturday, September 28, 2019

Actual facts versus the "truthy" ones we hold dear

Well, there are still a few Sherlockians out there who will bother to try to correct me when I'm wrong these days, though most will just let me prattle on and just ignore my silliness. I got a "well, actually" sort of note tonight from a Sherlockian of note, and it really filled my head full of curious little ponderings. So, to quote our friend Sherlock, "Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you."

It gets back to a blog I wrote last Saturday about Ronald Knox being "the most important man in Sherlockiana." Is he? Is he really? Well, the historical record can definitely shower one with indicators that such is not really the case. And Jon Lellenberg has actually provided a lengthy article along that line, entitled "The Ronald Knox Myth." He's correct, of course. Knox probably didn't have as much influence upon Christopher Morley and the American founding fathers of Sherlockiana in the 1930s as we tend to imagine he might have.

But then I remembered May Lamberton Becker, whose review of that great 1944 Sherlockian trinity of books, I wrote about in a post last month. I'm not sure just what paper the review clipping I have came from, but I'm pretty sure Mrs. Becker was living in England at the time she wrote that review. And in the second paragraph of that review, she starts talking about "Young Ronald Knox" and how "One might say theology set in motion the great Sherlock Holmes myth."

As Jon points out in his essay, Knox's classic "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" did not appear in any Sherlockian collection until 1958, and before that had just been collected in Knox's own Essays in Satire around 1930. But that fact that May Lamberton Becker was familiar with it enough, and found it key enough, to include in a book review circa 1944?

Things might have been a little different among the Holmesians of England, regarding Knox, than they were with the Sherlockians of America. But I really didn't start this particular essay to build any sort of case using May Lamberton Becker. What I originally intended this piece to be about was that thing Stephen Colbert coined as "truthiness."

Defined as "the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true," Colbert parodied that approach to life hard in his show The Colbert Report. A whole lot of people are leaning hard into truthiness these days. And when it comes to Ronald Knox, even though as I originally was lauding him as the Great Founder of All Sherlockiana, a part of me knew that was pretty much hyperbole, and that the nuts and bolts of the thought didn't necessarily all fall into place. But, even now, I find myself really resisting the idea that Knox and his brilliant little bit of parody wasn't the All-Father of Sherlockiana. As you can see, even now I'm elevating the Great Source of 221Beams to higher and higher status in my mind palace.

And why not? Before Colbert came up with truthiness, Vincent Starrett came up with his poem "221B" and that line "Only those things the heart believes are true." Starrett's poem was like the Sherlockian Pledge of Allegiance when I was coming up, and as he wrote it in 1942, it wasn't inspiring Morley and the boys either. And yet, I can't seem to shake it as part of the package like it sprang into being with A Study in Scarlet in 1887.

There's a reason we've been called "the cult of Sherlock Holmes" on occasion over the years. Like many a religious denomination, we do like to cherry pick our own versions of our Sherlockian belief systems, even though our "cult" has only been around a hundred years of so and we do actually have some historical records on it, if we care to look. There are actual religions in the same youthful state.

Looking at our own beliefs-versus-facts is a good exercise in these days when a certain cult of personality or two seems to be trying to cling to power, just to see what must be going on in the heads of those folks who seem to be believing in charlatans. We all have our weak spots, our easy-access points, and those things we love just too much to let go of, even when faced with a fact or two that indicates otherwise. But, in the end, we all need to be able to tell the difference between a harmless and acceptable fantasy like Santa Claus and a dangerous-to-deny force of nature like gravity or fire.

Sherlockiana, luckily, is still a field harmless enough that a mistaken belief or two might just be okay for a while.

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