Elementary, My Dear Watson
Footsteps in fog on London streets. Mrs. Hudson. Tobacco stuffed in a stocking. Oatmeal and kippers for breakfast. Holmes alternately praising Watson for his loyalty and fellowship and then staging, on two separate occasions, his own death. (In an oddly cruel follow-up, he surprises Watson with his deception from beneath a three-penny stage disguise.) The Spider Woman. The Woman in Green. The Scarlet Claw. Watson filling in for Holmes at the flat with near-fatal results. Lestrade shouting “Coincidence!” when the audience knows a sinister plot is afoot. And the purely Victorian means of death: a giant spider; a dagger spring-loaded into a dictionary; the Hoxton Horror, who breaks a man’s back for no apparent reason since a non-fatal robbery would have sufficed.
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are a peculiar on-screen pairing. Their relationship is equal parts domination and fellowship, humor and ego, and their cinematic friendship developed apart from the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Since the pairing is one of my favorite things, a cheerful pick-me-up on a winter’s night, it started me thinking. My other favorite things are equally odd—neither packages tied up with string nor raindrops on roses. (Apologies—my 16-year-old daughter just sang the part of a nun in The Sound of Music.) My list is darker.
I loved the moment when my second child, Caroline, came in dead last in the 1-mile run at her school’s Field Day. She remained steadfast and cheerful. Or when my son, Charlie, sang terribly off-key in the musical version of Tom Sawyer but brought the house down by singing louder and more animatedly than everyone else. Or when Charlie disappeared in a London hotel during an afternoon nap. After 20 minutes of heart-stopping panic (including reviewing the security tapes of the front entrance), I discovered him sleeping in the room next door where he had sleepwalked from his sister’s room. Life has never been sweeter.
Death has its own appeal. A buck fills the scope, the trigger is pulled, and he drops to the snow. The chase of dog after rabbit. A neighbor who cheerfully orchestrated her own “going-away party” and then her own ending after receiving a terminal diagnosis. And my first and most lasting vision of death from early childhood—a black-suited farmer stretched out in an open coffin on a sunny day at our small Methodist church at the edge of a cornfield.
All these favorite things contain an element of suffering. This seems odd, I suppose, but Buddhists embrace the potential of suffering. They teach that pain is not to be avoided; it is part of life, the flip side of happiness. As they say, “Inhale pain, exhale joy.” For some, it turns us inward. For others, it is the connection to the rest of the human experience; it opens us up to the world.
Joyful moments are created when we see ourselves connected to others. And this, if I may, is the appeal of Holmes and Watson. Holmes sees himself above the crowd—he even manipulates his best friend to gain advantage over an adversary. But the audience knows that Holmes could not exist without Watson, without his essential kindness, his good fellowship and loyalty. Holmes solves the crime but is unable to unravel the mystery of his own existence.
Holmes is parsimonious with his affection for Watson. Once in a while he says, “Good old Watson,” but he is more often cruel than kind. In The Spider Woman, Holmes fakes his own death. He comes back to life in the guise of a quarrelsome postman who, for no apparent reason, baits Watson to violence by questioning Holmes’s own reputation. He says, “He was no great detective from what I heard. Just one of them easy chair Johnnies. Would sit on his tail and let everybody else do the dirty work.” He adds, “. . . it’s my opinion that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was nothing more but an old herring gut,” at which point Watson punches him in the face. Once he reveals his true identity, Watson is stunned and asks, “How could you play such a trick on me?” Incredibly, Holmes responds by blaming Watson, “You brought it on yourself, old man, throwing open my records to the public, tipping off every criminal in the country. The sheer addle-headedness, you’ve surpassed yourself.” Watson replies, “I’ll never forgive you for this, Holmes, not until my dying day.” Of course, forgiveness is indeed at hand, usually by the next scene.
The most poignant moment in all the Rathbone/ Bruce series is during Pursuit to Algiers. While on a boat to Algiers, Watson reads a telegram that confirms the crash of a plane that supposedly carried Holmes. (Yet another cruel Holmes deception.) Watson looks down and says, “No. It can’t be true. Holmes. Holmes gone.” Then he steps out on deck and stands by the rail, his back dark and to the camera. This scene lasts 20 seconds with little movement.
That image, a grieving Watson, his back to the camera, peering down into the depths is what gives life to the character of Sherlock Holmes. If nobody cared about Holmes the man, the audience wouldn’t care about Holmes the detective. And, for the most part, Holmes was a vain, arrogant Victorian and an ofttimes heartless companion who humiliated his best friend.
The suffering of one makes the other more human.
Or as the Buddhists would say, in suffering, and in the suffering of others, we discover our own humanity. And, as Sherlock would say, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”