An unlikely yet utterly engaging new take on Sherlock Holmes: as a spiritual guide and master of a Zen-like approach to observation who can provide insight for the modern, skeptical searcher.
Taking inspiration from Holmes's comment to Dr. Watson-- "You see but you do not observe"--Stephen Kendrick examines the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle for the religious and metaphysical lessons they offer. He maintains that detective fiction can be read as religious parable, and that the methods of investigation--particularly that of careful observation, what Buddhism calls "Bare Attention"--used in solving crime are the same methods that yield religious insight when applied to the world and the human heart. the lessons of detection--nothing is insignificant, notice what you see, the bizarre is not always mysterious, never presume anything--are also instructions in how to become attuned to the mystery of life and God.
Wide-ranging and eclectic in its approach, this is a perceptive and entertaining look at a cultural icon, at the most profound issues of life and death, and at what one has to teach us about the other.
Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable detective Sherlock Holmes once remarked to his erstwhile assistant, Dr. Watson, "you see, but you do not observe." Kendrick, the parish minister of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, Conn., contends that Holmes's remark functions much like a Zen koan, generating insights into the realm beyond reason. Kendrick engages in a close reading of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories to demonstrate that detective fiction erects a method of discovering truth that requires much of the same engagement that various religions require to discover spiritual insight. Holmes's inquisitiveness and his attention to the details of the case resemble, the author says, what Buddhism calls "bare attention." Following his analysis of the Holmesian "gospel," Kendrick comes to several conclusions: "Our vision is sound; we have to train our hearts and minds to notice what we see"; "Nothing is little; our lives are more significant than we can know; it is often through our pain and guilt that we encounter the hidden God"; "Religion is found not only in the spectacular but in the simple, the ordinary, the plain and everyday, and all this is aglow with the mystery of awe." Kendrick's lively readings of the Sherlock Holmes stories combine a deep sense of how attentiveness to the details of ordinary life can yield extraordinary insights into the life of the spirit. (June)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 10, 2000
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Excerpt from Holy Clues by Stephen Kendrick
The worst roommate of all time must have been Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who kept tobacco in the toe of his slipper, performed malodorous chemical experiments at all hours, saluted his queen by forming the letters V.R. on his Baker Street walls with bullet holes, and, in general, lived a chaotic and eccentric life.
The worst part of all for the faithful John H. Watson, fiction's most famous roomie, must have been the many and wearying demonstrations of his own slowness in the mental department. Dr. John H. Watson is not a fool, but he accepts that part of the bargain of being Holmes's partner in adventure is to have to endure being shown up over and over: "I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbors, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes." In fact, it is an old narrative trick, as old as the easily awed questioners of Socrates and the inability of Jesus' disciples to understand the message of their teacher, highlighting genius with an ordinary soul standing in for you and me. Besides, Holmes cannot be a teacher without a dutiful student.
At the beginning of the first short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes performs his favorite trick, one that often begins the stories. He deduces from small details of Watson's appearance, clothing, and shoes that his friend has been walking in the country, has a careless servant girl, and is back in medical practice. After carefully detailing how he picked up all the little clues, Watson laughs. "When I hear you give your reasons, the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe my eyes are as good as yours."
Holmes agrees, and makes one of the most important statements in all the canon: "You see, but you do not observe."
Then he challenges Watson to state how many steps lead to 221-B, steps he has climbed hundreds of times.
"How many? I don't know."
"Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point."
The answer is seventeen, a relatively insignificant fact, to be sure, but Holmes is absolutely insistent that each one of us must learn to see this world in just such a clear way. Watson never quite awakens to the fact that he is living with someone as focused as a Zen master, a spiritual teacher who just happens to have a fondness for tracking down criminals. Despite the light tone of the stories and their sly wit, Holmes is not playing a game with his "teachings" but rather enacting quite serious demonstrations about how to truly see our world. These stories are, at last, not just about apprehending criminals, but about apprehending reality. The detective is instructing his friend to learn what Buddhists call "bare attention." An old Zen tale describes a student badgering the teacher Ichu over and over about the core of the teaching. The master writes with his brush the word Attention. Not satisfied, the student asks, "Is that it?" In response, he writes, Attention, Attention. Now irritated, the student replies, "What is profound about that?" Writing the word three times, he calmly answers, "Attention means attention."
Which means the moment of perception before our thoughts take over, before our concepts and notions intervene. Bare attention is seeing things as they exactly are. Holmes sees with brilliance, true, but he sees, more importantly, with keen accuracy and without grand theories that twist truth into ideas and down blind alleys. The Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein describes bare attention as "impartial, open, nonjudgmental, interested, patient, fearless, and impersonal."
Jesus speaks to this in Matthew, alluding to Isaiah's observation that "You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. . . ." To which Jesus adds: "Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it . . ." (13:16). Not to mention police!
You and I are generally used to seeing things the way Watson does. Holmes is not content, however; he clearly thinks anyone can reach insight in the way we approach seeing. The problem is that our usual vision is equivalent to blindness. The Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel states it in another fashion: "The demand, as understood in Biblical religion, is to be alert and open to what is happening. . . . Every moment is a new arrival, a new bestowal." Perhaps the worst sin, then, is to stop paying attention.
This chapter is perhaps the very heart of this book, outlining five principles drawn from the Holmes stories that show us how to see with new attention.