Friday, July 12, 2013

Of Violence at Meiringen

“Man longs for the gift of full vision, to see past and future as well as his present, and to see it all through his own eyes. And so, thousands of miles from home, after long expectation I had come, not for a waterfall per se, however scenic, but to find a historic spot, the end of a rocky path, a few square feet of blackish soil kept forever soft.” — Dr. Philip S. Hench, “Of Violence at Meiringen,” in Exploring Sherlock Holmes (1957)

A new exhibit opened July 11. It is the latest edition in a string of triennial exhibits I’ve curated, going back to 1998. Each exhibit has been about Sherlock Holmes and associated with what has now become a tradition: a triennial Holmesian conference. Each conference has had a theme—2001: A Sherlockian Odyssey; A River Runs By It: Holmes and Doyle in Minnesota (2004); Victorian Secrets and Edwardian Enigmas (2007); The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes (2010). This year’s theme is “Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Place.”

Although I’m using the conference theme as the exhibit title, I could very well have titled it “Of Violence at Meiringen,” as the entire exhibit focuses on a small point in time, a precise place, and a pair of remarkable scholar-collectors. The time is the 1950s; the place is the Reichenbach Falls and the nearby Swiss village of Meiringen; the scholar-collectors are Nobel laureate and Mayo Clinic physician Dr. Philip S. Hench and his wife, Mary Kahler Hench. Together, they explored the life, times, and places of Sherlock Holmes, including the area near Meiringen and the Reichenbach—site of the epic struggle between Holmes and his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

The violence Hench speaks of is connected to a number of events: the May 4, 1891 struggle at the Reichenbach Falls between Holmes and Moriary; the October 1891 fire that destroyed at least half of Meiringen’s buildings, with the loss of one life; and the realization, during a 1953 trip to Meiringen, that while memories of the fire remained, no one could remember the “Great Encounter” between the Master Detective and the Napoleon of Crime. Dr. Hench reflected on this literary violence:

To “murder” a man is crime enough: to “murder” the memory of a good man is worse. But to “murder” and then to bury the cherished memory of a great and good man, to destroy him, to tear him from the heart, to erase him from history and thus to eradicate all respectful memory of him (even if only from the knowledge of a single admirer, actual or potential), that is the worst of all. Surely, robbing a man of his “immortality” represents a violence against all humanity and justice. I could only wonder: has this happened to the memory of Sherlock Holmes, in Meiringen of all places! To neglect the memory of Sherlock Holmes, i.e., to forget him, is bad enough. But for those…pleasant people not even to know of him, that is even worse!... But however limited this area of ignorance (of Holmes) may be, and whatever excuse may be given for it, most surely a “crime” against the memory of Sherlock Holmes, and all that he still stands for, has been done in my presence this day!

The exhibit displays a number of prints collected by Dr. and Mrs. Hench during their trips to Switzerland; research notes, maps, and other materials gathered as they explored Meiringen and environs; copies of original printings of the Holmes adventure “The Final Problem”; materials documenting efforts by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota to raise a memorial plaque at the site of the Holmes-Moriarty encounter; and items documenting the impact Holmes has on the tourism industry at Meiringen.

Dr. Hench later recounted his Swiss adventure as a chapter in Exploring Sherlock Holmes. He ended his account with these words:

Our plaque is, in effect, to serve as an envoy of good will, accredited to the Swiss in general, to Meiringen in particular. Bearing the names of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and of the Norwegian Explorers, the plaque serves as a friendly symbol of mutual interests. The plaque carries the features of a mutual friend who, both in this and in another likeness, lived and labored among our three peoples. To those who follow us we commend his life, character, and achievements.

The violence at Meiringen was no more. Justice was done. Holmes lives!

Images of items from the exhibit will also be available for online viewing in the UMedia Archive. The exhibit runs until September 27.

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