December 11, 2006

M. R. James's warning to the Curious

M.R. James is one of my favourite English writers- he savours very much of the old common room with its editions of scholarly journals, discussions of obscure philosophers of the past and sense of history. He wrote ghost stories in the early part of the twentieth century to be told to the students of King's College Cambridge- a tradition gently mocked and exalted at the same time by Robertson Davies in his collection of ghost stories for Massey College. James's peculiar outlook was a deeply conservative one, he campaigned that women not be admitted to Cambridge as students and seemed irrevocably stuck in the world of collegiate male scholarly mice that he had made for himself.

Like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkein, his junior contemporaries, his world was that of the single sex Oxbridge College and like their fiction, his never really escapes it- the contrast though is interesting. Whereas Lewis's mental vision of Oxford has descended to the swift parry and counterthrust of polemical debate and Tolkein's vision of male comradeship became almost austerely sentimental or descended into a parody of what was might have been (vide Frodo and Sam), James had a much more intimate feel for that society. Lewis and Tolkein sought to defend it as it failed, James lived through its pomp and so his fiction doesn't defend such a society, it assumes it. Consequently what he writes has an amazing texture, a thickness of description of that world. He was a wandering antiquarian, he didn't need to imagine being one.

What runs through his stories though isn't an overt conservative political outlook but a far more interesting conservative disposition- his stories are about knowledge, its allure and its dangers and particularly the danger of the supernatural- they are often also about a world marginal to most lives at the moment, that of the solitary scholar- most often male- and mostly linked only to other scholars who lives in inns and archives. The Jamesian world is one where academics scarcely exist outside their books, suffused in a glow of dust, they sink to their library chairs and read and read and read.

There is obviously much in James of the romantic period of European thinking. James's ghost stories are conditioned by a Vicoian faith in the nature of humanistic studies. Like some ancient professor of the ars historica in sixteenth century Florence, for James there is little division between that that is old and that that is new. New thinking, whether it be that rationalism he mocks in a tale about witchcraft, the Ash Tree, or whether it be the hectoring tone of a young bully in the Wailing Well, always leads to disaster.

For James, both the rationalist knight in the Ash Tree and the bullying public school boy in the Wailing Well don't understand that ancient wisdom, the wisdom Coke or Burke saw built up over ages, trumps always the wisdom of a single mind. James's view of academia therefore is a worrying one- on the one hand the scholar's task has its fascinations but it also can become dangerous- it can become an instrument of novelty which seeks to open up the past, to reinvent the past. He has an inbuilt respect for those with an uncomprehending intimacy with the past- village elders almost never get things wrong in James.

Take the story of my title- A warning to the Curious. The story is about a crown, one of the crowns of the ancient Kingdom of East Anglia, now long lost. The title points to the theme- the issue is the search for knowledge about the crown and about those who have guarded it. James litters his text with signs of other minds around, other perceptions of reality. Like the good medievalist he was, he shows awareness of convention and style. So for example the scholar in pursuit of the crown finds signs to where it lies by following hints about where the ghost that guards it haunts. He finds seventeenth century verse to remind him about the Ager family that hold the crown, a wonderful styallistic piece of doggerell that fully captures the kind of rawly expressed piety of many in that time. There is a contrast between the local vicar and the locals themselves- James's scholar, like so many through the ages, finds himself in an isolation of education- the vicar alone is able to provide the clue to unlocking the folktale but he is isolated from the Boots of his hotel, the countrymen and women of the village and their wisdom to misdirect him.

There is, and I say this despite the fact its late at night and I can feel the shadows of a Jamesian ghost at my back as I write, no way that a scholar gets bitten back through his research- James may well have believed there was. James, like A.S. Byatt a very different writer in Possession, shows us that scholarship is intrusion. Its the taking over, the reunderstanding of another's life. The physical annexation of the crown is similar to the annexation of William Ager's life that our scholar performs. There is something unsettling about reading documents which noone meant you to read, touching things which were meant only to travel between a couple of people, there is something unsettling about violating the privacy of historical persons that every researcher of the past comes across. That is the novelty that I beleive James beleived was disquieting about scholarship- James was conservative enough to want people to be intimate with their pasts but not wish for prurience.

This most scholarly of writers therefore leaves us a set of ghost stories that are ambivalent about scholarship. Reading James is like reading a dramatisation of the tension between intimacy and prurience- James himself was fascinated by the past, fascinated by past ideas and lives. There is no way that his ghost stories could have been written without that fascination- but ultimately there is no way that his ghost stories could have been written without his worry about the violation of the human beings that he studied. Scholarship became dangerous in James's stories and perhaps in his beliefs because he wanted it to be- because he wanted the past to be the kind of neighbour to the present who could shut the window to the hidden camera, scream at the hidden microphone and kick out the papparazzi of the present.

James's politics are now obscure, the causes at Cambridge for which he battled are thankfully long defeated. But James's real vision never lay in politics, his skill lay dramatising the life of a particular kind of mind, the mind attracted by obscurity, by the particular past and by it with all its curiosities through the medium of the ghost story. He is nostalgic for a lost moment when he beleived we were intimates with our own pasts, but he also acknowledges that the price of such intimacy is a lack of education and for James education trumps it in the end. His village elders may never get things wrong, but they remain one dimensional. It is in the ambivalent depiction of the scholar, an intruder and a violater but also an appreciator of the past, that James excelled.

Go and read his stories, they are some of the most atmospheric and interesting short stories you will ever come across and this frail depiction has not captured either their charm, smooth style or intellectual glow!

(Incidentally there is another nice review of one of James's stories over at Normblog.)