February 18, 2007

Lost Hearts: Magic, Theology and M.R. James

I have written before about the great Edwardian ghost story writer M.R. James but I wish to make a further comment upon his story called Lost Hearts. It concerns the mysterious ghostly happenings at a country house inhabited by an old scholar and his recently invited nephew. The old scholar emersed in the works of Simon Magus and Hermes Trismegistus looks upon his nephew as a resource to be exploited, in the dark wombs of his mind he conceives of a plan to bring forth ever lasting life based on ancient knowledge and militating against modern morality. To say any more would be to disturb the story that James tells- and its a story worth hearing or reading without any further information.

The interest though for this entry lies in the relationship that James describes between magic and morality- one thinks of the Witch of Endor, a woman in the Bible with great but harmful power. Theologically magic has always occupied an uncertain place- hence the dark depths of hell into which Simon Magus historically was plunged and James exemplifies such a trend. For him magic sits in a world without revelation- all of the magicians referred to are men without the gospel and are men without scruple. Against them we have the country naive folk as often in James- but in the Lost Hearts those country folk are cast in the traditional pose- they know of magic but they fear it and esteem the value of prayer above all other things. Magic over the twentieth century has become more benign- in the hands of authors like J.R.R. Tolkein for example the magician or the wizard was seen as a good figure, inspiring the hero and aiding him on his quest. (Tolkein is suitably for such a subtle figure much more interesting than that in the way that he describes the magician.) But James's ambivalence represents an old tradition of thinking as well that sees in magic the meddling of human beings with powers higher than themselves, that sees in the attempt to make miracles an attempt to make a human being God- and consequently to step beyond morality or in this tale beyond the vengeance of Ghosts.

Its an interesting story- I recommend it- not merely for the concept I've tried to explain here but also for its literary merit.


Political Umpire said...

Good post. Gracchi, I have a request (and know how pressed you are at the moment, so feel free to ignore). I have been particularly irked by the revisionist history that has led to all of the WWI soldiers shot for cowardice being pardoned recently. I have posted this morning accordingly. I would be interested in your views as an historian on this, in particular:

(i) has this been the result of a proper historical inquiry?

(ii) even if so, is this sort of thing desirable? What are we doing overruling 90 year old verdicts? Can we really begin to understand that era, which is so far removed from our own?

(iii) if so, what sort of 'beginning and end' principles can we come up with. In other words, if WWI verdicts then why not seek to undo the Norman Invasion? Why just military deaths? What of civil judgments that would be decided differently these days (a great many would, and theoretically people would have inherited substantial fortunes if they had been).


Gracchi said...

Cheers Umpire and thanks.

I'm going to have to disappoint you slightly

i I don't really know

ii and iii I'll have a think about and come back to you on.

Ellee said...

I must say this is new to me, thanks for another great literary perspective.