Tuesday, 20 November 2012
More things in heaven and earth
It was clear listening to Miller and re-watching the film, that Miller really does not have much interest in ghosts or ghost stories. Or rather his interest was a purely philosophical or possibly anthropological one. This M R James story seemed to give him the opportunity to explore his interest in notions of the rational and irrational mind.
In the film, Michael Horden's Professor Parkin has a conversation with another guest - Ambrose Goghill as the Colonel - at breakfast who asks him if the professor believes in ghosts. When Parkin dismisses the notion, the Colonel quotes from Hamlet, saying 'There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy.' To which Parkin responds by saying, much to his own amusement, 'There is more in philosophy than is dreamt of in heaven and earth.'
Horden and Miller had a lot of fun with the notion of this smug and eccentric academic, brilliantly portrayed by Horden and based on Miller's own experience of philosophy tutors at Oxford. But this is a curious thing about M R James.
M R James was the very Cambridge academic who features in so many of his stories. He was the very antiquarian who so often comes to a sticky end, skewered on the point of their own scepticism. And yet James was a sceptic just like Miller. And Lawrence Gordon Clark. And me.
So what is going on here? Why is M R James punishing these fictional versions of himself for being rational when he himself was a highly thought of scholar?
I asked Miller if madness was of particular interest to him as he seemed to be drawn to work where madness or irrationality held sway - he had done a very famous version of Alice in Wonderland for instance, and mentioned his direction of Hamlet.
He didn't altogether answer the question but he did give a fascinating response which stated his view of the rational which seemed identical to the 'more in philosophy' jibe of Parkin's. He does not believe that a person can survive their own death and so whatever is being called a ghost has another explanation - one that has been missed or one that has not yet been discovered.
And to be fair, I think that is my position too. Ghosts make no sense to me. Why are they not everywhere? If they are the spirits of those who have unfinished business then there ought to be millions of ghosts because surely every victim of war, plague, famine, murder had unfinished business. If they can appear on photographs then why are they not on every photograph. Every inch of this country is built upon the dead.
I think M R James was imagining his worst fears when he wrote those stories. You have to scare yourself when you write a ghost story. You have to try at least. Not only that, he was writing for an audience of academics ( at least some of the time) as these stories were read to friends and students. What is the intellectuals greatest fear? It is the fear of the loss of his intellectual faculties. If a person who believes in ghosts sees a ghost, then it would be frightening, but at least they could accomodate it into their word view. If you are sure that ghosts do not exist and yet still see one, then you would have to believe that you were insane. A lack of belief in ghosts is only a protection against them until you actually encounter one.
M R James was creating bogeymen to unsettle the rational. And he did a good job.