Woolgathering

The other day, I had a good example of one sort of liminal thinking that goes on when you’re not actually doing any proper thinking, and which for quite long periods seems to do the duty of proper thinking.

I’ve been reading Crashed, Adam Tooze’s… I guess ‘monumental’ is the only word?… history of the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences. On the tube going into work I read this sentence:

In the general crisis of legitimacy in 2010–2011 there was no Archimedean point. There was no place to stand above the fray.

Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (p. 398). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Although the general importance of the point about a crisis of legitimacy and the undermining of technocratic principles was of interest, the phrase ‘Archimedean point’ burned vividly and resulted in a tessellation of thoughts and references unfolding back out across recent experience.

This phrase describing the notional point of distance from the Earth one would need to stand to lever (move or weigh) it, is used in a Richard Eberhart 1947 poem ‘Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God’s Revelation’ – Kierkegaard.

I first heard not read the poem listening to Geoffrey Hill’s extremely enjoyable Oxford lectures when he was Professor of Poetry there. This reading from the 2012 Michaelmas term lecture, Fields of Force.

That poem contains a line that had been much in my head over the emotional landscape of last couple of years:

All the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers

But the line is not as such Eberhart’s, exactly. It is in fact, as Hill makes clear, a line from a Søren Kierkegaard journal entry of 1837, translated by Alexander Dru for an English selection of the journals published in 1938. And in fact the original translation is ‘All the flowers of my heart turn to ice flowers’. In the original Swedish:

Enhver mit Hjertes Blomst bliver til en Iisblomst

This is translated in the Indiana University Press edition of the complete Journals (by Edna and Howard Hong), as Every flower of my heart turns into a frost flower. That’s an odd choice. Iisblomst seems better represented both in terms of image and rhythm by ‘ice flower’. And regardless the form ‘all the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers’ had become symbolic to me of the emotional landscape I had been inhabiting.

I had in fact already been reminded of it very recently reading a good piece on Petrarch in the London Review of Books.

A series of puns in Canzoniere 239 begins conventionally with ‘dolce l’aura al tempo novo’ (‘the sweet breeze in springtime’); then becomes rather weirder, ‘col bue zoppo andrem cacciando l’aura’ (‘with a lame ox we will go hunting the breeze’); and finally arrives at one of those lines of pure lyric dynamite that lurk throughout the collection: ‘in rete accolgo l’aura e ’n ghiaccio i fiori’ (‘in a net I gather the breeze and in the ice flowers’).

Nicholl, Charles. “On the Sixth Day.” Rev. of Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer, by Christopher Celenza. London Review of Books
 41.3 (2019): 23-26. 9 Mar. 2019 <https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n03/charles-nicholl/on-the-sixth-day>.

‘Ice flowers’ as a fragment of this significant emotional symbol caused me to look up from the article and stare out of the window for a while. This meant that I didn’t notice what I should have noticed, even with my rudimentary Italian, and supposed better English poetic parsing, that ‘ice flowers’ is not here a noun phrase. I must have noticed something was amiss because I haplessly reverse logicked it and decided I quite liked the odd way – disconcerting, slightly haunting – ‘ice flowers’ didn’t have a referent, unless perhaps it was breeze.

‘In a net I gather the breeze and in the ice, flowers’ is the meaning, and no matter the fluidity of the original medieval Italian, probably needs that comma.

But I do not think I would have noticed the phrase had that comma, that small humanist innovation just post-dating Petrarch, been present.

Woolgathering. Carding the wool of language and thought. The processing that takes place beneath thought. An underground emotional shuttling of data and information around our hidden frames of reference, from digitally recorded lectures (incomplete), to translation decisions and the poetry of language, and half-noticed phrases leaping by association to others. From the tube in March 2019, through to the Eurozone Crisis of 2010-2012, to a notional point in the cosmos from which you can shift the Earth itself, posited by a 3rd Century BC Sicilian, to Geoffrey Hill in Oxford in 2012, to Eberhart in Boston in 1947 working at his wife’s father’s floor wax company in the aftermath of the war, to the graduate Kierkegaard in Copenhagen 1837 at the beginnings of his relationship with Regine Olsen, to the publishing almost a century later of Alexander Dru’s 1938 translation, to my front room a couple of weeks beforehand reading the LRB, then whirling back to trecento Italy, and Petrarch’s infatuation for ‘Laura’, the path strewn, like breadcrumbs in the forest, with the flowers of the heart.

[This too-lyrical ending was not how I had intended to finish this – I got carried away and decided to let it stand, on the suggested basis that in one view, no matter the cognitive and neurochemical processes, the vehicle for these transactions is feeling and emotion.

However, the word jumped into my mind when considering this process was ‘cachinnation’, and no matter how much I tried to banish it on the grounds of meaning, it insisted on its relevance. It is the background mocking laughter to our thought, a distant ghost transmission from before Babel, like background radiation, a laughter which gives this blog its name – diasyrmus – and whose sigil is the goat.]

"Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God's Revelation"
Kierkegaard


But to reach the Archimedean point
Was all my steadfastness;
The disjointed times to teach
Courage from what is dreadful.

It was the glimpses in the lightning
Made me a sage, but made me say
No word to make another fight,
My own fighting heart full of dismay.

Spirit, soul, and fire are reached!
And springs of the mind, like springs of the feet
Tell all, all know, nothing wavers there!
All the flowers of the heart turn to ice-flowers,

Heaviness of the world prevailing
("The higher we go the more terrible it is")
Duplicity of man, heart-hate,
The hypocrite, the vain, the whipper, the cheat,

The eternal ape on the leash,
Drawing us down to faith,
Which the Greeks call divine folly,
The tug of laughter and of irony.

from Burr Oaks (1947), by Richard Eberhart

Homage to Jay

from Blast 1, edited by Wyndham Lewis (1914)

Largely indifferent to my hair, I went to cheap barbers most of my life. After an emotional crash a couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to spend money on a haircut, more money than I would usually.

I found a salon – it’s the only word – and although in part this was about asserting a new identity and look to try and do away with the immediate past, I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted, and ended up spending more on the same haircut.

Certainly more than sixpence.

It was a good haircut though. It made me feel a little better and grew out well, and I’ve gone back ever since. In fact I had my haircut there just this morning.

The quality of the haircut has varied according to the person doing it.

But since I found Jay, he is the only one who can cut my hair. Jay is golden.

He is meticulous in his attentions, and carefully formal in how he approaches the different areas of my skull.

He pins up the longer hair on the top of my head with clips, and attends to the sides with his scissors and razor, so that in the mirror, with my widow’s peak pattern baldness growing more evident with every day, I appear like a corrupt or hapless middle-aged character in a Kurosawa film.

And most important of all, apart from a greeting and one or two efficient queries to do with my wishes, he says not a word.

As my haircut is not at all complicated, and in fact rather dull, it is impossible to say whether what I perceive to be the quality of the haircut is perceptible by others, though as in art, I suspect small efforts and details add to an overall effect without being perceived.

Increasingly I feel the value to be one of ritual however. The attentiveness and care, and the returning to an area to clip, cut and lightly grazed until it is satisfactory, is what comprises the value.

Like shoes, haircuts seem to me to have an intrinsic value greater than some other elements of style and presentation.

This is late 19th C bourgeois ideology, and while Wyndham Lewis’ interest is that of the modernist artist bringing formal processes of delineation, division and abstraction to the wild and incoherent Nature of the Romantics, the page in Blast represents an intersection of modernism with that late 19th Century bourgeois/imperial ideology.

Bless Jay. I live in fear of the day he goes.

Slippery Pig

(An example of the sort of thing I’ve been posting on LinkedIn. This was originally a fairly lightweight bit of fun, but in fact it opens up a lot of interesting avenues about how the increasingly monopolised and siloed digital spaces – FAANG – seek to work the PRC over the control, aesthetic and exploitation of that online territory, and the vectors of attack and defence.)

This viral Chinese ad for Peppa Pig is wild. 

Here’s the explanation. You’ll need an explanation.

It’s doubly interesting because Peppa was actually banned last year or purged according to the NYT.

As with much of Chinese culture it takes a real expert to understand all the cultural subtexts, but it seems that she had been associating with shèhuì rén (社会人). This literally means ‘society people’ but seems to refer to young, jobless slackers. Not sufficiently culturally aligned it seems (or ‘anti establishment’). Friends of mine don’t like her because she perpetuates gender stereotypes, which shows… something anyway.

Someone who does know about Chinese culture has pointed out how much heavy lifting this ad is doing. It’s relocating Peppa from her foreign context into new soil (or muck). It’s very strenuously placing her in an approved socio-political context. And in doing this, by reducing her foreign caché and boosting her state approved credentials, it’s also presumably reducing her desirability for those ‘soceity people’.

All designed to help rehabilitate her in time for the release of Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year.

When I posted this on LinkedIn, I’d kind of missed the important point that this a major example and case study for the sort of work that brands will need to do if they want to be able to distribute effectively in China.

The aesthetic of this seems likely in some way designed to meet strict cultural and political rules on what is and isn’t appropriate.

Media distribution platforms and content owners will still struggle though. Despite high ambitions in China, Netflix ended up taking the time-honoured approach when faced with significant cultural and regulatory hurdles, and ended up partnering with a local platform, producing ‘modest‘ revenue. (Stranger Things, Black Mirror: yes; House of Cards: absolutely not).

This hasn’t stopped the likes of Google contorting uncomfortably to try and find a way into to what would be the world’s biggest growth market, the worth of whose data will be seen to be astronomical. It will be interesting watching the heavyweights of surveillance capitalism go up against the heavyweight of the surveillance state. My money’s on the PRC.

There’s a useful article here that covers the specific issues around digital publication in China. Short version – nothing much has changed around foreign interests publishing directly: they can’t. It’s more about trying to reframe publishing to include digital platforms – where “material that would traditionally be published in print form is clearly intended to be included”. However:

The unclear area applies only to new forms of publishing developed solely for the Internet and with no traditional print analog. 

https://www.chinalawblog.com/2016/03/chinas-new-online-publishing-rules-another-nail-in-the-vie-coffin.html

As with regulation in my area – accessibility (subtitles, captions, audio description) – regulators are struggling to define the content the rules cover, and the companies to whom it applies. That’s probably a post for another day.

Follow up:

Who made the ad and why did they take the approach they did?

A partial answer here:

“Besides drawing attention to the movie, what I wanted to do through this trailer was to share the same values that are highlighted in the movie – family, reunion, harmony and love,” its director Zhang Dapeng told local media last month.

And, Who is distributing Peppa in China – who is set to make money here?

And another partial answer from the same article: the film is a joint venture between the British ‘Entertainment One’ and Alibaba. And there’s a shitload of merch.Who made the ad and why did they take the approach they did?

Other

Surveillance capitalism v surveillance state – exploiting a population’s data? (worth thinking about the burglar’s guide to the city – helicopters for LA, cameras for London).

The aesthetic and style of western firms attempting to enter China.

Regulating online – working out what and who does and doesn’t count.

A Place to Let the Words In

I ‘ve been struggling to find a consistent place to post the stuff I want to put words to.

First, I still read and have plenty of thorts about books and writing, which was what this blog was always for. In fact I’ve been reading more over the last year or so than I have done in a long time. But I’d begun to regard this blog as somewhat essayistic in character – serious treatments with actual conclusions, which held me back from posting stuff where I hadn’t reached my conclusions.

Second, I’ve found quite a lot of my mind is taken up with the topics of work and business, and quite a lot of the time I want to write about that as well.

Those two areas didn’t really co-exist in my mind, so I started to post the work/business stuff on linkedin.

I’ll probably carry on doing that – linkedin is horrible, but as a networking tool which means you don’t have to network it has high value – but it’s a bit constraining. There are things I want to say that don’t feel appropriate for that forum. It’s v much “views expressed here are necessarily those of a representative of my employer”.

Finally, tumblr, of which I was quite fond, feels like its time has passed, and I wanted a place to microblog a bit on lighter cultural encounters.

Why not all in one place? It should help keep the momentum going, and avoids those high barriers to expression such as ‘dunno which platform to post this’. And in fact as soon a I started thinking this way, I realised that these apparently different areas have been converging for a while for me; it was mainly the vector of the motivating input – the prompt – that had separated them out as categories.

So:

  • stuff prompted by books and words (litblogging – what I always intended any blog I kept to be)
  • stuff prompted by quotidian writing: business, broadcasting industry, politics &c (the linkedin stuff, but with less worry that someone at work is going to pull me up for talking about business bullshit and full luxury communism)
  • stuff prompted by what i’ve encountered out and about (tumblr – photos and frivolity)

And I’ll see how they rub up against each other.

The Squalid Rag

The notion of the palimpsest has a sort of fame, outside its technical sense, as a minor tool in the armoury of criticism and theory. At its most basic it’s a writing surface that can be cleansed for reuse. Intrinsic in its theoretical meaning is reference to the imperfect scouring of parchment in the early Medieval period for reinscription. Although the method they used erased previous texts by the light of their own time, it left them capable of retrieval by later more sophisticated chemical processes in the more powerful light of the 19th Century, so that future ages found multiple texts all present on a single parchment, waiting to be revealed, nothing lost.

Continue reading “The Squalid Rag”

A Private View

I wrote this blog entry after a period of the usual sort of struggle – not really just a matter of writing or thinking, but more generally of lack of direction and general uncertainty. I think it’s an ok piece. Jocelyn Brooke deserves some decent criticism, and there isn’t that much around. It’s 50 years since he died, which I’d hoped to commemorate with something new, but I didn’t get round to it. Reblogging this from its old home is partly a small attempt to fulfil something along those lines, but also to kickstart more regular posting here, on Brooke and others.

Nothing seems worth talking about, writing a mere exercise in style. Experiments that might justify such an exercise seem egregious, and to obscure the matter in hand. Attempts at elegance come across as both callow and conservative, at worst pompous – like a child pretending to be an adult. Plain speaking seems uninteresting, and dangerously revealing of a moribund and fruitless intellect.

Clearly, a subject is needed.

Jocelyn Brooke is worth writing about for many reasons, but has hardly been written about at all. The ground is still fresh and I can tell myself that what I am writing is not an exercise in redundant self-gratification. We can pretend. It is, after all, a start.

Continue reading “A Private View”

First Step

The question of the utility of literature and of art generally is never quite scotched. If someone asks me about the value of literature, or more bluntly says that they don’t see the point, there are are all sorts of thoughts and statements that come crowding in, an abundance of personal, emotional and intellectual objections, but no knock-out blow. That’s partly because any decent answer feels like it needs to encompass some sort of reasonably worked theory about the Importance (capital I) of Art (capital A), and that is very contended ground – abundant with theory and argument, but also messy, incoherent and sometimes contradictory.

Continue reading “First Step”

MR James, R Kipling, D Welch – Three Ghost Stories for All Hallows’ Even

Reposted from 2009

1

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you.’

‘Like many solitary men,’ he writes, ‘I have a habit of talking to myself aloud; and, unlike some of the Greek and Latin particles, I do not expect an answer. Certainly, and perhaps fortunately in this case, there was neither voice nor any that regarded: only the woman who, I suppose, was cleaning up the church, dropped some metallic object on the floor, whose clang startled me.’

Despite their capacity to create mortal fear, the presentation of ghosts must be delicately handled. They are sensitive entities, with a particular aversion to being overdescribed, which leads many of them to avoid the light. We must tread carefully, so that we don’t frighten them.

MR James was a masterly handler of ghosts, an aspect of which is his skilful management of framing devices.

In The Mezzotint the narrative of horror takes place within the frame of the picture, and Dennistoun’s first sighting of the demon in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook is in a lurid picture of it at the court of Solomon, in the scrapbook of the title (‘One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.”).

The practice is not, of course, limited to actual pictures – that would be tediously unvarying and unimaginative – but extends itself across, among others, dolls houses, Punch and Judy shows (the wonderful, unregarded Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance), mazes and, naturally, dreams. Nested narratives of letters, diaries, travelogues and gossip also provide suitable settings for horrific apparition.

These are frequently the places where the initial stages of the ghost’s appearance occur, the way it first insinuates itself into the physical world. It is also the place where the ghost is most willing to show itself in its true form: ghosts in his stories are at their most vivid when they are furthest from the real world of the reader. They fragment the closer they approach us, to the point of imminence where they may be represented by just a claw, a mouth, a series of panicked or uncertain glimpses.

One of the effects of the framing device is to engage our belief: disbelief in what the picture frame contains does not affect our belief in the existence of the picture itself; we may not believe in fairies, but we believe in fairy stories; we should be surprised by the appearance of a vampire in our local pub, but we should not be surprised by the appearance of a vampire movie at our local cinema. At least this is what we naively believe – but the rules of the ghost story are the rules of the supernatural, and every ghost story writer knows what every ghost knows: frames aren’t containers, they are portals.

‘And then if you please, he switched on another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other he made it seems as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience.

In fact the reader shares the characteristics of James’ academics, willed curiosity and innocent scepticism. We desire to read the story (willed curiosity), and we approach it as a story (innocent scepticism) but we should perhaps be more cautious, lest sharing these characteristics should lead us to share their fate – only one story, The Tractate Middoth, has anything like a happy ending.

In Count Magnus there are numerous frames, pictures within pictures, tales within tales.

The first voice is that of the antiquary narrator, who has come into possession of some papers by a Mr Wraxall, the second voice.

Mr Wraxall has gone on a tour of Sweden, and has stopped in the town of Råbäck, where is carrying out researches for a possible book. Here he encounters the history of Count Magnus, nearly three centuries dead, who went on a mysterious Black Pilgrimage to the city of Chorazin.

On making enquiries, the reluctant landlord of the inn that Wraxall is staying at agrees to tell him a tale that his grandfather told him, this is the third voice. We are now at three narrative removes from the room of the antiquary where we started, a picture within a picture within a picture. The tale he is told is of two men going to hunt at night in the recently dead Count’s forest, and, on their failure to return, the search for them the next morning –

“I heard one cry in the night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I cannot forget that , I shall not be able to sleep again.

‘So they went to the wood, and they found these men on the edge of the wood. Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands – pushing something away from him which was not there. So he was not dead. And they lead him away, and took him to the house at Nykjoping, and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that?’

The next day Wraxall goes to the church and enters the mausoleum and finds the copper sarcophagus where the Count is buried, which has, round the edge, several engraved bands, ‘representing various scenes.’

One was a battle, with cannon belching out smoke, and walled towns, and troops of pikemen. Another showed an execution. In a third, among trees, was a man running at full speed, with flying hair and outstretched hands. After him followed a strange form; it would be hard to say whether the artist had intended it for a man, and was unable to give the requisite similitude, or whether it was intentionally made as monstrous as it looked. In view of the skill with which the rest of the drawing was done, Mr Wraxall felt inclined to adopt the latter idea. The figure was unduly short, and was for the most part muffled in a hooded garment which swept the ground. The only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm. Mr Wraxall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish, and continues: ‘On seeing this, I said to myself, “This, then, which is evidently an allegorical representation of some kind – a fiend pursuing a hunted soul – may be the origin of the Count Magnus and his mysterious companion. Let us see how the huntsman is pictured: doubtless it will be a demon blowing on his horn.” But, as it turned out, there was no such sensational figure, only the semblance of a cloaked man on a hillock, who stood leaning on a stick, and watching the hunt with an interest which the engraver had tried to express in his attitude.

Once again, the most vivid images of horrific implication are deeply interred within  the story, presented in a picture within a picture within a picture, like the triple padlocks that seal Count Magnus’s sarcophagus, although – Wraxall notes on his first visit – one has come asunder and lies on the floor…

2

Tonight, for the second time, I had entirely failed to notice where I was going (I had planned a private visit to the tomb-house to copy the epitaphs), when I suddenly, as it were, awoke to consciousness, and found myself (as before) turning in at the churchyard gate, and, I believe, singing or chanting some such words as, “Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?” and then something more which I have failed to recollect. It seemed to me that I must have been behaving in this nonsensical way for some time.’

[…]

‘I must have been wrong,’ he writes, ‘in saying that one of the padlocks of my Count’s sarcophagus was unfastened; I see tonight that two are loose.’

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I said that ghosts do not like the light. This is because, although they have a fondness for apparition and animation, they do not like being seen. The eye is the sense organ of light, and is the vehicle of that reason that comes from observation, which we call science, and is the symbol of the movement that promotes that reason, the Enlightenment.

Ghosts never appear in well-lit laboratories, are notoriously chary of experimental conditions, in the light of science they become ‘phenomena’, their trappings bed sheets, paste-board masks, projections of psychological megrims and disorder. They may look unconvincing or gimcrack, even becoming subjects not of fear but (disastrously for their ability to frighten) of mockery, laughter and scorn.

The eye is also the most sedulously duplicitous of the sense organs, its world so detailed and convincing, so seemingly incapable of modification, that we call its representations reality. This is the world we exist in, and its light is the light by which we read. In order to have a successful ghost story, the ineluctable modality of the visual must be eluded, the rules of reason modified.

Or you can do what Rudyard Kipling did in The End of the Passage – take the very instruments of observational rationalism, the camera and the eye, and make them the vessels of the terror that they are supposed to dissolve, producing an ocular ghost story.

‘T’isn’t in medical science.’

‘What?’

‘Things in a dead man’s eye.’

The End of the Passage – Rudyard Kipling

Only a writer of Kipling’s genius could do this. He has the short-story writer’s knack of economy – suggesting experience and knowledge beyond what is described on the page.

His expertise in this area was honed by his early newspaper writing. His early stories, collected in Plain Tales from the Hills, inferred entire tales from scraps of society gossip, snatched market overhearings, cryptic glimpses of everyday Anglo-Indian life, and fitted them to a column-and-a-half of newsprint.

In a sense, The End of the Passage isn’t a ghost story at all – the only apparition is of someone still living;

Hummil turned on his heel to face the echoing desolation of his bungalow, and the first thing he saw standing in the verandah was the figure of himself.

Kipling implies (without ever describing or explaining) what Hummil sees in his mind, or I should say what he sees in his eye. A terrifying supernatural force is suggested without ever being described, in fact it is sealed within the organ of description itself.

The background is a cholera epidemic – and in a wonderful opening  (he was superb at atmospherics) Kipling sets the scene –

Four men, each entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ sat at a table playing whist. The thermometer marked – for them – one hundred and one degrees of heat. The room was darkened till it was only just possible to distinguish the pips of the cards and the very white faces of the players. A tattered, rotten punkah of whitewashed calico was puddling the hot air and whining dolefully at each stroke. Outside lay gloom of a November day in London. There was neither sky, sun, nor horizon, – nothing but a brown purple haze of heat. It was as though the earth were dying of apoplexy.

Despite being an expert at the framing device (think of The Man Who Would Be King, or The Disturber of the Traffic)  Kipling uses none here. Possibly because, as he suggests at the beginning of another excellent supernatural story The Mark of the Beast,

East of Suez, some hold, the direct control of Providence ceases; Man being there handed over to the power of the Gods and Devils of Asia, and the Church of England Providence only exercising an occasional and modified supervision in the case of Englishmen.

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The laws that govern spirits of the West do not hold true for the East. He has also, as can be seen in the opening paragraph, already cut the four men off from the light and laws of the outer world.

After the whist party has broken up, one of the group, Hummil, confesses to another, a doctor,  Spurstow, that he is losing his mind. Spurstow medicates him with morphine, which seems to help, and goes to attend to an outbreak of cholera in another district. That is the point at which Hummil turns to see the apparition of himself.

When they come back the following week they find Hummil in his bed.

The body lay on its back, hands clinched by the side, as Spurstow had seen it lying seven nights previously. In the staring eyes was written terror beyond the expression of any pen.

Spurstow asks another of the men, Mottram, to look into Hummil’s eyes.

Mottram leaned over his shoulder and looked intently.

‘I see nothing except some gray blurs in the pupil. There can be nothing there, you know.’

Despite Mottram’s insistence, Spurstow decides to take a photograph of the eyes with a Kodak camera, but destroys the pictures without showing them to anyone else.

‘It was impossible, of course. You needn’t look, Mottram. I’ve torn up the films. There was nothing there. It was impossible.’

‘That,’ said Lowndes, very distinctly, watching the shaking hand striving to relight the pipe, ‘is a damned lie.’

The eye is no longer the vessel of reason, and has become like the sarcophagus that contains Count Magnus, a vessel of mortal fear, unopenable, and sealed by more than padlocks.

3

‘You may have been a bit of a rascal in your time, Magnus,’ he was saying, ‘but for all that I should like to see you, or, rather -‘

‘Just at that instant,’ he says, ‘I felt a blow on my foot. Hastily enough I drew it back, and something fell on the pavement with a clash…’

Although Denton Welch was not a ghost story writer, there is often a tang of the macabre about his writing, sometime more than a tang. Take this paragraph from a description of a night time walk in his masterpiece A Voice Through A Cloud –

After a few minutes I was able to force myself on; but now the landscape seemed to be taking on an ugly significance. I imagined that the vacant plots between the raw gardens and houses had probably been left desolate in superstitious fear, because of vile crimes committed there. Perhaps in the moonlight, over and over again, night after night, a little child’s atrocious murder would be re-enacted; or there would be ghost figures loping over the ground, arms outstretched greedily, white hair on the palms of the brown-pink hands. Their fingers would be webbed. Yellow fangs, hollow and rotten, would jut from their dripping jaws, and eyes, on fire with hate and lust, would be swimming and swirling as my head was swirling.

He did write, however one short story, called Ghosts (collected in A Last Sheaf) which is an ingenious variation on the technique of gradual revelation through multiple narratives. It consists of three supernatural experiences, each very different from the other.

The first is a description of a ghost story he wrote at school, which has Welch’s characteristic level of fetishized detail –

I panelled my imaginary room in pine and finished it with a heavy cornice. From a cracked punch-bowl came the faint scent of mildewed rose-leaves, and a hissing fire of green branches spat and danced on the scratched marble heath [sic – hearth?]. The hangings of the fantastically high bed were of rose madder damask, faded in parts to tawny, dried-blood colour, and they were so rotten that they had to be held together on a new foundation by countless lines of cross-sewing.

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The ghost that appears to him in the middle of the night is ‘a beautiful woman, tall and sweeping and not young – ageless, like the queens in fairy tales.’

The story is read out in class, and goes down well, until the teacher gets to a phrase that Welch has taken from the Bible – ‘the hair of my flesh stood up.’ His schoolmates are not charitable:

Instantly laughter broke out all over the room and voices called out: “Oh, I say, Welch, do they really stand up?” “Oh Welch!”

Unwisely rushing to my own defence as a writer by referring them to my august source, I protested: ‘But it’s in the Bible! You can read it there.”

This started a second storm of laughter, groans and mockeries. I thought: “Let them laugh. Everything is ridiculous if you like to make it so.”

He remembers this first story when a second story is told him, while a guest at a friend’s house in Sussex. He is sitting shelling peas on a summer’s evening with another guest, a woman, who tells him of her visit to a large old house in the Midlands, where a remarkable ghost appears to her in the night –

…she was woken, just as I had been in my story; although it was not a beautiful woman that she saw, but a huge filmy egg, made out of mucus membrane and lighted from within. It floated slowly through the darkness until it was above her in the bed. She saw with horror then that the egg-shaped glow encased the face and shoulders of a man. The shoulders were naked and just below them the body dissolved into stringy, phosphorescent mucus. Round his head was a squirming halo of the same. The flesh was of an extraordinary ruddiness, and exaggeratedly tight, as if the image had been blown up with a bicycle-pump.

The young man was grinning at her, showing his white, animal teeth. On his forehead were hot brown curls and the needle points of his eyes bored into her.

Fascinated, she watched until it disappeared on the other side of the bed, then she lay still, wondering what it could be, until, most surprisingly, she fell asleep again.

The next morning she tells her hosts about the apparition and is told that ‘the image appeared in various parts of the house, not only in that room.’

Sometimes it sailed down the passages. The face and the shoulders were all that could ever be seen. They had no explanation to give for the appearance of the image, except a rather unconvincing tradition about a young man, a villain, and an ancestor of theirs.

Although as a whole Welch’s story is somewhat inconsequential at this stage, the way he has moved from the description of a conscious fiction at the beginning to a more documentary tale, all related in his typical unfeigned autobiographical voice, represents a novel, perhaps even counter-intuitive approach to the literary problem of conjuring ghosts.

A comparison of the two stories by Welch leads to an experience of intense revelation that retrospectively gives the whole story its force:

For a moment after the end of the story we went on shelling peas in silence. The pods, as they were ripped open, made a sucking noise, like mouths gasping for air. My mind was busy comparing the true experience with my invented one. I could think of nothing but ghosts; I was filled with the idea of them.

And jumping up restlessly, I left my companion, and the empty pods on the lawn; and I wandered a long way until I came to a black pool almost surrounded by tangled thickets. I knelt down and dipped my hand in the still water. My fingers were magnified into fat, curling grubs. Baring my arm, I stretched down till I felt rotting branches and twigs soft as horse’s noses. I pulled, and a mossy, peeling antler rose dripping from the pond. Delving still deeper I came to a pile of excrement and leaves, layer on layer, and limp and black as chow dogs’ tongues.

It was evening now, with the sun setting. I looked up at the turquoise sky, then down at the stirred-up water where black motes like pepper starred the pinkness of my tingling arm. From across the pool a dull blind window suddenly flashed back the dying fire of the sun, and a rush of birds streamed out above me. I saw the woodman’s ruined shelter of branches, and his pile of bark peelings turned now into a mass of dead mottled snakes.

Everything at that moment held a secret. Everything was haunted. But human eyes were not the right eyes, and my ears would never hear.

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The three varied narratives are three keys to three padlocks, the unlocking of which brings about a sense of the imminent revelation of places and beings not normally seen by living eyes, here, in the lighted world.

…It was the third, the last of the three padlocks which had fastened the sarcophagus. I stooped to pick it up, and – Heaven is my witness that I am writing only the bare truth – before I had raised myself there was a sound of metal hinges creaking, and I distinctly saw the lid shifting upwards. I may have behaved like a coward, but I could not for my life stay for one moment. I was outside that dreadful building in less time than I can write – almost as quickly as I could have said – the words; and what frightens me yet more, I could not turn the key in the lock. As I sit here in my room noting these facts, I ask myself (it was not twenty minutes ago) whether that noise of creaking metal continued, and I cannot tell whether it did or not. I only know that there was something more than I have written that alarmed me, but whether it was sound or sight I am not able to remember. What is this that I have done?’

October 31st, 2009

There is a wonderful project over at Freaky Trigger – ongoing discussions of MR James’ stories, well worth taking a look at.

Ghosts and Scholars collects a lot of material in one place to do with MR James.