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Thursday, January 02, 2014

M. R. James / Michael Chabon

Merry 10th day of Christmas...

I've been reading Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford University Press, 2002), a collection of the ghost stories of M. R. James, a writer I've gone back to from time to time. The twelve days of Christmas are always a good time for reading James, as many of his stories were written as Christmas Eve entertainments at his college. This Oxford World's Classics edition has an introduction by Michael Chabon, and I was interested though not surprised to see that he especially admires the particularly good tale, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad."

Parkins, the professorial protagonist of the story, does not believe in the supernatural of any kind at all:
     'Apropos of what you were saying just now, Colonel, I think I ought to tell you that my own views on such subjects are very strong. I am, in fact, a convinced disbeliever in what is called the "supernatural".'
     'What!' said the Colonel, 'do you mean to tell me you don't believe in second-sight, or ghosts, or anything of that kind?'
     'In nothing whatever of that kind,' returned Parkins firmly.
'Well,' said the Colonel, 'but it appears to me at that rate, sir, that you must be little better than a Sadducee.'
     Parkins was on the point of answering that, in his opinion, the Sadducees were the most sensible persons he had ever read of in the Old Testament; but, feeling some doubt as to whether much mention of them was to be found in that work, he preferred to laugh the accusation off.
The young, rather humorless professor is barren of interest in any form of the supernatural that might intervene in human life, whether it be second sight or ghosts or God. He knows as little of ghosts as he knows of the Bible, and at several points has trouble following the Colonel, who is a firm Anglican and suspicious of popery cropping up in the local vicar. We know right away that Parkins will get his comeuppance before the story is done, and powerfully so.

I've read a good bit of both M. R. James and Michael Chabon and must say that I find it fascinating the way Chabon both praises James for his adept use of the supernatural in fiction and yet rejects what is supernatural in the man's biography. He is astonished at the happy life of M. R. James--that he was so happy, despite the element of the supernatural in his life:
     M. R. James presents a nearly unique instance in the history of supernatural literature--perhaps in the history of all literature: he seems, for the entire duration of his life (1865-1936) to have considered himself the happiest of men. His biography, insofar as it has been written, is free of the usual writerly string of calamities and reversals, intemperate behavior, self-destructive partnerings, critical lambasting, poverty, illness, and bad luck. His childhood, though it sounds to modern ears to have been a tad heavy on devotional exercise, Christian study, and mindfulness of the sufferings of Jesus and his saints, was passed in material comfort and within the loving regard of his parents and older siblings; the candlelit gloom of the paternal church was counterbalanced, if balance were needed, by ready access to the beauties of the East Anglian countryside that surrounded his father's rectory.
I find it intriguing that there's no thought at all that there might be a causal connection; that a childhood steeped in the supernatural realm might actually be a shaping force behind his moral adulthood, professional and literary accomplishments, and general steadiness. There's no sense that the beauties of the creation might be matched by the church (which might not be so gloomy after all) and the beauties of a creator.

In this way, Chabon portrays himself as a kind of Parkins--a characteristic M. R. James protagonist who has turned his face away from the supernatural. If Michael Chabon were a character in a James story, he would very soon find his comeuppance.


  1. Well, you know how it is with kids these days: you have to get out of the church (or away from all institutions) in order to have a real life. Religion can only repress, etc. Yawn.

  2. Nice tone, Scott!

    Sitting here, wholly antsy, waiting for news that my husband's flight to Kurgyzstan by way of Istanbul has actually left the ground. He went off the road twice on the way to JFK. Bit of a grueling start this morning...

  3. Yeesh, I say re your husband's commute. I do not miss weathery winters.

    I am working on my curmudgeonliness. I think I'm making great progress. But I'll behave myself in future, I will.

  4. No worry, one of my favorite people in the world was a curmudgeon... Curmudgeon personae can be attractive, if honest! And curmudgeons often are.

    Am just wishing JFK would update! He turned off his phone ages ago, 15 minutes before departure, supposedly. But they're still listed as delayed. Pfft!

  5. Ghosts! Oh, my! Once upon a time, I would scoff at anything supernatural (either divine or otherwise), but now -- as a fall deeper and deeper into my later years -- I have a very open mind about both the "realities" and the fictional representations of the supernatural. While I am nearly tempted to find and read M. R. James, my current mindset has me thinking instead of another James and his Varieties of Religious Experience. I remember reading Varieties a few decades ago, but I think my mind is now right and ready for another go.

    And -- BTW -- I hope your anxieties about your husband's travels have been relieved, at least for this leg of the journey. And may he find all sorts of snow leopards and other delights along the way.

  6. He's over the ocean now, and I think will make his flight from Istanbul to Bishkek... Hope so.

    I have read some William James, but I can't say that I recall him well--it has been many decades. So many things one would like to reread.

  7. Sat through a lecture at synagogue last night done by someone in the Torah group I'm in about how progressive Judaism should purge all mention of God from its liturgy.
    Though I could not argue with the guy's contention that the God of Exodus was cruel and arbitrary, I could not agree or concede that this presentation of the deity had embraced all that is possible.
    I didn't comment. I feel I know more than I can articulate in plain speech, enough to know that this guy's view was way too limited and rational to be true.

  8. RE: Mike, hope his flight is even now wending its way toward the destination, or perhaps even on the ground.

  9. Robbi,

    He has a stopover in Istanbul--originally a friend was coming with him (but ended up having surgery) who had never been to Turkey, so they were to stay a couple of days... He may try to fly out early, as he has spent a good bit of time in Istanbul.

    Clearly we could talk a book about the God of Exodus--God of both judgment of a fallen world and God of mercy. His relationship with mortals is, as they say, complicated: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Even in our time, astonishingly evil things happen--it's only too simple to think of examples.

  10. All this talk about God in the Tanakh reminds me of two important books; when I read them, my understanding of YHWH was improved. (1) God: A Biography by Jack Miles; (2) The Disappearance of God by Richard Friedman. These books may not be theology, but they are provocative and useful.

  11. Thanks for the recommendations! Books about YHWH are so bewilderingly many...

  12. And here I see a Zinn Brilliant decoration. Aren't they the best? I purchase a fine looking dog and a racing horse this year, intended for future tree treasures, though I gave both away in a frenzy of Christmas cheer. I shall have to save up and go back for more!

  13. Clive,

    there were some others in the other images--a crescent moon and one or two others that Rebecca gave to us last Christmas (she worked for them a bit before she went back to school.)

    Did you see the film she made for them?

  14. Real McCoy!

    Thank you, Clive. I almost missed that one! XD


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.