Thursday, March 27, 2008

M.R. James and the Discovery of Sin

Here I remarked on a problem for the modern Christian, which is more the discovery of sin than the discovery of forgiveness.

One of my favorite fictional genres is the classic English ghost story, especially those of M.R. James. James did not write with any explicit spiritual or pedagogical purpose; he wrote just to give his readers a thrill. But it is in the nature of the great artist to achieve purposes beyond his conscious expectations. Perhaps we can measure the greatness of an artist by how far his work transcends his intentions.

Why are ghost stories a peculiarly modern genre? I am not the first to remark that they may be a consequence of the disenchantment of the world that followed the scientific revolution. Classical man lived in a world of gods, fairies and demons. These were all banished by modern science, with some excellent results (like the end of belief in witches), but also some unintended consequences. A world full of gods and fairies is a world full of personality; it is a human world. The cold, mechanical world of modern science is dead and inhuman. It is a world in which man finds himself a stranger, a world in which his alienation is profound, since he is the only personality in it. This alienation finds its expression in ghost stories. Man is not quite convinced that science has completely disposed of the world of spirits. But what place do spirits have in the mechanical world of modern science? They have no more place than does man, so they become alienated as well. And an alienated spirit is a powerful, dangerous, and downright scary thing.

But the modern, mechanical world also seems to have no place for sin. Yet we cannot shake the feeling that the loss of the sense of sin is not necessarily something good. This theme gets regular play in the stories of M.R. James. A regular character in the James stories is the scientific antiquarian, a collector of old books and visitor of ancient religious sites. This gentleman is the archetype of the Edwardian, scientific man of leisure. He has the appropriate scientific disdain for ancient legends and curses and is not intimidated by warnings from elderly women or village priests. Of course, he gets his comeuppance when the book he obtains or the treasure he seeks contains a little more than he bargained for. James is an absolute master at building suspense and horror in these situations; what I especially appreciate is the way he works in the notion of trespass, which is close to the notion of sin. His characters investigate "interesting" sites or decode "interesting" codes purely out of curiosity, blithely ignoring the subtle but persistent warning signs that some things are best left undisturbed. The puzzles can be so interesting that the reader feels himself pulled in, and be torn between the thrill of solving the puzzle and the dread of what might happen if he does.

Ghost stories are parables for the modern world. James began writing at the turn of the twentieth century, when Edwardian confidence was at its height. His stories show a presentiment that all was not well with the world despite appearances; that our scientific genius, while creating for us undreamt of marvels, also had the capacity to unleash undreamt of horrors. Sin did not disappear with the disappearance of witches, as the world was about to find out in the fields of Flanders and the Somme.

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