Sunday 15 November 2009

Ghosts in the Notion Club Papers

The Notion Club Papers seem to suggest that JRR Tolkien believed in ghosts.

On page 179, the subject of haunting is introduced in a way that suggests that all members of the Notion Club accept the reality of the phenomenon.

Ramer is describing his idea of how to use 'the history of things whose paths have, at some point of time or space, crossed the path of my body'.

He argues that the mind uses the memory of its body and that memory may be one example of a record of past events which is embodied in a specific form. He adds that 'disintegration of the form destroys the memory'.

In trying to elucidate this idea, he brings up the example of 'a haunted house', to which Jeremy responds that 'All houses are haunted.' to which Ramer promptly replies 'I agree', and the next participant, Frankley, adds his opinion that 'haunting and atmosphere (which I suppose is what Jeremy means), are something added by accident of history (...) They're not part of the house itself, qua house.'

What is striking is the lack of disagreement among the Notion Club concerning the premise that house haunting is a real phenomenon. The discussions are instead concerned with the precise mechanism of haunting.

Ramer says that 'if you destroy an actual house, qua house, you also destroy, or dissipate, the special haunting. If a haunted house were pulled to pieces, it would stop being haunted, even if it were built up as accurately as possible again. Or so I think, and so-called 'psychical' research seems to bear me out.'

Jeremy points out that 'you can go a long way, short of destruction, without wholly banishing atmosphere or laying ghosts (...). Bricking up windows, changing staircases, and things like that.'

To which Lowdham adds a funny story about a 'well authenticated' case of a haunted house in which builders raised a floor level after which the ghost’s feet were seen walking along under the level of the new ceiling.

[I have heard a version of this story told about Treasurer's House in the city of York, England - but this was reported in 1953, after the writing of the NCPs].

Ramer concludes with the comment that 'I expect there are in fact lots of neglected chances of historical research, with proper training; especially among old houses and things more or less shaped by man.'

So, the NCP consensus is that some hauntings are real, and might even be used for historical research. My reading of this, and the tone of the passage, leads me to suspect that Tolkien was reporting both his own belief in the reality and nature of haunting, and perhaps also the consensus of the Inklings - as if they had had similar conversations to the Notion Club.

On page 196 the conversation again moves onto the subject of ghosts when Jeremy asks Ramer about the nature of other minds that come into contact with Ramer's mind during dreams:

"What kind of minds visit you?" asked Jeremy. "Ghosts?"

"Well, yes of course, ghosts," said Ramer. "Not departed human spirits, though; not in my case, as far as I can tell. Beyond that what shall I say? Except that some of them seem to know about things a very long way indeed from here. It is not a common experience with me, at least my awareness of any contact is not.'

My usual assumption is that Ramer is channeling Tolkien - and if so, then the NCPs suggest that Tolkien had considerable interest in, and experience of, hauntings and ghosts; and that (as was the case for dreams) he regarded hauntings and ghosts as potentially a source of useful historical and geographical information.

Of course such unconventional beliefs of JRR Tolkien can be ignored or simply dismissed; on the other hand, if such an intelligent and well-informed a group as the Inklings really did believe in hauntings and ghosts, there exists the possibility that they may have been right!

Notes added 26 March 2010 - On 24 November 1944 JRRT wrote to his son Christopher about an Inklings meeting at which they had "some illuminating discussion of 'ghosts' ". Presumably this real life Inklings formed the basis of the discussion of ghosts in the Notion Club Papers. Letters of JRR Tolkien, H Carpenter and C Tolkien, 1981 page 103.


Allen Short said...

This echoes very closely a passage from That Hideous Strength where Mark encounters Wither's ghost, particularly the bit about ghosts being tied to architecture:

A tall, stooped, shuffling, creaking figure, humming a tune, barred his way. Mark had never fought. Ancestral impulses lodged in his body—that body which was in so many ways wiser than his mind—directed the blow which he aimed at the head of his senile obstructor. But there was no impact. The shape had suddenly vanished.

Those who know best were never fully agreed as to the explanation of this episode. It may have been that Mark, both then and on the previous day, being overwrought, saw a hallucination of Wither where Wither was not. It may be that the continual appearance of Wither which at almost all hours haunted so many rooms and corridors of Belbury was (in one well-verified sense of the word) a ghost—one of those sensory impressions which a strong personality in its last decay can imprint, most commonly after death but sometimes before it, on the very structure of a building, and which are removed not by exorcism but by architectural alterations. Or it may, after all, be that souls that have lost the intellectual good do indeed receive in return, and for a short period, the vain privilege of thus reproducing themselves in many places as wraiths. At any rate the thing, whatever it was, vanished.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps worth noting is Grevel Lindop's first twittered daily "detail" leading up to the appearance of his Williams biography:

In 1942 Charles Williams was called in by OxfordUniversityPress to exorcise a haunted building (now the OUP shop) in Oxford High Street.

I haven't read the Tolkien Beowulf vol., yet, but Christopher's quotation (HME 9, p. 145) from Letters no. 92 re. "new ideas [...] via Beowulf" and Lewis on "the descendants of Seth and Cain" - Grendel is one of the latter! - may be relevant, too.

The passage Allen Short aptly quotes includes a Dante reference - "souls that have lost the intellectual good" - one taken up by Williams in his Arthurian poetry (and discussed in his Figure of Beatrice, among other places) - in a context that reminds me (spoiler alert!) of the 'trifurcation' or whatever of Simon in Williams's last novel, All Hallows' Eve, read to the Inklings as he wrote it, though they are distinctly different examples of "reproducing themselves in many places".

I wonder if St. Augustine's "On the Care of the Dead", chapters 12-15 might be part of the general background?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - Interesting detail - it certainly seems as if the Inklings as a whole 'believed in ghosts', and this detail makes that belief something active.