Friday, 25 January 2008

Ghosts Of Winter Past

At our last club meeting over the Xmas break, conversation turned to how today Xmas is so materialistic that the year-end holiday has become such a stressful time. A time when the emergency wards, mental hospitals, and the morgues fill up, with a waiting list even to have your relatives buried. Everyone had personal news or anecdotes of their own regarding this, but after a while the conversation turned to seasonal themes. Not merely the indulgence or distraction of Xmas festivities but their underlying origins in symbolic rituals and of death and resurrection – the death of the old and then rebirth in the new, as recorded in Sir James Frazer’s massive study in comparative anthropology The Golden Bough, which documented customs from around the world.
It came up that every culture had a penchant for winter-evening ghost stories or other such supernatural tales, told traditionally around the fire on those long dark midwinter nights. (When I once produced and presented an “Armchair Storytime” series for local TV to promote literacy, I insisted we shoot it with a fireside setting to make it work.) The modern counterpart for many years was that BBC TV would put on an annual Xmas-holidays ‘ghost’ story. These were usually from the stories of MR James, and the tradition continued this year with a series of MRJ stories dramatised for Radio 4.
Although Dickens authored the best-known such Xmas ghost story with his anti-materialistic parable of Scrooge haunted by the ghost of Xmas past etc., MR James was the recognised Father of the English Ghost Story. His stories usually tell of visiting scholars or 'antiquaries' who inadvertently stir up some ancient presence in a haunted locality by digging up a Templar tomb, reading aloud an invocation from an ancient Gnostic manuscript, etc. It was his use of a story-within-a-story framework, often in a club setting, that gave the stories their verisimilitude, a setup since copied by others. Typically, one of the club members sitting around the table is reminded by some snippet of gossip of a strange tale regarding an acquaintance. Over brandy and cigars, he tells the story, then caps it off with a report of how the unfortunate man had disappeared, died mysteriously, or been found stark raving mad the next morning, clutching a piece of paper on which were written only the enigmatic words … well, you get the idea.
I’ve written elsewhere about MRJ and his work, including a possible influence on the
Holy Blood Holy Grail mystery. Here, I’d suggest, as a suitable winter‘s-eve supernatural tale, a mystery revolving around a real-life place named after Diogenes – Mt Diogenes in Australia. Why it was thus named is obscure – all we know is the colonial map-maker was keen on the ancient Greeks, and we don’t know if it was named after Diogenes the Cynic or Diogenes the explorer whose work Ptolemy used in his maps of Africa. The story is known worldwide via a cult 1967 novel and a 1975 film version, which use in its title the local name for Mt Diogenes, Hanging Rock.
Mt Diogenes, alias Hanging Rock, NE of Melbourne
Hitchcock once disavowed night-time and dark alleys as a clichéd sinister screen setting and said that what was more frightening was to have terror descend out of the blue in broad daylight, as he demonstrated in his colourful thriller North By Northwest (the title is from Hamlet, a reference to madness). The setting of Picnic At Hanging Rock is similarly sunlit and eerie. (Down under, our traditional European seasonal calendar is of course turned upside down, with Dec-Feb the hottest months.) A party of girls from an upper-crust boarding school nearby go on an educational excursion to Mt Diogenes, here called Hanging Rock for its doom-laden overtone. In reality it is a hill covered in a jumble of giant volcanic boulders and bushes, a site sacred to local aboriginal people, once used as a hideout by the bushranger Mad Dog Morgan.
Through Hanging Rock winds a labyrinth of pathways, and one group enters the rock labyrinth and vanishes. Some of the missing school party are found days later, but cannot account for the missing time when their watches stopped, and we never discover what happened to the trio who were never found. No Hollywood producer would have left the story dangling thus, but this was an Australian film, the country’s first major hit, which launched the country’s independent cinema of the 1970s. Despite there being no conventional ending, people watch it over and over, basking in the film’s overwhelming sense of a mysterious, primitive landscape.
The only suggested explanation is in the fact the story is set on February 14th 1900 - Valentine’s Day at the turn of the century. Valentine’s Day was originally a Roman festival, but here evokes the repressed sexuality that will lead some of the women, both young and older, to remove their corsets and disappear into the labyrinth. The use of Pan pipes for the music score also suggests this is also a situation where modern ‘civilised’ types inadvertently stir up some ancient presence akin to the Greek nature God Pan. Here, the implication is they stir up an ancient aboriginal genius loci, and are undone by their own unhealthy sexually repressed culture, with its fears of ‘going native’ as the civilised façade melts away in the heat. The novel’s author, Joan Lindsay, was coy about whether it was based on a real-life incident. A search of newspaper records has since shown this to be groundless, though she has implied in interviews something like this happened during her own time at a nearby boarding school, which affected her deeply. Interestingly many people prefer to think the incident really did happen, and some travel from all over the world to see Hanging Rock, and experience for themselves the presence of an ancient and primitive nature.

1 comment:

beachhutman said...

I have a scrap of information regarding Nathaniel Hawthorne the American anti-transcedentalist writer and hero of an obscure past Bournemouth secret society named allegedly after him, The Order of the Celestial Railroad.

Apparently although he died in his sleep in 1864 some say he went mad first and the reason some say was that he would refer to a scrap of paper with the number 1864 on it.

Some surmise he may have used some form of divination as to his own demise in an idle moment, had the process of divination confirmed by testing it with provable examples and concluded his prophesised doom was certain. On the other hand the dtory may be a conflation, but never mind, it has provoked this comment to the above posting.

Years ago separate groups of people since I have discovered linked to each other entreated me to try my hand at pendulum dowsing. A simple matter if you leave it to finding water or lost objects, a phenomenon which has been proved or disproved many times over depending upon the investigators intent, perhaps.

I was encouraged to explore the practice for myself, away for the most part from adepts I met or was introduced to. I proved to my own satisfaction this was more than a technique for finding "lost" items or water.

With a little ingenuity, borrowed from the books that were lent to me and a mans natural inquisitiveness, I discovered it was a method by which one could tease from the universe a yes or no to any question, depending upon your intent I felt.

In fact the only distinction between this technique for divination, and , say, an ouija board, was that in this case you were somewhat more in control of the response, since it led from your question. And that could be anything, such as maybe the year of your demise, counting up if you dared until you got the pendulum response for "yes".

There must be a thousand possible activities that might be thought to be productive of a divination...a prediction of an outcome...something fakirs, shamen and con-men have traded in for millennia.

But dowsing is something you can try, and maybe Nathaniel Hawthorne was one who did. His biographer might know. Reliably.
In my own college beauty students are taught pendulum dowsing for divining the best complementary therapy for a innocuous beginning and usually the end of the matter.

For me dowsing was something which gave me a dozen positive results in my own experiment. Innocent questions with innocent answers.

I could in an idle moment have moved into uncharted waters, something you could do in a few minutes with the minimum of equipment and just a little knowledge.

I decided, in an otherwise life changing moment, not to change my outlook on life, and stick with provable facts, ...ere I be driven mad with knowledge I should not seek, or receive, in any manifestation, be it dubiously accurate or imagined.

it is some small relief that Derren Brown, the unparalleled stage and screen mentalist, can duplicate such phenomena as entertainment and portray a knowlegeable scepticism over our otherwise ignorance or gullability.

As such he can command with good reason guaranteed audiences for his version of divination on stage, with the twist he claims it is a con.

In this particular labyrinth of esoteric knowledge he remains steadfastly silent in de-constructing the phenomenon.

It is as if the price of uncovering the truth is silence. Something the Order of the Celestial Railroad, based on a parody of a myth (in a short story of that title written by Nathaniel Hawthorne) has pledged itself to investigate and discreetly expose wherever possible. In the spirit of Diogenes bebunking myths and awed ignorance.

Sadly, despite the TOOTCR's efforts since it was founded, the phenomenon of dowsing has not fallen under its scrutiny. Derren Brown would seem to know more than the rest of us, and other mentalists who have been unable to explain dowsing other than by setting up experiments that are inconclusive. You can be sure that the Stories from the Diogenes Club cabal are keeping an eye on practices that can drive the sane mad, since a life lived in fear is only a life half lived.

Having said that, a life lived in respect, if not awe, for the hidden, is a life lived to its best achievable conclusion.

To find the edges is an aim of the Diogenes Club, but also the Order of the Celestial Railroad and, yes, some Dowsers whom I have met and quizzed.

To live life on the edge is the cost of taking enquiry further.

The price of going over the edge may well be going over into the abyss. It is a place from which sane communication fails to emerge.

If you do not believe me, just make a few enquiries into pendulum dowsing, and if you are not too easily influenced, try it for yourself. But don't ask questions that are of no use to yourself or others.

It is for me a discipline of the mind, with forseeable penalties for transgressions; not a breakthrough to some cornucopia of hidden delights. Otherwise everyone would be doing it.

Unless you believe in fairies, perhaps.