Monthly Archives: March 2014

The perils and pitfalls of adaptation in the ghost stories of M R James


(‘Young Shepherds at Evening Time’ by Myles Birket Foster)

The usual effect of seeing any film or TV adaptation of a book or story that I like is to send me back to the original, so on that ground alone (assuming I am not the only one so affected) I would say that such adaptations are a good thing. That said, I think that they rarely succeed entirely and are often unsatisfactory; and it is interesting to consider why that should be so.

(This line of thought was stimulated by a discussion on the MR James Appreciation Society group page on Facebook, hence my concentration on James – who is also one of the most-adapted of writers, certainly of ghost stories)

Translating from one medium to another must always come at a price: some things that work on the page do not work on the screen and vice versa. The two most obvious differences between books and films are the constraints of time and the difference of viewpoint.

Most films are somewhere from an hour-and-a-half to three hours long, with around two hours being fairly standard; television is more flexible, since it can broadcast a series of episodes, though as a rule a single programme will be somewhere between half an hour and an hour, occasionally a bit more. A book, on the other hand, can be read at the reader’s own pace, though there is a minimum time that even a fast reader would take and in the case of full-length books it is generally longer than any film. However, in the case of short stories, there is a fairly close approximation between the time it takes to read one and the typical length of a TV programme, so adaptations here might be less problematic in that respect.

As for the viewpoint, there are several points to make. A picture is famously worth a thousand words, and it is certainly true that a scene or description that may take a considerable quantity of text is something that can be shown in a moment on screen. More importantly, film and television depictions are, by their nature, external and objective, whereas writing tends to the internal and subjective. This means that the television adaptation must work harder to achieve the effects that come naturally to the writer – chiefly conveying the characters’ thoughts and feelings, with the latter being of particular importance in ghost stories.

Let us take two instances, both from James, who was an acute observer of certain states of mind, particularly disquiet and anxiety. The first is from an unpublished and incomplete draft of a story called John Humphreys, (the text of which can be found here, on the excellent Ghosts & Scholars website)

‘He felt as well, as unexcitable, as at any time of his life. No, it must be either an accumulation of coincidences or – what was that touching his arm? It might have been a branch, if he had not happened to be in the open field! Whatever it was, the effect was curious: it brought back the dream – he was beginning to think of it as the vision – of the evening before. The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse – an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him and his whole being cried out for companionship and protection, and yet he felt that there was none, none whatever to be had: he was helpless in a world of hostile shadows. Nothing was interesting any more, nothing was or could be important, and for all that, there was an instant pressure of hurry and no time to stop and think. It was a bitterness of despair which could not, he said, be put into any human words, and he believes he sank down under it and cowered on the ground – fortunately not in sight of any passer-by – and here for how long he couldn’t tell he wrestled for his life and his reason.’

The second is from a published story, A Neighbour’s Landmark: (full text here)

‘I think we must all know the landscapes — are they by Birket Foster, or somewhat earlier?— which, in the form of wood-cuts, decorate the volumes of poetry that lay on the drawing-room tables of our fathers and grandfathers — volumes in ‘Art Cloth, embossed bindings’; that strikes me as being the right phrase. I confess myself an admirer of them, and especially of those which show the peasant leaning over a gate in a hedge and surveying, at the bottom of a downward slope, the village church spire — embosomed amid venerable trees, and a fertile plain intersected by hedgerows, and bounded by distant hills, behind which the orb of day is sinking (or it may be rising) amid level clouds illumined by his dying (or nascent) ray. The expressions employed here are those which seem appropriate to the pictures I have in mind; and were there opportunity, I would try to work in the Vale, the Grove, the Cot, and the Flood. Anyhow, they are beautiful to me, these landscapes, and it was just such a one that I was now surveying. It might have come straight out of Gems of Sacred Song, selected by a Lady and given as a birthday present to Eleanor Philipson in 1852 by her attached friend Millicent Graves. All at once I turned as if I had been stung. There thrilled into my right ear and pierced my head a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified — the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one’s brain. I held my breath, and covered my ear, and shivered. Something in the circulation: another minute or two, I thought, and I return home. But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields, and when the clock bell in the Church tower struck seven, I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air; and of how someone on a farm a mile or two off would be saying ‘How clear Betton bell sounds tonight after the rain!’; but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’

There is a striking similarity between the two passages, though I feel the second is much superior. In both, the change is wrought in an instant – by a fancied touch in the first, a sound in the second – and the effect is similar: anyone who has felt it will recognise the accuracy of these descriptions of sudden dysphoria, the sense that no pleasure is to be had from anything, and all the goodness has drained out of life. The difference in quality is reflected in the balance of the two pieces: the first is about half the length – 221 words against 428 – and a single sentence suffices to tell Humphreys’ prior feelings: ‘He felt as well… as at any time of his life’ while the description of the sense of bleakness that descends on him runs to some eight lines or more (112 words – more than half the total) and his reaction is extreme and dramatic – perhaps overly so. In the second piece, 215 words is devoted to evoking the mood of ruminative well-being, reinforced by another 69 words after the intrusive noise, which cleverly reprise the mood by saying what is no longer there; the demolition of this carefully-constructed edifice of wellbeing comes in two and a half concentrated lines ( a mere 38 words) at the end: ‘images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’

To be fair, their states of mind are not identical – Humphreys is already troubled in the first piece, the narrator of the second is not – but the real point of interest is how either of these could be effectively translated to the screen. The second, in particular, is a very subtle piece of writing, conveying as it does a great deal of the narrator’s character and tastes – he is refined, witty, a scholarly bibliophile inclined to mock his own predilection for conventionally sentimental pictures; it comes as no surprise to find that beneath this contented veneer there lurks a sense of disappointment and loss. It is a passage that epitomises a great deal of the pleasure to be had from reading James, and it is hard to see how that subtlety could be satisfactorily translated to the screen.

For a start, the actual supernatural element – ‘a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified’ – is not at once recognised as such – it is dismissed as ‘Something in the circulation’ – in other words, he takes it to be subjective, inside his head, only to realise – when it is repeated an instant later – that it is objective, external. On screen, the first presentation of the sound (which the viewer would have to hear too) will inevitably seem objective and dramatic – we will feel at once that it is significant – so that its depressing effect, even if it could be conveyed (by the light going off the landscape, say, accompanied by an expression of disappointment), will be overwhelmed and lost.

So much for technical difficulties caused by the difference in medium; much more could be said, but I hope I have highlighted some of the key problems. However, there is another aspect I would like to consider, one that has a particular bearing on James, and that is the matter of faithfulness to the original.

The question that arises here has a much broader application, and indeed applies to any adaptation: it is not simply how far one is obliged to be faithful to the original, but rather what ‘being faithful to the original’ actually consists of. The initial thought is that you ought simply to follow the letter of the original as closely as possible: you should have the same characters, in the same setting, at the same period, with the same action and dialogue; then surely you can’t go wrong?

But as soon as you attempt this approach, you will find it is not so simple. I may discuss this more fully some other time, but fundamentally, the way you tell a story in writing and the way you tell it on the screen are different, so in order to tell the same story you actually have to go about it in a different way. This then raises the question of what makes it the same story – and here, in contrast to the previous approach, we are aiming for faithfulness not to the letter but to the spirit.

An illustration: recently, the MR James Appreciation Society page carried a link to a fine adaptation of James’s The Mezzotint. It is called The Photograph, and is by Tim Hall – it can be viewed here (and is well worth a look). Yet in it, no single detail of the original survives: it is set not only in a different time and place, but another continent, with different characters and a different back-story, yet for all that, I would call it a faithful adaptation, and a good one, too. We can see this if we strip away the flesh from the skeleton, so to speak, and move from the specific details – which differ – to the underlying general structure, which is identical in all respects that matter.

The supernatural agency is the same: both versions centre on a picture that changes, and in changing tells a story; in the original, it is a mezzotint; in the adaptation, a digital image stored on a camera. The story in each case is of an injustice (inflicted by the powerful on the weak, as it generally is) avenged from beyond the grave, the vengeance in both cases being the taking (and presumed destruction) of an infant. In the original, a poacher (of an old but impoverished family) is hanged by the Squire and his line is extinguished; his ghost retaliates by ending the Squire’s line by making away with his sole heir. In the adaptation, the larger crime of genocide against Native Americans is the injustice that is similarly avenged. In both cases, once the story has been told and ‘witnessed’ it ends: the mezzotint does not change again; the digital picture is simply lost from the file.

This, I think, is a good case of preserving the essentials, and the spareness of the adaptation – there is nothing superfluous there, no speech at all – is a key component to its success: it is hard to imagine a full-blown TV adaptation daring to be so economical in its narrative.

By contrast, the adaptation which provoked the original Facebook page discussion – the version of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you ’ with John Hurt – preserves nothing at all that is essential to the original, and as several people pointed out, were the link not expressly made with the James story in the title and the presentation, few would think to make it.

I am grateful to Wikipedia for the following plot summary, as the details of the Hurt version had become vague in my recollection, though my sense of it as unsatisfactory remains strong:

‘In this version, retired astronomer James Parkin goes on a respite holiday after leaving his aged wife (who appears to be in the advanced stages of senile dementia) in a care home. When revisiting one of their favourite coastal towns during the off-season, he discovers a wedding ring on the beach, which he keeps. The ring is inscribed (as was the whistle in the original story) with the Latin words for “Who is this, who is coming?” (though in this version, Parkin wrongly translates it as “What is this thing that’s coming?”). Parkin reads the words out loud. He then sees a white clad figure in the distance on the beach, but as he walks away, the figure has got closer to him each time he turns to look back. Panicking, he then runs back to the hotel he is staying at.

Later that night, he is awoken by scratching noises and somebody trying to enter his hotel room, but the following morning he is told that he was actually alone in the hotel all night with no other guests or even staff present. Though his academic mind refuses to acknowledge the existence of the spiritual or supernatural (he refuses to believe in the idea of his wife’s spirit being trapped in her almost functionless body like a “ghost in the machine”), he becomes increasingly uneasy during the remainder of his stay at the hotel and makes plans to leave.

The night before he is due to depart, he is once again awoken in the night by noises at his door, sending him into a panic. This time, a spectral apparition enters his room from underneath the door. Parkin shuts his eyes in terror and implores the apparition to leave him alone, but as he opens his eyes he sees a figure sitting on the end of his bed. The figure appears to be his wife, who says over and over again “I’m still here” as Parkin tries in vain to escape. The following morning, Parkin lies dead in his bed, while his wife is no longer to be seen at the care home.’

I remember thinking at the time that this was quite a moving story in its own right – and Hurt is ever a watchable actor – but that its association with James was both unwarranted and unnecessary: unnecessary, as it was good enough to stand on its own, and unwarranted, because (unlike the Mezzotint example above) it preserved nothing that was essential to the original, so that the incidental details it did preserve (a similarity in the setting and the manner of the supernatural visitation) seemed gratuitous and even baffling.

The original James story (full text here) sits in the same category as A Warning to the Curious and Count Magnus: all three concern people who meddle with what would have been better left alone and pay a heavy price, though Parkins (his name in the original – why the slight change in spelling in the adaptation?) at least escapes with his life, though his scientific rationalism is severely shaken. The Hurt story is about personal grief and guilt, so the fact of his being a rational scientific academic has no bearing – what shakes Parkins is that the terrifying manifestation he experiences seems to be the result of his having blown the whistle, a possibility he cannot countenance; in the Hurt story, Parkin has ample cause to be troubled in his mind – grief and guilt – but why this should result in a spectral manifestation that pursues him down the beach is anyone’s guess.

Indeed, it is notable that the Hurt version actually conflates two separate incidents in the James original: as Parkins is walking home, having found the whistle,

‘One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars’ church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood. “Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.” “What should I do now,” he thought, “if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it. Luckily, the gentleman behind is not of that kind, and he seems to be about as far off now as when I saw him first. Well, at this rate he won’t get his dinner as soon as I shall; and, dear me! it’s within a quarter of an hour of the time now. I must run!”

His ‘I must run’ is jocular: in a typically Jamesian touch, what he has seen makes less impression on him than on the reader, who already thinks it rather more than a late-evening stroller on the beach. It is when Parkins has retired to bed – after having blown the whistle and experienced a sudden blast of wind that blows the window open – that his imagination conjures the image of a man pursued by a spectre along the beach:

‘What he saw was this:

A long stretch of shore–shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water–a scene, in fact, so like that of his afternoon’s walk that, in the absence of any landmark, it could not be distinguished therefrom. The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. On this bleak stage at first no actor was visible. When, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened, though his face was not to be distinguished. He was, moreover, almost at the end of his strength. On he came; each successive obstacle seemed to cause him more difficulty than the last. “Will he get over this next one?” thought Parkins; “it seems a little higher than the others.” Yes; half climbing, half throwing himself, he did get over, and fell all in a heap on the other side (the side nearest to the spectator). There, as if really unable to get up again, he remained crouching under the groyne, looking up in attitude of painful anxiety.

So far no cause whatever for the fear of the runner had been shown; but now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying. The moment came when the pursuer was hovering about from left to right only a few yards beyond the groyne where the runner lay in hiding. After two or three ineffectual castings hither and thither it came to a stop, stood upright, with arms raised high, and then darted straight forward towards the groyne.

It was at this point that Parkins always failed in his resolution to keep his eyes shut. With many misgivings as to incipient failure of eyesight, overworked brain, excessive smoking, and so on, he finally resigned himself to light his candle, get out a book, and pass the night waking, rather than be tormented by this persistent panorama, which he saw clearly enough could only be a morbid reflection of his walk and his thoughts on that very day.’

There is a certain irony in the fact that James makes better use of the cinematic form in conveying Parkins’s waking dream than the TV version does in trying to realise his story. Much of the effect here depends on the reader’s being several steps ahead of Parkins, who still feels secure in his rational explanation that what he is experiencing is no more than the result of overexcitement: it is our flesh that creeps, not his. Compared to that, having Hurt/Parkin actually believe himself pursued by an ambiguous figure, to the point of panic, seems crude and unconvincing.

And the ambiguity of the ending – which I had forgotten – muddies things still further. The source of Hurt/Parkin’s grief is that his wife, though physically present, is effectively absent: she is almost the opposite of a ghost, a living person who is actually dead. If she is ‘still here’ then the implication is that she is still alive, trapped in her failing body, hence his guilt; but if she is now dead, and her death has in some way coincided with the events Hurt/Parkin experiences, in what sense is she ‘still here’? On the contrary, she is no longer trapped, and has nothing to be resentful about; and if Hurt dies as a result, then he too is free and no longer haunted by grief, guilt or anything else.

It seems to me that where this story is at its weakest is precisely where the writer has tried to preserve some connection with the James original: the full potential of the writer’s own conception – a man haunted by the loss of his wife to dementia – is constrained and distorted by an ill-advised and unnecessary attempt to fit it somehow – anyhow – to the framework of the James original.

My own surmise is that the tale was commissioned as an M R James adaptation to draw on the established tradition of broadcasting his stories at Christmas, so had to be presented as such, but that the writer could not make it work – and why that might have been is matter for another day – but I have no doubt that it would have been better had it been freed entirely from any Jamesian connection.

This is a topic to which I shall return.


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Passionate intensity : ranting and advocacy


(this painting, which brilliantly captures the theme of this piece, is The Orator by the German expressionist Magnus Zeller – click to enlarge: it’s worth a closer look)

We live in querulous times: there is a lot of anger about; a lot to be angry about. The lines Yeats wrote in 1919 (about the same time Zeller made his painting) spring to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Most of us enjoy a rant from time to time; it lets off steam, discharges pent-up passion. It has its place in the range of human activity, though over-indulgence can become tedious.

As a form of entertainment, directing a torrent of abuse at a person, practice or thing has a long history; here in Scotland (and in Ireland – the tradition is a Gaelic one) it was called ‘flyting’ and the great masters of such invective were (of course) the poets – the most famous of these exchanges is the contest between Dunbar and Kennedy, which you can find in full here . If you want a flavour, here is a morsel, in the original old Scots:

Fantastik fule, trest weill thow salbe fleyit.       

Ignorant elf, aip, owll irregular,

Skaldit skaitbird and commoun skamelar, 

Wanfuckėd foundling that Nature made an yrle,  

Both John the Ross and thou shall squeal and skirle 

An’ ever I hear aught of your making more. 

(Fantastic fool, trust well you will be flayed.

Ignorant elf, ape, irregular owl,

mangy rascal and common scrounger,

misbegotten foundling that nature made a midget,

John Ross and you will squeal and scream

if ever I hear any more of your versifying)

In more recent times, about twenty-odd years ago in Britain, the rant became a feature of the alternative comedy scene (about the time when comedy and I began to part company). No stand-up routine was complete without the performer having at least one sustained blast of invective on some subject close to his heart. Of course the sight (and sound) of someone letting rip without restraint can be invigorating, though I was never a great one for shouting myself. The key to success in such performances was choosing the subject of the rant: it had to be something that the audience felt equally strongly about, but were hesitant or unable to express their feelings on; so the performer on the stage spoke for all of them, becoming a conduit for their stored-up anger.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: it is stimulating and encouraging to hear the views you harbour (perhaps secretly) expressed forcefully; liberating, too – ‘it’s all right to say these things out loud’. It kindles the fire in the belly – but is it advocacy?

At first glance, it might seem so – an advocate is one who speaks on behalf of another, or others; one who gives them a voice. Surely the ranter does just that, raising his (or her) voice in anger on behalf of the silent, the inarticulate, the hesitant, the timid?

Well, yes and no. For me, the key question is whom you are speaking to, and to what purpose. The rant is, essentially, preaching to the converted: it is intended for home consumption; its audience are those who already agree with what you are saying, and feel delighted and empowered to hear it forcefully expressed – it makes them feel good about themselves, rallies them to the cause, strengthens the waverer.

But advocacy is about more than speaking to the like-minded: it is about giving people a voice in two distinct courts – the court of the powerful and the court of public opinion. You want to gain the ear of the powerful because they can change things, and you want public opinion on your side because that will influence the powerful; but the aim in both cases is the same – to persuade.

There are two objections to substituting ranting for advocacy: the first is that, as a general rule, it will fail; the second, more worrying, is that it may succeed.

You will rarely gain the ear of the powerful by shouting at them and saying how angry you are, any more than a child will bend its parents to its will by throwing a tantrum: all you are doing is demonstrating your own powerlessness. But in the court of public opinion, passion can persuade, and therein the danger lies.

It is one thing to say ‘I feel angry about this, and you should too, because –’ quite another to say ‘Because I feel angry about this, you should, too.’ In the first case, the anger springs from reasons, which have to be furnished if anyone is to be persuaded to share your viewpoint; in the second case, the mere fact of your anger is being offered as a substitute for reason – ‘the fact that I feel passionately about this should be enough to persuade you’.

That is the critical point: the fact that I feel something – no matter how strongly, how passionately, how sincerely – should never be enough to persuade you to go along with me: I might, after all, be sincerely and passionately wrong. But zeal is infectious: it is exciting to feel the fire in your belly, and if you feel angry, frustrated and powerless – as many people do – then zeal for a cause – any cause – is a great way of expressing all that pent-up passion. But zeal is impatient, which makes it dangerous – it doesn’t want to spend all day listening to arguments, weighing pro and con; it wants to do something: ‘you’re angry? I’m angry too – let’s go and smash stuff up!’

So, by all means, rant; but be mindful of the effect on your hearers. As Yeats continues:

 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

(My thanks are due to Hart Noecker, who stimulated this line of thought: you can find his blog here. Hart and I, fundamentally, share the same view, though – being from different generations and different sides of the Atlantic – we might diverge on how we express it)


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The saddest pachyderm?


This fine drawing is by the Netherlands-based artist Redmer Hoekstra –

(see more of his work here:  and his web-page here)

As a friend of mine observed, the rhinoceros looks very sad – perhaps he is reflecting on the fact that being a boat and still having to walk seems the worst of both worlds.

Is the rhinoceros the saddest of all pachyderms? It is hard to think of a jolly one, certainly. They do have a naturally down-in-the mouth look – consider Durer’s:


But when it comes to sorrow, surely EV Rieu’s little hippopotamus takes the palm, though he is not in a drawing, but a poem:

The Hippopotamus’s Birthday

He has opened all his parcels

 but the largest and the last;

His hopes are at their highest

 and his heart is beating fast.

O happy Hippopotamus,

 what lovely gift is here?

He cuts the string. The world stands still.

 A pair of boots appear!

O little Hippopotamus,

 the sorrows of the small!

He dropped two tears to mingle

 with the flowing Senegal;

And the ‘Thank you’ that he uttered

 was the saddest ever heard

In the Senegambian jungle

 from the mouth of beast or bird.

I think that is an excellent demonstration of the power of poetry. On the face of it, it is absurd; a certain sort of adult would classify it as ‘nonsense verse’ and say dismissively that ‘it is meant for children’ – though it might give them pause to know that EV Rieu was a distinguished classical scholar, the initiator and editor of the Penguin Classics (to which I, like many others, owe my first acquaintance with the Iliad and the Odyssey).

But it is far from nonsensical, for all that its subject matter is a baby hippopotamus being given a pair of boots for his birthday – for me it captures perfectly a very particular set of emotions that many people will recognise at once: it is not simply that the present, which had promised so much, turns out a disappointment; it is the little Hippo’s poignant realisation that it was meant to please, so he should do his best to seem grateful.

And at the same time as being desperately sad, it is also very funny, as so many human situations are: ‘The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel’ as Horace Walpole observed; though here I would change ‘think’ to ‘see’.

Everything we are shown looks funny – Hippopotami, those rather moomin-like creatures; the trappings of the birthday party; the absurdity of (a) giving a pair of boots to a hippopotamus and (b) giving a pair of boots as a birthday present to a child (though perhaps some children might welcome them); and all this is backed up by the rhythm of the first six lines, which captures the near-hyperventilating excitement of the little hippo culminating in the huge exaggeration (which nonetheless expresses precisely the full undiluted strength of childhood emotion)

He cuts the string. The world stands still.

and then –

A pair of boots appear!

we do not know whether to laugh or cry.

The absurdity does not add to the pathos, it is essential to it. What is more ridiculous, more emblematic of futility, than an ill-judged present? It is not only the receiver who is disappointed; the giver too hoped for a quite different outcome, invested just as much joyful expectation in that moment of grand unveiling that went so sadly awry. There is no malice here: everyone has acted from the best of intentions, yet it has all gone amiss.

What lends this poem its depth – what makes it ring true, to my ear – is the complexity of emotion in the second verse. We are familiar with another image of childhood, the spoiled brat, who receives a perfectly good present and behaves abominably, screaming and throwing tantrums because it is not what was wanted; what we have here is more subtle. The little Hippopotamus has been well brought up: he knows not only what he does feel but also what he is supposed to feel – and the two are at odds; this is his initiation into the grown-up world, where we must weigh the feelings of others against our own.

And what is more agonising than the realisation that the disappointment you feel results, not from any spite or indifference, but someone’s sincere attempt to make you happy?

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Filed under art, grief

Experiments with Time


Salvador Dali: ‘The persistence of Memory’

 ‘An Experiment with Time’ is a book I have mentioned before by that interesting Irish inventor and pioneer aeronaut, JW Dunne. It was very popular once and for a time you could almost guarantee that you would find at least one copy in any second-hand book shop you cared to visit – in the days when there were second-hand book shops.

Dunne’s basic premise is that our experience of time in everyday consciousness disguises its true nature from us: whereas we perceive it as a succession, with the future to come, the present here now and the past now gone, in reality all time is simultaneous: it is all present. Only in dreaming are we able to free ourselves from the limits of our consciousness and this makes precognition possible – in fact, the experiment in Dunne’s book involves recording dreams, sifting them for any content that might be construed as precognitive, then watching for any possible confirmation in coming events.

Dunne is far from the first to find Time a puzzle, and indeed I would hazard that anyone who has made any effort to think about it has found it so. (There is an International Society for the Study of Time – its first president was GJ Whitrow, author of a fascinating book, The Natural Philosophy of Time, a scholarly examination of the many diverse concepts of time that we actually use)

For me, Time is chief among the ‘mind-forged manacles’ I considered in my recent post – although ‘manacles’ is not quite the proper image, as it puts all the emphasis on restraint: we should not overlook the fact that our invention of time gives us a great deal of freedom and room for manoeuvre. Time is more like a great edifice we have erected around us, and like any building, it has a dual nature: it gives us shelter and protection, leaving us free to move within its confines; but at the same time, it interposes a barrier between us and the outside world. Whether we feel it to be a palace or a prison-house depends on our outlook.

Though we identify ‘living in the moment’ as an ideal to be aspired to, and relish the quality of timeless absorption that we experience when wholly engaged in some activity (I have experienced this myself in using a jeweller’s piercing saw to cut a complex shape from copper, and in drawing) the time-structure that we have created, with hours, days, months and years, is of great practical value in day-to-day living, which is why it has become so ingrained in us that it seems a natural thing rather than a mental construct.

With our genius for measurement we have evolved a calendar that we have now refined to the point of being accurate within fractions of a second, and that sort of precision (based on atomic clocks) strengthens the illusion that we are refining something real and independently existing rather than an invention of our ingenious imagination.

The conventional, man-made character of calendar time was more obvious before the coming of the railways, which did a great deal to standardise time, hitherto a local affair related to sunrise and sunset, which vary with your place on the earth’s surface. It was more obvious still in the early seventeenth century, when Europe was divided on which calendar it used, with some retaining the Julian while others had opted for the Gregorian, giving rise to the anomaly that, though Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date (23 April 1616) about 820 miles apart, it might  have been possible (with fast horses and a fair wind) for the same person to attend the deathbeds of both, since the events were eleven days apart.

As a further reminder of the conventional nature of calendar time we have the various attempts – some more successful than others – to mark a new era with a new dating system: the infamous Pol Pot declared 1975 to be Year Zero in Cambodia, in imitation of the similarly bloody-handed National Convention in France, who declared Year One from the abolition of the monarchy in 1792 (they also renamed the months and decimalised the week (10 days) and the day (10 hours of 100 minutes each of 100 seconds). They retained 12 as the number of months (each three decimal weeks or 30 days long) but started them at different times (about three weeks into the traditional months) adding the balance of five or six days between one year and the next. This arrangement operated for some twelve years (variously modified – decimal time was shortest lived, being officially suspended in 1795, though some kept it till 1801; the traditional days of the week were restored in 1802) till Napoleon abolished it at the start of 1806; it was revived briefly during the Paris Commune in 1871.

The Islamic dating system takes the Hejira (622 AD) as its starting point, and was brought into use about 17 years after that event, unlike the Christian reckoning of Anno Domini, widely used throughout the world, which was not devised till the 6th century AD, by Dionysius Exiguus or Denis the Small, and is basically inaccurate – it is now generally agreed that Jesus was born some years earlier than 1 AD. In Denis’s day the Julian Calendar was used, but years were reckoned from the reign of the Consul, though an Anno Mundi (year of the world) calendar had been calculated using the Old Testament, which gave the time from the Creation to Jesus’s birth as 5500 years.

It is easy to ridicule that figure now, given our knowledge of geological time, but to do so is to overlook the fact that we have very little natural sense of time as a quantity at all – I remember thinking as a child that the First World War was an impossibly distant event; yet 1964 – as distant now as 1914 was then – falls easily within the compass of my memory – I am more inclined to think ‘that was never fifty years ago, surely?’ than to reckon it a long time ago. In actual fact, we have difficulty reckoning much shorter lengths of time without the aid of watches or the like – has an hour passed since we did that? or thirty minutes? or ninety? it will depend very much on how we have been occupied (or not).

What constitutes ‘a long time’? Twenty centuries takes us back to Roman times, when Herod was Tetrarch in Galilee and Augustus was Emperor in Rome; another three or four takes us to the golden age of Greece, with Plato and Aristotle; ten more takes us to Homeric Troy; the Pyramids are as far before the start of the Christian era as we are after it; yet in the tale of years, that is a mere 4000 or so. 100 centuries is reckoned the sum of civilisation, yet the earliest known paintings (thought to be by our Neanderthal cousins) are four times that, 40,000 years ago…

Four hundred centuries! It sounds a lot, till we consider the dinosaurs, lords of the earth for more than a million centuries (which puts our own hundred-century civilisation in perspective) – and their time ended more than half a million centuries ago.

Yet all this is mere mental trickery, substituting arithmetic relations for temporal ones, and treating time itself as if it were length – we imagine a line drawn out with various events marked on it, though we would have the greatest difficulty drawing it to scale – at a millimetre per century, it would have to be 2.314 kilometres (nearly a mile and a half) long to take us back to when the dinosaurs started, and our own period of civilisation would take up only ten centimetres (about four inches) of that.

But the flaw in such reckoning is that we do not experience time as a constant quantity at all: one minute is not as long as another minute; an hour can pass slowly or quickly; in sleep we may have no sense of time at all (we can wake with no idea of how long we have slept – minutes or hours) though in dreaming we can experience what seems (in recollection, at least) great tracts of time, far in excess of the actual time spent dreaming it.

At the heart of this is the difficulty we have in describing consciousness – a strange thing, when you think of it, since we all experience it. St Augustine sensed the difficulty sixteen centuries ago – if the future is yet to be, and the past is no longer, what is the present?

‘For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present — if it be time — only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be — namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?’ (Augustine of Hippo, Confessiones lib xi, cap xiv, sec 170)

Augustine’s solution is interesting. He was struck by the fact that such things as music and the spoken word are, literally, comprehended  – i.e. ‘seized together’ or taken as a whole, despite the fact that logic tells us they must be experienced sequentially, with each note or word passing away before the next is heard. He proposes that time is (a) subjective and (b) has a threefold structure, consisting of expectation, consideration and memory:

‘But how is that future diminished or consumed which as yet is not? Or how does the past, which is no longer, increase, unless in the mind which enacts this there are three things done? For it both expects, and considers, and remembers, that that which it expects, through that which it considers, may pass into that which it remembers. Who, therefore, denies that future things as yet are not? But yet there is already in the mind the expectation of things future. And who denies that past things are now no longer? But, however, there is still in the mind the memory of things past. And who denies that time present wants space, because it passes away in a moment? But yet our consideration endures, through which that which may be present may proceed to become absent. Future time, which is not, is not therefore long; but a long future is a long expectation of the future. Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; but a long past is a long memory of the past.

I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention is extended to the whole; but when I have begun, as much of it as becomes past by my saying it is extended in my memory; and the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory, on account of what I have repeated, and my expectation, on account of what I am about to repeat; yet my consideration is present with me, through which that which was future may be carried over so that it may become past. Which the more it is done and repeated, by so much (expectation being shortened) the memory is enlarged, until the whole expectation be exhausted, when that whole action being ended shall have passed into memory.’

I think that the inclusion of memory as a crucial aspect of time – or our experience of it (insofar as we experience anything at all) – is illuminating. It explains why the fifty years that take me back to my childhood strike me as wholly different from the fifty years that ‘stretched’ between my childhood and the start of the First World War. I have an actual (if mysterious) relation with my younger self of 1964 – there is some sort of continuity that connects us, that makes me able to say ‘I remember thinking then that 1914 was impossibly long ago’. My father, who was born in 1913, remembered witnessing the launch of HMS Hood, which took place on 22 August 1918; for him there was a connection with that time that did not exist for me.

Thinking of that brings out the real sense of the expression ‘time out of mind’: we can go so far back on our own recollection, then a little further using the recollection of the oldest people we know; after that we are into what others have written, and even – in the remote past – what our ancestors have painted. Up to that point there is still a connection: we know that those distant Neanderthal painters were conscious as we are, and must have felt something of the same puzzlement we still feel now when thinking of what was, what is, and what is to come. Beyond that is ‘time out of mind’: it has length, maybe, but no duration.


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