Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writing and the Supernatural


I just finished reading Alison Lurie's memoir of her friendship with poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson, Familiar Spirits. I loved it, partly because I really like Alison and her particular way of observing: she can be gossipy and tender at the same time. But her analysis of Jackson and Merrill's use of the Ouija board was also very interesting. For years and years they consulted a Ouija board almost daily, and developed long-lasting and important relationships with various "spirits" who communicated with them. Merrill's epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, was largely dictated by spirit guides.

What to make of all that? Lurie doesn't really know -- the notion of otherwise serious people becoming dependent on channelling spirits is baffling. She talks about how she used astrology in one of her novels, assigning a zodiacal sign to each of her characters to help develop them, and how she briefly thought she and Merrill and Jackson had something in common -- they all used the supernatural as an aid to creativity. But it was much more important to Merrill and Jackson. They actually believed in it. For years it occupied most of their free time.

Was it really spirits? Or was it a manifestation of their combined unconscious? Or was it one of them -- she suggests it was possibly Jackson, an unsuccessful novelist -- consciously or unconsciously pushing the planchette alone?

One of my favorite novels is Margaret Atwood's under-read Lady Oracle. It's about a woman who has a perfectly decent career writing historical romances, but who becomes suddenly famous when she writes a book of poetry by staring into a candle and writing automatically, in a trance. It's such a writerly fantasy: you close your eyes, stop thinking, stop trying hard, and let your hand just do all the writing on its own. And it's brilliant and you get famous.

But you know what? It's rather like what happens, anyway. (Not so much the brilliant and famous part.) But very often, writing comes from a place not entirely under your control. Writers often talk about their work going off in directions that surprise them, of characters having more life than the writer actually put into them. Where did all that come from? It can certainly feel supernatural.

Last summer when the final Harry Potter book came out, our store held a party and I read tarot cards for people all night. At first I felt like a terrible fraud, even though I didn't charge any money; I'm certainly not a tarot scholar by any means, plus I don't even believe in that stuff. But there was something about reading tarot that evening that was really tremendously fun and interesting. With some people, I had nothing. I blabbed for a few minutes, and they moved on. But with other people, I just looked at them and felt a connection, a knowingness. The cards were potent, everything I said felt important and true. Several people contacted me later and told me how accurate their reading was, how scarily apt the cards were.

But like I said, I don't believe in that stuff. I didn't, and I still don't. What I believe in is the human unconscious. We know so much more than we let ourselves acknowledge -- about ourselves and about others and about human nature. The supernatural, I think, can be a way to get at that information.

I have what is possibly one of central New York's largest collection of Ouija boards. Yet I have never once tried to use one. I guess I'm scared of either eventuality -- what if it doesn't work? What if it does?

What do you think? Should I give it a try?

18 comments:

David Rochester said...

I've used them, and my opinion is that they are much like Tarot cards ... they reveal the user's subconscious mind, rahter than predicting anything or channelling a spirit.

That is, however, merely my opinion. :-)

BTW, just read your book, and gave you a plug on my blog today, after complaining at some length about other books which I didn't like.

rmellis said...

Thanks, David. I'm so glad I'm out of print in the Internet era, rather than before...

The difference between tarot and ouija is that with tarot, you're actively interpreting, while with ouija you're surrendering to something else. That makes me nervous.

Writer Reading said...

I also recently purchased your book. It arrived last week and I look forward to reading it, so I get the Ouija board connection and understand (sort of) why you would have the largest collection in your region. It's true, the Tarot reader is interpreting and the Ouija board seems to be showing the way, but the automatic writing describe in Lady Oracle (one of my all-time favorite books) is a real psychological phenomenon and I have seen people, particularly with dissociative disorders, in hypnotic states, allowing their hand to write material dictated by the subconscious that they are completely unaware of, that later sheds a riches of insights. We project all over the place, constantly. We project on people things we don't want to admit about ourselves. We go into trances talking to people about themselves, talking about ourselves to people. It is a magical feeling, subconscious to subconscious. Supernatural? Who knows. But it's only as scary as your own subconscious.

rmellis said...

I'm not even sure why I have so many ouija boards.

Thanks for ordering my book, WR. I'm glad to hear someone else loves Lady Oracle! The psychological aspect of the supernatural is what I find interesting... and yeah, maybe my nervousness about ouija boards is actually about not wanting to know what's in my subconscious.

AC said...

I would leave the ouija boards alone, personally. In the light of day, I don't believe that there are any spirits out there to be channelled. But on the off chance that there are...well, honestly, what kind of spirits are they anyway? Loitering around some metaphysical street corner, waiting for some sucker to try to make contact. I guess I would not use a ouija board for the same reason I would not pick up hitchhikers. You just don't know.

If your theory is true, that the ouija board and tarot are just exercises that bring out a manifestation of the subconcious, aren't there other ways to do that that don't even bring up the question of the supernatural?

rmellis said...

Hm, good point, AC...

James (Mr. 5 Red Pandas) said...

Arthur Conan Doyle was another literary believer in the channeling of spirits. His critics (most notably, Harry Houdini) were baffled that the creator of Sherlock Holmes could fail to realize that the rapping on tables and strange noises experienced during seances were not caused by ghosts. However, Doyle developed his beliefs in spirtualism after the death of his son, which may have caused his will to believe to override his observational skills.

AC said...

Just reread my comment above, and I have to add a footnote. I stand by my point. But I apologize if it sounded like I was channeling the spirit of your mom.

rmellis said...

James -- I had heard something like that about Doyle -- also that Houdini had made a pact with his wife to come back after death, if he could, and didn't.

AC -- I think my mom actually has said that exact thing.

zoe said...

There was quite a big group of otherwise sensible people who were into spiritualism at the same time as A C Doyle. Another Atwood book, Alias Grace, deals with spiritualism's popularity a bit, as does a Sarah Waters book called Affinity. The whole phenomenon is very interesting to me. Sure there were and are lots of charlatans pretending to be psychic and making a good living from it, but there are also some freaky, compelling happenings that can't be neatly explained away.

I subscribe to the Shakespeare quote about Heaven and earth and all that. Why is it that western society sees an interest in the supernatural as a sign that you are mentally deficient in some way? Don't get me wrong, I have no interest in vampire fiction or similar, but I do think there's more going on than we can explain away and I'd be interested to write about that a little.

However, that said, I would never do the ouija board - far too frightening.

jrlennon said...

The thing that's frightening about it isn't the possibility that it summons spirits...it's the possibility that it will reveal things about you that you don't yourself know.

Writing, in general, is frightening in exactly the same way.

gcm said...

I recently read Dick's The Man In The High Castle, in which characters rely heavily on readings from the I Ching. What surprised me - and delighted me - was the discovery that Dick also used the I Ching when writing the book. At different forks in the narrative, in order to determine his character's decisions (and thus their character), he flipped coins and drew up hexagrams.

To add another layer of niftiness, Dick had his counterpart in the novel - the author of the fictional alternate history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy - use the I Ching for the same purpose.

myles said...

Deborah Blum's "Ghost Hunters" is an interesting study of how a bunch of intelligent, scientific, late-Victorian men and women (including, notoriously, the eminent philosopher William James) took a deep interest in spiritualism.

James and his friends wanted to study the phenomena of the supernatural in a rational, scientific way. Most of the stuff was easily dismissed as bunkum and hoaxes (such as the ridiculous Madame Blavatsky) but there were still a few things that puzzled everyone.

Despite all the experimental rigour and strict controls that guided the tests, there were some 'spirit readings', mainly with Leonora Piper, that could not be explained. James ended up by saying that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, he had to conclude that Mrs Piper really had supernormal powers.

Spooky. So if you get the ouija board out, see if you can find William James, and ask him what he thinks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting writerly link there too -- wasn't he Henry James brother?

myles said...

Yes he was. Henry's older, smarter brother.

jrlennon said...

Oh man...there's a gauntlet for ya

5 Red Pandas said...

Rhian, I feel the need to remind you that in order to properly use the ouija borad you have be having a slumber party.

So, you know. Make sure you're having a sleep over when you crack open the ouija board.

When I did it as a kid it was a little spooky, but everyone knew someone was moving the piece the same way everyone knew that we weren't really making our friend levitate, even though we swore that we had.

bloglily.com said...

Merrill and Jackson's obsession with the ouija board reminds me of Yeats and his wife Georgie, who did this automatic writing thing, which is very similar -- the results were very inspiring for Yeats (even if the book he wrote about it was kind of a dud, while Changing Light at Sandover is quite good).

Poor Georgie though -- she'd have to sit around for hours and take dictation from the spirit world because her husband liked it so much.

But then, again, the spirits liked her and approved of their marriage, and said so regularly, so maybe there was something in it for her too.