Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Of course there have been ghosts in the Henry James manner, ghosts who assert themselves as influences or inva­sions of the mind; ghosts who are seen only when the observer is in a state where certainty about what is seen is out of the question. I might try that, or perhaps I should say more discreetly that I may hope for that. I do not feel that I can be definite about what I shall do. Oh, for an hour’s talk with Hugh McWearie!

McWearie would know, or at least he would have some opinion backed up by his learning in such matters. Hugh is an odd duck, a man who had been ordained in his youth as a Presbyterian minister; he had assumed that solemnity to please his parents, but he could not endure it and defected to be a journalist commenting on religious matters, and devot­ing himself to the study of metaphysics. But even as a metaphysician he was out of step with his contemporaries. He simply would not consent to be of his time; Hugh was a pre-Kant man, and to him the fact that an idea was three hundred or three thousand years old did not in the least invalidate it. In such things, he would say, there is no question of progress forward; the journey is always inward, where time is measured by a different clock. But as the inward journey is necessarily taken alone, how much credence may we give to what is said by those who undertake it? Is it wholly personal, or is some part at least of general validity?

“My answer to that,” he had once said during one of our collogues in his office, when I put the question to him, “has to be a qualified Yes, conditioned by a prudential No. These matters require what I think of as the Shakespearean cast of thought. That is to say, a fine credulity about everything, kept in check by a lively scepticism about everything.”

“That doesn’t get you anywhere,” I said.

“Oh, but it does. It keeps you constantly alert to every possibility. It is a little understood aspect of the Golden Mean. You were speculating about the afterlife. You can believe anything you like, with a good chance that you’re wrong, because nobody knows anything about it.”

“Yes, but what about these ‘after-death experiences’ that are so much discussed nowadays? People who have been pronounced dead, and who have been brought back to life by electric shock or something of the sort, and who report that they stood outside themselves and saw and heard the doctors working over their supposedly dead bodies? There are too many of those to be dismissed.”

“Ah, yes — well — but they are never absent from the body for more than a few minutes. Suppose the electric shock doesn’t work, and they don’t return?”

“Lots of them have said they didn’t want to return. They were well pleased to be wherever they were and dismayed by the idea of returning to all the trivialities and petty burdens of life.”

“They returned, all the same, or you wouldn’t know what they said. What about those that don’t return? What do you suppose happens to them?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Quite a few people have thought they knew. Orientals of all kinds have been eloquent on the subject, and believe me it isn’t any simple Christian Heaven they postulate. One of their great notions is that after death comes a waiting period before rebirth. A lot of them are very great on rebirth.”


“In a sophisticated sense. You scramble up and down on the great ladder of Nature, and when you’ve made it as far as Man you can be Man in wide variety — pig-man, dog-man, monkey-man, as you struggle toward Buddhahood. That’s the great aim, you see, and it carries great privileges. The Lord Buddha, before he came to earth for the last time in human form, took pains to make sure that he was born at the right time, into the right nation, into a suitable family, with a worthy woman to be his mother. He took no chances. Pernickety, for a god, wouldn’t you say?”

“I thought you were scornful of accepting Eastern reli­gious ideas into Western religious thought?”

“Cautious, yes: scornful, no. I don’t believe in trying to turn Westerners into Easterners. People who have failed at Christianity aren’t likely to make great Buddhists. You can’t neglect the demands of geography and race in determining what people can seriously believe. But you don’t have to; Swedenborg was quite definite about a waiting-period after death, and he was as Western as they come.”

“I don’t know anything about Swedenborg.”

“You and too many others. A great man, but not an easy man. A fine scientist, who then became what people call a mystic, because he talked about what couldn’t be seen or proven, but could be speculated on by a man with the right sort of intelligence. Himself, in fact. If you don’t know any­thing about Swedenborg, I presume you’ve heard of William Blake? Yes? Well. You don’t have to look insulted; I can’t count on anybody knowing anything in these bad days. And I suppose you’ve read all the poems, and skipped the Pro­phetic Books.”

“My professor said they would not be required reading.”

“Aye, too difficult for tiny minds. Remarkable stuff. Like struggling in porridge, which nourishes you richly as you drown. Well, anyhow, Swedenborg, and I expect Blake, would both have found a lot to make them nod their wigs in the descriptions of the Bardo.”

“The Bardo?”

“That’s the Tibetan term. State of being, roughly. It would frighten you out of your wits, some of it. The Encounter With The Eight Wrathful Ones, for instance. Rather like walking naked through a very long car-wash. Darkness, terrifying noise, and all the while you are slapped, spanked, squirted on from above and below and mauled and insulted until at last you emerge into the light, cleansed and humbled and ready for rebirth in whatever form you now merit.”

“I’ll skip the Bardo,” I said.

“If you can. Anyhow, I doubt if it would be the same for you as for a Tibetan monk. You’re a Celt, like myself. If there is a waiting-period for us after we peg out, I rather hope it will include some encounters with Arawn, or Brigit, or Arianrhod, or Gwen of the Three Breasts.”

“All goddesses?”

“I’d rather take my chances with a goddess than with the Eight Wrathful Ones. What reason have we to suppose that Ultimate Reality isn’t feminine?”

“We were both brought up with a prejudice in favour of a masculine God.”

“That’s one of the reasons why I hung up my gown and fled from the pulpit. These male gods — damn them — all law­givers and judges. All eternally right. No chance there for the Shakespearean cast of thought. No, no, my lad; it is the Eternal Feminine that leads us aloft, as Goethe very finely said at the end of his eighty years.”

“Oh God, Goethe. I thought you’d get to him.”

“Yes, Goethe. Worth a regiment of your theologians.” It was hopeless to argue with Hugh. The Celtic spirit raged in him, when his pipe was drawing well. If he had a god — a male god — it was certainly Ogma, the Celtic god of eloquence. To the Celts speech, not silence, was golden.

With such a man argument was futile, for he had a fine command of irrelevance and irrationality, and out of it, I must say, came a splendid wildness of theological speculation, where all beliefs had their own validity, to say nothing of their own absurdity. It was refreshing to be reminded that one’s range of intellect was so trivial, in the face of great mysteries.


Where are the great mys­teries? I appear to be stranded in a state of nothingness, in which no hints reach me of anything to come. Feelings I certainly have. Emotions, perhaps I should say. I feel a humorous relish for what I can still observe of the world from which I have been untimely ripped. Esme has already written a couple of good articles telling her readers how she copes with bereavement, and I know that now she is thinking about enlarging on this theme, and writing a how-to book for widows. What do I feel about that? My affection for Esme is not precisely waning, but it is changing, and her brisk oppor­tunism is beginning to grate. As for Allard Going, though it amuses me to see how miserable he is, and to follow the tortuous arguments by which he attempts to convince him­self that he is not really a murderer, but an ill-used toy of circumstances, I despise him, hate him, and am determined, if I can manage it, to do him some notable harm.

He has robbed me, in the most grievous way. He has robbed me of a possible thirty years of life. I never, while living, thought of my life expectancy in quite this possessive fashion. But now I am obsessed by thoughts of Hugh McWearie’s admonitory picture.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson