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Arthur Machen (1925) by M.P. Shiel

Arthur Machen

by M.P. Shiel

written for The Borzoi 1925: being a sort of record of ten years of publishing (1925)

(The Writings of Arthur Machen)"
in Science, life and literature
Williams and Norgate Ltd: London (1950)

OF LIVING people known to me none I think more, so, essentially the artist as Machen--meaning by this a singer somehow of the truth that the universe is bacchic and deserves an emotion, a truth which the universe itself is in a conspiracy to conceal from us, and keep us dull. For we see nothing as it is. That "inverted Bowl" that "coops" us in--no bowl there; the stars are not little, nor the moon a foolish cheese, now whole, now cut, that floats dull--in truth, her speed is as lunatic as herself; a tree inside is a Wall Street all teeming with feet that speed, and to see the scapings of a petal through a microscope is to descry trains of trucks pressing with preoccupation on their way, the whole thing trilling like fiddlestrings, singing like fiddles, every millimetre of ether trilling between here and the Pleiades, light flying, suns thundering, some colliding with fuss and fume, moons undergoing "disruptive approach", pitching into puddles of pit-fire; as I write, wireless waves are rushing in every direction through my hand and heart, but I do not see them, feel them, and oh, wretched man that I am, who shall rescue me from the blasphemy of being bored? Everything in the conspiracy of secrecy!--except perhaps meteors, streaming flags of fire that the gallant planet flies in her flight, which do reveal a little how things are, with what a laugh she flies with me. But even these I do not half see as they are, and dull I should be, if the scientist did not arise to tell me "the universe is bacchic! bacchic!" But the notes-of-exclamation here are mine: he has no time, is too preoccupied with seeing to feel, and here is where the artist comes neatly in to rescue me, he having heard what the scientist says, having time, too, to admire, and to tell of it in innuendoes, with winks, saying: "It is not dull! I know a thing or two, I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows!" And if one asks him: "But is that all?" he winks at one, saying: "Enough said; I give you a hint: eye has not seen, never heart fancied; tolling melodious notes, wrung with emotion, it rolls; fairy! drunken! enough said." But is it true? Fairy? If it is a fancy, then it is not of the least interest or importance; but the scientist says "yes, a fact", and the artist with streaming tears calls God to witness it. The scientist's part in art, however, is not seen by Machen, who conceives that art preceded science, that "poetry has nothing to do with scientific truths", does not, in fact, quite know what science is, thinks that the fact "A loves B" is "a scientific truth", so does not know that science is the mother of art--or, say, does know, but does not know that he knows: for art, he says, is adoring; but, then, before adoring one, obviously, must be conscious, must know something, something of an order of things; and to know anything of Order is science; to know more is to adore more. But Machen is of the scholar-artist type, the Milton type, with a remembering habit of mind, not of the scientists artist type, trained in perceiving, of this type the sole representative so far being Goethe, whose like, when next he comes, will renew all things--such as Wells, Verne, being just shadows cast before his coming. But for the scholar-artist type see Machen who quotes with approval Rossetti's remark, "I neither know nor care whether the earth goes round the sun"--which is the first remark that a cow would make between two chews the moment it got the gift of speech. Characteristic of Machen is his Hieroglyphics: "the gold of that land is good"; but not its "licence of affirmation", its lack of that wariness, circumspection, or scepticism (spec=scep= look--before you leap) to which only scientific training educates the intellect. His theme is the artist's theme that "the universe is bacchic, and deserves an emotion", but he makes certain unexpected exceptions in emotion!--high art, he thinks, does not weep at the universe, nor laugh at it, only sighs at it. He distinguishes between "feelings" and "emotion", though, of course, there is no such distinction in psychology: "feelings" are emotion. If one sends to a woman a telegram "your husband is dead", and she weeps, is that, he asks, fine literature? But, evidently, this bacchic mood, this weeping at the universe, is due to the woman's belief that her own husband is dead! If I can make her weep at the universe by a tale of, say, Hector, of someone else's husband, in whose existence she does not believe, how high my feat, and fine my "literature"! But he is full of "opinions", biases, idiosyncrasies, resembling that fat Dr. Johnson who struck with his stick for luck every rail of every railing on his way. Half of the universe he loathes; the other half he clasps with passion to his heart: and his favour is often favouritism, his hate is often prejudice: it is not easy to predict what he will kiss, what hiss at. Nor does he ever undergo change: the mountains shall dissolve, but he will be found the same. There are those, who, if ever they caught themselves thinking as they thought six years before, would be killing themselves; but Machen is too delicious to be different. And he argues; anon he is even Socratic: and his pretty bubble of argument can as easily be pricked by an intellect really modern as any of the good Socrates': indeed, in tone of soul and mental outfit he is very like Plato. He lays it down that "literature is the expression of the dogmas of the Catholic Church"--and one may think for a moment that he means it; but not he: he means something, something true, but not what he says. He says: "Rationalism may say to you: Either give a reason for going to Mass, or leave off going; you have only to answer: But I can give no reason for liking The Odyssey, and yet you admit I am right in liking it: then I have proved the contradictory of your premises." And now he is quite satisfied; the enemy is crushed. But, then, there is no parallelism between "going" and "liking": the parallelism would be between liking to go and liking to read. One may "go", not for pleasure, but to "get good", or something: and the Rationalist says "know why". And so on. But it is not for arguments that one reads Plato: he cannot argue, since the ancient brain was not wary enough, trained in scepticism, strong-kneed, enough, except when, like Euclid, it argued on schoolboy themes. Yet one reads him spellbound, as one reads Machen, and the heart dances. There are creatures that cannot run, but can fly. When Matthew Arnold spoke of "that victorious brow" (of Shakespeare), that, of course, was Victorian, since Shakespeare had no brow--except in his portraits, in which he vainly emulates Hall Caine. Newton had a brow, Edison: which said, it is evident that Shakespeare had none, for, if so, it would have thought something; and what did it think? we can say at once what Edison has thought, but what Shakespeare had was a warmth, a wing--was no Goethe, who had brow and wing; but either by itself is worshipful, and wing without brow will frequently by some luck come cutting into the very thickest of truth. Thus it can easily be shown that the soul of Hieroglyphics is true, with a truth on which Machen's books in general are founded. I think the purest Machenesque is The Chronicle of Clemendy; such as The Great God Pan and The Three Impostors perhaps showing some trace of Poe, of Stevenson. In none is aught of "common or unclean"--though it is amusing that when he is most elevated, just then "the general reader" conceives that he is rioting in "improprieties". But, in truth, his theme is ever the Rose, the Rose: even in his letters, for as I write, I reread an old letter that teems with "the Rose"; and though I do not know exactly what Rose he is talking about, I know that there is a Rose--of Sharon--and that he knows about it, for his garments smell of it, and his pages. This is how he talks: "The longing peculiar" (unwary!) "to man, which makes him lift up his eyes, looking across the ocean for certain fabled happy islands, for Avalon that is beyond the setting of the sun": so that the fellow dances mad, he is stung by the tarantula, he loves God, is afflicted with glossolalia and the gift of tongues, weave a circle round him thrice and close your eyes with holy dread, for he on honeydew has fed, and drunk the milk of paradise.