In an earlier article, I proposed that part of Clarke’s dream in the first chapter of Machen’s “Great God Pan” recalled the eve of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in AD 70, as recounted by the historian Flavius Josephus in The Jewish War, a book formerly well-known in Whiston’s translation.
Machen’s character Clarke dreamed of a voice that cried, “Let us go hence!” and the tome of Josephus reported that the priests heard a multitude of voices calling “Let us remove hence!” before the triumphant forces of Titus overthrew the Temple. Clarke’s dream foreshadowed the sacrilegious violation of a young girl’s spiritual integrity because of a successful brain experiment.
I will argue that an account of the violation of an earlier Temple illuminates Machen’s theme. Here again, Machen is (I suspect) drawing on an old book – this time, the Bible – that is much less a part of education, the arts, etc. today than formerly.
“‘When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation (spoken of by Daniel the prophet), stand in the holy place’ – whoso readeth, let him understand – ‘then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains’” (St. Matthew 24). These words of Christ refer, in context, to the prophesied destruction of the Temple of Jesus’ day, the Second Temple, the taking of which by Roman soldiers about 40 years afterwards was described by Josephus.
But the words allude also to the Old Testament book of Daniel 9:27 and 11:31, which the interested reader may look up.
However obscure these texts may be now, they were familiar to many when Machen was young. I won’t attempt to summarize the reasons why the Daniel passages have been taken to have a twofold fulfillment, first at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled 175-164 BC, and then in AD 70.
Under the Seleucid king, the Temple was defiled: the king’s forces set up in it an idol of a pagan god, prevented the Israelite sacrifices from being offered, and may have polluted the altar with the blood of pigs. Under the Emperor Vespasian, over 200 years later, the Temple was, again, subject to outrage. In a war of appalling carnage, Titus ended the Jewish sacrifices and thrust the Roman standards into the sanctuary.
That, basically, is the historical meaning of “the abomination of desolation” or the “abomination that makes desolate.” The hallowed place, sacred to God, is broken into, something sacred is lost or departs from it, and something unholy takes its place.
Readers of Machen’s horror stories will see the parallel I’m proposing.
The orphan girl Mary is violated; “the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh”; she is left a ruin, an “idiot” who dies before a year has passed. But something horrible took possession of her body so that nine months later she gave birth to Helen Vaughan, with whose deplorable activities much of “The Great God Pan” is concerned. When Helen is forced to kill herself, a ghastly corruption is revealed.
Likewise, in “The Inmost Light,” Dr. Black experiments on his innocent, consenting wife. Black wrote that “from some human being there must be drawn that essence which men call the soul, and in its place (for in the scheme of the world there is no vacant chamber) – in its place would enter in what the lips can hardly utter, what the mind cannot conceive without a horror more awful than the horror of death itself.” Black’s experiment is successful, and a Poesque mass of bubbling black corruption results.
In each story, an “abomination of desolation” follows upon violation.
Please note: I don’t say Machen wrote these stories intending that they would be interpreted as religious allegories, and, so far as I know, by and large they haven’t been. He wrote more as a poet than as a mystic, much more as a poet than as a theologian, and much, much more as a poet than as a parson; to say which is not to disparage mystic, theologian, or parson.
Machen wanted to write tales of suspense, wonder, awe, and horror, and, so far as I know, for decades many readers have found these stories first rate of their kind. The literary allusions I’ve expounded – if they are there – are part of the man’s artistry, and have worked mostly as undertones.
Except that, as Ovid, Josephus, and even the Bible have ceased to indwell many readers’ imaginations today, such readers might hardly sense those tones.
Machen may now be faulted by critics who lack the imaginative formation he and many of his readers shared. For some of these critics, it’s too late to become naturalized to that country, that spacious, and almost lost, realm of the Greek and Latin classics, the Bible and religious tradition, the standard English authors such as Milton and Browne and Wordsworth. In new Machen reprints, footnotes may identify some of his references and allusions, but few or no associations with personal formative imaginative experiences will be evoked in readers, because that formation didn’t happen. To be told that the allusions are there is not to feel them as undertones as one reads the stories --.
When Machen treats of the human being positively, as a divine creation, though threatened by evil, the victims are female. In my next article, I’ll discuss Machen’s variation, in which his emphasis is on the corruption lurking within fallen human nature. There, the sufferer will be male.