Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Guest Post: Arthur Machen’s Secret History Tale THE TERROR by Dale Nelson

The Late Antique chronicler Procopius wrote The Secret History about the corrupt court of the Emperor Justinian.  Tim Powers’ Declare (2001) is a fictional secret history of the Cold War, revealing the traffic with malevolent supernatural powers that went on in the innermost Russian circles, and that played a part in the Soviet purges and state-engineered Ukrainian famine.

Machen’s 1916/1917 piece of pseudo-investigative reporting explains a bewildering series of home-front deaths that occurred during late May or early June 1915 and ended in the winter of 1915-1916.  News of the deaths was vigorously suppressed by Great War censorship.  These widespread and dreadful incidents impaired the Allies’ campaign against Germany, particularly because munitions factories were among the places attacked.  As readers will remember, the narrator concludes that domestic and wild animals were immediately responsible for the bizarre deaths, but the responsibility more truly lay with man; “the subjects revolted because the king abdicated.” Humanity has been defecting from its spiritual superiority to animals, and, instinctively sensing this, the animals lashed out, and may do so again.

The narrator explicitly refers to the truth of “tradition.”  It seems that he’s thinking of the four-level ontological hierarchy that E. F. Schumacher expounded to modern people in A Guide for the Perplexed (1977).  The levels are discontinuous.  The lowest level of being is the mineral; rocks exist, but have neither life nor agency.  Plants exist and possess life, and agency such that they may break down their immediate environment for their own use, e.g. as when tree roots break up a sidewalk.  Animals exist, have life, have sensation, and exhibit agency such that they may build up their immediate environment for their use, as when birds build nests, beavers construct dams and lodges, etc.  Mankind exists, lives, feels, and exhibits agency even to the extent of refashioning their inner world, as when a person decides to learn something or to break a bad habit. 

Those are the four levels of visible being.  There’s an inverse correlation between abundance and agency; rocks, which comprise nearly all of the world’s mass, have no agency, while at the other extreme, people, much less abundant than plants or animals, possess agency far transcending that of any other inhabitant of the visible creation.  Human beings were appointed steward-priests of the visible creation, but many have have lost an awareness of their vocation and of the dignity belonging to their nature.  In Machen’s story, this results in calamitous consequences to themselves and the beasts.

The traditional hierarchy is one of the chief ideas in Shakespeare.  It’s reflected in an extensive speech of Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (I:3).  If the proper relationship between things (each in its proper “degree” or level) is violated, chaos and destruction assert themselves where harmony should have been. 

Although its manner is journalistic and its mode is that of the weird tale, Machen’s “Terror” turns out to be a mythopoeic fiction implying the truth of the perennial doctrine of the hierarchy of being.  “The Terror” describes numerous imaginary incidents in a revolt of the animals.  The Eastern Orthodox tradition maintains the reality of the converse situation, in which men and women of sanctified life have enjoyed a peaceful and trusting relationship with animals.  The story of St. Seraphim of Sarov and the bear is relatively well-known.  A doctor of veterinary medicine, Joanne Stefanatos, compiled a book of such accounts in Animals and Man: A State of Blessedness (1992).

(By the way, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead contains what is, in effect, a Gaia-hypothesis variation on The Terror, an admitted hoax called “Violence of the Lambs.”  The New Yorker reviewer found it the weakest piece in the book.  Also: in Chapter 10 of The Terror, “Porth never tolerated Ethiopians or shows of any kind on its sands” refers to blackface minstrel entertainments.)

© 2016 Dale Nelson


  1. I'd like to read more from Dale Nelson!

    1. Look for another one next week, and a further one the week after...