Monday, April 25, 2016

Guest Post: Machen’s “The Glitter of the Brook” and Poetic Knowledge by Dale Nelson

Here is a Machen rarity.  Click on the link to the late Ned Brooks’s archived first issue of It Goes on the Shelf and scroll down. 

I’ll return to Machen in a moment.  But first, please consider today’s habits of thought and practice in  pedagogy, even at the postsecondary level.  I believe that the situation sketched below is widespread.

University teaching in the humanities, it seems, is to be training in “skills” plus training in the acquisition of progressive social attitudes. An emphasis on training suits the agendas of organizations, which want a skilled workforce trained at someone else’s expense, and of activists, who want college to be largely about inculcating their values of resentment, confrontation, etc. in young people.

My university emphasizes “assessment” of student “success.”  Faculty members in the various disciplines develop and adopt several program objectives.  Then, for the courses in the program, they agree on several learning outcomes derived from the program objectives.  No one may opt out. 

Assessment of learning outcomes means that when faculty consider results of a given “activity” (such as reading a poem and writing about it), they can figure out ways to make the activity more perfectly produce student success.  Professors might decide that some material in their courses is evidently too hard for students, even with study notes and lectures, and substitute easier material that is supposedly “equivalent” (!) to it.  (Indoctrinated to believe that “research” into “best practices” opposes lectures, many faculty decline to give them, using “group learning” instead.  It is no wonder that some course material then seems “too hard” to students.)

My colleagues seem comfortable with the bureaucratic “assessment” of “student performance” according to measurable, articulable “learning outcomes.” Evidently they accept that that is what an English professor’s work is mostly about.  This sort of thing is probably what the younger ones, at least, grew up on.  It’s rational, or rationalistic anyway; it’s predictable, replicable, measurable.

When I’ve questioned our institution’s strong emphasis on this managerial idea of learning, I’ve been given a polite hearing, but nothing much has come of it -- not agreement, let alone resolution to challenge the cult of assessment.

“Assessment,” then, with what it implies about the blurring of the distinction between training and the learned life, is what meets my students again and again in all of their classes.  I wanted them to realize that the emphasis on measurement is questionable, especially as regards the humanities.

So I took a statement that I’d originally written for colleagues, edited it, and asked students in a course dealing with the history and structure of the English language to read it.  Perhaps they did.  At least they had a chance to glimpse something other than the managerial approach to English.  The statement begins with Machen’s quotation from Oswald Crullius.
Poetic Knowledge in an Age of Quantification
A character in one of Arthur Machen’s stories quotes a saying: “‘In every grain of wheat there lies hidden the soul of a star.’” 
The saying isn’t expounded and doesn’t contribute in an obvious way to the resolution of the story’s plot, but I think that it is worth considering in terms of possible reader responses.
It will immediately impress itself on some readers as a true statement, which is not to say it is “factual.”  Something true is indicated by it.  It suggests something, hints at something, points at something, that is true -- even though the “soul of a star” probably doesn’t lie hidden in “every grain of wheat”; and if it does, science will never observe it.  Even so, it doesn’t strike this first group of readers as a day-dreamy, sentimental, unreal notion, but as something pointing to a genuine category of real knowledge that may be called poetic knowledge.  Such readers desire to possess and to cultivate whatever human faculty it is that is able to apprehend such statements as meaningful. 
For a second group of readers the saying will contribute, in context, to a quality of quaint but vague charm.  The saying will have aesthetic significance, but many of these readers may adhere to the common view that aesthetics and ideas of the beautiful are matters of social construction, fashion, personal taste, and so on – pleasant, perhaps, but not a matter of authentic importance except when associated with more obvious public goods such as relaxation.  We all need relaxation so that we can work efficiently.  Studies have measured the different outcomes between groups that relax and those that don’t.  They have shown that productivity increases when workers take time to relax.  So something that helps people relax, such as stopping and smelling the roses, is justifiable.
For a third group of readers the saying is nonsensical, essentially no different from a statement such as “In every carburetor the wings of a moth are calculating taxation increments.” 
Other responses to the statement may be possible, and the same reader might take the quoted statement differently at different times.
             I have read the story in which the saying appears many times, and it is my favorite thing in the story.   If I included the story in one of my classes, I would hope that at least some of my students would belong to the first group of readers.  I would not feel that it was my business to try to find out who of them did belong to that group.  I would not feel it was my business to try to coax people in the second and third groups into responding to the grain/soul/star statement as people in the first group do.  And I would not feel it was appropriate for me to penalize students not belonging to the first group.  Yet, if I assigned the story for a class session, I might, privately, feel that the best thing that might happen to students who read the story would be a “connection” to the sentence I quoted.
             It must be acknowledged that this kind of situation is nothing unusual for the Humanities. 
Some of the most valuable things about literature, music, and visual art relate to poetic knowledge.* 
And pressure on students to articulate “what this passage means to me” – publicly, on the spot, no less! -- seems likely to kill a student’s ability to receive this knowledge.
             I don’t think it is now widely recognized at [my small four-year state university] that a university, which supposedly is interested in the whole universe of human knowledge, should not impose on all disciplines in all circumstances the same devices and methodologies.   How would one design a lesson with measurable, specified, articulated outcomes that would deal with the grain/soul/star sentence?   But if an elusive quality with regard to the Machen sentence be granted, then it must be granted that much of Keats’s poetry, Botticelli’s art, and Bach’s music similarly eludes the type of quantified assessment that is perfectly appropriate when it comes to establishing whether and how well students have learned how to type blood, create a spreadsheet, or solve algebraic equations. 
             As a professor, I constantly assess student performance.   Quizzes monitor whether students have done the reading.  Perhaps this is not to my credit, but I would be quite capable of having a quiz item like this: Early in the story, Jones quotes a statement: and including the grain/soul/star sentence as one of four options, hoping the students will circle the right one.  Brief open-book Focus Writes also assess student performance.  In this case, I might ask the students: Throughout the story, Machen’s narrator and characters in the story make paradoxical statements.  In the next thirty minutes, list as many of these as you can, with page references to our text, and feel free to conclude with a brief statement giving your view of how these statements contribute to the atmosphere of the story.  Longer in-class essays provide additional opportunities for assessment of student learning.  But in every case, I want to leave the student untroubled by obtrusive, busybody inquiries.  If the sentence, poem, story, or novel does not (as we casually say) “do much” for a given student this time, perhaps it will mean more someday, if and when the student returns to it (as has been my own experience at times).  As teacher, I cannot control this; and I certainly cannot measure it.
              A Humanities teacher who is chronically insensitive to the dimension of the arts that I have tried to suggest, and to students’ right to privacy with regard to the reception of that dimension, may do much harm.  From such teachers (however well-meaning) may our students be preserved, until these teachers learn better the art of teaching!

*Poetic knowledge is, from the point of view of Enlightenment-based educational theory, a fugitive and unreal thing.  Perhaps adherents of the Enlightenment and people like me can   agree to disagree   about whether there is such a thing as poetic knowledge.  They think there isn’t; I think there is.   So be it.  Perhaps we can furthermore agree this much: response to a statement like the grain/soul/star one doesn’t lend itself to measurement.  If I am a teacher who believes there’s such a thing as poetic knowledge and that it is an essential element of real liberal arts education, I should be allowed to teach thus without having to figure out silly “learning outcomes” to measure it.

Dale Nelson 22 March 2011; 19 Jan. 2015

------So far, the statement to my students.

Christopher Palmer edited The Collected Arthur Machen for Duckworth. In his introduction, Palmer recommends the educator George Sampson’s Seven Essays.  I bought a used copy of the book and found that Sampson insists that the English teacher must love literature before he or she teaches it.  Yes.  And the teacher should teach in such a way that the students, in their turn, have the chance to come to love some, at least, of the great works. 

That would work in an opposite manner to the prosaic and agenda-driven way much English teaching now is done.  Today English students are taught to read with “critical lenses” (such as feminist, queer, new historicist, deconstructive, postcolonial).  Thus every time students read literary works, they are injecting themselves once again with one or more of those typical modern critical theories.  This process will tend to make most great literary works continue to seem distant from readers.  Rather than – possibly -- becoming things loved and known, those works will usually fail to pass the tests posed by teachers and pupils who are obsessed with race, class, and “gender.”  This process of unrelenting vigilance regarding the approved modern categories inculcates bad reading. 

What is good reading like?  I refer the reader to C. S. Lewis’s pregnant essay “On Stories” and his short book An Experiment in Criticism.  These are two things that deserve to be passed secretly from hand to hand, dangerous, unnoticed by jibber-jabbering teachers.

I said, to a student who cared about literature: “You love a good book?  Welcome to the underground.”

PS: A few weeks after writing this piece, I read Zena Hitz’s “Freedom and Intellectual Life” as posted online by First Things.  It’s worthy of multiple readings.

© 2016 Dale Nelson       

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Phantasms - The British Space Group

Composer and musician Ian Holloway is an enthusiast of supernatural fiction and also of vintage British science-fiction television. His series of extended play recordings, Phantasms, pays tribute to these interests with soundtracks to imaginary programmes inspired by occult detectives Thomas Carnacki and John Silence, and also classic Quatermass and Dr Who episodes. These have now been collected in a just-released album, The Phantasmagoria, available from Ian’s Quiet World label.

On his blog Wyrd Britain, Ian explains: “About 6 years ago I came to the painful realisation that I probably was never going to soundtrack one of those cool gothic Doctor Who episodes of the Philip Hinchcliffe era full of robot mummies, dilapidated country piles, mad scientists laboratories and Victorian sewers.” He could, however, write music that might have been used in just such a programme. And so the Phantasms EPs were devised.

Enthusiasts of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and of early analogue synthesizers will thrill to the eccentric space age charm of these pieces. Listeners will easily find themselves inspired to visions of a frock-coated dandy vaunting between different planes of existence and combating sinister cosmic conspiracies, while all around singular devices whirr and sizzle, and whoosh and soar. These artful and affectionate compositions transport us to tales of other worlds that we seem to half-remember, re-activating our yearning for the lost and strange.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Guest Post: Arthur Machen: Ants and Abysses by Dale Nelson

 “I want to show him a new abyss.” -- Pascal

In Orson Welles’ The Third Man, the corrupt and nihilistic Harry Lime, looking down from the top of a Ferris wheel, sees men as being like mere ants.  In Lafcadio Hearn’s “Dream of Akinosuke” and in Machen’s “Dr. Duthoit’s Vision,” ants are seen as men or as like men.  The espionage movie and the two weird tales jostle our habitual perspective.

In Machen’s brief tale, Duthoit, clergyman, bookworm, and rose grower, had befriended the young Machen and remained in touch as the latter became a middle-aged man.  Alluding in passing to his World War I-era composition “The Bowmen,” Machen says that the elderly Dr. Duthoit wrote to him about his own strange wartime experience.

An exasperated Duthoit had been staring at the mess of miniature “hills and valleys” that had replaced his beautifully level garden plot.  As he peered intently, he realized that the plot had been transformed into a bizarre  miniature of the Gallipoli peninsula.  Duthoit saw red ants fighting black ants across what seemed to be hill-ranges and precipices.  Individual ants committed seeming acts of heroism.  Then Duthoit was called away.  Later, he returned to the scene to find that the gardener had raked up a lot of dead ants.

Duthoit ended his letter with a Latin sentence meaning “That which is above is as that which is below.”  Machen muses that the Great War then raging “is a world battle in the sense which we do not appreciate.  There have been some who have held that the earthly conflict is but a reflection of the war in heaven.  What if it be reflected infinitely, if it penetrate to the uttermost depths of creation?  And if a speck of dust be a cosmos – the universe – of revolving worlds?  There may be battles between creatures that no microscope shall ever discover.”

The Pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) contain a memorable passage that is virtually an expansion of Machen’s final paragraph, without Machen’s focus on war.  Pascal provokes our wonder as follows (from Krailsheimer’s translation, Penguin Classics, 1966, pp. 89-90):

Let man….contemplate the whole of nature in her full and lofty majesty, let him turn his gaze from the lovely objects around him; let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament.  But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.  …Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.  In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought.

Let man, returning to himself, consider what he is in comparison with what exists; let him regard himself as lost, and from this little dungeon, in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to take the earth, its realms, its cities, its houses and himself at their proper value.

What is a man in the infinite?

But, to offer him a prodigy equally astounding, let him look into the tiniest things he knows.  Let a mite show him in its minute body incomparably more minute parts, legs with joints, veins in its legs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops; let him divide these things still further until he has exhausted his powers of imagination, and let the last thing he comes down to now be the object of our discourse.  He will perhaps think that this is the ultimate of minuteness in nature.

I want to show him a new abyss.  I want to depict to him not only the visible universe, but all the conceivable immensity of nature enclosed in this miniature atom.  Let him see there an infinity of universes, each with its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportions as in the visible world, and on that earth animals, and finally mites, in which he will find again the same results as in the first; and finding the same thing yet again in the others without end or respite, he will be lost in such wonders, as astounding in their minuteness as the others in their amplitude.  For who will not marvel that our body, a moment ago imperceptible in a universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, should now be a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, compared to the nothingness beyond our reach?  Anyone who considers himself in this way will be terrified at himself, and, seeing his mass, as given him by nature, supporting him between these two abysses of infinity and nothingness, will tremble at these marvels. …For, after all, what is man in nature?  A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy.

In short -- Omnia exeunt in mysterium, as Machen was given to recalling.

Pascal’s word (as translated by Krailsheimer) colossus in this particular context will have reminded some readers of Donald Wandrei’s Astounding story from 1934, “Colossus.”  That “thought experiment” story, in turn, provided some inspiration for C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce; Lewis is certainly thinking of that story when he acknowledges his debt to American “scientifiction.”  In Lewis’s book, hell exists, but as something smaller than a pebble relative to our universe, and as scarcely a point relative to heaven.


“Dr. Duthoit’s Vision” is also known as “The Little Nations.”  It should be noted that Machen speculates about an infinite series of worlds, in all of which, perhaps, war is occurring, with each world in the series reflecting “war in haven” – which is on a different plane.  Lewis seems to imagine one “series” in which hell is at one extreme, as close to nonentity as possible, and heaven at the other, a sublime plenitude of being, with this terrene existence in a qualitative “midpoint” between them.  But Lewis expressly says, in his preface, that he is writing a fantasy and that he is not attempting to satisfy curiosity about the facts of the afterlife.  The Wandrei-Lewis connection is discussed in my article "A 'Scientifiction' Source for Lewis' The Great Divorce."  CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 36 [sic; actually 37]:3 (May-June 2006; Whole Number 413): 18.

© 2016 Dale Nelson

Friday, April 8, 2016

Guest Post: A Face at the Window in Two Arthur Machen Stories, by Dale Nelson

I would doubt the judgment of anyone who, having read a few of them, didn’t like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories.  Arthur Machen is on record as liking the Holmes stories somewhere, though I can’t find the reference now.

“The Adventure of the Yellow Face” was published in an 1893 issue of The Strand and in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes the next year.  Mr. Grant Munro tells Holmes and Watson about the little suburban “’villa at Norbury… very countrified, considering that it is so close to town,’” where he and his wife live, and of how, on an evening stroll, he idly inspected a cottage across a field from his home, and glancing up at a window, was chilled by the sight of a face regarding him, a face with “’something unnatural and inhuman’” about it.  The face suddenly disappeared.

Perhaps this image stuck in Machen’s mind, since something very like it probably becomes, for most readers, the most memorable thing in two of his stories, “The Inmost Light” (published in 1894 with “The Great God Pan”) and “The Novel of the White Powder” (published in 1895 in The Three Impostors).  

I must not be the first reader who has sometimes muddled the stories together in memory, because in each someone looks up at a window to be shocked by the sight of something unnatural and inhuman.  In “White Powder,” it’s an amorphous darkness in which two eyes glare forth, and a hideous paw; in “Inmost Light,” it’s the “’face of a woman, and yet it was not human,’” hellish, manifesting ‘”a lust that cannot be satiated and … a fire that is unquenchable.’”  This situation sticks in the memory when one has forgotten the elements of “Powder” that are a bit too close to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or the rigmarole about “Once around the grass, and twice around the lass, and thrice around the maple-tree” in the other Machen story. 

“The Inmost Light” strongly recalls “The Yellow Face,” with its suburban setting and strolling and then horrified narrator, to someone who reads the two stories close together.

The main persons in the Doyle story (aside from Holmes and Watson) and in “The Inmost Light” are a husband and wife.*  Something is much amiss with each couple.  There’s thus a painful discrepancy between the wholesome intimacy that ought to be and the actual situation, and in each case a ghastly face at the window is the portentous sign of that discrepancy.

In Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days” (1967), two couples appear.  Tension seethes between Garland and his wife Selina until, on their Scottish holiday, they encounter the slow glass farmer and his wife and child.  Something about the farmer’s manner puzzles them.  The house itself proves to be empty of wife and child, and is sordid and forlorn inside.  Garland and Selina learn that the serene woman and child they saw at a window of the farmer’s house died tragically, six years ago, but, due to the bizarre properties of slow glass, their moving images are now visible to someone looking at the outer side of the window. 

All of these stories have an element of pathos, none being simply a diverting shocker.**

*In “The White Powder,” the pair is a brother and sister who live together.

**In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), the most frightening apparition is probably that of Quint staring in through a window with his “white face of damnation”; but this will have been displaced, in the memory of anyone who has seen the 1961 movie adaptation, by the sight of haggard Miss Jessel in the reeds across the lake, the most haunting image of them all in the cinema of the ghostly.

© 2016 Dale Nelson