Friday, October 18, 2019

Guest Post: The Presence in the Wood: Machen’s “Great God Pan” and Ovid’s Festivals by Dale Nelson

sheltering under some blackened tree, I would pass the midday hours too dazed to eat or think, and waited for the flailing sun to cross the meridian.

Grant we meet not the Dryads nor Dian face to face
Nor Faunus, when at noon he walks abroad.

     Thus Ovid, on the “Weirdness of Noonday”, the hush and pause of nature feared by the ancients, and by remote peasants still. Then Pan walks abroad, and the nereids grow harmful. Even the cicadas cease to drill their dry, insistent nothingness. Time stops. The day is held breath.
--Colin Thubron, Journey into Cyprus (1975), p. 245

In some readers’ minds, Arthur Machen is so strongly associated with the rare and the esoteric that the importance, for him, of literature once widely known and readily available, may be missed.

In this and subsequent articles, I’ll show a few examples of how consulting such books may enhance our understanding of the meaning, and the horror, of several of Machen’s most famous stories.

The possible allusions I will point out may have been noticed by readers whose comments I haven’t seen. Much of what I’ll be saying was reported by me in an article published in 1991, in the Spring issue of Avallaunius, the journal of the Arthur Machen Society. I suppose that “Clarke’s Dream in ‘The Great God Pan’: Two Classical Allusions” is almost impossible to come by now, and that my article is unknown to some readers who would be interested in its content.

To proceed.

Just before Dr. Raymond operates on his ward, Mary, in the first chapter (“The Experiment”) of “The Great God Pan,” his friend Clarke dozes off and dreams of a hot day and walking on a path in a Mediterranean wood:
suddenly, in place of the hum and murmur of the summer, an infinite silence seemed to fall on all things, and the wood was hushed, and for a moment of time he stood face to face there with a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form.
The dream-Clarke has come into the presence of Pan. Perhaps Clarke had studied Ovid in school or at university, and read the following passage from the famous Latin poet, specifically from the Fasti, which concerns itself with the Roman festivals. From Book IV, lines 761-762:
nec Dryadas nec nos videamus labra Dianae,
nec Faunum, medio cum premit arva die
which Frazer, in the 1931 Loeb Classical Library edition, translates as “May we not see the Dryads, nor Diana’s baths, nor Faunus, when he lies in the fields at noon” (pp. 244-245). Frazer’s note adds, “It was dangerous to disturb Pan (Faunus) at midday.” The passage quoted is from a prayer to be offered to Pales, a deity of shepherds whose festival was in April, the subject of Ovid’s fourth book.

Machen’s reader will have understood that Clarke encountered Pan, whether or not the Ovid passage came to mind, but it seems likely that Machen expected his better-educated readers to perceive an allusion that underscores the heat, the breathlessness, and the dreadful peril of such a moment.

The passage is a prayer, a prudent supplication not to see that contrasts with the eagerness of the scientist that his hapless ward will “‘see the god Pan.’” Raymond lacks a proper fear of Pan and also lacks a due reverence for a human being; he regards Mary as his to do with as he pleases since he rescued her from the “gutter.” All the terrible things that happen after the “experiment” result from his unrestrained curiosity, ambition, and, above all, impiety.

“The Experiment” implies that one cannot derive ethics from the scientific method. This is true. One can only bring ethics to the laboratory – or not, as with Imperial Japan’s Unit 731.

The second chapter of “The Great God Pan,” called “Mr. Clarke’s Memoirs,” introduces Clarke’s private notebook. He calls it “Memoirs to prove the existence of the Devil.”

Machen thus introduces a specifically Christian element into the story, to which he returns at the end of the chapter. Having heard and recorded Phillips’s account of the tragic fates of two children who knew the fatal Helen Vaughan, Clarke added a Latin inscription that is an obvious parody of part of the Nicene Creed. It means, “And the devil was made flesh, and was made man.”

Depicting the devil as Pan isn’t biblical; in the Bible, the devil is associated with a serpent, a dragon, and a falling star, and is said to be able to appear as an “angel of light.”

But the “iconographic influence of Pan upon the Devil is enormous,” says Jeffrey Burton Russell. Early evidence for this seems, from his book, to date to several centuries after the writing of the New Testament documents. Russell reproduces a Coptic ivory carving, 6th century. The iconographies “of Pan and the Devil here coalesce: cloven hooves, goat’s legs, horns, beast’s ears, saturnine face, and goatee” (The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, pp. 125-126).

Machen worked with both in this novella. The novella might not cohere thematically.

“The Great God Pan” didn’t come to Machen as one whole. “The Experiment” was published by itself in The Whirlwind in 1890. Years later, in an introduction to the 1916 Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. edition of The Great God Pan, Machen confessed that “I had no notion that there would be anything to follow this first chapter.”

“The Experiment” recalls the brooding stories of Hawthorne, with his cold-hearted observers of humanity and the women who are their victims.* Poor Mary is a sacrificial victim shattered by a vision of sublimity. In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, Psyche erred in listening to her sisters’ urgings to disobey the god and shine a candle on his divine beauty. Mary agreed to the “experiment” permitting her to see what her “father” could not see for himself, and her sufferings were worse, though briefer, than those of Psyche, and cost her her life.

With the rest of the novella, we leave myth for a melodrama about amateur detectives and the villainess Helen Vaughan, who arrives in London, drinks coffee, has one foot in the underworld and one in respectable society, finagles money and spends it, and leads several Londoners of good name into activities of which they feel so ashamed that they choose painful methods of suicide. At last Clarke, Villiers, and Dr. Matheson sternly give her a choice: either the police will be called (with the implication of inevitable public exposure), or she can kill herself with the rope they have brought. She chooses the latter. When Machen described the revolting metamorphosis of her body, he may have been trying to return to the more mythic level of the first pages. I don’t quite find it artistically convincing.

*I’m thinking of “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

(c) Dale Nelson


  1. Thanks for the interesting writeup.

  2. Thank you! I'm glad to see that my opinion is in accord with yours -- the original story is striking, the rest of the book a pallid paste-up. The brilliance of "The Experiment" is the shiver of horror we feel at the end -- not at the great god Pan, but at Dr. Raymond.