Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Guest Post: Machen and the Dark Specter by Dale Nelson

In three recent articles, I’ve argued that Arthur Machen probably drew upon the writings of Ovid, the historian Josephus, and the Bible to suggest, subtly rather than explicitly, the nature of the horror of violation that occurs in “The Great God Pan” and “The Inmost Light.”

Here, I’ll comment on “Fragments of Paper” (also called “Psychology”), which is a sketch, and “The Novel of the White Powder.”  Where in “Pan” and “Light” the innocent sufferers were women, in these two pieces the sufferer is a man, and he is not innocent.

The “fragments of paper” are scraps that Mr. Dale wrote on during a sunny day at home, which was mostly busy with unspecified work.  “On them he had carefully registered all the secret thoughts of the day” without thinking about them, getting back to work till he jotted the next note and put it aside.  When he reviewed them, he was shocked by “the crazy lusts, the senseless furies, the foul monsters that his heart had borne” that the scraps recorded.

He has learned that “every day we lead two lives. … I say I am a man, but who is the other that hides in me?”

“Powder” is narrated by the sister of Francis Leicester, a diligent student of law.  Miss Leicester became anxious about the toll on her brother’s health of such long, sedentary hours, so he reluctantly consulted the family physician, Dr. Haberden. 

Francis had his prescription filled, despite his sister’s misgivings, at a neighborhood shop kept by an elderly pharmacist.  Francis perked up and exhibited a new taste for London night life, but eventually sequestered himself in his room.  There is a horrified glimpse of a monstrous face and paw at his window, some nasty black fluid drips from his room into the room below, his door is at last broken down, and a vile bubbling black pool of corruption is revealed, which is what Francis has become thanks to the drug.  It turns out to have been identical with the “wine” of the Witches’ Sabbath.

What may lift this shocker above the level of a pulp thriller are its superior generation of suspense, its narrative and descriptive craftsmanship (including a bit of Machen’s famous evocation of Strange London) -- and the final few pages.  A wrap-up that conveniently explains things is a familiar device in popular fiction, but uncommon is writing such as this:

“There [in some forest depth or remote cave], in the blackest hours of night, the Vinum Sabbati was prepared,” and the neophytes “partook of an evil sacrament. … And suddenly, each one that had drunk found himself attended by a companion” of alluring evil, which was, “awful as it is to express, the man himself. … the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh.  And then, in the hour of midnight, the primal fall was repeated.”

These sonorous lines were written to Dr. Haberden by the friend who analyzed the white powder and detected its real nature.  The friend comments, “for so terrible an act as [the partaking of the “wine”], in which the very inmost place of the temple was broken up and defiled, a terrible vengeance followed.  What began with corruption ended also with corruption.”

We’ve seen that imagery of the violated temple before, when the victims were women.  Exactly how to reconcile that imagery with the imagery of the inmost “worm” and the reference to the Fall is more than I will attempt here.

Mysteries of theology, unlike mysteries of detection, may be contemplated but not exhaustively explained.  Machen’s imagery points to a mystery of theological anthropology.  

To take one authority on it: the Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard – who was hardly likely to minimize sin – taught, on one hand, that “the very essence of the soul” was not lost at the Fall.  Sinful man does not require a new soul in order to be saved, nor does he acquire a new soul at Baptism. 

Yet, on the other hand, Gerhard added, man “from being righteous and holy became impious and unrighteous … Having lost the most beautiful image of God, man put on the dark specter of the devil.”  (That sounds Machenian, doesn’t it?)  Gerhard says, “we bear no longer the image of God and of the heavenly Adam, but the image of the earthly Adam. … we are by nature alienated from God,” although we possess “remnants of that original divine image,” etc.; hence the new birth in Christ is necessary.

Machen drew upon beliefs such as these for the purposes of literary art when he took pen in hand to write weird fiction; he was a poet more than a mystic, theologian, or parson; but he took those beliefs seriously, verbal signs of contradiction though they were in his time as they are in ours.

I think that Machen would have liked this statement:

“Only fools have clear conceptions of everything.  The most cherished ideas of the human mind are found in the depths and in twilight: around these [perplexing] ideas which we cannot [master] revolve clear thoughts, extending, developing, and becoming elevated.  If this deeper mental plane were to be taken away, there would remain but geometricians and intelligent animals; even the exact sciences should lose their present grandeur, which depends upon a hidden correlation with eternal truths, of which we can catch a glimpse only at rare moments.  Mystery is the most precious possession of mankind.  Not in vain did Plato teach that all below is but a weak image of the order reigning above.  It may be, indeed, that the grandest function of the loveliness we see is the awakening of desire for a higher loveliness we see not; and that the enchantment of great poets springs less from the pictures they paint than from the distant echoes they awaken from the invisible world.”

© Dale Nelson


Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) is quoted from pp. 61 and 63 of The Doctrine of Man in the Writings of Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard, edited by Preus and Smits (Concordia Publishing House, 2005), pp. 61 and 63.

The long unattributed quotation (“Only fools”) is from the Russian reactionary and anti-Semite Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod (1827-1907).  Curiously, it is possible that Machen saw the book, Reflections of a Russian Statesman, in which the quotation appears.  It was issued by Machen’s own eventual publisher, Grant Richards, in 1898, translated by Robert Crozier Long.  I quote from the Ann Arbor Paperback reprint, 1968, p. 188.

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