There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Prurient misogyny in The Great God Pan? Reading notes from: Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939 by James Machin (Palgrave 2018).

by James Machin (Palgrave 2018).
I posted some excerpts from earlier chapters on Facebook here, here, and here.

This is an expensive book from an academic press, but if you can afford the ebook (cheaper than hardcover) you will not regret it. Machin pulls it all together: the writers, the market, the era, into a rich and exciting synthesis free of jargon. (And free of the idiosyncratic axe-grinding
and egocentric pretensions of "horror critics").

From Chapter 3: Shiel, Stenbock, Gilchrist, and Machen

....Machen's erudition and interest in alchemy was informed early in life by his employment in 1885 to catalogue a library of antiquarian works on 'occultism and archaeology' for the publisher John Redway in preparation for sale (Gawsworth 2013, 57). The depth of his interest is evident from the fact that his last novel, The Green Round (1933) still includes various discourses on the subject, and also on Machen's suspicion of scientific materialism, five decades on (Machen 1968).

Understanding the spiritual symbolism of Helen Vaughan's protoplasmic collapse and its employment of the alchemical notion of the prima materia is, therefore, more commensurate with both Machen's interest not only in alchemy, but in quiddity and numinosity (and their evocation in his understanding of 'realism' of literature), and his relative ignorance of and outright hostility to science. Bearing in mind that the male protagonist of 'The Novel of the White Powder' suffers a similar climactic disintegration to that of Helen Vaughan, this interpretation of the latter's doom may also absolve Machen of occasional charges of misogyny that are made against him.

Specifically, 'The Great God Pan' has attracted several casual and un-- interrogated references to 'the text's misogyny', a perhaps inevitable result of Machen's narrative technique of avoiding direct representation of suggested horrors (Smith 2012, 225). The absence of a direct representation of Helen Vaughan in the text can therefore be interpreted as a denial of female agency, although one would have to isolate her absence from the many other narrative occlusions to do so. An interesting comparator in this respect is Vernon Lee's 'Dionea', which, first published in 1890, anticipates and perhaps influenced Machen's narrative strategy with 'The Great God Pan' (Lee 1906). The story of the eponymous foundling, strongly hinted to be at least semi-divine, is related obliquely through an epistolary structure which, like 'The Great God Pan', reveals the history of Dionea and her baleful influence on the small Italian community in which she resides, without ever directly representing the character. Her motives remain inscrutable and inaccessible to the reader, intensifying the mystery central to the tale.

It would seem self-evidently ridiculous to level any accusation of misogyny against Vernon Lee for constructing the story in this manner. Machen, on the other hand, by having the audacity to cast a woman as the principle antagonist, has invited suggestions that 'The Great God Pan' should be read as a representation of late Victorian patriarchal animus against the increasing profile of the 'New Woman' in the public sphere. Consequently, whereas the protoplasmic disintegration of the male protagonist of Machen's 'The Novel of the White Powder' (published the year after 'The Great God Pan') hardly raises an eyebrow, the almost identical fate of Helen Vaughan at the end of 'Pan' is a 'grotesque snuffmurder', adduced as evidence of Machen's 'prurient misogyny' (Miéville 2009, 513). This misreading of Machen is implicitly underwritten by Joshi's insistence on parsing 'The Great God Pan' as symptomatic of Machen's 'horror of aberrant sexuality', a horror evidenced by 'The Great God Pan' (Joshi 2012, 2:362). This circular argument is in fact, as Joshi fully acknowledges, appropriated from Lovecraft's own criticisms of Machen's 'horror of sex', which arguably reveals more about Lovecraft than it does Machen.

The point is worth dwelling on since, beyond the simple expedient of correcting a misunderstanding of Machen's character in this respect, such assumptions also lead to procrustean readings that attempt to fit Machen and his work too neatly into off-the-peg fin-de-siècle critical frames. The circumstantial evidence against Machen's alleged 'horror of sex' is formidable and even insurmountable, unless one is singularly committed to a specific parsing of the finale of 'The Great God Pan' as a synecdoche for some otherwise unperceivable animus of its author, an approach criticized by Todorov. Précising Peter Penzoldt's position that 'a certain neurotic writer will project his symptoms into his work', Todorov goes on to point out that 'these tendencies are not always distinctly manifest outside their work' (Todorov 1975, 152):

No sooner has [Penzoldt] said that Machen's education explains his work than he finds himself obliged to add, 'fortunately, the man Machen was quite different from the writer Machen. … Thus Machen lived the life of a normal man, whereas part of his work became the expression of a terrible neurosis'.

Again, we are left with a circular argument that, contrary to all other available evidence, 'The Great God Pan' demonstrates Machen's 'misogyny' simply because we are able to read it this way. Although such specious assertions serve to demonstrate the political virtue of the critic, they do a genuine disservice to the author as an individual. Machen's first wife Amy Hogg was described by Jerome K Jerome as a 'pioneer' who 'lived by herself […] frequented restaurants […] and had many men friends: all of which was considered very shocking in those days' (Brangham 2006, 37). Machen's second wife, the actress Dorothy Purefoy Machen, was described by A. E. Waite as an absinthe drinker and smoker who 'has no conventions and requires none' (Gilbert 2017, xxi). Dr Raymond's impatient dismissal of the relevancy of Mary's virginal status in the opening pages of 'The Great God Pan' ('That is nonsense. I assure you') could be read as the author's own attempt to remove prurience from the reader's mind from the outset (Machen 2006, 12). As an essayist, Machen dedicated a considerable amount of energy to combating puritanism wherever he found it, but particularly in letters. He began his career by translating the Memoirs of Casanova and the renaissance 'amatory tales' of The Heptamaron by Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, before going on to compose his own ribald Rabelaisian fantasy The Chronicle of Clemendy (Casanova 1894; Valentine 1995, 19; Queen of Navarre 1886; Machen 1888). He produced Dr Stiggins, the above-mentioned satire and condemnation of puritanism, at around the time he completed a stint as a strolling player in the Benson Company. All in all, a peculiar career trajectory for a blushing, neurotic prude.

Approaching the climax of 'The Great God Pan' through the spagyric frame discussed above is simply more commensurate with Machen's own declared interests than with the speculative allegation of misogyny. The influence of the seventeenth-century alchemist and natural philosopher Thomas Vaughan on Machen's fiction also expresses itself through his employment of the motif of 'the veil' in order to describe the liminal barrier preventing ordinary access to the occulted quiddity of nature. In Lumen de Lumine (1651), Vaughan considers the 'fabric of the world' as 'a series, a link or chain, which is extended from […] that which is beneath all apprehension to that which is above all apprehension' (Vaughan 1910, 35). He posits a hierarchy of noumenal being, inaccessible to ordinary intelligence: that which is 'beneath all degrees of sense is a certain horrible, inexpressible darkness', and that which is 'above all degree of intelligence is a certain infinite, inaccessible fire of light', the latter called by Dionysius 'Divine Obscurity' (35). Here is a metaphysical framework for much of Machen's subsequent fiction and an anticipation of his anxiety regarding his 'horrific' work: 'I translated awe, at worst awfulness, into evil; again, I say, one dreams in fire and works in clay' (Machen 1923a, 127). Machen's fiction progresses along Vaughan's 'scale', which 'doth reach from Tartarus to the First Fire, from the subternatural [sic] darkness to the supernatural fire' (36). Between these two ordinarily inaccessible realms lies the quotidian 'substance or chain […] which we commonly call Nature' (36).

In Machen's more overtly horrific fiction, such as 'Pan', the revelation is of the adumbral numinous, the 'subternatural darkness'. In his later, visionary work, such as The Secret Glory (1922) and A Fragment of Life (1904), the encounter is with the 'Divine Obscurity'. Although the analogue isn't a perfect one (Machen often used the imagery of fire and light rather than darkness to evoke an impression of diabolic irruptions into the mundane world), his early and continuing advocacy of Vaughan, and the specific textual similarities to be found by comparing Machen's fiction with Vaughan's discourse on the 'First Matter' offer evidence of his close reading of the latter. Vaughan argues that the 'Divine Obscurity' (analogous to the cabalistic notion of 'Ain') is 'pure Deity, having no veil' and that its emanation into 'that which we commonly call Nature' is effected through the operation of 'a certain water', called the 'First Matter' (36). His description of the 'First Matter' defines it in alchemical terms as an 'animated mass […] the union of masculine and feminine spirits', and discusses it in chemical terms as liquid Mercury.

I conclude that the Mosaical earth was the virgin Sulpher, which is an earth without form, for it hath no determinated figure. It is a laxative, unstable, uncomposed substance of a porous, empty crasis, like sponge or soot. In a word I have seen it, and it is impossible to describe it. (46)

A comparable incidence of protoplasmic eruption (or perhaps irruption) can be found in 'The Novel of the Black Seal' episode in The Three Impostors. In an isolated manor house in the middle of the Welsh mountains, a young country boy is suspected by an anthropologist of being the progeny of the sinister 'little folk' whose actuality gave rise to fairy lore. He displays evidence of this alleged provenance one night by producing a pseudopod from his abdomen, leaving a sticky residue on a statue on the top shelf of the Professor's office.

Although it is difficult to read the episode without immediately being struck by its apparently obvious implications of emergent sexuality in a pubescent teenager, Machen claims that it was in fact inspired by his reading of the then nascent trend in spiritualism of producing 'ectoplasm' at séances and of crediting this substance with the production of various associated phenomena:

[Sir Oliver Lodge] advanced the striking hypothesis that the piano was played and the objects fetched from the sideboard by a kind of extension of the medium's body. I forget whether the distinguished Professor used the instance but I know that the impression conveyed to my mind was that something happened similar to the protrusion and withdrawal of a snail's horns: Eusapia's [Palladino, the Italian medium] arm became twice or thrice its usual length, performed the required feat […] and then shrank back to normal size. (Machen 1923c, 107)

Machen goes on to describe the theory as 'in all probability […] a pack of nonsense', but it provided him with a grotesque and striking image that could perhaps add value to the affect, and therefore success, of his story.

Machen, whose son Hilary was unequivocal in describing him as 'never anything but a High Church Tory', failed to display evidence of any doubt or anxiety in his faith over the course of his life, unless one interprets his brief dalliance with the Order of the Golden Dawn as evidence of such a crisis. One could also treat stories like 'The Great God Pan' as expressions of a sublimated fear or anxiety regarding the 'quiddity' of the universe: a negative, adumbral shadow of the 'Holy' numinous reality that formed the basis of his mysticism. Such readings raise similar problems to those involved in making the accusation of misogyny discussed above, however. However, in some respects Machen's antimaterialism was commensurate with the 'new' awareness of humanity's limited knowledge of possibly unknowable 'reality', except that instead of precipitating despair, he revelled in the 'fire and mystery'. His dogma was based on the symbolic value of the Church (especially the pre-Reformation 'Catholic' church) of making the existence of this mystery in some way intelligible, even if the mystery itself was forever ineffable. Although he disapproved of what he considered to be his friend A. E. Waite's 'Pantheism', he was sympathetic to Waite's enthusiasm for Roman Catholicism 'as a great system of symbolism', perhaps meaning that it was an aesthetically pleasing language with which to approach the quiddity of things. Machen was certainly among those who 'seize avidly on the loopholes of the materialistic system and regard each loophole found as an affirmation of man's spiritual life', but despite this he still reached a similar conclusion to the most rigorous sceptics of the age: that the world is essentially unknowable (Lester 1968, 37)....

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