"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Poe: Joshi

As well as starting on the Tartarus Press edition of The Macabre Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (2018), I have been reading some scholarly material on Poe. Joshi, while sometimes goring my own oxen, is reliable and holds to aesthetic criteria for judgments.

My underlinings from the Poe chapter of Unutterable Horror by S. T. Joshi:

....the genre, as a serious contribution to literature, only began with him. In this sense, the entire Gothic movement could be considered a kind of "anticipation" of the true commencement of the field.

....a figure unsurpassed in the breadth and scope of his work.

....What is striking about Poe's literary career is its relative brevity: even counting his early poetic work, beginning with Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), it extended scarcely twenty years, while his career as a fiction writer lasted not much more than fifteen.

....launched a new era in supernatural and psychological horror that, while drawing to some degree upon its predecessors, was forward-looking in its psychological acuity and aesthetic finish. His work signaled the definitive collapse of attenuated Gothicism.

i. Poe and the Gothics

....the extent to which Poe was influenced—as a poet, short story writer, and critical theorist—by the work of Radcliffe, Lewis, Maturin, Hoffmann, Irving, and many lesser figures of the generations preceding his own is by no means clear and perhaps, by the nature of the existing evidence, can never be clear.

....As a practising critic and reviewer....

....the entire Gothic movement was regarded as utterly passé, to the degree that Poe's own (very different) work in this approximate vein was frequently criticised by reviewers, and even some of his own colleagues, as embarrassingly outmoded.

....Poe sees as a fundamental improbability in the very construction of Melmoth the Wanderer: "I should no doubt be tempted to think of the devil in Melmoth, who labors indefatigably through three octavo volumes, to accomplish the destruction of one or two souls, while any common devil would have demolished one or two thousand" (ER 7).

ii. Theory and Practice

....Talk: "the great thing in poetry is, quocunque modo, to effect a unity of impression upon the whole; and a too great fulness and profusion of point in the parts will prevent this. Who can read with pleasure more than a hundred lines or so of Hudibras at one time? Each couplet or quatrain is so whole in itself, that you can't connect them. There is no fusion,—just as it is in Seneca" (quoted in Stovall 145). In some of his critical writings Poe sometimes uses the phrase "unity of interest," which he explicitly states is derived from the critical theory of August Wilhelm von Schlegel; but Stovall has convincingly argued that all Poe's borrowings of Schlegel are likely to have been made through Coleridge.

...."the ordinary novel is objectionable" chiefly because "it cannot be read at one sitting" and therefore "deprives itself . . . of the immense force derivable from totality,"

....having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents....

....Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided....

....a lamentable tendency to engage in what Lovecraft quite accurately labelled "his blundering ventures in stilted and laboured pseudo-humour" (S 43).

....The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity [the emphasis is Poe's], only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; the compound, as a general rule, partaking in character of sublimity or beauty in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined, which are themselves still to be considered as atomic—that is to say, as previous combinations. . . . The range of imagination is thus unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test. (ER 1126–27)

....Germanism is 'the vein' for the time being. To morrow I may be anything but German, as yesterday I was everything else. . . . But the truth is that, with a single exception ["Metzengerstein"], there is no one of these stories in which the scholar should recognise the distinctive features of that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call German.

....That pregnant line "I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul" is as precise an indication as anyone could want that Poe was seeking to explore the psychology of fear in his tales of terror, and his ability to do so with the most consummate skill and emotive power is what distinguishes his work from all that went before and a great proportion of what came after.

....Poe himself observed, in his review of Twice-Told Tales, that the emotions of "terror, or passion, or horror" are best treated in prose rather than verse, and that "many fine examples" of such tales "were found in the earlier numbers of Blackwood" (ER 573). Of course, Poe was clearly led by temperament to write the kind of supernatural and psychological horror fiction that he wrote; but to the extent that he found suitable models in the "sensational" fiction that Blackwood's occasionally published, he radically improved upon them by emphasising the "unity of effect" and, to put it simply, by writing infinitely better—more cogently, more skilfully, and with a greater understanding of the psychological effects of the bizarre and the supernatural—than his predecessors or contemporaries.

....the Gothic influence is manifested largely in the stage properties rather than in the underlying theme.

....To his extreme horror and astonishment, the head of the gigantic steed had, in the meantime, altered its poisition. The neck of the animal, before arched, as if in compassion, over the prostrate body of its lord, was now extended at full length, in the direction of the Baron. The eyes, before invisible, now wore an energetic and human expression, while they gleamed with a fiery and unusual red; and the distended lips of the apparently enraged horse left in full view his sepulchral and disgusting teeth. (CW 2.22–23)

....no analysis of the plot or even of the underlying theme of "The Fall of the House of Usher" can begin to convey its masterful collocation of words, images, and scenes to create a cumulative horror unlike anything that had ever been seen in supernatural literature before and has rarely been seen in the nearly two centuries that have followed.

...."The Pit and the Pendulum" (The Gift, 1842) may be the ultimate refinement of the dungeon motif of Gothic fiction; in spite of its non-supernaturalism it is one of Poe's masterworks in the maintenance of an unrelenting atmosphere of terror and its meticulous attention to the shifting moods and sensations of its hapless protagonist.

....remarkable thing about Poe's work, in fact, is the very lack of substantive connexions with the Gothic movement. "Metzengerstein" was published only twelve years after Melmoth the Wanderer, but we are already in another world. It is not merely that Gothic fiction was, in Poe's day, entirely dead as a popular literary fashion; it is that Poe felt the need to draw inspiration both from the world around him and from the wells of his own fevered imagination, and he did so in a way that permanently rendered Gothicism of the Walpole-Radcliffe-Lewis-Maturin sort a thing of the past.

iii. Death as Threshold

....he appears to have contemplated the threshold between life and death with something approaching wonder and horror.

....As for "Ligeia" (Baltimore American Museum, September 1838), it is difficult to speak of it save with superlatives. Poe recognized that it was a triumph; in a letter of early 1846 he states unequivocally that it was "undoubtedly the best story I have written" (L 309)

....Mabbott maintains that the poem—a magnificent exposition of the omnipresence of death and the futility of human effort—is "a plain indication that the human will was too feeble to enable Ligeia to win" (CW 2.307); but, as a matter of fact, Ligeia does "win" by reanimating Rowena's corpse—an event that constitutes (once again) the climax and the conclusion of the story.

....The identity of the names of the two Morellas somewhat telegraphs the punch; but Poe again ingeniously manages to delay the final confirmation of the supernaturalism of the story (the first Morella's empty tomb) until the final line.

...."The Oval Portrait" (Graham's Magazine, April 1842). Here a man who paints his wife's portrait finds that she is gradually weakening while the painting is taking shape under his hands. In the end we are led to believe that in some inexplicable process the wife's life-force has been transmitted into the painting, as the painter cries in the final line: "This [the portrait] is indeed Life itself!' [and] turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!" (CW 2.666).

.....The protagonist/narrator opens the tale by convicting himself of perverseness ("this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong's sake only" [CW 3.852]), and the entire tale is an instantiation of this trait. Why else would he kill (by the particularly brutal means of hanging) a cat who loves him? Why else would he take in another black cat—also missing an eye, thereby duplicating its predecessor, one of whose eyes the protagonist had viciously cut out of its socket in a drunken fit? Why else would he seek to kill the new cat with an axe when it so clearly has affection for him, and why would he end up killing his wife with that axe when she strives to stop the protagonist from committing his act?

....metempsychosis implied by the anomalous similarity of the second cat to the first is the core supernatural phenomenon of the tale; and Poe adds a skilful touch by having a splotch of white fur on the second cat slowly turn into the shape of a gallows—an anticipation of the protagonist's ultimate fate.

....His ultimate self-betrayal is, however, a result of the perverseness he noted at the outset, for he would have escaped capture if, in the presence of the police, he had not tapped the wall with his cane in a "phrenzy of bravado" (CW 3.858).

....succulent grisliness [Valdemar]

....we need look no further than Eureka—however arid and outmoded its scientific and philosophical speculations may be—to realise that Poe encompassed the universe, and not merely the earth, within his imaginative range.

....One of Poe's earliest tales, "MS. Found in a Bottle" (Baltimore Saturday Visiter, 19 October 1833), is powerfully cosmic. It may well be the case, as Floyd Stovall has maintained (132–33), that the tale is heavily indebted, in numerous aspects of its plot and imagery, to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it is in no sense merely a prose exposition of that ballad. The supernaturalism of the tale extends in two directions. In the first place is the chilling suggestion that the ship, Discovery, upon which the narrator finds himself is somehow animate. Is it possible that it has grown over the years and centuries as it continues along its seemingly aimless course? The narrator thinks of a Dutch apothegm: "It is as sure . . . as sure as there is a sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman" (CW 2.143). And this leads to the second phase of the tale's supernaturalism; for it is plain that the ship has been at sea, with possibly the same hapless and appallingly aged crew, for centuries. It is here that the cosmicism of the tale truly manifests itself, as the narrator declares toward the end:

The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their figures fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin. (CW 2.144–45)

Superficially similar, but really quite different in its focus, is "A Descent into the Maelström" (Graham's Magazine, May 1841). Far more realistic than the half-fantastic "MS. Found in a Bottle," the story might perhaps be said to display a more restrained and disciplined use of the topographical imagination, but for that very reason it seems to have a somewhat weaker emotive impact than its predecessor.

Several of Poe's most "cosmic" narratives are his prose-poems, in which he imbued natural forces with a kind of philosophical awe by embodying them in pseudo-allegorical figures....

....when we turn to "The Masque of the Red Death" (Graham's Magazine, May 1842), we are in a very different realm altogether. Although the notion of personifying the plague would not seem the most promising of methodologies, Poe's execution of this conception results in one of his great tales, a sustained prose-poem that somehow transfigures the hapless attendants of Prince Prospero's ball, furiously seeking merriment while death encompasses them in an increasingly tight vise-grip, into symbols of the fragility of the entire human race when faced with overwhelming power of incurable disease. In this instance, the embodiment of a natural force—the plague—in the figure of a humanlike individual is itself generative of cosmic awe; for Prospero's attempt to subdue it with a dagger is emblematic of the futility of our race's flailing attempts to come to terms with the inexorable.

iv. Supernatural and Non-Supernatural Revenge

....notion of supernatural revenge is perhaps the oldest topos in the realm of supernatural horror, and we have already seen that it animates any number of Gothic novels, as it would animate an incalculable number of novels and tales in the subsequent two centuries. As a means of linking the use of the supernatural to a satisfying moral outcome, the theme has undeniable appeal, however much it may contradict the actual workings of human society, where the guilty all too often escape the punishment that is their due. A substantial number of Poe's tales utilise this topos, and at least a few of them do so in a way that infuses them with a novel moral and aesthetic element. But what really saves these stories is the high artistry and emotive power with which he expresses the idea in tale after tale.

....A far more ingenious, perhaps even paradoxical, use of the supernatural revenge motif can be found in "William Wilson" (The Gift, 1839), for of course the revenge in this imperishable tale of a doppelgänger is effected by the protagonist upon himself—if we assume that the double he encounters throughout his life is merely an aspect of himself.

...."You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me thou didst exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself!" (CW 2.448). Now it appears that the protagonist is the double rather than the converse; and his "death" is not literal (for he is still there to tell us the tale of his "unpardonable crime" [CW 2.426]) but, as the second sentence makes clear, moral and social.

....a masterwork in its ambiguity, its dancing on either side of the boundary separating supernatural from psychological horror, and in its unwavering progression from beginning to cataclysmic conclusion. Aside from "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," it would be difficult to find a better instance of the "unity of effect" than this tale.

...."The Tell-Tale Heart" (Boston Pioneer, January 1843)

....root question in this well-known narrative is: Is this tale psychological or supernatural?

....I think we are obliged to believe that the beating of the heart is in fact in the protagonist's mind, and that this tale is one of pyschological horror. In this sense, it too—like "William Wilson," although in a very different manner—is a case of (non-supernatural) revenge perpetrated by the victim upon himself.

....The symbolism here is very obvious: since the king and his men treated Hop-Frog as somehow subhuman because of his dwarfism and other physical deformities, Hop-Frog has now returned the favour by reducing them to the level of apes, so that (in Hop-Frog's mind, at any rate) there is less moral culpability in killing them.

v. Fantasy and Science

....Poe sharpens the horror of his tales is by the very imprecision of their physical and temporal settings.

....a cultivated vagueness, so that the reader's attention becomes fixated almost exclusively upon the incidents of the tale and, perhaps most importantly, upon the effects of those incidents upon the psyches of its protagonists.

...."The Haunted Palace" (American Museum, April 1839), with its superb transition from happiness to horror in the last two stanzas; "The Conqueror Worm," the epitome of pessimism and of the futility of human striving; "For Annie" (Flag of Our Union, 28 April 1849), another encapsulation of pessimism with its doleful threnody on "The fever called 'Living'" (l. 5)—all these and others gain much of their strength from indefiniteness of setting. This lack of specificity is tied indirectly to Poe's theory of poetry (and, hence, short fiction writing), in the sense that the paring away of such mundane details of locale clears the way for the intense focus on the literal and symbolic action of the poems.

....Entire narratives are essaylike in construction and tone; but here too there are some oddities. Two of the three stories to be considered here—"The Man of the Crowd" (Casket, December 1840) and "The Premature Burial" (Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, 31 July 1844)—partly, and no doubt deliberately, subvert their messages by the skilful introduction of anomalies and ambiguities. Both tales deal with what would come to be regarded as one of Poe's signature achievements as a writer, and specifically as a writer of horror (not necessarily supernatural) fiction—the psychology of fear. While there is no doubt that Poe's searching examination of this topos is one of his great contributions to the literature of terror, and one that wellnigh revolutionised the subsequent history of the field, these two stories treat the matter in peculiar ways. In "The Man of the Crowd," the first-person narrator finds himself fascinated by observing, from a comfortable seat in a coffeehouse in London, a man—"a decrepid [sic] old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age" (CW 2.511)—who continually appears in the crowds of passersby and appears to be afraid to be alone.

...."The Premature Burial," the fact that it appeared in a newspaper, and that for the great proportion of its narrative it reads like a sober essay, replete with actual instances of premature inhumation, has apparently led many to believe that Poe is speaking of his own fears. But in fact a (presumably) fictional narrative, and narrator, do emerge toward the end of the story—one in which the narrator, although professing that he took "elaborate precautions" (CW 3.965) against premature burial while travelling, appears to find himself in just such a predicament, only to discover that he is in a very narrow bed on a boat.

....delicious self-dynamating of his own narrative makes one strongly suspect parody.

....that self-refuting ending shows Poe stepping back from the horrors of his own creation with a knowing wink and nod.

...."The Imp of the Perverse" (Graham's Magazine, July 1845)

....Poe's psychological acuity in identifying this trait—the fact that we "perpetrate [certain actions] merely because we feel that we should not" (CW 3.1223)—is undeniable.

....subversion of his protagonists' psyches by a manner of story construction whereby the climax of the tale occurs simultaneously with the protagonists' psychological collapse, a feature that renders both his supernatural tales and his tales of psychological terror the more powerful and credible. It is facile to say that Poe drew his portraits of disturbed psyches chiefly or even largely from his own mental instability—an assumption that perhaps deliberately seeks to minimise the manifest artistry of Poe's analysis of the conclave of eccentrics he puts on stage.

...."The Haunted Palace" (American Museum, April 1839), with its superb transition from happiness to horror in the last two stanzas; "The Conqueror Worm," the epitome of pessimism and of the futility of human striving; "For Annie" (Flag of Our Union, 28 April 1849), another encapsulation of pessimism with its doleful threnody on "The fever called 'Living'" (l. 5)—all these and others gain much of their strength from indefiniteness of setting. This lack of specificity is tied indirectly to Poe's theory of poetry (and, hence, short fiction writing), in the sense that the paring away of such mundane details of locale clears the way for the intense focus on the literal and symbolic action of the poems.

....Entire narratives are essaylike in construction and tone; but here too there are some oddities. Two of the three stories to be considered here—"The Man of the Crowd" (Casket, December 1840) and "The Premature Burial" (Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, 31 July 1844)—partly, and no doubt deliberately, subvert their messages by the skilful introduction of anomalies and ambiguities. Both tales deal with what would come to be regarded as one of Poe's signature achievements as a writer, and specifically as a writer of horror (not necessarily supernatural) fiction—the psychology of fear. While there is no doubt that Poe's searching examination of this topos is one of his great contributions to the literature of terror, and one that wellnigh revolutionised the subsequent history of the field, these two stories treat the matter in peculiar ways. In "The Man of the Crowd," the first-person narrator finds himself fascinated by observing, from a comfortable seat in a coffeehouse in London, a man—"a decrepid [sic] old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age" (CW 2.511)—who continually appears in the crowds of passersby and appears to be afraid to be alone.

...."The Premature Burial," the fact that it appeared in a newspaper, and that for the great proportion of its narrative it reads like a sober essay, replete with actual instances of premature inhumation, has apparently led many to believe that Poe is speaking of his own fears. But in fact a (presumably) fictional narrative, and narrator, do emerge toward the end of the story—one in which the narrator, although professing that he took "elaborate precautions" (CW 3.965) against premature burial while travelling, appears to find himself in just such a predicament, only to discover that he is in a very narrow bed on a boat.

vi. The Longer Tales

...."The Journal of Julius Rodman"

....it seeks merely to capitalise on the interest in western exploration by maintaining that Rodman had travelled across the Rocky Mountains in 1791–94, years before the Lewis and Clark expedition. But what Rodman saw on his travels is unremarkable—not surprisingly, since Poe himself never travelled west of the Mississippi River and was heavily reliant on earlier travel accounts for the details of the Rodman expedition.

....Arthur Gordon Pym. This work certainly has its devotees and has inspired a substantial amount of analysis from critics who continue to be drawn to its "enigmatic" features, but it is difficult to declare it anything but an aesthetic failure. Although it is tangential to our study because it contains no explicit elements of the supernatural (except perhaps toward the end)

....If assessed as a straightforward adventure story, Pym has numerous flaws. First and foremost is the fundamentally incomplete nature of the narrative. Not only does the novel end abruptly, but no explanation is provided as to how Pym managed to get out of the clutches of the vicious natives and return to civilisation.

....lacking in thematic focus.

....Some commentators have maintained that the concluding portions, where Pym and Peters first encounter a realm where everything is black, then one where everything is white, is meant to reflect on the issue of slavery; but even if this is the case, what position we are to assume Poe takes on the question, and what bearing this has on the overall thematic coherence of the novel, are by no means clear.

vii. Conclusion

....enjoyment of or displeasure in this kind of Asianic style is largely a matter of temperament.

....the style is meant to suit the subject-matter, and this it does flawlessly, even triumphantly. All Poe's critical writing on the craft of poetry or fiction indicates that his prime goal was to create a powerful emotional impact upon his readers; and his manipulation of language was his chief means of effecting that end. The gradual accretion of cumulative power is one of the hallmarks of his prose narratives; Poe early mastered the ability to modulate the emotional cadence of his prose to create an overwhelming crescendo of horror.

....The prose rhythms of such tales as "Morella," "The Oval Portrait," "Silence—A Fable," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" are unsurpassed in their aesthetic polish.

....such narratives as "The Descent into the Maelström," "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and even "The Tell-Tale Heart" are written with something approaching the spareness of Swift or Hemingway. Poe was possibly responding to criticisms of his earlier prose manner; but whatever the case, the evolution of his style from flamboyance to concision should be noted.

...."Imagination, fancy, fantasy and humour, have in common the elements combination and novelty" (ER 1126).

....The novelty of Poe's restricting supernatural (and psychological) horror to the intense and condensed mode of the short story; his virtual invention of the genre of the detective story; his radical departure from the thematic and tonal conventions of Gothicism—all these and other elements justify Poe's self-praise for novelty and originality.

....concepts of imagination, strangeness, and humour are fused

....his harsh condemnations of plagiarism, verbosity, triteness, and the many other literary flaws he found, or thought he found, in the books that crossed his desk. In employing the element of "novelty" he strove to avoid these gaffes, even at the risk of producing work whose unprecedented intensity of horror and gruesomeness evoked criticism of its own from the squeamish.

....I repeat that Poe's work is the true beginning of weird literature. In his day most of the Gothic novels had already become hopelessly passé, and by the end of his creative life he had given them a fitting burial by showing that horror can be conveyed with infinitely greater force and impact by a careful analysis of the psychology of terror, a structure that leads inexorably from the first word to the cataclysmic conclusion, and a "novelty" of subject-matter that puts in the shade the stilted Gothic villains or chain-clanking ghosts or hackneyed devils of Gothicism.

....Poe should also be given credit for avoiding what were by then the already hackneyed ghosts, vampires, and demons of the earlier Gothic movement. The tales of psychological terror are no less original—the bizarre monomania of "Berenice" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," the mental aberrations hinted at in "The Man of the Crowd," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Premature Burial," the paradox of revenge in "The Cask of Amondillado."

....excellence of his output. His greatest tales are imperishable contributions to the literature of the world as they are towering landmarks in the literature of terror. The psychological acuity of his stories and their impeccable concision and unity set a model and a standard that few have equalled and none have surpassed. In their totality they constitute all that is needed to justify the tale of terror as a distinctive and viable branch of literature.


31 August 2019

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review: The Secret Ceremonies: Critical Essays on Arthur Machen

The Secret Ceremonies: Critical Essays on Arthur Machen

Edited by Mark Valentine and Timothy J. Jarvis

2019: Hippocampus

The Secret Ceremonies recapitulates the decades-long activity of Machen readers and collectors to inspire a broader engagement and appreciation of the author. That task has been accomplished. The writers featured in Secret Ceremonies deserve the credit. And the book itself is a pleasure from cover to cover.

Below are excerpts I made from several selections in the book that struck me, and I wanted to preserve in my commonplace book.

Arthur Machen: The Evils of Materialism

S. T. Joshi

....dominant theme that unites them, it is the constant contrast between mundane modernity and the hoary past—a past that is simultaneously terrifying in its primitivism and awesome in its suggestions of intimate, symbolic connexions with the essence of life and Nature. However brutalised modern people are by the dominant materialism of the age, their sense of spirituality can well up in spite of themselves in the practice of ancient rituals.

["A Fragment of Life"] ....The exquisitely gradual way in which the stolid bourgeois couple, Edward and Mary Darnell, slowly awaken to their sense of wonder and abandon London for their native Wales is one of Machen's great literary accomplishments. Amidst all the mundane details of the small-scale social life of the Darnells, we receive hints that their love of beauty has not been entirely destroyed, as it has for so many who live too fully in the modern world.

Arthur Machen: The Pagan— His Work and His Personality

Geoffrey H. Wells

....For to him all life, all existence, is but a hieroglyph, symbol of a hidden glory; and all art is but the flickering candle of the human soul, stumbling in the black void of "transitory, external surfaces." "He dreamed in fire; he has worked in clay," Arthur Machen writes of the boy he was, and indeed he views all the seeming actuality of this world as but the expression in clay of a secret reality of splendid flame. Again and again he has striven to rend the veil and convey to us something of his vision, and here and there, at precious moments, he has succeeded. But ultimately he accepts the hieroglyph: "at the last, what do we know?"

The City, the Vision, and Arthur Machen

Godfrey Brangham

.... Machen's daughter recalled the infinite pains he took over his writings in his later years, discarding script after script as he sought the right word or phrase to kindle beauty on the page. Within the framework of the plots he devised, Machen achieved a high level of musicality, a level that few other authors ever managed to attain. The city and his vision of it produced literature that has endured the passage of time. Given the rarefied atmosphere of the landscape he inhabited throughout his life, it is perhaps fitting to end with an acute if plaintive observation made by one of his admirers, the poet John Betjeman: "If only one could see through the eyes of Arthur Machen."

New Arabian Frights: Unholy Trinities and the Masks of Helen

Roger Dobson

....The status of fictional characters is hardly ever questioned by us: we simply accept the convention that the world of fiction is worth exploring because we know we shall be entertained, informed, and diverted. On the simplest level, when there is already a good deal in the world to weep about, beings that have never existed have the power to make us cry.

A Glow in the Sky: Some Observations on Machen's Style

Jon Preece

....There is a vigour in Gibbon's style that is entirely lacking in most Victorian prose (such as the Hardy passage quoted above). It is clear, informative, direct, and affirmative. There is a sharp dash of humour, too. All these elements are present in Machen's mature prose style. By looking to the past—to the eighteenth century—Machen had inadvertently stumbled upon his way forward as a prose writer.

The Secret and the Secrets: A Look at Machen's Hieroglyphics

John Howard

....Machen's other great connected fictional themes, those of "sorcery" and "sanctity," also have their place in Hieroglyphics. Each is "an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life" (CF 2.185). For Machen this meant true reality. And while his fiction tends to deal with the "sorcerous" side of reality, the dangerous and destructive side, in Hieroglyphics he chooses to encounter the "sanctified"—the life-enhancing and constructive—in a theory of literature which uses ecstasy as its starting-point and distinguishing feature.

....that true literature, through the hierophantic author, is often, through symbols, seeing and conveying reality as it is.

....The whole reason for the book is the question, What distinguishes true literature from mere writing, even if interesting writing?

....Hieroglyphics is as much a book about looking for an answer as it is about providing an unassailable answer in it

....But Machen did consider many of the works of one woman, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, to be fine literature. A New England author little known today except for her ghost stories, for over thirty years from the late 1880s she was a fairly prolific....

....Machen knows the books that he likes and therefore calls them true literature. He then fits them into his literary theory of ecstasy, as they contain that which defines and makes fine literature.

....taste is what is subjective, and not art. Thus art is there, and has nothing to do with popularity and enjoyment, "classic" status, and so on.

Of Sacred Groves and Ancient Mysteries: Parallel Themes in the Writings of Arthur Machen and John Buchan

Peter Bell

....Buchan's sense of classical doom is well defined by Greig: "That sensitivity to the incalculable, sometimes uncanny deus absconditus, the God—to the ancient Greeks the gods—behind Nature in all her moods—Benigna and Maligna—pervades the short stories" (viii). Both were clergymen's sons: Buchan's father a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, Machen's father, and grandfather, Anglicans. Christianity exerted a powerful force on the young writers, sitting perhaps uneasily with Celtic and classical paganism; yet this very tension weaving rich strands in the tapestry of their visions. Each writer's response, however, was distinctive: all his life, Buchan felt a conflict between his mystical, pagan empathies and his Calvinist conscience; whilst Machen, enamoured of the mystic glory of ritual, reinforced his faith, gravitating towards High Church.

....To these formative influences must be added the zeitgeist of fin-de-siècle England, a cauldron of seething, innovative ideas, linked by a rejection of convention and fascination with the Unheimlich. This was the era of Symbolism and Decadence, of Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, of Celtic revivalism, of W. B. Yeats and William Sharp, whose Celtic fantasies began appearing in 1895 under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod. Lane, through 1894–97, was publishing Aubrey Beardsley's and Henry Harland's Yellow Book, an eclectic mix of the decadent, fantastic, and aesthetic; whilst in the Keynotes series he was introducing controversial, esoteric works, the fifth being "The Great God Pan."

....Stevenson's paramount influence upon the two can be seen in the structure and style of Machen's The Three Impostors and Buchan's The Runagates Club, and is evident in the weird content of various tales, with madness and mysterious drugs prominent in the trend of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

....Like Machen, Buchan approaches landscape with a mixture of reverence for its magnificence and awe at its secret terrors.

....Buchan develops his story differently from Machen, and is ultimately less effective. The power of Machen's horror lies in his restriction of information, allowing the reader's imagination full rein. The peril of the little folk is the greater for being indirect, understated, conveyed by subtle glimpses, creating "an aura of menace and hideousness about them, in a masterpiece of macabre allusiveness" (Valentine 41). Buchan builds up his terror subtly at first, recounting the ramblings of a shepherd, torn between religious mania and alcohol as a salve against the powers of darkness, obsessed with the struggle between God and the Devil. He seeks to deter Gray from the area, indicating a hill with a Gaelic name meaning the "Place of the Little Men": "I saw something in the first year o' my herding here which put the terror o' God on me, and makes me a fearfu' man to this day" (ST 90). He tells of sheep ravaged in ways no poacher would use; and "stories o' faces seen in the mist, and queer things that have knocked against me in the snaw, wad ye believe me?" (ST 88). When these accounts are dismissed as old wives' tales by the scholar, the shepherd reminds him "ye're no in the toun just now, but in the thick of the wild hills" (ST 88). The mystery is dissipated, however, by the long, graphic account of Gray's experience at the hands of the Picts, who capture him and try to suborn him into perpetrating a sacrificial killing of a woman; here Buchan moves into adventure story mode. Gray, having escaped Houdini-like from bonds, returns in a spirit of scientific zeal, leaving an unfinished journal, rather in the manner of Gregg, setting out upon his "final trial and encounter" (CF 1.399) with the "Little People."

....To conclude, a comparison of Machen and Buchan reveals certain common themes, ideas, and motifs: madness and split personality; books of occult lore; sacred groves and ritual; Roman survival; the spirit of Pan; lost races and fairy folk; numinous landscape; and mystical experience. Much stemmed from similar immersion in Celtic, classical, and Christian lore, and from the two writers' intimate, nostalgic relationship with their rural roots, in an era of threatening modernity. They cannot, however, be divorced from the zeitgeist; similar concepts can be found in many late Victorian and Edwardian authors, some of whom had signal influence upon the aspiring young writers.

The Impossible History: Machen's "A Fragment of Life"

John Howard

....What seems important is really of no importance, and we ignore the things of true importance at our peril, or at least, our impoverishment.

....His new interests help to bring him closer to his wife. This is made plain throughout the narrative—even as Darnell himself cannot articulate it in words—and is symbolised by the dream he keeps on having to awake from. As he starts to open up to his wife, she wishes to know more and to understand—and to journey with him.

....in the revised chapter he strains as ever to express that which cannot be expressed, and even if the result was still far from successful in his eyes, Machen harnessed this inherent inability to point towards what he wants to say. This is appropriate in a story of yearning and transmutation.

....In an apparently disjointed and rambling story Machen illustrates the dislocations and contradictions of real life, together with much dark comedy. Machen undermines realism for his own ends: to show that the mundane actually masks reality—or what should be true reality. And it is when the covering slips—as Machen must allow it to do—that the paradox is invoked. The disjointed aspect masks a seamless quality: the transition from "reality" to Reality.

"All Manner of Mysteries": Encounters with the Numinous in The Cosy Room and Other Stories James Machin

...."The Lost Club," with its clear debt to "The Suicide Club," marks the beginning of one of the prevailing features of Machen's output for the first half of the 1890s: that of playing the sedulous ape to Robert Louis Stevenson.

....Machen always regarded as the blight of modernity on human life and its degradation of the imagination with the quotidian.

the hazing of the reader with disparate glimpses of an only obliquely delineated whole is executed with really extraordinary legerdemain, resulting in a seamless unity of effect. It is, in short, a masterpiece.

....The unfortunate corollary of approaching Machen through his influence on subsequent weird and horror fiction is that there is often a sense of disappointment when one moves on to his later, less-celebrated, writing and finds it so different in tone: the Stevensonian exuberance of the strange, exotic 1890s replaced by a journalistic, anecdotal, all-too recognisably twentieth-century voice.

....one could argue that "N" is Machen's riposte, almost at the end of his career, to one of its opening salvos, "The Great God Pan": both stories rely on a fragmentary, nonlinear structure, with multiple characters offering oblique perspectives on a central, unresolved mystery. However, where the latter plunges the alarmed reader into a netherworld of weird gruesomeness, in the former Machen uses accomplished sleight of hand to instead leave the reader with a genuine sense of quiet revelation. Machen once famously complained that his "failure" as a writer was one of translating "awe, at worst awfulness, into evil" (FOT 123). "N" is, however, the very refinement he sought for, the literary equivalent of an alchemical transmutation of evil into awe.

Some Thoughts on "N"

Thomas Kent Miller

....his predominant theme ("the intermingling of this world and another of far vaster significance," as Machen biographer Mark Valentine puts it....

....Howard, paraphrasing critic Joseph Wood Krutch, says that "Machen had only one main plot in his fiction, that of 'rending the veil'"

....we find that most dictionaries do not even include the word perichoresis, and those that do define it strictly in the Christian sense of the penetration and interconnectivity of the three divine persons of the Trinity.

....that perichoresis was also employed in specialised occult circles, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn (with which, of course, Machen had been affiliated for a time), to mean the interpenetration of dimensions or of the connecting principle between matter and spirit.

....When one considers that this notion of perichoresis/interpenetration/ boundaries is at the heart of not only most of Machen's stories but most of those in particular that have gone on to influence so indisputably the development of the supernatural horror or weird genre to this day, there may well be much truth in Howard's conclusion that "the theme of 'boundaries' is central to Machen's work," to the degree that it can be considered "Arthur Machen's lasting contribution to literature" ("Interpenetrations" 39).

....a door is probably the simplest archetype or metaphor for the presumed interconnection of here and there—that is, of ingress and egress through or across boundaries, as Howard puts it.

....his later 1930s-period pseudo-journalistic stories in which he incorporates himself as a journalist (his common wartime device, unused for fifteen years)

....In "N," he lays out his vision most succinctly and creates a kind of roadmap with which to navigate his literary apparatus of suggestions, implications, inferences, hints, and sly winks that were so fundamental to all those stories that he knew fully well by then, by 1935, were already considered his classics.

    When sitting down to write "N," he likely chose Stoke Newington as the setting because of its real-life historical connections to Edgar Allan Poe and the Manor House School that Poe describes so well in "William Wilson," a story that Machen presents as a sort of Rosetta Stone to reflect light on his own tale. In fact, it would not be far-fetched to imagine that "N" is a kind of sequel to Poe's story inasmuch as "N" owes much to "William Wilson," not only in setting but in tone.

"It Is Getting Very Late & Dark": Machen's Last Fiction

Mark Valentine

....All his life Machen held to the idea that the visible world is only a façade, a symbol of a far greater and stranger world beyond. That accounted, he thought, for the sense of mystery that some places possess: at these, the veil is thinner and it is possible to glimpse a different domain.

....Arthur Machen's considered verdict on this book was given in a letter to A. E. Waite of 16 November 1936: "I believe you are right in thinking that there are hints or indications of new paths in 'The Children of the Pool':—but it is getting very late & dark for treading of strange ways" (SL 59). He was always a modest man, reluctant to acclaim his own work, but between the lines of this comment it is possible to see a quiet pride that he was still able to advance original ideas and pursue curious, unexpected paths of thought.


27 August 2019

Monday, August 26, 2019

Poe: paradoxicality

EDGAR POE was the greatest literary genius that America ever produced. Naturally, he died of neglect, and his reputation was then trashed by his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold, a despicable human being devoid of talent, who was far more respected by the public in his day, mostly for having compiled a showcase anthology of American poetry in 1842. Some of Poe's work was included in the anthology, but he gave the book a poor review, apparently occasioning a poisonous hatred on Griswold's part that extended beyond Poe's grave, to the extent that J.A.T. Lloyd titled his 1931 biography of Poe The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe and named Griswold as the murderer in question. It was Griswold, in his capacity as Poe's executor—a position he seems to have appropriated without any evident entitlement—who added the superfluous 'Allan' to Poe's literary signature, while he was in the process of making the abundant money from Poe's work that Poe had never been able to obtain, and spreading the libel that his unfortunate victim had been a madman, an alcoholic and a drug addict. He probably made the addition because he knew that Poe's stepfather, John Allan, had also made what contribution he could to ensuring the poet's lifelong poverty and humiliation, albeit with a more modest hatred.....

....The one thing that cannot be doubted, however, is that he was a man of tremendous intellect and imagination, who demonstrated more originality in a body of work that can be fitted into a single weighty volume—although it is more usually distributed in ten—than all the other nineteenth-century writers in America put together.


....Sarcasm is sometimes said to be the lowest form of wit, which is a sarcastic testimony to the fact that it is, in fact, the highest, and as every master and victim of sarcasm knows, the most telling and profound effect of sarcasm is that it creates a fatal ambiguity. Stating the opposite of what one actually means in a poker-faced fashion creates a void of uncertainty that can never be securely bridged or filled in. Another of Poe's most famous essay-anecdotes, 'The Philosophy of Composition' (1846) includes an account of his composition of 'The Raven'—an account that is ludicrous and cannot stand up to rational analysis for a moment, but which is narrated in such an earnest fashion, in support of a theory of creativity deliberately opposed to one put forward by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to account for the composition of 'Kubla Khan', that there are multitudinous readers and critics, even today, who cannot see that Poe actually meant the opposite of what he said, and that he really sympathised entirely with Coleridge.

....archetypes of a particular version of the Gothic sensibility and the mythology of Decadent neurasthenia

....the earlier ones became the key foundation stones on which the author was able to build a whole edifice of sensibility, collectively constituting a genre of 'macabre fiction' that refined and redefined the primitive eighteenth-century Gothic in its English language manifestations, much as Ernst Hoffmann had done in German.

....Poe was not a writer to stop at his first effect; he always wanted to go on, to increase that effect, if possible, and to take it to its limit; that is one of the core features of creative genius.

....While he became one of the great exponents of literary phantasmagoria, therefore, he also became a sincere practitioner of rational story-development, of the celebration of logical analysis

....Poe being Poe, of course, and the imp of the perverse being what it is, it undoubtedly seemed only natural to him to apply rational analysis to the subject-matter of irrationality, to produce quintessentially sane accounts of insanity. The science of psychology eventually set out to do that, in a stumbling fashion conspicuously devoid of genius, but Poe not only did it first but did it more effectively and infinitely more aesthetically. Such analyses of abnormal psychology as 'William Wilson' (1840) 'The Man of the Crowd' (1840) and 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1843) were ground-breaking, pioneering a species of thought-experiment that was not unrelated to the Gothic phantasmagorias of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' and 'The Masque of the Red Death', but certainly offered the macabre a new context and a new rhetoric, and thus founded another new genre of fiction which has gone from strength to strength since his death.

....The question always remains, lurking in the background, of how seriously Poe intended what he was doing. Sometimes, obviously, he was not at all serious, but we should not forget that comedy and grotesquerie sometimes serve as useful masks for more earnest and grimmer thoughts, especially for masters of sarcasm. Such stories as 'The Devil in the Belfry' (1839), 'Never Bet the Devil your Head' (1841) and 'Some Words with a Mummy' (1845) are obviously flippant and farcical, but even in such light-hearted exercises, a crucial element of ambiguity remains, adding a definite aesthetic—and, in the last-named of the three, philosophical—depth.

.....He disapproved of naked didacticism in fiction, and also of simple-minded allegorising, arguing —unsurprisingly—that it was aesthetically virtuous to create and leave doubt in a reader's mind as to what had actually happened in a story and what the events described actually signified. In that, he anticipated the theoretical ideas of the French Symbolist Movement of the fin-de-siècle, who took some inspiration from him, via Baudelaire, who was one of the Symbolists' precursors and idols. Following the prospectus of Stéphane Mallarmé, the French Symbolists proposed that the symbols they employed in their stories should never be fully explicable, because the whole point of registering, exploring and developing psychological impressions in preference to reified descriptions was to assert and illustrate the ultimate inaccessibility of the world of things-as-they-are (noumena, in Kantian terminology) and the essential unreliability of deductions made on the basis of things-as-they-seem (phenomena).

Poe, as a simultaneous celebrant of spontaneous composition and rational analysis, was more sensitive to that unreliability than many a philosopher, and more interested in its literary exploration than almost any other poet, at least in nineteenth-century America. In that regard, his works are tentative, but they are also deft, and, as always, pioneering. His early exercises in symbolism, such as 'Shadow—a Parable' (1835) have to be reckoned a trifle crude, but the item in question is a very early example of the genre of prose poetry that Baudelaire and the Symbolists were later to develop, to such great effect that Joris-Karl Huysmans did not hesitate to call the prose poem 'the osmazome [i.e., the distilled essence] of literature.' As in other regards, Poe was to take that genre rapidly to further extremes, in such experiments as 'The Oval Portrait' (1842) and the archetypal 'The Masque of the Red Death'

....one of the most prolific providers of grist to the indefatigable mills of American Academe—although it has to be admitted that most of the flour they have produced is only good for making fluffy white bread of little nutritious value

....Few other authors warrant re-reading with such careful sympathetic attention or provide such pleasure and such prolific imaginative stimulation in the process—which they will doubtless continue to do throughout the twenty-first century and beyond.



THE MACABRE TALES of Edgar Allan Poe

(Tartarus Press, 2018)