Guest essayist Jonathan Golding takes the helm this month to share his thoughts on Arthur Machen’s classic work of literary criticism, Hieroglyphics (1902).
Last year, we published Golding’s personal views on literature as found in the essay: The Garden of Moral Delights. Most recently, he contributed to Clearing Paths: A Darkly Bright Anthology of Poetry. In the coming months, Darkly Bright Press will issue his first book Telegonos, a drama in five acts. Please visit his website.
The Most Beautiful Melody in the World:
The View of Art in Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics
There is perhaps nothing so necessary and yet so difficult as to speak of the nature of art. What is art? What is its purpose? What are the criteria by which we judge? Are these judgments merely subjective and a matter of personal taste? Or may we not find some universal standard to apply?
These questions have vexed poets, philosophers, visual artists, and thinkers for millennia. And particularly in the last two hundred years, Western culture has seen peculiar and intense debates over the substance of art. These have ranged from Tolstoy’s attempt to establish a moral foundation for art to Marcel Duchamp’s aphorism that when he spits, that is art, for he is an artist.
Perhaps the most unique exploration of this subject flowed from the pen of Arthur Machen. His work Hieroglyphics offers a valuable exploration of these aesthetic questions.
Machen approaches his subject as if he were telling a gothic horror story. He tells us of his frequent visits to a literary friend living in seclusion and study. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, so that we half expect he is leading up to a mysterious disappearance or the revelation of some spectral apparition. Yet what follows is a rich discussion of literary art.
Machen purports to merely relate his imaginary host’s views, adding a charming touch of fantasy to what might otherwise be a dry and academic tome. The work, then, hovers ambiguously between fiction and essay in a way that is sure to give delight. And if at times Machen’s fictional interlocutor expresses views which sound strange to our modern ears, we forgive him for the many passages which ring with sublime poetry and wisdom.
Machen begins by recounting his friend’s fondness for lyric poetry. “He was always ready to defend the thesis that, all the arts being glorious, the literary art was the most glorious and wonderful of all. He reverenced music, but he was firm in maintaining that in perfect lyrical poetry, there is the subtlest and most beautiful melody in the world.” 1
The discussion turns quickly to what, for Machen, is the chief criterion for art: ecstasy. “If ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature; if it be absent, then in spite of all cleverness, all the talent, all the workmanship and observation and dexterity you may show me, then we have a product which is not fine literature.” 2
Like a wise lover, though, Machen shies away from approaching too directly or boldly the object of his adoration. He refuses to define too closely just what he means by the term “ecstasy” but sprinkles hints throughout the work which draw us onward toward his view. Perhaps the most explicit expression of his thought comes when he says, “fine literature is simply the expression of the eternal things that are in man, that it is beauty clothed in words, that it is always ecstasy, that it always draws itself away and goes apart into lonely places far from the common course of life.” 3
So for Machen, art is the ecstatic utterance of the eternal things in the human person. But, we may ask, what are these eternal things? He gives us another hint when he later says that art is not a product of the conscious mind and “we had better take refuge in the subconscious, that convenient name for the transcendental element of human nature. For myself, I like best my old figure of the Shadowy Companion, the invisible attendant who walks all the way beside us, though his feet are in the other world; and I think it is he who whispers to us his ineffable secrets, which we clumsily endeavor to set down in mortal language.” 4
Such sentiments place Machen squarely within the Romantic tradition, which valued emotion and spontaneity of expression. We might perhaps draw a straight line from the opium-induced vision of Coleridge’s “Xanadu” to the jazzy improvisational prose of Jack Kerouac. The author of The Great God Pan would undoubtedly fall somewhere on that axis.
For Machen, then, art is that which best expresses the mysterious utterances of our subconscious or Shadowy-Companion-self. And I think this brings us to the central conundrum of all criticism. There is a sublime quality to all artistic expression that eludes our attempts to capture it in words. And in all our efforts to define art, we are like hunters in a forest whose nimble prey often doubles back and slips from us at the moment of our triumph. We are left alone to listen to the whisper of the leaves as night comes on and wonder just what fantastic beast we glimpsed.
Art is mysterious because the human person is mysterious, deep, and filled with distant vistas. As the novelist, Neil Gaiman once put it, “Is there anyone who does not dream? Who does not contain in them worlds unimagined?” 5 And when we make art, we tap into that part of ourselves that is eternal and often hidden from our workday minds.
Like all good discussions, Machen’s Hieroglyphics raises perhaps more questions than it answers and leaves the reader with rich fields for exploration. We might ask, for example, if there might not be a more vital role for the conscious mind than Machen seems to allow. If art is an expression of the eternal in the human person, is not our conscious mind also eternal?
Or, at times, Machen seems to eschew any moral intention in literature. And we might ask whether moral values might not play a part in that which is timeless in the human experience.
But certainly, we may affirm with Machen that art, the best and truest art, is an expression of what is divine and eternal in us. When an artist gives voice to these things, we feel it in our bones. We cannot always articulate what touches us when we read a passage in Shakespeare or gaze at the enigmatic smile of La Gioconda, but we know that we have heard a fragment of the most beautiful melody in the world.
Machen, Hieroglyphics, Alfred A. Knopf, p. 12
Machen p. 20
Machen p. 65
Machen p. 73
Gaiman, World’s End, DC-Vertigo Press, New York, p. 28
The Most Beautiful Melody in the World: The View of Art in Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics: Copyright 2021 by Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.