Perhaps even more so than his wonderful stories, Arthur Machen’s greatest contribution to letters may be his theoretic approach to Literature. As this piece clearly illustrates, he is able to elucidate upon the creative act in a near-theological fashion, rooting its purpose in an anthropology at the center of a cosmic drama. Denying an ever-increasing arc of perpetual progress, Machen further denies its efficacy to create happiness for Man, in whose original state, was meant to be a poet. Then in Paradise, but now in rebellion, man, through art rightfully purposed, reorients toward his intended state: transfiguration.
Taken together, Machen’s Hieroglyphics (1902), shorter works such as A Secret Language (1916) and forgotten essays like Ars Artium constitute a corpus of literary exploration as revelatory as The Mind of the Maker (1941) by Dorothy Sayers. Not only does it inform us as to Machen’s own fiction, but encourages us to look deeper into all that we read and encounter. It becomes a scale by which we may weigh all in which we spend (or waste) our precious little time imbibing. It may winnow. Or, it may direct us to find Paradise, hidden and previously unseen, in a familiar book we may have taken for granted.
Published July 25, 1908 in The Academy
I suppose that if in every generation of men from the earliest time there had been a certain number of individuals who possessed the power of flight; if some of these flying people were able to soar to vast heights, and to sustain their courses amidst the stars for a prolonged time; if others rose to equal altitudes, but were forced to descend in an hour or so; if others, again, could only compass a hundred feet of ascent; if others skimmed a foot or two above the ground—well, it seems that the deduction would be that men were meant by nature to have the power of flight, but that, by some cause or another, the property which should have belonged to all had become restricted to a few. To abandon the analogy—which, like most analogies, is imperfect enough—it seems clear that every one of us is a potential Homer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Phidias, Botticelli, and that inasmuch as we are not any or all of these great artists we are maimed and imperfect men, or, in other words, fallen men. Smith should be a Shakespeare—he was meant to be a Shakespeare, and, since he is not a Shakespeare, he is like a plum-tree which, through various causes, has degenerated and is returning to the crude and savage asperity of the wild sloe. Of course there are many stages of degeneration; Smith may have written a play which the critics say is “almost worthy of the great Elizabethan,” he may have indited a sonnet of very great beauty, he may have composed one line that “might have been uttered by Prospero,” he may be the author of an essay which “shows an almost supernatural grasp of Shakespeare’s meaning,” he may weep or laugh with instinctive sympathy as he reads, or finally, he may think the whole thing a bore and a nuisance. But in so far as he is not Shakespeare he is a fallen man. Now in all probability most people would only concede the “fallen” to the last of these hypothetical Smiths—the Smith who thinks Romeo and Juliet very dull reading; but the other Smiths are clearly lapsed, though they have not slipped down to the uttermost depths. For by the very fact of our comprehension of the great man’s work, by the fact of our insight into his meaning, by the facts of our tears and of our laughter, by the fact that as we read we make the lines our own, part of our hearts and minds and souls, we thereby prove our fallen state. We can understand the language; how is it then that we do not speak it? If no Englishman had ever spoken French we might reasonably conclude that the art of speaking French was impossible to an Englishman, that the Anglo-Saxon was no more meant to speak French than a thistle is meant to produce figs. But if one Englishman has spoken French perfectly, then it is clear that those who cannot do so are, qua French, imperfect; they lack something which they might possess—which they ought to possess—in the sphere of linguistic accomplishment. He who can read but cannot write by the very fact of his reading convicts himself of imperfection; so he who enjoys Shakespeare by the fact of his enjoyment acknowledges his fault in not being Shakespeare.
I know very well that many of my readers will have a different explanation of the matter. In my parable of the flying men I should have mentioned the circumstance that some of the highest flights recorded were of the remotest past in history. But I imagine that I shall be met from many quarters with the theory of human progress, of the continual advancement of man’s mind to higher and finer and nobler levels. And it was for the purposes of the present argument that I disproved (as I believe) this Progress Theory in the last number of The Academy.2 Then my thesis was general. I denied a steady and permanent and universal progress from the lower to the higher, from the ugly to the beautiful, from unhappiness to happiness, from unrighteousness to righteousness. I quoted more particularly the instance of the bracelet made by a savage as compared with the average jewelry of Regent Street. And this instance serves the purpose of the moment. If “gold alberts,” banal and vulgar rings, German oleographs, coloured supplements, the works of Tupper… and others, the architecture of many palaces and many slums, the music of Stainer, the sculpture of the Cobden statue—if all these things belonged to the dawn of history, if the Odyssey had been written the other day, and if we had just buried the architect of Westminster Abbey—then I should accept the theory of progress. I should be willing to believe that we had been slowly mounting upward, and ever upward, that the human race was already within sight of the Promised Land, that the ape of old would ere long be transformed into the awful glories of divinity. But we know that Tupper does not belong to the Palæolithic period, and we know that the machine-made article—novel, or play, or jewel, or picture, or arm-chair—is a chief feature of our own age; so it seems to me that the theory of man ever ascending from height to height is most definitely shown to be false.
False in the arts, and therefore false in all. For, if one thinks of it, art is not an odd and clever trick like throwing three somersaults in the tenth of a second; art is at once the manifestation of man, the true speech of man, and the differentia of man from other animals. It has been said that the style is the man; assuredly art is the man, his utterance of himself, the means by which his true self is made incarnate in a cathedral, in an epic, in a fugue, in a statue, in a picture, or in an ornament. This is the fashion in which virtue may be said to go out of a man, by which he is constituted the arch-magician of the world, having, as Adam had, dominion over every creature, having the power to take what he will and whence he will from the whole universe, and by tones, and colours, and thoughts, and words, and the shapes of things to make for himself a great and transcendental speech—the mystery language, the incantation of art. And all that art possesses which is truly magical, all its formulas of supreme efficacy have descended to it from the remotest antiquity. It is, as Mr. Yeats has said so well, the spirit of the old ecstatic dancers, of those who saw visions and dreamed dreams, of the solitary, of the singers of strange incantation-songs, which give virtue to all the arts; it is the presence of this spirit, of this one thing needful, which makes us tolerate all the angularities, the crudities, the technical defects of many antique or primitive masterpieces. And by the way it is to be noted that man, who has so many and great privileges, has a privilege that is in a sense the strangest of all. He can, if he will, break his wand, cast away his robe of splendour, and forget all the lore of his enchantments.3 It is on record that the late Mr. Herbert Spencer pronounced Homer to be “boyish” and “intolerable.” It would be very remarkable if the nightingale were possessed of the power of losing its song and of assuming the hiss or the bray of certain other animals.
It is clear, then, I think, that art is coeval with man; art—or perhaps I should say the true matter of art; and that which later ages have added is in reality artifice, that which we call technique. Thus the true artist in every age goes back to the first day of man for that which is really precious and magical in his work; he is the highest artist of all who recovers most successfully the emotions of the first man, or in other words, becomes like a little child, breaking away from the prison-house of “civilisation.” And thus by another track we have come back to our first thesis that man is fallen, inasmuch as every man, according to the law of his first and true nature, should be a supreme artist. We have disproved the theory of progress, we have seen that the core and essence of all art was in the possession of primitive man, who knew the authentic charm but was often unable to utter it articulately, while we, who speak clearly enough, are only too apt to give form to banality and vulgarity. The Renaissance was the apotheosis of technique, of body divorced more or less from spirit, and one understands why Oscar Wilde—who will never be reckoned amongst those who have been indifferent to technique—detested the Renaissance and wished that it had never been. I should think that in the Celtic decorative work body and spirit were welded together as they never have been before or after; but if one takes primitive work of a much lower range than the Cup of Armagh or the Tara Brooch, work that has something of the barbarous about it, still it will often possess a magic, an enchantment, a great mystery that is denied to the exquisite accomplishment of Benvenuto Cellini. It is this primitive magic that is the relic of the Lost Garden.
It were idle to dogmatise as to the manner in which the human spirit descended from the higher Garden to the lower, from the glorious body of Adam Kadmon4 to the inglorious body of an ape. It may be conjectured that the Fall was due to the assertion of the Ego, to the rebellious insurgence of the self, for the instinct of many forms of religion has set itself to the rectification of this fatal error, to the restoration of the due balance. Orthodox Buddhism (as distinct from the unholy follies of Theosophy) puts before itself this one aim; it is a mighty scheme of self-discipline, but its zeal has carried it to the opposite extreme, and it proposes as its final truth the dogma that the self is non-existent, that the belief in an Ego is a great and poisonous delusion, the cause of all the woes of the world, and by a natural corollary the object of Buddhism is to destroy the delusion in question. Somewhat after the same manner speak the Babis of Persia, if the line translated by Professor E. G. Browne5 is to be taken as representing their faith:
The Kingdom of “I” and “We” forsake, and your Home in annihilation make;
but I should be very glad if Professor Browne would enlighten the readers of The Academy on the beliefs of this most curious sect. Finally, the true balance is attained in the Christian precept—that he who would save his soul must lose it. The lead must die, so that the gold may be born from the furnace of this death; in other words, Tupper must perish so that Shakespeare may rise from his ashes.6
This is the truth expressed so well in a book that I reviewed in these columns a fortnight ago—it is the object of Religion to make every man a poet—a supreme artist.7 Not of necessity an executive and practising artist—for, paradoxically enough, the thing realised, materially manifested in tones, or marble, or words, is itself a result of the Fall, a phenomenon of this imperfect world of sacraments and symbols. Per speculum in ænigmate here below—there face to face, without the veils, and illusions, and dimnesses of sensible things.8 Religion may or may not make any one man a technical artist; it will do better, it will transport him to that overworld whence the holy incantations of the arts descend on earth, to the place of the perfect unmanifested Vision.
1 Ars Artium. Latin for “art of arts.”
2 Here, Machen is referencing his article “New Lamps for Old,” which forms a critique of H. G. Wells’ New Worlds for Old, a book which attempts to describe a Socialist future for man. Machen argues against Wells from an openly-stated anti-Socialist position.
3 This phrase skillfully summarizes much of Machen’s narrative purpose for his novel, The Terror (1917).
4 In the Jewish Kabbalah, Adam Kadmon is “Primordial Man,” a divine light rather than the physical Adam.
5 Edward Granville Browne (1862-1926) was British orientalist with a particular interest in Persian culture and the Baha’i faith. Among his works are A Traveller’s Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb (1891) and Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (1918).
6 Here, Machen uses alchemical imagery to describe the transfiguration of man. This topic interested him greatly and a reader may find this type of language in many works including The Great Return. (2017 Darkly Bright Press Edition)
7 Machen is referring to his article entitled “The Dark Ages,” which ran in the July 11, 1908 issue of The Academy. It is a critique of The Good New Times by H. Jeffs.
8 Per speculum in ænigmate. Translates to “in an enigma by a mirror.” Machen is paraphrasing St. Paul from 1 Corinthians 13:12—“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”