The Weekly Machen

The following dispatch illustrates that nothing written by Arthur Machen should be summarily passed over, even if it bears such a banal title as “Early Books of 1913.” Machen “reviews” two works, largely forgotten in the 110 years since their publication, but in truth, he simply uses both as starting places for deeper topics. In the first part, he discusses the psycho-spiritual realities for man confronted by beauty, and in the second, he considers conditions frightfully similar to the follies of our current era. If anyone has read the Barry Pain book mentioned below, please comment.

Early Books of 1913
Arthur Machen
January 16, 1913

downloadI cannot think that Mr. Arthur Ransome, the author of a valuable and suggestive book of literary essays, called “Portraits and Speculations” (Macmillan), is right in his theory of the relation between beauty and tears.

We then say that a work of art is beautiful; the wistfulness with which we sometimes say it, the tears that sometimes dim our eyes as we close a book or turn from a picture that we believe to be beautiful, and the sadness that has often been associated with the name of beauty, are due to the half-conscious knowledge that our share in the collaboration [of ourselves and the artist] is imperfect, since we can never stand exactly where he [the artist] stood.

Surely that is not the true explanation of the facts. It is true that there are men who feel moved to tears by the contemplation of a beautiful book, by the hearing of great music; but such men will be moved in much the same fashion by the beauty that is of the universe, and not of art. The red flame of the woods in autumn, the sudden vision of the sea through a cleft in the cliffs, the primroses in a deep, dark lane, and the noise of the wind shaking the woods on a mountainside; these sights and sounds will sometimes bring tears to the eyes; and surely such tears are not due to envy of the Creator?

Shock of the Beautiful

For, in the first place, while I admit the tears, I deny the sadness of any kind is the cause of them. I know that Sir Thomas Browne declared that the tavern music which made one man merry, another mad, induced in him a feeling of melancholy; but I honestly think that the author of the “Religio Medici” was mistaken. Likely enough the scrape of the cheerful viols brought tears to his eyes; but I say that these tears were caused not by sadness, but the sudden perception of beauty, manifested in this particular instance under the form of gaiety. As it seems to me, beauty of tone, or colour, or form, or language, of the earth or sky or sea, is realised always with something of a shock: Paradise is, as it were, presented to us in a flash of blinding light, and our hearts are shaken and our eyes are dimmed by its unendurable splendours. For an instant we divine a world of immortal beauty; and the weakness of our mortality breaks down before the vision.

Once upon a time I had a most interesting discussion with Mr. H. G. Wells—on electric heaters. He maintained that if beefsteaks were cooked by electricity instead of being grilled over red-hot coals the happiness of nations would be appreciably increased. He said that coal fires, and black-leaded kitchen ranges, and the fire-laying, poking, raking out of cinders, and all the circumstances attendant on cooking as it now is, constituted a dirty, messy, unnecessary worry and work; and that all this futile expenditure of valuable energy would be abolished by the introduction of the electric cooker and heater. I told him that the bothers and the difficulties of the coal fire were the sport of the good cook; that meeting an awkward fire in as awkward range and beating it in a fair fight are fun. And so we differed.

Gulliver of the Future World

220px-Barry_Pain_in_1891Here, now, is Mr. Barry Pain with his “New Gulliver and Other Stories” (Laurie), and he is a witness on my side of the debate. His New Gulliver found a race that had gone far beyond such trifling as cooking beefsteaks by electricity. They had abolished beefsteaks long before the landing of Lemuel Gulliver, junior; and they lived on pills and distilled water.

“I have never eaten shark, cooked or uncooked,” said my host, “but I should imagine that a diet confined to this meat would give an excess of nitrogen. We correct that with one of number eighteen. To this I add our ordinary repast—number one, two, three—a corrective for exhaustion from number sixty-four, and a pill of a narcotic character from sixty-eight.”

They abolished sex, these people, because sex is the parent of distracting emotions. They abolished bed-clothes because they are not hygienic; they lived 192 and did everything by pressing buttons and turning dials; and they were miserable wretches, in continual dread of death.

I should think that this last note is thoroughly sound in its psychology. It has often struck me that the more hygienic and sanitary we become, the more brilliant the fight that surgery, aided by anæsthetics. wages against pain and death, the more frightened we all grow. In the Middle Ages a man went with joy into a terrific battle as a modern man goes on a foxhunt, and faced death gaily as good sport; we are afraid not only of death but of good ale and roast-beef and of heat and cold and wet; pretty well of everything in the world.

The Weekly

Previous: A Wonder of Childhood

Next: Divorce “Shops”

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

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