The Weekly Machen
The following dispatch feels severely truncated with the editor’s introduction added to catch the reader up to speed. Perhaps this is not the case and Machen’s article is published as written. Regardless, it is a shame that we are not treated to more of the ghosts in Machen’s memory and his thoughts and feelings toward them.
A Curious Experience That All of Us Have Had
June 10, 1914
Many of our readers who have reached the age of forty or thereabouts may have had experiences similar to the ones related by Mr. Arthur Machen in the article given below.
In some curious and unexplained manner which we must leave to psychologists, Life is constantly presenting to us, suddenly and without any sort of warning or relevance to the affairs of the moment, trivial incidents and visions over the gulfs of the years.
It would be interesting to hear from our readers who can match our contributor’s experience by their own.
Most of us, I suppose, find that our memory retains as with a grip of steel the merest trifles, matters that stand in no conceivable relation to anything in particular, while it lets go the event of consequence and relevance. A friend was telling me the other day of an impression that stands out bright in his memory against a background of dim forgetfulness.
“I see it still.” he said, “It is a hot Sunday afternoon in a little town in the North. My old grandmother is looking out of the window and viewing the new—or newish—fashions that ladies are wearing: the ‘bustle,’ I think it was. ‘Eh,’ she exclaimed suddenly, ‘but the Lord He won’t stand it much longer!’ I can smell the sunlight on that afternoon still!”
So it is with me. I can remember being wheeled along the deserted streets of Caerleon-on-Usk in a perambulator; and there was a bag of flour in the perambulator on that particular sunny, afternoon of the early ‘sixties. I skip 10 or 11 or 12 years; a particular walk in a particular lane appears before me, and pinned to it, as it were, a certain article—of no especial moment—in a bound volume of “All the Year Round” that I read that night after tea.
Problem for Psychologists
Again; I am a boy at school, and the aunt with whom I lived has sent me out to take brisk and wholesome exercise. I do not take brisk and wholesome exercise; I loaf on an iron bridge over the line from Hereford to Brecon, and read “Peter Simple” in paper covers. It was a cloudy Saturday afternoon; and I suppose it was just about fifty years ago.
And there are conversations that I can remember still, conversations and remarks without the slightest consequence or salience; but the insignificant words come echoing clear and distinct across the great bridge of years, from lips that have long been dead.
I can hear the tones of the vicar’s voice as he declared that “some people say that the Snark means popularity.” That was in 1872, I think.
Why do such insignificances remain in the mind, as though they were graven in marble? Perhaps the psychologists know all about it; to me it remains one of the many questions to which there is no clear answer.
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2 thoughts on “Old Ghosts”
It is curious, – memories. I often think they speak of something much deeper on a symbolic level, or of unfinished business that wasn’t carried to fruition.
I was thinking of stories this morning as I got out of bed and wondered, why is it, that we are so connected to stories? Perhaps memories and stories are connected. We seem to live out stories in the process of daily living. Memories that live within us create in the mind their own stories or furnish the story itself.
I may be changing the subject here, but it seems to me in all of their import, they are the building blocks of who we are as individuals.
This latest Machen posting comes in timely wise for me. That phenomenon of the sudden remembrance of something pretty trivial has been familiar to me for many years. Occasionally I’ve jotted down notes of those experiences; now, if only I remembered where and when the notes were written….
The essay will probably ramble, but the chief point is likely to be Hyoi’s observation, in C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, that a pleasure is fully grown only when it is remembered. Hyoi disputes the idea that the “original experience” is one thing and the memory quite another. Rather they are all one thing. He uses the example of his first meeting with Elwin Ransom. The meeting was a matter of a moment, but the meaning and pleasure of it are still growing, and they will, Hyoi anticipates, have become even greater when he is old and near death.
If Lewis’s Malacandrian is wise, as I believe he is, then his remark may help to relieve us of the false guilt some would impose on us, when they tell us that we are indulging in “nostalgia.” Those who criticize us may have their own agenda; it may be in their interest to distract us, or to incite us to take up their causes — perhaps bogus ones. (What memories of having been -gulled- are they likely to have, who surrendered much of their lives to enlistment in bogus causes.)
Rather than (shame! shame!) “wallowing in nostalgia,” we may often be attending with gratitude or at least curiosity to gifts received, as did Wordsworth when, in his city lodgings, he remembered the daffodils moving in the breeze by the lake.
Related to this is the practice of my best teacher-mentor, who told me around 35 years ago that he had a discipline of keeping files for memories that had around them some quality of “energy.” From such “seed crystals” might come a written meditation, a poem, etc.
To come back to Arthur Machen — one reason I love his late story “N” so much is on account of its opening pages, with the men sitting together and reminiscing. In this way, this poetic story is really poetic from the start, even before the supernatural is introduced.
But everyone should look up Hyoi’s discourse, which comes early in Chapter 10 of Out of the Silent Planet — which is the novel I have read the most times, with 16 readings.
I’ve been thinking about mythopoeic fantasy lately, and it seems to me that all fantasy truly deserving of the adjective possesses, is even pervaded by, wisdom. Lewis’s cosmic trilogy as well as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings qualify. Machen could reach the heights too — though I might direct the inquirer first to “The Great Return.” Is wisdom possible to men, without memory?