Published in the pages of The Academy one week after Ars Artium, Machen further refines his position on the purpose for fine literature within the context of the spiritual reality of Man. In this essay, he tackles the abuse which the word realism had suffered during his time. (No doubt, this same fallacy haunts us today in the misuse of it for “reality television.”) At first, Machen’s argument may seem counterintuitive, but in his clear style, he gently leads the reader to a satisfying and illuminating conclusion. And crucially, Machen succinctly expounds upon the importance of symbols (or hieroglyphs) for their ability to communicate ineffable truths.

Realism and Symbol


Arthur Machen

Published August 1, 1908 in The Academy

I tried to point out in last week’s Academy that art is not a trick, not in any way analogous to the performances of the celebrated pony who took port wine with the clown, not in any way related to the shows of dancing dogs or learned elephants. It is not in the nature of horses to drink with clowns, nor have dogs danced ab initio;1 the elephant of the wilds does not ring a bell for his dinner: all these “arts” are things superimposed, they are fantastic upper stories which are no part of the original design of the building. Here is to be sought the fundamental distinction between these tricks and human Art with the capital A. I do not know whether the opposite view—the opinion which holds that art is “artificial,” the result of civilisation and gentle manners—has ever been formally proclaimed; but I should imagine that some such opinion might very possibly be found in the works of Herbert Spencer. That deceased “philosopher” would probably maintain that art grew out of some or all of man’s physical necessities, and that the primitive man was originally no more an artist than is a hippopotamus. It is not necessary to argue this position, since, as I have demonstrated, it is entirely false. It is from the earliest men, from the dimmest and most remote ages, that the artistic impulse, the whole matter of the arts, has descended to us; and all true art of to-day is written or painted or carved or sung in the oldest of all tongues, in a language that is ancient, and secret, and universal. Art is the expression of the human soul, of the eternal things in man; and to man it is as profoundly natural as is the song to the bird.

Last week I showed that art was the true expression of humanity, the grand differentia between men and the other animals; but there is another aspect of the matter. From the one proposition follows the other—if art be a mystery—language of the human soul it must have an interpretation. Never a perfect one, since the higher cannot be adequately translated in terms of the lower, and, personally, I always feel the impertinence of the attempt to interpret great music by a flourish of words and phrases. Still, all great art has “a meaning,” in other words, it is symbolic. There is all the difference in the world between a landscape by Turner and the best photograph of the same scene. Setting aside the fact that Turner deliberately altered the scenes that he painted, that he treated mountains and lakes, trees, and cathedrals very much as a good stage-manager treats a stage-crowd; setting this quite on one side, one sees that the painting has received that consecration which Wordsworth speaks of: the natural has been assumed into the supernatural; the hills and streams have been exalted in glory, and the fallen world has risen from the dead. In the order of nature there were masses of earth and water and the growth of trees; on the canvas these things have become a sacrament and a symbol.

Hence it follows that all great art is profoundly “realist.” It is time that this word with its ancient and honourable philosophical associations should be definitely rescued from the intolerable degradation into which it has fallen. Intolerable, and nonsensical too; for, as a matter of fact, a great part of the literature which has been called realistic is profoundly unreal. The Mummer’s Wife,2 for example, which is a painstaking and clever transcript of low theatrical life, is as unreal as any photograph; it has no relation of any sort or kind whatsoever to the eternities and realities. If man were a surface it would be real, but man being a cubical figure it is most unreal. It is, indeed, difficult to say from what complicated attack of folly this perversion of a fine word arose; the notion that a certain skill in the minute delineation of “unpleasant” characters and incidents makes a writer a “realist” certainly seems to belong more to Bedlam and Colney Hatch than to the world that is free of those high walls. Let it be added, speedily, in case of misapprehension, that to the artist neither the pleasant nor the unpleasant, the moral nor the immoral, the sordid nor the clean, profit anything in themselves. When there is a true symbol truly displayed there is art. The symbol may be in terms of the darkest pits of human misery and squalor and wickedness, or it may be in terms of the Holy Places. There are seekers for precious stones, not after the flesh nor after the manner of South Africa, who discover jewels in the cesspools and the gutters, for whom there are right Orient pearls “exceeding rich and rare,” shining in the foulest middens of humanity. And, on the other hand, there is a far greater multitude who stand in the very sanctuary at the hour of the sacring of the Mass and have the power to retransmute the Blessed Gifts into ginger-beer and mixed biscuits.3 These are the people who write what are called “good” books—that is, in plain English, books which, by bringing religion into contempt, odium, and ridicule, are more harmful than a wilderness of pornographic libraries. Perhaps I had better explain, by the way, that my phrase about those who find jewels in the gutter is not intended to be an echo of the Banished Duke’s most amiable remarks as to finding sermons in stones and good in everything; I do not mean that the moral virtues often exist amidst very deplorable surroundings. I mean that Wuthering Heights is a work of supreme genius—a somewhat different matter.

True art, then, is symbolical and realist; and as an example in literature, we may take the Arabian Nights as a splendid and typical piece of realism. Not, be it understood, because the account of the manners and customs of the court of Haroun Alraschid is historically correct. I neither know nor care whether this be the case, and in the art of literature, correct information about Haroun’s court does not count. It is, indeed, highly probable that many of the incidents in the story of Aladdin never happened, and I understand that modern science is skeptical on the question of the genie. But realism, in its true and philosophical and artistic sense, has nothing whatever to do with correct information; neither a manual of chemistry nor the racing news is entitled to be called realistic literature. No; the Arabian Nights is a realistic book because it utters, by means of certain symbols, a profound experience of all humanity.

Perhaps not the dullest dog of us all has been wholly without this experience. One may pass many examinations and yet not miss it, one may yield years to “advanced” thought and yet have one’s share in it. I would not utterly deny its occasional presence in the very sanctuaries of Protestant Dissent. Perhaps one exception to this rule may be made; perhaps the one person to whom the tale of Aladdin means nothing is the modern millionaire, who, oddly enough, is the one person who might realise in dull fact a great part of Aladdin’s splendours. It is really curious to consider that the egregious Carnegie might have built himself a very splendid palace; “instead of which” he has chosen to devote himself to the erection of free libraries. Perhaps it is better so; there are hands in which gold, and marble, and precious stones, and all the loveliness of the world become changed to something much more offensive than withered leaves. But, setting this interesting and important speculation on one side, I repeat that there comes to most of us, at one time or another, an experience which is only translatable in terms of the Arabian Nights. We are walking in the common, grimy street, weighed down with cares or pleasures, or pain or worries, our minds filled with all manner of unimportant, unreal stuff; and suddenly we see the door in the wall, that door that we have never noticed before; and we enter in by it and the Princess awaits us, and we are made free of palaces of gold and crystal, and the slaves with their trays of rubies and emeralds and pearls are our slaves; ours are the magic carpet and the golden water and the enchanted lamp; the fairies are our ministrants, and we see all things in a magic glass of divination. The world, in a word, is transformed; it has put on the glowing and glistering robe of enchantment, every way is a way of wonder, and as one looks on common things and the usual and accustomed passages of life they seem to tremble and waver as if they were a curtain on the point to part asunder and disclose tremendous and most beautiful mysteries. And those who know these times of a strange and mystic exaltation know also how impotent is the logical speech to tell the story of them, how they can scarcely be imagined even in coherent thought; there is nothing for it but to fall back on the Arabian Nights, on a world of jewels and lovely ones, and fine gold and brides from fairyland, on a world where magic and enchantment and rapture are latent in every stone, in every blade of grass. And there is a far higher region than this Arabian Paradise. The Catholic alone knows how the denial of the doctrine of Transubstantiation has robbed the world of the fulness of joy, but the initiated Catholic knows also that the final secrets of this matter are to be sought not so much in the formal and logical definition of the Church as in the Romances of the Sangraal.4 The mystery of the Eucharist is a tremendous and unearthly mystery; no words of the understanding can compass it, but it is (almost) unveiled when the deadly flesh of Galahad began to tremble, being brought near to the Spiritual Things. And this is realism.

Then there is quite another sort of literature that may rightly be called realistic. That is the literature of wandering, named picaresque, the literature that symbolises a sense that we all have at times, the sense that we are bound on a journey of strange adventures, that marvels lie beyond the bend of the road, that we have but to go on and on and wonders will be manifested to us. The wanderings of Ulysses charm by this symbol, and oddly enough the true interest of the Pilgrim’s Progress is due to a like enchantment. In literature allegory is, on the whole, a vice, as Poe pointed out; this is the weakness of “Jekyll and Hyde.” So far then as the Pilgrim’s Progress is allegorical it is bad, and yet it is a classic, because in practice we are able to forget the elaborate and minute allegory and to accept Christian as a simple picaro, a wanderer by ways strange and unknown. Allied to him are the very different Mr. Pickwick and Don Quixote, and the graceless Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle have in a lower degree their part in the symbol of the white road climbing the far hill and descending into unconjectured country. In “Pickwick,” too, there are the far-descended traces of another symbol, the great Sign of the Vine which is displayed with such splendour of emblazonment in “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel,” the hieroglyph of the ecstasy and joy of life—this also being a portion of the lost Paradise.5 It is not to be wondered at that ignorant and besotted ecclesiastics have solemnly cursed “Pickwick” as an attack on the great temperance movement. I noted a week ago the curious fact that man alone of all creatures has the power of dispossessing himself of his high privileges. He is the nightingale that, if he will, may bray like an ass.

Literature, then, is (as are all the arts) a book intus et foris scriptus.6 The surface is plain for all to see—comical, or tragical, or tragical-comical. Within are to be found the great secrets of the nature of man, the symbols of our true and essential being; and so all fine literature is profoundly and truly realistic.


1 ab initio. Latin: “from the beginning.”

2 A Mummer’s Wife (1885) is a novel by George Moore (1852-1933) in the naturalist school.

3 This criticism of certain English clergy is later repeated in nearly identical language in Machen’s introduction to The Angel of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915).

4 Here Machen refers to the Holy Grail legends, a major preoccupation for the writer. “Sangraal” is his preferred terminology.

5 “Pickwick” as in The Pickwick Papers (1837) by Charles Dickens, which is classic Machen example for ecstasy in literature. “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel” are fantastic figures from the works of Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais. These figures are used by Machen as hieroglyphs in the fashion for which he describes in this article for his novel The Secret Glory. While that novel was not published until 1922, Machen worked on it during this time.

6 Intus et foris scriptus. Latin: “written within and without.” The phrase appears in Ezekiel and Revelation in reference to the scroll in God’s hand and as seen by both the prophet and St. John.

All original essays, artwork & supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Christopher Tompkins

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