The Weekly Machen
Snug in the narrow confines of the newspaper column, we find a wonderful manifesto in miniature. If The Secret Language serves as a distillation of Hieroglyphics, then “The Way Out” is a further refining of Arthur Machen’s philosophy of life and literature as a spoonful of needful medicine. We desire a “way out”—that is, we desire to return home from exile. Nothing else but paradise will do. Machen reminds us that even children understand this truth. Just in time for Christmas, his words reorient our desire from the material and fleeting things of this world toward the permanent and heavenly.
The Way Out:
A Meditation in a Toy Shop
December 12, 1910
The odd thing is that from the beginning everybody has wanted to find the way out.
A Chinese friend of mine told me the other day that in his country all poets were blind men who were perpetually inebriated.
He spoke in a parable: he meant that if the interior eye is to be opened, the exterior eye must be closed, lest the anarchy of material things should confound the clear vision of the seer. And the poets’ “inebriation” refers, doubtless, to that exaltation and ecstasy—that drunkenness of the spirit—which silence the obtrusive and vulgar voice of material “common sense.”
If you think of it, you will find that the great effort of the living has always been to escape from life.
For what else does music, first of the arts, exist? Music takes sound, noise, “audible species,” as the old philosophers would say, and transmutes the rude noise into immortal melodies and harmonies. So does the ear find its “way out.”
Then painting takes the colour and form of things, and sea and sky and hills and woods are made into “a Turner.” And architecture goes to the quarry and, as the Freemasons will tell you, digs out a “rough ashlar” and fashions a “smooth ashlar,” out of rude stones a miracle of beauty, a Lincoln Cathedral, rises up to heaven.
And literature takes life as a whole, so far as words can express it; and out of the confused and foggy struggle for existence we get the Odyssey and the Don Quixote and the Morte d’Arthur.
Magic tones, magic forms and colours, magic houses, magic words: there is always the magic spell that is the great “open Sesame” by which one escapes from the hailstorms and fire showers and barren wastes of the desert, and enters into the cave of treasures and of splendours.
We have always wanted to find the way out and the way in; to turn our backs on the bitter wilderness of exile, and to enter in unto our true home, the heavenly and glorious Syon; the town which has many names, the town of which the Painter and the Boy discourse so well in “The Golden Age.”
The Vast Toyshop
And the mention of the Boy reminds me of the toys I was looking at a day or two ago.
In spite of advanced thought, in spite of the fact that the mere existence of a doll is opposed to every rationalistic conclusion, the West End of London seemed one vast toyshop. It was not only the places usually devoted to the sale of playthings that exhibited these toys; but windows that for the rest of the year display the fashions in hats, frocks, and coal scuttles were now a children’s fairyland.
In the place of the hobble skirt the elephant of make-believe displayed his ivory tusks; where waste-paper baskets lately simulated hats the cheerier pretence of leaden soldiers was arrayed. There were bears, and camels, and parrots with nodding heads; every kind of creature was mimicked in the angular wooden figures of Caran d’Ache; there were chantecler dolls, there were Punch dolls and clown dolls, there were dolls that would be all things to all men if only you wound them up; there grotesquely painted blocks of wood, just suggesting humanity, and waxen young madams, life-like in expression and gorgeously bedecked in the latest fashions of finery. And Regent-street and Oxford-street on the wet and windy and dreary afternoon seemed full of a faint tinkling melody; this was the sound of the old musical box adapted to a hundred novel ends, echoing from every shop. These were the horns not of Elfland but of Toyland faintly blowing.
And what does all this show signify?
Setting apart the special occasion of the display; the survival in spite of all of a festival wherein we delight to make our fellow-creatures—and little children in especial—glad; this multitude of toys is a witness that children as well as grown-ups want to find that way out of which I have spoken.
An Eastern may seek this door in opium, or hashish, or bhang; a Western may attempt it by way of the fine arts, or of neat brandy; a little child finds it in those queer similitudes of things which we call toys.
Symbols and Sacraments
It comes to this, that children, with all grown-up people who are not utterly beyond salvation, are not content with “things as they are,” with the material scheme of the universe. Even the thirteenth century found it necessary to feign many marvels; the nineteenth century for a while thought that express trains must lead to paradise; but we have found that this is not the case.
So a child may have kind parents, well-trained uncles and aunts, plenty of strawberry jam for breakfast and the Bulgarian bacillus in its milk-pudding—and yet it is not enough.
Its kind parents, aforesaid, may wrap it up in great-coats in July, or freeze it in bare legs in December (I forget which is the latest “scientific” recipe); it may even be nourished on “Proteids,” which, so far as I can gather, is Greek for walnuts—and yet it is not enough.
The child wants to find the Way Out; and the Toy fills up the gap between the dawning of consciousness and the first happy reading of the Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights, and all those blessed and glorious portals which lead from the wilderness of the world into the Enchanted Cavern and Palace of the magicians.
Little Willy has a fond father and a doting mother and plenty of cake and jam; but there is a void in his heart that can only be filled by that fantastic figure of Punch; by those strange miracle-plays in wood, where monkeys drive geese, and horses of wonderland obey the whip of fierce though humorous black oats.
To us these queer figures are queer figures and nothing more; to the child they are symbols and sacraments. We ourselves were initiated long ago into all these mysteries of toyland; now we have forgotten the word of the enigma; and when we try to recall the incantation of a few bits of wood and some painted rags we remember it as we remember a dream of the night. The vision was surely splendid and magnificent; but the word of the dreamer cannot be uttered by the awakened.
All we can do is—to buy toys for children that they may find the Way Out!
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2 thoughts on “The Way Out”
Thank you for this! A lot of ‘Inklings – and Chesterton – juxtapositions’ suggest themselves (such as Tolkien on ‘escape’, Eustace in Narnia) and a lot of recorded experiences – for example, by Lewis in Surprised by Joy, and perhaps what Yeats says about when “walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem ‘Innisfree'” – and how many ‘unrecorded’ experiences so many could recall…
Things I had to look up:
“the Bulgarian bacillus” – Wikipedia has “First identified in 1905 by the Bulgarian doctor Stamen Grigorov by isolating what later termed Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus from a Bulgarian yogurt sample”;
“proteid” – an earlier variant of ‘protein’ – of which (I also find) walnuts are considered a good source;
“the angular wooden figures of Caran d’Ache” – this still puzzles me, as “Caran d’Ache was the pseudonym of the 19th century French satirist and political cartoonist Emmanuel Poiré […] from Russian: […] romanized: karandash meaning ‘pencil’ in Turkic languages” (Wikipedia, again), but the examples f his work which I find there are not characteristically “angular”.
I suspect “the nineteenth century for a while thought that express trains must lead to paradise” includes a wink at Hawthorne’s satirical “Celestial Railroad” .
I don’t know Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age well enough to appreciate the reference to (a word-search at Project Gutenberg reveals) the chapter, “The Roman Road” – and have not delayed commenting to read it, first.
A blessed and joyful Christmas(tide) to you and your other readers!
Merry Christmas to you and your family!