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Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Oldjoe (IP Logged)
Date: 29 September, 2019 12:12PM
In reading through the Hippocampus Press edition of letters between CAS and George Sterling, I came across CAS' commentary on Arthur Machen's Hieroglyphics (in letter #208):

Quote:
...I have another of Machen's books, entitled "Hieroglyphics," one of the best things on literature and literary values that I have seen for a long time, apart from the writings of John Cowper Powys.

I notice Tartarus Press has an edition of Hieroglyphics that is still available, but I've never read any of Machen's non-fiction, so I'm curious if anyone on this forum has read the book, and if so, can you share your thoughts and impressions?

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 29 September, 2019 12:22PM
I'd like to read this again. This short book is in the public domain -- you can download it for free:

[www.gutenberg.org]

[archive.org]

Let's read it now and discuss it! CAS would approve.

DN

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Oldjoe (IP Logged)
Date: 29 September, 2019 04:57PM
Thanks for the links! Having just read the Prefatory Note, this does indeed seem like it will be a fascinating read, both because of the welcoming warmness of Machen’s authorial voice, and the enticing statement of purpose, which seems to be best captured in this paragraph:

Quote:
I should scarcely be justified in calling him a literary monomaniac. But it is true that Art in general, and the art of literature in particular had for him a very high significance and interest; and he was always ready to defend the thesis that, all the arts being glorious, the literary art was the most glorious and wonderful of all. He reverenced music, but he was firm in maintaining that in perfect lyrical poetry there is the subtlest and most beautiful melody in the world.

I personally feel a great sympathy for the sentiments expressed in that quote, so I’m eager to read on!

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 30 September, 2019 03:27PM
Bravo!

I expect to post comments soon.

I know Machen thought highly of Bach (as do I), but does anyone know of other Machenian musical favorites too?

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 30 September, 2019 06:33PM
The subtitle of Hieroglyphics is A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature.

THIS is ecstasy, if you ask me:
"... the house had been built in the early eighteenth century, and had been altered and added to at various periods, with a final "doing up" for the comparative luxury of someone in the 'tens or 'twenties; there were, I think, twenty rooms in it, and my friend used to declare that when a new servant came she spent many months in finding her way in the complicated maze of stairs and passages, and that the landlady even was now and then at fault. ..."

And this, to extreme degree:
"... the room in which we sat was hung with flock paper, of a deep and heavy crimson colour, and even on bright summer evenings the crimson looked almost black, ..."

And it is decadent. Especially that wallpaper. (Surely, no one settles their walls like that today? - And how we are missing out! Right?) Are "ecstasy" and "decadence" kindred terms somehow? For some persons? What really is the attraction of decadence? Is it something highly evocative only for those of us rare dreamers who prefer our past and own roots over artificial modernity?

I would also think that "Ecstasy" can be interchanged with "Life". Real Art, to be called such, must be suffused with Life, and intellect and craft alone cannot reach this; the mind must also be allowed to enter mystical state to receive.

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 30 September, 2019 06:47PM
Knygatin, Machen and the Recluse don't say that the Recluse's residence embodies are induces "ecstasy," so that could be a hitch right there.

But we will see that Machen offers works such as Dickens's Pickwick Papers, the Oedipus Rex, the Odyssey, Wuthering Heights, &c. as works that induce "ecstasy." It will be an interesting definition of "decadence" that would accommodate these works -- wouldn't it?

I think Machen outgrew "decadence" pretty early in his literary career. I always think that "decadence" doesn't work as regards "fine literature" (the Recluse's term) because it implies a reaction to, a relationship with, something else. Thus "decadent" clothing needs other fashions in clothing that it can react against. "Decadent" witticisms assume conventions about what may be said or implied, against which the wit can exercise himself. In the 1890s, open homosexuality could seem daring, dashing, and, so, could be appealing to those who fancied themselves to be members of a "decadent" culture. Now high schools sponsor clubs for gay teens, bisexual teens, queer teens, trans teens, etc. I suppose the kind of stuff like what Helen Vaughan's disciples did secretly in "The Great God Pan," whatever it was, now is celebrated in Pride parades and Drag Queen Story Hours for kids in Cincinnati. Right? Literary "decadence" is a dead end, at least in as profoundly permissive a society is that of North America and Western Europe.

I think Machen/Recluse are aiming at literature that can make far higher claims than to "flutter the dovecotes" of an (assumed) stodgy Establishment.

Dale Nelson



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 30 Sep 19 | 06:58PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 06:48AM
I try to stay away from the artificial outgrowths of modernity, because my nerves and sensibilities don't appreciate it. When I speak of decadence, I think of something more subtle and aesthetic, something that highly pleases me, generally connected to old age. Decadence as of something decaying, that was once good but now falls apart, or that even may improve through strange alchemy of seeming deterioration, to form a vintage. For me it is mainly seen from a material and visual perspective. Also strange or outmoded motivations, from some different time that may have been more truthful or honest, but today is looked upon as unacceptable. That may not be the correct applied meaning of decadence as of social and moral downfall. But that is what I do with it anyhow. Limit it to what I like. It is an escape from the present, politically induced, decadence.

For example, some of the most delicious wines are made from grapes that have been covered by fungus and allowed to partly rot, before being pressed. Enjoying such wine (or just the thought of it. Remember the wines served in Zothique!) is to me connected with a wonderful sense of decadence. Or of old cultural artifacts that may not be very efficient now, but which still were made under great effort. And lovingly built architecture, with charming leaning roofs and floors (they did as well as they could, with what tools they had, under divine organic inspiration. Often much longer standing than today's soulless high-tech assembly line housing.); some remaining quarters still have a rare abundance of such 400 year old wooden buildings, with eaves overlapping, and nearly toppling over each other, crumbling, partly rotting. That is decadence for me, and further, it shows signs of genuine past Life, still vibrating in the surface, lines, and proportions! That is the beauty of it. Certain colours may be seen as excuding decadence, for example deep crimson and other dark colours. The literature of Machen, Lovecraft, and Smith, are full of similar references. That is decadence for me. And it offers aesthetic ecstasy.

I don't recall that particular episode in "The Great God Pan". But I would be very disappointed in Machen if he by his forbidden and hidden horrors was referring symbolically to that which we now see openly in society. I think rather, that he was meaning genuine deeper cosmic and mystic secrets of existence, too grand for our senses to fully take in, and of actual supernatural presences like the "little people". I don't think he used these as symbols for social criticism. Modern writers use the supernatural as symbolism, but I don't think he did. Neither did Algernon Blackwood.

On the side, from your more direct definition of decadence, I don't fully agree with you that "literary "decadence" is a dead end", at least in as profoundly permissive a society as that of North America and Western Europe", because there is vast intellectual scope for putting forth constructive criticism differing from the established norm. You may have difficulties getting it published, and reaching out with it, but that is another matter; it is not impossible to do for the persistent.

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 07:05AM
Knygatin Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> ... there
> is vast intellectual scope for putting forth
> constructive criticism differing from the
> established norm.

I meant that it can be put in a different literary light, to show its decadence even to those who today can't see it. Most see it, but we live under opinions dictatorship, so we are not allowed to criticize.

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 01:34PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I'd like to read this again. This short book is
> in the public domain -- you can download it for
> free:
>
> [www.gutenberg.org]
> -h.htm
>
> [archive.org]
> /page/n4
>
> Let's read it now and discuss it! CAS would
> approve.
>
> DN

Excellent suggestion!

I'll get a copy and get thru it as soon as possible. This will be a great opportunity for me to learn much of interest.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 02:55PM
Knygatin, the problem with taking a term like "decadence" and giving it a personal definition is that the word brings with it a history. You seem basically to be using the word while thinking of its personal connotations for you, while for readers its denotation might be different. So, use it or not, it's up to you, but don't be disappointed in reader response if readers seem to be missing your point.

Much of what you put under the heading of "decadence" sounds to me like "antiquarianism." I love the antiquarianism of M. R. James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and Machen's enjoyment of forgotten London byways -- I went to the trouble of getting a copy of a book he loved, Cunningham's Hand-Book of London, Past and Present (1850), and a set of facsimile London maps from about 1865. Lovecraft relishing a door with a colonial fanlight -- there it is again, antiquarianism.

These things may appeal to us, in part, because we feel drawn to things in the depths of a past that is so often overlaid by mass-produced ideas and objects.

We look to the future (of course one can't really look to the future) -- and we imagine a dreary extrapolation of what we see now. But we look to the past, and it seems to us surely a great realm, partially illuminated, to be sure, and partly, to us, dark, that darkness possibly concealing riches. Language and literature can give us some access thereto.

I'll bet that, like me, you are or will be dismayed by the thought of a noted "Shakespeare Festival" (in progressive Oregon, as it happens) "updating" the poet's language. I suspect that, like me, you will think it would be better for audiences to familiarize themselves with language and references before seeing the play. Let's not hear someone say "Too busy!" Carve some time out from your social media and so on and you will find the time if you try to.

DN 1 Oct 19



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 1 Oct 19 | 03:12PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 03:02PM
Here is something, Knygatin and anyone else interested, that I think has affinities with Machen's eventual notions. I omit that Russian author's name; he was implicated in some detestable policies. But without endorsing every word, I think he says here something worth considering as we move towards Hieroglyphics.

----Only fools have clear conceptions of everything. The most cherished ideas of the human mind are found in the depths and in twilight: around these confused ideas which we cannot classify revolve clear thoughts, extending, developing, and becoming elevated. If this deeper mental plane were to be taken away, there would remain but geometricians and intelligent animals; even the exact sciences would lose their present grandeur, which depends upon a hidden correlation with eternal truths, of which we can catch a glimpse only at rare moments. Mystery is the most precious possession of mankind. Not in vain did Plato teach that all below is but a weak image of the order reigning above. It may be, indeed, that the grandest function of the loveliness we see is the awakening of desire for a higher loveliness we see not; and that the enchantment of great poets springs less from the pictures they paint than form the distant echoes they awaken from the invisible world."----



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 1 Oct 19 | 03:12PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 03:09PM
We should take careful note of the fact that Machen associates the Recluse with Coleridge.

Coleridge needs to be better known by readers of weird fiction, of which genre he was certainly a founder (in "Christabel," "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," etc.).

He became one of the Tory Romantics, the greatest of them, as opposed to the Romantic radicals such as Blake and Shelley and folk such as Hazlitt. I suppose Thomas de Quincey was another of the Tory Romantics, also Robert Southey, disdained by today's literary establishment, but at the least a very good letter writer! If I may digress to share a specimen or two -- If you’re a book accumulator, you’ll feel that Southey was one of us. He moved to Keswick and unpacked his abundant books: “I can scarcely find stepping places through the labyrinth, from one end of the room to the other. Like Pharaoh’s frogs, they have found their way everywhere, even into the bedchambers.”

Years after he settled in Keswick, he visited Netherhall, “a strange old house.” He told a correspondent an anecdote about the place. A former owner, finding his hall lacked room for statues and altars of Roman gods [that had been] discovered in the area, “instead of building a room for their reception, appropriated to their use (I must tell the story) a certain apartment in the garden, which I must not further describe than by saying it was the oddest place in the world for a museum. And thither, with the imperturbable serenity of an antiquarian, he used to conduct his guests, and explain the inscriptions to them.” However, one time a noted researcher and his draughtsman assistant visited, and were so delighted with the Pantheon, that they stayed in the said structure throughout the day except for meals. “A watch was kept at the windows, but in vain. The children were dispatched to look in from time to time, even that hint was disregarded; Lysons and the draughtsman went on with their work.”

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 03:22PM
Knygatin Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> The subtitle of Hieroglyphics is A Note Upon
> Ecstasy in Literature.
>
> THIS is ecstasy, if you ask me:
> "... the house had been built in the early
> eighteenth century, and had been altered and added
> to at various periods, with a final "doing up" for
> the comparative luxury of someone in the 'tens or
> 'twenties; there were, I think, twenty rooms in
> it, and my friend used to declare that when a new
> servant came she spent many months in finding her
> way in the complicated maze of stairs and
> passages, and that the landlady even was now and
> then at fault. ..."
>
> And this, to extreme degree:
> "... the room in which we sat was hung with flock
> paper, of a deep and heavy crimson colour, and
> even on bright summer evenings the crimson looked
> almost black, ..."
>
> And it is decadent. Especially that wallpaper.
> (Surely, no one settles their walls like that
> today? - And how we are missing out! Right?) Are
> "ecstasy" and "decadence" kindred terms somehow?
> For some persons? What really is the attraction of
> decadence? Is it something highly evocative only
> for those of us rare dreamers who prefer our past
> and own roots over artificial modernity?

This is an intriguing point.

To me, to this point, I've found that the "pull" of decadence, as expressed in art, is the most subtle and most intoxicating when the medium is visual. To me, Klimt is perhaps the most effective, with Lautrec and Beardsley right up there.

I'd suppose that Baudelaire is sort of emblematic, but you know, CAS, with his Zothique stories, seems to me to really capture the essence of literary decadence. Some of his poetry, too.

In this aspect, alone, he differs markedly from Lovecraft, whose writings have no discernible element of literary decadence in terms of tone and voice.

As always, my opinion, only...

>
> I would also think that "Ecstasy" can be
> interchanged with "Life". Real Art, to be called
> such, must be suffused with Life, and intellect
> and craft alone cannot reach this; the mind must
> also be allowed to enter mystical state to
> receive.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 04:11PM
Smith's writing often works on me very differently from Machen's -- though I admit that I haven't read a ton of Smith (mostly the first three Ballantine Adult Fantasy releases, I suppose), and none really recently.

Take Smith's "Dark Eidolon" -- one of his most famous stories. It piles on the sensational material -- I seem to remember one or more skeletons marching around with ruby-eyed rats in their ribcages, etc. As someone who's hardly had a cocktail in his life, my analogy will be dubious, but the story strikes me as like a cocktail with a high alcohol content (let's say gin), that burns the palate a bit. As, after drinking a cocktail like that, one's tongue's ability to savor other drinks could be impaired, so is the effect of the "Eidolon"; one could turn to other writing that one knows, from past reading, to be good, (say one of William Morris's prose romances), and find it seems insipid (for a while). The fault is not in Morris but in the "palate" having been seared by Smith's "cocktail."

I don't find that that's how Machen affects me, in general. Reading him, I could find myself approaching, with renewed relish, anything from Sebastian Evans's The High History of the Holy Graal to Cunningham's London Hand-Book. Machen endured a lot of poverty, but from what I know he seems to have retained a taste for life and literature to the last, and I think reading him tends to affect his readers the same way. You read hims writing and you want to read things he read. Perhaps before I ever read a Dickens novel, Machen's enthusiasm for The Pickwick Papers disposed me to be receptive towards the great Victorian novelist. Machen can stir you to relish reading about everything from the Vision of the Holy Graal to a coffee-house plate of beef and potatoes -- not, mind you, that he is lacking in discrimination. But the man and his writings convey such gusto! And, to take things farther, Machen is an affirmer of the reality of (shall we, nondenominationally, say) mystical Glory. He is a yea-sayer. Smith, from what I know of him, seems to have been a nay-sayer, like Lovecraft, a futilitarian, self-limited. And this seems to come across in their writings.

At any rate, we will be compelled to see Hieroglyphics as a testament of yea-saying vis-à-vis literature.

Now it's true that the Recluse is going to depreciate some classic works. He doesn't think very highly of George Eliot's Middlemarch, I think -- though he will allow it to achieve something impressive in its limited sphere. But his criticisms seem to me, as I recall this little book, to be largely for the sake of things he loves more profoundly.

But in any event, Hieroglyphics is not what I would call a "decadent" work (whatever the wallpaper!). The Recluse isn't advocating literature that cleverly mocks the conventional tastes, but rather he's inviting us all to think about that ready human love for the sense of wonder -- note well, something that he seems to think is innate in people, though it may be stifled; he isn't (like a decadent) pluming himself over against the dullards on account of his scented notepaper and limp-leather editions of poems in limited editions. Right?

The decadent poses at the bar with his glass of absinthe. If everyone was drinking absinthe he would drink something else. But Machen is happy to drink good beer, or burgundy, or, for all I know, an occasional absinthe if it's really what would suit his palate just then.

There's a funny little Machen anecdote about absinthe, by the way, which I'll have to relate here.



Dale Nelson 1 Oct 19



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 1 Oct 19 | 04:34PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Machen's Hieroglyphics
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 1 October, 2019 04:57PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Here is something, Knygatin and anyone else
> interested, that I think has affinities with
> Machen's eventual notions. ...

Yes, that is indeed a very good text, with deep implication!

Dale, thanks for clarifying the general use of "decadence" alongside "antiquarianism". I will probably start using "antiquarianism" a little more, perhaps, but I will still adhere to my view of "decadence" in the context of material decay and rot. I am afraid this (misunderstanding) is so very deeply ingrained in me since many years back. Perhaps you may agree that the mindset itself of being attracted to visual decay, could be called to be a form of decadence.

Sawfish, always good to read you comments. Your idea of aesthetic decadence seem somewhat close to mine. A visual perspective rather than addressing only social moral decay.
How would you define the tone and voice of Lovecraft? Neutral? Socially correct and mannerly?

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