Hieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Of course, I am a huge fan of Machen's ethereal, even oneiric fiction. His non-fiction, at least in the case of his exploration of Art versus Artifice, Hieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature shows a great level of precision in its arguments, even as the narrator confesses that the largely-inexplicable, but precisely knowable concept of "ecstasy," is difficult to pin down because of the slipperiness of language, or, rather, the slipperiness of our use of the language in trying to describe and categorize that which is nearly indescribable and far from easily categorizable. Still, at least a part of Machen's early career was taken in cataloging (works of the occult, no less), so he brings a level of exactitude to the argument eventually, after circling around the subject, like a whirlpool spinning his interlocutors around in a dizzying series of arguments before pushing them down into the depths of his logic.
This doesn't mean that he is entirely successful. At least not in the end. His assertion that all ecstatic works are "Catholic" is less than convincing, perhaps because I, as a reader, see the capital "C" and assume that he is talking about the institutional church of the same name, rather than the concept of universalism, which might have been a better word choice around which to center his final argument. Yes, I know he didn't mean The Catholic Church, but using the term "Catholic" with that attention-grabbing "C" and all it implies, distracts from what could have been a more elegant argument.
Still, I find it hard to argue with his assertion that: A gold nugget may be as pure and fine as you like, but it is not a sovereign; it lacks the stamp; and it is the business of art to give its stamp and imprint to the matter of life.
And: . . . you must never tell me that a book is fine art because it made you, or somebody else, cry; your tears are, emphatically, not evidence in the court of Fine Literature.
This doesn't make Machen a high-falutin' snob. Far from it. He admits to the enjoyment he takes in reading laugh-out-loud books and enjoying a well-spun yarn, but he does not yield in his argument that Fine Literature is fundamentally different than most "popular" books. I use the word "most," because Machen admits that even within Fine Literature, there are matters of degree. He also says that many of these more popular works might have elements of Fine Literature, but without the ecstasy that he struggles so long to explain (and which I will not explain here), they cannot cross that line. He uses Austen, Dickens, Quixote, Collins, and Rabelais as examples to form his arguments, and with great effect. Now I need to read Rabelais!
Two interesting sub-theses stuck out to me. The first, about poetry, states:
The most perfect form of literature is, no doubt, lyrical poetry which is, one might say, almost pure Idea, art with scarcely an alloy of artifice, expressed in magic words, in the voice of music.
He goes on to argue that lyrical poetry, rather than being artifice, as he has defined it, is highly natural. This seems to contradict his earlier arguments that artifice is largely a manner of structure that lacks true spiritual inspiration. Poetry, however, he claims, is a different matter. Think of children out playing - if they are by themselves, they quite naturally form "poetry" of a sort as they learn that words have cadence, that rhymes can be pleasing, etc. Because these things happen at a very young age, Machen seems to see this kind of structure as emerging from the very soul of innocence, whereas the artificial construction of popular stories, novels, etc., stray from this innocence into a form of connivance.
The second argument I find extremely intriguing is how Machen ties in drinking in literature with Dionysian worship, of a sort, man becoming divine through wine. He points out that if we miss this, we might be missing the entire point of some Fine Literature. This, to me, is a very interesting take on the Mysteries, that sacramental truths can be revealed in the drunken-ness of the characters of Fine Literature. Perhaps he sees this as akin to returning to child-like innocence and, thus, the shedding of the shackles of "civilization"?
If so, I'll accept his "catholic" views, so long as they remain with a lower case "c". Case matters.
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