Review: Hieroglyphics, Arthur Machen, 1902.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts Machen’s aesthetic theory of what “fine literature” should be, and this is the book where he presents it. In his “About My Books” (included in The Secret Ceremonies), he says he was a book reviewer needing to “find reasons for my liking and depreciation” of certain works. He seems to have finished it in 1899 and says, as of the 1920s, he had received not a farthing for it despite being assured “it influenced the whole standpoint of English literary criticism”.

I’m not sure how many read it today apart from Machen fans and scholars.

The six chapters of the book are presented as discussions, over time, between the invented persona of the Hermit and Machen with the Hermit, of course, presenting Machen’s actual views.

What defines fine literature to the Hermit? Ecstasy. Machen says, in a famous passage,

Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.

Fine literature is distinguished by artifice not invention. The Hermit uses the simile of the photographer. However, skillful a photographer is, he does not create, merely invent out of pre-existing materials. If a work has a character you can say you would like to meet in real-life, you are probably not dealing with fine literature. Its characters have a mysterious, awe-full quality, sometimes are even frightening.

The social novelists, detailed observers of the world or pressing some social issue and their notions of reform, are not writing fine literature however close and realistic their descriptions and witty their dialogue. Machen specifically names George Eliot, Henry Fielding, William Thackeray, and Jane Austen in this regard though he says he prefers Thackeray over Austen just he because prefers Thackeray’s style of humor. And he enjoys Thackeray – but mere enjoyment is not a definition of fine literature.

There is more mystery, her argues, in a racing form than these writers. 

He names writers that do fulfill his requirements: Rabelais, Sophocles, some of Dickens’ works, Mary Wilkins, and Cervantes. 

The desired quality of fine literature can be created by distancing stories through choice of narrator’s persona and documents, and stories in a distant time and space. His whole attack on mundane and mimetic literature made the book appeal to H. P. Lovecraft, and I wonder if Clark Ashton Smith ever read it. 

Machen concludes with some startling statements: 

. . . the masterpieces are not generated by that pleasant and witty traffic of the drawing-rooms, but by the silence of the eternal hills.


. . . literature is the expression, through the æsthetic medium of words, of the dogmas of the Catholic Church, and that which in any way is out of harmony with these dogmas is not literature.

If you are going to have a theory by which literature is to be judged by more than individual taste, why shouldn’t mystery and awe have a higher position than quotidian descriptions of historical or contemporary reality? The problem is that Machen doesn’t really escape the problem of subjectivity with his definition since one reader may find such qualities as ecstasy (or its synonyms) in a work and another reader find them lacking. Perhaps Machen tried to close that loophole by tying his definition so closely to Catholic dogma. 

John Howard’s “The Secret and the Secrets: A Look at Machen’s Hieroglyphics” (also in The Secret Ceremonies) makes some interesting observations on the way Machen presents his theory.

Repeating an observation made by Roger Dobson, Howard says Machen’s book has similarities with his “The White People”. Both feature hermit-like eccentrics (Ambrose at the beginning of that story) who are concerned with literature. The Hermit lives in a house of mysterious qualities of sound and smell. He tells the narrator “. . . keep the secret, and the secrets”.

The themes of “sorcery” and “sanctity” have their place in the book too as they do in the opening of “The White People”. This book concentrates on the good side of ecstasy, “The White People” on its bad side. The book likens authors to priests who work through symbols. 

Howard says

. . . Hieroglyphics is as much a book about looking for an answer as it is about providing an unassailable answer in itself.

Howard sees the book has never arriving at a true definition of “ecstasy”. Howard argues that you have to accept all of Machen’s premises to believe the validity of his theory. Since the premise is religious, emotion enters into acceptance more than rationality. Howard thinks Machen’s theory interesting and wishes it would be applied to 20th century literature, but it is weakened by trying to put it on a “absolute and universal basis” that causes the problem. He also brings up the possibility that “the Hermit is simply enjoying himself as the long-winded bore at the end of the bar does”.  Howard ends up valuing the book despite Machen not proving his point. 

I would argue that all aesthetic theories of literature rely on subjectivity however many followers they have. That can be said for the valuing of mimetic fiction or placing an importance on “real” characters.

Whatever the problems with Machen’s theory, he certainly seemed to practice it at least as early as The Hill of Dreams or even earlier with his Dyson story “The Inmost Light”.

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