Dr. Stiggins

It’s time for another piece of non-fiction from Arthur Machen.

Review: Dr. Stiggins: His Views and Principles, Arthur Machen, 1906.

While Machen’s Hieroglyphics is still read and appreciated, this book is not.

In fact, Machen fan and scholar Mark Samuels says, in “Where Angels Fear to Tread: Some Reflections on ‘Dr. Stiggins’ and Arthur Machen”:

It is no exaggeration to say that Arthur Machen’s 1906 polemic Dr. Stiggins is the book that is the most likely to make devotees of the author force a pained smile and rapidly change the subject. Not even the infamous The Canning Wonder (1925) – with its interminable musings upon a vanishing act and a court case so dull that the reader gasps at its tedium – comes close to it. Dr. Stiggins receives a reaction more akin to that of distaste; like the expression of a person who recalls having been locked in a room with a hectoring stand-up comedian whose act depends upon sharing his prejudices.

In his “About My Books” (in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said of it:

There are good things in it for those who like controversy, and also many weary pages. It was written in a hurry – 30,000 words in a fortnight – was badly printed on bad paper, was barely noticed by the Press (two reviews, I think), and fell stone dead on publication.

Machen puts his satire in the mouth of Dr. Stiggins, a model modern clergyman, who tells us everything that is wrong with Catholicism, right about Protestantism, and why America is a great country. Opinions, of course, diametrically opposed to those of Machen’s. It’s not up to the level of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” or “Abolishing Christianity”, but it’s not that dull. It’s also an interesting work of its time.

The book is laid out in six chapters.

“Protestantism and Preserved Meat – Moral and Political Dignity of the United States of America” makes reference to the same meat packing scandals that led to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. There is, in fact, much touching on modern sanitary concerns. We must consider Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield better than the City of God, Dr. Stiggins tells us, since Jerusalem had no modern sanitation. Free Churchmen should regulate news and comment in “the best interest of the people”. After all, John Milton prophesized the Divorce Court and served a government that banned recitation of the Prayer Book. Of course, the French Terror was different than Bloody Mary’s. America is not the land of Trusts and scandal. They cannot occur there because America is the symbol of all that is good, the manifestation of the “inestimable blessings of pure democracy”. Not that its without blemish. The Pilgrims should have exterminated the Indians in Mexico and South America too. And Lincoln should not of transmuted a race of “ignorant, incapable, ‘impossible’ negroes into free American citizens”. However, to maintain that America should be criticized would mean it is not the land of the free and something may be said for the House of Lords. The idea that Filipinos would not want to be part of an empire that waterboards them is mocked ironically too.

In “History must go – A little Christian’s thoughts of Heaven”, Machen attacks the idea of progress and maintains that things were better before the Norman Conquest. Dr. Stiggins proposes banning the study of history. We live in the future, not the past after all. The glories of the past may enslave our minds. All English history should be taught in a Whiggish way working up to representing it all as the inevitable victory of Protestantism. For the good doctor, Christianity is not sacraments and symbols. Heaven is a “Pleasant Sunday Afternoon”.

“A Popish Poet – Democracy the Touchstone of Our Faith – Free Churches in Heaven” is Machen’s attack on clergymen sucking up to rich locals (a minor plot element of The Hill of Dreams) and the social gospel. The proselytizers of the latter advocate Socialism and preach the overthrow of the Czar, the Sultan, the Shad, and the Empress of China and for the return of India and Tibet. While Dr. Stiggins preaches the story of America the free, he notes it does prosecute people for drawing nudes. Machen, behind Stiggins, ironically notes you never heard stories of tainted and adulterated milk from the Middle Ages unlike America. Stiggins admiringly quotes the real Reverand C. H. Kelly who said “Test the Bible by the judgment of democracy.” Heaven, after all, is like a small American town.

With “What is true Patriotism? – Our Corrupt Stage – Superstition in the Newspaper”, Machen complains, again using the ironic Stiggins persona, about Liberals who criticize the Empire under the guise of caring for it, of correcting a child for its faults. He then complains about Puritan (meaning modern Protestantism) criticism of the arts and names Rossetti, Whistler, Beardsley as receiving their ire. He ironically says his friend Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest “is to be feared since no real good is intended, that the serious name serves but as a mask to cover the writer’s thoughtless gaiety.” Echoing the aesthetic philosophy of Hieroglyphics, Machen mocks though who want a naturalistic drama, think everything must be moralistic and earnest, and he compares it unfavorably to the wonders of the old Mystery Plays.

Stiggins defends himself against the charge of fanaticism and prudery in “Immoral Sculptures – The Domesticated Critic – The Right Place for Shakespeare”. Why George Eliot’s work was near to being produced by a saint. English literature owes everything to Puritans. Stiggins warns us that some art is deadly poison in curious and artistically shaped containers. Ethics are naturally developed in a commercial state. We must guard against

 prowling bands of so-called ‘stylists’, ‘artists’, ‘mystics’, and all the other dabblers in the dark caverns of impurity and disease. 

Decadent literature is specifically mentioned as corrupting the young. Chaucer was “deliberately and brutally obscene”. Boccaccio is lustful, Cervantes vulgar, Rabelais obscene. Shakespeare is especially attacked as (in, for instance, Henry V) promoting Jingoism, Imperialism, and Patriotism. Shakespeare also insulted democracy.

In “The Free Churches the heirs of Evolution, and the only Catholic Church of to-day”, Stiggins proclaims his love for the Bible but not as a “mere mechanical text”. There will be a new Christianity of ethics and not dogma. Stiggins preaches the value of an evolving morality and a return to a Free Church devoid of Catholic and Jewishness sacerdotalism.  The book concludes, in the penultimate paragraph, “Clericalism is the Enemy!” and that Protestantism is “the deadliest and most abominable delusion that has ever fallen, for its sins, upon the world.”

While some find it hectoring even if ironic – and it is, I thought it an interesting glimpse of the things Machen hated in modern life, especially as represented by America.

Samuels notes an amusing coda to the book.

While Machen’s book mentions several real-life clergymen, Stiggins is a fictitious character, his name taken from a character in Charles Dicken’s The Pickwick Papers. Samuels thinks he was based on Dr. Robert Forman Horton, Chairman of the Congregationalist Union of England and Wales in 1903, President of the Free Church Council in in 1905, and pastor of the Hampstead Congregationalist Church. He was a “particular béte noire of Machen’s” according to Samuels. Machen had also hostilely reviewed one of Horton’s My Belief, Answers to Certain Religious Difficulties.

Besides being the defendant in a libel suit brought by Lord Alfred Douglas, who owned the magazine The Academy that Machen wrote for, Horton played a paradoxical part in the Angel of Mons legend. Horton defended the literal truth of the Angel of Mons legend that Machen’s story “The Bowmen” created. Thus Horton, proponent of a rational, ethics-based Christianity defended a miracle story which Machen, the Catholic writer, debunked it.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.