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Hieroglyphics

Arthur Machen

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    When I downloaded this book from Project Gutenberg, I really had no idea what it was about. I was just looking for books by Arthur Machen, an author perhaps not as well known as he should be, and whom I really like. Though it begins as many of his creepy occult books do—two men find that they have a mutual interest and begin meeting in a dark house on a lonely street for lively discussions, I soon found that this one was not creepy, and it was not even fiction. The part about the Hermit may be fictional, or perhaps not, but in any case, the book is actually an extended essay on fine art, especially literature. Whether they are Machen's own philosophies or those related by another person that Machen recorded and obviously agreed with probably isn't important. So from here on, I will refer to the writer as Machen, rather than the Hermit. There is little information about this work online. I do know that it is a rare book, written in 1899 and published in 1902. It is good that Project Gutenberg has digitized it. It isn't for everyone, but if you are a book lover, especially of fine literature, and have an analytical mind, you will enjoy it. The writing is not dry and boring, but quite interesting.
    Sometimes you may see the extended title as "Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature," and that is the main point in which Machen uses to discern between plain books and "literature"—in other words, "art." Machen definitely did have an analytical mind, and his fiction most often gets extremely deep in its analysis of the human psyche and condition. He has certainly analyzed to the max in this one. I don't know if I agree with his conclusions, or if that really matters either. I read a bit of most everything to expand my mind and educate myself on many different subjects. Some books I really love; a few I haven't liked that much, but most are in the middle, meaning I like and enjoy them. Machen's point is that liking a book doesn't make it art, and art may not always be likeable to everyone, and that's OK. He simply seeks to define what sets apart those books that are at the highest level.
    One of the very enjoyable aspects of reading this was that many of the books discussed I had read, so I was able to agree or disagree, but even better, I jotted down the ones I hadn't read to find free eBook copies to add to my list. I already have Don Quixote on my list, and I have Pickwick Papers in paperback, and I just added the Rabelais volumes to my "To Reads," plus there are several others I will be seeking, all of which will eventually make their way onto my site in the form of reviews.
    That is the general gist of the book, and having said that, I will mention a few of the main points that Machen makes. And one of the first ones is this:

. . . life often offers many highly absorbing and highly interesting spectacles, but that life is not art, and therefore, that literature which fails to rise above the level of life, is not fine literature in our sense of that term.

    He goes on to compare Pickwick Papers (Dickens) with Vanity Fair (Thackeray), and it is the former which he believes is true art. Yet he admires Thackeray:

A consummately clever photographer, certainly, a showman with a gift of amusing, interesting "patter" that is quite extraordinary, an artificer of very high merit. But where will you find Ecstasy in Thackeray? You may search, I think, from one end of his books to the other, without finding any evidence that he realized the mystery of things; he was never for a moment aware of that shadowy double, that strange companion of man, who walks, as I said, foot to foot with each of us, and yet his paces are in an unknown world.

    Though he believes Thackeray was "a brilliant, observant man of the world" he also says "writing of ordinary life is not High Art." Then he adds Homer's Odyssey and Jane Austen (whom I definitely agree wrote entertaining books but not art, though I respect her greatly). He says:

We read the "Odyssey" because we are supernatural, because we hear in it the echoes of the eternal song, because it symbolizes for us certain amazing and beautiful things, because it is music; we read Miss Austen and Thackeray because we like to recognize the faces of our friends aptly reproduced, to see the external face of humanity because we are natural.

    To sum up the first part of his essay, Machen says:

. . . that fine literature is simply the expression of the eternal things that are in man, that it is beauty clothed in words, that it is always ecstasy, that it always draws itself away, and goes apart into lonely places, far from the common course of life.

    He continues to talk of ecstasy in other guises—the drunkenness of the characters in Pickwick, of wild dancing, such as around the maypole or fairies or Bacchante. (I wasn't quite sure about this chapter and the points he made!) However, I do agree when he says that the writer or the "artificer" may not be aware of what the "artist" is doing. I have had this experience myself, of writing something very profound, and not realizing it until I later read it over.

. . . because, with the soul of rare genius, his intelligence lived in those dreary dusty London streets, because the artificer, even while he carried out the artist's commands, understood very little what he was doing.

    He also talks about our "Shadowy Companion" who is with us always, and makes the point that art is natural while artifice is acquired.
    In all, some very interesting points to ponder, and come back to again for a second reading, as the ideas sink in. If you enjoy digging into the philosophy of literary arts, definitely read this book.

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