Arthur Machen's Ecstasy


The work of Arthur Machen was seminal to the genres of horror, weird fiction and fantasy. Stephen King considered Machen’s The Great God Pan to be "one of the best horror stories ever written" and "maybe the best in the English language." ( Though Machen’s work is so widely read and highly esteemed, a vital aspect of it is usually overlooked. Machen was concerned with conveying a spiritual experience in his fiction, one that he called Ecstasy. The word itself stands in for an elusive and largely inexpressible concept, which, depending on context, can mean 'rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of unknown, desire for the unknown.' (Hieroglyphics) The expression "ecstasy" is a token, a symbol of what Machen perceived to be a "withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness." (Hieroglyphics)

Rather than dismiss "ecstasy" as a whimsical artistic sentiment esteemed by this author, I’d like to identify it as an occult concept. I believe that Machen was referring to "gnosis," preferencing the word "ecstasy" out of artistic sentiment, or perhaps even to belie and protect the esoteric meaning of his work. For the occultists of Machen’s era and milieu, and the western esoteric tradition which continues to this day, gnosis signifies the inner knowledge gained from spiritual experience such as mediation or ritual.

Machen esteemed depictions of ecstasy in literature, and made it his project to convey this feeling in his own fiction. Machen succeeds in this by twin means:  he drew from the myths and symbols of Western religions, and in the style of an occultist, utilized and re-imagined these keys to convey his own nuanced idea of mystical experience. Secondly, he induces an experience in his reader which approximates "ecstasy" as it is illustrated in his texts, through formal elements that experientially convey the subject matter. I’d like to offer a reading of Machen alternative to Gothic fantasy:  The texts operate as myths in that they utilize established iconography and narrativize spiritual (in this instance, occult) concepts.
Machen’s texts symbolically conceptualizing spiritual energies, entities and mental states. Of symbolism, he states, "All the profound verities which have been revealed to man have come to him under the guise of myths and symbols." (Hieroglyphics) The 'profound verities' are spiritual wisdoms, imparted as icons, but more significantly, solely expressible in these forms. Spiritual concepts cannot be defined in mundane language. Furthermore, mystical truths depicted in a symbolic manner are intelligible only to initiates--they are occult teachings, belonging to esoteric traditions.

"…but to us, initiated, the Symbol will be offered, and we shall take the Sign and adore, beneath the outward and perhaps unlovely accidents, the very Presence and eternal indwelling of God." (Hieroglyphics)

The initiate in any given system is one who has attained a level of spiritual knowledge. Through an 'adoration' of the relevant images--that is, a kind of 'spiritual comprehension' or 'inner knowledge' that is closer to sensual experience than to thoughtful cognizance--the initiate experiences the profundity of God. Thus, Machen used symbols because he intended his work to convey spiritual knowledge.
Through the voice of a fictional narrator, Machen expressly identifies the occult significance of one such symbol--that of the Greek deity Pan. 

It was indeed an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must whither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current. Such forces cannot be named, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined, except under a veil and a symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale. (The Great God Pan)

Pan, a licentious partly-bestial creature of Greek mythology, classically represents creative energy in its expression as sex, lust, fertility and harvest time. In Machen’s novella, the deity is incarnate, born a witness to this maddening symbol, when a scientist subjects his patient to the sight of Pan. The product is a demigod, a woman, 'not fit to stay in this world.' Along with this 'otherworldly' attribute that she shares with Pan, the woman embodies the creative spiritual forces that Pan signified for the ancients. Like Pan, she denotes sex, especially its forbidden facet of lust. But Machen takes this Pan archetype and transforms it to represent something arcane. The daughter of Pan is both seductive and enchanting, and becomes the most centrally important object for the men and woman who desire her. She also becomes the central figure of vague though nefarious sexual scandals. However, to indulge in her is too potent for mortals to bear, leading to madness and subsequently death by apparent suicide.
A young boy who witnesses Pan suffers a heavy trauma. Others die of what can only be described as intense shock. It is perhaps a profound experience of terror that causes such shock, as the doctors surmise. Yet, there is always pleasure and desire as a prelude to this terror.

…suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl’s cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded and gave place to the most awful terror… (The Great God Pan)

This girl has had a vision of pan, a sacred experience which promptly desecrates her mind and obliterates her sanity. In this experience, she exhibits Machen’s 'ecstasy', a withdrawal from mundane consciousness, sublime, straddling the boundary between exquisite pleasure and acute pain. Through Machen’s recreation of Pan, humans experience ecstasy, but they cannot withstand the pure experience of a god.
The myth of Dionysus is recurrent in Machen’s stories. Wine, intoxication and the ritual indulgence in them are re-imagined and narrativised by Machen to convey the mystical experience of ecstasy. Machen explains his use of the symbol of wine:

…both the ancient people and the modern writers recognized Ecstasy as the supreme gift and state of man, and that they chose the Vine and the juice of the Vine as the most beautiful and significant symbol of that Power which withdraws a man from the common life and the common consciousness, and taking him from the dust of the earth, sets him in high places in the eternal world of ideas. (Hieroglyphics)

The explanation for his use of the symbol is clear, but the signification behind it is occult. Let’s take an example from Machen’s short story "The Novel of The White Powder." Francis Leicester, after having drunk the medicine prescribed to him by a trusted doctor, finds his personality transformed overnight. He goes from reserved and studious to debauched socialite, disappearing to parties and perhaps less reputable places, returning at small hours of the morning, becoming 'a lover of pleasure' with the celebratory zeal towards Dionysian indulgences. After terrible and unworldly transformations occur to the man physically, an investigation into the medicine reveals it to be an ancient elixir used in initiatory rituals, to intoxicate and bring contact with devilish beings. 

And suddenly, each one that had drunk found himself attended by a companion, a share of glamour and unearthly allurement, beckoning him apart, to share in joys more exquisite, more piercing than the thrill of any dream, to the consummation of the marriage of the Sabbath. (The Novel of the White Powder)

This contact with inhuman entities, fatal for Leicester, and referred to as an 'infernal sacrament', is simultaneously an ecstatic and religious experience of the most high. Here is the doctor’s interpretation of Leicester’s physical transformation:

…the house of life riven asunder and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh. And then, in the hour of midnight, the primal fall was repeated and re-presented, and the awful thing veiled in the mythos of the Tree in the Garden was done anew. (The Novel of the White Powder)

The triple traits of mortal man, body mind and soul, are destroyed in this Ecstasy, and the fall from grace is repeated - the intoxicant undergoes an initiation that is forbidden to him, analogous to Eve’s taste of  ‘the knowledge of good and evil,’ which is consigned only to God. Machen demonstrates in this story that intoxication has the power to occlude everyday consciousness and induce a privileged and mystical state. In "The novel of the White Powder", indulgence in the intoxicating potion is a sacred act, paralleling the significance of wine in the myth of Dionysus.
Machen’s stories are designed to create an experience in the reader approximating Ecstasy. Machen’s fiction works to unsettled and terrify while simultaneously to titillate and seduce. As in the instance of Mrs Vaughan, whose looks are unique in their disconcertingly ‘repulsive’ yet ‘irresistible’ quality, our imaginations are tantalized along with the characters who can’t resist her. Of Leicester’s experience with Sabbatical wine, a ritual denounced as ‘evil’ is also described with the words 'exquisite,' 'allurement' and 'joy'. The blasphemies of the act are the same sensuous secrets of our own desires. Characters faced with demonic and supernatural dangers are invariably seduced by them, and so are we.

However, the most crucial device in Machen’s narrative is the constant assertion that the forces at hand are beyond comprehension. His oblique descriptions hinting at something greater, emphasize the inexpressible to inspire awe and terror.

I had learnt enough of the paths I had begun to tread to know that they were beyond all expression difficult and dangerous, that to persevere meant in all probability the wreck of a life, and that they led to regions so terrible, that the mind of man shrinks appalled at the very thought. (The Novel of the Black Seal)

These supernatural forces, so profoundly terrible, elide expression in human language, and are incomprehensible in the conventional sense of the word. This ambiguity puts us at disease--the worst is left to the reader’s imagination. Yet this character doesn’t mean to say that these realms are forbidden or shouldn’t be ventured--for he himself is compelled to follow the trail, fully aware of the inevitable: that he will never return. His state of mind, and by extension, the reader’s, who is gripped by the thrill and is egging the character on, revels in the ‘sense of the unknown’ and ‘desire for the unknown’ which characterizes Ecstasy.
For Lovecraft, Machen had achieved 'an ecstasy of fear' in his work (letter to Frank Belknap Long, 8 January 1924). His stories take Ecstasy as their subject matter: supernatural forces abounding in our midst, and individuals who are fearfully compelled toward these arcane mysteries. At the same time, he entices his reader to the very same experience as his characters, luring us to unknown realms of imagination and engulfing us in terror. Machen’s stories draw from the iconography of established traditions, as in the Greek deities I have selected from his texts, but they also re-imagine these symbols, as in the instance of Pan’s daughter. Machen’s symbols are novel representations of uniquely felt energies. Just as myths traditionally operate to convey inner knowledge to initiates, so too Machen’s narratives depict his distinctive notion of Ecstasy. I believe that Machen’s method of imaginatively depicting spiritual concepts are an inspiration to occult practices.