Monday, February 22, 2016
Mysticism, Theosophy and Literature, Article in the Theosophical Review 1903
READINGS AND RE-READINGS: THE MYSTIC VALUATION OF LITERATURE, article in the Theosophical Review 1903
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The question was asked, not so long ago, Why not Theosophical Members of Parliament? I can very well imagine that Theosophical journalists, at any rate, would be worth their weight in gold. When one considers the number of points at which a weekly paper like, say, The Spectator or The Saturday Review, touches life, and how often it fails to do more than merely touch it, the dream sometimes arises of the days when our journalists shall be able to light up the dull details of our brief day with the splendour of days and ages that are gone and the vision of things to come. Every insignificant fact, every mean, sordid, dull paragraph has its kith and kin in the past and future, and to a journalist who could see the long ancestry of his news and its blood relationship of to-morrow, the day would be fuller and the labour more noble.
But is there a Theosophical standpoint as regards literature? Have we as a Society any ideas for lovers of literature simply? Are we too engrossed in deciphering the age-worn hieroglyphics of past creeds, too intent on re-establishing forgotten doctrines, too anxious to put the world morally right, to care much about adding to the world's perception of beauty, or to interest ourselves in art or literature? There is a significant omission from our second object, which, enumerating Religion, Philosophy and Science, makes no special mention of Art. Is it because that is, or may be, included in one of the three named? Or is it that Art and Literature are to be left to themselves, and that Theosophists have nothing collectively to say to them? At any rate, of this we may be pretty sure, that so long as these are either uncared for or only indifferently cared for, so long shall we find insuperable obstacles between ourselves and the artists, poets, and writers of our times. Already there is a tendency on the part of these to condemn our literature as ugly, our nomenclature as crude, and our systematisation as formal deadness; and if they cannot feel that beneath this tabulated exterior is a world of ideas—their world of ideas—they will be justified in turning away. Theosophy in Plato's day was not thus narrow. Plato, at any rate, was one of the supreme literary artists of Greece, if not of all time. Can one imagine that artists and poets would have turned from Plato because he had no ideas for them? Well, and since it takes a whole Theosophical Society nowadays to represent Plato, is it right that in our Society there should be lacking the elements found in him? On peril of becoming a tribe of Philistines in the worlds of Literature and Art we must keep alive the sacred fire that burns so very low in us and, if we can, even fan it into flame.
But is there a Theosophical view of literature? I am convinced not only that there is, but that Theosophy is the key to literature as to everything else. Nearly all the problems of literature as literature—I am not speaking of book-writers' problems— are in that border-region which lies between the known and the unknown. What answer can be given by the materialist to questions such as these. What is true poetry, and what distinguishes it from the most excellent verse? Why is the Republic a joy for ever, and the learned works of, say, Max Muller, a weariness to the flesh? What is style? What is imagination in literature? How explain Shakespeare? What is the secret of magic phrases? Why, these and a thousand similar questions have been asked and asked with damnable iteration, and scarcely a soul has been able to say more than mum to them. Of intricate analysis and physiological states and etymological reasons why things must be what they are, we have had enough and to spare, but light on the questions, never a glimmer. But these are the very questions which the Theosophical view embraces well within its own region • It is—at our period of the world at any rate—just that area of life and thought and feeling which begins, as it were, on the confines of our ordinary self and stretches away over sunlit plains of mystery without ever a horizon, that Theosophy occupies ; and it is in that region that are born all the works of art which flash into our ordinary life. But what of that Celtic fringe of our ordinary self—does the ordinary critic and book-reader know? What clue has he to the reality of the worlds surrounding this? To him the whence of literature and art is a mystery; to the materialist it is a blank impossibility. To the mystic alone it need not be a mystery, for his whole life lies in the world whence literature and art have come—the world that begins where the world enclosed by the five senses ends, that takes up the thread where waking life drops it, that adds to the facts of the ordinary world the meanings and colours which alone render them significant. I would say, therefore, that far from having nothing to say to the literary man the Theosophist has everything to say; that, no less than the rejuvenation of religion, is his work the restoration of its ancient lights to literature, that literature may become, as once it was, the handmaid of the Spirit sacramental in its nature and divinely illumining for the darkling sight of men.
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Much of this I have been led into writing by the reading of a book by Arthur Machen, Hieroglyphics. Arthur Machen's name is known to many for an intensely horrible book he wrote a few years ago, The Great God Pan. This book is a fantastic story woven round what are undoubtedly facts of experience, the result of some dim communication with a parallel and somewhat unpleasant scheme of evolution. There was plenty of terrified imagination in the book, and plenty of crudeness too; but the author was evidently a student of the lesser known things, with an eye for the bizarre.
In his latest book, Hieroglyphics, he has attempted to do for one of the literary problems what I have suggested the Theosophical view would enable us to do for all. He has defined literature from the standpoint of mysticism. There seems no doubt that he has read a considerable amount of Theosophical writings, and has by no means arrived at his conclusion without help. But he has preferred to translate the terms into their native English obscurity, which is perhaps the wisest thing a writer who is not writing for students can do. Matthew Arnold, it may be remembered, used the two terms "ordinary self" and "best self" where our own text-books speak of astro-mental body and causal body, or some such thing. With these latter terms I am not finding fault. They enable one to appreciate if not to realise the exactness of the things named, and one can always translate them into currency for daily use as Arthur Machen has done.
What then is his "word of the enigma," his answer to the question: What is literature? Well, to cut his very long story short, it is this. Literature is the expression of ecstasy, and ecstasy is the withdrawal of the consciousness from the ordinary into the inner and more real world. In the word ecstasy, rightly understood, "I claim," he says, "that we have the touchstone which will infallibly separate the higher from the lower in literature." In order rightly to understand the word, however, it is necessary to know the background of the author's mind. He, like so many of our modern men, has been impressed with the Theosophical idea—at least it was the Theosophists who made it known—of the relation between the ordinary and the extraordinary consciousness. Our normal life is confined within a small circle, beyond which stretches a larger circle of unexplored mystery. This smaller circle is the personality, the ordinary self, the waking consciousness. From time to time in the lives of most men, more frequently in the lives of the greatest men, and rarely in the ordinary person, there flashes from the unknown outer region ideas of wonderful beauty, bright messengers of other worlds, other truths, other glories. And to this region, which of old poets named after their fancy,—the World of Ideas, the distant Island of Avilion, our flat-footed modern psycho-physiologists have given the name of Subconscious or even Unconscious. For Theosophical students, it is all that is represented by the term "Higher Ego," "Causal Body," "Individuality," and, as H. P. B. says, is the personal deity of our daily ordinary selves. Arthur Machen, who is by way of being poetic, remembering perhaps Emerson's "Jove that nods behind us," prefers to call this Sub-conscious, Unconscious, Super-conscious, Higher Self, the "Shadowy Companion," and "the invisible attendant who walks all the way beside us though his feet are in the Other World." And it is this Shadowy Attendant "who whispers to us his ineffable secrets which we clumsily endeavour to set down in mortal language."
The idea is then clear enough. Literature is literature only in so far as it partakes of the nature of the Higher Self, only in so far as it belongs to the Spirit. There is not merely a difference of degree between the best verse workmanship and the worst poetry, but it is a difference in kind. The division is not an imaginary line, it is an impassable gulf. All great literature is symbolic; it has always been produced by men who have preserved a certain loneliness of soul, who have been nearer than the rest to their Shadowy Companions: and the ecstasy their work revealed was the withdrawal of themselves from the world about us to the world around us. All the quintessence of art is distilled from the sub-conscious and not from the conscious self, that is from the higher, not from the lower.
It is an interesting idea, and falls in with many of the things one has often thought. But there are difficulties in the way which Arthur Machen has either not seen or has leaped over. It is not enough simply to have the idea—this secret whispered by the Shadowy Companion—in order to produce literature. We can all think of books full enough of ideas, but absolutely devoid of the grace of God. And it is fatal to his own theory for Mr. Machen to say that besides the idea there are other elements needed to produce literature, namely, plot,, construction and style. If these be necessary, then a definition of literature is incomplete which does not take them into account. And obviously Mr. Machen's definition does not take them into account, for it is concerned solely with the quality of the idea, with the idea alone.
Perhaps the solution lies in a subtler analysis of the elements named, and in the perception of their relations. We are all persuaded that literature without ideas is impossible; we feel also that ideas without style, construction and the rest are somehow unsatisfying. But suppose the relation between ideas and style were a relation of cause and effect, suppose style to be the channel dug by ideas? As Bernard Shaw suggests somewhere, no amount of canal-making will produce water, and no amount of word-polishing will of itself produce ideas; but when the Mississippi comes along it will make its own channels. What and where exactly those channels shall be, whether they shall be streams of living water making fragrant thirsty deserts, or whether they shall be tumultuous, devastating torrents, depends upon the quality of the mind through which they come. Every idea expresses itself when it can in channels already formed, and when these are inadequate it bursts the weakest dams.
Thus style—the chart, as it were, of a writer's mind—is the man. Has he been secretly preparing himself for ages for the reception and transmission of great ideas; has he faithfully trimmed his lamp and filled it with oil during the long waiting period before the coming of the heavenly flame; has he, in Theosophical phrase, "trained his vehicles"? If so, happy for him and for the language he writes. His work will then be literature as to ideas, and literature also as to the perfect expression of ideas. Meanwhile it is still true that life and ideas are of the first importance, even if it be only an "ass that bears the sacred burden."
Perchance a few more years will see further light thrown on the problem of style—in poetry perhaps first, because there I sometimes believe we have the unconscious magic of words as the test. I purposely leave the suggestion vague, but may not the inner eye and ear of the reader be charmed by the shapes and sounds evoked in the subtle world by the words of beautiful poetry? Is not all poetry mantric, and verse simply not?
But that is wandering from the immediate subject of Arthur Machen's book. There are in Hieroglyphics some stimulating criticisms by the way. How suggestive, for example, is the comparison he makes between Pickwick, Pantagruel, the Persian poets, and the Dionysos myth, their community of origin in the symbolism of ecstasy by the Vine and the juice of the Vine, by that which most potently draws a man from his ordinary self into the other world. It is a change to hear of Dickens' affinity with ancient Greece, of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as a modern version of the wanderings of Odysseus, but the attempt is made to see the poets of to-day in the light of their age-long past and their age-long future.
Mr. Machen does not possess all the qualifications for literature; he has the modern vice of mixing together the language of the street with the language of the library. He seems to have lived in the atmosphere of the Daily Mail and of Keats, and to have acquired the vocabularies of both. On the first page the eye is assaulted by these phrases, coming not so far apart: "delicious tea at ninepence," and "dim region of surmises." Again, on p. 2 we have "sugary and soapy enterprise," and also, "delves after hidden things." How reminiscent of Stevenson all that is, even as the smell of sulphur reminds us of the flame!
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