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6. Arthur Machen (1894), The Great God Pan

I read this because it was published while Stoker was writing Dracula, and both use pagan gods to stand for the abject, evil and Satanic - though Machen's novella focuses almost wholly on that idea, whereas in Stoker's Dracula it's only part of a tapestry of related concepts. The Great God Pan is part of efflorescence of fin-de-siècle stories and artworks about Pan, mainly inspired by an anecdote about his death in Plutarch, De Defectu Oraculorum 17 and thoughtfully examined in this 1992 book chapter, which I wanted to get to grips with as part of Dracula's context and a possible influence.

Having read it, though, I don't think the influence is particularly strong or direct. Both certainly reflect similar anxieties about what lurks beneath the façade of contemporary civilisation, within us, in the past and / or in the untamed places of nature - but those themes are more or less what all horror stories are about. And both present their stories as a collection of accounts from different viewpoints which only gradually come together - but again, many late 19th century novels did that. What makes them quite different is that Dracula is manifest and present within his eponymous novel, whereas Pan does not manifest directly to any of the point-of-view characters in Machen's. Indeed, he isn't wholly an embodied being at all. Rather, Pan, Satan and Nodens are all treated as attempts to express by metaphor an evil too horrific and inhuman for human minds otherwise to understand; as much something psychological, or the pure concept of evil itself, as anything embodied. As one character puts it, "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."

That was all slightly disappointing to me, as I was hoping for something both a bit more embodied and a bit more ambiguous - a Pan simultaneously alluring and terrifying, who might sound sweet music through wooded glades and yet also leap savagely with snorting nose and bloodied fingernails upon the unwary transgressor. Machen's Pan doesn't really span that divide, existing rather on the wholly-terrifying side of the equation. I shall have to browse through the book chapter I've linked above for something more along the lines I was looking for - unless anyone reading can recommend a different fin-de-siècle story or novel which comes closer to ticking those boxes? Do I want G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday or Saki's 'The Music on the Hill' (which sounds good anyway), or what?

Anyway, although it wasn't quite the novel I was expecting or perhaps really wanted, I still got good value out of reading this one. The way it draws on Classical motifs, and especially the landscape and gods of Roman Britain, to construct its image of evil reminded me of the realisation I had made while watching the BBC TV version of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit that it is in part a response to the discovery of the London Mithraeum (LJ / DW). I guess this novel, and other material like it, also forms part of the literary backdrop which made Kneale's story possible.

It does some interesting things with story structure. The chapters from different points of view I've already mentioned, but the final chapter is literally called 'The Fragments', and includes texts with deliberate lacunae in them to bring the story to a dim, half-understood conclusion which the reader is left to patch together. This is essential to the way Machen has dealt with Pan throughout, the whole point being that no human mind can witness him / it without going insane. And it plays around nicely with the relationship between city and country. Pan is unleashed in the remote Welsh / Romano-British countryside, but his worst effects are felt in the heart of London. So Machen uses rural metaphors to describe the encroachment of the rural (primitive) into the city (civilised). One dimly-lit London street looks "as dark and gloomy as a forest in winter", while in another "the wind blew as blithely as upon the meadows and the scented gorse".

The critical reception section of the Wikipedia page is right to draw attention to its outright misogyny, though (third para). The force which Pan represents is brought into the world in the person of a woman, Helen Vaughan, whose main modus operandi is to lure men to her and then drive them to kill themselves. Even worse, she is born in the first place by the actions of a doctor who performs a brain operation on her mother, Mary, and who justifies his actions to a demurring friend on the grounds that "I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit." Mary, by the way, is only seventeen, and in addition to seeming to think he has the right to perform experimental brain surgery on her, the doctor has also evidently brought her up to call him 'dear' and solicit kisses from him in what read to me as a very power-abusing relationship. The operation destroys Mary's mind, while her body survives only long enough to give birth to the child, Helen, (always the true purpose of women in misogynistic novels) and while the doctor does come to regret his actions by the end of the story, it's not at all clear that he would have done if it hadn't been for the consequences which followed. Both Helen and Mary also exist only from the two-dimensional perspective of the male characters - Helen never speaks, but just goes round being evil and ruining men; Mary speaks a few lines before the doctor's operation, but only to submit meekly to his will. Still, Wikipedia also tells me that there is a feminist response to the novel called Helen's Story by Rosanne Rabinowitz which tells the whole story from Helen's point of view - and that could be truly awesome.

If you'd like to read The Great God Pan yourself, the whole thing is on Project Gutenberg, and I can confirm that their free Kindle-formatted version works very nicely.

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November 2020



  • 24 Nov 2020, 09:10
    Ciao caro.
    Ho ascoltato la canzone Domine Salvum Fac su youtube. Ripete la parola Domine due volte dopo che segue Salvum Fac e non capisco oltre. Ma mi sembra che il testo non corrisponda del tutto…
  • 8 Nov 2020, 13:25
    I think just 'not being Trump' proved to be enough!
  • 8 Nov 2020, 12:29
    Yes, that's it. Just having someone in charge who isn't actively making things worse for the world is a big relief.
  • 8 Nov 2020, 11:34
    There are many, many doubts and worries. But still, there is an enormous rock of anguish that has been weighting on my soul since the first days after that monster's election which has now lifted.
  • 8 Nov 2020, 11:32
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