In Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, Lucian Taylor is a struggling writer prone to daydreaming.
He deliberately seeks out obscure books, to learn the most useless knowledge he can find. He is sick of modern society and its day-to-day – the obsession with money-making and stupid utilitarianism. And his choice of literature is a reaction against all that.
He reads medieval occultists and alchemists, and he is often seen pacing up and down in his garden, muttering to himself, dreaming strange dreams in the daylight. Modern human beings have faded and shrunk for him, so that they seem little more than flies that buzz about him. It’s his own peculiar dreams that sustain him, and he cares nothing for the dream of modern society.
Many of his own dreams concern the ancient Roman settlement that would have stood on this site, now the location of a small Welsh town and its environs. It’s while imagining ancient Roman life that he has his “Meditations of a Tavern.” He can see the Roman tavern packed full of drinkers and serving boys, and most of all he is concerned with the smells, colours, and sounds of the place. The Latin sounds beautiful to him, the wine jars are described in all their various colours, each reflecting in its own way the sunlight that comes in through the open door. And it’s here we get the dazzling description of the exterior of the tavern:
“Outside, the vine tendrils shook on the white walls glaring in the sunshine; the breeze swept up from the yellow river, pungent with the salt sea savour.”
And, aside from the sounds and smells and colours, he notices the gestures of the people here: they move their hands when they speak. He realises that this has nothing to do with expression – the Latin language is adequate to getting their meaning across to each other. It’s something else, which doesn’t quite become clear until his reflections on literature toward the end of this section of the book.
I’ve mentioned Machen in one of my posts about Henry Miller; Miller was very taken by Machen, and writes about him in Nexus. He admired Machen’s reflections on literature, as something that expresses the inexpressible, almost against the will of both writer and reader. Machen writes:
“As the chemist in his experiments is sometimes astonished to find unknown, unexpected elements in the crucible or the receiver, as the world of material things is considered by some a thin veil of the immaterial universe, so he who reads wonderful prose or verse is conscious of suggestions that cannot be put into words, which do not rise from the logical sense, which are rather parallel to than connected with the sensuous delight.”
Just as the gestures of the drinkers in the tavern add something to the words they speak, though extraneous to the sense, so something is always added to the greatest literature, something that we struggle to explain, but which adds to the experience of the work.
Machen and Miller weren’t the only ones to chase this special something. Kathy Acker writes of the difference between expression and communication, and how the key to writing, for her, was focusing on the latter. Writing books, for Acker, is like writing an email to a friend: you write with the reader in mind, as a loving gesture to them. You’re trying to get something across to the other, to share something. It’s this human motivation, for communication, that spurs good writing.
Expression, on the other hand, is something inhuman. Something solitary. I have this great truth, I myself, and I must express it. Unlike the desire to communicate, the desire for expression can eclipse the other, the other people that, in truth, you are writing for.
Miller took a long time finding success as a writer, and no wonder: he was following Machen’s dream, struggling to express the inexpressible. I wonder whether it all became possible for him when he realised that it’s not about expression at all: that if you honestly put down the words as they come, if you wrestle with the communication side of the matter – as if writing a letter to a friend, and Miller was a prodigious letter writer – if you take care of the basics, then the rest, the unknown and mysterious element, will follow.
(Image is from Pixabay.)
Hi Lee. Till I read your piece, I knew nothing about Machen. Maybe I’ll check him out. See you —
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Great! I recommend The Hill of Dreams. It’s not a cheerful story, but it’s beautiful.
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