Here Comes the Sun

I’m nowhere near Stonehenge to see the sun ascend over the Wiltshire plain. No matter, with the crowds gathered there today, I’d have to forge my own Excalibur just to get near enough to the sarsens and Preseli bluestones to wonder how such megaliths got to where they are and wonder if I would pick up any mineral aura or would I just feel the cold of 5,000 years.

The lilies in my garden are at the height of their yellow glory. But I can hear the unbearable sound of their decline in their wilted heads, like imploding suns. Even the lupines have turned from stairways of purple to being adorned with seed husks.

The longest day of the year. It makes you think you can fill it until the pagans come home to roost. I anticipate it to be longer, but it passes with the same even spell of time.

But there’s something about the longest day of the year that reminds me of writing. I’ve heard writing called a “purposeful dreaming,” and there’s enough quixotic truth to it that I’ll dance to the piper’s tune. Sure, there are countless days when the writing is over like a bout of intoxication or the hull hits dry land and you’re still rowing. Although the writing is never really finished, because even when I leave it for a day, the story follows me around as I do the dishes, mow the lawn, tidy the house, don the parent armour so full of chinks, or make a meal. The story is always present in the small kingdom of the skull, building up momentum or releasing solar flares or hissing with dangerous intent. So even though I’m not physically at my desk writing, the basic carbon of a story is forming and is ready to take form when I next sit down.

And then there are days when time is nonexistent. Reality is a sensation, rather than a purpose. Sound is something extrasensory because I’m hearing fictional voices and the wind in the make-believe palms and the smell of camels and the taste of hot figs and the feel of a poignard driving its way into flesh.

At such times, I’m a sole reveler, fingers dancing on the keyboards, a tiny pagan dynamo of worship in the machine of writing. I’m lit up like a ferry at night, slipping through uncharted waters, land somewhere north or south or along a trajectory that is plotted by starlight and memory and the unconscious.

It is a “purposeful dreaming,” a sort of austral dreaming that is required for a man who lives in the northern hemisphere, a tripping over the tropic of Capricorn in the hopes of making the day last even longer.

But the summer solstice comes only once a year. You’ve got to come back to the world of clocks, you’ve got to empty your shoes of the golden sands of time, you’ve got to run the bath and wash the kids and feel night at the window, loaded down with stars.

I will end with an interview with Julian Cope (he of the wonderful Teardrop Explodes), the arch druid, the forward-thinking mofo rocker.

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The Great God Pan

An “ incoherent nightmare of sex,” is how Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan (Watchmaker Publishing, Seaside, Oregon; 59 pages; $4.95) was described when it was first let loose on an unsuspecting, civilized, Edwardian society. But the up-tight, stuffy Edwardians gobbled up the Welshman’s mystical tale of horror.

In our modern-day hive of sexual arousal, Machen’s “sex” is more boudoir than Internet porn. But his “incoherent nightmare” epithet could easily give contemporary English writer J. G. Ballard a roll in the dystopian mud.

The Great God Pan is incoherent: if by that we mean it doesn’t follow a direct and appropriate narrative arc or a formal, linear plot. It plays with time and space. (The perfect form for a pre-Christian, pagan mystic like Machen.) Machen switches back and forth in time, creating fragments of a story, unlimiting himself, drifting from the opening scene of the wealthy benefactor Dr. Raymond and the innocent Mr. Clarke to several other characters who pop up like the chorus from a Greek play to indoctrinate a reader’s fear and loathing in fin-de-siècle London.

And the sex is no Sex in the City! This is wild, metaphysical Eros. A shapeless, shifting act, the way Eve in the biblical tale is never sexual, but all sin. Machen’s sex is prurient without being lecherous because he restrains himself; he doesn’t give into the physical. His “sex” is a voracious avatar of seduction, the offspring of a diabolical experiment in brain surgery, and an amorphous deity of nature. So it’s a bit of surprise to find out that she is a woman, and a beautiful one at that. But Machen isn’t crude enough to be so materialistic, or even gender specific. Yes she is a woman named Helen Vaughan, but at the heart of the novel, she is a force of nature, a pagan spirit born to a new life.

The story begins naturally enough with an interaction between a Dr. Raymond and his witness, a Mr. Clarke, in a lovely bucolic setting. But it doesn’t take long for the Gothic, phantasmagoric elements to rip apart this tenuous reality. Mr. Clarke says to Dr. Raymond: “We are standing on the brink of a strange world, Raymond, if what you say is true. I suppose the knife is absolutely necessary?”

The knife turns out to be a scalpel that the doctor wields to cut a lesion in a working-class waif’s grey matter. The woman is named Mary and was saved by the good doctor from a life of misfortune and is now his guinea pig in a fantastic experiment: “Yes, the knife is necessary; but think what that knife will effect. It will level utterly the solid wall of sense, and probably, for the first time since man was made, a spirit will gaze on a spirit-world. Clarke, Mary will see the god Pan!”

She does — and becomes a drooling imbecile. “Yes it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

As a reader, it’s not impossible to believe that seeing the pagan god Pan will have its price. But Machen wants you to see more; he wants you to cleanse the doors of perception, William Blake-style. So if you expect the rest of the book to be easy, think again. There’s cleansing going on, and you can’t get redemption in a Gothic tale without getting a lot of metaphysical evil and mayhem out of the way first.

Enter Helen Vaughan, the daughter of Mary, who is never physically described. She simply flits like some macabre succubus leaving a trail of bodies through fashionable London. And when she is described, it is vague, alluring, confusing, haunting: “She would be called very handsome, I suppose, and yet there is something about her face…. The features are exquisite, but the expression is strange.”

Strange, indeed, for a Victorian woman to have such power over men, infuriating, frustrating, alluring, seducing, and then killing them. She is a woman of the haute bourgeoisie, married to a Mr. Herbert, who now wanders the streets of London in rags and who says his wife corrupted him body and soul. And then there are the dead bodies. Mysterious deaths around which a certain Mrs. Beaumont, the toast of society, is associated. Men who are either struck down by sheer terror or else hang themselves.

Murder, madness, and a malevolent spirit. Who can it be, seducing and, like the god Pan, striking terror into mortal man?

It’s Helen Vaughan, daughter of Mary and the offspring of the nature spirit and cloven-hoofed god Pan. Helen is on one hand a rampant symbol of pagan nature let loose on civilized London with its enlightened ideas of science and its obsessive reliance on the material. Her terror-gaze nothing more than the mirror that the real Medusa, London society, holds up to itself. But this is perhaps relying too heavily on symbolic suggestion and reading too much into Arthur Machen’s own predilections with the world around him that had forgotten its pagan past, its spiritual inheritance, and was so easily squandering it to the gods of science and industry.

This could be a moral tale, but it’s far more enjoyable as a supernatural thriller that produces, even now in our contemporary world, bursts of horripilation for Helen Vaughan, the pagan temptress of chaos, a nameless apparition from a wild wood on the borders of Wales, the vengeful spirit who is cast out as an orphan to make her way in a cold, heartless world of men. Pan’s child,  “changing and melting from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast.”

And it is as if Helen Vaughan knows she’s cursed because at the end of the book, through the machinations of Villiers and Austin, both bent on discovering the identity of this mysterious woman who is followed by death, Villiers sends her the “best hempen cord.”

The perennial power of Arthur Machen’s story of unleashed, pagan terror is the fragmentary way in which he presents information to a reader. He is sly, much like the woodland god, slowly giving snippets of the fantastic until everything is revealed at the end. The full circle of horror is complete as we return to the doctor, the progenitor of the unleashed terror, the man who held he knife, that made the incision, that lifted the veil. “I have played with energies which I do not understand,” Dr. Raymond admits at the end of the novel. And he reveals the truth about Helen Vaughan. “I knew what I had done the moment the child was born, and when it was scarcely five years old, I surprised it with a playmate. You may guess of what kind.”

But who, you may wonder, has the more seductive powers? The great god Pan or the great Welsh writer of the macabre, Arthur Machen?

At the Birth of Light

I love Christmas. The celebratory aspect, the cheer, the merriment, the baubles on the tree, the sparkling lights, the awareness of certain gifts that have come my way by no will of my own. Blessings, I suppose you could call them.

And I love the books, especially A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Briggs’ The Snowman and Winterson’s The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me.

And I love the movies — It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (from the Muppets to Scrooged), A Christmas Story, to all the Rankin Bass holiday specials, especially Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

And then there is the music: the Choir of King’s College, Handel, Tchaikovsky, Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night…, and the duet of Bowie and Bing’s Little Drummer Boy.

But I’m not religious.  I don’t go in for all this immaculate conception and the swaddling Jesus as the light of the world. Lovely metaphors. But still I doubt.

And it’s annoying how Christianity has claimed this season as its own creation when it is obvious to any human being that Christianity stole from the pagan winter solstice celebration. Nabbed nature’s unknowable and enigmatic power of giving us more light in this dark season. I understand how easy the heist must have been: it’s not too much of a creative leap to transform light into a symbolic and divine gift. In fact, as a writer, I respect the kind of imagination that made such a connection: the sun growing to its zenith; the birth of the son of God bringing new light.

It’s just frustrating how Christianity in its ignorance decided to stamp out the untamed pagan wisdom and replace it with a certain domestic piousness. Refused to acknowledge the source of its inspiration. (In writing, nobody likes a writer who refuses to pay at least some homage to the others writers and books that have got the fever of creativity going.)

To my mind, the pagans celebrated the wild, unkowable, unhuman, unpredicatable, chaotic, frenetic, passionate, and primal element in the universe that they saw the sun representing. This probably needed a change when viewed from human existence since it leaves us all just a little bit insignificant and trivial compared to such a mind-boggling power like nature, the universe, the great unknown. And what better way to battle this ambivalent universe than by creating a baby born in a manger. That act so quickly grabs our attention and places existence so firmly and materially and spiritually back in the human. I have no problem with this, I am human after all and need to be reminded of it.

It is the divine nature of this birth that has always bothered me. Why the desperate need to transcend this human existence? Isn’t this what divinity offers, a sense of getting as far away from the human as possible? But why? Why not celebrate our humanity?

In fact, if we want to really celebrate anything, then let’s celebrate our creativity this time of the year, and not some unknowable god. We are the ones who create. Not gods. The light comes back for us in so many ways. Why limit it to one baby in one manger?

That’s why I enjoy this time of the year; it makes me celebrate the best in us with the hope to transform the worst.

But not through divinity. Through a wild imaginative act!

This is what I want to celebrate: that metaphor can transform life from a sense of darkness to one of more light. This is worth celebrating. This is worth living for. Not piety, the holy, the divine, worship. Not even the bleak reality that the economic crisis has created because bankers decided to sheepshag us and bag us, the other 99, and then try to sell us as mutton. But the act of creative transformation.

That’s where the light resides this time of the year.

“Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory & of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, & the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.” Shelley, “The Triumph of Life”

The Jar Marked Faunus

“He entered such a lane not knowing where it might bring him, hoping he had found the way to fairyland, to the woods beyond the world, to that vague territory that haunts all the dreams of a boy.” Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams

Arthur Machen ((1863-1947) is a fantastic Welsh writer who wrote mystical, supernatural, Gothic, fin de siecle horror tales. Some of his more famous works are: The Great God Pan, The Hill of Dreams, The Three Imposters, and The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. He was born in Caerleon-on-Usk, in the county of Gwent, South Wales, and later lived in London in self-imposed solitude living in poverty in remote suburbs of then the largest industrial city in the world. He eschewed his chosen profession of journalism, preferring to read widely and explore the city on foot. For him, London became as numinous as his home of Gwent, that influenced much of his work and gave it the strong touch of pagan strangeness.

Sense and susceptibility

I think I suffer from a psychological term called pagan candour. Oh, the Shakespearean foppery of the world. It is too much with us. You know, illusion and ideology. “I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images and cling.” Eliot. And that is why I love art, the uselessness of it is a scandal to hard-headed pragmatists.

Was it Matthew Arnold that wrote: “With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep”? That’s life in its true essence, the underlying stream of all that we feel and are. The subterranean current that is life, the force, the being of our matter. The imperative is always to tell it how it is. But it’s such a strong current to maneuver since life flows back and forth. It’s not a constant rushing forward because there is always the nimbus of introspection that carries us helplessly back to the past and pours us over the falls to the future.

Some days I imagine myself as a lord with whip and spur and by the chantry I fly on toward the cathouse. I think it was Ted Hughes who wrote there is in all of us a real struggle between the Puritan and the Hedonist. But then Hughes was more than Frank — he was Ted — about his need for more than one sexual partner. Fidelity is the long boat on the stream of lust that touches nothing but the water of transience. I don’t know who wrote that. Wait! It was me. Am I committing an act of Mutatis Mutandis or in flagrante delicto? I can’t tell. My Latin’s very poor since the Celt got mixed up with it.

And some hours, the bewitching ones, I wish I could only have a morsel of Blake’s creative recklessness. There is so much ballast now in the calculative spirit of utilitarians. And Blake is seen as a visionary drawing a lot from religion, but his force was not to align his spirit with the scriptures or even the dogma, he sought out the extravagant and maverick ethics of Jesus. You know, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” If they ask for your coat you give them your robe. If they ask you to walk one mile you go three. If they ask for your allegiance you give them your rebel yell. If your desires are restrained by religion or politics, and a political state keeps power by convincing us of our limitations, then maybe those desires you have are feeble enough to be retrained.

Thus Spake Zerk, grease fitter