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The Great God Pan

January 20, 2014

Arthur Machen was introduced to A.E. Waite by Amy Hogg, and they met for the first time in January, 1887 at the British Museum.  Waite was working as an author and Machen as an editor for George Redway, publisher of occult and mystical titles, including Mathers’ The Kabbalah Unveiled, Du Prel’s The Philosophy of Mysticism, Papus’ The Tarot of the Bohemians, and Waite’s own The Real History of the Rosicrucians (1887) and Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers (1988). Machen and Waite’s friendship was built in part upon their shared interest in these subjects, though Machen’s understanding was decidedly more Christian than Waite’s.  Machen’s first success as a writer came with the publication of The Great God Pan, a shorter version in the magazine “The Whirlwind” (1890), and then the novella (1894).

The story opens with a Dr. Raymond’s brain surgery on the young woman Mary; he intends his operation to remove the hard-wired obstruction to a full experience of reality found embedded in each of us.  The world, however, is not as pleasant as our filtered experience allows, and Mary is terrified – and rendered insane – by her vision of Satan, who Dr. Raymond calls Pan.  Pan was a nature god, worshipped outdoors, rather than in temples, and his origin is more ancient than that of the Olympians; he gave “Artemis of the wildland, Mistress of Animals”[i] her hunting dogs and taught prophecy to her twin Apollo.  The nature Pan represents is older than the division between sun and moon, light and dark, and as such, antithetical to Christianity’s transformation; for, as Alan Watts would argue, “historical Christianity has not tolerated any notion of God as an Absolute “beyond good and evil.”[ii]

We should not ignore the obvious fact that, as was evident to Machen, science is not “absolutely safe.”  Nor should we trust Dr. Raymond; his assurance, given to Clarke, is qualified, although Clarke misses this:  “absolutely no physical danger whatever” will come from “a trifling rearrangement of certain cells.”  The two are pacing a pastoral English landscape that resembles Arcadia, home to Arcus, the illegitimate son of Zeus.  Dr. Raymond promises that his operation will lift the veil between reality and illusion before Mary’s eyes.  Were there a temple, with its ark or its boy Krishna, or an iconostasis, with its altar, the priest might be trusted, but never one who thinks another’s life is his “to use as I see fit.”  Plutarch has been enlisted to link the resurrection of Christ with the death of Pan, but the Christian Church teaches that Christ will come again to finalize his victory over Satan.  Meanwhile, evil continues to be worked.

Jung devoted his life to studying how we are protected from “seeing the god Pan.”  The strength of sexual powers never abates.  Clark is a man who “secretly hugged a belief in fantasy.”  The horrific memory of Mary in her idiocy puts him off mysticism for awhile, but he cannot forever cling “to the commonplace” and reject “all occasions of occult investigation.”  Nor, safely, can we.  Clark takes up his writing of “Memoirs To Prove the Existence of the Devil.”  Mary begat Helen V, who bore the frightful image of Pan much as a Christian is said to bear the image of Christ.  Helen V., even as a girl of thirteen, would consort in the woods with “a strange naked man” who was her father.  The chance sight of the two “playing” left an impression strong enough to turn a 7 year old boy into an imbecile; a 16 year old girl lured through her companion’s friendship into a forest encounter a few years after would die from her experience.  These were the first casualties of a lengthening list, for as Helen V. grew older, “at once the most beautiful woman and most repulsive,” she varied her identity and circumstances, taking lovers, at least three husbands, all of whom were ruined or died from fright or committed suicide, and “not in your most fantastic, hideous dreams can you have imaged forth the faintest shadow” of what they heard and saw.” (The artist Meyrick would render some of this before he died.)

“It is a black business,” says Clarke, but as his acquaintance Villiers says, “all symbols are symbols of something, not of nothing.”   Pan, he adds, is “an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful secret forces which lie at the heart of all things.” Machen extends the obvious realism Elizabeth Barrett Browning renders in her poem “The Dead Pan” (1844) and which she herself modified by “the cost and pain” she wrote into “A Musical Instrument” (1860).  Her husband RB would write “Pan and Luna.”  Patricia Merivale, in her study Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times, credits RB with seeing Pan “not as a goat-god outside ourselves, but as the goat-god within ourselves.”[iii] The Christ-Pan dialectic means for Merivale “the restoration of sexuality to art.”[iv] RB’s poem is a dialogue with Virgil, who in his Georgics recounts how legendary “Pan, God of Arcady,/ snared and beguiled thee Luna, calling thee/To the deep woods; nor thou didst spurn his call,”  but RB vividly describes a rape: “So did Girl-Moon, by just her attribute/of unmatched modesty betrayed, lie trapped,/Bruised to the breast of Pan, half God half brute,/ raked by his bristly boar-sward while he lapped/…as she recoiled-.“  Mary asked for a kiss from Dr. Raymond, before she went under his knife, and Machen has his men recoil from Helen V, but not spurn her call.

[i] Homer, Iliad xxi 470 f

[ii] Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual In Christianity, 45

[iii] Patricia Merivale, Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times, 90, cited in Corrine Davies, “Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Pan poems and their after-life in Robert Browning’s “Pan and Luna,” 2006: “http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Two+of+Elizabeth+Barrett+Browning’s+Pan+poems+and+their+after-life+in…-a0158960496″>retrieved 1/20/2014.

[iv] Merivale, quoted in Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie, eds,  Faulkner and the Southern Renaissance, 222

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