And with this… came a firm belief that the whole fabric of life in which he moved was sunken, past all thinking, in the grossest absurdity; that he and his friends and acquaintances and fellow-workers were interested in matters in which men were never meant to be interested, were pursuing aims which they were never meant to pursue, were, indeed much like fair stones on an altar serving as a pigsty wall. Arthur Machen, A Fragment of Life
The effect of the weird tale is subtle and insidious, it is designed to get under your skin. Arthur Machen manages to turn a humdrum existence of buying Australian mutton with his wife from The Worldwide stores in Shepherds Bush and chewing resolutely on his mince in the cramped summer evenings (note the heaviness of meat and digestion as the anti-enlightening agent– the opposite of self-raising dough)with a narrative of self discovery catalyzed by a dream of fountains and silvery vapour, a silvery mist he sees occasionally in his wife’s eyes.
Machen shows us that the reality we preoccupy ourselves with only scratches the surface of things, human life is necessarily a process of reduction. We look but we cannot afford to actually see because that would require a level of absorption which is anti-temporal. Machen wants us all to be stone-breakers, to attack with pick axes and sledge hammers that self-limiting pigsty wall which we erect in our self-defence. Do we really dare to throw in the towel and engage in a lively mystic dance, turn the water of reality into intoxicating wine when instead we can eavesdrop conversations on the bus about whether ‘rhubarb is a fruit or vegetable?’
This is one of my preoccupations as I load the self-service kiosks with money in the morning, steel myself for the same abuse from the Tourette’s Smurf clutching his Harold Robbins, why is the purposeless part of my life the one that I mistake for the reality? returning home to sleep feeling rather ‘ done up by the weather and the day’s work..’ Reality to me is reduced to a journey on a 49 bus and a fear of losing my council identity badge, a fear more prevalent in the library than I expected when a man came up to me and said ‘ I am losing my nationality…’ He claimed to be Sharon Stone’s son by actor Steven Seagal. mhhmm.
To enter the fantastic realm there are a few helpful agents. Machen’s characters prefer Orient carpets, tobacco or even a pipe: ‘Once a meerschaum pipe had haunted him for six weeks; the tobacconist had drawn it out of a drawer with some air of secrecy… The bowl was carved in the likeness of a female figure, showing the head and torso, and the mouthpiece was of the very best amber…’ It is up to you whether you buy a pouch of Honeydew, or Lone Star, Old Hank or the sweetly tangy, Sultry Clime. All these agents promote reflection and self-hypnosis, drab London streets can be transformed into starlit labyrinths from 1,001 Nights. Perhaps the most interesting occult object which vouchsafed visions is the extraordinary detail that the soldier in The Bowmen who sees the Agincourt archers coming to the rescue during a German barrage in the First World War had been dining on a nut cutlet! My goodness. The link between vegetarians and the occult has never been so clear.