Fairy-Tale Logic

January 2, 2020

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks —
You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

A.E. Stallings

For Woman, in her weakness, is yet the strongest force upon the earth. She is the helm of all things human; she comes in many shapes and knocks at many doors; she is quick and patient, and her passion is not ungovernable like that of man, but as a gentle steed that she can guide e’en where she will, and as occasion offers can now bit up and now give rein. She has a captain’s eye, and stout must be that fortress of the heart in which she finds no place of vantage. Does thy blood beat fast in youth? She will outrun it, nor will her kisses tire. Art thou set toward ambition? She will unlock thy inner heart, and show thee roads that lead to glory. Art thou worn and weary? She has comfort in her breast. Art thou fallen? She can lift thee up, and to the illusion of thy sense gild defeat with triumph. Ay, Harmachis, she can do these things, for Nature ever fights upon her side; and while she does them she can deceive and shape a secret end in which thou hast no part. And thus Woman rules the world. For her are wars; for her men spend their strength in gathering gains; for her they do well and ill, and seek for greatness, to find oblivion. But still she sits like yonder Sphinx, and smiles; and no man has ever read all the riddle of her smile, or known all the mystery of her heart. Mock not! mock not! Harmachis; for he must be great indeed who can defy the power of Woman, which, pressing round him like the invisible air, is often strongest when the senses least discover it.

H. Rider Haggard
Cleopatra

It’s true that many of Machen’s stories are about unwise explorations of a world beyond the one that’s revealed to the senses. But like Walter de La Mare, it wasn’t so much the supernatural as the mysterious qualities inherent in what we think of as our everyday environment that fascinated Machen. He had a life-long interest in esoteric traditions, for a time joining an occultist society along with the poet WB Yeats, and in later life was increasingly drawn to a mystical version of Christianity.

William Blake wrote that “if the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern”. When he wrote of London giving a foretaste of infinity, Machen expressed the same thought.

Machen became one of the founders of psycho geography – the practice of exploring the human environment, especially in cities, without any definite purpose or preconception of what you may find. When he writes of wandering about London and coming on streets he could never find again, he’s usually interpreted as hinting at occult experiences of the kind described in his tale of the mysteriously vanishing garden. But he may mean something different, and perhaps more valuable.

Our exclusive concern with purposeful action crowds out a vital part of human fulfillment. Some of the most valuable human experiences, observes Machen, come about when we simply look around us without any intention of acting on what we see. When we set aside our practical goals – if only for a moment – we may discover a wealth of meaning in our lives, which is independent of our success or failure in achieving our goals. Matter may not be soft and ductile as Machen’s reclusive mystic believes, but our lives are changed when we no longer view the world through the narrow prism of our purposes.

John Gray
A Point of View: The doors of perception

beautiful women are bad

January 2, 2020

A farmer wants his son to be afraid of beautiful women, so that he will not leave home too soon, so he tells a story about how one drowned his brother’s cousin’s friend in a lake, not because he was a pig who deserved to be drowned, but because beautiful women are bad, and also witches. And it doesn’t matter that she didn’t ask to be beautiful, or to be born in a lake, or to live forever, or to not know how men breathe until they stop doing it.

Catherynne M. Valente
Deathless

words like nets

January 2, 2020

‘Haunted!’ she cried, suddenly pressing the accelerator. ‘Haunted, ever since I was a child. There flies the wild goose. It flies past the window out to sea. Up I jumped (she gripped the steering-wheel tighter) and stretched after it. But the goose flies too fast. I’ve seen it, here – there – there – England, Persia, Italy. Always it flies fast out to sea and always I fling after it words like nets (and here she flung her hand out) which shrivel as I’ve seen nets shrivel with only sea-weed in them; and sometimes there’s an inch of silver – six words – at bottom of the net. But never the great fish who lives in the coral-groves.’

Virginia Woolf
Orlando

The Screaming Skull

January 2, 2020