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Literature / Hieroglyphics

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Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature is book on literary analysis (or a novel whose Excuse Plot is a means to discuss literary analysis, if one wishes to be technical) by Welsh fantasy/horror writer Arthur Machen. In it, Machen presents his theories on what literature actually is, and attempts to argue how one can tell whether a book or story qualifies as literature or as mere entertainment.

In Machen's view true literature must give the reader a sense of ecstasy. That sounds simple enough, but what exactly does he mean by ecstasy?

Machen defines it as "a kind of withdrawal from the common atmosphere of life"; this amounts to the author conveying a sense of wonder or awe to the reader.

Even stories with the most mundane of settings can qualify as literature if, hidden beneath the seemingly-unremarkable story world, there are elements (however tiny) that provide the reader with a sense or awareness of things (typically joys) beyond or above mere everyday reality, experiences, and emotions (and especially hints of things beyond mere physical perception).

In putting forth his theory, Machen examines a vast amount of works, including the likes of The Odyssey, The Pickwick Papers, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Don Quixote, The Pilgrim's Progress, Vanity Fair, and The Scarlet Letter.

Tropes Discussed:

  • An Aesop: When the Central Theme results in a message. In Machen's view, the message tends to not be a moral lesson but rather an observation and conclusion about somethinga reflection of either the truth of human nature or of the truth of reality.
  • Affectionate Parody: Preferred to a Deconstructive Parody because "art, you may feel quite assured, proceeds always from love and rapture, never from hatred and disdain". A deconstructive satire, therefore, will lack the ecstasy that would (potentially) be present in an affectionate one.
  • Central Theme: Stated to be the most important part of constructing a story, so vital that it should be done before anything else. Even if the other elements (plot, construction, and writing style) are all lackluster, a story with a strong theme (what he calls "idea") can still qualify as literature, though just barely.
  • Deconstructive Parody: According to Machen (at least in this point in his life), satire, or any creative work, born from disdain lacks the ability to be true art.
  • Mystery Fiction: Can either be art or just entertainment (it really depends on the story), but, whichever it is, it has a clear advantage over other genres when it comes to attracting and maintaining readers: its stories rely on secrets, which will appeal to the reader's natural curiosity and thus drive them to read the book to uncover said secrets.
  • Nave Newcomer: Instrumental in producing ecstasy; as the POV character experiences awe at coming face-to-face with something they have never encountered before, the reader vicariously feels that same sense of awe.
  • The Reveal: Like the Twist Ending, it's conditionally deconstructed and for the same reasons.
  • Scenery Porn: One of the main ways to enhance ecstasy through narrative and writing style rather than just through theme.
  • Slice of Life: Criticized as being mere entertainment rather than art due to it dealing with ordinary, everyday experiences and sensations. That said, works that have this type of setting can qualify as art if the seemingly-normal setting contains exotic, ethereal, or emotionally-powerful sensations.
  • Twist Ending: Discussed (along with any other kind of surprising plot development), with works using as the main draw of the narrative getting criticized. If the book has nothing else going for it, it probably won't get a second reading; if invokedthe surprise becomes well-known due to cultural osmosis, then it probably won't even be read once.

The narrative itself contains examples of:

  • Genius Ditz: The Hermit. Despite being well-read, he forgets Machen's name 3 times in their first meeting; Machen says that he would repeat this "feat" many times throughout their acquaintance.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The book is supposedly theories of an odd friend of Machen's and that Machen merely wrote them down. The friend attempts to defy it, saying he'd rather assume readers believe the theories were Machen's own rather than his.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Machen only ever refers to his friend as the Hermit, likely at the Hermit's request.
  • Reclusive Artist: The Hermit refuses to allow Machen to give out his name because he'd rather Machen be the target of scrutiny from the literary establishment.
  • Self-Deprecation: The Hermit is sceptical that Machen is a good enough writer to attact any kind of readership, let alone a wide one.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Invoked. Machen wrote down the Hermit's theories from memory and thinks he may have forgotten to include some things.