The following is a series of excerpts from the Penguin Classics publication of The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen. In the prologue a Catholic mystic named Ambrose shares a dialogue with a man named Cotgrave, who has been brought to Ambrose’s house by his companion who remains nameless. The dialogue in question concerns the nature of saintliness and sinfulness. The discussion ends with Ambrose letting Cotgrave borrow a book that is meant to give an example of what true sinfulness looks like.
“Sorcery and sanctity,” said Ambrose, “these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.”… “There are many, I think, who eat dry crusts and drink water, with a joy infinitely sharper than anything within the experience of the ‘practical’ epicure.”
“You are speaking of the saints?”
“Yes and of the sinners too. I think you are falling into the general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely good; but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have their own portion in it.” (111)
“We think that a man who does evil to us and to his neighbors must be very evil. So he is, from a social standpoint; but you can’t realise that Evil in its essence is a lonely thing, a passion for the solitary, individual soul? Really the average murderer qua murderer is not by any means a sinner in the true sense of the word. He is simply a wild beast that we have to get rid of to save our own necks from his knife. I should class him rather with tigers than with sinners.” (112)
“And what is sin?” said Cotgrave
“I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror, I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?
“Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin really is.” (113)
“But are you a Catholic?” said Cotgrave
“Yes; I am a member of the persecuted Anglican Church.”
“Then, how about those texts which seem to reckon as sin that which you would set down as a mere trivial dereliction?”
“Yes; but in one place the word ‘sorcerers’ comes in the same sentence, doesn’t it? That seems to me to give the key-note. Consider: can you imagine for a moment that a false statement which saves an innocent man’s life is a sin? No; very good then, it is not the mere liar who is excluded by these words; it is, above all, the ‘sorcerers’ who use the material life, who use the failings incidental to material life as instruments to obtain their infinitely wicked ends. And let me tell you this: our higher senses are so blunted, we are so drenched with materialism, that we should probably fail to recognize real wickedness if we encountered it.” (114-115)
“…If you met a very evil man and recognized his evil; he would, no doubt fill you with horror and awe; but there is no reason why you should ‘dislike’ him. On the contrary, it is quite possible that in putting the sin out of your mind you might find the sinner capital company, and in a little while you might have to reason yourself back into horror. Still how awful it is if the roses and the lilies began to sing on this coming morning; if the furniture began to move in procession De Maupassant’s tale.” (117)
There is a tendency to conflate sinfulness with mere wrongdoing. But if we accept the concept of sin as Machen presents it through the character Ambrose, we realize that it is something far deeper and more terrifying than an everyday act of degeneracy society sees fit to punish.
Whatever theological disagreements one may have with Ambrose, it is still worth considering that at the beginning of the dialogue, Cotgrave conflates everyday wrongdoing with evil. Ambrose rightly points out that our comfortable modern lives prevent us from recognizing evil when we see it. Consider how National Review managed to run an article in response to the Salon article normalizing pedophilia essentially asking, “What is so wrong with virtuous pedophiles? As long as they are choosing to be celibate, what’s the big deal?” This mindset fails to recognize what Ambrose, if he were real, would call sorcery. The sorcery at play here is the normalization of pedophilia by presenting it as an unfortunate sexual orientation or disability, rather than a mental illness that must be suppressed if not properly treated. In essence, National Review has fallen prey to sorcery.
Ambrose talks about our materialism clouding our judgment of what true evil is. I would actually go further and suggest that the byproducts of a materialistic mindset, such as moral subjectivism, prevent us from even seeing everyday nuisances for what they are. Consider how secular liberals have a tendency to dismiss theft as simply a means of cultural expression when it is done by gypsies and other nonwhite ethnic groups. If our materialism clouds our ability to critically assess the moral worth of everyday actions, what hope do we have of seeing another Gilles de Rais for what he truly is?
The true horror of The White People lies in the fact that one could even recognize wickedness and “have to reason yourself back into horror.” The presence of evil may not be obvious to us. In fact we may find ourselves easily drawn to it. Most of the leftward drift we see nowadays isn’t necessarily evil in the sense that Machen presents it here, but it at least indicates that we fail to make proper value judgments about the material realm as well as the spiritual realm. It’s ironic, to say the least, that it happens to be materialism that has beguiled us the most about the natural world around us.
Consider this an admonition from yours truly to start going to church.