Arthur Machen’s A Fragment of Life as a Situationist & Magical Text

“Incredibilia sola Credenda” after Tertullian

“Daily life is boring / daily life is crap” Disorder

Master of weird fiction Arthur Machen’s 1905 novella A Fragment of Life opens as a portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Darnell – he is a City clerk who rides the bus every day from Shepherd’s Bush, they kiss one another “dutifully,” agonize over every expense and spend their evenings debating the merits of new stoves. They are a somewhat heavy-handed depiction of the boredom and alienation of modern life that calls to mind proto-Situationist Ivan Chtcheglov’s 1953 lament that “presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit,” or ‘70s pro-Situ group King Mob’s tube station graffiti: “Same thing day after day – tube – work – dinner – work – tube – armchair – TV – sleep – tube – work – how much more can you take?”

Machen is making, in short, a Situationist critique of modern life, that direct human experience has been mediated by fetishized commodities, limiting banalities and entrenched routine: “so went forth Darnell, day by day, strangely mistaking death for life, madness for sanity, and purposeless and wandering phantoms for true beings.” Fascinatingly, Darnell’s earliest attempts to awaken from this death-life are of a conspicuously Situationist character. Darnell goes on a dérive of London – “I didn’t buy a map…what I wanted was to feel that I was going where nobody had been before,” and on what he encountered in his unplanned drifting, he remarks, “there were things that one may see again and again in many London streets…but that morning they rose to my eyes in a new light, as if I had on the magic spectacles in the fairy tale.” Darnell even charts his psychogeographic quest to investigate the ambiances hiding under the commonplace city on a map of his own devising, marked with invented symbols corresponding to his emotional experiences of locales.

While the Situationists were infamously materialist and anti-mystical, Machen gives Mr. and Mrs. Darnell an escape route from daily life in magic. Not only has capitalist modernity mediated our experience of life, it has paved over with utilitarian ugliness the ancient and profound beauty of the earth and all of its ineffable and occult forces glimmering in sunsets, trickling in streams and lurking in the shadows of old and lonely woods. Through a series of subtly weird events and the discovery of old ancestral manuscripts, the Darnells are shaken out of their quotidian death-life and awakened to the knowledge that “the whole world is but a great ceremony or sacrament, which teaches under visible forms a hidden and transcendent doctrine.” One of the manuscripts warns that “we are not called to sit as the spectators in a theatre, there to watch the play performed before us, but we are rather summoned to stand in the very scene itself, and there fervently to enact our parts in a great and wonderful mystery,” making it clear to Darnell that magical consciousness is a method of resisting the Society of the Spectacle by “transmuting all the world about him, informing his life with a strange significance and romance.” While in this curious and prophetic text, Machen’s magic is pointedly vague, it seems to amount to a liberatory Situationist alchemy lifting the veil of the mundane and empowering the individual to see and act with the sense of wonder and mystery hidden, suppressed but not entirely vanquished, under the dull veneer of modern life.

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