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CC5304 - CW2 - Critically Discuss The Relationship Between Science and Degeneration in
Dionea and The Great God Pan

Vernon Lee's Dionea and Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan are products of that
most amorphous, perplexing, and fascinating periods of literature; the fin de
sicle. The revival of gothic literature at the turn of the century in late Victorian
Europe, like many of the issues raised by it, has no clear beginning or endpoint,
but during the short-lived era of decadence and

concentrated socioeconomic

development, the writing produced in the fin de sicle reflected the vibrant
historical moment that spawned it. The exploding readership of England,
especially the growing population of middle class readers, had caused a shift in
novel reading habits away from the lengthy three-volume novels usually loaned
from a lending library, towards one-volume novels sold directly to the public. The
magazine industry also adapted to its newly increased demand by emphasising
branding and specific style, allowing the popular types of genre fiction we see
today to initially flourish and find a readership; detective and science fiction,
thrillers, horrors and a revamped, resurgent sense of the gothic. Journalistic
reporting shifted to accommodate the scintillating stories of scandal from the
political classes, while the scientific community was experiencing a drastic
expansion into new disciplines and schools of thought, including the enduring
social

sciences

that

are

still

recognisable

today

like

anthropology and

psychology, to the forgotten pseudo-sciences of galvanism and mesmerism that,


if nothing else, spoke to the untapped potential of the scientific discoveries.
(Luckhurst, 2009, xvi)

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If there is a singular, central point between science and degeneration, it may well
be found in Darwin's theory of evolution. As Luckhurst puts it, "degeneracy was
the scientized fear of historical reversion" (Luckhurst, 2009, xx) and within his
revolutionary work The Origin of Species, Darwin's proposition that humans
beings, like all other animals, had evolved into their current form via the process
of natural selection, deeply unsettled religious beliefs and existing scientific
theories which equally relied upon more literal interpretations of the creation
account in the book of Genesis. The scientific community of fin de sicle England,
which was comprised of philosophers, economists and writers alongside
dedicated professional and amateur scientists, expanded upon the doubts raised
by Darwin's theory and this led to a cross-disciplinary questioning of the sanctity
religion in cultural discourse, known as the Victorian Crisis of Faith (Helmstadter
& Lightman, 1990, 42). The previously exalted positions of humans as created "in
God's own image" had been threatened by introducing the concept of devolution
and a fear of humanity backsliding down the evolutionary ladder into the depths
of its primal, animalistic inheritance. Alongside this, a specific interest in the
natural world rose, simultaneously representing an indecipherable reminder to
scientific world of the now tainted human past, but to decadent writers like
Machen and Lee, it was a haven where recognisable sciences, logic or reason
were not in control, just as in dreams and trance-states, it was one of an
apparently ever-decreasing set of pieces of imaginative "real estate" threatened
by the bounding progressions of the late Victorian world into every aspect of
culture. The profound cultural struggle between the Victorian past and its
mentalities, safe from the encroaching electronic technologies and demystifying
attempts from the new schools of scientific research, and the future with all of its
potential for utopian peace or a Hobbesian state of nature and war, was fertile

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ground for fin de sicle writers like Lee and Machen to investigate the
relationship between the inherited past and unclaimed future.
This grandiose push and pull between the civilised and uncivilised, the
modern and the ancient, is The Great God Pan's central dichotomy, the source of
its tension and its commentary on degeneration. In the opening section aptly
subtitled "The Experiment", Machen introduces the world of the dream as
enticing, yet deadly, an intimately sublime setting for the madness inducing,
reclusive god Pan to reside in, "beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond
these chases in Arras, dreams in a career, beyond them all as beyond a veil".
However, this Arcadian wonderland, and the equivalent space in Dionea can
crucially only be glimpsed by various characters' transgressions away from
societal norms of the time. Initially, Clark acknowledges that "[him and
Raymond] are standing on the brink of a strange world" that can be accessed by
Raymond, a transcendental medic, by "a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a
microscopic alteration". This scientific experiment produces results indicative of
invoking a god of all nature, panic and madness who imparts knowledge through
dreams or visions. Mary, Raymond's subject, is already introduced as a social
degenerate, "[he] rescued Mary from the gutterI think her life is mine, to use
as I see fit" (Machen, 1894, 3) and by opening her mental vision up to "see the
Great God Pan", Raymond sets in motion a series of mysterious breakouts of
madness, illicit sex, unexplainable deaths and suicides, all resulting in
widespread social unrest and an acute sense of creeping horror as Machen
moves the story from the fringes of society, replete with sublime natural imagery
depicting cabin-in-the-woods-type seclusion, to the economically flourishing,
fashionable, sociable heart of London. This typically Gothic and modernist
structure lends itself to a psychoanalytic reading, as the fears of the uncivilised
world beyond the safe boundaries of the bustling metropolis of the city are

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realised, in every sense of the phrase, a little closer to home. Specifically,
Machen's use of settings that focus on privacy, concealing the worlds behind
anonymous Soho doors or forest laboratories, allows for heightened intrigue,
fascination and horror as unclear experimentation brews menacingly below or
behind the surface. By combining the Victorian interests in the subconscious and
the fragmentation and mutability of personalities, with the language of
degeneration that, in a post-Darwinian mode of thought, could now occur
physically, mentally, sociologically, sexually and otherwise, both Machen and Lee
use

the

invisible

experimentation.

workings

of

the

secluded

space

to

experiment

with

This fin de sicle interest in the inner workings of the

subconscious was driven by threats to the physiological mode of understanding


consciousness. From resurgent idealism, evident in Dionea,
"Certain it is that the pagan divinities lasted much longer than we
suspect...Who knows whether they do not exist to this day?...For the awful-ness
of the deep woods, with their filtered green light, the creak of the swaying,
solitary reeds, exists, and is Pan" (Lee, 1890, 15)
to psychology, eager to understand the subconscious, and by extension the self,
through wider knowledge of dream states, personality disorders and altered
states of consciousness, as shown in many ways throughout The Great God Pan.
For example, in the following extract, Austin fails to accurately describe Mrs.
Beaumont, herself a fragmented identity of Helen Vaughan, created to allow her
entry into the aristocratic, traditionally decadent parts of Victorian society, which
centred around the West End of London.

Mrs. Beaumont's licentious activity

leads to "a terrible epidemic of suicide" and for Villers to describe London as "a
city of nightmares", while he reverts to the language of the unknown and the
sublime to describe Mrs. Beaumont, equally awful and awesome,

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"To the best of my belief, I have never seen anybody like her; what I felt
was a kind of far-off memory, vague but persistent. The only sensation I can
compare it to, is that odd feeling one sometimes has in a dream, when fantastic
cities and phantom personages appear familiar and accustomed" (Machen, 1894,
34)

The pursuit of psychological knowledge

via scientific experimentation also

incorporates the crucial fin de sicle conversations surrounding sex and gender
into the wider degeneration debate, especially the role of the feminine within the
development of the self. Sexual experimentation is often the symbolic "mode of
transportation" by which the degenerative aspects of society are propagated, as
women were the physical vessels through which inheritance in passed on
through sex, marriage, and childbirth.

This leads to that Mary, a low class

woman, being dressed in traditional virginal white for Raymond's literally


penetrative procedure at the beginning of Machen's work, allowing Pan entry into
the human world via implied sexual intercourse with not only a God, but a
historically lustful God that occupies a culturally liminal space between the
animal and the human, a proposed missing link in the evolutionary spectrum that
grew from Darwin's theory of evolution (Irwin, 1961, 161). Once again
degeneration, "the scientized fear of historical reversion", is realised by means of
tainted inheritance, as in The Great God Pan's dying sentences we see Helen
Vaughan, the child of the "unholy union" between the god Pan and the human
Mary, undergo a physically realised degeneration after she has spread social
disruption across London. Helen is seen to be "changing and melting before your
eyes from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than
beast" (Machen, 1894, 108), in a clear process of devolution initiated by Dr.
Raymond's transcendental medicinal experimentation. This ultimate, final

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instance of degeneration in The Great God Pan is a combination of societal fears
surrounding devolution which could occur in many aspects of Victorian life.
Unsanctioned sexual practice like the initial instance of thinly-veiled bestiality,
and the resulting tainted instances of sex that either redefines or crosses class
boundaries, produce madness and the breakdown of society. Even viewing such
acts can induce a wild state of inconsolable panic, general pandemonium, or
madness, as happens to the child Trevor when he sees "Helen playing on the
grass with a strange naked man", and then upon seeing a statue of a faun or
satyr's head, is pushed into a second state of shock that "seemed too severe for
the boy Trevor" and leaves him suffering from a "weakness of intellect which
gives but little promise of amending" (Machen, 1894, 22). Trevor's father quickly
moves to accuse Helen Vaughan, however she "steadfastly [denies] that she had
in any way frightened or molested Trevor". Similarly, the sexually degenerative
events that seem to follow Helen are carried on as she leads to the rape of her
young friend Rachel that takes place, once again in an idyllic and picturesque
meadow, already implying the involvement of Pan, degeneracy, and sexual
experimentation. Machen only allows the reader glimpses and snapshots of
detail, instead opting for deliberate obscurity and mystery, heightening tension
and reconfirming the secrecy and power of ancient knowledge in form of the preChristian religion and attitudes which violently resists not only straightforward
definition as the decadent culture did, but also mere depiction.
"he saw the swaying leaves and the quivering shadows on the grassand far
away in the distance, the two figures moved towards him. One was Rachel, but
the Other?"
Paradoxically, these apparently insurmountable traits of ancient knowledge are
only accessible in the narrative by the use of newly discovered modes of science
that allow Raymond to "play God" with Mary. Pan is the obscured vision of all that

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threatens the societal order and is able to destabilise and subvert fin de sicle
society, however his influence is channelled directly through the child of a
bastardisation of the institution of marriage. By merely existing, Helen Vaughan
represents an aberration of tradition, codified by Machen in as clear terms as is
possible without destroying the tension of the unseen, "et diabolus incarnatus
est. Et homo factus est", which translates as "and the devil was made incarnate,
and was made man".

This similar reverence for the power and abilites of "ancient" or forgotten
knowledge's to disrupt what was modern-day society is just as prevalent in
Dionea, as the titular character not only baffles the convent in which she is
placed, but she does so without the scientific experimentation necessary in The
Great God Pan. Dionea's ethereal mystery stems not from any development in
physical research, but as Lee herself writes in the preface to Hauntings, the past,
"the more or less remote past, of which the prose is clean obliterated by distance
is the place to get our ghosts from" (Lee, 1890, x). As in The Great God Pan, the
question of what exactly is in a name reveals instantly where the battlegrounds
of the short ghost story are going to be, "Dionea seemed to scandalise everyone,
perhaps becausethe name is derived from Dione, one of the loves of Father
Zeus". (Lee, 1890, 4)
Nevertheless, Vernon Lee, the nom de plume of Violet Page, returns to the idea
of the remote past affecting the present constantly throughout Dionea, by
combining two sides of the titular character's. The first side is Dionea's
uncontrollable and autonomous "new womanhood", (Showalter, 1993, ix)
characterised by her physical, cultural and religious separation, and descriptions

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relating to her that, as in the tradition of decadence, rely on highfalutin and
sensory language,
"against the mast, a robe or purple and gold about her, and a myrtlewreath on her head, leaned Dionea, singing words in an unknown tongue, the
white pigeons circling around her" (Lee, 1890, 26)
and the second is the supernatural symbolism, which by relying upon the same
descriptive obscurity as the Gothic without having Dionea as a Gothic character,
allows her, within the oppressive institutions of the Roman Catholic church, the
economic bondage she is trapped in through Donna Evelina, the social systems
that she regularly flaunts, to at every turn, set her own agenda and be markedly
independent. In this sense, the degeneration that befalls the society in Dionea is
a more historic form of degeneration instead of Machen's scientifically driven
degeneration. However, Dionea's perplexing individuality also cement her
position as something new, formally, a "new woman". (Richardson and Willis,
2002, 12). "It will be difficult to find a place for Dionea, and in this neighbourhood
well-nigh impossible." (Lee, 1890, 14). Dionea suits perfectly the description of
the New Woman given by German feminist Laura Marholm Hansson, "a new race
of women whose ego burst forth with such power that it ignored all other
circumstances", as she refuses to be coerced into Roman Catholic traditions,
instead being aligned far closer to Ancient Greek tradition, eventually sacrificing
herself on an altar of Venus, only to mysteriously appear again later, in a clear
reclamation of the resurrection narrative of the Bible. (Hansson, 1896, 78)

The introspective space of the fin de sicle short story provided a controlled
forum for using the decadent, paradox-laden style to investigate this conceptual
battle for the future of fin de sicle society (Marshall, 2007, 11). Will the people

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living in the glorious coming century be helped by scientific progression into new
schools of though such as psychology, anthropology, aided by the an everincreasing amount technological discoveries, or will society crumble under the
weight of ever-increasingly fast march of capitalism and consumerism?
(Navarette, 1998, 233).

In conclusion, I believe that the relationship between

science and degeneration in these two texts is one grounded on anticipation and
fear, in equal parts. However, as the tradition of decadence dictates, the
conversation surrounding Darwin's theory of evolution, and the certainties of
cultural inheritance dominate both Machen's and Lee's approaches to dealing
with degeneration by way of Gothic obscurity and recursive paradoxes that blur
out simple readings of the text and instead force complex outcomes that are
neither absolutely positive affirmations of fin de sicle freedoms and scientific
prowess, or totally negative indictments of fin de sicle degeneration.

Bibliography

Hansson, L. M. (1896) Modern Women, (trans. Hermione Ramsden), London.


Helmstadter, R.J and Lightman, B. (1990) Victorian faith in crisis: essays on continuity and change in
nineteenth century religious belief. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lee, V. (1890) 'Dionea', from Hauntings: Fantastic Stories. London: William Heinemann
Irwin, W.R (1961) "The Survival of Pan" in PMLA, Vol 76, 1 June 1961

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Liggins, E. (2013) Gendering the Spectral Encounter at the Fin de Sicle: Unspeakability in Vernon
Lee's Supernatural Stories, Gothic Studies, Volume 15, Issue 2
Luckhurst, R. (2009) Late Victorian Gothic Tales. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press
Machen, A. (1894) 'The Great God Pan', from The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light. London:
John Lane
Marshall, ed. by G. (2007) Cambridge Companion to the Fin de sicle . Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press
Navarette, S. J. (1998) The shape of fear: horror and the fin de sicle culture of decadence. United
States: The University Press of Kentucky
Richardson, A. and Willis, C. (2002) The new woman in fiction and in fact, fin-de-sicle feminisms.
Edited by Angelique Richardsons. Houndmilss, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Showalter, E. (1993) Daughters of decadence: women writers of the Fin de sicle. London: Virago
Press