Just last week—a few days after the New York Times reported on the Trump administration’s efforts to define transgender out of existence—I read for the first time Welsh writer Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella, The Great God Pan, today considered a classic of horror fiction. Condemned as “morbid” and “abominable” by most critics when it was first published, the tale was hailed as “un succès fou” by Oscar Wilde, recuperated in the 1920s by H. P. Lovecraft, and particularly praised more recently by Stephen King, who called it “maybe the best” horror story “in the English language.”
The “queer” tale (the word “queer” recurs frequently throughout) is told by a series of straight-laced Victorian men, each of whom is horrified by the unspecified behavior and bearing of a mysterious woman, Helen Vaughan. Readers are led to suspect that Helen is guilty of some sort of sexual excess or transgression, but nothing is specified until after her suicide, when the medical examiner reports that he was “privileged or accursed” to see the “skin, and the flesh, and the muscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the human body that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent as adamant, beg[i]n to melt and dissolve”:
I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism, always remained, while the outward form changed.
Helen, “changing and melting before [our] eyes from woman to man” is, in short, a transgendered or nonbinary person, and this, apparently, is the unspeakable “horror” at the heart of the tale.
To read The Great God Pan today is to begin to understand why Roger Severino, Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, considers queer “radical gender ideology” horrifying. For him–and, unfortunately, for so many others–the binary categorization of male and female, human and animal, life and death, is fundamental to a stable world-view. Any transgression of such categories, and particularly the category of gender, is threatening and indeed terrifying to those who depend on binaries.
But Arthur Machen, as early as 1894, appears to have thought otherwise. For his tale suggests that Helen is the child of Pan, the ancient Greek god–half-man, half-goat–who is a “presence, neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form.”
As one character puts it, the perceived world of “woods and orchards, . . . fields . . . and . . . meadows” are “but dreams and shadows: the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes”:
There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these “chases in Arras, dreams in a career,” beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil . . . the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan.
In other words, what is “horror” to some is a divine revelation to others: an insight into a unity beyond the categories that structure our ordinary perception.
Numerous writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, and J. M. Barrie among them—were fascinated by the figure of Pan, as Patricia Merivale has documented in Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times. Pan is an important avatar of the Horned God revered in some Neo-Pagan circles. I’ve been following Pan’s traces, engaged as I am in translating Joseph d’Arbaud’s hauntingly beautiful 1926 novella, La Bèstio dou Vacarés [The Beast of Vaccares].
In that tale, a 15th century bull herder in the Camargue region of France glimpses a strange creature, part-goat part-human—with horns, cloven feet, and a human face and torso—that declares itself to be a “demi-god”: “Master of a universe in flower, united in the dance of seasons and stars, . . . sing[ing] with the same voice as sunlight and sea.” Fearing that he has met a devil, the terrified herder attempts to exorcise the bewildering Beast—male or female, he cannot say.
But the Beast continues to talk with him, revealing that it has in fact come to the end of its days, “hiding, afraid, in this age, of men’s barbarism and malevolence.” Not only is the Beast hiding, but it is starving, unable to find sustenance in the barren landscape of the Camargue. And so the herder, even as he struggles with his fear and revulsion, offers the Beast food: fruit, nuts, and a loaf of bread. Tragically, his compassion comes too late.
Both d’Arbaud and Machen reveal something beyond the veil of our binary perception. Today, transgender or nonbinary people are the most visible—and vulnerable—examples of a similar revelation, and the rest of us would do well to consider how we might move beyond prurient horror or belated compassion. It’s time for full-fledged embrace and celebration, along with resistance to the Trump administration’s cynical insistence that permanent gender be assigned on a “biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
Since when has this administration looked to science for validation? Yet, if they seriously want to rely on science, they should consider the nuanced, contemporary view of sex and gender articulated in “Why Sex is Not Binary” by Professor of Biology Anne Fausto-Sterling.
Samhain is upon us. Halloween. The Day of the Dead. All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day. That liminal time of year when the doorways to what the Celts called the Otherworld, Annwn in Welsh, are open. In New York City, we have the 45th annual Village Halloween Parade, a queer extravaganza of puppetry, masquerade, and cross-dressing that draws some 60,000 participants and over 2 million onlookers. Elsewhere, we have trick-or-treating children in costume traipsing across lawns strewn with plastic skeletons and glowing ghouls. Everywhere, if we’re lucky, we might catch a glimpse of “the piper at the gates of dawn,” the transporting vision granted Rat and Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: “something very surprising and splendid and beautiful”—Pan the goat-god, boundary-crosser, Friend and Helper, nonbinary trans-being.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from the French of Egyptian-Jewish writer Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [This Land That Is Like You], a novel celebrating Arab-Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has also translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.