I am dissatisfied with the analyses of those thinkers and writers who seek to establish a demarcation in Lovecraft between the pure horror works and the dream cycle.
The same noetic estrangement underlies both, and the arbitrary privileging of the horror over the dream excludes Lovecraft’s unitary vision of such estrangement or weirdness. This unitary perspective on horror and the dream can be explained in terms of Deleuze’s concept of the “weird”, which is
“the approach of a coherence that is no more our own, Man’s, than it is God’s or the World’s” (Deleuze, DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION, Preface).
For Deleuze, Lovecraft is an affirmative writer with an ontology of cosmic becoming, and so is the very opposite of a pessimistic misanthrope. Deleuze, like Lovecraft, seeks to think outside anthropological predicates. Neither philanthropy nor misanthropy but ex-anthropy.
One such “anthropological predicate” is the Face. Lovecraft as a child was tormented by uncontrollable facial tics, spasms and grimaces. He was also tormented by nightmares of “night-gaunts”, horrible creatures with no face. Lovecraft as a child used to lie awake at night, resisting sleep, to avoid these nightmares. But he did not spend his whole life doing so. He transvaluated his torments by means of his writing.
Lovecraft did not go mad like both of his parents. He became a writer of weird fiction. He wrote down his dreams and recounted them in his letters and created many of his stories from their inspiration. This is not pessimism but affirmation. Dreams are not a symptom. It is rather the lack of dreams or neglect of dreams that is a symptom of illness.
Another “anthropological predicate” is signifying language. It is undermined from within by means of Lovecraft’s writing techniques, for example by his use of esoteric words that are employed denote non-ordinary things. Deleuze in LOGIC OF SENSE analyses the function of such words as a type of nonsense that produces new sense outside ordinary significations.
“Cthulhu”, the transcription of a word that cannot be pronounced by the human phonic apparatus, is one of Lovecraft’s equivalents of Lewis Carroll’s “Snark”. It constitutes a weird intrusion into our anthropic language, to name what is unnameable within it.
(1): “Hesperia” and Immanent Platonism
The most common stereotype concerning H.P. Lovecraft work associates him with the tale of supernatural horror, and with the negative affects of fear, fright, doom, despair, dread, horror, terror, etc. and with a worldview of pessimism or nihilism. However, while all these elements are indeed present in his work, I wish to argue that this conceptual and affective assemblage presents a reductive tableau of Lovecraft’s cosmological vision as expressed in his literary oeuvre.
Some writers seem to be vaguely aware of this reductionism and prefer to talk of Lovecraft as a writer of weird tales, but their use of the term “weird” is usually strongly tinged with this horrific coloration. A more englobing coloration of the weird would be provided by the recognition of the overwhelmingly oneiric quality of Lovecraft’s work.
Fortunately some commentators, for example Lovecraft’s friend and mentoree Robert Bloch, have seen and emphasised this pre-eminence of the dream.
“The one theme incontrovertibly constant in both his life and his work is a preoccupation with dreams. From earliest childhood on, Lovecraft’s sleep ushered him into a world filled with vivid visions of alien and exotic landscapes that at times formed a background for terrifying nightmares” (Robert Bloch, introduction to THE BEST OF H.P. LOVECRAFT (New York: Ballantine, 1963)
Where this oniricity is acknowledged it is still most often reduced to only one dimension of the dream, that of the nightmare. The positive affects of awe, wonder, inspiration, desire, mystery, numinosity, expectancy and revelation are given short shrift. Ambiguous words of ambivalent connotation and coloration are glibly reduced to a single negative tone, for example the “void” is seen under the aspect of negativity and extinction.
Another theme that is blown up out of all proportion is that of the “supernatural”. Strange Gods, ancient magic, demons are either taken at face value by the most naive or seen as metaphors of the indifference of the Universe to humanity and of its eventual extinction by the more sophisticated. This terrifying supernaturalism is valorised all the more as it fits in well with the diagnosis of nihilism.
These considerations cohere into the stereotype of Lovecraft the author of nihilist tales of supernatural terror. Unfortunately there are many of Lovecraft’s poems and tales that do not fit easily, either in whole or in part, into this stereotype. These are either ignored or denigrated as Romantic residues or derivative, Dunsanian works.
These more positive oneiric works can still be integrated into the nihilistic interpretation in that they often contain both a de-realisation and a de-valorisation of life, as illusion or as unsatisfying, not worth living. There is a nihilistic longing for another yet unattainable world, often synonymous with the extinction of personal identity seen as deliverance from the mistake of ever having been born, a mood of dissatisfaction and yearning underpinned by a vaguely Schopenhauerian-tinted Platonic dualism.
Yet we know that Lovecraft was both a materialist (recognising no separate supernatural or even Platonic realm) and a dreamer (subscribing to no mundane nihilism of the loss of all value). Lovecraft’s materialism is a constant of all his stories:
“There is never an entity in Lovecraft that is not in some fashion material” (S.T. Joshi, THE WEIRD TALE, 186).
Far from being a cosmic pessimist or a Romantic nihilist Lovecraft is best seen as a noetic dreamer, an oneiric materialist, an immanent Platonist. The dream, both waking (noetic) and sleeping, is part of our creative engagement with the material world and of our resistance against nihilism.
One can easily find elements of “Platonism” in Lovecraft’s stories and poetry, but I wish to argue that this is part of his revaluing or “renoetising” of a material world that is often seen as hostile to creative values, as “denoetised”. Lovecraft’s fiction presents us with a form of “immanent” or non-dualist Platonism.
Note: I am using a terminology taken from Bernard Stiegler’s DANS LA DISRUPTION (2016) for the positive vocabulary and analysis that it proposes for talking about the dream as a material phenomenon of imaginative meditation and aspiration, a “noetic” (from “nous”, Greek for intellect, intellection).
I wish to talk about the poem “Hesperia”, number XIII in the sonnet cycle FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH, to illustrate this approach to Lovecraft’s vision. I choose this because of the very interesting reading proposed by Jesse Willis and Eric Rabkin in their marvelous and intelligent podcast “Reading Short and Deep”. They provide a link to the pdf of the poem, and they discuss it on episode 54. The motto for the podcast, “there’s always more to say”, is an invitation to continue the dialogue further, or as Jung advises us to “dream the dream on”.
At first sight “Hesperia” is built on a dualism between this “dull sphere”, the finite and imperfect world of human constructions and aspirations and another world of perfection, “the land where beauty’s meanings flower”. The other Platonic world is forever out of bounds, unattainable by mere humans, unsoilable by “human tread”.
Yet this realm is not totally inaccessible, we can approach it in dreams (“Dreams bring us close”). But not just in the dreams of the night. The poem is a meditation that occurs at a visionary moment (“winter sunset”), it is a waking dream where the poet can actually see the other world. The affects that preside over this experience are not those of dread, fear and doom, but splendor, divine desires, beauty and wonder. We participate in those affects even if we cannot abide in their source. We are humans not gods and so our participation is limited to intermittent visions and cyclic dreaming.
The dominant elements are fire and water, the “flaming” winter sunset and the “starlit streams of hours”. Our world is the world of Heraclitean flux and becoming, but the “rich fires” open the way to divine desires, and the “streams of hours” derive from the “great river Time”, whose source is the eternal world. So we are never wholly separated from this world, only “half-detached”. In the other direction, starting from immanence, religion and industry (spires and chimneys) are themselves “half-detached” from this dull Earth.
We need both movements to make us fully human, subjects capable of living in time in the light of eternity. We are intermediate beings, forever “half-detached”. Certainly we are never fully detached from the dull matter of the material world, but we are also never fully immersed in dull matter either.
The poem conforms to the classical structure of the sonnet. It is traditionally composed of an octave presenting the problem and a sestet disclosing the solution.In “Hesperia” the octave is situated in the world of immanece, the movement is up and beyond. The sestet begins in the world of eternity, the movement is down into time and matter.
The initial octave is the point of view of the mundane world which opens onto a vision of divine life located in an eternal city. The gates open in certain visionary moments and we can see the way, but we cannot tread it. The sestet is the point of view from the numinous world, in which the river of Time finds its source, crossing the vast void lit by the light of the stars, and dividing into the “streams of hours” of our human heliocentric measures of time.
There is no radical separation between the two realms, no dualistic opposition, no point of absolute detachment. There is a tension between two poles. We live as more than human animals by participating in both. The poem is both cosmological, expressing a vision of the world contained in a winter sunset epiphany, and ethical, containing implicitly an answer to the question of the conduct of life.
The answer to the question of how to live is not just the impossibility of transcendence for the human subject, but also its pointlessness: we are not separated. Beauty is eternal, and even if its full meaning does not flower for us we have dreams and visions, moments of insight and poetico-cosmological epiphanies.
We cannot “tread” our way, like animals, into eternity, nor can we dwell there like gods. But we can dream our way there and come back enriched or transformed.
Another answer is contained in the hour of the vision, the “winter sunset”. Yes this is the symbol of the World Cycle and of the Eternal Return. As noetic beings we rise and sink in imagination and understanding. More specifically, “winter” and “sunset” are times not just of decline, like autumn and evening, but of disaggregation. Lovecraft is a materialist for whom all is the coming together and the dispersal of matter. The winter sunset is the season and the hour of decomposition, a time particularly favorable for sighting another world, only half-detached from our ordinary world.
Maxim 1: inspiration can come when things are falling apart.
This materialist maxim of life, that moments of decline and disaggreagation can provide the inspiration for new vision, does not sound at all pessimistic. Pessimism and nihilism are not inherent to Lovecraft’s vision but stem from the dualist spectacles with which we may read him.
This advice to look to moments of decomposition of our certainties and of our stereotypes for inspiration to new understanding and new action is complemented and reinforced by a spatial indication – the poet looks out to the horizon, to a space “half-detached” from our mundane sphere of dull indifference, to “great gates” that open onto eternity . Mundane forms are dissolved, replaced by imaginative forms burning with intensity and desire.
Maxim 2: inspiration can come if we follow the line of horizon.
A third indication for the eyes of the spirit is that beauty is no longer a matter of personal esthetic enjoyment nor is it the fruit of personal memories. The imaginative “method” is one of anamnesis, or remembering, of images and events that are not located inside our personal experience, instances of “unplaced memory”. Beauty is conjoined with meaning and memories with their source in imaginative vision:
It is the land where beauty’s meaning flowers;
Where every unplaced memory has a source
Maxim 3: inspiration can come if we search for the images, desires, and intensities active within the memories.
My vision of Lovecraft is the Nietzschean one of the artist as convalescent, both patient and doctor, sick from our civilisation and healing from it. For Lovecraft, nihilism is the sickness, not the solution or the conclusion. Dreaming and imagining actively, as valued moments in our processes of individuation, are not escapism but an important part of the cure.
Note: Lovecraft’s misanthropy is a different question than his racism, although they are related. Both are incompatible with the general drift of his thought. His misanthropy is inconsistent with his cosmicism, and his racism is inconsistent with his principle of non-identity, of identities being dissolved in the void/plenum.
(2): “The Ancient Track” and dreamology as cosmology
In the previous section I presented Lovecraft as a “noetic dreamer”, an immanent Platonist and an oneiric materialist rather than a pessimist or a nihilist. On this view of Lovecraft his works do not present a nihilistic worldview to which the only lucid reaction is cosmic despair or existential horror. Nihilism is the malady of the modern world after the death of God, a malady from which Lovecraft himself also suffers, and for which his works are both diagnosis and attempted cure. Part of that cure is the valorisation of the “weird”, of visionary moments of noetic estrangement.
In “Hesperia” we saw elements of this immanent Platonism, in which a numinous oniric world of “divine desires” is glimpsed in contrast with the “dull sphere” of the mundane world, where human animals tread. These glimpses, or intermittent visions, can occur at moments of disaggregation (e.g. “winter sunset”) of ordinary perceived and remembered (“dull”) forms allowing the imaginative recomposition of empyreal forms of extraordinary meaning and beauty.
The moment of disaggregation is only alluded to in “Hesperia”, in the sole expression “the winter sunset” at the beginning of the poem. The nihilist predicament is alluded to in the reference to the human animal limited to treading this dull sphere, and in the opposition between treading and dreaming. According to the poem “Dreams bring us close”, and by implication treading keeps us far.
Access to this realm is only partial and intermittent (according to the cycles of seasons and of hours). There is a path (“the way leads clear”), but it is a noetic path, open to dreamers but closed to treaders. It leads beyond the horizon to the “starlit streams” and the “vast void”
“The Ancient Track” contains these elements in a slightly more developped form. It is composed of 44 lines, compared to Hesperia‘s 14-line sonnet form. The moment is not sunset but night:
There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track
This distich, which opens the poem, is repeated three times, at the beginning of the first and second parts, and at the end. It seems charged with meaning, but the sense remains elusive. Given the thematics of the poem, in particular the danger of being misled by false memories of a dead pseudo-past, we may gloss the “hand”, absent, unwilling or powerless to “hold back” the poet as the dead hand of the past. The infinitive, “to hold me back”, is itself ambiguous between “in order to” and “capable of”, between purpose and capacity.
We are entitled to cite the words of another materialist here, Karl Marx, who was perhaps more oneiric than is usually believed:
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language…In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).
The poem recounts the narrator’s ascent of a hill, following a “path” or a “climbing road” that leads upwards to a “silhouetted crest”. His mind is filled with memories of familiar places and landmarks that he expects to see when he reaches the summit. He recognizes a “milestone” ten paces from the top but when he reaches the crest he sees a “mad scene”, a panorama of dead unfamiliar forms going to ruin in a “long-dead vale”:
A valley of the lost and dead…
…weeds and vines that grew
On ruined walls I never knew.
During the ascent the poet was immersed in the positive affects of expectancy, familiarity, order, certainty, confidence (“no fear”). He “knew” what he “would” see. Looking down, the poet confronts the affects of disappointment, confusion, unfamiliarity, loss, mockery, madness. Reaching the “crest” is a moment of noetic shock: trauma, disorder, confusion (“Around was fog”) and bifurcation.
The straight path towards an anticipated future that the poet had been following up till now divides into a “trail” that descends into the dead pseudo-past (“my loved past had never been”) and a “track” that leads “ahead” into “the Spray/Of star-streams in the Milky Way” (cf. the “starlit streams” in “Hesperia”).
Once again, as in “Hesperia”, we are invited to follow the noetic path, the skyline, or the line of the horizon. Descent is not an option:
Nor was I now upon the trail
Descending to that long-dead vale.
The spatial indications are interesting here. There is the ambiguity of “over” in the run on expression after the first distich:
There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track
Over the hill
“Over” can mean beyond, which would converge with the spatial indication in “Hesperia”:
The winter sunset, flaming beyond spires
And chimneys half-detached from this dull sphere,
Or it can mean above, as it does elsewhere in this poem:
And over Zaman’s Hill the horn
Of a malignant moon was born
Yet the numinosity of the star streams is not presented as even higher than, or above, the crest but as simply “ahead”.
The cosmology present in the two poems, “Hesperia” and “The Ancient Track”, is visibly the same. In “The Ancient Track” the nihilist element is accentuated, the dead past and the malignant moon, the madness and the menacing talons. The oniric vision is accessible if we relinquish the past and the illusions of memory, but the cosmos is material, there is no quest for transcendence. The weird contains both horror and wonder, but we are not by our very existence condemned, horror is not the final word. Nor is the fog.
Lovecraft is no warm and fuzzy optimist, unlike the narrator eager to return to the fields of his memory as he walks “straight on” (this is similar to the “human tread” of “Hesperia) during his ascent of the hill. Lovecraft acknowledges our disorientation and confusion, he recognises the emptiness of our illusions and memories, and warns us that horror borders and subtends our ordinary world. The horror is lying just around the corner, just “over the hill”, but so also is “the spray of star streams”.
Note: there is an interesting discussion of this poem on the excellent podcast Reading Short and Deep episode #005.
(3): “Ex Oblivione” or cosmicism is not pessimism
Lovecraft fully subscribed to the worldview of modern science, to what Michel Serres calls the Grand Narrative of science. He rejected all religion and all supernaturalism, declaring himself to be an atheist and a materialist.
“The cosmos is, in all probability, an eternal mass of shifting and mutually interacting force-patterns which our present visible universe, our tiny earth, and our puny race of organic beings, form merely a momentary and negligible incident. Thus my serious conception of reality is dynamically opposite to the fantastic position I take as an aesthete. In aesthetics, nothing interests me so much as the idea of strange suspensions of natural law – weird glimpses of terrifyingly elder worlds and abnormal dimensions, and faint scratchings from unknown outside abysses on the rim of the unknown cosmos. I think this kind of thing fascinates me all the more because I don’t believe a word of it!” ( Lovecraft, letter to R. Michael July 20, 1929).
His cosmos was scientific, but Lovecraft was aware of the danger of nihilism inherent in the transition from the religious worldview to such a scientific cosmos, indifferent to the life of humanity and to its cherished values.
In fact the problem is not so much science versus religion as the denoetisation of existence, the reduction to the human animal:
“Honestly, my hatred of the human animal mounts by leaps and bounds the more I see of the miserable vermin” (Selected Letters, 1.211).
Lovecraft’s materialism is not nihilism – the negation of all values, but cosmicism – the idea that our esthetic and moral values are of only relative validity, temporary and local concretions out of the the chaotic material flux of a vast and indifferent universe.
“Indifferentism”, understood as the indifference of the inhuman cosmos to insignificant human values, is not the problem, for why should the vast cosmos care about us? This is just the way things are for Lovecraft. However, cosmic indifference elevated into a human value and belief (pessimism, nihilism) is something else. Lovecraft’s stories constantly mock beliefs and cults as based on ignorance and anthropocentrism.
“Cosmic pessimism” is strictly a contradiction in terms for Lovecraft’s later philosophy. It represents a transitional anthropomorphic stage in the evolution from personalism to cosmicism. For Lovecraft’s Lucretian materialism we are nothing but atoms and the void, but the void is not reducible to mere emptiness. The void is also a plenum, from which all forms arise.
This void as plenum can be seen in Lovecraft’s last story “The Haunter of the Dark“, where the protagonist Robert Blake gazes into the “Shining Trapezohedron” an eerie complexly asymmetrical crystal:
This stone, once exposed, exerted upon Blake an almost alarming fascination. He could scarcely tear his eyes from it, and as he looked at its glistening surfaces he almost fancied it was transparent, with half-formed worlds of wonder within. Into his mind floated pictures of alien orbs with great stone towers, and other orbs with titan mountains and no mark of life, and still remoter spaces where only a stirring in vague blacknesses told of the presence of consciousness and will…. And beyond all else he glimpsed an infinite gulf of darkness, where solid and semi-solid forms were known only by their windy stirrings, and cloudy patterns of force seemed to superimpose order on chaos and hold forth a key to all the paradoxes and arcana of the worlds we know.
This experience of the void pregnant with multiple forms comes at a price, that of one’s identity. This loss of identity is ambiguous in its valence, and can constitute a negative version of the mystical experience if it is resisted or a more positive one if it is embraced. In the case of Robert Blake the experience is one of horror. He desperately clings to his identity as it begins to dissolve into that of Nyarlathotep:
“My name is Blake—Robert Harrison Blake of 620 East Knapp Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. . . . I am on this planet. . . .
“Azathoth have mercy!—the lightning no longer flashes—horrible—I can see everything with a monstrous sense that is not sight—light is dark and dark is light . . . those people on the hill . . . guard . . . candles and charms . . . their priests. . . .
“Sense of distance gone—far is near and near is far. No light—no glass—see that steeple—that tower—window—can hear—Roderick Usher—am mad or going mad—the thing is stirring and fumbling in the tower—I am it and it is I—I want to get out . . . must get out and unify the forces”
However the same experience can be actively sought out and welcomed as a merging with the plenum. This is what happens in the short story “Ex Oblivione“. The narrator is an experienced dreamer taking no pleasure in the mundane literal world. Perhaps this is the crucial difference with Robert Blake, who lives on College Hill and despite being a writer of weird fiction is too personalistic and literal-minded in his approach to the unknown.
In a golden valley of the dream world the narrator encounters a high wall with a locked bronze gate and desires to pass through it to the other side, despite contradictory reports of wonder and of horror waiting beyond. Finally the dreamer finds the instructions for the potion that will unlock the gate and finds happiness rather than horror in the loss of his identity:
But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hoped to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.
The paradox here lies in the act of enunciation. The purported author tells us the story of the dissolution of his identity “into that native infinity of crystal oblivion ” from which he came into life and to which he returned only, apparently, to be called forth once more. The ultimate character of the void is not that of a sterile empty chaos but of a fecund plenum of oblivion and birth of forms. Lovecraft’s encounter with this void did not lead to silence and despair or mad resistance but to literary friendship and the writing of weird fiction.
Note: there is a very interesting discussion of “Ex Oblivione” on The SFFaudio Podcast Episode #393 – AUDIOBOOK/READALONG: Ex Oblivione by H.P. Lovecraft