CHILDREN OF TIME: only an ethical uplift can save us

I found CHILDREN OF TIME slow going to begin with. I disliked the first chapter (but this is in fact normal as the point of view character, Dr Avrana Kern, is deliberately quite antipathetic) and put the book down for a while before trying again. Finally, the book was a very rewarding read, so I advise anyone with doubts at the beginning to persist.

The plot takes a while to pick up but I found the later social and technological evolution of the spiders interesting and enjoyable. There was a real attempt to imagine how the very different subjectivity of the intelligent Spiders could evolve and progress in similar but not identical ways towards greater civilization, despite their “uplift” being due to an accident.

The parallel plot of the decadence and devolution of the humans provided a predictable but satisfying counterpoint.

The imagination of a biology-based technology was well done, but it had the defect of biological determinism. Humans are glorified monkeys genetically lacking in empathy, and so biologically doomed as a species to self-extermination, unless some sort of ethical, as opposed to cognitive, uplift can occur.

This speculative premise recalls that of Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS TRILOGY, and the Spiders with their genetic technology recall the Oankali, except that their encounter with the Other is not driven by trade but by their capacity for empathy.

RAVEN STRATAGEM: sequelitis and its discontents

I really enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT, the first novel in the Machineries of Empire Trilogy and felt inspired to defend it from the Shadow Clarke’s critiques of its uncritical use of genre clichés, personality stereotypes and formulaic plot structure. I argued that these defects were more than compensated for by the novel’s speculative elements and the imaginative world-building. I eagerly awaited the sequel RAVEN STRATEGY, but I found it a disappointing, albeit pleasant, read.

This second novel contains a competent and enjoyable story set inside Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate universe. Unfortunately, there is not as much world-building and speculative beauty as in the first volume.

Instead of cosmology we get a sketchy sociology of the factions, each of which gives its members a faction-specific “super-power” (except for the Shuos) based on “exotic” technology (and so dependent on the reigning calendar). The interactions and power plays between the factions are explored in a little more detail, as are the quirks and foibles of the ruling hexarchs.

In conclusion, the Hexarchate universe is fleshed out with interesting and engaging details, and the number of important characters is increased, allowing a more complex intrigue. However, the supplement of sociological complexity does not compensate for the psychological simplicity of reducing characters to rather stereotypical faction and individual personality traits.

NINEFOX GAMBIT: the actual novel and its virtual shadow

I have been giving a generous or charitable reading of Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT. I don’t read much Space Opera, for precisely the reasons that many give for its personally and politically problematic, and so less enjoyable for me, nature.

I was enthusiastic about 9FG because it tied into my exploration of a turn towards an immanent or pluralist Platonism not just in philosophy but also in SF. I discussed Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM from this point of view (https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/immanentise-plato-on-neal-stephensons-anathem/) and was looking for other examples. Greg Egan’s PERMUTATION CITY seems to fit this trend, as does 9FG. In my post on ANATHEM I make a disinction between pluralism (ideas are testable, reality resists) and relativism (ideas are uncriticisable, reality is plastic). Relativism (what some call “post-modernism” falls under this category) is ultimately a form of magical thinking, pluralism lets reality have the last word.

This is where my interest in 9FG comes from. I did not agree with the popular reaction that it was fantasy disguised as SF, because a science fiction novel based on maths as the hard science rather than physics or biology necessarily projects a more plastic view of reality. So I am not totally satisfied with the notion that its world works on “alt-physics”, which seems to me to be a compromise solution to categorising its world-building. However, maths as basic science leads easily to multiple physics, so “alt-physics” may be a founded description in that sense.

I agree that the political analysis is not the books strong point, but this criterion is perhaps overly demanding, and would lead to exluding almost all science fiction (and not just space opera) from our speculative consideration. Nonetheless, the political analysis that is present goes in the sense of undermining the stereotypes of the genre. Obviously the hexarchate is an inexistent empire designed to strike us as “evil”, and so criticism of it comes cheap, but perhaps there are structural analogies with our own regime.

We know that given the choice between a demanding book where mathematics played an even greater role and a more ommercial book where maths was treated as just “magic”, Yoon Ha Lee chose the latter option. So I may be reacting to the book as if it were that first option, the virtual or shadow version of the actual book, but most books do not have a virtual version accompanying them. Still, this would constitute a good internal critique of the novel: that it does not live up to the expectations that it creates for itself. Perhaps this split between the virtual and the actual book explains the “torn” feeling that some reviewers (including me) have in accounting for their reactions to the book: it should have been more game-changing than it actually is.

I think that Yoon Ha Lee does achieve complexity of a sort, but it is at the price of privileging abstraction over description and of violating the precept “show don’t say”. His precept seems to be “when in doubt, say”. This is coupled with a tendency to employ an exotic vocabulary in a way that emphasises functionality over denotation. People seem to find the beginning of the book “difficult”, but the difficulty is more an artefact of this vagueness about denotation and description. The disappointing aspect of this procedure is that the abstraction promises more than it delivers.

But it does deliver. The political critique that people are looking for liess in the form of what Slavoj Zizek would call “ideological critique”, in particular of highlighting certain structural features of ideology rather than criticising any particular ideology. The novel displays just how deep ideology penetrates into our lives without it being a question of conscious ideas.

The notions of calendrical synchronisation of populations, in their religious and mass media applications, are pertinent to today’s theme of the “clash of civilisations” and the exclusion or persecution of those who live by different national narratives, or even just by different calendars. Their “remembrances” (here we can think of 9/11 or of “I am Charlie”) are not the same, and the “exotic” effects attained are different (drone warfare vs suicide bombings).

This is not psychology in the place of politics, but constitutes an interesting speculative take on an important psycho-political dimension of ideology. However, this dimension is abstracted out from the larger picture, hence the conrasted feeling of impressive world-building and simplistic plot and characters. Paradoxically, this abstraction is what has led to its appeal, and to the surplus enjoyment of having read a “difficult” book.

IS SPACE OPERA EVIL?: Ninefox Gambit and The Shadow Consensus

Three reviews take Yoon Ha Lee’s recent NINEFOX GAMBIT to task for its conformity to Manichean, individualist, élitist, anti-democratic, violence-banalising space opera tropes. All three reviews are from a shadowy institution calling itself the “shadow” Clarkes. There is a noteworthy convergence of views in the three posts, condemning the novel for its lack of political relevance (read “correctness”).

This unanimity is rather amusing given that the reviewers are commenting on a novel based on the dangers of convergence (the calendrical system is a synchronous regime of convergence and consensus) and of the over-riding imperative of political correctness.

NINEFOX GAMBIT is itself in part a critique of the genre of space opera and of the sort of narcissistically satisfying identification with the hero that it may encourage. Until proven otherwise by the sequels it seems to favour dis-identification rather than identification.

The idea of the calendar and the calendrical regime is a very Stieglerian idea: power operates by synchronisation. This calendarity plus the hexarchate’s six “factions” is a way of highlighting the stereotyping often present in the genre and of displaying its political and military enforcement.

On the question of the privileged focus on certain individuals to the detriment of the mass of real people, it is true the forward movement of the plot is driven by a small number of individuals. However, these are presented as both belonging within the stereotypes and as exceptions in the sense of not fully corresponding to their official type. So complexity is present in the diversification of the stereotypes (seven factions are involved) and in the undermining of those stereotypes by showing their inability to prevent exceptions being generated.

Links to the reviews:

https://csff-anglia.co.uk/clarke-shadow-jury/ninefox-gambit-by-yoon-ha-lee-a-review-by-jonathan-mccalmont/

https://csff-anglia.co.uk/clarke-shadow-jury/a-night-at-the-opera-ninefox-gambit-by-yoon-ha-lee-a-review-by-nina-allan/

https://csff-anglia.co.uk/clarke-shadow-jury/ninefox-gambit-by-yoon-ha-lee-a-review-by-megan-am/

The three reviews condemn not just NINEFOX GAMBIT (a novel that I like a lot) but space opera in general as vicarious escapist power-fantasy representing, sublimating, and thus banalising, compassionless violence and legitimating it by means of its concentration on an individualistic quest for redemption on the backdrop of the perpetual reiteration of the war-machine. Real people are missing, only the actions, motivations, past history and personalities of the main characters count.

What is missing from this tableau is the element of speculation itself.

NINEFOX GAMBIT (3): the ambiguity of space opera

Guattari thought that fascist desire was in the service of some transcendence, a fixed supreme value in the name of which the fascistic order is imposed. Being woke, being aware of the semiotic machine and the power mechanisms driving that imposition of an order, is not enough, but it is a good beginning in the process of deterritorialisation (estrangement) that can lead to greater freedom.

In these terms NINEFOX GAMBIT is a critique of fascism rather than its sublimated (because fantasy) and hyper-sublimated (because “woke”) satisfaction. The universe is explicitly described as fascistic, and the attempt to bring back a heptarchy is a fight for religious freedom and democracy, i.e. a struggle against the transcendent régime of the hexarchate.

The whole world-system and plot of the novel are even more Guattarian than Jonathan McCalmont’s use of him implies. True all of this crystallises around one individual, but I do not think that we are invited to identify with him. Enough is done to keep us alienated from him up to the very end. We learn his motives and strategy, but we are not incited to say “Oh OK, that’s all right then”.

The overall movement is from mystery to understanding, but not from negative to positive, and Jedao remains a very ambiguous figure, with a huge amount of negativity attached to him. We attain noetic catharsis, in that we understand him, but we do not attain ethical catharsis, since mass slaughter as a means to social emancipation and individual salvation is not something we can identify with.

Awareness without ethics is a form of self-deceptive self-indulgence, but the novel seems to me to have an ethical thrust that does not coincide with the motivations of the “hero”. This critique of the hero and his quest is not new in space opera, but goes back at least to DUNE, where the hero, Paul, becomes even more despotic than his predecessor, a woke Despot building his reign on fanatical devotion and submission.

NINEFOX GAMBIT (2): power-fantasy or philo-fiction?

Jonathan McCalmont has published a couple of interesting reviews of Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT (full review here, and later reflections on his personal blog).

I agree with everything that McCalmont says about the novel’s structural flaws, and in particular the problematic subordination of Yoon Ha Lee’s speculative inventivity and complexity to the fascistic, bellicose form of military science fiction. However, I don’t fully recognize the novel from McCalmont’s description.

1) The novel reads like both science fiction and fantasy, but there are many ways to blur or to undercut the distinction. In the case of NINEFOX GAMBIT I think that the “fantasy” aspect is only superficial. It is derived from the fact that the “hard” science underlying the story is not physics but mathematics. It has this structural feature in common with Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, which nonetheless is a very different sort of novel.

2) The speculative element of the Calendrical system is mathematical, religious, technological, and political all at once. I find this a stimulating extrapolation of recent philosophical attempts to cut across all these domains by means of a unified vision. In particular, the work of Bernard Stiegler gives central importance to the notion of “cardinality and calendarity” as regenting a society’s political imagination and technological projects. See for example: http://www.culturemachine.net/cm-media/vol5-tidy/Stiegler.htm.

“Calendarity and cardinality form the retentional systems that determine space and time relations and can thus never be separated from religious, spiritual and metaphysical questions. They inevitably refer to the origin and the end, to limits and boundaries, to the deepest perspectives of projection devices of all sorts. Today, calendarity and cardinality are profoundly disturbed. Night and day become interchangeable through artificial electric light and computer screens. The distance and the delay between circulating messages and information nullify each other and the behavioural programmes become correlatively globalised, which is experienced as a kind of cultural entropy, the destruction of life…people everywhere live their cultural singularity as proof of their vitality (of negentropy)”.

3) The fascistic backdrop is itself under criticism both inside the plot and within the world-building. The hexarchate is presented as totally unbalanced because it excluded and exterminated a seventh faction, the Liozh, the philosopher/ethicist caste eliminated for trying to introduce democracy and to free people from compulsory ritual observance of the “remembrances”. So the war is against the fascistic tendencies in favour of democracy and secularism, it is not just an unquestioned background for the hero’s quest for redemption that ends up getting legitimated by the protagonist’s process of individuation.

4) On this basis, but I may be completely wrong here and I may be very disappointed with the sequel, I don’t think that Jedao’s individualistic “the end justifies the means” approach is validated by the novel. He seems to think that slaughtering masses of his own people to get to be immortal in order to overthrow the system is ok, as long as it works. I think that the implication of the story is that Jedao underneath his simulated madness is really mad, because the system is mad, because it has excluded empathy, ethics, democracy.

RE-READING ALAN MOORE’S PROVIDENCE (1): dreams are bridges (to the underworld)

PROVIDENCE is a densely layered graphic novel devoted to re-imagining Lovecraft’s life and work in terms of the mythos that emerges from and subtends his creations.

These are not my “annotations” to the graphic novel, the people at the blog “Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence” have done an excellent job, and I am indebted to their work. I have also read with profit the discussions of PROVIDENCE on Sequart, by David Whittaker and by Matthew Kirshenblatt.

This is rather a set of “notes” in my digital Commonplace Book, recording my reveries or waking dreams as I re-read it. I am envisaging Moore’s work as a set of nested dreams, and adding my own to the already complex layering, dreaming the dream on.

The title PROVIDENCE is rich with multiple meanings when it is envisioned with respect to Lovecraft’s life and thought. One thinks first of divine providence, and the last comic in the series ends with Brears statement:

as far as anybody knows this is a predetermined universe, without free will. It’s all destiny,it’s all providence.

Lovecraft was an atheist and a mechanistic materialist, he did not believe in providence but he did believe in determinism. Strangely he was very attentive to dreams and he was fascinated by weird visions expressing anomalies and mad occurences that suspended or belied both divine providence and natural law.

“I am Providence” wrote Lovecraft in a letter to his aunt Lillian Clark. He was rejoicing at returning to his natal Providence after his two years’ exile in New York. Providence is not just a universal theological concept, it is also a specific geographical place.

The first sense of “providence” suggests generality and inevitability, the second suggests singularity and choice. Lovecraft chooses to return to Providence, after having chosen to leave it. Macrocosmic determinism is supplemented (or contested) by microcosmic, local freedom of choice.

A choice opens a bifurcation, or a bridge between two possibilities. Bridges are important in PROVIDENCE, which begins on its very first page on a bridge.

“Lillian” or “Lily”, whose mundane name is Jonathan Russell, is standing on a bridge in Bryant Park, New York City. He is tearing into pieces and throwing into the river a letter from his lover, Robert Black, who is the protagonist of the story if not the hero. The scene takes place after Black has broken with him despite Jonathan’s declaration of love, just before going to the local “suicide parlour” to put an end to his life.

Associatively, the name “Lillian” resonates with the title “Providence”, considering that Lovecraft makes his declaration “I am Providence” in a letter to his aunt Lillian.

“I am Providence” means also “I am not New York”. Lovecraft’s move to New York was a disaster, and he came very near to a nervous breakdown, perhaps even suicide. We find an echo of that experience in the opening paragraph of his short story “He“:

My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.

The protagonist of “He” had gone to New York in search of wonder and inspiration, but had found only horror and oppression. Robert Black moved to New York as a haven for his secrets: as a closet homosexual and a secular Jew. The move was motivated also by careerism, and he does not hesitate to choose his career over his secret life. He was also seeking inspiration as a writer, but this was not to be. His job as a journalist was petty and boring. Unlike Lovecraft returning to Providence, Black does not choose to return to his native Milwaukee. His quest to write a Great American Novel about a secret marginal underground America comes to dominate his life choices, to his undoing.

Much of Lovecraft’s fiction, and Moore’s PROVIDENCE, turns around the question: can a book plunge you into madness, make you go insane or drive you to suicide? But the same question can be posed in relation to a city. Can a city drive you mad? Lovecraft found this to be the case with New York, he was beginning to lose himself. Black too loses himself in New York, and plunges ever deeper into alienation and loss of self. He too, like Lily, will commit suicide at the end, unable to make the transition into the new world that his own quest and experiences, and their record in his Commonplace Book, made possible.

This new world, “Yuggoth”, will be the one dreamt by Cthulhu, whose birth at the end in issue #12 was made possible by Robert Black’s life and influence on Lovecraft, and by the influence that Lovecraft’s writings had on the modern world. Cthulhu will dream and so produce retroactively the circumstances, including Black’s undoing, leading to its birth.

This is a strange dream determinism, in which the future (re)writes the past to make its own existence possible. Dreams are bridges to other meanings and to other possibilities. The philosopher Bernard Stiegler emphasises this strange logic of microcosmic locality where bifurcations can be produced by means of waking dreams and visionary projects. As “Earth” our world is subject to mechanistic determinism and free will is an illusion, as “Yuggoth” it is subject to oniric determination, and producing a bifurcation and choosing one fork rather than another is a real pssibility.

Yuggoth is the Mythos name for the planet Pluto, but in the Mythos dream and waking reality commingle. Pluto is the name for the God of the Underworld, Hades, the world of shades and dreams. At the end of issue #12 Joshi, the Lovecraft scholar, asks “Is this our new world?”, and Brears replies:

“I think it’s Yuggoth now. I think maybe it’s always been Yuggoth”.

Cthulhu’s providence implies a very different ontology to the one compatible with divine providence, and a very different notion of determinism. Famously, Lovecraft’s aphorism “I am Providence” was enounced by Satan in his temptation of Saint Anthony. Thus the title “Providence” expresses another theme of the series, that of divine/demonic duplicity.

LOVECRAFT NOETIC DREAMER: from horrorism to cosmicism

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

SOME THOUGHTS ON PROVIDENCE #12

I have just finished reading Providence #12. It manages to tie a lot of threads together from the preceding issues, and also from Alan Moore’s The Courtyard and Neonomicon. It does this final wrap-up in a satisfying, but not mind-blowing way.

I liked the idea of all books and narratives as “spoors”, life from other worlds infiltrating our minds. Books and works of art are presented as not only mind-transforming but also world-changing devices, of a piece with dreams.

Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is integrated into the cast of characters as the last remaining scientist, a “Lovecraft scientist”, which I suppose we all are as readers of Lovecraft and Moore.

The blog FACTS IN THE CASE OF ALAN MOORE’S PROVIDENCE suggests an interpretation of Joshi, Perlman and Brears as representing the three major responses to Lovecraft’s work (scholarly and philosophical, proactive and combative, existential and spiritual). Moore himself seems closest to the Brears response of enlightened fatalism.

In the debate over whether horror or the dream is primary in Lovecraft, Moore seems to come down on the side of the dream. On the question of free will, Brears declares that as far as they know it’s a deterministic universe, but Johnny Carcosa (Nyarlathotep) affirms that the world is a fiction that easily submits to a stronger fiction, so determinism may not be the last word.

The balancing act of entertaining both hypotheses (mechanistic determinism and oniric agency) is nicely stated in the coda, which is a citation from Lovecraft’s “Beyond The Wall of Sleep“:

We may guess that in dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.

“La Chute de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent”: Aliette de Bodard, l’altérité et le fantastique postcolonial

Le nouveau roman d’Aliette de Bodard est une histoire fantastique insolite, défiant toute classification par genre: une fantasy urbaine, néo-Gothique, post-apocalyptique, qui mêle l’histoire alternative avec une cosmologie et une poly-théologie pluralistes.

Dès le début du roman, “La Chute de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent” est une lecture passionnante, que j’ai dévorée avec grand plaisir et aussi avec une grande hâte pour arriver au dénouement. La fin était très satisfaisante, mais le sens de clôture qu’elle apporte à l’histoire n’est pas définitive et on peut espérer qu’une suite sera écrite et publiée sans trop d’attente.

Le roman démarre avec une scène d’une grande force imaginative et affective: le récit de la “chute” d’un ange inconnu, déchu pour une faute jamais définie, dont les ailes sont petit à petit arrachées pendant la descente et qui au terme de sa déchéance se manifeste dans notre monde avec un cri annonçant à la fois une nouvelle naissance, une douleur immense et une perte déchirante.

Nous apprenons tout de suite que les “Déchus” sont une espèce en danger dans notre monde: on les recherche avidement en tant qu’alliés potentiels dans les luttes intestines entre les grandes “Maisons” qui partagent le pouvoir, conjuguant atrocités commises sans vergogne, intrigues labyrinthiques et stratégies politiques machiavéliques pour atteindre à l’hégémonie incontestée. Si par malheur une des bandes de pilleurs qui sillonnent la ville retrouve un nouveau Déchu, ils récoltent jusqu’au plus infimes parties de son corps pour se servir de la magie qu’elles contiennent, et qui peuvent être conservées en bouteille et stockées pour une utilisation ultérieure.

Le cadre c’est un Paris alternatif, en ruines. La ville a été à moitié détruite par une guerre magique dévastatrice, menée pour décider quelle Grande Maison dominera Paris. Étoile-du-Matin, le premier des Déchus, a disparu mystérieusement il y a vingt ans et depuis sa disparition la Maison qu’il a fondée, la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent, décline lentement en puissance et en influence.

Séléné, la seule apprentie encore en vie d’Étoile-du-Matin, devient à contrecœur et par défaut le nouveau chef de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent, puisque tous les apprentis plus anciens et mieux qualifiés sont morts. Sous le règne de Séléné, la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent est en déclin, en chute libre, perdant lentement mais sûrement tout son ancien pouvoir et son prestige et elle s’achemine vers le démantèlement. Étoile-du-Matin était unique, le premier et le plus puissant des Déchus, et personne ne peut assumer son héritage.

(Les thèmes du pouvoir, du déclin et de la chute et comme on le verra de l’exil, sont omniprésents dans ce roman).

Malgré la beauté et le détail du monde construit par Aliette de Bodard, cette cosmologie de type chrétien, n’embrasse pas la totalité du monde du roman, elle reste régionale. Le cadre cosmologique du livre n’est ni univoque ni mono-centrique. Le Paris Magique et les Anges Déchus sont au centre de cette histoire particulière, mais il y a aussi d’autres cosmologies en jeu, et d’autres histoires sont entr’aperçues. Ce décentrement et cette pluralisation du “worldbuilding” traditionnel du genre fantastique est une des forces du roman.

Philippe, un des protagonistes, n’est ni un homme mortel ni un ange déchu, mais autre chose entièrement: un ex-Immortel venant de l’Annam, le nom employé dans le roman pour désigner un Vietnam tout aussi fantastique que Paris, mais autrement. La description de ses perceptions et de ses actions, qui sont basées non pas sur la magie et sur la soif du pouvoir mais plutôt sur une sensibilité et sur un comportement plus écologiques, où ce qui importe est de sentir les courants du “chi” et notre relation aux cinq éléments, fournit un contrepoids puissant à l’expérience du pouvoir et de la hiérarchie qui caractérise les Déchus et à leur arrogance dans l’emploi cynique de cette magie pour atteindre leurs buts.

Du point de vue de la logique classique, ces deux cosmologies sont incompatibles, voire incommensurables, elles devraient s’exclure mutuellement. Aliette de Bodard n’explique pas comment leur interaction serait possible, son récit commence avec le fait brut de leur impossible coexistence et interaction, et avec leur méfiance et leur incompréhension mutuelles.

Il n’y a pas de grande méta-cosmologie qui surplombe tout et qui rassemble toutes les cosmologies divergentes en un Tout unique. Les gens doivent apprendre à s’entendre et à collaborer sans connaître toutes les règles, sans savoir comment tout se tient ensemble.

Les séquences racontées du point de vue de Philippe, un étranger vivant à Paris qui s’est exilé de son pays pour fuir les effets néfastes de la colonisation, empêchent le roman de retomber dans les rets d’un récit univoque raconté d’une perspective unifiée, une sorte de “Trône de Fer” situé dans un Paris magique et post-apocalyptique, ou la Chute de la Maison de Lucifer.

La Maison aux Flèches d’Argent capture Philippe et le rattache à sa “protection”, mais il ne s’y sentira jamais chez lui:

“Elle ne pourrait jamais être sa maison, même si elle avait été aussi accueillante que son foyer maternel. Il était… Annamien. Autre”.

Jadis Philippe était des Immortels de la cour de l’Empereur de Jade, mais il en a été banni. Ensuite il a été enrôlé de force dans l’armée d’une grande maison et dispatché à Paris pour combattre dans la guerre entre les Maisons pour l’hégémonie dans la ville. Ce conflit n’a aucun sens pour Philippe, qui la voit comme un combat impitoyable entre des adversaires qui se valent, tous également cyniques et corrompus.

Philippe aspire à la liberté et à la paix plutôt qu’à l’inféodation et à la guerre, et il reste radicalement aliéné du monde des grandes Maisons et des Déchus qui les dirigent et qui cherchent vainement à assurer leur sécurité dans une guerre fratricide pour posséder le monopole du pouvoir.

(Les thèmes de l’altérité, de la différence et de la divergence, sont eux aussi omniprésents dans le roman, apportant un sens de l’étrangeté et du pluralisme).

Philippe commence à avoir du sentiment pour les divers êtres qu’il côtoie sans vraiment les comprendre. La logique intellectuelle lui dicte de partir, dès qu’il trouve le moyen de s’évader, mais le sentiment, la compassion, un lien qui existe par dessus la fêlure de l’incompréhension, l’incite à rester et à participer dans une lutte qu’il ne croit pas être la sienne. Il reste fidèle à la vie concrète, aux personnes qu’il aime et non pas aux principes abstraits ou à l’honneur féodal.

(Les thèmes de l’amour de la diversité, du souci de l’autre, du lien, de la fidélité, de l’amitié, et de la communauté des petites gens parcourent le roman et s’affirment malgré les chutes, les divergences, les fêlures et les incompréhensions).

En conclusion, “La Chute de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent” est un roman d’une écriture claire et poétique. Ambitieux à la fois narrativement et conceptuellement, il se lit avec un grand plaisir et nous laisse impatients de lire la suite.