"Cosmic horror" and the question of the sublime in lovecraft.
Beyond superficial, thematic comparisons, however, can we really speak of sublimity in Lovecraft? Regarding the Burkean sublime in his fiction, does the subject's imagination partake in the ascending movement of the phenomenon in question, and is the phenomenon itself an index of a life-affirming notion of the absolute? With relation to the Kantian sublime, is the subject's supremacy over nature affirmed by its ability to reason in Lovecraft? In other words, is the sublime turn, a commonplace and pivotal aspect of the aesthetic category of sublimity, discernable in the Lovecraft Mythos? The pitfalls of both Nelson's and Will's essays hinge on this last question. While the strength of Nelson's analysis lies in its convincing elaboration of the pertinence of certain aspects of the Burkean sublime to Lovecraft's cosmic viewpoint, he is reluctant to acknowledge Burke's and Lovecraft's valorizations of objective properties that emphasize the heterogeneity of the experiencing subject. (2) This in turn leads him to provide an interpretation of the sublime in Lovecraft that fails to account satisfactorily for the experiencing subject, and uncritically conflates the religious awe attendant on Burkean sublimity with Lovecraft's antihumanist category of cosmic horror.
Although Will's essay develops a more thorough examination of the aesthetics of the sublime in question (Kantian) and its manifestation in Lovecraft's fiction, it nevertheless presents significant lacunae that any analysis of the Kantian sublime in Lovecraft must answer: What does the sublime mean to an atheist who denies not only the humanistic context of Kant's Idealist position, the a priori structure of cognition on which Kant bases his epistemology, and the idea of the noumenal, but, more importantly, the notion of free will upon which our relation to the noumenal is contingent? If, as Will contends, "Lovecraft demands that we recognize our own limitations and our relatively insignificant place in the cosmos" (20), then this recognition in Lovecraft is not counterbalanced by an awareness of our moral vocation, which, in Kant, places us above nature.
In Lovecraft, the subject suffers from a violation of its sense of self, but it is graced with no consolatory understanding of the human condition to mollify its fragmented psyche. With its identity and the foundations of its culture destroyed, the subject who experiences cosmic horror always succumbs to one of three comparably dreadful fates, judging from the standpoint of a balanced, rational mind: insanity, death, or the embracing of its miscegenated and no longer human condition. Nelson's and Will's essays consequently demonstrate that Lovecraft's fiction presents readers with the outward manifestations of sublimity prior to the sublime turn, but falls short of providing the subjective reconstitution concomitant to either the Burkean or Kantian notions of sublimity.
For Lovecraft, not one of the motifs associated with sublimity gives way to a reformulation of the subject's integrity, asserting both our humanity and reaffirming the culture that makes an experience of the sublime possible. If the human self remains fragmented, then it is because Lovecraft's fiction, particularly the effect of cosmic horror he aimed to convey in his stories, underscores the shortcomings of the humanistic mode of subjectivity upon which the sublime is predicated. Contrary to Nelson and Will, therefore, I argue that Lovecraft's fiction performs a collapse of signification that amounts to an implicit subversion of the sublime, the roots of which are to be found in his cosmic outlook. In denying humanism and revealing the ostensible unity of the human subject to be a fallacy, I contend that what Lovecraft's work affirms, albeit negatively, is a subjective crisis specific to the modern condition. It is a crisis, moreover, whose trajectory aligns itself with the abjection of self elaborated by Julia Kristeva in her psychoanalytic notion of subjectivity. In focusing exclusively on the impossibility of the sublime in Lovecraft's fiction in the first part of my analysis and in pointing to the interpretative possibilities offered by an abject reading of his notion of cosmic horror in the second portion of this essay, I hope to have provided a roadmap for future study of Lovecraftian aesthetics.
Part 1: The Impossibility of a Sublime Reading of Lovecraft's Fiction
The profound influence of two interconnected aspects of Lovecraft's view on existence can be discerned in his fiction: "cosmic indifferentism" and mechanistic materialism. Their combined impact on his fictional writings and poetics negates any possibility of the sublime in his Mythos. Lovecraft's position as a self-proclaimed "cosmic indifferentist" unites a metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic position defined, respectively, in terms of "an awareness of the vastness of the universe in both space and time"; "an awareness of the insignificance of human beings within the realm of the universe"; and "a literary expression of this insignificance, to be effected by the minimizing of human character and the display of the titanic gulfs of space and time" (Joshi, A Dreamer 182). The mechanistic materialist foundation of Lovecraft's cosmic indifferentism is evident in both his rejection of teleology and the idea of a divinity it implies as well as in his pronouncements on free will as a product of our (idealist) delusions. Lovecraft considers "the idea of deity" as "a logical and inevitable result of ignorance, since the savage can conceive of no action save by a volition and personality like his own" (Misc. Writings 165). In a strikingly anti-humanist stance, he views religion as a fiction that masks humanity's baser instincts. In "In Defence of Dagon," he affirms that "all religious demonstrativeness and ceremony is basically orgiastic" (Misc. Writings 166), a product of our inadequate sublimation of primitive compulsions. He holds instead that "all volition is merely a neural molecular process--a blind material instinct or impulse," and that "all organisms" possess "no conscious desire, no intelligent aspiration, no definite foreknowledge" (Misc. Writings 160, 161). The only aspect of Lovecraft's deterministic viewpoint that endows humanity with the illusion of freedom is chance. If life is "a process of stumbling in the dark--of recoiling from greater to lesser discomforts and dangers, and of groping for an increased amount of pleasures faintly tasted" (Misc. Writings 160), then chance provides us with the only potential for any kind of deviation from a determined course. It assumes greater significance in his later tales, wherein "Lovecraft permitted mankind no defense, except luck, against the unknown" (Leiber 54). Nevertheless, although chance and determinism are two notions necessarily at odds with each other, the assertion of the former in Lovecraft's fiction does not amount to freedom (3) for the subject. In Lovecraft, "chance" is the name those who cannot see all ends (4) give to events that they neither predicted nor foresaw. In denying the human subject freedom, an idea crucial to the aesthetics of sublimity, Lovecraft's worldview necessarily makes an experience of the sublime impossible.
As a pragmatic critical theory, cosmic horror further denies the humanistic basis requisite to any theory of sublimity by marginalizing human protagonists. Lovecraft's chief aim in his fiction, his attempt to lend credibility to the mood of cosmic horror he aspires to communicate, demands very little in terms of character development. The purpose of cosmic horror is to communicate an effect: "A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces" ("Supernatural Horror in Literature," Dagon 368). This mood originates in a fear of the unknown, which Lovecraft posits as the foundation of all weird literature ("Supernatural Horror in Literature," Dagon 365). Cosmic horror therefore issues from the same source as the sublime, which in part explains their likely conflation in the minds of some readers: an experiencing subject faced with phenomena that overwhelm its senses and cognitive faculties. Contrary to either Burkean or Kantian sublimity, however, which asserts the centrality of the human subject, the poetics particular to cosmic horror relegates it to the sidelines by reversing the order of priority that sublimity establishes between the subject and its objects, privileging the latter over the former. "The true 'hero' of a marvel tale," expounds Lovecraft, "is not any human being, but simply a set of phenomena" (Misc. Writings 118). Lovecraft is consequently interested in the development of individual identities only insofar as they serve the poetics of "cosmic horror."
On the one hand, his characters require neither individual personalities nor a complex psychology; "the possession of sensory apparatus in good working condition will suffice them" (Houellebecq 65, my translation). On the other hand, his fiction develops human protagonists just enough for their humanity to act as a liability, contributing to the alienating impact of cosmic horror. In "The Whisperer in the Darkness," "the very attributes that affirm Wilmarth's humanity are what render him vulnerable and alone in the domain of the fungi" (Dziemianowicz 181). As this story demonstrates, in Lovecraft's fiction our human perspective--what the sublime affirms--not only is severely limited in scope as a result of its anthropocentrism, but also poses a genuine threat to our existence in an environment dominated by alien beings far superior to us in might and intellect who are indifferent, if not outright hostile, to humanity. The human subject's estrangement is thus not simply spatial but also metaphysical: "One's sense of isolation is not merely a function of geographic space, but also of mental space; it can occur just as easily amongst a crowd and in the 'light' as in solitary out-of-the-way places if one is possessed of a knowledge that is sufficiently disorienting" (Dziemianowicz 186). This shift in focus evident in the poetics of cosmic horror from the human subject to a set of phenomena whose properties could give rise to a sense of the sublime, albeit in a different context (one in which the subject's humanity is affirmed at the sublime turn), suggests an implicit subversion of sublimity in Lovecraft's fiction.
The sublime, both Burkean and Kantian, appeals to a common sense whose basis in shared beliefs and practices makes our experience of sublimity possible. In spite of the divergent philosophical premises of their respective formulations of aesthetics (Burke's empiricism and Kant's Idealism), Burke and Kant acknowledge that our sensibility to sublimity is in large part extrinsic--the product of acculturation. Although Burke reasons that "the standard both of reason and Taste is the same in all human creatures" since we all possess the same sensory organs and are roused by stimuli in similar ways (14, 11), he nevertheless concedes that our taste can be improved upon by "extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise" (25). Likewise, Kant acknowledges that taste has no fixed standard. As a judgment, it "is not determinable by means of concepts and precepts" (Kant 163, [section]32:5:283). (5) It is of paramount importance, in other words, that we train our minds in "the cultivation of the moral feeling" (230, [section]60:5:356): "Without the development of moral ideas, that which we, prepared by culture, call sublime will appear merely repellent to the unrefined person" (148, [section]29:5:265). "Among all the faculties and talents," therefore, Kant reasons that "taste is precisely the one which [...] is most in need of the examples of what in the progress of culture has longest enjoyed approval if it is not quickly to fall back into barbarism" (164, [section]32:5:284). In binding Western culture by naturalizing its moral values and social bonds, the cultivation of taste is necessarily of supreme importance to the sublime (or to any aesthetic judgment). If the poetics of cosmic horror presages the collapse of culture into brutishness so feared by Kant, an analysis of its fictional expression in Lovecraft further demonstrates to what extent cosmic horror stands in stark contrast to the sublime: it destroys all aspects indispensable to the integrity of Lovecraft's white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and predominantly male characters' sense of selfhood--their traditions, morality, race, psyches, and bodies.
The thematic thread that unites Lovecraft's fiction, revealing not only what he saw as the false foundations of Christian humanism but also the Western subject's misplaced faith in its moral values, underscores the inherent, anti-humanist critique of sublimity cosmic horror performs. If a collective's only shared experience is one of perpetual horror and shock, then no appeal to a common sense requisite to the sublime is possible. In Lovecraft's Mythos, the Earth is but a small, insignificant planet among countless other habitable worlds, scarred by wars waged by aliens long before the birth of humanity. Lovecraft's fiction consequently denies our planet a place of importance in the universe and revokes the human privilege of having been the first species of higher intelligence to populate it. The direst critique of humanism in Lovecraft's mythology, however, is evident in the human characters' perception of the omnipotent alien races as gods. In light of the aliens' either complete disregard or seemingly malevolent intentions towards human beings, such a belief is ironic on two levels. First, as illustrated in "At the Mountains of Madness," the human race is the by-product of an accidental, biological alien experiment and is of little consequence to the Old Ones. Chance, and not divine grace, brought us into being. Just as Arthur Jermyn's ancestor played god to Congolese white apes in the "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family," these formidable aliens are perceived as deities by the characters in Lovecraft's fiction, which says little of our apparently sophisticated culture and humanity. "As inheritors of a simian past," remarks Bennett Lovett-Graff of "Arthur Jermyn," "we are the subjects of a determined and determining Nature, members of the very animal world to which we human beings have denied any vestige of free will" (Lovett-Graff 375). Second, where aliens intervene in human affairs, their intrusion is motivated by the kind of cold and calculating scientific self-interest we display in our interactions with earth's "lesser" life-forms (non-mammalian species such as reptiles, insects, and sea-creatures whose forms resemble those of Lovecraft's pantheon). (6) In the best of scenarios, notes Houellebecq, we eat earth's creatures of lesser intelligence; often, however, we destroy them for the mere joy of killing (15-16, my translation). Cosmic horror therefore not only dethrones the human subject whose pre-eminence sublimity affirms, but also questions the ethics of Western culture, the basis of the common sense that makes sublimity possible.
If some of Lovecraft's texts make reference to an ethical framework (for instance, texts that thematize witchcraft, alchemy, sorcery, and other black arts), it is a product of the limited human characters' misguided attempts to understand and contextualize the phenomena they confront. In these stories, Lovecraft presents a more direct critique of the moral values of Western culture that underpin the common sense indispensable to the sublime. The narrator of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" describes (albeit through Ward's focalization) Joseph Curwen, Ward's maternal uncle and alleged witch according to the ignorant townsfolk, as a man of science ahead of his time: "Not even Einstein, [Ward] declared, could more profoundly revolutionize the current conception of things" (Mountains 161). Similarly, as "The Rats in the Walls," "The Festival," "The Call of Cthulhu," and "The Haunter of the Dark" make evident, religious rituals in Lovecraft--usually affiliated with worship of the Old Ones--are depicted as the sadistic and barbaric practices of amoral, racially inferior beings whose humanity has been eroded almost beyond recognition. Their religion, a parody of traditional forms of worship that celebrate life and creation, is akin to an infection, seeking to destroy the cohesion of the body politic from within. It conflates and inverts the Christian beliefs in the resurrection and the second coming of Christ: "[The Great Old Ones] all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R'lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once again be ready for them" (Dunwich 140). The day of reckoning of the Great Old Ones, elucidates Castro in "The Call of Cthulhu," "would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy" (Dunwich 141). Transcendence of the human condition and the ascension to a divine state entail what amounts to a psychological regression. In encouraging the unchecked gratification of the death-drive, the worship of the Old Ones culminates in the subject's descent into the abyss of the id: "Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom" (Dunwich 141). Sublimity, the highly acculturated aesthetic category that depends upon and champions the divide between good and evil or reason and madness, perishes in the amoral soil of Lovecraft's Mythos.
If Lovecraft's characters enjoy a false sense of security as a result of their faith in their ancestral heritage, whose foundations often prove to subvert the very values they profess, then the dramatization of Lovecraft's anxieties about race miscegenation and the devolution of the species further undermine the sublime by illustrating the erosion of the Western subject's identity at the very core of being. In texts such as "The Rats in the Walls" and "Arthur Jermyn," which ostensibly are marginal to Lovecraft's myth cycle, (7) the white, aristocratic protagonists' respective confrontations with the horror of their miscegenation destroy both de la Poer and Arthur Jermyn. The sole surviving member of the de la Poer line loses his sanity upon ascertaining that his predecessors were vermin, both literally and metaphorically. Since the origin of his family line, his ancestors have been affiliated with the most perverse cults known to humanity and ignoble rites beyond description, of which cannibalism is only a token. Contrary to de la Poer, (8) who is overwhelmed by his ancestry and devolves into a rat, Arthur kills all his children and sets himself on fire upon discovering that he is part simian: the wife of his great-great-great-grandfather, one of the first explorers of the Congo region, was a white Congolese ape to whose community Sir Wade Jermyn played god. Arthur's alienation is total, regardless of his intellectual learning and sensitive poetic temperament. This text suggests that personal efforts and merits are meaningless in Lovecraft's universe. Jermyn's act of setting himself on fire may be construed as a symbolic attempt to purify himself and therefore atone for his ancestor's transgression. It can be interpreted as an attempt to identify his abject genealogy as sinful and thus to re-inscribe it in a moral framework, thereby weaving the story of his lineage into the fabric of his Western, Judeo-Christian cultural narrative. In the hands of another writer, perhaps Arthur's story would have been penned as a tragedy; in Lovecraft, his fate is far worse. Arthur is relegated to non-being by his peers: "Members of the Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed" (Dagon 82). Both texts offer analogous radical solutions to stem the threat of contamination to the body politic that de la Poer and Arthur Jermyn represent: similarly to de la Poer, whose fantastic transformation into a rodent erases him from human society, Arthur is expunged from the collective memory of his culture.
A comprehensive reading of Lovecraft's fiction encourages the reader to draw a parallel between the fate of ostensibly blueblood white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male characters such as de la Poer and Arthur Jermyn and the "evil" human beings of lowly class status and mixed blood. The defilement of the formers' individual identities is only a step removed from the debasement of the social body perpetrated by the rituals of the "singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux" who practiced "a curious form of devil-worship" (Dunwich 135) or of New Orleans' "men of very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type"--"negroes and mulattoes, largely of West Indian or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands"--who were members of the "blackest African voodoo circles" (Dunwich 139). On a moral scale, neither the bestiality of Arthur Jermyn's ancestor and his transgression of the species boundary nor de la Poer's immoral, rodent relatives' cult practices are any different from the kind of evil perpetrated by the lower castes who collectively worship aliens as gods. In Lovecraft's Mythos "evil," be it psychical, in terms of the drive to destruction, or genetic, in terms of ruinous hereditary traits, is within each of us, and the disintegration of our humanity on an individual basis heralds the collapse of social integrity. Within Lovecraft's myth cycle, in other words, we are all, in some sense, inherently debased to the level of those races and cultures Lovecraft considers inferior.
It is significant to note, however, that this collective debasement does not amount to a perverse affirmation of equality among human beings of different races and cultures. The degeneration of the other--any entity that is not male, white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant--is always more apparent in Lovecraft, suggesting, often explicitly, that those who are not members of this gender and idealized racial group not only possess an inherent susceptibility to moral, psychical, and physical corruption, but are deemed as being less able to repress or control instinctive, animalistic urges. For example, in "The Colour out of Space," it is a woman, Mrs. Gardner, who first succumbs to the vampiric designs of the alien color, loses her mind, and assumes the gothic role of the "madwoman in the attic." In "Arthur Jermyn," the crossing of species boundaries in the defilement of the Jermyn line points to a barely veiled and exceedingly offensive commentary on race miscegenation in which one's African ancestry is defined as a kind of atavistic "contamination" whose symptoms include brutishness, idiocy, and vice. Not surprisingly, moreover, such pollution originates from Jermyn's maternal line, once again aligning the feminine with the monstrous and the irrational. As an abject mother, the Congolese white ape is similar to Lavinia Whateley, "the somewhat deformed, unattractive albino" (Dunwich 159) in "The Dunwich Horror": both give birth to abominable creatures. Taken together, the motif of the already corrupted and hence barely human other and the debasement of the Western subject's sense of self make evident that it is our collective iniquity and not our moral vocation which serves as the basis for any shared experience in Lovecraft. In other words, Lovecraft's Mythos offers an implicit parody of the notion of common sense necessary to the sublime.
Undoubtedly, in a fictional context that undermines both the human subject and the culture necessary to sublimity, the dramatization of characters' encounters with objects whose attributes ought to inspire the sublime underscores instead their experience of cosmic horror and the concomitant erosion of their subjective integrity. In particular, Lovecraft sabotages the traditional function of landscape in an experience of sublimity, popularized in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century gothic fiction. To cite two canonical texts as contrasts with Lovecraft's subversion of the sublime in nature, both Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) offer exemplary instances of the kinds of conciliatory experiences of the human condition the Romantics sought in their practice of what can be deemed "sublime tourism." Tellingly, Udolpho opens with a landscape description that, in alluding to nature's might and formlessness, cites aspects prevalent to sublimity in nature: the "tremendous precipices" of the "majestic Pyrenees," "whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, [were] seen, and lost again as the partial vapours rolled along" (Radcliffe 5). Most significant, however, is the taste for natural sublimity cultivated by the story's protagonist, Emily St. Aubert. Emily's father educates her to possess the kind of self-restraint requisite to an aesthetic judgment: he instructs her "to acquire that steady dignity of mind, that can alone counterbalance the passions," and "cultivate[s] her understanding with the most scrupulous care" (Radcliffe 9). Moreover, in a novel that champions the integrity of the human subject, (9) the acute development of Emily's taste is brought about by her initiation into the canonical works and ideas valued by Western culture during her epoch. (10) Such an upbringing cannot fail to inspire in Emily a proclivity for certain types of natural phenomena, whose contemplation elevates her mind:
It was one of Emily's earliest pleasures to ramble among the scenes of nature; nor was it in the soft and glowing landscape that she most delighted; she loved more the wild wood-walks, that skirted the mountain; and still more the mountain's stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. (Radcliffe 9-10, capitalization in original)
Echoing Burke's notion of sublimity, particularly the categories of infinity and obscurity, (11) this excerpt reveals how nature acts as a vehicle through which Emily contemplates the Divine. Such an affirmative experience of phenomena whose objective properties could, under different circumstances, induce a feeling of horror as a result of the sense of self-loss the subject experiences, can only be possible to a heroine whose trials confirm her faith in humanity. In other words, she is one for whom the sublime turn is possible. In spite of Emily's suffering at the hands of her captor Signor Montoni, neither her moral nor physical purity is ever compromised. By means of Emily's characterization and the life-affirming narrative in which she figures, Radcliffe casts Emily as both the inheritor and perpetuator of the Western, patriarchal system of values essential to the sublime.
In a manner analogous to Udolpho, the contemplation of landscape in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein fills the subject "with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy" (Shelley 75). That is to say, it raises the human being's spirits and weaves its humanity into the fabric of Divine creation. Following the murder of Victor's youngest brother, William, at the hands of the monster the former created, Victor's experience of sublimity in nature affords him with a measure of solace and a temporary respite from the thoughts that burden his conscience. After a family excursion to the valley of Chamounix, Victor relates the following regarding the scenery's positive emotional impact upon his tormented psyche:
We visited the source of the Arveiron, and rode about the valley until evening. These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving. They elevated me from all littleness of feeling; and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquilized it. In some degree, also, they diverted my mind from the thoughts over which it had brooded for the last month. I returned in the evening, fatigued, but less unhappy, and conversed with my family with more cheerfulness than had been my custom for some time. (Shelley 74)
In spite of Victor's fragmented sense of self and increasing estrangement from his family, he is nonetheless capable of being roused by certain natural spectacles that alert him to the intrinsic nobility of the human mind. If Victor dies an alienated and broken man or, put another way, if, in recounting how Victor's Promethean pursuit claims his sanity, life, and the bonds that tie him to society--in short, in describing how he loses his subjective integrity--Frankenstein seemingly presents a bleaker view of the human condition than Udolpho, then it does so only marginally. As the rousing speech Victor delivers to Robert Walton's sailors to "be men, or be more than men" (Shelley 183) shortly before his death confirms, his faith in the human quest for transcendence remains unshaken in spite of his wretched condition at the end of the narrative. Furthermore, Victor believes his "purpose" in destroying the monster to have been "assigned to [him] by heaven" (Shelley 183). Both his description of Robert's Arctic expedition as a heroic journey of epic grandeur and his belief in a pre-ordained, divine plan are products of his immersion in and upholding of a cultural context that fosters sublimity, similar to that elaborated in Udolpho. Finally, although Victor may vanish from the world that produced him, he lives up to his name: his efforts to annihilate the monster ensure that the society from which he originated continues to exist and thus to perpetuate its values. While Frankenstein dramatizes the destruction of the experiencing subject of the sublime, in other words, contrary to Lovecraft's fiction it nevertheless defends the culture that makes sublimity possible.
"At the Mountains of Madness" offers the most thematically contiguous example in the Lovecraft Mythos to the edifying mountainous landscapes the subject encounters in Radcliffe and Shelley. The story dramatizes a New England scientific team's exploration of the continent of Antarctica, one of the early twentieth century's last remaining terrestrial frontiers, whose peaks of boundless height and subterranean, aquatic abysses of limitless depth seem to offer propitious vehicles for the human subject's experience of the sublime in nature. Approaching Antarctica by sea, the narrator, Professor Dyer, geologist and faculty member of Lovecraft's fictional Miskatonic University, recounts the "thrill of excitement" he and the expedition members felt "at beholding the vast, lofty, and snow-clad mountain chain which opened out and covered the whole vista ahead" (Mountains 7, emphasis added). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, even when used literally the adjective "lofty" exceeds the bounds of a simple, objective description to include both the elevating emotional impact that the object in question compels from the viewer as well as a reference to the rhetorical category of sublimity (OED). It would seem, therefore, that the narrator and crew's observation of the imposing mountain range incites in them a feeling of ennoblement analogous to the sublime after the turn. Comprising what the reader can presume are white, educated men (on the one hand, in his fiction Lovecraft usually makes a point of noting the race of characters who are not white, Anglo-Saxon, and of Protestant faith; on the other hand, the narrator describes the party as being made up of New England scientists, graduate students, and skilled mechanics), the group's cohesive response to the natural spectacle before them is plausible in light of their probable shared Western, humanistic values: they have been acculturated to experience the sublime in nature.
Nonetheless, contrary to Frankenstein and Udolpho, only when in a state of ignorance can the subject in Lovecraft feel dignified by its viewing of any natural phenomenon, and such an emotion cannot be sustained for long. As suggested by the use of the modifier "madness" in the story's title to qualify "mountains," the text dramatizes the defilement of human protagonists' subjective integrity, particularly in terms of their loss of faith in reason and scientific progress. A key transition point in the text further corroborates the humbling turn of cosmic horror in "Mountains":
Every incident of that four-and-a-half-hour flight is burned into my recollection because of its crucial position in my life. It marked my loss, at the age of fifty-four, of all that peace and balance which the normal mind possesses through its accustomed conception of external Nature and Nature's laws. Thenceforward the ten of us--but the student Danforth and myself above all others--were to face a hideously amplified world of lurking horrors which nothing can erase from our emotions, and which we would refrain from sharing with mankind if we could. (Mountains 28)
This passage points to the erosion of an intelligible cultural narrative that situates the human being at its center as constituting the fundamental break with sublimity of Lovecraft's cosmic horror in "Mountains." With the overthrow of "that peace and balance which the normal mind possesses" and their "accustomed conception of external Nature and Nature's laws" proven false, a sublime turn becomes impossible for the surviving explorers. In Burkean terms, no Supreme Being (whose existence collapses once the culture that makes such a belief possible ceases to function) guarantees the subject's integrity during the imagination's dynamic ascent. Likewise, from a Kantian perspective, with the foundations of reason destroyed, no supra-sensible faculty of the mind checks and supersedes the imagination's boundless extension as it contemplates a "hideously amplified world of lurking horrors." Contrary to sublimity, in "Mountains" nothing directs the subject back into itself; the observation of natural phenomena acts instead as a vehicle for the subject's psychical unhinging.
The impossibility of an experience of the sublime in Lovecraft, intrinsically tied to characters' coming into awareness of Western culture's failure to represent the world as it really is, becomes apparent in Lovecraft's juxtaposition of protagonists' initial, aesthetic responses to natural spectacles in "Mountains" with descriptions of their uncultivated, instinctive sense of repulsion towards the same objects. For instance, Lovecraft follows the narrator's elevating reflection on the Antarctic mountains with an elaboration of the menacing impressions the last part of his approach to the world's southernmost continent makes upon his imagination:
Through the desolate summits swept raging intermittent gusts of the terrible antarctic [sic] wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious, mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible. Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, (12) and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. (Mountains 7, emphasis original)
At this juncture "Mountains" takes a decidedly Lovecraftian turn, foreshadowing the narrator and Danforth's ominous discoveries of the abject, accidental origin of human life as well as of the Shoggoths and their visceral decimation of the superior, humanized Elder Ones.
On the one hand, the reference to the fictional Necronomicon, a "dreaded" and "monstrous" book the narrator was sorry to have "ever looked into" (Mountains 7) is significant. Invariably described as having been written by a "mad Arab" and featured in a number of Lovecraft stories to presage the subject's impending experience of cosmic horror, the Necronomicon (13) underscores a fear in Lovecraft of all things eastern as symptomatic of the irrational, morally corrupting, and emasculating influence of the feminine upon the "rational" and "civilized" white, Western male subject. Of import here, moreover, is how "Mountains" both attributes what would be deemed by a rational mind as undue importance to the Necronomicon and implicitly privileges its cosmic indifferentist narrative of existence over any affirmative understanding of creation. The mental association Dyer draws between the "desolate summits" he espies and the "evilly fabled plateau of Leng," purportedly located in Asia and alluded to in the notorious Necronomicon, is later corroborated by his exploration of the extra-stellar Old One's ancient city: "The conviction grew upon us that this hideous upland must indeed be the fabled nightmare plateau of Leng which even the mad author of the Necronomicon was reluctant to discuss" (Mountains 70). In suggesting that the Necronomicon--a cryptic book written by a madman, whose revelations necessarily undermine the foundations of Western culture--is a reliable source of knowledge about the world, the existence of the mythic plateau of Leng challenges the value system that makes sublimity possible. From a meta-textual standpoint, the specific connection the Antarctic scene invokes in the professor's mind with a landscape in the Necronomicon undercuts the sublime by framing the crew's epic mission to penetrate and conquer unknown, virgin territories into a narrative of horror, where the only possible outcome of their ill-fated quest is the debasement of their human subjectivity.
On the other hand, the sound of the Antarctic wind, whose horror is predicated on the fact that it is the Shoggoths, in imitation of the Old Ones, who produce it, rouses an "unconscious, mnemonic" (14) (Mountains 7) sense of alarm in Dyer or, elsewhere, stirs up "a cloudy note of reminiscent repulsion" in the human listener (Mountains 43) that further confirms the anti-sublime turn of cosmic horror in "Mountains." Intrinsically connected to "the racial memory of man--or of his predecessors" (Mountains 29), this kind of unconscious, inherited memory trace is allied to the instinctive side of human nature and is hence antithetical to reason. The narrative's validation of this type of atavistic memory as a form of knowledge based upon the true outlines of the world and of the human condition is ultimately humiliating to the human subject on two fronts. First, in superseding rational, scientific methodology--one of the exemplary products of Western culture--as a means of gaining knowledge of the world, the instinctive memory trace champions humanity's animalistic, primitive side and casts "Mountains" as a reactionary tale against scientific positivism. Second, it reveals the false foundation of humanism in its hinting of our unconscious awareness of the cosmic indifferentist truth about the human condition, a reality of which the professor becomes (consciously) cognizant when he reads the bas-reliefs of the Cyclopean city: we are not the first intelligent species to have populated the Earth; we were made by accident by superior, alien entities; and, in a manner similar to our interaction with species we deem to be inferior to ours, these beings used us for "food and sometimes as [...] amusing buffoon[s]" (Mountains 65). Rather than validating Dyer's initial sublime experience of the Antarctic mountains, natural phenomena--the landscape's fantastic outlines and the sound of the wind--thus function as indexes of "cosmic horror," presaging the corrosion of the human subject's sense of self at the crux of Lovecraft's work. (15)
Before turning to an explication of "The Rats in the Walls" and "Dagon," two exemplary texts that further elucidate the implicit subversion of sublimity that cosmic horror performs, one last aspect of "Mountains" merits analysis for its trenchant critique of the human condition: the saga of the Old Ones. In Lovecraft, the all-pervasive, ignominious force of cosmic horror spares no entity; the defilement of the human subject finds its parallel in the history of the magnanimous Old Ones, whose atavistic physical decline, growing cultural decadence, and obliteration at the hands their slaves, the Shoggoths, expunge the heroic grandeur observable in their civilization's early stages. The narrative of the Old Ones' race, particularly the debasing fate that befalls them, therefore acts as a transforming mirror that reflects the human condition in a cosmic indifferentist universe. First and foremost, it compels the professor to acknowledge that no culture, however sophisticated and idealistic in its social practices, can withstand permanently the chaos existing within and without. Second but equally important, the Old Ones' annihilation by the Shoggoths presents a mise en abime of a dominant leitmotif in Lovecraft's fiction: human protagonists' abhorrence and dread of inassimilable alterity.
Initially, the Old Ones represent a radical otherness from a human standpoint: they smell foul, possess a hybrid, part vegetable, part animal morphology, and are monstrous in appearance. Moreover, they constitute a source of "soul-clutching horror" (Mountains 31) to Dyer for their seemingly savage devastation of Lake's camp. Nevertheless, in spite of the ostensibly insurmountable obstacles such facts present to the narrator's human capacity to feel empathy towards them, his exposure to their culture neutralizes his apprehensions. In a narrative turn indicative of Lovecraft's later tales that appears to echo his adoption of a more progressive outlook on the world, (16) the geology professor develops a feeling of kinship towards the Old Ones as a result of his deciphering of the bas-reliefs that adorn the walls of their city. His recognition of the Old Ones' "historical-mindedness" and aesthetic appreciation of their art, whose technique "was mature, accomplished, and aesthetically evolved to the highest degree of civilized mastery" (Mountains 56, 57), culminate in his complete identification with them. Unlike texts such as "The Shadow over Innsmouth," in which the human subject's affiliation with the other results in the loss of its humanity, in "Mountains" a reverse dynamic occurs in which the alien entity is humanized, compelling Dyer to excuse its brutal murders of his colleagues and to elevate its race above the "white simians" of Earth:
They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them--as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste--and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not even been savages--for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch--perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and with a dazed defence against them and the equally frantic white simians with queer wrappings and paraphernalia ... poor Lake, poor Gedney ... and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last--what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn--what ever they had been, they were men! (Mountains 95-6)
The professor's emotional connection with the Old Ones is further reinforced by his discovery of their biological and psychical vulnerabilities. Their genetic makeup, however diverse from and superior to our own, is predisposed to "retrogression from forms still more complex" (Mountains 25). Furthermore, they too are susceptible to experiencing fear: "The denizens of that city had themselves known the clutch of oppressive terror; for there was a sombre and recurrent type of scene in which the Old Ones were shewn [sic] in the act of recoiling affrightedly from some object--never allowed to appear in the design" (Mountains 73). In a manner similar to human beings, therefore, the Old Ones are finite and fallible.
No longer a source of trauma for the human subject, the alien is absorbed into the humanistic signifying system that fosters sublimity. In particular, the professor situates their civilization within a utopian, Platonic framework. From what he discerns of their purely asexual reproduction; unparalleled educational system, which "produces a tenaciously enduring set of customs and institutions" (Mountains 64); the historical, and therefore rational, purpose of artistic creation; and the organizing of households based on "congenial mental association" (Mountains 64); the Old Ones' mode of existence represent a kind of ideal, socialist society governed exclusively by reason. The white, Western male subject's overcoming of its aversion of the Old Ones' physical form and feeling of affinity towards their societal structure implicitly suggest that, in Lovecraft, acceptance of other races is possible only when their principles and behavior echo Western ideals. Nevertheless, not even under such a fortuitous circumstance--the discovery of an alien civilization whose cultural context is comparable to that shared by the explorers--can an experience of the sublime occur in the Lovecraft Mythos. The feeling of sympathy Dyer expresses towards the Old Ones only serves to augment the shock of cosmic horror by making the human subject complicit in their fate, and nowhere is this more evident than in the professor's failure to feel edified when looking upon the ruins of the Old Ones' metropolis.
In terms that parallel Dyer's inability to sustain a sense of the sublime in his observation of nature in "Mountains," the contemplation of ruins, a motif prevalent in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature that dramatizes the sublime, fails to rouse the concomitant sense of awe in the viewer. As vehicles of sublimity, vestigial traces of civilization affirm the humanity of the experiencing subject in a manner analogous to the mathematically and dynamically sublimes in Kant. On the one hand, we feel pain in our imagination's extension and subsequent contraction, brought on by its incapacity to present positively either the ceaseless, infinite passing of time or a situation in which we could defend the finite products of our culture against the blind, all-pervasive onslaught of nature. In both cases, we are made aware of the limitations of our sensible faculties and of our mortal condition. However, at the sublime turn our ability to reason alerts us to the power of our moral vocation, which surpasses every standard of sense. In spite of the transient status of human life, we are called upon by our moral faculty to champion the products of our culture and to carry on our creative endeavors since both the objects themselves and the drive at the heart of cultural production are representative of human freedom.
In appealing to Burke's categories of vastness and magnitude in building or to the mathematical sublime in Kant, the Old Ones' city--its "incalculable extent," inestimable age, and the "Cyclopean massiveness and giganticism" of its architectural design (Mountains 45, 56)--is seemingly designed to rouse a sense of sublimity in the viewer. The professor's admission that his "imagination sometimes escaped all bounds and roved aimlessly in realms of fantastic association" (Mountains 47) as he flew over the metropolis appears to sustain such a reading. More importantly, in light of the compassion Dyer feels towards the Old Ones and his humanizing of both their alien form and culture, his contemplation of the city's ruins ought to inspire a sobering reflection upon the human condition and a subsequent affirmation of creative freedom. Instead, his observation of the city produces a sense of dread in him: he describes the "giganticism" of the metropolis' architecture as "curiously oppressive" (Mountains 56), continuously refers to its existence as "blasphemous," and confesses that the "ridgy, barrel-shaped designs" of its headlands "stirred up oddly vague, hateful, and confusing semi-remembrances" (Mountains 48) in him analogous to those roused by the "half-sentient musical piping" sound of the wind. Both the subject's inability to feel an ennobling awe in the face the ruins of the alien city and the sense of revulsion they inspire instead in the viewer therefore indicate that the traces of the Old Ones' highly sophisticated civilization function as indexes of cosmic horror.
The professor's coming into awareness of the fate that befalls the humanized Old Ones at the hands of their monstrous slaves not only offers one of the most perverse critiques of humanism in Lovecraft, but it also substantiates the impossibility of an affirmative sublime turn in "Mountains" by uncovering the source of the horror felt by human protagonists in their contemplation of the alien city. In spite of their dignity of spirit and unequalled cultural achievements, the god-like Old Ones, "makers and enslavers of life on earth" (Mountains 59), are impotent against the Shoggoths, and it is this discovery that unhinges the minds of Dyer and Danforth. As the antithesis of the virile, erudite, socially-refined, rational, and humanized Old Ones--avatars of Lovecraft's prized white, Western male subject in an alien universe--the soft, plastic, amorphous, anarchistic, innately perverse, and infinitely adaptable Shoggoths encapsulate a form of radical, inassimilable alterity that poses a threat to any ordered civilization. Created as "ideal slaves to perform the heavy work of the community" and controlled by "hypnotic influence," the Shoggoths have neither a culture of their own nor an intrinsic bodily form, since, as "entities composed of a viscous jelly which looked like an agglutination of bubbles," "their tissues" can be molded "into all sorts of temporary organs" (Mountains 67, 62). Thus, when, by means of their acquisition of a "stubborn volition" that "echoed the will of the Old Ones without always obeying it" (Mountains 67), the Shoggoths eventually overpower and decimate their masters, their actions are not motivated by an affirmative desire to defend their traditions or to create a new society predicated on emancipation from bondage. Instead--and this is the true horror of "Mountains"--they are driven to deface the civilization of the Old Ones and their nobility as a species by performing an ironic mimicry of their morphology and culture. For example, "they seemed to converse with the Old Ones by mimicking their voices--a sort of musical piping over a wide range" (Mountains 75). Likewise, the "coarse, bold," and adulterated art Dyer and Danforth find in an area whose "glistening floors" (Mountains 92, 91) point to the Shoggoths' recent passage reveal their mode of being to be predicated on a subversive emulation of the Old Ones' culture: significantly, their art is marked by a "subtly but profoundly alien element [.] added to the aesthetic feeling behind the technique" of their superior creators, and "seemed more like a parody than a perpetuation" of their masters' pictorial tradition (Mountains 91, 92). (17)
Without a doubt, moreover, the reader is given to understand that the "vital freaks" that come into being at the twilight of the Old One's civilization are indeed Shoggoths passing for Elder Ones (Mountains 77). As simulacra of their masters, the Shoggoths' only purpose is to undermine the integrity of the original upon which they are modeled. They simultaneously represent chaos, the death-drive, the unchecked rule of the id, or the oppressive feminine. (18) If their creative potential fills the professor with "horror and loathing" (Mountains 67) when he observes mere representations of them in the bas-reliefs of the alien city, then his coming face to face with a member of their species induces a trauma from which he never recovers: "But there are some experiences and intimations which scar too deeply to permit healing, and leave only such added sensitiveness that memory inspires all the original horror" (Mountains 93).
The fate of the Old Ones thus presents an allegory of the human condition in a cosmic indifferentist universe: beings greater than men succumb to a fall that is anything but epic. As the "total decapitation" of the surviving members of their race suggests, the rationality that the Old Ones represent is immersed in chaos as their heads are violently incorporated by means of "some hellish tearing or suction" into the gelatinous matter that constitutes the Shoggoths (Mountains 94). The unmistakably visceral emphasis of a death by "suction" heralds the violent return of the body and its concrete, revolting materiality in a culture that privileges rational sublimation. Thus, in offering indexical traces of the Old Ones' brutal absorption by a phenomenon (the Shoggoth) whose ontology is founded on the usurpation of their power and debasement of their identity--a phenomenon whose existence necessarily destroys the common sense that forms the basis for sublimity--the ruins of the Old Ones' city fail to inspire a sense of the sublime in the human subject by denying the affirmative turn of sublimity that grounds the subject back into itself. What's worse, in introducing the parasitic Shoggoth, a devastating, inassimilable, horror-inducing entity whose ontology is predicated on the perverse assimilation of another identity, "Mountains" expands the scope of the threat it poses to encompass all human life, foreshadowing the obliteration of humanity.
In "Mountains," Lovecraft's references to objective properties in nature and architecture that ought to give rise to a feeling of sublimity underscore instead his fiction's departure from the conventions requisite to the dramatization of such an experience that are commonplace in canonical gothic fiction such as Frankenstein and Udolpho. Two other texts merit elucidation for their decisive negation of sublimity along parallel lines: "The Rats in the Walls" and "Dagon." In "The Rats in the Walls," the formal properties of the "subterranean world of limitless mystery" (Dunwich 41-2) that the investigative party discovers beneath the de la Poers' family estate in Exham Priory ostensibly appeal to the Burkean category of infinity and to Kant's mathematically sublime. Its "boundless depth," "infinity of pits," and immeasurable age--the party "tr[ies] to keep for the nonce from thinking of the events which must have taken place three hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand years ago" (Dunwich 41-2, 43)--inspire the expansion of de la Poer's imagination to such an extent that the "twilight grotto" permits comparison only with the epic, mythical landscape of hell. He refers to it as both the "antechamber of hell" and a "grisly Tartarus," and makes reference to the "sightless Stygian worlds" it contains (Dunwich 42, 44, 43).
Nonetheless, Lovecraft implicitly undercuts the sublime in "Rats" by parodying the affirmative scope of the turn integral to both Burkean and Kantian sublimity, the notion of common sense that makes the sublime possible, and by providing the experiencing subject with no objective distance from which to enjoy the spectacle in question. The full disclosure of the mystery surrounding Exham Priory and de la Poer's ancestry at the text's dramatic conclusion neither induces the subject's awareness of its moral vocation (what Kant identifies as the sublimity of the human mind), nor does it enable the subject's sharing in the dynamics of ascent of the Burkean sublime, permitting the subject to cognize and to participate in the power of the Creator (Burke 59, section 5, "On Power"). The ancestral residence of the de la Poers was the site of nameless horrors involving primordial, unholy rites; barbaric acts of torture against animals and human beings; cannibalism; and, perhaps most revolting of all, human devolution into giant, rapacious rats. To make matters worse, the site's pernicious influence over its residents still lingers, denying its explorers the objective distance necessary to an experience of sublimity. While inspecting the grottos' vaults, the narrator yields to an unprecedented fit of madness and half devours the face of his friend Norrys as his speech regresses into incoherent grunts. Upon witnessing this abhorrent spectacle, moreover, Thornton, a member of the search team, immediately loses consciousness and subsequently goes mad. The failure of both characters to recover fully from their mental collapse is a testament to the power of cosmic horror. Even after his internment in Hanwell asylum (19) in a cell next to Thornton's, de la Poer fails to acknowledge his guilt and confesses to auditory hallucinations: "They must know that it was the rats; the slithering, scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep; the daemon rats that race behinds the padding in this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known; the rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the walls" (Dunwich 45).
Instead of uncovering a secret that validates their humanity and ensures the continuity of their shared cultural heritage, de la Poer and his team confront the intrinsic bestiality of human nature and succumb to the devastating force of cosmic horror. Ironically, "Rats" dramatizes the conceited, fallacious basis of Western culture by staging, on the one hand, the most radical example of atavism in the story's purportedly most civilized character: de la Poer, who boasts of a noble family line dating back earlier than the twelfth century CE. On the other hand, in responding to their pragmatic, visceral aversion to Exham Priory by shunning the locale and chasing after its rats, respectively, the simple country folk and de la Poer's cat possess more wisdom that the educated search team (who at first express an objective, scientific appreciation of the building's antiquity and archaeological history) and "the antiquarians who surrounded and aided" (Dunwich 31) de la Poer in the restoration of his ancestral home. The dynamic tension produced in "Rats" by Lovecraft's explicit citation of motifs common to Burkean and Kantian sublimity in describing the phenomena in question, juxtaposed with his denial of essential aspects of the sublime--objective distance, the sublime turn, and the notion of common sense--once again define cosmic horror in terms of an ironic inversion of sublimity.
In comparison to other stories in the Lovecraft canon, "Rats" presents a subtle critique of sublimity that is less comprehensive in its implications, since the text overtly limits the scope of the subject's susceptibility to the particular type of moral corruption it details by asserting that individual temperament, immediate proximity to Exham Priory, or a combination of both rouse the drive to degeneracy in characters. As a point of contrast, "Dagon" offers a succinct example of the dynamics of descent characteristic of Lovecraft's fiction, and its provocative critique of the sublime entails, like "Mountains," the degradation of the whole human race. Both Lovecraft's reference to a natural disaster (20) in terms of a great, "unprecedented volcanic upheaval" of the sea floor (Dagon 15) and his description of the "slimy expanse of hellish black mire" that is uncovered as "extend[ing] about [the narrator] in monotonous undulations as far as [he] could see" (Dagon 15, emphases added) appeal to Burke's notions of might and infinity as well as to Kant's categories of dynamical and mathematical sublimity. Nonetheless, Lovecraft subverts once more an element crucial to sublimity: objective distance. The narrator awakes only "to discover [him]self half-sucked" into "the nasty mud in the unending plain," upon whose "rotting soil" he is later compelled to walk in search of "the vanished sea and possible rescue" (Dagon 15-6). It is no revelation to the reader, therefore, to find that although the narrator's reason is stimulated as one would expect in Kantian sublimity, for instance, he affirms surprise at not feeling "wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery," and confesses that he "was in reality more horrified than astonished" (Dagon 15). The source of his horror has its roots not only in the landscape's offence to his senses, "putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish" (Dagon 15), but also in his contemplation of certain of its properties that Burke and Kant would consider as apt vehicles for sublimity if viewed from a safe distance:
Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear. (Dagon 15, emphases added)
His bodily immersion in the horrid natural phenomenon in question bars him from gaining a sense of objective perspective necessary to the sublime. Rather than providing him with a means to contemplate the sublimity of his own mind (Kant) or the absolute power of the Godhead (Burke), the landscape engulfs him: it forces the narrator to focus on his material conditions and his struggle for survival.
The navigational ineptitude which the narrator avows prior to the onset of the symbolic portion of his narrative stands as the single most important aspect of his characterization pertaining to the sublime, since it betrays a fundamental vulnerability in his character: his inability to discern the boundaries, both physical and psychical, that simultaneously constitute our understanding of self-object relations and make possible the objective distance demanded by any aesthetic judgment. Upon waking, the narrator's two chief aims, his search for "the vanished sea and possible rescue" (Dagon 15) (objectives that amount to a struggle for survival, and which, from a formal standpoint, serve to drive the plot forward), express his urgent need to discern the geographical margins of his current position. Put another way, they communicate his yearning to anchor his fantastic experience within the context of the rational, ordered universe to which he belonged prior to escaping from the Germans and falling asleep at sea. Symbolically, however, his attempt to find out where he is equates to a desire to uncover who he is. It reveals the narrator's yearning for a differentiated identity whose objective existence is validated by society in a manner similar to a given position on a map. In synonymous terms, he longs to assert a self that is separate from and that will permit him to exit, with a sense of finality, the primordial muck that "half-sucked" him (Dagon 15). The narrator's intertextual reference to an epic, allegorical tale, his "curious reminiscences of Paradise Lost, and of Satan's hideous climb though the unfathomable realms of darkness" as he stood at "the summit of a mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit" (Dagon 16), further enhances the symbolic scope of this portion of "Dagon" by underscoring the momentousness of its significance in relation to the narrator's sense of self. The analogy Lovecraft encourages readers to draw between the deluded narrator of "Dagon" and Milton's Satan, whose pride and extreme narcissism obfuscate his judgment and contribute to his erroneous understanding of himself and his relation to God, anticipates the shocking revelation about humanity at the text's conclusion. The narrator's implicit belief in humanism not only proves to be groundless, but, in leading him to develop a false sense of self and therefore ill-preparing him to face the truth of cosmic horror, it contributes to the disintegration of his identity.
The protagonist's encounter with a "vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome" creature at the bed of a precipice, in "an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the sea since the world was young" (Dagon 18, 17), highlights his failure to extricate himself from the slimy muck and presages his ensuing mental collapse. From the broader vantage point of the Mythos, the motif of the monstrous alien god, inferred by the story's title and the obelisk the creature worships, offers a disquieting association between the protagonist and the fishlike, humanoid entities that Lovecraft elaborates fully fourteen years later in "The Shadow over Innsmouth": it presents the narrator with the monstrous foundation of his humanity. In addition to the creature's suggestively anthropomorphic features, "its gigantic scaly arms," "hideous head," and uttering of sounds whose "measured" quality implies his use of language (albeit one incomprehensible to the narrator), the bas-reliefs on the obelisk wittingly allude to humanity's grotesque miscegenation "eras before the first ancestor of the Piltdown or Neanderthal man was born":
I think that these things were supposed to depict men--at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shown disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage at some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well. Of their faces and forms I dare not speak in detail; for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint. Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer, they were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features less pleasant to recall. (Dagon 18)
Whether or not readers believe that the narrator actually encounters an alien being is extraneous to the question of his quest for identity, since each position's interpretation of the narrator's fate differs only in the degree of his alienation from human culture it concedes: the narrator either goes mad or is the illegitimate progeny conceived by a primordial pollution of the human race. In both cases, the affirmative turn of the sublime is denied in "Dagon." The narrator's viewing of what should not be seen, the antediluvian obelisk and the anthropomorphic alien, acts as a catalyst prompting the breaching of limits within his psyche and the irremediable fragmentation of his identity.
From this symbolic context, therefore, the narrator's description of the sudden change in the sea's characteristics in terms synonymous with Burkean and Kantian sublimity discussed above relates to aspects integral to the sublime before the turn: the subject's sense of self-displacement and heterogeneity concomitant to the expansion of its imagination, and which give rise to a feeling of pain. In Burke, "the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it" (Burke 53). Similarly, in Kant the imagination labors and extends itself (in vain) to provide a positive presentation of the absolute. The subject's experience of sublimity prior to the turn is thus akin to the narrator's sensation of being lost in the seemingly infinite expanse of the sea or being mired in the endless, "monotonous undulations" (Dagon 15) of a fantastic landscape. In both instances, his sense of self is displaced as he attempts to resist being swallowed up by a devastating spectacle of nature. In the fiction of a humanist, this subjective crisis would be resolved through an affirmative turn towards culture, reason, an ordered universe, and a unified, autonomous sense of self. In Lovecraft, however, the aesthetics of cosmic horror that governs his fictional universe erodes culture, subverts reason, champions chaos, and destroys the integrity of the human subject. As "Dagon" illustrates, the subject is overwhelmed by a power of superhuman might and by a landscape of infinite expanse without being offered any form of belief system or conciliatory knowledge that can reconstitute his integrity. The narrator's navigational incompetence thus unfailingly foreshadows his subsequent collapse into madness, expressed by his yearning for an apocalypse that will herald the end of human culture: "I dream of a day when [the aliens] may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind--of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium" (Dagon 19). To rephrase in synonymous terms, the narrator communicates his desire to be swallowed up by an abyss where the boundaries separating self and other are non-existent: a gulf whose conditions preclude an experience of sublimity or any form of aesthetic judgment.
In the morally sterile world of Lovecraft's tales, the knowledge characters gain unveils the fallacy of their humanistic notions of subjectivity, permanently barring them from experiencing the Burkean and Kantian sublimes. As Kant explains, to a viewer whose culture has not trained him to face the sublime within an affirmative context--or, in Lovecraft's case, to a disillusioned viewer who has lost faith in his humanity--the spectacle whose formal attributes ought to give rise to sublimity will instead inspire pain. Furthermore, the subject "will see in the proofs of the dominion of nature given by its destructiveness and in the enormous measure of its power, against which his own vanishes away to nothing, only the distress, danger, and need that would surround the person who was banished thereto" (Kant 148, [section]29:5:265). In its ironic subversion of sublimity, cosmic horror not only denies the subject a safe vantage point from which to witness the spectacle in question, but also converts the sublime turn into a dynamics of descent. Unlike sublimity, which reconstitutes the integrity of subjects displaced in its expansive movement prior to the turn, cosmic horror irreparably erodes protagonists' individual bodies and the body politic, barring humanity from fostering the common sense upon which sublimity depends. Contrary to the humanism that grounds the sublime, therefore, the fictional expression of cosmic horror remains true to its cosmic indifferentist foundation. In a universe devoid of Godhead, nothing guarantees the significance and continuity of human existence; furthermore, morality and the duality between good and evil it implies do not exist, given that they are necessarily products of our human subjectivity. After enduring the devastating shock of cosmic horror in the Lovecraft Mythos, the experiencing subject is alienated from itself and its world without any ballast to confer meaning to its truncated existence, since its (Western) cultural narrative proves to be built on false foundations. Thus, if the cosmic indifferentism of Lovecraft's fiction strips modern Western culture of the illusions fostered by its solipsistic subjectivity, then sublimity amounts simply to another humanistic illusion it dismantles.
It is of paramount significance that protagonists' inextricable engulfment in the devastating spectacle--their inability to separate themselves from it, both physically and psychically--underscores the fact that their identities are always already defiled in the Lovecraft Mythos. Cosmic horror dramatizes the subject's momentous encounter with phenomena that not only limit the boundless expansion of the ego, but that destroy the subject-object boundaries requisite to any kind of knowledge and cultural production. Lovecraft's poetics of cosmic horror and its literary mise-en-scene therefore unveil a crisis specific to modernity. In the face of the great social upheavals of the modern age, the subject experiences a radically disorienting sense of being truncated from inherited belief systems, without being granted the luxury of objective distance from which to negotiate these changes and perhaps develop a new understanding of life. The Lovecraftian subject thus undergoes an existential crisis whose fictional resolution, from a humanistic standpoint, amounts to a negation of life.
Part 2: Towards a Psychoanalytic Reading of Cosmic Horror
If my analysis of the impossibility of a sublime experience in Lovecraft alludes to a psychoanalytic reading of his work, then it does so for a specific reason. Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject, particularly what she identifies as the defilement of the subject's "clean and proper body" (21) in the throes of abjection, informs what I identify as the immutable fragmentation and pollution of subjective integrity that cosmic horror performs. Abjection, the archaic, preobjectal dynamics of psychical and physical boundary negotiation infants engage in prior to assuming an identity as speaking subjects, haunts us throughout life. It comes into being whenever we confront something we perceive as inassimilable; allied with perversity, it is manifest in the defilement of taboos, the subversion of laws, or the transgression of any culturally-delineated frontier (Kristeva, Powers 2-4). In Powers of Horror, Kristeva briefly sketches the common ground shared by abjection and sublimity as well as their fundamental differences:
In the symptom, the abject permeates me, I become abject. Through sublimation, I keep it under control. The abject is hedged with the sublime. It is not the same moment on the journey, but the same subject and speech bring them into being. For the sublime has no object either. [...] the sublime is a something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy--fascination. (11-12) (22)
The implications underlying her assertions merit explanation. First, both the sublime and the abject originate in the subject; in other words, the terms themselves operate as mediatory principles existing only in relational structures. An object cannot properly be called abject, but it can inspire a sense of the abject. The intolerable spectacle that both fascinates and repels us is merely a vehicle that reminds us of the permeability of our own subjective borders. Formally speaking, this trajectory runs parallel to Burkean and Kantian sublimity, wherein the subject confronts a phenomenon whose might or infinite extension exceeds limits. For Burke, these restrictions are empirical: neither can the eye take in what appears to extend infinitely, nor can our bodies resist prodigious strength. For Kant, these borders are cognitive and concern our powers of presentation. In both cases, the sublime evokes, like the abject, a strong emotional outburst characterized by an initial feeling of pain; a turn follows, culminating in a sense of pleasure that is analogous to the "jouissance" the subject feels in the abject. Hence the abject and the sublime are both negative presentations of being that challenge the limits of selfhood, and both in a sense constitute moments of self-revelation for the subject.
In spite of their shared trajectory, however, the sublime and the abject serve opposite functions. While both overwhelm the experiencing subject, in transcending the sensible the sublime elevates and affirms our humanity (or, in Kant's case, our connection with something beyond the world of phenomena); conversely, the abject diminishes us by forcing us to confront a materiality that cannot be signified. It compels us to come to terms with the permeability and finitude of being by presenting us with a limit we cannot incorporate. The imagination is compelled to represent a void--the same void that constitutes the experiencing subject. Hence, if, in asserting our humanity, the sublime also buttresses our culture (particularly in Kant, it separates us from nature by underscoring the mind's ability to reason), then the abject, on the other hand, subverts it by reminding us not only that are we inseparable from that nature we seek to dominate, but that our culture, from which our idea of mastery originates, is simply a fiction, a story we tell ourselves to anchor our identities. In a manner similar to Lovecraft's protagonists who face "cosmic horror," such as the narrator of "Mountains," Arthur Jermyn, de la Poer, and the narrator of "Dagon," in abjection the subject is humbled. Its sense of self is unhinged.
If viewed from the perspective afforded by the (albeit brief) comparative, critical analysis of abjection and sublimity elaborated above, then neither the "vague horror" and "nauseating fear" that "oppressed" the narrator of "Dagon" when he contemplated the "unbroken monotony of the rolling plain" (Dagon 16, 15), nor the "ecstatic fear" de la Poer experiences at the moment when his "foot slipped near a horribly yawning brink" of the abyss below his estate (Dunwich 44) functions as an index of sublimity prior to the turn that each Lovecraftian narrative subsequently subverts. The type of alienating horror Arthur Jermyn experiences during his devastating moment of self-recognition in the carcass of his simian ancestor offers instead a more apt parallel to their predicaments. I contend, in other words, that the dread de la Poer and the narrator of "Dagon" endure, along with that borne by all of Lovecraft's characters who face cosmic horror, is a symptom of the "abjection of self," or "the culminating form of that experience of the subject to which it is revealed that all its objects are based merely on the inaugural loss that laid the foundations of its own being" (Kristeva, Powers 5). (23) The idea that cosmic horror is synonymous with Kristeva's notion of abjection thus constitutes the premise grounding my analysis of Lovecraft's implicit subversion of the sublime in his fiction.
In light of the suggestive parallels and marked divergences between the Burkean and Kantian sublimes and Kristeva's notion of abjection, I maintain that Lovecraft's uncompromising erosion of the white, Western male subject's identity is not limited to what I hope to have outlined as his perverse assault on its culture, race, gender, moral beliefs, psyche, and physical integrity. To make my case more compelling, it is worth referring to another aspect of Lovecraft's fiction that points to the defilement of the subject's "clean and proper" self: the loss of language. "Rats" presents one of the most telling examples of the kind of regression inherent in the degeneration of a character's speech faculties. (24) As Joshi observes in his note explaining the comprehensive progression of languages de la Poer speaks prior to being committed to Hanwell (he jumps from archaic English, middle English, Latin, Gaelic, to bestial grunts), "the purported effect is the narrator's sudden reversal on the evolutionary scale" (Joshi, Annotated 54n53). While Joshi's perspective addresses a macrocosmic view of de la Poer's diminishing linguistic competence that impacts the human race as a whole, from a microcosmic, individual outlook that considers his exploration of the vaults beneath Exham Priory in terms of his discovery of the abject roots of his lineage, his loss of language suggests the collapse of his subjectivity to a pre-symbolic, undifferentiated state of being, or what Kristeva identifies as the realm of the maternal.
Cosmic horror thus induces, to borrow the words Kristeva uses to describe abjection, "'something maternal' [...] to bear upon" (Kristeva, Powers 5) the characters in Lovecraft's fiction, as all motifs tied to the feminine in Lovecraft unveil an archaic abyss into which the self is condemned to plummet. As I mentioned before, a female ancestor defiles Arthur Jermyn's sense of self. Thus, the brute, animal nature of the feminine, conveyed through her embodiment as a Congolese white ape, not only underscores the horror of race miscegenation in Lovecraft, but further testifies to the abject scope of the maternal in his fiction. Likewise, the narrator of "Dagon" loses himself in the amniotic undulations of two oceans: a real and a symbolic one. The Old Ones of "Mountains" are violently absorbed (and by extension emasculated) by the viscous, feminine contours of the Shoggoths. In "Rats," de la Poer cites the worship of Cybele, a pagan earth goddess, as the source of his ancestors' inhuman bestiality since time immemorial. De la Poer, a father to his "motherless boy" named Alfred (Dunwich 28) who dies from war-related injuries, regresses as a result of his contact with the feminine, represented by his investigation of the caverns beneath the estate that once belonged to his paternal forbears. This process completes the dethroning of their reason and the irremediable alienation from the symbolic that cosmic horror carries out in the case of Danforth and Dyer in "Mountains," the Old Ones, Jermyn, de la Poer, and the narrator of "Dagon"; or, to articulate the same idea from the opposite perspective, the maternal's incursion into the orderly fortress of culture. Both underscore the conflict at the heart of Lovecraft's fiction as a loss of self-mastery attendant on the subject's confrontation with the dynamic, devastating force that is modernity. (25) In allying cosmic horror with the abject realm of the maternal and the psychical regression it implies, Lovecraft's stories call for a renegotiation of identity that must adapt to the new, disorienting experiences of the modern subject.
As I hope to have made clear, cosmic horror dramatizes a crisis in subjectivity whose dynamic force leads to an epiphany incommensurate with the affirmative scope of sublimity. Cosmic horror makes evident that not only is the culture that reconstitutes the subject's integrity at the sublime turn no longer viable, but no alternative has yet been found to replace it. In his letters, Lovecraft addresses both the discontinuity between the historical past and the immediate present that characterizes modernism and the impossibility of art to provide a positive presentation of this truncation: "Our mechanical and industrial age is [...] so far removed from [...] ancestral conditions as to make impossible its expression in artistic media" (Selected Letters 2: 103-104). When the unintelligible cannot be absorbed into culture and we consequently lose faith in the compensatory value of symbols, the foundation of being is threatened. If no language exists to contextualize modernity in Lovecraft's fiction, then what is left to articulate but the shock of alienation? In realizing that its "clean and proper" body is always already defiled, the Lovecraftian subject discovers that all of its safeguards--culture, tradition, race, ancestry, language--are forfeited. "Cosmic horror" therefore unveils to the subject that it is simultaneously abject and abjected by the same universe in whose center it was erroneously placed by the efforts of humanism. All is not lost, however. If abjection is tied to the maternal, and the subject of abjection is one perpetually displaced, compelled to construct its limits anew, then there is a hope of rebirth for the human protagonist in Lovecraft. Nonetheless, in a "cosmic indifferentist" universe, it is likely that, in a manner analogous to the "far violet line" Dyer espies during his frantic, aerial escape from the Shoggoths (Mountains 103), this new horizon and its promise of beauty would offer the Lovecraftian subject only greater, inconceivable horrors.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 1757. Oxford: Oxford UP! 1998.
Burleson, Donald. H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study. Westport: Greenwood, 1983.
--. "Lovecraft and Adjectivitis: A Deconstructionist View." Lovecraft Studies 31 (1994): 22-24.
Dziemanowicz, Stefan. "Outsiders and Aliens: The Use of Isolation in Lovecraft's Fiction." An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H. P. Lovecraft. Ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi. London: Associated University P 1991. 159-187.
Eaton-Krauss, Marianne. "Akhenaten." The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt: EReference Edition. Ed. Donald B. Redford. Oxford UP University of Toronto Libraries. 31 March 2008. http://www.oxford-ancientegypt.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/
Houellebecq, Michel. H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie. New York: Editions du Rocher, 1999.
Joshi, S. T., ed. The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. New York: Dell, 1997.
--. A Dreamer and a Visionary: Lovecraft in His Time. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2001.
--. Introductory Note. "At the Mountains of Madness." The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Tales. New York: Penguin, 2001. 420-21.
--. "Lovecraft's Ethical Philosophy." Lovecraft Studies 21 (1990): 24-39.
--, ed. H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Athens: Ohio UP 1980.
--, ed. "The Rats in the Walls." The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. New York: Dell, 1997.
Joshi, S. T., and Kenneth W. Faig. "H. P. Lovecraft: His Life and Work." H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Athens: Ohio UP 1980. 1-19.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. 1790. Trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de l'horreur: Essai sur l'abjection. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980.
--. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Langan, John P "Naming the Nameless: Lovecraft's Grammatology." Lovecraft Studies 41 (1999): 25-29.
Leiber, Fritz Jr. "A Literary Copernicus." 1944. H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Athens: Ohio UP 1980. 51-62.
"Lofty." Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford UP 2008. University of Toronto Libraries. 2 March 2008. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/
Longinus. On Sublimity. Trans. D. A. Russell. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Sauk City: Arkham, 1985.
--. "At the Mountains of Madness." At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. 3-106.
--. "Dagon." Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. 14-19.
--. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Sauk City: Arkham, 1986.
--. The Dunwich Horror and Others. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Sauk City: Arkham, 1982.
--. "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family." Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. 73-82.
--. H. P. Lovecraft: Selected Letters 1925-1929. 5 vols. Ed. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Sauk City: Arkham, 1968-76.
--. "In Defense of Dagon." Miscellaneous Writings. 147-71.
--. Miscellaneous Writings. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Sauk City: Arkham, 1995.
--. "Mountains." At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. 24-45.
--. "The Rats in the Walls." The Dunwich Horror and Others. 26-45.
--. "Supernatural Horror in Literature." Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. 365-436.
Lovett-Graff, Bennett. "Life is a Hideous Thing: Primate-Geniture in H. P.
Lovecraft's Arthur Jermyn.'" Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 8.3 (1997): 370-388.
Nelson, Dale J. "Lovecraft and the Burkean Sublime." Lovecraft Studies 24 (1991): 2-5.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. 1794. Ed. Jacqueline Howard. London: Penguin, 2001.
"Roerich." Biography. Nicholas Roerich Museum. 7 February 2008. http://www.roerich.org/index.html.
Schultz, David E. "From Microcosm to Macrocosm: The Growth of Lovecraft's Cosmic Vision." An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H. P. Lovecraft. Ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi. London: Associated University P, 1991. 199-219.
Selivanova, Nina. The World of Roerich. Paris: Presse Franco-Russe, 1923. New York: Corona Mundi, International Art Center, 1924. 7 February 2008. http://www.roerich.org/index.html
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Oxford: Oxford UP 1993. Wetzel, George T. "The Cthulhu Mythos: A Study." 1955. H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Athens: Ohio UP 1980. 79-95.
Will, Bradley A. "H. P. Lovecraft and the Semiotic Kantian Sublime." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy 43 (2002): 7-21.
(1) Lovecraft's style, generally characterized by his extravagant use of adjectives, Byzantine descriptions, and archaic vocabulary, has been one of the focal points of criticism since the publication of his works. In the 1990s, poststructuralist and deconstructionist approaches have reversed the derogatory judgments presented by early studies of Lovecraft's style and underscored its significance to his aesthetics. For two sympathetic and thematically proximate critical studies, see John Langan's "Naming the Nameless: Lovecraft's Grammatology" for an elucidation of Lovecraft's "approximate language," which "relates the effect and not the thing itself" (29); and Donald Burleson's "Lovecraft and Adjectivitis: A Deconstructionist View" for an elaboration of Lovecraft's strategy of "narrative impressionism," in which the narration of a character's perceptions of a scene or event are more important than an objective depiction (24).
(2) The most salient example pertains to Burke's defense of "excessive bitters and intolerable stenches" as capable of producing "a grand sensation" akin to the sublime, provided that they "are moderated, as in a description or narrative" (Burke 78). In my view, gaining objective distance from a foul smell or repugnant taste does not suggest sublimity, nor is "the whole composition supported with dignity" if the abject smell or taste is associated with "images of an allowed grandeur" (Burke 78). Instead, a dialectical tension is produced, akin to that found in the grotesque. Furthermore, the illustrations Nelson provides from Lovecraft's fiction in support of Burke's notion that foul smells can give rise to sublimity are in fact representations of characters in the midst of an experience that violates their subjective integrity. Overcome by the impression made upon their sense of smell, their reactions are in no way comparable to the awe and religious respect the sublime inspires; our reading of their sensations, moreover, does not make them any more sublime in light of our objective distance.
(3) This assertion needs to be qualified. In "Lovecraft's Ethical Philosophy," Joshi explains that Lovecraft's determinism did not turn into fatalism, since he was too keenly aware of the fallacy inherent in such a position. He cites from Lovecraft's "Some Causes of Self-Immolation" in the Marginalia to illustrate his point: "We have no specific destiny against which we can fight--for the fighting would be as much a part of the destiny as the final end" ("Lovecraft's Ethical Philosophy" 24). Joshi remarks that this line of reasoning can serve to defend a "sort of free will": "Since destiny is enmeshed in the fabric of existence, it is for that reason undetectable; and we can continue engaging in any actions we please because those activities would be as much (or as little) a part of destiny as the failure to act" (24). However, it is simply the illusion of free will that Lovecraft's viewpoint concedes; our inability to discern the larger pattern of destiny does not preclude its existence.
(4) This applies primarily to human beings, although with the exception of the Great Race of time travelers in "The Shadow out of Time," who, in having the capability to foresee the annihilation of their species, project their consciousness into past and future life forms to escape their predicament, Lovecraft's aliens are also bound by this fate.
(5) All citations to Kant include the page followed by the section ([section]) then the volume and page in accord with the standard notation for Kant's work.
(6) "The Whisperer in the Darkness" comes to mind as a fitting example. The fungi cut up Henry Akeley's body and place his still living brain in a canister from which they can, with the help of special devices, communicate with him.
(7) Some scholars maintain that a distinction between his earlier and later texts in terms of characterization justifies the exclusion of certain titles from the Lovecraft myth cycle. (See David E. Schultz's "From Microcosm to Macrocosm: The Growth of Lovecraft's Cosmic Vision" for an elaboration of this outlook.) In light of the thematic and stylistic continuity observable in Lovecraft's work, however, I am sympathetic to George T. Wetzel's assertion in "The Cthulhu Mythos: A Study" that individual texts make up fragments of a larger narrative constellation whose power becomes evident through a cumulative reading. At the extreme, he interprets the Lovecraft Mythos as a lengthy novel in which individual stories make up its many chapters.
(8) Lovecraft also suggests an implicit connection between "Jermyn" and "vermin": both the perfect rhyme shared by the two words and the salience of vermin as a motif in his fiction encourage the association.
(9) In Udolpho's penultimate paragraph, the narrator affirms succinctly the moral of the story: "O! Useful may it be to have shewn [sic], that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!" (Radcliffe 632).
(10) Emily's learning of "Latin and English" from her father, "chiefly that she might understand the sublimity of their best poets," and her developing "a taste for works of genius" "in her early years" (Radcliffe 9) are suggestive of the notion of sublimity elaborated by Longinus, whose positing of the sublime as an innate quality of the human mind (and thus necessarily beyond the bounds of rhetoric) sets the groundwork for subsequent formulations of sublimity as an aesthetic category (see Longinus's On Sublimity, 1st century CE).
(11) The etymology of the adjective "stupendous," employed by Emily to describe the mountain's recesses, uncovers the subjective, impressionistic basis of her reaction to these particular phenomena in nature. More importantly, it is a response conditioned by Burkean sublimity. "Stupendous" originates from the Latin stupendus "that is to be wondered at," which is a gerundive form of stupere "to be struck senseless, be amazed at" (OED). In other words, the view of the mountain afforded by "the wild wood-walks" (Radcliffe 9) suggests that Emily's mind is, to borrow Burke's phrasing, "so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it" (Burke 53). Moreover, the "silence and grandeur of solitude" (Radcliffe 9) Emily experiences when she contemplates the mountain's hollows echoes Burke's category of privation, which includes "Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence" (Burke 65). (In my view, privation can be subsumed under "obscurity." The inability to see implies spatial and metaphysical disorientation in Burke, and the subject's loss of sensory reference points, necessary to its gaining a sense of perspective from which it can then distinguish itself from the world, can have the same effect.)
(12) Lovecraft makes a total of seven references in "Mountains" to the Asian paintings of Russian painter and writer Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich (1874-1947), whose works he had seen in New York at the eponymous museum in 1934 (see Joshi's introductory comments to the footnotes of the Penguin edition of "Mountains," 420). Interestingly, Roerich's visual works encouraged some of his contemporaries to draw analogies with music: "The original force of Roerich's work consists in a masterly and marked symmetry and a definite rhythm, like the melody of an epic song" (Nina Selivanova, qtd. in http://www.roerich.org/index.html). The series of paintings to which Lovecraft makes reference are likely those inspired by Roerich's journey, beginning in 1923, to what were then uncharted regions of Chinese Turkestan, Altai, Mongolia and Tibet: In Kanchenjunga, Sikkim Pass, His Country, The Great Spirit of the Himalayas, and The Banners of the East (http://www.roerich.org/index.html). It seems ironic (and perhaps even perverse) that Lovecraft cites Roerich's work from this period to emphasize the narrator's cognitive estrangement from his environment and to foreshadow the destructive revelation that awaits the explorers; Roerich's Asian paintings, particularly the Himalayan series, are renowned for the "loftiness of spirit" they convey (http://www.roerich.org/index.html). In my view, the ominous references to Roerich's Asian paintings in "Mountains" betray instead characters' immersion in a cosmic indifferentist worldview that necessarily bars them from appreciating the grandeur of his work.
(13) "The Ritual" is one of the stories that best exemplifies the indexical function that the Necronomicon plays in Lovecraft's fiction.
(14) This type of recollection, triggered by a sensory stimulus, appears frequently in Lovecraft's fiction, and always denotes the subject's impending ontological crisis.
(15) Other references to sublimity in nature fail to ennoble the human subject and instead anticipate its debasement: "The ineffable majesty of the whole scene, and the queer state of [Lake's] sensations at being in the lee of vast pinnacles whose ranks shot up like a wall reaching the sky at the world's rim," are counterbalanced by the "note of subconscious alarm" the narrator detects "in his words" (Mountains 15). Subsequently, Lake and his party discover the subterraneous network of caves and unearth the still living bodies of the Old Ones, two actions that spell the crew's violent destruction.
(16) Scholars have cited Lovecraft's increasing liberalism in his later years in an effort to obfuscate the extent of his racism and the profound impact it had on his writing. For instance, both Donald R. Burleson and S. T. Joshi problematically make an effort to excuse Lovecraft's racism by explaining that it was focused on abstract collectives rather than individuals, and they mention his marriage to a Jewish woman as evidence of his tolerant attitude. Burleson comments that "Lovecraft in his letters often gave vent to seemingly horrendous 'racist' remarks against Jews, black people, and others, yet habitually treated individual people with warmth and kindness, even marrying a Jewess" (H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study 11). In Lovecraft's defense, Joshi remarks that "many of his closest friends, including his wife, were not of the pure Nordic stock that he so concerned himself with" ("H. P. Lovecraft: His Life and Work" 14). I cannot see how Lovecraft's vituperative descriptions in his letters of New York City's non-white inhabitants constitute only "seemingly" racist commentary. To his credit, Joshi changes his view in A Dreamer and a Visionary: Lovecraft in His Time; Joshi acknowledges that, in light of Lovecraft's avowal in a letter of taking pride in being known as an anti-Semite in high school, those who, like himself in the previously cited work, sought "to exculpate Lovecraft on the grounds that he never took any direct actions against racial or ethnic groups he despised but merely confined his remarks to paper" can no longer do so (55).
(17) Given his antiquarian proclivities, perhaps Lovecraft's depiction of the Shoggoths' bastardization of the Old Ones' art was inspired by the pictorial style introduced in Ancient Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten, "commonly known nowadays as the 'heretic king'" and whose "reign was excised from public record" after his death (Eaton-Krauss). The subversive nature of the artistic novelties introduced during Akhenaten's reign and their marked contrast to traditional Ancient Egyptian pictorial conventions would surely have captured Lovecraft's imagination: "Of the innovations introduced in the visual arts, the manner in which the king himself was depicted retains its shock value down to the present. The king's physiognomy (his hanging chin, thick lips, sunken cheeks and slanting eyes) and 'effeminate' body (narrow shoulders, fleshy chest, swelling thighs, pendulous abdomen, and full buttocks, in marked contrast to spindly limbs and a scrawny neck) [...] have raised questions about his physical and mental health. But aberrations from previously accepted norms need not reflect his actual appearance. They are better understood as stylistic and iconographic devices chosen to stress Akhenaten's uniqueness" (Eaton-Krauss).
(18) The professor likens their piping speech to the lethal call of the femme fatale when he declares that he wished "that I had wax-stopped ears like Ulysses' men off the Sirens' coast to keep that disturbing wind-piping from my consciousness" (Mountains 104). Another interpretive possibility also comes to mind: does the relationship Lovecraft establishes between the Shoggoths and the Old Ones function as a type of racist commentary on slavery and race-relations in pre-World War II USA?
(19) The Hanwell Asylum actually exists. It was established in 1831 in Middlesex County, England. As S. T. Joshi remarks in the annotated edition of "Rats," Lovecraft likely became aware of it from his reading of Lord Dunsany's "The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap" (The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft 55n54).
(20) Lovecraft believed what he describes in "Dagon"--the upheaval of the sea floor--to be scientifically possible (see "In Defence of Dagon" 149).
(21) I adopt Leon S. Roudiez's translation of Kristeva's original French expression "corps propre," which signifies a body that is both one's own and clean--a body bearing no traces of its debt to nature: "Le corps ne doit garder aucune trace de sa dette envers la nature" (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 121).
(22) In the original French text, the citation reads as follows: "Dans le symptome, l'abject m'envahit, je le deviens. Par la sublimation, je le tiens. Labject est borde de sublime. Ce n'est pas le meme moment du parcours, mais c'est le meme sujet et le meme discours qui les font exister. Car le sublime, lui non plus, n'a pas d'objet. [...] Le sublime est un en plus qui nous enfle, qui nous excede et nous fait etre a la fois ici, jetes, et la, autres et eclatants. Ecart, cloture impossible, Tout manque, joie: fascination" (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 19).
(23) In the original French text, the citation reads as follows: "La forme culminante de cette experience du sujet auquel est devoile que tous ses objets ne reposent que sur la perte inaugurale fondant son etre propre" (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 13).
(24) This erosion of the enunciating subject's speech also occurs in other Lovecraft stories: See "The Haunter of the Dark," "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Outsider," The Colour out of Space," "The Dunwich Horror," "The Shadow over Innsmouth," "The Whisperer in the Darkness," and "The Shadow out of Time," which are all found in The Dunwich Horror and Others.
(25) Of the texts cited, the description of the Shoggoth as an on-coming subway train in "Mountains" offers the most telling, dynamic parallel between modernity and "cosmic horror": "It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist's 'thing that should not be'; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform--the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterranean distance, constellated with strangely colored lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder" (Mountains 101).
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|Title Annotation:||H. P. Lovecraft|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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