(2) “The Ancient Track” and dreamology as cosmology
In the previous section I presented Lovecraft as a “noetic dreamer”, or immanent Platonist, and an oneiric materialist rather than a pessimist or a nihilist. On this view of Lovecraft his works do not present a nihilistic worldview to which the only lucid reaction is cosmic despair or existential horror. Nihilism is the malady of the modern world after the death of God, a malady from which Lovecraft himself also suffers, and for which his works are both diagnosis and attempted cure. Part of that cure is the valorisation of the “weird”, of visionary moments of noetic estrangement.
In “Hesperia” we saw elements of this immanent Platonism, in which a numinous oniric world of “divine desires” is glimpsed in contrast with the “dull sphere” of the mundane world, where human animals tread. These glimpses, or intermittent visions, can occur at moments of disaggregation (e.g. “winter sunset”) of ordinary perceived and remembered (“dull”) forms allowing the imaginative recomposition of empyreal forms of extraordinary meaning and beauty.
The moment of disaggregation is only alluded to in “Hesperia”, in the expression “the winter sunset” at the beginning of the poem. The nihilist predicament is alluded to in the reference to the human animal limited to treading this dull sphere, and in the opposition between treading and dreaming. According to the poem “Dreams bring us close”, and by implication treading keeps us far.
Access to this realm is only partial and intermittent (according to the cycles of seasons and of hours). There is a path (“the way leads clear”), but it is a noetic path, open to dreamers but closed to treaders. It leads beyond the horizon to the “starlit streams” and the “vast void”.
“The Ancient Track" contains these elements in a slightly more developped form. It is composed of 44 lines, compared to Hesperia‘s 14-line sonnet form. The moment is not sunset but night:
There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track
This distich, which opens the poem, is repeated three times, at the beginning of the first and second parts, and at the end. It seems charged with meaning, but the sense remains elusive. Given the thematics of the poem, in particular the danger of being misled by false memories of a dead pseudo-past, we may gloss the “hand”, absent, unwilling or powerless to “hold back” the poet as the dead hand of the past. The infinitive, “to hold me back”, is itself ambiguous between “in order to” and “capable of”, between purpose and capacity.
We are entitled to cite the words of another materialist here, Karl Marx, who was perhaps more oneiric than is usually believed:
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language…In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).
The poem recounts the narrator’s ascent of a hill, following a “path” or a “climbing road” that leads upwards to a “silhouetted crest”. His mind is filled with memories of familiar places and landmarks that he expects to see when he reaches the summit. He recognizes a “milestone” ten paces from the top but when he reaches the crest he sees a “mad scene”, a panorama of dead unfamiliar forms going to ruin in a “long-dead vale”:
A valley of the lost and dead…
…weeds and vines that grew
On ruined walls I never knew.
During the ascent the poet was immersed in the positive affects of expectancy, familiarity, order, certainty, confidence (“no fear”). He “knew” what he “would” see. Looking down, the poet confronts the affects of disappointment, confusion, unfamiliarity, loss, mockery, madness. Reaching the “crest” is a moment of noetic shock: trauma, disorder, confusion (“Around was fog”) and bifurcation.
The straight path towards an anticipated future that the poet had been following up till now divides into a “trail” that descends into the dead pseudo-past (“my loved past had never been”) and a “track” that leads “ahead” into “the Spray/Of star-streams in the Milky Way” (cf. the “starlit streams” in “Hesperia”).
Once again, as in “Hesperia”, we are invited to follow the noetic path, the skyline, or the line of the horizon. Descent is not an option:
Nor was I now upon the trail
Descending to that long-dead vale.
The spatial indications are interesting here. There is the ambiguity of “over” in the run on expression after the first distich:
There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track
Over the hill
“Over” can mean beyond, which would converge with the spatial indication in “Hesperia”:
The winter sunset, flaming beyond spires
And chimneys half-detached from this dull sphere,
Or it can mean above, as it does elsewhere in this poem:
And over Zaman’s Hill the horn
Of a malignant moon was born
Yet the numinosity of the star streams is not presented as even higher than, or above, the crest but as simply “ahead”.
The cosmology present in the two poems, “Hesperia” and “The Ancient Track”, is visibly the same. In “The Ancient Track” the nihilist element is accentuated, the dead past and the malignant moon, the madness and the menacing talons. The oniric vision is accessible if we can relinquish the past and the illusions of memory, but the cosmos is material, there is no quest for transcendence. The weird contains both horror and wonder, but we are not by our very existence condemned, horror is not the final word. Nor is the fog.
Lovecraft is no warm and fuzzy optimist, unlike the narrator eager to return to the fields of his memory as he walks “straight on” (this is similar to the “human tread” of “Hesperia) during his ascent of the hill. Lovecraft acknowledges our disorientation and confusion, he recognises the emptiness of our illusions and memories, and warns us that horror borders and subtends our ordinary world. The horror is lying just around the corner, just “over the hill”, but so also is “the spray of star streams”.
(3): “Ex Oblivione” or cosmicism is not pessimism
Lovecraft fully subscribed to the worldview of modern science, to what Michel Serres calls the Grand Narrative of science. He rejected all religion and all supernaturalism, declaring himself to be an atheist and a materialist.
“The cosmos is, in all probability, an eternal mass of shifting and mutually interacting force-patterns which our present visible universe, our tiny earth, and our puny race of organic beings, form merely a momentary and negligible incident. Thus my serious conception of reality is dynamically opposite to the fantastic position I take as an aesthete. In aesthetics, nothing interests me so much as the idea of strange suspensions of natural law – weird glimpses of terrifyingly elder worlds and abnormal dimensions, and faint scratchings from unknown outside abysses on the rim of the unknown cosmos. I think this kind of thing fascinates me all the more because I don’t believe a word of it!” (Lovecraft, letter to R. Michael July 20, 1929).
His cosmos was scientific, but Lovecraft was aware of the danger of nihilism inherent in the transition from the religious worldview to a reductive scientific cosmos, indifferent to the life of humanity and to its cherished values. In fact the problem is not so much that of science versus religion as the denoetisation of existence, the reduction to the human animal:
“Honestly, my hatred of the human animal mounts by leaps and bounds the more I see of the miserable vermin” (Selected Letters, 1.211).
Lovecraft’s materialism is not nihilism – the negation of all values, but cosmicism – the idea that our esthetic and moral values are of only relative validity, temporary and local concretions out of the the chaotic material flux of a vast and indifferent universe.
“Indifferentism”, understood as the indifference of the inhuman cosmos to insignificant human values, is not the problem, for why should the vast cosmos care about us? This is just the way things are for Lovecraft. However, cosmic indifference elevated into a human value and belief (pessimism, nihilism) is something else. Lovecraft’s stories constantly mock beliefs and cults as based on ignorance and anthropocentrism.
“Cosmic pessimism” is strictly a contradiction in terms for Lovecraft’s later philosophy. It represents a transitional anthropomorphic stage in the evolution from personalism to cosmicism. For Lovecraft’s Lucretian materialism we are nothing but atoms and the void, but the void is not reducible to mere emptiness. The void is also a plenum, from which all forms arise.
The void as plenum figures in Lovecraft’s last story " The Haunter of the Dark " when the protagonist Robert Blake gazes into the “Shining Trapezohedron”, an eerie complexly asymmetrical crystal:
This stone, once exposed, exerted upon Blake an almost alarming fascination. He could scarcely tear his eyes from it, and as he looked at its glistening surfaces he almost fancied it was transparent, with half-formed worlds of wonder within. Into his mind floated pictures of alien orbs with great stone towers, and other orbs with titan mountains and no mark of life, and still remoter spaces where only a stirring in vague blacknesses told of the presence of consciousness and will…. And beyond all else he glimpsed an infinite gulf of darkness, where solid and semi-solid forms were known only by their windy stirrings, and cloudy patterns of force seemed to superimpose order on chaos and hold forth a key to all the paradoxes and arcana of the worlds we know.
This experience of the void pregnant with multiple forms comes at a price, that of one’s identity. This loss of identity is ambiguous in its valence, constituting a negative version of the mystical experience if it is resisted or a more positive one if it is embraced. In the case of Robert Blake the experience is one of horror. He desperately clings to his identity as it begins to dissolve into that of Nyarlathotep:
“My name is Blake—Robert Harrison Blake of 620 East Knapp Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. . . . I am on this planet. . . . “Azathoth have mercy!—the lightning no longer flashes—horrible—I can see everything with a monstrous sense that is not sight—light is dark and dark is light . . . those people on the hill . . . guard . . . candles and charms . . . their priests. . . .
“Sense of distance gone—far is near and near is far. No light—no glass—see that steeple—that tower—window—can hear—Roderick Usher—am mad or going mad—the thing is stirring and fumbling in the tower—I am it and it is I —I want to get out . . . must get out and unify the forces”
However the same experience can be actively sought out and welcomed as a merging with the plenum. This is what happens in the short story “Ex Oblivione“. The narrator is an experienced dreamer taking no pleasure in the mundane literal world. Perhaps this is the crucial difference with Robert Blake, who lives on College Hill and despite being a writer of weird fiction is too personalistic and literal-minded in his approach to the unknown.
In a golden valley of the dream world the narrator encounters a high wall with a locked bronze gate and desires to pass through it to the other side, despite contradictory reports of wonder and of horror waiting beyond. Finally the dreamer finds the instructions for the potion that will unlock the gate and finds happiness rather than horror in the loss of his identity:
But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hoped to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.
The paradox lies in the act of enunciation in contradiction with the enounced content. The purported author tells us the story of the dissolution of his identity “into that native infinity of crystal oblivion ” from which he came into life (and to which he returned only, apparently, to be called forth once more).
Thus the ultimate character of the void is not that of a sterile empty chaos but of a fecund plenum of oblivion and the birth of forms. Lovecraft’s encounter with this void did not lead to silence and despair or mad resistance but to literary friendship and the writing of weird fiction.
Speculating Freedom: Addiction, Control and Rescriptive Subjectivity in the Work of William S. Burroughs
Jose Rosales - ON THE END OF HISTORY & THE DEATH OF DESIRE (NOTES ON TIME AND NEGATIVITY IN BATAILLE’S ‘LETTRE Á X.’)
Jose Rosales - BERGSONIAN SCIENCE-FICTION: KODWO ESHUN, GILLES DELEUZE, & THINKING THE REALITY OF TIME
Obsolete Capitalism - THE STRONG OF THE FUTURE. NIETZSCHE’S ACCELERATIONIST FRAGMENT IN DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S ANTI-OEDIPUS
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 1)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 2)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 3)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 4)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 5)
Steven Craig Hickman - The Carnival of Globalisation: Hyperstition, Surveillance, and the Empire of Reason
Steven Craig Hickman - Shaviro On The Neoliberal Strategy: Transgression and Accelerationist Aesthetics
Steven Craig Hickman - Hyperstition: Technorevisionism – Influencing, Modifying and Updating Reality
Terence Blake - CONCEPTS OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (2)
Terence Blake - GUATTARI’S LINES OF FLIGHT (2): transversal vs transferential approaches to the reading contract
Himanshu Damle - Games and Virtual Environments: Playing in the Dark. Could These be Havens for Criminal Networks?
Himanshu Damle - Hegelian Marxism of Lukács: Philosophy as Systematization of Ideology and Politics as Manipulation of Ideology.
Nick Land - The unconscious is not an aspirational unity but an operative swarm, a population of 'preindividual and prepersonal singularities'