Saturday, November 8, 2014

Lovecraft and Civilization

I have told no one. This is no common case—it is a madness out of time and a horror from beyond the spheres which no police or lawyers or courts or alienists could ever fathom or grapple with. Thank God some chance has left inside me the spark of imagination, that I might not go astray in thinking out this thing. You cannot deceive me, Joseph Curwen, for I know that your accursed magic is true!
Two years ago, in the comments to a review of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, I wrote the following in response to a question about my claim that the characterization of Lovecraft's writings as "amoral," by way of cosmic horror and all that, were starting to ring untrue with regards to not just race but particularly his use of "madness:"
If Lovecraft's universe(s) is/are structured amorally, which I agree with you on at least as far as you consider it/them hermetically, then the idea of madness itself is a form of moralism. Since madness is historically always morally/ideologically inflected - as against, say, specific conditions or diagnoses which have moral/ideological aspects but also other stuff - the very fact of the characters "going mad" undermines (or at least complicates) the amoral universe. "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and its endless returns to the alienists speculation on the moment Ward went mad is an example - if anyone in the story was interested in actually diagnosing Ward, instead of moralizing about his condition, the case would presumably be fairly open and shut. Instead we get those constant reminders, which serve to highlight the way that not only does the resurgence of the eldritch horror that is Joseph Curwen reinforce moralist frameworks within the universe, but passes it off, in the form of the reader's interpolation by the mystery aspects, onto the reader.
I've been thinking about it on and off since then, and recently got around to googling to see if I could find anything relatively easily that addressed this. I still can't. So I figured some preliminary fleshing out was worthwhile.

Of note: the closest things I could find were the obvious (Daniel José Older's essay on race in Lovecraft) and this weird thing, a revised senior thesis by Justin Taylor called A Mountain Walked or Stumbled: Madness, Apocalypse, and H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" (PDF, through archive.org). Taylor engage Lovecraft with Foucault, a step I assume would have been done not-infrequently, but he does so more to talk through "Foucault’s likening of madness to the apocalyptic" than to discuss how the social construction of madness ends up dovetailing into the moralistic by way of bourgeois rationalism, which is where I tend to go with it.

But first, a partial step back. For my money, the two most important Lovecraft stories are the aforementioned The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and Medusa's Coil ("with" Zealia Bishop). The latter because it seems like nothing so much as Lovecraft at his least guarded, and so most disgusting. For all "The Horror at Red Hook" is (rightfully) pointed to as the story which encapsulates Lovecraft's racism, it holds no candle to Coil. It's a haunted house story, complete with a wrong turn on a rainy country road and its disappearance in the daytime, in which the haunter is the hair of a woman who – well, let's just quote the actual final paragraph of the story:
It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
The story itself reads almost too much like Lovecraft, in terms of its structure; the endless build up to that paragraph that constitutes the whole of the story takes diversions so wide as to seem impossibly boring, yet they always return smoothly to the horror. There are no detours through lesser monstrosities or inclusions of characters who serve to do little other than muddy the motivations of the various players. It reads almost like a fleshing out of "Pickman's Model." And it's all to build to the fucking One-drop rule.

What differentiates Coil from "Hook," for my purposes here, is that "Hook" does not have any Lovecraftian Monsters in it. Marceline, of course, is not generally a strong feature of the various Cthulhu Mythos fictions, but there at least is the possibility that she could be. "Red Hook" can be (wrongly) read as just misanthropy; Coil is where the key components of specificity and centrality can be leveraged.

Likewise, too, for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, though it seems to be one of the most guarded of Lovecraft's fictions. Ward is one of those late-Dream Cycle/early-Cthulhu Mythos stories that sits uneasily in the characterization of Lovecraft as a through and through materialist; it ends with a straight up (linguistic) magic duel with the "madness out of time" ending up "scattered on the floor as a thin coating of fine bluish-grey dust." Yog-Sothoth saves the day.

As I began to get at in the comment quoted above, of particular interest here are the non-characters referred to, often and derisively, as the "alienists;" there are the "more academic school of alienists" and the "school of alienists slightly less academic," but as a whole they are basically just a mass of shitheel psychoanalysts who have only the vaguest clue of what they're on about. This suspicion of psychiatrists was shared with Foucault, although for obviously different historical circumstances. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology:
Foucault argued that what was presented as an objective, incontrovertible scientific discovery (that madness is mental illness) was in fact the product of eminently questionable social and ethical commitments.

Foucault's next history, The Birth of the Clinic (1963) can similarly be read as a critique of modern clinical medicine. But the socio-ethical critique is muted (except for a few vehement passages), presumably because there is a substantial core of objective truth in medicine (as opposed to psychiatry) and so less basis for critique.
Which is whatever. The important part is that Foucault provides the tools by which to see how madness itself is a historically constructed phenomenon linked to tactics of class-consolidation and epistemic capture. Those who have read Lovecraft know, of course, that his most famous endings are ones which are in madness; the bookish, antiquarian narrator finds some documents which refer to conversations about a thing, the conversationalists are disappeared, the documents peter off into incoherence, and the narrator loses his mind. This has generally been read (at least to my knowledge) as a reinforcing of the cosmicism at play, a sort of limit-space where the confrontation between culture and nature necessarily climaxes. The unfeeling void is simply too much, once the contents of the mind are horrifically collated, to end in anything but – an ideological function of bourgeois rationalism.

There are two major stories worth mentioning that strike outside of that tendency; Lovecraft's attempt at utopia (of the "fascistic socialism" variety), The Shadow Out of Time, and Ward. In a letter to the father of the titular Ward, the doctor who confronts Curwen (and utters the spell, as well as the epigraph) says:
Have only this consolation—that he was never a fiend or even truly a madman, but only an eager, studious, and curious boy whose love of mystery and of the past was his undoing. He stumbled on things no mortal ought ever to know, and reached back through the years as no one ever should reach; and something came out of those years to engulf him.
This is where the weirdness of the period comes in; Lovecraft was moving toward the materialist tendency he is now famous for, but was still used to writing in his dream-style. The whole of Ward is a story about a man who becomes entangled in ancient, unholy knowledge until it overtakes him, until he ultimately projects himself as the ancestor who he has been researching; the twist is that, nope, that ancestor's necromantically alive and he came back and stole Ward's identity by, well, murdering him, because they look very similar.

There are ways to read against this, of course; the whole final paragraph is written in such a bizarre, pat style that it doesn't take a great imagination to fix it such that Curwen won and wrote this to hide his tracks against those that threatened him. What's important, however, is that it is outright claimed that Ward was never a madman; that what we supposed was the usual Lovecraft trick had been undermined, and there is actually magic afoot. A materialistish magic, surely, but magic still.

Beyond simply sticking it to some imaginary alienists (which I imagine was probably something Lovecraft enjoyed doing), what's at stake in Ward's not succumbing to the collated contents of his mind (sorry I think that joke is really funny) is another tacit admission that this supreme limit is anything but; the kid did necromancy, discovered an ancient, horrible plot, was accomplice to horrific things, and was saved (only to be murdered) because of his "'squeamishness.'" In light of that, and of The Shadow Out of Time's utopianism being notable for describing a character who does not descend into, but out of, a (socially-prescribed) madness as the story goes on, those narrators or characters who do lose their shit when confronted with the cosmic begin to seem less unmarked.

Which isn't to say that they weren't explicitly marked – the de la Poer boy or the Innsmouth explorer – to begin with, with many moments of discovery being a consequence of genealogical research. But this, too, is a feature of Ward, who calls forth Curwen because of a genealogical link. Which is all just to say that the race-fear which powers Lovecraft does not map quite as neatly onto his use of "madness" as a limit as one might reasonably expect.

But to return, briefly and finally, to the initial question: does it make any sense whatsoever to consider Lovecraft's works as constituting amoral universe(s)? Even on their own terms? My assumption is that those who rely on this argument do rely on it exactly to the extent that they can collate the idea of "madness" with the ahistoricism that Foucault refused. The second this collation is refused, the stories begin to shift; considering the cannibalistic madness that ends "The Rats in the Walls" among the epistemic shift to a moral repugnance with what sits outside of the ruling class' economic requirements means many things, but "cosmic indifference" sure isn't one of them.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Binding of Katy

It was early in the morning, Abraham arose betimes, he had the asses saddled, left his tent, and Isaac with him, but Sarah looked out of the window after them until they had passed down the valley and she could see them no more. They rode in silence for three days. On the morning of the fourth day Abraham said never a word, but he lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off. He left the young men behind and went on alone with Isaac beside him up to the mountain. But Abraham said to himself, "I will not conceal from Isaac whither this course leads him." He stood still, he laid his hand upon the head of Isaac in benediction, and Isaac bowed to receive the blessing. And Abraham's face was fatherliness, his look was mild, his speech encouraging. But Isaac was unable to understand him, his soul could not be exalted; he embraced Abraham's knees, he fell at his feet imploringly, he begged for his young life, for the fair hope of his future, he called to mind the joy in Abraham's house, he called to mind the sorrow and loneliness. Then Abraham lifted up the boy, he walked with him by his side, and his talk was full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. He climbed Mount Moriah, but Isaac understood him not. Then for an instant he turned away from him, and when Isaac again saw Abraham's face it was changed, his glance was wild, his form was horror. He seized Isaac by the throat, threw him to the ground, and said, "Stupid boy, dost thou then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Dost thou suppose that this is God's bidding? No, it is my desire." Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, "O God in heaven, have compassion upon me. God of Abraham, have compassion upon me. If I have no father upon earth, be Thou my father!" But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, "O Lord in heaven, I thank Thee. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in Thee."




Blood is thick but
God is thicker


Musically, Katy Perry's "Unconditionally" does three things that, with my infantile grasp of music and its theory, I find both compelling and, in at least an elliptical way, articulable. They are:
  1. The sparse opening, which consists memorably only of a squelch at the end of each bar;
  2. The inclusion, halfway through each verse, of drums which, set against this sparse backdrop, resemble nothing so much as worship music; and
  3. un-,kun-dish-'shun-ul
Four years ago, of Perry, I wrote:
[W]hat is really remarkable about Perry's music is that it, while in the middle of presenting all of these fantasies about becoming consumable, buries deep within itself the vicious pain that this process involves. Think, for instance, of her endless choruses, especially the one in California Gurls, that always end up with Perry basically wailing inarticulately. If it weren't for the massive amounts of work done in post-production, from structural shaping to lathered-on AutoTune, what we would have as the core of this song would be simply Katy Perry screaming.
That she had previously worked as a church singer was something, even then, of which I was aware. But it predated, I think, the thread in her work that would bear out that connection. That didn't really codify, at least as far as I can tell, until "Wide Awake." With "Unconditional" she has reached that strange status where she gets as much praise from Christian blogs as she does condemnation for being a product of MK Ultra. That 'wailing,' however, remains.

Which, among other things (including, incredibly importantly and in a way I can find no other space in which to claim, the bodily (read, vocal) pleasure of the song lies), is where the third presses itself as a point important to the diachronic reading of Perry. That she shifts the Dish out of view for the Shun might be a fun instant, but it is the way that, characterologically, we might classify as restraint that which, lacking such a situated abstraction, would certainly be nothing less than an embarrassing overzeal that (and again, hidden in the aside: one potential ending here is simply "makes this so enjoyable to scream/sing along to") impresses itself, moves this song beyond the pleasure of confirmation and into the pleasure of living time.

Here, then, is the second point, on which I will not linger. Like no other artist, Katy Perry is, for me, full of dread. From the instant that sexual performativity becomes the origin of the character, who nevertheless insists quietly on the worshipful backstory and normative identity, everything bleeds. That this is nothing more than the status quo, a story of the individual in the stead of the (material) universal, is, for a situated abstraction, only reinforcing.

Dread is, of course, a convenient lie.



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My two favorite songs by The Residents, probably, are both off Wormwood. One, unfortunately, is the studio version, while the other is on the live album; what's relevant here, however, is that neither of them are "KILL HIM!"



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Another, earlier contemner of the world, who said that he had been a king in Jerusalem, had touched on the heart of the problem, almost with these very words: The spirit whirls in all directions, and on its circuits the spirit returns. All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up; the rivers of revolution return from whence they came, only to flow again.


The moment comes at the end of the second verse, the last before the song enters the chorus-bridge-chorus endgame; it's The three words, but it is Them in repetition. It is, more than anything, the (tellingly) unnecessary emphasis, the sudden obliteration of the possibility of cordial conversationalism. The lie is given in ostensible service of an intensification: "(I do it all because) I love you. I LOVE YOU."

The line itself is, in its performance and in its familiarity, out of joint in time (or, at least, tense); what is there is a phrase of having done, of having been. Did, there, can be sympathetic, or comical, because it allows the slightest distance in the midst of the outburst. Do, baldly, is a threat.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Dread is, among other things, the way that Kierkegaard, in Fear & Trembling, indexes the specificity which marks, finally, Abraham, during the binding of Isaac, as the father of faith. It is, among other things, what separates him from the ordinary individual who, rather than paradoxically transcending the universal by achieving the individual through it, simply transcends the individual into the universal.

And so the lie; because what that emphatic repetition reveals is that Perry sings from the point of view of the knight of faith, Abraham.

There is, of course, the immediacy; where the bridge becomes what it was meant against, where "open up your heart and just let it begin" is not an exhortation but, suddenly, like "what's really on the inside," is tangible. That is -- it is a promise, in the figure of a knife.

To begin his text, Kierkegaard, pseudonymously, critiques his work, and then offers it; but before he gets into Reason, he offers a small fable, in which a man imagines possible iterations of the story of the binding of Isaac. This, too, then, begins with one imagining. What Kierkegaard accomplishes is not the vaunted toolbox, but the ellipse, the endless working around the issue that speaks it in a way unavailable to the declamation.

What Perry accomplishes, as she subsumes the knight of faith in point of view, is pain. What this means is an emptiness, a figuring of the shifting of signs and the laborious (re)production of bodies as affective; what it does is to fill space in which screaming & singing is done.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Shachipanda: Episode 2?

Update: One of my favorite authors offered translations of the dialogue, which I've included below with links to the tweets.

My preliminary thoughts are that this is an indication that the current is the final state of Shachipanda. I'm still incredibly curious about that t-shirt and what the date is, as well as just generally hoping someone who is more narratively inclined wants to put this together in a way that is satisfying both to the current design and in terms of the previous, but the big hole is now filled, and I am pretty incredibly happy about that.



Above is the minimap for the town of Shachipanda, one of the more famous of the (non-Aika) nightmare suites available in Animal Crossing: New Leaf through the Dream Suite. I'm back into New Leaf for the first time in over half a year, and I wanted to revisit some of these "Horror Towns." I did get to go to the original Shachipanda, but I didn't take any screengrabs of it; there are plenty of annotated walkthroughs available.

The short version of the previous Shachipanda is that there is a man, whose identifying dress you wear, who runs some sort of antique shop that's a front for a drug operation. He murdered a girl and her mother, and was possibly the husband/father of them. Another girl, dressed as a rabbit, fell or was pushed off a cliff, and died. Her ghost in the initial town says that her little sister was angry; the other dead girl is the owner of the final house and it seems to be some sort of composite of her memories. There is also a wanted poster of the man, and some police tape around his house.

The current version of Shachipanda seems to be a continuation of this story, although, without knowing Japanese, I can't really piece it together completely.








1




Plugged into Google Translate, this gives "I wondering I must observe the rules"

"Follow the rules while you wander"



Main


Basement


2nd Floor




2

The second house is the house of the murderer from the previous; much of it is the same, except that now he has bedhead and a halo.



Google Translate again: "You're going to have no hesitation."

"You didn't hesitate at all, did you?"

Main




Back Room




Basement





The following, is, as far as I can tell, the only change from the previous version of this room (aside from the placement in the houses); the shirt that's hanging, rather than being bloody, has what looks like some sort of date pattern on it. I couldn't find this pattern anywhere else, though it looks to say 2014 / 30, which, given that the previous town had the date of the girl's murder marked in 2013, seems to be some sort of continuity.



2nd Floor

This is the biggest departure from the previous iteration of the town; where this area used to be closed off (with police tape) and include only the wetsuit and a trash can, it now has some more stuff and is accessible.


The words on this pattern are, as best I can figure, "Yamii's Garden;" Yamii being the name of the owner of the next house.



3


Last Google Translate: "And to dream and probably even a nice dream."

"Nice dream, wasn't it? Because it was a dream!"

Main Room





Back Room




Right Room





Left Room



Basement

These pictures aren't going to do them justice at all, but the basement is maybe the single best laid-out room I've ever seen in Animal Crossing; it is some sort of café/sushi bar run by anatomical models.






2nd Floor

This area is too, as it somehow wraps together the titular panda and the voyeurist themes of the previous town.





Other Stuff

Replacement for the wanted poster.


Various





The cleaned up scene of the rabbit's death, with the death- & drug-dealer's ghost.