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 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.

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