The most common stereotype concerning H.P. Lovecraft work associates him with the tale of supernatural horror, and with the negative affects of fear, fright, doom, despair, dread, horror, terror, etc. and with a worldview of pessimism or nihilism. However, while all these elements are indeed present in his work, I wish to argue that this conceptual and affective assemblage presents a reductive tableau of Lovecraft’s cosmological vision as expressed in his literary oeuvre.
Some writers seem to be vaguely aware of this reductionism and prefer to talk of Lovecraft as a writer of weird tales, but their use of the term “weird” is usually strongly tinged with this horrific coloration. A more englobing coloration of the weird would be provided by the recognition of the overwhelmingly oneiric quality of Lovecraft’s work.
Fortunately some commentators, for example Lovecraft’s friend and mentoree Robert Bloch, have seen and emphasised this pre-eminence of the dream.
“The one theme incontrovertibly constant in both his life and his work is a preoccupation with dreams. From earliest childhood on, Lovecraft’s sleep ushered him into a world filled with vivid visions of alien and exotic landscapes that at times formed a background for terrifying nightmares” (Robert Bloch, introduction to THE BEST OF H.P. LOVECRAFT (New York: Ballantine, 1963)
Where this oniricity is acknowledged it is still most often reduced to only one dimension of the dream, that of the nightmare. The positive affects of awe, wonder, inspiration, desire, mystery, numinosity, expectancy and revelation are given short shrift. Ambiguous words of ambivalent connotation and coloration are glibly reduced to a single negative tone, for example the “void” is seen under the aspect of negativity and extinction.
Another theme that is blown up out of all proportion is that of the “supernatural”. Strange Gods, ancient magic, demons are either taken at face value by the most naive or seen as metaphors of the indifference of the Universe to humanity and of its eventual extinction by the more sophisticated. This terrifying supernaturalism is valorised all the more as it fits in well with the diagnosis of nihilism.
These considerations cohere into the stereotype of Lovecraft the author of nihilist tales of supernatural terror. Unfortunately there are many of Lovecraft’s poems and tales that do not fit easily, either in whole or in part, into this stereotype. These are either ignored or denigrated as Romantic residues or derivative, Dunsanian works.
These more positive oneiric works can still be integrated into the nihilistic interpretation in that they often contain both a de-realisation and a de-valorisation of life, as illusion or as unsatisfying, not worth living. There is a nihilistic longing for another yet unattainable world, often synonymous with the extinction of personal identity seen as deliverance from the mistake of ever having been born, a mood of dissatisfaction and yearning underpinned by a vaguely Schopenhauerian-tinted Platonic dualism.
Yet we know that Lovecraft was both a materialist (recognising no separate supernatural or even Platonic realm) and a dreamer (subscribing to no mundane nihilism of the loss of all value). Lovecraft’s materialism is a constant of all his stories:
“There is never an entity in Lovecraft that is not in some fashion material” (S.T. Joshi, THE WEIRD TALE, 186).
Far from being a cosmic pessimist or a Romantic nihilist Lovecraft is best seen as a noetic dreamer, an oneiric materialist, an immanent Platonist. The dream, both waking (noetic) and sleeping, is part of our creative engagement with the material world and of our resistance against nihilism.
One can easily find elements of “Platonism” in Lovecraft’s stories and poetry, but I wish to argue that this is part of his revaluing or “renoetising” of a material world that is often seen as hostile to creative values, as “denoetised”. Lovecraft’s fiction presents us with a form of “immanent” or non-dualist Platonism.
Note: I am using a terminology taken from Bernard Stiegler’s DANS LA DISRUPTION (2016) for the positive vocabulary and analysis that it proposes for talking about the dream as a material phenomenon of imaginative meditation and aspiration, a “noetic” (from “nous”, Greek for intellect, intellection).
I wish to talk about the poem “Hesperia”, number XIII in the sonnet cycle FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH, to illustrate this approach to Lovecraft’s vision. I choose this because of the very interesting reading proposed by Jesse Willis and Eric Rabkin in their marvelous and intelligent podcast “Reading Short and Deep”. They provide a link to the pdf of the poem, and they discuss it on episode 54. The motto for the podcast, “there’s always more to say”, is an invitation to continue the dialogue further, or as Jung advises us to “dream the dream on”.
At first sight “Hesperia” is built on a dualism between this “dull sphere”, the finite and imperfect world of human constructions and aspirations and another world of perfection, “the land where beauty’s meanings flower”. The other Platonic world is forever out of bounds, unattainable by mere humans, unsoilable by “human tread”.
Yet this realm is not totally inaccessible, we can approach it in dreams (“Dreams bring us close”). But not just in the dreams of the night. The poem is a meditation that occurs at a visionary moment (“winter sunset”), it is a waking dream where the poet can actually see the other world. The affects that preside over this experience are not those of dread, fear and doom, but splendor, divine desires, beauty and wonder. We participate in those affects even if we cannot abide in their source. We are humans not gods and so our participation is limited to intermittent visions and cyclic dreaming.
The dominant elements are fire and water, the “flaming” winter sunset and the “starlit streams of hours”. Our world is the world of Heraclitean flux and becoming, but the “rich fires” open the way to divine desires, and the “streams of hours” derive from the “great river Time”, whose source is the eternal world. So we are never wholly separated from this world, only “half-detached”. In the other direction, starting from immanence, religion and industry (spires and chimneys) are themselves “half-detached” from this dull Earth.
We need both movements to make us fully human, subjects capable of living in time in the light of eternity. We are intermediate beings, forever “half-detached”. Certainly we are never fully detached from the dull matter of the material world, but we are also never fully immersed in dull matter either.
The poem conforms to the classical structure of the sonnet. It is traditionally composed of an octave presenting the problem and a sestet disclosing the solution.In “Hesperia” the octave is situated in the world of immanece, the movement is up and beyond. The sestet begins in the world of eternity, the movement is down into time and matter.
The initial octave is the point of view of the mundane world which opens onto a vision of divine life located in an eternal city. The gates open in certain visionary moments and we can see the way, but we cannot tread it. The sestet is the point of view from the numinous world, in which the river of Time finds its source, crossing the vast void lit by the light of the stars, and dividing into the “streams of hours” of our human heliocentric measures of time.
There is no radical separation between the two realms, no dualistic opposition, no point of absolute detachment. There is a tension between two poles. We live as more than human animals by participating in both. The poem is both cosmological, expressing a vision of the world contained in a winter sunset epiphany, and ethical, containing implicitly an answer to the question of the conduct of life.
The answer to the question of how to live is not just the impossibility of transcendence for the human subject, but also its pointlessness: we are not separated. Beauty is eternal, and even if its full meaning does not flower for us we have dreams and visions, moments of insight and poetico-cosmological epiphanies.
We cannot “tread” our way, like animals, into eternity, nor can we dwell there like gods. But we can dream our way there and come back enriched or transformed.
Another answer is contained in the hour of the vision, the “winter sunset”. Yes this is the symbol of the World Cycle and of the Eternal Return. As noetic beings we rise and sink in imagination and understanding. More specifically, “winter” and “sunset” are times not just of decline, like autumn and evening, but of disaggregation. Lovecraft is a materialist for whom all is the coming together and the dispersal of matter. The winter sunset is the season and the hour of decomposition, a time particularly favorable for sighting another world, only half-detached from our ordinary world.
Maxim 1: inspiration can come when things are falling apart.
This materialist maxim of life, that moments of decline and disaggreagation can provide the inspiration for new vision, does not sound at all pessimistic. Pessimism and nihilism are not inherent to Lovecraft’s vision but stem from the dualist spectacles with which we may read him.
This advice to look to moments of decomposition of our certainties and of our stereotypes for inspiration to new understanding and new action is complemented and reinforced by a spatial indication – the poet looks out to the horizon, to a space “half-detached” from our mundane sphere of dull indifference, to “great gates” that open onto eternity . Mundane forms are dissolved, replaced by imaginative forms burning with intensity and desire.
Maxim 2: inspiration can come if we follow the line of horizon.
A third indication for the eyes of the spirit is that beauty is no longer a matter of personal esthetic enjoyment nor is it the fruit of personal memories. The imaginative “method” is one of anamnesis, or remembering, of images and events that are not located inside our personal experience, instances of “unplaced memory”. Beauty is conjoined with meaning and memories with their source in imaginative vision:
It is the land where beauty’s meaning flowers;
Where every unplaced memory has a source
Maxim 3: inspiration can come if we search for the images, desires, and intensities active within the memories.
My vision of Lovecraft is the Nietzschean one of the artist as convalescent, both patient and doctor, sick from our civilisation and healing from it. For Lovecraft, nihilism is the sickness, not the solution or the conclusion. Dreaming and imagining actively, as valued moments in our processes of individuation, are not escapism but an important part of the cure.