LOVECRAFT NOETIC DREAMER (2): « The Ancient Track » and dreamology as cosmology

In my previous post on Lovecraft I presented him as a « noetic dreamer », an 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 sole 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 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 ».

Note: there is an interesting discussion of this poem on the excellent podcast Reading Short and Deep episode #005.

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3 commentaires pour LOVECRAFT NOETIC DREAMER (2): « The Ancient Track » and dreamology as cosmology

  1. cthulhuwho1 dit :

    Based upon your interest in « The Ancient Track, » and your knowledge of Lovecraft’s, « Fungi from Yuggoth, » I highly recommend the following article and information to you:
    « It’s Official! It’s Here! 2017 is The Year of Fungi from Yuggoth! »

    Will Hart


  2. Ping : DELEUZIAN LOVECRAFT: undoing the face, esoterising the lexicon | AGENT SWARM

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