Autumn longing: H.P. Lovecraft
If you haven’t yet read my first post in this series of posts about a special mood of ethereal longing that occasionally overcomes me, then please read that one before this one, since it lays the groundwork to explain what I’m getting at here.
H.P. Lovecraft was an early 20th century American horror author who has long been associated in mainstream memory with Weird Tales and the other 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines that were devoted to fantasy, science fiction, and horror. What has been less well known outside of his relatively small but passionately devoted circle of admirers is that he was also a fantastically prolific epistolarian, an accomplished literary critic, a student of architecture, a devoted antiquarian, an amateur chemist and astronomer, and a philosopher and political theorist of enormous insight and acumen. It is only now, these seven decades after his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 46, that he is beginning to receive mainstream recognition as a classic American author on the level of Poe. (Not incidentally, the many parallels between Poe and Lovecraft are fascinating. Both were preoccupied by moods and themes of beauty, horror, dread, and the gothic sublime. Both were neurotic and emotionally hypersensitive. Both were denied canonical literary status until long after their deaths. Both were first championed by the French literati before achieving widespread critical recognition back in their home country.)
Lovecraft’s most famous literary creation has hitherto been the inaptly named “Cthulhu mythos,” which, as stated in the Wikipedia article by that title, “is the term coined by the writer August Derleth [one of Lovecraft’s literary executors] to describe the shared elements, characters, settings, and themes in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and associated writers.” The mythos is built around the idea of monstrous extracosmic entities who are waging a war against each other, with earth as one of their central battlegrounds. Although Lovecraft did occasionally write about such things, or at least about something resembling them, Derleth and later writers codified and modified his so-called “mythos” in ways that were explicitly un-Lovecraftian, giving it, for example, a pseudo-Christian slant by recasting it in the form of a Manichaean war between “good” entities and “bad” ones. The resulting literary mishmash contributed enormously to the public’s misremembering of Lovecraft as nothing more than a pulp hack who produced a body of b-grade horror stories about tentacular monsters.
Fortunately, a vigorous scholarly movement arose in the 1970s, spearheaded by the precocious young scholar S.T. Joshi, that reclaimed Lovecraft’s memory from the morass of inaccuracies that had come to obscure it. Today, thanks primarily to Joshi and the other scholars involved in the movement, Lovecraft is increasingly being remembered and recognized as the significant literary figure that he truly was and is.
Among the aspects of his character that were obscured by the false image of him that reigned during most of the 20th century, none was more central to his overall personality than his burning sense of sehnsucht (regarding which, see my first post in this series for an explanation). His deep longing for, and exquisite responsiveness to, scenes of natural and architectural beauty which would evoke a piercing sense of “adventurous expectancy,” as he often called it, mingled with a tantalizing sense of deja vu or lost memory, led him to produce many poems and a veritable ocean of letters in which he described and tracked this delicate mood. As with C.S. Lewis’s writings about his own piercing experience of sehnsucht, I find that Lovecraft’s descriptions of the emotion awaken a startling sense of identification within me. I know exactly, precisely, poignantly, what he is talking about when he describes the ethereal sense of longing that arises in connection with certain scenes and seasons to intoxicate him with a sense of imminent revelation and transcendence.
I wrote about this aspect of his personality in my paper “The Masters’ Eyes Shining with Secrets: H.P. Lovecraft and His Influence on Thomas Ligotti,” so for this post about HPL’s experience of sehnsucht, I’ve decided to go ahead and quote a passage from that paper, since it includes several significant excerpts from his writings.
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Lovecraft, as both a human being and an artist, was powerfully shaped by a lifelong experience of sehnsucht. . . . [His] poignant yearning after an experience of absolute beauty can be seen in many of his stories, such as “The Silver Key,” where young Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s fictional alter ego, yearns for a return to the reimagined supernal peace and beauty of his childhood world; and also in his letters and essays, where he speaks repeatedly of finding himself overcome by aesthetic rapture and a sense of longing and “adventurous expectancy” at the sight of sunsets, cloudscapes, winding streets, rooftops angled in certain suggestive arrangements, and the like. The following passage from a 1927 letter to Donald Wandrei is typical:
Sometimes I stumble accidentally on rare combinations of slope, curved street-line, roofs & gables & chimneys, & accessory details of verdure & background, which in the magic of late afternoon assume a mystic majesty and exotic significance beyond the power of words to describe. Absolutely nothing else in life now has the power to move me so much; for in these momentary vistas there seem to open before me bewildering avenues to all the wonders & lovelinesses I have ever sought, & to all those gardens of eld whose memory trembles just beyond the rim of conscious recollection, yet close enough to lend to life all the significance it possesses (Selected Letters II.125-6).
Or again, from a 1930 letter to Clark Ashton Smith:
My most vivid experiences are efforts to recapture fleeting & tantalising mnemonic fragments expressed in unknown or half-known architectural or landscape vistas, especially in connexion with a sunset. Some instantaneous fragment of a picture will well up suddenly through some chain of subconscious association—the immediate excitant being usually half-irrelevant on the surface—& fill me with a sense of wistful memory & bafflement; with the impression that the scene in question represents something I have seen & visited before under circumstances of superhuman liberation & adventurous expectancy, yet which I have almost completely forgotten, & which is so bewilderingly uncorrelated & unoriented as to be forever inaccessible in the future (Selected Letters III.197).
Additional examples could be multiplied at length, and all would show, like the above passages, that Lovecraft was gripped by an ingrained and, we might say, “classical” sense of sehnsucht, the “infinite longing that is the essence of romanticism,” as E.T.A. Hoffmann famously formulated it. It was precisely this faculty that led him to respond with such intense delight to the mystically charged writings of Lord Dunsany, which exerted an enormous influence on his own subsequent work. Lovecraft’s Dunsanian stories can and should be read not only as outflowings of his love for Dunsany’s aesthetic vision, but as expressions of his own personal sense of infinite longing.
Lovecraft even went so far as to assert that this feeling of longing, this heightened responsiveness to beauty that seems to hint at a transcendent world of absolute aesthetic fulfillment, is
the impulse which justifies authorship . . . . The time to begin writing is when the events of the world seem to suggest things larger than the world—strangenesses and patterns and rhythms and uniquities of combination which no one ever saw or heard before, but which are so vast and marvellous and beautiful that they absolutely demand proclamation with a fanfare of silver trumpets. Space and time become vitalised with literary significance when they begin to make us subtly homesick for something ‘out of space, out of time.’ . . . To find those other lives, other worlds, and other dreamlands, is the true author’s task. That is what literature is; and if any piece of writing is motivated by anything apart from this mystic and never-finished quest, it is base and unjustified imitation (Selected Letters II.142-3). . . .
In [“Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction“], he explain[ed] why he wrote the particular kind of story that his readers have come to associate him with. . . . :
I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 113; emphasis added).
The import of this statement for Lovecraft’s status as a horror writer is obvious: he was saying, circa 1933, that he only wrote horror because it was efficacious for achieving another effect that is not intrinsically horrific. In other words, for him, horror was a means and not an end. It was his poignant, wistful longing after transcendent beauty and cosmic freedom that animated his authorial life—and not only that, but his life in general: in the same letter where he described his “vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory,” he claimed that this intense emotional experience was chief amongst the reasons why he did not commit suicide—“the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthernsome quality” (Selected Letters III.243).
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I’ll note tangentially that if the above excerpt interests you, you should be aware that the entire essay will be published in the next issue of Studies in Weird Fiction, the long-running journal edited by Joshi. The essay was also available for a time at Thomas Ligotti Online, but right now I’m getting an error message when I try to access it there.
At the risk of redundancy, I’ve decided to go ahead and post a handful of those “additional passages” mentioned above: those excerpts from Lovecraft’s letters, poems, and essays that further embody his extraordinarily intense experience of infinite longing. I hope the repetitiveness may serve not to bore, but to underscore and even clarify the emotion in question via Lovecraft’s many variations of expression, all centered around a common nexus of tropes and themes. Note especially his frequent return to certain key elements — the mystical emotional effect of sunsets and skyscapes, the evocative nature of certain architectural scenes, the sense of lost memory, the craving for a vision of absolute beauty, the maddening and tantalizing nature of the elusive longing — that help to flesh out exactly what he is talking about, if indeed such a mystical-seeming emotion can be adequately and definitively pinpointed.
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From The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927)
Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvellous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades, and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles. It was a fever of the gods; a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things, and the maddening need to place again what once had an awesome and momentous place.
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From a letter to James F. Morton, March 12, 1930 (cf. Selected Letters III.123-4; emphases in original)
It is never any definite experience which gives me pleasure, but always the quality of mystic adventurous expectancy itself—the indefiniteness which permits me to foster the momentary illusion that almost any vista of wonder and beauty might open up, or almost any law of time or space or matter or energy be marvellously defeated or reversed or modified or transcended….that sense of expansion, freedom, adventure, power, expectancy, symmetry, drama, beauty-absorption, surprise, and cosmic wonder (i.e. the illusory promise of a majestic revelation which shall gratify man’s ever-flaming, ever-tormenting curiosity about the outer voids and ultimate gulfs of entity)….the illusion of being poised on the edge of the infinite amidst a vast cosmic unfolding which might reveal almost anything reveal . . . . a sense of soaring outward from all temporal, spatial, and material limitations along broad vistas of slanting yellow radiance from unimagined gulfs beyond the chrysoberyl gates of sunset……soaring outward toward the discovery of stupendous, cosmic, inconceivable things, and toward the envisagement and comprehension of awesome rhythms and patterns and symmetries too Titanic, too unparticled, too trans-galactic, and too overpowering for the relatively flat, tame, and local name of “beauty”. When a city or landscape or experience can give me this sense of untrammelled and starward soaring, I account it worth my while to go after it.
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From a letter to August Derleth, December 25, 1930 (cf. Selected Letters III.197)
I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I continue to refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthernsome quality. These reasons are strongly linked with architecture, scenery, and lighting and atmospheric effects, and take the form of vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory—impressions that certain vistas, particularly those associated with sunsets, are avenues of approach to spheres or conditions of wholly undefined delights and freedoms which I have known in the past and have a slender possibility of knowing again in the future. Just what those delights and freedoms are, or even what they may approximately resemble, I could not concretely imagine to save my life; save that they seem to concern some ethereal quality of indefinite expansion and mobility, and of a heightened perception which shall make all forms and combinations of beauty simultaneously visible to me, and realisable by me.
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From a letter to August Derleth, September 2, 1931 (Selected Letters III.405)
Certain collocations of scenic or architectural details have the most powerful imaginable effect on my emotions—evoking curious combinations of poignant images derived from reading, pictures, and experience. Old farmhouses and orchards move me about as profoundly as any one kind of thing I know—though general rural landscapes are also supremely potent. They give me a vague, elusive sense of half-remembering something of great and favourable significance—just as city spires and domes against a sunset, or the twinkling lights of a violet city twilight seen from neighboring heights, always inspires a vaguely stimulating sense of adventurous expectancy.
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From a letter to Robert E. Howard, May 7, 1932 (Selected Letters IV.39)
What you say of your dreams of cold, grey skies—and of the actual skies and sunsets in your part of the world—interests me vastly. I am myself extremely susceptible to sky effects, particularly gorgeous and apocalyptic sunsets. Sunsets arouse in me vague feelings of pseudo-memory, mystical revelation, and adventurous expectancy, which nothing else can even begin to conjure up. They always seem to me to be about to unveil supernal vistas of other (yet half-familiar) worlds and other dimensions. I am also ineffably fascinated by the golden light of late afternoon which somewhat precedes the sunset. Any sort of scene bathed in this unearthly splendour—with tinges of crimson and long, fantastic shadows—seems to my fancy part of a strange, ethereal realm of wonder and beauty but faintly allied to anything in the domain of prosaic reality.
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As before, I hope you enjoy these contributions to your experience of the autumn season. Reading such words and thoughts, which express with aching clarity an emotion and sensation that I have labored for years to articulate for myself, never fails to intensity my own experience of the season’s bittersweet poignancy.