Search Results for "autumn longing"

Autumn Longing: Peter Shaffer and AMADEUS

First, my standard proviso: If you haven’t already read the first installment in this series of posts, then please do so before reading this one, since the first one lays the groundwork for what I’m going on about.

But for now, to reiterate briefly: Since childhood I have been overcome from time to time by an experience of intense longing for something that I can neither name nor remember, but that seems bound up with beauty (both natural and artistic), transcendence, infinity, freedom, melancholy, joy, poignancy, nostalgia — a whole host of strangely interrelated moods and cognitions and emotions. It trembles just beyond the edge of attainment and seems to represent the fulfillment of everything I have ever desired, and of everything I have ever intuited about the deep meaning of life. C.S. Lewis experienced the same thing and built his life around it, borrowing the German term “sehnsucht” to refer to it. I sometimes call it the Autumn Longing since it seems bound up with that season — as indeed it was for Lewis, too, who once described the way he became intoxicated with longing at “the Idea of Autumn” upon reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. H.P. Lovecraft was also subject to it, and wrote about it copiously. Most of the classical Romantics knew of it. And so have a great many other authors, as I have only begun to find in recent times.

For several years now I’ve set myself the task of keeping an eye out for writings where other people describe this longing. The very act of reading them fills me with a strange exhilaration and rekindles the longing itself. It’s addictive, let me tell you. I seem to be drawn to such things even when I don’t realize at first that they’re right before me.

Which brings us to Amadeus. As a teenager I discovered the movie version of this play, which had been written some years earlier by the great Peter Shaffer. It positively entranced me. I’ve always been extremely susceptible to the mesmerizing influence of certain films, but Amadeus was and is amongst a handful that head the list. Everything about the movie coheres for me. It seems a Perfect Thing.

And so it was that when I finally looked into the original stage version a few years ago, I was astonished to find that the great longing that has been so important to me features in Amadeus as well. I hadn’t watched the movie for some years, but when I read the script for the play and saw it depicting Salieri’s great longing for the beauty he heard embodied in Mozart’s music, I remembered instantly one of the most powerful scenes in the film, where Salieri looks through a portfolio of Mozart’s work and, recalling the incident decades later, says that he seemed to be “staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an Absolute Beauty.” And of course when I reached that point in the play script, the same line was there, and it was equally wonderful.

So here, today, I’m reprinting the two scenes where this theme comes out most clearly in the play. The first is from the part of the play where Salieri has just spied upon a young Mozart as the latter flirts rather vilely(much more so in the play than in the movie) with his fiancée Constanze. Then music starts playing in the other room — the scene takes place at an aristocratic gathering at the home of a Baroness, where musicians are assembled to play some of Mozart’s music — and Salieri realizes this vile young man before him has composed music that seems to speak with the voice of God. And God is something Salieri knows about, because as a youth he prayed fervently for God to make him a composer, and promised that if God granted this wish, then he would devote his life to making music in God’s service. Salieri speaks to God frequently, referring to Him formally as “Signore” and thanking Him for the music that he sends to his humble servant. So naturally, when he finds that a vulgar, dirty-minded little man like Mozart (as Salieri sees it, and as Mozart is here portrayed) is the one who has received God’s greatest gift of musical expression, he turns against the deity and consciously works to block Him and destroy Mozart. (This is just another theme that renders the story endlessly absorbing to me.)

The second scene is the one mentioned above, where Salieri looks through a portfolio of Mozart’s music and recognizes the same awesome beauty and longing embodied in it.  The scene departs a bit from focusing on the longing proper in order to deliver an emotional punch based on the impression of awesome power of the absolute reality that shines through Mozart’s music.  As you’ll read, Salieri is overcome and, as it seems, nearly destroyed by the revelation of this power, which is made known via some impressive theatrical and musical flourishes.  Truly, this strikes me as one of the most purely and potently apocalyptic scenes, in the pristine root meaning of the word (the Greek apokalypsis meaning literally “the lifting of the veil”), to appear in modern drama, at least in my limited experience of the field.

This whole thing — the twin package of these two scenes from Amadeus — makes me want to dig further into Shaffer’s works to see whether he pursued such subjects elsewhere. In any case, I hope you enjoy reading all of this material, which as I’ve said is endlessly fascinating to me. It also elicits profound melancholy and, on some days, unbearable despair. And that’s just a natural part of it.

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From Amadeus, Act One, Scene 5

[The Adagio from the Serenade for thirteen wind instruments (K. 361) begins to sound. Quietly and quite slowly, seated in the wing chair, SALIERI speaks over the music.]

SALIERI: It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers — bassoons and basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note from the oboe.

[We hear it.]

It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded! [With ever-increasing emotion and vigor] The squeezebox groaned louder, and over it the higher instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around me — long lines of pain around and through me. Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God, “What is this? . . . What?!” But the squeezebox went on and on, and the pain cut deeper into my shaking head until suddenly I was running —

[He bolts out of the chair and runs across the stage in a fever, to a corner, down right. Behind him in the Light Box, the library fades into a street scene at night: small houses under a rent sky. The music continues, fainter underneath.]

dashing through the side door, stumbling downstairs into the street, into the cold night, gasping for life. [Calling up in agony] “What?! What is this? Tell me, Signore! What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours? . . .”

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From Amadeus, Act One, Scene 12

[He moves upstage in a fever — reaches out to take the portfolio on the chair — but as if fearful of what he mind find inside it, he withdraws his hand and sits instead. A pause. He contemplates the music lying there as if it were a great confection he is dying to eat, but dare not. Then suddenly he snatches at it — tears the ribbon — opens the case and stares greedily at the manuscripts within.
Music sounds instantly, faintly, in the theater, as his eye falls on the first page. It is the opening of the Twenty-ninth Symphony, in A major. Over the music, reading it.]

She had said that these were his original scores. First and only drafts of the music. Yet they looked like fair copies. They showed no corrections of any kind. It was puzzling — then suddenly alarming.

[He looks up from the manuscript to the audience: the music abruptly stops.]

What was evident was that Mozart was simply transcribing music completely finished in his head. And finished as most music is never finished.

[He resumes looking at the music. Immediately the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola sounds.]

Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.

[He looks up again: the music breaks off.]

Here again — only now in abundance — were the same sounds I’d heard in the library.

[He resumes reading, and the music also resumes: a ravishing phrase from the slow movement of the Concerto for Flute and Harp.]

The same crushed harmonies — glancing collisions — agonizing delights.

[He looks up again. The music stops.]

The truth was clear. That Serenade had been no accident.

[Very low, in the theater, a faint thundery sound is heard accumulating, like a distant sea.]

I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at — an Absolute Beauty!

[And out of the thundery roar writhes and rises the clear sound of a soprano, singing the Kyrie from the C Minor mass. The accretion of noise around her voice falls away — it is suddenly clear and bright — then clearer and brighter. The light grows bright: too bright: burning white, then scalding white! SALIERI rises in the downpour of it, and in the flood of the music, which is growing ever louder — filling the theatre — as the soprano yields to the full chorus, fortissimo, singing its massive counterpoint.

This is by far the loudest sound the audience has yet heard. SALIERI staggers toward us, holding the manuscripts in his hand, like a man caught in a tumbling and violent sea.

Finally the drums crash in below: SALIERI drops the portfolio of manuscripts — and falls senseless to the ground. At the same second the music explodes into a long, echoing, distorted boom, signifying some dreadful annihilation.

The sound remains suspended over the prone figure in a menacing continuum — no longer music at all. Then it dies away, and there is only silence.]

Autumn Longing: Edgar Allan Poe

First, my standard proviso: If you haven’t already read the first installment in this series of posts, then please do so before reading this one, since the first one lays the groundwork for what I’m going on about.

I assume Poe needs no introduction to most readers, seeing as he — or at least a caricature of him: the alcoholic, opium-addled pedophile who wrote a few bizarre horror tales and a weird poem about a raven — has been a staple of high school literature classes for a very long time now. It still shocks me when I discover literature anthologies dated from only a very few years ago which, in their biographical sketches of Poe, perpetuate the smear campaign that was engineered against him after his death by editor Rufus Griswold and Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm.

But that’s tangential. As many people know, Poe was a brilliant literary critic in addition to being a poet and fiction writer of genius. He was particularly interested in the ways that various forms of literature achieve their peculiar effects, and in this regard he wrote a couple of passages in his fine essay, “The Poetic Principle,” that touch on the subject of this ethereal longing that interests me so deeply. The essay’s purpose is to identify as nearly as possible the essence of poetry, that is, the principle that motivates poets to write and infuses words with that veritably alchemical ability to affect the reader. Poe ultimately identifies this principle as “simply the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty,” and says its “manifestation. . . is always found in an elevating excitement of the soul, quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart, or of that truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason.” So obviously he’s talking about something sui generis, something that falls into a special category all its own.

In elaborating his ideas about the appeal of the Beautiful — note its elevation to iconic status via the capital “B” — he writes a couple of passages that focus directly on what I am here calling the autumn longing or sehnsucht. As you’ll see if you’ve read my earlier posts in this series, what Poe says interfaces wonderfully with the words of C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft, the latter of whom, perhaps not incidentally, once called Poe his “god of fiction” and remained a lifelong devotee of this fellow resident of Providence. In the first of these passages I’m quoting, Poe pursues the idea of the “sense of the Beautiful” and, like Lewis and Lovecraft, opines that beauty itself generates the impression of a supernal, transcendent reality lying behind the concrete forms that we call beautiful — the Platonic Form of the Beautiful, we might suppose. In the second passage he lists some of the things “which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect.” Although I do not personally, in my own affective experience, follow him when he turns in typical Poe-ish fashion to dwelling upon the supernal “beauty of woman” (not because I don’t find women beautiful, but because I’ve never encountered this particular longing in that connection), I do find it most fascinating that the first half of his catalog mentions many poignant natural beauties that echo similar items listed in Lovecraft’s letters.

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“An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet faded to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.

“The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted–has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.”

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“We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect. He recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven–in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Aeolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odour that comes to him at eventide from far-distant undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter, in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.”

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.

Autumn longing: C.S. Lewis

The autumn season has always carried a special emotional potency for me. When the weather turns crisp and the colors of nature change first to vibrant reds, oranges, and golds, and then progress onward toward rustling browns, tending toward the death-sleep of winter, I’m struck with feelings of poignancy and melancholy that burn more brightly, or perhaps more darkly, than at any other time of the year. I’m also more exquisitely sensitive to the aesthetic influence of art, whether literary, musical, visual, or otherwise.

It was many years ago that I first realized and articulated to myself that this autumnal mood is inextricably bound up with a certain, strange longing. When the mood of autumn comes over me, it is always characterized by a kind of nostalgia for something I have never really known, as if I possess some vestigial memory of a lost knowledge or emotion that flits maddeningly and elusively on the edge of my ability to recall directly. It’s truly a numinous experience, that is, an experience that makes me feel as I’ve come into brief contact with some sort of transcendent spiritual truth. It tends to generate the impression of an absolute, unmediated experience of supernal beauty hovering just beyond the edge of my inner grasp. All the flickering hints of this beauty that I sometimes encounter in literature, film, music, and scenic natural vistas and skyscapes, seem to reach their apotheosis in this ungraspable ultimacy, as if they are merely finite carriers that filter and refract partial glimpses of an infinite reality, like the Platonic Form of the Beautiful itself.

Naturally, with this experience forming an important part of my psychological makeup, I am exceedingly fascinated by the accounts of others who have also felt it. Some years ago I began collecting quotes and passages from the works of various writers who have described their own encounters with this strange longing. Given that it is presently the height of October as I write these words, with the world outside my window standing fully in the grip of that special autumnal alchemy of bittersweet exuberance commingled with twilit dreariness, I thought there could be no better time for me to share some of these writers and their words.

The emotion in question has no essential connection to autumn, by the way. My own first memory of it actually hails from early summertime, from a lost day in my early adolescence — I think I was around twelve years old — when I walked out of my house and into the front yard, and was overcome suddenly by a kind of mental melding together of the soft greens of the trees and grasses, aided by the caress of a delicate warm breeze, that brought the emotion vividly to life. I spent several minutes standing there silently in the sway of an overpowering impression that I had forgotten something, some crucial event from years past, or perhaps a bit of intellectual or emotional knowledge, that would explain this explosion of pleasurable nostalgia. I never did grasp the elusive (or perhaps illusive) memory, but the memory of that first self-aware experience of the mysterious longing marked me permanently.

So as I said, this longing has no especial, essential connection to autumn. I simply associate it with the autumn season because that’s what seems to awaken it the most readily for me. In this, I am of course not alone, as attested by the veritable reams of autumn-themed poetry, centered around or inspired by a feeling of longing, that populate the pages of many a literary anthology

In my bookish wanderings in search of others who have shared this experience, I have been most interested to find writings that describe the longing, as distinct from literary attempts to evoke it. For the latter, any number of famous poets and poems will do: Sarah Teasdale, William Blake, Algernon Swinburne, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Dobyns, Emily Dickinson, Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth — the list could be extended indefinitely. But I’ve found that it’s all too rare, and therefore all the more special, to find a writer who attempts to provide an actual account of this special emotion of longing itself. What I want are the equivalent of phenomenological descriptions of what it feels like to be possessed by this strange and sui generis emotion, perhaps accompanied by a few ruminations on the possible meaning of it all.

To my knowledge, nobody has fulfilled this wish more completely than C.S. Lewis, who famously developed a Christian apologetic whose very foundation is rooted in the experience of nostalgic, transcendent longing. One might disagree with the conclusions he draws from his own lifelong experiences of it — “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world,” he wrote in Mere Christianity — but the power and precision of his phenomenological description itself is undeniable. In fact, I find that his words in this vein tend to reawaken my own longing, no matter how many times I reread them.

The following paragraphs come from the preface to C.S. Lewis’s allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), which was the first book he wrote after his adult conversion to Protestant Christianity. Subtitled “An Allegorical Apology for Christianity Reason and Romanticism,” the book presents an explicit allegory that depicts Lewis’s own journey from the dry, dead, inherited Christianity of his boyhood, through the problematic philosophies of the modern world, to the vibrant Christian faith of his adulthood. He intended it to serve as a Pilgrim’s Progress for the 20th century.

Lewis added the preface in 1943, ten years after the novel’s initial publication, because he wanted to clarify his use of the word “Romanticism” to describe “the experience which is central in this book.” After discussing several different ways in which the word is commonly understood, he explained his own idiosyncratic use of it to refer to “an experience of intense longing,” and in doing so, he came close to giving what is for me the quintessential description of the matter. I don’t necessarily endorse his argument in the latter paragraphs quoted below, where he explains the thought process that led him to accord this longing the status of evidence in a novel type of theological apologia. But still, I can’t deny that his very speculations in this area tend to arouse and intensify the longing within me.

* * * * *

“What I meant by ‘Romanticism’ when I wrote the Pilgrim’s Regress — and what I would still be taken to mean on the title page of this book—was . . . a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence and which I hastily called ‘Romantic’ because inanimate nature and marvelous literature were among the things that evoked it. I still believe that the experience is common, commonly misunderstood, and of immense importance: but I know now that in other minds it arises under other stimuli and is entangled with other irrelevancies and that to bring it into the forefront of consciousness is not so easy as I once supposed. I will now try to describe it sufficiently to make the following pages intelligible.

“The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire, though the subject may not at once recognize the fact and thus cries out for his lost youth of soul at the very moment in which he is being rejuvenated. This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it. ‘Oh to feel as I did then!’ we cry; not noticing that even while we say the words the very feeling whose loss we lament is rising again in all its old bitter-sweetness. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.

“In the second place, there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire. Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring. Thus if it comes to a child while he is looking at a far off hillside he at once thinks ‘if only I were there’; if it comes when he is remembering some event in the past, he thinks ‘if only I could go back to those days.’ If it comes (a little later) while he is reading a ‘romantic’ tale or poem of ‘perilous seas and faerie lands forlorn,’ he thinks he is wishing that such places really existed and that he could reach them. If it comes (later still) in a context with erotic suggestions he believes he is desiring the perfect beloved. If he falls upon literature (like Maeterlinck or the early Yeats) which treats of spirits and the like with some show of serious belief, he may think that he is hankering for real magic and occultism. When it darts out upon him from his studies in history or science, he may confuse it with the intellectual craving for knowledge.

“But every one of these impressions is wrong. The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them all to be wrong. There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience, such experience as would not have come my way if my youth had been wiser, more virtuous, and less self-centered than it was. For I have myself been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each one of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat. To have embraced so many false Florimels is no matter for boasting: it is fools, they say, who learn by experience. But since they do at last learn, let a fool bring his experience into the common stock that wiser men may profit by it.

“Every one of these supposed objects for the Desire is inadequate to it. An easy experiment will show that by going to the far hillside you will get either nothing, or else a recurrence of the same desire which sent you thither. A rather more difficult, but still possible, study of your own memories, will prove that by returning to the past you could not find, as a possession, that ecstasy which some sudden reminder of the past now moves you to desire. Those remembered moments were either quite commonplace at the time (and owe all their enchantment to memory) or else were themselves moments of desiring. The same is true of the things described in the poets and marvelous romancers. The moment we endeavor to think out seriously what it would be like if they were actual, we discover this. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle claimed to have photographed a fairy, I did not, in fact, believe it: but the mere making of the claim — the approach of the fairy to within even that hailing distance of actuality — revealed to me at once that if the claim had succeeded it would have chilled rather than satisfied the desire which fairy literature had hitherto aroused. Once grant your fairy, your enchanted forest, your satyr, faun, wood-nymph and well of immortality real, and amidst all the scientific, social and practical interest which the discovery would awake, the Sweet Desire would have disappeared, would have shifted its ground, like the cuckoo’s voice or the rainbow’s end, and be now calling us from beyond a further hill. With Magic in the darker sense (as it has been and is actually practised) we should fare even worse. How if one had gone that way — had actually called for something and it had come? What would one feel? Terror, pride, guilt, tingling excitement . . . but what would all that have to do with our Sweet Desire? It is not at Black Mass or séance that the Blue Flower grows. As for the sexual answer, that I suppose to be the most obviously false Florimel of all. On whatever plane you take it, it is not what we were looking for. Lust can be gratified. Another personality can become to us ‘our America, our New-found-land.’ A happy marriage can be achieved. But what has any of the three, or any mixture of the three, to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?

“It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal existence. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle — the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof. This lived dialectic, and the mere argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal; accordingly I tried to put them both into my allegory which thus became a defense of Romanticism (in my peculiar sense) as well as of Reason and Christianity.”

* * * * *

Not incidentally, Lewis later seized upon the German word sehnsucht to refer to this emotion. Sehnsucht refers to a wistful, nostalgic longing, and was employed by, for example, E.T.A. Hoffmann (19th cent.) in reference to Beethoven’s music, which in Hoffmann’s words “awakens just that infinite longing [sehnsucht] which is essence of romanticism.” I find it absolutely fascinating to observe the teeming cross section of outlooks and attitudes spanned by the experience of sehnsucht, which is a term that I have found to be as practically and emotionally useful as Lewis did.

For example, another author whose work I cherish, H.P. Lovecraft, was an ardent atheist and materialist, and yet he was gripped by precisely the same experience that gripped Lewis. Of course he drew different conclusions about the emotion, and accorded it a far different ontological and philosophical status. But as with Lewis, Lovecraft’s experience of sehnsucht was so central to his emotional makeup that it could not help but assume a central place in his art.

Other famous cases of sehnsucht-in-action can be seen in the writings of such disparate authors as Colin Wilson, William Wordsworth, Alan Watts, Arthur Machen, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Eugene O’Neill, Henri Amiel, Li Po, George Gissing, Anne Frank, and more. In future blog posts, I plan to offer quotes from some or all of these — most of them, I assure you, in much briefer form than the Lewis quote above. Perhaps one or more of them will prove as useful for you, in clarifying and articulating some of your own emotional tendencies, as they have been for me.

Huston Smith and H. P. Lovecraft on transcendent longing and humanity’s fundamental dis-ease

From Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith:

The traditional worldview is preferable to the one that now encloses us because it allows for the fulfillment of the basic longing that lies in the depth of the human heart. . . .

There is within us — in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us — a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies  in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release. Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles — Gauguin’s Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? and de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Infinite — but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.

From a 1930 letter by H. P. Lovecraft 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.

From a 1930 letter by Lovecraft to James F. Morton:

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.

From Smith, Why Religion Matters:

Release from those walls calls for space outside them, and the traditional world provides that space in abundance. It has about it the feel of long, open distances and limitless vistas for the human spirit to explore — distances and vistas that are quality-laden throughout. Some of its vistas . . . are terrifying; still, standing as it does as the qualitative counterpart to the quantitative universe that physics explores, all but the fainthearted would switch to it instantly if we believed it existed. . . . Our received wisdom denies its existence, but that wisdom cannot prevent us from having experiences that feel as if they come from a different world.

From Lovecraft, in his essay “Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction”:

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.


C. S. Lewis and H. P. Lovecraft on loathing and longing for alien worlds


Several years ago — almost seven, in fact (he said with a sense of temporal vertigo) — I published a series of posts here about what I then termed the “autumn longing,” that exquisite, fleeting, piercing experience of being tantalized by a vision of ultimate beauty and fulfillment that trembles just beyond the edge of our ability to attain or even fully imagine. The first post in the series was about C. S. Lewis, who gave what remains in my opinion the most complete and focused description of this experience in the English language. The second was about H. P. Lovecraft, who is far more well-known for writing about (and also for writing from) a vision of cosmic horror than a vision of beautiful longing, but whose life was centrally defined by an ongoing experience of this exquisite sehnsucht no less than Lewis’s was.

I went on to elaborate on these matters in a number of additional writings that have been published elsewhere, including “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H. P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti,” published both at Thomas Ligotti Online and in Lovecraft Annual; my two-part essay “Lovecraft’s Longing” for the North Shore arts magazine Art Throb; and a column titled “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing” for SF Signal.

Over the years I haven’t seen anybody else writing about this psychological kinship between Lewis and Lovecraft via the experience of sehnsucht, so it was a real joy to stumble upon the following a couple of days ago:

Much has been said about Lewis and Sehnsucht, the German word for “longing” or “yearning.” Lewis thought that this species of longing was itself a precious possession, more precious than anything to be found in this world, because it directs us to another world, a “far off country” whence all the good things in our world derive their goodness. We feel it in those fleeting moments when we sense beautiful things beyond our grasp. It is, as Lewis famously said in his afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress,

that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

. . . Lovecraft was not an alien to this longing. He felt it, too, but without the satisfaction hope gives it. . . . Is this what becomes of Sehnsucht when it is disappointed? Does it become the phantasmagoria of Lovecraft? Must those who either cannot or will not believe in the promise implicit in our longing turn upon the reminders of another world and defile them? The prospect fills me with pity.

These paragraphs come from a highly absorbing essay by Presbyterian pastor, successful young adult fantasy author (under the pen name “Mortimus Clay“), and former philosophy professor C. R. Wiley about the deep philosophical disjunction between Lewis’s and Lovecraft’s respective explorations and presentations of the theme of alien worlds and alien life. The fact that Wiley clearly “sides” with Lewis — something that’s not surprising, given the fact of their shared orthodox Christian worldview — doesn’t make his insight into Lovecraft any less valid or penetrating, and in fact helps to deepen it.

Here’s are key excerpts that illustrate the point:

Both Lewis and Lovecraft were interested in other worlds, that is, in alien worlds. And using the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, they explored the implications of alien worlds for human beings. But their respective visions are as alien to each other as the worlds they wrote about are alien to our own.

. . . Lewis believed that God is good — but his goodness is unleashed from human management. As he famously said: Aslan is not a tame lion. Nevertheless, even though Aslan disturbs characters in the Narnia stories, he does not disturb the reader. Lewis is too avuncular for that. He wrote the Narnia stories with children in mind, and his hands are warm and reassuring as he holds the hands of his readers. Even the Space Trilogy reassures us.

That is not what Lovecraft was after. He wanted to disturb us. At his best, we can detect in him a longing for the power that underlies all things. But for Lovecraft, it is an amoral power. Like people as wildly different as Mary Baker Eddy and Arthur Schopenhauer, Lovecraft believed morality to be a human attempt to tame and sublimate this power and to make it socially acceptable and useful.

Lewis did not think morality was a human artifice imposed on a primal life-force. Like the Apostle John, he proclaimed that life and light have the same source and occupy the same space. For Lewis, life is found in morality, and, like life, it is a gift we do not give ourselves.

It is this alien source of morality that modern people find disturbing. Reducing morality to human origins is a human attempt to tame it. For Lewis, that effort is the source of all our ills; the refusal to submit to our given limits is what alienates us from God. And that is where monsters really come from. Whoever they may be now — the White Witch or Weston — the monsters were once people. That is the frightening news Lewis has to share about human nature. It turns out that Lewis can scare people after all.

Lovecraft also believed that there is something monstrous at the bottom of human nature. Nearly all his stories have the feel of a confessional about them. They often narrate a process of discovery, creating within the reader a sense of dawning horror. Not infrequently, there is — at the zenith of the story — some dark revelation concerning the protagonist’s origins. . . . These stories end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.

But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.

More: “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis, & and the Problem of Alien Worlds

It’s the Most Tentacled Time of the Year: Happy 120th Birthday, H.P. Lovecraft

Photo: H.P. Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, born August 20, 1890, died March 15, 1937

Nobody would have been more surprised than Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself at his posthumous ascent to the twin positions of international entertainment culture icon and canonical American literary figure.  Today is his 120th birthday. He was born on August 20, 1890 (only four days (plus 80 years) before my own birthday, I gleefully note). He died on March 15, 1937, at the too-young age of 46.

Oh, that our paths might have crossed, Howard, right here in three-dimensional space-time instead of just in the twilight zone of literary-imaginal space.

In honor of today’s festive occasion, here’s a short list of links, all of them heartily approved by me, that deal with matters Lovecraftian in some capacity or other. Some were posted today specifically to celebrate HPL’s birth. Others are just some recent and excellent writings about the Old Gent that I earnestly commend to your attention.

  • For H.P. Lovecraft’s Birthday, Give the Old Man His Own Stamp — On the Mark, August 20, 2010 — “The United States Postal Service has a program, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), to take suggestions from the public regarding new postage stamps. I invite all H.P. Lovecraft fans to write a letter to the CSAC, suggesting that the U.S. Postal Service issue a postage stamp featuring H. P. Lovecraft, on the 125th anniversary of his birth, which occurs on August 20, 2015. (Yes, this assumes that neither the Mayan apocalypse nor the Return of the Old Ones occurs before that time. I do, however, try to be optimistic. Me, a Lovecraft fan? Go figure.) The Postal Service requires at least three years advance notice before a significant anniversary, so we really do need to start this movement soon.”
  • Happy Birthday, H.P. Lovecraft: Authors and Editors on His Legacy — Matt Staggs, Suvudu, August 20, 2010 — [Staggs shares some comments, acquired specifically for this blog post, from Ellen Datlow, Kenneth Hite, Caitlin Kiernan, and Ann Vandermeer. Especially noteworthy is Kiernan’s final observation, which blew me away with its exquisite articulation of a provocative thought:] “Lovecraft’s ‘mythos’ is only a delivery device for his deeply subversive cosmicism, in which all of human history is, at best, a dust mote in an indifferent gulf of time and space.”
  • On This Day in History, August 20: Brooklyn Meant Dread and Inspiration for Writer H.P. Lovecraft — Brad Lockwood, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 20, 2010 — “It is impossible to fully gauge Lovecraft’s legacy, from Borges to King, films and comics, translated in all languages and, at last count, no less than 20 different titles available. For a writer who never had a hardcover release in his lifetime, Lovecraft remains a foremost influence on the horror genre. And the part that Brooklyn played, frustration thus inspiration, cannot be underestimated either. W. Paul Cook, H.P. Lovecraft’s old friend and sometimes publisher, summed it best in memorial: ‘To the very end of his days he hated New York with a consuming passion. I mean the city itself, not the many good friends he had there. But it took the privations, trials and testing fires of New York to bring his best to the surface.'”
  • Selections from H.P. Lovecraft’s Brief Tenure as a Whitman’s Sampler Copywriter — McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, August 15, 2008 — [Yes, this one’s two years old, having been first published in 2008 to recognize HPL’s upcoming birthday then. But it’s so choice that it bears being resurrected. Here’s a sample:] “Chocolate Cherry Cordial: You must not think me mad when I tell you what I found below the thin shell of chocolate used to disguise this bonbon’s true face. Yes! Hidden beneath its rich exterior is a hideously moist cherry cordial! What deranged architect could have engineered this non-Euclidean aberration? I dare not speculate.”
  • Cults of an Unwitting Oracle: The (Unintended) Religious Legacy of H.P. Lovecraft — Dennis P. Quinn, PopMatters, August 20, 2010 — “If Lovecraft were alive today, he would be celebrating his 120th birthday on August 20, 2010. Of the various legacies to which he lays claim, one turned out to be a set of fascinating individuals and subcultures that find religious inspiration in this most creative, though irreligious parent. . . . Had Lovecraft lived to see the proliferation of religions based on his fictional creation, he may well have laughed at the irony and perhaps made them characters in one of his weird tales.
  • Why I write: Laird Barron — Publishers Weekly, July 12, 2010 — “Ultimately, I discovered some Lovecraft stories in an anthology stuck near the bottom of a trunk. The Call of Cthulhu. At the Mountains of Madness. The Dunwich Horror. The Whisperer in the Darkness. The Shadow Out of Time. Dead and gone 50 years, the man from Providence put it into perspective. He’d tackled the biggest questions of them all while dying by inches in abject poverty that I recognized quite intimately. Nyarlathotep and Jesus. Cthulhu and God. The Bible and the Necronomicon were the greatest horror stories ever told. Against the illimitable blackness of the cosmic ocean, my puny hardships were as the travails of a flea. We all have our bad patches, even the supreme and inscrutable overlords who exist beyond known reality. For the first time in a long time, I felt a little better about everything.”
  • Terror Eternal: The enduring popularity of H.P. Lovecraft — Stefan Dziemianowicz, Publishers Weekly, July 12, 2010 — “For nearly a century, a formidable presence has cast its shadow over horror publishing. As protean as it is pervasive, it has insinuated itself into virtually all aspects of the genre’s publishing platform: trade publishing, specialty press, comics and graphic novels, role-playing game scenarios, movie novelizations, audiobooks, Web zines, and now e-books. It’s the spirit — or, if you will, the shade — of H.P. Lovecraft, and every decade it looms larger and darker.”

And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct you to some of my own words about Old Grandpa:

  • Lovecraft, Christian Horror, and Weird Fiction — The Teeming Brain, August 17, 2010 — “While horror can definitely be found compatible with conventional Christianity in a purely moral allegorical sense — the seminal modern example being, of course, the already-mentioned case of William Peter Blatty and The Exorcist, since Blatty wrote that novel with explicitly Christian theological intent — there really is a (quasi- or pseudo-) religious or spiritual attitude to be found in horror fiction like Lovecraft’s that categorically eludes and/or subverts this connection. What Mike Duran has termed ‘atheist dread’ can actually be a bit more complex and nuanced than a mere Pascalian fear of the meaningless void of infinite, empty space, and can have direct implications for Christianity through its interaction with the worldview of Christian readers, whom it confronts with uncomfortable moral and metaphysical speculations and implications.”
  • Interview with me: Dark Awakenings and Cosmic Horror — Lovecraft News Network, March 3, 2010 — “It wasn’t just fear of the unknown that drove Lovecraft’s authorial attempts. As Lovecraft made starkly and resonantly clear in his personal correspondence, and also in his ‘Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction,’ he wrote horror fiction as a means of capturing and crystallizing his lifelong impressions of an infinite, transcendent reality that seemed to peer through the cracks of the world, which for him included skyscapes and vistas of architectural beauty. And his response to these transcendent intimations was deliciously paradoxical, for he was both enchanted and terrified by them. . . . So his career as a horror writer wasn’t motivated just by fear of the unknown but by a two-sided emotional coin that was fear on one side and exhilarated longing on the other.”
  • Autumn Longing: H.P. Lovecraft — The Teeming Brain, October 30, 2006 — “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.”
  • Lovecraft’s Longing, Part 1 and Part 2 — North Shore Art Throb, October 22 and November 4, 2009 — “Lovecraft was about more than just the horrors of bodily corruption and cosmic monstrosity that cling so tenaciously to his reputation, and the failure of some critics to recognize, understand, and/or accept this fact may be injecting a falsely negative and one-sided view of him into the collective cultural conversation. Furthermore, one of the chief places where one can find the kinder, gentler Lovecraft on display is in the man’s emotional relationship to the natural and man-made landscape of Massachusetts (and more generally, New England) itself, which was for him not only a locus of Gothic darkness but a source of poetic longing.”
  • The Master’s Eyes, Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti — Lovecraft Annual No. 1, October 2007; also at Thomas Ligotti Online — “My reading of Lovecraft has given me the impression that while he was entirely serious about the cosmic despair and philosophical concerns that undergird his stories, he did not experience precisely the same kind of existential torture and cosmic-ontological nightmare that characterizes Ligotti’s fictional world and personal life. Lovecraft, it seems to me, was emotionally and intellectually focused on the horror of ‘cosmic outsideness,’ of vast outer spaces and the mind-shattering powers and principles that may hold sway there, and that may occasionally impinge upon human reality and reveal its pathetic fragility. Ligotti, by contrast, seems focused more upon the horror of deep insideness, of the dark, twisted, transcendent truths and mysteries that reside within consciousness itself and find their outward expression in scenes and situations of warped perceptions and diseased metaphysics.”

Happy Birthday, Grandpa Theobald! You’re sorely missed and roundly celebrated.

Lovecraft’s Longing: Article for Art Throb

LovecraftA few months ago I wrote a post about the launch of Art Throb, a Web-based arts initiative headed by my Salem-based sister that chronicles the creative life of the Massachusetts North Shore. Now I have become one of the writers for this venture.

Dinah, my sister, invited me a couple of months ago to contribute a post about Lovecraft, since she knew that 1) I’m a devoted fan, or perhaps a fanatical devotee, of the man and his work, and 2) the entire North Shore is the proverbial Lovecraft Country that HPL seized upon to create the gothicized New England geography of his fictional universe, both by referring to real-world buildings and town names in his stories and by fictionalizing the whole region in a series of made-up towns that have become the stuff of modern myth: Arkham, Kingsport, Dunwich, et al., referring to Salem, Marblehead, and others.

Then there’s 3) the fact that Halloween is Salem’s Mardi Gras (an observation that’s almost clichéd at this point), so it’s a perfect time for talking about Lovecraft on such a site.

I ended up writing a two-parter titled “Lovecraft’s Longing.” Part One was published today. Part Two will follow sometime between now and Halloween. The first part explains a little about who HPL was and why he’s significant to the North Shore. The second part will present my argument that Lovecraft is very much misinterpreted by much of mainstream literary opinion, and that his famous reaction of aesthetic bliss to the architecture and general atmosphere of the North Shore counts among the factors that demonstrates this. Anybody familiar with my paper “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti,” and also my blog post about Lovecraft’s experience of sehnsucht or “autumn longing,” might know where I’m going with this.