Yesterday, I came across a passage in a book by Alan Watts that reignited an old passion for what I have referred to in the past as “the autumn longing.” In a kind of “deep cut” vein for this blog, longtime readers — by which I mean really longtime readers, those who have been with me for the entire thirteen-year span of The Teeming Brain’s existence — may recall the series of posts I wrote on this topic beginning in 2006, just a few months after the blog’s founding. In the first of these posts, I explained the term “autumn longing” this way:
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 deep russet 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.
The remainder of that post was devoted to laying out the exquisite articulations of this experience that populate the works, both fiction and nonfiction, of C. S. Lewis, who made this longing the centerpiece of his literary aesthetic and his Christian apologetical writings. He employed the German term sehnsucht to refer to it, and he was in fact largely responsible for bringing this word and its rich set of uses and connotations to the attention of a popular English-reading audience.
Other posts in the series focused on the appearance and invocation of this longing in the writings of Lovecraft, Poe, and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. I revisited the idea a few years later with posts about Huston Smith (as compared to Lovecraft) and, again, Lovecraft and Lewis. Beyond the boundaries of The Teeming Brain, I incorporated the Lovecraftian aspects of the autumn longing into my paper “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets,” in which I explored the parallels and departures between the respective literary and philosophical visions of Lovecraft and Ligotti. I also published a two-part essay titled “Lovecraft’s Longing” in the late North Shore arts magazine Art Throb, and I wrote a blog post titled “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing” for SF Signal. In the latter, I discussed the subject in relation not only to Lewis and Lovecraft but to Stephen King and Colin Wilson.
So this is all to say that the matter was, and still is, of great importance to me, both philosophically and emotionally. This autumn longing, this sehnsucht, this tantalizing, maddening glimpse of some ultimate beauty and fulfillment and joy that lies perpetually beyond the horizon, this distinct scent or flavor of some infinite bliss that seems to reside half in memory and half in imagination, remaining always distinctly real and yet always just beyond my ability fully to grasp or realize — this is, apparently, a permanent part of my, and our, constitution as human beings, a kind of existential haunting that we as homo sapiens are blessed and doomed to know.
Although another span of years has now elapsed since I last wrote about it, the matter is never a non-issue in my life. I felt it more keenly when I was younger, but it’s still a living reality, not just as a matter of personal experience but in my life as a reader of books and literature. I’m still thrilled whenever I stumble across a new, or at least new to me, expression or description of this longing in someone else’s writings, especially since such descriptions often serve to evoke the longing itself.Read the rest of this entry
A newly published op-ed by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty is well worth reading for its nuanced response to the current crisis of falling idols in the world of arts and entertainment. Given my personal literary leanings, I find McNulty’s points to be nicely applicable to the case of someone he doesn’t name: H. P. Lovecraft, the moral excoriation of whom has by this point become de rigeur in some wings of the speculative fiction community. Here are some high points of McNulty’s argument, decontextualized from the rich field of specific examples, both classic and contemporary, that he uses to illustrate his point:
I know that an artist is not identical with his or her masterpieces and that few human beings can live up to their greatest achievements. . . .
If a book or play speaks, it does so in a way that transcends the limitations, and imperfections of the author, a more elusive figure than the publishing industry (and identity politics hard-liners) would have us believe. I’m not so much of the school of literary critic Roland Barthes, who famously declared the death of the author, as of the school of Proust, who saw that a writer crystallizes the notion of a multiplicity of identities, the way each of us contains numerous selves, not all of them readily categorizable.
Anyone whose occupation is imagining the lives of others necessarily has a thronging inner world. The artist who creates beauty can contain a fair amount of ugliness. . . .
History is the ultimate arbiter of what endures. Moral verdicts on the author, the raison d’être of many biographies, is a secondary layer that can color the reception of an artist’s oeuvre but cannot nullify work that retains its expressive power. . . .
Some of the shock we’re experiencing right now about all these fallen idols stems from our mythologizing natures. We expect our heroes to be exemplary, yet (as Proust points out) human fallibility may be a necessary ingredient in creativity. Heinous crimes are another matter entirely, but as any reader of biography can attest, genius and pathology aren’t exactly strangers.
The gorgeous-looking new edition of Lovecraft’s stories from The Folio Society, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, has this really effective (and kind of gorgeous in its own right) promotional video to go with it. Sadly, I don’t have $120 to spare. But with illustrations by Dan Hillier — who comes off quite well in the video, and whose work for this project looks amazing — and an introduction by Alan Moore, the book sure is tempting. Here’s the publisher’s description:
This edition, based on its sister limited edition [at $575!] marries Lovecraft’s best-known fiction with two modern masters of the macabre, the acclaimed artist Dan Hillier and author Alan Moore. In his beautifully crafted new preface, Moore finds Lovecraft at once at odds with and integral to the time in which he lived: ‘the improbable embodiment of an estranged world in transition’. Yet, despite his prejudices and parochialisms, he ‘possessed a voice and a perspective both unique in modern literature’.
Hillier’s six mesmerising, portal-like illustrations embrace the alien realities that lurk among the gambrel roofs of Lovecraft’s landscapes. By splicing Victorian portraits and lithographs with cosmic and Lovecraftian symbolism, each piece – like the stories themselves – pulls apart the familiar to reveal what lies beneath.
The edition itself shimmers with Lovecraft’s ‘unknown colours’, bound in purple and greens akin to both the ocean depths and mysteries from outer space. The cover is embossed with a mystical design by Hillier, while a monstrous eye stares blankly from the slipcase.
I find this all quite winning, personally, for the way it underscores Lovecraft’s growing prevalence and relevance in contemporary culture. For more about the new edition, see the write-ups at Tor (where several of the Hillier illustrations are shown), Wired (where the writer amusingly frames his encounter with the book as a harrowing Lovecraftian brush with forbidden knowledge and eldritch monstrosities), and The Verge. The latter presents an interview with Hillier. It also bears the best title of any of these articles, notwithstanding the slight misspelling of Great Cthulhu’s name: “A new collection of Lovecraft stories looks like an artifact from the Cthulu universe.”
Remember The Starry Wisdom Library, that unique Lovecraftian book project helmed by rare books expert Nate Pedersen, released by PS Publishing in 2014, and containing my faux scholarly commentary on the imaginary occult tome titled Daemonolorum, along with a plethora of similar fake commentary on other imaginary occult books by the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Michael Cisco, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Simon Strantzas, F. Paul Wilson, and more? Today I received word from Nate that he has just released an audiobook edition.
Here’s a reminder about the contents:
Scholars and book collectors across the country have long pondered the intended fate of the infamous collection of rare occult books left to rot in the Church of Starry Wisdom in Providence, Rhode Island, after the Starry Wisdom cult dispersed to parts unknown in the late 19th century.
The recent shocking discovery of a previously unknown book auction catalogue issued in 1877 offers insight into the myriad mysteries of the cult. Entitled Catalogue of the Occult Library of the Recently Disbanded Church of Starry Wisdom of Providence, Rhode Island, and issued by the notorious Arkham firm Pent & Serenade, the catalogue reveals the long-suspected fact that the church intended to sell its library to finance its removal from Providence. The sale, of course, never materialized, as later events make obvious, but the book auction catalogue informs us of the cult’s original intent and leaves for us an enormously valuable and fascinating piece of ephemera detailing the infamous collection of rare occult books in all of its dark and foreboding glory.
Furthermore, the book auction catalogue is unique among its contemporaries in that the auction firm Pent & Serenade, recognizing the importance of the exceedingly rare volumes in the cult’s possession, commissioned a wide variety of 19th-century scholars to write essays on the histories of the books offered at auction. As such, the catalogue is a uniquely, almost absurdly valuable item for scholars and collectors around the world and is presented here in exacting facsimile by PS Publishing.
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.
To quote Pink Floyd: Is there anybody out there? Three days from now will mark six full months since my last Teeming Brain post. Experienced readers of this blog might well surmise that my conflicted relationship with the Internet has been gaining more and more distance over time. These readers would be correct.
A number of updates seem in order.
I didn’t win the World Fantasy Award for Born to Fear last fall, but I did get to be present at the award ceremony in Saratoga Springs, New York, when David Hartwell dropped the bomb that, beginning next year, the “Howie” Lovecraft statuette by Gahan Wilson that has served as the World Fantasy Award trophy since the inception of these awards in 1975 will be retired for something else. Given that this is obviously a move in response to ongoing conflict and controversy in the speculative fiction world over Lovecraft’s racism as measured against his Titan status in the field, the announcement was the equivalent of dropping a hydrogen bomb on this particular subculture. The shockwaves continue to ripple across the landscape these three months later. So that alone was worth the money and effort to make the trek out east.
On the publication front, work on my previously announced encyclopedia of horror literature is now furiously underway. Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears will be published next year by ABC-CLIO. It will have more than 400 entries, and its structure and approach will make it a unique reference work among others of its kind. More than 60 authors and scholars have signed on to contribute to the project. You would probably recognize many of their names. I’ll have more to say about this in the future.
Additionally, my long-delayed fiction collection To Rouse Leviathan is now officially back on track with Hippocampus Press. I’ll have more to say about this, too.
I now return to the real world, although you can rest assured that I’ll resurface again here before another six months have passed.
Yes, of course, this is a topic that I have broached many times before. But this recent — and fantastically brilliant — video from The Onion brought it roaring back to the forefront of my thoughts. (Hat tip to J. F. Martel for alerting me to it.)
And of course that reminded me of — and may well have been partly inspired by — this, which remains one of the quintessential moments in my religious education and one of the most astonishing moments of divine truth ever to erupt into cinema:
Then there’s the essay by Barbara Ehrenreich about this very thing that I just stumbled across today at The Baffler. Like so many other people, I was surprised and fascinated last year by the revelations about Ms. Ehrenreich’s spontaneous mystical experiences and the accompanying shift in her general worldview and philosophical thinking. Now I find that she is actually deeply read in the science fiction and horror literature devoted to speculating about the horror of a monstrous God or gods, as evidenced by an essay in which she takes Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as a springboard to talk about the works of Philip Pullman, H. P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, along with the ideas of the New Atheists and various prominent works of sociology and religious history. Says Ms. Ehrenreich,
[What Prometheus presents] is not atheism. It is a strand of religious dissidence that usually flies well under the radar of both philosophers and cultural critics. . . . Barred from more respectable realms of speculation, the idea of an un-good God has been pretty much left to propagate in the fertile wetlands of science fiction. One of the early sci-fi classics of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 At the Mountains of Madness, offers a plotline that eerily prefigures Prometheus. . . . The idea of an un-good God, whether indifferent or actively sadistic, flies in the face of at least two thousand years of pro-God PR, much of it irrational and coming from professed “people of faith.”
. . . If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.” Human conceptions of morality almost all derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: our young require years of caretaking, and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on each other’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that have had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But these virtues, if not unique to us, are far from universal in the animal world (or, of course, the human one). Why should a Being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates?
. . . [Philip K.] Dick may have been optimistic in suggesting that what the deity hungers for is “interspecies symbiosis.” Symbiosis is not the only possible long-term relationship between different species. Parasitism, as hideously displayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien series, must also be considered, along with its quicker-acting version, predation. In fact, if anything undermines the notion of a benevolent deity, it has to be the ubiquity of predation in the human and non-human animal worlds. Who would a “good” God favor—the antelope or the lion with hungry cubs waiting in its den, the hunter or the fawn? For Charles Darwin, the deal-breaker was the Ichneumon wasp, which stings its prey in order to paralyze them so that they may be eaten alive by the wasp’s larvae. “I cannot persuade myself,” wrote Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Or, as we may ask more generally: What is kindness or love in a biological world shaped by interspecies predation? “Morality is of the highest importance,” Albert Einstein once said, “but for us, not for God.”
. . . [C]ontra so many of the critics, we have learned an important lesson from the magnificent muddle of Prometheus: if you see something that looks like a god — say, something descending from the sky in a flaming chariot, accompanied by celestial choir sounds and trailing great clouds of star dust — do not assume that it is either a friend or a savior. Keep a wary eye on the intruder. By all means, do not fall down on your knees.
MORE: “The Missionary Position” by Barbara Ehrenreich
With my personal religious/spiritual status as a kind of nondual Protestant Christian influenced by equal amounts of Zen, Vedanta, Jungian psychology, Fortean trickster ontology, Robert Anton Wilsonian reality tunnel skepticism, and a few additional factors, all of them infused with and underlaid by intimations of deepest gloom emanating from the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti, I can honestly say that my immediate and heartfelt response to Ehrenreich’s words can be summed up in a single word: amen.
Here’s something special for the Ligotti fans among us (and I know there are a lot of you reading this): Sławomir Wielhorski’s interview with Tom is now reprinted here at The Teeming Brain and available for your free reading and enjoyment. The interview was first published in Poland. Then the English version made its initial appearance last year in Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti, which, as many of you are already aware, I edited for Subterranean Press. This is actually the interview that gave the book its title, drawn from Tom’s response to the first question, so I’m very pleased to present it to you.
I’m also pleased to announce that the version published here includes “bonus material” in the form of a question and answer that were edited out of the interview’s original published appearances, and that are made available here for the first time.
Here’s a sample:
Sławomir Wielhorski: Could you tell us what triggered your interest in the horror genre and what influence it had on your life and literary output?
Thomas Ligotti: I was born to fear. It’s as plain as that. As the narrator of my short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done writes, “I have always been afraid.” If I ever wrote an autobiography, I would begin with the same sentence. In my opinion, everyone is some kind of fluke, an accident of biology and environment. We are randomly generated, arbitrarily conditioned flukes. And the kind of fluke I am is one that is born to fear. I don’t know how much of my fear is derived from genetics and how much from life experience. But the upshot is that I was born to fear, that is, by all laws of cause and effect, if you believe these have any purchase upon who we are — as do many psychologists — that was my destiny. Naturally, then, I was attracted to things that instilled fear in me, a paradoxical means of handling my fear but one that is not uncommonly employed by those who have been born to fear. Can anyone doubt that Poe was born to fear, or that Lovecraft was born to fear? They may also have been born to other things, but primarily they were born to fear. Almost everyone who writes or reads horror stories was born to fear. It only makes sense that this is the case.