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
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.
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.
(The above music was retitled “Escape” when used in the soundtrack for the film The Hours.)
“They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world. When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him instead toward the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimensions. And when he had failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable, they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation.
… “There is talk of apportioning Randolph Carter’s estate among his heirs, but I shall stand firmly against this course because I do not believe he is dead. There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he has merely found a way to traverse these mazes. Whether or not he will ever come back, I cannot say. He wanted the lands of dream he had lost, and yearned for the days of his childhood. Then he found a key, and I somehow believe he was able to use it to strange advantage.
“I shall ask him when I see him, for I expect to meet him shortly in a certain dream-city we both used to haunt. It is rumoured in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, that a new king reigns on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gnorri build their singular labyrinths, and I believe I know how to interpret this rumour. Certainly, I look forward impatiently to the sight of that great silver key, for in its cryptical arabesques there may stand symbolised all the aims and mysteries of a blindly impersonal cosmos.”
— H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key“
Next week will see the publication of The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe, described by the publisher as a book in which long-time occultist and Lovecraft scholar Donald Tyson “plumbs the depths of H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic visions and horrific dream world to examine, warts and all, the strange life of the man who created the Necronomicon and the Cthulhu mythos. . . . Tyson reveals Lovecraft for what he truly was — a dreamer, an astral traveler, and the prophet of a New Age.” The central thesis is that Lovecraft’s vibrant fictional visions stemmed from a luridly vibrant inner life that actually touched on occult and metaphysical realities — from which Lovecraft distanced himself by holding firmly to a conscious attitude of skepticism, atheism, and materialism. The whole thing sounds absolutely fascinating, and has been made even more so by Tyson’s recent article “H.P. Lovecraft: Flight from Madness,” which appears to have been excerpted from the book.
But I must say that I continue to be mildly dismayed at the way Lovecraft is commonly portrayed — apparently even here, in a book devoted to exploring the significance of his dream life to an overall understanding of his work and person — as being primarily obsessed with and possessed by visions and notions of cosmic nightmarishness. I know this is the standard view that has clung to him during his decades-long ascent to a position of pervasive cultural awareness, but just because it’s widely held doesn’t mean it’s right. In fact, it’s plainly wrong.
In “Flight from Madness” Tyson delves into Lovecraft’s personal psychology and characterizes him as a man whose psyche was home to a chaotic churning of dark elements that gave rise to a preternaturally vivid dream life and a voracious hunger for horror stories. He describes Lovecraft’s unconscious mind as “a chaos of fantastic daydreams, horrifying nightmares, strange impulses, irrational fears, and uncanny intuitions” that “intruded themselves on his waking life in the form of obsessions that are too numerous to list,” and that generated a “deep but unacknowledged need to revel in bizarre and morbid fantasies” like those in the horror and fantasy pulps he devoured as a young man.
Tyson also says Lovecraft’s idiosyncratic psychological bent gave rise to his need to create fiction, since “Writing stories about his nightmares, and about the things that both obsessed and terrified him, was Lovecraft’s way to gain conscious control over their contents, and in this way purge them from his psyche — or at least, to castrate them and deprive them of their power over him.”
Significantly, in illustrating his point Tyson calls out not just the familiar stories in the “Lovecraft Mythos” about Cthulhu and the Old Ones, but also Lovecraft’s dreamland cycle of stories, including his unpolished but still astounding fantasy-horror novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. In talking about this one, Tyson describes it as if it’s solely, or primarily, about the author’s struggle with the dark daemonic forces in his psyche, and he channels this into the conclusion he offers a few paragraphs later about the overall thrust of Lovecraft’s work:
This is the message of Lovecraft’s grim stories. Humanity balances on the very brink of oblivion, protected only by our ignorance. The dread power of such books as the Necronomicon, which Lovecraft originated for his stories, is that they lift the veil of unknowing from the minds of those who read them, driving them mad or causing them to kill themselves in order to escape the unbearable horror of the human condition. In Lovecraft’s tales, the naked truth about existence is toxic.
Now, I certainly can’t disagree with this in its details, especially since I myself included Lovecraft and his ideas as a central motif in my novelette “Teeth,” first published in the Del Rey anthology The Children of Cthulhu and now appearing in drastically revised and expanded form in my new book Dark Awakenings. The story advances/illustrates Tyson’s nicely stated idea that “the naked truth about existence is toxic,” and underscores the fact that this was definitely a major, even a defining, trope in Lovecraft’s work.
But the thing is, for Lovecraft, cosmic-existential horror wasn’t the whole story. Not by a cyclopean margin. In fact, a look at his overall body of fiction, and also his personal development as an author, and his various essays about life and writing, and the teeming ocean of thousands of letters that he wrote to a vast network of correspondents, shows that his focus on the cosmic horrific theme of existence-as-nightmare was balanced and complemented by a deep craving for liberation into transcendent realms of beauty and bliss. As I observed just a few days ago in my latest column for SF Signal, “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing,” this pairing of horror or terror with sehnsucht, the emotion C.S. Lewis identified as the “inconsolable longing” for “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,” is quite common among authors and artists, especially those working in the field of the fantastic. Its pairing specifically in the inner life of Lovecraft is something I’ve written about at length in my two-part article “Lovecraft’s Longing” (see Part One and Part Two), and in my essay for Lovecraft Annual, “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti,”
Lovecraft experienced sehnsucht in spades. And ironically, in light of Tyson’s invocation of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, this aspect of his psyche and personality comes out perhaps more clearly in that novel’s opening paragraphs than anyplace else. The novel opens to show Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s oft-deployed fictional alter ego, standing on a balustraded parapet above a mythic golden dream-city “with walls, temples, colonnades, and arched bridges of veined marble,” and feeling positively drunk with longing at “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.” This city of dreams becomes the object of Carter/Lovecraft’s quest, and the forces that ultimately oppose him are concentrated in the figure of the monster god Nyarlathotep, one of the chief symbols Lovecraft employed in a number of stories to express the cosmic-horrific side of his emotions and imaginings.
So Dream-Quest is fully as much about an exquisite experience of cosmic longing as it is about a wrenching experience of cosmic horror. The novel shows Carter yearning for an escape into a dreamworld and to a dream city of eternal solace and beauty, and being opposed by all of those nightmarish figures Tyson mentions. And it’s the recognition of this fact, not just in this particular novel but as it’s threaded throughout the rest of Lovecraft’s life and work, that’s missing from so much contemporary scholarship. It’s not that Lovecraft wasn’t about cosmic horror, but that he wasn’t all about it. Cosmic horror was wedded to cosmic wonder in his psyche. The one bled into the other. They were inextricably united as flipsides or complements in his affective makeup. Their paradoxical pairing was in fact the engine that drove him, since he was perpetually poised on the razor’s edge between perceiving the cosmic perspective as nightmarish and perceiving it as beautiful and liberating. This tension channeled itself into a burning desire to capture and convey both intimations in imaginative form, and the fact that the darker aspect has gotten more press than the lighter one in the popular and even the critical imagination, and has in fact become rote, is vaguely reminiscent of the smear-job perpetrated by Rufus Griswold on the memory of Edgar Allan Poe. But in Lovecraft’s case it appears to have happened by accident, with, perhaps, some help from unsympathetic critics such as Edmund Wilson.
I expect Tyson’s new book to prove a fascinating and edifying read. Maybe he’ll even touch on some of these matters. Or maybe not, since the excerpted article doesn’t mention them. In any event, with Lovecraft’s ascent to an official position in the American literary canon now firmly established, it’s high time for the long-running imbalance in his public perception to be redressed, since the reigning view of him as a gothic-bizarre personality and a one-note “master of disgust,” as a prominent 2005 essay at Salon.com put it, obscures some of the wider richness and depth that he contributes to fantastic fiction, and to literature in general.
This month I started writing a new column for SF Signal, the massively popular blog about fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The title is Stained Glass Gothic, and the column is devoted to exploring the mutual meanings and implications of fantasy, horror, science fiction, religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I think it’ll be of considerable interest to those who have enjoyed my writings about these things over the past four years here at The Teeming Brain, especially since I’m taking it in a direction that will expand my focus from mainly horror to the realm of speculative fiction and film in general, which has always been a passion of mine.
Today the third installment was published. Here’s a rundown, with excerpts, of all the entries so far, beginning with the inaugural one. Click the titles to be taken to the actual columns.
1. Stained Glass Gothic: Dark Light through Rainbow Panes (October 7, 2010)
Stained Glass Gothic will be all about recognizing, considering, and enjoying the religious and spiritual side of the speculative genres. Have you noticed that questions of religious and/or philosophical meaning crop up everywhere you look in popular speculative fiction and film? Have you noticed that these genres have been absolutely driven by major works that are explicitly about religious or spiritual themes?
The Exorcist was instrumental in launching the late 20th century horror fiction boom (or in laying the foundation for Stephen King and Peter Straub to launch it). Its cinematic adaptation was instrumental in launching the modern-day blockbuster movie (or in laying the foundation for Jaws to launch it). Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick — to name only four relevant SF authors out of many — were eaten up with questions of religion’s role and future. They laced their work from top to bottom with personal philosophical-spiritual questions about human identity and destiny. Tolkien and Lewis, as we all know, embedded Christian themes throughout their most famous works. Anne Rice eventually brought Lestat to the point of meeting the devil and drinking the crucified Christ’s blood — soon after which she abandoned vampires and reclaimed her childhood Roman Catholic Christianity (and then, most recently, abandoned and repudiated the institutional church in favor of a more free-form Christian religiosity). Stephanie Meyer built Twilight around an explicitly Genesis-oriented theme embodied in the novel’s famous cover image. Lovecraft was gripped by overarching questions and speculations about the (non)meaning of the cosmos, and he created a fictional universe populated by extradimensional and extraterrestrial monster gods — even as he went on and on (and on) in his personal correspondence about his awesome longing for a spiritual-type experience of transcendent beauty and ultimate liberation from the galling prison of space-time.
And so on.
What does it all mean? That’s precisely what we’ll be talking about. Welcome to Stained Glass Gothic.
2. Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing (October 28, 2010)
The archetypal mood that I and millions of other people have come to associate with autumn in general and October in particular touches on a peculiar emotional/spiritual upwelling that’s central to the concerns of fantasy and horror, and that I first began consciously experiencing as an early adolescent.
It makes itself known as a peculiar longing of an especially poignant and piercing sort.
….If C.S. Lewis and Colin Wilson are right (contra H.P. Lovecraft) — and many years of experiential and intellectual engagement in philosophical, religious, and spiritual explorations leave me, at least, with no doubt that they are — then this effect isn’t just a private emotional experience that has no meaning beyond the feeling of it, but a genuine window on a wider reality than most of usually recognize in our workaday mode. It literally expands our personal horizon. In other words, and in short, it’s possible to argue without hyperbole or silliness that the greatest works of fantasy, horror, and science fiction serve as religious or spiritual texts — not only, not even primarily, in terms of their specific content, but in terms of the potent effect they have on our outlook (and inlook), simply because they’re aimed at inflaming what Wilson called “Faculty X” and expanding the domain of our imaginings.
3. The October Mystique: 7 Authors on the Visionary Magic of Ray Bradbury (October 29, 2010)
Bradbury is a master at both arousing and confirming this experience of heightened inner intensity. My first readings of The October Country, The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes as an early adolescent left a permanent mark on me, both intellectually and emotionally. More than just the sum of their parts, his books and stories conveyed to me then, and convey to me now, an entire vision of the world in which darkness and light both intensify to new heights and depths of vividness, and all the daily details of life assume a kind of mythic numinosity. Which is to say that his work exemplified then, and still exemplifies now, what I take to be the deep raison d’être of fantasy and horror.
….Maybe this is why I find that in his case, I really don’t want to think of the longing as sehnsucht. It’s a wonderful word, but I feel that the version of the experience he arouses deserves it own special name. So I hereby coin “the October Mystique” as the preferred term for referring to Bradbury’s signature inflection on this crucial emotional-affective experience of longing-and-terror that’s so very central to the speculative genres. In his hands, it serves as a kind of spiritual solvent that he’s been using for over six decades to cleanse our inner eye.
My two-part article “Lovecraft’s Longing,” which I wrote for Art Throb, and whose first part I announced in a previous post, is now finished and published. In Part Two I explain how, in the words of the introduction,
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 – and of particular interest to the Art Throb audience – 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, as we’ll see, was for him not only a locus of Gothic darkness but a source of poetic longing.
A 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.
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.]
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.”