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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.

ADDITIONAL READING:

Forthcoming from Richard Gavin: ‘The Benighted Path: Primeval Gnosis and the Monstrous Soul’

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Teem member Richard Gavin has a new book coming out this summer from Theion Publishing — and it’s nonfiction. Richard, as you know, has built a major reputation in recent years as a writer of exquisite weird fiction in a darkly esoteric and philosophical vein, and this book promises to be a kind of nonfiction distillation and amplification of the concepts and viewpoints that animate his stories. Here’s the scoop from the publisher:

Twisting beyond the placid boundaries of civilization is an ancient path. Its stalkers do not march the linear road of human progress but instead orient their souls to the luminous, haunted darkness of the Night Primeval. Many have glimpsed this realm, when sleep has delivered them onto the back of the charging Night-Mare, and recollections of these brief visitations survive in countless tales of terror and in the folklore of locales rumoured to be fey or cursed. Rare, however, is the individual who willingly pays the tariff and passes irretrievably through that twilight of existence in order to become Benighted.

Drawing upon the shadow aspects of a variety of traditions, including the khabit of Ancient Egypt, the Biocentrism of Ludwig Klages, Aghora, the Gothic, and David Beth’s pan-daemonic Kosmic Gnosis, all distilled through the author’s praxis,  The Benighted Path explores the breach through which the egoic self is slain in order to unleash the aspirant’s true Monstrous Soul. Only then may the Benighted offer their adoration to the Gorgon and partake of the Sidereal Feast.

More: “The Benighted Path: Primeval Gnosis and the Monstrous Soul

While waiting for the book’s release, you could do worse than to read the entries in Richard’s column “Echoes from Hades” here at The Teeming Brain:

Image: One of Doré’s illustrations from Dante’s Inferno. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the Beautiful Darkness: Mark Samuels on Atheism, Christianity, Weird Horror, and the Road out of Hell

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Teeming Brain interview with Mark Samuels has long been one of our most popular features, and with this post we finally welcome Mark to our Teem of contributors. Mark’s interview was published back in 2006, and it still continues to draw a steady stream of readers these seven years later. This is due, of course, to the fact that Mark’s reputation as a significant writer of weird fiction has continued to grow in the intervening years, with his corpus having expanded from  The White Hands and Other Weird Tales (2003), Black Altars (2003), and The Face of Twilight (2006) — all available at the time the interview was published — to include two more story collections, Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes and The Man Who Collected Machen, both of which have received widespread acclaim. His work has been praised by the likes of Ted Klein and Ramsey Campbell. It has been reprinted multiple times in various “year’s best” anthologies. He was also personally fictionalized and lampooned — along with Thomas Ligotti, Ellen Datlow, Michael Cisco, Wilum Pugmire, S. T. Joshi, Gordon Van Gelder, and others — by Laird Barron in the story “More Dark,” which appears in Laird’s 2013 collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (which recently won the Bram Stoker Award).

In the essay below, Mark speaks personally about the central role that religion has played in his life as a writer and a human being. As he traces his route from agnosticism to atheism to Christianity, and as he delves into the relationship between all of this and his attraction to weird fiction, he goes into greater depth and speaks more pointedly about some things he said in his interview. Like his chief literary idol, Arthur Machen, Mark’s Christianity is central to his writing (Machen was an Anglican, Mark is a Roman Catholic). And far from clashing with his weird fictional sensibility, this serves as its very source by charging the world for him with an all-pervasive aura of numinous mystery and an abiding awareness of the Hell that always accompanies the possibility of Heaven. This is, obviously, not a position unique to Mark. It doesn’t even qualify as especially rare among the ranks of his fellow horror writers. But his particular expressions of it puts him at odds with certain prevailing cultural attitudes both within and without the community of horror writers and readers, and Mark isn’t one to mince words. Time for me to be silent and let him speak for himself.

 

BEYOND THE BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS

I came to Catholicism when in my late twenties, having had a type of secular upbringing, at home and in school, to gladden the heart of the most fervent advocate of the neo-atheist movement. There was no Bible in the house. Christmas was just Yuletide, and wholly pagan. Easter was a time for chocolate eggs.

I do recall undergoing one term of mandatory Religious Studies classes, but these were centered around comparative religion, and the bald, white-haired teacher was regarded by the pupils as a legitimate target for some really vile abuse during his own lessons, over which he had no control. His tolerance was regarded as a fatal weakness. Strangely enough, at this hell-hole, all the other teachers would resort to corporeal punishment and thought little of maintaining order through physical violence, right up until the moment the practice was forcibly abolished in all U.K. state schools in 1983. He, however, refused to do so. In class he was shouted down, ignored, and swore at, and I joined in. We pupils learnt nothing during those classes. Looking back thirty years to those lessons now, I think I learnt more of true worth from his example of baffled dignity than from any other of the classes I took. Needless to say, every single teacher in that school was a good socialist and devout religious sceptic. And they made of me exactly the same thing.

Then, during my late teens, I discovered the works of Lovecraft. I admired his stories to the point of complete adulation. I wanted not only to write the sort of tales he wrote, but to be exactly like this great man himself. When I also obtained his selected letters and read through them, he became, as well my guide in literature, my educator. My vague, indifferent agnosticism was cast aside, and I became a militant atheist and scientific materialist. HPL knew everything (except when it came to his biological racism, but I glossed over this failing, as so many others did), and so I too knew everything, since in terms of his system anything that could not be empirically demonstrated was not worth serious consideration. All else was wishful thinking. I devoured the work of any atheist author I could discover, ignoring completely the other side, and became the master of confirming my own prejudices. Objections, rather than being looked into, were treated as mere trifles only deserving of a sneer or scornful words. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – May 2, 2014

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Anatomy of the Deep State (absolutely required reading): “There is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose.”

Maybe interiority dies or become obsolete when all the world’s an app: “Starting some 500 years ago, the self was understood as an enclosure. It was something that required silence to access and space to experience. I think that used to be true. It probably still is. But it might not be for very much longer.”

Looks like I got out just in time: A Eulogy for Twitter: The beloved social publishing platform enters its twilight

Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers: Liberal arts and the humanities aren’t just for the elite (shades of Earl Shorris and the Clemente Course in the Humanities)

How to study the numinous: “If our understanding of the mystical is impoverished today, perhaps it’s because we’ve put too much faith in brain scans, and allowed other forms of knowledge and investigation to ebb. Perhaps what we need is a revival of philosophically-informed psychology and anthropology, rather than a more ambitious spiritual phrenology. Perhaps, instead of a better fMRI machine, we’re waiting for a new (and doubtless very different) William James or James Frazer or Carl Jung.”

The human heart of sacred art: “The humanist impulse not only liberated the sense of transcendence from the shackles of the sacred, it also transformed the idea of transcendence itself. The transcendent was no longer linked to the divine; nor did humans fulfil themselves solely through union with God. Rather humans came to be acknowledged as conscious agents who realized themselves only through self-created projects to transform themselves and the world they inhabit.”

Ghosts of the tsunami (on a Japanese priest’s attempt to deal with the plague of ghosts in the aftermath of the country epochal disaster): “When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster few families were in a position to perform them. . . . Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?”

Terror Incognita: The Paradoxical History of Cosmic Horror, from Lovecraft to Ligotti: Los Angeles Review of Books looks at Lovecraft, Chambers, Ligotti, and weird fiction. Worth reading even though it winds up to a somewhat disappointing (because somewhat hackneyed and by now cliched) conclusion about the genre’s appeal (“The imagination, weaned on a materialistic civilization and thoroughly disillusioned with it, yearns for that sublime unknown”) that was articulated at length by Peter Penzoldt 60 years ago in The Supernatural in Fiction, and that has been restated many times since by the likes of Joshi and others, and that has always left a number of significant alternative possibilities unexamined. But that said, hey, how cool is it to see Ligotti being talked about in the likes of LARB?

 

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Weird Fiction: The Passing of the Generational Torch

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, in the wake of the NecronomiCon Providence convention, I posted a video of S. T. Joshi’s keynote address in which he focused on the long and winding history of H. P. Lovecraft’s literary reputation. These many months later, a video of much higher quality, with multiple camera angles and nice production values, has just been published, and it shows not just S. T.’s speech but the convention’s entire opening ceremony:

In light of this, it seems an appropriate time to publish Teeming Brain columnist Jason V. Brock’s brief reflection on the convention and its significance. He wrote the following words several months ago, but I failed to publish them during the blog’s winter break. Especially since there’s another NecronomiCon Providence in the works for August 2015, I think Jason’s comments about the way last August’s convention represented a generational passing of the torch for the weird fiction community are hardly out of date. In fact, they grow more timely with every passing day. – MC

* * *

There are, and always have been, acolytes of various subdomains of interest, and the current period is no exception. Indeed, one major link in this chain has been the development of H. P. Lovecraft as a cult figure of some renown. To that end, I’d like to offer insight into one landmark event in particular: NecronomiCon Providence I, the Lovecraft convention that took place last summer in in Providence, Rhode Island.

It is hard to encapsulate such a sprawling, enormous event as this convention. Originally envisioned as an homage to Lovecraft and weird fiction, it bloomed into something not only of the genre, but something transcending it. The gathering had been building momentum for nearly two years, and it finally came to fruition in late August, 2013, in large part due to the donors of the online Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, as well as through the generous time and support of sponsors and volunteers and the hard work of the organizing committee, headed by Niels Hobbs. The size and range of this gathering of writers, artists, filmmakers, patrons, fans, and scholars was daunting, but it (mostly) came off without a hitch.

This was the inaugural event in what will hopefully be a new series of these conventions, all to be located in Providence, the former domicile of Lovecraft and the current residence of several Lovecraft-inspired creators, among them writers Jonathan Thomas and Sam Gafford, as well as author Caitlín Rebekah Kiernan (The Drowning Girl). These are planned to convene every other year: the next one is scheduled for 2015.

While paying respect to the core and origin of this type of fiction, and also to the works it has inspired, this con clearly showed the passing of the torch from the Third Generation to the Fourth (a trend that I discussed in a previous installment of this column). It was all quite fascinating to witness, and I was pleased to have a role in it, however modest.

As I recall the staggeringly rich and varied interactions and activities that unfolded last August, I realize there is really nothing more to say, except that this was likely the single greatest congregation of Lovecraft/weird fiction professionals in history, and that it took place in a fantastic, beautiful setting. The panel discussions were informative and interesting, the new research presented was stimulating, the socializing was epic, and everyone was excited, happy, and enthusiastic. If you missed it, be aware that this was one for the record books.

My advice: Don’t miss the next one!