This essay (download here) was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MA special subject Geopoetics at the Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2016-17.
H. P. Lovecraft, Susan Sontag, Linda Trent, Walter Benjamin, and Tom Ford
An uncharted island in the Pacific is home to the “nightmare corpse-city” called R’lyeh. Earlier, “measureless aeons behind history,” alien beings descended from the stars high up in the sky and “died vast epochs of time before men came,” but survived ever after below the abyssopelagic zones, lying in the nether wastes of the earth. The Great Old Ones live a germinal death, through which they haunt and possess the sensitive by molding strange dreams of great Cyclopean cities, “for only thus could their language reach the fleshly minds of the mammals,” who would then get infected with feverish hysteria and lethargic delirium. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” as aligned as it is along the meteoritic tail of his other weird stories, is an arcane tale of openness. Dank and cracked stones, fragments of rotting walls and the cancerous rise of morbid flora and fungi near the swamp and lagoon country south of New Orleans, where the cultists gathered in response to the call of the Great Old Ones; the abnormal and non-Euclidean geometry of the dream-place with its “vast angles and stone surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth” and “loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours;” the monstrous stone pillars sticking out of the sea and “heaved to the sun and air” near the muddy and weedy coastline of R’lyeh — these all correspond to the dimensional wreckage and interphyletic collisions of the necrotized geospheres that characterize the exhuming pest of life and the ungrounded death, while the disterminalized becomings of “dead Cthulhu who waits dreaming” incarnate in verses of a language shivering at its extremes and, more remarkably, in documents, objects, bas-reliefs, statuettes, fetishes and idols delivered in dreams.
But “the dream is in fact the telling of the dream,” said Susan Sontag while conversing with John Berger about storytelling in a 1983 episode of Voices on Channel 4. Berger had previously said that “stories begin at their end; the story of Romeo and Juliet, in a sense, begins at their death, that is when the story is given form. The end is not always death, but it quite frequently is… A life gains its full meaning in death, it is only then that a life is readable,” hence narratable. Sontag, of course, could not disagree more. She finds this way of storytelling fundamentally dependent on true lives, having been lived as precedents for stories, and utterly concerned with truth, thus hindered by it. There are no people and no lives outside of language, before the writer writes the story, as there is no experience of the dream before one accounts for it. Commenting on death as the vindicating telos of life and as the condition of fiction, Sontag suggests marriage as an equivalent to death, “that is, if one sees life only as having a meaning because it leads up to something, then it could be that it leads up to its end or it leads up to, at least, its transformation,” as marriage was traditionally viewed as a transformation. “Life is seen,” she says, “as whatever that leads up to this [ending or turning point] and what happens next is considered as another life, or another kind of life.” Shakespeare, again, is the model, whose tragedies end up in death and whose comedies end up in marriage. Against this teleological conditioning, obviously loaded with sociopolitical exigencies too and not only demands for literary novelty, the function of storytelling, she says, “is to introduce a sense of the fantastic, which might include the absurd,” to let the prism of reality keep receiving and refracting all the meaningless and absurd particles too, that is, “to establish the rights to intensity… to restore the claims of intensity.” She is pointing to the kind of feature found in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which do not tell posthumous stories “but… real stories… stories of generally a disaster, which may or may not end in death… they are terrifying stories, they are fabulous stories…” These ideas, more or less, resonate with those of the fashion designer Tom Ford as told in an interview with Vogue Voices, where he says that although his “heart lies in reality,” but film also is reality for him, because actors and actresses did actually say those words, they did actually walk through those sets, and that film did actually happen, in a parallel reality, “forever sealed in film.”
“The Call of Cthulhu,” too, reads like a posthumous story. Purportedly “found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston,” it thus begins not with Lovecraft himself, despite the mainly first-person narrative, but with his invented character, Mr. Wayland Thurston, going through the notes left behind by his granduncle, a professor of linguistics, after his death. And at the end of the story, the narrator himself is convinced enough to anticipate a strong sense of ensuing fatality, after obsessively having studied and researched the notes, objects and stories that all revolved around Them. In a way, They have always been beside him, their affective presence always too close, and it is only then that he knows this, at the end of the story. This fascination with or attraction to horror is a mix that, as Mark Fisher points out, should be counted as the particularly “weird” characteristic of Lovecraft’s stories, which also dovetails with the fondness and danger that are simultaneously driven through necrophilic bonds. But the more important indicator of this characteristic weirdness is the quality of “real externality,” as Lovecraft himself notes on writing weird fiction. Such reality is the fruit of Lovecraft’s obsession with the outside but is entirely and exactly different from Ford’s “sealed” reality. The really exterior manifests its exteriority by making irruptions into the spatial dimensions and temporal coordinates of the familiar interior, that is when the recognizable here-and-now gets punctured by the unknown then-and-there (Fisher 2016). The outside is, once again, rendered in an extra-proximal relationship to the familiar world.
The effects of extra-proximity on reality are best traceable when concerning the Necronomicon. Endowed with mysterious and dangerous dominion over those who study its esoteric words, this written contagion is not merely a fabulation, in contrary to, say, Poe, but an instantiation of exteriority (Fisher 2016). Similar to other Things in other Lovecraft’s stories, it is more than occasionally discussed and meticulously but not fully described in details as a para-fictional entity that makes it then possible for other elements borrowed from the objectively familiar reality, most remarkably including places, geographies and institutions, to collapse onto the fictional side — simply because it pushes against the membrane of the extra- proximal sphere and spreads it out across the parcels of reality, where it is invoked. And it does so in a very particular manner. “Lovecraft generates a ‘reality-effect’ by only ever showing us tiny fragments of the Necronomicon. It is the very fragmentary quality of his references to the abominable text that induce the belief in readers that it must be a real object… [He] seemed to have understood the power of the citation, the way in which a text seems more real if it is cited than if it is encountered in the raw” (Fisher 2016: 24). This “reality-effect” is the hyperstitional potency of a fiction, by which it can be effective and make itself real. The main reason why fictions become hyperstitions is the “consistency of the fictional system” (Fisher 2016: 25), a network of multiple tales, to which the initial author loses control. In fact, it is this consistency that enables the “collectivization of the fictional system” (Trent 2004) — because of the fragmentary eruptions of the reality-effect, conveyed by the prismatic Things, a multitude of readers and authors have explored the Cthulhu mythos and released unshed stories welling up in its many undiscovered corners beyond the journeys of Lovecraft himself.
Walter Benjamin, one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, also happened to leverage great importance on citations. Benjamin wrote at a time when what the future held was the impression that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy, if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (Benjamin 2007: 255), an extra-proximal horror from which no distance is attainable, haunting both those who are gone and those who have not yet come with equal valence. Benjamin is preoccupied with alternatives for transmissibility across history, a way for seizing the past from the present standpoint other than by clinging on the ladder of an instrumental tradition whether with a prospective or retrospective inclination, both dependent on linear filiation. Against this fabricated continuity, inadequate to the ruptures of modernity, he poses the idea of cuts and breaks, wrenching the phenomena from the continuum of tradition and making them transmissible again. It is by the shock of citation that “disturbing strangeness of past vestiges” make eruptions into the present (Simay 2005), “arresting thought and allowing reality to collide and roll over it in search of another and until then unacknowledged history” (Taussig 2000). This is a fight over the past and its true meaning. And for Benjamin, as he writes in “Convolute N,” truth is not to be revealed but manifested in a “flash” of recognition, a fleeting image stitched together in a flickering constellation (Benjamin 2002). Lovecraft would not have been too surprised if had heard of the momentary constellation or the figure of the lightening, writing of the “day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality,” or more literally, of “all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things.”
However, as much as the lines of filiation and the bonds of philia configure dissimilar epistemogeometries, neither “the past from time immemorial” (Benjamin 2002: 464) should be mistaken with “measureless aeons behind history,” nor “the eruption of a prehistoricity into the present” (Taussig 2000) with “an irruption, through time and space, into an objectively familiar locale.” The distinction lies in Benjamin’s attempt to formulate a moment of historical awakening, when the fantasy of tradition is shattered and its instrumentalization is manifest, while Lovecraft, quite to the contrary, deepens the dreams, endorses instrumental transmissions and actually “traditionizes” the objects (Simay 2005). That is the birth of the tradition of hyperstitional actualities, a weird genesis that is always open to further fabrications and projective extensions to prior or later points of origin, exactly as Benjamin described it: “Origin, although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis. The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” (Benjamin 1998: 45). This “process of becoming and disappearance” is critically diagnosed and laid bare when the dialectician flips it into “a specific mix of repression and of expression,” that is, the instrumental basis for becoming a social being who learns to know what not to know (Taussig 2000). But that same process is intensified and hyped up toward further actualities if “the production of the new,” the becoming, is “disclaimed and disguised by the author,” as writes Fisher. “Lovecraft’s retrospective projection of newly minted mythos into the deep past,” his strategy of “retro-interring” (Fisher 2016: 22), molds the dark matter of dream into objects of hyperstition. Eventually, by setting up a paradoxical but consistent strategy, Lovecraft takes creative advantage of what Benjamin, in the name of truth, rigorously tries to criticize.
All citations, if not specified otherwise, are from Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”.
Books and Articles:
- Benjamin, Walter. (2007). Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books
- Benjamin, Walter. (2002). The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland, K. McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
- Benjamin, Walter. (1998). The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne. London: Verso
- Lovecraft, H. P. (2011). “The Call of Cthulhu,” in H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction. New York: Barnes and Noble (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cc.aspx) [10/12/2016]
- Lovecraft, H. P. (2011). “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”, in Supernatural Horror in Literature and Other Literary Essays. Maryland: Wildside Press (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/nwwf.aspx) [15/12/2016]
- Simay, Philippe. (2005). “Tradition as Injunction: Benjamin and the Critique of Historicisms”, in Walter Benjamin and History, ed. Andrew Benjamin. London: Continuum
- Taussig, Michael. (2000). “The Beach (A Fantasy)”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 249-278
- Trent, Linda. (2004). “How Do Fictions Become Hyperstitions?” Hyperstition Blog, 19 June 2004 (http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003345.html) [3/1/2017]
Web and Television Productions: