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JFA v18n3 Lovecraft and the Sublime by Ralickas

JFA v18n3 Lovecraft and the Sublime by Ralickas

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Published by Vivian Ralickas
This is the full version of my article on Lovecraft and the sublime.
This is the full version of my article on Lovecraft and the sublime.

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Published by: Vivian Ralickas on Dec 16, 2010
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08/02/2013

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E
XAMPLESOF
H. P.L
OVECRAFT
SUSEOFMOTIFSCOMMONTOTHE
B
URKEANAND
Kantian notions of sublimity abound in his fiction: phenomena whose princi-pal characteristics are their formlessness, infinite expanse, or superhumanmight; a subject’s encounter with the negative or, put another way, symbolicpresentation of what would be described in the fiction of a humanist as itsnoumenal self; and the limits of language
1
to represent adequately both theawe-inspiring spectacle and the subject’s experience of the violation of thelimits of being. Lovecraft’s pronouncements on “cosmic horror,” the effect heaimed to convey in his stories, seem to encourage a sublime reading of hiswork. Cosmic horror—that fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenom-ena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow fieldof human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance—compels the expansion of the experiencing subject’s imagination. Two recent studies, moreover, elabo-rate on the relevance of the Burkean and Kantian sublimes, respectively, inLovecraft’s myth cycle. In “Lovecraft and the Burkean Sublime” (1991), Dale J. Nelson defends the idea that cosmic horror is coeval with religious feeling inBurke. In “Lovecraft and the Semiotic Kantian Sublime” (2002), Bradley A.Will argues that the force of cosmic horror is based upon Lovecraft’s presenta-tion of the unknowable rather than merely the unknown in his fiction.Beyond superficial, thematic comparisons, however, can we really speak of sublimity in Lovecraft? Regarding the Burkean sublime in his fiction, does thesubject’s imagination partake in the ascending movement of the phenomenonin question, and is the phenomenon itself an index of a life-affirming notion of the absolute? With relation to the Kantian sublime, is the subject’s supremacyover nature affirmed by its ability to reason in Lovecraft? In other words, is thesublime turn, a commonplace and pivotal aspect of the aesthetic category of sublimity, discernable in the Lovecraft Mythos? The pitfalls of both Nelson’s
“Cosmic Horror” and the Questionof the Sublime in Lovecraft
 Vivian Ralickas
 Vol. 18, No. 3,
 Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Copyright © 2007, International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
 
and Will’s essays hinge on this last question. While the strength of Nelson’sanalysis lies in its convincing elaboration of the pertinence of certain aspectsof the Burkean sublime to Lovecraft’s cosmic viewpoint, he is reluctant toacknowledge Burke’s and Lovecraft’s valorizations of objective properties thatemphasize the heterogeneity of the experiencing subject.
2
This in turn leadshim to provide an interpretation of the sublime in Lovecraft that fails toaccount satisfactorily for the experiencing subject, and uncritically conflatesthe religious awe attendant on Burkean sublimity with Lovecraft’s anti-humanist category of cosmic horror.Although Will’s essay develops a more thorough examination of the aes-thetics of the sublime in question (Kantian) and its manifestation in Love-craft’s fiction, it nevertheless presents significant lacunae that any analysis of the Kantian sublime in Lovecraft must answer: What does the sublime meanto an atheist who denies not only the humanistic context of Kant’s Idealistposition, the
a priori
structure of cognition on which Kant bases his epistemol-ogy, and the idea of the noumenal, but, more importantly, the notion of freewill upon which our relation to the noumenal is contingent? If, as Will con-tends, “Lovecraft demands that we recognize our own limitations and our rel-atively insignificant place in the cosmos” (20), then this recognition inLovecraft is not counterbalanced by an awareness of our moral vocation,which, in Kant, places us above nature.In Lovecraft, the subject suffers from a violation of its sense of self, but itis graced with no consolatory understanding of the human condition to mol-lify its fragmented psyche. With its identity and the foundations of its culturedestroyed, the subject who experiences cosmic horror always succumbs to oneof three comparably dreadful fates, judging from the standpoint of a balanced,rational mind: insanity, death, or the embracing of its miscegenated and nolonger human condition. Nelson’s and Will’s essays consequently demonstratethat Lovecraft’s fiction presents readers with the outward manifestations of sublimity prior to the sublime turn, but falls short of providing the subjectivereconstitution concomitant to either the Burkean or Kantian notions of sub-limity.For Lovecraft, not one of the motifs associated with sublimity gives way toa reformulation of the subject’s integrity, asserting both our humanity and re-affirming the culture that makes an experience of the sublime possible. If thehuman self remains fragmented, then it is because Lovecraft’s fiction, particu-larly the effect of cosmic horror he aimed to convey in his stories, underscoresthe shortcomings of the humanistic mode of subjectivity upon which the sub-lime is predicated. Contrary to Nelson and Will, therefore, I argue that Love-craft’s fiction performs a collapse of signification that amounts to an implicitsubversion of the sublime, the roots of which are to be found in his cosmic out-
“Cosmic Horror” and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft
·
365
JOURNALOFTHEFANTASTICINTHEARTS
 
look. In denying humanism and revealing the ostensible unity of the humansubject to be a fallacy, I contend that what Lovecraft’s work affirms, albeit neg-atively, is a subjective crisis specific to the modern condition. It is a crisis,moreover, whose trajectory aligns itself with the abjection of self elaborated by Julia Kristeva in her psychoanalytic notion of subjectivity. In focusing exclu-sively on the impossibility of the sublime in Lovecraft’s fiction in the first partof my analysis and in pointing to the interpretative possibilities offered by anabject reading of his notion of cosmic horror in the second portion of thisessay, I hope to have provided a roadmap for future study of Lovecraftian aes-thetics.
Part 1: The Impossibility of a Sublime Readingof Lovecraft’s Fiction
The profound influence of two interconnected aspects of Lovecraft’s view onexistence can be discerned in his fiction: “cosmic indifferentism” and mecha-nistic materialism. Their combined impact on his fictional writings and poet-ics negates any possibility of the sublime in his Mythos. Lovecraft’s position asa self-proclaimed “cosmic indifferentist” unites a metaphysical, ethical, andaesthetic position defined, respectively, in terms of “an awareness of the vast-ness of the universe in both space and time”; “an awareness of the insignifi-cance of human beings within the realm of the universe”; and “a literaryexpression of this insignificance, to be effected by the minimizing of humancharacter and the display of the titanic gulfs of space and time” (Joshi,
 ADreamer
182). The mechanistic materialist foundation of Lovecraft’s cosmicindifferentism is evident in both his rejection of teleology and the idea of adivinity it implies as well as in his pronouncements on free will as a product of our (idealist) delusions. Lovecraft considers “the idea of deity” as “a logicaland inevitable result of ignorance, since the savage can conceive of no actionsave by a volition and personality like his own” (
Misc. Writings
165). In a strik-ingly anti-humanist stance, he views religion as a fiction that masks human-ity’s baser instincts. In “In Defence of Dagon,” he affirms that “all religiousdemonstrativeness and ceremony is basically orgiastic” (
Misc. Writings
166), aproduct of our inadequate sublimation of primitive compulsions. He holdsinstead that “all volition is merely a neural molecular process—a blind mate-rial instinct or impulse,” and that “all organisms” possess “no conscious desire,no intelligent aspiration, no definite foreknowledge” (
Misc. Writings
160, 161).The only aspect of Lovecraft’s deterministic viewpoint that endows humanitywith the illusion of freedom is chance. If life is “a process of stumbling in thedark—of recoiling from greater to lesser discomforts and dangers, and of grop-ing for an increased amount of pleasures faintly tasted” (
Misc. Writings
160),then chance provides us with the only potential for any kind of deviation from
366
·
 Vivian Ralickas
JOURNALOFTHEFANTASTICINTHEARTS

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