“Cosmic Horror ” and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft

Vivian Ralickas

Kantian notions of sublimity abound in his fiction: phenomena whose principal characteristics are their formlessness, infinite expanse, or superhuman might; a subject’s encounter with the negative or, put another way, symbolic presentation of what would be described in the fiction of a humanist as its noumenal self; and the limits of language1 to represent adequately both the awe-inspiring spectacle and the subject’s experience of the violation of the limits of being. Lovecraft’s pronouncements on “cosmic horror,” the effect he aimed to convey in his stories, seem to encourage a sublime reading of his work. Cosmic horror—that fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance—compels the expansion of the experiencing subject’s imagination. Two recent studies, moreover, elaborate on the relevance of the Burkean and Kantian sublimes, respectively, in Lovecraft’s myth cycle. In “Lovecraft and the Burkean Sublime” (1991), Dale J. Nelson defends the idea that cosmic horror is coeval with religious feeling in Burke. In “Lovecraft and the Semiotic Kantian Sublime” (2002), Bradley A. Will argues that the force of cosmic horror is based upon Lovecraft’s presentation 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 the subject’s imagination partake in the ascending movement of the phenomenon in 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 supremacy over nature affirmed by its ability to reason in Lovecraft? In other words, is the sublime turn, a commonplace and pivotal aspect of the aesthetic category of sublimity, discernable in the Lovecraft Mythos? The pitfalls of both Nelson’s
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and Will’s essays hinge on this last question. While the strength of Nelson’s analysis lies in its convincing elaboration of the pertinence of certain aspects of the Burkean sublime to Lovecraft’s cosmic viewpoint, he is reluctant to acknowledge Burke’s and Lovecraft’s valorizations of objective properties that emphasize the heterogeneity of the experiencing subject.2 This in turn leads him to provide an interpretation of the sublime in Lovecraft that fails to account satisfactorily for the experiencing subject, and uncritically conflates the religious awe attendant on Burkean sublimity with Lovecraft’s antihumanist category of cosmic horror. Although Will’s essay develops a more thorough examination of the aesthetics of the sublime in question (Kantian) and its manifestation in Lovecraft’s fiction, it nevertheless presents significant lacunae that any analysis of the Kantian sublime in Lovecraft must answer: What does the sublime mean to an atheist who denies not only the humanistic context of Kant’s Idealist position, the a priori structure of cognition on which Kant bases his epistemology, and the idea of the noumenal, but, more importantly, the notion of free will upon which our relation to the noumenal is contingent? If, as Will contends, “Lovecraft demands that we recognize our own limitations and our relatively insignificant place in the cosmos” (20), then this recognition in Lovecraft 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 it is graced with no consolatory understanding of the human condition to mollify its fragmented psyche. With its identity and the foundations of its culture destroyed, the subject who experiences cosmic horror always succumbs to one of three comparably dreadful fates, judging from the standpoint of a balanced, rational mind: insanity, death, or the embracing of its miscegenated and no longer human condition. Nelson’s and Will’s essays consequently demonstrate that Lovecraft’s fiction presents readers with the outward manifestations of sublimity prior to the sublime turn, but falls short of providing the subjective reconstitution concomitant to either the Burkean or Kantian notions of sublimity. For Lovecraft, not one of the motifs associated with sublimity gives way to a reformulation of the subject’s integrity, asserting both our humanity and reaffirming the culture that makes an experience of the sublime possible. If the human self remains fragmented, then it is because Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly the effect of cosmic horror he aimed to convey in his stories, underscores the shortcomings of the humanistic mode of subjectivity upon which the sublime is predicated. Contrary to Nelson and Will, therefore, I argue that Lovecraft’s fiction performs a collapse of signification that amounts to an implicit subversion of the sublime, the roots of which are to be found in his cosmic outJOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS

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look. In denying humanism and revealing the ostensible unity of the human subject to be a fallacy, I contend that what Lovecraft’s work affirms, albeit negatively, 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 exclusively on the impossibility of the sublime in Lovecraft’s fiction in the first part of my analysis and in pointing to the interpretative possibilities offered by an abject reading of his notion of cosmic horror in the second portion of this essay, I hope to have provided a roadmap for future study of Lovecraftian aesthetics. Part 1: The Impossibility of a Sublime Reading of Lovecraft’s Fiction The profound influence of two interconnected aspects of Lovecraft’s view on existence can be discerned in his fiction: “cosmic indifferentism” and mechanistic materialism. Their combined impact on his fictional writings and poetics negates any possibility of the sublime in his Mythos. Lovecraft’s position as a self-proclaimed “cosmic indifferentist” unites a metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic position defined, respectively, in terms of “an awareness of the vastness of the universe in both space and time”; “an awareness of the insignificance of human beings within the realm of the universe”; and “a literary expression of this insignificance, to be effected by the minimizing of human character and the display of the titanic gulfs of space and time” (Joshi, A Dreamer 182). The mechanistic materialist foundation of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism is evident in both his rejection of teleology and the idea of a divinity 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 logical and inevitable result of ignorance, since the savage can conceive of no action save by a volition and personality like his own” (Misc. Writings 165). In a strikingly anti-humanist stance, he views religion as a fiction that masks humanity’s baser instincts. In “In Defence of Dagon,” he affirms that “all religious demonstrativeness and ceremony is basically orgiastic” (Misc. Writings 166), a product of our inadequate sublimation of primitive compulsions. He holds instead that “all volition is merely a neural molecular process—a blind material 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 humanity with the illusion of freedom is chance. If life is “a process of stumbling in the dark—of recoiling from greater to lesser discomforts and dangers, and of groping 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

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a determined course. It assumes greater significance in his later tales, wherein “Lovecraft permitted mankind no defense, except luck, against the unknown” (Leiber 54). Nevertheless, although chance and determinism are two notions necessarily at odds with each other, the assertion of the former in Lovecraft’s fiction does not amount to freedom3 for the subject. In Lovecraft, “chance” is the name those who cannot see all ends4 give to events that they neither predicted nor foresaw. In denying the human subject freedom, an idea crucial to the aesthetics of sublimity, Lovecraft’s worldview necessarily makes an experience of the sublime impossible. As a pragmatic critical theory, cosmic horror further denies the humanistic basis requisite to any theory of sublimity by marginalizing human protagonists. Lovecraft’s chief aim in his fiction, his attempt to lend credibility to the mood of cosmic horror he aspires to communicate, demands very little in terms of character development. The purpose of cosmic horror is to communicate an effect: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” (“Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Dagon 368). This mood originates in a fear of the unknown, which Lovecraft posits as the foundation of all weird literature (“Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Dagon 365). Cosmic horror therefore issues from the same source as the sublime, which in part explains their likely conflation in the minds of some readers: an experiencing subject faced with phenomena that overwhelm its senses and cognitive faculties. Contrary to either Burkean or Kantian sublimity, however, which asserts the centrality of the human subject, the poetics particular to cosmic horror relegates it to the sidelines by reversing the order of priority that sublimity establishes between the subject and its objects, privileging the latter over the former. “The true ‘hero’ of a marvel tale,” expounds Lovecraft, “is not any human being, but simply a set of phenomena” (Misc. Writings 118). Lovecraft is consequently interested in the development of individual identities only insofar as they serve the poetics of “cosmic horror.” On the one hand, his characters require neither individual personalities nor a complex psychology; “the possession of sensory apparatus in good working condition will suffice them” (Houellebecq 65, my translation). On the other hand, his fiction develops human protagonists just enough for their humanity to act as a liability, contributing to the alienating impact of cosmic horror. In “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” “the very attributes that affirm Wilmarth’s humanity are what render him vulnerable and alone in the domain of the fungi” (Dziemianowicz 181). As this story demonstrates, in Lovecraft’s fiction our human perspective—what the sublime affirms—not only is severely limited in scope as a result of its anthropocentrism, but also poses a genuine threat to our existence in an environment dominated by alien beings far superior to us in might and intellect who are indifferent, if not outright hostile, to humanity. The human subject’s estrangement is thus not simply spatial but

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also metaphysical: “One’s sense of isolation is not merely a function of geographic space, but also of mental space; it can occur just as easily amongst a crowd and in the ‘light’ as in solitary out-of-the-way places if one is possessed of a knowledge that is sufficiently disorienting” (Dziemianowicz 186). This shift in focus evident in the poetics of cosmic horror from the human subject to a set of phenomena whose properties could give rise to a sense of the sublime, albeit in a different context (one in which the subject’s humanity is affirmed at the sublime turn), suggests an implicit subversion of sublimity in Lovecraft’s fiction. The sublime, both Burkean and Kantian, appeals to a common sense whose basis in shared beliefs and practices makes our experience of sublimity possible. In spite of the divergent philosophical premises of their respective formulations of aesthetics (Burke’s empiricism and Kant’s Idealism), Burke and Kant acknowledge that our sensibility to sublimity is in large part extrinsic— the product of acculturation. Although Burke reasons that “the standard both of reason and Taste is the same in all human creatures” since we all possess the same sensory organs and are roused by stimuli in similar ways (14, 11), he nevertheless concedes that our taste can be improved upon by “extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise” (25). Likewise, Kant acknowledges that taste has no fixed standard. As a judgment, it “is not determinable by means of concepts and precepts” (Kant 163, §32:5:283).5 It is of paramount importance, in other words, that we train our minds in “the cultivation of the moral feeling” (230, §60:5:356): “Without the development of moral ideas, that which we, prepared by culture, call sublime will appear merely repellent to the unrefined person” (148, §29:5:265). “Among all the faculties and talents,” therefore, Kant reasons that “taste is precisely the one which […] is most in need of the examples of what in the progress of culture has longest enjoyed approval if it is not quickly to fall back into barbarism” (164, §32:5:284). In binding Western culture by naturalizing its moral values and social bonds, the cultivation of taste is necessarily of supreme importance to the sublime (or to any aesthetic judgment). If the poetics of cosmic horror presages the collapse of culture into brutishness so feared by Kant, an analysis of its fictional expression in Lovecraft further demonstrates to what extent cosmic horror stands in stark contrast to the sublime: it destroys all aspects indispensable to the integrity of Lovecraft’s white, AngloSaxon, Protestant and predominantly male characters’ sense of selfhood— their traditions, morality, race, psyches, and bodies. The thematic thread that unites Lovecraft’s fiction, revealing not only what he saw as the false foundations of Christian humanism but also the Western subject’s misplaced faith in its moral values, underscores the inherent, anti-humanist critique of sublimity cosmic horror performs. If a collective’s only shared experience is one of perpetual horror and shock, then no appeal

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to a common sense requisite to the sublime is possible. In Lovecraft’s Mythos, the Earth is but a small, insignificant planet among countless other habitable worlds, scarred by wars waged by aliens long before the birth of humanity. Lovecraft’s fiction consequently denies our planet a place of importance in the universe and revokes the human privilege of having been the first species of higher intelligence to populate it. The direst critique of humanism in Lovecraft’s mythology, however, is evident in the human characters’ perception of the omnipotent alien races as gods. In light of the aliens’ either complete disregard or seemingly malevolent intentions towards human beings, such a belief is ironic on two levels. First, as illustrated in “At the Mountains of Madness,” the human race is the by-product of an accidental, biological alien experiment and is of little consequence to the Old Ones. Chance, and not divine grace, brought us into being. Just as Arthur Jermyn’s ancestor played god to Congolese white apes in the “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” these formidable aliens are perceived as deities by the characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, which says little of our apparently sophisticated culture and humanity. “As inheritors of a simian past,” remarks Bennett Lovett-Graff of “Arthur Jermyn,” “we are the subjects of a determined and determining Nature, members of the very animal world to which we human beings have denied any vestige of free will” (Lovett-Graff 375). Second, where aliens intervene in human affairs, their intrusion is motivated by the kind of cold and calculating scientific self-interest we display in our interactions with earth’s “lesser” life-forms (non-mammalian species such as reptiles, insects, and seacreatures whose forms resemble those of Lovecraft’s pantheon).6 In the best of scenarios, notes Houellebecq, we eat earth’s creatures of lesser intelligence; often, however, we destroy them for the mere joy of killing (15–16, my translation). Cosmic horror therefore not only dethrones the human subject whose pre-eminence sublimity affirms, but also questions the ethics of Western culture, the basis of the common sense that makes sublimity possible. If some of Lovecraft’s texts make reference to an ethical framework (for instance, texts that thematize witchcraft, alchemy, sorcery, and other black arts), it is a product of the limited human characters’ misguided attempts to understand and contextualize the phenomena they confront. In these stories, Lovecraft presents a more direct critique of the moral values of Western culture that underpin the common sense indispensable to the sublime. The narrator of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” describes (albeit through Ward’s focalization) Joseph Curwen, Ward’s maternal uncle and alleged witch according to the ignorant townsfolk, as a man of science ahead of his time: “Not even Einstein, [Ward] declared, could more profoundly revolutionize the current conception of things” (Mountains 161). Similarly, as “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Festival,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “The Haunter of the Dark” make evident, religious rituals in Lovecraft—usually affiliated with worship of the

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with Kristeva’s notion of abjection thus constitutes the premise grounding my analysis of Lovecraft’s implicit subversion of the sublime in his fiction. In light of the suggestive parallels and marked divergences between the Burkean and Kantian sublimes and Kristeva’s notion of abjection, I maintain that Lovecraft’s uncompromising erosion of the white, Western male subject’s identity is not limited to what I hope to have outlined as his perverse assault on its culture, race, gender, moral beliefs, psyche, and physical integrity. To make my case more compelling, it is worth referring to another aspect of Lovecraft’s fiction that points to the defilement of the subject’s “clean and proper” self: the loss of language. “Rats” presents one of the most telling examples of the kind of regression inherent in the degeneration of a character’s speech faculties.24 As Joshi observes in his note explaining the comprehensive progression of languages de la Poer speaks prior to being committed to Hanwell (he jumps from archaic English, middle English, Latin, Gaelic, to bestial grunts), “the purported effect is the narrator’s sudden reversal on the evolutionary scale” (Joshi, Annotated 54n53). While Joshi’s perspective addresses a macrocosmic view of de la Poer’s diminishing linguistic competence that impacts the human race as a whole, from a microcosmic, individual outlook that considers his exploration of the vaults beneath Exham Priory in terms of his discovery of the abject roots of his lineage, his loss of language suggests the collapse of his subjectivity to a pre-symbolic, undifferentiated state of being, or what Kristeva identifies as the realm of the maternal. Cosmic horror thus induces, to borrow the words Kristeva uses to describe abjection, “‘something maternal’ […] to bear upon” (Kristeva, Powers 5) the characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, as all motifs tied to the feminine in Lovecraft unveil an archaic abyss into which the self is condemned to plummet. As I mentioned before, a female ancestor defiles Arthur Jermyn’s sense of self. Thus, the brute, animal nature of the feminine, conveyed through her embodiment as a Congolese white ape, not only underscores the horror of race miscegenation in Lovecraft, but further testifies to the abject scope of the maternal in his fiction. Likewise, the narrator of “Dagon” loses himself in the amniotic undulations of two oceans: a real and a symbolic one. The Old Ones of “Mountains” are violently absorbed (and by extension emasculated) by the viscous, feminine contours of the Shoggoths. In “Rats,” de la Poer cites the worship of Cybele, a pagan earth goddess, as the source of his ancestors’ inhuman bestiality since time immemorial. De la Poer, a father to his “motherless boy” named Alfred (Dunwich 28) who dies from war-related injuries, regresses as a result of his contact with the feminine, represented by his investigation of the caverns beneath the estate that once belonged to his paternal forbears. This process completes the dethroning of their reason and the irremediable alienation from the symbolic that cosmic horror carries out in the case of Danforth and Dyer in “Mountains,” the Old Ones, Jermyn, de la Poer, and the narJOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS

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rator of “Dagon”; or, to articulate the same idea from the opposite perspective, the maternal’s incursion into the orderly fortress of culture. Both underscore the conflict at the heart of Lovecraft’s fiction as a loss of self-mastery attendant on the subject’s confrontation with the dynamic, devastating force that is modernity.25 In allying cosmic horror with the abject realm of the maternal and the psychical regression it implies, Lovecraft’s stories call for a renegotiation of identity that must adapt to the new, disorienting experiences of the modern subject. As I hope to have made clear, cosmic horror dramatizes a crisis in subjectivity whose dynamic force leads to an epiphany incommensurate with the affirmative scope of sublimity. Cosmic horror makes evident that not only is the culture that reconstitutes the subject’s integrity at the sublime turn no longer viable, but no alternative has yet been found to replace it. In his letters, Lovecraft addresses both the discontinuity between the historical past and the immediate present that characterizes modernism and the impossibility of art to provide a positive presentation of this truncation: “Our mechanical and industrial age is […] so far removed from […] ancestral conditions as to make impossible its expression in artistic media” (Selected Letters 2: 103–104). When the unintelligible cannot be absorbed into culture and we consequently lose faith in the compensatory value of symbols, the foundation of being is threatened. If no language exists to contextualize modernity in Lovecraft’s fiction, then what is left to articulate but the shock of alienation? In realizing that its “clean and proper” body is always already defiled, the Lovecraftian subject discovers that all of its safeguards—culture, tradition, race, ancestry, language— are forfeited. “Cosmic horror” therefore unveils to the subject that it is simultaneously abject and abjected by the same universe in whose center it was erroneously placed by the efforts of humanism. All is not lost, however. If abjection is tied to the maternal, and the subject of abjection is one perpetually displaced, compelled to construct its limits anew, then there is a hope of rebirth for the human protagonist in Lovecraft. Nonetheless, in a “cosmic indifferentist” universe, it is likely that, in a manner analogous to the “far violet line” Dyer espies during his frantic, aerial escape from the Shoggoths (Mountains 103), this new horizon and its promise of beauty would offer the Lovecraftian subject only greater, inconceivable horrors.

Lovecraft’s style, generally characterized by his extravagant use of adjectives, Byzantine descriptions, and archaic vocabulary, has been one of the focal points of criticism since the publication of his works. In the 1990s, poststructuralist and deconstructionist approaches have reversed the derogatory judgments presented by early

392 · Vivian Ralickas studies of Lovecraft’s style and underscored its significance to his aesthetics. For two sympathetic and thematically proximate critical studies, see John Langan’s “Naming the Nameless: Lovecraft’s Grammatology” for an elucidation of Lovecraft’s “approximate language,” which “relates the effect and not the thing itself” (29); and Donald Burleson’s “Lovecraft and Adjectivitis: A Deconstructionist View” for an elaboration of Lovecraft’s strategy of “narrative impressionism,” in which the narration of a character’s perceptions of a scene or event are more important than an objective depiction (24). 2 The most salient example pertains to Burke’s defense of “excessive bitters and intolerable stenches” as capable of producing “a grand sensation” akin to the sublime, provided that they “are moderated, as in a description or narrative” (Burke 78). In my view, gaining objective distance from a foul smell or repugnant taste does not suggest sublimity, nor is “the whole composition supported with dignity” if the abject smell or taste is associated with “images of an allowed grandeur” (Burke 78). Instead, a dialectical tension is produced, akin to that found in the grotesque. Furthermore, the illustrations Nelson provides from Lovecraft’s fiction in support of Burke’s notion that foul smells can give rise to sublimity are in fact representations of characters in the midst of an experience that violates their subjective integrity. Overcome by the impression made upon their sense of smell, their reactions are in no way comparable to the awe and religious respect the sublime inspires; our reading of their sensations, moreover, does not make them any more sublime in light of our objective distance. 3 This assertion needs to be qualified. In “Lovecraft’s Ethical Philosophy,” Joshi explains that Lovecraft’s determinism did not turn into fatalism, since he was too keenly aware of the fallacy inherent in such a position. He cites from Lovecraft’s “Some Causes of Self-Immolation” in the Marginalia to illustrate his point: “We have no specific destiny against which we can fight—for the fighting would be as much a part of the destiny as the final end” (“Lovecraft’s Ethical Philosophy” 24). Joshi remarks that this line of reasoning can serve to defend a “sort of free will”: “Since destiny is enmeshed in the fabric of existence, it is for that reason undetectable; and we can continue engaging in any actions we please because those activities would be as much (or as little) a part of destiny as the failure to act” (24). However, it is simply the illusion of free will that Lovecraft’s viewpoint concedes; our inability to discern the larger pattern of destiny does not preclude its existence. 4 This applies primarily to human beings, although with the exception of the Great Race of time travelers in “The Shadow out of Time,” who, in having the capability to foresee the annihilation of their species, project their consciousness into past and future life forms to escape their predicament, Lovecraft’s aliens are also bound by this fate. 5 All citations to Kant include the page followed by the section (§) then the volume and page in accord with the standard notation for Kant’s work. 6 “The Whisperer in the Darkness” comes to mind as a fitting example. The fungi cut up Henry Akeley’s body and place his still living brain in a canister from which they can, with the help of special devices, communicate with him.

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Some scholars maintain that a distinction between his earlier and later texts in terms of characterization justifies the exclusion of certain titles from the Lovecraft myth cycle. (See David E. Schultz’s “From Microcosm to Macrocosm: The Growth of Lovecraft’s Cosmic Vision” for an elaboration of this outlook.) In light of the thematic and stylistic continuity observable in Lovecraft’s work, however, I am sympathetic to George T. Wetzel’s assertion in “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Study” that individual texts make up fragments of a larger narrative constellation whose power becomes evident through a cumulative reading. At the extreme, he interprets the Lovecraft Mythos as a lengthy novel in which individual stories make up its many chapters. 8 Lovecraft also suggests an implicit connection between “Jermyn” and “vermin”: both the perfect rhyme shared by the two words and the salience of vermin as a motif in his fiction encourage the association. 9 In Udolpho’s penultimate paragraph, the narrator affirms succinctly the moral of the story: “O! Useful may it be to have shewn [sic], that, though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (Radcliffe 632). 10 Emily’s learning of “Latin and English” from her father, “chiefly that she might understand the sublimity of their best poets,” and her developing “a taste for works of genius” “in her early years” (Radcliffe 9) are suggestive of the notion of sublimity elaborated by Longinus, whose positing of the sublime as an innate quality of the human mind (and thus necessarily beyond the bounds of rhetoric) sets the groundwork for subsequent formulations of sublimity as an aesthetic category (see Longinus’s On Sublimity, 1st century CE). 11 The etymology of the adjective “stupendous,” employed by Emily to describe the mountain’s recesses, uncovers the subjective, impressionistic basis of her reaction to these particular phenomena in nature. More importantly, it is a response conditioned by Burkean sublimity. “Stupendous” originates from the Latin stupendus “that is – to be wondered at,” which is a gerundive form of stupere “to be struck senseless, be amazed at” (OED). In other words, the view of the mountain afforded by “the wild wood-walks” (Radcliffe 9) suggests that Emily’s mind is, to borrow Burke’s phrasing, “so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it” (Burke 53). Moreover, the “silence and grandeur of solitude” (Radcliffe 9) Emily experiences when she contemplates the mountain’s hollows echoes Burke’s category of privation, which includes “Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence” (Burke 65). (In my view, privation can be subsumed under “obscurity.” The inability to see implies spatial and metaphysical disorientation in Burke, and the subject’s loss of sensory reference points, necessary to its gaining a sense of perspective from which it can then distinguish itself from the world, can have the same effect.) 12 Lovecraft makes a total of seven references in “Mountains” to the Asian paintings of Russian painter and writer Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich (1874–1947),

394 · Vivian Ralickas whose works he had seen in New York at the eponymous museum in 1934 (see Joshi’s introductory comments to the footnotes of the Penguin edition of “Mountains,” 420). Interestingly, Roerich’s visual works encouraged some of his contemporaries to draw analogies with music: “The original force of Roerich’s work consists in a masterly and marked symmetry and a definite rhythm, like the melody of an epic song” (Nina Selivanova, qtd. in http://www.roerich.org/index.html). The series of paintings to which Lovecraft makes reference are likely those inspired by Roerich’s journey, beginning in 1923, to what were then uncharted regions of Chinese Turkestan, Altai, Mongolia and Tibet: In Kanchenjunga, Sikkim Pass, His Country, The Great Spirit of the Himalayas, and The Banners of the East (http://www.roerich.org/index.html). It seems ironic (and perhaps even perverse) that Lovecraft cites Roerich’s work from this period to emphasize the narrator’s cognitive estrangement from his environment and to foreshadow the destructive revelation that awaits the explorers; Roerich’s Asian paintings, particularly the Himalayan series, are renowned for the “loftiness of spirit” they convey (http://www.roerich.org/index.html). In my view, the ominous references to Roerich’s Asian paintings in “Mountains” betray instead characters’ immersion in a cosmic indifferentist worldview that necessarily bars them from appreciating the grandeur of his work. 13 “The Ritual” is one of the stories that best exemplifies the indexical function that the Necronomicon plays in Lovecraft’s fiction. 14 This type of recollection, triggered by a sensory stimulus, appears frequently in Lovecraft’s fiction, and always denotes the subject’s impending ontological crisis. 15 Other references to sublimity in nature fail to ennoble the human subject and instead anticipate its debasement: “The ineffable majesty of the whole scene, and the queer state of [Lake’s] sensations at being in the lee of vast pinnacles whose ranks shot up like a wall reaching the sky at the world’s rim,” are counterbalanced by the “note of subconscious alarm” the narrator detects “in his words” (Mountains 15). Subsequently, Lake and his party discover the subterraneous network of caves and unearth the still living bodies of the Old Ones, two actions that spell the crew’s violent destruction. 16 Scholars have cited Lovecraft’s increasing liberalism in his later years in an effort to obfuscate the extent of his racism and the profound impact it had on his writing. For instance, both Donald R. Burleson and S. T. Joshi problematically make an effort to excuse Lovecraft’s racism by explaining that it was focused on abstract collectives rather than individuals, and they mention his marriage to a Jewish woman as evidence of his tolerant attitude. Burleson comments that “Lovecraft in his letters often gave vent to seemingly horrendous ‘racist’ remarks against Jews, black people, and others, yet habitually treated individual people with warmth and kindness, even marrying a Jewess” (H. P Lovecraft: A Critical Study 11). In Lovecraft’s defense, Joshi . remarks that “many of his closest friends, including his wife, were not of the pure Nordic stock that he so concerned himself with” (“H. P Lovecraft: His Life and Work” . 14). I cannot see how Lovecraft’s vituperative descriptions in his letters of New York

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City’s non-white inhabitants constitute only “seemingly” racist commentary. To his credit, Joshi changes his view in A Dreamer and a Visionary: Lovecraft in His Time; Joshi acknowledges that, in light of Lovecraft’s avowal in a letter of taking pride in being known as an anti-Semite in high school, those who, like himself in the previously cited work, sought “to exculpate Lovecraft on the grounds that he never took any direct actions against racial or ethnic groups he despised but merely confined his remarks to paper” can no longer do so (55). 17 Given his antiquarian proclivities, perhaps Lovecraft’s depiction of the Shoggoths’ bastardization of the Old Ones’ art was inspired by the pictorial style introduced in Ancient Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten, “commonly known nowadays as the ‘heretic king’” and whose “reign was excised from public record” after his death (Eaton-Krauss). The subversive nature of the artistic novelties introduced during Akhenaten’s reign and their marked contrast to traditional Ancient Egyptian pictorial conventions would surely have captured Lovecraft’s imagination: “Of the innovations introduced in the visual arts, the manner in which the king himself was depicted retains its shock value down to the present. The king’s physiognomy (his hanging chin, thick lips, sunken cheeks and slanting eyes) and ‘effeminate’ body (narrow shoulders, fleshy chest, swelling thighs, pendulous abdomen, and full buttocks, in marked contrast to spindly limbs and a scrawny neck) […] have raised questions about his physical and mental health. But aberrations from previously accepted norms need not reflect his actual appearance. They are better understood as stylistic and iconographic devices chosen to stress Akhenaten’s uniqueness” (Eaton-Krauss). 18 The professor likens their piping speech to the lethal call of the femme fatale when he declares that he wished “that I had wax-stopped ears like Ulysses’ men off the Sirens’ coast to keep that disturbing wind-piping from my consciousness” (Mountains 104). Another interpretive possibility also comes to mind: does the relationship Lovecraft establishes between the Shoggoths and the Old Ones function as a type of racist commentary on slavery and race-relations in pre-World War II USA? 19 The Hanwell Asylum actually exists. It was established in 1831 in Middlesex County, England. As S. T. Joshi remarks in the annotated edition of “Rats,” Lovecraft likely became aware of it from his reading of Lord Dunsany’s “The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap” (The Annotated H.P Lovecraft 55n54). . 20 Lovecraft believed what he describes in “Dagon”—the upheaval of the sea floor—to be scientifically possible (see “In Defence of Dagon” 149). 21 I adopt Leon S. Roudiez’s translation of Kristeva’s original French expression “corps propre,” which signifies a body that is both one’s own and clean—a body bearing no traces of its debt to nature: “Le corps ne doit garder aucune trace de sa dette envers la nature” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 121). 22 In the original French text, the citation reads as follows: “Dans le symptôme, l’abject m’envahit, je le deviens. Par la sublimation, je le tiens. L ’abject est bordé de sublime. Ce n’est pas le même moment du parcours, mais c’est le même sujet et le même discours qui les font exister. Car le sublime, lui non plus, n’a pas d’objet. […] Le

396 · Vivian Ralickas sublime est un en plus qui nous enfle, qui nous excède et nous fait être à la fois ici, jetés, et là, autres et éclatants. Écart, clôture impossible, Tout manqué, joie: fascination” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 19). 23 In the original French text, the citation reads as follows: “La forme culminante de cette expérience du sujet auquel est dévoilé que tous ses objets ne reposent que sur la perte inaugurale fondant son être propre” (Kristeva, Pouvoirs 13). 24 This erosion of the enunciating subject’s speech also occurs in other Lovecraft stories: See “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Outsider,” The Colour out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” and “The Shadow out of Time,” which are all found in The Dunwich Horror and Others. 25 Of the texts cited, the description of the Shoggoth as an on-coming subway train in “Mountains” offers the most telling, dynamic parallel between modernity and “cosmic horror”: “It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform—the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterranean distance, constellated with strangely colored lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder” (Mountains 101).

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In drawing from Lovecraft’s pronouncements on “cosmic horror” in his essays and its dramatization in his stories, I argue that an experience of the sublime is impossible in his fiction since cosmic horror denies four fundamental aspects of the Burkean and Kantian aesthetics of sublimity: freedom; the primacy of the human being; the notion of common sense upon which an aesthetic judgment is based; and the objective distance requisite to the sublime. To underscore further how cosmic horror implicitly subverts sublimity in Lovecraft, in the coda I elaborate on how cosmic horror is coeval with the modern subject’s abjection of self, a notion defined by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror.


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