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The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality
For the American writer and poet Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) the issues posed by philosophy and rationality, especially those on language and knowledge, reveal as very challenging topics. In Lovecraft’s writings, both the fictional and the philosophical/autobiographical ones, the notion of “rational language” is pre-eminent, and it is upon this specific question that I would like to address most of my reflections, though it is of course impossible to neatly separate Lovecraft’s views on language from those on rationality and reason tout court. Lovecraft’s personality is particularly complex: though he repeatedly defines himself as a materialist, a positivist, a rational “indifferentist”, and the bases of his philosophy undoubtedly move from a rationalistic, even positivistic, background, nonetheless his literature stages a potent attack against the powers of rationality, allegedly able to account for the universe and for humankind’s position therein. Besides the thematic and representational aspects of these attacks to rationalism (as they may be retrieved in the tales composed under the Dunsanian influence, as well as in the “dream cycle”), it is against the pretence of rational language (and consequently knowledge) to explain and account for reality that Lovecraft’s literature addresses its most crucial critical efforts. Significantly, terms like “unnamable”, “nameless”, “unexplained”, “unutterable”, “unmentionable”, etc., abound in Lovecraft’s prose and poetry. Why he is so concerned, in his fantastic and horror writings, with the limits of rationality as displayed by language, is the question I am going to address in this paper. Not merely Lovecraft makes ample use in his fiction of the terms reported above, but he even titles two of his tales “The Nameless City” (1921) and “The Unnamable” (1923). Here I will focus my reflections on the latter. “The Unnamable” (1923) The importance of this tale in Lovecraft’s oeuvre is testified also by the presence of the character Randolph Carter, the author’s alter-ego that is protagonist of a group of five tales. In “The Unnamable”, Lovecraft is able to connect his philosophical reflections on the limits of language with those on the theory and practice of weird fiction. Already at the outset, Randolph Carter, the narrator, poses the topic on which the tale is construed: “We were sitting on a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb in the late afternoon of an autumn day at the old burying-ground in Arkham, and speculating about the unnamable”1. The tale in fact features two characters, Randolph Carter and his intellectual antagonist, Joel Manton, discussing at length the character of the supernatural and the unexplainable, in the suitable surroundings of a burying-ground in Arkham, while dusk and finally night are approaching. Right after the incipit, the narrator reinforces the theme of the tale by claiming that he has made “a fantastic remark about the spectral and unmentionable nourishment which the colossal roots must be sucking in from that hoary, charned earth”. Lovecraft tries here, ironically, to assume the position of the detractors of weird fiction, those individuals who claim his literature is not a worth effort: Carter’s interlocutor in fact claims that “.. my constant talk about ‘unnamable’ and ‘unmentionable’ things was a very puerile device”2. Lovecraft’s goal is to demonstrate that this rationalist criticism totally fails to grasp the true nature of weird literature, its potential momentous importance in dealing with epistemic questions, as well as with the issues posed by rationality and human language. Joel Manton in fact states that “We know things… only through our five senses or our religious intuitions”, adding that “it is quite impossible to refer to any object or spectacle which cannot be clearly depicted by the solid
“The Unnamable”, in Lovecraft 2004, 83. My Italic. Ibid. My Italic. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality
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definitions of fact or the correct doctrines of theology”3. According to Lovecraft, for the rationalist/positivistic view of life “only our normal, objective experiences possess any aesthetic significance”4, and “it is the province of the artist not so much to rouse strong emotion by action, ecstasy, and astonishment, as to maintain a placid interest and appreciation by accurate, detailed transcripts of everyday affairs”5. But existence and experience are also made of the “mystical and the unexplained”, which does not, in Lovecraft, entail a belief in the supernatural: reason is not capable to account for so many phenomena, but from this does not necessarily ensue the necessity of a belief in a superior or divine order – a position that would configure as no less dogmatic than the one it opposes - the blind faith in the unlimited powers of reason. Human reason is simply not properly and sufficiently equipped in order to explain everything occurring in nature. What Lovecraft claims in “The Unnamable” and, more broadly, in his whole literature and philosophy, is that there is a third way, between the “rational” and the “supernatural” explanation of non-natural phenomena: the way of the “unnamable”, of the rationally “unexplainable”, which does not entail any supernaturalism. The attitude of reason is that of considering all things and feelings as fixed dimensions, properties, causes, and effects: the rationalist attitude can not, however, betray its intellectual honesty, thus it recognizes that other sensations and feelings exist, that show a far less geometrical, classifiable, and workable nature. But reason simply draws an arbitrary line and rules out of court all that cannot be experienced and understood by the average human being. Thus, reason is sure that nothing can be really “unnamable” – the unnamable does not exist. Most, if not all, of Lovecraft’s literature aims at demonstrating the opposite: the unnamable does exist, and the correct thinker should humbly recognize it as it is, i.e. as the epitome of the limits of rationality. This is why Lovecraft’s literature is replete of references to “unnamable” and “unmentionable” events, experiences, locations, sensations: his effort is to metaphorically give voice to the unpreparedness of our human epistemic equipment (and primarily of our language) to cope with all is “unexplainable” in the universe (Lovecraft in fact does not hate either knowledge or reality. One way of interpreting the themes in his stories is to believe that “Lovecraft is not deploring knowledge, but rather, man’s inability to cope with it”6). Thus in “The Unnamable”, even from the linguistic viewpoint it is clear how Lovecraft is interested in staging an attack against rationality: the narrator Randolph Carter states that “I was soon carrying my thrusts into the enemy’s own country”7, and thus he starts his “counter-attack” against Manton’s arguments (those of a conventional rational mind). The whole tale functions as the denial of the tenets of reason: in order to do so, the tale does not simply discusses reason and its limits (linguistic and philosophic levels), but actually represents how rationality can be defeated by actual events (thematic level). Carter criticizes Manton’s objection to supernaturalism in literature by revealing the incoherence of this position: the blind faith in reason sometimes hides a belief in the supernatural much fuller than that of those writers, like Lovecraft, who conceive supernatural stories, since their writing of a supernatural story does not absolutely entail actual belief in the reality of the events the story portrays: weird literature is primarily fiction, is metaphorical, not a faithful description. And thus it may happen that the same “rationalists” that despise the involvement of supernatural themes in literature then believe and have faith in God, and of course anyone who believes in an omnipotent God and in the divinity can scarcely object to the depiction of the supernatural in fiction. Thus in this tale, in ways we are going to examine, Lovecraft expresses a very important philosophical and aesthetical awareness on his part: that the aesthetic acceptance of the supernatural in fiction is much more preferable to the intellectual acceptance of the supernatural in religion. Carter begins his denunciation of the incoherence of Manton’s rationalist position by counterattacking his interlocutor, “actually clung to many old-wives’ superstitions… beliefs in the
Ibid. Ibid. 5 Ibid. 6 Mosig 105. 7 “The Unnamable”, in Lovecraft 2004, 83. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality
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Manton’s rationalist attitude weavers: won by curiosity and shivers of terror.. tells Manton further revelations. apparitions of gigantic bestial forms sometimes visible and sometimes only tangible. at the time when the latter was a Puritan village. he asks Carter the fatal question: “I’d like to see that house. and its image reflected itself on the window of the attic where it was living. what coherent representation could express or portray so gibbous and infamous a nebulosity as the spectre of a malign. argued a capability of believing in phenomena beyond all normal notions. Ibid. and in the impressions left by old faces on the windows through which they had gazed all their lives. unable to retell what he actually saw in the attic. if the psychic emanations of human creatures be grotesque distortions. To reinforce his argument. Carter claims he based the tale on a true story. half human and half monster. “The Attic Window”. these unnamable horrors. 10 Ibid. and the incursions of Outsideness/Alterity into our realm that they reveal? Is the human being linguistically and epistemically equipped to face the unnamable? Carter adds: “So far as aesthetic theory was involved. the shriekingly unnamable?”10. 86. the tale abandons its meta-fictional nature and becomes descriptive: Manton starts shrieking loud. and he found some scattered bones and a skull belonged to a creature totally monstrous and non-human (he then buried the bones in the cemetery nearby the monster’s dwelling). in order to cause all the manifestations attributed to it. Carter’s answer is quite theatrical but surely effective: “You did see it – until it got dark”. why is it extravagant to imagine psychically living dead things in shapes – or absence of shapes – which must for human spectators be utterly and appallingly ‘unnamable’?”8. the voice of reason. Where is it? … I must explore it a little”. for if a dead man can transmit his visible or tangible image half across the world. The house of the monster had always been lying in front of them during their conversation. that aroused so much disconcert and despise in his detractors. the crypt behind it. how can it be absurd to suppose that deserted houses are full of queer sentient things. and poses a question at the core of his literature: is it truly possible to describe. half insane. that of a strange creature. living in the attic of a deserted house in Arkham. “granted for the sake of argument that some unnatural monster had really existed. Though admiring Manton’s clearness and persistence. which floated about on moonless nights and haunted the old house. After this and further theoretical discussion on what the “unnamable” might be. and he and Carter are actually attacked by an unrecognizable creature – that is deceptively easy to identify with the creature of Carter’s tale. through rational language. or down the stretch of the centuries. and was later found shrieking maniacally. Carter moves to illustrate the plot and the tenets of his own meta-fictional tale. In front of Carter’s pressing attacks. In his tale Carter reported the story of a boy who in 1793 went to explore the monster’s attic. From this moment onwards. This monster was said to have killed many humans. Not yet truly convinced by Carter’s arguments. while the two are still sitting in the cemetery facing an old deserted house and darkness gradually falls. Carter. chaotic perversion. Carter reveals to Manton something that was not told in the tale: Carter himself went to visit the cursed attic in Arkham (the same town where they live and are now discussing). and the tomb where Carter buried the bones of the monster is just the one on which Manton is sitting. Lovecraft goes further the simple mention of these legends. collected among old people: legends of “monstrous apparitions more frightful than anything organic could be. cannot be limited by any of the laws of matter. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 3 of 20 . Manton. itself a morbid blasphemy against Nature? . would not such a vaporous terror constitute in all loathsome truth the exquisitely.Massimo Berruti appearance of dying persons at distant places. but reminded me that even the most morbid perversion of Nature need not be unnamable or scientifically indescribable”9. 86-87. these oddities of Nature. nor defeated by his “attacks”. unbodied intelligence of generations? And since spirit. Carter does not give up in his attempts and. When the two characters 8 9 Ibid.. and the grave”. or that old graveyards teem with the terrible. To credit these whisperings….
Lovecraft’s peculiar use of reason is what I would like to call a relativistic or an “instrumental” one – since rationality is perhaps better understood just in this way. clarifies on this point: “How did Lovecraft ‘know’ that there is no life after death?”12 – he simply “shed belief in the absolute certainty of scientific discovery and based all his arguments – on the existence of God or the soul. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 4 of 20 . implying “Was it the monster of my tale?”. but he reveals to the physicians he and Carter were attacked by a vicious bull – though the animal is a difficult thing to place and account for. in Joshi 2003. Manton. It was everywhere – a gelatin – a slime – yet it had shapes. whispers the truth to Carter: answering Carter’s question “Good God. as an instrument man has at his disposal in order to live better and to achieve knowledge: for instance. Thus now I would like to focus especially on the effects the views illustrated above have on Lovecraft’s literature. Lovecraft employs rationality in order to attack the “supernatural” idea of the existence of a spirit and a soul beyond materiality. the voice of reason now completely converted. metaphorically) the defiance of scientific laws as widely accepted as. Manton with cuts and Carter with contusions left by a split hoof. 89.. 79. S. But after the doctors leave. they find themselves in a hospital and do not remember anything of what happened at the cemetery after Manton’s cry: they are heavily wounded. his mechanistic materialism relies upon the texts of modern thinkers such as Thomas Henry Huxley. since Lovecraft the philosopher adopts a balanced position towards rationality. he himself would fall in the “supernaturalism” he strives to fight).e. 13 Ibid. 79-80.. 14 “In Defence of Dagon and Lovecraft’s Philosophy”. The theme is thus perfectly balanced. Ernst Haeckel (The Riddle of the Universe). but what was it? Those scars – was it like that?”. Lovecraft’s attack on rationality reaches his probably most convincing peak when it stages (literarily. a belief as to the ‘is or isn’tness’ of things… as derived from the most up-to-date findings of science would serve as the foundation for Lovecraft’s metaphysics for the rest of his life”. Manton states: “No – it wasn’t that way at all. those of Euclidean geometry. 75. i. Lovecraft’s literature in fact 11 12 Ibid. Manton. which are strictly interconnected since one is the expression and the outcome of the other (it is not by chance if S. it was the unnamable!”11. and of an afterlife. This tale aptly shifts its theoretical and philosophical discourse on rationality and its limits to the actuality of the concrete events involving the characters. As far as the thematic aspect is concerned.T. 13 Of course the theoretical views expressed in “The Unnamable” bear some implications on both Lovecraft’s literature and philosophy. in Joshi 2003. and will later in his life embrace the theories of Einstein and of advanced astrophysicists such as Planck. represent the irruption of the creatures and the dimensions of Outsideness. Manton knows more than Carter. and Heisenberg. Joshi regards Lovecraft’s works as “expressions of a distinctive philosophy rather than as fiction intended merely to horrify”14). These passages are those which. into our own dimension or “reality” (Dasein). Joshi. This belief in probability – i. the foremost worldwide Lovecraftian scholar. T. for instance.e. on the place of humanity in the universe – on probability. There were eyes – and a blemish. simultaneously. “In Defence of Dagon and Lovecraft’s Philosophy”. and Hugh Elliott (Modern Science and Materialism). The situation is anyway more complex than it seems. and the limits of rationality are discussed under both the linguistic and the factual level.Massimo Berruti wake up. a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. de Sitter. Carter. It was the pit – the maelstrom – the ultimate abomination.. since Lovecraft was primarily a fiction writer and only in second instance a philosopher: he dealt more directly with words than with ideas. in both his themes and his treatment of rational language. of a realm of pure Alterity. Anyway we have here to pay attention: Lovecraft’s reliance on rationality is never the dogmatic one of an absolute faith (if it were so. striving to avoid any form of dogmatism: he does not believe that reason must be totally discarded (he is not a spiritualist) – in fact. on survival after death.
he was buried in the sunken city of R’Lyeh and would emerge when the “stars were ready” to reclaim control of the earth. because it shows how tenuous is mankind’s vaunted supremacy upon earth. presumably because the stars are not “ready”. The sculpture is of a hideous.looking alien entity. Angell. a professor at Brown University of Providence. who had told them that Cthulhu was a vast being that had come from the stars when the earth was young. First. a seminal tale in Lovecraft’s “mythos” literature. but finds that he is dead. however. the outposts of Outsideness? “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) “The Call of Cthulhu”. the city sinks again. a mestizo named Castro. at a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. the triumph of the impossible The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 5 of 20 . that the description of Outsideness reveals as a bold gesture of defiance against human rationality. Thurston scarcely knows what to make of this material. Legrasse had also interviewed one cultist. accompanying the article is a picture of another bas-relief very similar to that fashioned by Wilcox and found by Legrasse. but. Thurston goes to Oslo to talk with the Norwegian sailor. who had been on board the ship. and from personal investigation. serves very well the purpose to illustrate Lovecraft’s attack on rationality. had collected several peculiar pieces of data. This had piqued Angell’s interest.Massimo Berruti critically discusses the notion of “reality”: in particular. A short summary of the plot of the tale is necessary in order to develop further discussion. It is especially with Johansen’s description of the city resurfaced in the middle of the Pacific. since their knowledge of the existence of Cthulhu’s sect represented of course a danger for its survival. and the ontologic status of the external referent to which this word normally refers. if every now and then burst into it the realm of dream. both from the papers of his recently deceased grand-uncle. and Wilcox had reported that in the dream that had inspired it he had repeatedly heard the words “Cthulhu fhtagn”. USA. returning Cthulhu to the bottom of the ocean. who had come to him with a bas-relief he had fashioned in his sleep on the night of March 1. left behind an account of his experience. he had taken extensive notes of the dreams and artwork of a young sculptor. Henry Anthony Wilcox. R’Lyeh is described as the prototype of the geometrical paradox. but then by accident he finds a newspaper clipping telling of strange events aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean. The cult “would always be waiting to liberate him”. Thurston probably ends dying – we infer this from the subtitle of the tale. both from a thematic and a linguistic standpoint. the mere existence of this titanic entity is an unending source of unease to Thurston. of Boston”) announces that the text is an account written by Thurston of the strange facts he assembled. for he had encountered these words (or sounds) years before. in which a New Orleans police inspector named Legrasse had brought in a sculpture very much like Wilcox’s and claimed that it had been worshipped by a degraded cult in the Louisiana bayou which had chanted the phrase “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”. and all evidence makes us believe that the cultists have killed both him and Professor Angell. 1925. and his diary – reported by Thurston’s words – shows that he and his fellow sailors had actually encountered the dreaded Cthulhu as the city of R’Lyeh emerged from the bottom of the ocean as the result of an earthquake. George Gammell Angell. Johansen has. However. both what we humans truly mean by this term. Gustaf Johansen. How can the world we inhabit be “real”. along with another set of entities named the Great Old Ones. The subtitle of the tale (“Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston. One of the cult members had proffered a translation of this utterance: “In his house at R’Lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming”.
p.e. Thurston. 19 COC. non-Euclidean. p. like for instance those of horizontality and verticality. shafts with odd bulbous enlargements broken columns in curious groups” (MM. states that “Without knowing what futurism is like. like the futurists’ art here mentioned by Thurston. the geometry of the place was all wrong. unconceivable the Outsideness of R’Lyeh’s geometry. And this does nothing but confirm the author’s assumption that it is an ”alterity” irreducible to rational. commenting upon Johansen’s diary. He has said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal. the Lovecraftian conception of Outsideness. Yet I believe that the second is the most likely: it is the human eye that does not possess the physical instruments capable to send to the brains any sensory impressions referable to a rational scheme of interpretation of the observed object20. this change of condition of the angle from concavity to convexity has an objective nature (R’Lyeh’s has then a varying geometry). in COC. 20 It is frankly quite hard to explain. everything. hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable”21 15 Impossible. Man can only rely on “impressions”. and at each glance “sees” something different? The first hypothesis appears by far the most fascinating. means used by a defeated reason. And therefore it may happen that where a concavity appears. 21 COC. can not grasp its essence. terraces of every sort of provocative disproportion. p.Massimo Berruti angles. though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar-door. In R’Lyeh the impressions of a “wrong” geometry. incapable to assimilate an alien geometry. i. or rather in the observer’s eye? In other words. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. and they all felt that it was a door because of the ornate lintel. One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal. besides than relative. with the words of the human-rational language. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality”17 Thus. that it is possible to fully describe what rational is not. But they are simply one of the possible perspectives on reality: on a cosmic scale.. in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity”19 This image originates a complex epistemological question: does the defect detected by the human eye lie in the observed object. multiply: “It was […] like a great barn-door. My Italics. for instead of describing any definite structure or building16. and maybe it would make even more disturbing. Lovecraft’s Italics. laws that the human mind is not able to grasp. As Wilcox would have said. totally conflicting with Euclidean elementary notions. linguistic canons of interpretation.e. or to establish terms of comparison with what he already knows. and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. and jumbs around it. to a second glance a convexity shows itself: “. or is it a fault of the observing instrument. 18 A recurring issue in Lovecraft. 16 I suspect that Johansen’s choice was unavoidable: it is not by means of the human language. 165-6.166. according to the human rational canons.51). The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 6 of 20 . in this ideal parallel between dream and reality. not even to imagine. he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces – surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth. In R’Lyeh anything may happen. of the human eye which. i. 17 “The Call of Cthulhu”. the language of reason. it goes with the word. The non-Euclideity of the buildings of the dead city buried under the ice against which explorers Dyer and Danforth run up in the novel At the Mountains of Madness (1931) is described like this: “There were geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name – cones of all degrees of irregularity and truncation. and impious with horrible images and hyerogliphics. not a single principle of Euclidean geometry is respected: other laws are at stake. which reminds the reader of ultra-terrestrial spheres and dimensions. the supreme gaining substance of the possibility of all the most impossible laws15.166. threshold. is possible. of “abnormality”18. Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city. Lovecraft highlights how the “nonEuclideity” of R’lyeh’s geometries gives rise to a sense of Outsideness.
allows Lovecraft to successfully execute his aesthetic of outsideness”: Kirk Sigurdson. LS n. We ask ourselves how a man was able to budge the immense stone. And again. 25 COC. ‘the geometry of the place was all wrong’. 24 The manipulation that. so that all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset”25 I will now move to the linguistic aspect of Lovecraft’s attacks againt rationality.167. if she tries to imagine it. Even the simplest geometrical ‘given’ (of the sea’s natural horizontal plane) is upset by the variability of the cosmic architecture.31-32. architectural detail perpetrates an actual manipulation of form on the reader. that our sight would define acute. that then behaves as obtuse is something so unconceivable for the human mind that. but a sort of intellectual shock”: Stefan Dziemianowicz . is in a sense changing. How does Lovecraft express the ”alterity” of language. A fair question. if the object of the observation is “other”. hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable’.34-35. Manipulation of form at this decisive climax serves its purpose well. more than subtle manipulations of Gothic architecture are needed. clear of the object that from time to time embodies the Outsideness: for instance Lovecraft often uses words or See Stefan Dziemianowicz: “It is literally an unspeakable horror because the human vocabulary is inadequate for describing it. Lovecraft only alludes to the possibilities. Already in the passages reported above it is possible to see how the writer tries hard not to ever provide an image too sharp. first of all language. allude. as in a metadiscourse? Above I highlighted how. when one of the sailors falls from the obelisk that rises on Cthulhu’s tomb. “Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there. Burke’s notion of the Sublime is strategically evoked where most needed. Fitzgerald. It is hard even to imagine how this could really “be”: but after all this is just the aim that Lovecraft proposes to himself. but behaved as it was obtuse”23 The sheer mention of an angle. Lovecraft operates on the laws of geometry and architecture is an effective instrument of artistic yield of the Outsideness. “On ‘The Call of Cthulhu’”. Disorientation. Hemingway). Since the inference is meant to allude to cosmic consequences. which infers. Since the manifestations of Outsideness do not conform to rational laws – as the Euclidean ones – this of course implies that also the language employed by Lovecraft must adapt itself to the object it intends to portray. Fall 1995. in the descriptions of R’Lyeh. 23 COC. this is the essence of the Lovecraftian Outsideness: to shock human episteme. the human mind is not capable to conceive and rationalize it: therefore her interpretative canons. p. My Italic. an angle which was acute. p. Spring 1993. and the city is a sort of city in progress. allowing the narrator an insight into an account of the journal entry. in Lovecraft’s literature. as they appear in “The Call of Cthulhu”. Sherwood Anderson. The inference as to the strange nature of the architecture is vaguely expanded by the after-thought.33. that of rarefaction and aridity (Stein. but not even imagine it. how language is able. ‘One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal. “A Gothic Approach to Lovecraft’s Sense of Outsideness”.28. p. can only “see it at work”: and at that point only a fate of madness opens up for her. fails. […] we […] witness one of Johansen’s crew pushing the vast door above Cthulhu’s lair. My Italics. There are two ways in which language may perform this task: one way is that adopted by the Modernisms of Lovecraft’s age. p. in LS n. to discuss its own limits. When the monstrous portal of Chtulhu’s crypt opens at the sailors’ sight. depicting something so deeply “other” that the human mind can not only describe it22.Massimo Berruti The frequent hints to a “variability” of the relative position of each object in the city maybe represents a clue in favour of the first hypothesis I discussed a few lines above: that the geometry of the place is not settled. The unique effect he reaches for here is not so much fright. See Kirk Sigurdson: “In ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. at which then one can only hint. once again its movements defeat the laws of perspective and geometry24: “In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way. Lovecraft holds up Cthulhu and R’lyeh as a mirror in which we view the reflection of our ignorance when confronted with the Unknown. showing to the world the Horror resurfacing from His sleep. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 7 of 20 22 . do not possess the instruments suitable to describe the Outsideness.167. the other is the one Lovecraft chose. brought on by a skewed perception of the architectural elan at work.
my Italic. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 8 of 20 26 . since this first occurrence in “The Call of Cthulhu”. attributes to his own Myth a mark of potent originality: “Then. highly significant. Thus Cthulhu does not restrict Himself to curse whom mocked Him with shrewdness and rapidity: He throws Himself in the water and pursues him. over-elaborate excesses which conflict with the straightforwardness and the schematism of a scientific description (as. 28 Another. Outsideness. which convey the sense of the impossibility of an objective/direct description. A mountain walked or stumbled”27 The Abomination become actual can not be described. Lovecraft leaves it up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the missing details. suggests. but is forced to use hyperboles. The Myths have changed.167. LS n. if not banal: but it is an effective one..168): so Cthulhu’s behaviour. The impossibility of a description is plainly stated by the author at the moment of the cosmic climax par excellence: the re-emerging of Cthulhu to sun light. instead of describing…”. they could not be sure. But the author. in particular in its forms of verbal communication. such eldritch contradictions of all matter. reassuring for the human mind. Once again. “what should not be”. actually is skillful preparation to establish the inadequacy of standard description to capture the indescribable horrors to come”: Stefan Dziemianowicz .141.167. when it tries to describe the unnamable. 30 COC. p. Professor Angell spells it in very plain and distinct characters. My Italic. since it exactly depicts what happens to human language. Cthulhu. and cosmic order. There is moreover a whole series of linguistic signals adopted by the narrator in the effort to express a sort of chaos of the language. My Italic. that overwhelms it29. p. far from inserting himself in a consolidated trend like that of the Classic Myth. to appear clumsy and banal. 27 COC. What appears to be evasiveness on his part. great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency”: Ibid. the “classicism” of which would seem to subside the Myth Lovecraft is moulding in his tale in the reassuring channel of the imitation of a much more ancient and well-known Myth. and will not subside until His thirst for blood is quenched. and proceeded just to compare26 its manifestations to something known. for instance. “On ‘The Call of Cthulhu’”. rhetoric and magniloquent language: symbol of a rationality that can not analyse the phenomenon with analytical coldness. p. those of the Modernist writers of his time): “…It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness”: COC. It is as if Lovecraft admitted the incapability of the human language to describe the Outsideness. since its first apparition in the tale is presented as a notable “source” of Outsideness. example of “description” of Cthulhu’s Outsideness through comparison is noticeable when Johansen-Thurston tell of how He. are not directly describable and necessitate a comparison. has no fear of comparison and immediately. force. but also her main instrument of expression: human language. bolder than the storied Cyclops. proceeding instead to a continuous “speech through comparison”. in order to avert every incorrect interpretation of such a queer name. however. p. My Italic.33. The metaphor appears almost clumsy. and above all they seem to have grown up. “slavered and gibbered like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus” (COC.32. For instance. not only reason surrenders. the name itself of the priest of the aliens. which so evidently does not spring from the canons of any human language: “What seemed to be the main document was headed ‘CTHULHU CULT’ in characters painstakingly printed to avoid the erroneous reading of a word so unheard-of”30 Stefan Dziemianowicz remarks in effect that “… similes and double-negatives are employed throughout the story to describe what things are ‘like’ or ‘unlike’.Massimo Berruti locutions as “it was like. Second Advent: “The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy. that counterbalances the chaos of the knowledge. Lovecraft resorts to a highly evocative and at the same time pompous. having realised that Johansen and another sailor escaped Him on board of the Alert (and yet after having killed other three sailors with some blows with the paws). Lovecraft resorts to a comparison – that has by now acquired celebrity among the scholars of his literature – to hint at the Creature: a mountain that walks28. 29 As a testimony of the impossibility of a description. In fact as heading of his papers. In front of the unfolding of the Outsideness. without actually saying what they ‘are’. impressions. prelude to His blasphemous. p. Lovecraft appears to mean. not only His physical aspect. By avoiding direct description. Fall 1995.
Fall 1990. It is likely that Lovecraft’s definitive statements about the word. Not only there exist entire universes besides ours.33. to simulate exploiting the (limited) means available33. but which he attempted to render by the almost unpronounceable jumble of letters. are to be found in a letter dating back to 1934: “… the word is supposed to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely non-human word. 32 Letter to Duane Rimel of 23/7/1934 [SL V. For example. Phillips was Lovecraft’s beloved maternal grandfather. Phillips might have put in a few pieces of the latest glassware. They resemble the movement of water – milky. Whipple V. had rendered the name of the city with the word “L’yeh” (Letter to his aunt Lillian D. hence the h represents the guttural thickness”32 Therefore the sequence of letters “Cthulhu” is nothing but an approximation. Clark. “other” sound. The Whipple parlour was up on the artistic trends of the day […] one wonders whether Whipple V. “On ‘The Call of Cthulhu’”. with oceanic-looking design”: “Correspondence”. not a faithful reproduction. p. The author’s friends have always provided conflicting details and information too. of what reproducible is not: an extraterrestrial. Fall 1995.Massimo Berruti The name “Cthulhu”31 clearly evokes a phonetics and a morphology alien if compared to those of any human language: as regards the correct pronunciation of the word. 34 The attempt on the worshippers’ part to identify Cthulhu with “humanizing” appellations is part of this process of anthropomorphization of the alterity: by “…their use of the pronouns ‘he. the huddle of sounds “Cthulhu fhtagn” is described in this way by Wilcox. The word bears some similarity to a certain type of decorative art. The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man’s. as in ‘cloudy waters’ or aqueous-appearing glassware. all containing slightly different information. can only try to imitate. As a curiosity. My Italic.. The name is thought to derive ultimately from an old word for the river Clyde. complex. p.143.22-23. At first Lovecraft. hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats… The actual sound – as nearly as human organs could imitate it or human letters record it – may be taken as something like Khlul’-hloo. that human phonatory organs. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 9 of 20 31 . and ‘his’ to describe a creature who clearly fits no human measure of gender. unsettling for the human race. These were manufactured in Scotland and termed ‘Clutha’ or ‘Cluthua’ ware.67. swirls – long sweeping serpentine lines or octopoid shapes for decorative vases. LS n. and are related to ‘cloud’ or ‘cloudy’. entire civilizations and living species infinitely more evolved than ours: there exist also languages completely “other” and unassimilable to human linguistic systems34. I mention William Neff ‘s interpretative hypothesis: “The ‘Cthulhu’ term might be a relic of a childhood in a proper home in Providence at the turn of the century. who for a young Howard took substantially the father’s place. The Outsideness becomes more and more disturbingly articulate. and the first syllable is not unlike klul in sound. a chaotic sensation which only fancy would transmute into sound. My Italics. when writing a draft of the tale. year of Whipple’s death. 10-11]. 14-19/11/1925: ms. The u is about like that in full. ‘him. cloudy. 35 COC. In late Victorian times various forms of glassware came into vogue as part of the Art Nouveau movement. in LS n. Yet it is not proved that such a name is merely the result of chance or of the free exercise of the Lovecraftian imagination. ‘Cthulhu fhtagn’”35 About the choice of the name ‘Cthulhu’ Lovecraft does not provide detailed explanations. an attempt to reduce the unknowable to terms human beings can understand”: Stefan Dziemianowicz . bubbly. that Lovecraft would like to make reflect about the absolutely relative position that she occupies in the cosmic scheme of things. who hears it emerging from the depths of the submerged R’lyeh during his dream : “Hieroglyphics had covered the walls and pillars. until 1904. Lovecraft’s Italics. the cultists’ conceptualization of Cthulhu and the Old Ones is crude anthropomorphism. Lovecraft jotted down manifold notes in the course of his life. All the utterances in the alien language reported in the tale contribute to the achievement of this Lovecraftian aim. “R’Lyeh”. hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. JHL). its meaning and pronunciation. and from some undetermined point below had come a voice that was not a voice. 33 An analogous reflection applies to the name of the sunken city. These terms are from old Gaelic. with the first syllable pronounced gutturally and very thickly. just like the phonetic transcription. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours. p.34.
Lavinia Whateley. My Italics. the reader earlier in the tale is already told of how the aliens did not use voice. and an alien entity. presumably (but the inference may be totally arbitrary: another case of chaos/chance of the language).150. p. the narrator Thurston writes about the “ominous syllables which can be rendered only as ‘Cthulhu’”37. basing on the sole instrument of the rational language that.Massimo Berruti Thus the alien language is not only unpronounceable for the human phonatory organs. but a “chaotic sensation”: after all. can be applied to the cacophony from the outer world: the pauses in the chanting of the singsong which. In this way the syntax and the words ‘implode’ like every other diurnal value. to make hypotheses about what the alien one is communicating. mark the subdivisions between words. Lovecraft’s Italics. 222-223. It is therefore interesting to read what Lovecraft writes in a later tale. yet one must do so. definitive overturning of our supposed ‘rational’ universe”: “Il triplice fascino di H. but it is above all with the transcription of the chant that Cthulhu’s adorers raise to the Great Old One that the inadequacy of human language to reproduce the sounds and the morphology of the alien tongue plainly reveals itself: “What. The two sounds most frequently repeated are those rendered by the letters ‘Cthulhu’ and ‘R’lyeh’”41 36 37 DH. p. the indistinct cry is the most tangible expression of that blind and bestial universe that always appears to be going to submerge man” (“L’Universo Impazzito di H. the speech becomes a chaotic anti-logos. but the “voice” itself uttering the blasphemous sounds is not even definable a voice. 39 Carlo Pagetti remarks that in Lovecraft the language of the monsters is “made of bestial and incomprehensible sounds.P.143-4. A clear image of this is the language of the monstrous entities. and through language it operates a last. since so much of their ghastly.195. Lovecraft and A.P. The term of our language that better expresses the linguistic chaos represented by the alien words is perhaps “cacophony”39. Yog-Sothoth: “It is almost erroneous to call them sounds at all. Giuseppe Lippi remarks: “This ‘deformation’ of language and of its rethorical figures is the fascinating means by which Lovecraft makes us slide in a totally alien universe. Expanding on this theme. Lovecraft”. with a subterrene voice or intelligence shouting monotonously in enigmatical senseimpacts uninscribable save as gibberish. parody and extreme distortion of that of man […] The ‘negativity’ of this reversed language is of course the quality that allows us to load it with a new and paradoxical meaning. COC. that “mad cacophony”40 symbol of the moral chaos which the alien civilization stands for. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 10 of 20 . Lovecraft makes of a word highly significant on this regard. in which “the cacophony. Derleth. 40 COC. in substance. Lovecraft”. both the Esquimau wizards and the Louisiana swamp-priests had chanted to their kindred idols was something very like this – the word-divisions being guessed at from traditional breaks in the phrase as chanted aloud: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”38 Therefore human language can only try “to guess at”. of cacophonic sequences of consonants”. since their form was indisputably though vaguely that of half-articulate words”36 Again in “The Call of Cthulhu”. 38 COC. “The Dunwich Horror” (1928). perhaps. when referring to the incomprehensible cries of Wilbur Whateley’s monstrous twin brother – born by the carnal union of a woman. p. in H. My translation from Italian. infra-bass timbre spoke to dim seats of consciousness and terror far subtler than the ear. “gibberish”: “… he [Wilcox] related startling fragments of nocturnal imagery whose burden was always some terrible Cyclopean vista of dark and dripping stone. p.P. expression of madness. My Italics. 41 COC.152. And a further proof that this is a real linguistic chaos is provided by the use. p. My translation from Italian). even only at the level of the mere linguistic signifier.147. in Pagetti 93-94. Lovecraft’s mythical universe is a universe of language. in a passage of the tale. but just telepathic transmission of information and thoughts.
made by man. The path toward madness—conceived by Lovecraft not in the conventional sense. The shipwreck experience. and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other” (COC. consistently with the aesthetic aim Lovecraft pursues: to depict cosmic Outsideness. and the like. states he definitely went mad: he is in fact approaching the edge of the threshold between the comforting “reality” and Outsideness. who suffers a shipwreck in an unknown island. T. a descent that gradually puts at risk his mental sanity. i. and the fall into madness. a “reality” unknown and unknowable to man. “Dagon” (1917) Countless are the possible examples of Lovecraft’s narratives staging – sometimes mercilessly – the defeat of human rationality and rational language when forced to cope with irruptions from Outsideness. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 11 of 20 42 .e. The protagonist undergoes a slow descent along a promontory. and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts. One suggestive remarks is in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’: ‘There are vocal qualities peculiar to men. My Italic). Lovecraft’s discourse on rationality is made even more complex by the author’s attempt to demonstrate that the loss of reason.e. that he later discovers is populated by an obnoxious slimy creature. not merely with reference to its themes and “contents” but also to its linguistic rendering. the All in all. and even only a furtive glance at the alterity beyond it condemns the viewer. unaware of the cosmic significance of the experience he is going to undergo. starts to think. that man attains superior knowledge.Massimo Berruti Thus once more there is an absolute uncertainty. and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other’. Here Lovecraft does not limit himself to attacking rationality: he moves further. Joshi remarks: “Aliens – extraterrestrials for the most part – naturally inspire horror (at the outset. that places itself on a superior level of comprehension. and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts. “For several hours I sat thinking or brooding in the boat” (“Dagon”. is therefore analyzable as an anatomy of going mad. and claims that it is only through the utter negation of rationality. since the words “Cthulhu” and “R’Lyeh” can do no more than approximating. and therefore undescribable under all its aspects. but as revelatory experience—begins when the narrator. i. rugose cones. In the tale “Dagon” (1917). through insanity. 200. lead to the discovery of truth. p. even more unattainable for the human mind) of such sounds. his rationality. to imitate the sound of the alien language is a source of horror. because it indicates the level of bestiality to which the human being may descend in the biological scale. that reaches its climax through the physical descent of the narrator into the chasm where the “stupendous” monster appears.152. In fact “There are vocal qualities peculiar to men. which does not allow to discriminate in the linguistic chaos that takes place: is it a “voice” or an “intelligence” to utter the unpronounceable sounds? What is the real linguistic signifier (to say nothing of the meaning. tries to rationalize it. simulating such sounds42? These questions are and have to remain unanswerable. Each of them adds some new insight to our discussion on the limits of rational language. S. in the sight of which he now. “Dagon” features an unnamed protagonist (the abundance of unnamed characters in Lovecraft’s fiction can be now seen under new light after our reflections on Lovecraft’s lack of faith in rational language and definitions).43 tries to make the interpretation of his experience tally with the clues of rationality. at any rate) largely for their mere physical difference from human beings tentacles. as experience of the threshold. and metaphorically stands for a “descent” into madness. in D 15). during his recollection in pseudo-tranquillity. But Lovecraft reserves his greatest sense of loathing when he finds aliens doing the sort of thing only human beings should do. Here the context is that these beings have renounced their humanity and descended to a bestial level”: Joshi 1990. even the mere attempt. On the third day of drift. 43 During the lonesome drift.
or in the object of observation. the sizes of the landscape elements. you tamper with what may actually be the fulcrum of the human mind [. for instance. Nor was he far wrong. Ibid.” by more powerful senses) objectivity of reality. and suggested other dimensions where the sum of a triangle’s three corners might equal more or less than 180°. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 12 of 20 45 44 . but the narrator’s rationality. 47 Again: “I began to see that the slopes of the valley were not quite so perpendicular as I had imagined” (D 16-17). we know from various psychological experiments that when you tamper with a man or woman’s perspective on their physical world. though wavering. though that object seemed scarcely nearer than when I had first espied it”45. it is made of an eruption of blackish and slimy volcanic earth. and on the following day still travelled toward the hummock. with his three-dimensional glimpse on the world. even in the literal sense of “created by nightmare.. in the midst of the Pacific Ocean. Further contributing to the building of a “progression” of madness. The discovery of the obelisk at the bottom of the chasm represents. a memory that one would like to Ibid. . In fact the narrator feels he is “carried on” by a superior. might be enough in itself to drive a man crazy. Lovecraft was often obsessed by the hypothetical notion of perspectives that do not match with man’s sensory experience of reality. mutable nature? Is the fault in the observer. nothing is truly as it appears47: it is a dream-land. 49 “Urged on by an impulse which I cannot definitely analyse” (D 17) 50 D 17. the Lovecraftian concern for the non-Euclidean geometry of “The Trap” and of the immense monstrous dwellings of his aliens (as we saw not only in “The Call of Cthulhu. Nobody knows of it. a further. Of course the recurrence of the theme of appearance and perspective on reality again raises the complex issue of Lovecraftian epistemology. and its most striking question: is it the human eye that is unable to grasp the true (and potentially “graspable. escapes explanation and holds a changing. he wrote frequently of non-Euclidean angles that tortured the eye and hurt the mind. not even the rescuers of the American ship who get him out of the scrape. gaining life as a character. intrinsically. which turned out to be much higher than it had appeared from a distance”46. I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a wellshaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures”50. The monolith becomes the symbol of the ancestral memory of mankind (as the sea from which the monster emerges is the cradle of our species. which escapes Sight and form? 48 See Stephen King: “Lovecraft was struck by the horror of wrong geometry. who is unable to see. in its unveiling an hallucinating truth about the origin of mankind. are not those a rational mind could expect. When he finally reaches the promontory. My Italic. he realizes that it is much higher than it appeared at a distant view: “By the fourth evening I attained the base of the mound. lit by the unreal moonlight: this set of hallucinatory landscape elements induces the narrator to the descent into the abyss (which is both geographic and existential). still tries hard to find a satisfactory explanation: “For despite its enormous magnitude. and its position in an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the sea since the world was young. uncontrollable force49. The narrator’s notion of space starts to waver: “That night I encamped. 16. escaping every attempt of interpretation/rationalization/significance. or his concern with the image of oblique perspectives. .48 The territory attracts the narrator toward madness. a territory whose “objectivity” cannot be corroborated by any rational grasp: it is not charted on maps. dramatic (even if not conclusive) attack against the character’s rationality – here symbolically reflecting everyone’s rationality. he suggested. In the nightmare land he is visiting.] this fascinating idea of perspective gone haywire”: King 1993.” but for instance in At the Mountains of Madness too).” The land where the narrator gets ashore is in fact a nowhere. Lovecraft reveals that in the landing-place the distances. because these perspectives make rationality waver and induce it to acknowledge its cosmic epistemological inadequacy: one may recall. symbol of the womb where life originated. It is a non-extant land. 46 Ibid. Contemplating such things.Massimo Berruti narrator realizes that “The odour of the fish was maddening”44: here is the adumbration of a nightmare land. 324-25 (my Italics). or is it reality that. receptacle of the atavistic memory).
But despite this. since it brings the comprehensive discovery of the “outer” reality.51 Rationality. Human reason cannot know all the knowable. sickened but also amazed by the revolutionary cognitive perspective that bursts upon his Sight. he cannot describe the forms of the figures carved on the bas-reliefs (they look like an oblique perspective. but also of a sense – Sight. He ponders the hieroglyphics and bas-reliefs of the obelisk: his rationality is breaking down. I examined my surroundings more closely”52. through its violent impact on reason.. and his defeat does not lie in his incapability to find them. the one that opens at the sight of the monolith. as an oblique perspective. i. i. just a small component of the vast “cosmos at large. now has lost its main instrument. which overshadows the glance. the eye demolished by the vision. frightened as they are by the abysses of truth looming in front of their quest. and their roles are reversed. The “actualized” image of Memory kills the glance. The narrator would withdraw his glance because. makes it fade. 53 Ibid. metaphorically embodied by the inscriptions on the monolith: the awareness of the truth gradually seeps into the narrator. the glance itself that is launched on it: the observed does violence to the observer. as another means reason employs to interpret reality and rationalize it. sanctioning its epistemological defeat): “Of their faces and forms I dare not speak in detail. The narrator looks into his DNA in search for the genes he needs to bear the vision. The observed.e. “potentially existing” reality. rides roughshod over it. The final blow for reason is in fact inflicted only by the vision of the abomination. The vision of the hideous creature revitalizes the fund of ancestral Memory that the narrator has always been carrying inside. because it overcomes any attempt at rational interpretation. because it is the Memory of an unutterable past that the human species believed to have been wiped out from its DNA. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 13 of 20 . 51 52 “A closer scrutiny filled me with sensations I cannot express” (D 16). on every attempt of the observer to incorporate it into his own conceptual system. 18. In “Dagon”. and turns off every light.e. 16. contextually condemns to madness: reason. but only the reality that falls under restricted human viewpoints: those of sensory experience.Massimo Berruti remove as a testimony of our degrading and contemptible origins: the narrator takes a look on mankind’s past. declare themselves defeated in the face of this truth: they cannot seize it.. the spell prevails. impossible to express with the words of rational language. incapable of incorporating reality into her conceptual system: only madness remains (the terribly pithy “I think I went mad then”54). Lovecraft’s attack against rationality is even more disturbing than in “The Call of Cthulhu”: he not merely stages the defeat of language as an instrument of reason. toward damnation: “Dazed and frightened. in an irreversible path towards madness. but nonetheless driven by the irrepressible desire of the survey. but the genes of which. without ever being aware of it: it is just when Memory becomes actual and “visible” that doom is marked for mankind. prevails by its violence. It is a blind(ed) reason. as most Lovecraftian characters do.” and of all the conceivable reality (and then. for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint”53. by a scientific zeal that pushes them beyond the threshold. It is as if the object of the observation defeated. to withdraw immediately from his observation point. Ibid. 54 Ibid. primarily visual. since for Lovecraft the truth value of imagination is by no means inferior to that of the senses). and the verbal language that is its primary means of expression. the vision is able to restore to light. resistant to every voluntary form of repression. not matching with the cognitive model adopted by the human mind to seize the meaning of reality: reason would not bear recollection. of tri-dimensionality. and humiliates it. It is the second glance on Memory that dooms man. yet not without a certain thrill of the scientist’s or archaeologist’s delight. it fills him with new sensations. which uses not only language but also Sight to organize reality into rational interpretative rules. but just in his recognizing them. Memory becoming actual. since it makes the Memory current. in a sin of hybris that is the turning point that causes the subsequent doom of the narrator: he throws a second glance toward Memory.
I did not press my inquiries”56. In “Dagon”. He receives only derision and sneers: “Once I sought out a celebrated ethnologist. how he regained the boat. The narrator. which can be secured through shipwreck: here a physical one. not as an instrument for knowledge (we will see that knowledge deriving from this Memory has no coherent relevance among the human beings who believe they have removed the ancestral genes from their DNA). the physical descent into the chasm coincided with the existential one into the Mäelstrom of madness. the Fish-God. suicide. Madness.Massimo Berruti Lovecraft nonetheless does not fail to examine further the delicate question of the “loss of the eye”: during the hallucinatory chaos of the final vision. but they cannot stop the quest. but only as instrument for damnation. the conventional one. as we will see. but soon perceiving that he was hopelessly conventional. man gets in touch with the Truth beyond the threshold. Only the experience of ancestral Memory is left. rules. to recognize as his own. the ultimate effect of annihilation. nobody can believe him in the world where the other reason. ice. 19. through insanity). can receive the narrator’s account with nothing but “contemptuous amusement”57: this is the fate of one who has crossed the threshold searching for knowledge and obtained damnation. From the moment of the vision. i. which no human being would be disposed. before. but also a third instrument of reason: Memory. ancient ruins. coinciding with the loss of spatial-temporal coordinates: the narrator cannot remember where. and not even capable if not through the Vision beyond the threshold (and so. singing at the top of his voice. that of the mythos tales.” he compels the reader to wonder about the epistemic nature of the whole story: reality or dream?. though living in the threedimensional world. the author defines the apparently horrible creature as “a stupendous monster of nightmares”55. He undergoes a complete deconstruction of the Self. the attack against rationality involves not only Sight and. extraordinary. hypnotic charm. vision. and of the five senses. makes a last attempt. By means of these peculiar lexical choices. But for Lovecraft Madness is Truth. awareness of Truth. At this point a new descent takes place: if. Two levels of memory exist: once drawn from that of the ancestral Memory. not remembering anything: the vision of ancestral Memory in shreds makes a clean sweep of his own rational memory. since at the same time they undergo their irresistible. and amused him with peculiar questions regarding the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon. 57 Ibid. By “stupendous”.. always takes the viewpoint from beyond the threshold. but once the threshold has been crossed. there now exists only the metaphorical descent toward the inevitable conclusion. but he still naively tries to get in touch with an anthropologist. Lovecraft raises at least two basic questions: By “of nightmares. of Euclidean geometry. Ibid. By now there is only room for “delirium”: nobody believes the narrator because he is testimony of the removed Memory. above all. His New Reason. and. whom nobody believes. Lovecraft anticipates a landmark of his most mature poetics. and how he got out of the chasm. It is only Nothingness.” referring to the idea of the fascination exerted by the unknown and by the quest of a hideous truth: most of Lovecraft’s characters are terrified by the object of their quest and by the truths that step by step are unveiled. in the world of “light” and conventional reason is now just a madman. in his turn. language. because in him conventional reason is by now extinct. a loss of Self-meaning and of his human dimension. only a destiny of madness is left for the narrator: he starts laughing. reason. “Stupendous” bears also the meaning of “marvelous.e. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 14 of 20 . constantly maintaining a 55 56 Ibid. This is not madness conventionally conceived: Lovecraft. The conventional world of three dimensions. it does not exist any more as memory. when. how and by whom he was rescued. physical as well as existential. the abysses under the ocean. with a scheme that will recur in his mature works—always through drift in deserts. as well as existential.
the incipit of the tale entitled “The Body. when coming back in the cosy. How does the rarefying of language due to the shipwreck experience find expression? It is necessary to conceive the shipwreck as the experience of the limit: on the edge. after. What King describes as “the worst thing. But it’s more than that. perhaps the most appalling. leads the narrator even to suicide: the shipwreck experience assumes the form of a tragedy of solitude. The narrator’s experience is the practice of an equilibrist. or represent the “objective” world. of unmentionable truths: he keeps having visions of “Beyondness. save with derision. isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried. and perhaps especially. not understanding what you’ve said at all. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 15 of 20 . They are the things you get ashamed of. it cannot be interpreter of reality anymore. Before the inevitable ending. as Sight. the narrator still dreams flashes of Memory. . because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. fades away as instrument of the conventional reason. but also. its progressive drying up in the face of the mystery of instincts: The most important things are the hardest things to say. Word. no mind is disposed to receive his truth.” These words celebrate the defeat of language in its attempt to convey feelings. it may be useful to quote a passage from Stephen King’s Different Seasons. rational world where it is not possible anymore either to reconstruct the human relationships existing before the shipwreck or maintain “normal” relationships with his fellows. the last threshold this time toward salvation and oblivion. 293) This is probably what happens to the narrator in “Dagon”: no ear is able to listen to his telling.Massimo Berruti veiled scorning smile toward reason and its conventional perspectives (how can we not notice it. Concerning this second feature.” the want for a ear to listen. and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium”58. a solitude lived not only during his drift. language can no more express the depth of feelings and sensitiveness. in a dimension where the opposites live together: death is life and vice versa (in fact the narrator in “Dagon” has to die a fictitious death to have life. like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. I think. war-exhausted mankind—of a day when a land shall sink. or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way. one hovers between life and death. here in “Dagon. along the razor blade.” in that ”hopelessly conventional” attitude of the amused ethnologist?).]. 58 Ibid. at a twofold level: language can no more “translate” the external reality. .” of Truths whose awareness is incompatible with survival because conventional reason is unable to “metabolize” them: “I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed [. That’s the worst thing. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear (King 1982. The Language of the Limit Shipwreck is the experience of the rarefying of language and of its capacity to convey meaning. between sanity and madness.
often resorting to a lexicon magniloquent and tinged with archaisms (consistent with his fondness for the British poets and essayists of the eighteenth century). They are opposite procedures. which acknowledges its inability to bear new issues of knowledge and a reliable viewpoint on reality. Ibid. but it is no more than a house of words built on silence—it is silence. coming to border on aphasia. Examples of this rhetorical technique of ”adjectival accumulation” can be found almost everywhere in “Dagon”: “The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish.. the wreck of a past epoch of Memory and Language. it corresponded to precise and conscious goals: in truth. but certainly not contradictory because oriented to the same goal. adjectivitis. but as an instrument of insanity. They are above all synonyms. the juxtaposition of which is a sign of the flaring up of language. of one who has crossed the threshold and lost sanity (“I think I went mad then”59). I would emphasize the word “unutterable” as an example of how in Lovecraft language itself becomes. they are qualifying adjectives that actually do not qualify at all. by means of: the rarefying of language. in order to give voice to the truth that insanity unveils. i. because it is not by the rational-conventional language that truth can be signified. also from a linguistic viewpoint.” The challenge Lovecraft launches is again very provocative: to write a literature that builds a non-rational language. His is a rich and complex style. to express the incapacity for facing the abyss.. staging the theatrical performance with baroque prose: language does not seem to vanish or rarefy. an accumulation of words and subordinate clauses that always say the same thing: that there is nothing to say. Language gets nowhere. the purpose is the same. i. nor build new senses. as an engine that goes out of phase. nor add meaning to the speech. a means to express its own inadequacy to 59 60 Ibid. sanctions the epistemological inadequacy of modern language to express “reality. they are just a sterile accumulation. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 16 of 20 . 15. Also the frequent resort to lexical and syntactical archaisms is a stylistic expedient consistent with the purpose: the use of archaisms. the true knowledge: and here is the paradox. consolidating the victory of rational thinking over the territories of “reality. keeps on turning but does not set the car in motion. Then. Thus Lovecraft creates the language of the insane. But the resort to this harvest of qualifying adjectives was neither fortuitous nor a symptom of a supposed stylistic ineptitude. out of metaphor. Lovecraftian prose has been often criticized as affected by a peculiar disease. redundant in adjectives. Lovecraft chooses the second procedure. Lovecraft’s is a screaming silence: his language seems to shout. It is the shout of the insane. i. to stem the silence. basically hypotactic. the redundancy of language. interpreted as a flaw of Lovecraft as a writer.e. and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. only apparently contradictory.e. apparently exploding into magniloquence. it flourishes in mannerist baroques. 18.e..” even its capacity to signify the truth.Massimo Berruti because his life in the conventional world for him is the real death). On this regard Lovecraft’s literature operates a Copernican revolution: that of considering language not as an instrument of reason anymore. shipwreck as experience of the opposites and one that displays its doubleness. meta-linguistically. sanity is madness (appearing as a madman to the conventional world. does not imprint meaning to the speech. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity”60. the persistent recourse to qualifying adjectives. on the contrary. he has reached the true sanity. in the waking world the only sane ones are the insane). there is no pragmatic difference. This proliferation of adjectives has the same aesthetic goals as aphasia: between the absence of words and their excessive accumulation. Its proliferation of words is used to hide the absence of words. to express the want of Self and Sense and the language’s loss of competency in producing meaning.
and this is the true reason why readers.that hollow of old oaks. . and tortures that the character lives in his inwardness). further testifies that the interest his literature shows towards linguistic issues is not a perfunctory one: in fact it involves not only prose. I would like to add a further element of complexity to Lovecraft’s discussion on the limits of rational language. but because of an inadequacy of the language used by the narrator in describing it: “When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess. . are not able to comprehend thoroughly the reasons for the final choice to end his endurance of the hopelessly conventional world.. I refer in particular to the fourth sonnet of Lovecraft’s poetic cycle Fungi from Yuggoth (1929-30). a poem called “Recognition”: The day had come again. cautioning him that he would not be able to completely understand the meaning of the story. but also poetry. And knew those things which feasted were not men. language diminishes emotions. namely that concerning the ways in which language may “say” the deity. So each story that claims to tell the “truth” is false (it is not through the human-rational language that truth could be told). why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death”62. 16. This is the ineffability of which Lovecraft had warned the reader already at the beginning. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 17 of 20 . fathomless chaos . It was the same . Grey with a ground-mist that enfolds and chokes The slinking shapes which madness has defiled. past the starry voids . This new example. . . And all too late I knew that it was I! 61 62 Ibid. to describe the object beyond the threshold. But Yuggoth. when as a child I saw .and then The body shrieked at me with a dead cry.just once . It is Lovecraft himself acknowledging that his lavishness in baroque and complex descriptions and his efforts to “utter the unutterable” are vain: the only possible result for language is to deflagrate. . . aeons gone. Here language is used as a lie: it feeds on harvests of words without meaning. shrinks to no more than living size what seemed limitless in the narrator’s soul. to go crazy in its turn. though never fully realise.Massimo Berruti attain from the unattainable. from unclean towers up-piled. and tells a story that actually (the language itself states it) is ineffable and cannot be told. The voice of the protagonist starts up a faint. Ibid. I knew this strange.” which is portrayed as the outcome of a hallucinatory experience lived by a narrating “I” addicted to drugs. ambiguous and unreliable.. “Recognition” Finally. even more so that of “Dagon. insufficient effort of approximation to reality: as King maintains. unfashioned realms”61). I saw the body spread on that dank stone.an herbage rank and wild Clings round an altar whose carved sign invokes That Nameless One to whom a thousand smokes Rose. excerpted from Lovecraft’s poetic production. emotions. since they have at their disposal only the “linguistic” expression of the experience of the narrator (and basically do not grasp much of the real nature of the hallucinations. immeasurable pit or canyon . because it is applied to an object that cannot be told nor described: in “Dagon” there are plenty of words that refer to this ineffability of experience (“unknown goal . grey world was not my own. 14. deflagrates going out of phase. not because of an intrinsic fault on the reader’s part.
Lovecraft’s words below can be useful not only to explain the origin of the word “Yuggoth”. but also of all the otherworldly names of his literature. and /-ith/ characteristic of Lovecraft’s coined names. of “herbage rank and wild” (5). Dunsany is the greatest of all name-coiners. Like it was for “Cthulhu”. of the deity. But as well as opening into an otherworld through the altar. the Pnakotic Manuscripts. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 18 of 20 . an expression. when as a child” (1-2) the narrator saw an altar in the woods. 386-387]. or otherness. To a large extent they are designed to suggest – either closely or remotely – certain names in actual history or folklore which have weird or sinister associations with them. since it can be loaded with several different meanings. and in what direction. The sonnet defines the god the “Nameless One” (7). 3) the sheer inability to recognize the deity’s identity. the whole design ought to be alien to both the ideas and the tongue of mankind – a series of sounds of different origins and associations. and the Celtic (from the Arthurian cycle. and ought not to be derived from – or adapted to – the human speech-equipment at all. the natural temple’s world itself becomes an otherworld in this sonnet. 2) the inadequacy of language to describe the deity from Outsideness. etc. In this descriptive system the altar serves as threshold – as the locus of the transfer from the worshippers to the god. must of course depend on how far and in what direction the imaginary users are represented as differing […] Usually my stories assume that the non-human sounds were known to certain human scholars in elder days. as we saw. Just how far. The name has in fact an odd sound-shape and graphemic shape: not many polysyllabic words in English end with the /-ath/. and capable only in part of reproduction by the human throat and palate and mouth. such a sound-system ought to differ from human speech. valorizing the word as an otherness-word. converted by negativizing words into a threatening world of horror. Other synthetic names like ‘Nug’ and ‘Yeb' suggest the dark and mysterious tone of Tartar or Thibetan folklore. The mention of “a ground-mist that enfolds and chokes” (3). as of the localities and inhabitants of other planets […] The sounds ought not to follow any human language-pattern. and recorded in secret manuscripts like the Necronomicon. to suggest certain words passed down from antiquity in the magical formulae contained in Moorish and Jewish manuscripts. but I also have a way strictly my own – which I use for devising non-human names. including Cthulhu: “As to those artificial names of unearthly places and gods and persons and entities – there are different ways of coining them. Thus ‘Yuggoth’ has a sort of Arabic or Hebraic cast. Hebraic. thus valorizing its quality of unknownness. Celtics. Rimel. especially Arabic. The octet and the quatrain of the sestet describe a “natural temple” or “grove” sememe. As a matter of fact. Oriental.. and the consonant /y/ begins a relatively small number of words. In other words. 14/2/1934 [SL IV. while the second coin merely adds to the strangeness connotation through its rarity. here the name “Yuggoth” clearly exemplifies this world as otherworld.Massimo Berruti This poem claims that “The day had come again. The “unclean towers piled-up” (8) from which “a thousand smokes / Rose” (7-8) appear here as a duplication of the altar’s threshold-function. All these connotations emphasize the sheer Outsideness. or Hebrew from the Bible). of “unclean towers up-piled” (8) and of the altar as a “dark stone” (9) all involve conventional natural temple elements transformed by negative qualities. very significant in Lovecraft’s literature and philosophy. and that “It was the same” (5). My Italics. The former graphemic coin should conjure up associations with the Hebrew-derived terms of occultism. of the “slinking shapes which madness has defiled” (4). It may refer to: 1) the religious taboo against saying the name of the deity.) […] I myself sometimes follow Dunsany’s plan. /-oth/. and that here gains a peculiar complexity. Lovecraft often claims to have invented such names in order to convey the “flavour” of foreign and remote sources. or even nonhuman. etc. the classical (from Homer mostly). In that case I likewise assume that […] ancient authors of these manuscripts gave the non-human names an unconscious twist in the direction of their own respective languages – as always occurs when scholars and writers encounter an utterly alien nomenclature and try to represent it to their own people”63 63 Letter to Duane W. and he seems to have three distinct models – the Oriental (either Assyrian or Babylonian.
1986. T. Sauk City. in spite of what “realistic” writers claim. NY: Penguin Books. 1998. New York: Signet. TX: University of Texas Press. but do not think their objection can be applied indiscriminately. 5 vols. ------------------. A. Lovecraft”. 1984. S. Danse Macabre. Lovecraft.P. WI: Arkham House Publishers..Massimo Berruti In the same epistle. I can see their point. injudiciously coined. or excessively used artificial names do rather cheapen a tale. Joshi. A Subtler Magick: the Writings and Philosophy of H. of “distanciation”: when a fictional realm displays names as Yuggoth. ------------------. but it is certainly advantageous now and then to introduce a coined word which has been shaped with great care from just the right associational sources”64 It is however beyond doubt that Lovecraft’s fondness for the invention of odd. 1990. 388. NJ: Wildside Press. Different Seasons. New York. Fritz. 1985. ------------------. it is certainly profitable to introduce in a fictional work an invented word. Leiber. --------------. ------------------. “A Literary Copernicus” (1949). -----------------. “Il Triplice Fascino di H. 1993. Wandrei eds. New York: Hippocampus Press. Lippi. the main aesthetic impression aroused in the interpreter is that of a profound “distanciation” and “otherwordliness”. Nyarlathotep and Azathoth. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. 2003. S. 2004.P. Rpt. WI: Arkham House. Stephen. The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. WI: Arkham House. Austin. Selected Letters. WI: Arkham House.. Lovecraft Remembered. Dagon and other Macabre Tales. Derleth and D. WI: Arkham House. P. Sauk City. averring that it gives a childish effect to the stories concerned. Giuseppe. Gillette. London: Warner Books. Joshi ed. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. Carelessly. Sauk City. ------------------.). Inc. Primal Sources. above all. References King.P.T. London: Penguin Classics. Sauk City. The Weird Tale. 1999. Lovecraft underscores that. In Lovecraft and Derleth. coined carefully associating the proper sources: “Many realists violently object to the practice of using these coined names.or aliensounding proper names is pursued coherently with his aesthetic of vagueness and. In Peter Cannon (ed. Sauk City. 1999. 64 Ibid. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 19 of 20 . H. 1965-1976. as those labelling its geography and inhabitants. Lovecraft. Lovecraft. The Dunwich Horror and Other Tales. exotic. 1983. Thog. --------------. Essays on H. 1982.
Pagetti. D: H. number of the page(s) in which the quoted passage is reported’. and Derleth. Ms. Cittadini di un Assurdo Universo. Il Guardiano della Soglia.: manuscript. SL: H. Lovecraft. RI. H. In S. The Dunwich Horror and Other Tales. RI: Necronomicon Press. August.).P. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality Page 20 of 20 . Lovecraft: Myth-Maker” (1976). At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories.P. JHL: John Hay Library.T. MM: H. progressive number of the volume (from I to V).P. H. Lovecraft.P. DH: H. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. In the body of the text the following system of quotation has been adopted: ‘SL. Brown University (Providence. 5 vols.P. Mosig. Dagon and other Macabre Tales. Abbreviations COC: H. USA). Lovecraft. 1980.P. and New York: Hippocampus Press (issues 42-43). 1989. Joshi (ed. Lovecraft. Dirk Y. Lovecraft Studies. Athens: Ohio University Press.P. Carlo. West Warwick. 1977. Milano: Editrice Nord.. Selected Letters.Massimo Berruti Lovecraft. Lovecraft. LS: Lovecraft Studies. Roma: Fanucci Editore.P. “H.
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