3. Unknown Wonder

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H.P.Lovecraft, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’

It has become apparent that the Romantic Sublime is the form of the sublime that I have recognised up until now when reading particular kinds of horror fiction, linked as they are by the time period in which the Romantic Sublime and Gothic fiction appeared, the mutual themes of the supernatural, and the reliance of this sublime on art/literature as a means of being invoked. While interpretations of the sublime vary between schools of philosophy, critical theory, theology and ethics – to name but a few – it is the Romantic Sublime of the eighteenth-century that invests importance in art, and, subsequently, literature, as a sublime medium. My preoccupations are for contemporary instances of sublime horror, but it is still noteworthy to examine more closely the relationship between the Romantic Sublime and Gothic fiction, if for no other reason that to better inform and reflect on any contemporary conclusions I might later come to.

Aside from the century in which they both rose to inception and the emphasis on art/literature as form, it is Gothic fiction’s soul that seems responsible for invoking the sublime in readers. By this, I mean the tropes that define the genre: terror, the supernatural, old gods, castles, forests, storms and ancient rituals, each serving to imbue the grandeur, the otherworldliness, the unfathomable and the mystic associated with sublime. But what is it about these things that suggest sublimity?

The sublime is evoked by vastness, representations of the divine, and the unfathomable. Whether it is an object, a concept or a geographical location – and almost anything can be sublime, under the right conditions – it is the inability of the human mind to comprehend the sight before it that defeats it, in turn opening it up to that which lies beyond thought or language. In the context of Gothic fiction, it therefore appears that this kind of fiction is sublime because of the otherworldly and ultimately unfathomable qualities of the key elements that constitute it; towering castles, sprawling forests, irrevocable decay and the supernatural. These Gothic tropes are either too vast, timeless or alien for us to appreciate, and from this sense of the unknown springs the sublime. I refer back to the above quote by Lovecraft, attesting to the nature of fear: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Taken to its source, the same unknown that terrifies us can also take us beyond fear, and, to those open to reflection, the sublime state of mind that wells briefly into being when thought and language fails us. It is interesting to conclude that ‘the unknown’ seems the underlying link here, at least between the Romantic Sublime and Gothic fiction. Going forward to examine contemporary sublime theories and horror fiction, this will certainly be something to consider.

It is also interesting to note that Lovecraft identifies a marginal audience for readers of weird fiction, attesting in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ that “The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life. Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to tappings from outside.” These are sentiments echoed by French theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard, when he writes of the sublime that it “cannot be taught… it requires a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to detect the presence of this ‘inexplicable’ and ‘hidden’ phenomenon.” For the English Romantics, attuned and open to the imagination, the sublime began to denote a realm of experience beyond the rational or the measurable, arising chiefly from terrifying and awe-inspiring natural – and supernatural – phenomena.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Karen Soutar says:

    Wow. I love this stuff. Mainly because its very interesting, but I’m also hoping some of your cleverness will rub off on me! 😉

  2. Thomas Brown says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Karen, I’m glad you’re finding these posts interesting! I am writing these mostly because I have a terrible memory and they are helping me to track my progress!

  3. Joe Litobarski says:

    Hi Thomas!

    You’ve chosen a brilliant topic, and it’s one that really interests me as well. I’m reading through Eugene Thacker’s “In the Dust of This Planet” at the moment, and his discussion on the “world-without-us” seems quite relevant.

    Here’s a lazy cut-n-paste from Wikipedia:

    In his ongoing series Horror of Philosophy, Thacker explores the idea of the “unthinkable world” as represented in the horror genre, in philosophies of pessimism and nihilism, and in the apophatic (“darkness”) mysticism traditions. In the first volume, In The Dust Of This Planet, Thacker calls the horror of philosophy “the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility.” Thacker distinguishes the “world-for-us” (the human-centric view of the world), and the “world-in-itself” (the world understood via the sciences), from what he calls the “world-without-us”: “the world-without-us lies somewhere in between, in a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific.

    I’ve also always identified Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” with the Sublime, but I must confess to having read much less than you about the subject. Still, I have read an essay by Brian Stableford on “The Cosmic Horror” in Volume I of “Icons of Horror and the Supernatural” (Edited by S.T. Joshi) where he specifically has a section about “The Sublime, Romaniticism and The Gothic” in relation to the history of cosmic horror.

    He also lists his top “Cosmic Horror” novels, which include a bunch of my favourites but also several I haven’t yet had a chance to read:

    Mary Shelley – The Last Man (1826)
    Edward Bulwer-Lytton – A Strange Story (1862)
    Gustave Flaubert – The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874)
    William Hope Hodgson – The House on the Borderland (1908)
    Algernon Blackwood – The Centuar (1911)
    William Hope Hodgson – The Night Land (1912)
    Olaf Stapledon – Last and First Men (1930)
    H.P. Lovecraft – At the Mountains of Madness (1936)
    Jack Vance – The Dying Earth (1950)
    Fritz Leiber – Our Lady of Darkness (1977)

    I look forward to your next update on this!

    1. Thomas Brown says:

      Hi Joe,

      Wow – great to connect! Great to see that I have managed to catch someone else’s eye with the posts, especially given your interest!

      It’s still early days but I am absolutely loving the reading and research going into this project. Noticed Eugene Thacker’s book recently – it’s on my reading list. I’m particularly excited to read what he has to say about the nihilistic side of the Horror of Philosophy. I loved this: “the world-without-us lies somewhere […] in a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific.” While I am reading into the Romantic Sublime and the sublime’s relationship with Cosmic Horror (will be checking out your suggested reading by Brian Stableford), my main interest is to examine current horror fiction for contemporary readings of the sublime. When the Romantics turned their attention to art and literature, they left spiritual footprints in the resulting sublime work, which offered (and still offers) insights into fears, the passions and the predilections of the time. It is this that I am searching for in contemporary horror fiction: what can sublime horror tell us about ourselves now? And how can I emulate this in my own works of fiction?

      Thanks for stopping by and introducing yourself. I’m genuinely excited – I look forward to further discussions!

      1. Joe Litobarski says:

        Cheers! I’ve been reading a bit more on the sublime and its relationship with cosmic horror, and I’m starting to wonder if they might actually be quite different things.

        I’ve put together some thoughts on this here: http://uncaringcosmos.com/sublime-lovecraft/

        Looking forward to seeing where your research takes you on this one, it’s a fascinating subject to tackle!

  4. Thomas Brown says:

    Hi Joe,

    Oof, what a generalistion (re. horror/adolescents). I am sure horror appeals to many adolescents on a visceral and angst-ridden level, but that should not detract from the integrity of the genre or make it any less relevant for mature/adult readers. I will never understand why people take it upon themselves to look down on a form or genre of writing. A person should be able to read – and write – whatever they please without feeling belittled, embarrassed or labelled as a literary ‘adolescent’.

    I was interested to read your shifting opinions on cosmic horror and the sublime. I have not read much into this relationship myself yet but it would appear that Burke/Kant’s necessity for a human observer in possession of rational thought and free will does conflict with the Lovecraftian tropes that you outlined. In this instance, they would not marry well. Of course, the sublime undergoes so many evolutions itself that this tension might not exist, if you were to examine cosmic horror through the lens of a different sublime! For the Romantics writing in the wake of Kant, for example, the sublime’s emphasis moves from the Kantian ‘triumph of reason’ to the importance of imagination (specifically it’s failure as it attempts to realise the unfathomable) to facilitate the sublime. Here, we might still assess cosmic horror for sublime qualities, cosmic horror representing the imagination, in the art form of fiction, that the Romantics suggested could alone unify ‘mind’ and ‘nature’ and so suggest true sublimity.

    Fascinating – agreed!

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