Friday, May 3, 2013

Towards the Visionary Antipodes of the Human Psyche: Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft Anticipate the Psychedelic Experience.

           There was a strongly exciting sense that my knowledge of past (or present?) reality was enlarging pulse by pulse, but so rapidly that my intellectual processes could not keep up the pace.  The content was thus entirely lost to retrospection - it sank into the limbo into which dreams vanish as we gradually awake.  The feeling - I won't call it belief - that I had a sudden opening, had seen through a window, as it were, distant realities that incomprehensibly belonged with my own life, was so acute that I cannot shake it off today.

              William James.

             And it is precisely this which gives them their numinous quality, their power to transport the beholder out of the Old World of his everyday experience, far away, towards the visionary antipodes of the human psyche.

              Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell.

            So when I learned of the drug which would unlock the gate and drive me through, I resolved to take it when next I awaked.

              H.P. Lovecraft, Ex Oblivione.

"Dream of flying over a city."

              I've never really subscribed to the commonplace that H.P. Lovecraft was a bad writer redeemed by a prodigious imagination.  To me, this view feels predicated on a narrow sense of what good prose or good writing should be like.  Gene Wolfe once said that the essence of good writing lies in matching the right style, register, or "voice", to the specific type of story being told.  By this criterion, it is difficult to find fault with Lovecraft as a stylist.  His distinctive literary voice - sounding somewhere between a carnival barker luring you into a darkened tent, a gibbering madman whispering quasi-scientific delusions in your ear, and an arch spoofer who is completely in on the joke - fits the weird contours of his fictional universe like a glove.  Lovecraft as a prose writer is like Vincent Price as an actor - we find them completely believable because their camp artifice is perfectly attuned to the ambiance of the world into which it is embedded.

           A reasonable argument might be made, however, that Lovecraft's work has enjoyed a pervasive cultural resonance and influence which somehow exceeds his abilities and accomplishments as a writer - that it possesses some peculiar x-factor which elevates it above the work of other more technically skilled writers.  The most common explanation offered for this x-factor is that Lovecraft's work embodies a consistent philosophical worldview, and might be construed as offering a mythic cosmology for a materialistic, post-religious era, or, more paradoxically, a myth-cycle for an era for whom the world can no longer be organized according to myths.  According to this view, the value of Lovecraft's work lies in its imaginative articulation of what Teilhard de Chardin called the modern "malady of space-time", the "feeling of futility, of being crushed by the enormities of the cosmos." (The Phenomenon of Man.)  This certainly articulates the difference between Lovecraft and his great contemporary Clark Ashton Smith.  Smith was a better prose writer and poet than Lovecraft, but his work tended towards a purer, more lush and visual type of fantasy.  This argument doesn't seem entirely convincing, though.  Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood also expressed a philosophical worldview in their stories, and yet they have not enjoyed the enduring cultural fascination of the Providence misanthrope.  Also, if the primary value of the work lies in its articulation of a despairing, nihilistic philosophy of modern materialism, why has it proven so appealing to hardcore occultists like Kenneth Grant and Alan Moore?

             Lovecraft is one of the few iconic authors in the weird fiction/fantasy realm that I am aware of who was also, at least on the surface, an atheistic materialist.  The two things do not immediately go together.  Most really great authors of fantastic literature, I think, have a kind of Platonic attitude towards the realm of the imagination - they tend to regard the imagination as being of equivalent or even superior importance to the material realm.  This is natural enough.  You wouldn't spend your professional career underwater unless you thought there was something down there.  Most of Lovecraft's most significant influences - particularly Machen and Blackwood - were mystics who regarded their weird fictions as an expression of how they thought the world really was.  In Lovecraft, however, we find the paradox of a materialist who chose to express his cosmic philosophy for the modern scientific epoch by means of a mythopoeia of ancient gods and resurgent atavisms, and who found his ideas and images more in the manner of a shaman than a scientist.  The real x-factor in Lovecraft's work, I think, is that he was a visionary writer.  I mean visionary in this context to denote the type of artist who does not seen to create alternative realities, but rather to describe them.  Although perhaps a little difficult to nail down in concrete terms, this is a characteristic that we instantly recognize.  The ordinary or even highly accomplished artist toils to create scenarios involving things they have invented or using preexisting archetypes which have come down to them from other artists, but the visionary seems to see things which are not immediately associated with their own personalities or personal histories.  Discussing psychedelic and visionary states in his essay Heaven and Hell, Huxley expresses this sense whereby the truly visionary experience does not seem to derive from our own subjective selves and personal histories:

          "Almost never does the visionary see anything that reminds him of his own past.  He is not remembering scenes, persons or objects, and he is not inventing them; he is looking at a new creation.  The raw material for this creation is provided by the visual experiences of ordinary life; but the molding of this material into forms is the work of someone who is most certainly not the self who originally had the experiences, or who later recalled and reflected upon them.  They are (to quote the words used by Dr J. R. Smythies in a recent paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry) 'the work of a highly differentiated mental compartment, without any apparent connection, emotional or volitional, with the aims, interests, or feelings of the person concerned.'"

           One of the most intriguing qualities about Lovecraft's work is the strangely obsessive and consistent quality of his visions, which we know to be largely derived from his dreams; the obsessive reiteration, for example, of aerial visions of gigantic, antediluvian architectures.  The Call of Cthulhu famously suggests that the dreams of artists, poets, and the insane possess a peculiar consistency and sensitivity to perturbations of the cosmic ether; this faculty is notably absent in men of industry and scientists:

           "These responses from aesthetes told a disturbing tale.  From February 28th to April 2nd a large proportion of them had dreamed very bizarre things, the intensity of the dreams being immeasurably the stronger during the period of the sculptor's delirium.  Over a fourth of those who reported anything, reported scenes and half-sounds not unlike those which Wilcox had described; and some of the dreamers confessed acute fear of the gigantic nameless thing visible towards the last."

            Lovecraft was clearly haunted and preoccupied by the visions he experienced in dreams.  A sizable percentage of his work (the Dunsany-influenced pieces) directly concern dreams and dream-quests.  His journals and commonplace books are littered with references to dreams, and the story Celephais was occasioned by a dream which he describes thus: "Dream of flying over a city."  The first paragraph of the very peculiar prose poem Nyarlathotep was apparently written while the author had not fully awoken from the dream which inspired it. In his annotations to the Complete Fiction, S.T. Joshi also notes a very intriguing entry: "Man journeys into the past - or imaginative realm - leaving bodily shell behind."  First of all, the association of the dreaming mind, the imagination, and the deep past is a pregnant one in the light of Lovecraft's fictional obsessions, and the second half of the quote has a peculiar savor of Platonic mysticism to it, considering the author's putative materialism.  We thus find in Lovecraft a bundle of contradictions - an obsessive visionary who publicly regarded his stories as errant but entertaining nonsense; an antiquarian and anti-modernist who wrote about antediluvian terrors and horrifying atavisms; a champion of the scientific worldview whose stories constantly posit true knowledge of the universe as something the human race would be much happier (and saner) without ever acquiring.  These contradictions reflect a conflict between Lovecraft's rational faculties and the overwhelming power of his visionary dream-life, a conflict which is echoed, one suspects, in his attitude towards science and materialism.  I will leave these ideas, however, to form a backdrop to this essay, which will explore various ways in which Lovecraft and weird fiction form a precursor to the psychedelic explosion of much later postwar culture.

Opening the Door in the Wall.  

                                                                   William James


           Last night I swallowed the drug and floated dreamily into the golden valley and the shadowy groves; and when I came this time to the antique wall, I saw that the small gate of bronze was ajar.

            H.P. Lovecraft, Ex Oblivione.

           We tend to regard the psychedelic era as spanning roughly from the 50s (the decade during which the term was first coined) to the mid or late 70s (by which time mass experimentation with LSD and other drugs had permeated the ambiance of the larger culture through music, cinema, and design aesthetics).  Of course, ceremonial and ritual psychedelic drug-use goes back probably as long as we have been anatomically modern humans, and has remained an integral part of various isolated tribal and hunter/gatherer communities ever since.  As a large scale phenomenon of western culture, however, we find only small, isolated pockets of psychedelic or quasi-psychedelic experimentation occurring on the bohemian fringes of society prior to the 1960s.  Lets look briefly at an interesting precursor to the psychedelic revolution which took place in in the late 19th century.  At some point in the 1870s, the New York-born poet and philosopher Benjamin Paul Blood was given nitrous oxide as an anesthetic during a routine dental operation.  What followed was anything but routine; Blood had a full-blown mystical epiphany under the influence of the gas, and promptly produced a rhapsodic 37-page pamphlet called The Anesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy.  Blood's pamphlet, and the brief flurry of excitement it generated among fellow travelers, would probably be forgotten today, were it not for its influence on his friend William James.  Blood turned the great Harvard psychologist and philosopher on to nitrous oxide, and he had similarly profound experiences under its influence.  In fact, one suspects that James' anesthetic revelation formed the chief undercurrent of his imperishable classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).  It was in this work, while discussing his experiences with nitrous oxide, that James set the whole tone for the much later psychedelic era in an iconic, oft-quoted passage:

            "Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print.  One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken.  It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special kind of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.  We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation.  No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded."

           The implications of this assertion remain radical to this day.  It has become a commonplace that the advance of scientific knowledge has served to dethrone man from his assumed position of centrality in the universe.  Our knowledge of cosmology has made planet earth just one other planet in one solar system in one of many, many galaxies; our knowledge of evolutionary biology has made man but one branch among many, many other actual and potential organic permutations, and so on.  This has a pleasant air both of humility and veiled self-congratulation about it (what but our own mighty intellects divined such things?), but James went much further.  After centuries of domination by the Mind of God and the godlike minds of rational philosophers and scientists, James asserted that the very medium of rational intelligence doing all the dethroning was itself just one specific type of consciousness, among many others; and the type of world or reality which that type of consciousness apprehended was just one of many worlds and realities actualized under each separate medium of conscious awareness.  We can note the similarity of this to a central underlying concept in weird fiction: that our world, unbeknownst to us, intersects with a variety of alternative realities and alien orders of being, separated from our cosy assumptions of normalcy by the "filmiest of screens."  Or, in the later words of another great American philosopher, "You unlock this door with the key of imagination.  Beyond it is another dimension - a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind.  You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.  You've just crossed over into the twilight zone."  Dorothy was about to step out of the maelstrom and wreckage of the Old World into the Technicolor soundstage of Oz.

          Drawing on the theories of Henri Bergson, Aldous Huxley elaborated on this idea of rational, everyday consciousness as a kind of a reducing valve (which would become crucial to the emerging psychedelic movement) in The Doors of Perception:  "But so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive.  To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system.  What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help  us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet."  For Huxley, then, ordinary consciousness had evolved in order to facilitate the utilitarian, Darwinian business of staying alive and reproducing on planet earth; in its deeper strata, however, this utilitarian brain connected up with a kind of Platonic universal consciousness with Huxley labelled Mind at Large, or in the Doors' sequel Heaven and Hell, the visionary antipodes of the human psyche.  Again, we find the metaphor (if it is even that) of other worlds intersecting with our own:  "That which, in the language of religion, is called 'the world' is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed and, as it were, petrified by language.  The various 'other worlds,' with which human beings erratically make contact are so many elements in the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large.  Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language."  

          I've tended to regard surrealism, weird fiction, and the later psychedelic movement as the separate strands of a single cultural history which all emerged out of the same basic appetites, and which all converged, by their separate routes, on the same essential mental terrains and vistas.  The internal struggle in H.P. Lovecraft between the rational and visionary faculties was being played out in a western culture at large which was disillusioned with the age of industrial assembly lines and corpse-strewn trenches; and weird fiction and surrealism were a two-pronged assault on Mind at Large which serendipitously found the perfect chemical analogue to its inner explorations with the advent of the psychedelic era.  Chronologically, surrealism and weird fiction were closely aligned.  Although its European roots go back a ways, weird fiction as a fully crystallized literary genre was a phenomenon of the 20s and 30s.  Weird Tales was first published in 1923 (what other year?); a year later Andre Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto.  1924 was also the year in which Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg began to formulate the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, capping off one of the most genuinely mind-bending eras of discovery in the history of science.  Then, of course, in 1938 Albert Hoffman first synthesized LSD, and all but forget about it until a "peculiar presentiment" in '43 lead him to take his historic bike ride into the antipodes of the human psyche.  As Charles Fort once observed, "a social growth cannot find out the use of steam-engines, until comes steam-engine-time."  The visions of surrealism and weird fiction had become odorless, tasteless, and soluble in water.  The internal combustion engine of the mind had arrived.

        For readers who are perhaps skeptical of the weird fiction/psychedelia connection, I'm going to finish up with a quick look at the most remarkably proto-psychedelic of all weird fictions, Clark Ashton Smith's 1931 masterpiece The City of the Singing Flame.  The first part of the story is told from the perspective of Giles Angarth, a writer of weird fiction.  While holidaying in a cabin in a remote area of the Sierras, Angarth discovers on a trek a "clear space amid the rubble in which nothing grew - a space that was round as an artificial ring.  In its center were two isolated boulders, queerly alike in shape, and lying about five apart."  Stepping through these peculiar monoliths, Angarth discovers that he has passed through a dimensional gateway into a strange other realm: "I had read a number of transdimensional stories - in fact, I had written one or two myself; and I had often pondered the possibility of other worlds or material planes which may co-exist in the same space with ours, invisible and impalpable to human senses.  Of course, I realized at once that I had fallen into some such dimension."  Angarth finds himself in a vast plain of violet grasses and forests of weird, alien vegetation, over which towers an ancient city of red stone and solemn, rectilinear architecture.  Exploring the city, he finds that it contains a temple wherein a great green flame burns from a central pit.  The flame emanates a kind of hypnotic music, and exerts a strange magnetic attraction; Angarth watches as entities from various distant planets arrive in the temple, and throw themselves into the heart of the green flame.  When Angarth finally looks directly at the flame, we find a passage which reads uncannily like a description of the effects of mescaline or LSD:

           "The fire was green and dazzling, pure as the central flame of a star; it blinded me, and when I turned my eyes away, the air was filled with webs of intricate colour, with swiftly changing arabesques whose numberless, unwonted hues and patterns were such as no mundane eye had ever beheld.  And I felt a stimulating warmth that filled my very marrow with intenser life...."

            It is only, however, when the second narrator leaps into the green flame that Smith's language take its full flight into the visionary antipodes:

          "It was as if we no longer existed, except as one divine, indivisible entity, soaring beyond the trammels of matter, beyond the limits of time and space, to attain undreamable shores.  Unspeakable was the joy, and infinite the freedom of that ascent, in which we seemed to overpass the zenith of the highest star.  Then, as if we had risen with the Flame to its culmination, had reached its very apex, we emerged and came to a pause."

          "My senses were faint with exaltation, my eyes blind with the glory of the fire; and the world on which I now gazed was a vast arabesque of unfamiliar forms and bewildering hues from another spectrum than the one to which our eyes are habituated.  It swirled before my dizzy eyes like a labyrinth of gigantic jewels, with interweaving rays and tangled lustres, and only by slow degrees was I able to establish order and distinguish detail in the surging riot of my perceptions."

        "All about me were endless avenues of super-prismatic opal and jacinth; arches and pillars of ultra-violet gems, of transcendent sapphire, of unearthly ruby and amethyst, all suffused with a multi-tinted splendor.  I appeared to be treading on jewels, and above me was a jeweled sky."

        Reading the story fully through, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Smith either had a direct experience with a psychedelic substance (most likely peyote), or had somehow managed to trigger in his brain the precise neurochemical reactions of a HEAVY psychedelic trip.  Either way, The City of the Singing Flame is a remarkable adumbration of the psychedelic zeitgeist which was some three decades ahead of its publication date.  Adventures of future science indeed:

 Part one of two - concluded shortly.

I got the image of Cthulhu here.   Weirdly, this spell check recognizes Cthulhu.

I got the images of The City of the Singing Flame here, at a post where John Coulthart also discusses the story's proto-psychedelic qualities.

You can read The City of the Singing Flame in its entirety here, courtesy of Eldritch Dark.

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