Transcendental Horror: Kant avec Lovecraft

[Text from April 2007]

We have now not only travelled through the land of pure understanding, and carefully inspected each part of it, but we have also surveyed it, and determined the place for each thing in it. This land, however, is an island, and enclosed in unalterable boundaries by nature itself. It is the land of truth (a charming name), surrounded by a broad and stormy ocean, the true seat of illusion, where many a fog bank and rapidly melting iceberg pretend to be new lands and, ceaselessly deceiving with empty hopes the voyager looking around for new discoveries, entwine him in adventures from which he can never escape and yet also never bring to an end – Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age – H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

What is Lovecraft’s oeuvre if not a precise exploration of those ‘adventures from which [one] can never escape and yet also never bring to an end’? Kant’s formulation of the dangers of drifting too close to illusory adventures lurking at a distance from the calm shores of knowledge indicates that what lies beyond the (possibility of an) island is something absolutely terrifying: an intricate and ever-deepening panic in which the infinite allure of fiction seduces you…forever. Kant, however, fails to see what Lovecraft knows only too well – the island is not, after all, a place of order and truth beyond which float sublime icebergs and disorienting mists. In fact, what Lovecraft teaches us is that the island itself is the source of all horror. The human mind, even an upright Kantian consciousness with all its categories in order, cannot correlate all its contents, all its nightmares, fictions and half-thoughts, as to do so would be to summon up a monster of hideous proportions. And think how many monsters there would be! All the misbegotten night-terrors and fantasies of every individual wondering about in an unpleasantly individuated bubble of transcendental terror. In their billions. ‘No man is an island’ is not a reassuring claim about solidarity, but rather the axiom that every man is the repository of shared but subjectively experienced nightmares.

The ‘frightful position therein’ that Lovecraft speaks of is the revelation of a psychic nightmare – or rather the nightmare that is the psyche. But this is not the end of the story. If it were merely a question of unearthing the dark matter that coalesces in dark pockets of the mind, we could turn almost anywhere for help: psychoanalysis, literature in general, comedy, the pub. But this is not just about us. In fact, it’s not about us at all. The ‘terrifying vistas of reality’ all point in one direction: that we don’t matter one jot. Between science and the Old Ones, in this universe and all of the others, the same indifferent blankness greets us again and again. Just get on with it and expire, humans!

What is specific, or rather aspecific about horror, particularly Lovecraft’s transcendental horror, is the way in which it makes clear the ontological emptiness of the category of the human. And not only the emptiness of the human, but of being as such. Just as what separates (treatable) fear from (the inescapability of) dread is the difference between cute friendly beings and the great white whale of Being, horror, if done well, always plays with the border-line between what exists and what is. Or rather, between what exists and what might be. What threatens in dread is, as Heidegger puts it, ‘nothing definite and worldly’. It is the nothing that remains even after we have recovered our composure and said quite calmly ‘oh, it was nothing’. It was nothing, and that is why everything has changed for the scarier. Transcendental horror is the rational admission that the irrational is the revelation of our horrible insignificant humanity.

As Houellebecq astutely puts it:

This is not a coherent mythology, precise drawn … These Lovecraftian entities remain somewhat tenebrous … in fact, their exact nature is beyond the grasp of the human mind. The impious books that pay homage to them and celebrate their cult only do so in confused and contradictory terms. They remain fundamentally unutterable. We only get fleeting glimpses of their hideous power; and those humans who seek to know more ineluctably pay in madness or in death.

It is a mistake to try and draw Lovecraft’s things (let alone make toys of them). ‘I wasn’t born to make you happy’, sings a plushy Yog-Sothoth, which might reassure for a while, but it’ll never truly rid you of the nothing they really invoke.

The eerie proximity of Kant and Lovecraft, or what we might call the internalisation of Kantian categories in the name of transcendental horror, concerns, above all, the question of knowledge. Houellebecq again: ‘Lovecraft’s heroes strip themselves of life. Renouncing all human joy, they become pure intellects, pure spirits striving towards a single goal: the search for pure knowledge.’ On the one hand, the question of knowledge concerns how to limit it, knowing that what lies beyond is not something that can be properly known and, in any case, is most certainly to be feared, and on the other, the precisely doomed attempt to get closer to this knowledge, by any means necessary – theosophy, arcane bibliophilia or ritual invocation – which will of course inevitably lead to madness, death, both madness and death, or something even worse. As James Trafford puts it: ‘It is quite possible that Lovecraft might be taken as a direct branch of Kantian noumena, forcefully opening man on to the unnameable’. Less weird realism, perhaps, than no realism at all. As Houellebecq-as-Lovecraft puts it: ‘We need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism’.

This antidote to realism sometimes takes the form of a complex use of intra-horror, that is to say, a kind of horror that the characters (themselves monstrous) take pride in researching. In The Dunwich Horror, for example, we have a half-human monstrosity (Wilbur Whateley), the offspring of a deformed albino woman and something altogether unknown, who spends his days corresponding with scholars and libraries including ‘the Widener Library at Harvard, the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, the British Museum, the University of Buenos Ayres, and the Library of Miskatonic University of Arkham.’ Between the (mostly) fictional texts and the (mostly) real libraries, Wilbur Whateley pursues his own dark work on the universe as his inhuman components continue to seethe and expand freakishly within him. The horror he abets destroys himself just as much as the Dunwich families that get wiped out as the story progresses. Horror consumes horror.

Between intra-horror and transcendental horror, between an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor, lies Lovecraft, the bastard underside of a Kant who was right to be afraid.