Lovecraft, Olson and ‘The Mayan Letters’

Fantasy, Horror, Humanism, Landscape, Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

Well, it’s been a fascinating morning of pondering Lovecraft’s roots in Ovid. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m not going to go into detail here – still working out exactly what I think – but in brief I think the link builds on Ovid’s status as the great poet of transformation in ‘Metamorphosis’, and the chronicler of the numinous’ daily interaction with man in ‘Fasti’.

Lovecraft, of course, has a horror of metamorphosis, although many of his characters don’t; and his work tracks the divine breaking into the quotidian in random, terrifying ways. But more on that another time.

Because today’s weird pondering continues my ongoing death of Humanism rant by thinking about how exactly and interestingly mid-20th Century poet and educator (and inventor of the term ‘postmodern’) Charles Olson tallies with your generic Lovecraftian academic villain.

In Lovecraft, the academic villain is a very identifiable type; someone deeply engaged with lost, historic lore, working either alone or in concert.

As a rule, they’re obsessed with secret lore, are very aware that what they’re up to goes against / is threatening to the cultural mainstream, and yet are driven on by both personal rewards and by a sense that what they’re uncovering is real truth, that will lead to a mass transformation in their particular cultural consciousness and affairs.

For example, the Joseph Curwen circle in ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ look forward to the moment when ‘it will be ripe… to have upp ye Legions from Underneath, and then there are no Boundes to what shall be oures…’, while in ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ Great Race society seems to have been profoundly effected by news of its impending doom.

And these researchers have an interesting relationship with time; it’s a very malleable thing to them, allowing them to bring the past directly into the present, and vice versa. The Joseph Curwen circle talk with the dead of all centuries, while the time traveling delvings of the Great Race of Yith are presented very directly indeed:

‘I learned… that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and sent exploring minds into every age… I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in 5,000 A.D.; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in 50,000 BC; with that of a twelfth Century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi…’

Other examples abound; many Lovecraftian villains (and most of his heroes, come to that) can be seen as researchers of one kind or another. The Fungi from Yuggoth take humanity to the stars, and beyond; the crazed cultists of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ use forbidden knowledge to excavate Cthulhu; the protagonist of ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ is a kind of archaeologist of local horror; and so on.

So what? Well, the preponderance of researchers / historians / revivifiers in Lovecraft is a logical outcome of his central myth; that of a past that can be recast in ways that radically transform understandings of humanity and of modernity in general. And that’s what links him so interestingly with Olson.

I’d been kind of vaguely aware of this link, but it hadn’t really grabbed me until I sat down to read Olson’s ‘The Mayan Letters’. Edited by Olson’s friend and poetic ally Robert Creeley, aka the Figure of Outward, ‘The Mayan Letters’ record Olson’s researches into Mayan culture over a six month period in the early 50s, carried out from a small village on the Mexican coast.

‘The Mayan Letters’ are a key document in Olson’s ongoing struggle to get past the limitations of Western European thinking and perception, as rooted in (what Olson perceives to be) alienating ancient Greek philosophy. For him (and paraphrasing hugely!) the Greeks separated the object from the discourse, creating an artificial gap between thinking and existing that’s in turn alienated Western consciousness from the world that surrounds it.

As he put it in his essay ‘The Human Universe’, ‘the distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. One way – he thought – of reclaiming language as ‘the act of the instant’ is to pitch it in terms of hieroglyphs or ideograms, reclaiming the word as object rather than description. And that attitude in part led him to the Mayans, who built their language on ideograms.

Of course his interest was in Mayan culture was far broader than the purely linguistic – as a researcher, he hoped to uncover the frame of mind that an ideogrammatic language supported, find a way of describing and reintroducing it into contemporary culture, and thus bring about a constructive change in Western mass consciousness (‘the shift is SUBSTANTIVE’, as he notes of the past, and will be again).

And that’s what makes him – and ‘The Mayan Letters’, and his broader work, so resonantly Lovecraftian. Whether acting as archaeologist, linguist, historical researcher or just plain explorer, his language rings with the expository excitement of the classic Lovecraftian researcher (‘I tried, for a while, to scratch away at the walls of the graves…’), whether hero or villain:

‘Craziest damn thing ever, this place: nothing on it otherwise but two sets of double small ‘pyramids’ at either end of the island… a damned attractive place… was it the reason the Maya… did so come here, choose, this place [to bury their dead]?… Must find out more.’

Olson then resolves – in a classically Lovecraftian set up – to go and look up MSSs of previous expeditions to the island. Or there’s this:

‘Have been digging up the old Maya chronicles, the last couple of days, and ome up with interesting stuff on Quetz-Kukul – and the question of, sea origins.’

Or this:

‘God, give me a little more of [watching stars in the Mexican sky while talking about them] and I shall excuse what you say abt me, another time, my friend. For you have said something so beautifully tonight, in this business of force:… that force STAYS, IS & THEREFORE STAYS, whenever, whatever:

that is what
we are concerned with
it breaks all time and space’

Where Lovecraft found horror in the breakage of time and space, Olson found wonder. And all of this is in service of an explicitly (perhaps even physically as well as culturally) transformative project:

‘BUT the way the bulk of them still (“the unimproved”) wear their flesh… the flesh is worn as a daily thing, like the sun… carried like the other things are, for use… the individual peering out from that flesh is precisely himself, is, a curious wandering animal (it is so very beautiful, how animal the eyes are, when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out)’

And that wearing is for Olson a ‘real, live clue to the results of what I keep on gabbing on about, another humanism’. For Olson as for Lovecraft, the return to the animal is transformative, but for Olson it’s a positive, allowing a step out of Western humanism into something far more spontaneous and positive, something that (using Jung’s term) leads very directly to the profoundly positive end of individuation, of becoming a true and integrated self.

And that’s the source of both similarity and the difference between the two writers. Both either track or drive a step away from a Humanism that began with the ancient Greeks and that has defined Western culture for the last couple of thousand years. For Lovecraft, that’s a profoundly destructive step, but one that (visionary that he was, often despite himself) one he can’t deny; for Olson, it’s an entirely positive step, one that should be encouraged.

In the end, Olson can be read as a Lovecraftian villain; but being a villain in Lovecraft means breaking an old consensus and replacing it with something unimaginably, transcendentally new – and, in this decaying modern world, that can only be a good thing to do.

A hiatus

Aliens, Balloon animals, Pirates, Seascapes

Well, it’s taken a while, but allumination is now officially in hiatus. This is largely because my laptop has blown up, and while my groovy little Asus EEE is fantastic for emails etc, it’s become a bit too wearing to think exclusively onto a 7.4 inch screen. So, for a week or so only (because theoretically my new laptop is arriving next week) I leave you with pictures of my brother reaching Paris here, and ((apart from that) possibly the single coolest thing I’ve seen in a long while here:

A bientot!

Go Go Le FigaROW! (or, London to Paris by hand)

Heaviosity, Human power, Seascapes

Well, tonight allumination takes a break from the weird pondering to salute… My brother Edward! Who even now is getting an early night before getting up tomorrow morning to row from London to Paris.

He’s part of the Le FigaROW Team, racing the Langstone Cutters in one of a pair of matched Thames Watermen Cutters as part of the London2Paris rowing challenge. They leave London tomorrow, departing from the Houses of Parliament at about 11am, reach Dover in the evening and if all goes according to plan set off across the Channel tomorrow. Most of next week is taken up with rowing the Seine, with the two crews arriving in Paris on Thursday.

He’s got his first nine hour rowing session tomorrow on Saturday; the whole trip is going to be deeply physically demanding, as tough mentally as it is physically and – once done – no doubt utterly, utterly satisfying. I won’t be with him in the boat, but as much as possible I’m going to be with him in spirit, and I hope you will be too, sending positive vibes to him (and the whole crew) as he batters across the Channel and through the North of France.

If you want to find out more, or support with a litlte contribution, you can do so here, at the team’s official website. To be honest, I’m slightly in awe of him for doing it; and I can’t wait to cheer him – and the team – into the end of the trip next Thursday, and then hit Paris to celebrate the end of a lot of hard work, and hopefully a very satisfying and enjoyable row.

Go Edward! Go Team Le FigaROW! The Weird Ponderers of London (and beyond, in every sense of the word) are with you all the way…!

Those are pearls…

Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

A post about poetry, as Nichola Deane over at Casket of Dreams is pointing the way to some roaringly good work (as well as writing with precise lyricism about Richard Hawley – do have to disagree with her about Dean Martin, tho’, there are few things more rock’n’roll than the careless swing of ‘Sway’, sung by a man so laid back that he held off Mafia influence by just not really caring about them).

Anyway… she’s also championing Robert Lowell, who I’d read a little of a few years back and pegged as (yet another) dodgy confessionalist.

I was quite wrong:

‘A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,-
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our north Atlantic Fleet,
when the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs;
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of red and whites,
Its open, starring eyes
Were lusterless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks at its nose
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.’

The opening sentences of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, which marvellous poem ND quotes and dissects fascinatingly, showing less of it than I have but making much more of it.

Reading the above made me think of other sea poems, and in particular W. S. Graham’s magnificent ‘Nightfishing’. It’s unavailable online (you’ll have to buy the Faber Collected Poems, worth every penny IMHO), but here’s a taster. W. S.’s poetic alter ego is trawling for fish off the Devon coast; the sea breaks over the boat and then sluices out again –

‘See how, like an early self, it’s loath to leave
And stares from the scuppers as it swirls away
To be clenched up. What a great width stretches
Farsighted away fighting in its white straits
On either bow, but bears up our boat on all
Its plaiting strands. This wedge driven in
To the twisting water, we rode. The bow shores
The long rollers.’

A lovely brief passage, but more importantly it catches the metaphoric tension that drives and energises the poem. W. S.’s descriptions of the processes of sea going, of fishing, become a way of talking about the mind’s progress through a poem, the self’s onward motion through life; the poem becomes a subtle and complex meditation on the stormed and freighted journeys through time that are an inevitable condition of our enforced, dynamic lives within it.

So, the sea sparking two very different but equally cool poems; I hope you enjoy them!