On horror, and I’ve been pondering John Clute’s concept of Vastation. He defines it as the moment in horror when artifice is stripped away, and the world is revealed in its true, bleak, sanity blasting magnificence.

In Lovecraft, it would be the moment when you find out about Cthulhu; in Stephen King, the point at which you realise that your husband really has been lost to a hotel; in Ramsey Campbell, the dusk second when you understand that the dead tramp with a copper coin covering each eye really is haunting you personally.

A new truth about the world has been unveiled, and it has been shown to be a directly, inevitably threatening place. In Horror, innate rightness is a comforting illusion that can only be dispelled. The action of horror is the approach of truth, a truth that removes any real possibility of a full, completed consolation.

We’ve just come out of a century of Vastation – as Adorno had it, one that left lyric poetry an impossible thing to honestly write – and we’re heading into another one. As such, Horror isn’t a fantastic literature; it’s an honest and (sadly) very realist response to the ongoing brutality and insecurity that our action as humans reveals, again and again and again.

8 thoughts on “Vastation

  1. Al, very interesting. It seems to me that Clute is talking about a species of wonder.

    I can see you are starting the year as you mean to go on. Mean!

    “The lake is big! Big!!! Molecules the size of popcorn!”

  2. In “Danse Macabre” King said that horror had no room on Tv fiction because it could not match the real horror in the news. Horror fiction would be then ¿a kind of vaccine to build up our tolerance to the real horror?

  3. Hi both!

    Yup, MJP, getting stuck in. Hmm, interesting on the sense of wonder – perhaps one rooted in the Romantic sublime? The beauty of horror, etc – and of course there’s the related process of truth being unveiled, and of course ‘beauty is truth’, etc.

    Tho’ on the other hand JC does seem to link his sense of horror to the Holocaust (by implication he seems to regard modern Horror as a post-Holocaust mode of writing), which stops any sort of aesthetic / positive appreciation dead.

    Arturo – hmm, intrigued by horror as vaccination. Not sure how much I buy into that; for me, vaccination is about desensitisation, when ideally horror should be a sensitising agent – ie it recontextualises the daily horror grind and thus freshens it. So it’s kind of an allergen!

  4. Hi, Al. But wonder – the experience wonder – doesn’t have to have an aesthetic label, which in this context would seem to suggest that it is directed at the production of a feeling. I mean the experience in the much more commonplace terms, such as when – let’s say – a father watches the birth of his child. A kind of physiological condition of silence is produced. The social impulse to talk is halted. There is an encounter with something that powerfully resists being put into words, with something that emotionally and personally, is inexplicable. This (the child being born) is a being with his stamp on it, that is in some measure his creation. One can imagine feelings of horror in that too, even if sublimated – horror, terror.

    Extremes of human experience can be regarded as inducing states of wonder. There are obvious examples besides that given. A soldier killing another human being, or seeing his friend killed. It would be odd, perverse even, to call that kind of experience aesthetic; but none the less it has features in common with aesthetic experience: since the soldier, both at the time and retrospectively, is reduced to a state of inner silence: to a state of wondering at what it is that is before him and finding that there are no words for it.

    One can make poetry from that. Wilfred Owen’s or Issac Rosenberg’s for example.

  5. Would ‘shock and awe’ be perhaps a good phrase for what you’re getting at? Certainly agree with you on the poetry of that kind of sublimity – my personal touchpoint there is Keith Douglas, and I keep on meaning to read Paul Celan, who I think goes far deeper into that kind of poetry of the frozen sublime.

    I’m intrigued by the balance between the absoluteness of the response and the freezing it induces; the inability to process it. On the one hand it’s an experience so overwhelming to worldview that it cannot but be registered as massive and profoundly transformative, and absolutely clear and present; on the other hand, the shock is so profound that there is that dead freeze, the inability to process.

    The aesthetics thing is interesting; no doubt at all about the commonality, but it leaves you a choice – either you accept that aesthetic experience is implicitly amoral – ie, that you can *savour* the quality of experience created by even the worst things; or you accept that aesthetics is a morally qualified / deeply selective interpretation (if that’s the right way of putting it) of a far more general, less implicitly good depth of experience that is common to us all.

  6. Oh, and MJP – was chatting with Zali at the weekend and mentioned you. We’d love to see you in your non-virtual form! Afternoon coffee or similar one weekend?

  7. Mertons discussed vastation, as did C.S.Lewis. It is the spiritual state which when ransomed must precipitate devastation. Think of Nazi Germany befor the war, the whole human environment was in a state of vastation. I think the french have a handle on this root Latin. Look up “vast” and see it means enormous and waste at the same time. To divest is the post-precipitation of vested? I think it is funny that the newer dictionary makers have a blind spot for this one word. Remember that Dr. Johnson was devout, and in his contrition he nailed it. Our generation isn’t interested in responsibility for the vastations we generate.

  8. The Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s take on ‘vastation’ is an interesting one: in the words of John Banville, “a ‘vastation’ in Swedenborgian terms is a necessary purgative process through which the soul must pass on its way to enlightenment and spiritual rebirth.” [New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011]

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