Beyond Azathoth: Lovecraft Before the Real

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“ . . that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion where bubbles and blasphemes at infinity’s centre the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth . . .”

The Blind Idiot God Azathoth is perhaps one of the most contradictory of HPL’s creations. On one hand He stands in for the malignity contingent to the ultimate unknowability of the cosmos, the kernel of Lovecraft’s cosmicism. On the other He is heralded, prophesied, invoked by characters and references in a manner that leaves no room for enigma in what is said about Him at all. Infinitely more powerful than the Great Old Ones and the Outer (Other) Gods, such as Great Klulu and the many-masked Nyarlathotep, His awakening would spell the literal and literally unimaginable end of the universe. With overly bombastic prose alluding to such a finality being a Lovecraft staple, how he is able to effectively sustain any tension in his fiction at all brings into question that dogma of the creative writing workshop, “Show, don’t tell.” It is as though language exhausts itself yet fails to give us access to the unknowable it promises. In the simplest sense, we could say that HPL inadvertently located the wellspring of possibilities beyond the symbolic order by coming up hard against it.

Encounter in Lovecraftian Hyperreality

Consider this description by the narrator of The Whisperer in Darkness upon learning the secrets of the galaxies from his host, the titular whisperer Henry Akeley, revealed at the climax to be nothing but a waxen simulacrum of the real Akeley who, it is implied, has had his brain preserved in a cylindrical neural interface and abducted to the planet Yuggoth at the edge of the solar system 1 by an advanced alien race: “. . . I started with loathing when told of the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space which the Necronomicon had mercifully cloaked under the name of Azathoth.” Of interest here is the operative phrase ‘mercifully cloaked.’ This hackneyed theme of the forbidden knowledge — so incomprehensible when viewed through humanity’s current understanding of science that to even glimpse it is to risk the subject’s sanity — underlies the motive of most of HPL’s main human characters.

Superficially, this function of merciful cloaking seems to invite all sorts of appropriation by commercial paranormalism and esotericism, evident in the instantiation of the Necronomicon and the inclusion of Lovecraft’s monstrosities in the verses of Anton LaVey’s mystical libertarian cult, to name a few. However, supernaturalism as formulated within HPL’s mechanistic materialistic philosophy is not concerned with the empirical content of what lies on this or that side of the frontier defined by the current limits of natural sciences, but rather with the status of that frontier as a screen on which we may encounter the unknowable. In other words, the designation “supernatural” has no meaning insofar as it describes phenomena that violate the laws of nature or possess imaginary characteristics; a “natural” world that maintains topological continuity beyond our ever expanding frontier does not exist. This formulation may bring to mind the general idea of Kantian transcendence, but available biographical materials suggest that Lovecraft only read about Kant’s philosophy from secondary sources 2. Furthermore, HPL’s cosmicism precludes any possibility of immanent meaning whereas the transcendent thing-in-itself does not. Where then is the horror of the real, of Azathoth, located?

In a sense, the name Azathoth is a signifier of the unsignifiable, the blind spot in our conscious thinking and the absolute blind spot that is the unconscious itself. Beyond Him there is nothing to speak of, so to speak. In order for it to be discussed at all, the real is brought into the letters, symbolically inscribed on the pages of Necronomicon. Only in this way can the “nuclear chaos beyond angled space” be said to exist. Much of Lovecraft’s narrative structure is a metaphor for this act of symbolization, with narrators frantically writing down or putting their stories to words for an audience thereby creating a distance, a gap between them and their encounter with the real. Take for example the conclusion of The Shadow Out of Time in which the narrator reveals to the reader and a psychologist a discovery in the desert of Australia which confirms the hyperreality of his strange dreams: On the crumbling pages of an ancient book buried in the ruins of a million-centuries old library of unearthly origin, there are written english letters in the narrator’s own handwriting. The insanity to which Lovecraftian narrators are unfailingly drawn involves the teasing threat of the disappearance of this symbolic distance. Many of them are saved at the last moment by a conscious intervention as in Dagon, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Music of Erich Zann, and so on. In the few cases that the narrator actually takes the final step, the reader is denied access to what comes after. Neither the reader nor Lovecraft could follow Robert Olmstead “. . .out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei. . .” Like trying to imagine a subjective experience after our death to come without any rational buffer, we are answered by a maddening absolute darkness that has no form, no substance. To Lovecraft’s adage, then, we can add a Lacanian supplement: Fear of the Unknown 3 has no object as such, but consists entirely in object relations.

We are what the gods dream of: Humanity as the Lost Object

One type of object relation commonly appears in dreams, a site which figures prominently in Lovecraft’s work. His Dreamlands Cycle traces a strain of weird fiction more fantastical than terrifying back to Lord Dunsany’s tales from Pegana and the Edge of the World. 4 The earth’s dreamland — as it appears or is referenced in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Celephaïs, and so on — is practically an exotic and alien persistent universe which can be reached through certain sleep rituals and is shared by all earth’s dreamers, so that in essence one can live two separate and equally real lives. By virtue of their ontological tangibility and the conscious thinking retained by their inhabitants, we can argue that dreamlands structurally resemble alternate dimensions of the fantasy variant and have little to do with those phantasmagoric exvasions of the subconscious. Nevertheless, and more importantly, Lovecraft’s chief dreamers, Randolph Carter and the unnamed tramp who reigns the dream city Celephaïs as King Kuranes, maintain an ephemeral connection with a lost “object” of some sort: the former’s being the wondrous city frequently glimpsed in his dreams which turns out to be his childhood hometown of Boston MA, the latter’s being his old-money family’s lost fortune and “extinct nobility”.5 This false nostalgia, manifest also in Lovecraft’s real-life lament for his family’s old New England aristocracy, perfectly fits Lacan’s interpretation of the Freudian lost object. An “object” is only lost after the subject has included it in their fantasy.6 It has no prior status other than being lost. It was never encountered, never experienced in the way we think it was in the first place. Any relation that HPL’s business-owning grandfather had with regards to his bourgeois status has no direct bearing on Lovecraft’s relation to its “loss”. It is simply a separate term to which Howard Lovecraft and Whipple Phillips related in their own way.

The harmless content of literary fantasy begins to take on an atmosphere of horror when we literally read fantasy for what it is. ST Joshi is correct when he says that the imagery of dreamlands does not resonate with the reader because it “signifies nothing and is intended to signify nothing.”7 But this analysis leads us nowhere; we can only go further by assuming responsibility as a reader and saying that, regardless of HPL’s unknowable intention or lack thereof, it signifies nothing for the reason that we are not supposed to find resonance with it. If we renounce the obvious act of reading Celephias through sepia-tinted lenses then the city of Celephaïs in the valley of Ooth-Nargai appears a solipsistic nightmare created by King Kuranes to which are subjected other dreamers whose subjectivity cannot be determined within the text. It was Kuranes “who had created Ooth-Nargai in his dreams,8 on which account he was now to be appointed its chief god for everymore.” The coterie of horsemen who deliver Kuranes to his throne and the parade of villagers who welcome their new ruler, all supposedly human dreamers, lack any interpersonal description, any indication at all that they are anything but a content of Kuranes’s dreaming. They are puppets described only through their massified attitude with regard to the crowning ceremony. We discover that even in dreams — that most intimate refuge where we expect to find some primal and forbidden enjoyment which we can at least claim to be our own — there exists only a mere automatism in service to an Other’s demand: Kuranes’s godkinghood is retroactively conditioned by his worshippers who are in turn living someone else’s dream. The horror underlying the fantastic facade of Celephaïs is then the horror of fantasy’s dominance in conscious thinking and how impossible it is to subtract the former, even when recognized, from the latter. A less complicated psychotic figure appears in the hit TV series Game of Thrones under the epithet of the Mad King, a nickname earned the moment the character started to exercise his rightful power to execute citizens. Despite their different circumstances, there is no functional difference between Kuranes’s and the Mad King’s ways of identifying with a symbolic fiction. As Lacan famously articulated in Presentation on Psychical Causality, “. . . if a man who thinks he is a king is mad, a king who thinks he is a king is no less so.”9 even the descent of the Outer God Nyarlathotep upon “the terrible city of unnumbered crimes” is portrayed as an eventual reemergence of an older order. So we should not call the monarch who walks halfnaked in a department store a lunatic because of his halfnakedness, which is simply a source of enjoyment, but rather we should determine his psychosis by the way he addresses us in normal everyday conversation.

A Lovecraftian encounter with the real entails a breakdown of some established order, of the fundamental laws of physics, of human morality, of modern civilization, and so on. All life is equally worthless in the grand non-scheme of things, so the Lovecraft dogmatists would have us accept as his original contribution to literature. Yet in the instances in his fiction that power is concerned power is always justified: Celephaïs’s eternal feudalism; the US federal government’s raid and bombing of the town of Innsmouth;10 even the descent of the Outer God Nyarlathotep upon “the terrible city of unnumbered crimes” is portrayed as an eventual reemergence of an older order.11 Despite or because of HPL’s high regard for science as an ideal, his mechanistic materialism falls into that category of “philosophy” most conducive to maintaining the status quo, a kind of hegemonic order, with only a veneer of scientism. HPL’s actual contribution thus also highlights his weakness as a critical thinker. To wit, he pointed out where reality ends and the real begins but himself never thought to upset that boundary. We are even tempted here to make a further metaphor between HPL’s limited imagination and his “failed” attempt to enlist and join World War I, when we consider Alain Badiou’s conception of the democratic heroic figure of the soldier in modern poetry as a symbol of “the capacity of human animals to create something beyond their own limits”.12


Some Traversals Old and New

In The Communist Hypothesis, Badiou writes, “Politics is a construct that certainly separates itself from whatever is dominant . . . it sheds light on the fact that it is only within the universal that we can all live under the rule of equality.”13 The inconspicuous absence of this definition of politics in public discourse renders all the more damning the extent to which the word has been stigmatized and, worse, particularized for the masses, the common humanity, by state power and its servile institutions. In Thailand, for example, a certain group of private individuals are excluded from the constitution altogether, are said to be above the realm of politics in which politicians vie for personal power. Much like the Outer Gods, these private individuals inhabit a speculative space that pure rational thinking cannot account for and, like Azathoth Himself, their mentioning serves for many as the limit of imagination, the signifier of the unsignifiable. Consequently, it emerges in the reality constituted by the Thai symbolic other — official language, official history, official state religion, and so on — that politics, or การเมือง (trans: affairs of the land), connotates the negativity of การอำนาจ (trans: affairs of power). And so, being the humble law-abiding god-loving buddhists that we are, we must not bring up politics at the dinner table, in the classroom, on the commuter train, in the workplace, at the psychiatrist’s office, in artistic production, and so on. What Badiou and Marxists in general offer instead is politics returned to its positive genericity: politics as affairs of emancipation (trans: [กิจการ]การปลดปล่อย).

Given this definition of politics, which also knows itself to be an ethical imperative, then HPL’s fiction can be said to have no political content at all. At the lowest level of Lovecraft’s hierarchy of monstrosities, there slither the Shoggoths, amorphous protoplasmic lifeforms artificially created as workforce by the advanced race of Elder Things in the novella At the Mountains of Madness. Typical of Lovecraft’s vision, the Shoggoths’ revolt against their masters ended in the ruin of civilization, the same end he scornfully envisioned for the Russian Bolsheviks, the US labor movement,14 and people of colour that is not white in general. We can now see that HPL, as a subject, encounters the real twice. First, at the the top of this hierarchy, where the singular Azathoth signifies the void in his philosophical reality; and, second, at the bottom where the plural Shoggoth signifies his political impotence. It is no surprise then that China Miéville chose this lowly monster to stage a weird traversal, to open up new possibilities by reading them as the quintessential proletarian monster in science-fiction.15 In fact, it seems to me that Lovecraft owes much of his survival in the critical tradition to this type of dialecticization. Elsewhere we can find him in various positions of the static object: of toxic apologia, as in the case of ST Joshi when HPL’s reactionary tendencies are brought up by lesser writers; of increasingly numerous and vacuous references in popculture media; of metaphysical exercise, the kind produced, for example, in Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet; and so on.

Interestingly, the most compromising position imaginable for HPL the intellectual arch-conservative is provided also by Joshi the intellectual arch-Lovecraftian. In his seminal Lovecraft biography I Am Providence, Joshi claims that HPL’s hatred for democracy is “manifestly Nietzschean”,16 boiling HPL’s ideological justification down to one isolated and truncated quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: “I have . . . characterized modern democracy . . . as the decaying form of the state.” Does this characterization by Joshi not count as a slip of the tongue, an other that speaks for HPL in the Lovecraftian intellectual discourse? Does this impotence in the face of history not confirm the political truth, the real of communism in the words of none other than Lenin himself, who says “The more democratic the “state”. . . the more rapidly every form of state begins to wither away”17 Lovecraft’s fear of egalitarianism may be manifestly Nietzschean, but more importantly, it is implicitly Leninist!!

To assume what is said of an authorial subject to be fantasy, such is the first task of psychoanalysis in literary criticism. And, in that fantasy seemingly never goes awry for the Lovecraftian subject, perhaps we should return in search of another possibility to one minor moment in Lord Dunsany’s short story Idle Days on the Yann. On one idle day sailing down the river Yann in the Lands of Dream, the ship Bird of the River comes upon and makes port near the city of Mandaroon. The narrator, the ship’s passenger and a native of the earthly realm, approaches the city gate and finds that all the inhabitants of Mandaroon are asleep, strewn about even in the market square. When he asks the ancient longbearded guard at the gate about the peculiar city, he is shushed into silence. Then the guard says, “None may ask questions in this gate for fear they wake the people of the city. For when the people of this city wake the gods will die. And when the gods die men may dream no more.”18 Here is the same theme we find in Celephaïs but with a significant twist: subjugation is acknowledged as a condition of fantasy. The Mandaroonians, a surplus in the set of all men who may dream, are sacrificed so that something other than us may enjoy a continued existence it has no hand in producing. A Mandaroonian who walks and goes about their life is inconceivable in the aristocrat’s logic, for the very fact of their simply living would imply that we never needed the gods in the first place.

  1. Lovecraft was a known amateur astronomer who frequented the Ladd Observatory in his hometown Providence RI. The planet Yuggoth was inspired by the discovery of Pluto in 1930, the same year Whisperer was written.
  2. A catalogue of books in Lovecraft’s library, published in 1980 by Necronomicon Press, shows that he owned nothing by Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, the two philosophers he frequently discussed in his correspondence, or any modern philosopher for that matter. Two entries indexed under PHILOSOPHY in the catalogue are works by 19th century “natural philosophers” John Fiske and Ernst Haeckel: an american race supremacist and a german evolutionary biologist whose work finds lively circulation within the Nazi ideology. HPL’s only source for anything pertaining to actual modern philosophy was Will Durant’s popular The Story of Philosophy.
  3. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” This is the opening sentence to HPL’s celebrated essay Supernatural Horror in Literature first written for a 1927 issue of W. Paul Cook’s amateur magazine The Recluse.
  4. Indeed, students of the weird genre of fiction may immediately recognize in Azathoth a close homology to Lord Dunsany’s creation Māna-Yood-Sushāi, the greatest of the Gods of Pegāna. In Autobiography: Some Notes on a Nonentity posthumously published in 1963 by Arkham House, HPL openly admits Dunsany’s influence on his “idea of the artificial pantheon and myth-background represented by ‘Cthulhu,’ ‘Yog-Sothoth,’ ‘Yuggoth,’ etc.” Dunsany’s delightful The Gods of Pegāna (1905) is widely considered to be modern mythmaking par excellence.
  5. HPL, “Celephaïs”, The Complete Fiction, (Barnes & Noble, 2011), 114.
  6. Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, (Princeton University Press, 1997), 94.
  7. ST Joshi, The Weird Tale, (Wildside Press, 2003), 184. Here Joshi puts forward that Lovecraft’s change of the lost object from Celephaïs to Boston MA, from the imaginary in Celephaïs to the “real” in Dream-Quest, indicates a formal shift from reliance on fantastic artifices to memories as a source for his later realist tales.
  8. My emphasis.
  9. Jacques Lacan, Presentation on Psychical Causality”, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 139.
  10. HPL, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, The Complete Fiction, 807.
  11. HPL, “Nyarlathotep”, The Complete Fiction, 121. “And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why.”
  12. Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Militants, (Verson, 2015), 43.
  13. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, (Verso, 2015), 14.
  14. HPL, “Bolshevism”, Collected Essays: Volume 5:Philosophy;Autobiography and Miscellany, edited by ST Joshi, (Hippocampus Press, 2006), 37-38.
  15. For more on this topic, see Christina Scholz’s essay Sympathy for the Shoggoth: China Miéville’s Revolution of the Weird Tale ( Scholz’s remark captures the stature of the British weirdist perfectly: If Lovecraft is the aristocratic prince of weird fiction, according to Stephen King, then Miéville is the genre’s revolutionary.
  16. ST Joshi, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, (Hippocampus Press, 2010), 487.
  17. Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, (Aziloth Books, 2017), 86.
  18. Lord Dunsany, “Idle Days on the Yann”, Tales of Three Hemispheres, (John W. Luce, 1919), 76.