THE DAEMONOLOGY OF UNPLUMBED SPACE: WEIRD FICTION, DISGUST, AND THE AESTHETICS OF THE UNTHINKABLE by Jonathan Newell B.A., The University of British Columbia, 2009 M.A., Queen’s University, 2010 A THESIS SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY in THE FACULTY OF GRADUATE AND POSTDOCTORAL STUDIES (English) THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA (Vancouver) April 2017 © Jonathan Newell, 2017 ii Abstract “The Daemonology of Unplumbed Space: Weird Fiction, Disgust, and the Aesthetics of the Unthinkable” explores the aesthetic and metaphysical significance of disgust in weird fiction. Beginning with the weird’s forefather, Edgar Allan Poe, the study traces the twisted entanglement of metaphysics, aesthetics, affect, and weird fiction through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, considering along the way the myriad attempts of authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft to stage encounters with the unthinkable. Drawing on recent philosophical efforts to reinvigorate metaphysical thought – including speculative realism and new materialism – as well as affect theory, the dissertation argues that in contrast with earlier Gothic writers, whose focus on sublime aesthetic experience reified the importance and power of the human subject and entertained fantasies of spiritual transcendence, authors of weird fiction exploit the viscerality of disgust to confront readers with the impermanence and instability of a subject polluted by nonhuman forces which seep into it from the world around it. In doing so, weird fiction helps us to think about the nature of this queasy, nonhuman world, to glimpse an existence beyond the world merely as it appears to us. By investigating the intertwinement of the aesthetics of disgust and metaphysical speculation about the nonhuman world, the dissertation expands our understanding of weird fiction and the study of affect in literature. It thus contributes to a growing understanding of weird fiction as more than a pulp, essentially commercial genre, rather interpreting the weird as literature of ecstatic yearning for a non-anthropocentric reality, literature which dwells on questions of being, becoming, and the ultimate nature of the universe. iii Preface This dissertation is original, unpublished, independent work by the author, Jonathan Newell. Portions of Chapter 4 were presented at the 2015 Biannual Conference of the International Gothic Association. iv Table of Contents Abstract .......................................................................................................................................... ii Preface ........................................................................................................................................... iii Table of Contents ......................................................................................................................... iv List of Abbreviations ................................................................................................................... vi Acknowledgements ..................................................................................................................... vii Dedication ..................................................................................................................................... ix Chapter 1: Introduction – Metaphysical Malignancies ......................................................... 1 1.1 Gothic Tumour ............................................................................................................. 6 1.2 The Weird World-in-Itself ............................................................................................ 9 1.3 Disgusting Thoughts ................................................................................................... 15 1.4 Awed Listening at the Known Universe’s Utmost Rim ............................................. 23 Chapter 2: The Putrescent Principle: Edgar Allan Poe ...................................................... 31 2.1 Macabre Metaphysics ................................................................................................. 31 2.2 The Abominable Absolute .......................................................................................... 38 2.3 The Metaphysics of Death-in-Life in “Morella” ........................................................ 53 2.4 “Ligeia,” Affect, and the Absolute ............................................................................. 61 2.5 Entropy, Sublimity, and the Sublate ........................................................................... 68 2.6 Decay, Disgust, and Indifferentiation in “The Fall of the House of Usher” .............. 76 2.7 Meontological Sovereignty in “The Masque of the Red Death” ................................ 87 2.8 Perversion and Self-Annihilation in “The Imp of the Perverse” ................................ 98 Chapter 3: Ecstasies of Slime: Arthur Machen ................................................................. 103 3.1 Horrific Hieroglyphs................................................................................................. 103 3.2 The Fin-de-Siècle Mystic Revival ............................................................................ 113 3.3 Sacramental Slime and The Great God Pan ............................................................. 120 3.4 Revulsion and Regression in The Three Imposters .................................................. 135 3.5 Mucilaginous Mysteries in “The Novel of the Black Seal” ..................................... 141 3.6 Sin and the Sacred in “The Novel of the White Powder” ........................................ 154 Chapter 4: Horrible Enchantments: Algernon Blackwood .............................................. 164 4.1 Weird Nature ............................................................................................................ 164 4.2 Vegetal Ontology and Abcanny Alterity in “The Willows” ..................................... 174 4.3 Monstrous Odours in “The Wendigo” ...................................................................... 187 4.4 Vitalism and Vibrant Assemblages in “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” ............ 202 v Chapter 5: Cosmic Contamination: Howard Phillips Lovecraft ...................................... 214 5.1 Assaults of Chaos ..................................................................................................... 214 5.2 The Blind Idiot God .................................................................................................. 230 5.3 The Metaphysics of Cannibalism and “The Rats in the Walls” ............................... 240 5.4 Preternatural Disgust and the Great Outside in “The Colour Out of Space” ........... 253 5.5 Collisions of the Cosmic and Corporeal in “The Dunwich Horror” ........................ 270 5.6 Abominable Aufhebung and Sublate Sainthood in The Shadow over Innsmouth .... 283 Chapter 6: Conclusion: The Wisdom of the Unhuman ..................................................... 294 Works Cited ............................................................................................................................... 296 vi List of Abbreviations DTP In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Zero Books, 2011. OOO Object-oriented ontology. SHL Supernatural Horror in Literature. 1927. Wildside P, 2011. SL Selected Letters 1911-1937. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, Arkham House, 1968. STI System of Transcendental Idealism. 1800. Translated by Peter Heath, UP of Virginia, 1978. SSC Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 2. Zero Books, 2015. TLN Tentacles Longer than Night: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 3. Zero Books, 2015. WWR The World as Will and Representation. 1818/19. Translated by E.F.J. Payne, Dover, 1969. 2 vols. vii Acknowledgements I would like to offer tremendous gratitude to my Supervisor, Dr. Sandra Tomc, whose patience, insightful advice, good humour, and superb mentorship were invaluable in navigating the murky and pitfall-riddled terrain of weird scholarship; her guidance and unflagging cheerfulness helped sustain this dissertation and its author through periods of puzzlement and doubt that sometimes seemed equal to the horrors of an unknowable cosmos. My committee members, Dr. Adam Frank and Dr. Suzy Anger, were similarly indispensable, asking penetrating, perceptive, and intellectually enriching questions no less consciousness-expanding than the metaphysical musings of the German Idealists or speculative realists. This project was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, whose funding gave me the time to write when I needed it most, as well as the Gilean Douglas Scholarship in English and the Faculty of Arts Graduate Award from the University of British Columbia. I would also like to thank a number of colleagues in the English Department at UBC whose intellectual (and personal) generosity have profoundly shaped my scholarship and, indeed, my life: Dr. Tiffany Potter, Dr. Siân Echard, Dr. Deanna Kreisel, Dr. Stephen Guy-Bray, Dr. Elizabeth Hodgson, Dr. Glenn Deer, Dr. Patricia Badir, Dr. Alexander Dick, and Dr. Margery Fee. Special thanks also to the ever-helpful and always cool-headed Louise Soga, who helped with many a crisis. Thanks also to my fellow graduate students and friends in the English Department – in particular, Carmen Mathes, Maddie Reddon, Eve Preus, Sheila Giffen, William Rubel, Brendan McCormack, Chris Gaudet, and Dallas Hunt. viii In addition, I offer enormous thanks to my parents, David and Shaaron Newell, whose dauntless encouragement led me not only into graduate studies but to English literature in the first place, as well as to my brothers, Benjamin and Simon Newell. Finally, special and inestimable thanks are owed to my wife, Allison Sullivan, who has put up with mountains of books and endless talk of tentacular monsters, and whose wit, wisdom, and warmth are truly and continuously astonishing. Without her support, love, and confidence, this dissertation would not exist. ix Dedication To Alli, who makes the chaos of the universe bearable. 1 Chapter 1: Introduction – Metaphysical Malignancies His solid flesh had never been away, For each dawn found him in his usual place, But every night his spirit loved to race Through gulfs and worlds remote from common day. He had seen Yaddith, yet retained his mind, And come back safely from the Ghooric zone, When one still night across curved space was thrown That beckoning piping from the voids behind. He waked that morning as an older man, And nothing since has looked the same to him. Objects around float nebulous and dim – False, phantom trifles of some vaster plan. His folk and friends are now an alien throng To which he struggles vainly to belong. - H.P. Lovecraft, “Alienation” (1943)1 In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air” (1928), the nameless narrator moves into a converted brownstone in New York. Alarmed by an odour of “pungent ammonia” (131) and a dripping ceiling, he investigates and is informed that the source of the chemical spill is the enigmatic Dr. 1 From Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth.” Beyond the Wall of Sleep. Arkham House, 1943, pp. 395-407. 2 Muñoz, his upstairs neighbour. Despite the strangeness of the chemical baths the doctor takes, his proximity proves life-saving when the narrator suffers a sudden heart attack and lurches upstairs in search of help. Upon meeting the strange, reclusive man, the narrator is instantly but unaccountably repelled, a nausea stealing over him despite his desperation: “as I saw Dr. Muñoz in that blast of cool air,” he tells us, “I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify” (Lovecraft, “Cool Air” 133). Returned to health by Dr. Muñoz, the narrator slowly befriends the curious and “and even gruesome” (Lovecraft, “Cool Air” 135) physician. As the story progresses it is revealed that using techniques of extreme refrigeration Dr. Muñoz keeps a mysterious malady at bay, relying on what at first seems to be some combination of medicine and unusual cryonic science. But as time passes the physician hints at other forces sustaining him beyond those explicable by science, speaking of how “will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself” (Lovecraft, “Cool Air” 133), and of certain “incantations of the medievalists” (134). But all is not well with the good doctor, for all his cooling technology and “cryptic formulae” (Lovecraft, “Cool Air” 134): he seems to be dwindling, eating less and less, talking often of death. An unpleasant odour develops in his apartment that has nothing to do with his constant chemical baths. Then, one day, “the horror of horrors came with stupefying suddenness” (Lovecraft, “Cool Air” 136): the refrigeration machine breaks. Dr. Muñoz alerts the narrator to his need by thumping on the floor and cursing in “a tone whose lifeless, rattling hollowness [surpasses] description” (136). Kept in a tub of ice, the physician is rapidly declining, and there is a hint of “fiendish things” in the air as the stench intensifies (Lovecraft, “Cool Air” 137). The narrator goes out to find workmen to repair the doctor’s machines, but returns to discover the apartment in disarray. The only trace of Dr. Muñoz is a “terrible little pool” and a few “nauseous words” of “noisome scrawl” on a paper “hideously smeared as though by the very claws that traced the hurried last words,” as 3 well as a “dark, slimy trail” which leads from the note to the couch “and [ends] unutterably” (Lovecraft, “Cool Air” 137-38). The words reveal that Dr. Muñoz had literally defied death, persisting in a state somewhere between life and death despite having “died” some years before. His liminal state presents a host of ontological paradoxes, inviting the reader to question the boundary between life and death, human and nonhuman, consciousness and world, spirit and matter. What may seem at first a story about speculative technology turns out to be a story that is also about speculative metaphysics, about the possibility of some horrific, dark vitalism, life sustained by the power of the will rather than the operation of organs. Such philosophical speculations are not illustrated using the dry, detached tone of the metaphysician, however, but with expostulations of growing repugnance finally culminating in an awful confrontation with the doctor’s horrifically deliquescent remains. “Cool Air” was initially rejected by Weird Tales for the intensity of its disgusting content (Joshi and Schultz 47). Lovecraft credits the inspiration of the story to “The Novel of the White Powder,” an embedded tale in The Three Imposters (1895) by Arthur Machen, one of Lovecraft’s literary heroes (Joshi and Schultz 47). Machen’s story, in turn, owes much to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845). Both predecessors of “Cool Air” are tales of bodily disintegration, putrefaction, and necrotic slime, the horrific, undifferentiated sludge of decay; both also deal with ontological paradox and the breakdown of normally sacrosanct categories. “Cool Air” and its fictional forebears dwell with both disgust and fascination upon things otherwise unthinkable, literally beyond the limit of thought: what it is like to be dead, what happens to consciousness after death, and the mystery of thinking matter. Such stories act as speculative portals, as vortices through which we imagine realities otherwise unthinkable. They propel us vertiginously into the realm of the unknown. 4 In Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), Lovecraft himself tells us that what he calls the true “weird tale” must have “something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule” (19). For Lovecraft, to qualify as authentically weird “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (SHL 19). This dissertation, The Daemonology of Unplumbed Space, takes Lovecraft’s suggestion seriously to argue that weird fiction, through the means of an aesthetic experience generated by a form of disgust, allows for a moment of what the philosopher of art Carolyn Korsmeyer calls “aesthetic cognition,” a visceral aesthetic encounter that “leads the mind toward the ineffable” (126) and allows for queasy re-conceptions of reality otherwise difficult to comprehend. Beginning with the weird’s forefather, Edgar Allan Poe, the study traces the twisted entanglement of metaphysics, aesthetics, affect, and weird fiction through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, considering along the way the attempts of weird authors such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood to stage encounters with the unthinkable through the intuitively unlikely conduit of aesthetic disgust, arriving finally back at Lovecraft and his own weird writing. Lovecraft claimed that we “will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse” (SHL 18). For him, weird fiction is a kind of “composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation” (Lovecraft, SHL 18). This dissertation is an anatomy of that body and a cartography of unholy 5 dimensions, a gazetteer of the unfathomable, with Poe, Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft for guides. Like the demonological grimoires of Johann Weyer and Jacques Collin de Plancy it is also a bestiary, a book of monsters and monster theory. Indeed, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s third thesis on monsters in his essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” – that “the monster is the harbinger of category crisis,” a creature “suspended between forms” that refuses “to participate in the classificatory ‘order of things’” and resists “attempts to include [it] in any systematic structuration” (6) – in many ways serves as this study’s theoretical starting-point. Monsters in weird fiction and the revulsion they precipitate show how the epistemological schema and structures of meaning human beings use to make sense of the world break down, how so many are anthropocentric conceits used to reify human specialness and an image of the world as if it were “for” us, and how a cosmic outside always seems to hover just beyond the familiar world revealed by our senses. Absolute differences and distinctions of kind and essence are obliterated by the enmonstered reality that the affects of weird fiction convey. As the New Weird2 author China Miéville puts it, such creatures are “expressions of that unrepresentable and unknowable, the evasive of meaning” (“On Monsters” 381). I do not set out simply to decode each monster in its turn, to impose order on the fundamental unruliness of monsters. Rather, I claim that the monsters of the weird are uniquely useful to think with – and that such thinking is inextricably wrapped up in feeling. I demonstrate here that there is a metaphysical dimension of weird fiction – a concern with a speculative, absolute reality beyond that described by scientific observation – which is captured in 2 The New Weird, exemplified by Miéville and by authors like Jeff Vandermeer, Stephanie Swainson, K.J. Bishop, M. John Harrison, and (arguably) Thomas Ligotti, hearkens back to the weird fiction of the sort discussed here, subverting tropes and clichés in fantasy and science fiction that came into ascendency in the late-twentieth century. 6 this fiction through the powerful emotion of disgust. Weird revulsion, I suggest, creates aesthetic encounters which help us to think about the unthinkable. 1.1 Gothic Tumour What exactly do I mean by “weird fiction?” The term is as categorically slippery and confused as the realities it so often describes. I am using the term here primarily in reference to a particular subgenre of texts published towards the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, although I also identify the works of Poe as an early of example of weird fiction avant la lettre. S.T. Joshi, one of the weird’s foremost critics, stresses the genre’s nebulosity, noting that “if the weird tale exists now as a genre, it may only be because critics and publishers have deemed it so by fiat” (The Weird Tale 1). Despite the fuzziness of its borders, however, I side with Joshi in distinguishing the weird from the Gothic and want to resist the urge to completely subsume the former into the latter (or vice versa). While Joshi’s objection to the umbrella term “Gothic” as employed by critics like David Punter is essentially temporal or historical, however, mine is primarily aesthetic. I have no objection to applying the term Gothic to works beyond the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries when they share substantially in the sensibilities, techniques, and preoccupations of the original Gothic novel – one thinks of the vampire novels of Anne Rice, or many of the works of Stephen King, for instance. But I argue that weird fiction as written by the authors in this study – Poe, Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft – must be seen as distinct from the Gothic for reasons of both style and substance. I imagine the weird as a kind of tumour growing out of the Gothic – an outgrowth, composed of the same tissues but unfamiliar, defiant of category, alien and yet not-entirely-so, at once a part of its progenitor and curiously foreign to it. A literary excrescence, weird fiction shares 7 many of the same tropes and trappings as its eighteenth-century host, including a fixation on negative affect. But where the Gothic is primarily preoccupied with what Ann Radcliffe calls “the gloomy and sublime kind of terror,” accomplished through a “union of grandeur and obscurity” (149-150) – a giddy Kantian thrill, an exquisite fear in which the human subject’s power is glorified and uplifted – the weird revels in a far less rarefied form of horror, one derived not from the subject-affirming power of sublime fear but from the subject-dissolving power of disgust. While there are certainly Gothic works that turn the stomach (for example, Matthew Lewis’ 1796 novel The Monk, or many of the works of the Marquis de Sade), the disgust precipitated by weird fiction emanates from a specific source – the nonhuman world, or even, sometimes, what philosophers have called world-in-itself, the mind-independent world beyond the human which exists whether it is being actively perceived or not. Concerned with “cosmic” and metaphysical mysteries, the weird explores ontological depths, striving through language to glimpse strange and otherwise elusive vistas of being. The weird is a speculative and affective negotiation of the real, in its most elemental sense. This is not to say that weird tales can be neatly separated from discourse, or that they do not reflect the culture in which they were written – only that weird fiction is metaphysically rather than socially or psychologically oriented. Weird authors do not share a single, dogmatic metaphysics, either. Their speculations are often contradictory, and a consistent, fully intelligible ontological system cannot be neatly deduced from the close reading of a series of weird texts; there is no single, wholly coherent philosophy for which the weird in toto is merely an elaborate cipher. One of this dissertation’s central claims, however, is that weird fiction, in part using affect, attempts to access a form of reality difficult to cognize, one in some sense radically distinct from the human mind, or at the very least, from an anthropocentric viewpoint that privileges the human subject. 8 From a structuralist standpoint, weird fiction can be best understood as a subset of what horror scholar Terry Heller, following Tzvetan Todorov, calls the literature of the fantastic, in which there exists a kind of hesitation on the part of both readers and characters as to whether events are natural or supernatural in nature (10). In some weird tales – those of the “pure fantastic” – the truth of things remains unclear or ambiguous, but in most a supernatural or at least “preternatural” or “supernormal” explanation is confirmed. Following Lovecraft’s insistence that the true weird tale needs to express an otherworldly affect linked to the “suspension or defeat of [the] fixed laws of Nature” (SHL 19), I want to exclude from the domain of the weird those tales which Heller and Todorov would term “uncanny” – that is, tales in which “there is never a serious suggestion that the supernatural is operating in the story” (11) – as well as those of the “fantastic/uncanny,” otherwise known as tales of the supernatural explained, a subgenre exemplified by Radcliffe’s Gothic novels.3 By weird fiction, then, I am speaking of a sort of fiction which includes the supernatural, or at least the suggestion of the supernatural – including works that leave the actual supernaturalism of events unclear, including stories such as Poe’s “The Black Cat” (1843). As further chapters will show, however, I also argue that despite (or, indeed, through!) its supernatural elements, weird fiction is engaged in a form of unorthodox realism. Quite distinct from the social realism or literary naturalism of late-Victorian novels which strive to depict everyday life with faithfulness to social reality, weird fiction seeks to estrange readers from mundane existence while 3 Lovecraft is effusive in his praise for Ann Radcliffe, suggesting that she often “approached genius” with her “genuine sense of the unearthly,” giving impressions “of illimitable frightfulness,” but he complains bitterly of her “provoking custom of destroying her own phantoms at the last through laboured mechanical explanations” (SHL 30). 9 remaining faithful to a deeper, profoundly asocial reality; indeed, a nonhuman reality. The curious realism of weird fiction thus finds its closest cognate not in the various literary realisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as they are usually understood but in philosophical and metaphysical realism – and especially in the recent philosophical project that has come (not un-controversially) to be known as “speculative realism.” 1.2 The Weird World-in-Itself The philosophical attempt to think about the world-in-itself has been a major preoccupation of the loosely-defined movement known as speculative realism, originally associated with Quentin Meillassoux, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Ray Brassier and now extended to include many additional thinkers like Timothy Morton, Levi Bryant, Ben Woodard, and Eugene Thacker, among others. Positioning itself against both a naïve realism that presupposes we might have direct, unmitigated access to the world-in-itself and against what Meillassoux, in After Finitude (2008), terms “correlationism,” upholding the ban on metaphysics established by Immanuel Kant, under which “we only have access to the correlation between thinking and being” (5), speculative realism strives “to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossibility itself: to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not” (27). In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant scathingly observes that “in metaphysics we have to retrace our path countless times, because we find that it does not lead where we want to go, and it is so far from reaching unanimity in the assertions of its adherents that it is rather a battlefield, and indeed one that appears to be especially determined for testing one’s powers in mock combat; on this battlefield no combatant has ever gained the least bit of ground, nor has any been able to base any lasting possession on his victory” (108-109). To move forward, Kant argues, 10 we must distinguish between phenomena – the world “as it appears” – and noumena, or things-in-themselves – things “as they are” (The Critique of Pure Reason 347). The minds of human beings utilize a priori categories of understanding in order to cognize phenomena, but the thing-in-itself remains always elusive – the best we can do is to think of it “under the name of an unknown something” (Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason 351) to which we are always denied access. As Kant steadfastly insists, “we can never get beyond the boundaries of possible experience” (The Critique of Pure Reason 112). It is this iron-clad emphasis on the contents of the human mind and the way that objects conform to our thinking, and in which we cannot know anything of the world outside of this correlation, that the speculative realists critique. Meillassoux urges us to wake from the “correlationist slumber”4 induced upon us by Kant, in order “to reconcile thought and the absolute” (128), to try and know the world as it exists in-itself (or, as Thacker might say, “without us”), rather than confining ourselves to the correlates of our own consciousness. As Steven Shaviro recently put it, speculative realism calls on philosophers “to do precisely what Kant told us that we cannot and must not do” (67): namely to move beyond the bounds of the world as we perceive it, to leave behind what Ben Woodard evocatively describes as “the dead loop of the human skull” (11). The problem, of course, is the vicious correlationist circle or “correlationist two-step” (Meillassoux 5) which inextricably seems to circumscribe all thought and so doom us to ignorance of the world-in-itself. As Graham Harman observes, for the correlationist “we cannot think of the 4 Meillassoux here is rather cheekily echoing Kant, who famously roused himself from “dogmatic slumber” after encountering David Hume’s sceptical attack on causality, prompting him to rethink the relationship between subject and world and leading to The Critique of Pure Reason. 11 world without humans or humans without the world, but only of a primordial relation between them,” a predisposition which has essentially dominated philosophy for the last two hundred years by attempting “to anchor the whole of reality either in the human subject who perceives the world, or in a society that constructs it” (“An outline of object-oriented philosophy” 188). Or, as Eugene Thacker explains, “the world-in-itself is a paradoxical concept; the moment we think it and attempt to act on it, it ceases to be the world-in-itself and becomes the world-for-us” (DTP 5). The second we begin to think of the world-in-itself it passes into the realm of our consciousness and becomes enmeshed in the world of our representations, our senses and subjective viewpoint. Thacker thus imagines the world-in-itself as “a horizon for thought, always receding beyond the bounds of intelligibility” (DTP 5). The responses of various speculative realists to the seemingly ineluctable correlationist ouroboros have been multifarious, to the point where some have disputed the very coherence of the “speculative realist movement” altogether.5 Shaviro notes that speculative realists tend to disagree strongly on fundamental issues, though they are united nonetheless by a commitment “to restore the dignity of metaphysical investigation and invention” and reinstate “a robust ontological realism” after the long spell of twentieth-century antirealism as exemplified by such schools of thought as phenomenology, structuralism, and some variations of continental philosophy (5). Meillassoux, fighting back against the correlationist circle and the Kantian transcendental subject, turns to the idea of “contingency” and David Hume’s denial of the necessity of the laws of nature. 5 Despite its controversy, I do think the term “speculative realism” is a useful one: even if the various philosophers operating loosely under its heading come to radically different conclusions, their overall aims are comparable. The speculative realists most important to this study are Graham Harman and Eugene Thacker, since both have also written about the role of horror fiction, but I will also frequently draw on Quentin Meillassoux’s terminology. 12 He ultimately comes to view the laws of nature as merely contingent and endorses a vision of reality as a churning “hyper-Chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, nor even unthinkable,” a kind of monstrous inversion of the Cartesian God which he describes in terms suitable for a Lovecraftian abomination: a “menacing power . . . capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm” (Meillassoux 64). Others, such as Harman and other adherents of “object-oriented ontology” or “OOO” as it is sometimes abbreviated, while sharing Meillassoux’s antipathy towards correlationism, have argued against the idea that philosophy can ever produce knowledge itself, claiming instead that philosophy “aims at objects . . . that can never be successfully defined but only indirectly approached” (An outline of object-oriented philosophy” 191). Accordingly, OOO has set about exploring the gaps between objects and their qualities. Also notable here is new materialism or neo-materialism, an emerging metaphysics and loose philosophical movement with significant points of contact and overlap with speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. In many ways an outgrowth of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities, new materialism is championed by thinkers like Jane Bennett, Manuel DeLanda, Rosi Braidotti, and Karen Barad, and finds it roots in an eclectic range of philosophers including Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Henri Bergson, and Baruch Spinoza, combining vitalist and immanentist ideas about the ontology of life with the ways that actor-network theory calls on us to rethink the boundaries and distributions of agency between human and nonhuman. Though sometimes less explicitly committed to popping the correlationist bubble 13 than object-oriented ontologists, the new materialists are interested both in metaphysical realism and in grappling with the relation between the human and the nonhuman in a non-anthropocentric fashion. Whole books have and will be written exploring the various speculative realist and new materialist rejoinders to metaphysical antirealism and correlationism. This dissertation is not among such works precisely, since it is not primarily a work of philosophy but of literary criticism: my intent here is not to persuade readers of some specific metaphysical system or to critique antirealism directly, but rather to show that weird fiction engages with philosophical quandaries pertaining to metaphysics that still vex philosophers today and which are becoming increasingly relevant in an age struggling to come to grips with the nonhuman and the idea of a world that is not “for us.” Speculative realist philosophers have also shown an interest in fiction – particularly horror and weird fiction. Harman, for instance, has written extensively about Lovecraftian “ontography” – the way that, in his view, Lovecraft’s writing presents reality as riven with gaps or rifts, structured by tensions between objects in their full actuality and their sensual properties. Even more recently, Thacker has written a three-volume series, The Horror of Philosophy, that touches on weird fiction (among many other topics, ranging from black metal to Japanese film) as it explores the intersection between horror and philosophy, approaching horror as “a non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically” (DTP 9). Thacker begins the first volume of his series with a discussion of demonology, presenting the demon “as a limit for thought,” unfettering the demonic from its theological origins and repurposing demonology “as a philosopheme” (DTP 47) that negotiates problems of being, nothingness, language, and the unhuman. My project, The Daemonology of Unplumbed Space, is both an extension of Lovecraft’s suggestion that weird fiction concerns “the assaults of chaos and the 14 daemons of unplumbed space” (SHL 19), and in a sense, a demonology of the sort Thacker envisions and which he suggests has not yet been fully realized. This dissertation can thus be broadly aligned with many of the perspectives of speculative realist philosophy even if its aims pertain to literary criticism rather than metaphysics itself per se. At the same time, however, some of the literary claims of the speculative realists have run the risk of reducing weird and horror fiction to allegory – philosophy dressed up with tentacles and fangs. This approach marginalizes the affective power of the weird, which so many of its authors have specifically identified as the very “point” of their work. Beginning with the stories of Poe and his “Philosophy of Composition” (1846), weird authors have afforded emotional effects tremendous primacy. Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft all uphold aesthetic attitudes broadly similar to Poe’s, looking also to Aestheticism and Decadence and largely endorsing the idea of l’art pour l’art while criticizing didactic and moralistic works that foreground some particular social, political, or ethical aim as the point of fiction. Lovecraft insists that while the “emotional level” of a weird story is of the foremost importance, “a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear” (SHL 19). Though many of Thacker’s claims in The Horror of Philosophy are illuminating, he returns again and again to a vision of horror fiction as fundamentally idea-driven rather than emotion-driven. At one point Thacker argues that for Lovecraft “horror is less defined by emotion and more by thought” (TLN 120). Later, he argues that Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy against the Human Race (2010) is the “logical next step” in horror as it dispenses entirely with “narrative, character, and plot, in favour of the ideas of horror fiction” (Thacker, TLN 159), and describes such works as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (142) as essentially “idea-driven” (14). I am not denying that horror fiction has ideas 15 in it – ideas worth exploring. Indeed, much of this dissertation will be spent complicating and unpacking the ideas voiced by the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, and others. But by foregrounding ideas at the expense of aesthetics, written off along with the details of plot and character, Thacker and his fellows neglect what seems to me the real engine of horror – affect. Among my claims will be the idea that for weird fiction, affect and metaphysical speculation become intimately intertwined. This study thus intervenes in philosophical readings of weird fiction by privileging affect: both the affective states of characters and the potential affective states of readers. Specifically, I argue that disgust is an especially important affect for the weird, serving not only to impart a certain frisson of aesthetic pleasure (an effect itself fraught with paradox) but serving as a way of knowing – or, at least, of speculating. This is in part because disgust is an emotion centrally concerned with boundaries and borders, demarcations of being, selfhood, subjectivity, and category. My project here, then, is to bring together two ways of thinking about weird fiction: one that emphasizes the ways that the weird offers metaphysical speculations, and another which foregrounds the unusual, even paradoxical aesthetics of disgust. In doing so, I aim to expand the study of weird fiction as a genre, one particularly invested in metaphysical speculation, and also to emphasize the unexpected aesthetic value of disgust. 1.3 Disgusting Thoughts Disgust and metaphysics may seem very strange bedfellows. The former, intuitively, we associate with the gut, a visceral, biological reaction, while the latter clearly belongs to the brain, the abstract province of reason and the intellect. Yet time and time again the otherworldly monstrosities and things-from-beyond depicted in weird fiction seem calculated to repulse and disturb in such a way as to arouse speculation around the contours of the self, the cosmos, and the relationship between 16 them. Noël Carroll observes that horror fiction typically deploys imaginary monstrous creatures to engender an emotion he terms “art-horror,” a mixture of fear and disgust. Carroll singles out the disgusting in particular, observing that “the monster in horror fiction . . . is not only lethal but – and this is of the utmost significance – also disgusting” (22). Building on Mary Douglas’ account of ritual impurity, which I explore in greater depth in Chapter 3, Carroll argues that the disgust monsters arouse is linked to their disruption of the categorical schema by which human beings make sense of the world: “an object or being is impure if it is categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless” (32). Monsters “involve the mixture of what is normally distinct,” either by splicing together different sorts of creatures or by superimposing two categorically separate beings (as in demonic possession, for example): they are “categorically transgressive” (Carroll 33). Monsters disgust because they disrupt our ways of knowing. Carroll’s philosophical objective is primarily to explain the appeal of horror and unravel what he calls the paradox of horror, one iteration of the broader aesthetic paradox of aversion that arises in the face of art that elicits negative affective responses. While I have different aims than Carroll, his observation about the way disgust operates in horror fiction forms a useful beginning. Because monsters are impure and categorically interstitial, they pose an epistemological problem, calling into question the social, cultural, and scientific schema of characters and readers and so introducing doubt into the way the world is perceived and understood, vexing the processes by which meaning is made and reality comprehended. By mixing and intermingling that which is usually understood to be separate, those things which we find disgusting invite ontological speculation about the true nature of reality, a speculation facilitated by the affect they elicit. But where in life we might not give the disgusting a second thought, surrendering swiftly to its aversive character and turning aside from that which revolts us, in art, disgust achieves a kind of fascination. 17 Even if disgust in art is more “immediate” or “transparent” than other emotions, it rarely entails the same sensory intensity as it might in a non-artistic context. Where we might simply recoil from the decaying body of an animal or the slime on mouldering bread, in art we are safe to experience and even savour what Aurel Kolnai calls disgust’s “macabre allure” (42). Moreover, the particular aesthetic encounters which weird fiction creates rely on a disgust generated by monstrous, supernatural beings, defying categories more viscerally and conspicuously than creatures that might disgust us in life. Formless and shapeless things, indeterminate creatures, amorphous and chimerical monsters – all such weird horrors hint at the possibility of an undifferentiated, unified, or oozingly intermingled ontology, or one in which organisms and objects are forever melding together and influencing one another in a weft of complex relations. Within weird fiction, the possibilities of such boundary-blurring and category transgression become especially fecund. Violently irrupting into the human world, or world-for-us, monsters in weird fiction serve as manifestations of a base or primal reality beyond our normal comprehension. They elicit disgust because they violate everyday epistemological rules, constructs, and intuitions, obliterating the familiar, comforting, and thoroughly anthropocentric apparatus used to impose a sense of order on reality. At the same time, they open up a space for speculation, confronting us with the reality that lies beneath the correlationist crust. Necrotic hands burst forth from grave-dirt, dragging us down into chthonic chaos. Core to the connection I am proposing between disgust, weird monstrosity, and metaphysical realism is the idea that disgust, when encountered in art generally and weird fiction in particular, can be used to facilitate ways of thinking that are normally foreclosed – that it functions as a cognitive catalyst for speculation about the nonhuman world of the kind that Meillassoux and his fellows urge. Korsmeyer’s work (which traces some of its roots to Carroll) 18 adopts a cognitivist framework for affect in art, one that returns to the original meaning of “the aesthetic” in philosophy – that is, a type of “immediate insight” derived from an art object, a form of knowledge “too particular to be brought under the abstractions of reason” (7). Drawing on the work of Anthony Kenny and Gilbert Ryle to reinterpret aesthetic pleasure or satisfaction as a kind of “modifier of attention” engendering “fascination, concentration, rapt attention” or “absorption” (118), Korsmeyer argues that art can create an “aesthetic apprehension” which “imparts the impression that one is on the brink of an intuition that eludes articulation in plain language and can only be approached by means of the artwork which induces it” (126). While making room for a whole range of possible ideas that disgust might make viscerally known through aesthetic encounters, she pays the greatest attention to the possibilities offered by what she calls the “sublate,” an aesthetic experience arising from disgust, comparable to the sublime. Like the sublime, Korsmeyer contends, the sublate transmogrifies “a supremely uncomfortable and aversive emotion . . . into powerful and transportive aesthetic insight” (133). The sublime and the numinous, of course, have a more extensively theorized history than disgust – even while disgust oozes in the background of aesthetics almost since its inception, since as Winfried Menninghaus observes, in many ways modern aesthetics rests “on a foundation based on prohibition of what is disgusting” (7). I will return repeatedly to the sublime in its various guises as presented by the likes of Edmund Burke, Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer, to name a few, as well as more recent reformulations of the sublime such as the perverse sublime, the apocalyptic sublime, the ecological sublime, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, and the “sublate” described by Korsmeyer. Central to my argument will be the idea that disgust can provide a version of aesthetic experience in some sense profoundly parallel to the sublime but in another wholly inverse to it – a form of sublimity utterly shorn of anthropocentrism. As I discuss in detail in 19 Chapter 2, the Kantian sublime ultimately upholds and confirms the supposedly awesome power of the human subject, exalting in the superiority of consciousness and so entrenching the anthropocentric worldview correlationism fosters. In thinking through the connection between affect, art, and metaphysics, my work here builds on the recent theories of weird affect by thinkers like China Miéville, an author of the weird as well as an academic, whose aesthetic formulations are addressed directly in Chapter 4. Miéville’s focus on the affect generated by weird fiction is linked to “radical otherness,” which he compares (but does not equate) to the eighteenth-century sublime, noting the ways that “writers like Wollestonecraft and Radcliffe and Schopenhauer and Schelling wandered up mountains to where the fabric of language and the symbolic order is thinnest and frayed, and stared out into geological scale, into the breathtaking abyss of the unrepresentable, and what they’ve called the Sublime” (“On Monsters” 380). For Miéville, weird fiction is thus an iteration “of a long, strong aesthetic and philosophical tradition, one endlessly obsessed with questions of the Awesome, a beauty that is terrible and beyond-kenn-or-kennableness” (“On Monsters” 380). As Miéville notes, however, the “Weird Affect” (“On Monsters” 380) is a “bad numinous,” closer to “sublime backwash” (383) than it is to the sublime itself. The aestheticized disgust of weird fiction operates much as the sublime does, transmuting negative affect into awe and even ecstatic delight, but where the sublime empowers the subject, weird disgust ruins and erodes it. My argument draws on Korsmeyer and other recent theorists of disgust such as Colin McGinn, who calls disgust “a kind of metaphysical emotion” (96), William Ian Miller, who describes disgust in terms of “life soup” (18), an undifferentiated organic substance of life, death, and decay, and Susan Miller, who focuses on disgust as an emotion tied up in the question of subjectival borders and the maintenance of the self, its ability “to define individuals’ concepts of self and body and to establish relationships 20 between the two conceptual realms” (5). I thus expand and develop Miéville’s observations around affect and the weird to argue that disgust is uniquely suited to facilitate metaphysical speculation in art. Weird fiction exploits disgust’s connection to impurity, the threat of dissolution, and the porousness of the body to imagine new worlds beyond the boundaries of the human and the self. In addition to the philosophical work of the speculative realists, scholarship on disgust and aesthetics, and Miéville’s formulations around the weird, this dissertation builds on the work of several seminal critics, adding to a growing body of scholarship on weird fiction. It owes substantial intellectual debts to Joshi, who argues that weird fiction is strongly tried to the “philosophical predispositions” and “distinctive world views” of its authors (The Weird Tale 10). While Joshi is, by his own cheerful admission, a member of the “pedestrian school of criticism,” his attempt to try and ascertain the “philosophical purpose” (The Weird Tale 230) of a given weird author’s writings is foundational to my own approach. Joshi, however, is notably dismissive when faced with the occult and idealist metaphysics of authors like Machen and Blackwood, noting, for example, that he finds he simply “cannot follow the courses of reasoning – if they can be called that – by which Blackwood arrives at his conclusions and attitudes” and that he simply does not understand “the mystical temperament” (The Weird Tale 10). In his approach to Lovecraft, Joshi reveals an unsurprising reverence for materialism, sympathetically emphasizing Lovecraft’s atheism and mechanistic materialism and arguing that Lovecraft is perhaps the only weird writer, specifically “not excluding” Poe, “whose world view is of interest in itself” (The Weird Tale 170). In contrast, my aim is to take seriously the metaphysical speculations of occultists and idealists such as Blackwood, and my portrait of Lovecraftian ontology complicates his mechanistic materialism considerably. 21 This project also extends and elaborates a concept that the Gothic scholar Kelly Hurley introduces in her illuminating monograph The Gothic Body: Sexuality, materialism, and degeneration at the fin de siècle (1996) – that of the “abhuman.” The abhuman is a monstrous or ruined subject “figured in the most violent, absolute, and often repulsive terms” (3) which Hurley links primarily to fin de siècle British Gothic. As she puts it, “in place of a unitary and securely bounded subjectivity,” the abhuman subject is “fragmented and permeable” (3), one that is forever on the edge of “becoming other” (4). Hurley’s account of the abhuman, especially its disgustingness, resonates closely with my conception of the weird monster, a figure of formlessness and alien horror contaminating the human. However, Hurley’s theory identifies the anxieties around the boundaries of the human primarily in relation to late-Victorian science and “scientific discourse, biological and sociomedical,” including “evolutionism, criminal anthropology, degeneration theory, sexology, pre-Freudian psychology” and other discourse that vexed conventional understandings of “the human” (5). In this sense, Hurley shares a great deal in common with the mechanistic materialism of Joshi: both scholars are interested primarily in the ways that nineteenth- or twentieth-century scientific discoveries shaped Gothic and weird fiction, with an emphasis on the anxieties and revulsion concomitant with materialism and the various metanarratives of human specialness it disrupts. Hurley’s approach to horror and disgust has been influential, leading to such works as Xavier Aldana Reyes’ Body Gothic (2014), which shares with this work an interest in the disintegration of bodies and affects such as fear and disgust. For Reyes, horror fiction is rooted in anxieties around “interstitiality” and the refusal of “absolute human taxonomies” (5), and he notes that what he calls body gothic “prods the limits of taste and decorum” (7). I have in common with Reyes an appreciation for the way that weird texts elicit “horror, shock or disgust in those who 22 stand for a normative version of humanity” (12). Like both Joshi and Hurley, however, Reyes is interested in the ways that the revolting transgressions and disgusting spectacle of horror confront us primarily with a sense of “unspeakable corporeality” (7) and a kind of base materialism, one that reduces not just human beings but reality as a whole to purely physicalist terms. I am certainly not entirely denying the viability of the materialist approach broadly shared by scholars like Joshi, Hurley, and Reyes, or the merit of thinking about late-Victorian Gothic and weird fiction in relation to scientific discourses, but at the same time I think that weird fiction is not merely a reflection of what Hurley calls “the realities of gross corporeality” (3), the brute thing-ness of a wholly materialist world and the “gothicity of matter” (33). I suggest that weird monstrosity and revolting subjects of the sort Hurley terms abhuman and Reyes identifies as corporeally transgressive can be read not only in relation to scientific discourse but also to metaphysical speculation that explicitly moves beyond a mechanistically materialist or wholly scientific understanding of the world. In its emphasis on disgust, my project is also in some ways adjacent to a particular tradition of thinking about the aesthetics of disgust and horror, a tradition we can trace to works like Heller’s The Delights of Terror (1987), Carroll’s landmark study The Philosophy of Horror (1990),6 Yvonne Leffler’s Horror as Pleasure: The Aesthetics of Horror Fiction (2000), Matt Hill’s The Pleasures of Horror (2005), and Korsmeyer’s Savoring Disgust: The Foul & The Fair in Aesthetics (2011). Insofar as these works investigate what is often called the “paradox of aversion,” they can trace their critical heritage back to ancient questions in aesthetics, such as those of Aristotle’s Poetics. 6 The Philosophy of Horror inspired the title of Eugene Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy, as he notes in an interview with Scapegoat, and indeed, Thacker considers his three-volume work a kind of inversion of Carroll’s seminal study (380). 23 This scholarship lies at the border between literary criticism and the philosophy of art and asks a question about horror fiction generally: why is it that we find the aversive emotions that horror fiction arouses to be pleasurable? It was, in fact, this very question that first interested me when I began research on this project, and while the dissertation no longer tackles the paradox of aversion directly in the same way as previous work on the subject, it does rely on some of the theoretical bedrock established by literary critics and aestheticians interested in the question of disgust and enjoyment – specifically, the idea that the affects aroused by horror fiction have meaningful cognitive content. 1.4 Awed Listening at the Known Universe’s Utmost Rim The story of weird fiction that this dissertation tells is one of the genre becoming gradually aware of itself – or, to put it differently, of weird authors becoming more intentionally invested in a particular kind of aesthetic project. The Daemonology of Unplumbed Space considers four authors in detail, two American and two British: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Not only are these four figures widely considered luminaries of the weird, their approaches to weird fiction are paradigmatic of the form of ontological horror story this dissertation considers: each articulates a metaphysical vision of an ultimate reality that always seems to recede from a wholly intellectual grasp but which can be partially, speculatively apprehended through art and the affects it arouses. Yet when Poe, in the words of Lovecraft, “did that which no one else ever did or could have done,” laying the groundwork for “the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state” (SHL 55), he was not, I think, setting forth to instantiate a new subgenre of the Gothic, or even explicitly aiming to speculate about matters metaphysical. Haunted by the slow and horrifying deaths first of his mother and then his wife by tuberculosis, 24 Poe writes stories of death-in-life, psychic breakdown, and apocalyptic contagion, returning repeatedly to ideas of the Absolute and the convergence of matter and spirit. While his goal may not have been to grasp at metaphysics, he stumbles into a weird new way of thinking and writing about them nonetheless. By the time Lovecraft penned his seminal study, however, the genre had significantly developed – the Gothic tumour metastasizing, growing into something new. At the same time a certain trajectory can be traced from Poe to Lovecraft in the content of their metaphysical explorations. Where Poe, Machen, and Blackwood all break down distinctions between the human and the nonhuman in ways upholding what Thacker, in his description of German Idealists and other post-Kantian Idealists, calls an “ontology of generosity,” where life comes “to serve as a metonym for the Absolute” even when it is intertwined with forces of decay (SSC 110), Lovecraft overturns this recuperation, exposing instead a reality utterly devoid of meaning, a world of endless suffering and pointless striving. The development of the weird is thus also a slide towards pessimism. While the four weird authors differ significantly in both artistic style and philosophical substance, they share a disdain for Victorian didacticism, for moralistic literature that seeks to indoctrinate its readers in a dogmatic fashion. Repeatedly emphasizing emotion and feeling over the articulation of social or political commentary, all four exalt in art’s affective power in their criticism, essays, or letters. Unlike previous critics who have approached weird tales as idea-driven rather than emotion-driven, I embrace the aestheticism of these authors and position affect as central to the weird exploration of the unthinkable, an aesthetic gateway through which each story invites its readers to step. In the weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the body becomes something alien, not-wholly-human but always tinged with monstrosity. Consciousness, also, becomes something eminently 25 strange, but rather than separating itself from the physical according to Cartesian, dualistic conceptions of mind and matter, it is forever bleeding into bodies or the surrounding environment. Focusing on “Ligeia” (1838), “Morella” (1835), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), and “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), Chapter 2 “The Putrescent Principle,” investigates some of Poe’s dead, diseased, and decaying bodies and the stories around them in search of clues into Poe’s unusual, often-slippery ontology. Poe’s conception of a cosmos bent on “inevitable annihilation” (8), as he puts it in Eureka (1848), manifests in his fiction a rapt fascination with decay, linking aestheticized disgust with a vision of the universe in perpetual and irresistible decline towards total indifferentiation. Poe’s weird tales of decay, this chapter thus argues, provide a glimpse of the entropic abyss of undifferentiated unity into which Poe hints the universe will collapse – what he calls “Material Nihility,” a state of “Nothingness” engendered by the “absolute Unity” or “Heart Divine” that Eureka suggests our reality will attain as all matter and spirit dissolve into one another, a Dark Romantic ontology derived in part from the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling. In this chapter I build on readings of Poe in terms of that “absurd metaphysician” (as Poe terms Schelling), on recent work on Schelling by philosophers like Eugene Thacker, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Theodore George, and on conceptions of disgust emphasizing the interpenetration of life and death. I read Poe’s preoccupation with the too-animate, metamorphic, and putrescent corpse in terms of Schelling’s conception of the “Absolute,” a unity between the knowing subject and the world-in-itself bridging the Kantian division between phenomena and noumena. In doing so, I expand an understanding of Poe in metaphysical terms and complicate understandings of Poe’s anti-didactic aesthetics by linking them, through disgust, to an Idealist ontology. My aim here is not to claim that Poe is deliberately encoding Schellingian philosophy into his fiction in 26 any direct, intentional sense, but rather that Poe’s stories possess a metaphysical dimension that Schelling’s philosophy is useful in exploring. Preoccupied with the idea of consciousness surviving death, Poe’s stories are more than psychological, they are ontological, propelling us past the normal limits of thought into speculative philosophical terrain – but with a speculation always intertwined with and indeed conveyed through palpable disgust and unease. Poe serves as the logical starting point for this study for several reasons. A significant influence on most of the authors in subsequent chapters – far more directly so than the Gothic authors who came before him and, indeed, than many who came after – Poe is in many ways the progenitor of weird fiction, wresting the Gothic further away from its roots in post-Enlightenment nostalgia for the social structures of the medieval period and towards the cosmic, the unknowable, and the metaphysical. Lovecraft, as previously noted, identifies Poe as one of his most significant influences, devoting an entire chapter to him in Supernatural Horror in Literature in which he describes Poe’s weird writing as “a literary dawn directly affecting not only the history of the weird tale, but that of short fiction as a whole” (55). Chapter 3, “Ecstasies of Slime,” examines the works of the fin de siècle Anglo-Catholic weird author and occultist Arthur Machen, a fervent anti-materialist and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn whose yearnings for spiritual “ecstasy,” a kind of withdrawal from common life, manifest not in the traditional sublime, as might be expected, but in slime, sin, and monstrosity, revealing a world of Decadent horror and primal mystery. Reflecting on Machen’s mystic and aesthetic doctrines as outlined in his singular theoretical work Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature (1902), I read Machen’s novels The Great God Pan (1890) and The Three Imposters (1895) as efforts to restore what Machen feels is a vanished sense of sacred reality, banished from late-Victorian life by the seemingly inexorable advances of a scientific materialism 27 Machen saw as rapidly stripping the universe of its wonder and mystery. Machen – influenced by Poe, a friend of Blackwood’s, and a major influence on Lovecraft – presents in his fiction a series of monstrous regressions back into primordial abysses of time, most potently incarnate in beings that secrete or deliquesce into mucus, sludge, and protoplasmic ooze. Far from serving as representations of abject material thingness, however, such slime accrues a kind of sacramental status, animated by an immanent spiritual presence interfusing the shadowy illusion that is, for Machen, the physical universe. Disgust in Machen’s fiction is a means for gnosis, for seeing past the world of our immediate experience and ecstatically reuniting with the divine. Drawing on Mary Douglas’ account of ritual impurity and theorizations of slime and grotesquery such as William Ian Miller’s concept of “life soup,” this chapter interprets Machen’s slime as the unlikely manifestation of Godhead. While previous criticism has tended to consider Machen’s disgusting horror stories in scientific and materialist terms or else explored his esotericism without considering the role of disgust and horror in sufficient detail, this chapter brings both together to think through the implications of disgust for Machen’s esoteric project. I pair theories of disgust and impurity with late-Victorian occult metaphysics and Meillassoux’s discussion of the “arche-fossil,” an ancestral remnant out of deep time that disrupts correlationist accounts of reality, to argue that the weird works of Machen’s “Great Decade” utilize the surprising affect of disgust both to impart the sense of wonder or ecstasy that he imagines as the raison d’être of “fine literature” while simultaneously presenting an immanent onto-theological account of being. Blending Decadent poetics and Christian mysticism with vivid, often repugnant representations of monstrosity, Machen’s works exemplify the power of the weird to contest what in the 1890s were becoming powerful metanarratives of scientific progress, while at the same time refuting an anthropocentric theology obsessed with human uniqueness or holiness. 28 The weird eco-fiction of Machen’s contemporary Algernon Blackwood, a journalist, broadcaster, outdoorsmen, British spy, and Buddhist mystic, is the focus of Chapter 4, “Horrible Enchantments.” I approach Blackwood’s tales of backwoods horror, including “The Willows” (1907), “The Wendigo” (1910), and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” (1912) using ecocritical and new materialist interventions in metaphysics such as those carried out by Michael Marder and Jane Bennett, alongside ontologies of vitalism, immanence, panpsychism, and pantheism as imagined by the likes of Deleuze, Bergson, and Spinoza. I pair these biophilosophical explorations of matter, life, and substance with theories of disgust, abjection, and the aesthetics of horror, most notably those of Julia Kristeva and China Miéville. Where Machen imagines the universe in Anglo-Catholic terms as a kind of grand sacramental symbol for the “Source of all Souls,” a hieroglyphic mystery, Blackwood – reacting against a strict Evangelical upbringing – elevates Nature to a position analogous to Godhead in Machen. I argue that Blackwood’s stories of the weird wilderness stage confrontations between anthropocentric, colonial perspectives and ecological powers that always exceed human understanding or circumscription and, in so doing, reveal the amorphousness and permeability that trouble our conceptions of subjectivity and the subject’s relation to the universe. This confrontation, I suggest, can be understood in relation to the world-for-us imagined by anthropocentric discourse and a seemingly unthinkable and thoroughly nonhuman Nature. This chapter brings a new perspective on Blackwood’s tragically under-discussed weird fiction while linking together recent scholarship on metaphysics and the aesthetics of disgust. I contend that the very difficulties inherent in conveying the unthinkable natural world are harnessed by Blackwood’s stories to cultivate a sense of cosmic awe, an ecological sublimity inseparable from a form of aestheticized disgust. Rather than simply confirming an essential alterity between 29 humanity and nature, the dualistic, hierarchical configuration that characterizes the sublime as it is usually understood and which might undergird either a correlationist account of human consciousness or an understanding of nature as inert or mechanistic matter, Blackwood’s weird nature-stories entangle the human and the nonhuman in a rhizomatic mesh of nonhuman actants and vegetal horrors. The final chapter of this dissertation, “Cosmic Contamination,” considers the weird fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a great admirer of Poe, Machen, and Blackwood and perhaps the best-known author of weird fiction in history. My analysis focuses on short stories like “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), “The Colour Out of Space” (1927) and “The Dunwich Horror” (1929), as well as the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936). Like his predecessors, Lovecraft is concerned both with engendering affective responses in his readers and with forms of metaphysical speculation. In many ways, his work assimilates the influences of the three authors discussed in previous chapters, both in terms of plot and imagery and in relation to the ideas underlying his stories. With Poe he shares a fascination with the decomposing corpse, with decay and entropy; with Machen, an interest in combining teratology and deep time, monstrosity and ancestrality; with Blackwood, a quest for seeking the universe’s outermost rim, the cosmic outside, the utterly other, setting many of his tales in remote locations, metaphorically closer to the “Great Outdoors.” But while Lovecraft’s precursors displace the human in their metaphysical speculations, each also recuperates humanity through an ontology of generosity, in which life and thought are “overpresent” (Thacker, SSC 110): Poe’s decaying, quasi-Schellingian Absolute, Machen’s Godhead of sacramental slime, and Blackwood’s panpsychic, vitalist Nature all dethrone human beings only to embrace them once more, recuperating them into a primal unity. In Lovecraft, this recuperative move is thwarted, for human beings in Lovecraft’s fiction are not only insectile, 30 insignificant beings of no cosmic importance; the universe itself is a malignant force – a force I describe in relation to Arthur Schopenhauer’s ontology, which identifies the world-in-itself with an all-encompassing, non-sentient will-to-live, a brute, nihilistic striving. While Lovecraft’s weird fiction is an increasingly popular subject for scholarship, the role of disgust in his fiction is rarely given the centrality it deserves, and his metaphysics are rarely discussed in terms beyond those of mechanistic materialism. Key to Lovecraft’s works, I contend in Chapter 5, is the revelation that even the most seemingly dependable human conceptions, such as those of selfhood and self-knowledge, are unreliable: his weird stories are rife with protagonists who, with spasms of revulsion, apprehend not only the emptiness of their human values but the reality of their own alienage, of the strangeness and repulsiveness of life and the universe itself, and of a continuity between human beings and that nauseating cosmos. The only solace from this endless horror lies in a dissipation of the self, a loss of ego kin to madness which I relate to Schopenhauer’s formulation of the sublime and to the nullification of the will in the moment of its full apprehension. The story this dissertation tells is not always a neat, linear one – there is no clear roadmap of the Great Outdoors. What emerges from my analysis is not a single, consistent picture of the unthinkable world-in-itself but a series of shifting visions, coalescing miasma-like to provide strange and sometimes unsettling glimpses of the reality we inhabit but imperfectly comprehend. My goal here is to contribute to a growing critical understanding of weird fiction as serious literature engaged in exploring meaningful questions about the nature of reality and our access to it, and to bring to the study of the weird new perspectives emphasizing the significance of affect generally and the cognitive and aesthetic power of disgust particularly. 31 Chapter 2: The Putrescent Principle: Edgar Allan Poe 2.1 Macabre Metaphysics Edgar Allan Poe’s first short published story, “Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German” (1832), is explicitly concerned with metaphysics. Its central conceit of metempsychosis – an idea Poe would return to in works like “Morella” (1835) and “Ligeia” (1838) – concerns the transmigration of the soul, and manifests in the form of a grotesque, demonic horse with the soul of a man, a liminal figure somewhere between life and death, human and animal. The horse becomes the obsession of Frederick, the Baron Metzengerstein, a likely arsonist who burned down the stables of his neighbours, the Berlifitzing family, with whom his own family had long feuded. The horse, branded with the letters “W.V.B.” is implied to have become possessed by the spirit of William von Berlifitzing, who died trying to save one of the horses. Poe describes the steed in terms that emphasize not only its power and ferocity but also its inherent repulsiveness: it possesses “gigantic and disgusting teeth” made visible by its “distended lips” (Poe, “Metzengerstein” 160), and its rider, Frederick, contracts from the beast “a hideous and unnatural fervour” described with the language of wasting disease, a “morbid melancholy” (161). From the story’s beginning Frederick is afflicted with an irresistible fascination for the creature: upon first seeing its representation in a tapestry, foreshadowing its physical manifestation, “his eyes [become] unwittingly riveted” to the “unnaturally coloured” thing, and his lip twitches with a “fiendish expression . . . without his consciousness,” his gaze returning inexorably to the image “mechanically” (Poe, “Metzengerstein” 160). Here Poe simultaneously erodes the individual agency of the Baron while hinting that the horse may be the product of his unconscious mind, adding another layer of paradox to the already contradictory beast. The Baron’s infection by the 32 monstrous horse, itself an abominable amalgam transgressing both physical and metaphysical boundaries, serves to blend the hideous steed and its rider together, the two blurring into a single, categorically confused horror. This union, in which the human and the nonhuman meld and melt, dissolving into one another and, finally, into the flaming hulk of the Baron’s castle, is inseparable from the revulsion it elicits. Poe returns to the idea of the soul or consciousness surviving death again and again, blurring the boundary not only between living and dead but between matter and spirit, calling into question what precisely constitutes a subject at all, and threatening to collapse the mental and the physical, the subject’s perceptions and the objective world-in-itself. As such, we can read Poe’s fiction as aspiring to bridge the supposedly unbridgeable gap between phenomena and noumena upon which Kant and his correlationist disciples so emphatically insist. In “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), one of his most famous stories, Poe again depicts a grotesque undead being, the eponymous tubercular Valdemar, dead and yet speaking, hypnotized by the narrator. Valdemar’s diseased, decomposing cadaver remains “alive” and speaking in a disgusting, paradoxical state between death and life. His speech itself is rendered repulsive and monstrously physical, almost slimy in its syllables: Poe describes it as impressing upon the auditory senses “as gelatinous or glutinous matters impress the sense of touch,” a mucilaginous synesthesia, but also as somehow defeating or moving beyond our full comprehension, “the hideous whole” of this speech being decidedly “indescribable” (“Valdemar” 19). Valdemar’s speech is itself unspeakable, unthinkable, even “unearthly,” resounding, as it were, from what Lovecraft might call unplumbed space: “the voice seemed to reach our ears . . . from a vast distance or from some deep cavern within the earth” (Poe, “Valdemar” 19); it arouses a horror which is itself “unutterable” (21). At the end of the tale, Valdemar finally collapses, rapidly rotting in the hands of the narrator into “a 33 nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putrescence” (Poe, “Valdemar” 21), a kind of quintessence of decay in which the contradictory metaphysical states Valdemar embodies at last decompose into a mushy, putrid unity. I am not the first, of course, to notice that stories like “Metzengerstein” or “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” are disgusting. Adam Frank, for example, in his persuasive discussion of Valdemar’s horrifically wagging tongue as a figure for the then-emerging technology of electromagnetic telegraphy (conveying, as it does, the impression of speech from a great distance, invested with a strange simultaneity and “liveness”), argues that the disgust aroused by the story’s “revolting climax” (655), and Valdemar’s decomposition more generally, functions as part of a complicated joke on Poe’s part, using disgust in a kind of “decontamination script” in which a struggle over the “purity” of language is parodied by the power-struggle between the mesmerist and Valdemar’s mesmerized corpse (666). My readings in the pages below certainly do not aim to overturn interpretations invested in Poe’s interests in technology, sociality, and the writing process, such as Frank offers, or to deny other readings of disgust in Poe’s work. Rather I want to claim that the aestheticized disgust that appears frequently in Poe’s writing does something else as well, something which later weird writers looking back to Poe would excitedly draw upon themselves: disgust, in Poe’s writing, helps us to speculate about those things which otherwise lie beyond the borders of our thought, things which are “hideous beyond conception” (Poe, “Valdemar” 19), which resist ordinary cognition. To read Poe’s proto-weird tales of premature burial, mesmerized corpses, and death-in-life is to have an aesthetic experience, however fleeting, suggesting a kind of dissolution of the self brought about by disgust in art. Carolyn Korsmeyer argues in Savoring Disgust: The Foul & Fair in Aesthetics (2011) that the disgusting in art exposes us to truths which are difficult to grasp, “existential truths” whose 34 magnitude “slips through the mind and cannot be held,” reminding us, for example, that “our corporeal selves will suffer disintegration and putrefaction” (158). Disgust, I will suggest, serves in Poe’s tales as a means of thinking about concepts that are hard to comprehend, process, or keep firmly in mind. Eugene Thacker, paraphrasing and expanding Meillassoux, has recently argued that there are certain ideas that are difficult for philosophy to tackle, ideas that lie at the border of the unthinkable or beyond and so engender “a vicious cycle of logical paradox” (DTP 5). He describes this border of the unthinkable as “a horizon for thought, always receding just beyond the bounds of intelligibility” (Thacker, DTP 5), and claims that horror fiction offers an unexpected means of approaching the “blind spots” of philosophical inquiry (9). Following Meillassoux and his description of Kantian correlationism, Thacker specifically identifies the thought of the world-in-itself as an especially difficult idea to cognize which horror renders at least partially thinkable (DTP 9). It is precisely thoughts of the relation between the knowing subject and the nonhuman world that Poe’s horror fiction, with its disgust-provoking scenes, explores. In this way, Poe’s horror also responds to crises in philosophy – although, perhaps, unintentionally. Poe was clearly aware of both the revoltingness and the mystical qualities of his fiction. In a retort to a now-lost letter from Thomas White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, who had evidently disapproved of certain aspects of Poe’s horrific story of mutilation and madness “Berenice” (1835), Poe justifies his grotesque excesses in primarily commercial terms, but his defense of the tale also touches on the mystical. He notes that the antebellum reading public is hungry for horrors, and that while “Berenice” may approach “the very verge of bad taste,” tales which tiptoe up to this line “are invariably sought after with avidity” (Poe, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe 1: 58). He characterizes the “nature” of such sought-after tales as “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the 35 burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical” (Poe, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe 1: 57-58). Poe’s motivations for writing stories of horror and mysticism were at least significantly commercial, though as Sean McAlister observes, there is no reason “to continue viewing Poe’s authorial motivations as either exclusively artistic or exclusively mercenary” (504). The point here is that whether or not Poe was explicitly interested in exploring metaphysical ideas in his fiction, he understood that the reading public was fascinated both by the grotesque and by the “strange and mystical” – that antebellum readers had an appetite for metaphysical horror. In his efforts to sell his fiction – in his letter to White, Poe promises to produce a story of the same horrible nature as “Berenice,” if somewhat less extreme, once a month (The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe 58) – Poe is clearly ready to draw on the vogue for horror, Germanism, and the metaphysical. Judging from White’s later recrimination in the 1839 issue of Southern Literary Messenger, Poe’s tales were still perceived in close relation to “gloomy German mysticism” (708) years later with “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). White insists that Poe is too inclined to “the relish of gross pleasures,” writing that Poe’s stories possess “great power,” but ultimately leave only a “painful and horrible impression,” and he warns Poe that to become “a useful and effective writer” he must completely divorce himself “from that sombre school” of Germanism (708). We might expect, given the Gothic tradition in which Poe is working, for his fiction to draw on an essentially Cartesian metaphysics emphasizing the duality of body and spirit, considering the preponderance in the Gothic of ghosts and disembodied spirits, tales of immaterial substance. But such dualism is neither the ontology of the gloomy German “mystics” that White charges Poe with excessive attachment, nor, in fact, the ontology born out in the stories themselves. From the flickering undead tongue and liquid putridity of Valdemar to the grotesque fusion of horse and man in “Metzengerstein” to the monstrously embodied hauntings or possessions of 36 “Morella” and “Ligeia,” Poe’s stories seem to trouble substance dualism rather than confirm it. In this chapter, I pursue the link between the disgusting and the metaphysical in Poe’s writing in relation to the philosophy of the German Idealist Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, who claimed that art is the “universal organon of philosophy” (STI 12) and that it could thus truly represent that which philosophy could only abstractly describe at a remove. In obsessively returning to conceptions of cosmic decay, and dissolution, a recurring ontological nightmare in which everything slides towards a hungry homogeneity, an all-consuming totality of indifferentiation, Poe’s tales enact the central drama of Schelling’s thought. This state of total unity, in which all distinctions become meaningless, closely resembles what Schelling calls the “Absolute” or “Absolute identity,” in which the differences between subject and object collapse to reveal a primal oneness. For Schelling, only art can reveal the Absolute: philosophy remains limited by the seeming division between consciousness and the world-in-itself, a division which art can uniquely collapse. Art thus works to undo the antinomy between phenomena and noumena identified by Kant as the basis for his ban on dogmatic metaphysics but understood by the German Idealists as a problem to be solved, a challenge to overcome. Before beginning my analysis of Poe’s fiction, I first consider Poe’s familiarity with Schelling and recent scholarship that has increasingly considered Poe and Schelling together. I also briefly discuss Poe’s aesthetic theories and metaphysical thinking to address possible objections to a metaphysical reading of Poe, given his emphasis on artistic autotelism. Next, I consider two stories of putrescent, possessed brides, “Morella” – which contains an explicit reference to Schelling – and “Ligeia.” In these two stories, I examine the way that Poe subverts the typical nineteenth-century aestheticization of the female consumptive and the female corpse, using the affective potency of disgust to confront rather than console. Both texts use the 37 decomposing and metamorphosing cadavers of women to represent the breakdown of subjectivity in the face of the all-consuming Absolute; the bodies of Poe’s diseased brides are always on the verge of breaking down or of becoming something other, hinting at some primal oneness which can be described in terms of the Schellingian Absolute. Next, I turn to “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). Everything in these stories is subsumed by the Absolute, be it the murky unity of the abysmal tarn in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or the pestilential void of human extinction in “The Masque of the Red Death.” I conclude the chapter with an examination of “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845) to better conceptualize the seemingly paradoxical attractions of entropy and the destruction of the self.7 Considering the strange combination of aversion and attraction that the imp represents in relation to ideas of jouissance and the bliss of deindividuation, I use the story to help frame Poe’s proto-weird tales as part of a longer tradition both in aesthetic thought and in the composition of weird fiction. To read Poe metaphysically is not to deny that he can also be read psychologically, or politically, or socially, or to privilege a metaphysical reading over these other, perfectly viable accounts, but rather to tease out a particular version of Poe’s fiction that would become extremely important for later authors of weird fiction. Such authors look back to Poe as an important precursor to their own often more overt and intentionally metaphysical efforts to speculatively uncover some version of absolute or ultimate reality. For Lovecraft in particular, Poe is the “opener 7 The term “entropy” is used here somewhat anachronistically for its descriptive merits, evocative of deterioration, decay, decline, and decomposition into disorderliness. The term would evolve over the course of the nineteenth century, as scientists like Rudolf Clausius developed theories of thermodynamics, beginning in earnest in the 1850s, the decade after Poe’s death. A precise scientific usage in terms of lost energy in thermodynamic processes is not intended here. 38 of artistic vistas” (SHL 55) of “strangeness and gloom” and “decay rather than growth” (57) which reveal “the terror that stalks about and within us, and the worm that writhes and slavers in the hideously close abyss” (58). For the likes of Lovecraft, then, Poe is more than a writer of psychological tales of terror but a visionary whose fiction possesses a cosmic dimension, one of “festering horror” and “horrible half-knowledge” (SHL 58), of a nonhuman, mind-independent reality which presses close upon us but from which we are normally cut off. It is this weird dimension of Poe’s writing that I look to explore here. 2.2 The Abominable Absolute The full extent of Poe’s familiarity with German philosophy and the German language has been subject to considerable scholarly debate, but there is a growing understanding of Poe as receptive to some of Schelling’s ideas. Certainly, Germanic elements and references permeate Poe’s work both explicitly – as in tales like “Ligeia” with its portrait of a “large, old, decaying city near the Rhine” (127) – and stylistically; Charles Baudelaire called Poe’s mind at once “profoundly Germanic” and “sometimes deeply Oriental” (162). Poe himself was sometimes ambivalent about his “Germanic” influences, insisting that the horror of his tales was fundamentally of the soul rather than of Germany per se (Hansen and Pollin 15). He likely derived some of his knowledge of German philosophy (including Schelling) in translation and second-hand, through sources such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817), the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Thomas de Quincey, and various periodicals including The Dial and Blackwood’s Magazine. Recent critical reassessments of Poe and Schelling have taken care not to attribute to Poe an expertise with Schelling (or German culture and philosophy more generally) that did not exist. Rather, as Sean Moreland and Devin Zane Shaw argue, “Poe’s reception, or misprision of 39 Schelling’s ideas had a much more vital influence on his thought and writing” (50) than has been previously suggested. With this relationship in mind, several critics have begun explicitly considering the ways that his fiction and poetry exhibit the influence of Schelling, in part through figures like Coleridge. Aspasia Stephanou, following Maurice Lee, argues that Poe’s stories reflect some of Schelling’s philosophy. Stephanou suggests that Poe’s stories of dying and vampiric women – what Daniel Hoffman terms the “marriage group” (233) – intertwine nineteenth-century medical discourses around consumption with Schellingian philosophy, reflecting what she calls a “gothic materialism” (38) or “dark vitalism” (48).8 Stephanou argues that Poe’s interpretation of the metaphysics of unity diverges substantially from the account of the Transcendentalists. While the Transcendentalists sought to “elevate spirituality,” Poe rather sought to expose what Stephanou calls “the dark life writhing behind the mask of spiritualism and theological mysticism” (50). In other words, Poe perceives in the Schellingian Absolute something monstrous and disturbing rather than uplifting. The approaches of scholars such as Moreland, Shaw, Lee, and Stephanou have built a foundation both for reading Poe in relation to Schelling and for a metaphysical Poe, but none of these critics have considered the relationship between Poe’s writing, Schellingian metaphysics, and the affect of disgust, which I argue is the key to the ways that Poe’s texts convey the unthinkable. My intervention in the study of Poe is not simply to link Poe with Schelling but to explicate the ways that disgust specifically, when approached using a cognitivist aesthetics, enables a kind of metaphysical speculation – even if this is not, strictly speaking, part of Poe’s primary authorial intention. My contention in this chapter is that Poe’s tales – intentionally or otherwise – create aesthetic encounters with the Absolute. 8 Other stories in the marriage group include “Berenice” (1835), “Eleonora” (1842), and “The Oval Portrait” (1842). 40 Schelling has, in the twenty-first century, undergone something of a philosophical reappraisal, with influential philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek engaging with his work, pairing Schelling with Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist political theory. More directly, Schelling has inspired several of the speculative realists, included Thacker as well as Iain Hamilton Grant, who in Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (2006) uses Schelling as his philosophical foundation for thinking through a new naturphilosophie that moves beyond correlationism, or what Grant calls a “two-worlds metaphysics” (9), accommodating our modern world of climatic disaster, energy shortages, and the other assorted apocalypses unleashed by the Anthropocene. As Grant puts it, Schelling is, in a sense, a “contemporary philosopher” precisely because he “provides a rare instance of the as yet mostly untried consequences of exiting the Kantian framework which has held nature in its analogical grasp for the two hundred years since its inception” (19). Quite apart from Poe’s own interest in Schelling, then, or the body of scholarship that has begun to link the two, Schelling would be relevant to a metaphysical reading of weird fiction for his own contributions to philosophizing about the Absolute. What, then, is the Absolute for Schelling? Put most simply, the Absolute is “the coincidence of an objective with a subjective” (5) as Schelling writes in System of Transcendental Idealism (1800). The “objective” is the world of nature, the “subjective . . . on the contrary, the self, or the intelligence” (Schelling, STI 5). As Schelling observes, these two concepts are “mutually opposed” (Schelling, STI 5), and it seems difficult to imagine a system that does not grant one or the other a kind of priority or primacy over its opposite: thus we must either “make an intelligence out of nature, or a nature out of intelligence” (Schelling, STI 7). It is Schelling’s goal to solve this contradiction, a contradiction with implications for what Grant calls Kant’s two-world metaphysics. As Thacker writes of Schelling’s philosophy: “for Schelling, the key intuition was 41 that the self that thinks about the world is also part of the world, and it is a mistake to presume that there is first a separately existing self that then turns towards and reflects on the world as an object” (TLN 143). Like the other German Idealists – most notably Fichte and Hegel – Schelling’s philosophy builds on Kant’s, but where Kant maintains a staunch separation between the world of appearances (phenomena) and the world-in-itself (noumena) the German Idealists approach this split as a crisis to be solved. Schelling is committed to a kind of monism in which everything – human beings, objects, nature – is ultimately part of a single whole, and in which there is “identity,” in the philosophical sense, between the knowing subject and the object of thought, the nonhuman world.9 As Schelling succinctly puts it in the second edition of Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1803): “Nature should be Mind made visible, Mind the invisible Nature” (42). Unlike Fichte, whose 9 One of the challenges and frustrations often noted by philosophers and historians is that Schelling’s ideas tend to lack the kind of systematic rigour sometimes attributed to his contemporaries. As Devin Zane Shaw puts it, “Schelling literature is split between interpreting him as a protean thinker endlessly shifting in his philosophy, or a philosopher restlessly unfolding the consequences of one fundamental intuition” (86). I am principally concerned here with Schelling’s identity philosophy, in which he moves away from a Fichte’s system of subjective idealism. Fichte’s system jettisons the Kantian noumenon or thing-in-itself in favour of a self-positing “I,” wholly rejecting the possibility of a world beyond the boundaries of subjective experience: for Fichte, everything becomes wholly subordinate to the subject. Fichte thus essentially argues that there are no things-in-themselves at all. His solution to the problem Kant introduces effectively elevates the knowing subject even beyond its giddy Kantian heights to become the originator of everything. Schelling’s movement away from subjective idealism resonates more closely with the aesthetics of disgust that I identify in Poe’s writing since they tend to blur distinctions between subject and world, to erode the subject’s boundaries and call its supremacy into question. Both Schelling and Fichte, however, are essentially responding to the correlationist split that Kant introduces in metaphysics and which the speculative realists seek to overcome. 42 system does away with things-in-themselves altogether and posits the subject as that which produces the world, Schelling attempts to incorporate elements of Spinoza’s pantheistic philosophy into his own thinking, noting that Spinoza was “the first who, with complete clarity, saw mind and matter as one, thought and extension simply as modifications of the same principle” (Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature 15) – or, as Schelling puts it in his later, unfinished work, The Ages of the World (1815), Spinoza was, among all modern philosophers, the most cognizant of “a dark feeling of . . . primordial time” (104), a unity which heals the wound made by Descartes when he “lacerated the world into body and spirit” (105). Schelling recuperates the supposedly “dogmatic” philosopher’s idea of a single, monist nature or substance – Spinoza’s pantheistic God – while taking pains to avoid some of the seemingly fatalistic consequences of Spinozist monism.10 In this sense, Schelling is neither an idealist in the subjective, immaterialist meaning of the term as attributed to philosophers like George Berkeley, nor a Fichtean transcendental idealist making the subject the centre of his philosophy at the expense of the world-in-itself. He is trying, rather, to unite on the one hand what he calls a “transcendental philosophy,” one “proceeding from the subjective,” and a “nature-philosophy,” one proceeding from the objective (Schelling, STI 7). He insists that “how both the objective world accommodates to presentations in us, and presentations in us to the objective world, is unintelligible unless between the worlds, the ideal and the real, there exists a predetermined harmony” (STI 11). This harmony is the Absolute, an original, undifferentiated unity, homogenous and total. In The Philosophy of Art (1802) Schelling contends that “the universe (by which we always mean the universe in itself, eternal and unbegotten) – the universe is, like the Absolute, utterly One, 10 For more details on Schelling’s reconciliation of freedom within a philosophy of nature influenced by Spinoza, see Devin Zane Shaw’s Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art (2010). 43 indivisible, since it is the Absolute itself” (Schelling 33). This establishes what Thacker, in his work on Schelling, calls “a continuum that stretches without demarcations between the world-for-us and the world-in-itself” (SSC 118). The Absolute is a metaphysical totality which encompasses both the thoughts of individual subjects and the world-in-itself, a substratum that unites the thinking mind and the mind-independent world. Recent Schelling scholarship has also suggested that there is something “monstrous” about Schelling’s Absolute. As Theodore George notes, Schelling identifies tragedy as the highest art because of its ability to “remedy the shortcomings of philosophy” (143) through its all-encompassing capacity to capture both the conflict between the reasoning subject and the objective world but also their ultimate unity. Tragedy, George points out, may represent an Absolute unity, but a unity “marked much more by strife, contradiction, and incompleteness than anything else” (143). It is this monstrous dimension of the Schellingian Absolute that I argue Poe taps into in his horror stories – stories which consummate the Schellingian reunion of subject and object through disgust, an affect predicated on contradiction and the precariousness of boundaries, particularly boundaries of the self. Poe’s debts to Schelling are better understood if we consider Poe’s incorporation of certain metaphysical ideas into his poetry, specifically Eureka (1848), and look for a moment at the direct correspondences between the writing of Schelling and Poe. As previously noted, in all likelihood Poe derived much of his knowledge of Schelling’s philosophy from British Romantic writers such as Coleridge. For example, Biographia Literaria contains a number of distinctly Schellingian passages, sometimes to the point of near-plagiarism. Coleridge himself anticipates this charge by insisting that he arrived at many of them same ideas independently, noting that he and Schelling “had studied in the same school” and had “been disciplined by the same preparatory philosophy, namely, the writings of Kant” (235), and Coleridge’s explicit praises of Schelling are effusive: he 44 describes the German thinker as responsible for a veritable “revolution in philosophy” (236). His protestations aside, parts of Biographia Literaria are essentially paraphrases of Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism, as when Coleridge writes that: Now the sum of all that is merely objective we will henceforth call nature, confining the term to its passive and material sense, as comprising all the phenomena by which its existence is made known to us. On the other hand the sum of all that is subjective, we may comprehend in the name of the self or intelligence. Both conceptions are in necessary antithesis. Intelligence is conceived of as exclusively representative, nature as exclusively represented; the one as conscious, the other as without consciousness. (291). Like Schelling, Coleridge maintains that “during the act of knowledge itself, the objective and subjective are so instantly united, that we cannot determine to which of the two the priority belongs,” and that they therefore become “coinstantaneous and one” in an “intimate coalition” (291). He thus seeks to combine Idealism with “the truest and most binding realism” in order to avoid exile to what he calls “a land of shadows” that “surrounds us with apparitions” (294), just as Schelling seeks to unite nature-philosophy and transcendental philosophy; and like Schelling he is in search of “some absolute truth,” one that is “self-grounded, unconditional, and known by its own light” (296). It is likely through works like this one that Poe would have received an understanding of Schelling, and of related ideas that clearly owe much of their substance to the German Idealist. Poe singles out Schelling in his “Exordium” in the 1842 issue of Graham’s Magazine, describing Schelling as one of several German authors worthy of respect for their “critiques raisonnée” and for their “more careful elaboration, their greater thoroughness, their more profound analysis” than their British counterparts (69). Poe’s own metaphysical views, like so many of his 45 theories, can be slippery, but what Poe does disclose is consistent with the sort of universe that Schelling and Coleridge describe. Perhaps the closest Poe comes to espousing his metaphysics in detail is the long, often opaque, and rather poorly-received prose poem Eureka, which expresses various ideas strongly reminiscent of Schelling’s Absolute and which evinces the very mystical character Poe elsewhere criticizes.11 In Eureka, Poe writes that the universe began with an “Original Unity of the First Thing” and that its seeming diversity or heterogeneity disguises the “sublimity of its oneness” (8). He stresses the difficulty of capturing certain ideas, noting that the idea of “infinity” cannot actually lead a mind to grasp infinity, but rather constitutes “the representative but of the thought of a thought” (Poe, Eureka 22). Poe thus hopes that his poem will function as a kind of “mental gyration of the heel” (Eureka 9), turning readers on the summit of a figurative Mount Ætna in a kaleidoscopic blurring-together of the seemingly-differentiated 11 While Eureka has rarely been taken at face value as an actual cosmology, recent scholars such as J. Alexandra McGhee and Courtney Fugate have argued that the poem should be treated with greater seriousness than it has previously been afforded. Alongside other critics investigating links between Poe and German philosophy, Fugate contends that Eureka can trace many of its ideas to Kant and Schelling (109), as well as Coleridge and Alexander Von Humboldt (himself acknowledged in the poem). In particular, “the conviction in the unity of the cosmos, both material and spiritual” – the idea that “from the standpoint of the universe, all oppositions . . . must ultimately be recognized as different expressions of the one Absolute unity, because it is from just such a unity that they were originally born” (Fugate 117) – stands out as Schellingian in the post-Fichtean mode of identity philosophy. The prose poem has been understood as everything from a coded meditation on democracy and the American constitution, as W.C. Harris argues (1), to an elaborate joke akin to the Balloon-Hoax perpetrated by Poe in 1844 in The Sun (though Courtney Fugate argues that viewing Eureka as a hoax is a mistake, since the circumstances around its composition were quite different than those around the Balloon-Hoax’s). For a thorough survey of the multifarious ways that Eureka has been interpreted, see Cantalupo, Barbara. “Eureka: Poe’s Novel Universe.” A Companion to Poe Studies. Edited by Eric W. Carlson. P, 1996, pp. 323-44. 46 universe. It is back into this “original Unity” (Eureka 141), Poe claims at the poem’s end, that the tendency towards collapse will inevitably pull the universe till everything is drawn into “a final agglomeration of all things” (132). The agglomeration into which, Poe suggests, everything will converge possesses a pantheistic quality that resembles the Absolute of Schelling or the immanent, pantheistic God of Spinoza, since in it “the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness,” and human beings “will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when [we] shall recognize [our] existence as that of Jehovah” (Poe, Eureka 143). What we call “The Universe,” Poe writes, is in fact but the “present expansive existence” of a “Divine Being, who thus passes his Eternity in perpetual variation of Concentrated Self and almost Infinite Self-Diffusion” – all organisms, all life, and, indeed, everything in the universe, even those things we might “deny life for no better reason than that [we] do not behold it in operation . . . are really but infinite individualizations of Himself” (Eureka 142). God may currently be differentiated or individualized into diverse creatures and other manifestations, “the diffused Matter and Spirit of the Universe” (Poe, Eureka 141), but this differentiation is a kind of illusion which the spiritual and physical gravitational collapse of everything into itself, “the Universal agglomeration and dissolution” (Poe, Eureka 139), will banish. Poe’s vision of this apocalyptic future, in which everything is drawn back together, is described in terms of the unthinkable. He writes of “unfathomable abysses,” from which will glare “unimaginable suns” and describes the entire process, the universe’s “appetite for oneness,” as an “inevitable catastrophe” (Poe, Eureka 136), even while at the same time this sinking “into Nothingness” and “Material Nihility” (139) will also give way to a throbbing “Heart Divine” (139) and the renewal of a new universe. 47 Eureka’s status within Poe’s critical framework is difficult to discern, but he offers the poem “not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truths” (5), closely linking metaphysical truth and the aesthetic in a way one might not expect from the curmudgeonly advocate of art for art’s sake. It is given “to those who feel rather than to those who think” (Poe, Eureka 5), suggesting that affect and feeling, here, are superseding rational inquiry. Early in the text, Poe offers an account of intuition that specifically touches on a two-worlds metaphysics, describing two philosophers, Aries and Hog. Aries, using à priori philosophy, Poe directly associates with noumena, while Hog’s system “depended on phenomena” (Eureka 11). But so great is the admiration of all for Hog, Poe writes, “that a virtual stop was put to all thinking, properly so called,” and “no man dared utter a truth for which he felt himself indebted to his soul alone” (Eureka 12), with anyone who defied this ban being branded a “theorist” and ignored (13). By “cultivating the natural sciences to the exclusion of Metaphysics” (Eureka 14), Poe suggests, we neglect the power of intuition, of speculation and imagination. Godhead, the primal unity, may seem at first beyond our comprehension, since “in order to comprehend what he is, we should have to be God ourselves” (Eureka 28), but of course, for Poe – and for Schelling, as for Spinoza before him – ultimately, we are. If we take Eureka as an earnest description of Poe’s metaphysical views, or at least a tentative one, we can see a significant resemblance between the universe he envisions and the one Schelling’s philosophy describes. Like Schelling, Poe’s cosmos is fundamentally monist, and his Divine Being, like Schelling’s Absolute, suffuses what seem like individual subjects and the nonhuman world, ultimately collapsing the two into one another. Poe’s description of the forces of “Attraction and Repulsion” as matter itself (Eureka 138) closely accords with Schelling’s insistence that even seemingly dead or inert matter consists of “a space limited by attractive and 48 occupied by repulsive forces” (Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature 184). Poe thus shares with both the American Transcendentalists and Schelling a rejection of a “mechanistic” universe in favour of one characterized by unity, as several critics have noted. Matthew Taylor claims that Poe shared with them a belief in “an all-encompassing cosmic energy” (197). Where the Transcendentalists put great emphasis on individualism and the self, however “the first principle of Poe’s cosmology is that the universe actively erodes that which can only heuristically be called ‘human,’ ‘individual,’ or ‘self’”: Poe’s stories in fact enact “a perverse yet consistent calculus that unites everything in existence under a universal law that, by definition, eliminates all differences” (Taylor 199). Thus, we must think of Poe’s universe as one filled with a cosmic force, a force “not in the service of human interests” but rather “asocial, and nonhuman,” relegating human beings to “at best, an ephemeral existence,” one undermining individuality and difference; for Poe, “you cannot have it both ways, cannot transcend the self for the sake of the self, cannot unify the social, much less the universal, without eliminating (the individuality of) individuals” (Taylor 198). Despite his metaphysical speculations and intuitions in Eureka, Poe was, at times, rather cantankerous about metaphysical systems, and pokes fun at monist ontology in stories like “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838) when his narrator, Signora Psyche Zenobia, is advised by Mr. Blackwood to adopt “the tone metaphysical,” and to “put in something about the supernal oneness,” while avoiding all mention of “the infernal twoness” (211). It is clear, though, that Poe is engaging as much in self-parody here as he is skewering other authors, when he writes of a supposedly model story of premature burial “full of taste, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition” (“How to Write a Blackwood Article” 211). As Moreland and Shaw suggest, Poe’s “penchant for ambiguous parody” makes his true feelings somewhat murky – insofar as he mocks Coleridge and his influences, he may well have been at pains to avoid being “perceived as an 49 imitator of British writing” (54), and, in any event, “Poe notoriously evinces the greatest scorn for those writers from whom he has borrowed the most” (51). Moreland and Shaw note that while various parodic and tonally ambiguous references to Schelling in Poe’s writing may vex Schellingian interpretations of Poe (54), his indebtedness to that “absurd metaphysician,” as Poe refers to Schelling in a cut reference that survives as a footnote in “Loss of Breath” (1832), has been underestimated, especially insofar as Poe, like Schelling, rejects mechanistic materialism (51). They observe that while Poe was sometimes at least publicly suspicious of Idealist philosophy, his scorn seems to have congealed most prominently around Kant, while references to Schelling are “invoked with express admiration” (Moreland and Shaw 57). They further note that while, as Hansen and Pollin point out, Poe was keen at times to publicly repudiate German writers, his seeming annoyance with Germanism “does not seem to apply to Schelling,” and by 1839 at least had stopped being “the butt of Poe’s parodies and instead becomes praised as a critic” (Moreland and Shaw 57). Had Schelling read Poe’s fiction, they muse, he “would have found himself in the position of the narrator of ‘William Wilson,’ unable to recognize his reflection, but unable to shake its haunting, and strangely familiar, aspect” (Moreland and Shaw 74). So far, I have pointed out a number of similarities between Schelling’s conception of the Absolute and Poe’s metaphysical universe, made a case for Poe’s familiarity with Schelling’s writing (in part through Coleridge’s translation, adaptation, and near-plagiarism), and suggested that Poe’s interest in using quasi-German Idealist or “mystic” elements in his fiction is linked to his understanding of the antebellum reading public’s desire for horrific, metaphysical fiction. I also want to suggest that while Poe may not have set out primarily to instill in his readers specific metaphysical insights, the idea that certain aesthetic encounters can help us to think about things 50 which are otherwise difficult to cognize is not in itself incompatible with Poe’s famously anti-didactic critical theory. In “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) Poe writes “of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect” (164), and can be dismissive of art that attempts to teach some particular lesson. He notes in the posthumously published essay “The Poetic Principle” that “the demands of Truth are severe” and that “all that which is so indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do” (Poe 5). Poe argues that poetry is not well-suited to articulating those forms of “Truth” which arise from “the satisfaction of Reason” (“The Poetic Principle” 6). However, Poe admits that both “the precepts of Duty” and “the lessons of Truth” can be introduced to a work of art “and with advantage,” provided they do not subsume the “real essence” of the poem (“The Poetic Principle” 8), and even this “real essence” is described as more than appreciating “the Beauty before us” (7). Rather, Poe urges, art is inspired by “a wild effort to reach the Beauty above,” by “an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave” and reflections on “eternity” (“The Poetic Principle” 7). Art, for Poe, is excited by “our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses” (“The Poetic Principle” 7). Poe’s language, saturated with talk of souls, inner essences, immortality, eternity, and the world beyond mundane, earthly existence, is all explicitly metaphysical. The poetic sentiment he describes is a longing to reach beyond the obvious sorts of beauties that simply appear before us, what we might call the beauties of mere phenomena and the world-for-us, and reach instead for a never-wholly-grasped, ecstatic beauty associated with aspects of reality outside our normal scope. But instead of drawing on the language and imagery of the sublime, as one might expect from Poe’s American Transcendentalist contemporaries, Poe turns instead to the revolting, 51 the impure, and the deliquescent. His vertiginous approach to something like Schelling’s Absolute is propelled not through the sublime but through aesthetic encounters with disgust. As recent affect theorists assert, disgust is often called on to police the borders of the body and the boundaries of selfhood. Disgust is a peculiar, often unstable emotion – both profoundly embodied and, simultaneously, shaped by social and cultural forces. Robert Rawdon Wilson calls disgust an “untidy” and “hydravarious” (xvii) emotion characterized by “radical metamorphicity” (49). While its manifestations are varied and manifold, disgust is frequently tied to the transgression of boundaries, to liminal spaces such as bodily orifices, and to processes of transformation such as death and decay. As Korsmeyer argues, disgust is “a response to the transition between life and death – to that which has recently died and is falling apart, to waste that was food and is now used up, to the mindless life-forms that invade and complete the process of disintegration” (122). In this she echoes Aurel Kolnai’s reading of putrefaction as the “prototypical object of disgust” (53), foremost of the nine principal types of disgust-elicitors he delineates. For Kolnai all of the processes of putrefaction – “the corruption of living bodies, decomposition, dissolution, the odor of corpses” and “in general the transition of the living into the state of death” (53) – constitute the epitome of disgust: the threshold between living and dead, when a body hovers between the two states or seems to contain both. Indeed, Kolnai argues that many other things which elicit disgust can ultimately trace the root of their revulsion back to the liminal state of “life in death” (54). He identifies disgust with life and vitality in the midst of death – for example, maggots writhing in a decomposing body, suffusing the cadaver with a ghastly post-mortem animation. Colin McGinn’s recent “impure philosophy” of disgust similarly claims putrescence as disgust’s master-trope, following Kolnai and extending his formulation into metaphysical territory. 52 McGinn suggests that disgust always “proceeds from an oxymoron, a kind of collision or clash of categories” – most saliently from “the friction between two of the categories most central to our conceptual scheme as self-conscious animals,” namely “Life and Death” (93). As he argues at length, building on Kolnai’s account and combining some of William Ian Miller’s conceptions around disgust and the organic and other theories such as Ernest Becker’s that relate disgust and death: When these resounding categories refuse to stay separate, but merge together, disgust floods in . . . We fear and shun death and we embrace and celebrate life, but when the two come together, or are hard to tell apart, our reaction is to turn away in disgust – as if we wish to remain ignorant of the fact of interpenetration. We feel positive about the life that throbs even within putrefying flesh, but the heavy weight of negative affect concerning death robs that positive feeling of its usual value: we are torn, conflicted, confused . . . the astonishing force of life impresses us, but the terrible inevitability of death dampens and depresses. Putrefaction, as disgust paradigm, transparently combines both: the vital and the nullifying. (McGinn 93). For McGinn, the “death-in-life” theory not only synthesizes several previously unsatisfactory accounts of disgust, it is “closely bound up with ideas of consciousness and its annihilation” (95). It is thus, for McGinn, a pre-eminently “metaphysical emotion, spanning the divide between (roughly) mind and matter” (96). Our stubborn materiality, the brute fact of our bodily functions, exists in tension with our consciousness and our aspirations for transcendence. Because we are “both clean and unclean, superlative and sordid” (McGinn 141), this insoluble union of body and spirit generates a kind of metaphysical and aesthetic shock – a constant surprise that our consciousness is tied so intimately to our decaying, mortal, animal bodies. As McGinn eloquently 53 puts it: “consciousness appears to us as a non-disgusting zone of reality, but then we discover that we are also enmeshed in another zone consisting of gross biological material” (140). While McGinn’s quarrel here is primarily with Descartes rather than Kant, his argument could also be applied to the sort of “two-world metaphysics” that Grant identifies Schelling as challenging, a metaphysics which seeks to split “organic from ‘anorganic’ nature” and which divides the thinking subject from the world, and ideas from nature (9). Poe’s horror holds the potential to achieve a representation of the Absolute, apprehended not as a spiritually uplifting totality as it might have been envisioned by the Boston Transcendentalists (and sometimes, perhaps, the German Idealists) but rather in a putrid, Dark Romantic form as an unstable, oozing unity and contradiction, depicting the merging of subject and world through figures like “Morella” and Ligeia.” Rather than sublime fear or terror – the affect more often associated with horror fiction and the Gothic generally – Poe’s fiction cultivates a form of perverse affect that aestheticizes disgust, calling upon its uniquely visceral metaphysical insights. 2.3 The Metaphysics of Death-in-Life in “Morella” In Poe’s stories of the marriage-group, such as “Morella” and “Ligeia,” the Absolute is represented through an inversion of what Bram Dijkstra calls “the consumptive sublime” (29), an aestheticization of the sickly woman as holy, pure, and saint-like. Poe’s tales of unhappy and disease-ravaged marriage foreground conflicting states of being, obsessing over the liminal moment between life and death or death infecting life through scenes of decay, death, revivification, and reincarnation. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe insists that death is the “most melancholy” of the various “melancholy topics” universal to humanity and claims that death 54 is at its most poetical “when it most closely allies itself to Beauty” (165). For Poe, “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (165). In several of Poe’s best-known stories, diseased women wither and die, sometimes to return from the grave or, in their death throes, to metamorphose into some new, sensually malignant form. All of these stories invite us to witness the dissolution of a whole host of binary oppositions, oppositions that structured many nineteenth-century assumptions about the fundamental nature of the world: spirit and matter, life and death, and, most significantly for a Schellingian reading, the thinking subject and the nonhuman, mind-independent world. In these texts the normally sacrosanct borders between things become amorphous; categories break down, seemingly immaterial spirits are grotesquely materialized, identities merge and overlap, and decaying bodies become repulsively lively. All this dissolution and decay, this collapse of hitherto-stable structures, resonates with a decomposing cosmos, becoming, in its dissolution, an undifferentiated totality. What seem macabre snuff-tales about vampires and revenant-brides thus accrue metaphysical significance, foreshadowing a final state of being in which all seeming differences are subsumed by divine oneness, an eschatology difficult to keep fully in view. “Morella” tells the story of Morella, a scholarly woman much dedicated to the study of German philosophers, who acquires a “crimson spot” (Poe, “Morella”171) – suggesting consumption – and eventually dies in childbirth. The daughter of Morella and the nameless narrator begins to mature, acquiring an ever-more-apparent resemblance to her mother till eventually the uncanny similitude between the two becomes a source of horror. The girl’s father has curiously refrained from naming his daughter, and when prompted by a priest at her baptism he names her “Morella,” beseeching the reader: “What demon urged me to breathe the sound, which in its very recollection was wont to make ebb the purple blood in torrents from the temples to the heart . . . 55 what fiend spoke from the recesses of my soul, when amid those dim aisles, and in the silence of the night, I whispered within the ears of the holy man the syllables – Morella?” (Poe, “Morella” 173). The story ends with the daughter calling out “I am here!” as she falls upon her mother’s tomb and expires. When her father opens the crypt to bury his daughter, he finds that his wife’s body has disappeared. “Morella” is a ghost story, the spirit of a dead women returning from the grave to haunt her beloved, but unlike most Gothic ghost stories the spirit of Morella is not a spectral apparition or disembodied phantom: rather she is too-embodied, her presences materializing and so fusing with, subsuming, and finally replacing the body of her daughter. I want to look closely at Morella’s materializing spirit to tease out the relationship between the affective qualities her transformation arouses and, following Korsmeyer’s theory of aesthetic cognition and McGinn’s conception of disgust, the Schellingian metaphysics such affects might help to cognize. “Morella” contains one of the few direct references to Schelling in all of Poe’s fiction; he is mentioned in the same sentence as Fichtean “wild Pantheism,” as well as Pythagoras, but his “doctrines of Identity” are afforded particular primacy (Poe, “Morella” 170). Texts like “Morella” utilize putrescent undead characters to collapse not only a Cartesian dualism of body and spirit, but also the kind of two-world metaphysics that neatly separate the transcendental subject from the nonhuman world. Morella’s undead liminality undercuts dualism or the integrity of a transcendental subject, but in Poe’s writing this leads us not simply to mechanistic materialism but rather towards something very much like the Absolute: a universal continuum both ideal and real that courses throughout all of nature and unifies the thinking subject and nature, the physical world. The Absolute of Schelling subsumes the subject. As Schelling puts it in System of Transcendental Idealism: “one cannot say of the self that it exists . . . precisely because it is being-itself” (32) a 56 part of the Absolute which has become aware of itself through what Poe, in “Morella,” calls the “principium individuationis” (170). Poe emphasizes the horror of Morella’s wasting illness by calling attention to her prematurely decomposing flesh, noting the way that “the blue veins upon the pale forehead became prominent,” and to her sinister eyes, exciting in the narrator “the giddiness of one who gazes downward into some dreary and unfathomable abyss” (171). When Morella’s spirit possesses her own daughter, transforming the girl’s body into that of Morella, once again the focus is on the “hues of death,” on Morella’s “glassy eyes” turning “from the earth to heaven” (Poe, “Morella” 173). Morella’s very name, attached like a parasite to her daughter as “a worm that would not die,” becomes representative of “the memory of the buried dead” (Poe, “Morella” 173). As the “shadows of similitude” grow steadily “more full, and more definite, and more perplexing, and more hideously terrible in their aspect” (Poe, “Morella” 171), Morella’s daughter becomes an uncanny figure of the living dead, of death infecting life. Her final death throes and transformation into her cadaverous mother conjures a kind of apocalyptic vision in the narrator’s mind, as if the strange sickness of Morella threatened to spill from her body and infect the world: “I kept no reckoning of time or place, and the stars of my fate faded from heaven, and therefore the earth grew dark, and its figures passed by me like flitting shadows, and among them all I beheld only – Morella” (173). This imagery of spreading darkness, creeping malignity, disease, grave-worms, and the lure of the abyss stand in contrast to conventional nineteenth-century representations of the consumptive female body portraying it as heavenly and beautiful, a mask of spiritual purity disguising the physical corruption of death-in-life. It is no coincidence, of course that Poe’s women characters frequently suffer from consumption. Stephanou argues that “nineteenth-century medical discourse and literature on consumption exalted the materiality of the consumptive female body 57 by transforming suffering into something beautiful, pure and spiritual, or even sexual” (38). Elizabeth Bronfen, in her influential study on dead women and art in the nineteenth century Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic (1992), similarly contends that in Western, post-Enlightenment patriarchy, aesthetic representations of dead women allowed the masculine, rational subject to confront and conquer death: “even as we are forced to acknowledge the ubiquitous presence of death in life, our belief in our own immortality is confirmed” (x). Aestheticized representations of dead women thus constitute an “opium-induced, wish-fulfilling dream representation” that “[soothes] the mourner about his own fear of mortality” (334). For Bronfen, the abundance of art depicting dead women in the nineteenth century not only re-inscribes patriarchal constructions of female alterity, it forms part of a delusional, anthropocentric longing for triumph over death, decay, and loss of all kinds. Rather than ameliorating anxieties about death by depicting the female corpse as both holy and beautiful, however, Poe assails the reader with repulsive representations of bodily decay and aberrant death-in-life. By refusing to efface the disgusting realities of decomposition and redoubling this revulsion through the figure Morella, Poe undermines discursive constructions of the female corpses as celestially pure that elsewhere reified notions of masculine power and allowed for fantasies of immortality and control over death and entropy. In place of the misogynist idealization of the consumptive woman predominant in the nineteenth-century “cult of invalidism” (Dijkstra 33), the fixation in “Morella” on death-in-life and disgust reorients the text towards a metaphysics of the Absolute. The narrator writes of the “perfect identity” between mother and daughter, but with a shudder at the reflection of death and horror, “the melancholy of the dead” in her normally “holy, and mild, and eloquent face” (Poe, “Morella” 171) – rather than being purified and beautiful in her 58 illness, her beauty and holiness are profaned. Just as Schelling’s Absolute merges together subjects and objects into a single, monist totality, and just as the cosmos Poe describes in Eureka is ultimately but one quasi-Spinozist divine being, so do matter and spirit fuse in “Morella” as death infects life, the terrifyingly precocious development of Morella’s daughter’s “mental being” mirrored by strange, monstrous growth, “a rapid increase in bodily size” (171). The intermingling of the physical and the mental in the girl’s transformation brings about a reaction first of “agonising anxiety” (“Morella” 171) and later “consuming thought and horror” (173) in Poe’s narrator, a horror linked both to the consumptive disease that wracks his nameless child’s body and at the transformation, associated with the “mystical writings” (170) of figures like Schelling, which she undergoes. Instead of the idealized, feminine paragon of purity and “sublime tubercular emaciation” (Dijkstra 29) to be expected in a sentimental scene of death and mourning, Morella bursts from the tissues of her daughter in a perversely reversed birth with a disgusting array of physical signs and symptoms, repulsively materialized as a force of decay. Her features are “convulsed” by a “fiend” (Poe, “Morella” 171) such that the narrator’s “pure affection” is “darkened, and gloom, and horror, and grief, swept over in clouds,” leaving his senses “appalled” and his thoughts “aghast” (170). In foregrounding the revolting horror of death-in-life and presenting Morella not as the pale, suffering saint so often the subject of artistic representation but as an entropic vampire cannibalizing her own daughter in disgustingly spectacular terms, Poe’s story cuts against the prevailing consumptive aesthetics that made sickliness and feminine sacrifice virtues and disguised the decay of the wasting female body to sustain a patriarchal fantasy of control and immortality, a fantasy predicated on binary structures of masculine and feminine, body and spirit, and physical 59 and mental, and which thus depends on a Kantian two-worlds metaphysics structured around fundamental divisions between the subject and nature. “Morella” offers a kind of nauseating gyration of the heel of the sort Poe imagines in Eureka, mother and daughter literally blurring together as the story whirls towards its vertiginous conclusion. It is exactly in such amalgamations that Schelling himself claims that art can reveal the Absolute, since for Schelling, art can represent the Absolute in a way that philosophy, ultimately, cannot. Schelling states in The Philosophy of Art that the essential nature of all art “is the representation of the absolute” – all art, to one degree or another, serves as “a reflex of the infinite” (204). Or, as he puts it in System of Transcendental Idealism: It is self-evident that art is at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy, which ever and again continues to speak to us of what philosophy cannot depict in external form, namely the unconscious element in acting and producing, and its original identity with the conscious. Art is paramount to the philosopher, precisely because it opens to him, as it were, the holy of holies, where burns in eternal and original unity, as if in a single flame, that which in nature and history is rent asunder, and in life and action, no less than in thought, must forever fly apart. The view of nature, which the philosopher frames artificially, is for art the original and natural one. What we speak of as nature is a poem lying pent in a mysterious and wonderful script. (231-32) For Schelling, then, art unveils the original unity of all things, the Absolute union of the subject and the objective world: “the ultimate ground of all harmony between subjective and objective could be exhibited in its original identity only through intellectual intuition; and it is precisely this ground which, by means of the work of art, has brought forth entirely from the subjective, and 60 rendered wholly objective” (STI 232). Art, in Schelling’s view, does precisely what the speculative realists aim to do – overcome the correlationist prohibition of thinking the Absolute. Morella’s consumption and re-integration of her own daughter mirrors the ouroboros-like cyclicity of Poe’s quasi-Germanic cosmos, the originator of things eventually devouring its progeny. As Korsmeyer suggests, part of disgust’s cognitive power is its insistence on the uneasy truth that “our corporeal selves will suffer disintegration and putrefaction” (158). While Morella’s triumphant will, her corrupting spirit, might at first seem to affirm either a subjective idealism closer to Fichte than Schelling or an entirely dualist universe in which the spirit lives on wholly independent of the flesh, her persistent corporeality and close association with the disgusting, with death-in-life, points rather to the collision and dissolution of opposites, the instability of binaries in the face of category crisis, and the collapse of beings, flesh, and spirit into a single, awful unity. In this sense, Morella refuses the possibility of what McGinn calls the “pure kernel” of the soul (137), that “charmed sphere” of the self that we try to preserve from the “tincture of disgust” (138). Confronted with the disgusting spectacle of Morella’s metamorphosis, such immaterial purity is foreclosed. This is not to suggest that disgust in “Morella” transparently leads us to the true state of things while somehow eliding all of discourse: disgust, as any emotion, cannot be neatly disentangled from social contexts, and is shaped by culture as well as shaping it. Doubtless some of the disgust associated with Morella’s body springs from a misogynist abjection of the female body, an association especially strengthened by the links between disease and reproduction in the text. Indeed, some critics have read “Morella” and other texts of the marriage group as stories of 61 primal masculine envy, interpreting the mysterious illnesses of Poe’s undead brides as pregnancy.12 Yet insofar as disgust is predicated on boundaries under threat of collapse, even as the emotion is called on to police such borders it betrays their ultimate arbitrariness and illusoriness, their permeability. The disgust Morella’s categorically confusing, undead body inspires may owe some of its loathsome power to patriarchal constructions of the female reproductive body as grotesque and unclean, but the very anxiety underlying this construction points to its artifice while betraying a glimmer of the Absolute throbbing beneath the discursive skin of the story. 2.4 “Ligeia,” Affect, and the Absolute “Ligeia” repeats many of the same concepts and images as “Morella” at greater length and with greater complexity; indeed, “Morella” has been called a kind of “preliminary study” for “Ligeia” (Quinn 213). Both of Poe’s diseased, vampiric women have bodies in transformation, occupying multiple states simultaneously: they are what Noёl Carroll, in his discussion of monsters as figures of category confusion or crisis, would call fusion figures: “single figures in whom distinct and often clashing types of elements are superimposed or condensed, resulting in entities that are impure and repulsive” (45). Like “Morella,” the story concerns the death and return of its eponymous character: Ligeia, the scholarly wife of the tale’s unnamed narrator, contracts a wasting illness, writes a strange poem, “The Conqueror Worm” and, cryptically quoting Joseph Glanvill, pronounces the words “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” (Poe, “Ligeia” 130), before finally succumbing to the 12 Dawn Keetley, for example, argues that the narrators of these stories are repressing and denying knowledge of the procreative powers of their “phantasmatic mothers,” their intense scrutiny mimicking the infantile gaze and the inability of infants to “apprehend the whole person” (4). 62 ravages of the disease. The narrator remarries a woman named Rowena, who also contracts a horrific sickness. In the paroxysms of her death throes Rowena undergoes a bizarre transformation, metamorphosing from “the fair-haired, the blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine” (Poe, “Ligeia” 134) into the black-eyed, raven-haired Ligeia. While lacking explicit reference to Schelling, “Ligeia” exhibits the same fascination with questions of matter and spirit, body and mind, and subject and nature as “Morella.” From the outset of the story, the narrator persistently physicalizes Ligeia’s intellect while simultaneously describing her bodily features in spiritual terms. Ligeia’s learning is “immense” and her metaphysical acquisitions “gigantic” (Poe, “Ligeia” 129). She possesses “the radiance of an opium-dream,” and her mouth is described as the “triumph of all things heavenly,” along with “the magnificent turn of the short upper lip – the soft, voluptuous slumber of the under – the dimples which sported, and the colour which spoke – the teeth glancing back, with a brilliance almost startling, every ray of the holy light which fell upon them serene and placid” (Poe, “Ligeia,” 128). After describing Liegia’s mouth the narrator then moves on to her chin, observing its “fullness and . . . spirituality” before finally arriving at her eyes, lavishing an entire paragraph on her “divine orbs” (Poe, “Ligeia” 128). Even in these early stages of the story, Poe intermingles the spiritual and the material, hinting at the more horrific loss of distinction to come. As the story progresses Ligeia’s amorphousness becomes more acute. She becomes another figure of death-in-life, a malignantly corporeal ghost whose haunting and possession of Rowena collapses the binary distinction between matter and spirit. The parasitic Ligeia becomes one with Rowena and body and spirit melt together in a Schellingian dissolution into Absolute unity as Ligeia’s incorporeal soul takes on hideously material form, undermining substance dualism and producing a “tumult unappeasable” in the mind of the narrator: not only do two people fuse into 63 one, undermining the idea of a coherent, individualized subject, Ligeia casts off “the fetters of death” to become an enshrouded “thing” (Poe, “Ligeia” 134). The veil between life and death becomes a permeable membrane rather than a one-way threshold as Ligeia performs a “hideous drama of revivification” filled with “unspeakable horrors” (Poe, “Ligeia” 134) – nameless, they cannot be categorized or codified. So horrific and yet repetitious are the changes undergone by Rowena’s corpse as it incubates the monstrously material parasite of Ligeia’s corporealizing spirit that Poe’s narrator ultimately elides the details in order to “hurry to a conclusion” (“Ligeia” 134), leaving segments of the text literally unspoken or unspeakable and lending Ligeia’s strange performance a hysterical and macabre element of farce, as if the normally sacrosanct border of death were being mocked. Though silent throughout the story, Ligeia achieves a kind of agency by its end. By violating and transforming the fair-haired, angelically submissive Lady Rowena, Ligeia exhibits a will to live and a “passionate . . . idolatrous love” (Poe, “Ligeia” 131) – a desire so intensely aggressive as to approach blasphemy – that reveals itself as an all-consuming and irrepressible force, the very “extremity of horror” (134). While this horror depends in part on a patriarchal system that imagines femininity and female desire as Other and even inhuman, the contaminating quality of Ligeia’s manifestation hints at the primordial, metamorphic unity Poe suggests in Eureka that the cosmos will disintegrate into, a unity in which all individuality, all distinctions, are lost. Once again, our glimpse of this unity is provided through the vexed, putrefying body of Ligeia and later Rowena through a panoply of symptoms – first of disease, then of Ligeia’s demoniac possession of her husband’s new bride. “Ligeia” does more than simply reiterate the same ideas as “Morella.” Firstly, the story is longer, allowing Poe to better develop a sense of suspense and dizzying downward progression, 64 what – to utilize terms put forth by Kelly Hurley – could be termed an “entropic” plot. For Hurley “entropic plotting – which bears rough similarities to tragic plotting” concerns the breakdown of complexity and the undoing of forward-moving concepts of progress, a narrative unravelling linked to sensations of nausea” (90).13 “Ligeia” is structured around a series of breakdowns and resuscitations, the narrator obsessively charting the decay first of Ligeia and then of Rowena, noting with increasing density and intensity of description every shrivelling or tremor of the lips and each paling or flush of the cheeks with mounting disgust. He observes with nauseated fascination as “a repulsive clamminess and coldness overspread rapidly the surface of [Rowena’s] body” (Poe, “Ligeia” 134), death-in-life made flesh as Ligeia’s vampiric spirit materializes. The story devolves into a series of symptoms, shudders and paroxysms intermingling with morbidly detailed descriptions of body parts and subtle changes and fluctuations, breaking into a kind of narrative hysteria. In this way, Poe’s narrative strategy mirrors the content of “Ligeia,” conventional narration decaying into indifferentiation in a giddy onrush towards the churning ontological chaos of the Absolute. “Ligeia” also includes representations of aesthetic objects – the elaborately refurbished abbey the narrator purchases following Ligeia’s death, and the embedded poem “The Conqueror Worm,” originally published independently by Poe in Graham’s Magazine in 1843 but later added to the text of “Ligeia” in 1845. The poem, which in the story is penned by Ligeia herself and constitutes the only words of her own that we read, wildly raves of “vast formless things” acting 13 The oft-remarked similarity between tragedy and horror is particularly salient for my reading of Poe in Schellingian terms, since Schelling was enraptured by tragedy and saw it as the genre especially well-suited to depicting the Absolute and so overcoming the crisis of thought occasioned by philosophy’s failure to represent the fundamental unity at the heart of all things. 65 as puppeteers of mimes performing a play on stage set to of “the music of the spheres,” and above all of “a blood-red thing” writhing forth to devour the players; at the poem’s end the play is described as a “tragedy, ‘Man’,” and the Conqueror Worm deemed its only hero (Poe, “Ligeia” 130). Elena Anastasaki has recently argued that while embedded poems like the one used in “Ligeia” might seem to threaten the much-vaunted unity of effect so prized by Poe, in fact “The Conqueror Worm” is invested with a crucial aesthetic and narrative significance. She points out that the poem allows Poe to communicate to the reader more than prose can accommodate, noting that poetry “is presented as conveying a higher form of Truth, one that bypasses both the unreliability of the narrator and the limitations of the rationality of prose” (Anastasaki 211). In this sense the relationship between “The Conqueror Worm” and “Ligeia” mimics the relationship between philosophy and art described by Schelling. “The Conqueror Worm” begins when the narrator, his brain reeling from the “wild meaning” of Ligeia’s words (Poe, “Ligeia” 129), claims himself unable to continue his account, insisting that he has “no utterance capable of expressing” Ligeia’s strange suggestions (130): we have approached a limit of thought and articulation, a limit “The Conqueror Worm” is about to transgress. The poem is remote from the narrative and even from linear time; it turns our mind to the scale of the universe, its beginning and ending, and our place within it. The “vast, formless things” that lurk behind the shifting scenery suggest a hidden world beyond ordinary comprehension, obfuscated from our sight, which the irruption of the worm unveils. In addition to foreshadowing Ligeia’s now-imminent death and eventual revivification, the poem’s deployment of disgust through the figure of the gore-smeared, vermin-fanged worm, a revolting “thing” that transforms the stage curtain into “a funeral pall” that “comes down with the rush of a storm” (Poe, “Ligeia” 130), serves as another instance of death infecting life, of inevitable putrefaction and the 66 triumph of indifferentiation and disorder. The worm, a symbol of decay, bursts into the angelic theatre of the poem’s beginning, “a crawling shape” which intrudes into the “motley drama” and transforms it into a tragedy “of Madness,” “Sin,” and “Horror, the soul of the plot” (Poe, “Ligeia” 130). In this sense the poem functions as a microcosmic example of tragedy of the sort Schelling praises as revealing the Absolute. Schelling singles out tragic drama as particularly well-suited to approach the Absolute, for tragedy produces a kind of sublime experience in which collisions between freedom (the power of the subject) and fate (the power of nature, the world-without-us) are dramatized.14 For Schelling, “the view of the universe as chaos . . . is the basic view of the sublime to the extent that within it everything is comprehended as unity in Absolute identity” (Philosophy of Art 34).15 Schelling writes that the mythology revealed by tragedy, and some forms 14 Of course, Schelling’s eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century context very likely predisposed him to prefer Greek tragedy over other dramatic and literary forms. 15 Recent re-appraisals of Schelling have emphasized his initiation of what has been called the poetic turn in Continental philosophy (George 135). George argues that while Schelling by no means abandoned philosophy for poetry or argued for the supremacy of the latter over the former, he did see the poetic turn as “required for philosophy because poetry enjoys resources that serve to remedy or redress a certain difficulty, predicament, or crisis native to the operations of philosophical inquiry itself” (136). Working with Schelling’s Philosophical Letters of Dogmatism and Criticism (1797) and other texts, George suggests that Schelling identifies a kind of “short circuit” within philosophy as it approaches the Absolute, since for Schelling “the representation of the Absolute entails . . . the utter unity of subject, thought itself, with the concrete, material world” (138). Andrew Bowie notes the same limit of philosophy for Schelling, the limit that leads to the elevation of art as the organ of philosophy – while “concepts cannot . . . grasp the totality of an object” (118) and “theoretical philosophy cannot articulate a way of overcoming our sense of division” (119), art shows the unity of subject and world. Past the limit of reason and philosophy, art can succeed where philosophy fails. 67 of poetry, “is nothing other than the universe in its higher manifestation, in its absolute form, the true universe in itself, image or symbol of life and of wondrous chaos in the divine imagination” (The Philosophy of Art 45). Like a profane but all-powerful divine being, the worm disrupts the world of appearances and presentation, the phenomenal world, and, with totalizing power, consumes the “mimes” who cavort on the stage. After hearing the poem recited aloud, Ligeia recoils in horror, wondering whether human beings are “not part and parcel in [God]” and pondering “the mysteries of the will” (Poe, “Ligeia” 130), perceiving, in a flash of poetic insight imbued with horror and revulsion, a pantheistic oneness encompassing all things. Thacker notes that usually when we think of the world, of existence, we think of it as the “world-for-us,” an anthropocentric daydream shaped and indeed constructed by discourse: “this is the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to or feel alienated from” (DTP 4). The world frequently “resists, or ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us,” because ultimately its seeming for-us-ness is illusory. The world exists “in some inaccessible, already-given state,” the “world-in-itself,” which seems to lie beyond human thinking: “the moment we think it an attempt to act on it, it ceases to be the world-in-itself and becomes the world-for-us” (Thacker, DTP 5). “Morella” and “Ligeia” both begin by presenting what looks like a version of the world-for-us: a conventional, sentimental narrative of the death and mourning of a woman, exactly the kind of consolatory representation, common in the nineteenth century, through which masculinist fantasies of conquering death, decay, and the other organic processes of time and nature are enacted. But instead of this familiar story, Poe’s tales of undead brides erupt into ontic horror, the horror of cosmic dissolution. Rather than gazing upon a mask of beauty, placed like a funereal shroud over the face of the deceased, Poe’s stories stare 68 unflinchingly into the rotting visage of death-in-life and the monstrous unification of subject and world it signifies. In the following sections I consider the aesthetic ramifications of the entwinement of disgust, sublimity and metaphysics more closely by examining “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death” using eighteenth-century theories of the sublime alongside the more recently proposed theory of the “sublate” of Korsmeyer, a form of sublime experience linked to decay, putrescence, indifferentiation, and the epistemological quandary posed by thoughts of non-being. Like the conventional sublime, sublate disgust is an overwhelming emotion with aversive characteristics, but, as many theorists and aestheticians have observed, disgust also possesses a curious magnetism. As Miller puts it, while “disgust must always repel in some sense or it is not disgust . . . repulsion, however, might bring in its train affects that work to move one closer again to what one has backed away from,” affects that include curiosity, fascination, and “a desire to mingle” (111). I connect the aesthetic frisson of this “desire to mingle” with the putrescent downwards progress of Poe’s cosmos, its inexorable slide towards the Absolute. 2.5 Entropy, Sublimity, and the Sublate Poe’s stories have long been considered in terms of the sublime in both its Kantian and Burkean iterations. Especially notable are Poe’s stories of shipwreck and voyaging, such as his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) with its windswept Antarctic vistas, tumultuous seascapes, raging tempests, and atmosphere of ominous gloom. “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841) likewise qualifies with its “mountainous waves” (Poe 35) and titular vortex, described as a “wonderful . . . manifestation of God’s power” (32). Such tales partake of the traditional sublime, the aesthetics of clouds and cliffs and mountaintops, caverns and abysses, 69 oceanic splendour, ancient oaks and dread monarchs. Conventional sublimity is a blend of awe and fear, transmuting the affect of terror into a form of aesthetic pleasure or, to use Burke’s term, “delight.” But fear, by and large – at least in its Romantic form, as sublime terror – tends to be an atomizing and individuating affect, one that entrenches hierarchical power dynamics and reinforces the boundaries of subjectivity. Disgust, in contrast, even as it patrols the boundaries of selfhood, brings with it a recognition of the subject’s permeability and porousness, even its potential unreality. Recent scholarship has frequently highlighted the ways that Poe’s employment of sublimity bleeds into other aesthetic categories or otherwise recasts the sublime in unexpected ways. Frederick Burwick, for example, argues that Poe mingles sublime, grotesque, arabesque, and picturesque aesthetics in order to “defy rational order” (425) and to create “a new mould for probing the relationship between the stimuli of experience and the constructing mind” (434).16 16 Dennis Pahl adopts a specifically anti-Kantian view of Poe’s tales, contending that Poe draws on Burkean sublimity to counter the idea of a sublime that elevates the power and autonomy of the subject; rather, Poe’s sublime throws the subject into “a permanent state of crisis” (31). Jonathan Cook reads Poe’s sublime as specifically apocalyptic in character, extending Morton Paley’s account of the “apocalyptic sublime” in British Romanticism to claim that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is carefully constructed around a crescendo of “sublime apocalyptic terror” (4), while McGhee intertwines sublimity with disease and suggests that Poe’s particular Dark Romantic version of sublimity is rooted in “the embrace of annihilation,” a kind of “positive dissolution” which she links with Poe’s idea of the perverse (57); she argues that for Poe those who “seek dissolution” are “privy to sublime truths beyond the grave that are inaccessible to the rest of us” (64). My analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death” is indebted to these readings, but while previous critics have emphasized sublime terror and fear, my investigation of disgust as the paradigmatic affect of Poe’s horror complicates interpreting his fiction through a sublime lens. 70 Terror, the affect of individuating self-preservation, calls upon the subject to flee or cower, solidifying the division between subject and object. Likewise, the sublime terror so valued by authors like Kant tends to confirm the stability of a transcendental human subject, a reasoning mind outside of time, able to exercise its freedom and autonomy unfettered by the causal determinism of nature. Put metaphysically, it brings into focus the distinction between the knowing subject and the world around it, to make the subject aware of its subjectivity. This leads us back to the Kantian phenomena-noumena split, the impasse between the world as it appears to us subjectively and the unknowable world-in-itself – to two-worlds metaphysics, to correlationism. In contrast, disgust tends to deindividuate, calling into question the integrity and autonomy of the very human subject on which the sublime typically relies. Disgust worries at the boundaries of selfhood even as it patrols them, admitting the possibility of the subject’s disintegration; it coalesces around things which violate our conceptual categories, around things that seem to belong both to the self while being simultaneously other, and around zones of vulnerability and permeability in the self, such as bodily orifices. As Miller puts it, such orifices “are the holes that allow contaminants in to pollute the soul, and they are the passageways through which substances pass that can defile ourselves and others too” (59). Disgust’s metaphysical implications and the ways of thinking they uniquely enable stand in stark contrast with those of sublime terror as it is usually understood. Like “Morella” and “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the Houser of Usher,” I argue, draws on this affect to destabilize the boundaries between subject and world, inviting comparisons between the rotting eponymous house, the decaying mind of Roderick Usher, and the decomposing body of Madeline Usher as part of an ontological assemblage that vexes distinctions between self and world and eventually collapses into abyssal “deep and dank tarn” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of 71 Usher” 89), descending into indifferentiation. “The Masque of the Red Death” similarly invokes a form of “perverse,” entropic sublimity in its apocalyptic forecast of a world without thought, an Absolute posterior to our own existence, using this version of sublime disgust to represent the ungraspable enormity of human extinction. As should already be evident, coupling disgust and the sublime is problematic, especially given the hostility towards disgust typically exhibited by the eighteenth-century aestheticians whose theories of sublimity still enjoy widespread critical currency and which are entwined with Kant’s correlationist account of reality. Not only does disgust seem to interfere with what has been called the sublime’s power to “convert” negative affect into a form of uplift or pleasure, it occupies a particular overdetermined position in eighteenth-century aesthetics and disrupts the subject-exalting nature of sublimity. Kant took care to specifically dismiss the disgusting from his account of aesthetic experience, singling it out as the one emotion that always resists aestheticization. As he puts it in The Critique of Judgment (1790): There is only one kind of ugliness which cannot be represented in accordance with nature, without destroying all aesthetical satisfaction and consequently artificial beauty; viz. that which excites disgust. For in this peculiar sensation . . . the object is represented as it were obtruding itself for our enjoyment while we strive against it with all our might. And the artistic representation of the object is no longer distinguished from the nature of the object itself in our sensation, and thus it is impossible that it can be regarded as beautiful. (116) For Kant, disgust refuses aestheticization because it collapses the aesthetic distance between an object and its representation, a distance crucial to the disinterestedness Kant sees as essential to aesthetic pleasure. Disgust for Kant is transparent – as Korsmeyer puts it, “there is little gap between belief and emotion, because it is what is presented by the artwork itself that is the object 72 of disgust” (56). Yet as Korsmeyer points out, what for Kant is a weakness may be reinterpreted as one of disgust’s greatest strengths, granting it what she calls “a special aesthetic force” granted by its “palpable qualia” (56) or “immediacy” (49) – its transparency and ability to inspire, through art, intense reactions even while one remains abstractly aware of the artificiality of the object to which one is reacting. Kant’s theory of the sublime also insists on the centrality and power of the human subject. The sublime, for Kant, confirms the inherent superiority of human reason over nature: while “nature is sublime in those of its appearances whose intuition carries with it the idea of their infinity,” what we find sublime is “not so much the object as the mental attunement in which we find ourselves when we estimate the object” (The Critique of Judgment 112). Sublimity is ultimately a reaction not to the nonhuman world but to the power of the subject itself. As Kant puts it, speaking specifically of the “dynamical” sublime, “nature is here called sublime merely because it elevates our imagination, [making] it exhibit those cases where the mind can come to feel its own sublimity, which lies in its vocation and elevate it even above nature” (Kant, The Critique of Judgment 120). The dynamical sublime arises when we see the fearfulness of nature in all its power and awesomeness without actually being afraid of it. Provided we are in a safe place, untouched by nature, we can imagine ourselves superior to it: we like to call objects like volcanoes or oceans sublime, Kant argues, “because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to reply which is of a quite different kind, and which gives us the courage [to believe] that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence” (The Critique of Judgment 120). Kant’s formulations of the sublime thus privilege human rationality and power above all else: “sublimity is contained not in any thing in nature,” Kant insists, “but only in our mind, insofar as we can become conscious of our superiority to nature within us, and 73 thereby also to nature outside us” (The Critique of Judgment 123, emphasis mine). As Graham Harman reminds us, with Kant we are “limited to discussions of human experience” (Weird Realism 17) – or, as Meillassoux puts it at the outset of After Finitude, for Kant and his correlationist disciples, “thought cannot get outside itself” (3). In this sense the Kantian sublime is part and parcel of the strong demarcation between subject and world that Kant’s Copernican revolution establishes – the very demarcation I am suggesting that aestheticized disgust calls into question. Like Kant’s sublime, Burke’s sublime consists of a kind of “astonishment” in which the pains of terror become converted into pleasure, although Burke reserves the word “pleasure” in connection with beauty, the sublime’s opposite. Sublime delight, for Burke, is “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (64). Suggesting that “fear being an apprehension of pain and death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain” (64), Burke presents sublime delight in opposition to the mere “pleasures” engendered by beauty: while the pleasures of beauty are gentle and cosseting, sublimity intertwines terror and pain with awe and reverence. Indeed, for Burke the power underlying sublimity ultimately traces its origins to God: “we have traced power through its several gradations unto the highest of all, where our imagination is finally lost; and we find terror, quite throughout the progress, its inseparable companion, and growing along with it” (73). “The images raised by poetry,” Burke further contends, “are always of [an] obscure kind” (67), and, he suggests, “to make anything very terrible, obscurity in general seems to be necessary” (65). Though the obscurity of poetry aids the sublime, Burke does not see mimesis as providing a shield of aesthetic distance necessary for enjoyment, as Kant does: “we are equally fascinated by pains, terrors, and horrors in reality, so long as they 74 do not press too closely” (Korsmeyer 73).17 Once again, however, “one single ‘unpleasant passion’ stands apart as something that cannot be incorporated into the field of aesthetic pleasure”: disgust (Menninghaus 35). Like Kant’s theorization of beauty and representation, Burkean sublimity excludes disgust from the range of emotions that can be successfully transformed through art from pain into pleasure. Burke claims that things which “are merely odious; as toads and spiders” (28) cannot be properly considered sublime. The sublime, for Burke, must spring from terror and awe, a respect for power that entails a kind of transcendental thrill. But, as Korsmeyer puts it, “encounters with disgust do not seem to pay this kind of dividend, as its objects are base and foul – unworthy of our regard” (45). Consequently “it is hard . . . to defend the idea that disgust is the vehicle for any aesthetic uplift equivalent to sublimity” (Korsmeyer 45). In The Philosophy of Horror (1990), Noёl Carroll specifically denies that the attractions of what he calls “art-horror” are compatible with theories of sublimity, specifically citing disgust and the objections of Kant but also noting that “if we are disgusted by an object, we are, in Burke’s idiom, pained by it – genuinely pained by it – and so it does not correlate to the kind of distance Burke maintains the sublime requires” (240). Carroll notes that “this is not a direct criticism of Burke’s notion of the sublime” – “rather, it is a consideration that should warn against one trying to assimilate art-horror to the Burkean sublime” (240). Alongside these older theories of sublimity Korsmeyer proposes a theory of what she calls the sublate. A kind of negative or inverse counterpart of the sublime, the sublate offers a means of 17 It can also be argued that disgust by its very nature always presses too closely, that it assails the viewer and collapses all distance. In this sense, Kant’s objection to disgust on the basis of its transparency would be mirrored in Burke. 75 interrogating Poe’s texts without insisting on a Kantian or correlationist account of the autonomous, transcendental subject or employing aesthetic formulations that exclude the disgusting as a matter of course. Like the sublime, the sublate draws it aesthetic potency from overwhelming powers connected with death and dread, but while the sublime yields an experience of “thrill and awe” connected to “the destructive sweep of mighty forces” the sublate fixates on “dismemberment, putrefaction, or the slow and demeaning disintegration of individual bodies, even the most complex forms of which are eventually overtaken by hordes of proliferating microbes and vermin” (Korsmeyer 134). As such, the sublate is far more compatible than the sublime with Poe’s (and Schelling’s) metaphysics of unity and indifferentiation; where the sublime exalts and uplifts, the sublate impresses upon readers a visceral apprehension of their own porousness and vulnerability. While Korsmeyer’s specific version of sublate as presented in Savoring Disgust is rather too grimly and insistently materialistic to perfectly fit with German Idealism or the cosmos of Poe, Korsmeyer herself presents the sublate as one of many possible aesthetic manifestations of disgust, and her theory offers a useful aesthetic touchstone for both “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” In both works, the inevitability of dissolution and oblivion is represented through an awful and awesome putrescence – putrescence as a cosmic force, a universal constant drawing everything towards its own annihilation, propelling thought past the veil of correlationist incomprehensibility by virtue of its rawly repulsive, insistent power. The analysis below revises Korsmeyer’s sublate, investing it with a different kind of metaphysical significance than her essentially reductive materialist account. Insofar as Korsmeyer presents the sublate as enabling “a moment of sustained recognition” which “gains intensity from the hallmark visceral repulsion of disgust” (158), I fully endorse her account. But where for Korsmeyer the sublate simply registers the fact that “organic life is mortal,” her 76 theory is incomplete, at least when applied to Poe’s horror stories. Instead, the sublate in Poe leads to the apprehension of – or, at least, speculation about – a different fundamental truth, at least as Schelling would have it: the truth of the Absolute, of the collapse of all difference and the ultimate equivalence between subject and world. 2.6 Decay, Disgust, and Indifferentiation in “The Fall of the House of Usher” “The Fall of the House of Usher” begins as the unnamed narrator comes to visit one of his old “intimate associates,” Roderick Usher, responding to a letter in which Roderick, complaining of “acute bodily illness” and “mental disorder” (Poe 81) requests his old friend’s presence. Upon arriving, the narrator finds Roderick “terribly altered” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 82) and also catches a glimpse of his twin sister, Madeline, who also suffers from a disease that has “long baffled the skill of her physicians” (83). The narrator passes some time with Roderick, viewing his paintings and listening to his “fervid” musical compositions with suggestions of “mystic” inner meaning, including the strange, horrible ballad “The Haunted Palace” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 84) which gives rise to thoughts of “the kingdom of inorganization” and the sentience of stones and “of all vegetable things” (85). The latter parts of the tale consist of Madeline’s seeming death, possibly premature entombment, and revivification or return. After her burial, Madeline seems to stir from the grave – or, perhaps, to simply wake from her cataleptic state. She rushes forth from her tomb and clasps her brother in a monstrous embrace, till both fall to the floor, dead. The narrator rushes from the house only to witness its collapse into the black waters of the tarn that already seemed to contain the house, holding the gloomy mansion in its reflection. 77 Along with several other of Poe’s stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” has helped to cement the idea of Poe as an author of psychological horror, and, indeed, the story is full of uncanny doubles, Freudian suggestions, the possibility of incest and homoeroticism, and a dream-like atmosphere rich with possible symbols for the unconscious or the fractured psyche. Without denying or discarding such readings, I read the story in ontological terms rather than purely psychological ones. Like “Ligeia” and “Morella,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents us with a kind of possession narrative, but here it is unclear who (or what) is possessing whom – is the house reflecting and exteriorizing the madness of Roderick and his sister, or is it actually causing their decline, as the story sometimes hints? The tale continuously blurs the boundaries between characters and setting, troubling conceptions of selfhood, agency, and humanness. The omnipresent imagery of decomposition in the story not only suggests the mental breakdown of Roderick and possibly the narrator, it foreshadows the breakdown of all distinctions and the subsumption of everything into “the deep and dank tarn” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 89), both Ushers and their house dissolving back into a putrescent totality in which all distinctions are lost. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is saturated with the imagery of decay from its onset. We are told that the house and surrounding landscape inspire in the narrator a sense of nausea or “sickening of the heart” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 81). When the narrator approaches the decrepit Usher mansion, whose grotesquery is compounded by architectural variegation and the depredations of organic growths, an excess of life, we are told that: Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine, tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion 78 of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old woodwork which has rotted for years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 82) Poe’s language here stresses the house’s incoherence, its contradictoriness. It is both incredibly old and yet without extreme dilapidation; its individual stones are crumbling and its woodwork rotted, but none of it has fallen. Even the fungi – already a categorically confused and confusing force of decay, caught between animal and plant, parasitically infesting host organisms – also resemble arachnid cobwebs, blurring the line between seemingly passive, non-sentient matter and vermin, themselves sometimes seeming to fall somewhere “between life and death” as a kind of “intermediate quasi-life” (McGinn 114). The fungi, in their rhizomatic profusion and penetration of the house, suggest a series of connections and couplings between the house and its grounds, blurring the boundaries between natural and artificial as they hasten the house’s decomposition. It is not that the house, in its contradictoriness and defiance of schema and category, is an “anomaly” per se. Rather, the house suggests that multiplicity and difference always form part of a greater totality beneath the surface, that our distinctions themselves are flawed or superficial. While the “barely perceptible fissure” that runs along the wall of the house until it becomes “lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 82) foreshadows the mansion’s collapse, I also want to read it as a physical representation of the Kantian split between subject and object which the collapse undoes. The house is a kind of loathsome amalgam. H.P. Lovecraft wrote that “The Fall of the House of Usher” “hints shudderingly of obscure life in inorganic things,” most prominently 79 through “an abnormally linked trinity of entities at the end of a long and isolated family history – a brother, his twin sister, and their incredibly ancient house all sharing a single soul and meeting one common dissolution at the same moment” (SHL 62). It is this abnormal and revolting linkage between organic and inorganic components that leads us towards indifferentiation, a monist ontology in which the line between living beings and non-living things is smudged, breathing body and wasting corpse and decaying house melding in a cadaverous Absolute. The house’s mismatched inorganic components are host to organic ones, the actors of decay, and the house itself seems horribly like a decomposing body, with “vacant eye-like windows” suggesting the empty sockets of a skull (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 81). It seems of a piece with the “ghastly tree-stems” and “few white trunks of decayed trees” which protrude from the grounds like the bony fragments of a half-exhumed skeleton and conspire alongside the decaying house to produce “an utter depression of soul” most comparable to “the hideous dropping off of the veil” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 81), the liminal, disgust-inducing moment between life and death inviting metaphysical awareness of the fragility of consciousness, its rootedness in the physical world. Catalyzed by the onset of decomposition, house, trees, landscape, fungi, and water run into one another to form an affective assemblage exerting power over the narrator. The Ushers themselves form part of this decaying assemblage as well. In their own diseased decline, the Ushers mirror the decomposition of their hereditary mansion, house reflecting family and vice versa: the Ushers bear the same monstrous decrepitude as their estate, while the house resembles their emaciated features. As the narrator states, the original title of the estate has merged with the Usher family name, such that “the quaint and equivocal appellation of the ‘House of Usher’ . . . seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion” (82). This slippage of language between house and family is reiterated in the description of the 80 Ushers. The narrator notes Roderick Usher’s “cadaverousness of complexion,” his “thin and very pallid” lips and his hair’s “weblike softness” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 82) – a softness with a texture like “wild gossamer” recalling the “web-work” of fungi hanging over the house’s eaves – as well as a “ghastly pallor of the skin” and “emaciated fingers” (83). As with the house, Usher is in a state of decay: “surely, man had never been so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher!” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 82). Roderick’s disease is specifically defined in terms of affect and the tyranny of things over the human body and mind. His description brings to mind a living corpse, already wasting away, and thus invites particularly powerful disgust. Again, as McGinn claims, the collision between life and death underlies much if not all of what we consider disgusting: “disgust occupies a borderline space, a region of uncertainty and ambivalence, where life and death meet and merge” (90). Roderick, with his thinness and pallor, his fungous-cobweb hair like a post-mortem growth, his “cadaverousness” and wasting illness, exemplifies this borderline-space. If, as McGinn claims, “the proper object of disgust is really a process” – specifically “the process of putrefaction” (91) – then the slow process of Roderick’s decline can be understood as the quintessence of the disgusting. As in Schelling’s much-vaunted tragedy, we see a “representation of unity that is marked . . . by strife, contradiction, and incompleteness” (George 143), here represented through the repulsive processes of putrefaction invading the living body of Roderick Usher. Like her sibling, Lady Madeline Usher is a figure of decomposition and living death, a doppelganger of her brother wracked with “a settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequently through transient affections of a partially cataleptical character” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 83). Even more so than Roderick she is marked as an embodiment of death-in-life: like the diseased, undead brides of “Morella” and “Ligeia” she is a revenant, literally 81 returning from the grave (where she may well have been prematurely buried). But even before she is interred she is presented in a “region of horror” and inspires a mixture of awe and revulsion suggesting sublate affect (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 86). Poe writes of “the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face” and of a “suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death” (“The Fall of the House of Usher 86), both suggesting a blurring of life and death, the “process of transition . . . where the two poles of the transition are life and death” (91) that McGinn stresses as the essential elicitor of disgust. The signs of life that linger around Madeline suggest what McGinn would call “a moment of deep metaphysical transition” as life and death are “paradoxically unified” such that it seems as if “the consciously living is still hovering around the organically dead” (94). The state of uncertainty clouding Madeline’s actual decease only compounds this moment of horror and disgust. Her “striking similitude” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 86) to her brother is emphasized by the narrator; house, brother, and sister thus emerge as part of putrid troika, an amalgam that further includes the disease(s) afflicting the two siblings and the various aesthetic objects that Roderick uses to soothe his condition. This similarity again points to the underlying unity of the house/House of Usher – their “shared soul,” to use Lovecraft’s term. All of this interconnection – this interpenetration of subjects and objects, the organic and the inorganic – erodes boundaries between consciousness and world, calling the sanctity, stability, and sanity of the human subject into question and replacing it with the amorphous ontology of the Absolute. Roderick himself seems to endorse a quasi-animistic or panpsychic ontology that affords the non-human a peculiar agency, insisting on “the sentience of all vegetable things” and arguing that the “grey stones of the home of his forefathers . . . in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around 82 them” and “above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of the arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn” are evidence of the estate’s sentience, a sentience which possesses a “silent yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which had made him . . . what he was” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 85). The malign power of objects to affect and otherwise influence the human subject extends to the collection of artworks that Roderick treasures; indeed these are said to literally form “no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 85). We are told throughout the story that Roderick’s malady relates to a certain hypersensitivity to affect and sensation: “he suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 83). Roderick cultivates peculiar aesthetic fascinations in order to soothe his frayed nerves, yet even these efforts cast a kind of “sulphurous lustre” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 84) over everything, suggesting both a rancid smell and the fires of Hell. Roderick’s artistic fixations lead us back towards the entwinement of affect, metaphysics, and horror, as if modeling the aesthetics of Poe’s horror fiction. The narrator’s aesthetic experiences with the music, literary works, and paintings that Roderick adores lead him not only into a peculiar intimacy with his friend, they emphasize the futility of action in the face of a mind imprisoned by the inevitability of entropy – “a mind from which darkness, as if an inherently positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 84). We are told that “if ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher,” his abstract paintings evoking “an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which [the narrator] had felt ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 84). The metaphysical imagery here suggests a cosmos of endless gloom, while the strangely “positive” 83 darkness suggests a kind of excess, a negation so utter it becomes corporeal. As Thacker writes, in his consideration of the mysticism of darkness through philosophers and theologians ranging from Dionysus the Areopagite to George Bataille, excessive or palpable, “positive” darkness – darkness not as an absence of light but as a presence of its own – can be understood as darkening the human, working “to undo the human by paradoxically revealing the shadows and nothingness at its core, to move not towards a renewed knowledge of the human, but towards something we can only call an unknowing of the human, or really, the unhuman” (SSC 38). The text’s aesthetics of infernal gloom and decay couple with its emphasis on Roderick’s lack of discrete subjectivity and the nauseous erosion of boundaries between self and other, organic and inorganic, house and family, to produce a metaphysical awareness of the subject’s ultimate oneness with the Absolute. Sublate awe mingles with grotesquery and disgust in the most noteworthy of Roderick’s aesthetic obsessions, “The Haunted Palace,” which like “The Conqueror Worm” of “Ligeia” was published independently of the short story in which it is embedded. Jonathan Cook argues that the poem “provides a poetic abstract of the collapse of Usher’s mental and physical worlds” (23) and suggests that “The Haunted Palace” invites a view of “the human body as a microcosmic view of the universe” (24). The poem is a narrative of collapse and decay – specifically, the decay of consciousness. It stages a confrontation between the aesthetics of beauty and sublate horror, between reification of the subject’s transcendental excellence exalting thought and rationality and the monstrous Absolute. The imagery of the poem mirrors this confrontation, turning from bucolic, heavenly, and sublime in a conventional sense to necrotic, hellish, and disgusting. Beginning with a depiction of “the monarch Thought’s dominion” as “a fair and stately palace” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 84) surrounded by green valleys and protected by angels, the poem interrupts its Neoplatonic idyll with the presence of “evil things, in robes of sorrow” which assail Thought’s 84 estate, replacing the celestial figures glimpsed in its now “red-litten windows” with “Vast forms that move fantastically / To a discordant melody” (85). Here the antagonists of thought are rendered as grotesque agents of decay and malignancy, forming a “hideous wrong” that resembles “a rapid ghastly river” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 85): homogenous and multitudinous, their incursion undermines the supremacy of the subject, suggesting a kind of cosmic pessimism in which eternity and transcendence are refused and the inevitability of entropy is affirmed. Even the simile of the river suggests ontological fluidity, a lack of discrete boundaries, while also bringing to mind the river Styx and thus the transition between life and death. Like “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Haunted Palace” uses the trope of usurpation and the collapse of a kingdom to represent the supremacy of indifferentiation, a noetic abyss that swallows up any delusion of the human subject’s ascendency or endurance. In this sense the poem – like “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a whole – inverts the Kantian sublime, its glorification of the subject, and its entrenchment of a two-worlds metaphysics, of the division between subject and world. And like “The Conqueror Worm,” the poem reveals something deeper than the rest of the (prose) story fully discloses: in this case “the tottering of [Usher’s] lofty reason upon her throne” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 84), the fragility of the human mind as Usher flirts precipitously with madness and non-being. Any pretense of self-aggrandizement or transcendental mastery of the sort imagined by Kant is dashed to pieces by “The Haunted Palace,” which announces instead the inevitability of the dissolution of the self and of thought into all-encompassing unity. The story’s final section constitutes a sublime crescendo. The loud, inexplicable, unknown sounds, such as “a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 89) reverberation, foreshadow Madeline’s emergence from the tomb, the irruption of life from death, in a climax that closely resembles the traditional sublime. But unlike those forms of 85 the sublime that reinforce a sense of the subject’s wholeness, the sublime here – intermixed with disgust, the horror of death-in-life – corrupts and destroys the self. Both Cook and Pahl have described the sublime aesthetics of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as Burkean rather than Kantian. But disgust, as other theorists have noted and as I discussed above, strains Burke’s account of sublimity as well as Kant’s. What Poe presents instead of the sublime as it might typically be understood is a perverse revision of sublimity, one owing its power to the sickening forces of decay and the metaphysical unity such entropic inevitability suggests. At the story’s end Madeline – diseased, cadaverous, and catatonic – is prematurely buried (or, possibly, she dies and is buried only to revive as an undead revenant). She is yet another figure of death infecting life – a mutilated, walking corpse, seemingly returned from death – and also the embodiment of her brother’s mental deterioration, erupting with “violent and now final death-agonies” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 89). Appearing as an “enshrouded figure” with “blood upon her white robes,” she clasps Roderick in an incestuous final coupling and bears him “to the floor a corpse, and a victim of the terrors he had anticipated” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher 89). In their grotesque union the siblings seem to trigger the collapse of the house itself, the fissure that runs throughout it rapidly widening till the house falls into the tarn. The Ushers and their estate seep back into an undifferentiated oneness, represented by the black waters of the tarn. Disgust, once again, serves as the ideal affective vehicle to undo the subject’s delusions of grandeur while simultaneously revealing the Absolute reality described by Schelling. As McGinn puts it, despite our desire to transcend our “base material,” we remain impermanent and prone to decay, putrescence, death: “anything that presses this point home will occasion discomfort, as our vaunted quasi-divinity dissolves into the mess of organic reality” (74), a reality that can be likened 86 to Schelling’s Absolute.18 Thus though we may “strive for ontological distance” from a reality whose indifferentiation inspires disgust, “we must accept that everything we are” depends on it (McGinn 74). Instead of the triumph or aggrandizement of the subject, of the human, of thought or reason, Poe instead presents the subject’s decomposition back into numinous putrescence, the artifice of the house and the artifice of Roderick’s subjectivity dissolving in a moment of entropic sublate horror, the moment of Madeline’s abject embrace. Subject and world are united and dissolved to become a single, seeping unity once more, a sickly version of the Absolute. “The Fall of the House of Usher” represents dissolution domestically and personally, enacting its scenes of the sublate and undoing the human subject to reveal ontological unity of things from within a single family, a single house. Though Poe was probably not specifically aiming to refute Kant in any sort of conscious, intentional fashion, his tale has the effect of inverting the Kantian sublime in order to collapse the phenomena-noumena distinction at the heart of Kant’s metaphysics, the split that German Idealism sought to mend. In place of the transcendental, subject-affirming affect of the Kantian sublime is evident an aesthetics of disgust facilitating an understanding of the monstrous Absolute, fulfilling Schelling’s identification of art as the organon of philosophy. 18 At times, McGinn seems to have a more materialist monism in mind when he discusses the dissolution of the transcendental soul in the face of disgust. In exploring Poe’s metaphysics in relation to Schelling, I am not claiming that disgust is incompatible with materialism or that it leads inevitably to idealism – merely that for Poe’s stories specifically, figures of death-in-life facilitate understanding of a particular, monstrous form of the Absolute approximately as it appears in Schelling. As I will show with later authors, this is not the only form of aesthetic apprehension disgust can provide. 87 The next story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” extends putrescence to a universal level, depicting the end of human civilization and indeed the human species in a final disgusting paroxysm, one that communicates affectively the philosophically fraught idea of human extinction. The tale also conspicuously inverts the Burkean sublime by overturning its onto-theological and political hierarchy, replacing God and the sovereign with queasy nothingness. 2.7 Meontological Sovereignty in “The Masque of the Red Death” Poe’s apocalyptic horror story “The Masque of the Red Death,” like so many of Poe’s tales, concerns disease and disintegration: set on the cusp of a pestilential apocalypse, the story presents a cataclysmic vision of cosmic entropy. There is little plot to this short but evocative tale. Taking place in a country made desolate by a terrible epidemic of the eponymous Red Death, the story follows the hubristic Prince Prospero, “happy and dauntless and sagacious,” a decadent nobleman who retreats with his court into one of his “castellated abbeys,” a sort of opulent medieval bunker, “the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 109), in order to outlast the plague in luxurious safety. Much is made of the fortifications employed to keep the abbey secure: we are told not only of the abbey’s ample provisions but also the “strong and lofty wall” and of the “furnaces and massy hammers” used to weld the bolts of the door shut (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 109). Within the security of the abbey Prospero keeps various entertainers and holds a “voluptuous” masquerade of “unusual magnificence,” while outside “the pestilence raged most furiously” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 109). The emphasis here is on boundaries, a series of protective layers and measure to keep those within the abbey from contamination. Poe goes on to describe in great detail the peculiar architecture, lavish decorations, and “delirious fancies such as the madman fashions,” emphasizing in particular the 88 macabre, grotesque, and disgusting quality of the place: “There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 110). Due to this decadence, the revellers at first do not recognize the Red Death, instead mistaking it for a particularly audacious reveller as it infiltrates the hall, stalking openly from room to room with the appearance of a plague victim. Rumours of the masked guest “spread [themselves] whisperingly around” like a kind of contagious gossip mimicking in speech the miasmatic transmission of the plague, and the other revellers view the stranger with a mixture “of horror, and of disgust” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 112). The diseased phantom is seized on Prospero’s orders and indeed attacked by the Prince, who falls dead when the Red Death looks upon him; the other revellers, leaping upon the guest, find its garments empty, and themselves succumb to the ravages of pestilence. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a story of human extinction, a concept notoriously difficult to keep fully in view since it necessitates the thought of non-thought, the negation of all thought, and an explicit move beyond the correlationist bubble. As Thacker puts it, building on Kant’s thoughts of our species’ future, “any postulation about the state of the world after the end can only be speculative” (DTP 123). Ray Brassier similarly observes in his reflection on nihilism Nihil Unbound (2007) that “extinction is real yet not empirical, since it is not of the order of experience” (238) – by its very nature it cannot be experienced, cannot be witnessed. It can be imagined in the abstract, but stubbornly resists further cognition, constituting a receding philosophical horizon by definition beyond the reach of human comprehension. Human extinction is thus a noetic void, an abyss of thought – “a speculative annihilation” (Brassier 125). Poe’s story draws on the entropic sublime to incarnate this void affectively; more specifically, I argue that in its enthronement of the disgusting deity and all-powerful sovereign, the Red Death, the story enacts 89 a perverse parody of the Burkean sublime, especially as it manifests in the supposed “dread majesty” of monarchs. As with the other texts discussed in this chapter, “The Masque of the Red Death” is invested in matters of ontology and meontology – with being and non-being, presence and absence, thought and the unthinkable. In Poe’s prose poem Eureka, a work deeply interested in metaphysical speculation, in the last moments of the universe all things and beings collapse together in a “final ingathering” (Poe 131) – a conglomeration of matter and spirit that results in a form of non-being. As Poe puts it: “In sinking into Unity, [matter] will sink at once into that Nothingness which, to all Finite Perception, Unity must be” (Eureka 139). In Eureka this nothingness is part of a divine heartbeat, “swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness” (Poe 139), a cycle of rejuvenation and destruction; non-being is thus perhaps not quite so fearful as might otherwise be imagined. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” however, no such cyclic renewal is foreshadowed. While the text shares the apocalyptic concerns of Eureka and likewise meditates on the dissolution of all things and the end of consciousness, it paints a singularly grim portrait of the world-to-come, a pestilential futurity that devours all hope and all thought. The story represents Poe at his most pessimistic, the entropic cosmos it depicts a darker universe than the numinously cyclic one depicted in Eureka. In its figuration of the Red Death as an awful, putrescent deity and sovereign, the tale resonates with ideas of the Godhead imagined by mystics and philosophers ranging from Meister Eckhart to Schopenhauer to Bataille – God as a non-anthropocentric enigma, an omnipresent nothingness, what Bataille calls the “unknown Nothingness” (104), union with which conjures “the ecstasy of the void” (122). Or, as Thacker describes the Godhead, “the Nothing that is God, the God-beyond-Being” (SSC 73), a God present in all things and all creatures that so undoes all distinctions. In this sense, also, the tale constitutes a shadowy reflection of Eureka, 90 insofar as the poem imagines the rushing-together of all spirit and matter into a single unity understood as a divinity, a divinity pantheistically diffuse and immanent in the world prior to its collapse back into its original oneness. In Poe’s text a terrible plague, the Red Death, threatens to destroy all human life through a process of monstrous and all-engulfing putrescence. Where the stories of the marriage group intertwined disease and gender, playing off the fascination of medical discourse (and nineteenth-century culture more broadly) with the consumptive female body, here disease wracks everyone in equal measure, widening the apocalyptic reach of contagion to universal proportions. Like a pantheistic god, the Red Death is in everyone – diffuse, miasmatic, all-contaminating. The beginning of the story also establishes the Red Death as a singularly disgusting plague: No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow men. (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 109) The revolting inside oozes outside, suppurating bodily boundaries and, through contamination, interpersonal boundaries as well. Poe describes the blood-marks as “stains,” stressing their unclean nature. By marring the face especially, the Red Death erases personhood and individuality, transforming individual subjects into an anonymous mass and so presaging their entropic descent into the oblivion of non-being, the mark of pestilence rendering them socially and physically abject. As many scholars have noted, skin is highly significant as a disgust-elicitor since it “defends us from the outside” and “covers our polluting and oozing innards,” thus coming to bear 91 “a heavy symbolic load” as the boundary of selfhood (Miller 52). As William Ian Miller observes, “there is nothing quite like skin gone bad; it is in fact marrings of the skin which make up much of the substance of the ugly and monstrous,” and when “the festering inside” desecrates skin by “erupting to the surface” (52) every demarcation of bodily integrity is overturned. Since we overload skin with meaning – moral, aesthetic, social, political – it becomes potently abhorrent when breached: skin can “serve as a covering for the deeper self inside” while also allowing us “to entertain the illusion of our own non-disgustingness to others, if not quite ourselves” (Miller 52-53). McGinn sees disease similarly, especially “diseases of the flesh,” whose corruption of living tissue constitutes “the zenith of disgust” (97). McGinn puts his finger close to the distinction between conventional sublimity and the form of entropic sublimity or sublate that I am utilizing here when he notes the difference between disease and purely destructive forces such as fire: “corruption of the flesh is not the same as destruction” (98). As he notes, “lepers have always been shunned, and not merely because of a fear of contagion; it is their flesh that we cannot stand, as it decomposes on their poor bones” (15). For McGinn, then, “putrefying flesh on the living individual seems particularly potent as an agent of disgust” (15). Poe’s blood-stained disease victims approach the epitome of disgust, their infectious, seeping skin signifying the extremity of death-in-life and the effacement and dissipation of the subject. The Red Death combines the disgust typically associated with disease with that connected to blood. McGinn notes that “blood in circulation is one thing, but blood flowing freely from a wound is another matter – passing from life-essence to messy, useless deadness” (103), another representation of death-in-life and morbid liminality. In bleeding wounds “we see the corpse foreshadowed” (McGinn 106) – we see not merely death but death-in-life, life infected with death. The unclean blood of the plague-victims itself recalls the tubercular issue of a consumptive: it is 92 blood out-of-place, vitality literally and symbolically leeched away by the vampiric pandemic. Poe’s choice to make blood the central symbol of disease and decay in his tale further conflates the forces of dissolution with a dark vitalism, a life-force immanent in all beings. It is as if blood in the story is not really human at all but some nonhuman fluid that the tolling of Prospero’s ebony clock calls hideously forth, bursting through the thin skin that grants us our delusions of human autonomy. Blood here is the Absolute as alien liquid, revealing our dependence and inseparability from the nonhuman – a union which for some might be glorious or ecstatic, but which here is horrific. Our attempts to protect ourselves from the ravages of the nonhuman are always doomed to fail – the real is in our veins. In contrast with other texts the disgust of the Red Death is de-personalized, menacing not individual characters but the species as a whole. Already it appears as a cosmic force of “dissolution,” the end of being, as bodies everywhere break down and pass their infection to other bodies, the abominable grandeur of the exsanguinating illness endowing it with entropic sublimity. Like Korsmeyer’s sublate the Red Death “apprehends not just destruction but reduction – of the noblest life to decaying organic matter in which all traces of individuality are obliterated” (134). The architectural detour the story next takes has been much-remarked on by critics, and may at first seem a curious digression out of step with the aesthetics of disgust and the story’s considerations of extinction and decay. But as Brett Zimmerman points out, the polychromatic aesthetics exhibited by the suite of rooms the decadent Prince Prospero constructs have both metaphysical and temporal significance (63). In their sequence of colours the rooms suggest the passage of time and the deterioration of life, beginning with the blue room, to which Zimmerman attributes “clear metaphysical associations,” noting nineteenth-century connections between blue and god, heaven, immortality, and Neoplatonic truth, all of which he suggests link it to “the 93 supernatural stage immediately preceding birth” (64) within some metaphysical traditions. The succeeding colours can be read as stages of life, passing from the colours of youth and life – the “positive” colours, what might be called the negentropic colours – into the “mortuary colours of white, violet, red, and black” (Zimmerman 65), the hues of decay, disease, and death. The final two colours are especially noteworthy in their connection to entropy and Poe’s metaphysics of unity, indifferentiation, and non-being. Though there is no red room, the final black room is suffused with “a deep blood colour” (Poe, ‘Masque” 110), a colour obviously connected with the plague itself. The link between redness and illness is not simply self-referential. Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in his discussion of the text, notes that “from Biblical times red has been associated with plague, especially the contagious viral cholera,” and that “in England through the times of Pepys, corpse-bearers were required to carry red wands, and infected houses had red crosses painted on the door” (144). The room’s blackness similarly conjures paradoxical thoughts of non-being. Thacker has connected blackness19 to a kind of “cosmic pessimism” and a “dark metaphysics of negation, nothingness, and the non-human” (DTP 20) which he derives from Schopenhauer’s will-to-live, a blindly impersonal nothingness opposed to nature-for-us (19) which I will discuss extensively in relation to Lovecraft’s weird fiction in the final chapter. Blackness, for Thacker, signifies the meontological horror of the world-without-us and the negation of thought; through its long association with death in Western culture, black likewise suggests finality, oblivion, and absence. 19 Thacker is actually speaking principally of the musical subgenre of black metal, but his comments regarding blackness apply well to Poe’s text. He returns to the subject of darkness, blackness, mysticism, and negation in Starry Speculative Corpse (2015). 94 The black room, then, with its “blood-tinted panes” making it “ghastly in the extreme” and producing in the faces of those few who step within it a “wild look” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 110), serves as the final architectural embodiment of an entropic sequence signifying the gradual decline of life and the end of existence. Its further association with time through the image of “a gigantic clock of ebony” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 110) establishes the black room as the cosmic end-point, the sublime nihility that time propels Poe’s universe inevitably towards. Much like the grotesque, womb-like chambers of “Ligeia” and the decaying mansion in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the architecture of “The Masque of the Red Death” serves as a kind of aesthetic reflection of the metaphysical fascinations of the text. The sequence of rooms represents the life and death of human beings and the entropic fate of the universe, from the empyrean blue room suggesting Neoplatonic wholeness proceeding inevitably towards all-consuming darkness, the hungry nothingness of the black room. The palace also functions – or rather, fails to function – as a kind of cordon sanitaire, a way of shutting out the plague. In its penetration by the Red Death, its total failure to protect the revellers, it suggests the insignificance of human artifice in the face of the nonhuman. The figure of the Red Death itself functions much as Poe’s other undead phantoms, as a figure of death-in-life: the gaunt figure is “shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave” with what looks to be a mask “made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty detecting the cheat” (“The Masque of the Red Death” 112). Poe’s emphasis on the shrouded hiddenness of the spectre’s body suggests the difficulty of accessing the world-without-us, the perversely sublime nothingness the apparition represents: it has effectively disguised itself within the social context of the party that throngs the Prince’s seven chambers. Like the plague that devastates the world beyond the palace, the spectre 95 disturbs boundaries of outside and inside through the “scarlet horror” of its bleeding face (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 112). Initially exciting a profound rage in Prospero, whose symptoms are strongly coincident with the plague – reddening the aristocratic brow and wracking his body with convulsions – the Red Death comes to inspire “a certain nameless awe” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 112). This mixture of reverence and revulsion – the desire to avoid contamination from the putrescent figure coupled with a worshipful respect of the being – pervades the hall, perturbed only by Prospero’s murderous assault. Instead of a physical being, however, Prospero and his minions discover to their “unutterable horror” that “the grave cerements and corpse-like mask they handled with so violent a rudeness” are “untenanted by any tangible form” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 112-113). In an especially grotesque example of category confusion the phantom combines not only life and death in a single body but being and non-being together: the spectre of the Red Death makes physical the meontic void, the gaping emptiness of non-being following human extinction. Like a contagious miasma, what Thacker might term an “ambient plague” shaped by “a medieval hermeneutics of plague and pestilence as Neoplatonic – a supernatural force emanating from a divine centre” (DTP 106), the Red Death infiltrates the heavenly blue room and usurps its mortal ruler, Prospero, to establish itself as a diseased sovereign, demanding acknowledgment from its subjects: And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out and that was the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and 96 Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” 113). The Burkean sublime traces its power to divinity and, in accordance with Burke’s eighteenth-century conservatism, to monarchs, who through their supposed divine right incarnate the will of god on earth; his vision of the sublime is explicitly both political and theological.20 As he states in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), before the sublime presence of god “we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him” (72); moreover, we find a trace of this awful presence in kings and queens, those who “are frequently addressed with the title of dread majesty” (71). “The Masque of the Red Death” presents the sublate inversion of the Burkean sublime. In place of a rightful human sovereign ruling in the stead of god, himself symbolized by the blue room, the Red Death achieves an entropic reign of decay and dissolution founded not on the social institutions of power but on the inescapable realities of death and the inevitability, in Poe’s Schellingian cosmos, of the collapse of all things back towards primal unity and the abyss of non-being. To merely describe this blasphemous elevation in abstract terms would, in Burke’s terms, be akin to contemplating Godhead “merely as he is an object of the understanding, which forms a complex idea of power, wisdom, justice, goodness” (71), as opposed to contemplating God imaginatively and so affectively, which instead invites us to “rejoice with trembling” (72) and to shudder at sublime deific power. Instead Poe presents the dark, inverse monarch of his universe in aesthetic, affective terms, the better to inscribe the totality of its sovereignty, a rulership not social but meontic – the dominion of the void. The Red Death is the revenge of the real, dethroning the social order. It obliterates human 20 The political and ideological implications of Poe’s use of affect are explored at length in Jonathan Elmer’s monograph Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe (1995). 97 power structures and hierarchies – Prospero’s palace and court, the world of artifice and discourse – to reveal the nonhuman Absolute that throbs and oozes beneath, the seething, pestilential infinitude that endlessly retreats from philosophy’s grasp but which, through a spasm of aestheticized disgust in the form of the entropic sublate, “The Masque of the Red Death” tantalizingly exposes. We may know abstractly that extinction and death are inevitable, that all things decay, that our bodies will die and that life will end. As Korsmeyer observes, “we already know that we are mortal, that generations pass, that civilizations are finite” (134). Just as for Schelling philosophy can offer a kind of model of the Absolute, we can speak of non-being and extinction, can imagine such speculative realities in the abstract. But it is one thing to imagine such things intellectually and another to relate to them affectively via aesthetic experience. As Korsmeyer puts it, “it is the nature of aesthetic encounters to be singular; they bring home general truths in a particularly vivid manner, deepening their apprehension more profoundly than straightforward statement can accomplish” (134). “The Masque of the Red Death” offers such a singular aesthetic encounter, inverting the Burkean sublime to imagine a universe unguided save by the “illimitable dominion” of decay, one hurtling towards the end of all consciousness as the world collapses, dissolving into blood. By choosing contagion – and, more specifically, a contagion that suppurates bodily boundaries, levelling all social hierarchy in its rapaciousness – as the vehicle for his apocalypse, Poe (consciously or otherwise) harnesses disgust’s uniquely metaphysical ability to bring the queasy boundaries of consciousness and selfhood into view within a work of art. His texts thus exploit the surprising aesthetic qualities of disgust, conveying Schellingian cosmic conceptions on an apocalyptic scale. 98 2.8 Perversion and Self-Annihilation in “The Imp of the Perverse” I want to conclude this chapter with a brief consideration of one of Poe’s later tales – the bizarre hybrid of metaphysical essay and horror story “The Imp of the Perverse.” This story, written at the high point of Poe’s career, constitutes perhaps the clearest expressions of Poe’s thoughts on the perverse attractions of annihilation, the lure of the abyss and the fascinations of putrescence. The text might also be thought of as some of Poe’s most overtly “demonological” writing, concerning the figure of an “invisible fiend” (“The Imp of the Perverse” 271) embodying “a radical, primitive impulse,” an “overwhelming tendency to do wrong for wrong’s sake” (“The Imp of the Perverse” 270). Poe describes this impulse in terms of teetering on the edge of a precipice, growing “sick and dizzy” but gradually becoming aware of “a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale” which yet “chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror” (“The Imp of the Perverse” 270) – speculating on what it would feel like to fall into the abyss. “This fall,” Poe writes, “this rushing annihilation – for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination – for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it” (“The Imp of the Perverse” 270). This “demoniacally impatient” (“The Imp of the Perverse” 270) passion perfectly encapsulates the intertwinement of affect, metaphysical speculation, and aesthetic cognition that unfolds in Poe’s tales. “The Imp of the Perverse” undermines any delusion of autonomous subjectivity, presenting instead a version of the human subject riven by self-destructive instincts and drawn inexorably towards its own annihilation. But the story also imagines perverse conation in terms of a giddy, enthralling surfeit, a surfeit I link both to disgust and to aesthetic experience. 99 Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse” represents perversity as an unfathomable craving, an intense jouissance connected to ghastly and loathsome images, imagined as a formless, miasmatic cloud inspiring feelings of “sickness and dizziness and horror” (Poe 270). As several theorists of disgust have suggested, disgust is intimately bound up with the notion of the surfeit and the transgression of limits, one giving way to just such an experience of excess. Miller, writing of “the strange association of desire and disgust,” follows Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva to argue that “disgust and other reaction formations were not just there to prevent pleasure but were needed to heighten it, or even create the conditions for it” (113). Surpassing cultural barriers or limits and transgressing against social mores may inspire disgust, but it also engenders a kind of reverence: “those that violate the norms that hold us in their grip are objects of fear, loathing, awe, precisely the emotions that drive tragedy, horror, suspense, and some religious devotion” (Miller 115). Disgust can thus become limned with the sublime; as I will discuss at far greater length in the next chapter on Arthur Machen, it can even mingle closely with the sacred, with religious experience and a profound sense of the numinous. According to my reading of disgust in Poe’s tales, the affect signals the eruption of the real, or the ontic, into the discursively mediated experience of life – into, for example, stories of connubial bliss as in “Ligeia” and Morella,” or into the domestic space of the Usher family, or the high society of Prince Prospero. The eponymous Imp in “The Imp of the Perverse” externalizes thought, representing not only a breakdown of the division between consciousness and world but the narrator’s desire to do wrongness for its own sake. In doing so, the Imp of the Perverse closely resembles what Schelling terms “evil,” part of a principle of metaphysical freedom that he insists upon in his Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), his last finished book, as a means of preserving the human capacity for free will against the determinism and fatalism often attributed 100 to pantheistic monism of the kind presented by Spinoza. For Schelling, the ability to will evil constitutes the essence of human freedom. Evil consists in trying to return to the elemental chaos of indifferentiation, to surpass all individual, finite limits, a desire to be all things at once: “in evil there is the self-consuming and always annihilating contradiction that it strives to become creaturely by annihilating the bond of creaturely existing and, out of overweening pride to be all things, falls into non-Being” (Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom 55). The narrator’s revolt against the social order in Poe’s story suggests such a yearning for reunion with the real, with the Absolute. Though the confession of Poe’s murderous protagonist (one of the Imp’s “uncounted victims”) lands him in chains, he notes that in death he will have transcended all stricture and ventured into the unknown: “Tomorrow I shall be fetterless! – but where?” (Poe 271). “The Imp of the Perverse” thus marries together affect and metaphysical speculation, perversity and disgust giving rise to a kind of ontological curiosity. The story links the perverse desire for self-dissolution with fascination, what Korsmeyer would call disgust’s magnetism, a concomitant of its “transportive aesthetic insight” (133) which she tantalizingly compares to the Dionysian impulse of Nietzsche – what in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) he describes as “the blissful ecstasy that wells up from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature” at the “collapse of the principium individuationis” (36) an ecstasy connected to the reaffirmation of “primordial unity” (37). The perverse desire for the loss of selfhood exhibited in Poe’s story accrues both transgressive joy and metaphysical significance, mingling together in poisonous unity like the vapours of the pestilential candle the Imp-possessed murderer lights to kill his victim. Insofar as Poe’s fiction concerns itself first and foremost with the generation of affect – with, as Poe puts it in “The Philosophy of Composition,” the cultivation of “a vivid effect” (163) – it opens for the reader a metaphysical window. Disgust in Poe’s horror fiction stages an aesthetic 101 encounter with the real, with the Absolute, figured repeatedly through images of putrescence, death-in-life, disease, and decay. If, in its perversity, its lack of aesthetic distance, Poe’s weird breaks with eighteenth-century traditions that positioned disgust as the limit of the aesthetic, this only strengthens its transgressive power to pierce the Kantian, correlationist veil between subject and the world-in-itself, fomenting an unlikely alliance between “bad taste” and metaphysical comprehension. By reading Poe as confronting through fiction what philosophy repeatedly falters upon, however, I do not want to simply reify an old understanding of Poe as a kind of anachronism or anomaly. Rather I want to read him not only as indebted to past metaphysicians – as embedded in, rather than resistant to, the philosophy of his time – but as the harbinger of an entire tradition of weird fiction invested in the comprehension of reality at its rawest, its most fundamental. By reading Poe as the forefather of the weird, I place him at the beginning of a historical and generic narrative that would continue to entangle the aesthetics of disgust with the nature of being and non-being, the distinctions between subjects and nature, and the essence of the universe. As the following chapters will show, the permutations of this impure amalgamation of the real and the revolting are manifold. The Gothic and the weird with it went into something of a hibernation in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, what Joshi calls the “interregnum” (Unutterable Horror 109). While the trickle of supernatural stories would never dry up, and while authors such as the Brontës, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins borrowed liberally from the Gothic, it would take figures like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu (who coined the term “weird fiction”) and Robert Louis Stevenson to once again open the floodgates, restoring the genre to something approaching its prominence in the early nineteenth century. The 1890s saw a febrile rekindling of interests in the horrific and the loathsome, and it is here that I turn next. It is in the late nineteenth century, I think, that we can 102 meaningfully begin think about weird fiction as a distinct genre coming fully into its own, and not merely a flavour of the Gothic: the process Poe begins, perhaps unknowingly, in the 1830s and 40s reaches a horrid maturation some fifty years later, with the grotesque flowering of the Victorian fin-de-siècle. 103 Chapter 3: Ecstasies of Slime: Arthur Machen 3.1 Horrific Hieroglyphs Arthur Llewelyn Jones-Machen occupies a pivotal position in the history of weird fiction, revered by Lovecraft as one of the finest authors of “cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch” (SHL 92). An Anglo-Welsh author who dabbled in occultism, active for a time in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Machen wrote most of his best-known works of weird fiction in what has been called his “Great Decade” – the 1890s, during the full flush of the late-Victorian obsession with the supernatural, both in literature and in occult practice. In many ways, Machen’s views exemplify the mystic fascinations of his day, which included popular obsessions with spiritualism, mesmerism, clairvoyance, and mediumship, and which formed the basis for organizations like the Theosophical Society and even the ostensibly scientific Society for Psychical Research. Closely associated with John Lane’s Keynote Series, Machen’s works of Decadent, fin-de-siècle horror possess a dedication to aesthetic effect which hearken back to Poe, but their influences also prominently include Celtic mythology, medieval romance, and the works of figures like François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes. While Poe was obviously interested in metaphysics to some extent, as Eureka attests, it seems clear that he turned to quasi-Schellingian German Idealism or “mysticism” in his fiction not, primarily, to impress upon readers the specifics of some particular cosmic vision, but rather to exploit the appetite of the antebellum reading public for horrible tales of the German school. Poe’s aesthetic predilections do not preclude a metaphysical reading of his works, as I have argued, but neither are his intentions predominantly oriented towards the expression of metaphysical truths or theories. The same cannot be said for Machen, who sought to weaponize his fiction in a war against what he saw as the dreary disenchantment of his age. 104 We find in Machen’s stories figures and imagery that epitomize weird fiction, figures which would reappear thirty years later in Lovecraft’s writing, and which have become falsely associated more with the latter author’s work than with Machen’s fin-de-siècle weird tales: antediluvian monsters from the depths of primordial abysses of deep time, hybrid creatures produced through the interbreeding of human beings and otherworldly forces, and, most importantly, a sense of numinous, unfathomable horror at the thought of nonhuman powers lurking behind the façade of everyday existence. In their intertwinement of aesthetic experience and metaphysical speculation, his tales, like Poe’s, revel in the repulsive and the grotesque. As with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Machen’s horror novels and stories were often criticized as immoral and disgusting, as the reviews collected by Machen in the perversely titled Precious Balms (1924) attest. One reviewer for The Lady’s Pictorial, for example, wrote of Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890) that “men and women who are morbid and unhealthy in mind might find something that appeals to them in the description of Dr Raymond’s experiments and results,” but “the majority of readers will turn from it in disgust” (Precious Balms 12), while of The Three Imposters (1895) a reviewer declared that “There are some stories which produce a positive physical repulsion in their reader,” and “Mr. Machen’s extremely disagreeable story is one of them”, describing the text as “palpably and very literally sickening” (18). Machen’s weird fiction exemplifies what I have identified as the genre’s key distinction from the Gothic as such – a conscious pivot away from the contents of the human mind and towards the nonhuman world in all its awful and awesome horror and wonder. The ascendance of scientific materialism during the nineteenth century greatly problematized wide-spread and long-cherished conceptions of the supernatural and the transcendental soul, even while growing movements like spiritualism and Theosophy intensified 105 investigations of the occult and the esoteric beyond the traditional remit of Christian theology. Debates around both the ontological nature of reality and the possibility of our knowing and thinking it were also correspondingly intense. Towards the end of the century in Britain, neo-Hegelian Absolute Idealists were contesting the advances of naturalism and mechanistic materialism, while critics of Idealism like G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russel attacked the ideas of organic unity and the Absolute early in the next century. Logical empiricism, positivism, and other variants of analytic philosophy would soon be shunning metaphysical systems in favour of verificationism, scientific methodology and a “common sense” approach to reality, hoping to make philosophy science’s handmaid. These seething intellectual conflicts are reflected in the pages of fin-de-siècle weird fiction, with many writers of the supernatural using their fiction to metaphorize and explore the shadowy concomitants of scientific progress and the tensions between science, faith, and metaphysics. Miss Lally, the protagonist of Machen’s “The Novel of the Black Seal” – one of the embedded tales in the mosaic novel The Three Imposters – while musing on such tensions, notes that: Though I understood little or nothing, I began to dread, vainly proposing to myself the iterated dogmas of science that all life is material, and that in the system of things there is no undiscovered land even beyond the remotest stars, where the supernatural can find a footing. Yet there struck in on this the thought that matter is as really awful and unknown as spirit, that science itself but dallies on the threshold, scarcely gaining more than a glimpse of the wonders of the inner place. (100) The philosophically vexed nature of matter, spirit, and ultimate reality described in this passage, and the question of our access to knowledge of them, was a central preoccupation for Machen, and Miss Lally’s musing about the possibilities of an immanent mystery untrammeled by the advances 106 of science encapsulates the core of his artistic and metaphysical concerns. A fervently if non-traditionally religious author, Machen was a mystic whose unorthodox Anglican faith was influenced by Catholicism, Celtic paganism, and his fleeting dalliance with the Golden Dawn; though Machen was, at times, suspicious and dismissive of some Theosophical and spiritualist thought, an interest in the occult animates much of his writing. Throughout his life, Machen remained a staunch critic of scientific materialism, railing against the rationalization of what he saw as a fundamentally mysterious world. As S.T. Joshi writes, Machen deeply resented the intrusion of science into other fields, such as art, and decried such encroachments at every turn (The Weird Tale 14). Machen’s antipathy for scientific materialism, his desire to restore to the world a sense of wonder and mystery, is reflected in his idiosyncratic aesthetic philosophy, a doctrine he expounds upon at length in his treatise Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature (1902), which weaves into its arguments strands of ontology, theology, and epistemology. Here, Machen writes that for a text to be considered “fine literature” – for it to approach aesthetic greatness, and transcend mere “reading-matter” – it must contain what he calls ecstasy: “If ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature, if it be absent, then, in spite of all the cleverness, all the talents, all the workmanship and observation and dexterity you may show me, then, I think, we have a product . . . which is not fine literature” (Hieroglyphics 24). Machen’s exact definition of ecstasy remains somewhat elusive throughout his treatise, sometimes to the point of ineffability, but he provides for it a list of potential alternative terms: “substitute if you like rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire of the unknown” (Hieroglyphics 24). Ecstasy constitutes a kind of revolt from a mundane existence – a “withdrawal from the common life” (Hieroglyphics 110) – and a return to a 107 mysterious reality of exultant imagination that Machen believes children still glimpse and which all human beings once enjoyed prior to the crushing advent of materialism and the “progress” of civilization. To invoke the Idealist metaphysics of F.C. Bradley, whose influential Appearance and Reality (1897) exemplifies late-Victorian British Idealism, Machen wants to recede from the world of mere “appearances,” with its contradictory-fraught phenomenal constructions and relations, and get instead at a unified “reality,” a divine wholeness beyond the veil of illusions that constitutes the physical world. Or, to put it in the terms of Meillassoux and the speculative realists, Machen wants to step outside of the correlationist circle and the supposedly (according to Kant and his successors) iron-clad bounds of individual consciousness and look instead upon the Great Outdoors. Science, while providing an account of the world-for-us, the superficial world as we perceive it as human beings, fails to account for the wholeness of true reality, Machen contends – a magical world of spiritual unity that has been lost, but which ecstasy in art can temporarily restore. While at his most ambitious Machen wishes to truly unveil something of Godhead, he also believes that our perceptions of the world – even our phenomenal perceptions – have become tainted by the advent of science and modern education. He claims that: . . . children, especially young children before they have been defiled by the horrors of “education,” possess the artistic emotion in remarkable purity, that they reproduce, in a measure, the primitive man before he was defiled, artistically, by the horrors of civilization. The ecstasy of the artist is but a recollection, a remnant from the childish vision, and the child undoubtedly looks at the world through “magic casements” . . . When men are young, the inward ecstasy, the “red powder of projection,” is of such efficacy and virtue that the 108 grossest and vilest matter is transmuted for them into pure gold, glistening and glorious as the sun. (Machen, Hieroglyphics 101-102) Machen’s writing here and elsewhere repeatedly celebrates the idea of “primitive man,” for whom “a common meal [was] a sacrament” (Hieroglyphics 176), a conception obviously informed by the Romantic trope of the noble savage as well as emerging modernist fascinations with “primitive” art. However, a close reading of Hieroglyphics reveals the bounds of what Machen considers “primitive” to be incredibly broad. For Machen, “primitive man, Homeric man, medieval man, indeed, almost to our own day when the School Board (and other things) have got hold of him, had such an unconscious but all-pervading conviction that he was a wonderful being, descended of a wonderful ancestry, and surrounded by mysteries of all kinds, that even the smallest details of his life partook of the ruling ecstasy” (Hieroglyphics 176). If Machen’s aesthetic objective, as he claims in Hieroglyphics, is to produce in readers a sense of ecstasy and awe in order to cultivate a form of gnosis, the sense of “delight” fomented by the literary sublime and the wonder it typically produces would logically seem the most fitting aesthetic experience to cultivate. But, as we saw in the previous chapter, theorists of the sublime have been careful to separate the sublime from the disgusting, construing the two as antithetical, inimical to one another: the forms of sublimity described Kant and Burke are incompatible with the disgusting. Yet time and time again, Machen turns not to the sublime but to the repulsive – to slime, putridity, corruptions of the flesh, and oozing, atavistic horrors. As Kelly Hurley notes of The Great God Pan, Machen’s work “hardly makes an approach towards the sublime”; instead his texts “work to produce a nauseating affect” (47). Given Machen’s aesthetic theory, his desire to re-create in readers a glimmer of some lost wondrousness, a deeper reality that “fine literature,” through ecstasy, provides a glimpse, it is striking that much of Machen’s literary output – 109 especially during the Victorian fin-de-siècle – is of a horrific, disgusting character. Machen’s weird fiction teems with disgusting monstrosities and revolting images deriving much of their visceral affective potency from anxieties surrounding the body and its violation, degradation, and deliquescence. Of particular prominence are beings that transform into, exude, or vomit forth slime, ooze, mucus, or semi-liquid putrescence – what William Ian Miller would call “life soup, the roiling stuff of eating, defecation, fornication, generation, death, rot, and regeneration” (18), which he believes is the paradigmatic stuff of disgust. Machen’s taste for the disgusting, then, seems a counter-intuitive, even paradoxical choice when considering his aesthetic theories and metaphysical objectives. This chapter concerns itself with Machen’s intertwinement of the ecstatic, the disgusting, and the metaphysical, examining those ways Machen’s texts seize upon an aestheticized form of disgust as a means of eliciting ecstasy and so conveying the sense of an occult reality beneath the physical world of appearances. I argue that Machen finds in disgust a means of aesthetic transport which is also, simultaneously, a method for combating the advances of reductive scientific materialism, without surrendering to the anthropocentrism that arises both from a correlationist account of the subject and its relation to the world and from late-Victorian culture’s scientific obsessions – anthropocentrisms the traditional sublime would risk reifying. To demonstrate this, I read several of Machen’s key texts in relation to disgust, ecstasy, and theories of the grotesque and the “sacred-unclean,” considering the ways that Machen’s weird fiction works to impart a sense of revelation through an ecstatic affect intertwined with revulsion. I especially focus on the importance of slime, interpreting Machenesque slime as a representation of a divine, primordial substance, a seeping Godhead. Previous scholars have paid relatively little attention to the philosophical theories expressed in Machen’s Hieroglyphics, and none have attempted to reconcile them coherently with 110 the strong element of disgust present in his stories. Several critics have discussed slime in Machen’s work, however, often touching on the subject of disgust as they do so. Hurley, for example, links Machen’s slimy monstrosities to materialism, contending that Machen’s spiritualistic worldview is belied by his texts’ tendency to collapse into “the terrible reality of physicality” (117). Hurley notes that “in its generation of an endless procession of abhuman embodiments the fin-de-siècle Gothic dictates, as the ‘proper’ somatic response to abhumanness, the sensation of disgust” (45), but she leaves the question of disgust’s metaphysical potentiality – its capacity to incite ecstasy or some other form of transport, and so to act as a vehicle for gnosis – relatively unexplored. “Certainly we enjoy texts that evoke a strong affect,” Hurley observes, “but why this affect, the unpleasurable sensation of nausea?” (49). Her reading illuminates some important historical and aesthetic contexts for Machen’s weird fiction, but tends to elide Machen’s ardent mysticism and anti-materialism. Other accounts, such as those of Susan J. Navarette, Adrian Eckersley, and Aaron Worth, have similarly emphasized the scientific contexts of Machen’s texts, sometimes at the expense of their occult dimensions.21 Of these, Worth’s account is particularly 21 A number of critics have discussed Machen’s texts in terms of nineteenth-century science. Adrian Eckersley points to the relevance of theories of degeneration as espoused by thinkers and physicians like Cesare Lombroso, Henry Maudsley, and Max Nordau, claiming that while, in his estimation, Machen’s stories “lack convincing characters” and feature convoluted and overly coincidental plot-lines, the anxiety of degeneration, “common to the age,” that they express would have provided them a “compelling unity” to the late nineteenth-century reader (280). Eckersley suggests that “from the Enlightenment onwards, the imagery of evil was being translated gradually from a spiritual to a scientific register, just as the function of the priest as society’s moral guardian was steadily and imperceptibly being taken over by the medical man; and the priest’s sanctions of spiritual damnation were being replaced by the medical man’s ideas of biological degeneration” (277). For Eckersley, then, Machen’s fiction derives its aesthetic potency, its sense of horror and evil, from a profoundly physical rather than spiritual source, albeit one coloured by a spiritual 111 pertinent, as he has recently argued that Machen’s horror fiction draws inspiration from Victorian theories of deep time, “the abysses of time disclosed by science” (217) – specifically by then-recent advances in paleontology, evolutionary biology, and geology. While he does not address Meillassoux’s concept of the arche-fossil and its disruption of correlationism, his invocation of “abyssal” temporality does work to link the human and the nonhuman, to undo the “comforting conceptual separation from our bestial forebears,” blending human and animal, history and history. He reads Machen’s weird fiction in terms of scientific materialism. Indeed, for Eckersley what grants Machen’s tales their “immediacy” (277) is precisely their “roots more in biology than spirituality,” their sense of “newness” rather than primitiveness (285). While these accounts address important dimensions of Machen’s supernatural stories, their emphasis on scientific materialism and physicality remain at odds with the theories of ecstasy elucidated in Hieroglyphics, effacing the mystic, anti-materialist, anti-positivist, Romantic, and occult elements present both in Machen’s texts themselves and in his philosophical writings. Moreover, such approaches, though historically illuminating, frequently leave the tantalizingly metaphysical implications of the aesthetics of disgust in Machen’s works unexamined, even when noting the revulsion they can elicit. Roger Luckhurst does observe that Machen was satirizing and criticizing scientific materialism, noting the ways that the structure of texts like The Three Imposters call into question “the certainty of any one system of meaning” and creating a “quick shuffle between mysticism and scepticism” (201). Other critics, such as Sondeep Kandola, Mark De Cicco, Susan Graf, and Nicholas Freeman have taken Machen’s mysticism more seriously. While I build on their scholarship in my analysis, these critics do not substantively engage with the elements of disgust in Machen’s texts; indeed, some of them tend to gravitate towards Machen’s non-horror works, such as the The Secret Glory (1922), as opposed to the weird fiction of his “Great Decade,” the 1890s – in his later works as in his personal spiritual life, Machen increasingly veered away from occultism and gravitated towards a more typical Anglicanism, albeit one inflected with elements of the Celtic Church. The problem, then, is that critics who do think about Machen and disgust tend to emphasize science and risk falling into a materialist reading at odds with Machen’s aesthetics and metaphysics, while those who consider his mysticism in detail fail to consider the role of slime and the role of the disgusting in sufficient detail. 112 prehistory, to elicit emotional effects and uncover “collectively supressed” continuities (225), a reading that will prove useful in relation to the idea of the unthinkable. Though my account draws on readings of the weird monster’s bodily mutability and categorical instability, it pursues the question of disgust’s aestheticization and its link to metaphysics in light of Machen’s Hieroglyphics, his desire, as Joshi puts it, “to restore the sense of wonder and mystery into our perception of the world” (The Weird Tale 16). Rather than reading slime and other textual elicitors of disgust in Machen’s works as signifying the world’s amorphous physicality or the entrapment of his characters in matter, I draw on theories of the grotesque to conceptualize slime as a sacramental substance that, for Machen, elicits aesthetic ecstasy by troubling materialist ontology, unsettling scientific ways of knowing, and confounding a naïve or “common sense” realism as he perceived it, while simultaneously suggesting an occult, undifferentiated world, a primal, spiritual unity. Machen’s universe is doggedly anti-anthropocentric, his God anti-anthropomorphic: his view of reality is not fettered to the bounds of individual subjectivity but forever gestures to an immanent Godhead which, while including the human, is not formed in humanity’s image. The divine substance Machen imagines shares more in common with Spinoza’s pantheistic universe, the Idealist metaphysics of British neo-Hegelianism, and fin-de-siècle occultism than to traditional Christian metaphysics: Machen’s God is not some distant, anthropoid sovereign operating from outside the universe, but a mysterious force known and felt subconsciously, coursing through everything and everyone. The world Machen seeks to reveal is what Thomas Carlyle, following the “Germans,” calls in “State of German Literature” (1827) the “Primitive Truth, the necessarily, absolutely and eternally True” (68), and Machen’s weird fiction serves “to open the inward eye to the sight of the Primitively 113 True,” using grotesque estrangement to “clear off the Obscurations of Sense, which eclipse this truth within us” (69). My analysis will focus on several key texts in Machen’s corpus which exemplify the aesthetic applications of disgust in relation to ecstasy, all of them from Machen’s “Great Decade.” After a brief exploration of the occult, esoteric contexts that inform Machen’s writing, I will begin with Machen’s novella The Great God Pan, focusing not only on the tale’s slimy grotesques but on the narrative nausea the story’s structure elicits, its implications for the form and aesthetics of the weird tale, the cultivation of “ecstasy,” and the metaphysical vistas such ecstasy reveals. Next, I move on to Machen’s intricate novel The Three Imposters, with a particular focus on two of the interpolated tales therein, “The Novel of the Black Seal” and “The Novel of the White Powder.” These texts have attracted critical attention and influenced later authors of horror and weird fiction, and illustrate Machen’s fascination with and aestheticization of disgust in the context of debates around materialism, mysticism, and metaphysics. Through disgust, I suggest, Machen seeks to estrange readers from what he sees as the illusory world of pure materiality posited by a narrowly circumscribed scientific naturalism and rationalism, to reveal a deeper, mystic reality throbbing beneath the fragile skein of the physical. As such, I argue that Machen uses disgust in his fiction as an affective weapon in his struggle against scientific materialism and its generic concomitant, conventional literary realism. 3.2 The Fin-de-Siècle Mystic Revival Though later in life Machen became more ambivalent towards occultism, his early literary work is steeped in the esoteric thinking of fin-de-siècle Britain. Nicholas Freeman suggests that Machen’s ecstasy “transcended or overrode doctrinal affiliations” and was deeply personal, part 114 of a “spiritual quest” (253). He notes that Machen’s concept of ecstasy is linked to ideas of epiphany that stand in stark contrast with the more secular versions taken up by modernist writers (Freeman 242). While the modernists derived their epiphanic ecstasy from such sources as the controversial and essentially materialist conclusion of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance (1873),22 Machen’s ecstasy has more in common with the medieval ecstasy of Meister Eckhart (Freeman 249), as well as the mysterium tremendum as articulated fifteen years after Machen’s Hieroglyphics by Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy (1917). Machen’s occult associations climaxed in his induction into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most prominent magical society of the age, which he joined shortly after losing his wife to cancer in 1899. His interest in the occult, however, long preceded his time in the Order and was especially strong during his Great Decade. Graf notes that while Machen “silently and privately repudiated his life during the ‘yellow nineties’” and the “sexually dark, spiritually dangerous oeuvre” of his 1890s weird fiction, his Decadent supernatural stories were written near the height of his occult fascination (63). Wesley Sweetser similarly remarks in his critical biography of Machen that during the 1890s, Machen “openly embraced the cause of the idealists, the anti-materialists, the romanticists, and the mystics” (29) and was a close friend and frequent correspondent with A.E. Waite, a prominent occultist and co-creator of the enduringly popular Rider-Waite Tarot – indeed, Waite likely introduced Machen to the Golden Dawn, as Mark Valentine observes (73). While Machen’s involvement in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was brief, the Order’s occult goals parallel his literary ambitions: as Graf suggests, “for a Golden Dawn initiate, the work at hand was to make contact with the divine spark that was thought to reside in all 22 This is not to say that Pater’s aesthetics have nothing in common with Machen’s; certainly, Pater made significant contributions to the Symbolist movement in Britain. 115 humans” (8) to navigate a multilayered reality and approach a Godhead that, “was not unchristian,” but which “was Jewish and pagan in addition to being Christian” (7). The mystic revival of the 1890s grew out of the Theosophical Society, itself a hybrid of American spiritualism and “Eastern-oriented metaphysics” (Owen 29), as well as the spiritualist movement popular throughout much of the later nineteenth century, though fin-de-siècle mystics like Machen tended to distance themselves from the spiritualists. As Alex Owen observes in her history of Victorian occultism The Place of Enchantment (2004), “contemporaries regarded the spiritual developments at the end of the century as quite distinct from recent precursors,” and even while the spiritualists “raised their standard against what they saw as the crude materialism of the age,” they often made “positivist claims” (20). Owen also draws a firm distinction between traditional religious thought – and the onto-theology typical of organized religion – and late-Victorian mysticism. While noting that “occultism was characterized by a particular view and understanding of the universe, and of the place of humankind within it, which could loosely be called religious” (Owen 27), she argues that the mystic revival was more than a response to a “Godless universe” but rather grew out of a confluence of “late-Victorian intellectual trends and fashionable interests” (28). Rather than a single dogmatic metaphysics, then, syncretism and eclecticism remained central both to Machen’s idiosyncratic spirituality and to the fin-de-siècle mystic revival in general. Waite, in The Occult Sciences (1891), comments that the terms “transcendental, Hermetic, Rosicrucian, mystical, and esoteric and occult” were all used more-or-less “indiscriminately” over the course of the nineteenth century (1), and his compendium documents such diverse practices as alchemy, astrology, Kabbalah, mesmerism, and Theosophy. Machen himself describes an eclectic catalogue of texts he compiled in “The Literature of Occultism and Archeology” (1885), including “obscure treatises on Alchemy, on Astrology, on Magic,” books “about Witchcraft, Diabolical 116 Posessoin, ‘Fascination,’ or the Evil Eye,” various “comments on the Kabbala,” and notes on “Gnostics and Mithraists,” “Neoplatonists,” and “the modern throng of Diviners and Stargazer and Psychometrists and Animal Magnetists and Mesmerists and Spiritualists and Psychic Researchers” (quoted in The Autobiography of Arthur Machen 165). Given the heterogeneity of fin-de-siècle occultism, it would be a mistake to impose a single occult framework on Machen’s fiction, to project a totalizing occult “system” onto his work. While individual branches of occult practice certainly espoused different sets of beliefs – Theosophical emanationism, for example, emphasized the indivisibility of matter and spirit more than other esoteric philosophies (Owen 38) – the disparate array of mysticisms, occultisms, and esotericisms at play around the turn of the twentieth century were united in their shared disdain for materialism, positivism, and in particular the “mechanical” model of the universe popularized by Victorian scientists like Huxley and Spencer. Owen notes that while the mystic revival was a hodgepodge, incorporating aspects of Renaissance Christian mysticism, the pagan Greek mysteries, Eastern religion, and German Idealism, “what united many of these different trends and factions was a loosely Neoplatonic belief in an occluded spirit realm and a broadly conceived sense of an animistic universe in which all of creation is interrelated and part and expression of a universal soul or cosmic mind” (21). It is this concept of a shadowy, “occluded spirit realm” that underlies much of Machen’s writing, including his aesthetic theories in Hieroglyphics. Machen may not have fully accepted the Golden Dawn as a serious occult organization – Valentine suggests that Machen felt for the Order and its later offshoots the same kind of affection he cultivated towards “various fraternal drinking societies” (74), several of which, such as the “Rabelaisian Order of Teapots” and the “Sodality of the Shadows,” he founded himself (78) – but his writings do express a firm belief in this obfuscated spiritual dimension, a primal reality for which the world of matter is a symbol and sacrament that 117 an excessively reductionist materialism has mistaken for the totality of existence. Like other Victorian intellectuals, Machen found in the occult a respite from the seemingly implacable advances of mechanistic materialism, a last redoubt of fervent, determined anti-materialism in which to shelter from the forces of positivism, secularism, and modernity that were transforming the world around him in a way that appalled him. Apart from their shared interest in a spiritual reality underlying, interfusing, or superseding the world of matter, occult movements were also united in their intense interest in the past – an atavistic fascination that parallels fin-de-siècle scientific preoccupation with theories of degeneration – and in the foreign – an obsession informed by the Orientalist and generally imperialist enthusiasms of the day. These fixations, as well, are illuminating to consider in Machen’s aesthetic thought and weird fiction. Resisting the powerful meta-narrative of progress and advancement fostered by nineteenth-century science (though, of course complicated by dissenting voices and scientific considerations of regression), fin-de-siècle occultists turned to the past – to Hebraic mysticism, medieval Christian mysticism, Gnosticism, Ancient Egyptian religion, and other old belief systems. Simultaneously, they looked outward to systems of thought beyond the familiar, comfortable constraints of nineteenth-century Christianity. The occult thus served as an alternative both to a moribund Christianity and to the spiritual sterility of mechanistic materialism. As Patrick Brantlinger suggests, late-Victorian occultism functioned alongside imperialism as a kind of substitute ideology for both “declining and fallen Christianity” and also “for declining faith in England’s future” (246), mitigating the malaise precipitated by the erosion of traditional systems of belief. Such anxieties are clearly at play in Machen’s theoretical and literary writing; Hieroglyphics is centrally concerned with recovering a mode of mystic perception common to “primitive man,” in which a sacred unity disavowed by modern civilization is 118 recovered, and the text’s touchstone examples of “fine literature” (that is, ecstatic literature) prominently include the Odyssey, Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Machen attempts, through his fiction, to recuperate this “forgotten” way of seeing the world, to uncover the hidden world of the spirit. The occult attraction to the past finds an artistic parallel in the Symbolist movement, and despite his distinct lack of doctrinal affiliation, Machen’s aesthetics can be broadly associated both with Decadence generally and the nostalgic “Celtic Twilight” beloved by the Symbolists more particularly; his Celtic fascination is evident both in his frequent use of fairies and in his interest in the Grail myth and other elements of Arthurian legend.23 As Murray Pittock observes, the Symbolists found in the Celtic past “a way of attacking the bourgeoisie and Victorian materialist culture” (86). Pittock notes that Symbolism and occultism share “a deliberate interest in some of the ways of thinking practised in [the] past,” such as, for example, “the idea of an animate universe” (10), and that Symbolist ideology sought to challenge scientific and empirical accounts of reality in order to encourage different ways of thinking (11). As Arthur Symons observes in his 1893 essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” Decadent artists sought “not general truth merely but la vérite vraie, the very essence of truth – the truth of appearances to the senses, of the visible world to the eyes that see it; and the truth of spiritual things to the spiritual vision” (859). Symbolists in particular, Symons writes, seek “that which can be apprehended only by the soul – the finer sense of things unseen, the deeper meaning of things evident” (859). Here we can also find a connection to Poe, whose influence on Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé helped to shape the Symbolist movement. While decades (and the Atlantic Ocean) separate Machen and 23 Indeed, Machen’s The Great Return (1915) and The Secret Glory originate the idea of the Grail surviving into the modern era, a trope which has endured in popular culture ever since. 119 Poe, in many ways Machen follows on from Poe both aesthetically and metaphysically. The Schellingian, Idealist ontology and Dark Romantic obsession with decomposition and dissolution which preoccupy Poe’s more “cosmic” or “proto-weird” tales have much in common with Machen’s esotericism and his own fascination with deliquescence, the slime of decay, and the capacity for such profane and disgusting imagery to produce powerful emotional effects which have metaphysical implications. Before delving into The Great God Pan and its entwinement of the grotesque, the ecstatic, and the esoteric, it is worth touching on the links between recent developments in speculative realism and the occult philosophy that underlies Machen’s work, and which his weird fiction artistically instantiates: like the post-Kantian Idealism of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, mysticism has been of interest to the speculative realists. Thacker observes that mysticism “aims for a total union of the division between self and world” (DTP 158), bridging the correlationist gap. He notes that mystics like Eckhart developed a conception of God which was “non-anthropomorphic, abstract, and metaphysical,” a being which is “not one part seen, and one part unseen” but rather “a flow and unbroken continuity” (Thacker, SSC 25). Mysticism, then, offers another means of accessing Meillasoux’s Great Outdoors. Fin-de-siècle occultists like Machen not only opposed a reductive materialist account of the world, they were attempting to tap into a version of the suprasensible world, to reach beyond the borders of individual consciousness and touch the divine. What we might call the spirit of occult realism animating Machen’s writing, moreover, has profound implications for the contours and constraints of the self. As Owen puts it, “the occult conceived of divinity as bound up in complex ways with the self just as occult practice sought direct experience of both divinity and a spiritualized ‘real’ through a unique understanding and 120 exploration of subjective consciousness” (147). Disgust, as I will show, plays a crucial and perhaps unexpected role in this restoration of the sacred in Machen’s weird fiction. 3.3 Sacramental Slime and The Great God Pan Machen’s Decadent masterpiece The Great God Pan is simultaneously a tale of Victorian experimental neurosurgery and one of mystic experimentation in the tradition of fin-de-siècle occultism, mingling Judeo-Christian imagery and Celtic and Roman myth in its idiosyncratic evocation of a spiritual world beyond the “dreams and shadows” (10) of what Machen saw as the vapid materialism of his day – an ecstatic reality which, through “transcendental medicine” (8), might be explored. The weird novel is, in addition to all these things, a singularly disgusting work. As Susan Navarette suggests, the novel “was designed to produce in the reader . . . symptoms of confusion, indeterminacy, and destabilization” as well as “a visceral shudder or a sense of physical aversion” (196). While critics have situated the novel in a set of specifically materialist and scientific contexts, recent scholarship has begun to explore the occult aspects of the story. Though focused on The Three Imposters, Sondeep Kandola’s research on Celtic symbolism in Machen’s work mentions The Great God Pan alongside Machen’s other tales of Welsh mysticism, while Kostas Boyiopoulos claims that the “Dionysian frenzy of fauns and satyrs” the text imagines – beginning with the lurid Aubrey Beardsley cover of the 1894 edition, depicting an androgynous faun – is merely “a frontage of an understated Judeo-Christian scheme” (363), linking the story’s antagonist, the alluring and repulsive Helen Vaughan, to Lilith and the Antichrist. Darryl Jones touches briefly on the story in his survey of spiritualism and occultism in fin-de-siècle and Edwardian Welsh and Irish horror, in which he suggests that the story negotiates “the permeable borderland between the two worlds of spirit and matter” (36). A more thorough treatment of the 121 tale’s occult dimensions can be found in Mark De Cicco’s recent article “‘More than Human’: The Queer Occult Explorer of the Fin-de-siècle,” which contends that alienated Victorian intellectuals, reeling and disoriented in a post-Darwinian and increasingly scientific world stripped of traditional spiritual meaning, saw in the occult an alternate system of thought “in which marginalized belief in supernatural forces could be reorganized and re-amalgamated” as part of an “anti-materialist, anti-positivist quest” for the “eternal/Otherworld that lay beyond the sensorial world claimed by the materialist trend that had dominated scientific thought since the Enlightenment” (6). Here, I build on conceptions of The Great God Pan as a specifically esoteric, anti-materialist text while pursuing the question of ecstasy and disgust in Machen’s work, suggesting that aestheticized disgust plays a crucial role in Machen’s anti-materialist search for the spiritual. Reading Helen Vaughan’s hybrid body and the protoplasmic slime it dissolves into as a grotesque anomaly designed to estrange readers from a materialist conception of reality, I suggest that the story constitutes Machen’s attempt to restore – through text rather than neurosurgery – a sense of the numinous. Contrary to De Cicco’s reading of the tale as a cautionary one, “a dire warning against dabbling with forces beyond the pale of normative knowledge and science” (17), I read the novel as an extended esoteric experiment on Machen’s part designed to inculcate a kind of revelatory nausea, a powerful affective state that will, Machen hopes, lead readers to see “the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes” (The Great God Pan 10) and thus, perhaps, catch a fleeting glimpse of Pan themselves. While this state resembles the affective transport supplied by the sublime, I draw on an understanding of the grotesque as the sublime’s shadow rather than relating disgust in The Great God Pan to the sublime itself. As Istvan Csicseray-Ronay Jr. writes, “both the sublime and the grotesque exceed rational balance by resisting the observer’s attempt to encompass what it observes,” but the grotesque specifically engenders a fascination with “the 122 anomalous and chaotic,” derived from “experiencing combinations of elements that cannot occur, or should not occur, according to the established categories of scientific reason or customary observation” (79). The Great God Pan was published first in The Whirlwind in 1890, then revised and republished in 1894 as part of the somewhat notorious Keynote Series of novels and short fiction put out by John Lane, the same publisher as the periodical The Yellow Book whose name has become synonymous with Decadence and Beardsleyesque grotesquery and lent its name to the “yellow nineties.” Machen’s novel begins with “The Experiment,” originally an independent story altogether, in which a neurosurgical procedure is conducted by the sinister Dr. Raymond on Mary Vaughan, a young woman Raymond “rescued from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child,” and whose life he therefore claims as his own “to use as [he sees] fit” (The Great God Pan 16). Dr. Raymond describes the operation in starkly materialistic terms: “a slight lesion in the grey matter, that is all; a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a microscopical alteration that would escape the attention of ninety-nine brain specialists out of a hundred” (Machen, The Great God Pan 11). In an 1894 letter to Lane on the subject of the first chapter, Machen writes that: If I were writing in the Middle Ages I should need no scientific basis for the reason that in those days the supernatural per se was entirely credible. In these days the supernatural per se is entirely incredible; to believe, we must link our wonders to some scientific fact, or basis, or method. Thus we do not believe in ‘ghosts’ but in telepathy, not in ‘witchcraft,’ but in hypnotism. If Mr Stevenson had written his great masterpiece about 1590-1650, Dr Jekyll would have made a compact with the devil; in 1886 Dr Jekyll sends to the Bond Street chemists for some rare drug. (218) 123 Despite this seeming concession to the scientific mindset of his readers, Machen almost immediately complicates and problematizes the clinical materialism framing the experiment, as Dr. Raymond expounds his aim to span “the unutterable, the unthinkable gulf that yawns profound between two worlds” (The Great God Pan 14) – a phrase that might as easily apply to the quest of the speculative realists, to bridge the correlationist gulf between self and world. Dr. Raymond is seeking, through his experiment, a means of exploring a “sphere unknown,” with “continents and islands, and great oceans in which no ship has sailed . . . since a Man first lifted up his eyes and beheld the sun and the stars of heaven, and the quiet earth beneath” (Machen, The Great God Pan 13). Though the operation Raymond performs is a scientific, surgical procedure rather than a mystic ritual per se, a minor adjustment to “a certain group of nerve-cells in the brain” which previous scientists had been unable to fully account for, he intends the result of the experiment to “level utterly the solid wall of sense” (Machen, The Great God Pan 15), and so the procedure is as much occult as it is scientific. To put it another way, while the procedure bears the trappings of scientific materialism, the metaphysics it is designed to confirm are not in any sense materialist, but presuppose a spiritual “Great Outdoors” – an occult world, a normally suprasensible absolute reality. Following the surgery, Mary sees “the Great God Pan,” but is left imbecilic, “rolling her head from side to side, and grinning vacantly” (Machen, The Great God Pan 27); she also becomes pregnant as a result of the surgery, in what Boyiopoulos reads as a Satanic travesty of the immaculate conception in which Machen “appropriates the supernatural conception through the ear, from the spiritual sphere to the sphere of organic matter,” replacing “holy breath” with “the Victorian scalpel” (365). Mary dies, but her daughter, Helen, survives and proceeds to wreak havoc on London, pursuing a series of marriages (thus changing her name several times) and luring 124 seemingly upright, life-loving male socialites into despair and horror so intense they commit suicide, usually through grotesque, eroticized self-strangulation. What, exactly, Helen shows her victims – or does with them – is never fully disclosed: repeatedly, characters refuse to speak of what they have seen, only hinting at the mysterious diableries into which Helen tempts them. Herbert, one of Helen’s husbands, says to the inquisitive London flâneur Villiers that “I tell you you can have no conception of what I know; no, not in your most fantastic, hideous dreams can you have imaged forth the faintest shadow of what I have heard and seen” (Machen, The Great God Pan 54-55). Helen’s crimes themselves are unspeakable and unthinkable; the best hint we get as to the specifics of Helen’s activities is a drawing, sketched by one of Helen’s victims, depicting a “frightful Walpurgis Night of evil, strange monstrous evil” in which the “figures of Fauns and Satyrs and Ægipans” dance and writhe” (Machen, The Great God Pan 97), though there are also suggestions of an incestuous, paedophilic affair between Helen and her malevolent father, Pan, during her childhood. At the end of her rash of lethal debaucheries – whose serial nature De Cicco speculates may have been inspired by the murders of Jack the Ripper, reading Helen as “essentially a female, aristocratic Jack the Ripper-figure . . . a queer, refracted mirror image of both sexual attraction and horror that undermines the normative structure of late Victorian London” (16) – Helen is found out by the indefatigable Villiers and his gentlemanly associate Austin, who confront her and offer her a noose, threatening to alert the police if she refuses to kill herself by the same method as her victims. Helen chooses the proffered noose, but upon her death she dissolves into protean amorphousness, a mass of bestial forms that eventually give way to a primordial jelly and then, ultimately, a “Form . . . too foul to be spoken of” (Machen, The Great God Pan 145). The Great God Pan is preoccupied with descriptions of Helen’s body, descriptions that seem calculated to elicit both disgust and desire simultaneously but which also become linked with 125 occult speculation. The overall effect is that Helen, despite the copious description she is afforded, disrupts language and its power to describe the world: she is unspeakable, defying efforts to categorize or define her. Moreover, she also seems to be unthinkable, beyond the remit of ordinary cognition, a condition that precipitates both repugnance and fascination. Austin claims to Villiers that all who look on Helen declare her “at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they have ever set eyes on” (Machen, The Great God Pan 67). She inspires an enigmatic and ineffable abhorrence; Austin states that when he spoke to one who saw her, “he positively shuddered as he tried to describe the woman, but he couldn’t say why” (Machen, The Great God Pan 67). Susan B. Miller argues that one of the central tasks to which disgust is put is the promotion of “certain self-conceptions, certain illusions, even” (6); disgust, on one level, works “to protect the spiritual integrity of the individual or the group, either of which can insist that something is morally, ethically, or aesthetically unacceptable” (7). This function of disgust is readily apparent in Machen’s treatment of Helen’s body. The disgust it inspires – and the cultural anxieties it encodes – is overdetermined: her body is excessive, monstrous, fecund with revulsion-producing signification. As Jack Halberstam writes, “monsters mark difference with and upon their bodies,” for “within the traits that make a body monstrous – that is, frightening or ugly, abnormal or disgusting – we may read the difference between an other and a self, a pervert and a normal person, a foreigner and a native” (8). With her “clear olive skin and almost Italian appearance” (Machen, The Great God Pan 43), Helen is ethnically Othered, harnessing contemporary unease surrounding foreignness, race, and reverse-colonization in much the same manner that other works of “imperial Gothic” – texts like Stoker’s Dracula (1897) or Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), as well as later works such as the stories of H.P Lovecraft – play on the potential disgust produced by forms of difference. What Helen – and, indeed, many of her 126 monstrous kindred in other weird and Gothic texts – reveals, however, is not the ontological “truth” of difference, not some robust, essentialist distinction between categories, but the possibility of their dissolution. Helen’s otherness, her disgustingness, always threatens to seep beyond her, to spill out of her body; she is a manifestation of a metaphysical indifferentiation that threatens to undo the categories that help to constitute the world of appearances, and so estrange us from the comforting, reliable world-for-us. Helen is also a hybrid, the product of a union between the human and the nonhuman, and so her body destabilizes taxonomic boundaries, blurring the borders of “humanity” and throwing into crisis the schema by which we make sense of the world. Her parentage is both human and divine, both physical and spiritual, and her link with the hircine deity Pan smudges the line between divine and bestial. Her gender and sexuality are also central to the sense of disgust she might inspire in a Victorian audience. As Carol Margaret Davison argues, in the face of socio-political shifts surrounding conceptions of gender and sexuality during the Victorian period, “the explicit battlefield . . . was the female body and the issue of embattled femininity” (125). Moving from husband to husband and leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, Helen emerges as a femme fatale, a sexual parasite. In this she resembles many other supernatural villainesses of the period, such as Stoker’s vampiric Lucy Westenra, who, like Helen, is instilled with “languorous, voluptuous grace” (197), an allure belied by her monstrous visage resembling “the passion masks of the Greeks and Japanese” (198). Helen’s transgressive sexuality and multivalent monstrosity are construed in terms of a kind of contagion or disease. As De Cicco writes, Helen “becomes a queer force of nonnormative sexuality and consequently is a mental and physical danger to all of those around her” (16). Helen’s presence is frequently described in terms of contamination. Early in the novel she terrifies a 127 childhood playmate, Trevor, who glimpses her “playing in the grass with ‘a strange naked man,’ whom he seemed unable to describe further” (Machen, The Great God Pan 38) but who is later identified with her father, Pan; Trevor contracts a case of what is diagnosed as “violent hysteria” (41) which leaves him with “a weakness of intellect” (42), a description whose gendered nature suggests that Helen’s disorderliness has affected Trevor as well, destabilizing his masculinity. Accounts of Helen’s activities likewise provoke symptoms of hysteria and sickness: upon hearing of another of Helen’s youthful encounters, Clarke suffers a “paroxysm of horror” (Machen, The Great God Pan 45), as if the mere mentioning of her deeds was sufficient to produce a hysterical reaction, the “hysteric paroxysm” being one of the chief diagnostic symptoms of hysteria (Laycock 1). As Hurley argues, “a ripple of revulsion emanates from without the unspecifiably disgusting body of Helen Vaughan, infecting even the most casual observer” (49). Even the sight of a manuscript recounting the details of Helen’s sexualized occultism (a manuscript whose text, naturally, Machen withholds from readers) is enough to provoke physical sickness: Austin, glancing at a single phrase of the manuscript, becomes “sick at heart, with white lips and a cold sweating pouring like water from his temples” (The Great God Pan 134). Speaking of Helen likewise engenders nausea; one individual grows sick in the mere telling of Helen’s “nameless infamies” (Machen, The Great God Pan 129). Entering a room in which Helen’s diabolism was conducted produces in Villiers a sensation he compares to being poisoned: “. . . it was more physical than mental. It was as if I were inhaling at every breath some deadly fume, which seemed to penetrate to every nerve and bone and sinew of my body. I felt racked from head to foot, my eyes began to grow dim; it was like the entrance of death.” (Machen, The Great God Pan 88-89) 128 At the same time, however, Helen is also presented as intensely, supremely desirable. Her physical attractiveness is mentioned time and time again, her beauty caught up in and inextricable from her inhumanness, her repulsiveness: Herbert describes her as “a girl of the most wonderful and most strange beauty” (Machen, The Great God Pan 53) and tells of his wedding night when, in her “beautiful voice,” she speaks of things “which even now [he] would not dare whisper in blackest night, though [he] stood in the midst of a wilderness” (54). As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s fifth and sixth theses of “Monster Theory” suggest, monsters on the one hand embody all that “must be exiled or destroyed” – “the monster is transgressive, too sexual, perversely erotic, a lawbreaker,” linked to “forbidden practices” (16) – but on the other hand also seduce and attract, evoking “potent escapist fantasies”: “the linking of the monster with the forbidden makes the monster all the more appealing as a temporary egress from restraint” (17). Susan Miller points out that “the boundaried state is not the only state of being humans enjoy and value, nor the only state we seek,” as “we look as well for moments in which boundaries are blurred and abandoned, moments that bring the outside in and cast doubt on the salience of the demarcated self” (16). Helen Vaughan is brimming
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UBC Theses and Dissertations
The daemonology of unplumbed space : weird fiction, disgust, and the aesthetics of the unthinkable Newell, Jonathan 2017
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