Lovecraftian Apophasis

Aug 30th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles


A discussion of Graham Harman's book on Lovecraft. Karl and Nadim got together at the end of the Summer at Athenaeum House, London over a coffee. Karl had recently tried and failed to really engage with Lovecraft whilst Nadim took Harman's book on holiday with an annotated edition of Lovecraft. After the conversation both agreed there was a sense that their exchange could be expanded into a closer reading of the philosophical implications of Harman's ideas.

Karl F Tullah: Can we begin with some basics? Why Lovecraft?

Nadim Bakhshov: Well, when I was a youngster, reading too much science fiction and horror - mainly Stephen King, my younger brother - a little more adventurous back then - stumbled into Ballard, Moorcock and Lovecraft. It was obvious he loved Lovecraft. Normally when you discover a writer you want the world to know. Strange. He didn't. He would make the occasional remark. It was if he had joined an esoteric cult, with some deep secret at its heart and there was no way he wanted to give that away. Not even to me. So I missed Lovecraft. When I was 18 I stumbled into Freud, Goethe and Chekhov while doing a miserable telephone directory enquiry job in Ealing and never returned to my adolescent reading interests. I left horror and science fiction. Only when I got to my mid-40s, working back over a number of threads in my philosophical work did I stumble into Harman's book on Lovecraft - I had already studied two of his books on Bruno Latour. Classic Zero book cover. Not giving much away. A sign of confidence.

Karl F Tullah: And?

Nadim Bakhshov: Four months have passed. I've had summer of listening to and reading Lovecraft. Harman has stayed by my side. Why Lovecraft? Firstly, I'd like to start with Edmund Wilson. Harman tells us Wilson states Lovecraft is "not a good writer".  But unlike Harman, I wouldn't even attempt to refute this statement. I understand why he feels a need to. But why bother. The whole idea is misconceived. Was Lovecraft a good writer? Let's just take an analogy. If you spend a year listening to Beethoven's Late String quartets and then someone throws Salvatore Sciarrino's 'Sui Poemi Concentrici" at you and asks: Is Sciarrino a good composer? How would you answer? With difficulty I would imagine.

Karl F Tullah: Why?

Nadim Bakhshov: If you are 'tuned' into Beethoven and his idiom, the way his music flows and moves, modulates and loops Sciarrino would seem flat and monochrome - as there's not much modulation of harmonic movement in there.

Karl F Tullah: I see.

Nadim Bakhshov: Is it fair to compare a modern postmodern composer with affinities to contemporary ambient and drone music to Beethoven?

Karl F Tullah: How does this relate to reading Lovecraft and defending his writing?

Nadim Bakhshov: The critical concept here is 'idiom'.

Karl F Tullah: Idiom?

Nadim Bakhshov:  All painters, writers, composers and film-makers have an idiom. It's like a personal signature - sometimes it can be a stylistic practice, or sometimes it can be some content.

Karl F Tullah: You've got to get inside the idiom to begin to engage the work?

Nadim Bakhshov: Yes. I like to think of it as a 'tuning' process. So much literary and film and art criticism can be categorised under this. The critic simply failed to enter the idiom, to tune in.

Karl F Tullah: But why should anyone invest the effort? I find Lovecraft's idiom really awkward. You're telling me that I need to tune into his stylistics? But the moment I do that don't I sacrifice my impartial judgement?

Nadim Bakhshov: No, of course you don't. Once you tune in you then begin the real work of engaging the work. You are in a position inside the work and your judgement of it is more relevant.

Karl F Tullah: Is that something Harman helps with?

Nadim Bakhshov: Yes. He guides the unwary reader.

Karl F Tullah: How?

Nadim Bakhshov: Well, it's a bit tricky - because I don't know if Harman's approach will appeal to all. He tends to focus on the linguistic more than the mythological. But this makes sense in part. Tuning into Lovecraft is tuning into this use of language - and Harman is brilliant here. He talks about the bad paraphrase. It's a big deal to him. It's a way of missing the Lovecraftian idiom. When he discusses Lovecraft's description - or failed description - of a bust of Cthulhu he introduces Lovecraftian apophasis.

Karl F Tullah: What does that mean?

Nadim Bakhshov: What I mean is simple. Harman repeats this point throughout: pay attention to Lovecraft's constant disavowal of the adequacy of language. In theological discourse, negative theology does a similar thing: the godhead cannot be captured in language because every proposition is limited and distorts or only partially captures but then falsifies the object. According to Harman, it applies here. The Lovecraftian monsters are in the main phenomenal entities but his linguistic apophasis should be taken on face value.

Karl F Tullah: But people can't help paraphrase and literalise - to make films, comics and so on. There's the brilliant Self Made Hero stuff:

Screen shot 2015-08-30 at 17.48.08

(from The Lovecraft Anthology — Volume I)

Nadim Bakhshov: True. If you follow Hartman strictly you might begin to understand how these literalisations fail the Lovecraftian apophasis. Lovecraft explicitly wants you to be aware that his words are approximations and falsify as much as disclose. Harman levers important philosophical insights without sounding  academic or getting lost in technical jargon. In the background you sense Harman shares the Lovecraftian anti-theology.

Karl F Tullah: The way I see it - Lovecraft very self-consciously uses this apophatic, disavowing style - it's part of a very deliberate literary strategy.

Nadim Bakhshov: I think so too.

Karl F Tullah: But I find it weak because his monsters are phenomenal not metaphysical or supernatural. It feels like a literary strategy to compensate for a poverty of poetic talent.

Nadim Bakhshov: That could be. Even if it were true it wouldn't change much. Lovecraftian apophasis can be taken at face value.

Karl F Tullah: For you Lovecraft still works even if you accept his writing can be awful?

Nadim Bakhshov: Yes. When I read the 'Thing on the Doorstep' - a classic tale of mind swapping - I found the language neither added or detracted from the overall narrative. At times it added atmosphere, at other times it just got in the way. Wilson had a point. My personal heresy is this: you can take a Lovecraft story and strip out its surface  idiom. The core narrative skeleton and remaining mythology still works. You read his stories and they seem paradigmatic of a whole genre. Almost archetypal.

Karl F Tullah: Do you find him scary?

Nadim Bakhshov: No. Lovecraft, more than any other writer I can think of worked in a flat cosmos - there's no depth to his ontology, no real supernatural or metaphysical element. All his blurry, monstrous beings are always phenomenal but somehow - not unlike MR James' ghosts - impossible to focus on. That's how he gives his cosmos depth - this inability to assimilate his monsters, to describe, to cope with an encounter. When you read it and are told of these horrific monsters - even though words falls short, it's like taking someone's mystical experience as fact -

Karl F Tullah: He developed something like an alien mythology, didn't he?

Nadim Bakhshov: His mythology, as Harman rightly grasps, is a science fiction mythology. His monsters are, for all their monstrousness, aliens indifferent to humanity.

Karl F Tullah: That idea has gone mainstream and been hugely influential.

Nadim Bakhshov: He was a pretty impressive science fiction writer. One of his classics - 'The Colour out of Space' - is a brilliant work of alien invasion, but told in such a freakish and odd way. Reading Harman you explore Lovecraft's attempt to 'describe' the alien presence and the way its presence distorts colours and mutates living forms. It's really worth reading. When is a being not a being and more like a colour?

Karl F Tullah: I take it you recommend Harman?

Nadim Bakhshov: Yes, of course. His book works really hard to detail out concrete examples to support this linguistic apophasis and he does it brilliantly without distorting Lovecraft. He gets across this sense that Lovecraft wanted to portray an alien presence that somehow defies the familiar categories of our language. I'd recommend reading Harman with the following Lovecraft edition as once you start getting into Lovecraft there's no one else quite like him.

Karl F Tullah: Thank you.

Nadim Bakhshov is author of forthcoming Zer0 books title "Against Capitalist Education" out on 11 Dec 2015.

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