I’m connecting this piece from 2012 to my series of posts that develop my running side-theme of interaction with Buddhism, though that is not necessarily the focus of the piece. This conference paper is another that was unfortunately written under great time pressure, and it features some very coarsely edited material from my dissertation and my thesis. I was trying to bring these two into conversation, and I think that generally I achieved that in this piece. Given time, I would someday like to make a smoother version of this work; I am convinced that it gets at something common to all my major scholarship, and something very basically human.
Here, then, my paper prepared for a panel I shared with Geoffrey Reiter at a Science & Science Fiction conference held at ORU in Tulsa:
ORU Conference on Science and Science Fiction
April 12 & 13, 2012
When East and West Collide:
Hope and Imaginary Bodies in Mishima and Lovecraft
Absolute selfhood opens up as nonobjectifiable nothingness in the conversion that takes place within personality. Through that conversion every bodily, mental, and spiritual activity that belongs to person displays itself as a play of shadows moving across the stage of nothingness. [. . .] It is the field commonly seen as “outermost” by the personal self and referred to as the external world actually present in the here and now, ever changing. [. . .] The “outer world” emerges here as a self-realization of nonobjectifiable nothingness, or, rather, makes itself present such as it is, in oneness with nothingness.
The field of true human existence opens up beyond the outer and the inner, at a point where the “shadowy man” is in oneness with absolute selfhood. We have here an absolute self-identity. Thinking, feeling, and action are, on every occasion, entirely illusory appearances with nothing behind them, the shadowy heart and mind of the shadowy man.
Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness
There are few obvious similarities between Yukio Mishima and H. P. Lovecraft, but at first glance many readers will be hard put to tell which author penned the following lines: “It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly. ” These words from Mishima’s Sun and Steel describe a phase of his development as man and writer in which his “stubborn refusal to perceive [his] body” could be accounted for by his longing for “the ideal body” that would “be absolutely free from any interference by words.” Mishima’s idealization of what Shu Kuge calls “‘existence’ not yet translated into discursive language” could bear comparison to Lovecraft’s dream fantasies, his life-long memory of his childhood terror of “Night-gaunts,” and his fascination with things we cannot conceive before, beneath, and beyond our individual and collective consciousness, things that might turn out to be (literally) unutterably significant. Focussing on Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider” and selections from Mishima’s Sun and Steel, I want to look at the ways that bodily experience of consciousness expresses nihility in both.
In bringing these two writers together, I am not only bringing an American and a Japanese writer onto the same stage, but attempting to build a bridge between various elements of my own research and teaching. (In keeping with that goal, let me point out that significant portions of this paper are derived from earlier works whose arguments I am here advancing.) In Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” then, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work from the Coleridge-Poe-Lovecraft tradition which has helped to invest much of the field of science fiction, fantasy, and horror with significance. In Mishima’s Sun and Steel, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work situated squarely at the confluence of Romantic and existential “Western” thought with the “Eastern” though of Japanese Shinto-Buddhist culture. As with the works of Coleridge, or of Friedrich Nietzsche or Antonin Artaud, these radically global and personal works of Lovecraft and Mishima both assert and reject a radical opposition between life as articulated in significant actions and utterances and life idealized as an inarticulate, pre-discursive unity. Like Mishima’s “I,” the first-person speaker of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” finds his whole body of experience nauseating when he finally perceives his body. We will begin by looking at how Lovecraft’s “Outsider” responds to such self-knowledge, then proceed to draw the parallel to the response Kuge reports from Mishima: “The surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath. The surface is everything.”
The foremost editor and promoter of Lovecraft’s work, S. T. Joshi, characterizes Lovecraft’s 1921 story “The Outsider” as “haunting and inexhaustibly interpretable” (85). Yet Joshi seems to find the story difficult to interpret, saying that “on the face of it, the tale makes little sense” and that “it is still hampered by conceptual difficulties, excessive derivativeness, an unfortunate reliance on overheated prose, and a ‘surprise’ ending that cannot be much of a surprise to many readers” (87). It seems odd, though, to single out “The Outsider” as an example of “overheated prose,” as Lovecraft’s penchant for overwriting persists throughout his career. Lovecraft did acknowledge that the story “represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its height” (qtd. in Joshi 86), and this accounts for much of its difference from Lovecraft’s later work.
More importantly, though, this dependence on Poe answers Joshi’s protest that “The Outsider” elicits no surprise at the end. On this point, Joshi seems inexplicably insensitive to the conventions of the genre. Both Poe and Lovecraft would tell him, in their critical writings, that the effect of such tales as “The Outsider,” in the tradition of Poe’s “William Wilson” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not surprise at all, but dawning awareness. The reader does not experience a sudden and unexpected reversal of expectations; rather, the reader experiences a sudden confirmation of a pattern suggested but not proven by the events of the tale. The mind, sensing the pattern, is drawn to look for confirming evidence, always suspecting the possibility of a reversal; as the evidence mounts, the conclusion begins to seem inevitable and the progress of the narrative at once inexorable and seemingly interminable. When the sudden confirmation comes, all the evidence and suspicion–and the terror of the imagined possibilities which are not confirmed–is allowed to fall into place, effecting a sudden transformation in the reader’s perspective on the story. Careful reading of such a story, then, should pay careful attention to problems of memory and perception that might appear as “conceptual difficulties” upon a first reading.
In reading “The Outsider,” the most significant such memory problem concerns the status of the narrator. The story’s first-person narrator repeatedly speaks of the oblivion-inducing “nepenthe” which comforts him; he says of the climactic moment of the tale that “in the supreme horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me” (5); and the opening line of the final paragraph says that “nepenthe has calmed me.” It is strange, then, that the very same paragraph closes with the narrator’s description of the “supreme horror” of the tale’s climax. Upon a first reading, it seems impossible to explain the narrator’s ability to tell the story of an experience which he claims, while telling it, to have forgotten.
The speaker in “The Outsider” begins with a melodramatic pronouncement bewailing his memories:
Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. (1)
From the very beginning, the typical Lovecraftian disposition toward memory is established: it is a burden, even a curse, that the speaker would escape if he could. Other examples abound: the narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time” finds it a source of hope that “my experience was wholly or partly an hallucination” (275). The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” opens his account by saying, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” (52).
“The Outsider” intensifies this horror of memory by passing from the “fear and sadness” of “memories of childhood” to a horror even deeper: “And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other” (1). The main tension of the story unfolds in the space created by these two statements about memory: no matter how unhappy the slice of reality depicted by his conscious memories may be, the speaker would rather “cling desperately” to those memories than allow his “mind […] to reach beyond to the other.” The speaker then describes the tale of his own growth and exploration of his surroundings, his descriptions giving the reader a clear understanding of what the speaker refuses to clearly acknowledge:
I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible […]. The stones in the crumbling corridors seemed always hideously damp, and there was an accursed smell everywhere, as of the piled-up corpses of dead generations. (1)
The narrator clearly signals his unreliability when he follows a statement about selective memory with a description beginning “I know not.” In fact, the speaker’s memory is to be doubted at every turn, with the “smell […] as of the piled up corpses” being, in fact, a literal description rather than the metaphor intended by the speaker. That the speaker found “nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons that strowed some of the stone crypts” reinforces the reader’s impression that the speaker has, himself, grown up in the crypts or catacombs beneath an ancient castle. That the speaker considers these things normal clearly flags the distance between his perceptions and those of his audience.
The narrator’s circumlocutions leave the reader to piece together the significance of “the other” which the narrator is so eager to forget. Progressively revealing elements of the unsurprising “surprise ending,” the narrator prepares his audience for a sudden transformation from suggestive uncertainty to confirmation. In keeping with the genre and Poe’s example, the confirmation is delayed until the very end, even at the cost of some awkwardness. The reader finds the narrator in a place so dark “that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief” (1) and follows his ascent, beginning when
in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky. And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day. (2)
Having never seen the light, except that of candles and the gradations of twilight that exist even in the darkness of his world, the speaker nevertheless hungers for light; in this he echoes Poe’s critical appeals to a “thirst unquenchable” based on a “prescience of glories beyond the grave” which underlies all aesthetic appeals. (Both of them, of course, are also refracting Plato’s parable of the cave through a lens of Christian apocalypticism.) “The Outsider,” of course, is himself in the grave. For the narrator in the story, the search for light will take him back up out of his grave, emerging into the world of the living in the first of the revelations for which the reader has long been prepared by the hints of the narrator: “The sight itself was as simple as it was stupefying [. . .] there stretched around me [. . .] nothing less than the solid ground” (3). In climbing the long tower up from his “castle,” the speaker has reached, not “a lofty eminence,” but the surface of the earth. He emerges through a church, finding that “my mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, still held the frantic craving for light” (3).
As he emerges, the speaker becomes “conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory that made my progress not wholly fortuitous” (4). Here the narrator’s and the reader’s journey coincide: both are becoming aware that this is not a quest after knowledge, but after memory; something has been forgotten which will be recalled. As the speaker continues, he arrives at a “castle [. . .] maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me.” Approaching the castle, he sees “open windows–gorgeously ablaze with light and sending forth sound of the gayest revelry [. . .] an oddly dressed company, indeed; making merry, and speaking brightly” (4). Here, it seems, is what he has been longing for; yet the reader is already prepared to ask whether this is “the other” to which the speaker referred; the audience is invited to wonder why the “latent memory” which guided him to this sight, the light for which he longed, was termed “fearsome.”
The answer is not long in coming:
I now stepped through the low window into the brilliantly lighted room, stepping as I did so from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation. The nightmare was quick to come; for as I entered, there occurred immediately one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived. (4)
“The nightmare” begins with all of the revelers fleeing in “clamour and panic” as the speaker enters the room (4). Afraid of whatever could cause such a disturbance, the narrator looks around and approaches an archway, screaming “the first and last sound I ever uttered” as he sees “in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives” (5). The speaker “cannot even hint what it was like,” but calls it “the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world–or no longer of this world.” Of course, the reader familiar with the genre will have predicted what the story reveals in its last sentence: the speaker “stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame [. . .] and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass” (6).
“The other,” then, is himself–is a view of himself in a mirror. The usage of the phrase at the beginning of the tale, though, implies more. “The other” is a thing “my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to,” analogous with but not identical to the physical reaching of his hand to the monster. Hence, also, the speaker’s plunge is “from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation.” “The other” represents a whole scheme of repressed knowledge. As the speaker says at the moment,
In that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single and fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory. I knew in that second all that had been. I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own. (5)
The speaker, having been dead, has returned, less than human but still animated, to his home; his memories are dim and antiquated, but very much his. Having once been a member of the “merry company” of the living, he has fallen into decay. He cannot help but look at the brightly-lit revel, and risks everything all he knows to see its beauty; but he cannot see the beauty without being shown, immediately and drastically, his unfitness to participate in that beauty.
Elsewhere I have traced the relationship between Lovecraft’s horror fiction and the aesthetics of apocalypse in the Christian tradition that Lovecraft energetically defined himself against. We may note one simple distinction between the Lovecraftian protagonist and the response of prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition at this point. A prophet would follow this horror with a promise of restoration, a message of hope centered in the apocalyptic transformation of the believer into a being fit to behold God with loving desire. In Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism, however, there is no place for hope and no grounds for such a transformation. The only fit solution for “realisation,” then, is unreality. Immediately following the moment of “soul-annihilating memory,” the speaker continues by saying,
But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe. In the supreme horror of that moment I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images. In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. (5)
The “chaos of echoing images” could itself be a description of Lovecraft’s fiction, works which attempt to perform the sleight-of-hand whereby a culture which seeks to repress the irrepressible may both look on the “merry company” and forget the horror of its own unfitness. Hence the central image, the all-important “realisation,” is always “inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable”; the speaker “cannot even hint” at it, but knows it for “a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny [cf. unheimlich], unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable,” a “nameless, voiceless monster” which earns “the first and last sound” of the speaker: “a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause” (4-5). The expression must be inarticulate because to articulate the “realisation,” to provide details of the life which the speaker remembers and then represses, would be to defeat the repression. With no hope of transformation, Lovecraft’s narrator finds the only adequate response: “In a dream I fled.”
Lovecraft’s 1926 essay “The Materialist Today” helps to generalize the significance of the narrator’s responses in “The Outsider.” Ironically, the passage is bracketed with statements which, taken alone, would seem to run exactly counter to the fictional narrator’s flight into dreams: “It is most sensible just to accept the universe as it is, and be done with it. [. . .] He will get most satisfaction in the end by keeping faithful to these things.” The sentences between, though, tell the story:
All is illusion, hollowness and nothingness–but what does that matter? Illusions are all we have, so let us pretend to cling to them; they lend dramatic values and comforting sensations of purpose to things which are really valueless and purposeless. All one can logically do is jog placidly and cynically on, according to the artificial standards and traditions with which heredity and environment have endowed him.
Lovecraft here recommends to his reader precisely the course of action taken by the narrator of “The Outsider”: the reader should “pretend to cling to [illusions]” just as the speaker escaped “in a dream.”
Such efforts to avoid certain kinds of knowledge at any cost are typical of Lovecraft’s “cosmicist” philosophy. The universe, he claims, is purposeless; but the illusion of purpose is necessary for human conduct and emotional stability. In a 1927 letter to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales magazine, Lovecraft defines “cosmicism” when he says
all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large. […] one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. […] when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown–the shadow-haunted Outside–we must remember to leave our humanity–and terrestrialism at the threshold. (209)
Ultimately, the nihilism from which some of his characters wish to protect the world is precisely what Lovecraft seeks to inculcate. Lovecraft believes that, by facing the horror of a universe in which man does not matter at all, the reader will be forced to discard his illusions (among which, of course, Lovecraft would place religion) and to “jog placidly and cynically on.” In Lovecraft’s materialistic universe, hope of the sort described by the Christian tradition is ridiculous; instead, as he wrote to Helen Sully in 1935,
What most persons can rationally expect is a kind of working adjustment or resignation in which active pain is cut down to a minimum. . . . This, therefore, should be the only norm in matters of expectation and endeavor (304).
The experience of Mishima, and the troubling abandonment to dark fantasy of the living-dead narrator in “The Outsider,” suggest that this resolution is fraught with moral and bodily hazards.
The speaker’s flight is, indeed, an escape into a dream-world: he joins “the fiendish ghouls that ride the night-wind”; but, after his “burst of black memory” has “vanished,” they are “the mocking and friendly ghouls” who “play by day” in exotic, faraway places (5). Readers of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, the dream-fantasies which revolve around his story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” will recognize the ghouls and their typical haunts. While Lovecraftian ghouls may live in the subterranean reaches of the waking world, as in “Pickman’s Model,” and often haunt places where Lovecraft is wont to find stairways and gates between waking and dreaming, they are primarily creatures of the dream-world; only in a dream can the speaker “ride the night-wind” (5). When we have taken a look at the parallel between this part of Lovecraft’s work and some elements in the work of Yukio Mishima, we will return to Lovecraft to build on this analysis, and hint toward a more general approach that will reach beyond the strictly post-Christian and Western horror fictions of Lovecraft.
As also happens in quasi-autobiographical works from Coleridge, Nietzsche, and Artaud, Mishima’s works foreground a struggle between the self of utterable, lived experience and the self idealized as prior to that discursive being. In Sun & Steel, Mishima seems to echo Lovecraft’s “Outsider” in what we are meant to take as a critical commentary on Mishima’s own development:
Interestingly enough, my stubborn refusal to perceive my body was itself due to a beautiful misconception in my idea of what the body was. I did not know that a man’s body never shows itself as “existence.” But as I saw things, it ought to have made itself apparent, clearly and unequivocally, as existence. It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly. It never occurred to me that other men—all men without exception—were the same.
[. . .] Never dreaming that the body existing in a form that rejected existence was universal in the male, I set about constructing my ideal hypothetical physical existence by investing it with all the opposite characteristics. And since my own, abnormal bodily existence was doubtless a product of the intellectual corrosion of words, the ideal body—the ideal existence—must, I told myself, be absolutely free from any interference by words. (Mishima 11)
The “ideal body” in this passage represents the hoped-for unity prior to the discursive formation of the self. The effort to construe the human subject in this way, in Mishima as in Lovecraft or modern Western metaphysics, leads to “a terrifying paradox of existence” which leaves him “panic-stricken” before a global problem: “other men—all men without exception—were the same.” Mishima’s response to this is helpfully summarized by Shu Kuge:
The “body” in Mishima’s thought is a metonymy for “experience” that is not yet translated into discursive language. Mishima once clamored: Why don’t people realize the importance of the depth of the surface? The surface is the depth; in other words, the surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath. The surface is everything. (Kuge 66)
For Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” of “the body existing in a form that rejected existence” (the very crux of Nietzsche’s assault on Christianity, and his critique of Buddhism, in The Antichrist) is ultimately resolved, beyond the naïveté of simple oppositions, by an insistence on the surface—on the very skin itself—as the phenomenal being, here, now, than which nothing else can be meaningfully represented. This ultimately meant, for Mishima, that only the act of ritual suicide by cutting into the skin with a sharp blade, only at the peak of physical perfection, and only at the historical moment when he (vainly) hoped his public political act would lead to revolution, could be meaningful.
The example of Mishima thus presses the urgency of the problems from which Lovecraft’s “Outsider” flees into narrative oblivion. As Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel points out, drawing a parallel between the bodily experiences of Pier Paulo Paolini, Michel Foucault, and Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” passage marks a “horror of incarnation” in response to which “the author undertakes a quest for an incorruptible ‘ideal body’” (218). The metal of weights that Mishima uses in body-building transform him so that “his muscles” can be seen as “the steel that becomes the sword for his disembowelment.” As Chasseguet-Smirgel describes it, such extremes as Mishima’s may “constitute the culmination of mute unconscious gnostic ideas” which “is often allied with an unleashed eroticism that does not accommodate itself to the limits of the body” or to any of the differences which mark bodily experience and ground discourse in living bodies. Like the problematizing move which authorizes the dead narrator of “The Outsider” to repeat for us a tale which denies his memory and his death, such radical experimentation attempts to realize the unthinkable, to experience that which is inconsistent with the conditions of bodily life.
As a result, this radical experimentation (whether sexual, political, literary, or religious) repeats the moribundity of the desire which founds the discursive being in more radical fashion: such radical experimentation “can lead not only to murder—an absolute possession of the object—but also to suicide—an absolute dissolution of the subject” (219). If “the surface is everything,” then fatally piercing the surface, in a final physical refutation of discursive being, appears as a conclusion which is not only logical, but emphatically actual. Thus suicide comes to be, as it is represented repeatedly in Mishima, something akin to “apotheosis” (220), at least in some wish-fulfillment fantasies. Chasseguet-Smirgel concludes that such a “Foucauldian body” provides us with “a particularly striking example of the wish for a body that is disorganized, without hierarchy, and with perfectly interchangeable parts.” Such a body is not merely local in its conception and representation; the rupture of the body, which in lived experience never achieves or recovers this idealized inarticulate state, seems to achieve what it represents, the “dismembered body” that “is projected upon society or even onto the cosmos, so that the frame of the world collapses and the heavens are disemboweled.”
Lovecraft’s “Outsider,” who is already dead, flees his unfitness for the beauty of life in a life-rejecting oblivion of abandoned fantasy; Mishima’s “I” in Sun and Steel flees his own discursive being, his life as a particular body situated within the world, through a program of intentional idealization by which body and words were whetted for their own extinction. Confronting the bodily experience of consciousness with any degree of artistic and intellectual honesty within a framework that insists on a reductive solution to the mind/body problem, that is, poses both moral and physical hazards of the first order. Under such a schema, the bodily experience of consciousness must be treated as an illusion or error, rather than (as the Christian tradition would suggest) a flawed experience of a really present unity. Under the reductive schema, this illusion or error must be corrected by efforts to achieve or recover an inarticulate unity of thought and sensation, a wholeness without difference. Lovecraft’s “Outsider” mimics the hero of a Platonic allegory in his ascent to enlightenment, but finds “soul-annihilating memory”; Mishima’s words describe the hardening of his body which prepared him to protest his integrity with his life, leaving us with the dilemma of an entire discourse reduced to a single term—its last, the gesture futile in its political meaning and abortive in its self-rejecting personal and literary significance.
We may return to Lovecraft, then, to see once again that this is not a condition unique to Mishima’s personality or culture. I apologize slightly for deviating from my proposal to discuss “The Dunwich Horror,” which would have provided me with a more obvious alien-monster hook for a sci-fi conference. I think the significance of the parallel between “The Outsider” and Mishima’s work is elaborated much more clearly by revisiting Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, writings about outlandish worlds of outer and inner space which have a very different flavor than Lovecraft’s very late stories of interplanetary aliens and advanced pre-human civilizations. In particular, the somewhat obscure story “Celephais” and the prose poem “Ex Oblivione” rather neatly connect the ambivalence of Lovecraft’s “Outsider” to the decisive rupture of bodily and discursive being in Mishima.
“Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione”
Given Mishima’s example, we need not be surprised to discover that the escape into illusion is represented as a suicidal journey in Lovecraft’s fiction, as well. “Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione,” both written within a year of “The Outsider,” show clearly the relation between death and dream in Lovecraft’s tales. “Celephais” begins with the following evocative passage:
In a dream Kuranes saw the city in the valley […]. In a dream it was also that he came by his name of Kuranes, for when awake he was called by another name. […] he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London, so there were not many to speak to him and to remind him who he had been. […] he did not care for the ways of the people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams. What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he showed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. […] Kuranes sought for beauty alone. When truth and experience failed to reveal it, he sought it in fancy and illusion, and found it on his very doorstep, amid the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams. (26)
Like the narrator of “The Outsider” or Mishima’s “I,” Kuranes is fixated on a solitary pursuit of beauty. Both are repulsed by society, and both turn to illusion instead of truth, leaving behind articulation. Whereas the already-dead narrator of “The Outsider” has no real options, though, Kuranes is very much living; his escape into dreams is, like that recommended by Lovecraft in “The Materialist Today,” a deliberate choice based on what he takes to be a failure of revelation. That “truth and experience” do not disclose beauty to Kuranes begs the question whether they “failed to reveal it” or whether he, like “The Outsider,” found it intolerable, repressed it, and escaped into dreams. On Lovecraft’s view, of course, the question does not arise; revelation will fail, and the escape into illusion is “all one can logically do.”
Kuranes finds himself increasingly drawn into his dreams, so that “the more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to describe them on paper” (26). Indeed, so fully does he escape into illusion that “he grew so impatient of the bleak intervals of day that he began buying drugs in order to increase his periods of sleep” (31). The drug element, somewhat unusual in Lovecraft (though not unique), is strictly instrumental to the process of withdrawing from the world into dreams. Kuranes, having reached the point where he no longer functions in the real world, eventually walks out of it:
Then one summer day he was turned out of his garret, and wandered aimlessly through the streets, drifting over a bridge to a place where the houses grew thinner and thinner. And it was there that fulfillment came, and he met the cortege of knights come from Celephais, to bear him thither forever. (31)
“Fulfillment,” of course, is a word which, like “salvation” or “enlightenment,” makes a teleological claim; and in the texture of the work, this suggests the ascent to paradise of a spiritual seeker. Only by understanding that the dream-world is in no way susceptible of articulation in the world of “truth and experience,” by noticing that it is utterly neglectful of body and the realm of embodiment, can the reader discern between the poetic fantasy of the tale and the horror which lies beneath its surface.
“Celephais” does not follow any of the conventions typical of a horror tale; but it is precisely this absence of horror elements that makes the fantasy’s completion of the dream-escape trajectory begun in “The Outsider” so dark. The language is beautiful, the images rich and exotic, and the story richly communicates a longing for transformation, the desire to gaze on sublime beauty. The dream, though, is death itself. The story ends by saying,
And Kuranes reigned thereafter over Ooth-Nargai and all the neighbouring regions of dream, […] and will reign happily for ever, though below the cliffs at Innsmouth the channel tides played mockingly with the body of a tramp who had stumbled through the half-deserted village at dawn; played mockingly, and cast it upon the rocks by ivy-covered Trevor Towers, where a notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer enjoys the purchased atmosphere of extinct nobility. (32)
It is possible to conceive of this as a sort of afterlife, and indeed in Lovecraft’s later story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” Kuranes re-appears and interacts with the protagonist. At the same time, this afterlife is in the “regions of dream,” places of very questionable metaphysical status.
Like “The Outsider,” though, “Celephais” explicitly enacts its central illusion; for the reader is given fair warning that “it would have been quite futile to describe [the dreams] on paper” (26). Whatever reality the dreams have is strictly the product of the reader’s willingness to suspend not only disbelief but memory itself; to leave behind even the demand for verisimilitude in order to gain a series of verbal impressions, beautiful enough in their way but deriving their true power only from what they conceal. On the story’s own terms, the only communicable details of the protagonist’s experience are these: a lonely, nameless dreamer quit working, quit writing, spent more and more time escaping into dreams, took drugs to enhance the dreams, and eventually walked off a cliff and died.
In his prose-poem “Ex Oblivione,” Lovecraft puts the same elements in simpler, more direct form. In the middle of his troubled life, the poetic speaker seeks “the irradiate refuge of sleep” and finds in dreams “a little of the beauty I had vainly sought in life” (2). As the dreams grow more vivid, “the days of waking became less and less bearable from their greyness and sameness” (3). Eventually, he learns of a drug which will enable him to pass the gates of sleep permanently, becoming forever a resident of the dream-world. The drug must be taken while awake, of course, which means it affects the body; and the speaker, upon having taken it “last night,” now tells the reader,
I drifted on songfully, expectant of the glories of the land from whence I should never return.
But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of the drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So happier than I had ever dared hope to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity and crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour. (4)
As with “Celephais,” the words sound beautiful; the desire to gaze on beauty is aroused. The arousal, however, is strictly pornographic; this false beauty can never be revealed in the realm of “truth and experience.” If the reader wishes to be rapt by the beauty of the text, he can do so only by repressing several key truths: that it is impossible for the speaker to be telling the tale if he has merged with infinity; that the text plainly despairs of all joy in bodily life, as the speaker claims that “oblivion” makes him “happier than I had ever dared hope to be”; that, at its most prosaic level, the entire piece is no more than a suicide note.
Given human mortality, a life of illusion and a suicide amount to the same thing. Kuranes, who lives in his dreams only to die in reality, and the speaker in “Ex Oblivione,” who commits suicide in order to live in his dreams, in the end achieve nothing which the “notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer” of the last sentence of “Celephais” does not also achieve. Lovecraft’s fictional speakers may dislike the secular illusion, may be dissatisfied or even tormented by the mundane, but they do not improve on it. Seeking sublime beauty, “The Outsider” finds only his unfitness to participate in that beauty, represses the memory, and escapes into illusion. The significance of the ambivalent dark fantasy of “The Outsider” is clarified when Kuranes’ body washes up on the shore, or when we realize that the body of the speaker from “Ex Oblivione” was eventually found lying in his bed. Similarly, the idealization of the “surface” that led Mishima to hone his body and his words into razor-sharp instruments for destroying his bodily and discursive being did not survive his death; not even in the form of literary immortality, for the literary specimens we call “Mishima’s corpus” are only the preparatory strokes, the hesitation marks, before the act which those words declared significant. Immortality for Mishima’s corpus would refute the violence with which he rejected bodily and discursive being in favor of the razor-sharp, honed surface tested to destruction by his final act.
Despite the intentions of their authors, these texts amply warn us of the nihilating tendency inherent in confronting the bodily experience of consciousness from a reductively idealist or physicalist perspective. Having rejected any possibility that the significance the bodily experience of consciousness calls for is determined in a way that makes human acts and words participate in a personally significant, globally relevant enacting of history, and confronted with the incoherence of efforts to reduce the bodily experience of human consciousness within the scope of mere bodies or mere words, one risks being faced with a choice between mere illusion and frank suicide—a choice frequently offered, for example, in TV shows like House. The nihility which grounds all uncreated being, if there be any such thing, can take place in history only as fictional rationales for postponing or hastening death; the works of Lovecraft and Mishima stand together in asserting that it lacks by definition the potential to create life.