Race and Decay (III – finally!)

I’m finally getting back to serious blogging.

I had concluded in my last serious post that Randolph Carter, protagonist of the Through the Gates of the Silver Key, is not quite right in the head, as far as his relation to the timeline is concerned. He is outside history…and outside conscious perception.

As de Marigny paused, old Mr. Phillips spoke a harsh, shrill voice.

“We can know of Randolph Carter’s wandering only what we dream. I have been to many strange places in dreams, and have heard many strange and significant things in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai. It does not appear that the parchment was needed, for certainly Carter reentered the world of his boyhood dreams, and is now a king in Ilek-Vad.”

And, a little later on –

For the rite of the silver key, as practiced by Randolph Carter in that black, haunted cave within a cave, did not prove unavailing. From the first gesture and syllable an aura of strange, awesome mutation was apparent – a sense of incalculable disturbance and confusion in time and space, yet one which held no hint of what we recognize as motion and duration. Imperceptibly, such things as age and location ceased to have any significance whatever. The day before, Randolph Carter had miraculously leaped a gulf of years. Now there was no distinction between boy and man. There was only the entity Randolph Carter, with a certain store of images which had lost all connection with terrestrial scenes and circumstances of acquisition. A moment before, there had been an inner cave with vague suggestions of a monstrous arch and gigantic sculptured hand on the farther wall. Now there was neither cave nor absence of cave; neither wall nor absence of wall. There was only a flux of impressions not so much visual as cerebral, amidst which the entity that was Randolph Carter experienced perceptions or registrations of all that his mind revolved on, yet without any clear consciousness of the way in which he received them. (emphasis mine)

The metaphysics of his dreaming are in perfect working order, and the silver key as the ultimate picks-all-locks in the dream world beyond is also the symbol of temporal confusion or chaos: as usual, Lovecraft takes the transcendent and connects it with the idea of chaos. And that chaos is not cataclysmic in any way and screeching for attention – it’s centered, held in the void, and absolutely immobile and reaching out from its immobility – a sense of incalculable disturbance and confusion in time and space, yet one which held no hint of what we recognize as motion and duration.

His idea of transcendence equals intellectual void, his “gods” – all these crew members of the Lovecraft pantheon – are blind idiot gods, and none more so than Azathoth, their overlord – the “mindless demon sultan at the center of infinity”, or “a sort of anti-god. That is not to say that he is a devil either. Rather he is cast as an idiot, whose pointless noodlings on the flute accidentally give rise to whole universes.”, as Joseph Morales has it here.

This has implications – there is no more use for purpose on any level. Not only that the “gods” available are not able to carry a telos through, the very idea of a structured life becomes ridiculous once you realize – not that there is no god (Lovecraft’s characters are imbued with that certainty, die-hard-materialist and would-like-to-be-positivists that they are), but no sense in which human understandings of time and history are in any way binding to the universe as a whole. And here, finally, the ominous concept of coscmicism has its appearance. Jeez, humans are SOOOO unimportant, get over it!

Carter is, consequently, no longer able to make a functional use of the difference between chronos and kairos, passing time and standing time (=moment). I draw the definition for the terms from an essay by Frank Kermode, that, for some reason, I have lying here only in a German translation by Frank Bartholomai, taken from the original context of –

Carey, Frances, ed. The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come. London: British Museum Press, 1999.

– quote:

[…die]Distinktion ist eine, die wir mit unserem eigenen Puls fühlen können. Wir wissen um diesen Unterschied, da wir die meiste Zeit im chronos leben, aber auch die Momente des kairos wahrnehmen und sie wertschätzen, auch wenn ihre Anlässe trivial sein mögen.

in English:

The distinction is one we feel through own pulse. We know about the difference [between chronos and kairos], as for the most of the time we live in the chronos, yet we may also recognize and appreciate moments of kairos, be their occasions trivial.

Carter, like all Lovecraft narrators, doesn’t have that distinction in his pulse – if anything, his only option is the chronos: time just passes and passes by, traditions build up, but they never do for them. They can never get out of the mush of cosmic time streams avalanching by to their right and left – no way is open to them to get out of the chronos and into the kairos, to historicize and immanentize themselves – Ahistorical shadows out of time, to borrow from the title of another Lovecraft story. Therefore, it’s not only an impasse of Lovecraft’s prose style when his characters are hardly ever characterized and stuffed with details of livelihood that blush some blood into their faces – they simply don’t have the time, kairos, for that sort of character traits.

This is one side of the horror of indeterminacy, a point that was also talked about at the London event – the lack of kairos-time to become determinate.

The day before, Randolph Carter had miraculously leaped a gulf of years. Now there was no distinction between boy and man. There was only the entity Randolph Carter, with a certain store of images which had lost all connection with terrestrial scenes and circumstances of acquisition.

He goes even further, lays on some philosophical cream where it really fits (I’m so proud that my author is doing some ontology!) – and styles the Carter existence along the precepts of a Platonic universal –

All descended lines of beings of the finite dimensions, continued the waves, and all stages of growth in each one of these beings, are merely manifestations of one archetypal and eternal being in the space outside dimensions. Each local being – son, father, grandfather, and so on – and each stage of individual being – infant, child, boy, man – is merely one of the infinite phases of that same archetypal and eternal being, caused by a variation in the angle of the consciousness-plane which cuts it. Randolph Carter at all ages; Randolph Carter and all his ancestors, both human and pre-human, terrestrial and pre-terrestrial; all these were only phases of one ultimate, eternal “Carter” outside space and time – phantom projections differentiated only by the angle at which the plane of consciousness happened to cut the eternal archetype in each case.

And that is the point where the story finally turns into a philosophical parable. Note that he does not here invoke a creator god or any theistic substance behind the Carter manifestations – he qualifies that in the last sentence and says that there is a universal for Carter, and implicitly for other humans on the planet as well. Or not? That passasge collides interestingly also with his idea of heredity along the generation – for qualities as diverse as madness, idiocy, and, oh yeah, race.

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