Monday, June 2, 2014

Dagon (Gothic literature) 1 of 2

So, what can we say about a piece of writing like “Dagon”? It’s a suicide note written by a morphine addict driven nuts while lost at sea by the sight of a giant fish-man worshiping an obelisk. Wow.

The first questions that occur to me are “why do people like this? Why do I like this?” Then I immediately reconsider approaching the question that way. It isn't because we should avoid talking about people, or why they are the way they are, but because focusing on ourselves and our likes and dislikes is a tangly sort of maze from which we might not escape. Better to look at what the good of the thing at hand is, or what good there could be, and maybe gain some insight about ourselves along the way.

So, “Dagon” has a few themes (all interrelated, classic Lovecraft, and literarily Gothic): the unknown, the alien, and the unnatural.

Most of you don't have to worry.
Dagon would only hide under a waterbed.
The Unknown

Everyone has experience of the unknown. I mean both that they have been faced with darkness and mystery, and that they've come to know something that was unknown before.

The space under the bed, the woods at night, the little window on the basement stairs that used to look out into the backyard before grandpa built the addition but when you were a kid it just opened on a barren cave-like expanse extending into utter blackness and you had to hide your eyes and run up the stairs so you wouldn't look and see you-don’t-know-what. Everyone has had these experiences because everyone starts out knowing little or nothing. This is a fundamental human thing, this “Unknown” with a capital ‘u’, and one of the things that naturally follows from it is anxiety and caution, because the unknown is dangerous. That’s why we look both ways before we cross the street; we turn the unknown into the known, because whatever’s hiding out there behind the unknown might kill us.

The Alien

The Alien is very related to the Unknown, but they deserve to be separate in our considerations because anything (familiar, unusual, whatever) can be unknown – it’s our ignorance at the moment that makes it so – but the alien somehow doesn't fit even when it is revealed. It comes from somewhere else and whatever context it developed in, it isn't our context. So, as concepts, the alien things tend to be unknown, and the little bits we can see in the obscurity of the Unknown look alien, because we can’t see how they fit in.

The Unnatural

The relationship of the unnatural to this story is a little further outside the story itself. It is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s constant underlying ideas in his fiction that the secrets of the universe are fundamentally inhuman, that human beings live “…on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”[1] This means that, as presented by the narrators of his tales, the alien things that come out of the unknown reaches to haunt us are not unnatural even if they are fundamentally divorced from us because, really, we’re the alien ones. It’s only our tiny backwater of the universe that is comfortable and cuddly (to the extent that it is).

H.P. Lovecraft seems to have written scary, fireside stories for modern materialists. He takes the notion that mankind has no privileged place in reality and says, “Ok then, if we’re not special, what if the rest of everything is so outside our comprehension that it will drive us insane?” This idea is frightening and makes for an effective tale around the campfire. It might also vindicate what some unfortunate people think of their own position.

But, however scary it might be, or however right (in a perverse kind of way) it might seem to someone, this notion is not a very reasonable theory. And, the images in this story (spongy rotting ground from the bottom of the abyss, slimy bug-eyed fish-monsters, pale white obelisks, etc.) were designed by a human being to appear wrong and perverse to other human beings. They are contrary to our sense of right, health, and order.

Ok. Ruminate upon these concepts. Ask yourself what benefit we (humans) could possibly derive from conjuring up such things and reflecting on them. Next week, we can compare notes.

© 2014 John Hiner III

[1] From “The Call of Cthulhu”

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