Abstract Horror (Part 2)
Among literary genres, horror cannot claim an exclusive right to make contact with reality. Superficially, its case for doing so at all might seem peculiarly weak, since it rarely appeals to generally accepted criteria of ‘realism’. Insofar as reality and normality are in any way confused, horror immediately finds itself exiled to those spaces of psychological and social aberrance, where extravagant delusion finds its precarious refuge.
Yet, precisely through its freedom from plausible representation, horror hoards to itself a potential for the realization of encounters, of a kind that are exceptional to literature, and rare even as a hypothetical topic within philosophy. The intrinsic abstraction of the horrific entity carves out the path to a meeting, native to the intelligible realm, and thus unscreened by the interiority or subjectivity of fiction. What horror explores is the sort of thing that, due to its plasticity and beyondness, could make its way into your thoughts more capably that you do yourself. Whatever the secure mental ‘home’ you imagine yourself to possess, it is an indefensible playground for the things that horror invokes, or responds to.
The experience of profound horror is in certain respects unusual, and a life entirely bereft of it would not seem notably peculiar. One might go further, and propose that if such an experience is ever truly possible, the universe is demonstrably uninhabitable. Horror makes an ultimate and intolerable claim, as suggested by its insidious familiarity. At the brink of its encroachment there is suggested, simultaneously, an ontologically self-confirming occurrence — indistinguishable from its own reality — and a comprehensive substitution of the commonplace, such that this (unbearable thing) is what you have always known, and the only thing that can be known. The slightest glimpse of it is the radical abolition of anything other being imaginable at all. Nothing matters, then, except that this glimpse be eluded. Hence the literary effect of the horrific, in unconfirmed suggestion (felt avoidance of horror). However, it is not the literary effect that concerns us here, but the thing.
Let us assume then (no doubt preposterously) that shoggoth is that thing, the thought of which is included — or absorbed — within itself. H.P. Lovecraft dramatizes this conjecture in the fictional biography of the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred, ‘author’ of the Necronomicon, whose writings tend to an encounter that they simultaneously preclude:
Shoggoths and their work ought not to be seen by human beings or portrayed by any beings. The mad author of the Necronomicon had nervously tried to swear that none had been bred on this planet, and that only drugged dreamers had even conceived them.
This is a point insisted upon:
These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the ‘Shoggoths’ in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed on earth except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb.
A lucid written record of these ‘creatures’ cannot exist, because the world we know has carried on. That can, at least, be permitted to persist as a provisional judgement.
On a ferocious summer day, in AD 738, Alhazred is walking through the central market of Damascus on business unknown. He appears to be deep in thought, and disengaged from his surroundings. The crowds in the marketplace scarcely notice him. Without warning, the air is rent by hideous shrieks, testifying to suffering beyond human comprehension. Alhazred convulses abominably, as if he were being drawn upwards into an invisible, devouring entity, or digested out of the world. His screams gurgle into silence, as his body is filthily extracted from perceptibility. Within only a few moments, nothing remains. The adequate thought of shoggoth has taken place.
To defend the sober realism of this account is no easy task. A first step is grammatical, and concerns the difficult matter of plurality. Lovecraft, plotting an expedition from the conventions of pulp fiction, readily succumbs to the model of plural entity, and refers to ‘shoggoths’ without obvious hesitation. ‘Each’ shoggoth has approximate magnitude (averaging “about fifteen feet in diameter when a sphere”). They were originally replicated as tools, and are naturally many. Despite being “shapeless entities composed of a viscous jelly which looked like an agglutination of bubbles … constantly shifting shape and volume” they seem, initially, to be numerable. This grammatical conformity will not be supportable for long.
‘Shoggoths’ come from beyond the bionic horizon, so it is to be expected that their organization is dissolved in functionality. ‘They’ are “infinitely plastic and ductile […] protoplasmic masses capable of molding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs […] throwing out temporary developments or forming apparent organs of sight, hearing, and speech.” What they are is what they do, or — for a time — what is done through them.
The shoggoths originated as tools — as technology — created by the Old Ones as bionic robots, or construction machinery. Their shape, organization, and behavior was programmable (“hypnotically”). In the vocabulary of human economic science, we should have no problem describing shoggoth as productive apparatus, that is to say, as capital. Yet this description requires elaboration, because the story is far from complete:
They had always been controlled through the hypnotic suggestions of the Old Ones, and had modeled their tough plasticity into various useful temporary limbs and organs; but now their self-modeling powers were sometimes exercised independently, and in various imitative forms implanted by past suggestion. They had, it seems, developed a semistable brain whose separate and occasionally stubborn volition echoed the will of the Old Ones without always obeying it.
The ideas of ‘robot rebellion’ or capital insurgency are crude precursors to the realization of shoggoth, conceived as intrinsically abstract, techno-plastic, bionically auto-processing matter, of the kind that Lovecraft envisages intersecting terrestrial geophysics in the distance past, scarring it cryptically. Shoggoth is a virtual plasma-state of material capability that logically includes, within itself, all natural beings. It builds brains as technical sub-functions. Whatever brains can think, shoggoth can can process, as an arbitrary specification of protoplasmic — or perhaps hyperplasmic — abstraction.
Formless protoplasm able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes – viscous agglutinations of bubbling cells – rubbery fifteen-foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile – slaves of suggestion, builders of cities – more and more sullen, more and more intelligent, more and more amphibious, more and more imitative! Great God! What madness made even those blasphemous Old Ones willing to use and carve such things?
The history of capitalism is indisputably a horror story …
[All Lovecraft cites from At the Mountains of Madness. ++ shoggoth nightmare still to come]