Weird Literature as Speculative Philosophy

One of the basics of Weird literature is the notion that it not reveal in complete detail the unknown, but that it should always leave that object just outside the purview of our common sense realist expectations. This notion that the Weird is always speculative, and that our access to the objects of its strange worlds should be through some form of indirect rather than direct vision is well illustrated by many of H.P. Lovecraft’s own tales. (No need to go into that here!) As Iain Hamilton Grant in a recent work suggests:

“…we can never get to a point where we know every dimension and quality of an object, and as such there will always be something about the object that escapes our translation. This is what the literary translator experiences when she sees her translation pulled in two competing directions – towards literal fidelity on the one hand and cultural/ contextual fidelity on the other. There will always be some dimension of a text that goes untranslated.”

Isn’t this the truth of most Weird literature? That the objects of dread, terror, and fear are always in excess of our ability to translate them into our normal everyday language and common sense reality? It’s these liminal edges of the real / unreal dichotomy that deliver us to that speculative mode of apprehension which suggests that for the most part we are blind to most of the world’s workings, that we live in and through a consciousness that is both limited and bound to a very small and finite spectrum of the Real. Weird literature explores these liminal zones reminding us of the strangeness of our world, and that’s what keeps our world open and incomplete; a world that can never be reduced to the circle of the known. There will always be something on the outside seeking entrance into our conscious minds, something strange and away that cannot be translated into our safe and secure worlds of thought. And, yet, that’s what keeps us alive and seeking answers, the unknown that is unknown. The closer we get to knowing this mystery the further it recedes from our grasp. It’s this limit, this edge of things that keeps us thinking, speculating, and seeking more and more investigations into the Weird and uncanny zones of being…

And, yet, there is another aspect of Weird literature, the notion that it is a critique of our limited fabrications and interpretations of the world. The notion that we seem to accept as given the accepted reality of the common sense world we all share and live in, and that the linguistic and imagistic safeguards that circumvent and lock us all in a shared and illusionary construction of reality may in the last instance be detrimental to our lives. This is the notion that Weird literature doesn’t so much expose us to the great outdoors of the strange, as it actually shows just how illusionary and manipulated we are by our socio-logical and cultural-ideological prisons that keep us bound to a false vision of the Real. By opening us to the intransigent and broken ruins that surround us the Weird exposes the breaks and gaps in our constructed worlds, releasing us into a world that is not only stranger than we thought, but stranger than we could ever imagine thereby freeing us to explore the edges of our own lives in a more empowered and unhindered way.

  1. Hamilton, Grant. The World of Failing Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature . John Hunt Publishing.

Pain Speaks

“Life is will-to-live, will is a lack, lack is pain, all life is pain.”
― Carlo Michelstaedter, La melodia del giovane divino: Pensieri, racconti, critiche

So the blind and mute pain of all the things that, in wanting to be, are not, will be farsighted and eloquent for the one who has taken on its persona, for in gray pleasure, in the finite pains of all things that, for fear of death, always repress it, he will hear it speak and see it… watch in anticipation,’ a good that those things do not have the courage to want. He will see that what men suffer for is not hunger, thirst, disease, or misfortune. Nor are food, drink, apparent health, what is in their hand but is not theirs (for they do not possess its power) what can make them content. He will see that obtuse pain suffers in them in every present, equally empty in abundance or privation. He will suffer at one and the same point of his deficiency and theirs: speaking the voice of his own pain, he will speak to them the distant voice of their own pain. Just as in his intense activity he will be close to satiating his own pain, so he will place near them a life by which they will see the weave of what presses and distracts them gradually unravel; they will find themselves being stable without the fear of instability; they will see the walls of the tiny room of their misery torn asunder at a stroke and their tiny light grow dim when he appears like the dawn of a new day and the outside darkness is no longer there to press them with its terror. Freed from what they believe indispensable, from cares, from the weight of the myriad little things in which their life always dissipates and around which it always turns, from all the misery of their pettiness, they will taste the joy of a fuller present in the impossible, the unbearable. They will see that there is nothing to fear, nothing to seek, nothing to flee from—hunger is not hunger, bread is not bread; for they will experience their hunger in another manner, and other bread will have been offered to them. No longer will they feel cold or fatigue, pains here and desires there; nor will they be frustrated by need but will feel their life gathered in the present, for at one point they will have been made participants in a vaster and deeper life.

from Persuasion and Rhetoric by Carlo Michelstaedter

Michelstaedter killed himself in 1910, at 23. The reason for his action, as is often the case with suicides, remains purely speculative. Yet he left enough material to give some support to conjectures on the existential crisis that brought him to his precocious end.

In a letter to his sister Paula, who, like the Paolina of Leopardi, was also his confidant, Carlo made a lucid diagnosis of his illness:

It is in part an individual condition, in part the illness of the age [la malattiad ell’e poca] insofar as moral balance is concerned, because we are presently living in an age in which changes in society seem to go hand-in-hand with a dissolution of all bonds . . . and the pathways of existence are no longer sharply drawn . . . and it depends upon personal initiative to create the luminous path through universal chaos.

  1. Michelstaedter, Carlo. Persuasion and Rhetoric. Yale University Press (September 10, 2004)

Joel Lane – One of the “Miserabilists”

Rereading some of Joel Lane’s stories. There’s a sense of quiet desperation, loneliness, the drift of gray days and lives that seem forever to dissolve into spider webs of chaos.

“What cried out in her mind, still, wasn’t the atrocity half-realised in her or waiting to be fulfilled in others. It was the simple misery of knowing that the group had created something to unite them. And it had only left each of them feeling more alone.”

– Joel Lane, THE EARTH WIRE and Other Stories

Joshi says of him:

“Joel Lane (b. 1963) began publishing in the late 1980s and has written novels, stories, and poems. He has often been referred to as one of the “Miserabilists”— a writer whose unrelenting focus on death, poverty, and hopelessness renders his work the fictional equivalent of the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. But his tales are undeniably effective and often constitute significant social commentary on the social and economic inequalities of contemporary England.”

—S. T. Joshi, Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction