Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bookwatch 2009: The Magic Continues!

The Amazon blurb for this recently published collection joyfully announces: There is only one Dan Brown—and there is only one Secrets team that has achieved worldwide bestselling success by providing curious readers with compelling and authoritative explorations into the thought-provoking ideas that lie behind Brown's bestselling novels. Once again, Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer have gathered a wide range of world-class historians, theologians, scientists, philosophers, symbologists, code breakers, art historians, experts on the occult, and writers and thinkers of all types who give readers the essential tools to understand The Lost Symbol.

The panel of luminaries includes, among many others, Karen Armstrong, Richard Dawkins, and (naturally) Lynne McTaggart. 

The fundamental conceit of the work is explicitly stated in the blurb: it is by appeal to recognized experts in the subjects to which Brown makes reference that one can understand The Lost Symbol.

Our work, of course, is animated by exactly the converse claim.  It should be self-evident to any careful reader of TLS, DVC, or A&D that reading around any of these texts is antithetical to their project.  This project, generally stated, is that of naturalizing ideology and containing resistance through a sort of formulaic puppetry which employs caricatures of historical events, works of art, well-known narratives, and social criticism to mouth the words of the Obnoxious Other.  To elaborate on these caricatures as though they were participant in anything other than a simple exercise of ideological re-containment can be amusing, but only because it reveals their appalling simplicity and the transparent relationship of their form to their function.

Burstein and Keizjer imagine that by eliciting tangential commentary on TLS they can illuminate its subjects, e.g. Freemasonry, religion, noetic science, etc.  In truly symbological fashion, Brown's narration is assumed to be consubstantial with pre-existing academic and journalistic discourses on the same subjects and, through the clean window of scholarly prose, with the objects themselves.  To read Dawkins discussing his position on "religion" as characterized by Brown, we are apparently to believe, will illuminate the actual object, religion.  As Mal'akh incessantly murmurs, "It's buried out there, somewhere."

In fact, when undertaken earnestly such commentary simply functions to misclassify the function of the plot-elements of the symbological novel.  Noetic science, for instance, does not function in TLS (its description in the text notwithstanding,) to expand the possibilities of human ontology; rather, it works precisely to constrain it to the range of obviousnesses already available to the reader qua subject of late American/Western European capitalism by, for instance, confirming that there is something fundamentally efficacious about will as manifested in faith and patriotism.

The tools to understand The Lost Symbol, then, are found precisely in resisting the urges to elaborate on the elements of Brown's plots, to critique the accuracy of their representation vis-a-vis established discourses respecting them, or to elicit expert commentary.  To understand TLS, one must allow it to enact its dumbshow, whose only real allusions are to subject-structuring obviousnesses which transcend demarcations like "noetic science" or "freemasonry."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Intimations of the Kingdom in H.P. Lovecraft

Here at the Cascadia Institute for Symbological Research, we do our best to avoid the unpleasant rigors of "serious" literature and instead to focus our research on the apocalypse of cultural flotsam that is the advance of symbological theory. But such is the power of our theoretical matrix that we reluctantly admit among our Browns, Reillys, Martins and Shlains, the occasional figure from the canon of Western literature. As above, so below, said the Goddess, and we listened! We cannot help ourselves: Economy of method demands that we respect the sacred symmetries of the Ancient Wisdom and proceed mutatis mutandis from the Mystery & Suspense rack at Hudson News to the Department of Very Good Literature at All Souls. Whatever methodological principles apply to the Brownian corpus, those same principles must be expected bear fruit in the gardens of the literati. And so they do! For, as we say around the cafeteria, Symbology is the thoughtful component of thought.

Following on Dr. Bremselhäcker's Generative Grammar and Dr. Benway's work on Matthew Reilly's Temple—an unparalleled sacrifice for scientific symbology (see Matthew Reilly: Theorizing Among The Cacognoscenti)—I turn to the question of H.P. Lovecraft as the surprising author of symbological novels. Lovecraft's modification of the symbological matrix is simple:
  1. The Facile Wisdom of the Ancients is sympathetic to cacognosis, not orthognosis. The Truth about the cosmos is that underneath the stupid veneer of human civilization lies a boiling and unlawful abyss of matter composing material intelligences beyond the comprehension of human beings. Ultimate reality is either indifferent or hostile to fragile human bodies and refractive to human cognition. The cacognostic is right: the Code is properly understood literally, not metaphorically, and those ancient horrors it indexes are disastrously relevant to the fate of human individuals and civilization. The Wisdom of the Ancients in Lovecraft is just as facile as it is in Brown. Many readers of Lovecraft have been struck by his motivation of banal facts of geology, architecture, genealogy, history and science combined with repeated cliches about "unutterable horror" to provide a truly upsetting result. The corrosive character of the Ancient Wisdom is magnified by its stupidity, not modulated: it is made all the more undeniable by its simplicity.
  2. The cacognostic subject position can only be occupied by Nature. Cthulhu, Azathoth and Nyarlahotep are the ultimate agencies and intelligences of the world. Violent, insane Nature (understood as the other of human beings) is capable of comprehending itself in itself and in human beings, but it so transcends the human perspective that only it can comprehend itself adequately. Occupying the cacognostic subject position—seeing the world aright—must mean either the abandonment of limited human cognition for cognition capable of seeing the horrible truth (madness) or material return to Nature (death). Madness and death are in Lovecraft two views on one thing, for the materialist message of the Ancient Wisdom is that to understand something is to be it, thus his narrators are constantly discovering the horrible truth lies in their own biological history, either as the foundation for all human life on earth or in their genealogy.
The reorientation of the Facile Wisdom toward the cacognostic causes the foreclosure of the orthognostic subject position, which has proven to be both wrong and itself irrelevant. Combined with the incompatibility of humanity and cacognosis, the only subject position left to Lovecraft's human characters is the mythognostic. If the basic movement of the symbological novel is the progression of the mythognostic symbologist to the orthognostic through the cop-out, then what becomes of the symbologist in Lovecraft? The movement from mythognosis to "orthocacognosis" is impossible and is short-circuited through an event analogous to the Brownian cop-out. Yes, what he has learned so far is nullified in the face of the truth, but instead of attaining the naive peace of harmony with his initial ideological intuitions about the ethical and metaphysical nature of his life, the movement toward cacognosis arrests the development of the symbologist. The symbologist's education in the truth is thus his destruction by an insane, violent, literal world. He loses his sanity, is killed, is dragged into the abyssal or is transformed into the shambling horrors that lurk behind the stupid veneer of human perception.

(There are other effects of the foreclosure of the orthognostic. Consider the absence of real women from Lovecraft. Because the symbological orientation toward the Code is gendered, the foreclosure of the orthognostic prevents woman from coming on the scene as anything but an empty space. What few women there are are so hollow as to make Robert Langdon seem lifelike and concrete.)

Like his Martinian counterpart, the Lovecraftian symbologist is motivated only by the ineluctable agency of the Code, but whereas in Martin and Brown this constructs a jubilant revelation of the obvious, in Lovecraft it clashes with mythognosis, which as the only subject position open to human beings has become coterminous with Culture. Lovecraft's narrators exhibit a brand of incongruous ignorance like the symbologist's, but motivated by the necessity of resisting his cacognostic transformation. He is a sort of dilettante historian, a creature whose features are essentially those of the symbological scholar insofar as the code is understood to reference something real, but its significance is metaphorical. E.g., in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," the narrator plies the mad Zadok with whiskey in the hope of learning the true history of Innsmouth.
Curiosity flared up beyond sense and caution, and in my youthful egotism I fancied I might be able to sift a nucleus of real history from the confused, extravagant outpouring I would probably extract with the aid of raw whiskey.
The symbologist assumes that the story is metaphorical, as in fact all language is for the symbologist. The symbologist will hold this mythognostic line as long as he can, even when it forces him to draw the strange conclusion that Zadok's eyewitness accounts are "historical allegory." As the tension mounts, the symbologist must reassert the irrelevance of what he's hearing, even as the truth is destabilizing his subjectivity and pushing him toward the cacognostic.
The insane yarn I was hearing interested me profoundly, for I fancied there was contained within it a sort of crude allegory based upon the strangeness of Innsmouth and elaborated by an imagination at once creative and full of scraps of exotic legend. Not for a moment did I believe that the tale had any really substantial foundation; but none the less the account held a hint of genuine terror if only because it brought in references to strange jewels clearly akin to the malign tiara I had seen at Newburyport.
This kind of talk and an interest in the symbologist's neutered scholarship persist long after it should in Lovecraft's stories. (When the Great Old Ones are coming for you, why stop to check out the architecture? Yet Lovecraft's narrators persist in their amateurish archeological, architectural and geological observations.) The Lovecraftian symbologist's struggle is to prevent the disastrous switch of his epistemological modality from a metaphorical understanding of the Code to a literal one. In other words, he must deny the direct truth of what he has learned and even of his own sense perceptions to keep from understanding a truth that will destroy him.

It is not just his own life and sanity he is fighting for, but that of the human civilization he stands in for. I said above that mythognosis has expanded to cover the entirety of the human perspective. The mythognostic nature of culture actually directly theorized by Lovecraft's reflections on the nature of the conventional. E.g., in "Dagon" where the narrator uses the curious word "conventionalized" to refer to the hieroglyphs decorating the monolith he finds in the valley that rises from the middle of the ocean. The symbols have been transformed by human influence from literal signs directly referring to the Ancient Wisdom to conventional signs. "Conventionality" for Lovecraft is the specific form of human discourse and craft; it is the perspectival dilution on the truth that distances human beings from the horror that surrounds them. In his vocabulary, it connotes a degeneracy of a specifically human sort: it is primitive and metaphorical, lacking in the dangerously literal significations of the real that threaten the sanity and health of his narrators.

What counts as "degenerate" in Lovecraft is marvelously relative and ambiguous. Primitives, Blacks and the poor are primitive, yes, but viewed aright everything is degenerate. Conventionality, the realm of the human, is a diminution of the full power of the literal truth. The result of Lovecraft's anti-anthropomorphic relativism is the narrator's discovery is of horror, not peace. Racism and orientalism are therefore specific instances of a generalized trend in inter-species relations. One might even imagine a culture of sophisticated degenerates from the South Seas who refer to "humanism" much as we refer to "orientalism"—as a myopic projection of a particularly human perspective onto that which fully occupies its own subject position.

The result? The Lovecraftian symbologist deploys culture itself in the form of mythognostic obfuscation in an increasingly failed attempt to deny the movements of the real agents of the cosmos. Those agents are real, present and beyond our comprehension. The identity of mind and matter is so strong that the clear and distinct perception of these monstrous agents is enough to drive witnesses immediately insane through the dissolution of the symbolic order in which Culture has been erected against the blackness. Denial is inadequate, of course, and so things inevitably end badly for the symbologist.

I will close with three theses on symbology which open doors to future investigation.
  1. We can understand the strange world of Tom Martin's Kingdom as a sort of Brown-Lovecraft hybrid. Kingdom proceeds along the symbological track as though the orthognostic were an available subject position. The cop-out is the discovery by the characters of the foreclosure of orthognosis and the inversion of the Ancient Wisdom. Kingdom is the novelistic performance of the two principles I outlined initially. Kingdom's characters are Brownian people in a Lovecraftian universe.
  2. The Lovecraftian modification of the symbological matrix is of more than taxonomic interest. Once we see how mythognosis behaves when acting for itself, we may revise the formula I gave above to Symbology is the cultural component of culture. In other words, our extension of symbology to Lovecraft illuminates the function of the symbological novel in the shimmering mythognosis of early 21st c. consciousness.
  3. A great deal is left to be said about the Kingdom/Lovecraft ontology. It must be brought to delight because it is in dialectical conflict with the Brownian ontology on the question of the harmony between illusory human agency and the real forces of time and space, of history and the world. Brown's insidious quietism is countered by Martin's horrifying exposure of the hollowness of the form of life so salutary and medicinal to Brown and Reilly's readers. Many of the details of this novelistic critique of ideology remain to be brought to light in the intellectual laboratories of the CCSR and our sister institutions around the globe.