Robinson Jeffers

A Strange Parallel

A weirdly entertaining notion occurred to me recently — Robinson Jeffers and H.P. Lovecraft, two of my favourite authors, have something (else) in common. Surprising, because in most ways they are very different. They were contemporaries, however: Jeffers was born in 1887, Lovecraft in 1890.

Robinson Jeffers was a poet, educated in the classical tradition. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a writer of “pulp” fiction who did not graduate from high school. Until his reputation declined in the 1940s, Jeffers mixed with well-known literati and was one of the first poets to make the cover of Time Magazine; H.P.L. had a devoted circle of friends among aficionados of the weird, but was otherwise unknown until well after his death in 1937.

But did they share a philosophy?

“Inhumanism” is a term coined by Jeffers for his outlook on the relative unimportance of human beings compared to the natural world in which they are contained — the “divine beauty of things.” The characters of his long, novel-like poems play out their struggles against the magnificent background of the California coast. Jeffers contrasts the sordid or futile passions of his people with the serene indifference of their natural setting. These few lines from Cawdor, in which the life-force of an eagle rises from the place of its death to transcend space and time, show something of Jeffers’s attitude:

“It saw men learn to outfly the hawk’s brood and forget it again; it saw men cover the earth and again

Devour each other and hide in caverns, be scarce as wolves. It neither wondered nor cared, and it saw

Growth and decay alternate forever, and the tides returning.”

H. P. Lovecraft professed no religion and considered himself a scientifically-minded, rational materialist. In his fictional world, alien entities coexist with humanity in a state of perfect indifference. The city of R’lyeh rises from the deep ocean in response to cosmic forces to disclose the monstrous entity Cthulhu, who has lain “dead but dreaming,” for eons. The terror felt by human witnesses to this rising is incidental, a characteristic of being human, but of no significance whatsoever to the inhuman entity. In other stories, such as “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” Lovecraft posits million-year cycles of inhuman civilizations that preceded us and will follow us; in other words, human history and civilization are insignificant blips in the grand scheme of things.

The common theme, then, is one of puny human lives played out against the background of an indifferent cosmos. Both Jeffers and Lovecraft referred to astronomy in their works; indeed, Lovecraft as a boy was a keen amateur astronomer. Both were aware of scientific reasons for relegating humanity to a small, insignificant corner of a universe more mind-bogglingly vast than anyone had ever imagined. I have no doubt this formed the basis for their philosophies, but what is really interesting is the different ways these ideas manifested in the poems of Jeffers and the stories of H.P.L.

Contrast the lines from Jeffers I quoted above with the following from “The Call of Cthulhu,” probably the most representative of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu mythos” stories: “We 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. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Jeffers, contemplating humanity’s insignificance in the cosmos, spins images that are often bleak but uplifting. Lovecraft, from the same starting point, creates visions of cosmic horror. Jeffers identifies with the greater world, viewing humanity from a distant perspective, while Lovecraft is on the ground, watching the monster loom over him even as he realizes this is the way things must be.

In any case, I have found both these authors eminently worth reading.


Alchemy — the All-Purpose Metaphor

I’m reading a book with the rather lumpy title The Chemistry of Alchemy : from dragon’s blood to donkey dung, how chemistry was forged. The authors (Cathy Cobb, Monty L. Fetterolf and Harold Goldwhite) are chemistry professors, which accounts for the tone of amused skepticism toward their subject. They have given the history of alchemy its due attention, though, and explain the links between alchemical and chemical processes. The included “experiments” that readers may carry out at home mostly look worthwhile too (although I haven’t tried any of them myself — too lazy).

The thing that strikes me is the contrast between this approach and that of C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, both of whom wrote about the symbolic aspects of alchemy. Their writings were my introduction to the subject, so the mysticism and symbolism are what I find most fascinating, And the colours! Colour changes in the materials subjected to various processes would naturally signal transformation, which was the whole point of the exercise. The progression from black to white to yellow to red was fundamental. The successful conclusion to the long and torturous process was called by some the “red dawn,” represented by the phoenix. The magical substance which turned base metals to gold was often described as a red powder. Other colours are associated with intermediate phases — the green lion (vitriol) and the peacock’s tail, which is a flush of purples and blues that comes over certain metals when heated. The lion and peacock are only two of the alchemical animals; a full description may be found here.

With its colourful phases as a progression of transformations toward an ultimate perfection, it’s not surprising that alchemy serves as a perfect metaphor for almost anything. Gardening, for example, or writing, or spiritual self-improvement — anything that involves metaphorically breaking something down, burning it, washing and cleansing, joining and renewal, by prolonged effort bringing excellence from imperfect beginnings. When I started to write my first novel, the main character, Herbert West, was a dubious type in great need of improvement. I suppose it was inevitable that I should turn this into an alchemical process; alchemy thus became an explicit part of the book. It reappeared very explicitly in the final book of the series, Hunting the Phoenix.

Here is a quotation from Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (poached from Wikipedia):

“When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver (mercury), but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter. The dragon is probably the oldest pictoral symbol in alchemy of which we have documentary evidence. It appears as the Ouroboros, the tail-eater, in the Codex Marcianus, which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, together with the legend ‘the One, the All’. Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one, that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail. For this reason the opus was often called circulare (circular) or else rota (the wheel). Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again in the lapis. He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into the four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught – a symbol uniting all the opposites.” (Part 3, Chapter 3.1).

The whole thing bristles with vivid symbols and images and is surrounded with an aura of mystery and ancient secrets. No wonder artists and writers pounce on it with glee.

Here is an excerpt from Apology for Bad Dreams, a poem by Robinson Jeffers (whose work I discovered at the impressionable age of 18):

He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor

From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God,

He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,

Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,

He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it

Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.

I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me

In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,

Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,

And here am I moving the stars that are me.”

Grey is Good

We have had more than a week of grey weather — quiet, cloudy days with a little rain — and I love it. Especially now, at this quiet time of year, and when I’m not in the best of shape (aches and pains). Sunny, bright weather brings on anxiety, makes everything seem more urgent, and if I’m not up to meeting that challenge, it’s a bummer. Much better when the day is grey and undemanding, and I can stay inside and read, or think, or do nothing at all.

I’m reminded of this poem by Robinson Jeffers:

Gray Weather

It is true that, older than man and ages to outlast him, the Pacific surf

Still cheerfully pounds the worn granite drum;

But there’s no storm; and the birds are still, no song; no kind of excess;

Nothing that shines, nothing is dark;

There is neither joy nor grief nor a person, the sun’s tooth sheathed in cloud,

And life has no more desires than a stone.

The stormy conditions of time and change are all abrogated, the essential

Violences of survival, pleasure,

Love, wrath and pain, and the curious desire of knowing, all perfectly suspended.

In the cloudy light, in the timeless quietness,

One explores deeper than the nerves or heart of nature, the womb or soul,

To the bone, the careless white bone, the excellence.