Science or Sorcery?

Note: I was surprised when I re-read this article on CAS from 2004, because I didn’t find its prose particularly painful or embarrassing. I’ve made only one big change, restoring the comparison that I originally began the essay with but which I suppressed for publication at the Eldritch Dark for fear of seeming gratuitously offensive. Everything in the essay, including the comparison, is of course intended to be taken with complete seriousness. Tolkien is one of the authors I have most often read, but, as I’ve said before, I wish that someone would translate Lord of the Rings into English.


Science or Sorcery? Interrogating the Supratextual Interface of Klarkash-Ton and the Hobbitual Offender, Simon Whitechapel

The scientific spirit, which cannot leave anything alone and aspires to draw the whole universe of objects, people, ideas and even feelings into its own dull, inhuman empire, was certain, sooner or later, to cast its screwed-up, calculating eyes on the splendour in the grass and the glory in the flower. — Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles (1980).1

Où sont les neiges d’antan? (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) — François Villon, Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (1461).

If the Earth were a human body, the United States of America might well be identified as a cancer. There are three strong parallels: growth, greed, and influence. Cancers grow explosively, gobble energy, and spread in their worst forms to every part of the body. Mutatis mutandis, the United States has done the same, growing in a couple of centuries from a tiny colony to a continental superpower that now consumes perhaps a fifth of the world’s resources with only a twentieth of the world’s population,2 and that exports its culture and language to every corner of the world. More and more people outside its borders are growing up to think, act, and talk like Americans, discarding their own histories and cultures as they do so. This American triumph has coincided with, and in part been built on, the triumph of modern science, and like science the United States is based on a rejection of tradition and a belief in the possibility, and even the necessity, of progress.

But as Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), one of the founders of modern science, pointed out, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He was talking about physics, but actions have reactions in the mistier world of culture too and simultaneous with the rise of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came the rise of the literary genre of fantasy. Like its coeval science fiction, fantasy represents a flight from the present, but where science fiction flies more or less optimistically into the future, fantasy flees more or less pessimistically into the past: it could be defined as an attempt to write as though America did not exist. America offers democracy, science, and rationalism; fantasy rejects them in favor of monarchy, magic, and mystery.

And understandably so: like America itself, democracy, science, and rationalism are profoundly unnatural things, appearing very late in human existence and truly accepted and appreciated by very few of us, for they do not appeal to the irrational and numinous aspects of our nature. America is unnatural because it is deracinated, a conscious, rational experiment in nation-building whose immigrant citizens are cut off from their roots in ancestral history and homeland. The popularity of fantasy in America and the societies its rootless culture has most heavily influenced proves that millions of us feel the loss. Fantasy’s rejection of science and flight from the scientific American present can be summed up by these lines from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-5) in which the wizard Gandalf describes his confrontation with the wizard Saruman, who has recently exchanged his white robes for robes of many colors:


“I liked white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”3


Isaac Newton broke white light in precisely that way with a prism, gaining knowledge as he discarded wisdom. But there was more to Tolkien’s rejection of Newtonian reductionism than simply science: Newton was also a Protestant, and America is a Protestant nation. Like science, Protestantism is based on a rejection of tradition, and because, like America, it is deracinated, it withers very readily: where its offspring rationalist secularism leads, Protestantism sooner or later follows.4 Tolkien (1892-1973) was Catholic, belonging to a church with deep roots, and though his books are early symptoms of her present decadence, they contain all the anti-rational, loss-assuaging ingredients listed above: monarchy, magic, and mystery. One of those books is, after all, called The Return of the King, and the pessimistic, future-fleeing aspects of fantasy are clearly symbolized by the way Tolkien sets his evil empire of Mordor in the east, where the sun rises, and his haven of peace in the west, where the sun sets.

But beside being Catholic and anti-rationalist, Tolkien was, more importantly, a bad writer. His most famous book, The Lord of the Rings, epitomizes what Europeans would see as the worst failings of American popular culture: it is sentimental, shallow, and clumsy.5 His attempt to flee the American present in some ways carries America with it. And that is one of the great ironies of fantasy literature: its most popular, and least subtle, exponent is European, while one of its greatest and most subtle is not merely American but Californian, living and dying in the most “future-crazed”6 state of all: Clark Ashton Smith was born in 1893 in Long Valley, near Sacramento, and died in 1961 a few miles north in Auburn.

But CAS had an English father and did not grow up in any of California’s cities, which may be much more important than it appears. California is one of the youngest states of one of the world’s youngest nations, but its landscape is ancient and its landscape is what CAS was most familiar with: he grew up on his father’s “forty acres” of homestead.7 Straight lines and right angles are rare in nature, ubiquitous in modern cities, and they may have much stronger effects on our psychology than we realize.8 In the old worlds of Europe and Asia, where cities are thousands of years old, streets wind and twist, because the cities of Europe and Asia have grown rather like plants; in the new world of America, streets run in straight lines intersecting at right angles. American cities are planned, rational attempts to conquer and control unplanned, irrational geography, and perhaps the reputation of New Englanders for subtlety and guile rises from their surroundings. Cities like Boston are old enough to have grown in the winding, twisting old world fashion, and perhaps they train their modern inhabitants in the oblique and indirect. CAS’s friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an urban New Englander: could he have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like Chicago or New York, where the streets may train the mind in linearity and directness?9 Could the rural CAS have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles?

I would suggest not, but that there is more to an artist’s growth than his physical surroundings is clearly proved by Tolkien, who lived in ancient, alinear England and wrote his crude fantasy amid the winding, twisting streets of Oxford. However, human beings inhabit societies too, and though Lovecraft and CAS may have escaped the stultifying effects of American town-planning, perhaps they benefited from the liberating effects of American politics. The races of Tolkien’s world are clearly based on the English class system: the hobbits, for example, are the rural proletariat and minor bourgeoisie, the orcs are the industrial proletariat, and the elves are the aristocracy whose well-nourished scions Tolkien encountered at Oxford. Compare these passages, the first from Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), the second from Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937):


About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats – a sort of livery. ‘My dears,’ I said to them, ‘you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.’ Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. ‘My dear,’ I said, ‘I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone.’10


‘Well, well!’ said a[n Elvish] voice. ‘Just look! Bilbo the hobbit on a pony, my dear! Isn’t it delicious!’ ‘Most astonishing wonderful!’ Then off they went into another song as ridiculous as the one I have written down in full. At last one, a tall young fellow, came out from the trees and bowed to Gandalf and to Thorin.11

Tolkien and Waugh were both snobs and both, as it happens, of below average height. Tall Lovecraft’s and tall CAS’s fiction does not suffer from this snobbery, and although the stories of their friend Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) – who grew up in rural Texas – continually pluck the chords of monarchy, magic, and mystery, his hero Conan becomes a king by brawn and brain, not by birth. But Howard, although a far better writer than Tolkien, is the least interesting of the Weird Tales triumvirate, and CAS’s fiction is aristocratic in more than its mention of kings and emperors. He did not write for the canaille, which is why he used words like canaille:


Yes, indeed, one could write numerous reams on the subject of style. The style – or lack of it – required by nearly all magazine editors, [sic] would require a separate treatise. The idea seems to be that everything should be phrased in a manner that will obviate mental effort on the part of the lowest grade moron. I was told the other day that my “Door to Saturn” could only be read with a dictionary.12

One of the reasons popular American culture has been so successfully exported is that it has evolved to appeal to the lowest common denominator: it is “phrased” so to “obviate mental effort”, and ideally to bypass the intellect altogether. The simplicity and directness of an American export like rock’n’roll, whose appeal is based on strong rhythms and high volume, are mirrored in the simplicity and directness of American exports like hamburgers and Coca-Cola, whose appeal is based on fat, salt, and sugar. In short, American culture is democratic and inclusive, not aristocratic and exclusive like European culture. And so a second great irony of fantasy literature is that the European Tolkien is far more democratic and far more successfully exported than the Californian Clark Ashton Smith: Tolkien’s writing is crude and strongly flavored, the literary equivalent of hamburger and coke, while the haute cuisine of CAS remains unknown to many of the millions who read and re-read Lord of the Rings – or watch and re-watch its recent translation into film.

And perhaps that is another part of the key to CAS: fiction that can be translated readily and successfully into film, as Tolkien’s has been, tends to be superficial and direct. CAS’s greatest stories could not be successfully translated into film without being transformed in fundamental ways; that is, without being mutilated. This is another way in which CAS is profoundly un-American. America’s most successful and most characteristic export, advertising its culture to the world, has been film, and film, because it is the most powerful of media, is also the most destructive, killing imagination and feeding passivity and voyeurism.13 Cinema’s inbred cousin, television, exaggerates cinema’s failings and commits the additional crimes of trivialization and superficiality: watching a film at the cinema at least has a sense of ritual and occasion, and lasts about as long as a religious service; watching the same film using a television has no sense of ritual or occasion and can be interrupted and postponed at will.

CAS, born blessedly long before television and no movie-goer, was defiantly logophilic and logocentric, and in that sense is far more modern than artists who work in or are influenced by film: vision has existed for many millions of years among animals and the art based on it, appealing to universal simplicities, crosses boundaries of culture and even species with relative ease: recall the Greek tale of Zeuxis’s trompe l’oeil grapes pecked by birds. True language, on the other hand, appeared only with human beings and the art based on it, being far richer and far more subtle, does not cross barriers of culture with ease and without transformation and distortion. And here is a third great irony of CAS’s relation to JRRT. Tolkien, the professional scholar of language in the homeland of English, wrote with far less sensitivity and richness, beating drums and blasting trumpets where CAS played flutes and citheræ. But if fantasy is an attempt to write as though America did not exist, perhaps it took an American to know precisely how best to perform the nullification.


Notes

1. The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “A graded land”, pg. 165.


2. A factoid often dragged out (with varying figures – sometimes consumption goes as high as two-thirds) by whining liberals and eco-puritans. The precise ratio is impossible to know, but America certainly out-consumes Europe, just as Europe out-consumes the Third World.

3. The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, ch. II, “The Council of Elrond”.

4. “Mark 4:5 And some [seed] fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: 6 But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.” Because they have deep roots, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity resist the scorching sun of secularism much more effectively.

5. The Hobbit, with much less ambition, achieves much more.

6. Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “Let them be left”, pg. 173: “Environmentalists, conservationists, anti-pollutionists: the dull, pseudo-scientific words, endlessly repeated – imports, like so much else, from future-crazed America – can arouse in certain moods a perverse rage to build oil-refineries all over Dartmoor.”

7. “As I Remember Klarkash-Ton”, George F. Haas, from The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith, Arkham House (see online copy).

8. In one famous psychological experiment, Zulus who lived in round huts and ploughed in curves were found to be much less susceptible to certain optical illusions (e.g. the Müller-Lyer arrow illusion). See, for example, the discussion in R.L. Gregory’s Eye and Brain: the Psychology of Seeing.

9. See Lovecraft’s short story “Haunter of the Dark” (1936), set in the New England city of Providence but with a protagonist from the straight-lined, right-angled Wisconsin city of Milwaukee: “As Blake climbed higher, the region seemed stranger and stranger, with bewildering mazes of brooding brown alleys leading eternally off to the south. … Twice he lost his way …”

10. Op. cit., Book One, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

11. Op. cit., Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”.

12. Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick (Rhode Island), 1987, pg. 23, “c. mid-December 1930” (see online copy).

13. In fantasy’s sister genre, horror, England and America again provide the most successful writer and one of the greatest, but this time England wins: the American Stephen King (1947-     ), the most successful writer of horror, is a cinematic writer weaned on film and has nothing of the subtlety and depth of the English M.R. James (1862-1936) (see CAS’s appreciation “The Weird Works of M.R. James”).

© 2004 Simon Whitechapel

Dice in the Witch House

“Who could associate mathematics with horror?”

John Buchan answered that question in “Space” (1911), long before H.P. Lovecraft wrote masterpieces like “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) and “Dreams in the Witchhouse” (1933). But Lovecraft’s use of mathematics is central to his genius. So is his recognition of both the importance and the strangeness of mathematics. Weird fiction and maths go together very well.

But weird fiction is about the intrusion or eruption of the Other into the everyday. Maths can teach you that the everyday is already Other. In short, reality is weird — the World is a Witch House. Let’s start with a situation that isn’t obviously weird. Suppose you had three six-sided dice, A, B and C, each with different set of numbers, like this:

Die A = (1, 2, 3, 6, 6, 6)
Die B = (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 6)
Die C = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

If the dice are fair, i.e. each face has an equal chance of appearing, then it’s clear that, on average, die A will beat both die B and die C, while die B will beat die C. The reasoning is simple: if die A beats die B and die B beats die C, then surely die A will beat die C. It’s a transitive relationship: If Jack is taller than Jim and Jim is taller than John, then Jack is taller than John.

Now try another set of dice with different arrangements of digits:

Die A = (1, 2, 2, 5, 6, 6)
Die B = (1, 1, 4, 5, 5, 5)
Die C = (3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 6)

If you roll the dice, on average die A beats die B and die B beats die C. Clearly, then, die A will also beat die C. Or will it? In fact, it doesn’t: the dice are what is called non-transitive. Die A beats die B and die B beats die C, but die C beats die A.

But how does that work? To see a simpler example of non-transitivity, try a simpler set of random-number generators. Suppose you have a triangle with a short rod passing through its centre at right angles to the plane of the triangle. Now imagine numbering the edges of the triangles (1, 2, 3) and throwing it repeatedly so that it spins in the air before landing on a flat surface. It should be obvious that it will come to rest with one edge facing downward and that each edge has a 1/3 chance of landing like that.

In other words, you could use such a spiked triangle as a random-number generator — you could call it a “trie”, plural “trice”. Examine the set of three trice below. You’ll find that they have the same paradoxical property as the second set of six-sided dice above. Trie A beats trie B, trie B beats trie C, but trie C beats trie A:

Trie A = (1, 5, 8)
Trie B = (3, 4, 7)
Trie C = (2, 3, 9)

When you throw two of the trice, there are nine possible outcomes, because each of three edges on one trie can be matched with three possible edges on the other. The results look like this:

Trie A beats Trie B 5/9ths of the time.
Trie B beats Trie C 5/9ths of the time.
Trie C beats Trie A 5/9ths of the time.

To see how this works, here are the results throw-by-throw:

Trie A = (1, 5, 8)
Trie B = (3, 4, 7)

When Trie A rolls 1…

…and Trie B rolls 3, Trie B wins (Trie A has won 0 out of 1)
…and Trie B rolls 4, Trie B wins (0 out of 2)
…and Trie B rolls 7, Trie B wins (0 out of 3)

When Trie A rolls 5…

…and Trie B rolls 3, Trie A wins (1/4)
…and Trie B rolls 4, Trie A wins (2/5)
…and Trie B rolls 7, Trie B wins (2/6)

When Trie A rolls 8…

…and Trie B rolls 3, Trie A wins (3/7)
…and Trie B rolls 4, Trie A wins (4/8)
…and Trie B rolls 7, Trie A wins (5/9)


Trie B = (3, 4, 7)
Trie C = (2, 3, 9)

When Trie B rolls 3…

…and Trie C rolls 2, Trie B wins (Trie B has won 1 out of 1)
…and Trie C rolls 3, it’s a draw (1 out of 2)
…and Trie C rolls 9, Trie C wins (1 out of 3)

When Trie B rolls 4…

…and Trie C rolls 2, Trie B wins (2/4)
…and Trie C rolls 3, Trie B wins (3/5)
…and Trie C rolls 9, Trie C wins (3/6)

When Trie B rolls 7…

…and Trie C rolls 2, Trie B wins (4/7)
…and Trie C rolls 3, Trie B wins (5/8)
…and Trie C rolls 9, Trie C wins (5/9)


Trie C = (2, 3, 9)
Trie A = (1, 5, 8)

When Trie C rolls 2…

…and Trie A rolls 1, Trie C wins (Trie C has won 1 out of 1)
…and Trie A rolls 5, Trie A wins (1 out of 2)
…and Trie A rolls 8, Trie A wins (1 out of 3)

When Trie C rolls 3…

…and Trie A rolls 1, Trie C wins (2/4)
…and Trie A rolls 5, Trie A wins (2/5)
…and Trie A rolls 8, Trie A wins (2/6)

When Trie C rolls 9…

…and Trie A rolls 1, Trie C wins (3/7)
…and Trie A rolls 5, Trie C wins (4/8)
…and Trie A rolls 8, Trie C wins (5/9)


The same reasoning can be applied to the six-sided non-transitive dice, but there are 36 possible outcomes when two of the dice are thrown against each other, so I won’t list them.

Die A = (1, 2, 2, 5, 6, 6)
Die B = (1, 1, 4, 5, 5, 5)
Die C = (3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 6)


Elsewhere other-posted:

At the Mountains of Mathness
Simpson’s Paradox — a simple situation with a very weird outcome

Bestia Bestialissima

Auberon Waugh called himself a “practitioner of the vituperative arts”. Perhaps it was a Catholic thing. And unless you know Latin, you won’t understand. Or you won’t understand as much as you might. I don’t know Latin well, but I can appreciate some of the wonderful vituperation in a book of Latin exorcisms I’ve found scanned at Google Books. The title alone is good: Flagellum Daemonum: Exorcismos Terribiles, Potentissimos et Efficaces, which means (I think) The Flail of Demons: Exorcisms Terrible, Most Potent and Effective. Or is the title Fustis Daemonum: Adiurationes Formidabiles, Potentissimas et Efficaces, meaning The Cudgel of Demons: Adjurations Formidable, Most Potent and Effective?

Vituperation from the Flagellum Daemonum (1644)

Vituperation from the Flagellum Daemonum (1644)


Either way, one of the exorcisms contains a good list of curses directed at the Devil. He’s called Bestia Omnium Bestiarum Bestialissima, meaning “Beast of All Beasts the Most Beastly”. Beside that, there are Dux Hæreticorum and Lupus Rapacissimus, “Duke of Heretics” and “Most Rapacious Wolf”. There’s an odd Sus Macra, Famelica, et Immundissima, which means something like “Scrawny, Famished and Most Filthy Hog”. Lovecraft would have liked Nefandissimus Susurrator, “Most Unspeakable Whisperer”, and Draco Iniquissimus, “Most Iniquitous Dragon”.

Pessimus Dux Tenebrarum is “Most Evil Duke of Darkness” and Janua et Vorago Inferni is “Door and Abyss of Hell”. Seminator Zizaniarum, meaning “Sower of Tares”, refers to Matthew xiii, 25: “But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.” And those are only a few of the curses poured on the Devil’s head. I’ve turned the full list into plain text. As it says in the book that originally led me to the Flagellum Daemonum, “The following is a specimen of one of these vituperative addresses”:

Audi igitur insensate, false, reprobe, et iniquissime Spiritus. Inimice fidei. Adversarie generis humani. Mortis adductor. Vitæ raptor. Justitiæ declinator. Malorum radix. Fomes vitiorum. Seductor hominum. Proditor gentium. Incitator invidiæ. Origo aravitiæ. Causa discordiæ. Excitator malorum. Dæmonum magister. Miserrima Creature. Tentator Homininum. Deceptor malorum Angelorum. Fallax animarum. Dux Hæreticorum. Pater Mendacii. Fatue Bestialis. Tui creatoris Inimicus. Insipiens ebriose. Inique et iniquorum caput. Prædo infernalis. Serpens iniquissime. Lupe rapacissime. Sus macra, famelica, et immundissima. Bestia eruginosa. Bestia scabiosa. Bestia truculentissima. Bestia crudelis. Bestia cruenta. Bestia omnium Bestiarum Bestialissima. Ejecte de Paradise. De gratiâ Dei. De Cœli fastigio. De loco inerrabili. De Societate et consortia Angelorum. Immundissime Spiritus Initium omnium malorum. Trangressor bonæ vitæ. Veritatis et Justitiæ persecutor. Auctor fornicationum. Seminator zizaniarum. Dissipator pacis. Latro discordiæ. Pessime dux tenebrarum. Mortis inventor. Janua et vorago Inferni. Crudelis devorator animarum omniumque malorum causa. Malignissime Dæmon. Spurcissime Spiritus. Nefandissime susurrator. Nequissima Creatura. Vilissime apostata. Scelestissima latro. Impiissima bestia infernalis. Superbissime et ingratissime Spiritus. Iniquissime refuga. Tyranne, Omni bono vacue. Plene omni dolo et fallaciâ. Hominum exterminator. Derisio totius Angelicæ Naturæ. Maledicte Satana a Deo. Excommunicate a totâ cœlesti curiâ. Blaspheme Dei et omnium Sanctorum. Damnate a Deo atque Damnande. Spiritus Acherontine. Spiritus Tartaree. Fili Perditionis. Fili maledictionis æternæ. Rebellis Dei et totius cœlestis curiæ. Serpens crudelissime. Draco iniquissime. Creatura damnata, reprobata et maledicta a Deo in æternum ob superbiam nequitiam tuam.

The first line, Audi igitur insensate, false, reprobe, et iniquissime Spiritus means something like “Hear, then, Senseless, False, Reprobate and Most Iniquitous Spirit”. Then the Devil is called Inimicus Fidei, “Enemy of the Faith”, Adversarius Generis Humani, “Adversary of the Human Race”, Mortis Adductor, “Dragger to Death”, and Vitæ Raptor, “Snatcher of Life”. Then the vituperation really begins.

Thalassobiblion

Ocean The Definitive Visual GuideOcean: The Definitive Visual Guide, introduction by Fabien Cousteau (Dorling Kindersley 2014)

A big book for a big subject: the sea. But “guide” isn’t the mot juste. “Encyclopaedia” is better, because the book covers all aspects of oceanography and marine life, drawing on physics, chemistry and biology to describe everything inorganic from waves and icebergs to whirlpools and underwater volcanoes, everything organic from a beautiful flower like beach morning-glory, Ipomoea imperati, to a grotesque fish like the Pacific blackdragon, Idiacanthus antrostomus. The flower is on the shore, the fish is in the abyss, but both of them descend from a single ancestor.

And that ancestor may have evolved in the sea. It certainly moved there before it gave rise to flowers and fish. This big subject is also a very important one: the sea is central to the evolution and continued existence of life on earth. Only the sun matters as much, but some marine life could potentially survive the disappearance of the sun:

Hydrothermal vents are similar to hot springs on land. Located near ocean ridges and rifts, at an average depth of 2,100m (7,000ft), they spew out mineral-rich, superheated seawater. Some have tall chimneys, formed from dissolved minerals that precipitate when the hot vent water meets cold, deep-ocean water. The mix of heat and chemicals supports animal communities around the vents – the first life known to exist entirely without the energy of sunlight. (pg. 188, “The Open Ocean and Ocean Floor”)

The deep ocean is a fascinating and little-known place: much nearer than the other side of the earth, but much harder to get to. Like climbing mountains, plumbing the abyss is difficult and dangerous. It’s interesting that both endeavours have been dominated by a particular group of human being: both the highest and lowest points on the planet were first reached by white males. Fabien Cousteau, who introduces this book, continues the tradition. He’s the grandson of Jacques Cousteau (1910-97), who popularized diving and marine biology for millions of people. Jacques saw huge advances in marine technology and science and his son and grandson have seen more. But the discoveries are still coming: as Fabien points out, it’s estimated that “over 90 per cent of the world’s biodiversity resides in its oceans”.

Discomedesae by Ernst Haeckel

Discomedusae by Ernst Haeckel

Some of that biodiversity left the water for the land and evolved new forms. Some of those new forms went back to the water, like the ceteceans and sea-snakes. Like human beings, they’re descended from fish, the most varied of all vertebrate groups. But some marine life never left its cradle. Where else can you find the beauty and strangeness of groups like the jellyfish? Radial symmetry is a marine speciality and when H.P. Lovecraft was inventing his aliens, he looked to under-space as much as outer:

But to give it a name at this stage was mere folly. It looked like a radiate, but was clearly something more. It was partly vegetable, but had three-fourths of the essentials of animal structure. That it was marine in origin, its symmetrical contour and certain other attributes clearly indicated; yet one could not be exact as to the limit of its later adaptations. The wings, after all, held a persistent suggestion of the aerial. How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake; and the wild tales of cosmic hill things from outside told by a folklorist colleague in Miskatonic’s English department. (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931)

Lovecraft would have enjoyed Ocean as much as Jacques Cousteau. It closes with a detailed “Atlas of the Oceans”, with maps of the ocean floor all around the world. Before that, you can learn how the Corryvreckan whirlpool nearly killed George Orwell in 1947, where to find manganese nodules, why so many deep-sea creatures are red and what the narwhale’s horn really is. You can also feast your eyes on photography that records everything from microscopic plankton to swirling hurricanes hundreds of kilometres across. Big subject, big book. Beautiful subject and beautiful book too.

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #27

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Sex/Dream Metaphors – Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

DNAncientNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

The Cult of CthulhuH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012)

#BooksThatShouldNotBe — Tip-top Transgressive Texts…


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

At the Peaks of Prejudice

<gag> The Evil White Male. <retch> When will Persons of Color, Persons of Wombyn-ness, Persons of LGBT-ity, Persons of All Alternative Ontologies finally succeed in cleansing the world of his tenebrose toxicity? When will the Rainbow Days of Equality, Justice and Harmony begin? When will his uncountable victims truly be able to say: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank the Lady Almighty, we are free at last!”?

Not soon enough. In the meantime, the E.W.M./Yoom continues to pollute the so-called white-male-invented so-called Internet with his foulness and fetidity. But most depraved, deplorable and despicable of all are those occasions when one Yoom “celebrates” the work of another Yoom.

A case in point:

Cosmic Horror – Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937)

“Unspeakable” is not the word. (If it were, then it wouldn’t be “unspeakable”, would it?)


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Hateful, Bestial, Demonic
Knowing Mi, Knowing Yoom

Slug is a Drug

Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife
Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife, Paul Sterry and Andrew Cleave (HarperCollins 2012)

Living by a river is good, but living by the sea is better. This means that the ideal might be Innsmouth:

The harbour, long clogged with sand, was enclosed by an ancient stone breakwater; on which I could begin to discern the minute forms of a few seated fishermen, and at whose end were what looked like the foundations of a bygone lighthouse. A sandy tongue had formed inside this barrier and upon it I saw a few decrepit cabins, moored dories, and scattered lobster-pots. The only deep water seemed to be where the river poured out past the belfried structure and turned southward to join the ocean at the breakwater’s end. (“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, 1936)

Lovecraft would certainly have liked Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife, a solid photographic guide to the flora and fauna of the British coast. There are some very Lovecraftian species here, both floral and faunal. Among the plants there’s sea-holly, Eryngium maritimum, a blue-grey shingle-dweller with gothically spiky and veined leaves. It has its own specialized parasite, Orobanche minor ssp. maritima, “an exclusively coastal sub-species” of common broomrape (pg. 94). Among the Lovecraftian animals there are the cephalopods (octopuses and squids), echinoderms (sea-urchins and starfish) and cnidarians (jellyfish and sea-anemones), but also the greater and lesser weever, Trachinus draco and Echiichthys vipera, which are “notorious fish, capable of inflicting a painful sting to a bather’s foot” (pg. 278).

Limacia clavigera

Orange-clubbed sea-slug, Limacia clavigera


But the strangest and most wonderful creatures in the book might be the sea-slugs and sea-hares, which are brightly coloured or enigmatically mottled, with surreal knobs, furs and “rhinophores”, or head tentacles. If LSD took organic form, it might look like a sea-slug. Greilada elegans, “orange with blue spots”, Flabellina pedata, “purple body and pinkish-red cerata”, Catriona gymnata, “swollen, orange and white-tipped”, resemble the larvae of some eldritch interstellar race, destined to grow great and eat worlds (pp. 218-222 – “cerata” are “dorsal projections”). As it is, they stay tiny: the orange-clubbed sea-slug, Limacia clavigera, gets to 15mm on a diet of bryozoans, the miniature coral-like animals that are Lovecraftian in a different way. That “Limacia”, from the Latin limax, meaning “slug”, is a reminder that sea-slugs have an accurate common name, unlike Montagu’s sea snail, Liparis montagui, and the sea scorpion, Taurulus bubalis, which are both fish, and sea ivory, Ramalina siliquosa, which is a lichen. This book includes a land slug too, the great black, Arion ater, but it has none of the charm or beauty of its marine relatives.

Arion ater is included here because it’s “particularly common on coastal cliffs, paths and dunes” (pg. 239). The land snails that accompany it have charm, like the looping snail, Truncatella subcylindrica, and the wrinkled snail, Candidula intersecta, but they don’t have the beauty and variety of marine shell-dwellers, from the limpets, scallops and cockles to the wentletraps, cowries and whelks. And the violet snail, Jacintha jacintha, which rides the open ocean on a “‘float’ of mucus-trapped bubbles” as it feeds on the by-the-wind sailor, Velella velella. Layfolk would say that Velella and its relative Physalia physalis, the Portuguese man-o’-war, are jellyfish, but they’re actually “pelagic hydroids”. And Physalia is a colony of animals, not a single animal.

Sample page #1

Sample page #1


Both jellyfish and hydroids are related to sea-anemones and corals: they’re all classified as cnidaria, from the Greek κνιδη, knidē, meaning “nettle”. In short: they all sting. Some swim and sway too: the colours, patterns and sinuosity of the cnidaria are seductively strange. There are strawberry, snakelocks, gem, jewel, fountain and plumose anemones, for example: Actinia fragacea, Anemonia viridis, Aulactinia verrucosa, Corynactis viridis, Sargartiogeton laceratus and Metridium senile. The tentacles of the last-named look like a glossy head of white hair and the snakelocks anemone sometimes has green tentacles with purple tips.

After the cnidaria come the annelids, or segmented worms, which can be beautiful or repulsive, mundane or surreal, free-living or sessile. For example, the scaleworms are “unusual-looking polychaete worms whose dorsal surface is mostly or entirely covered with overlapping scales” (pg. 129). They’re reminiscent of the sea-slugs, though less strange and more subdued. But segmented worms gave rise to the wild variety of the crustaceans, including crabs, sea-slaters, lobsters and even barnacles, one species of which is a parasite: Sacculina carcini forms a “branching network” (pg. 178) within the body of a crab, particularly the green shore crab, Carcinus maenas. You would never guess that it was a barnacle and you might not guess that an infected crab was infected, because the yellow “reproductive structure” of the barnacle looks as though it belongs to the crab itself.

Sample page

Sample page #2


And there’s a photograph here to prove it. In fact, there are two: one in the barnacle’s own entry, the other in the entry for the green shore crab. I like the way the guide gives extra information like that. In the entries for sea-lavender, Limonium vulgare, and thrift, Armeria maritima, there are small photographs of insects that feed “only” or “almost exclusively” on these plants: the plume moth Agditis bennetii, with very narrow wings, and the more conventional moth Polymixis xanthomista (pg. 90), respectively. Those insects, with Fisher’s estuarine moth, Gortyna borelii, and the Sand Dart, Agrotis ripae, are stranded in the wild-flower section, as though they’ve been deposited there by a stray current. The fiery clearwing moth, Pyropteron chrysidiformis, is stranded in another way: in Britain, it’s “entirely restricted to stretches of grassy undercliff on the south coast of Kent”. It looks like a wasp wearing make-up. The scaly cricket, Pseudomogoplistes vincentae, isn’t attractive but is romantic in a similar way: it’s “confined to a handful of coastal shingle beaches in Britain and the Channel Islands” (pg. 17).

Also confined is the bracket fungus Phellinus hippophaeicola, which is “found only” on the trunks of sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides (pg. 54). Its photograph appears with its host, but the full fungus section is only one page anyway. It includes the “unmistakable” dune stinkhorn, Phallus hadriani, whose scientific name means “Hadrian’s dick”. It’s “restricted to dunes and associated with Marram” grass (pg. 50). But fungi flourish best away from the coast. Not that “flourish” is the right word, because fungi don’t flower. Nor do seaweeds, the giant algae that have to survive both battering by the waves and exposure to sun and wind. They cope by being tough: leathery or horny or chalky or coralline. And though their colours are limited mostly to green, brown and red, their geometry is very varied: leafy, membranous, thong-like, ribbon-like, whip-like, fan-like, feather-like, even globular: punctured ball weed, Leathesia difformis, and oyster thief, Colpomenia peregrina, for example. The book doesn’t explain why “oyster thief” is called that. Landlady’s wig, Desmarestia aculeata, red rags, Dilsea carnosa, and bladder wrack, Fucus vesiculous, are self-explanatory.

And there’s a bluntness to names like wrack, kelp and the various weeds – bean-weed, bead-weed, wire-weed – that go well with the rough, tough life these plants lead. That’s why rainbow wrack, Cystoseria tamariscifolia, sounds so odd. But it lives up to its name: it’s “bushy and iridescent blue-green underwater” (pg. 36).

Seaweeds are at the beginning of the book; birds, fish and mammals are at the end. After the strangeness, surreality and beauty of some of the plants and invertebrates, the higher animals can seem almost mundane. Evolution hasn’t found as many spinal solutions as non-spinal, because the invertebrates have been around much longer. Among the vertebrates, it’s been working longest on the fish, so the variety of shapes is greatest there: rays and flounders, lampreys and eels, sea-horses and pipe-fish, the giant sun-fish and the largest animal native to Britain, the basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus. Some of the names seem ancient and long-evolved too: saithe, pogge, goldsinny, weever, dab, goby, blenny, shanny and brill. The last-named, Scophthalmus rhombus, is a flatfish with a typically ugly head. As the book notes: “In their early stages, they resemble conventional species. But during their development the head shape distorts so that, although they lie and swim on their sides, both eyes are on top” (pg. 257).

The rays aren’t distorted like that: they lie on their bellies, not on their sides, so their eyes don’t look distorted. Evolution has taken two different routes to the same ecological niche, the sea-floor. Camouflage is useful there, so both rays and flatfish have beautiful patterns: specklings, mottlings and spots. Other fish are colourful, but British fish can’t match the rainbow variety of fish in the tropics. Nor can British birds. The kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, is a rare exception and it “favours fresh waters”, except in winter (pg. 328). Truly coastal birds can be hard to tell apart: the knot, Calidris canutus, and the Sanderling, Calidris alba, are not as distinctive as their common names. Nor are the whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus, and the curlew, Numenius arquata. Both have long down-curved beaks and streaked, “grey-brown plumage” (pg. 342). But the whimbrel is smaller and rarer.

The gulls and terns can also be hard to tell apart, as can the skuas that prey on and parasitize them. “Skua”, which comes from Old Norse skúfr, is a good name for a gangster-like bird. I prefer “gull” in what is probably its original form, the Welsh gŵylan. The French mouette, for small gulls, and goéland, for large ones, are also good, and some French bird-names are used in English: avocet, plover and guillemot, for example. “Plover” is from Latin pluvia, “rain”, but the reference is “unexplained”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reference of “ruff” might seem to be obvious: the male ruff, Philomachus pugnax, has a ruff of feathers in the breeding season, like a kind of gladiatorial costume: its scientific name literally means “the pugnacious lover-of-fighting”. But the female of this species is called a reeve, so perhaps ruffs have nothing to do with ruffs: the feminine form, “apparently made … by a vowel change (cf. fox vixen) suggests that [ruff] is an older word and separate” (OED).

This book uses “ruff” for both sexes: it doesn’t have space to chase etymology and give more than brief details of the hundreds of species it covers. The final species are the mammals and the final mammals are the ones that have returned to the sea: whales, dolphins and seals. After them comes a brief section on “The Strandline”:

A beach marks the zone where land meets sea. It is also where detached and floating matter is washed up and deposited by the tides, typically in well-defined lines. During periods of spring tides, debris is pushed to the top of the shore. But with approaching neap tides, tide extremes diminish and the high-tide mark drops; the result is a series of different strandlines on the shore. The strandline is a great place for the marine naturalist to explore and find unexpected delights washed up from the depths. But it is also home to a range of specialised animals that exploit the rich supply of organic matter created by decomposing seaweeds and marine creatures. (pg. 368)

Those specialised animals – sand-hoppers, kelp-flies and so on – have been covered earlier in the book, so this section covers things like skeletons, skulls, fossils and egg-cases – the “sea wash balls” laid by whelks and the “mermaid’s purses” laid by rays. Then there are “sea-beans”, tree-seeds that may have “drifted across the Atlantic from the Caribbean or Central America”. At first glance, seaweeds also seem to make a come-back in this section. Not so: a bryozoan branches like a plant but is “actually a colonial animal that lives just offshore attached to shells and stones”. Bryzoans are often washed ashore after storms. One of the commonest is hornwrack, Flustra foliacea, of which “fresh specimens smell like lemon” (pg. 254). When I first noticed that for myself, I thought I was having an olfactory hallucination. That’s the sea for you: always changing, always surprising. This book captures its complexity in 384 well-designed pages full of eye- and brain-candy.

Tattoo Your Ears

“The most merciful thing in the world,” said H.P. Lovecraft, “is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Nowadays we can’t correlate all the contents of our hard-drives either. But occasionally bits come together. I’ve had two MP3s sitting on my hard-drive for months: “Drink or Die” by Erotic Support and “Hunter Gatherer” by Swords of Mars. I liked them both a lot, but until recently I didn’t realize that they were by two incarnations of the same Finnish band.

Cover of "Die by the..." Swords of Mars
They don’t sound very much alike, after all. But now that I’ve correlated them, they’ve inspired some thoughts on music and mutilation. “Drink or Die” is a dense, fuzzy, leather-lunged rumble-rocker that, like a good Mötley Crüe song, your ears can snort like cocaine. But, unlike Mötley Crüe, the auditory rush lasts the whole song, not just the first half. “Hunter Gatherer” is much more sombre. Erotic Support were “Helsinki beercore”; Swords of Mars are darker, doomier and dirgier. They’ve also got a better name – “Erotic Support” seems to have lost something in translation. Finnish is a long way from English: it’s in a different and unrelated language family, the Finno-Ugric, not the Indo-European. So it lines up with Hungarian and Estonian, not English, German and French. But Erotic Support’s lyrics are good English and “Drink or Die” is a clever title. They’d have been a more interesting band if they’d sung entirely in Finnish, but also less successful, because less accessible to the rest of the world.

Es war einmal eine Königstochter, die ging hinaus in den Wald und setzte sich an einen kühlen Brunnen. Sie hatte eine goldene Kugel, die war ihr liebstes Spielwerk, die warf sie in die Höhe und fing sie wieder in der Luft und hatte ihre Lust daran. Einmal war die Kugel gar hoch geflogen, sie hatte die Hand schon ausgestreckt und die Finger gekrümmt, um sie wieder zufangen, da schlug sie neben vorbei auf die Erde, rollte und rollte und geradezu in das Wasser hinein.

Some Indo-European


Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi
lähteäni laulamahan, saa’ani sanelemahan,
sukuvirttä suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.
Sanat suussani sulavat, puhe’et putoelevat,
kielelleni kerkiävät, hampahilleni hajoovat.

Veli kulta, veikkoseni, kaunis kasvinkumppalini!
Lähe nyt kanssa laulamahan, saa kera sanelemahan
yhtehen yhyttyämme, kahta’alta käytyämme!
Harvoin yhtehen yhymme, saamme toinen toisihimme
näillä raukoilla rajoilla, poloisilla Pohjan mailla.

Some Finno-Ugric


All the same, being inaccessible sometimes helps a band’s appeal to the rest of the world: the mystique of black metal is much stronger in bands that use only Norwegian or one of the other Scandinavian languages. Erotic Support haven’t joined that rebellion against Coca-Colonization and tried to create an indigenous genre. They’re happy to reproduce more or less American music using the more or less American invention known as the electric guitar. But amplified music would have appeared in Europe even if North America had been colonized by the Chinese, so I wonder what rock would sound like if it had evolved in Europe instead. It wouldn’t be called rock, of course, but what other differences would it have? Would it be more sophisticated, for example? I think it would. The success of American exports depends in part on their strong and simple flavours. “Drink or Die” has those flavours: it’s about volume, rhythm and power. It’s full of a certain “drug-addled, crab-infested, tinnitus-nagged spirit” — the “urge to submerge in the raw bedrock viscerality of rock”, as some metaphor-mixing, über-emphasizing idiot once put it (I think it was me).

Cover of "II" by Erotic Support

Erotic Support are “beercore”, remember. Beer marks the brain with hangovers, just as tattoos mark the skin with ink. And just as loud music marks the ears with tinnitus. There are various kinds of self-mutilation in rock and that self-mutilation can have unhealthy motives. It can be an expression of boredom, angst, anomie and self-hatred. Unsurprisingly, Finland has the nineteenth highest suicide rate in the world. Beer, tattoos and tinnitus are part of the louder, dirtier and loutier end of rock: unlike Radiohead or Coldplay, Erotic Support sound like a band with tattoos who are used to hangovers. “Drink or Die” is a joke about exactly that. But what if rock had evolved in a wine-drinking culture? Would it be less of a sado-masochistic ritual, more a refined rite? Maybe not: the god of wine is Dionysos and he was Ho Bromios, the Thunderer. His brother Pan induces panic with loud noises. But black metal looks towards northern paganism: it’s music for pine forests, cold seas and beer-drinkers, not olive groves, warm seas and oenopotes.

Erotic Support don’t create soundscapes for Finland the way black metal creates soundscapes for Norway, but they do create beer-drinkers’ music, so they do express Finnishness to that extent. Swords of Mars, being darker, doomier and dirgier, are moving nearer an indigenous Finnish rock, or an indigenous Scandinavian rock, at least. This may be related to the fact that genes express themselves more strongly as an individual ages: for example, the correlation between the intelligence of parents and their children is strongest when the children are adults. Erotic Support create faster, more aggressive music than Swords of Mars, so it isn’t surprising that they’re the younger version of the same band. In biology, the genotype creates the phenotype: DNA codes for bodies and behaviour. Music is part of what Richard Dawkins calls the “extended phenotype”, like the nest of a bird or the termite-fishing-rods of a chimpanzee. A bird’s wings are created directly by its genes; a bird’s nest is created indirectly by its genes, viâ the brain. So a bird’s wings are part of the phenotype and a bird’s nest part of the extended phenotype.

Both are under the influence of the genes and both are expressions of biology. Music (like bird-song) is an expression of biology too, as is the difference between the music of Erotic Support and Swords of Mars. As brains age, the behaviour they create changes. Swords of Mars are older and not attracted to reckless self-mutilation as Erotic Support were: it’s not music to precede hangovers and induce tinnitus any more. Sword of Mars aren’t trying to tattoo your ears but to educate your mind.

Guise and Molls

Front cover of Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate: A Natural History, by Jennifer A. Mather et al
Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate: A Natural History, Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson and James B. Wood (Timber Press, 2010)

Who knows humanity who only human knows? We understand ourselves better by looking at other animals, but most other animals are not as remarkable as the octopus. These eight-armed invertebrates are much more closely related to oysters, limpets and ship-worms than they are to fish, let alone to mammals, but they lead fully active lives and seem fully conscious creatures of strong and even unsettling intelligence. Octopuses are molluscs, or “soft ones” (the same Latin root is found in “mollify”), with no internal skeleton and no rigid structure. Unlike some of their relatives, however, they do have brains. And more than one brain apiece, in a sense, because their arms are semi-autonomous. They don’t really have bodies, though, which is why they belong to the class known as Cephalopoda, or “head-foots”. Squid and cuttlefish, which are also covered in this book, are in the same class but do have more definite bodies, because they swim in open water rather than, like octopuses, living on the sea-floor. Another difference between the groups is that octopuses don’t have tentacles. Their limbs are too adaptable for that:

Because the arms are lined with suckers along the underside, octopuses can grasp anything. And since the animal has no skeleton, it can flex its arms and move them in any direction. The arms aren’t tentacles: tentacles are used for prey capture in squid, and these arms, with their flexibility, are used for many different actions. (“Introduction: Meet the Octopus”, pg. 15)

Octopuses would be interesting even if we humans knew ourselves perfectly. But one of the interesting things is whether they could be us, given time and opportunity. That is, could they become a tool-making, culture-forming, language-using species like us? After all, unlike most animals, they don’t use their limbs simply for locomotion or aggression: octopuses can manipulate objects with reasonably good precision. I used to think that one obstacle to their use of tools was their inability to make fine discriminations between shapes, because I remembered reading in the Oxford Book of the Mind (2004) that they couldn’t tell cubes from spheres. The explanation there was that their arms are too flexible and can’t, like rigid human arms and fingers, be used as fixed references to judge a manipulated object against. But this book says otherwise:

[The British researcher J.M.] Wells found that common octopuses can learn by touch and can tell a smooth cylinder from a grooved one or a cube from a sphere. They had much more trouble, though, telling a cube with smoothed-off corners from a sphere… They couldn’t learn to distinguish a heavy cylinder from a lighter one with the same surface texture. (ch. 9, “Intelligence”, pg. 130)

The problem isn’t simply that their arms are too flexible: their arms are also too independent:

Maybe the common octopus could not use information about the amount of sucker bending to send to the brain and calculate what an object’s shape would be, or calculate how much the arm bent to figure out weight. Octopuses have a lot of local control of arm movement: there are chains of ganglia [nerve-centres] down the arm and even sucker ganglia to control their individual actions. If local information is processed as reflexes in these ganglia, most touch and position information might not go to the brain and then couldn’t used in associative learning. (Ibid., pg. 130-1)

Or in manipulating an object with high precision and accuracy. An octopus can use rocks to make the entrance to its den narrower and less accessible to predators, but that’s a long way from being able to build a den. It is a start, however, and if man and other apes left the scene, octopuses would be a candidate to occupy his vacant throne one day. But I would give better odds to squirrels and to corvids (crow-like birds) than to cephalopods. Living in the sea may be a big obstacle to developing full, language-using, world-manipulating intelligence. The brevity of that life in the sea is definitely an obstacle: one deep-sea species of octopus may live over ten years, which would be “the longest for any octopus” (ch. 1, “In the Egg”). In shallower, warmer water, the Giant Pacific Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini, is senescent at three or four years; some other species are senescent at a year or less. Males die after fertilizing the females, females die after guarding their eggs to hatching. In such an active, enquiring animal, senescence is an odd and unsettling process. A male octopus will stop eating, lose weight and start behaving in unnatural ways:

Senescent male giant Pacific octopuses and red octopuses are found crawling out of the water onto the beach [which is] likely to lead to attacks by gulls, crows, foxes, river otters or other animals… Senescent males have even been found in river mouths, going upstream to their eventual death from the low salinity of the fresh water. (ch. 10, “Sex at Last”, pg. 148)

Female octopuses stop eating and lose weight, but can’t behave unnaturally like that, because they have eggs to guard. Evolution keeps them on duty, because females that abandoned their eggs would leave fewer offspring. Meanwhile, males can become what might be called demob-demented: once they’ve mated, their behaviour doesn’t affect their offspring. In the deep sea, longer-lived species follow the same pattern of maturing, mating and senescing, but aren’t so much living longer as living slower. These short, or slow, lives wouldn’t allow octopuses to learn in the way human beings do. The most important part of human learning is, of course, central to this book and this review: language. Cephalopods don’t have good hearing, but they do have excellent sight and the ability to change the colour and patterning of their skin. So Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) suggested in his short-story “The Shining Ones” (1962) that they could become autodermatographers, or “self-skin-writers”, speaking with their skin. The fine control necessary for language is already there:

Within the outer layers of octopus skin are many chromatophores – sacs that contain yellow, red or brown pigment within an elastic container. When a set of muscles pulls a chromatophore sac out to make it bigger, its color is allowed to show. When the muscles relax, the elastic cover shrinks the sac and the color seems to vanish. A nerve connects to each set of chromatophore muscles, so that nervous signals from the brain can cause an overall change in color in less than 100 milliseconds at any point in the body… When chromatophores are contracted, there is another color-producing layer beneath them. A layer of reflecting cells, white leucophores or green iridophores depending on the area of the body, produces color in a different way: Like a hummingbird’s feathers, which only reflect color at a specific angle, these cells have no pigment themselves but reflect all or some of the colors in the environment back to the observer… (ch. 6, “Appearances”, pg. 89)

“Observer” is the operative word: changes in skin-colour, -texture and -shape are a way to fool the eyes and brains of predators. The molluscan octopus can adopt many guises: it can look like rocks, sand or seaweed. But the champion changer is Thaumoctopus mimicus, which lives in shallow waters off Indonesia. Its generic name means “marvel-octopus” and its specific name means “mimicking”. And its modes of mimicry are indeed marvellous:

This octopus can flatten its body and move across the sand, using its jet for propulsion and trailing its arms, with the same undulating motion as a flounder or sole. It can swim above the mud with its striped arms outspread, looking like a venomous lionfish or jellyfish. It can narrow the width of its combined slender body and arms to look like a striped sea-snake. And it may be able to carry out other mimicries we have yet to see. Particularly impressive about the mimic octopus is that not only can it take on the appearance of another animal but it can also assume the behaviour of that animal. (ch. 7, “Not Getting Eaten”, pg. 109)

But octopuses also change their skin to fool the eyes and brains of prey. The “Passing Cloud” may sound like a martial arts technique, but it’s actually a molluscan hunting technique. And it’s produced entirely within the skin, as the authors of this book observed after videotaping octopuses “in an outdoor saltwater pond on Coconut Island”, Hawaii:

Back in the lab and replaying the video frame by frame, we found how complex the Passing Cloud display is. The Passing Cloud formed on the posterior mantle, flowed forward past the head and became more of a bar in shape, then condensed into a small blob below the head. The shape then enlarged and moved out onto the outstretched mantle, flowing off the anterior mantle and disappearing. (ch. 6, “Appearances”, pg. 93)

It’s apparently used to startle crabs that have frozen and are hard to see. When the crab moves in response to the Passing Cloud, the octopus can grab it and bite it to death with its “parrotlike beak”. They “also use venom from the posterior salivary gland that can paralyze prey and start digestion” (ch. 3, “Making a Living”, pg. 62). But a bite from an octopus can kill much bigger things than crabs:

Blue-ringed octopuses, the four species that are members of the genus Hapalochlaena, display stunning coloration. Like other spectacular forms of marine and terrestrial life, they have vivid color patterns as a warning signal. These small octopuses pose a serious threat to humans. They pack a potent venomous bite that makes them among the most dangerous creatures on Earth. Their venom, the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (TTX) described by Scheumack et al in 1978, is among the few cephalopod venoms that can affect humans. A variety of marine and terrestrial animals produce TTX [including] poisonous arrow frogs [untrue, according to Wikipedia, which refers to “toads of the genus Atelopus” instead], newts, and salamanders… but the classic example, and what the compound is named after, is the tetraodon puffer fish. The puffers are what the Japanese delicacy fufu is made from. If the fish is prepared correctly, extremely small amounts of TTX cause only a tingling or numbing sensation. But if it is prepared incorrectly, the substance kills by blocking sodium channels on the surface of nerve membranes. A single milligram, 1/2500 of the weight of a penny, will kill an adult human… Even in the minuscule doses delivered by a blue-ringed octopus’s nearly unnoticeable bite, TTX can shut down the nervous system of a large person in just minutes; the risk of death is very high. (“Postscript: Keeping a Captive Octopus”, pg. 170)

It’s interesting to see how often toxicity has evolved among animals. Puffer-fish and blue-ringed octopuses may get their toxin from bacteria or algae, while poison-arrow frogs get the even more potent batrachotoxin from eating beetles, as do certain species of bird on New Guinea. Accordingly, toxicity is found in animals with no legs, two legs, four legs, six legs, eight legs and ten legs (if squid have a poisonous bite too). Evolution has found similar solutions to similar problems in unrelated groups, because evolution is a way of exploring space: that of possibility. And it is all, in one way or another, chemical possibility. Blue-ringed octopuses have found a chemical solution to hunting and evading predators. Other cephalopods have found a chemical solution to staying afloat:

Another substance used to keep plankton buoyant is ammonia, again lighter than water. Ammonia is primarily used by the large squid species, including the giant squid (Architeuthis dux), in their tissues, although the glass squid (Cranchia scabra) concentrates ammonia inside a special organ. The ammonia in the tissues of these squid makes the living or dead animal smell pungent. Dead or dying squid on the ocean’s surface smell particularly foul. The ammonia in these giant squid also makes them inedible – there will be no giant squid calamari. (ch. 2, “Drifting and Settling”)

Other deep-sea solutions from chemical possibility-space include bioluminescence. This is used by a cephalopod that was little-known until it was used as a metaphor for the greedy behaviour of Goldman-Sachs and other bankers:

…although they do not have an ink-sac, vampire squid have a bioluminescent mucus that they can jet out, presumably at the approach of a potential predator, likely distracting it in the same way as a black ink jet for a shallow-water octopus or squid. Second, they have a pair of light organs at the base of the fins with a moveable flap that can be used as a shutter. These could act as a searchlight, turning a beam of light onto a potential prey species that tactile sensing from the [tentacle-like] filaments has picked up. And third, they have a huge number of tiny photophores all over the body and arms. These could work two ways: they might give a general dim lighting as a visual counter-shading. With even a little light from above, a dark animal would stand out in silhouette from below. With low-level light giving just enough illumination, it could blend in. And the second function of these lights has been seen by ROV [remotely operated underwater vehicle] viewers: a disturbed vampire squid threw its arms back over its body and flashed the lights on the arms, which should startle any creature. (ch. 11, “The Rest of the Group”, pg. 161)

I was surprised to learn that vampire squid can be prey, but in fact their scientific name – Vampyroteuthis infernalis – is almost as big as they are: “for those imagining that vampire squid are monsters of the deep, they are tiny – only up to 5 in. (13 cm) long” (ibid., pg. 162). Even less-studied, even deeper-living, and even longer-named is Vulcanoctopus hydrothermalis, the “specialized deep-sea vent octopus”, which is “found, as its name suggests, near deep-sea hydrothermal vents way down at 6000 ft. (2000 m)” (“Introduction: Meet the Octopus”, pg. 15). Life around hydrothermal vents, or mini-volcanoes on the ocean floor, is actually independent of the sun, because the food-pyramid there is based on bacteria that live on the enriched water flowing from the vents. So an asteroid strike or mega-volcano that clouded the skies and stopped photosynthesis wouldn’t directly affect that underwater economy. But vents sometimes go extinct and Vulcanoctopus hydrothermalis must lead a precarious existence.

I’d like to know more about the species, but it’s one interesting octopus among many. This book is an excellent introduction to this eight-limbed group and cousins like the ten-limbed squid and the sometimes ninety-limbed nautiluses. It will guide you through all aspects of their lives and behaviour, from chromatophores, detachable arms and jet propulsion to siphuncles, glue-glands and the hectocotylus, the “modified mating arm” of male cephalopods that was once thought to be a parasitic worm. That mystery has been solved, but lots more remain. Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate should appeal to any thalassophile who shares the enthusiasm of H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur C. Clarke for a group that has evolved high intelligence without ever leaving the ocean.

Poetry and Putridity

Poetry and Putridity: Interrogating Issues of Narrativistic Necrocentricity in A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith

Thanatic fanatic. Say it. Savour it, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly am: I am obsessed with words. The sound of them, the shape of them, their history, meaning and flavours. If I were a Guardianista, I’d say I was “passionate about” words. But it’s partly because I’m obsessed with words that I’m not a Guardianista. The Guardian and its readers use them badly. I like people who use them well: A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith, for example. AEH (1859-1936) was an English classicist, CAS (1893-1961) a Californian jack-of-all-trades. But they were both masters of the English language.

They were also thanatic fanatics: obsessed with death. But in different ways. You could say that Housman was more death-as-dying, Smith more death-as-decaying. Not that Smith didn’t deal in dying too: he wrote powerfully and disturbingly about our departure from life, not just about what happens to us beyond it. But Housman didn’t dabble in decomposition and decay. In A Shropshire Lad (1896), the death is fresh, not foetid: necks break, throats are slit, athletes die young, men muse on drowning, fiancées arrive at church in coffins, not coaches. Sometimes the effect, and affect, are ludicrous. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s hard to decide:

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
  The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
  Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
  The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
  The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
  The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
  To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
  Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
  Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
  The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
  Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
  And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
  As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
  To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
  And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
  As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
  A hundred years ago.

*Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.

A Shropshire Lad, IX.

That poem mingles beauty and bathos as it contemplates death. Other poems have more or less of one or the other, but for Housman death is metaphor and metaphysics, not morbidity and mephitis. He uses it as a symbol of loss and despair and those are his real concerns. There is no literal death here:

’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
  The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
  Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
  Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
  The hedgerows heaped with may.

Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
  Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
  That will not shower on me.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXIX.

That is an example of multum in parvo: “much in little”. Using simple words and simple metre, Housman creates great beauty and can conjure overwhelming emotion. He was one of the greatest classicists in history, an expert in the rich and complex literature of the ancient world, a profound scholar of Latin and Greek. But his poetry is remarkable for its lack of classical vocabulary. There is no Latin or Greek in the poem above and only two words of French. Clark Ashton Smith was quite different:

“Look well,” said the necromancer, “on the empire that was yours, but shall be yours no longer.” Then, with arms outstretched toward the sunset, he called aloud the twelve names that were perdition to utter, and after them the tremendous invocation: Gna padambis devompra thungis furidor avoragomon.

Instantly, it seemed that great ebon clouds of thunder beetled against the sun. Lining the horizon, the clouds took the form of colossal monsters with heads and members somewhat resembling those of stallions. Rearing terribly, they trod down the sun like an extinguished ember; and racing as if in some hippodrome of Titans, they rose higher and vaster, coming towards Ummaos. Deep, calamitous rumblings preceded them, and the earth shook visibly, till Zotulla saw that these were not immaterial clouds, but actual living forms that had come forth to tread the world in macrocosmic vastness. Throwing their shadows for many leagues before them, the coursers charged as if devil-ridden into Xylac, and their feet descended like falling mountain crags upon far oases and towns of the outer wastes.

Like a many-turreted storm they came, and it seemed that the world shrank gulfward, tilting beneath the weight. Still as a man enchanted into marble, Zotulla stood and beheld the ruining that was wrought on his empire. And closer drew the gigantic stallions, racing with inconceivable speed, and louder was the thundering of their footfalls, that now began to blot the green fields and fruited orchards lying for many miles to the west of Ummaos. And the shadow of the stallions climbed like an evil gloom of eclipse, till it covered Ummaos; and looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith, like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli.

“The Dark Eidolon” (1935).

Smith’s logomania could not be satisfied beyond the bounds of English, in Latin, Greek and French: he stepped outside history altogether and created his own languages to weave word-spells with. If you didn’t know CAS or AEH or their writing, who would seem more like the world-famous classicist? Based on what I have quoted so far, it would perhaps be Smith. But that is part of what is astonishing about his writing: he wasn’t merely a Beethoven of prose, creating gigantic melodies with rich and rolling words, he was a poorly educated Beethoven. Here is another contrast with his fellow thanatic fanatic. Housman was not poorly educated and was given a chance Smith never had: to attend and adorn one of the world’s greatest universities. The chance was dropped. Housman attended, but he didn’t adorn:

After showing himself, as an undergraduate [at Oxford], to be a brilliant – even arrogantly brilliant – student of Latin and Greek, apparently set for a lifetime of scholarship, he produced a performance in his final examination that astonished all who knew him. He handed in a series of blank, or nearly blank, papers and was failed outright. Retrieving the situation as best he could, he completed the requirements for a pass degree, got through the Civil Service examination, and secured a post at the Patent Office. (The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, Wordsworth, 2005, Michael Irwin’s Introduction, pg. 8)

Housman would end his life, laden with honours, as a Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but that isn’t surprising. The fiasco at Oxford certainly was. Why did it happen? A nervous breakdown or failure to work, perhaps, because of his unrequited love for a fellow student: Moses Jackson, who was healthy, heterosexual, and had no time for classical scholarship. In later life, travelling to cities like Paris and Venice, Housman would indulge much more than his gastronomic and aesthetic appetites. But he seems to have believed that sex without love is like food without flavour. And he never ceased loving Jackson. When he completed volume one of his magnum opus, a definitive edition of the Roman poet Manilius (fl. 1st century A.D.), he dedicated it to Jackson in Latin, dubbing him harum litterarum contemptor, “a scorner of these writings”. That was in 1903, when Jackson was married and living in India. Jackson would later move to Canada, where he died of anaemia in 1923. His death was anticipated by this cri du cœur from Housman:

The half-moon westers low, my love,
  And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
  And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
  In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
  You know no more than I.

Last Poems (1922), XXVI.

But cri du cœur is not the mot juste: it is a very simple poem with only a single foreign word. That is, if “apart” can be called foreign, after centuries on the tongues and lips of English-speakers. Almost everything else has been there millennia and that is part of Housman’s word-magic. His poems are really about depth, not distance. One of the most famous says, in the same simple vocabulary, that far away is close at hand:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
  His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
  When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
  But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
  At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
  The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
  Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
  Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
  Are ashes under Uricon.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXI.

Death for Housman, as it was for Swinburne, is “a sleep”: when the body is ashes, the brain is troubled no more. Death does not necessarily sleep in Clark Ashton Smith:

Natanasna (chanting):

Muntbauut, maspratha butu, [Mumbavut, lewd and evil spirit,]
Varvas runu, vha rancutu. [Wheresoever thou roamest, hear me.]
Incubus, my cousin, come,
Drawn from out the night you haunt,
From the hollow mist and murk
Where discarnate larvae lurk,
By the word of masterdom.
Hell will keep its covenant,
You shall have the long-lost thing
That you howl and hunger for.
Borne on sable, sightless wing,
Leave the void that you abhor,
Enter in this new-made grave,
You that would a body have:
Clothed with the dead man’s flesh,
Rising through the riven earth
In a jubilant rebirth,
Wend your ancient ways afresh,
By the mantra laid on you
Do the deed I bid you do.
Vora votha Thasaidona [By (or through) Thasaidon’s power]
Sorgha nagrakronitlhona. [Arise from the death-time-dominion.]

(After a pause)

Vachat pantari vora nagraban [The spell (or mantra) is finished by the necromancer.]

Kalguth: Za, mozadrim: vachama vongh razan. [Yes, master: the vongh (corpse animated by a demon) will do the rest. (These words are from Umlengha, an ancient language of Zothique, used by scholars and wizards.)]

(The turf heaves and divides, and the incubus-driven Lich of Galeor rises from the grave. The grime of interment is on its face, hands, and clothing. It shambles forward and presses close to the outer circle, in a menacing attitude. Natanasna raises the staff, and Kalguth the arthame, used to control rebellious sprits. The Lich shrinks back.)

The Lich (in a thick, unhuman voice): You have summoned me,
And I must minister
To your desire.

Natanasna: Heed closely these instructions:
By alleys palled and posterns long disused,
Well-hidden from the moon and from men’s eyes,
You shall find ingress to the palace. There,
Through stairways only known to mummied kings
And halls forgotten save by ghosts, you must
Seek out the chamber of the queen Somelis,
And woo her lover-wise till that be done
Which incubi and lovers burn to do.

That is from Smith’s The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951), “A Drama in Six Scenes”. It is also a drama with a sex-scene, by implication, at least. The re-animated corpse follows its instructions, seeks out the palace and enters the “chamber of the queen Somelis”, who addresses it thus as her husband, King Smaragd, beats on the locked door:

Poor Galeor, the grave has left you cold:
I’ll warm you in my bed and in my arms
For those short moments ere the falling sword
Shatter the fragile bolts of mystery
And open what’s beyond. (Op. cit., Scene IV)

I read the play daunted by its erudition, delighted by its epeolatry, and disturbed by its emetic extremity. Some of Smith’s work is about something other than death. This play is about nothing but death. Compare it with Smith’s short-story “The Isle of Torturers” (1933), which contains both poetry and putridity. It’s part richness, part retching. There is poetry like this:

Creaming with a winy foam, full of strange murmurous voices and vague tales of exotic things, the halcyon sea was about the voyagers now beneath the high-lifting summer sun. But the sea’s enchanted voices and its long languorous, immeasurable cradling could not soothe the sorrow of Fulbra; and in his heart a despair abided, black as the gem that was set in the red ring of Vemdeez.

Howbeit, he held the great helm of the ebon barge, and steered as straightly as he could by the sun toward Cyntrom. The amber sail was taut with the favoring wind; and the barge sped onward all that day, cleaving the amaranth waters with its dark prow that reared in the carven form of an ebony goddess. And when the night came with familiar austral stars, Fulbra was able to correct such errors as he had made in reckoning the course.

“The Isle of Torturers” (1933).

There is also putridity like this:

Anon the drowned and dripping corpses went away; and Fulbra was stripped by the Torturers and was laid supine on the palace floor, with iron rings that bound him closely to the flags at knee and wrist, at elbow and ankle. Then they brought in the disinterred body of a woman, nearly eaten, in which a myriad maggots swarmed on the uncovered bones and tatters of dark corruption; and this body they placed on the right hand of Fulbra. And also they fetched the carrion of a black goat that was newly touched with beginning decay; and they laid it down beside him on the left hand. Then, across Fulbra, from right to left, the hungry maggots crawled in a long and undulant wave…

In The Dead Will Cuckold You, the poetry never escapes the putridity. After reading it, you will understand why L. Sprague de Camp remarked this of Smith: “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse” (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy, Arkham House 1976, pg. 206). Nor has anyone since Poe so loved an ingenious torture: in Scene V of the play, King Smaragd threatens his guards with a “douche” of “boiling camel-stale”. There’s humour in Smith’s morbidity, but I think that he dwelt too long on unhealthy themes. It shows both in his stories and in his popularity: the Weird Tales Big Three, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Robert E. Howard (1906-36), and Clark Ashton Smith, are rather like the three stars in the belt of Orion. Lovecraft and Howard are bright Alnilam and Mintaka, Smith is dimmer Alnitak. His luxuriant lexicon explains part of this, but his necrocentric narratives must repel people too.

Housman wrote about death more delicately and distantly. His work doesn’t so much narrativize the necrotic as thematicize the thanatic. It talks about dying, not decaying, and it doesn’t relish the repellent as Smith’s work often did. This helps explain why Housman is a bigger name in English literature than Smith, though I don’t think he was a greater writer. Housman is a minor poet with a major name. I think he deserves it for the beauty and simplicity of his verse. He’s a word-magician who can conjure tears. Smith is a word-magician who can conjure titans. He did more with English and deserves some of Housman’s fame. With his poetry, he might have won it; with his putridity, he lost his chance.