The dark hates the players; you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a ten foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.
From time to time something unexpected happens in our life or our environment. It’s not something extraordinary but mundane, but very easy to miss. And because it’s so easy to overlook, the first time you experience it, it’s amazing.
I once visited a cave.
Huasca de Ocampo, in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, is a tourist town (or Pueblo Mágico, as they call them around here). Its main attraction is its huge ecological park. There are recreational activities, a large lake in the middle of the forest, virgin springs and a trout farm where you can catch your own food. Ah, yes! And also a cave that you can visit.
The Cueva del Duende (Leprechaun’s Cave) is only a minor attraction. For a very modest fee, the attendant lends you a battery-powered lamp and lets you enter the cave all alone (it’s a small cave, more like a tunnel; it’s really not a dangerous place). The rules are very simple and straightforward: “Do not turn off the lamp at any time”.
I, of course, could not pass up the opportunity presented to me. When the entrance to the cave had disappeared behind me, that is, when daylight no longer reached the cave’s interior, I turned off the lamp and… Holy shit!
But, you know, I wasn’t in any real danger. The worst that could happen was that the lamp would not light again and I would have to wait five or ten minutes until the next visitor passed by. What happened was that, after thirty seconds, the reverential terror I felt at experiencing the utter darkness gave way to another, more mundane, and more familiar feeling: boredom. I lit the lamp, which worked perfectly, and continued on until I reached the exit. Then I went to catch a trout, failed and had to buy a previously dead one.
Although ephemeral, the experience of complete darkness has served me well for two things, mainly: writing fiction and running dungeon adventures. Having known darkness, it’s easier to describe the oppressive atmosphere of a dungeon.
Two years later, reading Veins of the Earth, I relived that moment. Reading this book was an artificial (which is to say: artistic: aesthetic) way of reliving the reverential terror of that experience without having to return to the embarrassing reality of boredom and disinterest, the goofiness of existing and having a body, the awareness that I had to hurry so as not to make a fool of myself, so as not to be “the idiot who turned off the lamp”.
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment.
In aesthetic theory, and in contrast to the merely beautiful, the Sublime is the quality of physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical greatness, beyond all calculation. It’s the capacity of a work or phenomenon to provoke both a feeling of awe and terror, an irrational ecstasy.
The ideas of the Sublime originate in the Greek Pseudo-Longinus, approximately during the first century of the common era, and were rediscovered in the Middle Ages and then again during Romanticism, and it’s from here that they reach us, we of the future.
For Romanticism, the Sublime is the combination of awe and terror provoked by an encounter with the natural world. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke describes the Sublime as astonishment: “Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”
The Sublime is an encounter with the vastness of the world, and that this encounter strips us of all our thoughts, leaving us in pure emotion. It is the feeling that comes from contemplating a violent storm or the landscape from a high mountain. It is not the simple fear, which is caused by the threat of death, but an existential and reverential terror that occurs when we become aware of our insignificance and the immeasurable vastness of the world.
To experience the Sublime, you must eliminate all the pleasures and comforts of the world and make yourself as vulnerable as possible. Or as Burke said, “Vacuity, darkness, solitude, and silence.” For example, the most absolute darkness inside a cave.
Summoning of the Muse
Not only nature is capable of evoking the feeling of the Sublime, art can do it too.
Dead Can Dance’s Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun (which I am listening to as I write this) is, for me, the perfect example of the Sublime.
I don’t know the concept behind the album, and I don’t want to know it so as not to ruin my own interpretation and experience.
Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun is the equivalent, abbreviated and sonorous, of the Mysteries of Eleusis. It’s an initiation rite practiced by the followers of the religion of Demeter and Persephone.
The initiatory rite was a representation of Demeter’s journey recounted in the Homeric hymn dedicated to the goddess. It included a pilgrimage, a fast, the consumption of an intoxicating drink and the entrance to an enclosure, where the mysteries were revealed. One of the modern theories points out that the mystery was the communion with Demeter herself, a theory of which I am a supporter (I am an atheist, so it’s logical that the appearance of the goddess is merely symbolic).
Dead Can Dance’s album, of short duration (less than forty minutes) reminds me of this rite. The first tracks are sung in English, by Brendan Perry. They serve as an initial guide, they lead us little by little from the normal world to a more mysterious one, out of this world.
The second half, sung by Lisa Gerrard, in her own invented language (glossolalia, apparently), places us squarely in the world of the mythical/symbolic. Even the music has changed, becoming reverential and mysterious, akin to blood-curdling ritual chants.
The penultimate theme is an invocation. We are calling the goddesses.
The last theme is the proper manifestation of the goddesses, or Persephone specifically. The theme, “Persephone (The Gathering Of Flowers)” refers, undoubtedly, to the return of spring and the blooming of flowers.
But it is not a happy or luminous song. It’s dark, mysterious. Even sad and apocalyptic, with instrumentation unlike anything else, on the album or anywhere else (except, perhaps, Final Fantasy VII). In order for Persephone to come back to life, Demeter has agreed to sacrifice her own life and go to the world of the dead, if only for a season.
Those last moments of the track provoke in me that awe and terror that can only be described as the feeling of the sublime. Listening so many times to this album allowed me to understand, at least on an emotional, if not entirely rational level, the Mysteries theory.
Usefulness of the Sublime
According to Burke, the Sublime has the positive effect of making the everyday problems that overwhelm us become trivial. Compared to the black skies of a storm, the raging clouds, the violent winds capable of making the mightiest tree bend and the very ocean itself churn, compared to this, I repeat, what is a traffic jam on the way home from the office?
In an ideal society we would have encounters with the sublime on a regular basis, not just in museums or during the holiday season when traveling. The old religions had it right. The Greeks of Mycenaean times came face to face with Demeter; the sorginak celebrated feasts in the Goat’s Meadow in the company of their goddess, Mari.
After a week’s work, everyone had the opportunity to be confronted with ideas of greatness. Even the Sunday Christian mass would have the same function.
And isn’t this similar to meeting (weekly, biweekly, monthly) to play OSR?
The weird is constituted by a presence — the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird (…) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it.
Into the Weird
In the introduction to The Weird: A compendium or strange and dark stories, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer define the Weird as “the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane”. And they complement their definition with Lovecraft’s words: a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread”, a “malign and particular suspension or defeat of… fixed laws of Nature”.
Doesn’t this remind us of what was said about the Sublime? But there is a difference. The reverential terror we experience during a storm or in the total darkness of a cave doesn’t seem to us to be malign, nor to be against the laws of nature.
The Weird is the sombre counterpart of the Sublime. This abolition of the natural laws of the universe is astonishing and terrifying, but also incomprehensible. “Reverie or epiphany, yes, but dark reverie or epiphany” (Ann and Jess VanderMeer). After seeing an exhibition of Max Klinger’s etchings in Munich Kubin wrote:
“I was suddenly inundated with visions of pictures in black and white – it is impossible to describe what a thousand-fold treasure my imagination poured out before me. Quickly I left the theater, for the music and the mass of lights now disturbed me, and I wandered aimlessly in the dark streets, overcome and literally ravished by a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations.” (Emphasis is mine)
It’d be easy to suppose that Kubin expresses the same epiphany that occurs when we are confronted with the Sublime, and in a certain way it is, with the exception that instead of elevating the spirit (in its materialistic sense, as a state of mind; the spirit in the metaphysical sense does not exist), instead of a lesson of humble insignificance, this encounter with the Sublime caused in our author a feeling of disturbance, and this feeling was caused, precisely, by the impossibility of understanding it.
Modern philosophy is born with Descartes, when he asks himself, in reference to knowledge and reason, if it would be possible that he is being deceived by a demon of perversity. Modern philosophy is born from the encounter of philosophy as it had been known until then with the horror of incomprehension.
The Sublime makes us remember or become aware of our finitude. If this awareness is tinged with the horror of the incomprehensible, the Sublime is overshadowed. This somber Sublime is precisely the feeling or the quality of the Weird.
So far this century, the Weird has become quite popular, not only in literature, but also in movies, role-playing games and even philosophy. Authors such as Mark Fisher, Eugene Thacker, Ben Woodard and Graham Harman have systematized the Lovecraftian “philosophy”. Although it’s far from becoming the quintessential new philosophy, its presence and influence on modern culture cannot be denied.
Eugene Thacker is known as the philosopher of horror. When he speaks of horror, he’s not referring to the narrative itself, but to a mood or an atmosphere. This echoes Lovecraft’s definition. The goal of this philosophy of horror is to think about the limits of our ability to know things in the world and our place in it; that is, about the incomprehensible.
Like the Sublime, this kind of horror, which we must call the Weird, places us face to face with the incommensurability of the universe, reminding us of our insignificance; unlike the Sublime, it forces us to think about our place within the universe, but it also makes us aware of our inability to comprehend the non-human world.