Tuesday, April 16, 2013

H.P. Lovecraft - "The Nameless City"

That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even death may die
(p. 30).

For the Lovecraft enthusiast, the most obvious lures of “The Nameless City” are bibliographic, the way that it introduces Abdul Alhazred and his couplet (quoted above) and prefigures At the Mountains of Madness with the idea of artwork giving a window into a lost civilization’s history. But it is also a powerful tale in its own right. As the narrator descends beneath the sands of Araby, Lovecraft displays his gifts at toying with history and building atmosphere, but he also works with wonder in a way which I had not often considered in my prior readings of his work.

[Be warned before continuing that I am assuming some familiarity with Lovecraft as a whole and so will not be going into great detail on the more obvious topics, such as the specifics of his dark revelations (in a word, scale; in a few, the realization that the universe is infinitely vaster than we are and that we do not matter) or how many adjectives he can cram into a single sentence. There will, also, be some spoilers for the story discussed. Finally, note that all page numbers come from the Penguin Classics edition of The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, edited by S.T. Joshi.]

In popular culture and brief references, Lovecraft is often reduced to one emotion: fear. Occasionally, at moments of great specificity, that might be clarified to fear of the unknown. I don’t mean this in a purely derogatory way. Fear of the unknown is a huge part of Lovecraft’s work, and he evokes it masterfully. But “The Nameless City” exhibits the other driving force behind much of Lovecraft’s work: wonder, and our need for it.

The narrator here is not forced into his predicament. He came to the Nameless City of his own volition, well aware of its reputation. He endured many hardships to see it, even excepting those he encountered after his arrival that he could never have expected. Early on, he talks of “curiosity stronger than fear” (p. 32). Shortly afterwards, he writes of “that instinct for the strange and unknown which has made me a wanderer upon earth and a haunter of far, ancient, and forbidden places” (p. 34). Curiosity, the drive to seek the wondrous, then, is a matter integral to the narrator’s character. And it is admirable. We are not dealing with a dallier, here, but rather with a man that has managed to trace forgotten legends to their source, one whose search for knowledge has left him fluent in Lord Dunsany’s short stories, Thomas Moore’s poetry, and Greek mythology.

This need for wonder is not a fleeting thing. It might be the driving force for the erudition just discussed, but it goes farther than that. Just before descending into the Nameless City, the narrator says that he was “more afraid than I could explain, but not enough to dull my thirst for wonder” (p. 33). Fear, then, goes beyond what can be put into words, past what is rational. But so does wonder, for the narrator’s wonder trumps his fear. Remember, after all, that he has not yet entered the city when he feels that way. He could have simply turned around and seen no more. Right up until the final revelation, the narrator insists that “wonder drove out fear” (p. 39).

Let us step back for a moment and remember that this is the Lovecraft that, in a 1930 letter to August Derleth, wrote that: Time, space, and natural law hold for me suggestions of intolerable bondage, and I can form no picture of emotional satisfaction which does not involve their defeat – especially the defeat of time, so that one may merge oneself with the whole historic stream and be wholly emancipated from the transient and the ephemeral. An escape from strict, material reality like the kind that Lovecraft there described certainly sounds like a matter for wonder to me.

In fact, it leaves me wondering if wonder might not be the other pole of the cosmic dread that makes up so much of Lovecraft’s worldview, if his protagonists, aware of the unsatisfactory nature of the mundane, find that their only chance at joy is to strive for something greater than what is commonly perceived. That question is starting to go beyond “The Nameless City,” admittedly. While the narrator certainly does show a drive for wonder, we do not get to see any of his ordinary life, nor his state before the expedition. But the distinction between wonder and terror is one I certainly do plan to keep in mind when I next return to Lovecraft’s work.

What “The Nameless City” does provide in ample detail is how a search for wonder, for something greater than the limited perception that we all have ends if it ever really succeeds. Needless to say, it ends poorly. By the time he has escaped the Nameless City, the narrator can bleakly boast that “no other man shivers so horribly when the night-wind rattles the windows” (p. 30). The knowledge he has gained burns away any shred of joyous wonder.

In his imparting of that overawing knowledge, Lovecraft operates by taking successive steps away from the narrator’s comfort zone, enlarging the frame each time but doing so by subtle enough degrees that we follow him until the final shocks. From Araby* to the uncharted desert to the ruins to the strange temple and on, each step seems tied to the last. Many of the piece’s more evocative details serve to bridge and strengthen the gaps between conceptual shifts. The seemingly source-less wind that leads the narrator to the passageway down, for instance, is an admirably physical hook that keeps things from feeling too easy or too bodilessly concerned with alien art.

(* In any other author, the fact that “Araby” seems utterly unpopulated save for the narrator and a few briefly mentioned sheiks would seem like whitewashing. In Lovecraft’s work, it just left me glad that we were spared any execrable descriptions of cultic natives dancing about a fire.)

The most interesting thing about the different stages might be how easy it is to cross from one to the next. It does not, of course, look that way at first. “There is no legend so old as to give it a name, or to recall that it was ever alive” (p. 30) Lovecraft tells us of the Nameless City before, after a semicolon, continuing with: “but it is told of in whispers around campfires and muttered about by grandmas in the tents of sheiks, so that all the tribes shun it without wholly knowing why” (ibid).

Of course, if there are no legends about it and no one has ever heard of it, it is difficult to see how so many people are whispering about it. One could be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that Lovecraft let his grandiosity get away with him. But I think the seeming contradiction shows something deeper. There are barriers to seeing the cosmic truths behind the mundane, but those barriers are perspectival and not material. It is not that all knowledge of this past is truly gone. Rather, we fervently wish that all knowledge of it was, and so we loudly declare that even as we whisper the truth to those closest to us.

Then there is the crucial fact that Lovecraft does not reach the end of these stages. He never says that he is done, that all truth has been revealed, and that the reader can rest contented. Rather, at the end, he gives us a glimpse of more vistas yet to come, even if we could never manage to tread upon them. The artwork grants the narrator great knowledge, but it is incomplete. It does not take him to the present day. Instead, he is left knowing that: “Of what could have happened in the deological aeons since the paintings ceased and the death-hating race resentfully succumbed to decay, no man might say” (p. 39). The final revelation, then, is that, even with the veil torn back, there is still an incomprehensible vastness beyond it, still infinitely more to be known that can never be known, other and innumerable gaps of cosmic time that even this monolithic revelation cannot come close to filling.

I would like to end, though, on a slightly smaller scale: with an allusion to mythology. As the narrator journeys to the Nameless City, he sees the sun, and we hear that he “fancied that from some remote depth there came a crash of musical metal to hail the fiery disc as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile” (p. 31). To those that either know the myth or alternatively turned to S.T. Joshi’s handy footnote (I will admit that I fell into the later category), the description of the natural world seems poetic, tinged with greater stories and imaginings. Lovecraft brings the allusion back at the tale’s end, and those same words are then utterly overshadowed by the vaster horrors below. Similarly, wonder functions in the story throughout, growing putrid and awful as it is attained but no less present for it.


  1. Notwithstanding my next question, this is a brilliant post. Discovered as one of the page one results when googling "Nameless City" here on March 11, 2019! Durability on the web. Priceless.

    This passage was striking, and not out of place with Lovecraft's writing:

    "(* In any other author, the fact that “Araby” seems utterly unpopulated save for the narrator and a few briefly mentioned sheiks would seem like whitewashing. In Lovecraft’s work, it just left me glad that we were spared any execrable descriptions of cultic natives dancing about a fire.)"

    And yet- it's the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. Even with the technology of today, easy to find empty bits to get lost and die in. [And not Earth's only remaining such terrain.] No particular reason the narrator should run into company by the time he finds the ruins.

    One's mileage may vary on the use of a hoary old trope [as old as the local cultists one] of locals who shun some location. It can be read either as 'silly superstitious locals' or as 'locals aren't as dumb as American visitor', or usually both, one after the other.

    But presuming there were cultists, as so often in Lovecraft's and others' writings, is it worse when they are in Araby, or in Africa or the Amazon, or some nonexistent people of Antarctica or the Dreamlands, as when it is New Englanders maintaining the altars of the Old Ones? These seem all of a piece to me, as plot devices go.

  2. On the passage about how there was no legend so old as to give it a name, etc., I hadn't thought it contradictory since to me it just implied a vague sense of uneasiness or fragmentary tales of evil without detailed knowledge of what had gone on in the place- a fairly common trope and probably not impossible. I imagine future people shunning the dreaded radiation symbol without any longer knowing why, given the right sequence of intervening events.

    But your take on why the idea works is more creative and at least as interesting.