The White Ship

The White Ship is not a story meant to tie in with Lovecraft’s most famous Cthulhu Mythos, yet is not wholly remote from it as it makes vague reference to preternatural godlike beings. Its style makes it more due in part to the Dream Cycle structure that Lovecraft would use in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Cats of Ulthar.

A man by the name of Basil Elton, a keeper of a northern lighthouse, begins the short story by contemplating his relationship with the sea in all its fluctuating forms of color, stillness and unrest. Finding it in himself, that all his days passed having watched it, he knows it well. Water is a very old symbol. For Thales, the Ancient Greek philosopher and the first in a line of natural philosophers, it was the one essential primordial substance of the universe of which all things were born of and would eventually decay back into once the ordered universe was at its end. In the modern world, we equate to “liquid” money or information, affluent commodities. It is also an unclear reference to a collective unconscious, or nous, as the later Anaxagoras might put it. Often times when looking out into the ocean, one might contemplate the temporality of their own select Ego and wonder about questions of dissolution and viscosity, when all minds are redeemed by a higher Logos. Elton’s inkling of hearing the ocean speak to him is more than likely Lovecraft’s craftsmanship of presenting a microcosmic phenomenon to stand in the place of what Lovecraft means to impart. Elton, protecting a light wherein shipmen might find a temporary solace, finds himself listening to the waters and listening to the vagaries of cosmic history, of individual flavor and of rest and turbulence. At first, he attests, it had told tales of calm beaches and nearby ports, but as the years passed it grew more fond of him and spoke to him of higher things, strange and distant in their relative occupation of space and of time. He mentions that within the twilight those grey vapours of the horizon did part to grant glimpses of the “ways beyond” (which will describe the greatest length of Elton’s journey with the archetypal Sage) and that at the deep of night the water of the sea have grown clear and phosphorescent to grant glimpses of the “ways beneath” (which will later describe the terror of fancy which will lead Elton to his journey’s end and restoration to his tranquil station in the universe). The glimpses have shown ways that were, ways that might be and the ways that are in their Ancient quality that transcends mountains and freighted in the dreams of Time.

One night of a kind with a high and full moon, a White Ship comes from the south, smoothly and silently, irregardless to the quality of the ocean’s listlessness on that night. He sees on the deck a bearded robed man, quite a clear reference to the Jungian Sage archetype, a common device in mind walk type fiction, who seems to beckon him onboard the White Ship. The two seafarers journey to several different cultural niche islands, the first being the Land of Zar, where dwell all the dreams and thoughts of beauty that come to men and are at once forgotten. Elton is reminded of the things he might have glimpsed in the ways beyond and in the phosphorescence before the ways below. He catches the dreams of poets who died in desire before their visions were made flesh to the world. They do not disembark for the Sage tells Elton that he who wanders upon the shores of Zar has never yet returned home.

They next come upon the City of a Thousand Wonders, Thalarion, where reside all those mysteries that men hath striven in vain to fathom. The Sage repeats to him again that none have left the fascinating yet repelling city for there roam only daemons and mad things that are no longer men. Again, for Lovecraft, his demons are far less hedonistic and forces of temptation and evil and revenge than might be of many more contemporary forms of entertainment. His demons are those that have gone mad from the contemplation of paradox and riddle and parable, therein they derive their divinity but seldom to they have a station in the universe. Their happening upon, tends to be, relative to humankind, a “glitch” or anomaly in Time. Some form of unenlightened deva, in regards to being an ambassador of holism and good will, from the further reaches of Time meeting upon the human being in his or her cosmic innocence. Usually we are left to fathom that these were once men who nobly coveted wisdom and knowledge but for whom Time caused a fixation of unresolved nature. This much paves a premonition to the “ways below” that Elton once peacefully contemplated.

The pair next come upon Xura, the Land of Pleasures Unattained, peppered by delirious melodies and delicious laughter. I am reminded at this point in the narrative of one of Stapledon’s past cosmoi, the world of music, where each select mind translates itself in an infantile space as a tune over Time. I have to assume that Lovecraft may have been familiar with Olaf Stapledon, as a contemporary visionary. Perhaps this speaks of an island seeking after lost pleasures that are not to be again.

They next sail to the Land of Fancy, Sona-Nyl, where there is neither time nor space, neither suffering nor death and where Elton says he dwelt for aeons. The parameters of time are beginning to blur, we are perhaps led to believe that Elton is paying witness to the trajectory of his infinite renditions in the forms of Principles ilicited by the Sage to Elton in his innocence. Then again, there is “no death” in Sona-Nyl. There he wanders through gardens paying heed to a quaint polytheistic world.

On another night of the full moon, Elton finds a celestial bird (a Hermes/trickster of sorts likely) beckoning him to follow. It is now that Elton feels the first stirrings of unrest after aeons of fancy. Elton is suddenly met with a new longing to visit Cathuria, which no man has seen, The Land of Hope, where all shines in the perfection of the Ideal that all have known elsewhere or at least that mankind can relate. The Sage pleads with Elton for them to remain in the Land of Fancy. When they set sail in what should be Cathuria, they are not met with a city but rather a swift restless sea which carries their vessel along to some “unknown goal”, where lightning strikes the sea and there appeared on the horizon a monstrous cataract wherein all the oceans of the universe drop off into abysmal nothingness. The bird flaps its wings mockingly as Elton cries over having lost Sona-Nyl as the ship sails over the torrent into the cataract. I have to say at this point in the narrative, I get this sense far too often reading Lovecraft not to mention the subtle sensation. Elton leads an existence where he is subliminally presented with several answers to the primordial existential question, for beauty, for a wealth of riddle, for memory, for pleasure and for fancy, but throughout Time the haunting beauty, riddle and memory of the primordial existential question lays fundamentally unresolved. The yearning for the answer which goes beyond accidental worldly essence or alphanumerical, logical or mechanical answers, bring Elton into the “abyss”, where all waters eventually run and stagnate. In the abyss, where all rivers run and the collective mind dwells, he hears the shrieking of men and of things which are no longer men. He finds himself in shock and suddenly his feet well sedimented on a slab of stone arising from the waters. Elton might now subliminally realize the reason for creation in the calmness he gains with having feet and a ground on which to walk. And he finds himself back at the Lighthouse, from where he originally sailed off from aeons ago, and sees a wrecked ship far out into the ocean. Possibly that channel of the Sage is forever lost. There is a theory, of which I cannot remember its source or origins, being that if chaos is an ‘infinite grounds” perhaps we have lived each moment an infinite amount of times. I believe I read it for a possible account of déjà vue… borderlining on mysticism rather than a brain shutting down and booting up within a split second. Lovecraft does like to play around with a linear conception of Time.


Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Associated Content

I believe it was Aristotle who put forth a theory of change which revolved around the actual and the potential (Actualis and Potentia). The very basic example was in the question: “How does a mere seedling become, say, a tree?” Aristotle thought it was because the seedling contained within itself the “inner script” of the Form of the tree and that the actualis and the potential were in constant communication between themselves. I’ve also read a moderately long essay on brain bifurcation patients and how they interpret the world. The conclusion in brief was broken down in five final possibilities:

  1. The patients have one fairly normal mind associated with the left hemisphere (responsible for speech production) and the responses emanating form the nonverbal right hemisphere are the responses of an automaton and are not produced by conscious mental processes
  2. The patients have only one mind, associated with the left hemisphere, but there also occur (associated with the right hemisphere) isolated conscious mental phenomena, not integrated into a mind at all, though they can perhaps be ascribed to the organism
  3. The patients have two minds, one which can talk and one which cannot
  4. The patients have one mind, whose contents derive from both hemispheres and are rather peculiarly dissociated
  5. They have one normal mind most of the time, while the hemisphere are functioning in tandem, but two minds are elicited by the experimental situations which yield interesting results (perhaps under observation the single mind dissociates into two only to reconvene when observation is lifted)

One and two are overturned in the essay on the premise that, in principle, verbalization is not a necessary condition of consciousness. Besides, the functionings of the right hemisphere are too deliberately intelligible to be regarded as a mere automaton collection of images, ideas and responses. The right hemisphere cannot not talk, but it can still respond to complex visual and auditory stimuli, including language, and may perform detail oriented manipulatory tasks. It seems reasonable to reject the conclusion of premise two of not ascribing the mental of phenomena of the right hemisphere to any mind. Two minds, seems an ad hoc conclusion, as patients report experiencing no gaps in there visual field. The difficulty in positing two minds coincides with the reasons we have for believing in the one mind hypothesis in unbifurcated human beings. It seems strange to suggest that we are not in a position to ascribe all functionings to the same person only due to the peculiarities of how the integration is achieved. Still, if we ascribe integration to a single mind we must also ascribe dissociation to that mind, a task less easy. Roughly, we assume that a single mind has sufficiently immediate access to its own successive conscious states and experiences the states’ relations to each other in simple terms. Split-brained patients fail in respect to this. This leads back in the two mind hypothesis. This makes hypothesis five look initially attractive. Upon reflection, it is equally ad hoc in attempting to explain one change in view of another, without much of a bridging account. It seems to be mere explanatory convenience. If we decide on any two mind hypothesis, why wouldn’t we conclude on anatomical grounds that everyone has two minds, but that we do not notice it save in odd cases because in most bodies and brains the mind pair run in perfect parallel due to direct communication over an intact corpus callosum. To try to understand this in mentalist terms, is to say that the assumption that we understand ourselves as paradigms of psychological unity is false. The unity that we perceive is in no way absolute, but rather a function of integration. The concept, then, of a numerically singular subjectivity is put under scrutiny. This subjectivity does contain the mental life, but it is complex and its unity must be accounted for in terms of operations of its components and functions or else it is an extensionless mathematical point, which has no explanatory power. Perhaps one day, the idea of a singular subjectivity will become a quaint idea, still there seems to be something very important that we are “one of us”.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Beyond the Wall of Sleep, a first and favorite read of mine, is a story about a rustic country farmer who harbors within himself a high order cosmic entity. Many questions arise from the story. In the Western Canon of thought, the foremost question that comes to mind is the Nature vs Nurture debate. Also, the possible reason as to why such an entity would find himself, seemingly trapped in, what to him, must be a prehistoric backwater planet. The ideas of “lottery” and “familiarity” are toyed with, as well as the convenience and top glossing remark of “madness” to account for the unaccountable. I’ve said my tangents, I would just like to jot down some very luscious points in the prose of the story and perhaps inspire in anyone an inkling to return to or read the short story for the first time.

I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier. From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and uncorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know; and of which only the slightest and most indistinct memories linger after waking. From those blurred and fragmentary memories we may infer much, yet prove little. We may guess that in dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.

This man, a vagabond, hunter, and trapper, had always been strange in the eyes of his primitive associates. He had habitually slept at night beyond the ordinary time, and upon waking would often talk of unknown things in a manner so bizarre as to inspire fear even in the hearts of an unimaginative populace. Not that his form of language was at all unusual, for he never spoke save in the debased patois of his environment; but the tone and tenor of his utterances were of such mysterious wildness, that none might listen without apprehension. He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors, and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at least all that had caused him to say what he did; relapsing into a bovine, half-amiable normality like that of the other hill-dwellers.

-a filthy sty where he dwelt with a family as indescribable as himself. Rushing out into the snow, he had flung his arms aloft and commenced a series of leaps directly upward in the air; the while shouting his determination to reach some ‘big, big cabin with brightness in the roof and walls and floor, and the loud queer music far away’. As two men of moderate size sought to restrain him, he had struggled with maniacal force and fury, screaming of his desire and need to find and kill a certain ‘thing that shines and shakes and laughs’. At length, after temporarily felling one of his detainers with a sudden blow, he had flung himself upon the other in a daemoniac ecstasy of bloodthirstiness, shrieking fiendishly that he would ‘jump high in the air and burn his way through anything that stopped him’.

Slater raved for upward of fifteen minutes, babbling in his backwoods dialect of great edifices of light, oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys. But most of all did he dwell upon some mysterious blazing entity that shook and laughed and mocked at him. This vast, vague personality seemed to have done him a terrible wrong, and to kill it in triumphant revenge was his paramount desire. In order to reach it, he said, he would soar through abysses of emptiness, burning every obstacle that stood in his way.

On the source of Slater’s visions they speculated at length, for since he could neither read nor write, and had apparently never heard a legend or fairy tale, his gorgeous imagery was quite inexplicable. That it could not come from any known myth or romance was made especially clear by the fact that the unfortunate lunatic expressed himself only in his own simple manner. He raved of things he did not understand and could not interpret; things which he claimed to have experienced, but which he could not have learned through any normal or connected narration. The alienists soon agreed that abnormal dreams were the foundation of the trouble; dreams whose vividness could for a time completely dominate the waking mind of this basically inferior man.

And yet I could extract nothing definite from the man. The sum of all my investigation was, that in a kind of semi-uncorporeal dream life Slater wandered or floated through resplendent and prodigious valleys, meadows, gardens, cities, and palaces of light; in a region unbounded and unknown to man. That there he was no peasant or degenerate, but a creature of importance and vivid life; moving proudly and dominantly, and checked only by a certain deadly enemy, who seemed to be a being of visible yet ethereal structure, and who did not appear to be of human shape, since Slater never referred to it as a man, or as aught save a thing. This thing had done Slater some hideous but unnamed wrong, which the maniac (if maniac he were) yearned to avenge. From the manner in which Slater alluded to their dealings, I judged that he and the luminous thing had met on equal terms; that in his dream existence the man was himself a luminous thing of the same race as his enemy.

It had long been my belief that human thought consists basically of atomic or molecular motion, convertible into ether waves of radiant energy like heat, light, and electricity. This belief had early led me to contemplate the possibility of telepathy or mental communication by means of suitable apparatus, and I had in my college days prepared a set of transmitting and receiving instruments somewhat similar to the cumbrous devices employed in wireless telegraphy at that crude, pre-radio period.

The sound of weird lyric melody was what aroused me. Chords, vibrations, and harmonic ecstasies echoed passionately on every hand; while on my ravished sight burst the stupendous spectacle of ultimate beauty. Walls, columns, and architraves of living fire blazed effulgently around the spot where I seemed to float in air; extending upward to an infinitely high vaulted dome of indescribable splendour. Blending with this display of palatial magnificence, or rather, supplanting it at times in kaleidoscopic rotation, were glimpses of wide plains and graceful valleys, high mountains and inviting grottoes; covered with every lovely attribute of scenery which my delighted eye could conceive of, yet formed wholly of some glowing, ethereal, plastic entity, which in consistency partook as much of spirit as of matter. As I gazed, I perceived that my own brain held the key to these enchanting metamorphoses; for each vista which appeared to me, was the one my changing mind most wished to behold. Amidst this elysian realm I dwelt not as a stranger, for each sight and sound was familiar to me; just as it had been for uncounted aeons of eternity before, and would be for like eternities to come.

The hour was one of approaching triumph, for was not my fellow-being escaping at last from a degrading periodic bondage; escaping forever, and preparing to follow the accursed oppressor even unto the uttermost fields of ether, that upon it might be wrought a flaming cosmic vengeance which would shake the spheres? We floated thus for a little time, when I perceived a slight blurring and fading of the objects around us, as though some force were recalling me to earth—where I least wished to go. The form near me seemed to feel a change also, for it gradually brought its discourse toward a conclusion, and itself prepared to quit the scene; fading from my sight at a rate somewhat less rapid than that of the other objects. A few more thoughts were exchanged, and I knew that the luminous one and I were being recalled to bondage, though for my brother of light it would be the last time. The sorry planet-shell being well-nigh spent, in less than an hour my fellow would be free to pursue the oppressor along the Milky Way and past the hither stars to the very confines of infinity.

The lips, too, seemed unusual; being tightly compressed, as if by the force of a stronger character than had been Slater’s. Neither mania nor degeneracy was visible in that gaze, and I felt beyond a doubt that I was viewing a face behind which lay an active mind of high order.

“Joe Slater is dead,” came the soul-petrifying voice or agency from beyond the wall of sleep. My opened eyes sought the couch of pain in curious horror, but the blue eyes were still calmly gazing, and the countenance was still intelligently animated. “He is better dead, for he was unfit to bear the active intellect of cosmic entity. His gross body could not undergo the needed adjustments between ethereal life and planet life. He was too much of an animal, too little a man; yet it is through his deficiency that you have come to discover me, for the cosmic and planet souls rightly should never meet. He has been my torment and diurnal prison for forty-two of your terrestrial years. I am an entity like that which you yourself become in the freedom of dreamless sleep. I am your brother of light, and have floated with you in the effulgent valleys. It is not permitted me to tell your waking earth-self of your real self, but we are all roamers of vast spaces and travellers in many ages. Next year I may be dwelling in the dark Egypt which you call ancient, or in the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan which is to come three thousand years hence. You and I have drifted to the worlds that reel about the red Arcturus, and dwelt in the bodies of the insect-philosophers that crawl proudly over the fourth moon of Jupiter. How little does the earth-self know of life and its extent! How little, indeed, ought it to know for its own tranquillity! Of the oppressor I cannot speak. You on earth have unwittingly felt its distant presence—you who without knowing idly gave to its blinking beacon the name of Algol, the Daemon-Star. It is to meet and conquer the oppressor that I have vainly striven for aeons, held back by bodily encumbrances. Tonight I go as a Nemesis bearing just and blazingly cataclysmic vengeance. Watch me in the sky close by the Daemon-Star. I cannot speak longer, for the body of Joe Slater grows cold and rigid, and the coarse brains are ceasing to vibrate as I wish. You have been my friend in the cosmos; you have been my only friend on this planet—the only soul to sense and seek for me within the repellent form which lies on this couch. We shall meet again—perhaps in the shining mists of Orion’s Sword, perhaps on a bleak plateau in prehistoric Asia. Perhaps in unremembered dreams tonight; perhaps in some other form an aeon hence, when the solar system shall have been swept away.”