Tag Archives: psyche

“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft: An Exploration of Art and Horror

Art has the ability to express that which standard forms of communication are unable to convey. This is particularly true when it come to the expression of the deeper regions of the subconscious. Often, these recesses contain our darkest thoughts, the fodder from which our nightmares take shape. It is this realm that the artist in this tale by Lovecraft delves into for inspiration.

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.

Artists who explore these darker regions of the psyche are skirting the fringes of insanity. But often, an artist must temporarily let go of sanity in order to glimpse the internal landscapes which provide inspiration for truly powerful creations.

He shewed me all the paintings and drawings he had about; including some pen-and-ink sketches that would, I verily believe, have got him kicked out of the club if many of the members had seen them. Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum.

Lovecraft uses tunnels and wells as symbols for the entry and exploration of the buried realms of the subconscious. When the characters enter the cellar and uncover the well, leading down into the tunnels below Boston, they are symbolically letting go of their fragile sanity and opening themselves to the darker mysteries of the psyche.

My host was now leading the way down cellar to his actual studio, and I braced myself for some hellish effects among the unfinished canvases. As we reached the bottom of the damp stairs he turned his flashlight to a corner of the large open space at hand, revealing the circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor. We walked nearer, and I saw that it must be five feet across, with walls a good foot thick and some six inches above the ground level—solid work of the seventeenth century, or I was much mistaken. That, Pickman said, was the kind of thing he had been talking about—an aperture of the network of tunnels that used to undermine the hill. I noticed idly that it did not seem to be bricked up, and that a heavy disc of wood formed the apparent cover. Thinking of the things this well must have been connected with if Pickman’s wild hints had not been mere rhetoric, I shivered slightly; then turned to follow him up a step and through a narrow door into a room of fair size, provided with a wooden floor and furnished as a studio. An acetylene gas outfit gave the light necessary for work.

The danger that artists face when exploring the subconscious is that they may ultimately plummet into insanity, losing all touch with the world of light and getting lost forever in the realm of shadows.

Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known—and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot—old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt.

Creative people should never shy away from looking into the depths of the soul for inspiration. But they should do so with care. It’s important to stay grounded when unlocking the forbidden gates of the mind.

Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “The Valley of Unrest” by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley’s restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless—
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
External dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

As I read this poem, I felt like I was in a graveyard, where restless spirits were moving amid the leafless trees, gliding between gravestones. This is classic American gothic romanticism. It’s impossible to read this and not sense the “rustle through the unquiet Heaven.”

One of the first things that struck me about this poem is its connection to Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Considering this, the speaker of the poem may be experiencing fear and dread at the thought of his mortality. He feels that, like the people buried in the cemetery, that he may die any day, unexpectedly, and become nothing more than a nameless stone, completely forgotten by later generations.

In addition to a fear of death, I also get a sense that the speaker is mourning a personal loss. There is some memory that is tormenting the person. The restless spirits represent memories that refuse to sleep quietly in his psyche. While the speaker does not provide any tangible clues as to who it is that is troubling his mind, I suspect that it is the loss of a loved one, probably a lover.

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“The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells: Belief in the Unseen

I figured I would start out the October spooky reading with the classic sci-fi tale from H.G. Wells. Not surprising, Wells weaves some thought-provoking social commentary into his story. While I discovered a lot of philosophical ideas within the text, the one that really stood out for me was the question of whether things unseen (such as God and the spirit) can exist.

My sense is that during the time Wells was writing, the dominant scientific belief was that if something truly existed in the universe, then it could be scientifically observed and studied. There was skepticism that unseen phenomena, such as God, could exist.

After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head—rather nervous scepticism, not at all assured of its back, but scepticism nevertheless. It was so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into thin air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

(H. G. Wells: Seven Novels; p. 197)

I addition to a skepticism of the existence of things unseen, there is also social stigma attached to those individuals who do perceive beings that are invisible (angels, demons, spirits, gods, etc.). These people are often considered delusional or mentally ill, and that the unseen entities with which they are conversing are just creations of a diseased mind.

This stranger, to the perceptions of the proprietor of the cocoanut shy, appeared to be talking to himself, and Mr. Huxter remarked the same thing. He stopped at the foot of the Coach and Horses steps, and, according to Mr. Huxter, appeared to undergo a severe internal struggle before he could induce himself to enter the house.

(p. 198)

After Kemp, who symbolizes the scientific thinker, encounters the invisible man, he begins to ponder the existence of invisible entities. Essentially, he is contemplating whether the existence of God is a possibility.

“Invisible!” he said.

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions. All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in the air? No!

“It can’t be.

“But after all—why not?

(p. 223)

Another interesting point about this passage is that Kemp claims that the sea has more things invisible than visible. The sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Psychologically speaking, there is so much happening in the mind that is beyond the grasp of our ordinary consciousness. Science has not even scratched the surface of the deeper realms of consciousness. There is much there that is still invisible to us.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire text is when the invisible man reveals to Kemp his plans for establishing a “Reign of Terror.”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.”

(p. 251)

Here Wells is making a dual criticism. On one level, the passage expresses his views on the concept of a vengeful God, one that hands down orders “on scraps of paper” (symbolizing scriptures) and then doles out severe punishment to the people who fail to heed the word of God. Additionally, Wells is criticizing the concept of divine rule as embodied in an absolute monarchy. These rulers live in palaces, unseen by the common folk, and hand down laws (more scraps of paper) and decree punishment upon those villagers who fail to obey the laws.

What makes this book such a masterpiece is that it is a great story, and it also has deeper meaning if you look beneath the surface. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Triple Entendre in “The Sandman, Volume 10: The Wake” by Neil Gaiman

It would be impossible to talk about this book without mentioning what occurs at the end of Volume 9. For this reason, if you want to wait until you read the books and thereby avoid any spoilers, now would be the right time to stop reading this post.

Since all things, even the lives of divine beings, move in cycles, Gaiman presents us with the death and rebirth of the Dream Lord in a tale that Frazier would approve of. This installment in the saga explores the wake following the passing of Morpheus. And this brings us to the first meaning of “The Wake,” which is the literal meaning in the context of the story.

The mourners took their seats, one by one, without hesitation or question. No one directed them, but they walked to their own seats and sat down, as quietly and efficiently as if they’d been rehearsing for this moment all their lives.

The second meaning of the wake in this book is its representation of awakening. The passing and rebirth of the Lord of Dreams results in the awakening of people from their dream states, a kind of awakening of the collective consciousness that ripples through the collective psyches of all sentient beings.

… and then, fighting to stay asleep, wishing it would go on forever, sure that once the dream was over, it would never come back, …you woke up.

Which brings us to the third meaning of the wake, which is hidden a little deeper and hearkens back to “The Sandman, Volume 8: World’s End.” For this bit of symbolism, we need to picture a boat moving through the water, water being a symbol for the subconscious and the boat representing an event that affects the subconscious realm. As the boat moves, and the event transpires, the boat leave behind a wake in the water. These wakes symbolize the “ripples in the fabrics of things” mentioned in Volume 8. The death and rebirth of the divine causes ripples across all dimensions of reality, a sort of cosmic wake, if you will. Hence, the wake following Morpheus’ death and the awakening of the collective consciousness combine to create a wake of ripples through the fabric of the universe, which is the hidden symbolism in this story.

I really loved this entire series, and highly recommend it to all readers. There are a couple more Sandman books which I will be reading and reviewing soon, as well as a new arc which Gaiman just started (The Sandman Universe – I have first issue waiting to be read). Definitely check back for my thoughts on these, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 9: The Kindly Ones” by Neil Gaiman

So I finished this book a couple days ago, and have been digesting it and trying to decide how I will approach writing about it without spoiling the ending (Note – do NOT read the introduction to this book unless you want to know how it ends). And also, how do I write about something that contains so many layers of complexity? After stepping away, then going back and reviewing my notes, I decided I will focus on the theme of responsibility, and how that is tied to an individual’s nature.

The first scene I want to examine is when Delirium visits Dream and tries to convince him to join her on a search for her lost dog. The Dream Lord tries to explain to her why he cannot leave the dream realm at the present time.

Delirium: So can you come with me? And look?

Dream: Sister, I have responsibilities. I cannot leave the Dreaming at this time.

Delirium: You use that word so much. Responsibilities. Don’t you ever think about what it means? I mean, what does it mean to you? In your head?

Dream: Well, I use it to refer to that area of existence over which I exert a certain amount of control and influence. In my case, the realm and action of dreaming.

Delirium: Hump. It’s more than that. The things we do make echoes. S’pose, f’rinstance, you stop on a street corner and admire a brilliant fork of lightning — ZAP! Well for ages after people and things will stop on that very same corner, and stare up at the sky. They wouldn’t even know what they were looking for. Some of them might see a ghost bolt of lightning in the street. Some of them might even be killed by it. Our existence deforms the universe. THAT’S responsibility.

This is profound. Not only do our individual actions affect the universe, no matter how small (think the butterfly effect), but our consciousness molds reality and existence on a cosmic level. Nothing we do, nothing we say, and nothing we think is trivial. Everything we do has consequence. Every individual is responsible for the direction that reality takes. Our thoughts and actions ripple across the universe, forming and “deforming” the very fabric of being. The fact that I am writing this, and the fact that you are reading these words, will have an impact on the unfolding of future events. We must, as sentient beings, never take anything for granted.

In the realm of Faerie, the Lady Nuala asks the trickster Puck why he is the way he is.

Nuala: Why do you take such joy in confusion, Robin Goodfellow?

Puck: Because I am true to my nature, Lady Nuala.

This echoes the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” Puck knows he is an incarnation of the trickster archetype, and it is his responsibility to accept his true nature. We are all responsible for acknowledging our nature and adhering to it. It is when we deviate from who we are, when we pretend to be something we are not, that we create disharmony in the universe. Honest self-evaluation is requisite for living a genuine life. Do not deny your essence—embrace it, as Puck does.

And this leads us to the final passage I want to share, in which Dream accepts his true responsibilities, understanding that he must make sacrifices in order to fulfill his responsibilities and embody his true nature.

Dream: Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us. We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves. I will do what I have to do. And I will do what I must.

We are bound by our natures, by our responsibilities, and by our thoughts and actions. We are intrinsically tied to existence, and all we can do is do what we have to do. So once again, I will repeat the words of Shakespeare:

To thine own self be true.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 8: World’s End” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this book, Stephen King praises the complexity of Gaiman’s work and ranks him among some noteworthy writers.

This is challenging stuff. I’m not saying it’s so challenging that my old be-bop buddies wouldn’t have dug it, reading our comics up in a sweltering storage space above Chrissie Essigian’s garage on a rainy summer afternoon, but it’s challenging – sophisticated storytelling on a level practiced by Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, or (and perhaps this is closer to the mark) John Fowles.

I concur. This is very deep reading, with layers and layers of symbolism woven in, but it is also wonderful storytelling, which makes it enjoyable without having to understand the levels of complexity.

This book is structured like Chaucer’s The Canturbury Tales, where an unusual cast of characters find themselves riding out a reality storm at the World’s End inn. They pass the time telling stories, which often have nested stories within the stories.

In one of the tales, the storyteller shares an account of a meeting he had in an alternate reality. The old man who he met and talked with shared some interesting ideas regarding the possibility of places having consciousness.

“Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all. Los Angeles is not Vienna. London is not Moscow. Chicago is not Paris. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and it has its own personality.”

“So?”

“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams. That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are.”

This is a concept I have often pondered, whether consciousness exists in all matter, not just higher forms of animated species. I look at trees and wonder if they have consciousness. I have thought about whether stones or mountains or water have a form of consciousness that we are not able to perceive. If the answer to any of these possibilities is “maybe,” then maybe cities also have consciousness.

In another of the tales, a story is shared about a person’s apprenticeship in a necropolis. The speaker recounts a lesson regarding the purpose of the ceremonies for the deceased.

She was a wise woman. She told us that what we do is not for the dead. Death is not about the disposal of the client.

“What do the dead care about what happens to them? Eh? They’re dead. All the trappings of death are for the living. It is the final reconciliation. The last farewell.”

As I get older and seem to be attending more funerals and memorials, I recognize the truth in this. I remember my mom’s service. I was still fairly young and it was extremely painful. But it was important. I had to see her one last time, touch her once more, before I could start the long healing process. Ceremony is important. It reminds us of what it is to be human.

The last passage I want to share is the innkeeper’s explanation of what a reality storm is.

“Well, sometimes big things happen, and they echo. These echoes crash across the worlds. They are ripples in the fabrics of things. Often they manifest as storms. Reality is a very fragile thing, after all.”

We all want to believe in the stability of the reality we inhabit. But the fragility of the construct which we call reality is something we should consider. How certain are we that what we perceive as reality is really that? Just because our senses make us think it is that way? Our senses can deceive us. In fact, some of these very questions are being explored in the realm of physics right now.

I will close by saying that I found the end of this book to be somewhat, unsettling. It stirred a lot of internal questions for me, which I cannot divulge without spoiling the ending (something I hate to do). I encourage you to read this book, to grapple with the ideas, and contemplate. It would be a worthwhile exercise.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman

In this installment in the Sandman saga, Neil Gaiman explores the brevity and impermanence of existence, both human and divine. We all accept the ephemeral nature of human existence, but do not want to believe that gods and the universe are also transitory. But if we accept that we are a reflection of the divine, and our lives are temporary, then it stands to reason that divine existence is also temporary, with a beginning and an end, as part of a cycle that is beyond our ability to understand.

Early in the book, Death comes to claim a man who lived an unusually long life. He asks Death whether he had a long life, and Death responds:

“You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”

Death’s answer is sobering. We are prone to compare our lifespan with others, but time is really just an illusion. We all have exactly the same amount of time on this plane—one lifetime. Even if you believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, the fact remains that for this incarnation, you only have a lifetime.

Later in the book, Dream has an encounter with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. Ishtar is working as an exotic dancer, and after meeting with Dream and Delirium, she decides to perform her sacred dance at the club. But before she begins, she shares with the club manager the secret of the birth and death of gods, knowing that he will not survive the dance to pass the secret on to others.

“I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams… and what comes after, not even we know.”

What Gaiman is asserting here is that gods manifest from the collective unconscious, that the realm which the human psyche can only vaguely glimpse through myth and symbol is the birthplace of all things divine. And as long as these gods are nourished by our spiritual and psychic energy, they thrive; but once humans cease to feed a god or goddess the requisite energy, they wither and pass, returning again to the formless source.

Throughout the book, Dream and Delirium are on a quest to find their brother, Destruction. After they find him, there is a great scene where Destruction takes his brother and sister out under the stars, and uses the stars as a metaphor for the ephemeral existence of all things, divine and temporal.

“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds won’t last, and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.”

This speaks volumes about the human condition. We move along the paths of our brief lives, pretending that we are a part of some grand, eternal thing. But it is an illusion, just like time. All lives, all existence, everything that is, is in reality just a fleeting twinkle, a flash that will ultimately fade and be forgotten. Knowing this does not make me feel disillusioned with life, but grateful for every moment that I am blessed with. Knowing that my life is but a flicker makes me want to cherish and make the most out of it. For me, this concept is not crippling, but empowering. I hope it has the same effect on you.

Cheers and blessings.

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