Saturday, March 08, 2008

The significance of "weeds" in Lovecraft

In Lovecraft's fiction, weeds are important. I believe they signify decay and intrusion. In Lovecraft's fiction, the protagonist is usually a thinly described version of Lovecraft. That person is erudite, but contrasts with another character - a straw man to whom much mischief happens. In doing so, the watcher, the protagonist studies the straw man, as a scientist might a lab rat. Lovecraft is always scientific in approach, and the protagonist is often a Naturalist, Scientist, Folk Lorist, or other professional.

One of two things happens. The character either has the correct training and breeding, and transcends the madness. Richard Pickman, Kuranes, and Randolph Carter are in that vein. If the character is not well bred, no erudite, not prepared, then the madness consumes and destroys the victim. This happens in He, The Strange High House in the Mist, and many others.

I focus here on The Statement of Randoph Carter (1919), Nyarlathotep (Nov 1920), Celephais (Dec 1920), and The Picture in the House (Dec 1920)

A writer may choose any illustrative content, any metaphor, any cluster of words to convey a meaning. Lovecraft went to his well and his muse came up with a number of stereotypical formulae. Weeds were one of those.

Here are specific passages that breed eeriness and dread, decay and rot.

TSRC: ancient cemetery ... overgrown with rank grass, moss, and curious creeping weeds ... all crumbling, moss grown, and moisture-stained, and partly concealed by the gross luxuriance of the unhealthy vegetation.

N: ... the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass ... a weed-choked subway entrance ...

C: ... In the streets were spears of long grass ... the stagnation of the reedy river ...

TPITH: ...the walks were indeed overgrown with weeds ... rough mossy rock ...

In each of these cases, overgrown grass, or reed-choked streams, moss, and "unhealthy vegetation" is used to heighten the mood. In semiotics the "signifier"is the form in which the "sign" takes. The "signified" is the concept.

In Celephais the term grass is used in a very different context, and does not fit this signified. : But this time he was not snatched away, and like a winged being settled gradually over a grassy hillside til finally his feet rested gently on the turf. He had indeed come back to the Valley of Ooth-Nargai and the splendid city of Celephais. Down the hill amid scented grasses and brilliant flowers walked Kuranes, over the bubbling Naraxa on the small wooden bridge where he had carved his name so many years ago, and through the whispering grove to the great stone bridge by the city gate.

Here, the language of "grass" is used in a cultivated manner. It's controlled, it's refined, and it's beautiful. It's quite unusual for Lovecraft to speak in a non-decadent format, and the contrast between the two could not be stronger.

Here we easily see that Lovecraft has an axe to grind. The common population is unlearned, unrefined, and basically riff-raff. He clearly states in his unguarded moments that immigrants and unrepentant and unconverted individuals have no place in his world, his new order. They can't survive the transition through madness, and the rightfully are destroyed.

In the 21st century, we have grown to respect swamps as wet lands, frogs, insects, and crawfish as bilogical agents in a healthy biodiversity. Not so, Lovecraft. They are vermin to set traps for, to drain dry, to exterpiate and exterminate. So Lovecraft reaches for vermin and unkemptness as semiotic metaphors - perhaps subliminal - to get the point across.

In 1919-1921 he has not yet found a full expression of these concepts, but he reaches for a series of semiotic expressives, and we'll explore many of these soon. Some of them are the use of astronomical bodies, particularly the moon. Windows and window panes. Blackness, darkness, and particularly depths which I believe may stem from his Grandmother Rhoby's funeral and burial.

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