The Liminality of the Human Being: Dwelling Poetically in Kairos Time
We could begin by invoking Robert Fagle’s translation of Sophocles’ 2nd Choral Ode of Antigone, in which he states “[n]umberless wonders terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man” (381-82). What quality of the human being makes her so unique to the vast universe that she places herself in and as the foreign? Perhaps one point to fix our eyes on lies in the issue that only the human being thinks and lives within time. Through the perspectives of the multitudinous human, some show time as a linear, ever-moving object that never ceases. Others, however, curve that continuous pathway into the form of a circle, bringing about the notion that time revolves again and again. In doing so, the human being, at any given moment, runs the life-affirming risk of finding herself in the “now,” or kairos time. Through dwelling in kairos time and dwelling poetically, the human being possesses the ability to experience anabasis, or a hubristic movement upwards in order to approach the divine, and katabasis, the returning to the mortal sphere or a “going down” to discover one’s true self.
She as well has the opportunity to experience matters such as the foreign and native. Because of this wide spectrum, the human being must balance between these extremes. This mediation compels the writers H. P. Lovecraft and William Faulkner to bear forth the issue of the liminality of the human being and her sequence within time and the cosmos. To assist in the discomfort of beginning, H.
P. Lovecraft’s Dr. Armitage and William Faulkner’s Wilfred Midgleston stand to serve as guides for the odyssey into the language of The Dunwich Horror and Black Music. Through the narration of the texts, both characters, Dr. Armitage and Wilfred experience the cycle of katabasis and anabasis. In doing so, they both commune with some form of a being beyond mortal comprehension, and as a result must come down from the encounter.
In The Dunwich Horror, the narrarator points out that Dr. Armitage “ascend[s] the mountain,” but later on after Wilbur’s brother dies, the Dunwich men see Armitage “c[o]me slowly down the mountain.” In a similar fashion Wilfred performs the same actions; however, the tragic tropes of katabasis and anabasis do not present themselves in the text as explicitly. Through reading Black Music, the audience discerns that the Van Dyming’s house sits somewhere atop the “Virginia Mountains,” which signifies that when Wilfred goes towards the mountains to see the Van Dymings, he must go up. In going up, a problem arises with the downward journey on the realization that the language does not speak of Wilfred’s body descending from the mountains.
Through this absence, Midgleston’s passage of katabasis negates itself in the sense that it removes or conceals its presence from the writing. What profundity does the negation of Wilfred’s “going down” have on his character, or in that case the human being herself? Does the negation hold any correlation to Wilfred transforming into something un-human, much like what Wilbur’s brother embodies? If it is due to this transformation, what does that mean for the human being and her mediation between subjects such as the Olympic and the Cthonic? Let us begin to delve into these questions by bringing forth the Greek roots of Black Music to assist in the understanding of the powers present in the short story. For the action of the downward movement to not occur after Wilfred goes up into the mountains, proves unsettling for the reader and one who understands the relationship between a return after someone, like the poet, initiates anabasis.This concealment makes the reader unsettled in the sense that when the human being performs anabasis, she places herself closer to the Gods and for that reason she risks hubris. In the negation of katabasis, the duality between the Olympic and the Cthonic turns, twists, and deviates from its balance because now Wilfred finds himself disoriented in the mountains.
To further provoke the issue, Wilfred not only risks hubris in remaining on the mountain, but he also takes the chance of annihilation by the Gods. This destruction echoes the tale of Phaethon, a Greek mortal who reaches too high and falls. Phaethon, the son of the Sun himself, Helios, realizing his parentage, goes up to the Palace of the Sun and asks to pull the celestial being’s chariot through the sky, which Helios allows. This granting of Phaethon’s wish proves fatal since a mere mortal cannot attempt such a feat, and during the chariot’s course, Zeus, king of Gods, stops the madness and shoots Phaethon out of the sky with his bolt. This fall mirrors the fate of the human being, and similarly Wilfred, by demonstrating that if one goes up, one must come down, otherwise the future bears destruction by the gods.
However, through Wilfred transforming into a “farn,” could it be possible that he remains confused with his placement on the scale of the Olympic and the Cthonic by transcending the appearance of a mortal? To help answer this question, we must look to characters such as Wilbur’s brother. Even though the son of Yog-Sothoth, the offspring of the nearly omnipotent and omnipresent entity, appears, according to Curtis Whateley, as a creature “‘all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes,'” he, as the reader may speculate, does not equal his father in appearance or being. Contrarily, the brother does not hold any resemblance to a human being either, and as a result, he finds himself lost between the liminal human and the “Olympic.” To bridge the gap, Wilfred, in transforming into a faun, as well catches himself between the Olympic and the Cthonic by possessing the body of a man but the face of a faun with horns and a beard. In Greek Myth, the satyr, the origin of the Roman faun, mimics Pan, god of the Wild, who resembles a man that has horns and the legs of a goat.
From this, we discern that Wilfred acquires the partial appearance of a satyr, which in turn derives from the appearance of a deity. Through this winding route, Wilfred faces the same conundrum that Wilbur’s brother faces by placing himself between the mortal and the immortal creating a confusion of placement and an disequilibrium of the scale. Even though Wilfred encounters a problem with his placement between the Olympic and the Cthonic, he and Dr. Armitage nevertheless find another issue which pertains to familiarity and unfamiliarity. As a result of dealing with the issue of mediation and dwelling poetically, Dr.
Armitage and Wilfred both face the problematic of the native against the foreign. For Armitage, the problem occurs in language and for Wilfred the issue once more lies in his metamorphosis into a faun, or as the old man pronounces the mythical creature, a “farn.” From the context of the language in The Dunwich Horror, the reader understands that Armitage possesses a multitude of knowledge, especially in the realm of language; however, language roots itself in the very problem that Armitage, a librarian, faces when trying to decipher Wilbur’s diary. For the old, erudite librarian to spend months translating only to have the diary “set [him] back” numerous times seems unusual. Furthermore, this problem evolves into something more alien since Armitage assumes that the diary, which he cannot read, uses his native tongue, English.
On that note, what does being put into the foreign by language mean for the human being? Is language, in this way, demonstrating that the human being merely dwells within the temple of language as a humble supplicant? For us to seek these questions, we must look to the diary of Wilbur Whateley which holds many answers in The Dunwich Horror. From the relationship that Armitage holds with this particular notebook, we begin to question our connection with language. On one side, many see language as a servant where we exist as the masters of the tongue; however, others, namely the Twentieth Century philosopher Martin Heidegger, believe that we dwell within the house of language. This humble servitude, perhaps, explains why we cannot always seem to find the right words to utter or the right ones to place onto a piece of paper. In turn, Armitage also faces the same problems and this develops into a correlation between him, Wilbur’s diary, and the language it holds. On my reading, the diary and the language itself put Armitage into the foreign because the contents possess knowledge that goes beyond the human being.
Similarly, it resembles the separation between the human being and the Gods in the sense that the human being does not have the capability, due to the destructive nature of the Immortal, to go up and behold them. In accordance with this, every time Armitage translates more text he elevates himself to a realm of understanding that lets him “comprehend” the matter of the situation. This, however, weakens Armitage, and reflects the condition of the human being when she strives to go beyond language and her place that the cosmos allots to her. While Dr. Armitage contests with the foreign, Wilfred must deal with the issue of a change in identity, a concerning affair for the human being. On the issue of Wilfred turning into a “farn” or faun, I find that it exacerbates the state of his Dionysian enrapturement; however, the “now-time” of kairos catches him in the moment of his drunken phase.
Through this, the kairotic nature of the instant sobers him up enough to realize that a transformation takes place on his physical self. Within that temporal caesura or break, Wilfred, before jumping into a river beholds a reflection of himself, but he does not recognize his face. Instead, Wilfred sees himself as “the face that ha[s] horns and a beard,” the same face he sees on the train ride over to the Van Dyming’s house. For the human being, the face reveals her physical identity as a person but, in an ironic twist, she cannot ever see her own face unless something artificially reflects her image. On this topic of foreignness, is the human being always foreign to herself since she cannot truly come to know who she is? If she does have a glimpse of her reflection and it unveils something different from what she expects, does that truly mean that the reflection is foreign? Or, could that reflection be showing the native that she does not know of, and in that sense making her unfamiliar to her own being? In confronting the difficulty of concluding, both the Dunwich Horror and Black Music help us and the human being to begin to comprehend the issue of foreign and native and katabasis and anabasis. Within the human being lies the poet and the call of the poet exists in mediation for without it, the human being strives too far out of bounds like Phaethon, Armitage, and Wilfred.
To raise an issue for later discovery, is the human being to remain in that liminal space or are we required at times to reach, “outside the lot and plan for mortal human man”?