Thoughts Concerning A Decadent Univers

Thomas Ligotti

There is some engaging quality about a volume of decadent poetry—or, more precisely, the idea of such a volume—that is suggestive of the forbidden book in its truest form: not simply a book that is outlawed by social propriety or legal statute, but one that in some way should not even exist, except perhaps in the manner of a myth or a dream. H. P. Lovecraft, who in his letters drew many readers' attention to The Book of Jade, invented a fascinating instance of the decadent poetry collection as a forbidden book in the form of The People of the Monolith, by the "notorious Baudelairean poet" Justin Geoffrey, which figures incidentally in 'The Thing on the Doorstep' and was perhaps inspired by David Park Barnitz's volume. As usual with bibliographic impostors of this type, the actual substance of The People of the Monolith is, as they say, left to the reader's imagination, which in this case (and possibly all others) is a completely false conception, since the whole allure of these works is that they are quite impossible to imagine in a conventional sense. One does not mentally compose a single imaginary phrase that might belong to this slim or massive text, and certainly one cannot even begin to conceive the guiding concepts behind this or any other volume that could be said to revel in an ideal blasphemy, an ideal degeneracy, and an ideal forbiddeness. And yet, whenever the title of a book like The People of the Monolith is mentioned in a story, or perhaps overhead in dream conversation, some peculiar sensations do begin to simmer within the reader (or the eavesdropping dreamer): something happens which is less like the workings of the imagination than it is a surge of wordless, pictureless pleasure or pain... if not a state which moves beyond any common terms of physical and emotional sensation.

In his ghost story 'The Turn of the Screw,' Henry James deliberately withheld any particulars of what his child characters were up to with the spirits of Quint and Jessel, thereby, according to James's scheme, leading the reader to "think the evil." This device has often enough worked effectively, for James and others, but not because it arouses any special "thoughts" in a reader. After all, if something can in fact be confronted as a mere mental phenomenon, whether as an abstract idea or a scene inside the skull, then there cannot be very much to it, at least in the context of a literary work (a point that James himself makes just before turning full about and going on to talk about making the reader think certain thoughts—some probably nasty and others merely naughty). When James used the phrase to "think the evil," he may have meant to "think the unthinkable," or rather to confront the reader's mind with its very incapacity to think the unthinkable, to imagine the unimaginable, to name the unnameable, with the consequence that in such a position that the mind is sadistically blocked off from every known avenue of light and order and is forced into a wonderful blackness or given a glimpse of apocalyptic panic.

Details serve to settle the mind, while their deprivation unnerves it. And ultimately this must be the point of a forbidden book, which a little more than a century ago began to appear in the form of certain volumes of decadent poetry.

It was the distinctive manner of the fin de siecle to supply readers not with details but with hints—secret sins, impossible desires, a glorious or gruesome blur of synaesthetic heavens and hells. This manner is shared alike by decadent poetry and supernatural horror stories, both of which were of course instigated in their purest and most potent forms by Poe. His were the first modern works whose central purpose was to stultify the brain with the blackness of the unthinkable rather than enlighten it by way of lucidity, to arouse with the panic of the unimaginable rather than soothe with all the well-reckoned nonsense that had been in vogue for so many centuries. Since that time of a little more than a hundred years ago there have been many more artistic attempts along the same lines as decade by decade the unthinkable became a familiar mode of experience, the natural reaction to the unimaginable confrontation that takes place with ever greater frequency in the world within ourselves as well as the world around us—a world which, we seem to be realizing, should not even exist except perhaps in the manner of a myth or a dream.

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