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Things American: At the Mountains of Loneliness

Jeremy Ricketts via UnsplashI went to the Arctic Circle because of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I went there to work on a novel, too, but I wouldn’t be writing a novel—wouldn’t even still be a writer—without Lovecraft. While in the Arctic, I thought about Cthulhu [1]. I carried a protective charm a friend had stitched for me in case I encountered any Old Ones. I stared into the fissures of three-hundred-foot-tall glaciers and expected to see a tentacle lash out before slithering back into the dark, icy recesses. And every so often, I looked out of the corner of my eye at our expedition’s husky, Nemo, and wondered whether she was really a dog or something much more ancient, sinister, and shapeshifting.

This was last summer. I was thirty-one years old.

Usually, Lovecraft and his curio cabinet of star-spawn terrors drives people away from things (e.g., octopi, small coastal towns, country loners, spectral lights in drinking wells, violin music, the bayou, even legendary books that don’t exist [or do they?] [2]). In my case, when I first read Lovecraft in graduate school, his work scared and scarred me on fundamental levels; thanks to stories like “The Dunwich Horror [3],” I feared what lurked in my dimly lit attic apartment, even though I was the one living there. In the midst of this horror, I also realized I was reading a writer who so deeply charged into the unknown via his work that it became his fiction’s raison d’être—in the introduction to his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature [4],” he famously writes: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” From him, I learned to write about the things that frightened me (even if I didn’t know what exactly frightened me about them). Snake handling, taxidermy, high school. Through his fiction, Lovecraft struck some deep, personal nerve no other writer had previously even tweaked.

That nerve, it turns out, manifested itself in polar exploration and the examination of American loneliness.

In preparation for my three-week fellowship aboard the tall ship Antigua that sailed around Svalbard, Norway as part of The 2015 Arctic Circle Residency Summer Solstice Expedition, I read two works: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez and At the Mountains of Madness [5] by H.P. Lovecraft.

Book jacket of Barry Lopez's "Arctic Dreams"Of Lopez’s many historically- and biologically-centered chapters that detail in extremis everything Canadian Arctic—from muskoxen leaping at low-flying helicopters to the many failed expeditions that tried to find a Northwest Passage—he talks most sublimely about the tundra itself: “[T]his archaic affinity for the land, I believe, is an antidote to the loneliness that in our own culture we associate with individual estrangement and despair.” Lopez believes loneliness (sadness and alienation) is actually self-inflicted by our technologically advanced culture; its panacea is a better understanding of the natural world. I tend to agree. The implication is that we are lonely because we are less connected to our surroundings than ever before; if we could rekindle that primal “affinity for the land,” then we would be less lonely because we would better understand ourselves via our ecological origins.

On the other hand, Lovecraft, in At the Mountains of Madness, creates an enduring mythos of an ancient, evil civilization in Antarctica hidden behind a 40,000-foot-tall mountain range. A geologist, sent to a polar research station, discovers the remnants of this civilization to be architecturally impossible and biologically unidentifiable. In this story, our world is far stranger than anticipated and therefore terrifying because we cannot fathom such historical destabilizations. As a result we are more alone than ever predicted because we are neither the height of civilization nor its end point (see: Elder Things [6], see: Shoggoths [7], see: 2016 Presidential Nominee Cthulhu [8]).

In other words, when these two writers look at a mountain, they both see a geography of the mind. Lopez looks at the mountain and sees a comforting presence that reaffirms his own individual significance because “Our first wisdom as a species […] grew out of such an intimacy with the earth.” Lovecraft looks at the mountain and sees the austere, even disturbing possibilities of what its luminous depths hide, our cosmic insignificance included. On my Arctic Circle expedition, I looked at the mountains that stood in high-spired rows along the snow-covered edges of ice-choked fjords and saw what Lopez saw as well as what Lovecraft saw. The forever known and the unknowable. In the face of this combination, I uncovered a loneliness in myself I had never before understood but had felt all too familiarly at home in the U.S.

A look right now at the Billboard Hot 100 Chart shows these as the top 5 songs in U.S. 1. “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, 2. “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber, 3. “Hello” by Adele, 4. “Stressed Out” by twenty one pilots, 5. “Here” by Alessia Cara. In listening to these songs’ lyrics, I found each one (with perhaps the exception of “Sorry”) addresses loneliness in specific, similar ways: someone’s desire to accept loneliness.

“Sorry”: “Yeah I know that I let you down”

“Love Yourself”: “And now I know, I’m better sleeping on my own”

“Hello”: “Hello from the outside” and “There’s such a difference between us /
And a million miles”

“Stressed Out”: “But now I’m insecure and I care what people think”

“Here”: “I would rather be at home all by myself not in this room /
With people who don’t even care about my well-being”

In comparison, a year ago this week, the top 5 songs were “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift, “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran, and “I’m Not the Only One” by Sam Smith; these songs were more about trying to get together (or back together) with someone (with the exception of “Uptown Funk,” which is just bad middle school poetry with a horn section and a drum machine). Yes, admittedly, this desire to (re)kindle love still deals with loneliness, but it’s a different facet of the same dark gem. And it should go to show us that loneliness as a social concept is all-pervasive in late-date America. Whether it’s avoiding loneliness or accepting it, what we’re worried about finds its way into what we become obsessed with. And it’s not just in songs.

What’s the number one movie right now? The Revenant.

What were some of the most popular movies and books of the past year? The Martian, Wild, Mad Max. Maybe I’m cherry-picking here (clearly, I’m ignoring blockbusters like The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron). Regardless, each of my examples, while not only addressing someone’s need to accept loneliness (they have no other choice, really), also depicts a protagonist at first at odds with a hostile environment: Canadian wilderness, Pacific Crest Trail, Fury Road, Mars. Eventually, each protagonist comes to greatly respect and even use the environment to her or his advantage. It’s in the zeitgeist, this feeling of abandonment or need to abandon. Often the only solution is a return to connecting with the primordial land, acceding to enforced solitude and eventually a deliverance to spiritual ascendance, quieted turmoil, or a larger appreciation for existence. Lopez and Lovecraft hit these same notes with different instruments: awe and respect, wonderment and fear.

Aboard the Antigua, everyone (mostly Americans and other Westerners) was presented with a set of contradictory circumstances: 1) we were completely severed from external communication save an emergency satellite phone, 2) we were witnessing daily sights that dwarfed us physically, temporally, and psychically, and 3) no one was ever really alone. Not in your cabin (bunkmate), not on deck (crew plus twenty-four-hour daylight), and not on land (polar guards and polar bears). Put nearly thirty people (thirty artists, no less) together in a confined space for long enough and everyone—everyone—breaks down at some point. It’s no wonder countless polar explorers have succumbed to madness while trapped in pack ice, leading them to mutiny and murder.

And how couldn’t we lose it a little? According to Michel Houellebecq, in his decisive essay “H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life [9],” Lovecraft’s literature “gives precise and alarming meaning to the celebrated dictum, ‘a deliberate disordering of the senses.’” Our senses were thrown into a similar centrifuge. Twenty-four-hour daylight with ice blink mirages on the horizon? The way someone’s footsteps a hundred feet away sound like they’re right behind you? The actual tear-inducing smell of cold? Tasting a dead glacier? Touching fresh polar bear tracks?

I definitely broke down; on the first day of the journey, I wrote in my notebook: “I am not prepared for this.” I watched others try to come to grips with this anti-aloneness: tears, mental blocks, watching Blues Brothers on repeat. I’ll wager that it wasn’t just because of close quarters. Our stark, Ice Age milieu was revealing our cosmic insignificance. And yet we couldn’t fully inhabit that loneliness, at least while on this expedition. It was like realizing you were incredibly thirsty and then being unable to drink anything for three weeks. But the thing was: we could drink. We could drink up every minute of every hour of every single day. The landscape was there for endless guzzling.

This is, of course, taking on Lopez’s philosophy. And I did not go to the Arctic because of Arctic Dreams.

When I pictured the Arctic, I pictured what Dr. William Dyer, the narrator of At the Mountains of Madness, saw: “On many occasions the curious atmospheric effects enchanted me vastly; these including a strikingly vivid mirage—the first I had ever seen—in which distant bergs became the battlements of unimaginable cosmic castles.” Yes, Mountains takes place in Antarctica rather than the Arctic, but the chilling effect is equivalent and elemental.

The very first glacier we landed next to I couldn’t help but see as the massive gates to some clandestine Cyclopean civilization. And this general sense in me of a darkness looming behind so-and-so ridge or such-and-such crag pervaded. Again, Dyer’s words best capture my impression: “I could not help feeling that they were evil things—mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething, half-luminous cloud-background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial; and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world.” For a man who barely left his hometown of Providence, Lovecraft could describe the polar world with all the creative acumen of a seasoned explorer. I hoped that by going to the Arctic, I could reach this level of ecological expertise and linguistic flair.

One day on the residency, after hiking with a few others up to a coal mine in the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden [10], I stared into the iced-over entrance. I saw not a mine access point but the open maw of a massive, toothed creature on the verge of swallowing me whole. I wanted to run. I wanted to go as deep into the impossible thing as I could. That was what I had come to Svalbard for, wasn’t it? To catalog the unfamiliar? To write the unwrite-able? I’ve shown people pictures of this mouth-like entryway, and while they agree it is certainly creepy, there’s no genuine register for “that blasphemous tunnel with the greasily smooth floors and the degenerate murals aping and mocking the things they had superseded—[we needed to] run back, before we had seen what we did see, and before our minds were burned with something which will never let us breathe easily again!” I tell them: read Lovecraft. They’ll see what I saw.

Lovecraft's "Mountains of Madness" first edition book jacket.One hundred and twenty-six years after his birth, Lovecraft has undergone a tremendous resurrection. And like top 5 pop songs, it’s a reflection of our anxieties, particularly loneliness. We’re afraid of the future (see: apocalypse [11]), we’re afraid of intimacy (see: smartphones [12]), we’re afraid of losing our minds (see: Alzheimer’s [13]). The future, intimacy, and clarity are slippery icicles we try to hold onto. But they’re quickly melting from the ledge of loneliness. When they’ve fallen, what will we have left except that most ancient of fears? Lovecraft’s created mythos speaks to these fears through the lens of the fantastic and the framework of the unimaginable. It’s no coincidence that in a country where the disparity of wealth continues to grow (prompting the question “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” and the worry that intelligence is not the skeleton key to success), there’s the popularity of the occult figure Cthulhu, who, if you were to look upon him [14], would cause you to fall immediately into madness.

It needs to be said that as a writer and person Lovecraft had some tremendous flaws (see: Philip Eil’s excellent Atlantic article [15] on the author’s resurgence). In “the recluse of Providence’s” fiction and correspondence, there’s racism, there’s misogyny, there’s masochism, there’s a general distrust of society. These beliefs served as both boundaries and emotional crucibles for Lovecraft’s work. As Houellebecq writes, “The value of a human being today is measured in terms of economic efficiency and his erotic potential—that is to say, in terms of the two things that Lovecraft most despised.” Money and sex, the decadent reindeer that pull the sleigh of civilization. Lovecraft blatantly ignored them in favor of other, more oneiric muses.

This is all to say: Lovecraft felt very alone in the world, even in his own skin. His one marriage was brief. His one short stint in New York City was a disaster. Returning to Providence, his only joy was books and writing. It’s no wonder his fiction turned to that which explored this loneliness through an investigation of horror with origins alien and depths yet unplumbed.

By visiting the Arctic, I was exposing myself to a unique source of horrific inspiration: witness and write about what scares you. I’ve kept this as a maxim for my writing. Which is what basically led me to write this essay. I’m not pretending to have insightful revelations about the nature of loneliness in today’s culture. If anything, I’m simply trying to acknowledge how ubiquitous it is—our songs, our movies, our books—and how we either confront it, sublimate it, or suppress it. Why it’s everywhere is a topic for another, more knowledgeable essay I’m not prepared to write. Strangely enough, Lovecraft provides a calming excuse for this inability to make sense of everything, via the first line of his seminal work “The Call of Cthulhu [16]”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Not a day goes by that I don’t think back to my fellowship. The glaciers, the wildlife, the lonely mountains. More than once I had the urge to go hiking and never return: not as an escape from world and life, but as an endeavor which would bring me closer to understanding—accepting—loneliness back home in America. Obviously, I came back. But I did begin to feel more passionate about my fears of the unknown, about my specific placement (or lack thereof) in the cosmos. This deepened passion, to me, is a form of lateral acceptance. And every great passion, in the end, will generate an authentic work, will “open up a prospect on eternity [17],” will keep you alive—at least until Cthulhu stops dreaming in R’lyeh [18].

Alexander Lumans was awarded a fellowship to The 2015 Arctic Circle Residency, where he sailed around Svalbard, Norway in a tall ship. He was also the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, among others. He just received the 2015 Wabash Fiction Prize from Sycamore Review. He is an assistant editor of American Short Fiction.