Beauty Through Clark Ashton Smith
While going through my thoughts about angles in which I could present H.P Lovecraft in a unique quality for research, I saw on my desk a copy of The Dark Eidolon, which is a collection of short stories and poems by Clark Ashton Smith (CAS). For those that don’t know, CAS is a lesser-known author to what’s regarded as the Weird Tales trinity consisting of CAS, H.P Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard. The Wikipedia entry on CAS suffices as a good bio for him here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_Ashton_Smith.
CAS and Lovecraft came to be in dialogue often, and while the Old Ones and such are typically regarded as the Lovecraftian mythos, CAS also shares in the world-building credit with people dubbing it the Clark Ashton Smythos. Despite the fact that both Lovecraft and CAS often shared the names of planets, locations, and gods, their writing styles are wildly different, and I would submit that there’s a massive qualitative difference between them as well. CAS writes in a very antiquated style thematically, which seems to be a fusion of verbose Victorian-era prose mixed with Southern Gothic, however it’s difficult to pin down. The man is self educated and began writing in his early teens trying to imitate folk and fairy tales with boundless imagination. Later on at the peak of his short-story writing and poetry (probably late 20s, early 30s), it’s hard to say that he took heavy influence from anybody. He’s regarded as one of the most original and creative writers of the 20th century in Dark Fantasy.
This following account is taken from the Newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society:
Smith’s acquaintance Robert Barlow tried to convert him to socialism. In a letter in 1934 he responded to Barlow’s socialist vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat leading to ultimate freedom: “I simply can’t see the collectivistic idea as anything but a new and particularly odious form of tyranny. If you put everything—property, resources, etc., in the hands of the State, you give the state omnipotent power over the lives and liberties of individuals—and that power will be exercised.” Smith also wrote in 1937 to August Derleth, “I fail to see any particular point of desirability in a dictatorship of the proletariat, and can’t stomach the Soviet materialism, anti-religious bigotry, censorship, regimentation, etc.”
Smith opposed Bolshevism and linked communism with the “insect world.” He aligned himself with the rebellious spirit of an artist, and while having no religious beliefs himself, criticized the Russian communist government’s oppression of religion. He told Barlow that “[a]ny system of government that can’t stand honest criticism and opposition is strictly n[o] g[ood] in my opinion. To hell with it. You may argue that censorship and the other rigors are only temporary, and necessary for the establishment of the new regime; but I’m damned if I can subscribe to any regime that would find them necessary.”
CAS is heavily esoteric even on the most superficial level. Whether he is writing about phantoms or sorcerers, he’s rarely utilizing fantasy for suspense or plot mechanics. He’s always trying to represent the eternal aspects of archetypal phantasmagorical elements, and tends to personify or deify perennial substances, such as nature or eternity.
The core reason that these three works were selected is that each one of them is the exploration of Beauty, but more importantly in how it’s always fleeting and elusive to CAS. He uses different literary tropes to further display this point, however it is clear that while CAS does regard Beauty as a type of sacred or higher Form, it’s elusive and often hidden. Whether he feels that this is universal to mankind or it’s a personal expression as an artist isn’t necessarily clear, however it would seem that he suggests the former to be true.
The Form of Beauty
This article will give a subjective account of how CAS explores the concept of Beauty across three of his works. While nearly all of his works are available online, as they are mostly in the public domain, they will be provided further into this article. This author is viewing the works in a collection named The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies. The collection is split into three sections. Short stories, prose poems, and poetry. One of each of these styles has been selected to explore how CAS explores the Form of Beauty, as he has several pieces specifically dedicated to it. All of the works linked to being examined all take ten minutes or less to read thoroughly.
The first archetypal set we are presented with is the left and right hand path. This occult dichotomy is the two paths of magic one can partake of, or be subject to. The left hand path is widely attributed to being black magic, and thus malicious and harmful, and can be associated with the carnal lower-mundane realm of being. The right-hand path is consistent with virtue, holiness, the mind-body-soul trinity, and the higher realm. The poem is a dialogue between a person in search of Beauty, and proceeds to ask the demon on the left of his hand, and the angel to his right afterwards.
The first thing to be noted here are certain words that CAS capitalizes outside of any grammatical norms, and that they are in regard to experience. CAS uses odd capitalization often to morph the word into a personification or ideal frequently through his works, thus one must give a careful eye to his prose.
- Beauty (whom is seemingly personified)
These terms are capitalized to convey that they are Forms in the Platonic context. The highest representation of their potential meaning. This places the terms in the most ultimate sense in how they interface with each other. For example, a mystery in time would be in reference to any mystery, at a set point in time. Mystery being signified in the capital, along with Beauty, suggests that it is regarded to as the highest mystery in Time, or throughout all time.
In examining the Demon’s response to the person’s question as to where Beauty is, the Demon is expectedly pessimistic.What’s interesting is the Demon’s admission to the concept and prior belief in the potential existence of Beauty, stating “Aeons ago, when I was young and incautious, when the world was new and bright, and there were more stars than now, I, too, was attracted by this Mystery, and sought after it in all accessible spheres.” Also make note of the Demon stating that “…there be greater adumbrations of some transcendent Mystery than here, yet have I never seen that Mystery itself…” When combining the descriptor of Beauty as an adumbration, however in a skeptical or negative sense. One may think of it being a murky haze that plays tricks on one, yet never realized. As the Demon’s failure in finding the Mystery of Beauty continues, he states “…I soon grew wear of embracing its shadows, and took to the pursuit of illusions less insubstantial.” This suggests that not only does the Demon accept the premise of Beauty, but he also give it its proper and deserved weight as a transcendent higher Form, though in his pessimism and failure in finding it, the Demon concludes that Beauty indeed, does not exist.
The person then consults the Angel at his right hand, or rather examines the right-hand path in finding the Form of Beauty. What’s furthermore interesting is that even the Angel doesn’t truly understand Beauty, although similar to the Demon, give Beauty its proper weight as a higher Form. Unsurprisingly, the Angel paints it in much more glowing and optimistic terms, stating, “ …this Mystery is a topic of the most frequent and sublime speculation among the archangels, and a perennial theme for the more inspired singers and harpists of the cherubim-yea, despite all this, we are greatly ignorant as to its true nature, and substance, and attributes.”
A correlation between the Angel, the Demon, and the person, or rather the left-hand and right-hand path one can choose, is that all three of these subjects see Beauty skewed by some adumbrations, whether out of ignorance in the person’s understanding, negatively and skeptically in the demon’s, and positively and wondrous in the Angel’s. The Angel’s perspective is much more curt and short however, and provides a conclusive answer to the person’s question of Beauty however. The Angel states, “And because it remains a mystery to us, to whom naught else is mysterious except God, we conjecture that it is the thing upon which God meditateth, self-obscured and centred, and because of which He hath held Himself immanifest to us for so many aeons: that this is the secret which God keepeth even from the seraphim.”
His conclusion is rather on-the-nose in how it’s portrayed in the poem, but despite that, Beauty as a Form still remains the poem’s “Mystery”, even though we are told that it is God’s Mystery, and thus no matter how clearly we state that it is a mystery of God, we will never know the raw form of Beauty due to the nature and concept of God.
In this tale, we are presented with the tragedy of Malygris, a dark occultist and necromancer in the twilight of his life that, in his youth and prime, dominated kings and lords and entire lands with his black magic. In his high tower, he ruminates upon his past deeds and conquests which earned him his splendors, and finally his mind sets to an old love of his whom died of fever in years past named Nyrissa. Malygris then decides that we will invoke a life-like image of Nyrissa and then attempts to consult Viper on his design.
Viper, the aptly named viper whom Malygris attempts to consult, at first only placates Malygris and reminds him that he (Malygris) is indeed all powerful in the dark arts. Viper does not answer further questioning from Malygris, whom then proceeds to summon Nyrissa.
We are then shown the ultimate tragedy of the tale. While Malygris does succeed through his mastery of the occult to reanimate a shade of Nyrissa as she was, in all her beauty, we see a vexed and distraught Malygris, who is puzzled by his doubt in the animated phantom of Nyrissa. He examines her features and wonders if the flaw was in his magic or his memory, and consequently the distressed Malygris in another incantation, casts away the phantom of his prior love and turns to Viper, whom finally imparts to him the serpentine wisdom that Malygris sought beforehand.
‘It was indeed Nylissa whom you summoned and saw,’ replied the viper. ‘Your necromancy was potent up to this point; but no necromantic spell could recall for you your own lost youth or the fervent and guileless heart that loved Nylissa, or the ardent eyes that beheld her then. This, my master, was the thing that you had to learn.’
Again we are shown the elusive nature of beauty, however in a different fleeting nature. While in the previous work The Demon, the Angel, and Beauty, it was examined from the external nature of beauty as a mysterious experience in which can only be captured through the mysterious nature of God, yet actually existing in the realm of reality. In The Last Incantation, beauty is toiled with in the internal nature of experience and memory. Malygris did indeed summon Nyrissa as she herself was, divorced from everything else that made Nyrissa exist as Nyrissa, however through the dark arts of Malygris, he was able to isolate merely Nyrissa. What the viper let Malygris experience through his failure is that Nyrissa was Nyrissa in the youth of Malygris, which was at a certain point in time which he did not recreate. He did not recreate his old self to experience Nyrissa the way he used to. The zeitgeist in which they both existed in at that point-in-time of Malygris’ positive memories is long gone. The viper thus is correct in letting Malygris fail, and that Nyrissa was only the Nyrissa that was a being in time, a certain time which is far past.
This general notion is fascinating and imperative to explore and understand, for it applies to all forms of experience. The person whom one hated in one’s youth may not warrant that same hate as one becomes an adult, and maybe the experiences one has through being in time will eliminate whatever warranted ones hate from that period in time. The same can be true for love, inspiration, and obviously beauty, as we learned from the tragedy of Malygris.
This lesson is also applicable to the current political zeitgeist as well. When the center drops out, many people seem to long for a past that’s either real or imagined, or a future far different from now, however it seems many people are getting caught in the same trap as Malygris in the tale. When romanticizing an old time or movement and longing for it in the present, one can only recreate some of the circumstances, but not the entirety of it. It becomes a simulacrum. Trying to create a reality of an image, which that image is a recreation of another time as well, from another time. A simulacrum of a simulacrum, layered in which it devolves the dreamer into a fantasy that can only exist in the ideal and in rhetoric. You can see this in some young people, who want something that they saw on a rerun of Happy Days, which is a portrayal of an already idealized 1950’s done in the 1980’s. The layers of simulacrum become absurd to the point of being totally non-functional if it were to even come close to being manifest.
While it may be a generous reference, it may be instructive to become familiarized with Jacques Derrida’s concept of Hauntology, in which the entry linked states:
“The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by a deferred non-origin, represented by “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive.”
It’s been further applied through the concept of “lost futures”, in which a population can no longer imagine what a future could look like, and thus is trapped in drawing from the past in an attempt to revive it due to the current structure not being able to decay enough for new structure to erect, primarily in reference to neoliberal global capitalism, however aptly placed elsewhere. It seems there’s a collective unconscious similar to the desire’s of Malygris, whom in using their dark magic (memes), they’ve whisked together a fantasy taken to be plausible.
I dreamed that each most lovely, perfect thing
That nature hath, of sound and form and hue—
The winds, the grass, the light-concentering dew,
The gleam and swiftness of the sea-bird’s wing;
Blueness of sea and sky, and gold of storm
Transmuted by the sunset, and the flame
Of autumn-colored leaves, before me carne,
And, meeting, merged to one diviner form.
Incarnate Beauty ’twas, whose spirit thrills
Through glaucous ocean and the greener hills,
And in the cloud-bewildered peaks is pent.
Her face the light of fallen planets wore,
But as I gazed, in doubt and wonderment,
Mine eyes were dazzled, and I saw no more.
It would do well to conclude with this short poem, as CAS clearly demonstrates what he finds Beauty to be. First note both the title of the poem and the first line, where Beauty is dreamed. While this could be in reference to a dream experienced in sleep or a daydream, it would probably be best to view this as Beauty in the ideal, signified by the previous sentences capitalizes Beauty. Once again it seems in the eyes of CAS that mankind can, whether externally or internally, only capture the ideal Form of Beauty in its fleeting nature, as explored in the previous works. The circumstances and frameworks in which allow the beautiful to be beautiful are always in flux, yet humanity tries to view what is beautiful in static terms. It may endure for a time in a static representation, but Beauty is betwixt with the all-powerful existential nature of God, which is stated one way or another in the last line of the first stanza.
This work was chosen to augment the first two, which explored the Form of Beauty in a much more intricate demonstration. This is the bow upon CAS’ view, and though he may not be formally religious, clearly he sees that mankind is beholden to a universal hierarchy from a divine aspect that is analogous to God. In nearly every single story he writes, the perennial is present and explored. His prose, imagination, and values are all unique and indicative to his individualist nature, but at his core he has a reverence for the perennial as to be explored and held up, despite doing it his own way. While CAS may always remain in the shadow of H.P Lovecraft, his work is beyond value and should be respected and enjoyed by all as a window into the beautiful, so they may catch his ever-elusive goddess of Beauty.