Weird or What? The Nautical and the Hauntological

David Punter

David Punter

In 2008, China Miéville published an essay titled ‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire: Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?’. In this confusingly named piece of work, he attempts to draw a sharp distinction between the Weird and the hauntological.

To simplify a complex argument, he suggests that the hauntological is continuously marked by the ghost, the revenant, the return; whereas the Weird “is not the return of any repressed”; citing one of his main points of reference, Lovecraft, he claims that “Cthulhu is less a ghost than the arche-fossil-as-predator. The Weird is if anything ab-, not uncanny.”

We can certainly agree that Cthulhu is not a ghost; on the contrary, he has an all too present materiality, although this materiality can be seen as weird by virtue of its insistent amorphousness.

That this lack of shape has an extraordinary cultural relevance is evidenced not only by the remarkably uncompelling shape in which Lovecraft visually represents him/it, but also by the ways in which Cthulhu has become adaptable to such a broad variety of forms, ranging at the farthest extreme to little girls’ school bags.

We can probably also agree with Miéville that the label ‘ghost story’ is radically overused; many of what we call ghost stories do not contain ghosts, including those by another of Miéville’s major reference points, M.R. James, where most of the manifestations, in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” or “The Ash-Tree” for example, are not ghosts but, to use an equally conventional term, monsters.

But here is the cultural rub: for the idea of the ghost has pedigree, it has status, it belongs, in one way or another, to the realm of the spiritual, of psyche, whereas the poor old monster limps or scuttles along behind burdened with the residue of the physical, abject where the ghost is supernatural; the monster is below, the ghost is above.

Both may speak to our passions; but the monster, in one reflection of the term ‘passion,’ is all too capable of suffering, whereas the ghost is beyond all suffering. Indeed the ghost suffers us on its interminable terrain.

For Miéville, the archetype of the monster, perhaps surprisingly, is the cephalopod, and he gives any number of reasons for this, but here is where we need to think a little further into his assumptions: “The spread of the tentacle – a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in ‘Western’ aesthetics) – from a near total absence in Dollars-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth-century, to one of being the near default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture.”

However, this is hardly true, or at least a far from exhaustive truth: Norse legends of the Kraken, or the Greek account of Scylla, both appear to be versions of the cephalopod, the dreaded giant squid that was, it is true, later adapted by Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1870).

But what Miéville is making of this is not only, or most interestingly, a distinction between the hauntological (the phantomatic, the revenant, the reminder, often with moral inflections) and the Weird (the utterly strange, the unmotivated, the unexpected), but also a fissure in the term ‘uncanny.’ Where we are accustomed, ever since Freud, to thinking of the uncanny as that which has at least some dealing with the familiar, the Weird has more to do with the ‘ab-canny’ – which Miéville does not define, but which we might assume to be that which pertains to a realm which is altogether non-human, a mystery that cannot be allayed by psychological acumen, philosophical reflection or ethical righteousness.

We might helpfully – or possibly unhelpfully – connect this with psychologists’ ideas on the reptilian brain, which has been said to lie at the base of physical brain structure and thus, we might say metaphorically, at the base of mental activity – and what follows from this seems appropriate to any consideration of the Weird, because the assumption would have to be that the non-human lies at the base of, is deeply embedded within, all those activities that we consider to be human.

We know this, of course, in terms of the primacy of instinct and reflex action; but perhaps we do not always accept that the ab-human, the monstrous, is far from being a side-effect of our humanising categories, but rather underlies them. The monster, we might say, always comes first, a possibility which, of course, terrifies Victor Frankenstein, whether he is considering the monstrousness of his creature or that other monstrousness which he comes to half-admit might underlie his own actions.

And the monster comes first because it is the monster that lies across the boundaries of what we might consider to be human; it is through the monster that we encounter definitions of what might be viable human life.

The medical profession, of course, is involved with these decisions constantly: in pre-birth diagnosis; at the point of birth, where what has organic coherence and what might be taken to be (abjected) as waste material has to be the object of discrimination; and in the contemplation of physical damage and trauma, where what can be saved and what cannot is critical. Teratology is now the monstrous child of medicine, as it used to be the province of witches, seers, oracles, healers of all stripes. Or, indeed, of the proprietors of fairgrounds, freak shows, circuses – one of the most remarkable novels relevant here is Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (1989), which centrally concerns the supply of monsters for display (monsters to be ‘demonstrated’) through the manipulation of drug supply to a pregnant woman.

But my main thoughts here are not about monsters in general, but about what might be implied by the specific monstrosity of those with Miéville’s “tentacles”; for these monsters come from the sea, whether it in the scenario of Lovecraft’s half-submerged seaport towns, in the shape of William Hope Hodgson’s derelict ships encrusted with a totally strange form of life, or in the wake of the strange, hopping thing that follows his unfortunate protagonist along the beach, over the breakwaters and eventually onto land and even into the apparently safe confines of the hotel bedroom.

At the moment, there is a great deal of critical activity about what is being termed the ‘nautical Gothic,’ although this is a term that may need to be rethought. ‘Nautical’ is itself always an unstable term; although it refers to the oceans, it does so through the lens of the telescope, the apparatus of the sextant, the rhetoric and vocabulary of navigation.

It may appear interchangeable with cognate terms like ‘maritime’ or ‘marine’; but ‘maritime’ carries inevitable connotations, not of the sea itself, but of the uses to which the sea may be put – trade, piracy, defence, while ‘nautical’ returns us to the sailor’s perception. Perhaps ‘marine,’ then, is the most appropriate of the three terms, conveying most clearly the ‘otherness’ of the sea, the ways, increasingly limned by studies in the ‘blue humanities,’ in which it is resistant to human habitation – as of course, in its depths, it remains resistant to human exploration. We know less of the deep oceans, it is sometimes said, than we do of certain reaches (admittedly comparatively local) of outer space.

Another term, amid these voices calling from the deep, clamours for our attention, which is ‘coastal.’ Such an innocuous term, redolent on the one hand of seaside resorts, safe beaches, holidays; on the other of nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, untroubled bird life. However, the coastal, we might say, is becoming the very site of danger, in fantasy but also in reality. In some parts of the United Kingdom – East Anglia or Dorset, for example – we are used to a continuing process of erosion, and in Dorset it is hardly accidental that we have named part of the coastline ‘Jurassic,’ exposing under geological morphing, as it so frequently does, the fragments and relics of reptilian monsters from another, ab-human era.

However, where is the coast – or rather, where will it be? Our problems of flooding in the United Kingdom may be comparatively minor, and to a large extent manmade. On the Somerset Levels, for example, we may complain of the collapse of house prices as well as of some of the houses themselves, but the Levels are, of course, below ‘sea level’: water they were, and to water they will undoubtedly return – their temporary elevation is only the result of manmade defences, put in repeatedly since the Iron Age, in part to protect and exploit salt deposits.

Their being-as-land is the outcome of mercantilist practices. But elsewhere in the world, the threat of the return of the ocean is far more vivid – when for example a severe tidal wave, not quite a tsunami, hit the Maldives twenty years ago, forty islands vanished.

Vanished islands are the stuff of terror (although these particular islands were uninhabited), but also the stuff of fantasy; how many versions of Atlantis, we in the West have continually asked ourselves, will sink beneath the waves, and what kinds of creature will stalk through the destroyed columns, the fallen masonry? Well, perhaps in particular (again in fantasy) those creatures who appear equally at home on land and in water, the entirely Other as represented by the crab and the octopus, which returns us in part to the cephalopod or at least to a creature defined by appendages, limbs which are inconsistent with the human or even the mammalian world.

If it true that we (humans) have always been scared of what might come from the sea, then this might actually be seen as a cardinal example of the conflation, the inseparability of the Weird and the hauntological, for although what might emerge, dripping and incomprehensibly gesticulating, at low tide might appear to be the totally Other, it might also have the contours of a half-recognisable self, and thus relate to the feared revenant; for did we not all come from the sea, and I mean that in two senses: first in terms of the continual maritime processes – boatbuilding, navigation, barter – by which humans have travelled for so long, such that, for example, Polynesian influence in the south of Taiwan, or rather the island of Formosa is still so evident, but also in terms of our putative species origin in the waters. The (Weird) assertion of difference might say, ‘We have no gills.’ The (hauntological) assertion of repetition and return might say, ‘We had gills once; where have they gone, and how might we mourn them?’

What continues to live in the deep is irrecoverable, that much we know: the statistics of atmospheric pressure exercise their own power of forbidding, their apparently inexorable command what will forever maintain a separation of realms, a division of powers. Yet what lives in the deep is also continually invading, or at least on the brink of an invasion: we see it in dream, in those half-formed images that can never be brought into sharp focus, we see it on the maps of many centuries, where sea-monsters and marine dragons find themselves inserted, brought under temporary control, to fill in the blank spaces of our imaginations.

“Those are pearls that were his eyes,” as Shakespeare has it; in place of the unmatched power and beauty of sight, of vision, there comes a different power and beauty, a different treasure. The eye opens, the eye is opened; the pearl is secreted, it develops inclosure. “Of his bones are coral made”; not biologically true, of course, but coral has its own grandeur, its own magnificence, not least in terms of the contrast (a contrast that we might justly call sublime) between the minuteness of the sea-creature itself and the size and scope of the structures which it creates and has created across the span of many centuries, millennia. But there is no coral reef without its own dangers, perhaps its own terrors: sharks, of course, but also the slowly opening and closing giant clams which signify, in our imaginations, an ‘other’ life that could bite off our own limbs – a secreting mechanism, to put it in Freud’s terms, which could also be a castrating mechanism.

What is at the bottom of the sea? Sunken ships, emblems of our daring and our doom; treasure, our hope accompanied by our fear of its ab-human guardians; nematode worms, a form of life that can survive in temperatures and other conditions that we cannot imagine; drowned men and women, victims of tempest and giant wave, or thrown overboard from slavery’s ships, or killed in maritime battle, or (in our imaginations) seized from the deck by the tentacles of the giant squid. All of them relics, just as we try to see the ‘other’ inhabitants of the sea as relics, as mere ancestors of ourselves, precursors of the realm of human, enlightened reason.

But what would it mean if this were not true, if the sea will indeed reclaim its own, if the oceans (and therefore, perhaps, their inhabitants) are coming for us? Would we then have faith in our scientific foreknowledge, and what would it have us do? As I write, Houston (ironically, of course, the hub of precisely that exploration of deep space so frequently held up as a success story as opposed to our attempts to ‘get to grips’ with the gripless depths of the ocean) is under water; it was known that the storm was coming (although not its exact ferocity), yet we neglected to enact the classic symbolic mode of defence. We failed to build an Ark, trusting instead in what appeared to be tried methods of survival.

I want by way of conclusion to return to Miéville’s notion of the ‘ab-canny.’ Building as it does on Kristeva’s ‘abjection’ and Hodgson’s ‘abhuman,’ there are nevertheless so many ways other in which this could be played with. We might think for example, of the ‘abyss,’ a term so often used of the deep oceans. Or we might conjure up the ‘abactinal,’ a term that refers to a distance from ‘rays.’ What are these rays, we might ask? Are they, for example, the rays that structured the fantasy life of Freud’s Judge Schreber, penetrating and altering his physical body at every point, rendering him monstrous? No, these are rays that have to with ‘the region of the mouth and tentacles of Anthozoa.’ And after again rediscovering the tentacular, what, we might ask, are anthozoa? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, they are that class of creature that includes, among others, the corals.

And so in these unplumbed depths (‘unplumbed’ meaning, of course, also ‘unleaded,’ and thus by a possible metaphorical extension ‘unpolluted,’ except that we know that by now serious pollution has struck the reefs), we come full circle. In the depths we find reflections of ourselves, the abhuman made over by a ceaseless process of anthropomorphisation into the human; but we simultaneously find resistant material, pearls substituted for eyes – exchange value, of course, to cite Marx, for use value. Is the Weird so different from the hauntological, or are these utter strangenesses of the seabed coterminous with the utter strangenesses in our own minds? Or to put it another way, wherein these lands of fantasy can we see clearly?

Diving on these reefs of imagination can be dangerous: not because of any creatures we might find there, but because of our own vision. The real problem is not the Other; it is our very own visionary parallax, that curious distortion of sight that means that what we might see (from above the surface) as, for example four feet deep is in fact twelve feet deep, well beyond, in some circumstances, a distance of safety. In searching for pearls, it may well be our own eyes that betray us, our own vision that is haunted as we dive for the Weird.

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