Transcending Pickman’s Frames

“Pickman’s Model” is not a dream vision. However, it invokes the image of the dream in a way that sets it parallel to the other framing devices of interest to the story: paintings and photography.

This story is structurally a bit of a departure for Lovecraft, since it is told almost as a dramatic monologue, with the first-person narrator, Thurber, describing some experiences to a listener, Eliot. In the process, Thurber defends his decision to stop socializing with Pickman, and is very firm that it was not a moral objection to Pickman’s subject matter.

It is crucial that Pickman is a painter, because paintings are artifice, isolated from reality literally by the frame (either in the form of the edges of the canvas itself or by that and the addition of a physical picture frame) and figuratively by being an invented image. Thurber asserts himself sophisticated enough that he is adamant he does not condemn Pickman on moral grounds for subject matter, which reinforces his belief in this division of painted horrors from the real world. Paintings are fancies, they are dreams, so they do not matter in a way that requires moral condemnation. Thurber asserts part of his aesthetic theory here:

You know, in ordinary art, there’s all the difference in the world between the vital, breathing things drawn from Nature or models and the artificial truck that commercial small fry reel off in a bare studio by rule. Well, I should say that the really weird artist has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in. Anyhow, he manages to turn out results that differ from the pretender’s mince-pie dreams in just about the same way that the life painter’s results differ from the concoctions of a correspondence-school cartoonist.

In particular, notice the words vision and dream in this passage, and the way vision implies something more true than dream, for that odd definition of ‘true’ whose more optimistic usage we inherit through Emily Dickinson and John Keats and others – artistic truth. The idea of some dreams being valid and others false dates back at least to Homer, who describes the gates of horn and ivory through which dreams descend. True dreams enter our realm through the gate of horn, and false through the gate of ivory.

For Thurber, visions are created by true artists, great visionaries, and mere craftsmen create dreams. Even in our own contemporary conversation, consider the difference in tone and meaning between ‘visionary’ and ‘dreamer’.

The thing is, as much as Thurber respects visions more than dreams, he considers that both are fictions. The figurative frame “painting” provides a buffer for Thurber between the subject of the painting and what he considers real. This should inspire anxiety in the seasoned reader of Lovecraft, since several of his other stories argue that dreams are real, that in dreaming you simply achieve an extra-dimensional perception of things that are present always and everywhere, even though you cannot see them.

Some kinds of painting are more realistic (as distinct from real) than others, as in the passage above. The realist paints from life models, photographs, etc, and attempts to depict some curated subset of reality as closely as possible, where the fantasist invents whimsical, disturbing, unrealistic images from the imagination and renders them concrete on canvas. One of the reasons that Thurber had continued socializing with Pickman even after many others had stopped, was his conviction that Pickman must be a fantasist, who conjured horrors from his fancy – that Pickman’s visions were nevertheless fictions, however visionary.

That conviction shatters:

It was not any mere artist’s interpretation that we saw; it was pandemonium itself, crystal clear in stark objectivity. That was it, by heaven! The man was not a fantaisiste or romanticist at all—he did not even try to give us the churning, prismatic ephemera of dreams, but coldly and sardonically reflected some stable, mechanistic, and well-established horror-world which he saw fully, brilliantly, squarely, and unfalteringly.

At this point, though, being a realist could just mean Pickman is that much more disturbed, that he wishes to impose the TECHNIQUES of realism on his horrific fantasies; since Thurber has already asserted he doesn’t care one way or the other about Pickman’s moral failings, the possibility that Pickman is more disturbed than he previously seemed doesn’t cause Thurber to falter for long. He can still reassure himself that Pickman is creating fictions, even if he uses real men and dogs and places as models.

Pickman’s use of photographic models hints at further degeneration in the effectiveness of frames as a way to create distance between horror and reality. But at least photographs are curated – you don’t get the WHOLE truth from a photograph. Within the frame of a photograph light and shadow can distort truth, and of course just outside the boundary of the picture might lurk some image that changes the meaning entirely. And, again, Pickman can be using the features of a man or a dog or a building and imposing them on some context other than that which they inhabit by nature. So Thurber continues along his path, still confident that Pickman is a moral degenerate genius painter, intent on upsetting the viewer of his works, but nevertheless crafting fictions, however ingenious.

The final fact that convinces Thurber to avoid not just Pickman, but also all underground places like the subway and basements, is the revelation that the photograph shows the complete image of Pickman’s painting in progress,
not just some element of it waiting to be inserted into its gothic context. Thurber is broken by the destruction of the final frame, the final belief that divides horror from truth.

Thurber had persisted in his friendship because he was convinced that Pickman’s images were dream visions. His departure from the friendship occurs when he learns the truth that Pickman’s horrors are real. When all the frames break, so does Thurber.

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Hypnosis and Higher Math

The narrator in “From Beyond,” comes to wish that he could believe his doctors.

I did not tell very much of what I had seen, for I feared the coroner would be skeptical; but from the evasive outline I did give, the doctor told me that I had undoubtedly been hypnotized by the vindictive and homicidal madman.
I wish I could believe that doctor. It would help my shaky nerves if I could dismiss what I now have to think of the air and the sky about and above me. I never feel alone and comfortable […]

It’s critical that he should “never feel […] comfortable” because that’s a key part of the Gothic project that Lovecraft pursues. The Gothic, among other things, attempts to undermine the things and ideas that give us comfort. Ghosts, for example, fulfill this purpose in at least three ways:

  • Dead things are not supposed to have agency at all, let along malevolent agency
  • We prefer to think of our dead loved ones as benevolent
  • The presence of dangerous ghosts means that these souls did not go to Heaven – what if there is no such place?

In “From Beyond” this Gothic project is expressed explicitly in the narrator’s wish that he could believe his experience to have been induced hypnotically, which would relegate the extradimensional monsters to the realm of dreams. The alternative, which he feels obliged to believe, is that these creatures are real, and constantly around us, and that only their (and to a lesser extent our) inability to perceive beyond certain geometrical/geographical dimensions prevents them from making us their helpless prey.

Consequently, the alternatives are

  1. We share our waking world with unimaginable horrors, and we must be very cautious not to learn too much mathematics lest we accidentally expose ourselves to their influence, or
  2. The dream world, which in “Polaris” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” have been viewed as better than the waking world, is in fact the home of these unimaginable horrors, so we must be careful about sleeping.

Notice how these options undermine OTHER concepts in which we take comfort: knowledge and its pursuit should lead to progress, not peril; sleep should be rejuvenating, not dangerous.

It gets even worse, though. In “The Dreams in the Witch House,” the extradimensional space that hosts the horrors is directly associated with dreaming, so we are denied even the illusion of alternatives.

When the Dreamlands are better

I really need to account for Lovecraft’s treatment of dreams for this larger project about latter-day dream visions. Since there’s quite a lot of Lovecraft, in addition to looking at the particular Gaiman-introduced volume of Lovecraft’s dream stories, I’ve been asking around for recommendations.

In particular, for this project, I need texts that either

  • follow a Waking – Dreaming – Waking structure explicitly, in which the main thrust of the story is in the Dreaming section, or
  • somewhere in the course of the story hint at the idea that this might all have been a dream.

I was pretty confident that whatever stories settled out of my inquiries, they would be creepy. My job is to figure out how.

One such inquiry netted me

  • Polaris
  • Beyond the Wall of Sleep
  • From Beyond
  • The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath

It’s not entirely clear that these all fit my paradigm, but it’s a good place to start, anyhow.

So far I’ve spent some careful time reading “Polaris” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” and they both fit, in their way, into my project.

In both of these stories, Lovecraft undermines the idea that waking is real and dreaming is fake by presenting a dreamland that is preferable to wakefulness and explicitly questioning which state is real. In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” he even associates the dissonance with madness – the dreamer can’t endure being restrained by the waking world, and he ends up in an institution where the narrator, an intern, comes to experience a similar dream life.

In “Polaris” the dreamer dreams of his responsibility to defend a perfect nation and considers his wakeful life to be an abrogation of that responsibility.

These two stories also demonstrate the two poles of Lovecraft’s racism spectrum: He fears invasion and infiltration by outsiders, by foreigners, which is typical of his fear of miscegenation; but he also looks down on inbred hillfolk, so he fears the logical consequences of his xenophobia.

Next I need to reread “From Beyond” and “Dream Quest.” If I remember correctly, these are both stories in which figures from the Dreamlands influence the waking world?

After the Silent Planet

The closing section of Out of the Silent Planet supports my dream project. After an anxious, nearly-unsuccessful trip home through space, Ransom awakens alone in the space capsule, which he promptly leaves behind. There’s no need for him to confirm his experience with Weston and Divine, which leaves open the possibility that he has been dreaming without forcing him to face that possibility directly. Similarly, rather than witnessing the dissolution of the space capsule, which would confirm his experience as real, he leaves the landing site behind and resumes his walk-about. He sees a flash of light and assumes this is the expected un-bodying of the capsule, but he does not investigate or confirm it. This allows him to continue believing in the reality of his experiences on Malachandra while leaving room for the possibility of dreaming.

The final, extranarrative section of the book, in which the Lewis narrator interjects his own voice, supplements the very brief events that conclude the adventure itself and offers some guidelines, in the form of an epistolary debaat between Ransom and Lewis, about what themes they consider most important. In particular, Ransom laments the need to truncate the description of his philological work when composing the story, but acknowledges that the truncation is useful in support of more important issues.

I’m thinking at this point about Russell’s book The English Dream Vision, which takes a deconstructive approach to dream visions, concluding that several of them are about discourse itself. Lewis is careful to set the issue of philology itself as secondary, allowing readers to focus on the lessons Ransom learns by exercising the tools of philology rather than on the process or the resulting glossaries.

Of particular interest to me is Ransom’s insistence, in this post-narrative text, that the inhabitants of Malachandra are not homogeneous, that, for example, Hrossa come in many colors and live in many places. He insists that he has not seen enough of Malachandra or the cultures and species it hosts for his experience to be representative.

We are warned not to be distracted by our tools, and not to overgeneralize about Malachandra. Practically, each adventurer’s assumptions about civilizations and intelligence informs his experience and his approach to Malachandra. Weston insists in Oyarsa’s court that these are savages, and approaches them, disastrously, with attempts at intimidation followed by bribery. Divine’s complete focus on acquiring wealth leads him to sit down and ignore the entire proceedings, when he is not actively attempting to convince Weston to give up and just go home with what gold they have already loaded onto the spaceship.

Meanwhile, Ransom’s training as a philologist leads him to learn enough of the Hross language to understand that these people are not primitives at all, and his interactions with them are much more successful. The difference in outcomes is based on the difference in approach – Weston and Divine are motivated respectively by a devotion to scientific progress and a devotion to financial increase regardless of the consequences on existing individuals, whereas Ransom is motivated to make the best of his situation by learning what he can of the unfamiliar cultures that surround him. He is motivated in substantial part by empathy.

I won’t claim that Ransom has no interest in financial or technological concerns. He spends some time planning to write a dictionary of the Hross language, for example, which he considers will improve his standing in academic circles, a step forward for his career. And he offers his wristwatch as a gift, thinking that the unfamiliar technology will please his host. Also, description of the space ship itself serves as a second frame, suggesting that technology as interesting enough to Ransom that he wants to describe it in a very prominent way. I’ll want to analyze the particular motifs within that secondary frame in relation to parallel motifs in the waking frame and in the episodes on Malachandra.

Tentatively, I want to posit a theme related to how people ought to treat one another, in particular, that those in positions of relative power ought to consider the needs of those under their influence.

Not Quite Out of the Silent Planet Just Yet

I’m looking at CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet for inclusion in the CS Lewis chapter of my dream book. The framing is simpler in this one than in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For starters, in Wardrobe I need to account for the other siblings: for now, I’m thinking in terms of Peter, Susan, and Edmund playing along with Lucy when she tells their adventures in Narnia.  Think of how angry Lucy gets when Edmund tells the older siblings that he and Lucy had been playing a game rather than sharing a real adventure. It would be natural enough to keep the peace by playing along after that. This line of reasoning is tenuous and circumstantial, but I think it might fit the details of the novel.

Another key way the dream frame of Out of the Silent Planet is simpler is that Ransom has only the one adventure, his trip to Malacandra.  In Wardrobe, of course, Lucy goes to Narnia, then Lucy and Edmund,

So, looking at Out of the Silent Planet as an Edwardian dream vision requires a first step of assessing the themes and motifs laid out in the opening “wakefulness” section, in this case, Ransom’s walking tour leading up to his trespass into Weston’s garden.

My initial thoughts are related to the excesses of scientific/technological research at the expense of nature and empathy and by extension at the expense of the welfare of people. Motifs contributing to the empathy-related theme:

  • Ransom’s perseverence when he needs to walk further than he anticipated to find a place to sleep, relying on the empathy of others, and being disappointed that the first Inn he stopped at refusing to offer hospitality.
  • His promise to the old woman to investigate her missing son, again demonstrating a perseverance related to fulfilling promises, exercising empathy both for the old woman (to assuage her anxiety) and for her boy (who might require protection).
  • The contrast between his visit to the old woman and his treatment at the hands of Divine and Weston suggests tension between the responsibility to provide hospitality (an exercise of empathy) and the responsibility to mind your own business (in some cases, an abdication of empathy).
  • In particular, drugging and abducting your guest is Not Good Hospitality.

Weston’s every comment and the overall project that Divine and Weston pursue are of course enough to introduce the issue of research and modernization at the expense of goodness.

I expect, when I analyze the trip to Malacandra and the events on that planet, to be talking about Election and Reprobation, assigning Ransom and empathy to the former and Divine, Weston, and their so-called “progress” to the latter.

Jay Williams

My Wizard of Oz presentation went well at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, and many thanks to the Tales After Tolkien Society for giving me that forum to discuss Dorothy dreaming!

Now that I’m home, I’ve taken a couple weeks for pleasure reading (not that I don’t love reading Oz; but it’s nice to read without a project in mind, sometimes). Since the conference, I’ve read:

  • Terrarium, Scott Russell Sanders  I read this in high school, when it was first published, and some of the images have stuck with me all this time. Rereading it now, I am struck by how it continues to be relevant, especially the idea that to convince the bulk of humankind to protect the Earth from human destruction, we might just have to trick everyone into believing we are protecting humankind from destruction by the Earth.
  • The Imlen Brat, Sara Avery Sarah is incredibly talented, and her Tales from Rugosa Coven blew me out of the water. I was amazed that fantasy could be presented so realistically. Brat is splendid, too. I suspect it will be the first in a series of pieces about this character and setting, and I have been comparing it in that way to “The Sword in the Stone,” which serves as the first section of The Once and Future King. Like “Sword in the Stone,” Brat is also perfectly capable of standing on its own. Read it right away.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, read by Claire Danes I acknowledge up front that it’s shameful that I hadn’t read this already. From the time it came out until 2010 I was in intensive literary study of other things, and my leisure reading during that period tended to less emotionally devastating books. I decided to listen to the audiobook, finally, in preparation for watching the Hulu series, which is getting a lot of buzz among my friends. This book is obviously amazing, and I find it profoundly disheartening how relevant it remains, especially in the current climate.

Today, I was looking over a book from my deep childhood, one of those short children’s novels we used to be able to get from the Scholastic order form they sent home from school. Thank God my parents wanted to encourage me to read, because I was always allowed to order a few of these, and some of them have stayed with me all this time.

The book I was looking at today is Jay Williams, The Magic Grandfather. It’s a pretty simple story about a sedentary, tv-loving kid who finds out his grandpa is a sorceror. When the kid accidentally sends Grandpa into the nether worlds, he has to find his own inner wizard to get him back. I loved this book. I’ve been daring myself to reread it all week.

Looking at the “Other Books by Author” page, I see that I was apparently a huge Jay Williams fan. Among the other beloved books I had that he wrote are The Hero from Otherwhere and the many volumes of the Danny Dunn series, which he co-wrote with Raymond Abrashkin.

I want to look into what else Abrashkin wrote, and I want to collect all of the Danny Dunn books again, and have another read through. If you have influence with the copyright owners, please do pressure them to republish these.

Here is the first bit of The Magic Grandfather:

Aside from his parents, there were two things Sam Limner loved. One was television, the other was his grandfather. And although he really did love his grandfather there were times when it was almost a toss-up.

Right now, for instance. He was watching Doctor Blaze of “Space Hospital” dueling with the two-headed leader of Sirius IV, and he was so absorbed that his father had to shake him by the shoulder.

For starters, let’s talk about how much cooler Williams’ idea of 70s TV was than the real experience of 70s TV. I want to watch “Space Hospital” now. And in the late 1970s, if that show had been produced at all, it would certainly have been canceled almost immediately, as was the fate of most genre shows of the period. Remember Wizards and Warriors and Mister Merlin? If you don’t it’s because they got canceled. Doctor Who fared somewhat better, but notice that that was on BBC TV, not American TV. To tune in Doctor Who at my house, someone had to stand next to the TV and hold the antenna.

In addition to the awesomeness of fictional TV, I admire Sam’s last name. “Limner” – it is a little more specific than “Painter.” I have ever since childhood thought it was cool when people who will be magical later have names that indicate some sort of creative artist. Like, genealogy is hinting at the story’s secrets.

Dorothy and the Consequences of Labor

Earlier this week, a friend had me thinking about just how old Dorothy is meant to be in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In the film, Judy Garland was 16, but she was made up and costumed to look much younger, with a compression brace to hide her breasts, and little-girl hair in pigtails, and ankle socks inside her dress shoes. But neither the film (that I noticed) nor the novel (I looked) specify her exact age. The narrator describes her using terms like “little girl” and describes her “chubby hands,” though, and perhaps most significantly she doesn’t have chores on a working farm.

In the novel, the narrator goes to great lengths to point out that she plays all day with Toto, while Aunt Em and Uncle Henry go about the sort of labor that turns a person gray. The decision to live in a place like Kansas represents a real commitment, a willingness to purchase independence at the expense of joy-crushing work. Em and Henry are willing to put in long hours, because they are able to benefit from the returns of their effort, however small, and they can be proud of their independence.

The issue of labor comes up almost immediately in Oz, as well, because the farmhouse lands upon and kills the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the Munchkins from bondage. Dorothy learns from the Witch of the North that the Witch of the East had forced the Munchkins to work for her for many years, and now they would be free.

The Scarecrow is insecure about his effectiveness at scaring crows, afraid he is a bad scarecrow: He is worried about the quality of his work.

The Tin Man’s story also focuses on the results of labor. He wants to earn enough to marry a pretty Munchkin, so he works hard at woodcutting. The pretty Munchkin’s guardian is lazy and wants to keep the girl working for her, so she pays the Wicked Witch of the East for a curse. The curse manifests through the Tin Man’s labor, and he cuts off one limb after another, and then his head, and finally his torso, having each replaced by a tinsmith so he can carry on working. He sees the potential reward of diligent work; the pretty Munchkin is denied the fruits of hers. In practice, working to pursue his goal of marrying the pretty Munchkin leads him to destroy his own heart (literally, with his axe), and with it his desire to marry her at all. The witch’s curse, the external effort of a more powerful individual, has denied him the reward of his labor and left him with only the labor itself and his own anxiety about lacking a heart/sentimentality.

The Flying Monkeys are in thrall to the Wicked Witch of the West, forced to work for her because she possesses a magic helmet.
There are more and more examples of work in the novel, of people benefiting from their work, or being denied the benefits, and Dorothy witnesses them all.

Throughout, Dorothy herself consistently approaches the challenges of Oz by asking what effort she must put in next to achieve her goals and then taking those actions. The most obvious example is undertaking the lengthy walk to the City of Emeralds, of course, but there are many others.
Dorothy learns the value of effort, both moral and practical; she determines what work is required, then she does that work, confident that she deserves the benefits that accrue as a result.

When she returns to Kansas, Uncle Henry has already rebuilt the farm. He and Aunt Em have never stopped working. No doubt this is a part of what Dorothy comes to appreciate about the nature of home. Home is why you work; home is the reward and the outcome of labor.

In such a paradigm, enforced labor, enthrallment, slavery is an abomination against the notion of home. Viewed this way, the choice to set the novel in Kansas takes on additional significance, because the work of creating Kansas, of making Kansas a place to call home, was ongoing.

Baum was the son in law of a prominent Suffragist and sympathized with Suffrage himself; seeing women denied a voice in the culture they helped to create would have offended him.

He was furthermore born in 1856, so he was a child during the Civil War, and must remember the war and its aftermath, the consequences of slavery, especially on the slaves themselves, who were ripped unwilling from their homes and denied the profits of their own labor.