- The Extinction Romance
The Earth, we say, is our proper dwelling, but we know precious little of it. Phenomenologically, we tend to experience it only as surface, penetrating just so deep as is necessary to plant marigolds. In exceptionally subversive moods, we’ve been known to tear up the paving stones to contemplate the beach. But what is under the beach? A truly chthonic rapport with the Earth is infinitely more likely to be had among newts than among humans. Even our cave-dwelling forebears occupied only the shallowest pores in the Earth’s skin. The spelunker, for all his Orphic intrepidity, reinforces the superficiality of our relation to the Earth, his frisson a testament to the conceptual limits of the surface. The deepest mines and oil wells hardly descend beyond a few miles and even then beggar the imagination. Weird fiction leverages this ignorance against what H. P. Lovecraft called “the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us.”1 Zarathustra “goes under” not just to liberate the inmates of Plato’s Cave—to bring them news of the Sun—but to confront the truth of the abyss. “Die Welt ist tief,” he sings, “Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.”2 To descend into the Earth is to abandon the whole optic schema of knowing, to rely instead on echolocation, say, in all its acousmatic eeriness. To descend into the Earth is also to retreat into a past whose scales again thwart our comprehension. More than the empty tracts of space between Earth and Sun, it is the ground beneath our feet, its “caverns measureless to man,” that invokes an alien sublimity: wider than the Empyrean are the uncanny depths and stranger its wisdom. For Weird fiction, the fault lies not in our stars, nor even in ourselves, but in the physical crust of the planet, which is cracked and stressed by strange energies roiling beneath. [End Page 539]
Part of what this sublimity registers is the precarity of human life, itself now alien to the planet from which it sprang. The secret life of the planet, we are forced to concede, is first and foremost mineral, then vegetable, and only belatedly animal. We exist at the intersection of two energetic economies, one solar, the other ferromagnetic. The zone between is a clamoring ground for what Reza Negarestani calls “petropolitics.” In his mythos, oil itself is a dark Tellurian god, “an omnipresent entity narrating the dynamics of Earth.”3 The Earth, for its part, cannot really be thought apart from such dynamics—is nothing but dynamics, nothing but a succession of strata in relation to one another. The ground, then, is ungrounded; as Iain Hamilton Grant puts it, “there is no ‘primal layer of the world,’ no ‘ultimate substrate’ or substance on which everything ultimately rests. The lines of serial dependency, stratum upon stratum, that geology uncovers do not rest on anything at all.”4 There can be in Weird fiction—and this for me commends the truth of its outlook—no kitschy Fourfold, no elemental guarantors that condition our capacity for dwelling. Heidegger claims that “[m]ortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky … leav[ing] to the sun and the moon their journey, to the stars their courses, to the seasons their blessing and their inclemency; they do not turn night into day nor day into a harassed unrest.”5 But what if the Earth is ungrounded? What if the sky is darkened? What if the stars skate out of their course and abandon us? To what does Heidegger, the original Black Forest ham, raise his face then?
The modernists, no less than Heidegger, strove within this voided metaphysics, as if the Hermetic aphorism—“as above, so below”—had been inverted; their realization that “the world itself does not privilege the human” implicated at once the brutal exactions of Nature and the nugatory consolations of Heaven.6 Since Moby Dick, Peter Nicholls writes, “[m]etaphysics means the death of the world”; as a result, modernists, particularly high modernists, tended to fall into one of two camps: those who embraced anti-humanism of one sort or another and...