Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Kvetch of Iranon

Ye will need to brush up on thine archaic language if thou wouldst read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Quest of Iranon (1935), which containeth a mighty heap of it.  The story is annoying on several levels, not the least of which is its use of language.  Besides the King James Bible style phrasing, the story contains an awkward and incoherent mish mash of Semitic, Celtic and Greek place names.  But The Quest of Iranon is very interesting in an autobiographical sense.  In excessively florid sentences it records Lovecraft’s attitude towards adulthood—a fairly adolescent whining and posturing—which he evidently held till quite late in his life.
Two Other Views
It is dismaying to think that the person who wrote At The Mountains of Madness and The Call of Cthulhu also wrote The Quest of Iranon.  And did so relatively late in his career, when he should have known better.  L. Sprague De Camp, in his biography of the author panned The Quest of Iranon, calling it a “feeble fable”, hindered by its “note of self-pity”.  De Camp feels that the story is basically an argument that sensitive artistic people should be supported in their creative idleness and not have to work—a notion that would be fatal in America, especially in Lovecraft’s time. 

S.T. Joshi is more generous, calling the story “an enormously powerful statement on the futility of hope and the tragedy of disillusion.”  There is some truth in this insofar as the story documents Lovecraft’s own disillusionment.  But the story and much of Lovecraft’s frustration in life can also be seen as the futility of hope and the tragedy of having a champagne taste on a beer budget.  

A Show On The Road
Iranon is a wandering adolescent, decked out with ivy and myrrh in his hair and wearing a purple robe.  To anyone who will listen he offers his wealth of “little memories and dreams”, mostly of a golden childhood, which he will sing about “in gardens when the moon is tender and the west wind stirs the lotos-beds.”  This will have to do for now, for his ultimate goal is find his beloved city of Aira, where he is a prince in line to the throne.

Regrettably, he attempts this schtick in Teloth, a kingdom of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who exemplify the work ethic in their square houses made of granite.  They are a tough crowd.  They yawn and snicker and demand that the youth apprentice himself to the cobbler, for “All in Teloth must toil…for that is the law.”  There is a sense that some Darwinian process is at play here; Iranon is unlikely to pass his genes on to the next generation, if he even survives himself.

Ratcheting up the unctuous self-pity of Iranon-as-Lovecraft are scenes and references that imply that he is some sort of prophet or even a version of Jesus.  He preaches to the “dark and stern” men of Teloth about the futility of work without artistic pleasures:  “And if ye toil only that ye may toil more, when shall happiness find you?”  A representative of Teloth responds with a caricature of Calvinism and the protestant work ethic:  “Our gods have promised us a haven of light beyond death, where there shall be rest without end, and crystal coldness amidst which none shall vex his mind with thought or his eyes with beauty.”  Amen, brother!

Lovecraft as Jesus?
As a result of merely being in Iranon’s presence, a blind man is able to see.  He sees a saint-like nimbus over Iranon’s head when he is singing his songs about his beloved city of Aira.  Later the youth has to spend the night in the stable.  Is that because there is no room in the inn?  Hmmm…nimbus above the head, the blind are able to see, in line to become the King, the stable his humble dwelling for now—who does this remind you of?  And what are these overtly religious tropes doing in the fiction of an avowed atheist?

But it’s ‘no sale’ in Teloth.  If Iranon had been one of the twelve apostles he might have recalled the Lord’s recommendation:   "Any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off the soles of your feet for a testimony against them."   

Stranger Danger!
As Iranon is leaving the city he encounters “a young boy with sad eyes” sitting alone by the river.  Stranger danger!  Romnod is also eager to leave Teloth, and shares Iranon’s discomfort and alienation.   Romnod thinks that Aira might actually be the same as the city of Oonai, a party town filled with lute players and dancers.  Iranon, who has taken his one man act to many cities and bombed miserably, warns Romnod not to get his hopes up about any early success.  He has repeatedly played to tough crowds that laughed and jeered at him, or did not listen at all.  Better keep your day job.  Or get one.  In the end, only Aira will do as a venue.

The two go off into the forest in search of the city of Aira by way of Oonai.  They eat lots of fruit and berries, and travel for years.  That’s a lot of fruit.  Iranon wears ivy and fragrant resins in his blond hair; Romnod prefers roses and myrtle in his dark hair.  Too weird—where are the parents?  Romnod grows up in this time, his voice deepening, while Iranon remains strangely the same—ever young and beautiful.

Livin La Vida Loca
Eventually, the two arrive in Oonai where they are initially successful presenting Iranon’s memories, dreams and songs about his childhood in Aira.  The king likes the show and outfits Iranon in stunning “satin and cloth-of-gold, with rings of green jade and bracelets of tinted ivory, and lodged him in a gilded and tapestried chamber on a bed of sweet carven wood with canopies and coverlets of flower-embroidered silk.”  Just fabulous.  They are a huge hit.  But there are no women at all in Oonai, just adoring male fans who throw flowers at Iranon and Romnod during performances.  This will be difficult for some readers to relate to.

Insert Monster Here
(At this point, your humble reviewer hoped for the appearance of a large carnivorous monster, either a giant threatening arthropod or enormous blood sucking mollusk, to enliven this interminable fashion statement.)

Unfortunately, Iranon is soon upstaged by a troupe of dancers and flute players that the king brings in from other cities.  He loses his audience and celebrity.  ‘Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate’, as Dickinson would say.  Romnod succumbs to the reveling lifestyle, and one night “the red and fattened Romnod snorted heavily amidst the poppied silks of his banquet couch, and died writhing…”—perhaps of bad taste.  Romnod’s funeral recalls that of Kalos in The Tree (1921)—in both, the grieving partner places green twigs from trees on the gravesite.  Both stories share many similarities.  (The Tree was reviewed in a post in July—it is a much better story in its subtle creepiness).

Iranon wanders on to continue his search for Aira, “delight of the past and hope of the future”.  He winds up at the hut of an ancient shepherd.  As in many Lovecraft stories, it once again falls to an old man to reveal the truth to the narrator—who really is the author himself—about the nature of his life and struggle. 

It turns out that the shepherd and Iranon were playmates as boys.  The shepherd remembers that Iranon as a child was a dreamer who believed he was the king of a city named Aira, which never in truth existed.  In fact, the child was “a beggar’s boy”, with no such special inheritance.  Shattered by this revelation, Iranon, now “a very old man in tattered purple, crowned with withered vine leaves” drowns himself in quicksand.  This is the most powerful and moving part of the story, and also provides the reader some relief.

Lovecraft as Iranon
Virtually all of Lovecraft’s stories are autobiographical to some extent, and also provide insight into the author’s psychological and emotional state at different points in his relatively short career.  He is usually the main character, and sometimes is more than one of the characters.  The lost city of Aira seems to represent Lovecraft’s longing for a golden past, before his family lost its wealth and prestige at the death of his grandfather.  Lovecraft returns to this theme again and again in his fiction, one of the most tragically formative experiences of his life.  

His avoidance and denigration of work is reflected in his debate with the Puritans of Teloth, where everyone is expected to work to support themselves.  The unusual partnership between Iranon and Romnod, (as well as Kalos and Musides in The Tree), seems to be an echo of relationships Lovecraft had with male members of his inner circle, especially his younger friend Robert Barlow.  

Finally, Iranon’s suicide at the end is how Lovecraft often fantasized about ending his life, especially at times when his despair was greatest.  Though Lovecraft owned guns, it was suicide by drowning that often preoccupied him in more desperate moments.  He expressed suicidal ideation when he dropped out of high school, when his mother died, when the family was forced to move to a smaller house, and during his debacle in New York City, when his marriage failed and he had to return to Providence.

The Giant Blood Sucking Mollusk in the Room
But what is this story actually about?  The elephant in the room—or giant blood sucking mollusk—could be mentioned at this point. In his letters, stories and conversations Lovecraft was prone to rationalize, repress or sublimate strong feelings and frustrations in his life.  These may have emerged as a number of somatic complaints, hypochondria and mental illness. 

Is Iranon’s despair really due to the lack of success in selling his “little memories and dreams”?  Is it his lack of public acceptance, or his inability to live up to the expectations of a prince of Aira?  Or does his creative and artistic temperament (and Lovecraft’s) really stand for something much more fundamental and less intellectually ethereal?  To use another euphemism, isn’t The Quest of Iranon basically another story about ‘the love that dare not speak its name’?    


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