Etiam periere ruinae: Roman ruins, troubled temporality, and H.P. Lovecraft’s alien other

— El Hudson, Wellesley College

Paper given 31 July 2021 at Mythcon 51 Session 5

As Caesar, the questionable protagonist of the first-century Latin epic the Pharsalia, navigates the ruins of once-mighty Troy, the poet Lucan pauses to note that etiam periere ruinae: even the ruins have perished.” Would that such were the case in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow out of Time,” in which an antediluvian city vexes the protagonist to nightmare. Lovecraft is notorious for his ruins: Cyclopean and/​or non-Euclidean, they near-invariably contain horrors from the depths of time, lying in wait for some foolish adventurer to unleash them upon the present. Sometimes these places are simply set-dressing, but in a few notable instances Lovecraft utilizes the notion of the ruin itself to evoke horror. In both the novella At the Mountains of Madness and the short story The Shadow out of Time,” Lovecraft uses the image of the ancient ruin to evoke the terror of deep time: the idea that the scope of history is far larger than we can comprehend, and human civilization is so small within that scope as to be insignificant. Magnifying the de-centering effect of Lovecraft’s timescales, the denizens of these ruins don’t stay in the past: they explode into the present with necromantic vigor, and consequently they affect the collapse of any meaningful construction of time. Horrors from both the far future and the far past intrude upon the fragile present: the distinctions blur together, and rational temporal progression becomes impossible. Scholars of Lovecraft have argued that the purpose of this temporal collapse is to amplify the effects of deep-time horror: not only are we insignificant within history, but history itself is only an illusion. I believe that we can take this line of thinking further by examining several scenes from classical poetry which utilize a remarkably similar technique — specifically, those in Lucan’s Pharsalia, a Roman epic poem which shares much of Lovecraft’s cosmic outlook. Caesar’s tale of Troy in Pharsalia IX, Julia’s necromantic fury and Caesar’s invasion of Rome in Pharsalia III, and Erichtho’s prophecy in Pharsalia VI each use the visual touchstone of the ruined city to trouble the boundaries between the past, present, and future. But where Lovecraft is interested in evoking horror, Lucan is interested in deconstructing specifically Roman histories, which rely on the exclusion of a non-Roman Other to maintain their integrity. By collapsing time, Lucan de-centers Rome from history and then elides it entirely, allowing its replacement by the Other in question. Similarly, Lovecraft’s temporal collapse uses the terror of the (nonhuman, rather than non-Roman) Other to drive home the impression of ultimate human insignificance. The horror is found not only in the sheer scope of cosmic time, but also in the presence of those who are not us on that timescale. We rely on time to construct history, and on history to construct an identity that differentiates us from the Other: with the dissolution of time our tools to maintain our sense of self dissolve also, and we are left adrift.

Authoritative information may be found here.

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source URL 🌐SWOSU Digital Commons - Mythcon: Etiam periere ruinae: Roman Ruins, Troubled Temporality, and HP Lovecraft's Alien Other
date recorded 📅2022-01-22
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