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Metaphor at the Edge of the Human


Billions of years in the future, The Time Traveler stands before a black ocean, under a bloated sun. The shore is scaled with lichen and flecked with snow. The crab things and giant insects that menaced him on his visit millions of years in its past are gone. Apart from the lapping of dark waves, everything is utterly still.

He thinks he sees something shifting in the waves nearby but dismisses it as an illusion; assuming it to be a rock. Still a churning weakness and fear deters him from leaving the saddle of the time machine. Perhaps this anxiety is just prompted by the ultimate desolation of this world.

Studying the unknown constellations, he feels a chill wind. The old sun is being eclipsed by the moon, or some other massive body – for it is possible that the Earth has shifted into a new orbit around its star.

Twilight segues to black. The wind moans out of utter darkness and cold. A deep nausea hammers his belly. He is on the edge of nothing. Then the object passes and an an arc of blood opens the sky.

And by it he sees what moves in the water: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it. It seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.”.

He is terrified of passing out, with the thing waiting for him in the shallows. He recedes back into the past. The familiar contours of his laboratory swim into being around him.

During the Traveler’s brief acquaintance with it, the thing appears devoid of purpose. Its “flopping” motion might be due to the action of the waves. It might lack a nervous system, let alone a mental life replete with beliefs and desires. But his acquaintance with it is brief, after all, and he knows nothing of it or its world. If it can be said to have one.

It is tempting to suggest alternative scenarios in which the Traveler does not retreat from the thing in the water and remains to study it (and perhaps be studied in turn).

He might find that it is a traveler from some even deeper future, or the representative of an extra-terrestrial culture. Perhaps observation and autopsies would reveal it to be an offshoot of modern Cephalopoda, trawling the desultory shoreline for bite-sized crustaceans.

Again, a Lovecraft-Wells crossover might cast it as the baleful representative of ultimate cosmic evil. Perhaps it locks the Traveler out of his own body, storing his mind like a living fossil. Then it sits in the saddle and return to the present, where, sooner or later, it begins to eat our history.

These narrative possibilities are forestalled, however. Within Well’s fictional world the the nature of the creature remains, undetermined and thus indeterminable. Readers of the Time Machine can only imagine the Traveler’s presentiment on encountering it; wonder why he finds the thought of being near it so terrible. The creature remains hidden, its meaning held in a perpetual tomb.

Given time and effort, radical interpretation might unveil the the obscurities of merely unfamiliar languages or forms of life. But radical aliens would remain obdurately outside thought. In Western traditions, the idea is commonly expressed in apophatic mysticism that treats the divine as an ineffable and unthinkable other. In apophasis, this reality is expressed by what Eugene Thacker calls a “misanthropic subtraction” in which words are stripped of any positive signification so as to hint at a transcendence beyond words (Thacker 2015, p. 140).

The arrest of narrative has a similar effect to the language of mysticism, since, in fiction, the undescribed must remain unknown outside the limits of our encounter with it. Most evocations of the radical alien exhibit a form of arrest: from the work of H P Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson to that of the “New Weird” authors like Thomas Ligotti or Jeff Vandermeer, to the far future science fiction of Hannu Rajaniemi and Charles Stross.

As Graham Harman observes, Lovecraft’ uses a range of literary devices to subtract the legibility of his cosmic deities, the Great Old Ones. This can occur via radical metaphor – for example, “The Dreams in the Witch House” Azathoth, is said to lie “at the centre of ultimate Chaos where the thin flutes pip mindlessly”. The content of this description undermines its metaphorical aptness since ultimate chaos would be the decentering of centres. The “thin flutes” should then be understood as “dark allusions to real properties of the throne of Chaos, rather than literal descriptions of what one would experience there in person” (Harman 2012: 36-7).

The adjective “mindless” does not imply here that this reality is simply non-mental, like the spontaneous production of particle/anti-particle pairs. Rather that conceptions like mindedness or agency are not being applied to the reality in which they carry their usual implications. Recall, the ungainly flopping of Wells’ creature. Is this a sign of its diminished sentience, mute heteronomy before the waves; or of something that is no less a power in the world than us but fundamentally unlike us?

When the sailor Johansen describes an encounter with Lovecraft’s amorphous tentacled god near the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he must vitiate his own description:

“Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described–there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”

Likewise, the dread and physical abjectness related by the Traveler are not attributable to anything he has described; their presence in his account hollows it out without giving us the missing outline. They are prompted by something unmentioned, something  perhaps unutterable, which can only be conveyed indirectly through its pernicious effect on the observer.

Wells and Lovecraft, then, both employ discrepant figures or elisions to “refer” to the unknowable and unsayable. Derrida has argued that philosophy is also in the grip of such undeterminable or undecidable tropes, where, for example, a term like “the sun” is used by Plato in Republic IV-VII to refer to the origin of intelligibility itself. Within the terms of Plato’s text there is no criterion of metaphorical aptness that tells us whether this is a “successful” metaphor for the ultimate Good, other than the account in which it already figures. Such radical metaphors constitute an ellipsis of meaning – a solar “eclipse” whose divorce from settled semantic domains free up metaphors to play elsewhere as metaphysical concepts (Derrida 1974: 53-4).

Philosophical concepts are conceptually articulated in ways that distinguish them from the literary use of catachresis in Lovecraft, or in a very different context, J G Ballard’s Crash or his novella “Myths of the Near Future”. There is a good deal be said about Plato’s form of the good; whereas Lovecraft provide no science or metaphysics to limn the ultimate reality of Azathoth; while Ballard’s ontology of the automobile collision is entirely exhausted by its place within Crash’s circuit of auto-destructive desire (Roden 2002). Still, this does not mean that allusion to unknowable entities in Wells, Lovecraft and others is without philosophical significance.

Firstly, both reject something that Platonic philosophy shares with apophatic theology – the jargon of transcendence. Lovecraft’s apophatic method discloses a dark, unknowable cosmos that is, however, devoid of transcendence. The Azathothic other is not beyond or “higher” than matter but intimately involved and active in a unitary, if ultimately chaotic and meaningless, universe.

Wells’ being on the shoreline is alive, even if its status as an agent is left entirely open. Both, then, imply something about what it is to live in a reality that is outside thought, autonomous with respect to it, even if not transcendent or spiritual.

This is connected, secondly, to the relationship between time and sensibility – in the aesthetics of an encounter that pre-empts any articulation of its nature (Sullivan 2010: 197). An encounter that need harbour no meaning, no “fore-having” waiting to be glossed by the phenomenologist, for example. The phenomenology of the encounter can be dark, as I have argued elsewhere. It can be had, without being further accessible through description or philosophical hermeneutics.

The radical alien can be encountered, then, but the encounter breaks the orderly procession of historical time and knowledge production. It leaves its mark in irreducible affects – terror, madness and physical desolation.


Derrida, J. and Moore, F.C.T., 1974. White mythology: Metaphor in the text of philosophy. New Literary History6(1), pp.5-74.

Harman, G., 2012. Weird realism: Lovecraft and philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.

Roden, D., 2003. Cyborgian subjects and the auto-destruction of metaphor.Crash cultures: modernity, mediation and the material, pp.91-102.

O’Sullivan, S., 2010. From aesthetics to the abstract machine: Deleuze, Guattari and contemporary art practice. Deleuze and contemporary art, pp.189-207.

Thacker, E., 2015. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.



This post originally appeared on David’s blog here: