In January 1921 Lovecraft wrote what was probably his first story of that highly productive year: “The Nameless City” (DAG, 98-110), in which the first-person narrator seeks out the remote ruins of an ancient and evilly fabled city “in the desert of Araby,” ruins “protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-made grave” (98). Finding the site, the narrator, feeling that the “antiquity of the spot” is “unwholesome,” examines the ruins, longing “to encounter some sign or device to prove that the city was indeed fashioned by mankind” (99). He finds certain “curiously low” temples accessible through sand-choked apertures in the rock face of the adjoining cliff, temples containing altars and shaped stones and consisting of spaces in which the narrator can “hardly more than kneel upright” (100).
Intrigued by the winds that seem to hover about the ruins of the city—little sandstorms difficult to account for in a desert otherwise calm at the time—he finds a further temple that has a door chiseled in the rock in the back, a door from which the odd winds seem to be issuing. Investigating, he finds steps (“or mere foot-holds”) leading down, and he experiences a nightmare of descent deep into the earth through passages so low that he is reduced to crawling in total darkness. His mind begins entertaining sing-song fragments of his “cherished treasury of daemoniac lore” (103), including lines from the (fictive) poet Abdul Alhazred—whose name, one notices, is a monstrosity of redundancy in Arabic (It should presumably be Abd-al-Hazred)—and a passage from Thomas Moore’s long poetic fragment Alciphron, describing a descent through a chasm with “jetty sides as smooth as glass” (103). At length the narrator finds himself in a still lightless, but at least level, passage lined, as he discerns by feeling, with “cases of wood having glass fronts.”
When “some unknown subterranean phosphorescence” comes to illumine the passage, he sees that the coffinlike cases contain the mummified bodies of reptilian creatures somewhat resembling crocodiles (104). (Moore’s Alciphron, before the passage that Lovecraft’s narrator quotes, speaks of “Cold halls, in which a sapless throng / Of Dead stood up, with glassy eye, / Meeting my gaze as I went by,” and, after Lovecraft’s narrator’s quote, refers to the sacred reptiles of ancient Egyptian religion as “that kindred breed / Of reverend well-drest crocodiles.”) The narrator, desperately rationalizing, tries to convince himself that the mummified remains and their depiction in the murals that he has seen represent a religious symbol or fetish with which the ancient humans of the bygone city allegorized their own experiences. But the reader realizes, much earlier than the narrator, that these reptiles could themselves have been the builders, the prehuman inhabitants of the city, who, according to their historical murals, had to migrate into the earth beneath their city to escape the coming of the desert sands.
At the end of the passage the explorer encounters a great gate, beyond which is a glowing abyss that seems to correspond to “the strange new realm or paradise to which the race had hewed its way through the stone” (106). The “massive door of brass” (an echo of such a portal described in Moore’s Alciphron) is open, with “small numerous steps” leading down into the void. The explorer experiences a moment of exquisite horror when he hears a sound in the passage behind him, and a great wind rushes back down through the open gate into the abyss, filling the air with “the ghastly cursing and snarling of strange-tongued fiends” (110). The door clangs shut “with a deafening peal of metallic music whose reverberations swelled out to the distant world to hail the rising sun as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile” (110). Like Lovecraft’s exploring narrator, we shall feel compelled to delve here. Like the nameless city, the tale has a further intrigue that could be expected to lie beneath the surface.
We do not tunnel far before encountering strange things. “When I drew nigh the nameless city,” the tale opens, “I knew it was accursed.” In the title “The Nameless City” one finds paradox, since of course the phrase is a name for that which, according to the phrase, is supposed to have no name. “The Nameless City” is a name that not only names but also has the additional and contraindicative linguistic effect of denying its own function in the process of fulfilling it. It is as if one alluded to “that to which one may not, even here, allude” or used “No-Name” as a name. The word nameless, however, is not so simple as all that on the etymological level, where we find that the -less in all such suffixed words derives from the Indo-European root leu-, “to loosen,” “unbind,” “cut apart.” One finds here two mutually antithetical senses: -less in nameless may, as is usually understood, suggest a cutting apart from names, a lack of or absence of names, or may, on the contrary, suggest a loosening of any restrictions on names—a proliferation of names, a plethora of names cut loose, unbound to run free and thus bound to do so. (Then again, one may say that unrestricted naming is tantamount, after all, to no naming—that to be known by too many names is not to be known by any.) The imagery of running free is underscored by accursed, for which, though no firm etymological linkage is acknowledged, linguists often entertain an association with the root kers-, whence derives the Latin currere, “to run,” and whence also, of course, comes course—not to mention discourse, suggesting as usual the concern of the text with its own textuality. The nameless or name-loose city promises from the outset to be problematic.
The root leu-, already mentioned, suggests other (distinct but homonymic) Indo-European roots that connect interestingly with matters at hand. One is leu-, “dirty,” whence derives the Latin lutum, “mud,” and Lutetia, “muddy place,” a Gallic town that grew to be the (name-loose) city of Paris. Another root leu-, “stone,” the source of cromlech, suggests again the stones of a city such as that which the narrator finds. Still another leu-, imitative of singing (whence derives the German lied) gives rise to the Latin locus and the English locale, as well as a doublet (via French) of couch. Here we connect with the Indo-European source of the word city itself: kei-, “to lie,” “bed,” “couch,” “night’s lodgings,” whence (via the form kei-wi) derives the Latin civis and the English city, as well as the Old French hanter, “to haunt,” and the Greek koiman, whence comes cemetery. Hauntings and cemeteries lead well back to the city of the tale. Given the tendency of all these roots to interweave in a labyrinth of mirrored reference to the city, it is not surprising that the same root kei- that gives us city also gives us, from the form ki-wo, the Sanskrit Siva or Shiva, Hindu god of destruction and reproduction, whose many-armed dance suggests the oscillative nature of the textual city—indeterminably named or nameless, undecidably (as it turns out) dead or alive.
This particular indeterminacy underscores itself in the quote from the fictive Arab poet: “That is not dead which can eternal lie, / And with strange aeons even death may die” (109). As in the final line of the tenth (“Death be not proud”) sonnet of John Donne’s notoriously paradoxical Holy Sonnets—“And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die”—the notion of the death of death invites layers of self-referential paradox. It would seem that the death that death itself dies would be its own annihilation—that if death dies, then the death that it dies is inoperative (having died), so that death lives and has not died after all. At least this is the gnarled knot of contradiction that we find ourselves embracing if we take the view that death is simply death: that “death” in the text is itself, self-identical, self-present—a “done thing” rather than a Donne thing. By now, of course, one waxes suspicious of such symptoms of a privileged metaphysics of presence. Not that we can or should hope to avoid paradox, which indwells with language universally, but we may turn aside from the univocal “death is simply death” that smacks of the notion that a signifier can attach itself to a single signified. We should look farther into the language of the paradox, even if paradox then remains.
In the textuality of “death may die,” we may say that there is a “subject-death” and a “predicate-death.” The subject-death is associated with the cessation of life, and the predicate-death is associated with cessation more generally on a metaphoric plane. With this view we note that the predicate-death amounts to cessation of the subject-death, that is, to cessation of cessation of life, which one would suppose to be a continuation of life—not only nonidentical with the subject-death, but tantamount to its polar opposite. Lovecraft’s Arab poet has said that “even death may die” (emphasis added), suggesting that everything comes to cessation, even cessation. Clearly, then, there can be no settled configuration of privilege in any life/death bipolarity in the text. Lovecraft’s Arab poet has said that “That is not dead which can eternal lie,” and in lie we may read a punning hint of intrinsic self-subversion. The implied refusal of “death” to be “itself” will characterize the textual city as well.
An Indo-European root kei-, homonymic with the root kei-from which we have city, gives rise to the Old English form hiw, “hue.” Yet another homonymic root kei- (“to set in motion,” whence derives the Greek kinein and the English kinetic and cinema and suggestions of shifting and change) gives us cite. One notices that in French, cité, “city,” is indistinguishable from cité, “cited,” the past participle of citer, “to cite,” “to quote,” “to mention.” Here the hues and shades of signification come round both to the linguistic self-interests of textuality once again—like text, the city has “passages,” which are lined in turn with more text: the murals—and to the notion of iteration. To cite, mention, or quote is to iterate, to repeat in a new context, to rearticulate from one context to another—in short, to ring changes on that which is repeated. Here again we see that the city cannot be expected simply to be itself. It is “citedness,” citation, quotation, re-mention, iteration, many-hued repetition and restatement. The city is a rainbow of city-states: historical murals, echoic statements, shifting states of being, polychromisms of textuality.
The definite article in the title “The Nameless City” is an ironic tag of textual play, of linguistic subversion by way of a specious claim of singularity. This problem often crops up, it would seem, with such use of the, especially in titles, and the problem is reiterated here by the redundant Arabic article in the name “Abdul Alhazred.” The, followed by a singular noun, suggests an unequivocal, self-identical, single city, while the text works at dividing this city against itself, multiplying its being, marching it through an iterating hall of mirrors. Curiously, city, usually connoting solidity, edifice, establishment, here heralds the opposites of these notions: the city is change, uncertainty, instability. Likewise, mention of a city usually puts one in mind of containment, enclosure: the city limits, the medieval city walls, the separating of inside from outside, the defining and delimitation of what constitutes insideness. But here the city, as citedness, occasions the breaking out of confining or defining boundaries, suggests the transcending of contexts, and partakes of the dynamics of change: citation, transmuted reappearance in ever-new contexts, protraction of discourse.
The narrator finds the city at a remote spot in the desert, “crumbling and inarticulate” (98), and leads his camel “across the sand to that unvocal stone place” unvisited by other people (99). While inarticulate may suggest the quality of being disjointed or unassembled (a quality opposed to that possessed, for example, by “articulated” bones), it may also suggest “not speaking,” “unable to speak,” a notion reinforced by unvocal. Yet the city’s murals tell the narrator a detailed and disturbing story, albeit one to which he cannot respond with any clarity of inference. And, as we have noted, the nameless city, as “name-loose citing,” associates itself with discourse (that is, as dis-currere, with running apart), however ambiguously.
The problem of death versus nondeath, as underscored by the paradox “death must die,” creates the main source of this ambiguity with respect to the city into which the narrator wanders—or, more particularly, with respect to the city that the narrator fears, the city against whose existence he rationalizes, the city built not by crocodile-worshipping human fetishists but by the crocodilelike creatures themselves. There is irresolvable doubt about whether that city exists or ever did. One remarks four possible permutations: (1) that the reptilian city lived in early times but does not survive, (2) that it lived and does survive, (3) that it never lived and does not do so now, and even (4) that it never lived in the past but does so now, newly, in the fevered mind of the narrator. What the narrator wants to think is permutation no. 3, but he seems forced to accept first the possibility of no. 1, and finally the apparent ineluctability of no. 2, though no. 4 is of course an irrefutable textual possibility. All these options play off against each other in an intriguing web of mutual containment, without which the text could not function as it does. If there were not a prosaic backdrop against which the narrator could rationalize, that is, if it were not at least conceivable that he could be right in attributing his find to a vanished race of human totemists, then the frontal shock of the discovery would be emotionally uncontrasted. An obvious horror would confront the narrator, not a worse-even-than-I-thought sort of horror, but simply a clear horror, and that would be that.
Conversely, without the threatened possibility that the alternative interpretation (which the narrator fears) could replace the more comforting one, there obviously would be no story at all. And we can never wholly demonstrate that the horror has not been born in toto in the mind of the narrator, who after all carries about with him a “cherished treasury of daemoniac lore” (103) and who, remarking, perhaps disingenuously, perhaps not, that his “reason must have wholly snapped,” falls to babbling in the end (109). Again, without even this possibility—that the narrator is mad—the text would undergo a certain trivialization. If the city has necessarily uncertain textual contours, then so has the narrator who happens upon it, or says or thinks he does.
The textual imagery of highness and lowness conjoins the indeterminate nature of the city with that of its visitor. In the carved temples, whose lowness the narrator tries to ascribe to fetishism rather than to self-accommodation on the part of the builders, the narrator can “hardly more than kneel upright” and can only marvel at the architectural proportions’ being “curiously low” (100). In this imagery of a tall man made to reduce his stature to that of the crocodile-creatures, one finds a typically self-unraveling binary opposition, high versus low, in which each pole of the bipolarity necessarily contains the other. The imagery of highness—the unconstrained stature of the narrator—collapses in deference to the opposite imagery when the narrator is made to crawl, and it clearly must do so in the interests of the narration. Conversely, the lowness to which the narrator is reduced is meaningful only as it causes reduction, since the man has to be a man brought low in order for the real or imagined meeting of the races to be anything other than one species undramatically discovering another. What we have here is the spectacle of the human species forced to imitate the older species—a species ironically “heightened” by its lowness, heightened in symbolic stature by the awe and foreboding that it engenders in the narrator—the prehuman species whose admitted existence is so strenuously resisted. The crawling imitation not only supplies a wry irony but also entangles the oppositions with which the text seems to work: high versus low, man versus crocodile, fancy versus reality.
The text works hard at privileging or seeming to privilege the surviving reality of the reptilian city, while begrudging its narrator the courage to accept this supposed reality, and undercuts this already multidirectional activity by refusing, in the end, to allow any settled reading. There of course can be no resolution here, no privileged interpretation; the fancied or real builders of the desert city have seen to that. Their etymology suggests as much. Crocodile owes its existence to the root ker-, “to bend” (suggesting crookedness, indirection, deviousness of signification), whence derives also circle. Like a circle, one’s speculations on these perhaps self-chronicled creatures can have no clear beginning or end, no fixity, no reduction to “truth.” The crocodiles are an allegorization (and alligatorization) of endless, cyclic searchings after meaning. The burrowing motion in the critical process comes to the same thing as does that of the narrator: it comes to the abyss, to the aporia of unreadability.
“The Nameless City” would appear to be a grim comedy of uncertainty—a posturing play of a perhaps sane, perhaps mad narrator finding himself in a reptilian city that perhaps lived but lives no longer, or perhaps lived and lives on, or perhaps never lived and does not live now, or perhaps never lived until now and lives now as diseased imagination. Alhazred, after all, has said not that death will die, but that death may die. In a logical standoff, city and narrator create undecidabilities for and out of each other: the explorer’s mental state depends irresolvably on the nature of the city, which depends irresolvably on the explorer’s mental state. The text is a sand dance of necessary indeterminacy. Indeed the desert sands through which the narrator plods are perhaps a more telling motif than one might have thought. Though seemingly peripheral to the action of the tale, they perhaps symbolize, in their eternal blowing and shifting, the unstoppable shiftings and reshapings of the text itself.