In March 1927 Lovecraft wrote what he would come to call his own favorite of his stories, “The Colour Out of Space” (DUN, 53-82), a darkly atmospheric tale treating of the slow and morbid demise of a farm family on whose land a meteor has fallen, a meteor spreading a kind of alien poison that scintillates with a bizarre color not of the familiar spectrum. The narrator comes to the region—which is only described as “west of Arkham” (53), though on the basis of its planned flooding for a new reservoir we may associate it with the Quabbin region of western Massachusetts—to survey for the reservoir that is to be created there. He is immediately struck by the sinisterness of the place, particularly at a spot that natives call the “blasted heath” (54). Here, he learns, there used to be the farm of a family named Gardner. The spot consists of five acres of “grey desolation” covered by a “dust or ash” spreading now on both sides of the nearly obliterated road line. There remains only a stone chimney and a cellar hole and the “yawning black maw of an abandoned well” (55), above whose opening the sunlight seems strangely perturbed.
The narrator questions an old man living nearby named Ammi Pierce, “because they all told me to pay no attention to old Ammi Pierce’s crazy tales” (55). Pierce, a subnarrator who, however, is not directly quoted, relates the story of the meteor that fell on the Nahum Gardner place and spread the “grey brittle death.” According to Pierce, the Gardner family gradually came to ruin, mentally and physically, after the meteor lodged in the ground beside the well. College professors investigating the meteor found a “large coloured globule imbedded in the substance,” a sort of bubble that “burst with a nervous little pop” (59). The meteor itself shrank away eventually to nothing, but the effects remained. When Nahum next harvested his fruit, which had come forth in bright profusion, it was a disappointment. “Not one single jot was fit to eat” (60), since the taste was bitter and sickly. Animal tracks and vegetation around the farm began to acquire abnormalities during the following winter, and in the spring the trees “blossomed forth in strange colours,” showing “hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone” by which “the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion” (63). Madness stole over the Gardners, one by one, while “all the vegetation was fast crumbling to a greyish powder” (65), an effect soon showing up in the farm animals as well.
At length Ammi visited the farm to find Nahum’s wife (confined, in her madness, to an attic room) crumbling away and Nahum himself fast succumbing. Ammi brought the coroner, medical examiner, and other officials out to the farm, where the group witnessed the final stages of the alien presence’s triumph. They withdrew, and saw the whole farm convulsed in a final display of abnormal light, with a kind of fireball of unplaceable color streaking back up into the clouds whence the meteor had come. Only Ammi turned back and saw a piece of the fireball fall back to earth, where, the narrator surmises, it lingers to the present, slowly spreading its blight anew. After hearing this account, the narrator gives up his project and leaves the region, thinking, of poor old Ammi Pierce (who seems to have lacked the will to leave, himself): “I would hate to think of him as the grey, twisted, brittle monstrosity which persists more and more in troubling my sleep” (82). The tale is a masterpiece of mood and tone and explores, aside from its obvious narrative content, such matters as the irretrievability of origins, the subversion of systems, and the enigmatic nature of the play of language. In its undecidabilities, the tale scintillates with an array of impressions not unlike the extramundane “colour” itself.
Early on, we may ask, what does one make of a “colour” that does not seem to belong to the spectrum, to the continuum of possibilities, yet can be seen? Clearly the suggestion is one of indeterminacy. The visible spectrum is commonly supposed to be a system accounting for all possible color. Any truly ambitious catalog of these colors will contain hundreds of shades and variants, but they all belong to a specifically structured continuum and can be categorized, compared, contrasted, and named. To suggest, as the text does, that there may occur a color, a visible impression, not belonging to this system, is to suggest subversion of the system and, allegorically, subversion of systems generally. What is at work here is the undoing of categorical thinking, the unraveling of any system claiming final mastery, exhaustive cataloging, total solution, immutable results, settled “reading” of reality.
In the root sources of colour we find traces of such unsettling promise. The root is kel-, “hollow,” “to cover,” “to hide”; color covers the surface, hides from view what is beneath. But does it really? A coat of paint may seem to do so, substituting a new surface, but what of things in which the color seems to permeate that which is colored—the orange of an orange, for instance, in which the object actually takes on the name of the color found throughout its substance? Color, as reflected light of a given wavelength, presumably enables us to see the surfaces of objects yet (etymologically) sometimes hides them. It is significant that the same Indo-European root yielding colour also yields cell, that which conceals and covers and is hollow, as well as cilium, eyelid, which, when closed, prevents seeing. The enablement of seeing plays off here against the prevention of seeing, and what is at stake ultimately is readability, the possibility of apprehending and comprehending, the possibility of “taking in” with the eye, the “I” that presses its rage for mastery and tries to exert over the text what Nietzsche would call the “will to power.” Color is both conduit and barrier, is condition both of possibility and impossibility. It spreads over a spectrum, but in the root for spectrum, spek-, “to see,” we find the derivation of such words as sceptic, one who resists seeing something as established or known, and speculate, to invite wider, more far-ranging seeing (which both sees farther and resists, with the sceptic, acceptance of limited seeing). Thus spectrum-as-system invites its own undoing, welcomes speculations that dissolve boundaries and subvert systems. The “colour” from the meteor is that element of indeterminacy in any linguistic system, that element that makes writing writing.
The text, of course, practices self-subversion on the point of this color, in referring to an “underlying, primary tone” (63), as if the color were unified, self-identical, self-present, undivided from itself. In fact the text at the same time works sedulously at making the color differential, unfixed, unsettled and unsettling, multiple in suggestion, plural in significational energy. When the professors examining the meteorite burst the globule embedded in it, we are told, “Nothing was emitted” (59). Nahum Gardner, in the final throes of his agony from the creeping death that finally breaks even him, says to Ammi Pierce, “Nothin’ . . . nothin’ . . . the colour” (71). Evidently there is a textual effort here to characterize the color as nothing—as spacing, silence, absence, that nonbeing that enables being and instigates writing in the broadest and most primordial sense. The text’s main energies at the same time have been busy, throughout, establishing the color not as nothing but as something—something insidious, dreadful, eventually lethal.
The text, dealing with a color that it sometimes characterizes in terms of spacing and differentiation (that is, a color constitutive of writing itself), postures and feints, even trying to place the color outside of language altogether. The skunk-cabbages around the Gardner farm, we are told, “held strange colours that could not be put into any words” (62). And the mad and dying Mrs. Gardner “screamed about things in the air which she could not describe.” Further, “in her ravings there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns” (64-65). One finds, here, a remarkable concern with language as language and a symbolic playing with signifiers and signifieds. Pronouns, of course, are classic signifiers, pointing always away from themselves to other signifiers. The color itself would seem to be a kind of “signified” discussed from the modern point of view, to the effect that signifieds are never simply “present in” signifiers. The colors of the skunk-cabbages, we recall, could not be put into words. The color from the meteor functions both as elusive signified and wide-ranging signifier and in such an ambiguous role perhaps corroborates after all the text’s claim that it, the color, is “nothing”—nothing in particular, nothing fixed, nothing capable of being settled. Thus we begin to see the various levels on which the text sports with its own sporting (and sporing).
What of the meteor in which the color arrives? A meteorite fallen to earth is of course an aerolite, and indeed both aero- and meteor derive from the root uer-, “high,” “raised.” (A meteorite is a highness brought low, though in its prevalence over the Gardners, who themselves are brought low, we see symbolic inversion in this falling to earth.) The same Indo-European root also gives us the Greek arsis, “a lifting up,” which in early prosody was associated with the rising hand-beat and accordingly with the unaccented syllable. Later, however, the term came to be associated with the rising voice and thus with the accented syllable, though in music arsis still refers to the unaccented upbeat. Clearly, antipodal extremes collapse together here; binary oppositions come undone. The meteor itself textually lives up to our etymologically motivated expectation of subversion. In falling to earth, yet eventually allowing its sinister color to streak once again into the sky, it is both downbeat and upbeat, falling and rising. Even in each of these extremes one finds self-difference on the level of spatial symbolism, since in falling the meteor prevails over earthly life and rises to ascendancy, while in rising it allows a piece of itself to drop back to earth, thus failing to rise altogether. Yet the “failed” portion remains in the well, spreading the blight, suggesting eventual ascendancy anew, twisting and wrenching the symbolism as it has twisted the plants and the cattle and the people.
In contemplating the “poison” that the meteor visits upon the Gardner soil, we recall Derrida’s argument that the Greek pharmakon means both “poison” and “cure,” and indeed if one allows an extrahuman point of view, the soil is, sure enough, “cured” of human presence. The notion that there could be such a point of view, from which the effects of the meteor have been cure rather than poison, finds support in something Nahum says of the meteor: that “it come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here” (72). The suggestion of course is that there are divergent sets of standards, differing possible places of origin. In a universe including both the Gardner farm and the meteor, there can be no finally privileged context from which to judge, no fixed settlement of contextual vantage point.
In fact the text subtly raises the whole question of origins in a most striking way, in connection with that ulcerous-looking area of grey powder marking the site of what was once the Gardner farm. Of this spot, the text remarks, “No other name could fit such a thing, or any other thing fit such a name” (55). This statement, poetically balanced by chiasmus, attempts on the level of allegory to establish a one-to-one correspondence between “thing” and “name,” that is, to establish a purely representational or referential theory of language, an equality of presence between signifier and signified or even between signifier and referent. The attempt is specious, of course, because, as we are in the process of seeing, the whole energy of the text gives itself over to readings quite at odds with such a hopelessly inadequate view of language. Everywhere the workings of the text operate to differentiate, to divide the pointings of the signifier, to deny any recoverably single signified in a signifier, to deny semantic fixity or center, or origin of any signified in any single signifier. But regarding origin, the text offers something even more covertly powerful by way of subversion.
Looking at the blasted heath and speculating upon its being called by that name, the narrator reports having thought: “It was as if the poet had coined the phrase from having seen this one particular region” (55). Here we find a remarkable graft-point at which the text secretly blossoms out into differences and spacings not evident on superficial reading, spacings eloquently denying the logocentric notion of determinable origins. All we need ask is, who is “the poet”?
The most facile answer is that “the poet” must surely be Shakespeare. This point of view is bolstered by the fact that Shakespeare is so often called “the bard,” by the fact that the narrator says, “The name ‘blasted heath’ seemed to me very odd and theatrical” (54), and by the fact that Shakespeare uses the term “blasted heath” in act 1, scene 3 of Macbeth. In that scene Macbeth, who is in company with Banquo, says to the witches: “Say from whence / You owe this strange intelligence? Or why / Upon this blasted heath you stop our way.” The imagery that follows has a ring that suggests parallels with the Lovecraft text. After the witches vanish, Banquo says: “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them. Whither are they vanish’d?” Macbeth replies: “Into the air; and what seemed corporeal melted / As breath into the wind.” Certainly these references to bubbles and to something melting into the air must put a reader of Lovecraft in mind of the globule in the meteor, of the porous ground at the bottom of the Gardner well in which the investigators delve, and of the escape into the air of whatever “nothing” (the “colour”) resided in the globule. Yet there is another similarly compelling possibility.
For alternatively “the poet” might just as well be Milton. (A distinction between “the poet” and “the bard” could be just as persuasive as a similarity between the two. In typical self-deconstructive fashion, the comparison cracks both ways.) Besides the fact that the opening two sentences of the Lovecraft text contain imagery strongly reminiscent of lines 132—41 of Milton’s “Il Penseroso,” one notes that Milton uses the expression “blasted heath” in book 1 of Paradise Lost, in speaking of the creatures flung from heaven: “Yet faithful how they stood, / Their glory withered; as, when Heaven’s fire / Hath scathed the forest oaks or mountain pines, / With singéd top their stately growth, though bare, / Stands on the blasted heath.” Again, the imagery is suggestive. “Heaven’s fire” can scarcely fail to put one in mind of the fall of the meteor, and the scathing of the forests reminds one of the withering of the Gardner farm. Milton’s text seems to dignify that which is so blasted, though the tendency works out to be specious in the end. One might trace parallels in the Lovecraft text whereby humankind, represented in the Gardner family, seems tragically dignified in its ruin. Yet this dignity in the end falls prey to the nullifying effects of an indifferent universe.
But the point here is that we cannot know who “the poet” is with any certainty. The text waxes ludic over this point by appearing to insist, in its use of the term the poet, that it must be obvious and unquestionable who “the poet” is. That is, the text (interwoven as intertext with Shakespeare and Milton) postures with us by pretending to believe in, and pretending to expect us to believe in, the retrievability of an origin, while secretly undermining the notion of such retrievability. Allegorically, what is called into question is the notion of origins, of recoverable intentions, of authorial presence, of the transparency of language once set adrift. This unknowability of origins is of course symbolized as well in the meteor itself, which comes from unknown regions.
What of space, in its usage in the title “The Colour Out of Space”? Spacing of course suggests writing in its most fundamental character of differentiation and opening up of disruptive spaces. The text itself has dealt with such spacing. It has insisted, nominally, upon a stably referential function of language while practicing a polysemic style of signification, opening a space between what it says and what it does. It has urged, nominally again, the belief in the recoverability of origins while covertly blasting the notion of such recoverability, creating space once more between what it preaches (or pretends to preach) and what it practices. The text has playfully transgressed its own rhetorical modes, creating spaces where none would be thought to exist, spaces between saying and doing. But creating spaces is, in the primordial sense, writing, so that what one sees here is a striking instance of textuality writing itself, underwriting itself, dealing in ludic terms with its own machinations of language. Space comes from the root sp(h)ei-, “to spread out,” “to draw out,” that is, to practice differentiation, to deal in articulation, to write. The same root gives rise to spay, “to castrate,” “to render infertile.” The notion both echoes the increasingly infertile soil of the Gardner farm and, in ironic and antithetical fashion, the obvious fertility of the “colour” itself, which spreads itself around, true to that sense of sp(h)ei-.
The word space also has associations with another Indo-European root, pet-, also meaning “to spread,” “to open out,” suggesting sexuality, dissemination in the procreative sense. The root is responsible for the words pass and passenger, entailing both synthesis and antithesis with the poisonous alien presence in the Gardner soil, which is indeed a passenger on the meteor but which does not just pass by on its way somewhere else. If we are to believe the intimations at the end of the tale, the passenger, though seeming to leave, comes to stay, at least in part. In any case, spacing involves textuality and writing, and the text intertwines its references to its own writing in numerous ways. We might even read the titular expression “out of space” as suggesting “out of room.” When one is out of space in this sense, one is on the verge of going beyond constrictive boundaries, beyond borders that would try to contain one’s efforts. If the color is thusly “out of space,” then it is chafing at the edges of any “space” we might presume to assign to it, demanding to spill over and play free. It is, in short, refusing reductive or single-minded reading again, refusing to be contained in a spectrum or a system.
There has been, after all, more than one kind of system that would have aspired to contain the alien color. We read that the area of desolation called the blasted heath “lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side” (55). Here we find the obvious symbolic suggestion of uncontainability, of spilling over borders. It is intriguing, here, to reflect on the well-known story of the Nambikwara Indians, a people said by Claude Lévi-Strauss not to possess writing, but observed by Derrida in fact to possess writing in the primal sense of spacing and differentiation. They had a faint track or path crossing their land, and thus knew of differential spacing and, potentially, for example, of maps. The nearly obliterated road running past what was once the Gardner farm might be seen as such an indication that in this generalized sense “writing” preexisted the fall of the meteor, which, as we have seen, thrives on spacing and writing. The meteor has been adumbrated, has been always already written. The grey ash nearly covers the road when the narrator sees it, placing that preexisting “writing” sous rature—under erasure in the manner of Heidegger and Derrida. But beneath the erasure we still see the road, the adumbrating writing. In this and other respects, neither the human nor the alien or cosmic point of view wins any final privilege. Without human eyes to see, of course, there could in a sense be no “colour,” no invader, no story.
Colour, also, reminds one of choler, from the root g(h)el-, which indeed means “bright colors.” (Choleric of course refers to yellow bile, one of the four classical body humors.) The same root yields gull, “to deceive,” and thus suggests the deceptively polyvalent nature of the meteoric color that runs riot in the text. G(h)el- also yields glass, which suggests mirrors and plural imagery, though the text antithetically has the meteorite’s substance attack glass beakers “with mutual destruction as result” (59). From the same root derives gloss, a word paradoxically meaning either “to explain” or “to interpret misleadingly.” Lovecraft’s perversely ill-behaved “colour” flickers with even more enigmatic fury than a straightforward reading would make one think.
Clearly the basic bipolarity of the tale resides in the opposition between the hapless Gardners (ironically, gardeners with a very strange crop) and the alien presence in the meteor, or, if these are to be seen synecdochically, between humankind’s interests and the great indifferent Outside. But the binary opposition between the victimized people and the victimizing “colour” tends to unravel itself. Fundamentally one thinks of the Gardners as people who, prior to the arrival of the meteor, enjoyed a simple, unreflective, fertile, healthy life. One thinks of the presence in the meteor as alien, strange, unhealthy, and complex. Yet in some ways each pole of this opposition necessarily contains the supposedly definitive properties of the other. The meteoric “colour,” supposedly complex, has essentially a simple character and mission. It simply spreads itself, infiltrating everything living that it contacts. It proves itself, thereby, fertile and persistently alive, presumably even beyond the “end” (as if there were one) of the tale, appropriating to itself the character of fertility supposedly reserved for the farm and its occupants.
The Gardners, on the other hand, do not survive. Supposedly simple, they take on what they and we see as the complexity of the meteor. They undergo complex changes, they lose fertility, and they acquire a more complex spectrum of possibilities with the advent of the previously unseen color. And of course the text, as we have seen, offers evidence of the futility of supposing that there is any ultimately privileged viewpoint, any fixed set of standards, in a universe which insists on throwing the human and the preter-human together. From the human point of view, the decimation of the farm family is pathos. From an external (meteoric) point of view, it is simple, remorseless expansion of presence, simple extermination through appropriation.
It is tempting to think of the tale in mythic terms, identifying the meteor and its poisonous color as a sort of hero in the traditional sense. Ploughing a furrow into Mother Earth and planting its seed, the alien visitor does, after all, enjoy a sort of miraculous birth (though with human midwifery), does engage in a kind of quest in spreading itself over the land, does engage in a symbolic descent to the underworld in lingering at the noisome bottom of the well and around the roots of the trees, does enjoy rebirth in the spectacularly diseased foliage, does experience ascension—mythic return to the father—in rising into the sky once again at the end. But if the meteoric color is heroic, then what is being extolled (and told, and playfully denied, or ex-told) in the text is undecidability, uncategorizability, failure of systemics, subversion of foundations. (The ruined foundation of the Gardner house lies thus symbolically subverted.) The “colour” is “nothing,” as we are told—it is decentering, desystematization, denial of origins, uncontrollability of spacing, uncontainability of writing. It is heroic indeterminacy.
In the end, the text admits its own indeterminacies. The narrator (whose “I” we may read as the language of the text speaking for itself) says, “Do not ask me for my opinion. I do not know—that is all.” The text broods: “Something terrible came to the hills and valleys on that meteor, and something terrible—though I know not in what proportion—still remains” (81). Besides seeing in the latter statement a reiteration of the text’s admission of not knowing, we note that “still remains” seems infelicitously redundant if still means “yet” or “even now.” One is reminded of John Keats’s “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,” where still may mean either “yet” or “unmoving.” There is in the end an odd and ashen residue of doubt, then, about whether the grey ash of the blasted heath is in fact spreading or merely appearing to do so in the disturbed fancies of those who watch. There can be, of course, no final determination on this point, as on others. We know only that the uncanny “colour out of space” is real in the sense that it continues to flicker through the field of language that it inhabits. In being “out of space” it spills over any borders with which we might have tried to contain it. It exults in its own scintillating hues of unreadable intrigue.