Carcosa: Some Final Thoughts on True Detective

To understand Carcosa, we have to understand the difference between a monster and what it references, between monster as a signifier and what it signifies, between the psychological experience of the imaginary real and the Real (capital R). We have to understand Carcosa first, before we can enter into the conversation about The Yellow King, and the nature of good versus evil.

The imaginary real—the imaginative play of signifiers that are used to reference monsters—describe the act of using language to address the darker world of human energies (violence, uncontrollable sexuality, Id energies). It’s a word play in the artistry of the horror genre that gives birth to the galaxy of monsters to which we respond, and it’s often done on a topical, localized level. The premise of *The Cabin in the Woods* centered on a shadowy organization that perpetuates the idea of keeping this imaginary real in existence as a type of sacrificial altar to a lingering, ancient horror lurking deep below the surface. This mode of externalizing our anxieties, and packaging it in a narrative arc designed to bring us to catharsis is simply a way for us to process the taboo anxieties we have as the uncontrollable and destructive energies flow through ourselves.*The Cabin in the Woods* suggests, as do many horror critics, including Stephen King, that externalizing our negative energies, about which we feel a lurking anxiety, “deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark” (King). It is the exercise in horror of taboo elements that ordinarily remain hidden in our unconscious mind, pure and unbridled except by our ego or by our civilization, that help exorcise our more savage elements and ease the anxiety their presence induces.

But *The Cabin in the Woods* hints at a deeper problem when those minor beasts—the Wolman, the merman, vampires, ghosts, chainsaw wielding hillbillies—don’t hit their mark and exact their cathartic purpose. When that catharsis is denied, the old gods rise from their depths and initiate a much larger, much more “real” nightmare. The invocation of cosmic horror in TCITW, although utilized toward a discussion of the secret merits of horror tropes, nevertheless underscores the difference between violence in the fictionalized personal sphere versus violence on a fictionalized grander scale.

Poe, whose body of work not only included the first detective story as well as the first horror story, provided the foundational bedrock of Weird Fiction, which was entirely concerned with facilitating an anxiety about the more universal problem of the infinite. How, in the vastness of space, which Poe, interestingly, recognized and described as so large that starlight took eons to reach us, could we possibly be of any cosmic value? How can our actions matter in the face of that abyss, which in Chambers transmutates into an interdimensional being invoked by reading a play, and in Lovecraft by reading a book, or invoking unfathomable monstrosities?

Cosmic horror is as an archetypal horror and aims to articulate, not the localized anxiety of the comparatively small beasts who prey on small, segregated groups, but an anxiety about the presence of the Real, which Zizek describes as “the primordial abyss which swallows everything, dissolving all identities – a figure well known in literature in its multiple guises, from E.A. Poe’s maelstrom and Kurtz’s “horror” at the end of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness to Pip from Melville’s Moby Dick who, cast to the bottom of the ocean, experiences the demon God:

(From Melville) Carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes /…/ Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke to it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.”

Responding to the traumatic sublimity of the Real creates the mental space in which the aforementioned characters operate and from which they utter their mad proclamations. To this list we can obviously add Ahab, who pursued the whale as an agent of the “demon God,” as well as the litany of artists in Chamber’s TKIY and the scientists of Lovecraft. In the latter tales, those protagonists are left psychologically shattered and in a state of living death. They enter into the head space of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Ahab, Pym, and their signifiers for the unknowable infinity of space—The King in Yellow, Cthulhu, Dagon, The Elder Gods—demarcate where their minds broke and saw beyond the limits of their comprehension. Zizek explains that the Real, “is not an external thing that resists being caught in the symbolic network, but the crack within the symbolic network itself. The Real as the monstrous Thing behind the veil of appearances.”

And so Carcosa, by these descriptions, finds its borders along the ridgeline of “the crack within the symbolic network,” which means that TKIY, for Errol Childress and others within the context of TD, is a description of “the monstrous thing behind the veil of appearances.” For Errol, whose mind has suffered a significant fracturing to the point of severe dissociative disorder, TKIY provides a center point around which all his personalities swirl, and whose totemization is the macabre physical pageantry of his unhinged human barbarity. That barbarity, visited upon him by his father (and perhaps others), is so overwhelmingly traumatic that it can only be understood as a demi-god (here locally explained as a voodoo totem—intertextually as that cosmic creature in TKIY play) who he believes empowers him to amplify and inflict that same trauma on the world at large.

Curiously, both Errol and Reggie Ledoux call Cohle a priest, and both characters announce to him that he is now in Carcosa. He hasn’t seen TKIY, nor was he at any point engaged in the activities either of those two men perpetrated. So why Cohle? The answer is in a scene we recall from earlier in the season where Cohle sees an image of a little girl on the side of the road whose visage inspires him to ask Marty, “Do you believe in ghosts?” Men marked by trauma tend to take on a particular appearance, what veterans call “the thousand yard stare,” but Cohle’s “crack in the symbolic network” is illustrated by the memory of his daughter, who is the animating force behind his unending desire to solve the murders of women and children. The space behind that crack, for Cohle, is the abyss itself—nothingness and incredulity. Errol’s and Ledoux’s insistence on Cohle’s Carcosan priesthood is their mistaking a good man carrying the burden of a deep psychic wound for their unhinged evil carrying their own.

The last lines of the show beautifully represent not only the importance of persistent friendship (though Rust and Marty’s friendship could be an entirely separate post of this length or longer), but also a suggestion about the place in the pantheon of American storytelling TD now holds. Those ruptures in the symbolic order are almost always represented by beaten and broken protagonists. Ahab, whose threat to “strike the sun if it insulted” him directly mirrors Marty’s description of Cohle as a man who would “pick a fight with the sky if he didn’t like its shade of blue,” sacrifices himself in an attempt to strike the thing “behind the pasteboard mask.” The relationship between Ahab and Moby Dick is synonymous with Cohle and his abyss. (Note here that TKIY belongs to Errol and the cult, and Cohle never defines the presence on the other side as such.) But, unlike Ahab, who could never reconcile himself to the whale, who could never forgive him for taking his leg, Cohle is embraced by the darkness which he identifies as his daughter and father, and makes peace with his trauma.

Rust: It’s just one story—the oldest.

Marty: What’s that?

Rust: Light vs. Dark.

Marty: Well, I know we aint in Alaska, but, it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.

Rust: Yeah, you’re right about that.

Later, Rust: Yeah, you’re lookin’ at it wrong. The sky, it aint.

Marty: How’s that?

Rust: I wouldn’t say it’s only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.

These lines make the conflict public once again. Metanarratives are stories that not only speak about the nature of storytelling but often draw attention to the story in a way that teaches you how to approach the medium itself. The Vietnam War, which is present throughout the show in the subtext, was a cosmic horror that didn’t need any monsterization. It was, to our country, the most devastating trauma we’ve likely gone through, and stands as a benchmark for all the other traumas that have happened since. But we were a younger country then, and things are changing. I read Cohle’s final line to echo Poe, whose work reflected an anxiety that anticipated, like Kafka, like Nietzsche, like Cosmic Horror, the changing face of modernity during the 20th century. From those perspectives, it’s easy to assume we are lost (except for Nietzsche, that is, who wholly constructed an empowering philosophy equal to the nightmarish dehumanization of the 20th century). But, if you remember Poe’s essay “Eureka,” you know that, in spite of all the darkness in the firmament, those stars are but the visible. They are the ones we see *now*. There are, and always will be, light travelling towards us, which means that, every so often, a new one will show up to change the face of the darkness. It’s an optimistic and powerful statement about our world, and in particular our country, which might just finally be moving from the traumatized adolescence of the 1960’s toward a state of atonement, one hero at a time.


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