“Et in Arcadia Ego”

Review: “Et in Arcadia Ego”, Brian Stableford, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

The tone of this intellectual horror story is elegiac because it is about the passing of Arcadia and all it symbolizes and the beginning of the modern age. The combination of Lovecraftian elements and Ancient Greece is something, I believe, Lovecraft himself would have appreciated.

At the start we are told the Great God Pan is dead and history is in gestation meaning the documents that will produce history are in gestation but haven’t been collected yet. The chronology we call history has “not yet settled into a mathematical pattern”. 

Our protagonist is a poet who has come across a dryad’s body. He has seen the shadowy forms of dryad before but never one in broad daylight. Her body is pierced with an iron spike which he tries to pull out of her. The spirit folk are being hunted down and exterminated as “incompatible with the quest of civilization” and agriculture. It’s a shameful matter and killing the spirit folk is not talked about. The poet himself is ambivalent in his loyalty to civilization.

While trying to pull the spike out of the dryad, the poet is attacked by a faun and almost strangled to death except that one of the oldest of the fauns, a satyr, pulls the younger faun away. These mythical creatures speak Pelasgoi, a dying language spoken only by people like the poet’s household servant as Greek civilization spreads into Arcadia. The creatures are surprised the poet speaks it well.

The satyr says the dryad won’t live, but she’ll have a better death if they can get her to a cave.

The satyr asks about the lyre the poet carries. The poet says he bought it in Athens, and it is, reputedly, Orpheus’ lyre. 

There is a discussion of how Athens and Greece represent the future of civilization with its measurements and specializations and, unspoken by the poet, its “apparatus of war and genocide”. 

The faun doesn’t like the poet, thinks he has no business in Arcadia. The poet reminds him “It was Arcadia.” The satyr wants to know why the poet is here. Greeks, when they are not warring with each other, roam the countryside with dogs and weapons and iron spikes for trees to kill the dryads inside. The poet says he is learning the skills of the lyre and poetry. He is there to learn how Pan can be dead, and he thinks Orpheus’ lyre will help him get answers about that from the spirit folk. 

The faun wants the satyr to kill the poet. The satyr tells the faun he doesn’t understand what’s going on.

The sound of baying dogs is heard and the satyr tells the poet he must carry the dryad to a cave.  The satyr cannot, but he will carry the poet’s lyre. And the poet probably won’t be coming out of that cave. 

On the trip, the poet talks about how the conquered people of Arcadia will learn about new gods like Hephaestos and Ares and, unfortunately, Aphrodite. If the Arcadians had the equivalent of Aphrodite, she would no doubt “represent a purer lust”. The satyr says purity is a “social nicety”.  The poet is surprised a satyr can “play at philosophy”. 

The poet mentions that his servants had prayed to their gods to strike their enemies down and prayed to Shub-Niggurath (which is, of course, an appropriate Lovecraftian god given it’s the Goat with a Thousand Young). He then again says he doesn’t believe Pan is dead. He will be a god the Greeks will keep, that will haunt the wild. The satyr again repeats that Pan is dead.  His shade “cannot be tempted by the lyre” or resurrected as the poet says. 

The poet then believes he has entered a world where the satyr, faun, and dryad can be seen fully. The satyr tells him that’s not so. They are in man’s world and must flee the coming dogs. They must go to the cave and “seek a better death”. 

The poet speculates as to why the satyr isn’t carrying the dryad. Perhaps the combination of the satyr (a personification of lust) and the dryad (an innate object of lust) would be some unworkable combination. But, then, the poet speculates that both love and lust are complex; “lust can be assuaged” and lust can be futile. 

This leads him to ponder how nature can be both fecund and wasteful. (This is another example of Stableford’s characteristic concern with evolutionary processes since the fecundity of nature in producing life that can be shaped by selection pressures is a foundation of biological evolution.)

The poet again asks the satyr why he has entered man’s world. The satyr wants to die in the cave and not face the dogs. The poet again says he can use the lyre to calm the pursuing dogs. 

That may be so, says the satyr, but it won’t protect them from the men that are chasing them.  Orpheus charmed the dead, but the dead are weak. It was the living that tore Orpheus into pieces.  He says that, whatever price the poet paid for the lyre in Athens, “it was sold in desperation”. The poet asks if he is confirming it really was Orpheus’ harp. All the satyr will say is that he’s seen it before and heard it played before. “ . . . it cannot be owned or trusted.” The satyr says the lyre won’t protect them unless they reach the cave. 

The poet contemplates that Pan could have protected the Pelagosi from the Greek invaders with, of course, panic. But, for some reason, Pan is playing dead and allowing his followers to be hunted. 

The poet offers a silent prayer: “Io Pan! . . . Iä Shub-Niggurath” 

As they climb a hill with no cave in sight, he offers another prayer to Shub-Niggurath.

(Spoilers ahead) 

The sky suddenly darkens, alien stars appear. Now he is in a different world. And the air is different and, when the poet tries to play a soothing melody, it is “something akin to panic”.  However, the satyr and faun chuckle in laugh in a way that mixes delight with terror. But, as the satyr predicted, the men, unlike the dogs, are not affected by the tune and draw closer. They start throwing spears. 

The poet appeals to Shub-Niggurath a third time. Unlike when he was playing the earlier melody, he doesn’t feel “part-tree”. He feels possessed by something. He now understands the linking of music, mathematics, and the nature of the universe. Even though he is possessed by Shub-Niggurath,

He saw everything, and played the music that was far more fundamental than the music of the spheres:  the music of the ultimate weaving of reality itself. 

The men are struck dead. But now the poet must decide what to do. He is in the “cosmic cave”. This may be the cave the satyr was referring to but, if that’s the case, why didn’t he tell the poet to play his lyre?

The poet can return home, but it won’t be Arcadia now. But Arcadia is where “history, philosophy, mathematics, and science were in gestation”. Using the power of the lyre, he creates the future of Greece and Rome and, “in the space of three or four bars”, his own forgetfulness that he was possessed by Shub-Niggurath.

But there is sadness here.

. . . he not only saw the unfolding of the history of civilization, in all its awful, relentless logic, but the legacy of history, of science, of calculation, of understanding. And he saw that it was not only the particular hunters pursuing the satyrs that he had blasted with his curse, but billions of human hunters to come, in whom the seeds of knowledge would be the seeds of destruction.

He knows humanity will not endure more than 10,000 years because it devotes itself to “civilization and commerce, whose entire life was built on lies and calculation”. This echoes the poet’s earlier thoughts on the grandeur of Greece and its nascent math and commerce and calculation.

The new world will “not be Arcadia, but perhaps something akin to it”. 

The poet then falls asleep and wakes up with a naked, “entirely human”, woman beside him.  There are corpses of men about and wandering dogs. 

He picks up his lyre and is comforted by its familiar sound and strangely glad it only plays familiar notes though he has a “fugitive memory” of it playing something else. The woman wakes up. The poet is oddly proud she is there as if he heroically saved her life thus implying this is the dryad altered 

The story then ends with noting that history doesn’t record the name the poet gave the woman or the name she gave to herself. But the poet will be known as Pythagoras, the father of mathematics and mysticism. He has also forgotten that he ever wondered if the “great and paradoxical Pan” was dead.

There is, of course, the bitterness that human civilization is doomed by the very wonders of science and civilization. Pythagoras lived from 570 to 495 BC, so 10,000 years of civilization puts us at the date of 9400 AD for civilization’s end. Stableford is not a writer I associate with pastoralism or a celebration of primitivism. But he acknowledges tradeoffs. Arcadia has no civilization, but we are to mourn it for what it was while acknowledging what it wasn’t. This is shown by the dryad. An innate object of lust from a time when the world is, according to the poet, purer, she becomes just a human woman. Arcadia’s creatures go to the “cosmic cave” to die. There is no escaping human progress.

That cave may be a metaphor for all of human existence before written history begins. It may also may a metaphor for a churning chaos from which possibilities may be precipitated, a cosmic fecundity that Pythagoras may select history from. 

There is also the diminishing of art (or, at least, of a poet) in exchange for mathematics and mysticism. What are we to make of Pan being dead? Is he really dead? Yes, he is dead, and Arcadia is gone. We are told that Pan is dead and chaos is in the land. So, Stableford dispenses with linking panic and chaos.

Pan gives a sort of order to Arcadia, but it’s not the chaos and fecundity, the evolutionary processes that can be introduced to the world by the Goat of a Thousand Young. And, of course, this is another story using Lovecraftian gods to depict the idea of knowledge as a dangerous thing, the giver and taker of civilization.

The story itself is from a period where Stableford wrote other stories linking the strange and uncanny to music: The Legacy of Erich Zann (2011) and The Quintessence of August: A Romance of Possession (2011). They also depict music as a force that can possess the human mind.

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