Assignment Seven, Vacation Necronomicon School: “Words, and Yet More Words” (The Outsider).

Your assignment today […] Cthulhu Chick recently formatted Lovecraft’s original works into eBook format, a process which allowed her to make a count of Lovecraft’s favorite words.

A Fainting Spell

The word “Faint (ed/ing)” occurs 189 times in the collected published works of H.P. Lovecraft, and it is almost his most commonly used word.

Readers will remember that Lovecraft was a self-taught expert on 18th century literature and letters, as well as being prone to fainting. In that old tangle of history and literature there is a curious and interesting set of meanings that cast light on the word “faint”. “Feign” and “Faint” and “Fain” all have the same root in old French, from which they passed together into Middle English and thus into the modern language. I will suggest that this conjoined historic root imbues the word “faint” with the idea of the human imagination, and links it to a certain class of refined persons. Outsiders, if you like.

To “feign” or to make a “feignt” is to contrive or to imaginatively invent, in terms of making a public show of such in order to deceive. It is the very stuff of poets…

‘And all that poets feign of bliss and joy’ — Shakespeare, King Henry VI.

To “feign” is also a deceptive physical move in swordplay (“The length of the strip allows fencers plenty of room to feignt”), just as it is a literary pretence in the wordplay of poets and in the verbal strategies used in courtly and political dissembling.

Somewhat similarly to “feign”, the word “fain” means to ask or desire (in a wishful or anticipating way) for something one has imagined, hoping it will happen in the near future…

‘Yea, man and birds are fain of climbing high.’ — Shakespeare, King Henry VI.

This again links it to the act of the active imagination, this time in the mental placing of an action at a distance in space and future time.

There is a further inflection that seems relevant to Lovecraft. This is “fainéant”, a very old word and also rooted in the old French. It meant “an idler”, which is what some people have wrongly accused Lovecraft of being throughout his life merely because he had no regular gainful drudge-work. The meaning of “fainéant” thus links “faint” and “fainting” and “fain” to the concept of the ‘idle’ and scholarly gentleman, who speaks softly or faintly, yet who has also been educated to be learned in the poetic arts of “feigning”. Incidentally, Lovecraft was said by some to have a faint and piping voice — although possibly this perception was partly filtered through a class-based view of him as an old-fashioned aristocratic New Englander, who so ‘weirdly’ clung to speaking in the old accent of the 18th century British upper classes in the face of the modernity of the 1920s and 30s.

It is thus interesting that “faint” could once have been used in place of “feigned” or “feignt”. In the 18th century John Ash’s The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1775) states that “faint” is an obsolete term for “feigned” or “feignt”…

Faint (adj. obsolete): Feigned.

Admittedly this may just be due to the standardisation of spelling at that time. But obviously the words were at one time difficult to distinguish from each other.

One can note that real bodily fainting is not only caused by fear and horror or exhaustion. There is also the fainting caused by ecstasy, so memorably enshrined in art in Bernini’s sculpture “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”. In ecstatic fainting, for Lovecraft, the meanings of “faint” or a “feign” seem to come together, in terms of his undoubted ability to transmute places into fiction. Writing to his aunt of his first impressions of New York, Lovecraft claims he almost fainted with “aesthetic exaltation” (a phrase and concept he probably had from Proust, possibly in combination with Clive Bell’s Art of 1914) in his initial response to the sublimity and power of the city (Lorca had a very similar response). This interestingly links the idea of fainting not only with the simple “blanking out” of consciousness that our dull modern medical conception associates it with, but also with the response to an attuned act of accepting aesthetic impressions.

A link between the environmentally “faint” (i.e.: “a faint glimmer”) with the poetical “feignt” might be also be made, by remembering the common 18th and 19th century rhetoric that suggested sensitive writers and poets and other outsiders had the power to perceive faint impressions unseen by ordinary people. Such individuals (“men of feeling and perception”) were commonly deemed to be perceptive to faint shimmerings or radiances, delicate tints or emanations, soft hums and whispers in the air, faint tracks or paths or patterns found in real places that could later be transmuted through imaginative literary “feignts” into fresh paths in the cultural heritage.

‘To be ‘spiritual’ around 1900 was, in the most nondenominational of senses, to be receptive, contemplative, inwardly quiet. It was, in the most nonscientific of senses, to be attentive to “vibrations” emanating from other hearts, other beings, other times.’ — Hillel Schwartz, Noise and Silence : the soundscape and spirituality.

18th Century ‘fainting couch’.

To physically faint is the sign in the literary Gothic of the high status and highly-sensitive individual. One “faints away”, and drifts away from our usual world. Ordinary mortals then content themselves with the resulting words that may be…

‘caught from the hand of the fainting poet’ — from a discussion of the state of mind of the poets of the early 1800s, in Poet Lore 1898.

An 1837 poem refers to the way that the Muse… “Shone on the fainting Poet’s eye upturn’d”, suggesting the phrase was commonly understood at that time — and those who know the poetry of the 1700s may be able to say if the phrase was even then a relic of that earlier century. Nevertheless, there was a common notion of the swooning sensibilities of poets. It was present at least as late as 1923, when André Chevrillon could write with a straight face of…

Shelley, the poet of the fainting ecstatic soul” — Three Studies in English Literature: Kipling, Galsworthy, Shakespeare.

This association of fainting with the stereotype can doubtless be traced back into shamanism (think of the ever-dancing Sufi dervishes fainting with ecstatic visions, or the Mongolian shamans and their association with fainting) and the most ancient folk-explanations for fainting in humans — which perhaps once worked in close association with the shamanic idea that animals which faint for protection are ‘tricksters’ or had had their spirit touched or borrowed by the totemic trickster-spirit of their kind.

The once-common phrase of “having a fainting spell” also associates the word “fainting” with magic enacted at a distance through words (“spell” potentially meaning not only “time period” but also “a magic spell”, again a form of poetry). When one faints physically, one is suddenly spiritless and breathless, one ‘loses heart’ or becomes ‘fainthearted’ — as if an unheard magic spell has been cast by some unknown force to pierce one’s heart. This notion of a spiritual attack echoes again in the similar and once-common phrase: “an attack of the vapours”. The idea of an attack or psychic invasion can be linked to the idea of religious ecstasy that is in traditional religion called “transverberation”. This is the medieval Catholic term for ecstatic fainting (Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” was also called “The Transverberation of Saint Teresa”, before the term was lost to common usage), in which the heart of a saint was deemed to have been pierced by a visiting angel. One faints because one has received penetrating impressions from other dimensions, impressions that are beyond language and which cannot be spoken because one’s very breath has been snatched away. Unspeakable, if you like.

Further reading:

Heaton, Kenneth W. (2006). “Faints, Fits, and Fatalities from Emotion in Shakespeare’s Characters: survey of the canon”. The British Medical Journal of the 21st December 2006; 333, 1335.

Scarlett, E.P. (1965). “The Vapors”. Archive of Internal Medicine, 1965, Vol. 116, 1, pp. 142-146.

Smith, Philip E.M. (2005). “Fainting Painting”. Practical Neurology 2005, 5, pp. 366-369. [Neurology and Art special issue. Smith gives a survey of fainting in 19th century art]

Smith, Philip E.M. (2006). “Fainting In Classical Art”. International Review of Neurobiology 2006, Vol. 74, pp. 79-88. [Section VII is “Men Fainting”]