The Horrifying Real at the Mountains of Madness (Part II)

By Nicholas Stock


This post is available to read offline as a PDF here, and as an audiofile below.



Last time, I proposed that sending students into the mountains as a metaphor for their educational journey might yield a Lovecraftian encounter. I will go deeper into this proverbial mountain, utilizing the Lacanian perspective, to confront the formless and horrifying real. Danforth’s narrative in The Mountains of Madness recounts the imposing necropolis that he uncovers beneath the mountain. It is this place that we, as educators, dwell in, the ‘place’ that the teacher is thrown into that ‘puts [them] in a position to teach’ (Lacan, 2005: 5). As such, this place, ostensibly the school for teachers today, might mirror the sunken city of Lovecraft’s tale. The massive and imposing nature of it,

vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie (Lovecraft, 2018: 35)

mirrors the globalised, massified architecture of schooling that we now find ourselves amidst. Schools litter every corner of every city and town, a ‘virus-like, grotesque’ and ‘quickening’ advance (Stock, 2019: 405); indeed, schools arise in all places all over the place where they are least expected, or perhaps least welcome (Peim, 2021). This formidable network of educational architecture is beyond that which we can now perceive, both in its physical manifestation as global schooling and its dominating conceptual nature.

But like Lovecraft’s decaying necropolis, a place where the symbolic order no longer holds meaning, might not the school too be another putrefying object that does not belong? A short history of this place reminds us that the school’s very existence is a decaying remnant from the church. Indeed, ‘the first popular school systems in Europe were established by the churches as instruments for the intensification and dissemination of Christian spiritual guidance’ (Hunter, 1994: 55), at the same time they were being used as an elitist vehicle as the public-school throughout the nineteenth century.1 These previous forms persist; many schools in England attempt to emulate, or simulate, the experience offered by the archaic public-school system. Public-schools are now buying academy trusts, and replications of them are being built around the world. Even the earliest comprehensive schools in England are built around the logic of the public-school apparatus (Hunter, 1994). Thus, it is a relic that lingers, another ruin in our midst. To turn to this place again in the hope that students might slow down and find new orientations is to orientate in an ancient ruin of another epoch, a place designed to perpetuate inequality, not combat it.

The school’s desperation to continue to find meaning in our modern age incurs additions to its symbolic order, a clogging of the cracks with claims of social justice. As Jamieson notes, our march to the top is certainly the wrong way to go, but what lurks within might be just as terrifying. For her proposal that we come out of COVID-19 by making ‘space for individuals to be more contemplative’ only proposes that we ask students to dig deeper into the mountain no matter what terrors may lurk within. We might also recall that, whilst in the depths of the ancient city, Dyer and Danforth encountered the formless shoggoth, the ‘symbolization of the Lacanian Real’ which ‘escapes language because [of] its own frightening unknown nature’ (Luque, 2013: 189). If we plunge deeper into the mountain, we are to encounter the horrifying Real. We must wonder, therefore, whether students’ journey in school being a contemplative and meandering one may spell an encounter with their own shapeless, formless Real – the indefinable horror of that place. Once the symbolic order breaks down, we might see that this contemplative detour from the top is only another signifier to bolster the romantic fantasy that school can save our children (Clarke, 2019), and perhaps us too. The Real of education, if ever we could encounter such a thing, is a formless monstrosity without the structure of ascent we so commonly ascribe to it. Calling for a change in reorientation towards this structure only further serves to maintain this symbolic order: perhaps the Real monster that we must encounter is how education emancipates and liberates little, but compulsively repeats often.2

As time goes on the cracks start to show in the symbolic order of education, like the crumbling masonry of the ancient structures in Lovecraft’s tale. Still, many hope to tinker away and save the architecture. The gaps are plugged, and education just goes on. But its structure of ‘echoing, vaporous, wormily honeycombed mountains of madness’ contains monsters, ‘viscous jelly’ (Lovecraft, 2018: 78) that lurks in the gaps, the ‘daemoniac shoggoths’ that ‘have no voice’ (117). Though we cannot understand these monsters, we should be afraid of them, just as we should be afraid of what lurks beyond the educational symbolic order.3



1 Another important relic that I do not pursue here is the school as a potent colonial apparatus. Macauley Schools, for example, were used in India to ideologically colonize Indian subjects through the teaching of English, a problem that lingers in the raciolinguistic discipline of the contemporary classroom (Cushing and Carter, 2021)


2 Lacan claims that the Real might be thought of as masochistic enjoyment. It is not difficult to see how this could describe “Real education” as opposed to the romantic myth we so commonly envision (an imaginary form of education, to use Lacanian vernacular). Teachers endure a relentless self-flagellation of marking, research, planning, grant capture and so forth in their pursuit of pleasure. Allen and Bojesen (2018) pursue this thread, something that I will explore further in the future.


3 Of course, this piece is only another strut in the frame of the symbolic order. We edu-researchers cannot stand outside it, just as Danforth never escaped the terrifying cry of the Shoggoth. Educational critique is only, ever, more education, more of the same. The compulsion to repeat remains.




Allen, A. and Bojesen, E. (2018) ‘The Economic Problem of Masochism in Education.’ Confero: Essays on Education, Philosophy and Politics 6(1). 55-85.

Clarke, M. (2019) ‘Education beyond reason and redemption: a detour through the death drive.’ Pedagogy, Culture & Society 27:2. 183-197, DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2018.1447508.

Cushing, I., and Carter, A. (2021) ‘Using young adult fiction to interrogate raciolinguistic ideologies in schools.’ Literacy. [online]

Hunter, I. (1994) Rethinking the School: Subjectivity, bureaucracy, criticism. Australia: Allen and Unwin.

Lacan, J. (2005) My Teaching. London: Verso.

Lovecraft, H. P. (2018) At the Mountains of Madness [from Astounding Stories, 1936]. London: Penguin.

Luque, J. L. P. de (2013) ‘Lovecraft, Reality, and the Real.’ Lovecraft Annual 7. 187-203.

Peim, N. (2021) ‘The meaning of life: the ontological question concerning education through the lens of Catherine Malabou’s contribution to thinking.’ Educational Philosophy and Theory 53(10). 1011-1023, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2019.1707659.

Stock, N. (2019) ‘And what rough beast? An ontotheological exploration of education as a being.’ Educational Philosophy and Theory 51(4). 404-412, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2018.1472573.

About the Author

Nicholas Stock

Nicholas Stock recently completed his PhD, which he received from the University of Birmingham. He is a lecturer of English Literature in a sixth form college. He is interested in ironic approaches to education, particularly those that embrace literature, media or poststructuralism, and in radical educational ontologies. 

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