Friday, August 2, 2013

Lovecraft and Cosmic Dread (2 August 2013)

“Of such great powers or beings there may be conceivably a survival... a survival of a hugely remote period when... consciousness was manifested, perhaps, in shapes and forms long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity... forms of which poetry and legend alone have caught a flying memory and called them gods, monsters, mythical beings of all sorts and kinds... “
 -        Algernon Blackwood

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
  -       H.P. Lovecraft, from The Call of Cthulhu (1926)

As I’ve said in an earlier blog, I have been intrigued by the Lovecraftian mythos for some time, now.  I’d heard about Lovecraft over the years, and took him to be – by reputation – a genius of poetry and prose that moved the horror genre way beyond Poe and other 19th century writers.  But when I first read HPL last year, I was let down; with the stories themselves on one level, but also with the way in which Lovecraft limits the human mind and makes the universe out to be a forbidding place.  The early stories I read seemed very sophomoric; they were filled with gross generalizations; the prose lacking descriptive concreteness and specificity.  The narrator seemed to assume that the reader would be frightened just by being told that he or she should be afraid of what was confronting the characters in the story.  “Oh, there’s something unbelievably scary here; you’d better go insane!”  Really? 

Then there is the pervasive “cosmic dread” that earmarks Lovecraft’s narratives.  I have read that Lovecraft was a skeptic and an atheist,[1]  that he was not an occultist; that he criticized occultism openly in letters and in public, and once had an opportunity to write a book debunking the occult with Harry Houdini.  He had explored religions when he was young, and found them all wanting.  Though some of his narrators often evince a Puritanism that strikes a modern reader as anachronistic, this thread in HPL’s prose does not come from any religious belief, though it may simply stem from his New England upbringing in the early 20th century.  Lovecraft’s horror seems to me to stem not from religion but from what has been called “cosmic dread;” that sense of terror arising from the immensity of the Cosmos and the corresponding sense of our own smallness and insignificance.
This dread is understandable, when you look at it in its historical context.  Lovecraft lived through the early 20th century, during which our understanding of the universe was transformed.  In the late 19th century, it was believed that the Milky Way was all there was to the universe; that our galaxy was the universe.  Then, in the early decades of the 20th century, astronomy made discoveries that pushed the horizons of the universe much, much further out.  It was then realized that our galaxy was just one of many – perhaps millions, later billions – of galaxies in the universe, and that the universe was actually expanding.   It is understandable that people who lived through this period might feel ‘smaller’ by comparison with the vastly extended horizons of the universe, and that some would develop a sense of dread in the face of what they experienced as the overwhelming immensity of the cosmos.
‘Cosmic dread’ seems to be what fueled a lot of HPL’s nightmares that were in the background of his stories, according to some sources.  It seems that his mythos – that of Cthulhu and his minions – may stem mainly from a fear of what might be “out there” in the vast cosmos, not really from any fear of supernatural beings, even if his stories often speak of demons and devils and other conventional religious beings?  According to this view, Cthulhu is to be understood as an alien, more than as a supernatural monster; he and his minions are only metaphorically to be allied with the traditional “infernal forces” from “hell.”  _At least this is how various sources I’ve read have painted him.

The problem I have with HPL’s view of things is not with the sense of “cosmic dread” in itself, which is understandable, especially given HPL's sociocultural context.  It’s not that the universe isn’t indifferent to us; it is.  It’s not that there aren’t things out there in the universe that are deadly; there are.  It’s not that our existence isn’t fragile; it is—we could be wiped out by a single meteor impact or a Gamma Ray burst from a star in our sector of the Galaxy – at any time.   Rather, it’s the overall sense I get – from the stories I have read thus far – that rationality is inept and that science will, by ‘piecing it all together,’ eventually reveal something devastating to us – this is what HPL seems to have expected, and its what disappoints me in his fictional world, as it is not necessarily true.
The problem is that there’s an irrationalism here; and it’s leaning heavily into obscurantism.  The two quotes at the head of this blog seem to me to sum up much of the Lovecraftian ‘cosmic dread’ that I’ve noticed in the stories I’ve now read – the fear that the universe is not only vast and indifferent, but necessarily populated with things that will destroy us if we awaken them or let them know we are here.  It’s a nightmare world; one which does not really represent the universe as it is. It is vast and empty and dangerous—but it’s not ‘out to get us’ (at least not intentionally).  There is a fatalism in HPL that goes beyond amor fati (the ‘embrace’ or ‘love’ of fate); there does not seem to be much ‘love of life’ in these tales.  It is all dread and fear and hopelessness.  There is no way out, it seems.  Yet, from a more day-lit perspective, we are here and our species has survived for a couple hundred thousand years or more.  We have adapted to our environment, and without evidence of Cthulhu-like creatures and their minions, there would seem to be no reason to fear them in such a ‘paranoid’ way.
Having adapted to our environment is no assurance of survival.  There are many threats to our existence, but none of them – at least on a cosmic scale – are intentional.  More locally, there might be people working on bio-weapons who intend to release them on the world; haters of humanity who want to see our tenure on this planet ended.  Within our own environment there might well be microbes evolving that could turn us all into zombies (lol).  But until we have evidence that any of these threats is a real and present danger, there is no reason to assume they are real or spend our nights and days in terror of their realization.  Lovecraft, if not a supernaturalist, does seem to have lived in terror of the things that might emerge from the dark vastness of the Universe.
Last night, a friend and I were discussing this, and got to comparing HPL with Edgar Allan Poe.  I suggested that Poe was actually much more of a rationalist; much more of an Enlightenment person – than Lovecraft, who seems to have been Victorian and prudish long after those things should have become passé (if ever they are; there certainly are too many people today who act and think like Victorians).  The things that terrified Poe were usually rooted in some psychological reality; some subjective fault or diminishment of person—that rendered them susceptible to hallucination, apparitions and the operations of guilt.  Some of Poe’s stories are about terror rather than horror (e.g., “Descent into the Maelstrom”) and there are stories where there is an actual, palpable, supernatural element.  However, on the whole, I feel I am reading someone who is rational when I read Poe; albeit someone who is grappling with the darker side of life, and who may have eventually succumbed to it.  With HPL’s stories, it is different.  The vague generalizations he makes and the lack of descriptive detail in many of his stories, the over-the-top exclamations of horror and terror without any palpable presentation of the object of that fear (even in The Call of Cthulhu (1926), which I thought was supposed to be one of his better tales) – all these seem to me to be mere ravings.  They do not seem to reach a level of genuinely literary expression.
So why am I interested in a Lovecraftian mythos?  Perhaps I like the ‘spookiness’ of the settings (as exemplified in the game; Mansions of Madness) and – as I take it as fiction – I’m intrigued by what it reveals to us about our subconscious fears and existential limitations.  Perhaps I am intrigued more with his legacy, than the canon of the writer’s works?

This sense of the ‘fragility of life’ vs our ‘survival potential’ extends to my interest in games, too.  I like games that play with fate and choice and the ability as well as the inability to work our way through situations to a desirable conclusion.  Life is to be lived; and sometimes we come up against insurmountable odds—and then we fail.  On other occasions, we are able to make decisions that lead us to an acceptable – even a desired – end state.  I like the way in which the kinds of games we are playing provide a spectrum of experiences; some more difficult and others easier—leading to a variety of end-states.  They are all – at their best – metaphorical of life-as-lived, and can function as meditations on the living of life.
When I first saw the game Mansions of Madness, what caught my attention was the cover pic; the detectives (as I soon learned they were) going into the old house, carrying various tools and artifacts.  It evoked in me my love of the old haunted house story; it drew me into that genre in which you don’t know what’s around the next corner and yet you want – or need – to find out.  In the house in MofM, you are usually seeking some object or seeking to find someone who has disappeared, but along the way you wake things up; or perhaps you just happen to be there when the things from the other ‘dimension’ are crossing-over into our world.  And then you have to struggle to either complete your task or, sometimes, just get out alive.
Someone told me once that the mechanics of MofM were set up in such a way as to prevent the detectives from ever winning, but that to me would be loading the deck against life and hope.  I don’t know if I would play a game in which there wasn’t at least a fighting chance of surviving, at least occasionally.  I was pleased the first time I survived the scenario we were playing, and I did it by playing all four female detectives and leaving the gun-toting men out of it. (lol)  Well, Jenny is a gun-toting woman_ and a good aim, but the other three have other ways of defending themselves and defeating all the zombies and the like.  It was “girl power” all the way.
Once again, this makes me think about the role of horror in an earthen spirituality.
Horror – like Terror – is a way of exploring limitations, exploring our fears (analogically or through visual representation of horrible things), and experiencing what it would be like to be in life-threatening situations, without actually having to be in them.  I know what it feels like to watch or read what I think are really good horror and terror stories, and how reflective it makes me when the film or book is over.  There is a sense with horror that – since it is about a supernatural threat – one is dealing with something imaginary, as such things as vampires, werewolves, zombies and so forth don’t really exist.  So it is the story, the characters and their arc through the tale that matters most and engages me.  But with terror, I am engaged more directly with the threat that drives the plot.  Horror is a genre that has to be analogical, allegorical or at least represent primal fears to stimulate a genuine ‘fear response.’ Terror is more ‘realistic;’ at least in the way in which the threat to our existence is presented (i.e, war, ‘terrorism,’ kidnapping scenarios, the representation of serial killers and their victims, etc.)—yet even in these stories there has to be good characterization, astute plotting, and believable character development to engage us with the action of the story in a genuine and spiritual way.

[1] One place I read about this was in Daniel Harms article in Fortean Times, 2004—“Lovecraft as Debunker”]

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