Wednesday 28 October 2020

The Tragedy of H.P. Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is rightly heralded as one of the greatest horror writers of all time, if not the greatest. His lurid prose hinted at indescribable terrors lurking beyond human comprehension, tapping into the fundamental existential angst of modern society. In the wake of the Great War, when the optimism of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras was inexorably shattered in the blasphemies of flesh wrent and consumed by industrial warfare, Lovecraft invented a pantheon of unfathomably monstrous, blasphemous gods who saw humans as mere food for their march through vast cosmic space, if they thought of humankind at all. Though not overtly successful during his lifetime, Lovecraft's nihilistic post-war view of life came to resonate with society imagining itself spiralling ever more and more towards meaninglessness. Yet, no matter how hard he railed against it, meaning is inescapable.

The thesis statement of his work can be found in the opening refrains of his most well-known story, The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1928 amidst the abandon of the Roaring Twenties: 
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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
His horror is rooted in the "vertigo of the infinite"... The notion that humanity's small place in the cosmos - displaced from the centre of space, morals, and intellect, toppled from the pinnacle of natural order - is a source of dread for the psyche. Lovecraft imagines that our ignorance of our desperate, meaningless position in a blind, pitiless, indifferent universe is our only salvation. Not to know is better than to know, because the truth is literally too maddening to be comprehended. Throughout his stories, Lovecraft introduces humans to the reality beyond their ken, and while they may be successful in (temporarily) stopping the crawling chaos from consuming the Earth, they are no triumphal heroes. Nor are they the shallow sort of fashionable nihilist who imagines themselves heroic for "staring into the abyss." Victory often comes at the cost of their own sanity, if not lives. 

Lovecraft's cosmic vision is, in a sense, a manifestation of Friedrich Nietzsche's moral philosophy. Nietzsche theorized a world "beyond good and evil," in which God had died and any concept of morals along with him. Few modern atheists are motivated to take their beliefs (or lack thereof) to the extent that Nietzsche had, contenting themselves with a kind of vague "Godless Christianity" which imagines that roughly Christian moral precepts can be maintained in the absence of a worldview that legitimizes those precepts. Nietzsche explained that without that legitimizing worldview, God, the precepts cannot hold. In a Godless universe, there is no good or evil, only what you can do and what you cannot do... A heroic exercise of the Will to Power. 

Yet Lovecraft take's Nietzsche's philosophy even further. The German philosopher's concept of the heroic, the ethos of nobility, the "master morality"... That is itself Nietzsche's attempt to smuggle in some kind of dignity for the human person in a universe in which dignity does not exist. Lovecraft goes beyond "beyond good and evil". He once wrote "all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large." That includes the heroic embrace of nihilism as well. "[O]ne must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all."

All horror has its origins in the "vertigo of the infinite" in its own fashion, even the Gothics whose forms and concerns Lovecraft wholly rejected. It is the nature of that "infinite" which marks one type of horror from another. If one was to be so bold as to distill all of horror down to two categories for rhetorical purposes, there is the horror that God Does Exist and the horror that God Does Not Exist.  The horror that God Does Exist is the horror of the latter Gothics, of the classic monster films of Universal Studios, and even the horror implicit to Christianity itself. It proposes a universe of infinite meaning and purpose, of infinite Good and nearly infinite Evil, of the extremes of the sublime and the beautiful, where there is no rest for the weary soul except in God, for the entire universe is a battleground between God and the Devil, every person a soldier (whether they realize it or not), and every human decision spells cosmic victory or retreat. It is the horror that everything matters. The most terrifying fate in the horror of God Does Exist is damnation, the greatest goal is salvation.

Lovecraft's genre was the horror that God Does Not Exist. It is the horror of his revolutionary work, of Slasher and gore movies, and of modern existential angst. It proposes the Godless, purposeless, meaningless universe heretofore described, and a meaningless, impotent humanity to occupy a tiny portion of it. It is the horror that nothing matters. The most terrifying fate in the horror of God Does Not Exist is to be eaten. The greatest goal is to survive, as pointless as it may be. 

Herein lies the tragedy of Lovecraft and his entire genre of horror. Freed from the shackles of finite human concerns and conceptions, working beyond "beyond good and evil", Lovecraft could only imagine a universe that was merely more evil. In his pantheon of interstellar and interdimensional intelligences, he could only conceive of ones who were, to quote H.G. Wells, "vast, cool, and unsympathetic." Lovecraft could never imagine that these inscrutable entities could be more compassionate than human compassion, more spiritual than human spirituality, or more loving than human love. Had he done so, he simply would have invented God all over again. 

The fundamental problem plaguing Lovecraft and all such philosophers and fetishists is that "good" and "evil" are actually not some kind of physical properties unto themselves. They are simply descriptors of behaviours. We do not say that you have charity and kindness and honesty and courage and goodness; we say that you have charity and kindness and honesty and courage, which are good. We do not say that "sin" is some kind of separate and distinct thing; we say that the sins are the habits of gluttony, lust, greed, pride, envy, wrath, and sloth. "Good" and "evil" are categories of real things, actual behaviours, which are themselves unavoidable. One is never "beyond" good and evil. One merely becomes insensible to the categories. And typically, one becomes insensible to the categories because they are excusing indulgence in the category called "evil". Nietzsche's "master morality" was not a wholesale rejection of "good" and "evil", but merely an embrace of wrath and pride, gluttony and greed, and not forgetting lust. God has died, and so everything is permissible. 

As pointed out by G.K. Chesterton, "This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, 'beyond good and evil,' because he had not the courage to say, 'more good than good and evil,' or, 'more evil than good and evil.' Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, 'the purer man,' or 'the happier man,' or 'the sadder man,' for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says 'the upper man,' or 'over man,' a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being 'higher,' do not know either."

So Lovecraft likewise does not truly move beyond "good" and "evil", or even beyond "beyond good and evil." To move beyond them would be an impossibility, for it would mean resurrecting God, a goodness surpassing good. He simply cannot see the resonance of good with his concept of the universe. He sees no virtue in charity, or kindness, or any of that bosh. He cannot even countenance courage in the face of his horrors. He cannot imagine a goodness surpassing goodness, but has no problem imagining an evil surpassing evil. He felt compelled to get rid of the good, and was only left with the evil.

Evil, for as strong and absolute as Lovecraft attempted to make it, is banal. In his universe devoid of God but not of devils, his devils are not really inscrutable at all. They are merely grotesque amplifications of well-worn sins. At the literal centre of Lovecraft's universe lies his anti-God, Azazthoth, the "Blind Idiot God", "that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity... whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time..." What is Azathoth but sloth and gluttony writ large? 

So too is Lovecraft's most famous monster, Cthulhu, his Christ parody ("For that is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die" is Lovecraft's corruption of the Christian Apostles Creed). Cthulhu lies slothfully asleep, until he can be awakened to resume a march of wrath and gluttony. Nyarlathotep the great deceiver is described by Lovecraft himself as "The strange dark One to whom the fellahs bowed / Silent and lean and cryptically proud" (emphasis mine). Dagon, of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, is based loosely on a Semitic fertility god and oversees the lust of his Deep Ones as they slink onto land to mate with the human locals (reflecting Lovecraft's own disgust at interracial marriage and possibly even sex itself). Shub-Niggurath, the "Goat with a Thousand Young" and "All-Mother", also represents lust. If Lovecraft's entities exhibit any great collective trait, it is gluttony, an all-consuming desire to consume all, which C.S. Lewis would later describe in The Screwtape Letters as a demon's defining concept. 

Lovecraft's success comes from his lurid descriptive prowess, from which he can effectively articulate the awfulness of this supreme nihilism. The most engaging part of his work is his distinctive command of the English language, excelling in combining uncombinable words in such a way as to descriptively and structurally convey the image of blasphemous things that cannot exist. His tragedy is that for all this effort to exploit the horror of God Does Not Exist, he creates very large but very banal creatures in a universe of vast smallness.

Chesterton, as his lucidly humane mind did with Nietzsche, healthfully waves off the secular "vertigo of the infinite" too: "No; that argument about man looking mean and trivial in the face of the physical universe has never terrified me at all, because it is a merely sentimental argument, and not a rational one in any sense or degree.  I might be physically terrified of a man fifty feet high if I saw him walking about my garden, but even in my terror I should have no reason for supposing that he was vitally more important than I am, or higher in the scale of being, or nearer to God, or nearer to whatever is the truth.  The sentiment of an overpowering cosmos is a babyish and hysterical sentiment, though a very human and natural one.  But if we are seriously debating whether man is the moral centre of this world, then he is no more morally dwarfed by the fact that his is not the largest star than by the fact that he is not the largest mammal.   Unless it can be maintained a priori that Providence must put the largest soul in the largest body, and must make the physical and moral centre the same, 'the vertigo of the infinite' has no more spiritual value than the vertigo of a ladder or the vertigo of a balloon."

Though writing specifically of lapsed Catholic priest turned atheist evangelist Joseph McCabe, Chesterton could just as easily have been speaking of Lovecraft when he wrote "He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small." When he speaks of "alien energies and large indifference of the earth", it is not in the same sense of Lovecraft. Rather, it is the large indifference of the people of the earth, what he goes on to describe as the "real things of the earth", the "fighting peoples" and "proud mothers." It may not be that ignorance is saving humanity from the gluttony of Cthulhu, but indifference. Cthulhu is neither as profoundly loving as God or passionate as Satan... He, especially in light of modern weaponry, would simply be a physically imposing obstacle to overcome. A peculiarly large and particularly difficult bug. Lovecraft's vertigo of the infinite has breadth, but not depth.  

I wonder if that was the real tragedy of Lovecraft. Reclusive, introverted, physically and mentally ill in perpetuity, revolted by the mass of humanity, he conceived of a universe in which humanity did not matter because, in the end, he didn't really know people. He was evidently very genial to individual persons he corresponded with, which may be paradoxical... If only he could have extended his geniality to people as a whole, it may have saved him. His work has unparalleled power, but for as evocative as its prose may be, he cannot truly rise to his aspirations. Perhaps it is because the aspirations are themselves against reality and therefore unattainable. Wanting to move beyond petty human concerns, he only deified the pettiest and expunged the greatest.      


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