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.H.P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulhu
On returning to the world of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos after an absence of two decades via James Lovegrove’s excellent – evocative, hilarious – Sherlock Holmes mashups, The Cthulhu Casebooks, I’ve been struck by the idea that Lovecraft’s writing about the horrors of a hostile universe is a kind of coping mechanism – or rather an outlet (Lovecraft didn’t cope too well) – for the cosmic dread and moral panic he felt as the worldview he had inherited worldview came unmoored from its foundations.
Science of the Times
Lovecraft’s early twentieth-century protagonists are often scientists embarking on explorations of long-lost civilisations, or biologists following up crypto-zoological rumours in search of the truth. In the last dark corners of the earth (as Lovecraft would have it) they uncover evidence of ancient species and alien cities; they tremble and go mad in the face of the power of the Great Old Ones, the cosmic rulers of an utterly non-anthropocentric universe, a universe very much older and more hostile than the characters had imagined.
H.G. Wells explored similar themes:
… across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.H.G. Wells – War of the Worlds
The age, enormity and cruel indifference of these forces make a mockery of human rationality, morality, religion and civilisation:
There could now be no further merciful doubt about the nature of the beings which had built and inhabited this monstrous dead city millions of years ago, when man’s ancestors were primitive archaic mammals, and vast dinosaurs roamed the tropical steppes of Europe and Asia.
We had previously clung to a desperate alternative and insisted—each to himself—that the omnipresence of the five-pointed motif [in the world’s civilisations] meant only some cultural or religious exaltation of the Archaean natural object which had so patently embodied the quality of five-pointedness; as the decorative motifs of Minoan Crete exalted the sacred bull, those of Egypt the scarabaeus, those of Rome the wolf and the eagle, and those of various savage tribes some chosen totem-animal. But this lone refuge was now stripped from us, and we were forced to face definitely the reason-shaking realisation which the reader of these pages has doubtless long ago anticipated. I can scarcely bear to write it down in black and white even now, but perhaps that will not be necessary.
The things once rearing and dwelling in this frightful masonry in the age of dinosaurs were not indeed dinosaurs, but far worse. Mere dinosaurs were new and almost brainless objects—but the builders of the city were wise and old, and had left certain traces in rocks even then laid down well-nigh a thousand million years . . . rocks laid down before the true life of earth had advanced beyond plastic groups of cells . . . rocks laid down before the true life of earth had existed at all. They were the makers and enslavers of that life, and above all doubt the originals of the fiendish elder myths which things like the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon affrightedly hint about. They were the Great Old Ones that had filtered down from the stars when earth was young—the beings whose substance an alien evolution had shaped, and whose powers were such as this planet had never bred.H. P. Lovecraft – At the Mountains of Madness
Descending from Darwin
Most horrific at all for Lovecraft’s protagonists (and for Lovecraft himself, whose racism is well documented) was the idea that humanity may in someway be descended from alien or sub-human species, and that our cultures might have emerged from the alien squiggles and hieroglyphs his characters discover carved on the ruined walls of cyclopean cities. He carries a deep dread that the bloodlines of humanity – and of Western civilisation in particular – may not be pure.
James Lovegrove sums it up well in the preface to his third Sherlock Holmes – Cthulhu novel:
So we come to the third volume of the Cthulhu Casebooks. Here we find Sherlock Holmes, now in his late fifties, still engaged in his secret war against hostile cosmic forces whose existence alone gives the lie to the notion that mankind is in anyway a superior species and has a meaningful place in the order of things.
We humans are not blessed, not special. That is the disquieting message that comes from these texts, and likewise from the writing of my distant relative and near namesake H. P. Lovecraft. We are, in the eyes of certain godlike beings, little better than cattle. Their unholy divinity proclaims that we leave in a godless universe, a universe in which capital G God isn’t the adoring superfather The Bible says, more like a deadbeat dad who wants nothing to do with his children…
Some local historians even claim that Sea-Devils and inhabitants of Newford have interbred in the past, and that descendants of the two co-mingled bloodlines still live there. They have a distinctly piscine look about them…James Lovegrove – Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils [amazon]
In other words, the ‘reality’ at the root of Lovecraft’s cosmic revulsion – the hidden, horrific and reason-shaking revelation faced repeatedly by his protagonists – is little more than a modern philosophical-materialist account of the universe (give or take a few enormously powerful interstellar monsters), a scientific account of evolution, and a historical account of the mongrel-origins of all human civilisations and cultures.
This was clearly a lot to process in the early 1900s. From one angle Lovecraft’s response is overwrought to the extent of being funny… and yet it seems to me** that Lovecraft is somehow consistent in his thinking – that his conclusions line up, and that for those who live in the cold vacuum of a Lovecraftian universe, the centre cannot hold.
*Edwardian is the best fit I could think of for the era in which Lovecraft’s stories take place. Darwin was, of course, a Victorian.
**I am not a materialist
On Lovecraft and Lovegrove
On Culture and Hybridity
Cultural Hybridity, Fast and Slow
Whose Dhansak? Food and Authenticity
Why isn’t the mule regarded as a species?
Technology (3): A history of augmentation
Zen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation in Indonesian Peranakan literature
Choose What You Want (on the ‘authentic’ watermelon, hybridity and selective breeding)
Christopher Dawson: Culture, Cult and Cultivation
Hybrids (1) (John Stuart Mill on diversity)
Hybrids (2): combinations and connections (Tim O’Reilly on Combinatorial Innovation)
Hybrids (3): when ideas breed (Kevin Kelly on Combinatorial Innovation)
Black History Month: the things we forget and the things we can’t see