H. P. Lovecraft and the Myth of the 20th Century
God and Anti-God
Consider, if you will, the God of Genesis:
In the time of our ancient forebears, the universe was a relatively small place, and the earth, the central point about which all heavenly bodies revolved. On earth, Man was supreme among all living things. In Heaven, a much more vastly powerful God ruled, but even he made humanity the center of his attention, and promised eternal life to those who obeyed his commandments.
For many, that is still the universe we live in (except that the earth is understood to be a center of interest or importance rather than of physical location). But well before the beginning of this century, scientific progress had seriously undermined the roots of all such faith. Astronomy and physics had shown the greater predictive value of Kepler's model, which placed the sun at the center of a solar system in which planets moved with elliptical orbits. The sun itself had been relegated to the stature of a fairly average star among an unimaginably vast number, all separated by immense expanses of cold and empty space. Geology had shown the earth to be whole orders of magnitude older than permitted by Biblical accounts. Paleontology had established the existence of a long series of different species that appeared at intervals, rather than in a single creation as required by Genesis. Adam Smith had proposed that economies could regulate themselves through the force of supply and demand, thus permitting order to arise without being imposed from above by any central authority. Darwin had applied similar thinking to explain the origin of species as a matter of mutation and natural selection rather than conscious forethought. Medicine had long exceeded prayer as an effective cure for illness, and neuroscience, still in its infancy, was already showing how the faculties traditionally ascribed to spirit each depend on the intact functioning of particular regions of that grey pulpy organ called the brain.
Of course, none of this logically excludes the possibility of a divine being who designed the world or who takes a central interest in our affairs. But such a being, if He exists, becomes necessarily much more inscrutable than He was before; for if humanity is central to his plan, we cannot understand why He created so much empty space around us, and so many other suns similar to our own. And if He controlled the origin of life, and humanity was its goal, it is hard to understand why He strung out the process over so many billions of years.
Many can shrug these considerations off as due to our own limited understanding, which is inherently unable to fully grasp the ways and means of the Creator. But to someone of scientific education and rationalistic bent, as H. P. Lovecraft surely was, the conclusion was obvious:
But understanding is notoriously different than feeling, and Lovecraft was in the final analysis an artist rather than a scientist, despite his initial ambitions to be an astronomer. The result was a myth of his own, with a result exemplified by his description of the primal entity Azathoth:
The concept is spelled out further in a sonnet from his Fungi from Yuggoth sequence:
Although cast in vaguely theistic form, with a personal name and titles such as "daemon sultan" and "Lord of All," Azathoth is a sort of anti-god. That is not to say that he is a devil either. Rather he is cast as an idiot, whose pointless noodlings on the flute accidentally give rise to whole universes. Lovecraft's description of Azathoth makes use of our childhood image of a God in charge of all things, but then subverts that image by investing it with the most essential attribute of the mechanistic-materialistic worldview: a total lack of conscious purpose.
It is of course well-known that Lovecraft created an artificial mythology as a backdrop to his stories, and his plots often center on religious cultists such as the Starry Wisdom Sect or the Esoteric Order of Dagon. August Derleth captured this aspect of Lovecraft's work in his atmospherically-coined name Cthulhu Mythos. Derleth has been taken to task for applying this name to a body of stories rather than their background lore. But I like Derleth's usage because it foreshadows my thesis, which is that Lovecraft's stories have an actual religious value for modern readers.
To explain what I mean by this, I must first digress a bit and discuss the nature and functions of myth.
The Primitive Mind
In his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft had this to say about the continuing appeal of the weird tale:
Compare this with Joseph Campbell's explanation of the continuing importance of myth in general:
Campbell and Lovecraft may seem like strange bedfellows. In temperament they were surely opposites, with Campbell's complacent humanism and reverence for the touchy-feely aspects of human thought standing in stark contrast with Lovecraft's skeptical bent and pessimism about human nature. However, the differences are not as great as you might suppose. Campbell, while working in the humanities, was a stalwart believer in the scientific method and the need to accept scientific discoveries and incorporate them into our worldview. And Lovecraft's fascination with mythology extended to the actual practice of pagan worship in his childhood; even as an adult he read classics of comparative mythology such as Frazer's The Golden Bough.
Speaking of Frazer, Campbell has the following to say about his work:
But why should mythic or magical thinking be so persistent among modern, educated people? Are we dealing with a faculty that is simply a throwback, something that was useful once but is now no more useful than an appendix? Or is it possible that we are dealing with a useful and indeed essential aspect of human cognition?
In the same essay, Campbell goes on to characterize C. G. Jung's view of the importance of mythology:
Now, Jung was not what you would normally call a scientific thinker. Certainly he had a thoroughgoing credulity toward psychic and occult phenomena that would have struck Lovecraft as childish. One somehow also doubts that Lovecraft would have accepted the idea that the subconscious could be wiser than our rational, analytical mind.
However, you don't have to go quite as far as Jung did in order to see something of positive value in mythic thinking. One of the most influential writers in the field of cognitive science, Edward de Bono, has this to say in his book The Mechanism of Mind:
Well, perhaps de Bono is going a bit beyond what has been definitely established through neuroscience. It is a field of science that is yielding exciting discoveries every day, yet no one could say at this time that we have any more than the barest outlines of how the brain manages to bring forth a world out of the cascade of data that is continually fed into it. An entire recent book on the neuroscience of dreaming (The Dreaming Brain, by J. Allan Hobson) managed to almost entirely evade the question of what dreams are for, what they actually accomplish for us that makes them worth having. Yet a phenomenon so nearly universal in mammals, and involving a considerable expenditure of energy, could surely not have evolved unless it provided some substantial survival advantage.
Mythic thinking has an obvious kinship with dreaming, involving storylines full of fantastic elements and suspensions of ordinary reality, yet still mysteriously pregnant with the subjective feelings of meaning and relevance. If I may be permitted to speculate, it seems to me that the role of dreaming and myth is the assimilating of conscious knowledge and experience to a deeper level where our instincts reside. It is these instincts that actually drive our behavior, and knowledge that is not assimilated to that level tends to remain irrelevant to our everyday conduct. I am proposing that Lovecraft's Mythos serves precisely this type of function for us, even though Lovecraft himself did not design it for this purpose.
Genesis again, on the origin of humanity:
Contrast this with an account given by Lovecraft:
While the first of these two accounts is clearly the more reassuring and flattering to our sense of self-importance, the latter is a good deal more relevant to the modern reader. Bear in mind that mythic thinking tends to personify everything. How can such thinking express the theory that we were created by purely impersonal forces? In this case, Lovecraft takes a slightly different tack than he did with the myth of Azathoth. The creators in this case are taken to be conscious, purposeful beings; but we are construed as a merely accidental byproduct of their actions. Once again our instinctive, or perhaps simply well-indoctrinated, tendency to ascribe things to a divine ruler has been used as a sort of hook to engage the primitive feeling parts of our mind; and then that attention has been redirected in a way that is more consistent with a scientifically-informed worldview.
It is noteworthy that the traditional religious assumption of our central importance to the world and to God is still the guiding assumption of most people around the world. How is this possible?
One difficulty is that science is practiced in our culture only by an intellectual elite, and their discoveries are for most people a matter of persistent rumor rather than personal experience. Another difficulty is that our religion has long been a matter of institutionalized faith rather than personal exploration and discovery, and that theologians have long devoted themselves to immunizing their beliefs from all rational questioning, as in Tertullian's famous declaration "Credo quia absurdum" "I believe it simply because it is absurd."
But the most important point is that myths cannot be destroyed; they can only be replaced. As de Bono says:
The alarm that many scientists feel over the current popularity of pseudoscience and superstition has resulted in organized attempts at debunkery such as the periodical The Skeptical Inquirer and Carl Sagan's volume The Demon-Haunted World. But if de Bono is correct, such efforts only focus attention on the very myths they are seeking to banish. Far more has probably been accomplished through presentations such as Sagan's Cosmos television series, which presented modern cosmology in terms of quasi-religious awe; or by the simple coining of a powerful phrase such as Richard Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker, which embodies the abstract idea of evolution in a coherent image.
It is noteworthy also that human belief can be greatly swayed by otherworldy authority figures. Modern writers on New Age thinking seem to have grasped this intuitively, and they often ascribe their own ideas to fictional characters such as Castaneda's "Don Juan" who are portrayed as representatives of traditional or esoteric knowledge. In popular science the quintessential embodiment of this role is Stephen Hawking, whose ailment has cut him off from most of the activities of ordinary life and given him the mystique of a wounded-healer or visionary type of figure. This psychological entrée, along with his considerable gifts as a physicist and a writer, has enabled him to have an unusually profound impact on the public mind.
Lovecraft also seems to have stumbled on this principle, and hence in his work we find the fabled elder lore ascribed to mad seers such as Abdul Alhazred, author of the rare and forbidden Necronomicon. In later Mythos fiction by Lovecraft's friends and fans, Lovecraft himself often takes this role, being cast as a prophet whose early death was engineered by dark forces because he simply knew too much.
Since the forms of religion are resistant to change, and those of science are couched in technical terms, in modern times it may be the creative artist who has the most important role to play in generating new myths to help us internalize our changing knowledge of the world. As Joseph Campbell says in Creative Mythology:
Up to this point we have been proposing a sort of theory of aesthetics that could be applied to all modern literature. Now we can pause to ask what are the particular characteristics of Lovecraft's fiction that make it, as I would contend it is, the quintessential myth of our 20th century. These characteristics I take to be as follows:
Beyond the Boundaries
Having said something about Lovecraft's accomplishment in mythic terms, we will now pause to say something about the limitations of his work. To begin with, let us note that Campbell and other thinkers have distinguished at least four different functions of mythology. The first two are well addressed in Lovecraft's work:
However, the third function is to enforce a moral order, a sense of how we should conduct ourselves within society. Lovecraft's fiction does not speak to this function at all. A forth function, to promote the unfolding of the individual towards a state of self-actualization, or the fulfillment of one's innate potential, is also clearly undeveloped in his work.
One can also question Lovecraft's tendency toward the morbid, as well as his penchant for putting a pessimistic spin on discoveries that have no actual logical import for human values. Regarding the former tendency, Lovecraft had the following to say:
I think that perhaps Lovecraft goes further than he needs to in stressing the limited scope or appeal of the weird in fiction. The literature of the macabre needs no apology. If anything, it is the form of art that most directly addresses the central conundrum of human existence, from which flows the greater part of failed religious dogma and the philosophical angst of 20th century existence: the fact that we, as animals, are motivated most strongly by survival, but that as thinking beings, we are aware that we must die. Revenants, vampires, and other flavors of the macabre such as Lovecraft's obsession with decay, are all part of our encounter with our own mortality. Not all of art need be obsessed by this fact, but the most powerful art and the most truthful art largely will be.
The pessimism is a different story. Horror is only one of the many possible emotional responses to modern scientific cosmology. On a recent trip to Lovecraftian sites in New England, I had the opportunity to lay on Old Burial Hill in Marblehead at night, surrounded by tombstones, gazing upward at the unknowably vast and distant pantheon of stars. If any experience were calculated to make one feel small and insignificant, frighteningly lost in an unknowable void of space and time, this should have been it. But it did not affect me that way at all. That significance is somehow proportional to size or position is a pathetic fallacy; as Terrence McKenna has noted, we are ourselves the most complex and densely organized phenomenon that we have yet discovered in this universe. That such an impersonal universe should have manifested conscious beings with which to contemplate itself is surely a remarkable thing, and one more naturally prone to inspire awe than fear. That we can comprehend, at least partially, those qualities of order that permeate and organize the universe, is the greatest imaginable gift and and a sort of magic key to the awareness of the immortal.
I have called Lovecraft's Mythos the myth of the 20th century. A new type of understanding, fostered by discoveries of the principles of complexity and the self-organizing properties of matter, which were not known in Lovecraft's time, and which show us to be an inevitable rather than accidental part of our universe, must form the basis of the myth of the 21st century. Let us hope that this understanding will find prophets at least half so eloquent as Lovecraft to bring it alive in each of us.
About the author: Joseph Morales studied philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and spends his days as a soulless minion of the computer industry. His evenings are spent putting together webpages for his brazen friends.
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© Copyright 1997 by Joseph Morales
For more writing by Joseph Morales about H. P. Lovecraft, refer to Cthulhu Files.