H. P. Lovecraft and the Myth of the 20th Century

God and Anti-God

Consider, if you will, the God of Genesis:

God created the heavens and the earth in the very beginning. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (Trans. George M. Lamsa)

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:

The actual cosmos of pattern'd energy, including what we know as matter, is of a contour and nature absolutely impossible of realisation by the human brain; and the more we learn of it the more we perceive this circumstance. All we can say of it, is that it contains no visible central principle so like the physical brains of terrestrial mammals that we may reasonably attribute to it the purely terrestrial and biological phenomenon call'd conscious purpose; and that we form, even allowing for the most radical conceptions of the relativist, so insignificant and temporary a part of it . . . that all notions of special relationships and names and destinies expressed in human conduct must necessarily be vestigial myths. —H. P. Lovecraft, letter to Frank Belknap Long, February 20, 1929; quoted in S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life

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:

That last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion that blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity—the boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other Gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep. —The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The concept is spelled out further in a sonnet from his Fungi from Yuggoth sequence:

XXII. Azathoth

Out in the mindless void the daemon bore me,
Past the bright clusters of dimensioned space,
Till neither time nor matter stretched before me,
But only Chaos, without form or place.
Here the vast Lord of All in darkness muttered
Things he had dreamed but could not understand,
While near him shapeless bat-things flopped and fluttered
In idiot vortices that ray-streams fanned.

They danced insanely to the high, thin whining
Of a cracked flute clutched in a monstrous paw,
Whence flow the aimless waves whose chance combining
Gives each frail cosmos its eternal law.
"I am His Messenger," the daemon said,
As in contempt he struck his Master's head.

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:

. . . all the conditions of savage dawn-life so strongly conduced toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man's very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition. That saturation must, as a matter of plain scientific fact, be regarded as virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned; for though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulphs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings round all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained. And more than this, there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue, which would make them obscurely operative even were the conscious mind to be purged of all sources of wonder.

Compare this with Joseph Campbell's explanation of the continuing importance of myth in general:

Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion. The light-world modes of experience and thought were late, very late, developments in the biological prehistory of our species . . . The opening of the eyes occurred only after the first principle of all organic being ("Now I'll eat you; now you eat me!") had been operative for so many hundreds of millions of centuries that it could not then, and cannot now, be undone—though our eyes and what they witness may persuade us to regret the monstrous game. —Creative Mythology

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:

When reading the great and justly celebrated Golden Bough of Sir James G. Frazer, the first edition of which appeared in 1890, we are engaged with a typically nineteenth-century author, whose belief it was that the superstitions of mythology would be finally refuted by science and left forever behind. He saw the basis of myth in magic, and of magic in psychology. His psychology, however, being of an essentially rational kind, insufficiently attentive to the more deeply based, irrational impulsions of our nature, he assumed that when a custom or belief was shown to be unreasonable, it would presently disappear. And how wrong he was can be shown simply by pointing to any professor of philosophy at play in a bowling alley: watch him twist and turn after the ball has left his hand, to bring it over to the standing pins. —Joseph Campbell, "The Impact of Science on Myth" in Myths to Live By

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?

Organizing Reality

In the same essay, Campbell goes on to characterize C. G. Jung's view of the importance of mythology:

Our outward-oriented consciousness, addressed to the demands of the day, may lose touch with [our] inward forces; and the myths, states Jung, when correctly read, are the means to bring us back in touch. They are telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the milleniums. Thus they have not been, and never can be, displaced by the findings of science, which relate rather to the outside world than to the depths that we enter in sleep. Through a dialogue conducted with these inward forces through our dreams and through a study of myths, we can learn to know and come to terms with the greater horizon of our own deeper and wiser, inward self. And analagously, the society that cherishes and keeps its myths alive will be nourished from the soundest, richest strata of the human spirit. —Joseph Campbell, "The Impact of Science on Myth" in Myths to Live By

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:

These creative and combining properties of the memory surface result in an artificial world that is derived from the actual world but is not parallel to it. In this artificial world the information is organized with greater clarity and greater convenience. If no framework exists to do this, then one inevitably evolves. It may be necessary to create special systems of anthropormorphic gods to organize the information of the seasons, of the weather, of the behavior of the crops. These organizing patterns which exist on the memory surface are myths. Myths are more necessities than conveniences.

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.

Self-Perpetuating Myths

Genesis again, on the origin of humanity:

Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild beasts of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild beasts that move upon the earth. (Trans. George M. Lamsa)

Contrast this with an account given by Lovecraft:

It was under the sea, at first for food and later for other purposes, that they [the Old Ones] first created earth-life—using available substances according to long-known methods. . . When the star-headed Old Ones on this planet had synthesised their simple food forms and bred a good supply of shoggoths, they allowed other cell-groups to develop into other forms of animal and vegetable life for sundry purposes; extirpating any whose presence became troublesome . . . These vertebrates, as well as an infinity of other life-forms—animal and vegetable, marine, terrestrial, and aërial—were the products of unguided evolution acting on life-cells made by the Old Ones but escaping beyond the radius of attention. They had been suffered to develop unchecked because they had not come in conflict with the dominant beings. Bothersome forms, of course, were mechnically exterminated. It interested us to see in some of the very last and most decadent sculptures a shambling primitive mammal, used sometimes for food and sometimes as an amusing buffoon by the land dwellers, whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable. —At the Mountains of Madness

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?

The myth arises as a way of connecting into a convenient coherent pattern the separate pieces of information that are derived from the environment. But once the myth is established it becomes a way of looking at the world. The world is seen through the myth and therefore tends to reinforce it . . . Escape from the convenient myths organized by the memory surface comes about when these myths conflict with actual experience. Science is a way of specially organizing experience so that it can conflict with and show up myths. In the process new myths will be generated. A myth or hypothesis nearly always outlasts its usefulness and holds back a better interpretation of the available information, but this is a minor limitation, a small price one has to pay for the usefulness of the myth system . . . But there are myths which cannot be disrupted by experience. This can come about either because the content of the myth is not checkable by common experience or because the myth is so constructed as to turn what should disrupt it into support. —Edward de Bono, The Mechanism of Mind

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:

Myths cannot be destroyed by direct attention since they are the organizing pattern on the memory surface and any attention to a pattern can only reinforce it. A myth can only be destroyed through inattention which lets it atrophy so that a new organizing pattern can arise. Inattention or neglect usually follow when a myth has outlived its usefulness. —Edward de Bono, The Mechanism of Mind

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.

Creative Mythology

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:

. . . A totally new type of non-theological revelation, of great scope, great depth, and infinite variety, has become the actual spiritual guide and structuring force of civilization . . . In the context of a traditional mythology, the symbols are presented in socially maintained rites, through which the individual is required to experience, or will pretend to have experienced, certain insights, sentiments, and commitments. In what I am calling "creative" mythology, on the other hand, this order is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own—of order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration—which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the value and force of living myth—for those, that is to say, who receive and respond to it themselves, with recognition, uncoerced.

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:

  • A central concern with the dominating force of early 20th century life, which is our continually advancing understanding of the vastness and strangeness of the universe, and the continually dwindling importance it leaves for human beings in the overall scheme of things. This theme finds repeated expression in Lovecraft's fiction, in its epic accounts of civilizations and life forms that have come and gone over the course of geologic aeons. More importantly, his writing expands our minds and directs it repeatedly toward the unknown. This is important because of a central principle of science that is seldom paid heed to. We can only be aware of the existence of unknown things when they lie just beyond the boundary of things we do know. But as the circumference of known things increases, so does the magnitude of those unknown things that lie just beyond the border, always tantalizing us and awakening those feelings that Lovecraft liked to call "adventurous expectancy."
      
  • An ability to express this concern in a way that resonates deeply in the instinctive, archetypal levels of human consciousness. Lovecraft's work seldom reads like simple allegory. Each of his creations is imbued with an imaginative and atmospheric vividness that affects the psyche like a depth-charge. No one has ever before, or ever again, created beings of such weirdness that also carry the inevitable conviction of true experience.
      
  • Impeccable structure. Despite his fascination with science, Lovecraft in his artistry looked backward to nineteenth century and eighteenth century models. Too readily was he able to see through the cheap ugliness of modernism, in which all order, craft, and symmetry is sacrificed to the goal of seeming new, different, trendy or politically correct. Nor did he descend to the self-referential circularity that detracts from the vitality of so much of modern literature. In his construction, Lovecraft is like the builders of the fine colonial architecture that he so admired: he builds a firm foundation and marries style to function so that each part can participate in a harmonious and useful whole.
      
  • Communal authorship. Although some have argued that Lovecraft was not trying to create a shared mythology, the facts seem to be indicate otherwise. He certainly incorporated the creations of his friends into his own work and helped others to create works that made use of his own concepts. The Mythos appears to be a unique phenomenon in modern literature because so many of the ideas it involves have transcended the control of any particular author. One can hardly imagine what hideously protracted legal proceedings might result if Lovecraft's estate began, at this late date, trying to systematically enforce their ownership of Cthulhu, Alhazred and so on. One definition of a myth is a story that has been retold by so many authors as to become the work of an entire culture or community rather than a single man. In this sense Lovecraft's Mythos has swelled to more truly mythic proportions than any other creation of modern times.

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:

The first function of a mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe as it is: the second being to render an interpretive total image of the same, as known to contemporary consciousness. —Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology

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:

Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to rappings from outside, and tales of ordinary feelings and events, or of common sentimental distortions of such feelings and events, will always take first place in the taste of the majority; rightly, perhaps, since of course these ordinary matters make up the greater part of human experience.

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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Updated 10/31/97

© Copyright 1997 by Joseph Morales

For more writing by Joseph Morales about H. P. Lovecraft, refer to Cthulhu Files.