Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Seafood Dinner in Lost R'lyeh

I find the stories of H.P. Lovecraft delightfully funny. Yes, I know that wasn’t the literary effect that he was hoping to achieve with his tales of supernatural horror, but there it is. To me, Lovecraft’s fiction  has a sort of earnest absurdity I can only compare with the less frantically giddy products of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and it never fails to summon a smile.

Now of course part of that is his prose style. Lovecraft has been unfairly criticized as a bad writer; he was in fact quite a capable wordsmith, but his prose belongs to a school that has been out of fashion in our language for a very long time. Like most other arts in the Western world, the art of writing has its romantic and classical schools, which cycle slowly in and out of fashion over decades and centuries.  The romantic school, of which Lovecraft was a passionate devotee and a more than usually competent practitioner, gets its effect by building textures of sound and emotion through lush vocabulary and ornate grammar rather than by explaining what’s happening in clear language and letting the reader fill in the rest, as the classical school does.

To the romantic eye, classical prose seems bleak and barren; to the classical eye, in turn, the romantic style seems overblown to the point of goofiness—and yes, my taste is pretty consistently classical. Still, there’s more to it than that, and that’s why I’ve brought Lovecraft into the discussion here.

Lovecraft revolutionized the horror genre by putting the worldview of contemporary science at the center of his literary effort, in place of the medieval trappings that had dominated the genre since Horace Walpole finished penning The Castle of Otranto. The fears Lovecraft tried to evoke, with quite a bit of success, were utterly modern fears, and the particular terror from which he got the most mileage in his stories also happens to be the mainspring of the modern rejection of magic and religion. Tracking how those fears shape the collective imagination of contemporary humanity will make it a good deal easier to make sense of one of the most challenging dimensions of occult philosophy.

We can start with a passage from The Necronomicon, an imaginary volume of frightful lore from the darkling abysses of the past that features in a good many of Lovecraft’s stories:

“Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen...They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath?...Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.”

That’s from “The Dunwich Horror,” one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, and it’s utterly typical of the man’s prose as well as the vein of human emotion that he mined so systematically. The best of his tales start with a faint murmur of something weird moving through the background of ordinary life, and then zero in on that troubling presence until “the spaces we know” become the thinnest of facades over a universe swarming with vast, cold, unhuman intelligences, scaled, winged, and tentacled, whose interest in our concerns is roughly on a par with our interest in the concerns of dust mites. Many other writers have explored the horrors of infinite empty space, but what made Lovecraft’s universe appalling to most of his readers was precisely that it wasn’t empty:  it was all too thickly populated, and its inhabitants were not merely superhuman but serenely uninterested in humanity’s loudly repeated claim to be the pinnacle of evolution, the conqueror of nature, and so on through the rest of the pompous twaddle so heavily featured in our species collective self-image in his time as in ours.

As I suspect some of my readers will have guessed already, that’s exactly why I find Lovecraft so funny.  The pompous twaddle just mentioned strikes me as, well, pompous twaddle, and while I’m understandably a little more concerned with the species of social primates to which I happen to belong than I am with some other species, I suffer from no delusion that Homo sapiens is of any greater importance in the grand scheme of things than any other species of megafauna. What’s more, I’m not horrified by the thought of a cosmos crammed with intelligent beings, some of whom are as far beyond us in terms of sentience as we are beyond blue-green algae, and most of whom are not particularly concerned with our species’ nature and destiny at all. I’m used to that idea, and indeed entirely comfortable with it—since that’s the cosmos as portrayed by magical philosophy.

Lovecraft, as it happens, was perfectly well aware of that. He knew a great deal about occultism, and used to sprinkle references to authentic occult texts and important figures in the history of magic in his stories. That was fairly common among fantasy writers in his time, especially in the circle that wrote for Weird Tales magazine—Robert Howard set the two-fisted tales of Conan of Cimmeria in an imaginary post-Atlantean past largely lifted from Theosophy, for example, while Clark Ashton Smith raided the same source for a dizzying array of settings ranging from lost Atlantis to Zothique, the last continent of Earth’s twilight age beneath a coal-red sun. Lovecraft took more than exotic local color from the occult teachings of his time, though; some of his most famous stories get their effect by taking the standard worldview of early 20th century pop occultism and standing them on their heads.

It’s worth taking a moment to trace the parallels. Lovecraft lived during one of those periods—another is ending around us right now—when some watered-down version of occult philosophy and practice got sucked into the vacuum nozzle of pop culture and sprayed out the other end in an assortment of gaudy fragments. In an post here one of these days, we’ll talk about how the pop occultism of Lovecraft’s day got started, as the story has no small relevance to the present time; still, the point that’s relevant to the current discussion is that Lovecraft’s cosmology is the cosmology of the popular occult schools of his era seen through the funhouse mirror of deliberate satire. The sinister cults that play a central role in some of his most famous stories are clever parodies of the pop-occult scene of his day, and the tentacled horrors that the cultists worship are equally parodic reworkings of the powers and potencies with which occultists then and now commune.

It’s the way he wove that parody into the contemporary scientific worldview that shows the brilliance of the man. Central to the rhetoric of modern industrial civilization, after all, is a vision of the cosmos as black emptiness reaching out forever in all directions, mindless, lifeless, and utterly inimical to human existence, except where man the allegedly heroic conqueror of nature has hacked out a defensible space in it. The writers and philosophers of the generations preceding Lovecraft had explored the harrowing sense of isolation and terror that comes from staring up at the stars at night and seeing nothing but an infinite cold void thinly spattered with the prolonged thermonuclear explosions we call stars. Lovecraft took the same standpoint, and implicitly asked his readers: what’s the one thing that could make that vision even more frightening?

The answer, of course, is finding out that when you look up and see the infinite void, the infinite void is looking back and seeing you.

It’s a remarkably common source of terror these days. I’ve long since lost track of the conversations I’ve had with atheists in the peak oil scene, who are curious about Druidry until they find out that most Druids cheerfully accept the existence of disembodied intelligences of various kinds; that’s when they back away, sometimes quite literally, with an expression of horror on their faces that would do credit to a Lovecraft story. For that matter, I can’t be the only person who’s noticed how many atheists won’t write the simple English noun “God,” but insist on euphemisms such as “Gawd” or “Ghod” when they don’t restrict themselves to snide comments about “sky fairies” or the like; from my admittedly unsympathetic viewpoint, that evasion seems uncommonly like an expression of superstitious fear.

The aversion just described has even found a foothold in some corners of contemporary magic. On the avant-garde end of the occult scene these days, there’s a movement called chaos magic; it’s a lively phenomenon that’s produced some very creative work, and it’s also one of the few branches of practical occultism these days that’s more diverse than Druidry, which certainly took some work. Most versions of chaos magic that I’ve seen start from the presupposition that the universe is basically whatever we want it to be, a random inkblot that’s assembled into meaningful patterns by the human mind—I haven’t seen anybody in the chaos magic scene borrow Barfield’s term “figuration” for that process, but the idea’s much the same—and so, the logic goes, we might as well learn how to assemble it the way we want to, using the tools of will and imagination central to magic.

So far, so good; that’s not my view, but it’s a philosophically coherent account. What interests me, though, is that most versions of chaos magic that I’ve seen go on to insist that gods, angels, spirits, demons, and so on don’t actually exist—that by definition they’re constructions of the human imagination, projected by us onto a lifeless and mindless cosmos. It’s a curious and rather one-sided insistence. If in fact the universe is whatever we want it to be, then aren’t those who make this claim simply choosing to formulate a universe that’s empty of other intelligences, because that’s the kind of universe they prefer? Wouldn’t it then be just as reasonable for me to make the opposite choice, and say that the universe is crammed to the bursting point with gods, angels, spirits, demons, and the like, because that’s the kind of universe I prefer—as indeed it is?

Now of course to some extent this is simply a reminder that these days, the term “avant-garde” has a reliable meaning: it means that the movement thus labeled has capitulated to the conventional wisdom of modern society, and abandoned some idea or other that contradicts the notions that people these days are taught to think. As I noted in my other blog a while back, and more recently as well, it’s among the standard maneuvers of contemporary culture to use labels like “avant-garde” and “innovative” to describe dogmatic adherence to the most hackneyed clichés of our time, while ideas that don’t kowtow to the conventional wisdom are assailed as rigid and old-fashioned. A lot of very clever people routinely fall for that particular bait-and-switch routine, so it’s probably not a surprise that the chaos magicians haven’t been immune to it.

Still, there’s more going on here than this. I’d like to return to H.P. Lovecraft for a moment, and note that his eldritch horrors from three whole weeks before the beginning of time have another feature worth noting: they are biological, almost overwhelmingly so. Consider Cthulhu, the most famous of his theological creations. Cthulhu is a gigantic being who came to Earth from some other corner of space in the distant past; he currently resides, “dead yet dreaming,” in the drowned city of R’lyeh, which occasionally surfaces and can be found—if you’re very, very unlucky—in a distant corner of the south Pacific. As described by Lovecraft, he has a huge, vaguely humanoid body covered with scales, a head that looks like a titanic octopus, and vast batlike wings. 

This is supposed to be so terrifying an appearance that people who encounter him literally go mad with fear. One of the reasons I find Lovecraft so funny is that I find that reaction utterly implausible. I used to keep lizards and snakes as pets when I was young, so things with scales don’t bother me; I find octopi charming, and bats even more so—anything that eats twice its body weight in mosquitoes in a night is a friend of mine by definition. Now of course any living thing on Cthulhu’s scale deserves the same sort of cautious respect I’d extend to any really big creature, such as an elephant, but if I were someday to be invited to a seafood dinner in lost R’lyeh, I don’t think gibbering terror would be my most likely reaction.

That is to say, I don’t share the pervasive biophobia and noophobia, the terrified loathing of  life and consciousness, that plays so large and so rarely discussed a role in the modern popular imagination. It was probably inevitable that a culture as obsessed with machines as ours would end up longing for a universe as clean, lifeless, mindless and obedient as a well-oiled mechanism. That longing has deep historical roots, which we’re going to need to explore shortly, and it also plays a huge role in the popular insistence that human beings are the only intelligent beings in the cosmos, or its extreme form—the claim, perennially popular among a certain subset of atheists, that consciousness does not exist at all, and human beings are merely one variety of “meat robots” that like to delude themselves into thinking that they have minds, wills, and so on.

It’s an interesting detail of philosophy that this claim can be neither proved nor disproved using the tools of logic. Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophy I’m going to discuss at some length further on down the road, noted trenchantly that logic only relates to objects of experience, and won’t work when turned inward and applied to experiencing subjects. You, dear reader, can read these words, and by an act of introspection, watch yourself experiencing the words and their meaning; by that act, you can know yourself to be a conscious being; and the more often you engage in that sort of introspection, the clearer a sense you’ll get of the nature, functions, and potentials of consciousness—a sense that over time opens up in some remarkably interesting directions.

Under ordinary conditions, though, you can’t do that with anyone else’s consciousness, because you can only know them as an object of experience; you can’t know them as an experiencing subject, the way you know yourself. Logically speaking, as a result, you can’t prove that there’s anyone home in any of the apparently conscious beings that you encounter. They might be meat robots programmed to act like conscious beings. I’ve occasionally considered suggesting that those atheists who deny the reality of consciousness might actually be meat robots who are telling the truth about themselves—after all, they have no more power to detect the presence of consciousness outside themselves than the rest of us do, so they have no way of knowing that their unfortunate state isn’t universal.

It’s worth noting, though, that in significant ways, most humans behave more like conscious beings than like meat robots. In particular, if you act as though they’re conscious beings, and take their consciousness into account as a factor in their behavior, you’ll get better results than if you treat them as meat robots who can be made to follow orders if you just apply the right manipulations. It’s largely because modern industrial society is so prone to try the latter approach—to try to push people around by mechanical manipulations, rather than finding ways to enlist their conscious cooperation—that it’s facing a shattering crisis of legitimacy now and in the future.

That much isn’t controversial, at least outside of those circles that are too deeply invested in meat robot fantasies. I’d like to suggest, though, that the same logic can be taken at least two steps further. Most of  the problems contemporary industrial civilization is having with nonhuman nature can be described in exactly the same terms: we’ve tried to treat nature as a mere machine or, worse, as a wholly passive phenomenon that will just lie there and do nothing while we make free with its prostrate body. That hasn’t worked too well. There are various ways to talk about the blowback from the last three centuries of frankly brainless tampering with nature’s cycles and processes, but one of the most useful is to compare that blowback to the way that conscious beings—for example, other human beings—tend to react when they’re treated like mere objects.

Yes, I’m quite aware that it’s raw intellectual heresy these days to suggest that the Earth’s biosphere  acts much more like a community of conscious beings than like, shall we say, a “dirt robot.” It’s even wilder heresy to suggest that the Earth’s biosphere might actually be a community of conscious beings, and that the logic that leads us to recognize consciousness and will in other people might usefully be applied to natural systems. Take it one step further and suggest that there are other phenomena that might reasonably be approached in the same way, and that the gods, angels, spirits, et al. of magical tradition are among them, and you’ve just gone zooming off beyond mere heresy into the sort of statement that causes characters in a Lovecraft story to be hauled off to Arkham Asylum babbling “The socks! The socks were of no human shape!”

Those of my readers who want to start gibbering may as well do that now, because I’m prepared to affirm all those unspeakable notions. One of the central concepts of traditional occultism is precisely that the universe is not a vast and empty echo chamber for the human ego, but an immense living thing in which countless other living, conscious things live, move, and have their being. Like the existence of consciousness in the people you meet every day, that vision of the cosmos can neither be proved nor disproved. Operative mages of the old-fashioned sort, though, like to point out that whether that vision is true or not, treating it as true quite consistently gets better practical results.

For what it’s worth, I’ve come to think that in the decades and centuries ahead of us, the heresies just mentioned will be considerably less controversial than they’ve been in the recent past. I’m far from the only person these days who finds Cthulhu more charming than terrifying—you can get stuffed plush Cthulhu dolls from a number of manufacturers—and a visit to the kind of internet site that features cute animal photos will turn up pictures of adorable little lizards, octopi, and bats right in there with the puppies and kittens. I’ve written elsewhere at some length about the role of religious sensibilities in shaping attitudes toward biological existence, among other things; it’s among the ironies of our time that the fading out of the religious sensibility of biophobia that’s dominated Western thinking since the last few centuries before the common era can be tracked in the fortunes of the plush Cthulhu doll industry.

The sensibility now waning has other dimensions, though, and some of them bear more closely on the theme of this blog than they do on the issues discussed in The Archdruid Report. In particular, we need to talk about why it was that, a little over two thousand years ago, people over much of the world stopped worshipping the gods of nature and started revering dead human beings instead. We’ll begin that discussion next month.