H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness”: The Case for Unlocking the Necronomicon

Continuing my study of the collected stories of H. P. Lovecraft, I read two long stories, both produced around 1930: “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” In that last two posts, I critiqued Lovecraft from the Promethean perspective of the Enlightenment.  It seems to me that Lovecraft’s suspicions about science, his tendency to punish people for opening forbidden books or exploring forbidden knowledge, and the often-used plot device where a character recommends that everything is done to avoid revising a strange phenomenon (rather than exploring it in more detail) all are informed by his deep political conservatism, his xenophobia, and his fear of modernity. What I have not confessed is that I very much enjoyed reading his stories, even as I find their moral or political perspective troubling.  I certainly do not think all work needs to necessarily assume a projectoral life. But at the same time, I think Lovecraft’s writings come from an all too common and very unfortunate perspective on the world, based on fear (the most primal emotion according to Lovecraft) and cowardice.  Most of his stories are based on investigation of an unknown phenomenon, but almost always end with an attempt to seal the truth because the truth simply cannot be understood by human senses or experiences (describable). Like the Necronomicon, locked behind the desk at the Miskatonic University Library, the indifferent alien forces that surround us are best unknown. In short, my perspective was that the “Unknowable Horror” is a very weak and passive position to take through life and generally not suitable to free and creative people.  However, I am not realizing that this not an entirely fair way to read Lovecraft. We should start, not from a commitment to the Enlightenment project, but instead by starting with the reality of the unknowable.

Lovecraft is embracing a not uncommon modernist critique of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, progress, and equality. Any rightwing politics he embraced derived from this, but it is not a unique perspective. This skepticism of the Enlightenment is deep in the DNA of modernist thought, science, literature, and art.  We can assume the worst and imagine that the senses fail us, that human progress is not possible or at least not very likely, that science can never explain the world enough to provide any security, and that the many enemies we face in life are ultimately unknowable. We can also just assume, with Lovecraft, that there are forces out there that look upon us with the indifference that we look at ants.  This does not actually take long to justify. A lab rat in a maze, certainly cannot conceive of the reasons he is being tormented, or even the ultimate purpose of the insane experiments we inflict on him.  And it takes a profound human arrogance to assume that we share any emotions, perspectives, or understanding with the rat.  This is not a random example because the plot of At the Mountains of Madness is based on aliens living in Antarctica, experimenting on the human explorers who discover their presence. If we can accept that the rat faced unknowable things, it is also arrogant to assume we would never face it ourselves.  So my question is: assuming that human reason has limits, what is the proper path of life?

Another way of stating this would be to ponder if the existence of the unknowable would suggest an abandonment of our inquisition of the world. Should we be like the narrator of At the Mountains of Madness and vow never to approach that unknowable again, better to lock it up with the Necronomicon?  I could point out that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories have at their center an investigator (often as narrator). In “The Whisperer in the Darkness” it is an investigator searching out the reality behind rumors of inhuman and unknown creatures in Vermont. In At the Mountains of Madness, the investigators are a team studying fossils in the Antarctic. Even if our conclusion of the tales we read is that the people would be better off not investigating the horrors, Lovecraft still cannot help but celebrate the investigator. They also always tend to move themsleves closer and closer to the horror before deciding that caution is essential.  Their curiosity about the unknown (reflected of course in Lovecraft himself in creating his myths) is quite admirable and perhaps a lesson about our proper orientation to any limitations we face as somewhat evolved apes.  Is Lovecraft telling us to push to the very limit of understanding?

mountains

Our real danger is not our tendency to reach this limit of knowledge. Instead, we are mostly threatened by the cowardice or laziness coming in too soon.  Too often we accept the reality of unknowable or indescribable threats, evils, or dangers (think “terrorism” or “capitalism” or “the government”) and often fail to even pursue an analysis.  Like Lovecraft’s characters, perhaps we should err on the side of knowability and touch that limit even at the risk of facing the “unknowable horrors.”  And like Wilbur Whately did when he demanded that Miskatonic University allow him to read the Necronomicon, we should demand that at the very least our rulers open their books to our gaze.

Philip K. Dick, “The Ganymede Takeover” (1967): Empire and Resistance

The Ganymede Takeover does not seem to be one of the more well-known or commonly read novels by Philip K. Dick.  It was not even reprinted by Vintage when they published most of his science fiction in that series with the nice covers.  Written with Ray Nelson, a friend of PKD and most well-known for Blake’s Progress, it is not an uninteresting novel.  After reading two more disjointed workers, We Can Build You and The Simulacra, The Ganymede Takeover is refreshing for its clarity and constant purpose.  I want to discuss four themes: (1) technology and every-day life, (2) empire and resistance, and (3) religion and black nationalism.  This is not a very ambiguous novel and can be very easily contextualized into the era of the Vietnam War.  Indeed, I could read this novel as fairly obvious allegory for the American-Vietnamese War.

ganymede

Ray Nelson

Ray Nelson

Plot and Setting
Ganymede has conquered Earth.  The Ganymedians are worm-like and rely on human slaves to do most of their work. They also have a large population of collaborators in different areas, such as government, the medical profession, and the media.  The resistance is centered in the U.S. South, primarily Tennessee and is led by black Muslims, the Neeg-part.  One of the imperial officials from Ganymede, Mekkis, is capable of being brutal in his rule over Tennessee but, like many other occupiers, he has some sympathies for the local people.  These sympathies – and the need to have human slaves – have hitherto kept the Ganymedians from killing all humans.  The humans have a psychological weapon that puts people into a psychotic state and can liberate Earth but only at the cost of destroying humanity.  A fragile peace is sustained by Mutually Assured Destruction.  Mekkis, with many enemies on Ganymede, is able to use the help of the Neeg-parts to turn the weapon on Ganymede.  The weapon turns the victim’s unconscious fears into reality.  The novel ends hopefully with the end of the occupation and the flight to Ganymede of many of the collaborators. A transitional government is established.

I suspect we do not need to talk through the Vietnam War parallels.  Dick and Nelso’s interesting turn is the idea that the occupation itself will destroy the home country.  Much as the Vietnam War was tearing apart the U.S. by 1967.  The collaborators and slaves remind us of the South Vietnamese government.

Seems Habitable

Seems Habitable

Technology
I have not written much on technology in this blog series on PKD.  We do observe that Dick is a technophobe when it comes to most applications of technology by capitalism, the state, and the military.  Of course, this is most areas that really matter.  I imagine Dick could imagine technologies that could expand human freedom, but there are few examples of it in his work.  In The Ganymede Takeover technology surrounds the characters.  Hotel rooms and cars talk with artificial intelligence to their customers.  They even haggle for greater income.  These are everyday annoyances, but hardly providing substantial improvements in people’s lives.  They are merely extensions of capitalist control over our minds.  Looking at the internet age, he might have though he underwrote these worries.

In the hands of the state and powerful, technology is absolutely horrifying.  The mental weapon that forms the heart of this novel, much like nuclear weapons, can destroy worlds and is only not used due to the likelihood of mutually assured destruction.

Empire and Resistance
Dick and Nelson wrote an anti-imperialist novel with The Ganymede Takeover.  They do not necessarily praise all the acts of the resistance.  They are not romantic revolutionaries by any means.  The odious nature of the occupation, the manipulation of collaborators, the return of slavery, and the inevitability of resistance all come together to make the Ganymede regime horrific.  Considerable time is spent in a description of the psychological torture of Joan Hiashi and Percy X, the former is a reformed collaborator and the later is the leader of the Neeg-part.

The character of Mekkis and the ultimate fate of Ganymede tell us that Dick thinks that empire is as back for the empire-builders as it is for the colonized victims.  Mekkis ponders with disgust the horrible acts he must commit to succeed in his occupation.  He also mourns his own lack of freedom.  As a servant of empire he is without much power.  His agency only comes through working with the Neeg-part.

The Role of Religion
Dick and Nelson carefully make the black Muslims the center of human resistance.  The rise of the black Muslim movement coincided with the Civil Rights movement.  But, it is rightfully connected to Black Nationalism, which was taking the lead in many of the leftist movements in the later 1960s.  It also developed alongside the growth of religious fundamentalism in the United States.  Black Muslims, religious fundamentalism, growing curiosity in Buddhism, hippies, New Ageism.  These movements all experienced significant developments in the 1960s, PKD’s most prolific years.  What these movements have in common is that they are all fundamentally irrational and leveled a critique at the Enlightenment that was devastating.  The Enlightenment has yet to recover.  One need not spend much time on YouTube how popular irraitonal and even anti-rational value systems are today. Here is a funny taste.

Some are harmless, others, however, are quite dangerous.  Some can be harnessed for positive social change (the black nationalist had an undisputed role in the success of the Civil Rights Movement for instance), but it is impossible to build a just, reasonable, and free society on irrational foundations.  Yet, I see little evidence that reason will win out.  I recall an interview in a PKD documentary with Brian Aldiss.  To paraphrase Aldiss said that he preferred the PKD who saw the bend coming, not the PKD who was already around the bend.  I tend to agree.  As long as he is looking objectively at the horrors of irrationality and used science fiction to document the world we live in, he has something to teach us.  When he became seduced by those same irrational forces he lost the ability to speak to us about our world with the same power.