H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

cover

The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.

 

Philip K. Dick, “Ubik” (1969): Half-life and Half-Lifers

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? gave us “kipple,” dead, former commodities and the living dead of a devastated Earth, unable to reproduce.  They are much like the people of Children of Men, awaiting an end that comes slowly but inevitably.  Ubik gives us the concept of “half-life.”  People in “half-life” are dead but are placed in a state of suspended animation, which they come out of at certain regular times (like yearly visits to the old-folks home) or when their advice is needed.  The main character, Glen Runciter, for instance, begins the novel with a visit to his dead wife who provides for him useful corporate advice.  Over the course of the novel, it is never clear if the characters are in this state of “half-life” or not.  As in The Maze of Death and Eye in the Sky, it is revealed that everyone is sharing a constructed reality.  In those novels, it was self-created by the participants, a democratic delusion if you will.  In Ubik, the reality is constructed by outside, malevolent forces.  It this way, it is a more accurate description of the world we live in.  We can come right out and interpret Ubik as a reading of the consumer republic, where choice is confined to what is allowed by those that construct reality.  We carry on, in a state of half-life, living only for service.  It is the PKD novel that is thematically closest to The Matrix, since the purpose of the delusion is clear exploitation and the cause is a clearly identifiable external force.  In Ubik, the external force is Jory Miller, another person in half-life, who regularly consumes people to sustain himself.  “Ubik,” which is an ubiquitous (the name is purposeful) product, which functions as a preservative to keep the characters from being consumed by Miller.  While “Ubik” saves (really preserves) the heroes of the tale, the heroes seem to play a role as “Ubik” for Miller.  If we look at it this way, we have a very clear model of the capitalist world.  Jory Miller functions like the capitalist class, of the system but able to master its rules at the expense of the other participants.  He is sustained through the life force of others, but consumer products become a means of sustaining those victims, keeping them together long enough to be fully consumed.  Unfortunately, the interpretation is not quite this easy for two reasons.

ubik1ubik2

Rory Miller did not construct the reality himself.  Unlike the exploiting machines in The Matrix, the simulated reality seems to have an external creator.  When one enters “half-life” they go into it.  That reality is shifting and participants have some say in its form, moving to familiar times and places.  (Here I want to stop and make a side bar point about simulated realities.  Most depictions I have seen of simulated realities are horribly uncreative, and tend to involve people recreating something they know or a time they know.  Why are they not utopias?  I suspect this has much to do with our fundamentally incapacity to imagine true alternatives.  Even when given the freedom to create new worlds, we stay in the old way.  Even in fantasy literature, we find basically capitalist economics at work.  In Dungeons and Dragons good performance is rewarded with advances in rank.  Characters use gold coins to purchase weapons.  How is that fantasy?  It is too familiar.)  Perhaps it is akin to the more democratic delusions of The Maze of Death.  Rory Miller is still, of course, an exploiter.  This is not a serious interpretative problem.  We merely need to acknowledge that most of the exploiters in the world we live in did not create the institutions that they oversee.  In the case of consumer culture, the exploited masses play a role in creating the infrastructure of need that binds all of us to the “normalcy” of capitalism.  It turns out that Rory Miller is no more than the run of the mill, clever and lucky member of the global elite who is slightly better at playing the game than others, but lacking any real claim to creativity.  The ruling elite are vampires, not architects.

Much more difficult to interpret is the role of the commodity “Ubik,” which seems to save people from decay.  It is clearly commoditfied.  Each era that the characters travel through advertizes Ubik.  It famously comes in an spray can.  While it seems to be a part of the odious regimen of the exploiters, it is used by Runciter to help sustain the people, to help them avoid becoming “kipple,” dead, used-up trash.  The lesson here is that the very thing that must fight against our perpetual status of “half-lifers” is a part of the artificial world we exist in.  We do not need to jump to Ubik being God or the universal salvation.  Ubik is whatever we apply in our struggle against total “kipplization.”  It will always take the form of the world we live in, just as any libertory movement must put on the face of late capitalism, use its tools, and necessarily fall into hypocrisy.  Purity is not possible.  In the novel, Ubik had to take the form of the delusion.  In the same way, our means of avoiding the slow death of capital must look to us like a product of late capitalism itself.  (If we want to borrow the theological argument, it is no different than Christ needing to become man.)

ubik3