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, “Solar Lottery” (1955): Randomness and Obligation

Philip K. Dick’s Solar Lottery begins like many of his novels, with an alienated worker.  In this case, Ted Benteley gets fired (“break his fealty oath”).  He was part of a massive layoff.  “The first reaction from Oiseau-Lyre Hill to its limited catastrophe was to create total catastrophe for fifty percent of its classified employees.  Fealty oaths were dissolved, and a variety of trained research technicians were tossed out.  Cut adrift, they became a further symptom of the nearing moment-of-importance for the system.  Most of the severed technicians floundered, sank down, and were lost among the unclassified masses.”  Like many companies, Oiseau-Lyre has no problem using a small crisis, like a few employees talking union or a slightly higher marginal tax rate, to begin layoffs or talks of offshoring.  Protected by spreadsheets and the equality provided by the randomness of economics they can avert any moral burden.

solarlottery1

The use of fealty oaths is intriguing.  In other ways the society described in Solar Lottery (Dick’s first published novel) is the logical extension of global modernity.  Winners and losers are chosen at random through a global game of chance, “Minimax.”

The former Quizmaster (a new one is chosen at random among the population at large) Reese Verrick discuss this system in the early part of the novel.  They debate if the game of life is based on chance or strategy and skill.  “They [the mathematicians who developed Minimax] saw that social situations are analogues of strategy games, like poker.  A system that works in a poker game will work in a social situation, like business or war. . . . Minimax was a brilliant hypothesis.  It gives us a rational scientific method to crack any strategy and transform the strategy game into a chance game, where the regular statistical methods of exact sciences function. . . The random factor is a function of an overall rational pattern.  In the face of random twitches, no one can have a strategy.  It forces everybody to adopt a randomized methods: best analysis of the statistical possibilities of certain events plus the pessimistic assumption that an plans will be found out in advance.  Assuming you’re found out in advance frees you of the danger of being discovered.”  I think it is hard to deny that randomness is the experience most people feel in a liquid world.  When a job posting attracts 500 qualified applicants, all with similar applicants, how can we say that the “best” or “most skilled” or “most qualified” candidate received the job.  And if we know in our field that the average position attracts 500 applicants, we send out 500 applications to different companies (all across the country – since we long have cared about retaining our communities).  In a sense, we are accepting the logic of Minimax.  We now have markets that can predict presidential elections with a fair degree of certainty.  Although, still far from random (we do not choose our politicians by chance) we cannot say we are choosing the most qualified candidate.  We are in the realm of chaos theory, where predictability is lost and randomness reigns.  This is the world of fated, atomized, and interchangeable citizens.

Philip K. Dick combines this system of Minimax with what seems to be the exact opposite, the political of personal loyalty.  A type of neo-feudalism shaped the relationship between employers and employees.  When Benteley lost of his job, he had to annul certain loyalty oaths.  When seeking new employment, he had to re-swear loyalty to his new employer.  These are not truly in conflict.  My husband may have come to me by random chance and fate, but I still interpret that relationship through the comparatively old-fashioned concepts of loyalty, vows, and mutual obligation.  It does not matter that I was just as likely to marry another man, or not marry.  Absolute randomness is only palatable if we impose on it the language of choice.  The fact that we make vows and oaths does not mean we have control, anymore than a dog has a choice to be dutiful to its master.

The plot of Solar Lottery is about the rise of the new Quizmaster, Cartwright, and the attempt to assassinate him.  Like the Quizmaster, the assassin is chosen at random and does not necessarily have any political gripes.  Indeed, with an entire system run by Minimax, individuals are mostly irrelevant.  Power exists in the aggregate and in the random.  By the end, we learn that Cartwright is actually a revolutionary figure who seeks to restore individual choice.  He essentially figured out how the system made its choices and took advantage of it.  “I played the game for years.  most people go on playing the game all their lives.  Then I began to realize the rules were set up so I couldn’t win.  Who wants to play that kind of game?  We’re betting against the house, and the house always wins.”    Cartwright realized this and became a follower of John Preston (a shout out to the mythical Christian African king Prestor John?).  Preston gets the last word in the novel and makes an argument for human agency in resistance to systems that chain us to fate.  “It isn’t senseless drive.  It isn’t a brute instinct that keeps us restless and dissatisfied.  I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the highest goal of man-the need to grow and advance . . . to find new things . . . to expand.  To spread out, reach areas, experiences, comprehend and live in an evolving fashion.  To push aside routine and repetition, to break out of mindless monotony and thrust forward.  To keep moving on. . . ”  One gets the sense that reading this out loud will summon the ghost of Gene Roddenberry.  Preston’s dream is not the world we live in.  We live in the liquid world of late capitalism.  Yet, since we can look forward to precious little optimism in PKD’s novels, I will take it for now.  I might need it before this project is done.

solarlottery2

 

Philip K. Dick, “The World Jones Made” (1956)

The World Jones Made is one of Philip K. Dick’s early novels, published in 1956.  As in many of his novels, The World Jones Made is set in a post-nuclear war Earth and the democracy has given way to a variant of authoritarianism.  Unlike the party tyrannies of 1984 or the emergence of a new imperial system as in many space operas, Dick is comfortable with his vision of the rise of a technocracy.  The story is made up of three interrelated subplots.  The first deals with the rise and dramatic collapse of Floyd Jones, a “precog” who can see into the future one year.  The second is a series of experiments in mutants (created in large quantities during the war and often used for entertainment) with the goal of adapting them to the Venetian atmosphere.  The final plot is the arrival to earth of the “Drifters,” which turns out to the pollen of a interstellar species, using the Earth as part of their reproductive cycle.  Jones attempts to use the arrival of the Drifters and his precognition to create  movement to cease political power from “Fedgov” (a world government).  The novel ends with the quarantine of Earth by Drifters, who look on humans as a virus to be avoided – essentially limiting humans to the Solar System.  Jones movement succeeds in pulling down Fedgov despite Jones’ death.  Jones’ main political enemy, Doug Cussick – an agent of Fedgov – is exiled to Venus.

jones1

Power and Ideology
The major ideology that took over Earth after the war was “Relativism.”  In theory any absolutism claim is grounds for arrest.  Even the expression of a preference for one composer could land someone in into forced labor camps.  In hopes of avoiding another war, the Fedgov imposed these laws.  “I suppose Relativism is cynical.  It surely isn’t idealistic.  It’s the result of being killed and injured and made poor and working hard for empty words.  It’s the outgrowth of generations of shouting slogans, marching with spades and guns, singing patriotic hymns, chanting, and saluting flags. . . . Jones can disagree with us.  Jones can believe anything he wants; he can believe the Earth is flat, that God is an onion, that babies are born in cellophane bags.  he can have any opinion he wants; but once he starts peddling it as Absolute Truth.” (33-34)  This ideology is threatened by someone likes Jones, who has absolute knowledge of the future.  It is for this reason that Cussick begins investigating him for making predictions about humanity’s future at a carnival.  In a liquid world, we can understand the attraction of “relativism.”  It was absolutists who become terrorists, crusaders, and blind patriots.  We know politicians are cynical and do not mean what they say.  We vote for them knowing that they will lie.  Their cynicism and relativism is already a part of the system of late capitalist democracy.  A politician or activist who seems to really believe what he says is a curiosity, not to be taken seriously and useful for entertainment.  What else can serve in a liquid world?  Where Dick is too optimistic is in his belief that this regimen of thought control would need to be imposed by the state.  Throughout the novel Jones’ activists hold up signs like: “Disband the Terrorist Thought-Control Secret Police-End Concentration Slave Labor Camps-Restore Freedom and Liberty.” (103)  Characters question Relativism throughout.  In the world we live in, Relativism has become dogma without any need for a state apparatus.  On some level we already know that absolute claims are dangerous.  It is easier to be flexible.

The problem with Relativism as enforced ideology or as a rational response to a liquid world is that it takes away the possibility of dreaming.  Dick speaks to this at a few moments in The World Jones Made.  “But the followers of Jones had not given up; they had a dream, a vision.  They were sure the Second Earth existed.  Somehow, somebody have contributed to keep it from them: there was a conspiracy going on.  It was Fedgov on Earth; Relativism was stifling them.  Beyond Earth, it was the drifters.  Once Fedgov was gone, once the drifters had been destroyed. . . the old story.  Green pastures, beyond the very next hill.” (104)

Precognition
Jones’ dilemma is that despite having the ability to look into the future for one year, he is utterly incapable of forestalling his death of controlling events.  There is a suggestion that Hitler was a “precog” and suffered from the same problem.  His predictions were accurate but not far-reaching enough to stop his downfall.  He goes to war envisioning success, but cannot see the failure around the corner.  By the time Jones sees his own death,  it is too late to change the course of events.  Dick also plays with the Calvinist question of free will.  If the future is known, changing or taking advantage of that future is not possible.

We are all precogs now.  Anyone who looks at growing inequality, environmental destruction, climate change, the murder of millions of animals a day, the destruction of fisheries, and the growing cynicism of our political systems sees disasters ahead.  Some of us might seek to profit from these disasters and a few might try to avert it.  The vast majority of us, no matter how clear the vision of the future is, move on with little real concern.  Like Jones, who knew he was fated for great things, we assume we are fated for destruction.  Like the Relativists argue, to speak harsh lessons of truth creates unnecessarily social disorder.  Much better to go quietly, in full respect of everyone’s opinions and odious actions.  Precognition gives warnings but it makes it impossible for us to arrest our future.  A much better approach is to ignore the warnings from the future and create the world we want today without abandon or reservation.

Dick gives us one area of hope at the end of the novel.  From a small settlement on Venus, a “civilization” is possible.  “But it was a good sight.  All of it: the fields, the animal sheds, the smoke-house, the silo, the main cabin, now a double-walled building with two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and indoor bathroom.  And already, Garry had located a substitute for wood-pulp; an abortive paper had been turned out, followed by primitive type.  It was only a question of time before their society became a civilization: a civilization, now, of nine individuals.”  (195)  Once we swallow our disgust of this new civilization being a replica of middle class America, we realize that it is the only hope that PKD gives us.  We do not have a frontier to retreat to.  We are instead Jones, realizing the end of our world and baffled that all of our knowledge has failed to forestall our doom.