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?

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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.

William James, “The Will to Believe”

The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy was a collection of James’ lectures on religion and some other issues on philosophy in the later 1890s.  All of these essays have interesting items to teach us and I will first summarize some of his theses as best as I can in a few sentences each before commenting on what I think they can teach us when taken as a ten-course meal.  See my other posts on James in the archives on January 14 and January 15.

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“The Will to Believe” (1896): The argument of this essay is that it would be irrational to reject religious beliefs (and for James, experiences) since the validity of these claims and experiences cannot be denied or defended with scientific certainty.  “We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.”  (477)  Now for many, this or that religious belief will be dead and useless.  But when believes can be real, and reinforced with experiences, they should be embraced.  This clearly does not apply to only religious claims.  Indeed, most religious claims are dead for most of us.  For me, it is the goodness of humanity and our potential for solidarity that holds the most power – is the most live – now.  This is a powerful argument and should not be used to justify the indoctrination of “dead” beliefs, but rather a celebration of experiences, ideas, and beliefs, which may in the end be impossible to support with scientific certainty.  But love, friendship, and joy all exist in that realm.

“Is Life Worth Living” (1895): This argument is a corollary to “The Will to Believe” as well as a pragmatic argument against suicide.  Life’s purpose is one of those beliefs that cannot be scientifically justified.  Again, this could be a defense of theistic claims, but I do not see James’ limiting life’s meaning to God’s purpose.  “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is not better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will.  But it feels like a real fight – as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem.” (502)

“The Sentiment of Rationality” (1880): Although presented long before “The Will to Believe” it is rightfully placed near it in this volume.  There is a poverty to strict rationality.  It of course discounts subjective experiences, such as those of the “more mystical minds.”  Moral questions are clouded by strict rationality or evolutionary logic.  Morality is experienced subjectively and on some level escapes rational consideration.  Furthermore, rationality will never be agreed to by all.  Even two “rational” thinkers will disagree.  Given these facts, forgoing certainty seems a normal part of life and should be accepted as part of our considerations of truth.

“Reflex Action and Theism” (1881): Here, the position James makes is that all philosophical inquiry and our entire psychological mentality are bound by experience.  “Philosophies, whether expressed in sonnets or systems, all must wear this form.  The thinker starts from some experience of the practical world, and asks its meaning.”  He contrasts philosophy with a voyage.  Theism exists in some of these states of consciousnesses, produced most strongly in mystical experiences.

“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) Moral systems cannot be worked out in advance, James suggests.  Instead they are lived and contingent.  (Part of this contingency is the waiting we need to endure until the religious questions are understood.  Until, for instance, we know there is or is not an afterlife, or know that the Ten Commandments are or are not God’s will, we cannot really have a clear answer to all moral questions.)  Given this, particularly the impossibility of perfect clarity on ethical questions he states: “It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” (617)

“Great Men and Their Environment” (1880): This essay attempts to find some common ground between evolutionary environmentalism (slow change) and the rather rapid historical change we experience.  As I understand it, James is positing a evolutionary theory of greatness in respect to historical times.  Some mentalities, ideas, and geniuses are adapted to certain times producing greatness.  “The mutations of societies, them, from generations to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, cenetres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose grist, had they had a free play, would have led society in another direction.” (626)

These are the essays that I find most apt for our purposes.  Without exception these essays promote an active engagement with the world as individuals, as moral agents, and as believers.  At criticism is the strict intellectualism.  In this sentiment I find much common ground with James.  For your use, here is Wolfi Landstreicher (Against the Logic of Submission) on that same question.

I think it would be limiting to look at James’ The Will to Believe purely through the lens of religious dogmas.  James often identifies other attitudes (pessimism, optimism, morality) as fundamentally religious because they cannot be scientifically determined.  While I would not use that phrase because of my personal relationship with religions and its evolution over the years, I find it often necessary to take a “Leap of Faith” in many of parts of life.  Revolutionaries need no small amount of faith in order to act.  And action itself, reinforces our belief in the visions we make real.
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The remainder of this volume of James’ earlier writings includes his “Talks to Teachers on Psychology and the Students on Some of Life’s Ideals” and some essays. The lectures to teachers have some interesting comments on teaching in what we would now call a “child-centered” way, by understanding how children learn. Ultimately, he is still part of the effort to dispense learning most effectively to children, rather than encourage children to teach themselves and facilitate autonomous learning (what we might now call “unschooling.”) His lectures to “students” (really college students) covered his views on the meaning of life, the poverty of intellectual absolutism, the need for diversity of perspectives in ideas, and the necessity of the relaxation of the tensions of modern American society (he points out the problem of moral anxiety as particularly acute).

With this, I will move on from William James, with the promise to explore his later writings later in this blog.

William James, “Psychology: A Briefer Course”, Part Two

This is a continuation of my previous post on James’ psychology textbook, which was a condensed version of The Principles of Psychology.  As we saw, James’ moves us from the biological foundations of the mind and the senses (mostly common to all of us) to our individualized conception of “the self.”  The second half of the book, collected in the Library of America’s volume of James’ early writings, covers specific ways that this “self” interacts with the world through conception of the external world, association, memory, imagination, space, time, emotion, reason, instinct and will.  I suspect the most interesting question in psychology for libertarians is to what degree is liberty of will possible.  This is a question currently being discussed by neuroscientists.  The familiarity of James’ musings on free will, comes from my relatively brief exposure to some of these current debates, which seem to suggest free will as we normally understand it is an illusion, even if not entirely morally irrelevant.  James presents some skepticism about free will, but more or less rejects its relevance, because of the crucial nature of action.  We have already seen that James presents action as the key to habit formation (or breaking).  It is here there there is hope for freedom.  “The world thus finds in the heroic man its worthy match and mate; and the effort which he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken is the direct measure of his worth and function in the game of human life.  He can stand this Universe. . . . He forms a part of human destiny. . . . Thus not only our morality but our religion, so far as the latter is deliberate, depend on the effort which we can make.  “Will you or won’t you have it so?” is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things.  We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words.  What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!  What wonder if the effort demanded by them be the measure of our worth as men!  What wonder if the amount which we accord of it were the one strictly underived and original contribution which we make to the world!.” (425–426)

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As we go through the text with an eye to the question of action and will, we see the centrality of the material world, our interaction with it, and willingness to transform it to shape our will (and in doing so shaping our mental conception of the world).  Even pure reason (if even possible) is bound by this. “All consciousness is motor.  The reader will not have forgotten, in the jungle of purely inward processes and products through which the last chapters have born him, that the final result of them all must be some form of bodily activity.”  (347)  Even pure imagination is a product of experience and action.  A blind person cannot imagine color.  In the same way, we cannot imagine alternatives to the world we have without making them to some degree realized.  (The frustration of reading science fiction is that the authors rarely can envision economic, social, or political systems that do not have parallels to the world around us.)

So, yes, if we accept James’ position, we find that we are bound by the physicality of our experiences and physical construct.  Our capacity for imagination, free-will, and reason are inexorably bound.  This may frustrate those who seek liberty of thought and action.  Our solution is to act and through action, our will can be actualized.  In the process we may be surprised at what we create, do, think, or envision.

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I was reading the chronology of James’ life.  Every volume of the Library of America has an author’s bio in the form of a chronology.  William and Henry had a brother named Robert (Bob).  William James seems to have spend a bit of time keeping track of Bob, occasionally trying to set him straight.  Once Bob was running a cotton plantation in Florida, later he took a job in Iowa as a railroad clerk.  He was an amateur painter, worked as a curator of a Milwaukee museum.  A few years later William has to drag Bob from his drunken stupor in Milwaukee, where he can dry him out in Boston.  A wanderer with a soft-spot for Milwaukee will always warm my heart.
It seems to me that Bob James is worthy of a biographer, or that at least the three brothers show up in a television comedy (My Three James?)

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