(What HP Lovecraft can and can’t teach us about the human condition)
I don’t know about you, but to me it can feel like we’re living in the end times.
Whichever side of the political spectrum we’re on, wherever we get our news, the forecast is bad-to-worse.
Right now we are facing a bit of a perfect storm of macro and micro existential challenges. Individual lives are thrown into uncertainty, while nations are facing their own identity crises, while we face species level near and far threats in Covid-19 and the spectre of environmental crisis.
But, worst of all, we’ve been conditioned to kind of accept it. Adam Curtis dubbed it ‘oh-dearism’. The disempowering state where not only do we think that things are bad, but that they are un-fixably bad and that the systems we have built are woefully ill-equipped to tackle it, or even working against us to perpetuate it. All that is left to us is to look on and shrug fatalistically. ‘Oh dear’.
This disempowering acceptance leads to a kind of deep-seated ‘this is not okay-ness’ that we push down and ignore.
Those who are familiar with Lovecraftian horror might recognise this condition. The genre is often called Cosmic Horror, which I think quite accurately describes what we’re feeling right now.
In Lovecraft’s universe, scientists probe things they shouldn’t and release malevolent old gods. Incomprehensible colours or geometry appears, driving those who see them insane. Journalists investigate mysteries which lead them into unknown and dangerous places. The stories are often told from pieced together journals and letters found after the writer has disappeared.
HP Lovecraft was a prolific writer but the characters and universe he created have taken on a life of their own, expanding into a sprawling world of contemporary fiction and horror. From Stephen King to Stranger Things, to Alien; Boardgames, computer games, RPG systems, metal bands and lyrics have all been inspired by Lovecraft.
BBC Radio 4 has dramatised two of his classic stories — The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Whisperer in Darkness. Which are well worth a listen if you are unfamiliar with his work.
The source of horror in many cases is humanity and science pushing into areas it shouldn’t. And that by pushing into the unknown we unleash forces bigger than us are driven mad by the horrors unleashed.
The message is that, humanity shouldn’t try to understand or change its condition. Because all that is there is horror. We are all staring into the abyss, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Lovecraft said that faced with this, we have two choices. Wilful ignorance or insanity.
We are either driven mad by the cosmic dread we are confronted with; that humanity is insignificantly playing with forces bigger than us that we cannot comprehend. Or we choose to ignore it, turning back from the truth, because as individuals and as a species we cannot handle it.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” — HP Lovecraft
For me, this felt like a very apt diagnosis of the plight we find ourselves in. I personally feel I flit between being paralysed by the daunting challenges of the world and ignoring them and carrying on as normal yet feeling guilty for it. Questions swirl around my head: should I have children in a world that might descend into climate catastrophe? Should I take this flight or drive this car? Can society or politics be fixed and who and how can we do it? Is a better world possible? Is the world as we know it ending?
“Keep Calm and Carry On” is the very mantra for the wilful ignorance we choose to bestow upon ourselves.
Have the world’s insoluble problems defeated us? Are we just playing out the end times?
Luckily, I don’t think that’s the answer. That would be too depressing a place to end it. But that is where Lovecraft tends to leave us.
HP Lovecraft himself is definitely not a great role model for understanding the world. He was a deeply unhappy, misanthropic and racist individual. Reconciling the works of Lovecraft with his undeniable and widely documented racist beliefs is a challenge.
Ultimately, confronting and understanding his work in light of his white supremacist views while also embracing how the Lovecraftian universe has been reclaimed and reimagined in recent times can walk this tricky line.
‘Racecraft’ has been termed as a sub-genre of Lovecraft, which directly seeks to explore race within his universe. Lovecraft Country is a great example of this which is definitely worth a watch. If you view Lovecraft as partly an exploration of white fragility that can place it in a useful context. Lovecraft recognised that his white supremacy was founded on nothing and was preoccupied with what happens when white supremacy is inevitably toppled: ‘what if someone does to us what we did to them’. I found this podcast very interesting on the topic; as is this article.
So too I think humanity needs to reclaim their narrative from Lovecraft’s nihilistic despair.
“Funny how all things people don’t understand seem to be ‘cursed’.”
- Nnedi Okorafor
And the way out, that is all too absent in Lovecraft’s universe, is hope. Reasonable hope combined with a bit of blind optimism has to be the guiding light that helps us steer through this unsettling uncertainty.
Lovecraft was preoccupied with fear of the unknown and fear of change. But to escape the situation we are in, we need to embrace the unknown and bring on change. Being comfortable with the unknown, rather than demonising it.
“All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
- Octavia Butler
Lovecraft describes the worst of the human condition but we can reclaim that. By recognising the dilemma we find ourselves in, we can use it as a force for good and change it.
We need to create a credible narrative for a better future. A positive science fiction that we can steer towards. Culture is comfortably wallowing in apocalyptic and dystopian stories. But it needs an optimists counter-point.
“Rigor alone is paralytic death, imagination alone is insanity”
— Gregory Bateson
In the same way people are reclaiming Lovecraft from his racist views, we should also reclaim it from his misanthropic views.
In the right hands, insanity and ignorance can be super powers.
By choosing to ignore the barriers in-front of us we can overcome them. And by daring to dream of insane solutions we can start to solve the impossible problems in front of us.
Rather than wallowing or despairing, hope against reason can see us through.