I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 115
This entire letter must be read to appreciate Lovecraft’s really admirable reconcilation of Einstein and materialism here. I have no doubt that Lovecraft derived much of his data from contemporary literature on the subject—perhaps in the form of magazine or newspaper articles—but the vigour of his writing argues for a reasoned synthesis that is surely his own.
Lovecraft had a little more difficulty with quantum theory, which affects Elliot’s first principle, and which Lovecraft seems to have absorbed around this time. Quantum theory asserts that the action of certain sub-atomic particles is inherently random, so that we can only establish statistical averages of how a given reaction will transpire. Lovecraft addresses quantum theory significantly, to my knowledge, only once in his correspondence—in a letter to Long in late 1930: “What most physicists take the quantum theory, at present, to mean, is not that any cosmic uncertainty exists as to which of several courses a given reaction will take; but that in certain instances no conceivable channel of information can ever tell human beings which courses will be taken, or by what exact course a certain observed result came about.” It is clear from this that Lovecraft is merely repeating the views of experts; in fact, he follows the above remark with the statement: “There is room for much discussion on this point, and I can cite some very pertinent articles on the subject if necessary.” The point Lovecraft is trying to establish is that the “uncertainty” of quantum theory is not ontological, but epistemological; that it is only our inability (an inherent inability, not merely some deficiency in our sense-perception or general reasoning capacity) to predict the behaviour of sub-atomic particles that results in uncertainty. Even this admission must have been a difficult one for Lovecraft to make, for it shatters the theoretical possibility—in which most of the nineteenth-century scientists and positivist philosophers had believed—that the human mind can someday absolutely predict the course of Nature if it has enough evidence at its disposal. Nevertheless, this conclusion—although accepted by Einstein in his celebrated dictum “God does not play dice with the cosmos”—appears to be wrong. Bertrand Russell has declared that the “absence of complete determinism is not due to any incompleteness in the theory, but is a genuine characteristic of small-scale occurrences”; although he goes on to say that atomic and molecular reactions are still largely deterministic.
And yet, in the late twenties and early thirties quantum theory was hailed as shattering the first of Elliot’s materialistic principles—the uniformity of law—just as relativity was thought to have shattered, or at least qualified, the second and third. We now know—insofar as we really know the ultimate ramifications of quantum theory—that the uniformity of law is itself only qualified, and perhaps not even in a way that has any philosophical significance. The relation between quantum theory and, say, the possibility of free will is anything but clear, and there is as yet no reason to carry the effects of quantum theory into the behaviour of macrocosmic phenomena.
Some of the most bracing pages in Lovecraft’s letters of this period deal with his emphatic assertion of atheism against those of his colleagues (especially Frank Long) who felt that the “uncertainty” revealed by modern astrophysics left room for the recrudescence of conventional religious belief. Lovecraft was well aware that he was living in a time of both social and intellectual ferment; but he had nothing but contempt for those thinkers who were using the relativity and quantum theories to resurrect old-time belief:
Although these new turns of science don’t really mean a thing in relation to the myth of cosmic consciousness and teleology, a new brood of despairing and horrified moderns is seizing on the doubt of all positive knowledge which they imply; and is deducing therefrom that, since nothing is true, therefore anything can be true . . . whence one may invent or revive any sort of mythology that fancy or nostalgia or desperation may dictate, and defy anyone to prove that it isn’t “emotionally” true—whatever that means. This sickly, decadent neomysticism—a protest not only against machine materialism but against pure science with its destruction of the mystery and dignity of human emotion and experience—will be the dominant creed of middle twentieth centuries aesthetes . . . Little Belknap is already falling for it.
He went on to note the various “plans of escape” that various thinkers have evolved: “[Ralph Adams] Cram favours mediaevalism and the ivory tower, [Joseph Wood] Krutch the grim and gritted bicuspids, [Henry] Adams the resigned superiority of contemplation, [John Crowe] Ransom the return to the older spirit where it can be saved, Eliot the wholesale readoption of tradition—blindly, desperately undertaken in a mad escape from the Waste Land he so terribly depicted,” and the like. But “still more tragic are the ostrich-heads who shut off their reason altogether at a certain point—beyond which they prattle in the artificial twilight of a pretended mental infancy . . . G. K. Chesterton with his synthetic popery, Prof. [Arthur] Eddington with his observation-contradicting slush, Dr. Henri Bergson with his popular metaphysical pap, and so on, and so on.”
And in order that “Little Belknap” not fall for this—Long was apparently toying with some sort of aesthetic belief in Catholicism at the time—Lovecraft writes him a devastating response in late 1930. “Get this straight—for there is no other road to probability,” begins his screed. All that the new uncertainties of science have produced, philosophically, is a situation wherein any religious explanation of the universe “has an equal theoretical chance with any other orthodoxy or with any theory of science of being true”; but “it most positively has no greater chance than has ANY RANDOM SYSTEM OF FICTION, DEVISED CAPRICIOUSLY BY IGNORANCE, DISEASE, WHIM, ACCIDENT, EMOTION, GREED, OR ANY OTHER AGENCY INCLUDING CONSCIOUS MENDACITY, HALLUCINATION, POLITICAL OR SOCIAL INTEREST, AND ULTERIOR CONSIDERATIONS IN GENERAL.” What we must do is to assemble
all the tentative data of 1930, and forming a fresh chain of partial indications based exclusively on that data and on no conceptions derived from earlier arrays of data; meanwhile testing, by the psychological knowledge of 1930, the workings and inclinations of our minds in accepting, correlating, and making deductions from data, and most particularly weeding out all tendencies to give more than equal consideration to conceptions which would never have occurred to us had we not formerly harboured ideas of the universe now conclusively known to be false.
What result does this yield? We now see that “the actual visual and mathematical evidence of 1930 does not suggest anything very strikingly different in its general probabilities . . . from the automatick and impersonal cosmos envisaged at an earlier period, which was as a negligible, purposeless, accidental, and ephemeral atom fortuitously occurring amidst the kaleidoscopic pattern-seething . . .”
The critical question then becomes: Why do religious beliefs remain even among highly intelligent individuals, even when the evidence of 1930 renders them overwhelmingly unlikely?
Chief of all is the fact that the generation of men now in the saddle is old enough to have been mentally crippled by early pro-mythological bias in conventional homes. Their emotions are permanently distorted—trained to think the unreal real, and eager to grasp at any excuse for belief. They resent the cold probabilities of the cosmos because they have been taught to expect fairy-tale values and adjustments—hence as soon as any uncertainty appears in positive knowledge, they catch avidly at the loophole as an excuse to revive their comfortingly familiar superstitions. Second—many persons attribute the present bewildering changes in the social and cultural order to the decline of theistic belief, hence snatch at any chance to bolster up a placid and stabilising mythology—whether or not they inwardly believe it. Third—some persons think habitually in terms of vague, grandiose, and superficial emotions, hence find it difficult to envisage the impersonal cosmos as it is. Any system seems actually improbable to them which does not satisfy their false sense of importance, their artificial set of purpose-values, and their pseudo-wonder springing from an arbitrary and unreal standard of norms and causations.
We all know that any emotional bias—irrespective of truth or falsity—can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value regarding the real “is-or-isn’tness” of things. . . . If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretentions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction.
This last diatribe was directed at Maurice W. Moe, who could not have been very pleased with it; his orthodoxy had caused Lovecraft to unearth such barbs since at least 1918. Neither individual apparently affected the other’s views much, nor was their friendship in any way affected by their differing stances.
Lovecraft’s later ethics is in many ways a direct outgrowth of his metaphysics, and it is also intimately connected with his evolving social and political views. The question for Lovecraft was: how to conduct oneself with the realisation that the human race was an insignificant atom in the vast realms of the cosmos? One solution was to adopt the perspective of a sort of bland cosmic spectator upon the human race. As he writes to Morton in late 1929:
Contrary to what you may assume, I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist—that is, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that the resultant of the natural forces surrounding and governing organic life will have any connexion with the wishes or tastes of any part of that organic life-process. Pessimists are just as illogical as optimists; insomuch as both envisage the aims of mankind as unified, and as having a direct relationship (either of frustration or of fulfilment) to the inevitable flow of terrestrial motivation and events. That is—both schools retain in a vestigial way the primitive concept of a conscious teleology—of a cosmos which gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitoes, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy.
This is very piquant and even true to a point: cosmicism as a metaphysical principle could plausibly be said to entail indifferentism as an abstract ethical corollary. But this is not a very useful yardstick for actual behaviour, and Lovecraft had to devise some system of conduct, at least for himself, that might be consistent with cosmicism. It is only at this time that he came to espouse an aesthetic retention of tradition as a bulwark against the potential nihilism of his metaphysics. This view had no doubt been evolving unconsciously for many years, but it becomes explicit only now; but in so doing, Lovecraft left himself open to criticism at several points.
Throughout his life Lovecraft wavered between (validly) recommending tradition for himself and (invalidly) recommending it for everyone. In 1928 he had properly asserted the relativity of values (the only thing possible in a universe that has no governing deity): “Value is wholly relative, and the very idea of such a thing as meaning postulates a symmetrical relation to something else. No one thing, cosmically speaking, can be either good or evil, beautiful or unbeautiful; for entity is simply entity.” To Derleth in 1930 he wrote: “Each person lives in his own world of values, and can obviously (except for a few generalities based on essential similarities in human nature) speak only for himself when he calls this thing ‘silly and irrelevant’ and that thing ‘vital and significant’, as the case may be. We are all meaningless atoms adrift in the void.”
All this is unexceptionable, and yet it gradually gives way to a much less defensible view: that, given the relativity of values, the only true anchor of fixity is tradition—specifically the racial and cultural tradition out of which each person grows. The matter crops up in a discussion with Morton, who appears to have questioned why Lovecraft was so passionately concerned about the preservation of Western civilisation when he believed in a purposeless cosmos:
It is because the cosmos is meaningless that we must secure our individual illusions of values, direction, and interest by upholding the artificial streams which gave us such worlds of salutary illusion. That is—since nothing means anything in itself, we must preserve the proximate and arbitrary background which makes things around us seem as if they did mean something. In other words, we are either Englishmen or nothing whatever.
That “we” is very ominous. Lovecraft seems unaware that it is only in those, like himself, in whom the sense of tradition has been strongly ingrained who will clutch at tradition—racial, cultural, political, and aesthetic—as the only bulwark against nihilism. Occasionally Lovecraft does realise that it is only he and people like him are who are affected: “I follow this acceptance [of traditional folkways] purely for my own personal pleasure—because I would feel lost in a limitless and impersonal cosmos if I had no way of thinking of myself but as a dissociated and independent point.” But this view is not consistent in Lovecraft, and he often lapsed into the paradox of offering an absolutist ethic of his own while at the same time scorning others for so doing:
In a cosmos without absolute values we have to rely on the relative values affecting our daily sense of comfort, pleasure, & emotional satisfaction. What gives us relative painlessness & contentment we may arbitrarily call “good”, & vice versa. This local nomenclature is necessary to give us that benign illusion of placement, direction, & stable background on which the still more important illusions of “worthwhileness”, dramatic significance in events, & interest in life depend. Now what gives one person or race or age relative painlessness & contentment often disagrees sharply on the psychological side from what gives these same boons to another person or race or age. Therefore “good” is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology, geography, nationality, & individual temperament. Amidst this variability there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of “values” which we need in order to feel settled & contented—& that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national or biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time & space.
The curious thing, also, is that Lovecraft was aware of the degree to which he had departed intellectually from many of the prevailing beliefs of his tradition-stream by his atheism, his moral relativism, his scorn of democracy, and perhaps even in his taste for weird fiction, none of which were at all common to the Anglo-American culture to which he wished to associate himself: “One does not have to take these traditions seriously, in an intellectual way, and one may even laugh at their points of naiveté and delusion—as indeed I laugh at the piety, narrowness, and conventionality of the New England background which I love so well and find so necessary to contentment.”
It should now be clear why Lovecraft not only clung to tradition so firmly but why he so ardently sought to preserve his civilisation against onslaughts from all sides—from foreigners, from the rising tide of mechanisation, and even from radical aesthetic movements. In 1931 he was still arguing for the biological inferiority of blacks (“The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists—eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist”); but gradually
But as the 1920s progressed, Lovecraft began to sense a much greater foe to tradition: the machine culture. His views on the subject are by no means original to him and can be found in many thinkers of the period; but his remarks are both incisive and compelling. What Lovecraft was coming to believe was that the present age no longer represented a continuation of “American civilisation” in any sense:
It is “American” only in a geographic sense, & is not a “civilisation” at all except according to the Spenglerian definition of the word. It is a wholly alien & wholly puerile barbarism; based on physical comfort instead of mental excellence, & having no claim to the consideration of real colonial Americans. Of course, like other barbarisms, it may some day give birth to a culture—but that culture will not be ours, & it is natural for us to fight its incursions over territory which we wish to preserve for our own culture.
Later in the same letter Lovecraft painted a picture of the future:
The social-political future of the United States is one of domination by vast economic interests devoted to ideals of material gain, aimless activity, & physical comfort—interests controlled by shrewd, insensitive, & not often well-bred leaders recruited from the standardised herd through a competition of hard wit & practical craftiness—a struggle for place & power which will eliminate the true & the beautiful as goals, & substitute the strong, the huge, & the mechanically effective.
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- Black Wings of Cthulhu 6Black Wings of Cthulhu (Volume Six)Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 3I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)Black Wings of CthulhuBlack Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 4Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 5
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