I am providence the life.., p.50

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 50


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  As early as 1915 Lovecraft postulated a similar conception in one of his astronomy articles: “A vast, sepulchral universe of unbroken midnight gloom and perpetual arctic frigidity, through which will roll dark, cold suns with their hordes of dead, frozen planets, on which will lie the dust of those unhappy mortals who will have perished as their dominant stars faded from their skies. Such is the depressing picture of a future too remote for calculation” (“Clusters and Nebulae,” Part II, Asheville Gazette-News, 6 April 1915). This is in fact not entropy, since there would be no suns or planets at all; but the idea is analogous. We shall see it recur after a fashion in some of his stories, where he imagines the eventual cooling of the sun and the extinction of all life on this planet and throughout the solar system. It is not entirely certain that Lovecraft actually embraced entropy, for he too was very wedded to the notion of the eternity and infinity of the universe—he required these conceptions as the means to deflate human self-importance—and this is why he regarded Einstein’s notion of curved space with a certain unease.

  Another way in which Lovecraft differed from Haeckel is in the latter’s wild extension of a very sound principle—Darwin’s theory of evolution—to cosmic proportions. Like Lovecraft, Haeckel found in Darwin a great weapon against terrestrial teleology:

  Darwin was the first to point out that the “struggle for life” is the unconscious regulator which controls the reciprocal action of heredity and adaptation in the gradual transformation of species; it is the great “selective divinity” which, by a purely “natural choice,” without preconceived design, creates new forms, just as selective man creates new types by an ‘artificial choice” with a definite design. That gave us the solution of the great philosophical problem: “How can purposive contrivances be produced by purely mechanical processes without design?” . . . Thus have we got rid of the transcendental “design” of the teleological philosophy of the schools, which was the greatest obstacle to the growth of a rational and monistic conception of nature.[38]

  The refutation of the religious “argument from design”—the notion that the entities of the world are so well adapted to their environments that they must have been produced by a deity—far antedates Voltaire’s Candide; the Epicureans very powerfully pointed to the imperfections of the world in opposition to this conception. But the scientific proof had to wait till Darwin. But Haeckel then extravagantly assumes that the principle of evolution is somehow inherent in the cosmos at large: “It is true that there were philosophers who spoke of the evolution of things a thousand years ago; but the recognition that such a law dominates the entire universe, and that the world is nothing else than an eternal “evolution of substance,” is a fruit of the nineteenth century” (4). Lovecraft, amusingly enough, refutes this argument soundly when, in In Defence of Dagon, he attacks a Mr Wickenden who was putting forth a somewhat analogous religious argument:

  [Wickenden] sees a process of evolution in operation at one particular cosmic moment in one particular point in space; and at once assumes gratuitously that all the cosmos is evolving steadily in one direction toward a fixed goal. Moreover, he feels that it all must amount to something—he calls it a thing of “heroism and splendour”! So when it is shewn that life on our world will (relatively) soon be extinct through the cooling of the sun; that space is full of such worlds which have died; that human life and the solar system itself are the merest novelties in an eternal cosmos; and that all indications point to a gradual breaking down of both matter and energy which will eventually nullify the results of evolution in any particular corner of space; when these things are shewn Mr. Wickenden recoils, and . . . cries out that it’s all nonsense—it just can’t be so!! But what of the actual probability, apart from man’s futile wishes? If we cannot prove that the universe means nothing, how can we prove that it means anything—what right have we to invent a notion of purpose in the utter absence of evidence?

  Elliot’s third principle—denial of spirit—was scarcely less thoroughly espoused by Lovecraft. It is here that Elliot, Haeckel, and Lovecraft (and for that matter Nietzsche) are all in accord. At one point in The Riddle of the Universe (204–5) Haeckel posits a six-stage argument to demolish the notion of an immaterial soul, using physiological, histological, experimental, pathological, ontogenic, and phylogenetic arguments. Lovecraft follows Haeckel’s argument closely in In Defence of Dagon:

  One might ask, to the confounding of those who aver that men have “souls” whilst beasts have not, . . . just how the evolving organism began to acquire “spirit” after it crossed the boundary betwixt advanced ape and primitive human? It is rather hard to believe in “soul” when one has not a jot of evidence for its existence; when all the psychic life of man is demonstrated to be precisely analogous to that of other animals—presumably “soulless”. But all this is too childish. When we investigate both ontogeny and phylogeny we find that man had both individually and racially evolved from the unicellular condition. . . . This development occurs both pre-natally and post-natally in the individual, and can be followed with much exactitude. In the species, we can follow it hardly less exactly by means of comparative anatomy and biology.

  It is clear that Lovecraft is heavily reliant on the theory of evolution in this argument. I am not certain whether Lovecraft actually read Darwin: his books are not found in Lovecraft’s library (but then, neither are Elliot’s, Haeckel’s, or Nietzsche’s), and although Lovecraft does mention The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in the In Defence of Dagon essays, I cannot sense any genuine familiarity with these works. In all likelihood, he absorbed evolution chiefly from Thomas Henry Huxley and Haeckel.

  It is somewhat interesting to note that both Elliot and Haeckel share, to some degree, Lovecraft’s sense of cosmic insignificance. Haeckel branded as “anthropism” the mistaken idea that the human race had some sort of cosmic importance: “I designate by this term ‘that powerful and world-wide group of erroneous opinions which opposes the human organism to the whole of the rest of nature, and represents it to be the preordained end of the organic creation, an entity essentially distinct from it, a godlike being’” (11; Haeckel is quoting an earlier work of his own). Elliot is no less explicit:

  Just as the savage supposes the whole Universe to be specially created for the benefit of himself or his tribe; just as the more civilised man supposes the Universe to be specially subservient to the human race; so in the most recondite problems of philosophy our arguments tend to be vitiated by infusion of the subjective element, in such a way that we read into external nature the human interests and egocentric habits which belong to our own minds. (167)

  This passage is remarkable in that Lovecraft provided an anticipation of it in 1916: “Our philosophy is all childishly subjective—we imagine that the welfare of our race is the paramount consideration, when as a matter of fact the very existence of the race may be an obstacle to the predestined course of the aggregated universes of infinity!”[39] It is no wonder that Elliot’s book was so stimulating for him: it may have seemed to Lovecraft that he had written it himself.

  Lovecraft sees this “anthropism” working in most religious conceptions of the universe, and he devastates it in an argument on the subject with Maurice W. Moe in 1918:

  What am I? What is the nature of the energy about me, and how does it affect me? So far I have seen nothing which could possibly give me the notion that cosmic force is the manifestation of a mind and will like my own infinitely magnified; a potent and purposeful consciousness which deals individually and directly with the miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe, and which singles this putrid excrescence out as the one spot whereto to send an onlie-begotten Son, whose mission is to redeem these accursed flyspeck-inhabiting lice which we call human beings—bah!! Pardon the “bah!” I feel several “bahs!”, but out of courtesy I say only one. But it is all so very childish. I cannot help taking exception to a philosophy which would force this rubbish do
wn my throat.[40]

  In all honesty, there is not much actual reasoning in this passage, and Lovecraft was aware of it; and of course he intentionally prejudices his account by all manner of pejorative designations (“miserable denizens,” “putrid excrescence,” etc.). If any argument can be derived from this, it is the argument from probability. And yet, Lovecraft knew that there was no other way to prove a negative proposition (i.e., the proposition that God does not exist). It is worth quoting a much later letter here, since its basic philosophic thrust is the same:

  I certainly can’t see any sensible position to assume aside from that of complete scepticism tempered by a leaning toward that which existing evidence makes most probable. All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of rational evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist. The chances of theism’s truth being to my mind so microscopically small, I would be a pedant and a hypocrite to call myself anything else.[41]

  One of the greatest weapons Lovecraft found in his battle against religious metaphysics (and, for that matter, ethics) was anthropology. The anthropological thought of the later nineteenth century had, in Lovecraft’s mind, so convincingly accounted for the natural origin of religious belief that no further explanation was required for its tenacious hold on human beings. He writes in the In Defence of Dagon essays: “This matter of the explanation of ‘spiritual’ feelings is really the most important of all materialistic arguments; since the explanations are not only overwhelmingly forcible, but so adequate as to shew that man could not possibly have developed without acquiring just such false impressions.” This conception is elaborated at length in the essay “Idealism and Materialism—A Reflection,” which was published in an issue of the National Amateur dated July 1919. This may not mean, however, that the essay was written at this time or earlier; for this issue (printed by W. Paul Cook) was held up for some two years, and seems to have come out shortly after the NAPA election in the summer of 1921.[42] In any event, Lovecraft’s essay is a sort of updated “natural history of religion”:

  Since to the untutored mind the conception of impersonal action is impossible, every natural phenomenon was invested with purpose and personality. If lightning struck the earth, it was wilfully hurled by an unseen being in the sky. If a river flowed toward the sea, it was because some unseen being wilfully propelled it. And since men understood no sources of action but themselves, these unseen creatures of imagination were endowed with human forms, despite their more than human powers. So rose the awesome race of anthropomorphic gods, destined to exert so long a sway over their creators.

  This notion—that primitive human beings were, to put it crudely, merely bad philosophers who misapprehended the true nature of phenomena—was evolved by a number of important anthropologists of the later nineteenth century. I would like to believe that Lovecraft read Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871), a landmark work in its field that is still of value, but can find no evidence that he ever did so. Tylor is cited as one of the anthropological authorities cited by Henry Wentworth Akeley in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), and for some data in his stories Lovecraft pillaged several of Tylor’s entries in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he owned; but that is all. We are on more certain ground if we contend that Lovecraft’s anthropology of religion comes from John Fiske’s Myths and Myth-Makers (1872) and Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890f.), which he clearly did read (although Frazer perhaps not this early). Fiske’s book was in his library. Like Haeckel, John Fiske (1842–1901) has suffered somewhat of a decline in esteem, but in his day he was highly noted as an anthropologist, philosopher, and (in his later years) historian. Lovecraft also owned his American Political Ideals Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History (1885) and The Beginnings of New England; or, The Puritan Theocracy in Its Relation to Civil and Religious Liberty (1889).

  Here is Fiske on the subject of the origin of religion:

  The same mighty power of imagination which now, restrained and guided by scientific principles, leads us to discoveries and inventions, must have wildly run riot in mythologic fictions whereby to explain the phenomena of nature. Knowing nothing whatever of physical forces, of the blind steadiness with which a given effect invariably follows its cause, the men of primeval antiquity could interpret the actions of nature only after the analogy of their own actions. The only force they knew was the force of which they were directly conscious,—the force of will. Accordingly, they imagined all the outward world to be endowed with volition, and to be directed by it. They personified everything,—sky, clouds, thunder, sun, moon, ocean, earthquake, whirlwind.[43]

  Fiske goes on to state that dreams and the fear of death led to the ideas of an immaterial soul that survives the body, and Lovecraft follows him in many essays and letters. And once religion became established in early civilised communities, it was perpetuated by the systematic brainwashing of the young into conventional religious belief. (There is relatively little in Lovecraft of Nietzsche’s idea that religion is perpetuated by cynical clerics who wish to maintain their power and standing in their communities.) Curiously, in spite of Lovecraft’s awareness of the pervasiveness of religious belief, in his early years he occasionally expressed sanguine beliefs about its downfall:

  The progress of science will eventually, I believe . . . put an end to spiritualism amongst the educated and even the half-educated. . . . A mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead.[44]

  Dr. Sigmund Freud of Vienna, whose system of psycho-analysis I have begun to investigate, will probably prove the end of idealistic thought.[45]

  This is one of the many occasions where Lovecraft places an exaggerated emphasis on the power of the rational mind to shape beliefs and to govern actions; and in a somewhat different way the notion enters into his fiction as well. Somewhat later Lovecraft came to a different and more seasoned view of religious belief:

  My contention is that religion is still useful amongst the herd—that it helps their orderly conduct as nothing else could, and that it gives them an emotional satisfaction they could not get elsewhere. I don’t say that it does either of these things as well as it used to do, but I do say that I believe nothing else could do them so well even now. The crude human animal is ineradicably superstitious, and there is every biological and historical reason why he should be. An irreligious barbarian is a scientific impossibility. Rationalistic conceptions of the universe involve a type of mental victory over hereditary emotion quite impossible to the undeveloped and uneducated intellect. Agnosticism and atheism mean nothing to a peasant or workman. Mystic and teleological personification of natural forces is in his bone and blood—he cannot envisage the cosmos (i.e., the earth, the only cosmos he grasps) apart form them. Take away his Christian god and saints, and he will worship something else.[46]

  Taking the cynicism of this passage into account, Lovecraft certainly seems to be pretty much on target here; what he would say about the recrudescence of very ignorant fundamentalist belief in the last three decades it is difficult to imagine. And yet, Lovecraft was perhaps not so wrong in thinking that a cleavage between the agnostic intelligentsia and the religious “herd” was occurring in his day and would continue to occur as science continued to advance. One historian, James Turner, has traced the rise of agnosticism in America after the Civil War to the weakening of three central arguments for religious belief: 1) Scripture (whose claim to be the “word of God” was thrown in doubt by the “higher criticism” of the middle nineteenth century, which found disturbing inconsistencies throughout
the Old and New Testaments); 2) the argument from design (demolished by Darwin); and 3) the “hearts” of human beings (explained by psychology and anthropology).[47] Lovecraft, in the In Defence of Dagon essays, sympathetically if somewhat condescendingly discusses an anonymous article, “Whither?,” published in the Atlantic Monthly for March 1915, which lamented the decline of religious belief:

  There is no real argument of importance in the harangue of the anonymous author, but the atmosphere of sorrow at the passing of the old illusions makes the whole complaint an absorbing human document. Certainly, there is much in the modern advance of knowledge which must of necessity shock and bewilder the mind accustomed to uncritical tradition. That the old illusions cheered and stimulated the average person to a more or less considerable degree cannot be denied—the dream-world of our grandsires was undoubtedly a sort of artificial paradise for mediocrity. . . . A phase of primitive allegory has retreated into the past, and we must make the best of what we cannot help. If we tried to believe now we should feel the sham, and despise ourselves for it—we simply know better, like the small boy deprived of “Santa Claus”.

  I want at last to return to those curious statements made in “A Confession of Unfaith,” wherein Lovecraft attests to his “cynical materialism” and his “pessimistic cosmic views,” for they will provide a transition to a study of Lovecraft’s early ethics. Why cynical? why pessimistic? What is there in materialism or cosmicism that could lead to such an ethical stance? Well, as a matter of pure logic, nothing: materialism and cosmicism, as metaphysical principles, have no direct ethical corollaries, and it therefore becomes our task to ascertain how and why Lovecraft felt that they did. Let us consider some statements of the 1919–20 period:

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