Failure of Lovecraft's Project: 1 of 3

Discussion in 'H P Lovecraft' started by Extollager, Aug 26, 2010.

  1.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    I propose, with the indulgence of you all, to provoke some discussion of the following thesis:

    Lovecraft was a Romantic. He was a Romantic because, like Blake (who had very, very different beliefs), he wanted to change the consciousness of his readers. "Readers" refers to readers of his stories and/or of his letters. Lovecraft wanted his readers to accept what has been called his cosmicism. His cosmicism is a form of materialism. But it is not tenable.

    I propose to offer three threads for discussion, each of which will deal with a factor that should make Lovecraft's thought unsatisfactory to any thoughtful reader.

    Here is the first of three threads.

    1.Lovecraft's Romantic project is unsatisfactory because essential to it is a basic category error. He mixes the quantitative and the qualitative.

    Perhaps derived from the first few pages of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, Lovecraft's project forces upon the reader's attention the vastness of the universe (not just its spatial dimension, but its vast age). The earth is less than a speck compared to the inconceivable immensity of the universe. Our own species is a late arrival in an ancient universe. Given these incontrovertible facts, we must accept that we are insignificant.

    This is fallacious reasoning. The conclusion doesn't follow from the premises.

    The size and the age of the universe are matters of quantity. But what makes human beings significant is not how big they are or how old they are. If that were true, a six-foot-tall, overweight septuagenarian would be slightly more "significant" than a thin five-foot-tall youngster simply because the former was a little bigger and a little older. Actually, no one ever said -- despite what HPL seems to have implied -- that what makes humans significant or not significant is their size and age.

    For the sake of argument, though, let's play with this idea that "significance" CAN be a matter of quantity, of size and age. Let us suppose a universe in which an inhabited earth is surrounded by a few thousand miles of space, and that these have come to be within the past 50 years. And this is what IS. Most people would hesitate to say that the earth, in such a universe, is insignificant. Now let's double the size of the surrounding universe and double its age and that of the earth while keeping the age of humanity the same as it was before. Are we NOW ready to say that humanity is insignificant, where it wasn't, before? Most people would hesitate to do so. So we can continue to increase the size and age of the universe and the age of the earth. At what point do we cross the magic threshold, beyond which humanity becomes insignificant?

    In short, then, the size and age of the universe are completely irrelevant when we are discussing the significance of humanity. I am not saying what does make humanity significant. I am only saying that it's illegitimate rhetoric to write as if what makes humanity significant is the fact that the universe is much older and much bigger than we are. I will suggest something about the significance of humanity in point #2 and #3, to follow.

    Discuss. :)
  2.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,612
    Whoof! You've opened up some interesting threads for discussion here... Unfortunately, my time is limited, so for the moment I can only give a (very brief) response on this one; I am hoping I will have a chance to get to the others this weekend (though the way my time has been eaten up lately, that may be sheer cockeyed optimism on my part...).

    At any rate: I think you have missed an essential point in Lovecraft's position on this one. It may be a subtle distinction, but it is nonetheless an important one. Lovecraft does not say we human beings are unimportant per se, but that we simply don't matter to the rest of the cosmos. We are not the center of attention; we are insignificant insofar as the universe does not revolve around us... save to ourselves (that is, in our own conception, which, certainly in his day and even in ours, tends to be the at least unconscious assumption of most of us); and he made it quite clear that we are (rightly) very important to ourselves; it would be totally unnatural for us not to be. He used the size and age of the universe to put human arrogance (or, to be more exact, hubris) into perspective against the larger background. That he himself found human beings to be insignificant in this context is obvious; but (save for moments of extreme exasperation or bitterness) in other contexts he recognized and even in many ways celebrated the contributions of human beings to existence.

    He was simply using the fact that the universe -- and even the earth -- would go on its own way regardless of whether we ever existed or not; that we are of no more cosmic importance than any other form of "biological energy" (as he put it) such as rats, lice, fleas, cats, or dinosaurs. In part this was a reaction to the tendency toward anthropocentrism in even the most "cosmic" of literature up to his time, and in part it was an aesthetic reaction to the sheer awe, beauty, and majesty he found in contemplating the vastness of the universe and the ineluctability of Time. (As he noted in his "Notes on Writing Weird Fiction": "The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression".)

    Incidentally, it is highly unlikely that Well's novel had any influence on his adoption of this view, given that his mother confiscated a copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau for its gruesomeness, and there is no indication (at least, any that I've ever seen or heard of) he read Wells' War of the Worlds until much later in his life, if then... long after he had already taken this view, which shows up as early as his astronomy articles for the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, written when he was in his mid teens; nor did he ever seem to exhibit much of a fondness for Wells, remarking that his concepts were often very good, but he found the actual handling of them rather flat. Rather, this seems to have been the result of his studies of the heavens and his learning of the various scientific facts concerning the age of the universe and the earth (as the figure stood then) as well as its size... which was of course thought to be much different then than now.

    You might want to take a look at S. T. Joshi's H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, which examines the philosophy of Lovecraft's life and works. It makes for fascinating reading, and points out both the fallacies and strengths of much of his thought and its aesthetic presentation.
  3.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    Before I reply to your comment, JDW, let me say that I hope that any other readers who contribute to this thread will keep coming back to the initial message with which I started it.

    Now, you wrote, "Lovecraft does not say we human beings are unimportant per se, but that we simply don't matter to the rest of the cosmos...He used the size and age of the universe to put human arrogance (or, to be more exact, hubris) into perspective against the larger background. That he himself found human beings to be insignificant in this context is obvious....He was simply using the fact that the universe -- and even the earth -- would go on its own way regardless of whether we ever existed or not."

    I'm not seeing why a hubristic person should feel his hubris to be corrected by contemplation of bigness and oldness of something other than himself, unless his hubris is based on his physical dimensions and his age. "Hey man, you think you're so big and so old, but look at the universe!"

    A desire to correct someone's hubris is either a moral or an aesthetic venture. If Lovecraft wants to correct someone's hubris because hubris is a moral offense, then he is assuming that there is, independent of Lovecraft and the hubristic man, an objective moral standard. I believe this is the case, and will call it the Tao. An artist, then, may employ his skill for a sound moral purpose, the salutary humbling of our inveterate egotism.

    However, I think Lovecraft did not want to admit the existence of the Tao. He wanted to believe that human morals have no validity outside the individual (an existential view) or a social unit (hence his combination of atheism, materialism, and conservatism -- where often atheism and materialism have been found in radical-enlightenment circles rather than conservatism). But if this is so, his dislike of others' hubris is, well, an aesthetic response. "I don't like your hubris!" And to try to make the person whose attitude he doesn't like come around to his view (or, more likely, just to gratify his own dislike?), he resorts to a ploy that seems (to him and to many) a philosophical argument, but isn't really.
  4.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    I might not have made that point about the Tao as clearly as I should. The Tao is that "entity" whereby one may say, "One ought not to think too highly of oneself," as a meaningful statement and not simply a statement of preference ("I don't like it when people talk like that!").

    I think Lovecraft's conservatism may have pulled him towards a recognition of this perennial, real Tao, but at the same time that he did not want to recognize the existence of something standing independently of material causation and the vagaries of human sentiment.

    If anyone is interested in this matter of the Tao, he should read C. S. Lewis's little book The Abolition of Man. It is not a work of Christian apologetics, unlike some of Lewis's writings. It is an empirical and logical demonstration of the perdurable moral standard. The Tao is not an "idolized" phantom imagined by men, but rather is integral in man's deliverance from the world of his subjectivity.
  5.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    (Follow-up to previous messages)

    Lovecraft: "Given the vast size and age of the universe, a man ought not to think too highly of himself."

    Interlocutor: "What do you mean by 'ought'?"

    Pause over that.

    Now Lovecraft might respond: "It is evident that when humans think too highly of themselves, they suffer. History provides abundant examples of the suffering that can result from hubristic financial speculation, agricultural practices, and so on. Agreed?"

    Interlocutor: "Yes."

    Lovecraft: "Then may one not say, as a strict materialist, simply on the basis of empirical observation, that people ought not to think too highly of themselves?"

    Interlocutor: "No; because one cannot get from a statement in the indicative ('Humans suffer when people think too highly of themselves') to a statement in the imperative ('Humans ought not to think too highly of themselves because they suffer when they do'). On what grounds do we say that one ought to care about someone else's suffering? To be sure, benevolence towards others is a duty enjoined by the Tao. But materialism cannot enjoin any duties. Accordingly, your project of humbling man's chronic hubris cannot succeed if you base it on strict materialism."

    Discuss? (But I hope folks other than JDW will also be moved to respond to points either of us made before this posting.)
  6.  
    J-WO

    J-WO Pretentious Avatar Alert.

    Joined:
    Oct 28, 2008
    Messages:
    2,198
    Nice thread, to which I don't know if I'm clever enough to respond to, really. I liked the Socratic dialogue vibe of your last post, Extollager!

    However, I wouldn't say materialism cannot enjoin any duties. Our morality has its roots in our evolution--we're a species that depends on mutual benevolence (and more) to survive. I'd argue that Tao is one of many attempts by our ancestors to explain the morality that they saw in all humans, a spiritual explanation for something we are now beginning to grasp more tangibly in neuroscience etc.

    A materialist can make statements of the imperative,--I'm not sure why only the transcendentally minded have the monopoly.
  7.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    J-WO, I don't want to stray too far from HPL, but I'm going to post a ? mark by your posting.

    Mutual assistance can indeed help healthy members of closely-knit groups to survive. Strapping young gang members may look out for one another. Mere self-interest may suffice in this context. I might be able to count on you to watch my back if you trust me to watch yours.

    But I don't think you can get, on a strictly materialist basis, a convincing, firm commitment to a duty of assistance towards others who do not have the capacity to help you survive and thrive. Materialism cannot prompt you to help infirm (sick; injured; aged; developmentally disabled; weak) members of your own group; nor to help members of other groups that are unlikely to help you.

    So I'm granting, for now, that materialist self-interest arguably supplies a "should" that may sometimes look like benevolence in a very limited context: if I am smart, I'll help my group stay strong, be successful, etc. because this will benefit me.

    But the Tao requires true benevolence. This is a transcultural thing, as the interesting appendices to Lewis's Abolition of Man suggest. The Tao requires benevolence towards those who might not be able to help one back, and commends those whose actions manifest such benevolence.

    Have you read John Christopher's thought-provoking novel No Blade of Grass (UK title The Death of Grass)? Humanity faces near-extinction due to a virus that kills grain crops. We soon see that the characters who act on a materialist basis kill competitors for resources, abandon their own weak ones, etc. Christopher seems to accept, perhaps approve, this ruthlessness. The Tao says that it would be better to starve now as a man than survive for a few more years at the sacrifice of morality/decency. I don't see that materialism can supply the basis for that decision.
  8.  
    J-WO

    J-WO Pretentious Avatar Alert.

    Joined:
    Oct 28, 2008
    Messages:
    2,198

    And yet we do. Because, however we may dress up our motivations, these things are natural to the majority of us. We're the species that created the Red Cross (or Red Crescent or Non-believers giving Aid) as well as the species that created, say, concentration camps.

    Our evolutionary inheritance lacks the precision--on an instinctual level--to choose between helping someone healthy enough to help us or someone sick, aged, disabled etc. We simply feel. To sacrifice someone for the greater good or because their a drag factor requires, ironically, a reasoning of the higher mind. And that can be informed by spirituality (cf, Abraham and Isaac) as much as materialism.

    Or, to brings things a little bit back to thread, Lovecraft was an utter materialist and yet his life is drowning with examples of him going out of his way to help people for no reward.

    I haven't read the Death of Grass, but I have seen Blade Runner. I wouldn't want to spoil the end if you haven't, but there's an example of the ultimate materialist making the ultimate selfless (and human) choice.
  9.  
    nigourath

    nigourath New Member

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2008
    Messages:
    57
    An interesting post,extollager,and i think we are getting to the point,of why lovecraftian literature is so different, than the rest ,and of the vastness of the -unique -offerings, it reserves for the reader.Now, to the points you underlined:i believe you took a wrong turn ,regarding the "qualitative and quantitative" aspects of your arguments..

    You pointed out ,that, as cosmicism, was the "key" ideological feature ,if i unterstood correctly,the vastness of space is being used as an argument, by lovecraft, for the insignificance of mankind,yet it remains shallow and a little ...relevant-if ,i am getting your point correctly.Well..for a first observation of mine ,cosmicism was not the only ideological feature ,in Lovecraft"s work -and yes ,you pointed out romanticism ,but another of the many features of Lovecraft"s work ,also is Futurism ,which, as you may probably already know ,it contradicts both romanticism or steady conservatism.Aside ,from that observation,regarding the "cosmicism-part" of HPL's literature ,which, is without dispute,evident and noteworthy:you can"t speak ,about the universe, as you already know it(or me or anybody ,for that reason).

    Extollager,Lovecraft did not Only use the vastness of space ,to prove his point of mankind"s insignifance.He also made allusions ,about unknown physical laws and existence of unknown matter and their properties(for examble in "the colour out of space"),making it pretty clear, that it was Not just a case of size OR of "quantity and quality" as you marked ,but the very Inability or poor synchronization of "human mind" to comprehend the "vastness of Reality".It was never about the Cosmos, Extollager ,and it has nothing to do with quality or quantity!Mankind"s creation ,was a random event in the course of the happernings in the universe -for which ,even the word "vast" may be humanely inadequate to describe,think about that too...To be a lot clearer on this:yes universe ,as you observed ,will continue its course ,regardless of what happens to mankind-do you have any doubts on that ?...-,but,it also Does not care for humanity,it never did(that ,is what would get anyone in trouble, during the medieval years,as much as Galileus himself..) ,yet it simply is the damn truth,nothing else.....This same argument is Still valid ,even if earth was bigger ,even if it had the size of Saturn and even if in the man would space-travel and inhabit many other planets of our solar system and beyond ..this would still be valid ,because he is Never meant to know the deep essence of things ,but only a part of it.Not only because he is unable to reach that far ,but because he will never be ready to accept the Truth,even if he could.A self-centered race like humanity ,would only be driven to madness ,if he was to understand the whole truth and "correlate" the contents of all the mysteries out there ,as Lovecraft has stated himself.

    Think about this :will we ever scientifically ,have a clear answer ,about our origin as a species.Yes,science and technology will lead us to certain facts ,very strong and different speculations,but will there be a clear answer,as to what has really happened??...then again remember,that if that was to happen ,we would be capable of creating life ourselves ,like in HPL"'s incredible "Herbert West-reanimator".......so all i am saying is ,that ,the relationship of mankind with the universe ,is not just a "matter of insignificance" ,but a matter of Assymetry ,as a mentality.This is what ,Lovecraft wants to teach his readers ,in my opinion,and not just accept cosmicism,Extollager. And as the director Stuart Gordon (reanimator movie) said:Earth is an isle of ignorance.HPL ,in my opinion,didn"t want to empHasize on the insignificance of man ,but really to turn him ,to what is hidden from him ,to make him open his horizons and to see beyond the veil of the expected and trivial .In contrary to you,Extollager,i found out ,that he suceeded,where everyonse"s else project failed...

    Talking,about the so-called "failure of HPL"s project"-and taking that opportunity ,from the late fan enthusiasm ,about the upcoming big-budget movies ,concerning his works ,that are certainly bound to follow all the more....,i am raising the question here:HPL""s maybe,most cherrished project ,was the Weird tales Magazine, back in twenty -thirties-even though ,not created by him,but given new direction and meaning....If we are to speak,about a sincere rise of Lovecraftian literature and giving a new powerfull breath to the genre ,then it"s about time ,that someone realizes the opportunity here and create something new in the form of content and style ,that has never been done before,i believe in the world of press:I am talking about the Republication of the Weird Tales Magazine.The fans are here,as this gonna be very evident in the "hollywood creations" later..they are here around the world,and they are more, than we think.For a new Weird Tales magazine,but hopefully in a new unique style and meaning ,that Lovecraft would appreciate and be unique in press history...I dont know if NEIL GAIMAN or MCfarlan could create such a magazine,but the fans are here.But is there anybody listening??....
  10.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    Hmmm... my "challenge from beyond" in this thread and the two related threads isn't drawing quite as much response as I'd hoped for. I think people usually don't make large claims for some of Lovecraft's peers (such as, say, Edmond Hamilton) other than as authors of enjoyable weird fiction, but they sometimes do for HPL. And of course he stakes out large claims in his stories and letters. Very well, I'm saying, let's consider his ideas seriously and see if they really are tenable. If they are not, we may still be left with a writer of first-rate weird fiction and a man of considerable charm. (I hardly ever run into fans who take Algernon Blackwood's ideas seriously, but stories like "The Willows" and "The Wendigo" are revered.)

    J-WO, of course you are right that materialists can and sometimes do care about, and for, people who cannot reward them. This wasn't at issue. I'm arguing that one cannot enjoin the duty of benevolence upon someone on materialist bases. But I hasten to add that this discussion of benevolence and Tao was a digression from my original first point, about Lovecraft confusing quantity and quality. I think he is simply guilty of fallacious thinking about this -- persistently throughout his life as far as I know.

    Nigourath, please see my third thread on the failure of Lovecraft's project.
  11.  
    nigourath

    nigourath New Member

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2008
    Messages:
    57
    Yes,extollager, i read your third and the second thread,too, and i believe a discussion, like this should have gotten more response ,as you say.Well...about our theme.You certainly ,offer some ground of thinking ,when you involve the scientific community,but there are many different and contradicting viewpoints,coming from various parts from it.What you are suggesting here, is a very good hypothesis,the phenotype of things is just one aspect of reality ,while there good be a lot more "phenotypes of reality" creating different versions of it-alternative realities.... In this scheme of things ,and under the influence of many enviromental factors and different reactivity between the species,we know humanity as it is .It could be a lot different , if the one or the other thing was different,and certainly, that also influences our connection with the universe around us,i wouldn"t stretch this more right now....But again i will have to disagree with you, extollager, on some points.

    I disagree with you ,that,as you keep repeating it,HPL was a materialist!He was an individual , that also believed in the power of the individual(have you read the "Carter dream series"?) and the power of the human mind ,Only in the one exeption ,that it was open to the mysteries around it and all the hidden possibilities...Extollager,my notion is , that he treated the human brain ofcourse, as a thing of strictly material existence and purpose(that for examble includes, what we call "human soul"....),but remember , the current scientific approach,right now in the 21st century,treats the brain as an organ with cumulative somatoaesthetic functions .That said, Lovecraft ,i think believed it had certain limitations as an organ -and it does...-,but also believed ,that depending from the individual,there were many unexplored hidden possibilities,that could turn him sensitive to greater truths of the universe.In a a short line, extollager:He didn"t believe in the common,average man-he was too insignificant to approach other realities,but he believed in the power of human spirit at the individual level, although that too,was insignificant in the whole scheme things.But as i said ,that didn"t mean he had no respect for the "uneasy,unsleeping mind",maybe you could call it a "third eye" or something.
    Yet ,even these persons could be driven to madness,if they could understand a broad spectrum of the realities around them.He was no materialist ,as you insist,as he wanted to drive his readers to a different approach of things -Away from the current material aspect of things on earth,to open his mind to other possibilities and to finally broaden his capacity for a more "mental exploration".
    To achieve that he certainly used ,what ever concrete data was available and scientific knowledge of the time,as the only trustworthy source,and very well he did,in my opinion.In a phrase ,he used the materiality and materialism of things ,just enough so he could challenge them and finally defy and break them down.He believed in a new kind of "human transcended spirituality", in my opinion.I hope that this time i was more clear,extollager..
    Yet, a very interesting thread with serious problematic ,that a Lovecraftian forum deserves to have..Also, when you refer to the Tao,is a very interesting addition to conversation,albeit a religious-binded one.Yet Taoism ,considers the universe an orderly world ,with certain rules and purposes,although unknown to man,while Lovecraft"s considerations are quite the opposite...:the only rule is the abscence of concrete order and purpose,while that is also unknown to man.....
  12.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    Nigourath, thanks for your comments.

    Would anyone who has read more by and about HPL than I, care to address the issue of whether HPL was NOT a materialist? I thought that he insisted on a strictly materialist accounting for reality, right to his death.

    I'm using Tao as Lewis uses it in The Abolition of Man. He means by "Tao" the objective morality that is common to mankind. For example, all civilizations enjoin the keeping of one's word. All enjoin benevolence including to those who can't pay one back. All enjoin respect to the elderly. And so on. Any time we make imperative statements about what someone ought or ought not to do, we are, in fact, assuming a morality that stands over and above all persons. When we say that a judge ought to administer justice fairly, we are invoking the "Tao." When we say that a drug company ought to sell pure drugs as claimed and not harmful or inert fakes, we are assuming that there is a moral standard to which anyone may appeal and that our statements are not simply statements of personal preference, such as "I wish judges were fair," "I wish drug companies sold pure medicines." We appeal to the "Tao" and we usually also believe that those who violate its precepts are liable for legitimate punishment. The judge who takes bribes deserves punishment. The drug company whose owners knowingly deceive the sick deserve punishment. The judge and the owners might not get the punishment they deserve but they still deserve it. But if there is no objective moral standard -- as there is not if reality is solely and purely material and has no transcendent entities of any kind -- then these "oughts" and "deserves" are finally meaningless.

    I'm saying that Lovecraft (1) wants to be a thoroughgoing materialist (unless I am mistaken, and if I am I await citations to statements that would correct me) but also (2) believes that there are matters of "ought." For example, I take it that he thinks people ought not to think too highly of themselves.
  13.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,612
    Sorry I've not been able to join in this discussion the way I'd hoped. This past week and a half has seen a thorough rearrangement of several aspects of my life, leaving me no time to be here at Chrons for the past week, and only spotty appearances for some days before that. Doesn't look as if it is going to calm down completely for some time to come, either; though it won't be quite this bad.

    At the moment however, I will give a (very) brief response to your last, Extollager:

    Yes, Lovecraft was a strict materialist, a "mechanistic materialist", as he phrased it, taking much of his approach from the scientific naturalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with infusions from Democritus, Lucretious, Haeckel, Nietzsche, etc. (not all points of which he agreed with, by the way; saying, for instance, that he found Nietzsche's ethical system "a joke").

    However, he also based his morality more on a matter of aesthetics than ethics, as he stated in some of his letters; and when it came to the subject of religion, he noted that, if one wished to be pedantic, he was technically an agnostic, though for all practical purposes he was an atheist, as he saw no sensible alternative approach to the idea of a genuine godhead, given the evidence.

    He did, however, appreciate various mystical approaches to life as valid emotional experiences; resulting from vestigial or instinctual impulses inherited from our earliest ancestors to the present, and quite natural to the development of the species; however devoid of solid foundation the interpretation we put on those impulses may be, they still held enormous power to the emotional life of humankind, and should be recognized as having such. They were just, in his view, not reliable gauges for the truth (or, as he put it, "is-or-isn'tness") of a thing; for which we have much more accurate and testable methods.

    As for any "objective morality"... there really is no evidence for such a thing outside the human sphere. While, as you note, there are broad general attitudes which appear to be common to all societies, their interpretation and the specifics of their application vary vastly. On where these come from, we are learning a great deal on that subject from various scientific fields, including the studies of animal behavior (societal animals having quite a different approach to those of less gregarious, interdependent, or cooperative a nature), neurology, anthropology, and the like. There have, apparently, been increasing studies on the physiology of this aspect of things, which (from what I've been able to gather) seem rather destined to place them firmly within the purely physical realm, as pro-species-survival traits if nothing else.

    You mention the preservation of "unfit" (to use a shorthand term) members of a society. This has been addressed by scientists and thinkers from different disciplines as well, as I understand it, including Richard Dawkins position that these examples fall into what is technically a "misfiring" of a broader impulse toward protection and nurturance of the family (or extended family-group, whether that be clan, tribe, or what-have-you) of a member of various species, most notably certain types of mammals. He likens it to the basic impulse of lust, which is simply a procreative instinct, yet which we have circumvented on that front by the development of contraceptives, and which nature itself fails to maintain on that level in cases of individuals who, for whatever reason, are naturally infertile. The impulse still exists, and the actions of mating (sexual attraction, flirtation, affectionate gestures, copulation) remain in place even though the procreative purpose for which lust exists entirely fails. So, too, for many of our "moral" impulses. These are pro-species-survival (if not always pro-survival on an individual level), and in some cases (such as the mentally defective or terribly deformed, the infertile, or surplus members of a family lacking the wherewithal to give optimum care for even fewer members) the actions resulting from the basic impulses extend far beyond the logical outcome of a strictly Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest paradigm.

    In part, this is also because of the changing human environment, which extends that "family group" far beyond those which it has historically embraced, to include fellow members of the community-at-large, perfect strangers, in fact, on the instinctual level of reciprocative interaction.

    At any rate, that is all I have time for at present; but I hope this gives some useful response to some of your points, and I hope to be able to contribute further to this (and the other) discussions as time goes on... I just don't expect that it will be at the pace or to the amount I would prefer.

    In the meantime, I wish to thank you for bringing in such good, "meaty" topics for discussion, as this is the sort of thing I find most appealing in addressing a writer's personal philosophy (or that advanced by his work; not always the same thing).
  14.  
    nigourath

    nigourath New Member

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2008
    Messages:
    57
    Well,it seems i am one of the very few believing ,that Lovecraft was not a strict materialist,but he used materialism in order to reverse its laws......Anyway,i think ,that, extollager expressed some serious considerations ,about whether "tao" is a base of every humanistic philosophy and a core-material of every organised society,like some kind of a basic pre-religion status,that in turn gets expressed in various forms of ideology and theories:the natural order of the world is an idea of itself and it is a good question, if its some instinctive urge of humanity to maintain it...Thus ,"Tao" itself is a more direct,simplistic expression of that urge ,with the addition of this "common morality",as a means to justify the efforts ,towards achieving that goal....In my opinion ,even in the whole frame of that "common morality",there are many contradictory events,that are not taken under consideration,thus revieling the true nature of the this instictive behaviour,you can call it the "Tao", if you want ....

    Take for example,the harsh punisments imposed to common thieves,in ancient societies(usually dismememberment of the responsible ...hand or causing blinding to the guilty one),or even putting women to death ,through stoning for adultery -a more recent example...or even the death-chair-(an injection is less barbaric...) in some states in the united states:these are acts of violence imposed to the guilty ones ,that surely escape the frame of common morality-deserving them has nothing to do with it,since the common opiniion, never trully reacts to them....maybe its because, that the "tao" or call it what you want,gets surely preserved....the assumption here is that ,as long as the "natural order" is maintained (tao...),any acts or measures are little or less welcome to be taken.You can see,ofcourse,that morality itself serves as the necessary "tool" ,so its the only applicacy of the term "Objective morality"..but is there an inborn tendency for the preservation of "tao"(i use the same word here for the sake of briefness) or an inststinctive urge ,maybe a part of "genetical memory" ,that HPL himself seemed to believe in?and furthermore would this "natural order" be still a goal ,if many of humanity"s weaknesses were to be eradicated ,through its advancement?Is there a "subconscious" underlining purpose for humanity, through its course ,through history?...does that "hidden gene" exist in every one of us??..

    HPL had stated once ,that "he is forced to agree with Nietche,that there is no Specific goal or purpose ,that humanity follows upon",not a special choice about its future endeavours (except that of survival, but in what state of things for example? is that of any interest? ...)Anyway ,that seems not far from the truth.So,"Natural" or "objective" are terms that seem too relevant,even in the backgroung of simple logic,and are less or more dictated by our needs(thus,creating the borders of our Subjectivity....).These are pretty much human-born interpretations of wider truths ,like time,universe,state of existence etc....narrowed for our comfort, regardless sometimes of the reality of things.That said , i deeply believe ,that HPL cared for the "reality" of things ,and not their material,mechanistic expression.
    J.d ,i hope all is getting well(your integrity fuels this forum and i can"t imagine it without it,still a good use of it in everyday matters always simplifies things,even if they momentarily seem too out of hand).
  15.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    JDW and Nigourath, thanks for the comments.

    The discussion of the Tao/objective morality was a tangent (well worthwhile). It had been suggested that Lovecraft argued that man ought not to think too highly of himself. My response was that he could not make such a claim without transgressing his own premise, that mechanistic materialism is a wholly satisfactory key for accounting for ourselves and the universe; one cannot derive an "ought" from a premise that nature, in principle wholly explicable in materialist terms, is all that there is. I wasn't contending, of course, that philosophical materialists are all bad people. I contend that when they act, against their own interest, as they ought, they are happily inconsistent with their philosophy.

    Would it be appropriate either to return to my main point in this first thread -- the pretty crass category error that I have contended Lovecraft was guilty of, in confusing the quantitative and the qualitative? Or would it be well to move on to my second and third threads?
  16.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,612
    Now that I actually have some time again, I'll attempt to take a genuine whack at these threads....

    First, I think you may be mistaken in charging Lovecraft with a category error (specifically a quantitative for qualitative), at least in the manner indicated.

    To be sure, I am a layman, not trained in philosophy at all, and only lightly read in that fascinaing field of study. However, it seems to me that you are not accurately stating either Lovecraft's premise or its bases. That, as you note, the universe is both much larger and has been here much longer than our species is (as far as the evidence shows) is an accepted fact, and it did have its influence on Lovecraft's views. But it was not a simple matter of going from those facts to that position; it is rather more nuanced than that. While he made a point of utilizing the cosmic framework to highlight our "insignificance", it was not simply on the quantitative nature of those facts, but the likelihood that, given both that duration and extent, the human race was more likely to be of significance to the cosmos at large (either to other species existing elsewhere or to the poetic concept of the universe itself having any sort of awareness) than any other produced by the processes of evolution, from the paramecium to his antarctic-based Old Ones, was (in his words in context of the possibility of the existence of the Christian god) not necessarily impossible but "monstrously improbable".

    However, this was also based on the facts of evolution and the development of our species from previously existing species, and the likelihood that the entire term fo our species' existence will be nothing more than "the prelude to the play", or just as brief or as long as countless others. The existence of any sort of godhead was also not disprovable, but quite as unlikely, given these facts, and he found this most particularly true for the idea of any personal godhead bearing anthropomorphic attributes (even if sometimes modified) such as is presented in the world's major religions.

    As for the concept of hubris in this context, while Lovecraft did, on occasion, utilize a more classical form of that idea ("The Other Gods", The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and even, to some degree, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), most often it was shorn of any of the connotations of a superior or supreme being and judgment, but rather using it in the sense of arrogating to ourselves an especial importance which we simply do not have outside of our own perspective (or those of some of our domestic animals); or at least which, as he noted, it is very unlikely we have. Tied in with this was the association that such arrogance tends to lead to a sort of tunnel vision wherein everything else simply revolves around us, our desires, needs, and emotional/psychological framework; leading to the belief that there is an objective moral standard separate and apart from the human conception of such. (Obviously, as he is, perforce, forcusing on human beings and their reactions to the universe in his tales, the concept of morality among the other animal species is touched upon very lightly, if at all; though there are some hints here and there in his letters that he viewed the existence of such as an inevitable product of their development.)

    Another part of this concept of our "insignificance" is the mindlessness and purposelessness of the cosmos. It isn't that human beings are any more "insignificant" than anything else; but that we are no more "significant" than anything else in the universe; that the universe is itself simply a mechanism. This is perhaps best (and most succinctly) expressed in "The Silver Key", which presents the crux of the matter by placing the emphasis on our viewing of our actions as somehow holding a quality of importance beyond our own limited sphere:

    And, of course, this idea of our deeds, thoughts, wishes, and desires being of importance only to us, and only for as long as we (whether as individuals or as a species) exist, extends as well to his various cosmic entities; who function either as personifications of blind, natural forces simply following the patterns inherent in their existence, or as creatures which, from our perspective, are much more powerful or intelligent but which nonetheless are simply pursuing their own ends which of themselves are of no significance to the rest of the universe save where they impinge on certain individuals or species for a (relatively) brief time.

    I realize that this only touches on a few points, and I hope to address some others raised here as time goes on, but this may at least indicate that that vastness both spatially and temporally was only one aspect which led to his view that human beings are (in the greater picture, as it were) "insignificant"... or at least as much so as dinosaurs, giraffes, dolphins, or ants.

    One thin I would like to bring up, though, is Lovecraft's approach to the Burkean sublime. While having no religious beliefs of his own, he did appreciate the beauties and emotional satisfactions of such beliefs (as well as feeling they served some beneficial social aspects); and yet his view of the cosmos is extremely close to Burke's concept of immensitude and age when it comes to the experience of that emotional state we call "the sublime". Whether he ever read Burke's essay I have never found any direct evidence one way or the other so far, but many of his discussions and the impressionistic descriptions in his tales make it quite evident that -- those distinctly religious implications intended as fact, rather than emotional reaction, aside -- he had a keen appreciation for that sort of mystical experience.

    As for the idea that some such sort of morality is at odds with materialism... I strongly disagree. As has been pointed out by numerous people, such "altruistic" or "humane" responses are actually very beneficial to the long-range survival of a species, as they increase both the benefits and the impulses toward cooperation, without which (on some level) no species is likely to continue. And the more we look into the neurological aspects of such things, the more we find very material reasons for their development and survival. Lovecraft himself posited something of the sort (albeit not dealing with morality as such) in some of his letters and the "In Defence of Dagon" essays. For himself, he defined it as "caring about the civilisation", as the high level of civilisation to which he belonged was more likely to remain relatively stable (and possibly dynamic) with such practices, which allowed, in general, the individual to reap a greater long-term benefit than would the oft-posited more "pragmatic" selfish alternatives, which he felt would lead in short order to societal destabilization and eventually a reduction of those benefits for all. Nor did he deny the emotional or sentimental component, either; viewing that also as the inevitable outcome of a complex organization such as the brain.

    nigourath: Yes, Lovecraft was a materialist; he was very distinct in his classification of himself as a "mechanistic materialist", though he did modify some of his views from a strictly classical materialism as the impact of modern science increasingly called aspects of that into question. As for his being a romantic... he certainly had some elements of that, yes, but he had little patience for Romanticism as a movement, finding it mawkish, strained, and artificial in both motivation and aesthetic result.
  17.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    Let me tackle Lovecraft's "cosmic" move in a different way.

    I've visited the boulder field at Hickory Run State Park in eastern Pennsylvania.

    Hickory Run State Park - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Let's imagine Lovecraft coming along with me to the boulder field.

    Extollager: So, Howard, what do you think of this?

    HPL: It is truly a weird scene, this sudden irruption of stark boulders in the midst of dense, thriving forest.

    Extollager: Does it disturb your composure, when you stop and think: Here's 16,000 acres of rocks that know nothing of me, that are completely indifferent to me -- ?

    HPL: Well, no, I would not say so.

    Extollager: Our most advanced instruments reveal a universe filled with rocks and gases that know nothing of us. Doesn't that inspire cosmic dread in you?

    HPL: Well, perhaps it used to! But I see what you are up to. You're going to say, 'All right, the boulder field does not inspire cosmic dread, but the vast rock-filled universe does -- so where is the magic threshold, where the extent of the lifeless rocks is enough to inspire cosmic dread?'"

    Extollager: Well --

    HPL: That is what you were going to say, isn't it?

    Extollager: Yes! So... what do you say to that?
  18.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,612
    Well, I seem to be hopping from one thread to the next in answering these things. I wasn't able to post anything further on the other, but perhaps I can respond to this in the meantime:

    On this one, I think you are focusing on only one aspect of Lovecraft's cosmic perspective. There are, of course, several entailed in that rather complex construct. One of them, as you have noted, is the vastness of the universe, as human beings do tend to react imaginatively to size -- vast cathedrals can stir a sense of awe and wonder as well as a sense of the numinous; enormous heights can not only produce a sense of vertigo, but can also stir a form of comparison which, while it may be flawed on a purely logical level, emotionally and impressionistically is perfectly valid: that realization that, even in the face of something as "simple" as a rock (the cliff face, say), the human scale of things is often minute, our perspective limited. It awakens associations with all the history and events which that cliff face has "seen", both human and pre-human, possibly dating to a point where the earth was one vast solitude devoid of life of any form, and that this same object is likely destined to outlast even the latest and last of our species (if not all life).

    And, of course, we human beings are so prone (even if only unconsciously) to place a "human face" on everything around us, that such a response is a sobering experience, and a humbling one; for it drives home in no uncertain terms how alien to us and our way of thinking, our emotional responses, needs, and expectations, the majority of the natural order really is. It can also be seen in a spider, or even a cat (something of which Lovecraft was aware and brought up at times in his correspondence), but this tends to take more reflection, as we do tend to assign motivations similar to our own to living things (and with a certain degree of justification, given certain shared instincts). But Lovecraft knew that we do tend to react with such responses when confronted with something both alien and immense, and nothing is quite so imaginatively impressive as an experience -- even in fiction -- of the universe itself, which is not only vast in size and ancient beyond our ability to more than feebly grasp intuitively, but which is wondrously strange in ways which we are still being surprized by today.

    Yet, as he was aware, and as part of the impetus for his use of the cosmic theme (that is, along with his own imagination having been stirred by his first actual conception of the reality involved, which entails so much more than most of us ever become aware) we continue to assign to that universe (or its supposed creator, which we also anthropomorphize) that "human face", where our own well-being takes on an importance which, in reality, it lacks; as in the end, neither we nor any other life form, nor -- as Lovecraft also mentions in some of his letters -- even the universe itself, actually matters save to those life forms themselves, each one of which is likely to see itself as of paramount importance, or at very least be absorbed with its own interests and drives, quite often to the exclusion of all others.

    It is that assumption of being significant beyond our own sphere which Lovecraft treated as hybristic (albeit most often in a secular sense), or amounting to overweening pride and self-importance, especially given that we have evolved the mental capacities to, if we excercize our abilities to look beyond that, realize something much closer to our true place in the cosmos.

    However, you are wrong if you think that Lovecraft could not (or possibly would not) derive such an impression from the scene you depict. He certainly did so in his fiction, and often did so in his letters (especially those in which he included his travelogues). In his fiction, he not only used the universe in this manner, but also the sea, caverns, the earth itself, certain rock formations, the age of mountains, continental drift (he was one of the earliest writers to give serious credence to the theories of Taylor, Wegene, and Joly), and other physical objects or conditions which could stir the imagination in such directions. (Think, for instance, of the symbolism of "the Devil's Hop-Yard" in "The Dunwich Horror"; a site remindful of the scene to which you linked, and exactly the sort of thing to stir such a response in HPL, though not quite for the reasons you select.) He brought such home in a particularly poignant fashion by fusing it with the most familiar and homely of American ideals, the yeoman farmer and his land, in "The Colour Out of Space", where even that which is best-known becomes itself alien beyond our capability to understand. It is no accident that the... being?... of that tale is frankly incapable of description or analysis; we do not even know if it is, in any sense we would understand, alive; let alone sentient or conscious. It may be simply a force, or (as the story has it) a color the properties of which are vastly different than anything we have encountered before; and its motivations are entirely outside our scope... at least, as far as any certainty is concerned. Nor is it any accident that Nahum Gardner and Ammi Pierce are among the most sympathetic characters Lovecraft ever wrote, as their very humanity and their attempts to try to understand and come to terms with what they experience makes them all the more tragic to us, while at the same time highlighting their total insignificance to that which has come into their lives.

    Again, it isn't necessarily the size, or even the age; these are certain elements capable of stirring such a train of thought, but they are only two among many quite varied aspects.

    And all this is only a small part of what gives Lovecraft's work its complexity and power, even if it is that aspect which is most frequently singled out as worthy of note....
  19.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    JDW, I certainly think Lovecraft could have made fine use of the Boulder Field! Isn't it a testimony to the imaginative power of his fiction that I, and perhaps other readers who visit the site, find ourselves thinking of his stories!

    "Colour Out of Space" is surely one of his best, convincingly evoking a sense of alien-ness. His treatment of the victims is very good. As I recall, he eschews or mostly eschews cheap sensationalism; instead he gives us something of the quality of somewhat detached compassion that I associate with some works of art of considerable achievement.

    At his best, Lovecraft evokes the Sublime (which is what you're talking about here -- that evocation of awe and mystery that "hush" us -- cf. Edmund Burke's great treatise on the Beautiful and the Sublime) and does so for worthy ends. This is one of the things upon which claims for his lasting literary value must be based, perhaps the most important one. I believe, as I may have said at this forum somewhere, that sometimes what draws people to certain great works is their capacity to evoke the Sublime, & yet this might not be what gets talked about. Perhaps, for example, many readers of Conrad think that what draws them to "Heart of Darkness" is its expos[FONT=&quot]é of colonialism. Well, yes, that's important. But is that really what haunts us about this story? Is it not -- from the title onwards -- largely that sense of strangeness, darkness, hidden terror? And so there may be an affinity between Lovecraft and Conrad that is greater than Lovecraft's affinity with some writers of horror stories who, however, lack the sense of the Sublime.
    [/FONT]
  20.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,391
    ...This is a good opportunity for me to make clear something that I should have emphasized. When I write of the "failure" of Lovecraft's Romantic project, I mean to restrict myself to a critique of the fundamental philosophical presuppositions that it rests upon. I'm not saying that his stories are artistic failures. I think some of them probably are; I think many of them are compromised successes; and a few of them are truly outstanding weird tales. Lovecraft is now approaching acceptance in the canon of American fiction, it seems to me. His reputation will increasingly be out of the hands of weird fiction's fans and into the hands of people who read a lot of literary fiction, and so the question may come to be framed, not in terms of where Lovecraft stands vis-a-vis Poe, Machen, and Blackwood, but where he stands vis-a-vis Conrad, Henry James, et al. Always there will cling to his reputation a sense that he is marginal to the great tradition, because there is so much of it that he hardly engages or engages only by implication. But I think "The Colour Out of Space" may find its way into American literature anthologies, etc. before long.

    As this happens, the fans will grouse about mundane readers who don't get him. They will be right to do so, much of the time. I myself am not looking forward to endless MLA papers on gender issues in Lovecraft. I would much rather read one of Mr. Pugmire's pastiches than a dreary academic paper on the multiple gender transgressions in "The Thing on the Doorstep" (it's like, yeah, I get that). But one thing that could be quite interesting is the application of responsible literary attention to the stories with the objective of assessing the works that really matter most. After I discovered Lovecraft, I soon wanted to read all of it, juvenilia, ghost-writing, the lot. Now I think it would be interesting, applying widely accepted methods of reading, to assess what are his finest works. This need not be a "dry," bald-heads-forgetful-of-their-sins academic exercise. It will "disturb" the fans a little, though, I suspect.

Share This Page