A difference between Machen and Lovecraft


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Thanks, J. D., for your posting (#16).

I hope you’ll complete the reading of The Abolition of Man and report back here.

In your first paragraph, it seems you mostly agree with the difference between Lovecraft and Machen that I have attempted to sketch in postings nos. 1, 4, and 8 above; it is indeed a “fundamental” one.

With reference to the rest of your message:

Your position seems to be that we should ground ethics in science. This you take to mean that the good is (ultimately) reducible to that which conduces to physical survival.*

If so, this implies that the case for art is utilitarian. There seem to me at least two objections to that conclusion. (1) Its logical trajectory is towards requiring the enlisting of art in the service (propaganda) of various forms of health and hygiene, e.g. the gifted person should be induced to use her ability to encourage a tobacco-free lifestyle, etc. The opinion that art should be in the service of rational goals is a defensible one, and (though not stated as such very often) has often appeared among cultural Marxists, etc. However, many people who care about art won’t be prepared to sign on to this notion. Of course they could be wrong. (2) Even if we grant the utilitarian (survival) view, there’s a hitch -- we often don’t know ahead of time what art really will conduce to physical survival. A work of art may affect one population in an adaptive way, but another in a non-adaptive way. I’m not sure I have a good example offhand about the former, but for the latter one could cite the wave of suicides allegedly induced by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. This must be a very bad work of art indeed, from the materialist-utilitarian view. (---It occurs to me that one might argue that these deaths were actually to the good: anyone who would commit suicide over a book must be overly “susceptible” to emotional turmoil over the unreal, so perhaps the world was well quit of these people who otherwise might have consumed resources better reserved to others, and begotten children with comparable deficiencies. Is this your view?)

The survival criterion of ethics is a form that’s taken by the agenda of bringing all human questions under the authority of science. This is often called “scientism.” See elsewhere at Chrons:

The Greatest Author of Fiction of the Past 200 Years: Who?

There’s a notable short story with implications pertinent to this discussion. In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” we have that rarity, an achieved utopia. People are healthy, their cities are beautiful, their society is stable, etc. If physical “survival” has a goal, it must be something very much like this; what else could it be? Omelas depends in some mysterious way on the torture of one child. From a “survival” point of view, the people of Omelas inhabit paradise. On the one hand the many enjoy benefits such as no earthly society, so far, has possessed, nor so securely and with so perfect an equality of distribution. On the other, the cost of all this is almost nil: do the math. The countless deaths of “wasteful” nature, including its manifestations in human politics, have brought us at last to the evolutionary point of maximum benefits for an almost negligible cost – presumably the stubborn last little bit of suffering that persists after the sufferings of millions of years.

It’s a while since I read the story, but whether Le Guin says this or not, it is easy to imagine that no one in Omelas needs to be aware of the situation if it is distressing to him or her. Omelas is advanced enough that one could easily imagine drugs or other techniques that would obliterate the bad feelings about the torture, or even the knowledge of its existence. (How many people does it take to torture a child, anyway? Surely there would be a sufficient number of recruits for the job so as to keep the system going – recruits who felt okay about their work.)

If one judges the society of Omelas to be wrong, one can’t base that argument on “survival.” Conversely, if one’s ethics are based on survival, Omelas is wonderful.

*Even this really just means: “We humans define ‘the good’ as that which conduces to the survival of our species,” or perhaps “We humans define ‘the good” as that which conduces to the survival of diverse species, including, but not limited to, our own.” But in either case I think you are saying that this good isn’t really good, in any cosmic sense; since, in fact, in any cosmic sense, it is a matter of no consequence whether the human species, or any other species, or life itself, survives.


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Lovecraft's admirers sometimes praise his opinions. I've been teasing some of Machen's opinions out in a series at the Wormwoodiana blog maintained by Douglas Anderson (The Annotated Hobbit, H. P. Lovecraft's Favorite Weird Tales, etc.) and others. Here are some of the pieces that have appeared so far. More are on the way.

Possible affinity with Lovecraft's idea that (some) people are better off not knowing the truth:
Wormwoodiana: Guest Post: Machen’s Teilo in “The Tree of Life” and the Talosian Situation by Dale Nelson

The ontological hierarchy:
Wormwoodiana: Guest Post: Arthur Machen’s Secret History Tale THE TERROR by Dale Nelson

Machen, Lovecraft, and other walkers:
Wormwoodiana: Guest Post: "Arthur Machen and Other Walkers" by Dale Nelson

Cf. imagination:
Wormwoodiana: Guest Post: Eating and Drinking with Machen and Orwell by Dale Nelson

Not about Machen, but mentioning Lovecraft:
Wormwoodiana: Guest Post: "Something Like" by Dale Nelson

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