Lovecraft, Cyclonopedia and Materialist Horror

Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (re.press, 2008) – a sprawling, schizoid meditation on oil, war, religion and the occult in the ancient and present-day Middle East – continues a tradition of ‘cosmic horror’ pioneered by the American ‘pulp’ writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and still best known to us from his many short stories, poems and novellas. Apart from the numerous direct references to Lovecraft and his so-called Cthulhu mythos in Negarestani’s philosophy-fiction, an implicit link exists between the two writers in their shared anti-humanism and decidedly objective, materialist approach to horror. For Negarestani, this is manifested in the Middle East as a living, sentient entity, but not in any spiritual or poetic sense: the region’s fundamental ideology is not mystical or even really occult in nature but “fanatically Tiamaterialist”. This is further entrenched by his development of a “blobjective” philosophy, which is to say, an ethics and ontology from the unique perspective of oil (“the blob”). But let us first examine how a similar philosophy emerged in Lovecraft’s uniquely hyperbolic brand of despair.

I. Lovecraft Will Tear Us Apart

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a man with a view of the universe that is almost unrivalled for sheer bleakness in Western fiction (although, as we shall see, certain disturbing currents in modern Iranian thought certainly give him a run for his money). From his ambiguously privileged vantage point, everything we do – individually or as a species – is pointless because we are pointless and the universe at large is utterly indifferent to our existence. Many commentators have pointed out that Lovecraft’s horror comes straight from a howling, primal fear and that fear’s manifestation as paranoia, but the paranoia here is not of the ordinary kind. Classic paranoia demands the existence of grand conspiracies, and of an object of these conspiracies which is identified with the subject of the paranoia. This form of delusion, as crippling as it may be to those who experience it, seems almost comforting next to Lovecraftian paranoia, which derives from the conviction that unimaginable cosmic forces are at work in the world and that they are not so much hostile to us – although it can seem that way from our limited, partisan perspective – as simply indifferent to us. To assume otherwise would be to assign our species an importance it most surely does not warrant in Lovecraft’s loveless universe. Hate is the flipside of love and the Great Old Ones do not ‘hate’ humanity any more than a man ‘hates’ a gnat he idly swats without even thinking about it. We are just not worth hating.

         Michel Houellebeqc explores this theme extensively in his masterful Lovecraft treatise, Against the World, Against Life. He points out that Lovecraft’s general disdain for and retreat from the material world and everyday life is an inheritance from his Puritan forebears, for whom physical reality generally was the Devil’s own domain; but while they at least consoled themselves with the delusion of eternal reward in the next life, there was no such spiritual security blanket for poor Howard P. A related paradox emerges from his ambivalent position with respect to Enlightenment values. An avowed atheist, he took absolutely to heart the discoveries of Copernicus, Cuvier, Darwin and (in his own lifetime) Hubble, which progressively decentred humanity from its perceived place in both space and time and did so much to undermine the notion of a Creator with a special place for us in His great Plan. But at the same time, core Enlightenment creeds such as personal freedom, self-determination and democracy – social ‘progress’ as a whole, in other words – evoked nothing but sardonic derision from him. As far as Lovecraft was concerned, Western civilisation was better off in the Middle Ages; we may have been ignorant and deceived, but at least we thought we had a meaningful place in the universe when the serf unquestioningly obeyed his earthly lord in echo of society’s obedience to its greater Lord, and before the sciences began to hint at the appalling scale and age of the cosmos.[1]

         But for Lovecraft, notions such as democracy were if anything an even graver and more ridiculous self-delusion than theism: “The word ‘freedom’, so cherished by Americans, prompted [from Lovecraft] only a sad, derisive guffaw”.[2] This comes directly from his rabid cultural, intellectual and of course racial supremacism – the latter no doubt fuelled in part by the ‘scientific’ racism fashionable in his day, derived from a misinterpretation of that great 19th-century deicide, Charles Darwin, and used to justify imperialism and colonialism around the world. White, upper-class, English-speaking humanity may have represented the pinnacle of our species’ biological and cultural evolution, but that wouldn’t save it; for Lovecraft, it merely allowed it to serve as the perfect victim, whether for nameless extraterrestrial entities in his fiction or for the ‘lower’ races of humanity in his view of the real world. (See Houellebeqc for an excellent analysis of this facet of Lovecraft’s psychological make-up, especially in regard to the two years he spent in a poor, ethnically heterogeneous neighbourhood in New York and the effect this experience had on his outlook.)

         As Houellebeqc points out, Lovecraft resolutely ignores two phenomena to which most people attach a great deal of importance: sex and money. This is because he personally had no interest in either and felt that neither had any place in art – they were base, vulgar things, the first of which is not worth writing about since it is a drive and function mankind shares with every other animal species, while the latter is the domain of bankers, economists and accountants: men who could hardly be further removed from the rarefied, ethereal world of poets and artists. This opens up a third apparent paradox in Lovecraft: he was avowedly opposed to all forms of “realism” in literature (which is to say, literature in which characters possess sex drives and bank accounts) but at the same time was obsessed with the idea of producing the horror reflex in his readers by showing them a slice, albeit a tiny one, of ‘ultimate reality’. It is always this glimpse of “terrifying vistas of reality”, as the famous opening paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu puts it, that leads to the downfall of his characters. The paradox is resolved by appreciating simply that the “realism” of the authors sneered at by Lovecraft is realism only inasmuch as it applies to human life on Earth in the present day as it is experienced by most people, with all its travails, loves, wars, temporary victories and petty defeats. He was interested in capital-‘R’ Reality, and humdrum “realism” has as much to do with Reality as an accurate description of a swallows’ nest has to do with the dark, limitless forest that surrounds it on all sides. It was with the objective, unflinching description of that forest that Lovecraft chose to evoke his cosmic horror – as Houellebecq puts it, “by introducing materialism into the heart of fear and fantasy, [he] created a new genre…there exists no horror less psychological, less debatable“. In light of Lovecraft’s radically anti-anthropocentric cosmology, Blake’s assertion that:

“If the Doors of Perceptions were cleansed, every thing would appear as it is, infinite”

takes on a potentially troubling new meaning. Who among us, who are typically struck dumb by something as manifestly finite and rationally comprehensible as the ocean or a mountain range, could honestly countenance the ‘infinite’ and retain the slightest shred of sanity?

         While Lovecraft’s earlier poems and stories bear the unmistakable imprint of the more mystically- or spiritually-minded authors he admired – Edgar Allen Poe first and foremost, but also Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James and R. W. Chambers – it is in the longer stories and novellas written from 1926 onwards that we see the emergence of a rigorously materialist worldview. These are what Houellebeqc calls the “Great Texts”, written after the author’s nightmarish sojourn in the great metropolis, and are the most explicitly science-fictional (as opposed to ‘Gothic’ or ‘supernatural’) of his writings. Here the Old Ones are revealed not as demons or malignant deities, as they appear in the earlier ‘Dreamlands’ cycle, but as extra-terrestrials. Some, such as the titular being in The Call of Cthulhu, appear to be made of some form of matter radically different from the atoms that compose our fragile world, but matter nonetheless[3]; others, such as Yog-Sothoth, are perhaps better understood as a sentient, omnipresent force or energy field of some kind. Azathoth, the “daemon sultan” that “bubbles and blasphemes at the centre of infinity” surrounded by an endlessly circling procession of mindless, flopping entities, could almost be a supermassive black hole at the heart of a quasar, complete with accretion disc…

         But it is foolish to try too hard to fathom exactly what the Old Ones ‘are’, since by their very (un)nature they exist on a plane of being far outside human understanding, and even to glimpse them directly leads ineluctably to insanity, death or worse. However, it may be instructive to look at some of the themes and concepts used by Lovecraft in these texts, which spring mainly from science and especially from theoretical advances and empirical discoveries that were at the cutting edge when the stories were written. For a start, developments in palaeontology such as the theory of plate tectonics furnished Lovecraft with a hideously ancient Earth, which allowed him to cast humanity as a very recent – and, accordingly, transient – phenomenon in a universe that had existed for countless aeons before our earliest grandapes came down from the trees and will still exist long after we are gone, seething with unguessable intelligences that will know little and care less about our fleeting existence[4]. These themes are explored best in stories such as The Shadow out of Time and At the Mountains of Madness, which develop the idea that extra-terrestrial beings of advanced intellect and technology colonised our planet in the deep geological past, and in fact foreshadow the ‘ancient astronauts’ hypothesis promulgated in the 1970s by Erich von Däniken[5].

         Another Lovecraftian touchstone, non-Euclidean geometry, forms the mathematical basis of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published when Lovecraft was 25. It is surely relativity and the field of physical cosmology as a whole that inform Lovecraft’s obsession with different ‘spheres’ of space and time and provided such fertile ground for his paranoid imagination. The then-fledgling theory of quantum mechanics and the ghostly emanations of radioactive materials and x-ray tubes all find their place in Lovecraft’s stories, while the arcane tools and machines displayed to such sinister effect by Nyarlathotep[6] are thought to have been directly inspired by a demonstration of Nikola Tesla’s spectacular electrical devices that Lovecraft personally witnessed as a young man (and which, to the devotee of Gothic fiction, must have seemed to spring straight from the pages of Frankenstein). The distant ‘spiral nebulae’, now known to be galaxies like our own, frequently appear in his fiction, and the discovery of Pluto in 1930 is ingeniously woven into the plot of The Whisperer in Darkness, set in the late ‘20s and published in ‘31. It is tantalising to speculate as to what Lovecraft would have made of certain concepts from modern cosmology and theoretical physics, which describe the very fabric of reality itself in terms of parallel universes, shadowy ‘hidden variables’, extra dimensions and tortuously ‘compactified’ spaces with exotic topologies:

[n]ot in the spaces we know, but between them, [the Old Ones] walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.”[7] (emphasis mine).

Finally, this obsession with ‘weird reality’ breaks free from physics altogether and finds expression in metaphysics and mathematics (see Dreams in the Witch House (1932/33), for example). Even the laws of geometry aren’t safe from the Old Ones’ relentless attack on our tiny, familiar slice of reality. The Call of Cthulhu contains perhaps Lovecraft’s best-known evocation of ‘non-Euclidean geometry’ in the ancient alien city of R’lyeh, which is full of angles that are “all wrong”, that appear acute but behave as though obtuse; one hapless man falls through a gap which “shouldn’t have been there” at all. One is unavoidably reminded of the fascinating ‘impossible figures’ beloved of the surrealist artist M. C. Escher. One of the co-discoverers of non-Euclidean geometry, the Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai (1802-1860), received the following fantastically Lovecraftian advice in a letter from his father, Farkas Bolyai, who’d instructed him in mathematics and had attempted the same problem:

“You must not attempt this approach to parallels. I know this way to its very end. I have traversed this bottomless night, which extinguished all light and joy from my life. I entreat you, leave the science of parallels alone…I thought I would sacrifice myself for the sake of the truth. I was ready to become a martyr who would remove the flaw from geometry and return it purified to mankind. I accomplished monstrous, enormous labours; my creations are far better than those of others and yet I have not achieved complete satisfaction. For here it is true that si paullum a summo discessit, vergit ad imum[8]. I turned back when I saw that no man can reach the bottom of this night. I turned back unconsoled, pitying myself and all mankind … I have travelled past all reefs of this infernal Dead Sea and have always come back with broken mast and torn sail. The ruin of my disposition and my fall date back to this time. I thoughtlessly risked my life and happiness — aut Caesar aut nihil[9].”

And beyond geometry, it’s quite likely, given Lovecraft’s erudite interests in intellectual developments of the day, that he was aware of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931). If the Devil is in the detail, where better for Cthulhu to lurk than in the gaping chasm at the heart of logic itself?

       Another philosophical influence – that of the doyen of antitheists, Friedrich Nietzsche[10] – shows through strongly in this passage from The Call of Cthulhu:

“The time [for Cthulhu’s resurrection] would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; wild and free and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals all thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame in a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.” (emphasis mine)

“Nothing is true; everything is permitted. Do What Thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”[11]

But we should not get distracted. Metaphysical terrors take a back seat to sheer physical horror in all of Lovecraft’s best writing. In many of his most celebrated passages the emotion that is evoked most strongly is not even fear per se but revulsion. There is always a hideous miasmic stench, there are always gruesome bioluminescent fungi and nameless slithering invertebrates; traditional horror tropes such as blood and bones are generally eschewed in favour of the ubiquitous slime. The very quantity of ectoplasm, mucus and miscellaneous snot in these stories is startling, before we even consider the stream of adjectives describing them, which gush from the author’s pen like the issue of a gangrenous sore. Perhaps the most evocative description of fleshly mortification is that suffered by the unfortunate Gardner family in The Colour out of Space (1927), who are not so much bodily consumed or even possessed by the sinister entity as they are parasitized and drained by it, reminding one of a hapless insect falling victim to an ichneumon wasp or predatory fungus. This is supreme science-fiction body-horror to rival even the psychosexual nightmare of the Alien films – the entomo-reptilian monster that stars therein having been created, of course, by the Swiss visionary artist and Lovecraft devotee, H. R. Giger.

1 Lovecraft’s radical new approach to horror is explained succinctly by Sandro D. Fossemò in Cosmic Terror from Poe to Lovecraft: “Poe sinks in[to] the soul to knock down external reality, Lovecraft on the contrary sinks in[to] the cosmos to demolish inner reality.”

2 Houellebeqc, Against the World, Against Life

3 “The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles…What is Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us…” (ibid); it is noteworthy that Houellebeqcs’ most well-known novel is titled Les particules élémentaires (published in the English translation as Atomised).

4 “…[the Great Old Ones] have heard the roars of the very first mammals and will know the howls of agony of the very last.” (ibid)

5 Coincidentally – or not – a prehistoric petroglyph in Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, identified by von Däniken as one such ancient visitor, forms the basis of the ‘numogram’ in Cyclonopedia’s discussion of quasi-Qabbalistic number sorcery.

6 Nyarlathotep, 1920.

7 The Dunwich Horror, 1928/29.

8 “If a little has separated from the uppermost, it turns to the lowest.”

9 “Either [a] Caesar, or nothing.”

10 For an analysis of Nieztsche and Lovecraft, see Sandro D. Fossemò, ibid.

11 Aleister Crowley, Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law)

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2 Responses to “Lovecraft, Cyclonopedia and Materialist Horror”

  1. More Open Lovecraft | TENTACLII :: H.P. Lovecraft blog Says:

    […] Anon (2011), “Lovecraft, Cyclonopedia and Materialist Horror” part one and part two and postscript. (See also the book of Cyclonopedia responses, Leper Creativity: […]

  2. The Voynich Manuscript and the joy of trolling | DOIN' THE LAMBETH WARP Says:

    […] dizzying effect in Reza Negarestani’s postmodern (well, post-everything, really) theory-novel Cyclonopedia. Here, the found-text conceit and Russian doll of nested narratives is borrowed wholesale from […]

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