Lovecraft and Chaos Behind the Wizard’s Curtain

This post is by John DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.

The Unveiling of the Wizard, from MGM’s Wizard of Oz, has become a cultural icon.  Despite the fireworks, Toto scampers up to an innocuous curtain, draws the veil aside, to reveal the fragile man behind the frightening wizard.

Let’s briefly look at elements of the scene as social metaphors.

The Wizard is an oppressive figure.  Those behind the scenes – the cultural elite, the Illuminati, the military-industrial complex, call them what you will – use societal dogmas to keep the masses in the dark about their true circumstances.

The Promise to Dorothy and her companions is a lie.  Culture carrots are like the Wizard’s promise – they keep adherents in a cycle of unending toils and sacrifices. The Utopian traps they promise – a heaven on earth – whether offered by Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, Scientific Determinism, varied religious, economic or ecotopian-isms – never take place (1).

The flames are veiled threats.  If cultural carrots fail to keep the populace inline, then societal threats and taboos will.  Clichés such as “Don’t rock the boat” or “You will understand when you are old enough” and today’s political correctness keep people in their places. Those who attempt to rise above the level of mediocrity face ostracization.

Toto is a heroic character. Various forces – science, religious, political, literary, education, you name it – claim to have bested the forces of tradition, pulled aside the veil of ignorance, laid bare those who oppress the multitudes, and opened avenues for the enlightenment of all.

We’ll leave Frank Baum’s work at this point.

But what if, when the curtain is pulled aside, there is chaos instead of consolation?  What if the Universe is a place of anarchy that defies man’s attempts to correlate and connect with it?

H.P. Lovecraft had the intellectual fortitude to duck behind the Wizard’s curtain.  What did he find there?  What did his literary works reveal of his personal journey into existential darkness?  And based on Lovecraft’s travels into the unknown, where do we go from here?

Are we on the verge of “flee[ing] from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age?”

The Historic Ground of Lovecraft’s Views:

Nature has always been rough on humanity.  That’s one reason we assigned its blood-thirstiness to destructive gods, or the devil, or sin’s effects on creation.

Lovecraft grew up in an age, when the intellectual currents of the late Enlightenment, challenged ideas grounded in ignorance and superstition.

First, humanity’s birthplace was no longer special.  The Theory of Heliocentrism, first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), then championed by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) placed the sun, not the earth at the center of the cosmos.  As our astronomical instruments grew in size and sophistication, the earth’s prominence in the cosmos shrank to microscopic insignificance.

Lovecraft had a life-long devotion to astronomy:

“…I wonder if you care for the science of Astronomy?  This has been a source of fascination to me for twelve years—just half my life…” (2).

And his astronomical studies deeply influenced his view of the earth and humankind’s place in the universe:

“…Of the various conceptions brought before the human mind by the advance of Science, what can be compared in strangeness and magnitude with that of eternity and infinity, as presented by modern astronomy? Nothing more deeply disturbs our settled egotism and self-importance than the realisation of man’s utter insignificance which comes with knowledge of his position in time and space…” (3).

Second, humanity’s birthright was no longer unique.  The Theory of Evolution, authored by Charles Darwin (1802-1882), stated that man was no longer the pinnacle of a god’s creation, but a hodge-podge of chance chemicals, random mutations, natural disasters, and millions of years.  Human beings were accidents of chance, not an act of creation.   People possessed no divine right over the earth or divine destiny to live out.

The events in a person’s life aren’t any more connected than hitting the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on Google.

Lovecraft noted that, while specifics of Evolution may still need to be worked out, its findings were fundamentally correct:

“…when a man…tries to dismiss the results of Darwin we need not give him too much of our valuable time. The exact details of organic progress as described in ‘The Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man’ may admit of correction or amplification, but to attack the essential principle, which alone is of universal importance, is pathetic…” (4)

Third, humanity’s godbooks and gods were no longer reliable. Theories of Form Criticism, propounded by Rudolf Bultmann (1894-1976), circumcised any element of the supernatural from the Bible.  And Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) inaugurated The Quest of the Historic Jesus, believing that a mortal man lay behind the façade of miracle myths that grew up around him.

In the same vein, Lovecraft dismissed religious notions held by some of his pen-pals:

“…I have seen nothing which could…give me the notion that cosmic force is the manifestation of a mind…like my own infinitely magnified; a potent and purposeful consciousness which deals individually and directly with the: miserable denizens of a wretched little fly speck on the back door of a microscopic universe, and which singles this putrid excrescence out as the one spot whereto to send an only-begotten Son, whose mission is to redeem those accursed fly speck-inhabiting lice which we call human beings—bah!!…” (5).

Notwithstanding, among some intellectuals, there arose a nostalgia for an intelligence behind the Cosmic Chaos.  Captain Ahab, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, expressed such a longing:

“All visible objects…are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines…” (6).

Thus, a nostalgic Melville sought rationality behind irrational acts of nature.

Lovecraft grappled with this offshoot of Deism – “…the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of God, accompanied with the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge…” (7).

Deism became another sentimentality, an intellectual dishonesty the Enlightened person had no room for.

Did an entity exist behind the anarchy that expressed itself in the universe?  Lovecraft used his literary creation of Azathoth to ridicule such views:

“…the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose center sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paws” (8).

“…he [Gilman] had picked up that last conception from what he had read in the Necronomicon about the mindless entity Azathoth, which rules all time and space from a curiously environed black throne at the centre of Chaos” (9).

So, in Lovecraft’s mind, if there was an intellect behind the chaos, at best that force was a blind idiot. Blind, in that it paid no heed to the cosmos.  And an idiot, in that it gave no thought to the universe or its occupants.

The Search for Truth

Did Lovecraft intellectually work through the Epistemological evidence behind the curtain, or did he accept the fashionable intellectual propaganda of his day?

Lovecraft argued that an open-minded quest for truth was honorable, whereas a closed-minded quashing of truth was indefensible:

“If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would…insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With…an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could…receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction” (10).

As we will see, Lovecraft didn’t leave the intellectual heavy-lifting to the “professional” thinkers of his day.

Can the Cosmos be known through Reason?

What do we know of the world and the universe about us?

Lovecraft struggled with the world, as we perceive it through our senses – the phenomenal world – and the world, as it is – the noumenal world.

To Lovecraft, the truth of an object – its noumenon – could never be known:

“Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things…as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but…see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which…can never be detected with the senses we have” (11).

Human beings see objects as our senses reconstruct them.  We interpret reality in a way that best suites our biases and tastes.

So what is real and what is a product of one’s imagination?  Lovecraft notes therein lays a paradox:

“…Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism…” (12).

Beyond our inability to see the cosmos as it is; Lovecraft observes the human mind cannot comprehend as a whole everything it contains:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age” (13).

So, at best, our knowledge of the cosmos is incomplete.

Can the World be known through Sensual Imprints?

Lovecraft poked fun at followers of Hedonism, which taught that pleasure was the highest good man could pursue:

“Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world; where…the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui. The enigmas of the symbolists and the ecstasies of the pre-Raphaelites…were ours…but each new mood was drained too soon, of its diverting novelty and appeal.

Only the somber philosophy of the decadents could help us, and this we found potent only by increasing…the depth and diabolism of our penetrations. Baudelaire and Huysmans were soon exhausted of thrills, till finally there remained…only the more direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventures. It was this frightful emotional need which led us…to …that hideous extremity of human outrage, the abhorred practice of grave-robbing” (14).

Since in Lovecraft’s life, we do not see a hedonist, did his critique of the pursuit of pleasure grow out of his Puritan upbringing or his lack of success with work or women?

Lovecraft’s views of Hedonism may have grown out of his general opinion of his fellow human beings:

“We must recognise the essential underlaying savagery in the animal called man, and return to older and sounder principles of national life and defense. We must realise that man’s nature will remain the same so long as he remains man; that civilisation is but a slight coverlet beneath which the dominant beast sleeps lightly and ever ready to awake” (15). 8 United it 11931

Can Commoners Know the Unknowable?

Even in an age of high literacy rate, Lovecraft felt few could think outside the prejudices that formed the bars of their mental prison:

“It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience” (16).

If the Voice of Chaos echoed in the enigmatical sense-impacts of Cthulhu, then either “Average people in society and business – New England’s traditional ‘salt of the earth’” nor “Scientific men” heard it.  Only among “the artists and poets” and those “in insane asylums” heard Cthulhu (17).

Lovecraft observed many people put their faith in belief systems that make little sense:

“…We all know that any emotional bias — irrespective of truth or falsity — can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value…” (18).

Literally, such orthodoxies can drug their followers, where critical questions about the system cannot be entertained or imagined.  Or the adherents are conditioned to reject outright any critical inquiry.  People do not read; they think in sound-bites fed to them by others.  People hang onto the irrationals when they cannot think through anything rational to live for.  They cling to myths and biases, whether they are religious, scientific or otherwise.

In Lovecraft’s day, lay people learned and understood the budding and bludgeoning sciences, some in their infancy.

Today, the population-at-large finds it difficult to grasp science.  By faith, they accept scientific “truths” from the “priests” of science, much like illiterate peasants accepted Holy Latinisms, from priests of old.

One result: many invest themselves with pseudo-sciences theories.  They hold these with the same unexamined and unshakeable blind orthodoxy that religion once held in their lives.

The Ancient Aliens theory represents one of today’s pseudo-sciences.  Weekly, episodes of the History channel’s Ancient Aliens reach between 1-2 million followers.  According to Erik von Däniken, books in his Chariots of the Gods series have been translated into 32 languages and together have sold more than 63 million copies (19).

The theory diminishes their accomplishments of ancient advanced cultures via the introduction of alien technologies.  Ancient Alien theorists play on the general populaces’ inability to grasp advanced engineering techniques, ancient or otherwise. They also use the idea that technology only sprang into being in modern times.  Ancient human beings were too dumb to be that smart.

So, anything hard to explain – megalith structures, cave drawings, etc. becomes the product of Alien intervention or interaction with ancient humanity.  They fail to recognize that humans have been making huge scientific gains for millennia; necessity has been the mother of invention for ages.

As a pseudo-science, attempts to debunk the ancient astronaut faith are met with the same emotional denials seen in those who hold other orthodoxies.  When confronted with complexities outside their normal experiences, Lovecraft noted:

“It is only the inferior thinker who hastens to explain the singular and the complex by the primitive shortcut of supernaturalism.” (20).

Paradoxically, some ask, “Did Erich Von Daniken plagiarize H. P. Lovecraft?”

Striking similarities exist between Lovecraft’s works and Ancient Aliens books.  For example, elements of the Old Ones creation of humanity and the Sumerian Anunnaki’s purported gene-splicing of their alien genes with Homo Erectus genes to create Homo Sapiens (per Zecharia Sitchin) are striking.

Those similarities led Robert M. Price to answer the question in the affirmative (21).  Lovecraft’s connection to the Ancient Alien theory would have the Old Shuffler turning over in his grave.

A second result: many involve themselves in political and economic movements that promise a glorious here and now, given time, the right circumstances, etc.

Communism, socialism, industrialism and free-market capitalism, etc. each promised a Paradise on Earth.  But, the guarantee of a Trickle-down nirvana or a Paradise of the Proletariat never materialized.

Karl Marx’s theory of communism (1848) grew out of a critique of the abuses of Industrialism. George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) was an allegorical critique of the cruelties of communism/socialism revolutions gone awry.

Machiavelli’s system of political intrigues, which recognizes the maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, seems to be the bible of those who rule society, whether it be totalitarian or “free.” (22).

A third result: many invest them themselves in religious movements that promise a glorious hereafter.

People sacrifice the comforts of now for greater glories later.  Adherents to some faiths commit suicide for a glorious place in paradise.  Lovecraft’s feeling on this matter, have been documented earlier in this article.

How did Lovecraft Handle Chaos?

What happened to Lovecraft’s head, when faced with existentialist’s angst?

Many today comfortably live with their fictions, because they either lack the intellectual prowess or the desire to challenge them.

In contrast, Lovecraft’s struggle with existential dead-ends led him to write:

“I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I continue to refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthensome quality” (23).

Surprisingly, Lovecraft’s anxiety embodied elements of the French Existential Albert Camus’ ultimate question:

“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

…There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer” (24).

In the end, Lovecraft did not exercise Camus’ final option

What Lies Beyond?

Given the darkness behind the Wizard’s curtain, how does the bulk of humanity live?

Many today comfortably live with their fictions, because they lack the intellect to challenge them.  Few understand the logical outcome of the “truths” they hold, so they live as if life has meaning when it does not.

Lovecraft didn’t see a pretty destiny for human beings.

On one level, Lovecraft predicted Humanity’s end at the hand of Science:

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species — if separate species we be — for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.” (25).

Or Lovecraft knew eventually, the sun would grow cold, and humanity’s days would be over:

“…the human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’” (26).

Lovecraft’s words might have inspired dread in the song, In the Year 2525:

“…In the year 9595
I’m kinda wonderin’ if man is gonna be alive
He’s taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain’t put back nothing.

Now it’s been ten thousand years, man has cried a billion tears
For what, he never knew, now man’s reign is through
But through eternal night, the twinkling of starlight
So very far away, maybe it’s only yesterday…” (27).

Lovecraft knew that, given the thought-out decisions, based on a tough reality, and easy choices that require little thought, most people would opt for a New Dark Ages.

Perhaps the Wizard’s curtain is the Gate to Cthulhu’s Tomb.  Who knows what will be unleashed, should humanity open that can of worms?

Did Lovecraft Suffer from Nostalgia?

Faced with the Cosmos as it was, how did Lovecraft live?

He looked to the Victorian Era.  He tried to live out his days in the past, as aliens of a doomed planet, in the original Star Trek episode, All Our Yesterdays (28).

Lovecraft almost sounded nostalgic for a world whose glamour had grown dim by the time he was born:

“…If I could create an ideal world, it would be an England with the fire of the Elizabethans, the correct taste of the Georgians, and the refinement and pure ideals of the Victorians…”  (29).

Was Lovecraft’s love of the past, a Victorian fantasy that was more fiction than fact?  Did Lovecraft have the ability to see the past clearly?  Lovecraft was well aware of the distinctly depressing nature of his conclusions.

He didn’t possess the ignorance to live out the Victorian Fictions he loved.  Or the fictions that anyone else proffered.

I believe, like Randolph Carter, in the Silver Key, Lovecraft lived out a series of disappointments as he tried to find lasting satisfaction in the arenas offered by the cosmos:

‘’…Well-meaning philosophers…taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies…[They]…explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world…Once in a while…he could not help seeing how shallow, fickle, and meaningless all human aspirations are, and how emptily our real impulses contrast with those pompous ideals we profess to hold.

…[Then] he…turned to the gentle churchly faith endeared to him by the naive trust of his fathers, for thence stretched mystic avenues which seemed to promise escape from life. Only on closer view did he mark the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness, and the owlish gravity and grotesque claims of solid truth…[And]… Carter did not taste deeply of modern freedoms; for their cheapness and squalor sickened a spirit loving beauty…while his reason rebelled at the flimsy logic with which their champions tried to gild brute impulse with a sacredness stripped from the idols they had discarded.

…[Then]…he cultivated deliberate illusion, and dabbled in…notions of the bizarre and the eccentric as an antidote for the commonplace. Most of these…soon showed their poverty and barrenness; and he saw that the popular doctrines of occultism are as dry and inflexible as those of science…Having perceived at last the hollowness and futility of real things, Carter spent his days in retirement, and in wistful disjointed memories of his dream-filled youth” (30).

————————————————–

 End Notes:

(1)    The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements: by Eric Hoffer, 1951.

(2)    H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Maurice W. Moe, 8 December 1914.

(3)    Essay: “Time and Space”, by H.P. Lovecraft, July 1918.

(4)    Article: “The Defence Re-opens!”, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1921.

(5)    H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Maurice W. Moe, 15 May 1918.

(6)    Moby Dick: by Herman Melville, 1851.

(7)    Deism, Wikipedia.

(8)    The Haunter of the Dark: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1935.

(9)    The Dreams in the Witch House: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1932.

(10)   H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Maurice W Moe, 3 August 1931.

(11)   From Beyond: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1934.

(12)   The Tomb: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1922.

(13)   The Call of Cthulhu: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.

(14)   The Hound: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1922.

(15)   Article: “At the Root”, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1918.

(16)   The Tomb: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1922.

(17)   The Call of Cthulhu: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.

(18)   H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Maurice W Moe, 3 August 1931.

(19)   Erich von Däniken, Wikipedia.

(20)   The Temple: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1925.

(21)   Essay: “Chariots of the Old Ones”, Robert M. Price with Charles Garofalo, 1982.

(22)   The Prince: by Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532.

(23)   H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to August Derleth, 25 December, 1930.

(24)   The Myth of Sisyphus: by Albert Camus, 1942.

(25)   Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1921.

(26)   Quoted in Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1999),

referenced in Andrew Riemer’s “A nihilist’s hope against hope”, 2003.

(27)   Song: In The Year 2525: by Dennis Zager and Richard Evans, 1969 – http://www.metrolyrics.com.

(28)   All Our Yesterdays: Star Trek, The Original Series, March 14, 1969.

(29)   H.P. Lovecraft, http://www.brainyquote.com.

(30)   The Silver Key: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.

————————————————————-

John DeLaughter is a Data Security Analyst who lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi, daughter Kirsten, grand daughter Riley, and two cats. He’s devoured Lovecraft, beginning with At the Mountains of Madness in high school. In his spare time, he’s editing his fantasy novel entitled Dark Union Rising. He’s published in Samsara, The Magazine Suffering, Issue 8 and Pray!, May/June 2004, and several organizational newsletters.

This post is by John DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.

2 responses to “Lovecraft and Chaos Behind the Wizard’s Curtain

  1. What a great article, thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I often find myself struggling to articulate to others why I enjoy Lovecraft so much; this does an amazing job!

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