Well, that’s not what Bob titled it. He calls it The Ecstasy of Lovecraft. But my title is appropriate, I think! This is a talk that Dr. Robert M. Price gave last weekend at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, after the “Yog-Sothoth Spaghetti Dinner”.
Bob was kind enough to send this to me so that you all could read it. (And you can watch it, and the “Yog-Sothoth Spaghetti Dinner”, in the video at the end of this post.) – MD
The Ecstasy of Lovecraft, by Robert M. Price
We enjoy the joke of pretending there are cults of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth. I know I do. But it raises a serious question: can there be a Lovecraftian spirituality? I don’t mean the fanatical hero worship we are inclined to direct toward the Providence Prophet, though like the Elvis cult, that has some of the marks of a religion—pilgrimages to the holy sites mentioned in Lovecraft’s stories, commemoration of his birth and death, and so on. I’m proud to say Lovecraft has profoundly influenced my life—as I think you know!
I think that Lovecraft himself experienced a real spirituality and expressed it matchlessly well. Let me read you the evidence.
The winter sunset, flaming beyond spires
And chimneys half-detached from this dull sphere,
Opens great gates to some forgotten year
Of elder splendours and divine desires.
Expectant wonders burn in those rich fires,
Adventure-fraught, and not untinged with fear;
A row of sphinxes where the way leads clear
Toward walls and turrets quivering to far lyres.
It is the land where beauty’s meaning flowers;
Where every unplaced memory has a source;
Where the great river Time begins its course
Down the vast void in starlit streams of hours.
Dreams bring us close—but ancient lore repeats
That human tread has never soiled these streets.
It is a certain hour of twilight glooms,
Mostly in autumn, when the star-wind pours
Down hilltop streets, deserted out-of-doors,
But shewing early lamplight from snug rooms.
The dead leaves rush in strange, fantastic twists,
And chimney-smoke whirls round with alien grace,
Heeding geometries of outer space,
While Fomalhaut peers in through southward mists.
This is the hour when moonstruck poets know
What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents
And tints of flowers fill Nithon’s continents,
Such as in no poor earthly garden blow.
Yet for each dream these winds to us convey,
A dozen more of ours they sweep away!
I cannot tell why some things hold for me
A sense of unplumbed marvels to befall,
Or of a rift in the horizon’s wall
Opening to worlds where only gods can be.
There is a breathless, vague expectancy,
As of vast ancient pomps I half recall,
Or wild adventures, uncorporeal,
Ecstasy-fraught, and as a day-dream free.
It is in sunsets and strange city spires,
Old villages and woods and misty downs,
South winds, the sea, low hills, and lighted towns,
Old gardens, half-heard songs, and the moon’s fires.
But though its lure alone makes life worth living,
None gains or guesses what it hints at giving.
I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town,
Where from my window huddled roofs sloped down
To a quaint harbour rich with visionings.
Streets with carved doorways where the sunset beams
Flooded old fanlights and small window-panes,
And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes—
These were the sights that shaped my childhood dreams.
Such treasures, left from times of cautious leaven,
Cannot but loose the hold of flimsier wraiths
That flit with shifting ways and muddled faiths
Across the changeless walls of earth and heaven.
They cut the moment’s thongs and leave me free
To stand alone before eternity.
How can I say that Lovecraft had spiritual experience when he didn’t believe in God? Even scoffed at belief in God? I see no inconsistency. In fact, I think that a belief in God may actually inhibit spirituality. Let me explain what I mean.
HPL, already as a boy, was drawn toward beckoning Oblivion. One day he pedaled his bike into the country and stopped by a stream. He looked at it, somewhat, I imagine, as Siddhartha did in Hermann Hesse’s novel. His mind was burdened by the meaninglessness of life. I’m guessing his preoccupation with the night skies of astronomy was to blame. We trace his philosophy of cosmicism, “futilitarianism,” to his absorption in the vastness of the heavens. Their magnitude and emptiness spoke to him of his own, and mankind’s, utter insignificance in the scheme of things. I think his youthful toying with suicide was a reaction to the same stunning insight.
What made him hesitate and turn his bicycle around to head for home and to life? It was the very same thing! There was after all a meaning to life, and it, too, was to be found in the starry voids, and in earthly nature here below. As a young scientist he found the splendor and beauty of things just too fascinating not to spend a lifetime enjoying and understanding them. And that he set about doing. If a cosmic perspective rudely shoved Homo Sapiens off his pedestal, dislodging him from center stage, it also enabled him, at least it enabled Lovecraft, to see what actually was at the center of the stage: everything else! This of course is why he also reduced his story protagonists to the function of a mere window through which wonders might be viewed.
Long ago, Fritz Leiber made the essential observation about Lovecraft and his Mythos. He correctly pegged Lovecraft’s vision of cosmic horror as synonymous with what Rudolf Otto called the numinous experience, the urgency of uncanny fear, holy terror, prompted by the ripping away of the worldly veil (which is the literal meaning of the word “apocalypse”). We cower in terror at the Wholly Other thus revealed. And yet we do not flee, because we sense that the Other, being infinite, possesses all that we, as finite creatures, lack. And thus we are at once both terrified and enthralled. Even if we perish like moths, we must fly to the flames, for, once we encounter that fulfilling knowledge, we will become one with it, even in the moment we are consumed. And that is the obsessive quest of Lovecraft’s protagonists. And it is the quest of the mystic, of the Sufi, the Nondualist, the Taoist, of Meister Eckhart.
Usually such people say they have encountered God, or else what Tillich called “the God above God.” Lovecraft certainly did not call it that. But he did refer to it as the Infinite, “whose sides the ages are.” There have been other atheists with mystical experiences. They recognize that they are experiences and they do not draw any ontological inference. They do not indulge in what Derrida called Presence Metaphysics. I think that is how Lovecraft viewed the matter. No fan of Plato or his metaphysics, he would not have inferred the existence of any real entity behind his experiences. After all, Lovecraft said he was trying to create the liberating illusion of freeing the reader from the claustrophobic chains of the laws of nature.
Bringing God into the matter is like smothering the fire with a wet blanket. Our raw, immediate experience upon beholding the stunning universe, so vast that we may momentarily forget that we exist – is gaping, breathless wonder. Pure awe. The moment we try to contain that experience in a doctrine of a creator God, we sap the wonder away. The balloon is punctured, the tire goes flat. Our wonder is dispelled, like when we make the mistake of watching one of those behind-the-scenes “The Making of…” documentaries that show how the technicians faked the wonders of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. “Oh! So that’s how they did it! I guess it’s not such a big deal after all.” This why stage magicians don’t reveal their tricks. They want to be able to keep you guessing.
A large part of “wondering at” is “wondering how.” And positing a creator God is like seeing how clever people fabricated the special effects. “Okay, I’ve got that one figured out.” The magic, the mystical, has been reduced to the mundane. It has shrunk from a mystery that in the nature of the case can never be explained, to a mere problem, like a puzzle solution at the bottom of the page. There is no name for it, because there is no “it.” It is a vast experience of what is vast.
Wonder is a hunger. But, again, in the nature of things, it is a hunger that can never be satisfied. We yearn for the infinite, and, paradoxically, that yearning is as close as we can ever get to it. We can never contain the infinite, never swallow it. We can only stretch the bounds of our reaching, our longing, our hunger. And that is the growth, the expansion, of the soul. The yearning is the satisfaction. It is the only way to experience something that can be neither confined nor contained. It is to bask in the Mystery which is revealed as a Mystery.
That is the vision of H.P. Lovecraft, the spirituality of Lovecraft and of Lovecraftians.
There is in certain ancient things a trace
Of some dim essence—more than form or weight;
A tenuous aether, indeterminate,
Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.
A faint, veiled sign of continuities
That outward eyes can never quite descry;
Of locked dimensions harbouring years gone by,
And out of reach except for hidden keys.
It moves me most when slanting sunbeams glow
On old farm buildings set against a hill,
And paint with life the shapes which linger still
From centuries less a dream than this we know.
In that strange light I feel I am not far
From the fixt mass whose sides the ages are.