This post is by John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.
Is modern humanity one-step removed from hairy apedom? Have human beings crept that far from the primal ooze that once spawned them? Is the veneer of thousands of years of civilization easily cast aside, like a change of clothing?
Those questions inspired Rod Serling – a TV pioneer who explored the imaginative boundaries of the cosmos – to pen the following words:
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the ‘Twilight Zone’” (1).
Later Carl Sagan, a noted astronomer and astrophysicist who popularized science, spoke of humanity’s future:
“We embarked on our cosmic voyage with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars” (2).
Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and Rod Serling (1924-1975), one the cosmic optimist and one the cosmic pessimist, represented opposing sides of the same coin. Each man, in his day, popularized a vision of the cosmos. The future forecast by Sagan was epitomized by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. The tomorrow foretold by Serling was embodied in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
In one, through the light of human reason, industry, and ingenuity, man gradually re-creates the Universe in his own image, likes, and predilections. In the other, the frailties of humanity are soberly measured against the dark canvas of the cosmos. Humanity is forced to travel vast interstellar distances in suspended animation, delivered as frozen food to the ravenous denizens of deep space.
H.P. Lovecraft: Forerunner of Sagan and Serling:
Neither Sagan, nor Serling were the first to explore the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and shadow, between the heights of man’s knowledge and depths of man’s fears and ignorance.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, an era that would mark the greatest expansion of human knowledge, one Howard Philips Lovecraft peered into the future. Like a modern Nostradamus, HPL penned words that might have served as a precursor to Serling’s later monologue:
“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” (3).
As humanity stands on the precipice of today, many tomorrows loom into our collective sight.
One, will we as a species commit suicide, at the hands of genocidal lunatics with genetic time-bombs? Or does the future hold a new Dark Age, fashioned by nuclear mullahs to resemble a religious apocalypse dictated in the past?
Two, will we enter space, buoyed by visions of a Federation? Will the present myths that drive humanity and give us solace, light the cosmic dark and help us succeed? Or will humankind, like many Lovecraft heroes, lose their minds and empty their bowels, when confronted by the Old Ones in the cosmic darkness?
Will man outlive his myths? Or will malevolent overlords genetically devolve humanity to produce a more compliant, easier to manage herd as in Alien Nation?
These are but a few of the themes I hope to examine with you in this essay.
Early Man as Mythmaker:
Once, primitives gathered around campfires. Our ancestors feared the dark. As our earliest forebears sat round the bonfire, many things slunk beyond the ring of illumination or flashed across the night sky. The night contained forces – animals, other human beings, and “spirits” – that could harm us.
Tribal shamans told stories to explain the unexplainable. The priest or shaman became the repository of those myths. As the myths cast the darkness in human terms, man’s fear of the night slackened. Man did acquire a respect of the entities described in the myths. Shamans sat with our fathers and mothers around such fires, and out of their mystic experiences, they defined the spirits, and taught us how to defy them.
Sometimes, the medicine person related a tale passed down from a long-line of witch-doctors before them. Or the story originated with that Medicine Person. He or she began with a known truth accepted by most clan members, to explain the unknown.
In the process, we lost the wonder of the caveman looking into the mysteries of the heavens. Human beings felt more “in-control” when the dangers in the darkness were explained away.
Myth and the Dialectic:
Thus began the process of the triad theory of the dialectic:
1) The thesis is an intellectual proposition.
2) The antithesis is simply the negation of the thesis, a reaction to the proposition.
3) The synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths and forming a new thesis, starting the process over.
There was a widely accepted myth. Then evidence or experience contrary to the myth appeared. The result, once the dust settled, and the conflicting forces that championed each contrary myth were satiated, a new mythos arose that contained elements of both legends. Though many sources attribute the thesis-anti-thesis-synthesis notion to Frederick Hegel, others indicate that the existentialist Emmanuel Kant originated the terminology (4).
Ancient Roman inclusionism might be an ancient example of the dialectic process. When Rome conquered a new territory, it did not force the locals to adopt a state religion. Instead, Rome incorporated the local deities and practices of the newly conquered into the Roman Pantheon. Contradictions were tolerated because each local group emphasized its own religious dictum, a process that de-emphasized contradictory beliefs/practices that were prominent geographically and culturally elsewhere.
The Inheritance of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment:
Humanity took over half a millennium to move from a superstitious understanding of the heavens to a scientific understanding of the cosmos.
First, came the Renaissance. The term “Renaissance” means to be “born anew”.
From the days of the Roman Emperor Constantine, through the reign of Charlemagne, Fiefdoms, and the Dark Ages, Western intellectual development stagnated. Under the auspices of creating and maintaining “sacred” societies, minorities ruled majorities, minorities exploited majorities. In other areas of the world, the elite clothed itself and its rule in different religious trappings, but the results were the same.
The millennium of the Middle Ages had been marked by unwavering religious devotion and unfathomable cruelty.
The date that marks the beginning of the Renaissance is subject to scholarly debate. Italian scholars see the creation of the Chair of Greek in Florence, in 1396 as the rebirth of classical Greek inquiry. Other scholars say that Gutenberg’s invention of the Printing Press in 1450 marks the start of Renaissance. Still a few researchers use 1498, the year Vasco de Gama reached India, as the date when new ideas from other lands began to eclipse European notions.
Whether in art, or literature, or other avenues of intellectual exploration, the Renaissance marked a move from valuing what was deemed sacred above all else to:
“…the reentrance into the world of that secular, inquiring, self-reliant spirit which characterized the life and culture of classical antiquity…Under the influence of the intellectual revival the men of Western Europe came to think and feel, to look upon life and the outer world, as did the men of ancient Greece and Rome; and this again is merely to say that they ceased to think and feel as mediaeval men and began to think and feel as modern men” (5).
Slowly, the secular gained an equal footing with the sacred, if not in political power, at least in intellectual circles. Yet, the rewards and results of the Renaissance Revival did not trickle down to the ruminating masses.
Second, came the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.
During this period – again the dates are subject to endless debate – great people of learning advanced ideas that shook traditional religio-political power-centers in society. The divine right of kings to rule without question was usurped by the notion that all men were created equal. And based on that equality, each person could and should rule his or herself. Thus was born the philosophical underpinnings for the American and French Revolutions.
At the same time, alternative visions of humanity’s place on the planet multiplied.
For example, the “Noble Savage” concept of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), later given a scientific foundation in Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), gained credence and soon dominance.
Elsewhere, the study of “Truth” led to a split. What was “True” was no longer absolute, meaning a particular notion was valid no matter what the place, time, or person. “Truth” became an objective/subjective, rational/irrational experience that differed depending on culture, time and the intellectual advancement of the individual. Nature became a closed system governed by a series of discoverable, explainable, and immutable laws.
Modern Humanity Demythologizes the Ancients:
Based on humanity’s newfound intellectual freedoms, learned people looked at the past differently. Since nature was a closed, self-governing system, in each event there existed an objective, rational explanation.
The superstitions that once interpreted history fell apart.
For example, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) inaugurated a “Search for the Historical Jesus”. He sought the objective truth of the man – apart from the subjective myths that grew up around the Jewish Teacher. One criterion for that inquiry was, since the laws of nature were unchanging, all miracles spoken of in the New Testament were suspect.
One, the ancient people misinterpreted a natural phenomenon based on the prevailing myths of the day. Or two, in the years after a historical figure’s death, legends grew up around the person that sought to supernaturally explain his or her significance.
Of course, one must not hold too tightly the “truths” propounded by the latter-day priests of the newer versions of reality.
For example, the City of Troy was once thought an interesting, but mythic element in the larger body of Greek Myths. That opinion was based on two parameters. Once, Helen of Troy, the Trojan Horse, and the invulnerable Achilles were considered fables, used to explain moral truths. None of the sagas’ facets need have any basis in fact. And two, at the time this view stood as the prevailing opinion in scholarly circles, no evidence of Troy had been found.
Anyone who argued for a historical Troy, like Galileo, became an outcast from the existing intellectual community. Then in 1870, Heinrich Schliemann, building on the work of Frederick Calvert, discovered the remains of the fortified City of Troy. Schliemann’s work gave credence to the thought that Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid were based on actual historical events and not just fanciful fables (6).
Lovecraft’s Cosmicism: Moving Beyond the Renaissance and the Enlightenment:
Howard Philips Lovecraft, from his childhood, was an intellectual without peer. Based on Howard’s early omnivorous readings in the fabled library of his Grandfather Whipple Philips, Lovecraft Scholar, S.T. Joshi noted:
“…as to Lovecraft’s ‘complexity’ as a philosopher…at the outset…Lovecraft was not a professional philosopher…he was in fact an ‘amateur’…Lovecraft’s fiction is an outgrowth of his philosophy and that his philosophy is therefore worth detailed study…Lovecraft wrestled with philosophical issues far more vigorously than most laymen do, even most creative writers…Informed Lovecraftians…have known that Lovecraft was entirely capable of reading Latin, as he had dozens of Latin texts in his library. (He also made a verse translation of the first 88 lines of Ovid’s Metamorphosis at about the age of ten.) Lovecraft’s…merit of [as] a philosopher ought to rest upon the keenness of his thought rather than the number of eminent predecessors whom he can parrot…I could have trotted out the influence of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Burke, and any number of other political thinkers…Lovecraft’s political awareness only emerged toward the end of his life, when contemporary events compelled him to give a great deal of thought to the political, economic, and social problems engendered by the depression. Plato wouldn’t have helped much in this situation” (7).
Lovecraft, as a child into young adulthood, inherited the intellectual presuppositions of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. His dabbling in Classic Greek literature, Chemistry, Astronomy, and other academic disciplines marked him as a prodigy. His grasp of such rarefied subjects often exceeded correspondents who opposed his positions in various publications, amateur or otherwise.
Unlike many adults, whose intellectual development remained unexamined throughout life – Lovecraft grew beyond the cerebral confines of his childhood. HPL was deeply-steeped in the latest scientific discoveries, and appreciated the scientific method. S.T. Joshi notes Howard’s respect for science:
“What we find in Lovecraft’s letters is something like this: ‘The fact remains that [truth] does interest me, as it has interested thousands of other men…Truth-hunger is a hunger just as real as food-hunger.’ …It is true that Lovecraft did express some reservations on the psychological effects of truth and knowledge, as when he remarked that ‘To the scientist there is the joy of pursuing truth which nearly counteracts the depressing revelations of truth’…I can establish that it is a well-considered and self-consistent view on Lovecraft’s part, and a view that several other ‘major’ thinkers have held” (8).
Beware the Myth of Scientific Progress:
At the same time, Lovecraft was not a blind zealot, putting his faith in scientific progress as a redeemer of humankind. Science could create problems science could not solve:
“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 thousand-fold 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” (9).
Therefore, as we explore Lovecraft’s literary philosophy – Cosmicism – we see that he does not disparage science, perhaps the crowning achievement of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Yet, Cosmicism does take a tepid view on Scientific Progress:
1. As a solver of all humankind’s problems, whether terrestrial or celestial. The problems our species will encounter in space, apart from alien encounters, are complex enough. When extra-terrestrials are added to the mix, the complications rise exponentially.
2. As a gatekeeper of revelations, whose implications can overwhelm individuals and groups. Scientists, as a whole, are not known for their people or public relations skills. If some scientific revelations can shake a cold, detached researcher to the psychological core, what of those outside scientific circles?
Before we proceed, I would like to reiterate a brief summation of Lovecraft’s Cosmic Philosophy:
“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity—and terrestrialism at the threshold” (10).
Popular Scientific Myths that Desensitize Human Beings to Its Perils:
To insulate our species against the enumerated perils of scientific progress, society has popularized several myths. These myths cast the future of humanity, though fraught with peril, as always working itself out in our species’ favor.
Funny, how human cleverness has been elevated to the status of deity. In past myths, a divine presence interested in the welfare of frail, but troublesome individuals, guided the outcomes of our endeavors. If anything positive came of a human enterprise, the credit was laid at the doorstep of heaven.
Among today’s myths that look optimistically at humanity’s future, success depends on our species’ ability to surmount any obstacle that gets in our collective way. Humanity’s “salvation” depends no longer on an omnipotent deity, but the foibles of human cunning.
I would like to explore three such myth vehicles with you.
The Myth of the Mad Scientist:
First, there is the Mad-Scientist myth. That fable, propagated in the form of Baron Victor von Frankenstein, epitomizes:
“A mad scientist…mad engineer or mad professor…who is considered ‘mad’ – a synonym for insane. The mad scientist may be villainous or antagonistic, benign or neutral; may be insane, eccentric, or clumsy; and often work with fictional technology or fail to see potential objections to playing God. Some may have benevolent or good spirited intentions, even if their actions are dangerous or questionable, which can make them accidental villains” (11).
Films from the 1930s onward, as well as books, were filled with this stereotypical foe of humankind. Beyond the fictional personage of the Mad Professor, lies the myth’s psychological insulating quality. In the end, whatever doomsday trope the crazed scientist released on the world, science could neutralize its banal effects. Or science could redirect the harmful outcome into a life-enhancing consequence. Whatever the worse of science does, the best of science can undo.
So, the media unknowingly, has instilled a false hope in the masses – faith that science can solve the worst problem it can potentially create.
The Star Trek Mythos:
Second, there is the Star Trek mythos.
I love the series, going back to the 1960s when, as an older child, I watched the original series on NBC. I actually wrote a letter to help resurrect the series, after it was cancelled the first time. Though I have never gone to a Star Trek convention, or learned to speak Klingon, I have the utmost respect for the many incarnations of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.
However, Star Trek promoted several myth elements that served to desensitize people to the costs and dangers of going into space.
Reality 1: The Costs of Space Travel:
To start, the Star Trek universe sees humanity scaling the economic costs of becoming a space-borne species.
The present costs of putting and maintaining a relatively small-operation (6-person crew) such as the International Space Station in Earth orbit is phenomenal. Even when a re-useable vehicle, such as the Space Shuttle, was available to get the elements of the Space Station into orbit, the costs were staggering. It cost roughly $160 billion dollars to get the Space Station up there, and it costs approximately $3 billion dollars a year to maintain it (12).
Most western countries like the United States and the European Union – nations that have some national impetuous to be in space – are running unsustainable budget deficits. Where will the huge outlays needed to get humanity into the cosmos originate? Will we back off space programs, because they are simply not economically feasible?
Also, present governments seem more interested in exploring social agendas than exploring space. Have the costs of social experiments achieved a higher priority than space experimentation?
Reality 2: The Suicidal Species:
Next, the Star Trek mythos sees humanity as somehow escaping its suicidal tendencies as a species. A dreaded apocalypse finally wipes out most of the world’s population.
But somehow, somewhere, sometime in that bleak future, a remnant, having learned its lessons, finds the move into space the common theme that unites the warring factions of humanity.
What if humanity implodes again?
H.G. Wells published a series of articles in London newspapers that called World War I, the “War to End all Wars”. World War I was, “…a war without parallel – all previous wars were eclipsed by its scale of destruction” (13). That War was supposed to be so horrific that humanity, having learned its mistakes, would never repeat them. Sixty-five million died between 1914 and 1918.
Then World War II rolled around, and between fifty and seventy million more people died (14). Then the Korean Conflict happened, and then, and then.
Yes, those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. But we are a forgetful, shortsighted species, with the attention-span of a gnat.
Besides the idea that remnants of humanity might survive a species-wide suicide, other questions arise, “Where would we get the economic resources and technological know-how to launch us into space?” Every human institution has been blown away or genetically-gutted.
Would a self-induced new Dark Age begat a New Age, based on faster-than-light vehicles?
Reality 3: The Health Hazards of Deep Space:
And what if faster-than-light travel is not developed? The anatomy of a human being is not made for prolonged space travel. For instance, concerning our muscular/skeletal system:
“The human body relies on bone structure and muscles in order to function, without either we would be a big saggy bag of skin unable to move…muscles which are not exercised regularly slowly get weaker, and to an extent this is true for bone structure as well. Without the force of gravity constantly pulling at us, our muscle and bones would weaken leaving us less capable of moving around. One of the most well-known effects on a human being in space is known as muscle atrophy…a wasting away of muscle tissue. The skeletal structure too can be affected leaving the human body weak and struggling to cope with the force of gravity on return to Earth. Rigid exercise regimes and vitamin supplements are used to try and counteract these effects with some success, but there are many other impacts that, as yet, have no or limited counter-measures” (15).
In addition, what about the worst danger to the human body, space radiation?
“The biggest hurdle remains radiation. Without the protective cocoon of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, astronauts receive substantially higher doses of radiation, heightening the chances that they will die of cancer. How much of a cancer risk later in life is acceptable?” (16).
Unless we build big ships, large enough to replicate an environment that overcomes potential health issues, suspended animation is the only answer.
And even if suspended animation is turned from science fiction to science fact, who or what is going to shepherd the ship, until it arrives years later at its intended destination? A renegade HAL 9000 as in 2001: A Space Odyssey? A rogue android like David, from Prometheus? Or an incompetent OCD holograph like Arnold Rimmer from Red Dwarf?
A related corollary is, “What are the long-term psychological effects of prolonged space flight?” If faster-than-light travel is not developed, space flight inside the Solar System will take years. Even if near-light speeds were achieved, it would take years to travel interstellar distances.
Space travel will take years, not weeks or months, as envisioned in the Star Trek universe. Journeys elsewhere in the cosmos may, due to distances and speeds, become one-way trips.
What happens to the family relationships, which many human beings organize their lives around? Again, unless a ship is made large enough to carry non-essential personnel, like an astronaut’s family, what would years of separation mean?
Reality 4: The Militarization of Space:
Lastly, could humanity conquer the cosmos, under an armed-to-the-teeth and organized to-the-hilt militarized Federation? That is the basis of the Star Trek mythos, once you shed its civilized trappings. The “peaceable” Federation, the Viking-like Klingons, the Warlike Romulans, the roving gangs of drug-addicted Jem’Hadars, each via for galactic supremacy.
But, what if the cosmos is not organized around institutions we are familiar with? What if the cosmos turns out to be more Lovecraftian than Star Trek envisages? What if our place in the galactic food-chain resides at the bottom rather than near the top?
Tribes of ants, warring over the same anthill, are a nuisance. If they are in the middle of a deep woods, none of the higher creatures stomping about care.
If however, the ant warfare takes place on your property, you might notice them and decide to exterminate them en masse.
Suddenly, everything that drives the varied ant-tribes to war vanishes. To rephrase Lovecraft, “…all the common ‘ant’ laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…” (17).
In summary, while the Star Trek mythos gives scientifically-inclined people hope for the future, the fable should be seen for what it is against the backdrop of Cosmicism.
The E.T. Myth:
Third, there is the E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind myth. Close on the heels of those myths is the Ancient Aliens saga, as peddled by Erich von Däniken.
In each fictionalized situation, whether in the past, present, or future, aliens as a whole are pictured as benevolent, with an altruistic interest in humankind. And in most encounters between our species and aliens, the extra-terrestrials attempted to mitigate any harmful effects the meeting had on human beings.
For an earlier generation, Casper the Friendly Ghost performed the same indoctrination for those drawn to a supernatural worldview.
Inevitably, these media myths cast aliens in humanoid-shaped wrappers.
We tend to anthropomorphize any alien we encounter. It implies our automatic attempts to control and categorize the world around us, so what we can feel like we are safe and in control.
Past high priests wrapped the mysteries that awed men into believing there was a god(s) in anthropomorphic packages. God became incarnated into a human frame that other human beings could relate to and identify with. That is the crux of Hindu’s many avatars, such as Krishna, or Christianity’s incarnation of one person of the Godhead, or the deification of the human Siddhartha, founder of Buddhism.
In the same fashion, present high priests, particularly the media that propagate today’s myths, anthropomorphize aliens. The effect: to create safe and sane aliens that not only people can relate to, but also build modern-day cults around.
The classic scene that crystallizes this romance with E.T. comes from Will Smith’s Independence Day.
In that movie, a stripper friend of the main heroine joins hundreds of other people, enamored by the New Age potentials of meeting E.T.s, atop a high-rise building. That skyscraper lies directly under the center of a massive saucer. Their hoped for chance for cosmic-enlightenment turns into mass-immolation. The E.T.s quickly shed their cutesy, troll-doll image in the flare of a destructive beam weapon.
Egoism: Has Human Development prepared Us for a Journey to the Stars?
I want to move from a discussion of modern myths surrounding scientific progress and the cosmos. As noted earlier, it has taken humanity over half a millennium to move from a superstitious to a scientific view of the cosmos.
Despite those developments, the question arises, “Are human beings ready for space travel?”
Will the Civilized Caveman Last Long when Exposed to the Rigors of Deep Space?
Human beings are a complex amalgamation of past instincts and present imaginations. The cortex is the intellectual seat of human reason. In turn, the cerebellum is the emotional/instinctive seat of the brain, where our inner caveman resides.
The caveman is not very smart.
When we fear, a fight or flight instinct takes over. We enter an altered, adrenalized state. Under the effects of adrenaline, we are reduced to primarily cerebellum brainpower. That means no mathematics, no contemplation – the cortex effectively shuts down.
In the depths of space, the caveman will rear his ugly head, at the worst possible time. Fingers turn to flippers, fingers grow numb, and a person’s manual dexterity dims. As Stephen Hawking notes:
“We are not purely rational beings, nor is our behavior determined solely by culture and environment. Rather, we act in response to predispositions that were hard-wired in our brains at a time when our manner of existence was vastly different than it is today. They had survival value then. They may doom us in the world of today unless we learn to understand and control them” (18).
Whom are we going to send into outer space, the scientist, or the caveman? On the outside, we fancy ourselves many steps removed from the caveman. However internally, we are only one-step removed from our Neanderthal ancestors.
When confronted with the stresses of deep space, how long would it take before we get in touch with our inner Neanderthal?
Lovecraft and the Myth of Modern Man:
To Lovecraft, modern humanity is not far removed from their savage roots. Homo sapiens appeared on the fossil records a mere 200,000 years or so ago. Only in the last 1,000 years has portions of the population embraced a scientific mind-set. So humanity’s savage instincts have dominated our species for tens of thousands of years longer than our recent, novel adoption of civilized behaviors.
“We must recognise the essential underlying savagery in the animal called man…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” (19).
That non-fiction statement was often restated in Lovecraft’s fictional view of humanity:
“…modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances…” (20).
At different points in his canon, Lovecraft pointed to human beings who reverted to savagery.
In The Lurking Fear and The Thing in the Cave, modern human beings swiftly devolve into packs of roving ape-like savages.
Yet, the historic lessons of The Donner Party (1846-47) or Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (1972) displayed the ease at which modern man reverts to primitivism and cannibalism. They did not need to be transformed into a Ghoul or a Zombie before they partook of human flesh. Dire circumstances not dark demons were the key ingredients that led to such unthinkable savageries.
For example, against the backdrop of World War I, the “War to End All Wars”, Lovecraft criticized the idea that humanity could evolve beyond its primitive ways:
“…the civilised world…[has]…laboured under certain biological fallacies…[that of]…the capability of man to evolve mentally beyond his…subservience to primitive instinct…and to conduct his affairs…on a basis of reason and good-will…(W)e must prepare to guard against…benevolent delusions…and to view our species through the cold eyes of science alone…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. To preserve civilisation, we must deal scientifically with the brute element, using only genuine biological principles. In considering ourselves, we think too much of ethics and sociology—too little of plain natural history. We should perceive that man’s period of historical existence, a period so short that his physical constitution has not been altered in the slightest degree, is insufficient to allow of any considerable mental change. The instincts that governed the Egyptians and the Assyrians of old, govern us as well; and as the ancients thought, grasped, struggled, and deceived, so shall we moderns continue to think, grasp, struggle, and deceive in our inmost hearts. Change is only superficial and apparent” (21).
Lovecraft understood the Darwinian concept of “Survival of the Fittest”. He saw it a mistake transferring humanity’s terrestrial prominence at the top-of-the-food-chain to the celestial realm.
Modern myths, some that we have touched on, are but mirrors we have turned on ourselves.
We see the future and space travel in terms of the species dominance we have on earth. Even when the Old Ones of earth’s past threaten humanity – Great White Sharks, Polar Bears, King Cobras to mention a few – our technology gives us superiority. We see the cosmos in the same fashion. Should the Old Ones of the Cosmos rear their tentacled heads, we have faith that through human ingenuity, we will gain the upper-hand.
Faith: The Stuff of Religion and Myths and Egoism:
Cosmic predators do not live in the same semantic universe that man has constructed for himself. That semantic myth is humanity’s creation, the collections of myths that give our species peace and purpose. The universe of the Old Ones is different (22).
Stephen Hawking, contemplating the day when humanity encounters alien species, noted:
“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach…If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet” (23).
Where are We Now?
Based on the Dialectic Theory of Knowledge, the thesis of Scientism has replaced Shamanism. One aspect of Scientism is placing an irrational faith is scientific progress. Straight materialism has become the orthodox truth that the intelligentsia defends. Only the tangible, explainable, and observable exists.
Science defines the things that exist in the dark; and what it cannot explain, it denies as an illusion of the eye or a delusion of the heart. With those new categories, modern humans largely lost their fear of the dark – at least the terrestrial dark, which has been declared safe and sane by science.
As primitive humanity clung to its myths, to dispel its fear of the shadows, modern humanity clings to its myths, to dispel its fear of the cosmic darkness.
Cosmicism demythologizes modern man, much as modern humanity exposed the myths of ancient man.
Sanity is a civilized convenience, a man-made contrivance. Man is forever making myths to preserve his sanity. The Old Ones do not live in the semantic Universe that we have contrived for sanity’s sake.
Some earthly experiences can overwhelm our sanity.
Amnesia is one automatic reaction of the mind. Split personalities are another reaction. And Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is still another.
Or, we turn trauma into fictions concerning past events. In the NCIS episode “Secrets”, Special Agent Anthony Dinozzo was ashamed to face a high school acquaintance, because he remembered bullying the other person. When his conscious prompted Dinozzo to make amends, he approached the person, who up close he found to stand a head taller than himself. In that moment, the supposed victim told Dinozzo that he, not the NCIS Special Agent, was the one who had bullied the smaller Dinozzo in High School.
If earthly traumas can overwhelm our sanity, what of cosmic distresses?
Cosmicism shows that sanity is a hard-to-preserve commodity in space. In Lovecraft’s stories, humanity is fragile. We see the complete breakdown of the human psyche.
Is humanity’s move into the cosmos a done deal?
One of two other scenarios is more likely. Our primitive nature may dictate another worldwide showdown with the finality of an Apocalypse. Or artificial intelligence might replace us as the dominate species.
Cosmicism helps us see reality as it is, not as we wish it were. Cosmicism gives us the means to view the cosmos objectively, unclouded by subjective myths. By faith, we may look forward to a Star Trek future.
But emotional commitments to a mythological future need not blind us to the objective possibilities and pitfalls in the present. It is ok to gain hope from a myth, as long as you recognize it as such. To Lovecraft, one fiction was as valid as another.
Nevertheless, blind devotions to myths can lead to problems. How many have lived in an improvised present in order to hasten the arrival of a future paradise – whether it be a Marxist or Religious or Scientific Utopia. Then that promised heaven on earth never quite arrives.
In the sacred past and in the secular present, elites have used such contrivances to enslave devotees to their myths. Those who rule also use such myths to question the motives and impugn the authenticity of those who do not follow their subjugating propaganda.
Cosmicism can demythologize modern man. As we open ourselves to the implications of Cosmicism, and see the Universe with fresh eyes, unblemished by myths, perhaps we will recover the feelings of cosmic wonder that once awed the ancients. Yet some cling to their myths as true, despite evidence to the contrary. And regardless of the harm that such devotion brings.
(1) “Twilight Zone (1959-1964): Quotes,” Opening Narration, Season One, http://www.IMDb.com.
(2) “A Message for the People of Earth”, “Humility”, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Carl Sagan, 1994.
(3) The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
(4) Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis, Wikipedia.
(5) “The Renaissance”, Mediæval and Modern History, by Philip Van Ness Myers, 1905.
(6) Heinrich Schliemann, Wikipedia.
(7) “Notes and Correspondence: S.T. Joshi’s Response to Franz Rottensteiner’s Review of: H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West by S.T. Joshi, 1990”, Science Fiction Studies, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN, #58 (Volume 19, Part 3, November 1992).
(9) Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family: by H.P. Lovecraft, 1921.
(10) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Farnsworth Wright, 5 July 1927.
(11) Mad Scientist, Wikipedia.
(12) “NASA wants to keep the International Space Station going until 2024. Is that a good idea?” by Brad Plummer, Washington Post, January 9, 2014.
(13) “The War to End All Wars”, BBC News, November 10, 1998.
(14) “How Many People Died in World War 2?”, http://worldwar2.org.uk/.
(15) “The Effects on Body and Mind of Human Spaceflight”, by Mark Thompson, Space Exploration Network, September 13, 2012.
(16) “Beings Not Made for Space,” by Kenneth Chang, The New York Times, January 27, 2014.
(17) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Farnsworth Wright, 5 July 1927.
(18) “Stephen Hawking, Genetic Engineering, and the Future of Mankind”, Helian Unbound, January 11, 2010.
(19) “At the Root”, by H.P. Lovecraft, The United Amateur, 17, No. 6 (July 1918), 111–112.
(20) The Horror at the Red Hook, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1925.
(21) “At the Root”, by H.P. Lovecraft, The United Amateur, 17, No. 6 (July 1918), 111–112.
(22) “H.P. Lovecraft: The Enlightenment & Connection to the World of Cosmicism”, by Kristjón Rúnar Halldórsson, a Thesis, September 2010.
(23) Into the Universe with Stephen Hawkings, The Discovery Channel, 2010.
John A. DeLaughter is a Data Security Analyst who lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi, daughter Kirsten, granddaughter Riley, two cats, and a dog. He devoured Lovecraft, beginning with At the Mountains of Madness in high school.
“In writing about Lovecraft, one must draw from several sources before a sense of the man comes through. You begin to notice whether a new wrinkle on HPL has the ring of truth or not, based upon the body of evidence you’ve already surveyed. It is a sifting process, where you feel like an archaeologist, hoping to unearth a new relic in relation to this mysterious man.”
Thanks to all the Lovecraft eZine readers who helped this article reach 1900 views today – Thank You!
Hold on 160 billion dollars. Let me see the 0’s- $160,000,000,000. WOW! And some people have a problem getting $10 for a Kickstarter project that could change the world! Or at least momentarily alleviate some boredom and/or inspire others to change the world.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the advancement of cybergenetics. We have a whole generation inserted into a holy war that has raged in a desert for thousands of years creating more missing limbs than all of our wars combined. We have a stockpile of young adults wanting to get their bodies back to normal. Some, motivated by revenge, sense of duty, or the almighty dollar (or “promise” of by the government), want to return when pieced back together. Cybergenetic weapons can even be implemented. The use of neurotransmitters to relay messages from the brain to the limbs (weapons) is becoming a fine tuned reality. Will titanium bones, and plastic skin endure space? Will science messing with the human body and brain create “special” functions of our future generations?
Sorry, I went off on a tangent, I guess something I have been thinking about lately, and this great essay provoked further insight.
In conclusion, I enjoyed this a lot. I will read it again soon, more slowly; digesting some of your key ingredients. Maybe tonight, after the little one goes to sleep, I will dispel some demons with a fire and plug in on the deck. As I read I will occasionally look to the stars, and wonder…
160 billion dollars. WOW!
Hey Mark, I’m glad the article resonated with you, and thank you for taking the time to post a comment. Wow, where to begin. I couldn’t believe the figure about the International Space Station – placing everything into orbit, then its yearly maintenance – either. It boggles the mind! Great points about cybergenetics; with all the lives saved, but limbs lost in a war whose purpose is increasing questionable. Perhaps, it will be a Borg humanity – without all the Star Trek negatives – that reaches the stars. There is a Lovecraftian Short Story – “Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” by Richard A. Lupoff – in “H.P. Lovecraft and Others: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos – that fictionalizes such an adventure. Quite a read, if you get a chance. I really appreciate your comments on cybergenetics, and the great feedback! You don’t have to leave your brain at the door, at the Lovecraft eZine!
Science-fiction author Stanislaw Lem also comes to mind when reading this excellent article. Despite astounding technological wonders & advancements, which are detailed very well and logically laid out, many (or indeed most) of his interstellar adventures leave the protagonists more confused and frustrated than horrified and hopeless. For example, he can leave one wondering: (1) if first contact came to late or at too high a cost; (2) what, if anything, is the benefit, harm or meaning of said first contact; (3) and, indeed, whether or not first contact has even been made. Just an observation. But let me say this…your article actually made me THINK for a change. And I thank you for that. Peace out.
Hey Manny, I want to thank you for taking the time to read and respond to the article. Stanislaw Lem’s seems to ring a bell, but I will have to check out his writings. My earlier library was populated by Asimov, Clark, Simak, Tolkien, Lewis, and Lovecraft to name a few. After a several moves, I acquired more Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, while some of my earlier library got misplaced. I am glad the article resonated with you, and brought to mind Lem’s stories, and their implications for future humanity. My hope is that you will find future articles here at the Lovecraft eZine equally as thought-provoking. Again,thanks for your feedback!
This is so impressive and insightful. I truly enjoyed the depth of the content here, John. I’m still discovering and rediscovering Lovecraft. Congratulations on a brilliant presentation.
Thank you Paula for taking the time to read and write a note about the article. There are many avenues and angles that remain yet to be explored concerning Lovecraft. I hope my future essays continue to convey some of the enthusiasm I find in writing about HPL. Again, I appreciate your generous comments Paula!
Very powerful, with a sinister insight.
One of the best piece of writing i came across in the last days or years maybe.
Thank you Deadbutwriting for reading and commenting on the article. I am glad you found the substance of the discussion worth a read. I try to make the essays I write about Lovecraft dense with ideas, and backed up with research. Being part of the Lovecraft eZine community, with greats such as Dr. Robert M. Price and Mike Davis means there’s a certain level of professionalism and scholarship that each person brings to the table. I try to bring my occasional forays into the discussion about all things Lovecraftian up to that high bar that they and others have set at the eZine. Again, thank you for the great feedback!
I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment on the article Daniel. Sometimes an author’s personal opinion contrasts with the literary opinion he or she voices through fiction. Lovecraft was more or less consistent, when his personal views echoed in his literary creations. I am a great fan of Star Trek and hope we overcome our savagery to make a jump into the stars. But given humanity’s present collective circumstances, Lovecraft views serve as a warning of what awaits us, should we not learn the lessons of history.
I like the contrast between Sagan’s view of the cosmos, Serling’s view, and their context in relation to Lovecraft’s cosmicism. I was an enthusiast for the Sagan/Star Trek perspective for many years. Then I read Lovecraft and I went through a paradigm shift. Your article expresses excellently that paradigm shift. I must add that reading Lovecraft’s letters, as well as his fiction, give a complete picture of his cosmicism.
Absolutely fabulous writing! I appreciate the blood, sweat & tears behind it. So proud of you my Hubby!!
Thank you, my Heidi! Without your patience and support, none of these articles would be possible!
The words above are pure brilliance. Very nicely organized and executed. Wonderful research. Kudos!
I appreciate your kind words Ted. Keep checking the Lovecraft eZine from time-to-time for future articles. Mike Davis’ Lovecraft eZine is on the cutting edge of all things Lovecraft. I feel privileged at the chance to publish here.
Here’s one to consider: Man will never achieve the stars. As each new civilization slowly emerges from the ashes of its ancestors, relearning the same truths – the same mathematics, the same chemistries – each will race recklessly toward extinction under unavoidably renewed hubris and greed. Yeah, baby. That.
Thanks for commenting on the article Ted. It sounds like you caught the spirit of Lovecraft’s views right on the head with your scenario.