The Philosophy in Lovecraft's Art

2009 by Daniel Ust All rights reserved.

Art is a highly selective act where one must consciously create. It projects the self onto the big screen for all to see. A good way to get at someone's deepest beliefs is to look at the art he likes or creates. This will show you how he sees the world, his values, and what he believes is possible. The goal here is not to prove Ayn Rand's theory of art, but to apply it to the case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). His fiction illustrates her theory.

Before diving into philosophy, we need an impression of him as a writer. Two dominant motifs throughout his work are scientific materialism and highly intricate, made up mythologies. He intertwined them to reinforce each other. The science makes the myths realistic and the myths make the science terrifying for what it reveals. A good introduction to Lovecraft is At the Mountains of Madness, a short novel displays his whole framework. There are elder races (the monsters), imaginary ancient myths (the Necronomicon), and a scientific rationale for almost everything, all wrapped in the objective narrative of an Antarctic explorer.

Lovecraft's basic philosophy can be distilled by asking three questions: What is it? How do I know it? and What should I do? These questions cover the fields of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, respectively. To these I add two more. One – What are the social implications of Lovecraft's philosophy? – because it illuminates further the first three by showing how to apply them to men living in society. The other – What was his influence on later works horror? – because this further illustrates the role of ideas in art.

What is it? His universe was not a living entity or the creation of some supernatural being. He was not a supernaturalist. He was an ardent materialist. His world is governed by deterministic laws. This is very different from most horror writers – even some of the ones he admired, such as Arthur Machen, William Hopes Hodgson and M. R. James. Unlike Lovecraft's, their worlds are very much alive, often ruled by some cosmic deity.

In his fiction he never explicitly addresses the issue of free will. From his fiction we can gather that even if some beings did have free will it was not efficacious, i.e., not able to bring about any major changes in their lives. His characters are always doomed to failure. In real life, he was a fatalist, which amounts to the same thing: even if man has volition it does not matter. (Explicitly, he termed himself a determinist, but he vacillated and didn't draw out the full implications of determinism.)

In this vein, how did he portray man? His characters fall into two major types, the ignorant masses and the knowing few. This is elitist, but Love- craft's overall view of man is as a miniscule, pathetic failure. The difference between the ignorant and the knowing is not one which can save the latter. His characters are almost always male too. This reveals something about his psychology – he was extremely antisexual. If one views man as essentially a failure, one won't have too high a view of human pleasure. But Lovecraft goes further than this. He eliminated it from his universe, both in his life and in his art. Such a profound break with pleasure indicates how deep his tragic view of man was.

How do I know it? Lovecraft appeals to reason as a source of man's knowledge, but there's a large scope in his works for other means of attaining know- ledge. Often his characters are not able to grasp the nature of their plight until it's too late. Even the knowing few – usually the main characters in Lovecraft's stories – have severe limits on their knowledge. Knowledge is usually obtained by a painstaking process of piecing together well worn folk tales, the passages from strange old books (such as the Necronomicon), the latest scientific discoveries (such as quantum mechanics) and the main character's own observations (such as the weird behavior of the locals). The process is usually left uncompleted or is completed only at the very end of the story. The realization, then, is a kind of mental anguish – the seeker become finder of wisdom wishes he had never sought or found it. This can be interpreted as "reason won't be helpful in life." But it's deeper than that and relates to the next question.

What should I do? If ethics tells men how to live, what goals to pursue, what values to hold, then Lovecraft's art pushes a certain ethical stance. Knowledge, in his world, means despair and doom. Therefore, men shouldn't pursue the truth. He believed that mankind, in his times, was starting to piece together knowledge which could only speed the race's end. Knowledge is a double curse since man is doomed (as are all creatures) whether he knows or not. Knowing it is worse since man can't alter destiny.

This aptly describes his plots. His typical plot is: X is curious. X seeks out the truth, by questioning people ("The Lurking Fear"), reading ancient texts ("The Statement of Randolph Carter"), going on archaeological digs ("The Shadow Out of Time"), experimenting ("Herbert West – Reanimator"), or all of the above ("The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"). He finds out the truth and either goes mad ("Dagon"), is quickly dispatched ("The Picture in the House"), or settles down to a life of despair ("The Colour Out of Space").

Living a conventional life is no guarantee of success in his world. In "The Lurking Fear," plain people are terrorized and often whole villages are wiped out. In "Dreams in the Witch-House," an infant is killed. These exceptions aside, everything is still prejudiced against the truth seeker. Reality is malevolent on a cosmic scale. Anyone living is going to be touched by this, but the curious often meet up with their fates in more sinister ways than the average person.

What are the social implications of his philosophy? He fleshed out a lot of the implications in his stories. A key example is "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" where he deals with social decay. Given his fatalism and that he was a horror writer, this shouldn't be surprising. He had a cyclical view of history. Civilizations and societies are born usually by crushing older ones, they flower and quickly become decadent. After a period of decadence they are overthrown by upstarts or by the leftovers of the ones they first overcame. In this tale we also get a whiff of his racism. He attributes the decline of Innsmouth to the mixing of races not only between various human ones, but also between the human and the nonhuman.

This is a recurring theme in Lovecraft. It can be seen in "Herbert West – Reanimator", "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Haunter of the Dark." In these stories there is a belief that mixing the human races is a bad thing and that Anglosaxons are superior to other ethnic groups. This can be derived from his metaphysics. He believed in a basically deterministic world. This determinism covers humanity by means of differing inherited abilities. No doubt he was influenced by his contemporaries in this. However, if racism had clashed with his fundamentals, I'm sure sooner or later he would have brought it into question. (One might ask, as Maurice Levy did in Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, if man is cosmically miniscule aren't any differences between men even more so? However, this confuses cause with effect. Both racism and human unimportance are the consequences of Lovecraft's deeper views, of determinism.)

Back to his cyclical view of history, one of the best illustrations of this is "The Shadow Out of Time." In it a college professor is possessed by a mind millions of years from the past for a period of a few years. In order to do this the professor's mind is sent into the past and into body of the alien that borrowed his. He learns that humanity is just one of many species that have dominated the earth, and not a very interesting or intelligent one at that. The short catalog of other species, both native and extraterrestrial, shows the above cycles spread over millions of years. Revealingly, the alien's race lives under a form of socialism. It's very reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. (I'm not sure if Stapledon influenced Lovecraft. The latter may have merely been working out one of his biggest themes, man's insignificance in the cosmos. He concretized this by throwing in all the human limitations he could, including dizzying expanses of time.)

Putting this together, his social theory cannot lead to some form of free society. Why? First, some form of genetic determinism keeps pushing different peoples down. Second, this couples with a cyclical view of history which means that ultimately all endeavors, social or private, are doomed. It then becomes a matter of keeping things going for as long as possible, which may involve wiping out other races or keeping the decadent strains in one's civilization from becoming dominant. This is similar to Plato's view give in The Republic of using political control as a way of preserving society in the face of inevitable decline. Lovecraft moved from a shallow conservatism in his youth to a sort of fascist-socialist vision before his death. James Turner (in "A Mythos in his Own Image") believes "The Shadow Out of Time" illustrates an ideological "humanization." However, Lovecraft's conservatism was an aristocratic elitism and his later political beliefs were merely more up to date versions of authoritarianism. Because there was no classical liberal period in his thought, not much stock should be put in his "humanization", especially since the underpinnings – man is not free, nor should he be – did not change.

One last thing on social theory: Some of his stories, such as "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Whisperer in the Darkness," use vast conspiracies as a major plot element. This only adds to my conclusions on his social theories. Men cannot even be free inside the confines of their communities if there are plenty of malign (and successful) conspiracies ready to control society.

What is Lovecraft's influence on later works of horror? Despite obscurity during his lifetime, he has had a profound impact on the field of horror. People that have been influenced by him not only include his circle from the Twenties and Thirties but also contemporary writers, such as Stephen King, T.E.D. Klein and Ramsey Campbell. A few of his works have been made into films, including "Herbert West – Reanimator" (as Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator), ["The Dunwich Horror,"] "The Unnameable," and "From Beyond". The movies hardly stick to the story lines, but when do they ever? His works are periodically reissued, often in anthologies. Also, there are several magazines devoted to examining him from a literary angle, including The Crypt of Cthulhu and Lovecraft Studies. His influence flows directly from reprints of his tales and indirectly through later writers he has an impact on.

What are the wider implications? Why are so many people attracted to Horror fiction? The answer lies in the shared premises between the producers and the consumers of Horror. The other side of the art's power is that our response to it reveals our deepest views. Art is like a mirror. Those who experience Horror as valid, pleasing or necessary are displaying that it confirms some of their deepest feelings and beliefs. Horror's popularity in our culture is a measure of how widespread these beliefs are.

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