Weird Science

on July 22, 2011

The 1920’s were a strange and dislocated time — and much of that dislocation had to do with the uneasy transition from reason to chaos.

For more than two hundred years, Western civilization had been grounded in a pair of reassuring assumptions. One was that the world was constructed according to a kind of blueprint in the Mind of God. The other was that human reason, being made in the image of Divine Reason, had an inherent capacity to decipher the underlying Order of Nature and thereby approach the Mind of God.

This interpretation of higher knowledge as rational enlightenment remained unquestioned through the 1700’s and into the 1800’s, but during the late 19th century it was progressively undermined by modern science. Darwinian evolution dealt the heaviest blow when it suggested that the order of nature was the product not of intelligent design but of the brutal and indifferent operation of natural selection, but the physical sciences also appeared to be pointing in the direction of a cosmos that was humanly incomprehensible.

Between 1900 and the 1920’s, it became commonplace for writers and artists to suggest that the universe made no sense, that human beings were controlled not by reason but by primitive subconscious urges, and that if there was a God he must be either a gibbering idiot or perversely cruel and capricious.

Charles Fort stands out as the rare individual who was capable of stating these conclusions frankly, humorously, and with considerable generosity of spirit. However, the writer of this period who expressed the emerging chaos vision with the greatest intensity and precision was H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft had begun turning out horror stories and dream-world fantasies at about the same time as Fort was writing The Book of the Damned, but his early work was still heavily influenced by the assumptions of 19th century occultism, in particular the notion that there are immaterial realms, separate from our familiar universe, of which humans may obtain direct knowledge.

The protagonist of “From Beyond” (1920), for example, speculates that “beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have.” And by the end of the story, he is raving to the narrator, “Do you suppose there are really any such things as time and magnitude? Do you fancy there are such things as form or matter? I tell you, I have struck depths that your little brain can’t picture! I have seen beyond the bounds of infinity and drawn down daemons from the stars. . . . I have harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness.”

The attitudes, imagery, and prose style of this story are recognizably Lovecraftian. However, Lovecraft considered himself a thorough-going materialist, and the notion of a mad scientist expanding his senses to perceive “whole worlds of alien, unknown entities” was too much like the old hermetic dream of accessing abstract spiritual realms to satisfy his desire for plausible horror.

That may be why, almost immediately after completing “From Beyond,” Lovecraft started focusing on more realistic stories set among the backwoods denizens of Arkham and the Miskatonic Valley, with their “generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen.” But these simple tales of cannibalistic old men and abhorrent rites derived from “the unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” lacked the cosmic element that he also found essential.

In an article on “Idealism and Materialism” written for an amateur magazine in 1919, Lovecraft had stated that the materialist “sees the infinity, eternity, purposelessness, and automatic action of creation, and the utter, abysmal insignificance of man and the world therein.” That perception of a vast, indifferent, and terrifyingly alien cosmos was what he was after — but it would have to be developed in more material terms than he had managed in “From Beyond.”

Towards the end of 1925, Lovecraft undertook to write a lengthy essay on “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” In its opening paragraphs, he defined what he called the “literature of cosmic fear,” saying that “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

In this single passage, we can see all the pieces falling into place: The “breathless and unexplainable dread” of the Miskatonic stories. The “daemons from the stars” of “From Beyond.” And a supporting rationale that was based not on the tattered remnants of occultism but on weird science — in the form of a “particular suspension” of the laws of Nature sufficient to admit the “assaults of chaos.”

This formulation was in many ways similar to the picture of the universe offered by Charles Fort, whose first two books Lovecraft had recently read. But where Fort contemplated the assaults of chaos with Zen-like serenity, Lovecraft regarded the prospect of such intrusions with terror, describing them as “the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery.”

By the summer of 1926, even as he continued working on his essay, Lovecraft was ready to embark on a ground-breaking story of cosmic terror. It starts off with an evocation of what would become his own personal brand of dark Forteanism:

“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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Not only is the general idea of reaching a broader understanding of reality through “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge” quintessentially Fortean, but the opening pages of “The Call of Cthulhu” closely follow Fort’s methodology of assembling a collection of anomalous events that taken in concert suggest the operation of some unseen higher force.

“That glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things,” Lovecraft’s narrator writes. He then proceeds to describe the contents of a box of notes and newspaper clippings which had come to him on the death of his grand-uncle, Professor Angell. The clippings, which “touched on cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity during the given period,” are particularly reminiscent of Fort’s own research procedures, but it is the professor’s manuscript that gets to the heart of the matter:

“What seemed to be the main document was headed ‘CTHULHU CULT’ in characters painstakingly printed to avoid the erroneous reading of a word so unheard-of. … It appears that on March 1st, 1925, a thin, dark young man of neurotic and excited aspect had called upon Professor Angell. … He had had an unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror. Hieroglyphics had covered the walls and pillars, and from some undetermined point below had come a voice that was not a voice; a chaotic sensation which only fancy could transmute into sound, but which he attempted to render by the almost unpronounceable jumble of letters, ‘Cthulhu fhtagn.'”

The story which follows still relies to a degree on occult devices — and Cthulhu himself is described as “not made of matter” — but it is clearly pushing in the direction of greater materialism. The Great Old Ones are not otherworldly beings but cosmic invaders who “came to the young world out of the sky.” And even young Wilcox’s dream has nothing mystical about it but is an accurate depiction of the “coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror — the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh.”

What was really important about the story, however, was not the details but the larger philosophical context. In the same way as old-fashioned occult horror had derived from the more magical side of the reason vision, “The Call of Cthulhu” was an almost mathematical representation of the new chaos vision.

As Lovecraft presented it, chaos was something like a twisted parody of reason. Where the cosmos had formerly been regarded as orderly and divine in origin, it now appeared lawless and demonic. Rather than contemplation of the Order of Nature providing a path to ultimate truth, it was the gaps and anomalies in the natural order that offered clues to where higher knowledge was to be found. And instead of rational philosophers aspiring to a direct perception of Absolute Being, it was the insane, the neurotic, and the depraved who were to be looked to for their glimpses of the darkness underlying our familiar reality.

In the 85 years since Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” most of the demonic and horrific aspects of chaos have been worn away. But the essential formula — a universe that never quite adds up logically, anomalies as the key to deeper understanding, and a general distrust of rationality — are not only still with us but are deeply embedded in our culture and in our increasingly fragmented politics.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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