Sunday, March 19, 2017

Part Two: Horror and the Will to Power


 
In the previous post there was discussion of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power, an idea he developed across several publications, perhaps most vividly in his classic Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Broadly speaking, Will to Power has been described as humanity’s instinctual desire to preserve and extend itself.  It is  a conscious or—for the most part—unconscious drive that underlies ambition, aggression, the exercise of authority, creative achievement and ultimately the desire to overcome oneself, to become the “overman”.  Will Durant paraphrases Nietzsche’s thoughts as follows:
 
The best thing in man is strength of will, power and permanence of passion…Greed, envy, even hatred are indispensable items in the process of struggle, selection and survival.  Evil is to good as variation to heredity, as innovation and experiment to custom; there is no development without an almost-criminal violation of precedents and “order”.

It was a form of Will to Power, combined with reliable refrigeration, that kept Dr. Muñoz relatively intact 18 years after his death in H.P. Lovecraft’s morbid short story, “Cool Air” (1928).  While the more ethically and morally inclined may cringe at the implications of Nietzsche’s ideas when applied to the living, when applied to the dead—or to those who should be—all sorts of opportunities for horror arise, literally from the grave.  It seems that Will to Power is operative in tales of vengeance, or more politely, justice from beyond the grave.  Zombies may be an uncouth expression of the same principle, of unrestrained, unmodulated animal impulses.

Although some horror writers may have taken these ideas directly from Nietzsche’s philosophical works—which seems unlikely in Lovecraft’s case—it may simply be that these notions were pervasive enough in the culture to influence the horror entertainments of the time.

A somewhat different example of Nietzsche’s concept appears in “The Lost Race” (1927) an early story by Robert E. Howard, first published in Weird Tales.  Howard’s tale shared the January issue with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, to place the work in a Lovecraftian context.  In “The Lost Race”, a Briton warrior named Cororuk dispatches some blood thirsty bandits led by Buruc the Cruel, but is soon captured by “true Picts”, a secretive race that has established itself in a cavernous, underground city.  They are the “lost race” of the title.

“The Lost Race” is an interesting forerunner of the adventure tales Howard would later write for better known characters like Conan, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn.  The hapless Cororuc seems a prototype for these heroic figures, and the author uses the narrative to introduce racial theories he develops in later work.  Even the preliminary inventory of Cororuc's weapons echoes the sequence used later on in the Conan stories:  “He was armed with a long bow of yew wood…a long bronze broadsword…a long bronze dagger…”

What is striking about the denizens of subterranean Pictdom is that they do not yet show the serpentine stigmata—other than “beady eyes”—that characterize Howard’s later underground races as emblematic of primordial, even Biblical evil.  In fact, the Picts are honorable:  “A Pict never forgets a foe, ever remembers a friendly deed.”  This ethic is what saves Cororuc from death by immolation at the hands of an embittered and vengeful Pictish chieftain.

Cororuc does some historical math in his head and determines that the chieftain is at least half a millennium old.  Before his second career as tribal leader, the ancient had been a “witch-finder” who was cursed by one of his immolatees as she “writhed at the stake”—the curse was that he should live until “the last child of the Pictish race had passed.”  Thus a strong national defense keeps the chieftain’s options open in later life.  However, in addition to the power of the curse, the chieftain has acquired this proto-Nietzschean insight:

I was a young man when I entered this cavern.  I have never left it.  As you reckon time, I may have dwelt here a thousand years; or an hour.  When not banded by time, the soul, the mind, call it what you will, can conquer the body…When I feel that my body begins to weaken, I take the magic draft, that is known only to me, of all the world.  It does not give immortality; that is the work of the mind alone…     

A final example of an application of Nietzsche’s Will to Power is surely the aggrieved—because dismembered and scattered—Helman Carnby in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer”* (1931). 

The narrator of the story, Mr. Ogden, is a translator of ancient Arabic hired by Helman’s brother John to decipher key passages of the Necronomicon.  Both brothers had been enthusiastic practitioners of the black arts, though the deceased and now discombobulated Helman was the more adept of the two.  Unbeknownst to Ogden, John had murdered his more powerful twin and artfully distributed his remains.  He is desperately seeking technical expertise to prevent his vengeful brother from re-assembling himself, primarily through an act of will.  Ogden translates this helpful passage from the Necronomicon:

It is verily known by few, but is nevertheless an attestable fact, that the will of a dead sorcerer hath power upon his own body and can raise it up for the tomb and perform therewith whatever action was unfulfilled in life.  And such resurrections are invariably for the doing of malevolent deeds and for the detriment of others.  Most readily can the corpse be animated if all its members have remained intact; and yet there are cases in which the excelling will of the wizard hath reared up from death the sundered pieces of a body hewn in many fragments…

This is a direct quote from the Necronomicon, so it must be true.  It is rumored—mostly by me—that Friedrich Nietzsche himself may have had a copy of the Necronomicon in his library, most likely the erroneous and incomplete Latin translation by Olaus Wormius.

One final speculation:  it may be that Nietzsche’s Will to Power, when applied to the insufficiently dead, may be a complementary process to the Egregore.  Instead of an undifferentiated something that passively assembles itself and takes form from the attention and veneration of sensitive, pliable minds, it may be that the ghost or demon or animated corpse persists—as if it were a dwindling battery—waiting to have its will to power recharged and incarnated by the attention it actively draws to itself.  This would seem to be a much more focused supernatural effect, and one of relatively short duration.




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*See also Occult Occupational Hazards.