Thursday, December 19, 2013

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Lovecraft and Cosmicism

Cosmicism has been discussed in two earlier posts, one from last August, (Cosmic Ants), and one from last night, (Cosmicism in Rhyme).  S.T. Joshi has coined this term to refer to the perception that humanity and the world it inhabits is trivial and inconsequential compared to the vast universe and the incomprehensible forces it contains.  Certainly it is a common theme in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. It also appears frequently in horror and science fiction—whenever humankind is depicted as impotent and uncomprehending in the face of some supernatural or cosmic menace.

It seems that there are at least three aspects of cosmicism that one can apply to a deeper understanding of the work of Lovecraft and others:  cosmicism can be seen as a literary device, a philosophical stance, and as a psychological perspective.

The presence of cosmicism in fiction serves to enhance the feeling of dread and fear.  If human characters, (and by extension humanity itself), can be minimized, made insignificant, and rendered powerless by some enormous, all powerful creature or entity, then the ensuing loss of control can be experienced as helplessness and terror.  Insofar as the author has connected with his or her readership through strong characterization, then readers also experience these disturbing feelings as well.

In The Thing From Outside, humanity is explicitly compared to ants. “We are mere ants” is a classic statement of cosmicism, which typically involves comparing humans to insects.  George Allan England describes—as one of his characters dies—how he moves his hands “as a crushed ant moves its antennae, jerkily, without significance.”  Cosmicism is a literary device that reduces the size of human beings in order to increase terror and dread.  Size matters!

As a philosophical stance, cosmicism is a further application of materialism and even atheism.  It some respects this perspective logically follows from the assumptions of the other two “isms”.  It is not surprising that S.T. Joshi, an enthusiastic atheist, should attend to those elements of Lovecraft’s writing that support his world view.  Certainly Lovecraft indicated that he was dubious about traditional Christian religion, though his fictional work is filled with theist and rather traditional religious notions. 

Ultimately, the cosmicist view embodies a kind of disparagement, if not hatred of one’s own kind.  It is not unlike the attitudes of some of the more radical animal rights advocates.  (Ironically, there are portions of The Poe-et’s Nightmare that sound like echoes of Jonathon Edward’s famous Puritan sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which also seeks to put humanity in its place.) 

It is a matter of perspective.  Why would a human compare himself or herself to a galaxy?  Or a human lifespan to the eternal mystery of the cosmos?  It is comparing ‘apples to oranges’.  Of course the earth and everything that lives on it is like a speck of dust from the galactic point of view.  But to a speck of dust, a single human being is the entire universe.

Lovecraft opens his story The Haunter of the Dark with these wonderfully haunting lines:

“I have seen the dark universe yawning,
Where the black planets roll without aim—
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
Without knowledge or luster or name.”  

The poem exemplifies the cosmicist perspective, but where exactly is the horror—who feels it?  So far away that they are beyond the use or perception or need of humankind, would it not be more accurate to say that these black planets are simply irrelevant?  Cosmicism requires a materialist and atheist world view, as well as one that decentralizes the importance of human beings.  If one believes the universe was created by an omniscient and omnipotent God, for us—as your humble blogger does—and that existence is purposeful, then cosmicism is unintelligible.

Finally, an ardent cosmicism speaks to the psychological struggles of those who hold this view.  What does it mean to repeatedly compare oneself or one’s kind to larger entities and always come up short—to feel inconsequential, insignificant, small, powerless.  Many feel that their lives manifest these qualities, that they are at the mercy of irresistible and incomprehensible forces.  A problem with self esteem is in view. 

Where is truth?  Where is purpose?  What really matters?  Where is hope?  H.P. Lovecraft suffered depression, health problems and severe anxiety all his life, did not graduate high school or attend college, failed at marriage, was unsuccessful as a writer, and could not hold down a regular job.  His short life ended just as he was about to experience extreme impoverishment.

All “isms” lose their luster when brought down to earth from the heaven of abstractions above.  It seems likely that Lovecraft’s cosmicism was not so much about how he viewed the cosmos, as how he experienced his own personal and all too human struggles on earth.    

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