Saturday, March 18, 2017

Part One: Horror and the Will to Power

Granted, finally, that we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one fundamental form of will—namely, the Will to Power…granted that all organic functions could be traced back to this Will to Power, and that the solution to the problem of generation and nutrition—it is one problem—could also be found therein:  one would thus have acquired the right to define all active force unequivocally as Will to Power.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

For, what does not exist cannot will; but what is in existence, how could that still want existence? Only where there is life is there also will: not will to life but—thus I teach you—will to power.  There is much that life esteems more highly than life itself; but out of the esteeming itself speaks the Will to Power.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

A version of this idea, that self-assertion and self-preservation, a “will to power”, is the primary engine of life—and perhaps also of the recently deceased—can be found in at least three well-known stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. 

“Cool Air” (1928), “The Lost Race” (1927), and the marvelously gruesome “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931) are all very different from each other in terms of narrative content, yet each one contains a statement of Nietzsche’s insight about the nature of life.  All three were published in various magazines at a time in history when Nietzsche’s ideas were being appropriated and misinterpreted by fascists for their own menschliches, allzumenschliches purposes. 

Various social and political theories loosely based on Nietzsche were in circulation from the end of the First World War to the beginnings of the Second—the Nazis were fond of selectively quoting him.  It may be that Nietzsche-like ideas will become popular again as we prepare for the Third.  Unsurprisingly, horror writers have been somewhat more accurate in their application of the great philosopher’s ideas than mere totalitarians.

S.T. Joshi, in his foundational two volume biography I Am Providence (2013) notes that Lovecraft may have encountered Nietzsche’s ideas as early as 1918, though it is unclear whether Lovecraft read any of the philosopher’s books directly.  The biographer reports that none of Nietzsche’s books were found in Lovecraft’s library, and his reference to the philosopher in some of his correspondence suggests only a partial understanding of Nietzsche’s insights.  It seems likely that he imbibed some of these notions through his association with Alfred Galpin, a young friend who shared Lovecraft’s perspectives and was an ardent Nietzschean. 

Lovecraft’s affection for fascism, his identification with aristocracy, (though his life-long poverty disqualified him from it), and his anti-democratic attitudes may have been drawn from his interpretation of Nietzschean notions.   Lovecraft traced his cynical world view to the philosopher, (among others), and drew from him some support for his cosmicist views: that humanity has no ultimate purpose or goal, but is “a superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity.”  Lovecraft evidently overlooked the opening sections of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the philosopher offers his view of the reason for human existence:  I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome…What is great in man is that he is bridge and not an end…”

“Cool Air” chronicles the last days of Dr. Muñoz, a brilliant physician who has managed to keep himself animate, though not exactly alive, through a combination of willpower and early twentieth century refrigeration technology.  Both fail in the end, and the story is a poignant, if grotesque comment about the tragedy of mortality.  The story is unique among Lovecraft tales in that it contains a female, the doctor’s house keeper, Mrs. Herrero, (“Doctair Muñoz…he have speel hees chemicals.  He ees too seeck for doctair heemself…”).  S.T. Joshi describes the tale as one of the finest, non-supernatural horror stories that Lovecraft produced in New York, finishing it sometime in 1926.  Joshi believes that “Cool Air” is bereft of “transcendent philosophical issues”.  However, the passage below, in which Dr. Muñoz helps the narrator recover from a heart attack, suggests at least an echo of Nietzsche’s Will to Power:

He sought to distract my mind from my own seizure by speaking of his theories and experiments; and I remember his tactfully consoling me about my weak heart by insisting that will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself, so that if a bodily frame be but originally healthy and carefully preserved, it may through a scientific enhancement of these qualities retain a kind of nervous animation despite the most serious impairments, defects, or even absences in the battery of specific organs.  He might, he half jestingly said, some day teach me to live—or at least to possess some kind of conscious existence—without any heart at all!

This element of willpower as a preservative force following physical death tends to be emphasized in film adaptations of Lovecraft’s “Cool Air”.  (See also The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning and In Articulo Mortis—Some Options )  The appearance of "Will to Power" in stories by Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith will be the focus of the next post.    

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