Earlier this week, Anselmo Quemot wrote about Lovecraft, anthropology, and primitivism on his blog, and I responded. Yesterday, Quemot posted a thoughtful response to my post, and today I return the favor with my own reply. I strongly recommend reading the preceding discussion before reading my response posted below.
Thank you for your comments. To briefly address anthropology and its discontents, I think that this boils down, in essence, to one’s political temperament. It is a matter of subjective opinion what constitutes the “good,” whether the knowledge brought back to the West is worth the risks to native peoples, and what would happen if we did not have that knowledge. That said, the anthropology of today is very different from that of 40 years ago, and there is plenty of anthropology now being done within Western societies, as well as a much greater awareness of the limits of “objectivity” and the differences between the emic and the etic. So everyone can now be oppressed together!
Your defense of Beal is, I’m sure, quite right, and I will fully admit that it has been a decade since Beal’s book, and you are much more familiar with its details than I. However, if I recall correctly, Beal devotes almost no discussion to the monsters of Greco-Roman or Arabian mythology, who were Lovecraft’s models, more so than the Near Eastern chaos monsters that are the objects of Beal’s special interest. It is perhaps unfair of me to lump together all the Near Eastern mythologies under the general category of biblical, but it was my impression that Religion and Its Monsters took interest in Babylonian, Ugaritic and other mythologies primarily for their aid in elucidating chaogony themes in the Hebrew Bible, which, for better or worse, is the presiding work in Beal’s text. If my memory is at fault here, I will of course feel bad about it later.
All of this is interesting enough, but it plays little role in understanding Lovecraft, who would not have had exposure to much of this material. The question for me boils down to the question of intention: Lovecraft’s monsters are artificial creations. They draw upon religious motifs, primarily Greco-Roman but also those of Revelation, but I don’t see this as a meditation on the role of deity. Lovecraft did not intend his monsters to actually function as gods, chaos or otherwise, but rather as embodiments of the material universe. (And yes, Lovecraft called the Old Ones “beyond good and evil” to emphasize that they exist beyond human subjectivity—which is something I recall that Beal noted.) As I read Lovecraft, the monsters are not “religion” so much as science, their awe and terror less a manifestation of religious awe than the awe of humanity before the grandeur of nature. This may seem like a distinction without a difference for those who hold God and nature to be inseparable, but absent God it makes a difference. This returns us to the question of whether a text has meaning independent of its author’s intention; certainly a text can have such meanings, but we must recognize these as interpretations outside observers are interpreting into the text, not inherent qualities of the text itself.
As I mentioned I my earlier comments, I don’t feel that “chaos gods” adequately describes the Cthulhu Mythos, whose beings I view as representatives of a nonhuman order that only appears to be chaotic relative to humans. It is difficult to imagine Lovecraft’s Great Race, civilized and cultured as they are, as chaos monsters. Mythology’s chaos monsters rise up to destroy order and return the world to its prehistoric, chaotic state. Lovecraft’s monsters have no interest in doing that; they want instead to build something new that happens to have nothing to do with people.
This is why I disagree with Beal that Lovecraft’s monsters are “threats” to the “cosmological order.” They are not threats to it so much as the very cosmological order itself. Azathoth, the “nuclear chaos” demon sultan at the center of creation, proves this point, with his
As per your discussion of Lovecraft’s of man’s essentially bestial state, in the Lovecraftian cosmos (and this is only true within his fictional universe, of course), the non-human, the random, and the alien are the very building blocks of the cosmos. Humanity and civilization are “recent and transient indeed.”
When you and Beal talk about chaos as creation, it evokes for me the Orphic theology about the role of chaos in generating the primal world: “Truly, above all I disclosed the stern inevitability of ancient Chaos, and Time, who in his boundless coils, produced Aether, and the twofold, beautiful, and noble Eros, whom the younger men call Phanes, celebrated parent of eternal Night, because he himself first manifested” (Orphic Argonautica, my trans.). Chaogony can therefore be creative in setting the stage for new growth; but this is not the goal of the Old Ones.
So when discussing Lovecraft we have to define terms: Are we discussing the Mythos within the context of the stories, or the Mythos as a discourse outside the stories conversing with the reader’s own assumptions and ideas? It is only in the latter that the Mythos begins to conform to Beal’s ideas of chaos monsters and chaogony, and then only partially. Within the stories, what the reader (and the characters) perceive as chaos is actually an ineffable order produced by the random pulsation of Azathoth, creating eternal laws of physics that our small, mammalian minds cannot quite grasp except through the distortion of religion or the abstraction of science. Note that (so far as I can recall) Beal does not discuss Azathoth, which is odd since he would seem to be the very definition of creation from chaos, though it is perhaps understandable since Azathoth does not fit the image of a chaos monster since he is clearly material physics in action.
And here again is where I do have to fault Beal for more or less cherry-picking Lovecraft stories to meet his needs. We can’t pick and choose which Mythos stories we want to include or exclude based on how closely they conform to a theory. If, as Beal does, we look primarily at “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror,” we see more or less clear examples of chaos monsters and clearly religious iconography. This is because these were written explicitly as monster stories, and the "eruption of chaos" is an inherent trait of every monster horror story, part of its structure. (Noel Carroll writes about the theme in Philosophy of Horror.) But if we instead select At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, not explicitly monster stories like the earlier tales but closer to world-building science fiction, we cannot so clearly label the aliens as chaos monsters. But by what criteria do we include some and exclude other Mythos stories? How do we account for Lovecraft's own changing conception of the Mythos through time?
The aliens of the later stories are nearly human in all but body, scientists studying a grand cosmic order, of which even Cthulhu is a constructive, if antagonistic, part:
When the beasts of Revelation rise up, it is merely to destroy; when the Mythos beings return, it is to reclaim and rebuild. Chaos is relative to the observer, which was Lovecraft's whole point: The universe operates by physical laws that are completely independent of human observers, and which don't care about us.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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