Saturday, September 6, 2014

'this less material life is our truer life' - again, Lovecraft and spirituality


Regarding what I wrote about Lovecraft and spirituality and transcendence yesterday, observe the opening passage to his story 'Beyond the Wall of Sleep' (1919) below.  Sometimes these opening philosophical gambits are worth the price of admission alone, regardless of what Lovecraft may be able to subsequently achieve with the narration itself.  Here I think he rather clearly exhibits the sort of Dark Sehnsucht and anti-reductionism I alluded to:

I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier. From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and uncorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know; and of which only the slightest and most indistinct memories linger after waking. From those blurred and fragmentary memories we may infer much, yet prove little. We may guess that in dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.

Sometimes I side with those who find Lovecraft's verbose 'purple prose' somewhat ponderous and amusingly porcine.  At other times I think his hefty phrases lean slightly more in the direction of Milton or Faulkner than Edward Bulwer-Lytton and achieve a certain degree of thoughtful opulence (if you're willing to also chuckle a little as you appreciate it).  This whole passage is a pretty good example of his wordiness working well, I think.  His 'immundane' is a very aptly chosen word for his subject matter and one I plan to use in the future.  His 'terraqueous globe' is just delicious - in the way monsters like Godzilla and Gamera are epic and outrageous at once.  The constant recurrence of globulous phrases like 'titanic significance' and 'uncorporeal life', couched as they are in syntactical rhythms that mirror their manatee-like eloquence, induce in the reader a flavour of the very dream state that is under review.  Matching form to theme is one crucial mark of great writing.  Today, here, Lovecraft is a great writer in my opinion.

At any rate, the content is substantial.  This is not merely a dreamy prose-poem.  Lovecraft is hungrily excavating his lifelong philosophical pursuit:  a depth-dive into ontology, a refusal to accept commonsense,  commonplace reality and a determination to dig beneath its surface.  Or, to move the metaphor from 'under' to 'over', a determination to escape the orbital pull of everyday appearances.  This supra-mundane impulse and the careful explication it engenders in Lovecraft's works are, I submit, rather clear signs of his bent toward something not at all unlike a spiritual worldview.  I know many spiritualities seek a totally 'immanent' picture of the world, without immaterial remainder, but 'a certain remainder' is exactly what Lovecraft feels in his gut here and he thinks it unwise to ignore that intuition.  And equally unwise to throw an 'ordinary interpretation' at it (such as that it was just the spicy burritos we ate, or a Freudian/Feuerbachian projectionist sort of explain-it-away theory).

To be fair, the point I cited S. T. Joshi making - that Lovecraft consciously sought a 'non-supernatural cosmic art' (in Lovecraft's own words) - was put forth by Joshi as being an arc of intellectual growth that Lovecraft underwent during his short career.  I agree that just such a development of ideas and ideology occurred in Lovecraft.  But his 'spiritual' roots are prominent in this early story and I'm not yet convinced he ever 'outgrew' them in his heart, even though he sought intentionally to do so by means of the theoretical rhetoric he adopted.  I do think his intellectual convictions had sincerely moved in the direction of materialism, but I also think that position was in tension with his heart's impulse for the 'beyond' and that even his own artistic fleshing out of materialism (the Cthulhu Mythos) was decidedly non-reductionistic.

It's fascinating really.  I think so many atheists and secularists and 'neo-pagans' are drawn to Lovecraft because he is really one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century, a mystic for materialists I suppose.  (And I would welcome your thoughts on this if you self-identify as such.)  Lovecraft's keen sense of 'cosmic horror' seems to be in tension with his equally keen sense of Sensucht, of spiritual yearning.  And I think this is why so many 'religious believers' have enjoyed and imitated Lovecraft too, despite not sharing his atheism (in popular genre fiction one thinks of the likes of Catholics such as Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers).

Of course, Christian theology's emphasis on physical creation and bodily resurrection would, ironically, give far more substance and meaning to material, earthly life than Lovecraft intimates here (our 'vain presence' in the physical ecosphere is 'secondary' at best, he surmises).  But Lovecraft's deep-seated hunch that we are more than merely meat-machines remains hugely significant to me and I think we do him an injustice if we reduce him to merely an apostle of a grim cosmic realism comprised of particles-all-the-way-down.  His view was sincerely bleak and devoutly 'scientific' (as he understood it), but the beat of his heart's longing for Something More never stops pulsating throughout his work.  If we ignore that, at times faint, palpitation, it will, Poe-esque, grow louder and louder in our ears until we scream out our confession that we buried it beneath the floorboards.