Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eucatastrophe vs. Yog-Sothery

The literary influences and enthusiasms of a philosopher can say a lot, albeit sometimes in an impressionistic, hindsight sort of way. There's something perfectly obvious, once you know it, about Wittgenstein's enthusiasm for American noir crime fiction, and his remark about Kafka--"This man gives himself a great deal of trouble not writing about his trouble"--is the sort of thing only a secret sharer could come up with. Deleuze is very hard going (or often is for me, anyway), but something may snap into focus when you read him with Fitzgerald and Dickens in mind. The cross-pollenization between Goethe and German Idealism is well known. To try to understand Existentialism from its philosophical entries alone is to see only half the picture.

Like most people, I did not start out reading philosophy; I started out reading fiction. I've remained a fiction reader; and some of my earliest reading has remained for me some of the most formative. What follows are some more or less haphazard comparisons of two such writers, and their philosophical fallout.

The vogue for H.P. Lovecraft among speculative realists is often remarked. It is sometimes even noted that this is one of the only things, aside from an entrenched resistance to correlationism, that unites them. I am dubious as to whether, by now, this is any longer the case--the trend has become too broad--but it is worth noting as a shared characteristic of the first four "founders" (so called)--Brassier, Harman, Grant, and Meillassoux--and it bears a little scrutiny. Yes, Lovecraft produced a body of "weird" fiction, and this apparently chimes well with some counter-intuitive results of the philosophy; some of Lovecraft's literary heirs (I am thinking of Ligotti, for instance, or Mieville) are occasionally seen as fellow-travellers, and other names prominent among the S.R. movement (see especially Reza Negarastani, but also, e.g., Nicola Masciandaro) produce work that sidles right up to the edge of horror fiction and sometimes looks like commentary in the margins of one of Lovecraft's lost grimoires. But what is it about Lovecraft and "weird" horror that specifically attracts thinkers of this ilk?

Lovecraft is one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century in terms of genealogy. He did not invent horror or "weird fiction," but he played a key role in its mutation into a genre had mass appeal while being capable of sustaining critical attention. To be sure, Lovecraft's own craft often leaves something to be desired. I count myself a fan--The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one of my favorites--but even Lovecraft's strongest defenders do not deny that his prose slips towards the purple, and that some of his effects are contrived or absurd. (Consider, e.g., the doomed narrator/writer of "Dagon," scrawling "The window! The window!") But what Lovecraft accomplished--what he more or less invented, and certainly developed far beyond the point where he found it at--was an art of depicting the human mind confronted with incommensurable realities.

In 20th-century astrophysics, a tremendously dense object, the black hole, is theorized as surrounded at a certain radial distance by an "event horizon." This is the limit, outside of which an approaching object can still recede again without being irrevocably captured by the black hole's gravity. Once it crosses the event horizon, its requisite escape velocity approaches infinity; it therefore must inevitably fall into the black hole. This is why black holes are typically said to "have no hair;" there is no way to investigate what they are like, since this would involve receiving a signal from the black hole.However, due to the stretching of spacetime, General Relativity predicts that an object falling toward a black hole will, from an outsider's perspective, never cross the event horizon. It will continue to send ever slower messages back to its listeners. These messages will be endless, they will be slower and slower, and they will all pertain to what lies outside the event horizon. From the spacecraft's own perspective, things are very different; it is torn apart by the gravity of the black hole (presumably-- so the theory predicts).

Lovecraft's narrators or protagonists have very frequently had their psyches drawn into the circuit of the equivalent of a black hole. From our "outside" perspective, they seem to be speaking words we can understand; but from their own, they have crossed a threshold from which there is no coming back.

Lovecraft's only kinsman among his contemporaries in this respect is Kafka. This comparison will no doubt seem like a category mistake, but both men were concerned with the mind in its encounter with something that not only vastly exceeded the mind, but strictly speaking did not care for the mind as such. The difference is that in Kafka, there is only approach, or better, only the idea of an approach. We remain entirely outside the event horizon. In Lovecraft we are, per impossible, given a report of the encounter with the unthinkable. Kafka's protagonists, like ourselves, never cross the event horizon. We receive their dispatches as they read them themselves. But Lovecraft's poor souls are torn apart.

The contrast I want to consider, though, is not between Lovecraft and Kafka but between Lovecraft and the one writer to whom he can really be compared as an innovator and inventor in genre. Lovecraft stands at a crucial turning point for the genre of horror. Likewise, in fantasy, there is no question but that the figure who occupies a similar place is J.R.R. Tolkien. They are a curious pair. Like Lovecraft's, Tolkien's art has been savagely ridiculed at times. Like Lovecraft, he completely reinvented his genre. Like Lovecraft, his imitators have been many, and mostly inferior. Both writers have been attacked for an implicit or explicit racism; both have been noted for the lack of attention they give to sex; both were apparently political conservatives for at least part of their career.

Their legacies have been at odds. A few enthusiasts have been able to reconcile their love for both (I think for instance of Lin Carter). But for every one of these there is an exemplar of the opposite tendency, for which Tolkien, or at least his influence, is seen as crippling and baneful. In this respect, at least, Tolkien stands out: I do not know of any attacks of remotely similar savagery decrying the success or influence of Lovecraft; and doubtless this is in part because while their legacies are comparable artistically, Tolkien's is of a different order of magnitude in terms of sheer popularity--and hence, in commercial terms as well. China Miéville spoke for many, I suspect, when he called Tolkien "the wen on the arse of fantasy." As an unabashed enthusiast I have wondered for a long while at the critical hostility toward Tolkien, probably best exampled in Wilson's famous essay "Ooh, those awful orcs!" (Wilson also wrote a fairly damning piece on Lovecraft, "Tales of the Marvelous and the Ridiculous.") So it was with some pleasure that I read Miéville's brief essay outlining five reasons why fantasy and its readers are indebted to Tolkien. He's right on every point, particularly on the centrality of loss in Tolkien's art, which gives the lie to every stupid reduction of fantasy to "consolation", and also underscores why Peter Jackson just didn't get it. However, I want to look at reason five, "subcreation," a bit more deeply, partly because, as Miéville notes, it is under-examined, partly because I think it makes for the most compelling comparison with Lovecraft, and partly because it is (albeit perhaps by a hair) the most philosophically promising one, the one that underscores why Tolkien appeals to one sort of philosophizing and Lovecraft appeals to another.

Subcreation is Tolkien's word for the detailed evocation of an entire milieu in which one's story is set. One might in fact see it as the fleshing-out of what Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis called theme, a word I have used recently in the sense Lewis gave it (or at least, I hope, a sense connected with Lewis'). One thing that appeals to fans of Tolkien, and has inspired no shortage of nerds in their own imaginings, is the fully-envisioned world of Middle-earth. It may have (no pun intended) precious little to do with the plot at all. This is one reason why, despite my grave misgivings about Jackson's films, I've seen them over and over; it was such a thrill to see Middle-earth (at least, in those spots where Jackson got it right). This was a shameless drinking-up of theme with hardly a thought for plot. A real Tolkien-dork will spend hours reading the damn appendices to Lord of the Rings; bets will be made about which dwarf-lord came first in the genealogies. To be sure, this is insufferable from the outside, but the principle it illustrates in literature, Miéville rightly underscores, "represents a revolution:"
Previously, in works such as Eddison's, Leiber's, Ashton Smith's and many others', the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that's a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen--stories occur--within it.
As is well-known, Tolkien was a philologist, and for his own entertainment invented the languages his various denizens of Middle-earth spoke. In fact, Middle-earth was in a sense invented in order for there to be a place for the languages to be heard: Tolkien was perhaps not completely exaggerating when he said that he wrote his trilogy in order to make a context in which “A star shines on the hour of our meeting” (Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo in Quenya, if you're interested) was a common greeting. (I've long thought that Tolkien's only peer in linguistic invention, his through-the-looking-glass twin as it were, is Joyce; when I read Tom Shippey's Author of the century I was pleased to see him making this point too.) In other words, Tolkien's thrill for the very fact of linguistic communication generated in him an entire cosmos and cosmology; his plot was at the service of theme and not vice-versa.

But there is another side to all of this. For Tolkien, subcreation is not merely a literary endeavor. It is perhaps not even a merely artistic endeavor. Miéville points us to Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories" in which he lays out a good deal of his account of subcreation, observing that Tolkien remains (almost) the sole theorist of this notion. Tolkien's idea, however, is situated in a broader and deeper philosophy of engagement with literature. It is far more widely applicable than just to "fantasy;" for subcreation has a meaning only in connection with creation, and this for the Roman Catholic Tolkien is an expressly theological category. If you doubt the pertinence of theology here, I refer you to the original essay, which explicitly adverts to the Christian story, in particular the resurrection, and by implication the eschatological destiny of the world, in what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe. This felicitous coinage deserves to be far more widely known, I think. Tolkien means by it a reversal of fortune that brings about an unlooked-for and overwhelming good, but to him it was rooted not in any implausible intervention (deus ex machina) nor coincidence, but in the structure of the world. This was why he placed such an emphasis upon rendering Middle-earth so present, so detailed: the "happy ending" needed to be, as he put it, "true in that world," and he clearly believed this to be the application of a principle that pertained to our world, the "primary world," as well:
The peculiar quality of "joy" (Eucatastrophe) in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth - The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. (On Fairy-Stories)
Now if you compare this to Lovecraft, there is a fairly glaring contrast, but a very interesting symmetry as well. Tolkien's eucatastrophe is nearly isomorphic with the event horizon I mentioned in connection with Lovecraft. Tolkien's word denotes an incommensurable good, whereas Lovecraft's characters have encountered an incommensurable malevolence (or an indifference so intense as to be indistinguishable from it); in both cases, it discloses (each claims) something deep about the nature of reality. But here is the interesting thing. As is well know, Lovecraft did not believe in his cosmic beings; he believed, with Nietzsche, that the clever animals will have to die, that
Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear.
One can see why this appeals, if that is the right word, to a modern efforts at thinking "the end of thought." But the salient point (for my purposes) is that this is all Lovecraft believed; he expressly did not believe in the eldritch nightmares such as he described, and he did not think them possible:
The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen. If any unexpected advance of physics, chemistry, or biology were to indicate the possibility of any phenomena related by the weird tale, that particular set of phenomena would cease to be weird in the ultimate sense because it would become surrounded by a different set of emotions. (Selected Letters III 434)
Now in making this contrast between Tolkien and Lovecraft I do not mean to imply that Tolkien believed in magic rings and Ents, whereas Lovecraft did not believe in grimoires of accused lore (at least, that actually "worked"). But it is impossible to imagine Lovecraft himself (as opposed to one of his narrators) speaking of the Deep Ones in the way Tolkien speaks of Elves in "On Fairy-Stories," and there is a reason for this.

In his essay "On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl," (in Collapse IV) Harman notes Lovecraft's monsters and "others" are indeed beyond our ken, possibly inherently; but they are emphatically of our world, not in the sense of belonging to our spacetime--sometimes they do not--but in the sense of being phenomenal. They exceed our expectations and our concepts, and partly by this token are horrible, but they can still be described, as for instance in the painstaking scientific analysis of the dissection in "At the Mountains of Madness." This is to say that the "incommensurable" in Lovecraft is natural. Nonetheless, this incommensurability is not mitigated by being natural, any more than the destruction wrought the black hole would be. Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath are tremendously more powerful than anything human, but they are of the same ontological order as Randolph Carter or the town of Providence, Rhode Island. And this is because there is, for Lovecraft, only one ontological order.

Tolkien certainly held that Elves and Ents were of the same ontological order as Humanity; the trees in Mirkwood or the Old Forest may be in some sense sentient or capable of acting, but Tolkien does not think of them as not different in kind from
ourselves. Nonetheless, Tolkien does believe the supernatural has a pertinence to fantasy; but that is because he believes in the supernatural. Its pertinence however is not straightforward:
Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom. The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil's tithe. (OFS)
Both Tolkien and Lovecraft approved of "escape" as a function of their preferred genres. Lovecraft felt keenly
The general revolt of the sensitive mind against the tyranny of corporeal enclosure, restricted sense-equipment, & the laws of force, space, & causation....The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality-when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt--as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity? (Selected Letters III 295-96)
In answer to critics who denigrated fantasy as "escapist," Tolkien wrote:
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. (OFS)
This passage needs to be considered carefully by those who think Lovecraft is the more realist of the two authors. Neither man, as I said, denigrated the idea of escape. But only Tolkien believed there really could be an escape. For Lovecraft, the sense of revolt could only be "pacified." We are always already within the event horizon.

Follow-up post on Tolkien's vision here.


  1. But if the writing is poor the inventiveness will not support it. Genre fantasy can be lazy, so much comes with the package, a mere gesture can indicate worlds that have been built up by others. I'm reading The City and the City at the moment and I find it poor enough fare, in terms of hard boiled cop fiction sub sub Leonard. I was never a Tolkienite, yes I fell asleep during the movie.

    I understand why the common run of philosophers prefer science fiction. It is the only way they can immerse themselves in myth or perhaps it is a fad of the present generation without religion and no longer jung and easily freudened.

  2. Skholiast, I really enjoyed this post. I wrote a comment about it which the Blogspot site somehow managed to devour. Suffice it to say that I consider myself a lover of fantasy even though I don't read much fiction - and this is no doubt because I love a compelling world more than a compelling plot.

  3. Amod~~ Too bad about your comment. But maybe it wasn't Blogpost who ate it... maybe it was The Goat With A Thousand Young. Ia Sub Niggurath! Anyway, you'll get another chance I hope -- the stuff on JRRT just ran on and on, and I had to cut the post short. There's at least one follow-up to come.

    Om~~ I also have a post simmering about The City & the City which will eventually be ready for posting, I hope. And the reason I liked it was precisely thanks to the world; the reason it faltered for me was precisely the plot. I forgave it for its bathos, though -- I just assumed bathos was part of the theme.

  4. This is a fascinating piece, Skholiast. I've been waiting for someone to really run with the deep connections between Lovecraft and Tolkien. (In a pop-cultural aside, I think that the series Babylon 5 is the only site where I've seen these mythologies deliberately combined--though perhaps not in quite so profound ways that you engage with here. Maybe there are others?)

    Part of what interests me here is what you say about consolation and loss. With you (I think), I am not at all persuaded that The Lord of the Rings is, in Moorcock's famous words, "Epic Pooh." If anything, I see Tolkien's Middle Earth as also disconsoling. An image of health that we see in Middle Earth defamiliarizes our own wounded earth and makes us see it as it *could be* yet again. That creates unease--but not, for me, merely the impulse for transcendent escape. The consolation I find in seeing Saruman (or indeed, Sauron) at work in the BP oil leak is the conviction that if confronted, he ultimately will not win.

    But the route of escape, and the question of what we are escaping *from* and *to* do really matter. I think it's no small thing that Tolkien's world is both transient and also worth fighting for. The sense of incarnational presence in the landscape is palpable.

    What interests me in connection with Lovecraft on this point is that the very things that are supposed to console us--for instance, the route of E.M. Forster's "only connect"--are for Lovecraft the most dangerous. Hence, this passage:

    "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

    The danger of the Palantir was that of seeing TOO MUCH, and thereby thinking one sees all (as did Denethor). I sometimes wonder if the ecological defeat many of us feel right now comes from being hobbits with internet connections. It's easier to fight when knowing less. Hence, as Patrick Curry might argue in his excellent book Defending Middle Earth, the "hope without guarantees" offered in The Lord of the Rings might do more to heal this earth than expanding the glut bad news we read each day. Thoughts?

  5. Alf,

    Mieville is beautifully succinct on the point about loss, when he says that after the War of the Ring, "you can't even get a decent dark lord," and have to put up with the limping, bitter Saruman.

    As to escape and healing: I simply deny that JRRT has anything to do with wanting to give us a place to hide from the "primary world." Not only is Middle-earth in some wise the very ancient past of this world (or so I would argue; as I believe Tolkien said, "Middle-earth is Europe"), but every "secondary" world is meant to enchant aspects of this one ("enchant" being a technical term, in a sense, for Tolkien, a point I found underscored in Curry) -- one might say that a secondary world is the primary world sub specie enchantmentatis, if you'll pardon a barbarous pseudo-Latinism. It is meant to turn our attention back to this world -- not to give us a substitute. This is why the "road goes ever on," despite the fact that the story qua story "is over before it begins." I do think JRRT believed in some sense that subcreation had a very deep function and had something to do with the mechanism of salvation itself -- c.f. "Leaf by Niggle," which as you T. clearly thought of as the companion piece to "On Fairy Stories".

    "Hope without guarantees" -- yes. What else is there? We don't have the assurance that the historical dialectic is on our side. All we have is the surety that the good is the good. Yr thoughts on the internet as a palantir -- with all the concomitant dangers -- is a little sobering. Bateson says someplace in Angels Fear that we strongly need asymmetry of information. This might be a good example.