“Black Seas of Infinity”: Cosmic Horror and the Racial Other

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This is a speech I gave to two oratorical societies of which I am a member. It has been edited and augmented for this format.

Good Evening.

H.P. Lovecraft was a master of horror writing. Indeed, he was the first thinker to seriously treat horror as an independent genre, and his critical work went far towards delineating its boundaries and prospects for the next hundred years. His writings had a major impact on several writers and filmmakers who are virtually household names today: Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman are just a few who have drawn inspiration from his oeuvre. That said, I would like to speak less tonight about those who came after Lovecraft, and more about those who came before.

It is my contention that Lovecraft perfected a longstanding tradition in New England literature, and the result was cosmic horror. It is, moreover, my contention that cosmic horror up to and including Lovecraft’s own work depended upon a viscerally antagonistic representation of non-white peoples. Finally, it is my contention that the recent Lovecraft renaissance, while welcome in some respects, is tied to more disturbing developments in our contemporary political landscape.

First, I should probably define cosmic horror for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Howard Phillips Lovecraft. In brief, cosmic horror is the horror induced by the realization that the universe is totally and indescribably indifferent to mankind. Consequently, human life has no real meaning. Lovecraft expresses this idea repeatedly throughout his corpus. He begins his famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” with the following comments:

“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. Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden aeons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it.”

Here, in brief, is cosmic horror. And here too is a description of what happens when Lovecraft’s doomed heroes discover the truth about the worldthey “go mad from the revelation.” They are unable to continue interacting with reality in any meaningful way, since any sense of underlying significance has been dissolved by their confrontation with that realitynormally as personified in the form of an eldritch monster. Here, we see the aesthetic influence of Burke and, more importantly, Kant. For Kant, the experience of the sublime involved reckoning with the subject’s imaginative impotence next to something whose magnitude surpasses comprehensionusually a feature of the natural world. Say, the sea. The Kantian subject experiences the sublime and reasserts his own rationality against the imposition of the sublime object. He does this by imagining the infinite. In Lovecraft, the subject experiences the sublime as well. But instead of strengthening his rationality, it destroys his reason entirely. To borrow a phrase from another admirer of Lovecraft, we might speak of a Lovecraftian “fanged” sublime.

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Puritans, as depicted in The Witch (2015).

To understand the other intellectual influence on Lovecraft’s sense of horror, we need to trace the religious history of New England. Most people don’t realize quite how strange that story is. For instance, it may come as a surprise that most of the Calvinists in this country didn’t inherit their faith from the Puritans, but from Scottish and Dutch settlers south of Massachusetts. The reason for this is that the vast majority of the colonial congregations that once held to strict Puritan doctrine were Unitarian by the turn of the 19th century.

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Unitarians: (l-r) Jonathan Mayhew, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson

This evolution is an important shift. New England, and above all Massachusetts, began as the political project of men and women who hoped they were God’s elect. But the doctrine of predestination always allowed for some uncertainty. The marks of a holy life might signify election, but something as worldly as physical deformity or a bad harvest might communicate God’s wrath. And since God had already predetermined the elect and the damned from eternity, there was nothing anyone could do to ensure their salvation. God was indifferent to the prayers of the damned, if they prayed at all.

This Puritan preoccupation with God’s indifference finds expression in various examples of New England literature, but I would refer you to the work of Hawthorne, who managed to capture the darkness of the Puritan vision a century after it had been eclipsed by a new theology.

And that new theology was decidedly more optimistic. While it wasn’t a univocal orthodoxy, Unitarianism as preached by the likes of William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton was perilously closely to Deism. Certainly by the mid-19th century, Unitarians were actively welcoming Deists into their congregations. Deism, of course, teaches that a single creator God established the world with order according to natural laws. Then, Deists claim, He stepped back from His creation to let free humans live and work within the bounds of natural law. Intercessory prayer was therefore meaningless since God would not intervene through miracles or any other supernatural measure. To quote that wayward Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — anything less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.

I should note that Emerson, being something of a pantheist, put a distinctively positive spin on God’s indifference to the pleas of man.

His contemporary, Herman Melville, did not.

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“To the last, I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for Hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Melville’s magnum opus, the classic novel Moby Dick, is fundamentally about mankind’s struggle against a God and a universe ultimately indifferent to his pain. Captain Ahab seeks revenge on the White Whale who stole his leg, and throughout the book there are hints that the creature is something more than merely natural.

There has been much debate about Melville’s personal beliefs, and many have claimed him as an atheist. But he still works within the New England tradition. At one point, Melville explicitly describes God as indifferent in a passage worth quoting at length. It takes place about ¾ of the way through the book, and it describes the fate of the black cabin boy, Pip, when he is left to float after falling overboard.

“But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had leeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”

This passage, in addition to being my favorite in the entire book, serves to illustrate two other classic features of cosmic horror: the prophetic madness of those who survive the revelation of cosmic indifference, and more importantly, the use of racial others as symbols of that cosmic indifference.

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The Devil as a Black Man

In 17th century Europe, the Devil was often conceptualized as a man with black skin. The Puritans transported that vision with them to the New World, where they encountered a dark-skinned people living in the woods outside their enclosures. The wilderness, the Indians, and damnation form a nexus of signification in Puritan thought. To quote Aileen Agnew of the Maine Historical Society, “New England Puritans believed that the wilderness was the natural habitat of the devil. Since Native-Americans belonged to the wilderness, their familiarity with the ways of the devil seemed obvious to the settlers.” Washington Irving dramatizes this traditional chain of connotations in his short story, “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Tom Walker meets the Devil in a Massachusetts swamp, where the Prince of Lies says, “Oh, I go by various names. I am the Wild Huntsman in some countries; the Black Miner in others. In this neighbourhood I am known by the name of the Black Woodsman. I am he to whom the red men devoted this spot, and now and then roasted a white man by way of sweet smelling sacrifice.” Similarly, Hawthorne’s titular Young Goodman Brown meets witches in the Salem woods and refers to the devil as “the Black Man.”

Melville goes beyond this. He populates his novel with all kinds of non-white people, but two are worth mentioning. First, the aforementioned and unlucky Pip. After his ordeal in the waves, Pip loses his mind and speaks in gibberish that seems to bear prophetic weight on the doom of the crew. Ahab himself is mad, and the fond kinship they share at the end of the book is in part cemented by their common madness. This is precisely the move that Lovecraft makes repeatedly in his storiesstrange survivors who, though insane, grasp the awful reality of the world better than anyone else.

Melville’s other proto-Lovecraftian figure is a Parsee named Fedallah. Ahab’s private harpooner, Fedallah is smuggled as a stowaway on the Pequod and only emerges once the ship is well out at sea. The rest of the sailors distrust Fedallah, and repeatedly conjecture that he might be the Devil. Fedallah’s actions suggest a demonic identity, too. He prophesies to Ahab about the captain’s eventual death. When, in a pique of allegorical rage, Ahab destroys the quadrant that allows him to navigate by the Sun, Melville reports that “a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself—these passed over the mute, motionless Parsee’s face.” And during a storm, Fedallah addresses his idol, the “clear spirit of fire,” whose “right worship is defiance.” Melville’s Miltonian language suggests a demonic character.

As an important recent study of the authors convincingly demonstrates, Lovecraft is known to have read Moby Dick. And Lovecraft, to put it lightly, was a racist. I mean full-blown, hand-wringing “The Mongoloid Yellow Peril will drown the Teutonic Race if the Uppity Blacks and the Hook-Nosed Jews don’t kill us first” racist. Lovecraft had an unhealthy obsession with the racial purity of WASPS and was terrified of miscegenation. In one of his short stories, entitled “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” the terrible reveal isspoilerthat an ancestral explorer married a white ape from Africa. The horror of miscegenation runs throughout many of his other works, notably his foundational story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” For Lovecraft, non-whites are always one step removed from the eldritch horror of the Elder Gods, essentially enormous and indescribably hideous aliens from the vast reaches of space who came to earth in the distant past and were worshiped in unholy rites that persist in atavistic communities on the edges of civilization. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” the most important story that deals with his mythos, Lovecraft tells the story of a kidnapping investigation in the Louisiana bayou. The narrator describes how the police must go to an area that, and I quote, “was one of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men.” There, they discover a “voodoo orgy” scored by “tom-toms,” which proves to be the foul ceremony of a Cthulhu cult. Both voodoo and tom-toms are black racial markers. I could point to other examples from other stories, but I believe this one is sufficient. Lovecraft associates reason, order, and sanity with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant civilization. Racial others, especially blacks and Asians, threaten that civilization just as madness threatens those not yet initiated into the eldritch secrets of the Old Ones. The presence of the racial other is a reminder that the universe does not care about the rational subject, represented here by the white man. In this, Lovecraft is merely amplifying the tropes set down before him by more famous authors. He is eminently a New Englanderindeed, his epitaph in Rhode Island reads “I am Providence.”

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Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn

So, why does all this matter beyond the merely literary? As some of you may have noticed, over the past ten years or so there has been a Lovecraft renaissance. While Lovecraft never lacked a readership, the internet allowed for greater networking and discussion of his works than ever before. Cthulhu is now a cultural phenomenon as much as a cult classic of early 20th century horror literature. In particular, there are two related and troubling phenomena worth mentioning.

The first is a decision by some academics to treat Lovecraft as a philosopher. The most famous man to read Lovecraft in this way is Nick Land, a truly bizarre philosopher from England. Land is a hard nihilist, accelerationist, and antihumanist. His writings have influenced the Speculative Realists, a contemporary school of philosophy too arcane to merit much discussion here. It suffices to say that they, too, are treating Lovecraft as a philosopher in some of their writings.

Land’s greatest claim to fame, however, is as the intellectual godfather of the Neoreactionary movement. And it is this movement, tied to the internet, that has started to propel the Lovecraft renaissance into the realm of the political. The Neoreactionary concept of GNON is the objective state of reality which exists independently of liberal fantasies. To quote one Neoreactionary thinker at length:

“Neoreactionaries often speak of Gnon, the ‘crab-god’ they have created to embody the ideas of teleology, of consequences, of inevitability – no more and no less that the simple yet somehow, in the current age, revolutionary idea that implementing bad ideas will lead to bad consequences. The implications of the existence of Gnon, whose horrifying visage hangs heavy over the merry bustle of every civilization (whether they believe in him or not, for he is one of those realities that continues to exist no matter if you do or don’t), is that maintaining a civilization is hard, tireless work; that monsters are always waiting in the darkness to devour those who slack off in this task, whether it be because they have become soft and lazy, or incapable and feeble, or even (perhaps especially) due to the hubris of believing that they are so advanced that such drudgery is beneath them and they can instead devote their energies towards utopian schemes meant to perfect the human condition. Gnon – who is compatible with both a theistic and non-theistic worldview – punishes these sins: this sloth, this gluttony, this foolishness, this pride, this hubris. Gnon is seen both in the God who rained fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and also in the collapse of Marxism in all of its supposed ‘inevitability’. Gnon is to be feared, for he is a destroyer god, and a merciless one. There is no bargaining with him, no reasoning with him, no begging for mercy with him. If you fail, if you slip, if you trust the wrong people or the wrong ideas, if you are foolish or careless, he will destroy you and everything you care about. He exists as a caution to you, and you had better take heed.”

Gnon, which stands for “The God of Nature or Nature,” is often implicitly or explicitly compared to Cthulhu (admittedly, across varying levels of irony). Moreover, Lovecraft briefly published a newspaper called “The Conservative” during the World War I years. A collection of Lovecraft’s newspapers has just been edited and republished by Arktos Media, Ltd., a major neoreactionary press. The book includes a foreword by Alex Kurtagic, a white nationalist known for his ties to Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute. He has been featured several times in Spencer’s neofascist Radix Magazine.

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Gnon is sometimes portrayed as a giant, killer crab.

I don’t say any of this because I don’t want you to read Lovecraft. I do. I deeply enjoy Lovecraft’s fiction, and I think more people should read his work. But I also think his recent treatment by neoreactionary and alt-right racists deserves more exposure, even as I believe we need to situate his stories in the context of New England’s literary tradition. Also, let’s not forget something rather important. Lovecraft wrote what he did as a convinced atheist. His worldview is truly the opposite of the sacramental one we find in Christian horror writers like Arthur Machen and Charles Williams and Flannery O’Connor. Cosmic horror is horror indeed, but at the end of the day, it’s not true.

And thank the elder gods for that.

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