Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.
The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mystic—not just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.
Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”
But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:
Little lamb, who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.
I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happens—and indeed, what will happen—when the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.
At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do so—a transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.
Of all the myriad forms of visual theology that draw upon the Western traditions of art history, perhaps no medium is quite as neglected as the emblem. The books that contained these small, symbolically rich images constituted a prolific genre in the early modern period. They had a fairly standard format. Usually, the emblems sat alongside a few moral or sacred verses in Latin, Greek, or a European language. Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1618), from which the image above was taken, is a good example of this polyglot tendency. On the verso, one can find a quatrain in Latin, German, French, and Italian, always connecting the symbolism of the emblem with a French and Italian verse of the Scriptures. On the recto, the emblem sits under the same verse, this time in Latin and German. The page concludes with an epigrammatic prayer in Latin.
It seems that emblem books were popular in early modern Europe. Mara R. Wade of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “In the preface to his Companion to Emblem Studies (2006) Peter Daly estimates that ca. 6,500 emblem books were published during the Renaissance, with an individual volume containing anywhere from 15 to 1,500 emblems.” Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 representative titles, though there were certainly many more produced between 1500 and 1800 (as any cursory review of UIUC’s Emblematica Online or the French Emblems at Glasgow archives can show). The fact that these books were often printed with multiple languages of text side by side suggests that they were documents with cross-cultural appeal. They were meant to speak not only to the elites who knew Latin, but also to the literate bourgeoisie. All of that makes their emergence as a genre at a time of religious strife even more remarkable.Of course, not all emblem books were targeted for mass appeal. Occult works often made rich use of emblems. The chief virtue of the emblem is its capacity of succinct complexity. It can communicate a lot by saying very little. It obscures by revealing; it hides by manifestation. As one source puts it, “Emblems are concise yet potent combinations of texts and images that invite, and require, decoding.” This makes the emblem the perfect vehicle for the esoteric proliferation of ideas. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” says the Lord. If He had come in the age of Gutenberg, perhaps He would have delivered His parables in emblem books. Of course, to say so is to implicitly claim Christ as a Protestant. Catholics did produce emblem books; indeed, one of the latest examples I have found is the 1780 French reprint of Dom Bonifaz Gallner’s earlier Regula Emblematica Sancti Benedicti. However, it would seem that the majority of important emblem books flowed from Protestant presses.
There is a good historical and aesthetic reason for this. The emblem functions by setting up a symbol or a system of symbols independent of any text. While text was sometimes used to elucidate the meaning of those symbolic networks, it was always secondary to the image itself. The emblem book is one of the last gasps of the primacy of image over text in European thought. Along with the Wunderzeichenbuchen, the emblem book is one of the main genres mobilized by Continental Protestants to rediscover a non-iconographic (and, to their mind, a non-idolatrous) use of image in moral and spiritual development. Instead of an image asserting its “auratic” power to the exclusion of text, the emblem book suggests a way that text and image can mutually illuminate each other. As Mara Wade writes, the emblem books engendered “a process of reciprocal reading of texts and images, whereby the back and forth between the words and the pictures creates meaning. The picture presents the reader with a recognizable scene or symbolic collage, and the text then reorients the reader’s understanding of that scene to present a new and unexpected message.” In this sense, the emblem book clearly partakes of a distinctly Humanist and Protestant heritage. Note again that emblem books were very often the chosen medium for the quasi-scientific magical teachings of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Those strange laborers were also, in their own quixotic way, seeking to reclaim something of the sacramental worldview thrown away by the iconoclastic Reformers (see Henry 2015).
The triumph of discursive reason over image in the Enlightenment led to the decline of the emblem book as a genre (there are surely other reasons tied to shifting book markets, but my capacities to do research into textual history are limited at this time). After that, the record has been rather sparse. Hamann occasionally used emblems in his philosophical works. More recent theologians have largely overlooked the emblem book as a theological genre. The single counterexample I can readily think of is Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot, which can only count as an emblem book when we ignore its departures from the traditional form. Yet the renewal of esoteric Catholicism by reliably orthodox publishing houses like Angelico Press suggests that the emblem book may have a place in the theology of the future.
Its revival seems particularly apropos in an age when memes have become topics of serious political discourse, when visual self-representation has been amplified through various social media, and when new norms of communication emphasize brevity over detail. An epoch is defined, in large part, by the relation of its people to their media. The development of the printing press launched early modernity by helping to bring about new conceptions of subjectivity, as well as new questions about the relationship of text and image. Consequently, the emblem book arose to grapple with some of those questions. The next great civilizational step in communication arrived with the internet, accompanying nascent postmodernity. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the emblem book for theologians to navigate this “brave new world.”
Today is Ash Wednesday, and once again my thoughts turn to T.S. Eliot. Later, I will listen, as I used to do after all my confessions, to the Pope of Russell Square intone “Ash Wednesday” (1930) in a vatic voice. Like Eliot, I am a convert. And for all converts, Ash Wednesday offers a reminder of the life we have left behind. Converts feel, perhaps more powerfully than those raised in the faith, the strange liminal state of the Christian life. We are dead to sin, but not yet fully alive. The ashes imposed on our foreheads are merely the outward sign of an ever-fragile conversion. Ash Wednesday is the reminder of our weakness, of our constant need for mercy, of the vast landscapes of heaven and hell that open for us beyond the febrile veil of our brief hours on earth. On Ash Wednesday, we remember our death. Reversing all natural order, the penitential season begins with death and ends with the triumph of life. Let it never be said that the liturgical calendar lacks paradox. “Although I do not hope to turn again,” the liturgy leads me to do so.
As much as I love Eliot’s work, I don’t think his fine poem is the only one worth reading today. I might also consider the work of another great Anglican writer, George Herbert.
In The Temple (1633), Herbert devotes one of his poems to Ash Wednesday. He writes, in a detached style that marks him as perhaps the preeminent pastor-poet of Anglicanism:
Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church sayes, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.
Herbert, like Eliot so many centuries later, is a writer of deeply ecclesial sensibilities. His poetic is shaped by the language of the Prayer Book and the Bible, at once homely and hieratic. Yet his moral vision clearly grows from his practical experience as a vicar. One could be forgiven for mistaking the poem for a sermon in verse.
True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unlesse Authoritie, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it lesse,
And Power it self disable.
Besides the cleannesse of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulnesse there are sluttish fumes,
Sowre exhalations, and dishonest rheumes,
Revenging the delight.
Throughout, he tempers his characteristic calls for conversion with a profound humility before the perfection of Christ. To conclude:
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.
Out of Catullus
By Richard Crashaw (translating Catullus)
As shall mocke the envious eye.
By William Shakespeare
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The Flaming Heart
By Richard Crashaw (excerpted)
O heart, the equal poise of love’s both parts,
Big alike with wounds and darts,
Live in these conquering leaves; live all the same,
And walk through all tongues one triumphant flame;
Live here, great heart, and love and die and kill,
And bleed and wound, and yield and conquer still.
Let this immortal life, where’er it comes,
Walk in a crowd of loves and martyrdoms;
Let mystic deaths wait on ’t, and wise souls be
The love-slain witnesses of this life of thee.
O sweet incendiary! show here thy art,
Upon this carcass of a hard cold heart,
Let all thy scatter’d shafts of light, that play
Among the leaves of thy large books of day,
Combin’d against this breast, at once break in
And take away from me my self and sin;
This gracious robbery shall thy bounty be,
And my best fortunes such fair spoils of me.
O thou undaunted daughter of desires!
By all thy dow’r of lights and fires,
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove,
By all thy lives and deaths of love,
By thy large draughts of intellectual day,
And by thy thirsts of love more large than they,
By all thy brim-fill’d bowls of fierce desire,
By thy last morning’s draught of liquid fire,
By the full kingdom of that final kiss
That seiz’d thy parting soul and seal’d thee his,
By all the heav’ns thou hast in him,
Fair sister of the seraphim!
By all of him we have in thee,
Leave nothing of my self in me:
Let me so read thy life that I
Unto all life of mine may die.
By John Donne
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
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.
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 world—they “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 reality—normally 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 comprehension—usually 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.
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.
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.”
His contemporary, Herman Melville, did not.
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.
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 stories—strange 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 is—spoiler—that 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 Englander—indeed, his epitaph in Rhode Island reads “I am Providence.”
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.
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.