And After the Fire

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“The Morning After the Deluge,” J.M.W. Turner, c. 1843. (Source).

I am still shocked and furious about the events of the last few days. Fascists of various sorts have descended upon Charlottesville, Virginiaa town I loved and called home for four years—and caused immense pain for the entire community. One woman, a Wobbly protester, died at the hands of a Neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a crowded alley. I had friends in the counter-protest. I had friends who feared for their lives. And all I could do was watch and pray. The Rosary, the Imprecatory Psalms, Invocations to St. Michael. But how I wish I could have done so much more.

I was following the news across Facebook, CNN television, and Twitter. I observed mixed responses. Some, even among baptized Catholics, sympathize with the Alt-Right fascists. They point the finger of blame at Antifa, the several Socialists who showed up in counterprotest, the Media, and Black Lives Matter activists. Likewise, some Christians equivocated. They were happy to condemn the Alt-Right briefly, while also complaining at length about how the Media wasn’t focusing on Antifa, or the Police didn’t do enough, or, incredibly, how all of this is really just the fault of the Democratic Party (here’s looking at you, John Zmirak and Dinesh D’Souza). Then, there were those brave Catholics like Chad Pecknold, Robert George, and Bishop Barron who condemned white supremacy and racism outright. And they received backlashshameful!from those who should know better.

But I haven’t lost hope.

The Liturgical Providence of God is so calibrated to our salvation that we receive the graces we need at precisely the moment we need them, even when we could never have anticipated needing them in the first place. It works even through a deficient calendar, such as we have in the Novus Ordo. For today, we read and hear about a great many disruptions and turbulent tumults. We turn first to the Prophet Elijah at Sinai where, having cast down fire from heaven upon the Prophets of Baal, he hides and waits for the Lord to speak.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a

The wind rises high all about Elijah; it howls and screams like the very demons of Hell. It rushes up the mountain like the chariots of the wicked King who sought the prophet’s life. But the Lord was not in the wind.

The earthquake causes the whole mountain to tremble. Rocks shake as if they are about to be torn asunder by invisible hands. The trees seem to dance in an unholy rhythm, threaten to crack and topple over. But the Lord was not in the earthquake.

The fire courses across the plain and up the slopes, hungrily devouring the short desert grasses that line the path to Horeb’s cave. The smoke fills the air; the sweltering heat traps Elijah, and threatens to make a furnace of his narrow cell. But the Lord was not in the fire.

The Lord came, instead, in a “tiny whispering sound” that followed all that tumult and trial. The frightful violence of nature may have been sublime, and it may have sorely threatened Elijah. But it was empty. God does not dwell in the frenzy of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. He comes in peace, and He meets His servant in peace.

This week’s Psalm takes up the same theme.

R. (8) Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD — for he proclaims peace.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.

Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14

The peace and salvation of God is near to those who fear Him. A great mystery hovers within these lines: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.”

Justice. Peace. Those are words that scare a lot of us traditionalists. After all, haven’t so many abuses of doctrine and the liturgy occurred precisely in the name of “social justice?” Haven’t whole orders been gutted by their worldly capitulation to liberal standards of “social justice” work? And aren’t the proverbial “Social Justice Warriors” the very people who most oppose the Church’s teachings on abortion, marriage, gender, and so many other issues?

All of these criticisms are valid. But they are not complete. Justice is a cardinal virtue. To quote one of the better Anglican principles, “The abuse of a thing doth not take away the good use of it.” Consider what the Psalm teaches us of God’s Justice. Here is a picture of the Last and Eternal Day, when the New Heavens and the Earth will united at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But we also find a practical insight for the here and now. When we read, “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps,” we recognize in this a prophecy of Christ. Our Lord, whose way was prepared by St. John the Baptist (that man so like an icon of Justice), is never far from Justice. The wind and earthquake and fire of injustice will one day yield to the peace of Christ. But in the meantime, we must do what we can to realize that justice in our own communities. Indeed, in our own hearts.

This can only begin when we faithfully repair to the sacrament of penance, confessing our sins with compunction, and seek to live always as Christ would have us. For some, this may mean abandoning deep bigotries like white supremacy or a hatred of the poor. It will be difficult for those caught in such snares to relinquish their demonic ideologies, so we must pray for them. But is there anyone among us who does not cherish some prejudice, some little parasite of pride, some vice that blinds us to the manifold ways we are complicit in the oppression of our brethren? Even I am no saint in this respect, and I pray that God’s mercy might change me to better reflect His love for all people.

For some, direct action may be the right course. I am not an activist. I started this essay confessing that I wish I could have done more to help those standing against white supremacists yesterday. Yet I recognize that I have a temperamental aversion to any kind of on-the-ground activism. The task of marching, picketing, and chanting songs of justice may be what some are called to. Dorothy Day provides a wonderful Catholic example of this kind of work.

And there are other strategies, which theologians and activists have pursued for years, that aim at incarnating Justice. It would be redundant to attempt any kind of review here. But no matter how we go about the task of Justice, we musn’t lose hope. Let us hear the commiserating words of St. Paul to the Romans:

Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Rom 9:1-5

Even amidst the anguish we feel for our brethren, we must not lose sight of the Holy Face triumphant. Nor must we forget that Justice is not itself the highest good. God is. With these two truths in mind, we turn to the Gospel.

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Mt 14:22-33

We learn from the Psalm that “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps.” So Our Lord sends forth His Apostles, His Church, to “precede him to the other side” of the sea. The Church mystically incarnates Justice at every Mass. And it can only hope to sustain Justice, a Cardinal Virtue, with Faith. For when Peter, Prince of the Apostles, goes out of the boat to walk towards His Lord, he only sinks when he loses his Faith in fear.

But all is not lost. Christ comes through the storm and shows that He is master of it. He walks on water. No tempest can withstand Him, just as no wind, earthquake, fire, flood, protest, or violence of this world can drown out His voice. No slogan of oppression, no act of terrorism, no brawl in the summer streets can overcome the peace that Christ alone brings in and to and through His Church.

I hope that my friends in Charlottesville will take heart. The last few days have been tempestuous, to say the least. But Christ will conquer the waves of this world. Have faith, and He will grant us both justice and peace.

Remember Hamburg

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Reaction of the Northern press to the Hamburg Massacre. (Source).

One of the great tragedies of Reconstruction was the Hamburg Massacre, committed 141 years ago today. Never heard of it? Neither had I prior to last summer. That was when I saw a temporary exhibit at the Aiken County History Museum, in Aiken, South Carolina. The story shocked me. I reproduce for you here a summary from BlackPast.org.

On July 8, 1876, the small town of Hamburg, South Carolina erupted in violence as the community’s African American militia clashed with whites from the surrounding rural area.  Hamburg was a small all-black community across the river from Augusta, Georgia.   Like many African American communities in South Carolina, it was solidly Republican and with the GOP in charge in Columbia, some of its men were members of the South Carolina National Guard (the Militia).

On July 4, two white farmers from surrounding Edgefield County, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, attempted to drive a carriage through the town along the main road, but were obstructed by the all-black Militia which was engaged in a military exercise.  Although the farmers got through the military formation after an initial argument, racial tensions remained high.

Two days later Butler and Getzen brought a formal complaint of obstruction of a public road before the local court in Hamburg.  The case was postponed until July 8.  By that point Matthew C. Butler, an Edgefield attorney, appeared as the farmer’s counsel.  Butler demanded that the Hamburg militia company be disbanded although that action had no direct connection to the complaint.

By this point hundreds of armed white men, including many who were members of various rifle clubs, descended upon the small black community.  Militia members retreated to a stone warehouse which they used as their armory.

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A map of the events. (Source).

Sometime during the afternoon a battle ensued. Surrounded and outnumbered, twenty-five militiamen and fifteen Hamburg residents fought back from the armory. By mid afternoon a white attacker and a militiaman lay dead, and a few more members of the militia were wounded. A cannon was brought over from nearby Augusta and aimed at the armory. As cannon fire blew a hole in the armory, some black militiamen and Hamburg’s Town Marshal, James Cook, attempted to flee. Cook was shot and killed.

The rest of the militiamen and towns people were captured in the armory.  Four of the militiamen were brought out and immediately executed by the white mob. The rest were allowed to escape, though as soon as they began to flee, the whites trained their guns on the escaping men, shooting as many as possible.

Seven men died that afternoon. Six were black militiamen or civilians and one was a white farmer killed in the attack on the armory.

You can read the official report here. The names of the six black men who died are Allen Attaway, Jim Cook, Albert Myniart, Nelder Parker, Moses Parks, David Phillips, and Hampton Stephens.

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The town of Hamburg, SC. It was situated immediately across the river from Augusta, GA. (Source)

The massacre sparked other troubles throughout the state. Benjamin Tillman, a particularly vitriolic racist, led a pack of Red Shirts that rioted in nearby Ellenton. To quote Wikipedia, “The official record of Deputy US Marshalls indicated between 25 and 30 black men were killed. A New York Times reporter in an article stated as many as 100 blacks were killed in the conflicts, which extended to September 21, with several whites wounded.”

The violence centered on the political tensions. Remember, this was 1876—an election year. Democrats were desperate to take back political control throughout the South. They launched a major campaign of fraud and intimidation to depress the numbers of black voters. The murders at Hamburg, Ellenton, and elsewhere helped sweep Democrat and ex-Confederate general Wade Hampton III to the governor’s office. He went on to “redeem” South Carolina, instituting harsh new laws designed to strictly curtail the rights of the freemen. Tillman would later cite his experience in speeches before the U.S. Senate, stump addresses during his own gubernatorial campaign in 1890, and even a 1909 Red Shirt reunion. On that last occasion, “Pitchfork Ben” declared that “The leading white men of Edgefield” had determined “to seize the opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson.” Tillman claimed that the Hamburg Massacre was a way that “the whites demonstrate[d] their superiority by killing as many of them as possible.” Tillman told his audience,

The purpose of our visit to Hamburg was to strike terror, and the next morning (Sunday) when the negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town (some of them never did return, but kept on going) the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead negroes lying stark and stiff, certainly had its effect…It was now after midnight, and the moon high in the heavens looked down peacefully on the deserted town and dead negroes, whose lives had been offered up as a sacrifice to the fanatical teachings and fiendish hate of those who sought to substitute the rule of the African for that of the Caucasian in South Carolina. (Source).

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Senator and Governor Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, one of the most important white supremacists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Source)

The town of Hamburg eventually washed away in a 1927 flood, with most of the surviving residents relocating to North Augusta. In that city stands a monument to Thomas McKie Meriwether, the only white man who died in the “battle.” It’s a graceful and dignified obelisk that proclaims Meriweather a “young hero” who “gave his life that the civilization builded by his fathers might be preserved for their children’s children unimpaired” and “exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization.” The monument breathlessly declares that “By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal” (Source). No memorial was erected to the six black men killed in the massacre until March of 2016. Their names share a simple stone with Meriwether’s.

These problematic memorials remind me of another controversy very much alive today…and by today, I do truly mean today, July the 8th. Later this afternoon, a collection of white supremacists, fascists, and malcontents will assemble at Lee Park in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the general’s statue. The Washington Post reports that the Ku Klux Klan will be involved and armed. Richard Spencer is headlining the event, but other minor and stranger figures of the Alt-Right are also scheduled to appear (including Augustus Sol InvictusSatanist, Neo-Nazi, ex-Senatorial candidate for the Libertarian Party, and certified Florida Man). The rally, billed as “Unite the Right,” proves a point I have said before and must, sadly, say again; a conservatism that is not anti-racist is not worth defending.

While I don’t have a very strong opinion on the statue’s removal, I do that know that some of my friends will be counter-protesting. I pray that they stay safe. I pray that the forces of violence and oppression will be overcome by the powers of love and justice. And I pray that the horrible example of Hamburg will never be forgottenor repeated.

UPDATE: I mistakenly conflated two different fascist rallies (never thought I’d have to say that). The one on Saturday was just various Klan groups. Photos are all over UVA student and Charlottesville social media. The “Unite the Right” rally is taking place in early August. God deliver us from the Alt-Right.

“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.

gnon2

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.