Lovecraft peopled his mythical realms with slippery, palpitating cretaures to escape a worse prospect – a human world. Illustration by Sean Phillips
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Weird realism: John Gray on the moral universe of H P Lovecraft

The weird realism that runs through Lovecraft’s writings undermines any belief system – religious or humanist – in which the human mind is the centre of the universe.

The New Annotated H P Lovecraft
Edited by Leslie S Klinger
Liveright/W W Norton, 867pp, £25

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.

In this opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”, first published in the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales in 1928, H P Lovecraft set out a view of things that animates pretty well everything he wrote thereafter: the human mind is an accident in the universe, which is indifferent to the welfare of the species. We can have no view of the scheme of things or our place in it, because there may be no such scheme. The final result of scientific inquiry could well be that the universe is a lawless chaos. Sometimes called “weird realism”, it is a disturbing vision with which Lovecraft would struggle throughout his life.

Born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was well acquainted with the fragility of the human mind. When Howard was three years old his father was confined in a psychiatric institution after a breakdown, probably linked to advancing syphilis, and died there five years later. Lovecraft’s early life was shaped by his grandfather, two maiden aunts and his mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, with whom he formed what may have been his most enduring relationship. A precocious, high-strung child, he was often unwell and suffered from attacks of nervous anxiety. After years of mental illness, Sarah spent time in the same hospital, where in May 1921 she also died.

At a meeting of would-be journalists in Boston that same year, Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene, a Russian-Jewish woman some years older than himself, whom he married in 1924. They seem not to have been unhappy but it was not long before they drifted apart. Financial insecurities must have had a part in the break-up, along with opposition to the marriage from Lovecraft’s aunts and his own intense dislike of New York. The two went on to separate lives, Sonia moving to California, remarrying and dying there in 1972. Lovecraft returned to Providence, where he lived with his aged aunts, in straitened circumstances and increasingly ill. He died from cancer in 1937 convinced that his work – which had received only slight recognition in his lifetime – would soon be forgotten entirely.

Lovecraft’s life was spent on the margins of society, eking out a small inheritance and scraping an uncertain living from journalism and amateur publishing. Some of his attitudes may have come from his experience of downward social mobility. His wealthy grandfather lost most of the family fortune in a business failure in 1900. For Lovecraft, his mother and his aunts, the years that followed were a long decline from what they liked to think had been an aristocratic lifestyle. The aunts’ opposition to his marriage to Sonia – at the time a successful milliner – may have been rooted as much in the family’s social snobbery as in the anti-Semitism that was rife in the US in the early decades of the 20th century. Despite his marriage, Lovecraft’s own animus ran more deeply. There can be no doubt of his racism, which underpinned his detestation of what the narrator in one of his stories described as “the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld”. Some of his letters invoke explicitly racialist theories of cultural degeneration.

It has been suggested in Lovecraft’s defence that in later years his attitudes mellowed. It is true that, under the impact of his experience of the Great Depression, he expressed some sympathy with Roosevelt’s New Deal, mocking the right-wing American obsession with free markets and arguing that a measure of economic planning was needed in order to combat mass unemployment. That, however, does not make him any kind of liberal. Arguments of this kind were widely current, and not only in circles that would now be regarded as progressive.
Nazism and fascism were hostile to capitalism, at least in their rhetoric, precisely because many of their supporters believed that capitalism promoted liberal values. In the 1930s, racism and anti-capitalism often went together. For all his scorn for the age in which he lived, Lovecraft embodied some of its ugliest (and most commonplace) beliefs and attitudes.

Fortunately, the core of his work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments. His real subject is the inhumanity of the cosmos. As he wrote:

. . . all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large . . . To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown – the shadow-haunted Outside – we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

The American writer August Derleth, a friend and correspondent who played a pivotal role in collecting Lovecraft’s fiction and bringing his work to a larger public, suggested that Lovecraft viewed his stories as vehicles for a newly invented mythology. It is an astute observation. Throughout his adult life Lovecraft was an unwavering atheist and materialist. In a letter of 1918, he declared: “. . . the Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE.” At the same time he had nothing but scorn for the rival mythology of his day, the belief that humankind – “the miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe”, as he described the species in the same letter – was at the forefront of cosmic evolution. For him the cosmos was a trap, and human beings the prey of blindly mechanical forces. His “Cthulhu Mythos” – a fictional alternate reality containing godlike minds far more powerful than those of human beings, and also utterly different from theirs – was a response to this vision.

Part mountain, part octopus or dragon, Cthulhu is portrayed as being beyond the reach of words: “The Thing cannot be des­cribed – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.” In “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, published in 1936, he depicts more fully the creatures of his “shadow-haunted Outside”: 

I think their predominant colour was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the side of their necks were palpitating gills . . .

 

Whether they resemble worms, amoebae or bubbling slime, the creatures have one thing in common. None of them is remotely human. It’s as if Lovecraft invented these horrible phantoms in order to escape a worse horror – the human world itself.

The precise role of Lovecraft’s mythology is a continuing subject of controversy. In his erudite and witty foreword to The New Annotated H P Lovecraft, Leslie Klinger notes that Derleth saw the new myth as having at its centre a conflict between good and evil, while “Lovecraft did not see life as a struggle between good and evil or light and dark forces” – which is surely correct. Klinger goes too far, though, when he goes on to suggest that the “Cthulhu Mythos” exists only as Derleth’s invention. Certainly there is nothing to suggest that Lovecraft aimed to establish a fixed pantheon of imaginary deities. But the Lovecraft scholars S T Joshi and David E Schultz seem to me to get closer to the writer’s motivations when they describe the Cthulhu stories as forming a type of “anti-mythology”.

The paradox of Lovecraft’s writing is that although he believed myth existed in order to shield the human mind from reality, his own mythos seems to do the opposite: the “Outside” is more frightening than the world in which human beings live. The paradox is unlocked when we realise that this reality is what Lovecraft was trying to escape. In an essay on his own work, “Some Notes on a Nonentity” (1933), he wrote: 

The “punch” of a truly weird tale is simply some violation or transcending of fixed cosmic law – an imaginative escape from palling reality – hence phenomena rather than persons are the logical “heroes”. Horrors, I believe, should be original – the use of common myths and legends being a weakening influence.

 

Since Derleth collected Lovecraft’s writings there have been many anthologies. Norton’s new volume must surely be the definitive collection. It is meticulously and imaginatively edited, beautifully illustrated and immaculately produced, with a thought-stirring introduction by the graphic novel writer Alan Moore. Along with all the canonical tales, there is copious additional material, including lists of the complete works and revisions by other writers and descriptions of his influence on popular culture. Coming not long before the 125th anniversary of his birth, this magnificent volume is a testimony to Lovecraft’s staying power, which would have surprised him as much as it would his many detractors.

Far from disappearing from view as he expected, Lovecraft has been repeatedly resurrected by successive generations. No one would now write of him as the critic Edmund Wilson did, in the New Yorker in 1945: “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.” The true horror was in fact that of judging Lovecraft by the standards of a defunct literary culture. In H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991) Michel Houllebecq, who has championed Lovecraft much as Baudelaire did Edgar
Allan Poe, noted that: “There is something not really literary about Lovecraft’s work.” Lovecraft’s distance from “literature” is one of the sources of his power as a writer.

That’s not to say he had no literary influences. At the Mountains of Madness, a novella describing an expedition to the Antarctic and the ancient species found there, shows affinities with Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, while “The Dunwich Horror”, a seminal tale of the “Cthulhu Mythos”, is heavily influenced by Arthur Machen, the Welsh writer of unsettling tales. Lovecraft acknowledged these debts, as well as his admiration for the work of Lord Dunsany, M R James and Walter de la Mare, among others.

Yet these influences only accentuate the singularity of Lovecraft’s vision. He discovered Poe when he read him as a young boy, and admired him ever after; but (despite superficial resemblances in subject matter) Poe exalted the human imagination over the natural world with a Romantic passion of which there is little trace in Lovecraft. In terms of philosophy, Machen and Lovecraft had little in common. De la Mare’s suspension of disbelief in everyday reality is far removed from Lovecraft’s unyielding materialism, while Dunsany’s wistful fairy tales lack his uncanniness. There may be a greater affinity with M R James, but there is nothing in Lovecraft of James’s nostalgia for the late-Victorian world.

Lovecraft was too much of an outsider to have any firm mentors. The world-view from which he fashioned his stories was distinctively his own. His atheism and materialism weren’t unusual in America at the time; H L Mencken, for one, held similar views. What is striking is what he made from this familiar philosophy.

The weird realism that runs through his writings undermines any belief system – religious or humanist – in which the human mind is the centre of the universe. There is a tendency nowadays to think of the world in which we live as an artefact of mind or language: a human construction. For Lovecraft, human beings are too feeble to shape a coherent view of the universe. Our minds are specks tossed about in the cosmic melee; though we look for secure foundations, we live in perpetual free fall. With its emphasis on the radical contingency of the human world, this is a refreshing alternative to the anthropocentric philosophies in which so many find intellectual reassurance. It may seem an unsettling view of things; but an inhuman cosmos need not be as horrific as Lovecraft seems to have found it.

He is often described as misanthropic, but this isn’t quite right – a true misanthrope would find the inhumanity of the universe liberating. There is no intrinsic reason why a universe in which people are marginal should be a horror-inducing place. A world vastly larger and stranger than any the human mind can contain could just as well evoke a sense of excitement or an acceptance of mystery.

Lovecraft’s anti-mythology of slimy, inhuman creatures reflected an unresolved struggle within himself. He firmly rejected religious mythologies that accorded humankind a special place in the scheme of things, but he could not accept the implication of his materialism, which is that human life has no cosmic value or meaning. Rejecting any belief in meaning beyond the human world, he also rejected the meanings human beings make for themselves. He had no interest in the lives of most people, and from his early years seems to have believed his own would count for very little. He was left without any sense of significance. So, obeying an all-too-human impulse, he fashioned a make-believe realm of dark forces as a shelter from the deadly light of universal indifference. 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His next book, “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom”, will be published in spring 2015

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge