A Machine For Thinking The Unthinkable: H.P Lovecraft and Karl Barth’s Das Nichtige

C'thulhu f'tagan
C’thulhu f’tagan

To talk of a theological Lovecraft may initially strike the aficionado of weird fiction as an exercise in futility. In his personal writing, Lovecraft reveals a deeply held atheism and critical work has always acknowledged what S.T Joshi refers to as his cynical materialism. Lovecraft himself opined in 1919 that ‘there is a real restfulness in the scientific convention that nothing matters very much.’[1] In essence, it is perfectly possible to read Lovecraft and particularly the Cthulhu mythos as an attempt to use both a strict materialism and a specific understanding of anthropology as a weapon against any kind of theological metaphysics but increasingly thinkers have attempted to read Lovecraft against the grain and see what can be recouped from his materialist outlook. In his extremely interesting three-volume work, ‘The Horror of Philosophy’ Eugene Thacker proposes a fascinating thought experiment:

We will be misreading works of horror as if they were works of philosophy. What if we read Poe or Lovecraft as philosophers rather than as writers of short stories? This means that the typical concerns of the writer or literary critic – plot, character, setting, genre, and so on – will be less relevant to us than the ideas contained in the story – and the central thought that runs through much of supernatural horror is the limit of thought, human characters confronted with the limit of the human. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that what is unique about the horror genre – and particularly supernatural horror – is its indifference to all the accoutrements of human drama. All that remains is the fragmentary and sometimes lyrical testimony of the human being struggling to confront its lack of “sufficient reason” in the vast cosmos.[2]

With this in mind, the aim of followed here will be to treat Lovecraft not primarily as the writer of weird fictions but rather to see Lovecraft as a kind of theologian. Whilst accepting that Lovecraft could never convincingly be argued to be a theologically orthodox writer the aim will be to present Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos as exploring a kind of theological ontology, one that challenges traditional theological understandings of being, whilst at the same time highlighting new possibilities for theological work on the gothic. Through examining the stories that focus most heavily on representations of the Elder Gods, Lovecraft’s interest in the ontological implications of his view on the universe come into sharp focus.

Typically, the reaction to encountering a figure of monstrous Otherness generally falls into two patterns, both of which have Scriptural correlates. The monster as the uncanny can be demonized as a threat to the order of God’s creation – Stoker’s Dracula has the quest of battling its villain framed as a holy crusade seeking to restore righteous order to the Empire. This is a clear echo of Biblical language on the nature of creation as can be seen in the response to Leviathan in Psalm 74 and Isiah 27. By demonizing the radical Other, in the figure of the monster, we ensure the continued coherence of God’s orderly creation. The other response is to consider the Other as part of a sacred revelation of the power of the almighty. H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos forms it’s monsters into “Elder Gods” whose presence is not simply demonic but rather the in breaking of almost transcendent presence and power to our dimension of existence. The Biblical tradition here comes from the divine speech out from the whirlwind at the conclusion of the book of Job, wherein the powerful figures of Leviathan and Behemoth are seen as tangible examples of the awesome power of God.

Strikingly however this relationship between the revelation of the divine from Scripture and the revelation of the Elder Gods or Cthulhu monsters is immediately problematized – there is in Lovecraft’s stories no God to which these figures defer and whilst often in great danger characters (at the least main characters and protagonists) are seldom if ever killed. Rather, to encounter the Elder Gods and the other denizens of the Cthulhu mythos is to encounter the very limit of what is thinkable – which goes some way to perhaps explaining the recent resurgence in philosophical work that utilises Lovecraft.[3]  Therefore, to read Lovecraft theologically requires a re-examination of where the horror of the Cthulhu mythos resides. Rather than the fear of death and its accompanying confrontation with an omnipotent deity, the fear that runs through the Cthulhu stories is a fear of life – the horrific encounters that Lovecraft details are never post-mortem but rather uncomfortably alive – encountered in the in media res of existence itself. The encounter with Cthulhu is an experience of a life and a kind of life that the human subject seems simply unable to comprehend or process. Death is, after all only a state of non-existence, which, within Lovecraft’s view at least, has nothing to distinguish it from the non-existence that preceded existence.

Philosophically this may not be the most cheering thought, yet as Schopenhauer writes in The World As Will and Representation, ‘the infinity a parte post without me cannot be any more fearful than the infinity a parte ante without me, since the two are not distinguished by anything except the intervention of an ephemeral life dream.’[4] Seen this way, the theological challenge of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is in the extent to which those three states, the before life, life and the after-life are revealed to be not temporal stages, but rather dangerously liminal and ambiguously divided levels of existence stripped of the comforting demarcation that daily life affords.

This is perhaps another slightly troubling thought – we are used to the notion that the progression between not life into life leading to death and not life again is one that is in some way orderly and as participants within the world we have some degree of fluency in judging the progression of said stages. Yet the ambiguous state of life is one well documented through Western literature. In Dante Algieri’s political theology of the Inferno, we see that life after death is not so easily demarcated or defined. Accompanied by Virgil, Dante makes his way through the seven circles of hell – a bewildering and thriving constellation of heavily structured environments coursing with bodies, limbs, rivers, fires and patterns of light. Coming upon the seventh circle, the pair come across the burning desert, where fire rains down upon the blasphemers, but as Thacker points out, ‘there is no redemption and punished are often very far from being penitential. Their tired Promethean drama of revolt, defiance, and blasphemy goes on for eternity.’[5] The hell that Dante puts forth is one of dizzying multiplicity, full of crowds of bodies, cyclones, whole oceans of bodies consuming one another, fields crammed with figures riddled with leprosy. The life-after-life for Dante is one of frenetic activity but is also a life that ‘continually negates itself, a kind of vitalistic life-negation’ that results in the living-dead citizens of the City of Dis’[6]

This life negation carries with it the possibility of a blasphemous life – a contradiction whereby the states of life and death become almost impossible to tease apart or securely identify. Returning to Dante for a moment, the traitor Capaneus on noticing Dante’s gaze, defiantly ‘roars forth’ that, ‘What I, once living was, so dead I am.’[7] Whilst it is perfectly possible to see the line as nothing more than a shout of rebellion (a blasphemer against God I was in life, so I am in death) perhaps we might read the line as instead something akin to ‘I am a living contradiction’ – what I was in life, so am I, still after the point of death. This state of contradictory experience is, as Thacker rightly notes, essential for understanding Lovecraft as in his ‘weird biologies’ this contradiction of the life that is not, strives to be elevated to the height of an ontological principle.

The discovery of the Shoggoths in the At the Mountains of Madness are a case in point here – after the discovery of the Cyclopean city with its ‘monstrous perversions of geometrical laws’ the explorers discover these creatures which resemble formless yet geometrical patterns.

‘viscous aggluniations of bubbling cells – rubbery fifteen foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile – slaves of suggestions…more and more sullen, more and more intelligent, more and more imitative…’

If, as Alain Badiou suggests, ontology equals mathematics[8] then the Shoggoths are the biological empty set in the ontological equation of existence, posing a deep and profound challenge, threatening the coherence of those who encounter it – they are ‘the alterity of alterity – the species of no species.’[9] The response of Lovecraft’s characters to encounters with creatures such as these shows the human inability to think through this kind of life. To quote from perhaps the most famous passage from At the Mountains of Madness;

…when Danforth and I saw the fresh glistening and reflectively iridescent black slime which clung thickly to those headless bodies and stank obscenely with that new unknown odour who cause only a diseased fancy could envisage – clung to those bodies and sparkled less voluminously on a smooth part of the accursedly sculptured wall in a series of grouped dots – we understood the quality of cosmic fear to its uttermost heights.’[10]

Lovecraft’s vision of blasphemous life is one that is deeply misanthropic and quote shockingly anti-human. From Dante’s vision of human blasphemy against God in the exercise of agency, we move At the mountains of Madness to a blasphemy of the unhuman (more and more amphibious) that is frequently incomprehensible  and almost always unnameable expressing the very inability of the subject to think through ‘life’ at all. From here it may seem that the trajectory of a blasphemous life from Dante to Lovecraft represents the failure of theology to provide a coherent or satisfactory ontology – Lovecraft’s Shoggoths are signs of, not the in breaking of Gods power (as in scripture) or even the embodiment of agency in rebellion against the Divine (as in Dante) but rather the revealing of negation as an ontological principle. Their life, as Thacker articulates is ‘the blasphemous life that is living but that should not be.’[11] Rather than any kind of positive presence the Shoggoths and the other figures of the Cthulhu mythos are sheer malevolent nothing – the revelation of the universe as cold, impersonal, misanthropic and without any kind of beneficent divine power behind it. To confront the Shoggoths and Cthulu is to be confronted with what the systematic theologian Karl Barth labelled as das Nichtige. Appearing in the third section of the third volume of his colossal magnum opus Church Dogmatics, the term draws on work by both Heidigger and Sartre, which, literally translated means ‘nothing’ or nothingness’ yet this translation communicates very little of the depth of what Barth was aiming to express. As Mark Lindsay says in his excellent essay on Barth’s doctrine of Evil in the wake of the holocaust:

“Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, presents it as the [existence of] a non-willed reality on the margins of God’s creation and providence, representing one of the most remarkable attempts in theological history to comprehend the problem of evil”[12]

On a linguistic level, the term has clear links to the work of both Sartre and Heidegger, yet Barth argues their understanding of nothingness is rather lax compared to the theologians – the two identify das Nichtige but mainly due to the historical circumstances through which they lived. Through the great upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries thinkers such as Sartre and Heidegger have been confronted with the stark reality and, crucially for Barth’s position, power of das Nichtige. As Barth himself articulates it in his Church Dogmatics,

they cannot deny that nothingness-and it may well be the true nothingness-has ineluctably and unforgettably confronted them …. Whoever is ignorant of the shock experienced and attested by Heidegger and Sartre is surely incapable of thinking and speaking as a modern man…’

The only Scriptural correlate for the depth of meaning within Barth’s das Nichtige is found either in the terms ‘chaos’ or the demonic. It is impossible therefore to separate das nichtige from Evil in Barth’s understanding – by way of a preface it should be stated that Barth does not use das Nichtige to explain Evil, as for Barth evil is ‘necessarily incomprehensible and inexplicable to us as human beings.’ Barth does not define evil as nothingness but rather Barth identifies evil as this nothingness. As a term, ‘evil’ is referring to this nothingness. His key definitional premise of das Nichtige seems eerily applicable to Lovecraft’s blasphemous creations – to quote from Nicholas Walterstoff’s essay, ‘Karl Barth: On Evil’- ‘The fundamental feature of nothingness is that it menaces – menaces God and creation alike – especially those creatures that are human. Evil is the actualization of this menace.’[13]

Perhaps with this understanding in place the route towards a theological reading of Lovecraft and his weird biologies seems more plausible. Rather than try and argue for a positive materialist theology, Lovecraft’s monsters are expressed as the blasphemous life of das Nichtige made “flesh” – lacking any positive attributes of their own they can only threaten the existence of life. Sleeping in their underwater cities, the Elder gods stand as the immanent presence of das Nichtige ready to subsume all of human existence, to transform the world-for-us into the world-without-us. Confronted with the void of das Nichtige there should be little wonder that Lovecraft’s protagonists and narrators frequently flee or descend into complete madness. An important caveat to add here would be to resist the temptation to move towards a totalising negative theology of Cthulhu – das Nichtige is by no means non-being – where there is this malevolent nothingness there is, however indescribable, something. This seems to be a point that Lovecraft’s own texts bear out as the Cthuhlu monsters are often given some notion or degree of being that at the same time eludes the descriptive ability of the observer. To quote from the famous story, The Call of Cthulhu:

‘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.’

‘They had shape…but that shape was not made of matter…They could not live…they would never really die’[14]  

To conclude, it would seem that whilst the idea of a theological reading of Lovecraft may seem initially untenable the theological tradition allows for a revealing understanding of both life and the all too unspeakable existence of das Nichtige. Concerned as it is with the limits and limitations of the human in the world theology must necessarily seek to answer and explain the horrific nature of das Nichtige that Lovecraft’s stories of the Elder Gods puts forward. Lovecraft’s Shoggoths can be understood therefore not simply as anthropological terrors but the embodiment of chaos menacing the life of creation – particularly the human life that encounters it both within and without the text. Thus, a theological reading of Lovecraft can offer fresh philosophical urgency to how we use weird fiction – not simply as a form of chilling entertainment but as a way of confronting the chaos and nothingness that inflict so much damage on the existence that we all inhabit. As Barth himself writes – ‘It is for theology no mere figure of speech or poetic fancy or expression of human concern but the simple truth that nothingness has this dynamic, that it is a kingdom on the march and engaged in invasion and assault’[15]

To return to Lovecraft’s quote with which I began, a theological reading of the Cthulhu mythos would seek to argue that just as Lovecraft claimed, nothing matters, very much indeed. And in dealing with Lovecraft’s incarnations of das Nichtige, may that be more than just the restfulness of a scientific convention.  

[1] ST Joshi: A Dreamer, A Visionary: HP Lovecraft in his time (Liverpool, LUP, 2001) pg. 132

[2] Eugene Thacker: Tentacles Longer Than Night, Horror of Philosophy Vol 3 (London, Zero Books, 2015)

[3] See Ben Woodward, Slime Dynamics, (London, Zero Books, 2013) Graham Harman, Weird Realism (London, Zero Books, 2012) and Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race

[4] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World As Will And Representation Vol II (London, Dover Publications, 2000) pg. 467

[5] Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol 1 (London, Zero Books, 2013) pg. 100

[6] Ibid pg. 101

[7] Dante Aligheri, Inferno, trans. Robin Kirkpatrick (London, Penguin Classics, 2006) pg. 121

[8] See Alain Badiou, Being and Event (London, Bloomsbury, 2013)

[9] Euegene Thacker, In the Dust of this Planet Horror of Philosophy Vol 1 (London, Zero Books, 2014) pg. 103

[10] H.P Lovecraft, ‘At The Mountain Of Madness’ in The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Tales (London, Vintage Classics, 2011) pg. 477

[11] Thacker, Horror of Philosophy Vol 1, pg. 104

[12] Mark Lindsay,  ‘Nothingness Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Evil in the wake of the Holocaust’ Colloquium 34/1 (2001)

[13] Nicholas Walterstorff, ‘Karl Barth: On Evil’ Faith and Philosophy, Vol 13 Issue 4 October 1996

[14] HP Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales, (London, Vinatage Classics, 2011) Pg. 79-80

[15] See Section three of Volume three of Church Dogmatics, quoted in Walterstorff ‘Karl Barth: On Evil’

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