For me, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu was quite difficult to reconcile. In attempting to separate the racist, and the racism, from the eloquent writing I had to channel my inner Gandhi by loving the sinner but hating the sin. So, despite the pervading and problematic jargon of the, now debunked, pseudo-science of racial theory and white supremacist notions interspersed throughout this work (which had to be taken with more than a few grains of salt), this was for me the most enjoyable reading of the semester to this point.
Rather than rail against ethnography from a Eurocentric perspective, I will relegate it to the realm of quackery to which phrenology and eugenics inhabit. Instead, I would like to discuss a different type of reconciliation, or rather failed attempts at it. Thurston’s struggle between being rooted in rationalism and being increasingly convinced, due to mounting evidence, of the miraculous as David Hume would define it; that which transgresses the laws of nature. This seems to be a recurring theme in a few of the selections we have read thus far. I believe that looking at this may help us understand the madness, or worse, that befalls characters throughout those readings from this staggering cognitive dissonance.
In The Call of Cthulhu Thurston gradually, and painfully, deals with this issue. Throughout the narrative, Lovecraft exemplifies Burke’s notion of the mind being robbed of all its powers of reasoning through fear. It is fascinating to read this transition unfold. At first he dismisses what he has learned, believing that there has to be a reasonable explanation for these coincidences. He says, “…only the ingrained skepticism then forming my philosophy can account for my continued distrust of the artist (Wilcox).” Later when reflecting on the clippings he found and on the conclusions he was drawing, he recounts, “…I can at this date scarcely envisage the callous rationalism with which I set them aside.” Later still, his rationalism becomes a mental life raft of sorts, he is beginning to believe but continues to hang on, he relates “…the rationalism of my mind and the extravagance of the whole subject led me to adopt what I thought the most sensible conclusions.” After visiting Wilcox he begins to lose himself. “I felt deeply moved despite my rational beliefs (emphasis mine)”, he says. And finally, when contemplating the tale of Johansen he is so overwhelmed by his inability to reconcile this dissonance, he no longer desires to live; he says, “When I think of the extent of all that may be brooding down there I almost wish to kill myself forthwith.”
This is akin to Asimov’s Nightfall. The characters, all men of science like Lovecraft’s Thurston, cannot cope with this either and reach a breaking point in which they go mad. While Asimov’s characters go nuts almost too quickly to appreciate (I personally didn’t understand what the hell happened at first and had to re-read the last page a couple of more times before I got it), Lovecraft details this descent beautifully, in a get under your skin and make it crawl type of beautiful. One can imagine this story, if taken at face value, “do(ing) violence to the imagination”, to quote Kant, not only to the character in the tale but the reader as well. Though tame by today’s standards, it is still pretty frightening stuff.