When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong

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.

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11 Responses to When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong

  1. h0p3d1am0nd says:

    I appreciate the fact that you took a moment to brush past the veil Eurocentric ethnography to get at something more universal–the inadequacy of reason and the fear that goes with it. I think the biggest problem for the protagonist in The Call of Cthulhu is that he feels like the power of his reasoning should be sufficient to explain the strange happenings surrounding the statues. The fact that it’s almost “miraculous” (to use your reference to Hume) is what really frightens him. He says repeatedly that he “knows too much,” but I think what really terrifies him is the fact that what he knows shows how little he knows and how little rational knowledge will help him in miraculous dealings.

    Also, I like the way you mentioned Asimov’s story. One of the most poignant moments for me in that is when Aton is screaming after the eclipse, “Stars–all the Stars–we didn’t know at all. We didn’t know anything…we didn’t know we couldn’t know and anything–” Again, there’s this panic upon realizing that rational, scientific, fact-based knowledge is just not enough. This seems to be the root of the fear and madness in both of these texts; and regarding that, I believe you hit the nail on the head in your post.

    • Demosthenes says:

      Thank you for your kind words and for providing an additional twist to both of the stories for me. In considering both works, I find it curious that there is such a rigidity of thought amongst the characters. What I mean by that is that they are portrayed as men who operate without the benefit of doubt. Despite reasons to doubt being as near and ever present as their own shadows. Interestingly, this is normally how men of religion are usually conveyed in literature and popular culture. It’s as if inserting doubt, or the possibility that they could be wrong, is a thing of blasphemy for the scientists in these stories. It reminds me of a scene from Bill Maher’s “Religulous” where Bill and a man of faith face off with each asking the other, “What if you’re wrong?!”

      With regard to the lecture that took place in class on Friday, I don’t think progress, or a shift in paradigm, is even possible without some doubt; this goes for any field, scientific or in the humanities, in my humble opinion.

  2. mercerism says:

    It’s hard for me to read Lovecraft sometimes, too; often his stories go beyond mere inclusion of casual racism common in popular works from the 1920s to actually being thematically based on concepts of bloodline, ancestry, and fear of/disgust with the “other”, making it more difficult to wave it away as a mere “product of his time”.

    But I’m interested in your dismissal of ethnography as racist quackery. Do you mean that the idea that we can deploy an academic distance to record the conventions, practices, and beliefs of a culture with objectivity as a goal is *intrinsically* racist, as opposed to racist in practice (by early anthropologists)? I’m totally prepared to accept that argument, but if so, how does Latour’s explicitly ethnographic methodology interact with that? And what about other works that have likewise deployed the ethnographic methodology to subvert or attack the view of “smart advanced us studying dumb primitive them” such as “Life Among the Nacirema”?

    • Demosthenes says:

      I’m glad I wasn’t alone in my bristling reaction to the racism in the story. I’m also glad that you asked for clarification. It isn’t ethnography that I am dismissing as racist quackery. It’s ethnography from a superior standpoint, with an attitude towards the subjects as inherently inferior; in this case, and historically, from a Eurocentric perspective.

      The notions of equality and supremacy cannot co-exist. I believe any ethnographer worth one’s salt in the field today understands that such a practice is simply bad science. If one is to truly understand a culture than one must treat said culture, not with derision, but with the utmost respect; and rather than dismiss something as “savage”, “backward”, or “primitive” because it is diametrically opposed to what is normal to you, to try and get at it from the vantage point of someone to whom it is the norm.

      By the way, I have never heard of “Life Among the Nacirema” but I will read it once I have the opportunity. Thanks for sharing.

      • mercerism says:

        Oh yeah, I’m totally on board with all that. And I can’t recommend “Life Among the Nacirema” highly enough. I think it’s one of the key works that started to expose, and thus purge, ethnography of its implicit assumptions of superiority (to the extent that that has actually happened)

  3. “The rationalism of my mind and the extravagance of the whole subject led me to adopt what I thought the most sensible conclusions.” This thought is meant to contrast with “I felt deeply moved despite my rational beliefs,” but now that I see the two side by side, in the context of the descent into madness, I’m beginning to wonder if two thoughts are so different after all. Thurston’s “deeply moved, despite [his] rational beliefs,” to believe something irrational, though arrived at by rational means. “The Call of Cthulhu,” in a way, documents Thurston’s adoption of “the most sensible conclusions,” though the most sensible conclusions are here almost literally mind-blowing. Madness comes, it seems, when one’s forced to accept something seemingly irrational, but to which the facts invariably point.

    • Demosthenes says:

      I really like the way you phrased your definition of madness. Though, I would like to add one caveat. Thurston, in my opinion, did not truly go mad. He came incredibly close and went through a tremendous amount of despair at having his entire world turned inside out. But he held it together, for the most part, ultimately accepting the conclusions he reached. Whereas, the scientists in Asimov’s tale, by contrast, went bat-shit crazy.

      So in slightly tweaking your definition, or phrasing, I’d say that, madness comes, when one is unable to accept something seemingly irrational, but to which the facts invariably point.

      Thurston guessed that this revelation would probably drive a lot of people to madness or worse and made the “conscientious” decision to keep it from the eye’s of others [I’m really looking past the fact that he wrote the damned thing down to begin with, which one wouldn’t do if trying to die with a horrible secret. The catch-22 being that we’d have no story to discuss if that were the case].

      • mercerism says:

        Yeah, that’s another of Lovecraft’s amusing idiosyncracies: “It was completeley indescribable! Now, I will describe it with scientific precision.” “No one can ever know these sanity-blasting cosmic secrets! This is why I am meticulously chronicling every detail of my experiences, as well as the historical context surrounding them.”

        But I’m still trying to reconcile “Of Miracles”, “Nightfall”, and “Call of Cthulhu” into a perspective on being faced with “proof” of the impossible. At first glance, it seems like a tidy progression from Hume’s contention that you should either just refuse to believe it or calmly alter your worldview to accommodate it, Lovecraft’s perspective that the kind of radical redefinition of reality required involves so much strain that madness is a distinct possibility (possibly the narrator was spared because the knowledge came gradually, whereas the sailors’ notions of reality were challenged so suddenly that they snapped), and Asimov’s scenario in which you’re going to flip your shit no matter how prepared you think you are. But the historical context that Asimov’s story is probably parodic or insincere complicates this question.

  4. scififann says:

    I completely agree with the point you make about his rationalism becoming a “mental life raft” towards the end of the text. His desire to both transcribe his findings and hide the truth he unearthed appeared paradoxical to me at first, but if we read his decision to record his findings as a last effort to cling onto his rationalism, it actually makes a lot of sense. He refers to his record as a “test” if his sanity in the line: “With it shall go this record of mine–this test of my own sanity, wherein is pierced together that which I hope may never be pierced together again.” Although he’s scared that someone will find this record, he’s even more scared that someone will question his sanity. I think this really demonstrates him “clinging onto his rationalism” and the state of the world he knew before he delved into Cthulhu’s mysteries. He also talks about how the Cthulhu may rise again in the lines: “What has risen may sink, and what his sunk may rise.” There is a sense of inevitability in his words, and I think that this idea can be applied to knowledge too – what has been unearthed can be hidden again and vice versa – a belief that partially excuses him for transcribing his findings. If someone will inevitably learn about the Cthulhu anyway, it makes sense that he thinks the preservation of his “sanity” is more important, since everyone else seems to slip into madness after discovering the truth.

  5. I’m interested in how you compared Asimov’s and Lovecraft’s characters’ descent into madness. I appreciate your note that Asimov’s characters go insane quite instantaneously (I also didn’t quite get what was going on until I read it again), while Lovecraft’s Thurston has a slow descent into madness. As the blogger above me has said, perhaps Thurston’s descent is slower because he tries to write through what he has experienced. Is Thurston’s authorship an attempt to cope with the brutal knowledge he has of the Cthulu? Is he like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who is eternally compelled to share what he has learned?

    Asimov’s characters, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have much interest in sharing what they knew, if I remember correctly. They didn’t seem to care if the public knew their version of the world was ending. Is this why they went mad so abruptly?

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