Ben Woodard – ‘A Nature to Pulp the Stoutest Philosopher: Towards a Lovecraftian Philosophy of Nature’

Special commissioned writing by Ben Woodard
A Nature to Pulp the Stoutest Philosopher: Towards a Lovecraftian Philosophy of Nature

The possibility of Lovecraftian philosophy (and a philosophy of nature) is at least a threefold weirdness:

1-Lovecraft’s own philosophical views were bitingly materialist following in the footsteps of Hugh Elliot, Bertrand Russell as well as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer while making dismissive remarks about Bergson, Freud and others. Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for Nietzsche was actually more Schopenhauerian than it appeared as evidenced in his piece Nietzscheism and Realism.[i]

2-Lovecraft’s reception ‘among the philosophers’ has been fairly limited with only a few scattered remarks from Deleuze and Guattari and philosophical-literary treatments by Michel Houellebecq, ST Joshi, and others. Though it seems to have begun to change with Speculative Realism and other connected thinkers – as even Badiou has expressed his appreciation for Lovecraft.[ii]

3-This relationship of Lovecraft to philosophy and philosophy to Lovecraft is coupled with Lovecraft’s habit of mercilessly destroying the philosopher and the figure of the academic more generally in his work, a destruction which is both an epistemological destruction (or sanity breakdown) and an ontological destruction (or unleashing of the corrosive forces of the cosmos). These demolitions are a result of a materialism which border on supernaturalism in Lovecraft’s cosmos, a materialism which operates within an onto-epistemological indistinction. This indistinction, which runs throughout weird fiction on the whole, means not only that being and knowing are indistinct and cannot be pre-determined by thought, but that it is difficult to separate being and thinking formally from one another.

Or, in other words, the horrorific entities and forces of Lovecraft’s fiction (while rigorously materialistic and part of a real nature) simultaneously test the limits of knowing on a small scale – ‘do I know what X is?’ – as well as on a large scale ‘can I know what X is?’ as well as ontological limits, of questioning the very possibilities of is such as in the horrific phrase ‘what is that?.’[iii]

This indistinction, as Lovecraft engages it, can appear as supernaturalism, as what he describes as nature wavers between nature-as-we-know-it and nature-as-it-is both of which rend humanity simultaneously in thought and flesh. In addressing Lovecraft’s texts, this paper sets out to propose a philosophy of nature in which the formal isolation of rationality is undone by the processes of an acidic materialism, a rationality which Lovecraft cements in the level headed philosopher and dust-coated academic.

First we will account for nature as ruthless cause and then articulate the effect of Lovecraftian nature as madness. This statement presupposes a discord between the being of nature and the faculties of reason and representation. Whereas much of contemporary philosophy is happy to collapse the being/knowing distinction several recent thinkers are challenging such bland normativity. As Ray Brassier has put it:

“the metaphysical exploration of the structure of being can only be carried out in tandem with an epistemological investigation into the nature of conception. For we cannot understand what is real unless we understand what ‘what’ means, and we cannot understand what ‘what’ means without understanding what ‘means’ is, but we cannot hope to understand what ‘means’ is without understanding what ‘is’ means.”[iv]

The relation of thought and nature is simultaneously obvious (of course nature is the ultimate cause for the processes of thinking) and poetically irreducible (my thoughts, feelings, etc can never be the result of only gray matter). It is this troubling two-headedness which manifests itself as the aforementioned duality of nature-for-us and nature-in-itself. Take the following from the closing passages of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”

“What it is, only God knows. In terms of matter I suppose the thing Ammi described would be called a gas, but this gas obeyed laws that are not of our cosmos. This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shin on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”[v]

Nature, as a malicious force, plays a hellish joke on the arctic explores of At the Mountains of Madness” and continuously tests the characters of Lovecraft’s tales. From the closing lines of “The Dunwich Horror”:

“It was—well, it was mostly a kind of force that doesn’t belong in our part of space; a kind of force that acts and grows and shapes itself by other laws than those of our sort of Nature.”[vi]

The irruption of another sort of nature is also found in “The Shadow over Innsmouth:”

“It was the end, for whatever remains to me of life on the surface of this earth, of every vestige of mental peace and confidence in the integrity of Nature and of the human mind. Nothing that I could have imagined—nothing, even, that I could have gathered had I credited old Zadok’s crazy tale in the most literal way—would be in any way comparable to the daemoniac, blasphemous reality that I saw—or believe I saw. I have tried to hint what it was in order to postpone the horror of writing it down baldly. Can it be possible that this planet has actually spawned such things; that human eyes have truly seen, as objective flesh, what man has hitherto known only in febrile phantasy and tenuous legend?”[vii]

The commentaries of both Michel Houellebecq and ST Joshi point that despite the fantastic contours of Lovecraft’s manifestations they are never supernatural but are supernormal due to an acceptance of extreme probabilities[viii] that is, the extreme (but still strictly materialist) creations of Lovecraft are still physically possible. Or, as Michel Houellebecq writes: “What is Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us. Lovecraft’s terror is rigorously materialism. But, it is quite possible, given the free interplay of cosmic forces”[ix]

Lovecraft’s quiet mocking of the academic at the hands of tumultuous nature takes a particularly devastating turn in “The Strange High House in the Mist.” In the story the professor of philosophy Thomas Olney moves to Kingsport and, after some consideration, decides to explore the house in the distance. Suffice it to say that the poor stout philosopher loses his spirit there and becomes a good citizen with his disciplined thoughts. Given the story’s place in Lovecraft’s later work, it is difficult to square the fate of Olney with the author’s materialism.[x] The house, I want to argue, is the obscured object caught in the recurring cycle of materialism, an object which consumes Olney’s philosophical ennui. Donald Burleson in Lovecraft:Disturbing the Universewrites: “The status of the house is as oscillatingly unstable as is the spacing of the opposition between inside and outside”[xi]

To bring the house closer to the discussion at hand, it functions as a liminal space, as an objective mirroring of the onto-epistemological indistinction functioning in horror(and that horror functions within), a place where (since we are operating within Lovecraft’s appropriately soulless materialism) culls the consciousness from those who dare to enter. Lovecraft reduces the subject to no more than a meat bag whose thought process is one of many natural processes. Since thought is a natural process, and thereby nature thinks (in a distinctively Schellingian vein), thought is nature’s attempt to become an object to itself, an impossible task given the arrow of time, thought can never catch up to the production of nature.[xii]

The attempt of thought to capture nature in Lovecraft’s world leads directly to madness and epistemology is the formal circumventing or at least softening of such a possibility.

From “The Lurking Fear”:

“I waited while he leaned out and tried to fathom Nature’s pandemonium.”[xiii]

One of the better known passages of Lovecraft is the opening passage from “The Call of Cthulhu” a passage which is resoundingly epistemological:

“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. ”[xiv]

Yet, in other instances, Lovecraft seems to err more towards the epistemological damage and less about the ontological weirdness of nature itself and more the epistemological softness of the investigator.

In “From Beyond”: “That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator, for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair if he fail in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.”[xv]

From “At the Mountains of Madness”:

“Every incident of that four-and-a-half-hour flight is burned into my recollection because of its crucial position in my life. It marked my loss, at the age of fifty-four, of all that peace and balance which the normal mind possesses through its accustomed conception of external Nature and Nature’s laws.”[xvi]

From “The Dunwich Horror”:

“Then the germ of panic seemed to spread among the seekers. It was one thing to chase the nameless entity, but quite another to find it. Spells might be all right—but suppose they weren’t? Voices began questioning Armitage about what he knew of the thing, and no reply seemed quite to satisfy. Everyone seemed to feel himself in close proximity to phases of Nature and of being utterly forbidden, and wholly outside the sane experience of mankind.”[xvii]

One of the more complex passages is found in Lovecraft’s “The Unnameable”:

“Manton remained thoughtful as I said this, but gradually reverted to his analytical mood. He granted for the sake of argument that some unnatural monster had really existed, but reminded me that even the most morbid perversion of Nature need not be unnamable or scientifically indescribable […]  if the psychic emanations of human creatures be grotesque distortions, what coherent representation could express or portray so gibbous and infamous a nebulosity as the spectre of a malign, chaotic perversion, itself a morbid blasphemy against Nature? Moulded by the dead brain of a hybrid nightmare, would not such a vaporous terror constitute in all loathsome truth the exquisitely, the shriekingly unnamable?”[xviii]

Lovecraft questions the possibility of thought to represent the unnatural suggesting, somewhat paradoxically, that the possible is always unthinkable or, perhaps more accurately, unpredictable.

Lovecraft’s fiction then cross-wires while also separating apart representation and non-representation while, perhaps taking a Schopenhauerian path, unites them both in a mad materialism which, at varying proximities, induces madness. The fact that Lovecraft’s weird horror operates as (and within) onto-epistemological indistinction, does not negate the distinction between thought and materiality, (or will and representation)[xix] it merely cracks open the former to the destructive forces of the latter. Lovecraft is one of the few thinkers who appreciates the weakness of thought in the face of non-domesticated materialism something that even Deleuze did not fully appreciate as he believed the philosopher could return from the land of chaos.[xx]

For Lovecraft there is no separation as chaos is the world only veneered in the illusion of sanity. Blake, from “The Haunter in the Dark” has the following experience while staring at an old stone, an experience which can only be called transcendental paranoia:

“He saw towers and walls in nighted depths under the sea, and vortices of space where wisps of black mist floated before thin shimmerings of cold purple haze. And beyond all else he glimpsed an infinite gulf of darkness, where solid and semi-solid forms were known only by their windy stirrings, and cloudy patterns of force seemed to superimpose order on chaos and hold forth a key to all the paradoxes and arcana of the worlds we know. Then all at once the spell was broken by an access of gnawing, indeterminate panic fear. Blake choked and turned away from the stone, conscious of some formless alien presence close to him and watching him with horrible intentness. He felt entangled with something—something which was not in the stone, but which had looked through it at him—something which would ceaselessly follow him with a cognition that was not physical sight.”[xxi]

The reality of horror is the justification of this paranoia’s materiality.


[i] See H.P. Lovecraft “Nietzscheism and Realism” and other essays in Collected Essays Volume 5: Philosophy, Autobiography, and Miscellany ed ST Joshi (Hippocampus Press, 2006)

[ii] In the opening of Essays Critical and Clinical Deleuze writes: “Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or vegetable, becomes-molecule to the point of becoming-imperceptible. These becomings may be linked to each other by  particular line, as in Le Clezio’s novels; or they may coexist at every level, following the doorways, thresholds, and zones that make up the entire universe, as in Lovecraft’s powerful oeuvre” (Minnesota Press, 1997, p 1).

See also Deleuze and Guattari’s “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible” in A Thousand Planteaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, as well as Michel Houellebecq’s Against the World, Against Life as well as ST Joshi’s Decline of the West.

For several Speculative Realist texts on Lovecraft see Collapse vol. 4 as well as Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. Badiou’s brief remarks on Lovecraft were made at the European Graduate School in August of 2008. In personal interaction Badiou expressed fondness for “The Colour Out of Space”

[iii] For a longer text on Lovecraft and realism see “Thinking Against Nature” in Speculations vol 1

[iv] Brassier, Ray, “Concepts and Objects” in The Speculative Turn (Re.Press forthcoming)

[v] “The Colour Out of Space,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 616

[vi] “The Dunwich Horror,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 667

[vii] “The Shadow Over Inssmouth,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 853

[viii] S. T. Joshi, H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, (Berkley Heights: Wildside Press, 1990), p 89

[ix] Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2005), p 32

[x] This materialism is excluding Lovecraft’s early Poe stories such as “The Alchemist”

[xi] Donald Burleson, Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe (The University Press of Kentucky, 2009), p 97

[xii] See “Speculative Realism” especially Iain Grant’s presentation in Collapse v. 3

[xiii] “The Lurking Fear,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p. 231

[xiv] “The Call of Cthulhu,” in in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 355

[xv] “From Beyond,” in in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 115

[xvi] “At the Mountains of Madness,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 744

[xvii] “The Dunwich Horror,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 663

[xviii] “The Unnameable,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 259-260

[xix] Nick Land’s mad black Deleuzianism, ia arguably the most Lovecraftian philosophy as it is a rabid materialism in the form of the production of production thereby accompanying Lovecraft’s radical becomings.

As Brassier has recently argued however, Land collapses productive materiality and productive intellection without having the privileged forms of thought of Bergson and Deleuze (or phenomenological access via Heidegger etc) in order to account for individuation. In other words, Lovecraft’s shift between nature-for-us and nature-in-itself operates in an onto-epistemological indistinction which itself in the intersection of at least two sets of processes (that of thought as a process of nature and the formative forces of material nature beyond human purview) which, unlike Land, still maintains the separation of reality and appearance.

[xx] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, (Columbia University Press, 1996), p 201-202

[xxi] “The Haunter in the Dark,” in H.P. Lovecraft The Fiction Complete and Unabridged, (New York:

Barnes and Noble, 2008), p 1009

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~ by caryncoleman on November 4, 2010.

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