Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Art, Cosmic Horror, and the Fetishizing Gaze in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Art, Cosmic Horror, and the Fetishizing Gaze in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft

Article excerpt

In the stories of new England speculative fiction writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, characters seem incapable of the objective detachment requisite to an aesthetic judgment. When confronted with natural spectacles that ought to give rise to a feeling of the sublime, for instance, they are too entangled in the web of Lovecraft's cosmic horror to contemplate the vast expanses of nature in a manner that would see the humanity in them uplifted. (1) The land surveyor in "The Colour out of Space" takes no pleasure in observing the infinite expanse of the night sky upon his return from his first visit to the valley west of Arkham, where the ominous "blasted heath" is located: "[He] vaguely wished some clouds would gather, for an odd timidity about the deep skyey [sic] voids above had crept into [his] soul" ("Colour," 55). After he hears Ammi Pierce's story about the spot, moreover, his fear drives him to "hurr[y] back before sunset to [his] hotel, unwilling to have the stars come out above [him] in the open" (56). Even the grotesque fails to inspire a disinterested contemplation in Lovecraft. In "The Dunwich Horror," his characters are too fearful of the monstrous human-alien spawn they must face to engage aesthetically the spectacle of its ritualistic chanting at the top of a mountain: "The weird silhouette on that remote peak must have been a spectacle of infinite grotesqueness and impressiveness, but no observer was in the mood for aesthetic appreciation" ("Dunwich," Dunwich 194). As I hope to make evident in the ensuing analysis, his characters are equally incapable of the detached and life-affirming judgment of the beautiful.

The inability of Lovecraft's protagonists to perceive phenomena with the kind of objective distance demanded by the aesthetic gaze originates in their enmeshment in "cosmic horror," a devastating experience which rouses a fear far exceeding that of merely dying. In death, our finite, individual being ceases to be, yet we can find comfort in our awareness that our cultural heritage is of value and that the community we leave behind will survive us. Lovecraft's characters cannot find solace in these thoughts, since the horror they face is an index of the meaninglessness of the human condition. The origins of cosmic horror are to be found in two aspects of Lovecraft's personal philosophy which he elaborates upon in his essays and correspondence: his adoption of a mechanistic materialist view of life and his position as a self-described "cosmic indifferentist," both of which divest human life of telos. (2) Accordingly, it has become commonplace in Lovecraft scholarship to affirm that his antihumanistic creation narrative asserts that our social bonds, religious beliefs, and cultural achievements are not only irrelevant if considered from outside the limited scope of human affairs, but are based upon a false understanding of the cosmos and of our place in it. "Lovecraft's major fictional themes," observes Donald Burleson in a statement that succinctly sums up this prevailing critical stance, "form a sort of conceptual web, interlacing to provide a potential for expression of the one major idea that always emerges; [...] self-knowledge, or discovery of one's own position in the real fabric of the universe, is psychically ruinous" (Burleson 137). To cite two exemplary cases from Lovecraft's fiction, according to the bas-reliefs found in the Antarctic alien city in "At the Mountains of Madness," humanity is the accidental byproduct of scientific experiments conducted by aliens who colonized the earth long ago. Furthermore, if the fate of the time-travelling Great Race of super-aliens in "The Shadow out of Time"--beings far superior to us who nevertheless cannot escape the doom of their civilization--is any indication, cosmic horror presages the annihilation of our human way of life. Cosmic horror therefore amounts to an experience of the cataclysmic horror that the human subject experiences once it cognizes the finitude of its existence and realizes that, contrary to a humanist view which posits human life as intrinsically meaningful in relation not only to itself but to the cosmos, there is neither anything distinctive nor significant about being human. …

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