Friday, September 30, 2011

Lovecraft as Proto-Chaos Magician?

Much has been made (especially by Donald Tyson in his recent book The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft) of Lovecraft’s dalliance with Graeco-Roman paganism during his formative years, especially the claim that HPL had at least one visionary experience of fauns and satyrs. In a similar vein, whilst reading Joshi’s masterful I Am Providence, I was interested to note something Joshi highlights with regard to Lovecraft’s essay ‘A Confession of Unbelief’, and which indicates that HPL may have pre-empted the Chaos magickal methodology of paradigm shifting by some 80 years or so:

‘I read much in Egyption, Hindoo, and Tuetonic mythology, and tried experiments in pretending to believe in each one, to see which might contain the greatest truth.’

Of course, long-time readers will realise that the title of my post is a little misleading, as I don’t mean to entertain here the notion that Lovecraft was involved in any kind of formal 'occult' practice (indeed, in ‘A Confession of Unfaith’ Lovecraft follows the above statement immediately with ‘I had, it will be noted, immediately adopted the method and manner of science!’); also I think it extremely unlikely that Lovecraft’s words on this matter were in any way influential on early Chaos magick (despite other overt Lovecraftian influences on that particular genre of postmodern occulture).

Despite the flawed and usually speculative attempts by esotericists to establish formal links between Lovecraft and genuine bodies of occult lore (or, in the case of occultists such as Tyson and Grant, the inference that Lovecraft’s heightened capacity for dreaming meant he must have been attuned to some otherworldly reality), I think there are valuable anthropological insights regarding the human condition to be gained by examining the connection between speculative fiction, visionary experience, and the human propensity to construct hypothetical otherworlds through the medium of religion.

The capacity to formulate and communicate publically symbolic and abstract concepts is central not only to human social life in general, but is key to the transmission of religious and political ideologies, both of which - like much of speculative fiction - are premised on the construction of creatively imagined, alternative moral worlds. Here I’d direct interested readers to David Lewis Williams book on cognitive archaeology, The Mind in the Cave, and Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Human Mind, both of which explore the close relationship between art and religion in the making of modern humanity (at least in a cognitive sense).

Literature is premised on the complex but everyday human capacity known as Theory of Mind, which for brevity’s sake I’ll simply define as the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes (in terms of fiction, we may think that writers are are getting us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist; but what is really happening is that the author is getting us to imagine being the author who is imagining being the protagonist!). Theory of Mind is a also central cognitive capacity in the production of religious concepts with regard to our ability to actually conceptualise or create mental representations of supernatural entities. Common to many religious systems is the engendering of the belief that powerful supernatural beings are thinking about what you as a believer are thinking about - very useful either as a system of social control and a means, as Scott Atran points out in his book In Gods We Trust, of discouraging defection from any social coalition.

Theory of Mind is also requisite capacity for roleplay - an incredibly socially useful activity which we all participate in (regardless of whether we play Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu or not!) . In relation to Lovecraft, I’ve mentioned in an earlier post his youthful propensity for a kind of activity which in contemporary gamer culture would pass as a kind of simulationist rpging/wargaming. That aside, the capacity for roleplay is something which we also engage in when reading fiction, but it is also a requisite capacity for ritual and ritualised enactments of communion with posited supernatural entities, whether in the form of communicating with an evoked entity, or through trance, possession, channelling, etc. In other words, many religious practices - especially where they involve supposed interactions with alleged supernatural beings - engage the (relatively mundane) functioning of our evolved cognitive architecture, and our capacity for the production of symbols, in forms of creative role-play which may not be that different from those used in the production of fantastic fiction, myth, etc.

In any case, some of these ideas will be explored in a bit more detail my book on the Lovecraftian paranormal (once I get back to writing the damned thing!).

1 comment:

  1. I need to crack on with that paper that we talked about - Piers