Saturday, 24 March 2012

My reply to Jason Colavito

I tried to post my response to Jason, who wrote a lengthy reply to my "Prometheus: The Sublime Chaogony of Xenoarchaeology", but I couldn't get it to load on his website, so I figured I had no choice but to put it here instead.

OK I'm back to post my response. Even if you disagree with me, I hope this will at least give a clearer idea of where I'm coming from. Apologies if this sounds a little brusque at times, but I had a few interruptions:

You suggest that Beal, and by extension, myself, have somehow relocated Lovecraft's aliens in the "spirit realm". Frankly, I'm baffled by this interpretation. I can see no evidence for this in Beal's work or in my post. Beal even goes so far as to write that "Lovecraft's own use of mythology, however, could not be further from...nostalgic religious longing" (p191). Regardless, you insist on taking issue with Beal's claim that Lovecraft's aliens are "reminiscent" of theological language about the "paradoxical immanence and transcendence of God", arguing instead that Lovecraft's intentions were to "mirror" for the sake of parody. I disagree as I think this is attaching too much weight to what Beal means by "reminiscent." Beal's purpose is not to use Lovecraft to shore up a Biblical exegesis in accord with strict doctrine. Speaking more in terms of an analogy or an elective affinity in this instance, it seems clear to me instead that all he means to evoke by his description is a sense of how the entities in question are "intimately near and yet wholly other". There's no conflation of God and aliens. There is nothing here that presupposes a shared spirit realm, with the emphasis falling instead on the paradoxically, to use Lovecraft's term, "undimensioned". Beal notes how Lovecraft DOES NOT have a theology (as per the "theologian without a theology" quote), so it can be taken as read that Lovecraft's aliens are, in Beal's eyes-- to quote your Nietzschean expression (which I seem to recall Lovecraft applied to the Great Old Ones)-- "beyond good and evil". This point is reinforced with reference to Derleth's  attempt to turn the Mythos into "cathedral windows", which Beal dutifully notes has been criticised by Lovecraftians for its simplistic portrayal of a struggle between good and evil (p187). It is noteworthy that Beal makes no attempt whatsoever to defend Derleth from these charges.

I don't know if other more specific theological terms, such as panentheism for example, could be compared and contrasted with what Lovecraft may have meant by "undimensioned", especially once "spirit" is not even really at issue in Beal's analogy. This is probably also the reason why Beal doesn't develop his theory as an apophatic theology and cataphasis by arguing, say, that Lovecraft favored various rhetorical devices, such as occultatio, because the Mythos somehow "covertly" expressed a negative theology. Thus I decided instead to base my evaluation of Beal's work solely on what he explicitly set out to achieve. For me it follows that, while your comments about "The Dunwich Horror" are perhaps of some general interest to Lovecraftians, I can't see how they're really applicable to Beal at all, not least because he does not even refer to Christ in his Lovecraft chapter (and the same is true of the book as a whole, with the exception of one page). He's clearly more interested in the Hebrew Bible (there's also no mention of the Jewish messianism in the book). It's a moot point then whether Lovecraft's "parody" of Christ lends much "weight" to his fiction at Beal's expense, in the manner which you suggest.

It's surely no accident either that Beal decided to call his book "Religion and Its Monsters", as opposed to say, "Biblical Monsters". I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with your point that Beal is claiming that Lovecraft's aliens are "essentially biblical". You suggest that Beal,  "overestimates the biblical echoes in the Cthulhu Mythos at the expense of the pagan religions that were more explicitly the monsters’ model. (Not to mention that the Bible’s monsters were themselves reworking of earlier Mesopotamian and Levantine myths, perhaps including Tiamat.)". The fact of the matter though is that Beal contextualizes his discussion by devoting the entire first chapter of his book to the gods of "the ancient Near East", including the Tiamat  you mention, writing, "Behind and around the religious traditions of the Hebrew a rich and varied world of gods, monsters and monster gods". He then develops this line of argument by using as his example the stories about Baal and Anat in Ugaritic narrative that are closely related to the Hebrew Bible (p19). Beal even takes care to include the Hebrew terms, so one can draw the obvious inference that there was a considerable convergence and differentiation of the Israelite religion vis-à-vis its Caanite heritage. True to form, in his Lovecraft chapter, Beal warms to this "reworking" theme, describing how Lovecraft stitched together [a mythology]...from mutually incompatible religious discourses and ritual practices...jamming together theological and mythological categories" and then "from Sumerian to Egyptian to Puritan to Vodou" (p191).  I honestly can't see any inconsistency or "overestimation" here or elsewhere of the biblical influence on Beal's part.

You produce some compelling evidence that complicates how we should read the role that anthropology has played in colonialism (we both understand archaeology as falling under the umbrella term of "anthropology"). But I think that when we examine the discipline's "balance sheet", something can still be said for my argument. I have to concur with Maximilian Forte:

"You’re right, it would be good to hear from other evil colonizers beside myself, the reason for that being that there would be an almost countless number of diverse cases and many different versions of the argument, and disputes. One generalization I would be confident in making is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, these different people did not seek out any foreign anthropologist to “share” their worldviews, that many of them are capable of doing so on their own, and that a few would rather keep their cultural knowledge to themselves.
In other words, I don’t think we are indispensable where sharing worldviews is concerned, nor do I think we are wanted, and very little thanks is owing to us."

Moving along, another sticking point for you is that I appear to have mistakenly emphasized the role of "primitive faiths" in Lovecraft's fiction. You are interested to know how modern peoples relate to "primitive religion", "is it to their texts, their rituals, their myths, or their actions?" It's a fair question, and I'll attempt to to answer it in terms of rituals (which here necessarily connote actions). Firstly, I should note that one of the underlying fears expressed in Lovecraft's work is that humanity is in constant danger of reverting to a state of "primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances". This is a quote from The Horror of Red Hook, but it is representative enough for Joshi in his study "H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West," to feature in the context of a discussion of the "curious mixture of an advanced technology and a reversion to primitivism" that pervades Lovecraft's work. Lovecraft was pretty explicit about this point: "We must recognise the essential underlying savagery in the animal called man...We must realise that man's nature will remain the same so long as he remains man; that civilisation is but a slight coverlet beneath which the dominant beast sleeps lightly and ever ready to awake." This is a fascinating statement because it demonstrates Lovecraft's belief in the essentially primordial unchanging nature of humanity as something continually reinscribed in ritualistic forms.

  Notwithstanding the progress of the West, for Lovecraft the danger is that the actions of humans will in effect merely rework the "ritual observances" of "primitive half-ape savagery", be it through science or any other modern means. Social darwinist that he was, Lovecraft believed that, as you point out, "racially suspect groups" were particularly susceptible to knowledge of the Cthulthu cult, although not exclusively so. The use of advanced mathematics etc, however, need not imply that the rituals are no longer primitive in any sense, but rather that they paradoxically typify a form of "future primitivism". To illustrate what I mean, I point to the intriguing example of the Chaos magicians who borrow so much from Lovecraft. They have seized on this seemingly paradoxical term to evoke the shamanism more often characterized in terms of "primitive" ritual observances:

"As we find with Lovecraft's fictional cults and grimoires, chaos magicians refuse the hierarchical, symbolic and monotheist biases of traditional esotericism. Like most Chaos magicians, the British occultist Peter Carroll gravitates towards the Black, not because he desires a simple Satanic inversion of Christianity but because he seeks the amoral and shamanic core of magical experience—a core that Lovecraft conjures up with his orgies of drums, guttural chants, and screeching horns. At the same time, Chaos mages like Carroll also plumb the weird science of quantum physics, complexity theory and electronic Prometheanism. Some darkside magicians become consumed by the atavistic forces they unleash or addicted to the dark costume of the Satanic anti-hero. But the most sophisticated adopt a balanced mode of gnostic existentialism that calls all constructs into question while refusing the cold comforts of skeptical reason or suicidal nihilism, a pragmatic and empirical shamanism that resonates as much with Lovecraft's hard-headed materialism as with his horrors."

I won't respond to what you've written about At the Mountains of Madness because I can't readily fit it into my blog post or Beal's work which touches more on the ritualistic aspects etc. And besides, I've probably written too much already as it is. I'll close by saying that I was intrigued by your critique of the alleged shortcomings in how Beal portrays Lovecraft's aliens as "chaos monsters". I'm not fully on board though with how you argue that the Bible describes "chaos" only in an absolute sense, especially when Beal talks about how chaos is sometimes portrayed in the Bible as a form of creation, and therefore a new form of order. Beal even relates his discussion (p15) to the prospective heat death of the universe. Lovecraft,"the Copernicus of horror", seemed to think it was merciful that some things remain unknown, so I can only assume he wouldn't have shared Beal's cautious optimism!

Speaking of creation, I don't want to depart on a sour note by giving the impression that I am not a fan of Lovecraft, or the works he's obviously inspired, such as Alien and Prometheus. I love each and every one of them. Yes, I find his racism very disturbing, but I think the philosopher Ben Noys gave all Lovecraftians a great way of understanding how Lovecraft's writings are still paradoxically irreducible to such shortcomings, even though we should remind ourselves of them, as I attempted to do in my post:

 'In the formation of “reactionary novelties” (Badiou) Lovecraft can be aligned with those forms of “High Modernism,” such as T. S. Eliot’s, that constituted themselves, in Peter Nicholls words, as “an attack on modernity” (251). The difficulty, in terms of Badiou’s evental tracings, is how Lovecraft’s “novelty” is something artistically “new” while at the same time “politically” reactionary (and reactionary against other artistic innovations); it suggests the intersection or imbrication of events: in this case art, science, politics.

His reaction against these currents of the new produces a “reactionary novelty,” but actually also a true novelty of disruption that exceeds its primary evental site – Gothic fiction; this may be why that it only outside of the Gothic that we find Lovecraft’s true disciples: William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Michel Houellebecq, artists like H. R. Giger and John Coulthart, and muscians like The Fall and Patti Smith. The Lovecraft event therefore problematises Badiou’s formulation of the artistic event by being a reactionary event that produces something new'.

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