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Is Lovecraft existentialist?

Yes!
No!

Author Topic: Is Lovecraft existential or merely a common misconception?  (Read 8102 times)

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Hello everyone,

Just wanted to know your opinion on this matter. Do you think that Lovecraft's literature can or should be classified as existential? I would argue no! I think that the existential label is widely misunderstood by the majority of the populace and therefore is widely misused. I recently read Jean Paul Sartre's essay titled "Existentialism is a Humanism" and have been thinking of this subject for a couple months now.

To simplify things, all quotations are from Sartre's essay "existentialism is a Humanism" as translated by Mairet, unless stated otherwise. (I figure I will cite the Grand Inquisitor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky at some point as well).

So to start things off let us define "Existentialism." Sartre's essay is actually devoted to this purpose but I will paraphrase and present some key points.

Sartre says that "Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position." Existentialism, according to Sartre, holds that existence precedes essence; that we make our soul by forming our own destiny. "... there is no human nature .... man is responsible for what he is." Existentialism, under this perspective holds then that man is ultimately in charge of his own life, his own destiny. To be a man under an existentialist view is to be free: "man is free, man is freedom."

I feel this notion is summed rather well in the Brother's Karamazov when one of the brothers says "..everything is permitted."

So, in regards to Lovecraft I consider his works to present a view of the universe where hope is certainly lacking, but a universe where the human race is ultimately subject to the whims of the powers at be. Humanity is certainly not free. Humanity has, perhaps to some extent, some choice influence on their destiny, but it is rather negligible. You may temporarily prevent the goals of Nyarlathotep, or great Cthulhu, but you can never thwart them.

So, just curious as to what your opinions may be. Where do you fall on this topic? Am I wrong?
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Cthuluzord

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Re: Is Lovecraft existential or merely a common misconception?
« Reply #1 on: June 27, 2013, 11:07:21 AM »
I've never read any Dostoevsky, but I waded through enough Sartre in college that I can agree that Lovecraft is NOT existentialist literature.

I think, in the broad sense, he gets labeled as such because "existentialism" is a big word that sounds fancy and means something that's really smart but kind of depressing, right? Like postmodernism, the term is a bitch to explain to people who haven't read the thinkers that coined it, and even then it depends on which book they read. Lovecraft was very smart and equally bleak, so I think he gets labeled existentialist as a form of shorthand. Sadly, my estimation is that this actually works most of the time. It conveys to the laymen (who likely also doesn't understand existentialism's definition as a school of philosophical thought) a better understanding of the writing's tone than, say, "cosmic horror" (what's that mean? fear of Carl Sagan?).

In a more optimistic light, the confusions could come from the fact that the Mythos does fit certain components of the existential cycle, just not all of them.

0. Existence precedes Essence: This is the most obvious reason Lovecraft is not an existentialist. Essence precedes human existence, and that essence is composed of Shoggoth shit. The Lovecraft universe couldn't be farther from atheistic; it absolutely teems with gods, all of which seem to hate each other and humanity. The weird little bastard may have been a misodeist (God-hater), but the fiction doesn't present a situation where man has any control of his nature. There is a clear hierarchy in existence, and it is unshakable.

1. ANGST: Existentialist ANGST occurs when an individual realizes they have total freedom. I'm not sure this sees much representation in Lovecraft's work either, but it could be argued that this is the choice that investigators make between sanity and madness. The insane cultists and sorcerers are essentially closer to the Truth in the Mythos: they realize the constraints put on their behavior by morality and law are artificial. But after realizing that, they don't make their own meaning; they succumb to the will of Great Old Ones and Elder Gods. The " atheistic position" requirement still isn't met.

2. Consciousness As Reality: Again, Lovecraft gets half-way there but falls short of existentialism. Protagonists often go into painstaking details about the fallibility of human senses and the limits of the understanding. However, rather than reaching the conclusion that there is no objective reality at all, they develop an absolute faith that a REAL Truth that hides behind their muddy human perception. I suppose this faith is justified--that hidden reality is usually trying to eat them at the time--but it isn't existentialist metaphysics, Jack. There's no greater Truth at all back there, not even one that is cold and alien.

3. Despair: Existentialist despair occurs when the previous two realizations destroy one or more Truths that previously served as a pillar of one's identity. To my mind, this is the central them of Lovecraft's fiction; you have based your life on a lie, and you have no choice but to continue to do so. I think this is where some of the existentialist confusions comes from, as the Mythos is rife with this Despair (also the "Elder Things killed all my buddies" type of despair, which is sad too, I guess).

4. Absurdity: Lovecraft's universe is certainly absurd, but not for the reasons that would qualify him as existentialist. Existentialists realize there are NO RULES: there's no good or bad, no god or devil. Every choice is a random guess and utterly pointless because it achieves no end.

Lovecraftian existence is absurd because it is fatalistic. There are rules, but they are fucking INSANE. To understand those rules is to become so crazy that you essentially become someone else. This negates the self, so for all intents and purposes, the rules are as unknowable as they are immutable. There is a both a God and Devil rolled into one in the form of Azathoth, and the absurdity comes from the fact that this tentacle-waving monstrosity that constantly rocks out to flute music determines the fate of the universe. And there ain't shit you can do about it, son! Azathoth is all out of fucks to give.

So, there's more room for confusion: existentialist philosophy and the Cthulhu Mythos both treat existence as a ridiculous self-perpetuating farce, but they arrive at that conclusion by very different routes.

5. Crisis: The Existentialist has to decide what to do with these newfound revelations. The three options are Nihilism, Hedonism, and Existentialism. You could almost argue these exist in Lovecraftian fiction, but the comparison doesn't quite hold up. Nihilism, of course, would be represented by those broken by depression in the wake of witnessing the Mythos or those that kill themselves in a fit of hysteria. Hedonism is a tougher fit, unless you regard cultist sacrifice and fish sex as pleasurable to the senses (I do not). The protagonists that "kill it with fire" could be existentialists, but they never really arrive at a new vision of reality crafted by themselves. They refuse the despair and death of Nihilism after learning the absurdity of their existence, but they do so out of nothing more than a biological compulsion.

Authenticity: The ultimate goal of existentialism is to live authentically, to be true to one's conception of one's self and treat that conception as the ultimate good. This is why existentialism, despite risking the inevitable destruction of nihilism, is so against suicide; suicide negates the self, and in order to achieve good (even a subjective good) ONE MUST PERSIST. That's why Camus called suicide the last philosophical problem. That's why existentialism is essentially optimistic and humanist in character, despite arriving at those positions through a lot of scary, depressive thinking.

Lovecraft's characters don't achieve this authenticity, and that makes his Mythos altogether bleaker than Existentialist thought. There is no consolation prize after the Crisis stage in Lovecraft. Characters die, go insane, or return to ignorance. Thus you get the tragedy of Delta Green PC's, forever moving through the stages of existential realization but never quite getting anywhere (unless they get torn apart or start performing blood sacrifice).

So yeah, Lovecraft doesn't come off as an existentialist in his fiction. I'd argue he's a Fatalist even though the stories don't always suggest the future being immutable. Certain events are, however, inevitable. It doesn't fucking matter what investigators do; Cthulhu is going to kill everybody. When they succeed, they only put off their doom for...some reason? That's the question that haunts protagonists more than the continued threat of monstrosities: why bother going on at all? I could also argue that Lovecraft was a misodeist who dealt with his objections against the world as created by a Judeo-Christian God through the safe, symbolic, sellable stand-in of a hostile cosmology of his own design.

Welp, that got away from me. Let me condense.

I AGREE WITH YOU.

There, that's better.


Quote
Hello everyone,

Just wanted to know your opinion on this matter. Do you think that Lovecraft's literature can or should be classified as existential? I would argue no! I think that the existential label is widely misunderstood by the majority of the populace and therefore is widely misused. I recently read Jean Paul Sartre's essay titled "Existentialism is a Humanism" and have been thinking of this subject for a couple months now.

To simplify things, all quotations are from Sartre's essay "existentialism is a Humanism" as translated by Mairet, unless stated otherwise. (I figure I will cite the Grand Inquisitor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky at some point as well).

So to start things off let us define "Existentialism." Sartre's essay is actually devoted to this purpose but I will paraphrase and present some key points.

Sartre says that "Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position." Existentialism, according to Sartre, holds that existence precedes essence; that we make our soul by forming our own destiny. "... there is no human nature .... man is responsible for what he is." Existentialism, under this perspective holds then that man is ultimately in charge of his own life, his own destiny. To be a man under an existentialist view is to be free: "man is free, man is freedom."

I feel this notion is summed rather well in the Brother's Karamazov when one of the brothers says "..everything is permitted."

So, in regards to Lovecraft I consider his works to present a view of the universe where hope is certainly lacking, but a universe where the human race is ultimately subject to the whims of the powers at be. Humanity is certainly not free. Humanity has, perhaps to some extent, some choice influence on their destiny, but it is rather negligible. You may temporarily prevent the goals of Nyarlathotep, or great Cthulhu, but you can never thwart them.

So, just curious as to what your opinions may be. Where do you fall on this topic? Am I wrong?

clockworkjoe

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Re: Is Lovecraft existential or merely a common misconception?
« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2013, 07:16:39 PM »
Cthulhu, Azathoth, et. all are not gods in the mythological/theological sense - they are vastly powerful aliens. Azathoth may just be a principal guiding force in the universe like gravity or electromagnetism, but one that is misidentified as a 'god'.

The rules in the Cthulhu mythos are like the laws of physics - not moral or ethical, just a set of actions/reactions.

Cthuluzord

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Re: Is Lovecraft existential or merely a common misconception?
« Reply #3 on: June 27, 2013, 09:42:50 PM »
They are literally worshipped. Isn't that sort of the definition? I mean, can't you be a god and a physical law at the same time, assuming you don't define God as something that inherently doesn't exist in the world? Aren't gods, by definition, alien?

I see what you're saying, but I think if you're arguing that Lovecraft was an existentialist, it's an argument based on semantics. And since he used both terms fairly often, I'm not sure how semantics can seal the deal there.

Still, you are certainly more versed in the mythos than a noob like myself. I just fail to see how anyone in the Lovecraft universe is making their own meaning as a reaction to the despair of a meaningless universe.