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A Different, More Terrifying Cosmos: Our Brave New Lovecraftian World

In his most recent podcast, Steve Skojec described the obviously deliberate games of ambiguity of the Bergoglian pontificate as a “Lovecraftian puzzle game”.

“Francis is a monster of ambiguity and insinuation, making him a walking Rorschach test. Trying to pin down what he actually says or does often feels like the kind of Lovecraftian puzzle game where everyone doubts reality… The whole damn thing is a giant gaslighting process that causes the player to question his own sanity. ‘Did I really misunderstand this obvious thing? Could clear words have a different meaning? It reads like a direct contradiction of prior teaching, but why do so many deny it?’”

In my many conversations with Steve we have both described the current situation with the Pope and the Vatican as “Lovecraftian.” Being both lifelong readers of science fiction this word is a useful shorthand for a whole realm of ideas – very, very scary ideas – but it occurs to me not everyone might be completely familiar with them.

H.P. Lovecraft

It is named after the early 20th century author Howard Philips (H.P.) Lovecraft, whose particular brand of horror fantasy has come to be described as “Cosmicism” or “Cosmic Horror”. Instead of the typical blood and guts of most horror that one sees on screens, Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror derives its scares from the inversion of ordered, rationally apprehendible reality. Lovecraft’s work – which I would not recommend to anyone not of very stout emotional dispositions – is of a uniquely terrifying kind.

Something that is Lovecraftian is something that defies or overturns the natural, observable order of reality; it is anti-rational, like saying that a thing is not the same thing as itself. Lovecraft’s horror-fantasy fiction has a popular cult following in our time of radically destabilized conceptual frameworks; we are no longer sure of any of our former certainties about what life is for or how it is to be lived, and Lovecraft’s fiction speaks to this fundamental insecurity. In our time the very underlying notions of reality are called into question, with people declaring that they can “identify” as a different sex and that this personal, subjective determination makes it real enough to warrant the support of the law. Reality no longer counts; our “post-truth” society is a cultural, legislative and judicial situation in which truth is not a defence and the Real is no longer of any interest to anyone.

 

A Different, More Terrifying Cosmos

Lovecraftian “cosmic horror” or “Cosmicism” is a literary philosophy that says the universe transcends human comprehension and is unimaginably huge and that this ultimate hugeness makes people shrink into madness because it contradicts our egoistic image of ourselves as somehow cosmically significant. It is nihilistic, materialistic and rejects any idea of God or even of a comprehensive orderliness to existence – thereby abandoning even naturalism – it is a universe without rules. For Lovecraft, the atheist astronomy buff, suffering nightmares from his earliest life in which he, as a small, fatherless child, experienced the dread that the world was incomprehensible and his powers inadequate to deal with it – it makes a lot of sense that this existential dread and sense of powerless insignificance would haunt him. And for many of the same reasons, his similarly-haunted fiction has become popular in our own time.

But I think this “dread of hugeness and human insignificance” is inadequate to explain why Lovecraft’s work is so uniquely frightening. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I think it has nothing to do with a sense of “hugeness,” but because it is not only nihilistic, but inherently anti-rational.

One writer of a how-to-write-fantasy-horror blog, boiled down why monsters in horror fiction are scary:

  • They are unpredictable
  • They have a disturbing capacity for violence
  • They exhibit “otherness”
  • They are amoral
  • They are beyond our control
  • They are terrifying in appearance
  • They turn us into prey

These are accurate as far as they go, and a thoughtful person could probably see some application in the current ecclesial situation, but in most attempts to nail down the unique existential dread the Cthulhu universe generates, the failure lies in an insufficient understanding of the underlying philosophy. Lovecraft’s fiction – that reads stylistically like a Jules Verne adventure on an overdose of scopolamine – features all sorts of scary monsters, but the terror of them comes from something more existential than mere fright at big-toothed monsters chasing teenagers through woodsy areas. (Lovecraft’s cosmic monsters tend to be more tentacular than toothy, anyway.)

His work actually proposes an entirely different kind of universe; one in which all our concerns, like morality, purpose, achievement, love – are utterly and completely meaningless. One in which meaning itself is meaningless and reality unreal.

 

Platonism vs. Nominalism – the philosophical inversion of the Real

We derive our cultural ideas about what reality is from a very particular set of philosophical developments. The idea that the reality we can see and touch is just a kind of membrane of illusion and misinformation that must be peeled back to see the real reality is one that is found in many branches of philosophy, including Christianity via Platonism. Plato proposed the existence of perfect “forms” (also called “Ideas”) that are eternal, changeless and incorporeal but which we can know through reason. So, a pair of sticks might be equal in size and shape and weight, but it would be a mistake to identify two equal sticks with the Form of Equality itself. An object we can perceive might be thought beautiful, but no material object can be the Form of Beauty itself – since at the very least, all material things are subject to decay, which is an inherent imperfection.

This incorporeal realm of perfect, eternal Forms, the Platonists propose, is the “really real reality” that is hidden behind perceptible, corporeal objects that, because of their corporeality, can only imperfectly approximate the Forms. Plato regarded the Forms as the source of moral and religious inspiration, and proposed the Form of the Good as the source of everything real and good, an idea that Plotinus in the 3rd century AD ran with in Neoplatonism – creating the idea of “the One,” an intellect and will that thought the Ideas and encompassed the Forms – that influenced Augustine. Platonism was the starting point of Socratic inquiry and Aristotelian ideas about how to think rationally that led to all that we now call Western Philosophy, the foundation of our civilisation.

But what if there were a completely different kind of answer to the question, “What’s behind the veil?” What if, instead of kindly and beautiful, crystalline ideas about eternal realities, incorporeal perfections and (eventually) God, the author of an orderly and rationally apprehensible cosmos, there were something else? What if it were something so horrifying that a human mind, addicted to our petty organic rationality, could not withstand, if the really real reality behind the membrane of ordinary things is so horrible it drives human beings who encounter it mad? What could possibly do that? Well, what if it’s an idea that the mind recoils from, and cannot grasp because it is itself inherently anti-rational? If we started to believe that the membrane of comprehensible and orderly corporeal things that we can see and touch and identify were a cover for an inherently dis-orderly and anti-rational cosmos?

That, if you stop and think about it, is pretty scary.

 

What does anti-rationality look like?

This second idea of the inherently anti-rational cosmos is not a piece of imaginative work by one emotionally disturbed man, but, like Jorge Bergoglio himself, the end product of 250 years of abandonment of Western Civilisation’s core concepts called, increasingly ironically, The Enlightenment. Cosmic Horror doesn’t come from Lovecraft, but Descartes and Jeremy Bentham. Behind the horror fantasy fiction that we now call “Lovecraftian” is the rejection of 2500 years of philosophical foundations, and the “Lovecraftian madness” of that rejection is seeping at last into our daily lives.

Some years ago I did a piece for this publication about Aristotle’s Three Laws of Rational Thought, in which I focused mainly on the danger of corrupting reason, and losing our grip on the Logical Principle of Non-Contradiction. But I talked less about the other two laws; the Law of Identity and the Law of the Excluded Middle. These state 1) that “each thing is identical with itself” and 2) that between two opposed propositions, “It is or it is not,” there can be no third, middle-possibility thing. So I am either in the room or not in the room, but there is no “middle” possibility between these two oppositions.

Now try to imagine a universe in which it is a real statement to say that “a thing and itself are NOT identical”. Try to imagine a reality in which a thing and itself are two different things or two opposed things, a thing can be itself and not itself at the same time. Or one in which there can be some third real thing between a thing that exists and a thing that does not exist, between an existence and the negation of existence.

Is your head spinning yet?

But that’s where we are, culturally. The “progressives” both in and out of the Church do not want merely to introduce new social and behavioural standards and mores, they want to erase our conceptual framework for reality. This is not merely a new set of ideas being imposed; it is the abolition of the very notion of ideas, the abolition of the very concept of truth and reality.

When Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ, the editor of La Civilta Cattholica and close confidante and “mouthpiece” of the pope said on Twitter in 2017 that “In theology, 2+2 can equal 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people…” he unwittingly summed up the shift from one entire set of philosophical ideas – derived from the ancient Greeks and developed by the saints – that form the basis of our civilisation to its perfect antithesis, its opposite, its negation. The editor of Catholic World Report, Carl Olson, responded by saying this was “a decidedly nominalist (or voluntarist)” idea, “for it rests on the apparent belief that God can indeed act contrary to what and who He is.”

And nominalism and the notion that God can act contrary to His own nature are very much at the core of our modern problem – that not only is reality arbitrary, and therefore changeable and meaningless, but that the Author of that reality is equally so; that reality itself is inherently unreal in any meaningful sense. A God that can encompass logical contradictions is not the God of a rational, comprehensible universe; it is the anti-god of the Lovecraftian cosmos – a cosmos of horrors.

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