Lovecraft, lions and the truly alien

I've recently forayed into the fascinating, mysterious and often incomprehensible literary worlds created by HP Lovecraft. Anyone who knows anything about Lovecraft will appreciate how esoteric and obscure his writing was. Typically, his topics involve the discovery of occult and arcane secrets that, upon their revelation, tear away at a very thin layer of human sanity to reveal hellish edifices, celestial artifacts, deranged cults and, in most cases, ancient alien gods - all of which play towards an overarching theme of human insignificance in cruel, colossal cosmos. The outcome for Lovecraft's protagonists when confronted with these alien truths are almost always the same - death, or even worse, tormented madness.

What immediately struck me as I read through classics like "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "The Statement of Randolph Carter" was how counter-culture his literary projects were. Lovecraft's stories regularly employ a narrative mechanic whereby the horrific elements of cosmic horror are offset by mundane, almost trivial, descriptions of everyday life. This breakaway from ordinary might not come as a surprise to anyone acquainted with his life story. Lovecraft himself was a bit of an outsider when compared to contemporaries like L. Frank Baum, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Bram Stoker.

“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.”
― The Outsider

Almost as if to mimic his very subject matter, even Lovecraft's grammar seems subversive. Writing as an American at the turn of the century, it's peculiar how anglicized and anachronistic Lovecraft's vocabulary was: words like "gaol" replace "jail", "lantern" becomes "lanthorne" and the adjective "eldritch" is used to such an extent that it becomes synonymous with the eponymous horror genre. To add to the linguistic obscurity, our author regularly gives the reader glimpses into what the spoken language of the Great Old Ones would sound like. To no surprise, the resulting phonological noise is a far cry from the canonical "fee-fi-fo-fums" of Western fairy tales. The infamous Cthulhu cult prayer ("Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn") is just as incomprehensible as it should be - after all, it's a mere human approximation of an alien language that "could never be uttered perfectly by human throats", since "the syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours".

For Lovecraft, the unearthly is important and let's be honest - there's nothing more unearthly than aliens. Or is there?

Here's where the obligatory philosophical discharge comes in. When dealing with the topic of 'alien' truths (in a terrestrial, humanitarian sense), it's hard to not bring up the concept of the Other as expounded by thinkers like de Beauvoir and Hegel. Naturally, the historic usage of 'the Other' is closely associated with the establishment of meaning through elements that define a particular group/race/culture/gender on the one hand, with everything it is not, on the other. It would be fine if the comparison stopped there, but, as we all know, history has taught us that separatist thinking like this leads to all kinds of evil (the holy Crusades, Apartheid, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust - the list is endless).

When dealing with, what I'd like to call, the truly alien (especially in the Lovecraftian sense), things are, perhaps, even more complex. Comparing human motives, culture and language to those of the Great Old Ones seems like a wasteful exercise. In Lovecraft's universe, the motives and history of the Great Old Ones are, for the most part, unknown to humans. They occupy such an obscure epistemological spectrum that any real effort of comparison seems crazy (pun intended). Indeed, there is a very real likelihood that there might be no way of translating meaning between these two worlds. The philosopher Wittgenstein's assertion that "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him" certainly rings true here. Socio-cultural and historic differences between humans and alien gods would also seem to be a much greater leap in thinking than the differences between humans and lions.

This raises a few interesting questions: How much contextual 'common ground' does there need to be between two subjects/objects for meaningful comparisons to be drawn between the two? Is it possible that two subjects/objects can be so fundamentally different that no effective translation of meaning is able to occur between the two? If, in such a scenario, no translation (or gaining of knowledge) can occur at all, does this mean that it is possible to encounter something so otherworldly and alien that the human brain is incapable of recognising it?

The quasi-scientific documentary "What the Bleep Do We Know!?", in its effort to link the field of modern quantum physics with pop psychology, finds itself preoccupied with at least one of these questions. There is, however, one scene that I find interesting. About two thirds in, the documentary tells a (rather anecdotal) story regarding the Arawak Indians that looked on as Columbus's ships approached the American coast for the first time. According to the legend, a lone shaman stood on the shore, but was unable to actually see the ships approaching - instead, only seeing the displacement of the ships in the water. The concept of clipper ships and their scale was so outlandish and antithetical to the Arawak's frame of reference that their initial attempts at interpreting it somehow failed entirely. Only after time could the shaman slowly form a mental impression of the phenomenon.

Is that even possible? As cool as it sounds, it seems unlikely. For one thing, if natural selection operated on the rule that "I can't see something entirely new to me" then evolution would be impossible. If new animals/things were momentarily invisible to us, they would kill us - simple us that. To brush away the bad history example with a final thought: the native American probably saw exactly what they could understand - a clipper ship is nothing more than a really, really big canoe.

Experiencing the truly alien seems like a bit of paradox: to be able to experience and understand something that's entirely novel, one needs to interpret it in terms that are known and relatable, which, of course, substitutes the alien for the familiar. In Lovecraft's books and stories, even descriptions of the arcane are painted in understandable terms. In "The Call of Cthulhu", the non-Euclidian geometry of the sunken city of R'lyeh is described as "a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth's supreme terror...loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours". Cthulhu himself is described as "a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers".

I had the pleasure of being a student of the late Professor Paul Cilliers, an eminent thinker in the field of complexity theory. During one of our courses, he drew the honours students's attention to
the depiction of aliens in popular movies like "District 9" and "Starship Troopers". Most, if not all, of the examples cited that day involved beings that were vaguely humanoid insects or sea creatures. The point? That the extra-terrestrial is not so "extra" after all. Another topic was music, especially free form jazz. During one of our classes we were discussing identity and how it is constructed via interoperating relationships between various components of a complex system. Identity then, is not something "in itself", but rather an "emergent property" of a complex system. In a chaotic world, concepts like identity, meaning and truth arise through the interaction between elements that comprise the system - through structure, their similarities and their differences. Meaning is then also, in sense, always becoming - deferred, ever-changing and ever-evolving (see Derrida's concept of différance). This explains why free form jazz seems so dissonant and monotonous to many - it breaks conventional rhythm, time signatures and other musical "rules" to such an extent that it becomes impossible for the listener to infer any meaningful structure.

Writing about the truly alien seems a near impossible feat - yet, as an author, it's Lovecraft's duty to paint a picture for his readers. In order to achieve this, our author contorts the familiar to lead our thinking to the unthinkable. Descriptions of eldritch truths are always approximations of approximations and the truly alien is as elusive as always.