Mar 24, 2016

Atheistic Traditionalism

via Radish

Lovecraft is “an absolute sceptic and materialist” (II.41), it’s true. On the other hand, if “nothing really matters,” then logically “the only thing for a person to do is to take the artificial and traditional values he finds around him and pretend they are real; in order to retain that illusion of significance in life which gives to human events their apparent motivation and semblance of interest.” Call him an absolute relativist (II.356):

In a cosmos without absolute values, we have to rely on the relative values affecting our daily sense of comfort, pleasure, & emotional satisfaction. What gives us relative painlessness & contentment we may arbitrarily call “good,” & vice versa. This local nomenclature is necessary to give us that benign illusion of placement, direction, & stable background on which the still more important illusions of “worthwhileness,” dramatic significance in events, & interest in life depend. Now what gives one person or race or age relative painlessness & contentment often disagrees sharply on the psychological side from what gives these same boons to another person or race or age. Therefore “good” is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology, geography, nationality, & individual temperament. Amidst this variability there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of “values” which we need in order to feel settled & contented — & that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of “lostness” in endless time & space.

To attack tradition as arbitrary or artificial would be missing the point (I.262):

All the life we can ever imagine is the artificial and arbitrary network of illusions with which we may happen to surround ourselves. We know that all are the mere result of accident and perspective, but we gain nothing by tearing them down. ’Tis indeed uncommon senseless to tear down with a rusty dung-fork a mirage which never really existed. I think it best becomes a man of sense to chuse whatever sort of agreeable fancies best amuse him, and thenceforward to revel innocently in them; sensible that they are not real, but equally aware that since reality does not exist, he can gain nothing and lose much by brushing them away.

From a cosmic perspective, Lovecraft’s traditionalism makes a lot of sense (II.125):

It is because I am a complete sceptic & cynic, recognising no such qualities as good or evil, beauty or ugliness, in the ultimate structure of the universe, that I insist on the artificial & traditional values of each particular cultural stream — proximate values which grew out of the special instincts, associations, environment, & experiences of the race in question, & which are the sole available criteria for the members of that race & culture, though of course having no validity outside it. These backgrounds of tradition against which to scale the objects & events of experience are all that lend such objects & events the illusion of meaning, value, or dramatic interest in an ultimately purposeless cosmos — hence I preach & practice an extreme conservatism in art forms, society, & politics, as the only means of averting the ennui, despair, & confusion of a guideless & standardless struggle with unveiled chaos.

You see, “there is nothing anti-ethical or anti-social” in his cosmicism (V.241):

Although meaning nothing in the cosmos as a whole, mankind obviously means a good deal to itself. Therefore it must be regulated by customs which shall ensure, for its own benefit, the full development of its various accidental potentialities.

This is, quite simply, Lovecraft’s definition of civilization: “the state of development and organisation which is capable of gratifying” our “complex mental-emotional-aesthetic needs” (II.290); for “the greater our philosophic & aesthetic expansion, the more sources of contentment we shall generally be able to find in life” (IV.417).

Remember: to Lovecraft, “the paramount end, aim, and object of life is contentment or tranquil pleasure” (I.215). This, he believes, “can be gained only by the worship and creation of beauty, and by the adoption of an imaginative and detached life which may enable us to appreciate the world as a beautiful object […] without feeling too keenly the pain which inevitably results from reflecting on its relation to ourselves.” And so:

We advocate the preservation of conditions favourable to the growth of beautiful things — imposing palaces, beautiful cities, elegant literature, reposeful art and music, and a physically select human type. [I.207]

Lovecraft is ready to go way beyond conservatism to achieve these things. “We are proud to be definitely reactionary, since only by a bold repudiation of the ‘liberal’ pose and the ‘progress’ illusion can we get the sort of authoritative social and political control which alone produces things which make life worth living” — not this “modern worship of empty ideals,” like the “false idol” of democracy. “Ludicrous,” says Lovecraft:

What is more important, is to perpetuate those things of beauty which are of real value because involving actual sense-impressions rather than vapid theories. “Equality” is a joke — but a great abbey or cathedral, covered with moss, is a poignant reality. It is for us to safeguard and preserve the conditions which produce great abbeys, and palaces, and picturesque walled towns, and vivid sky-lines of steeples and domes, and luxurious tapestries, and fascinating books, paintings, and statuary, and colossal organs and noble music, and dramatic deeds on embattled fields… these are all there is of life; take them away and we have nothing which a man of taste or spirit would care to live for. Take them away and our poets have nothing to sing — our dreamers have nothing to dream about. […]

What we must do is to shake off our encumbering illusions and false values — banishing sonorous platitudes in a civilised realisation that the only things of value in the world are those which promote beauty, colour, interest, and heightened sensation. The one great crusade worthy of an enlightened man is that directed against whatever impoverishes imagination, wonder, sensation, dramatic life, and the appreciation of beauty. Nothing else matters. And not even this really matters in the great void, but it is amusing to play a little in the sun before the blind universe dispassionately pulverises us again into that primordial nothingness from whence it moulded us for a second’s sport.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo

Now, Lovecraft is certainly an atheistic traditionalist (I.17):

I am not an orthodox disciple of religion, but I deem it dangerous to tamper with any system so manifestly beneficial to morality. Whatever may be the faults of the church, it has never yet been surpassed or nearly equalled as an agent for the promotion of virtue. And the same thing applies to our present social system. It has its defects, but is evidently a natural growth, and better fitted to preserve an approximate civilization than any Utopian scheme conjured up over night by some artificially thinking radical.

And so, while “the younger generation cannot regard the old theistic teaching as anything but out-and-out mythology” given “the enormous strides of contemporary science,” Lovecraft “cannot sympathise with the violent anti-Christian agitators and ‘debunkers,’” for apart from its “excellent sociological value,” religion “will always have a retrospective beauty which no impersonal aesthete can fail to respect” (II.227).

Lovecraft, self-identifying as “an atheist of Protestant ancestry,” singles out Catholicism in particular as “really an admirable faith,” especially for artists (II.104):

It is the inheritor of ancient and beautiful rhythms of thought, cadence, and gesture which thousands of years of human feeling have woven symbolically and expressively around the various significant points of mortal experience; and as such it cannot help having a profound and genuine artistic importance and satisfyingness. It is the oldest continuously surviving poem of life that the races of Western Europe possess, and as such has an authority — which no other one system of symbolic expression can claim.

It seems to me that if one is to have anything so extra-rational as religion of any sort the Catholic and Episcopal systems are the only two sects with enough roots and anchors in the past to make them worthy of the affiliation of an artist. The life which they express is the natural, simple life of elder times, before the spread of industrialism and scientific discovery began its present transformation and destruction of society. No religion could express more, because all religion is a traditional art form dependent on a simple and continuous heritage.

Unfortunately, “the future civilisation of mechanical invention, urban concentration, and scientific standardisation of life and thought is a monstrous and artificial thing which can never find embodiment either in art or in religion.” Tradition is in decline (II.228):

Spengler is right, I feel sure, in classifying the present phase of Western civilisation as a decadent one; for racial-cultural stamina shines more brightly in art, war, and prideful magnificence than in the arid intellectualism, engulfing commercialism, and pointless material luxury of an age of standardisation and mechanical invention like the one now well on its course.

It would be better if we could still be naive, beauty-loving, and ignorant — yet we cannot turn the clock back. Memphis and Nineveh, Babylon and Persepolis, Carthage and Ctesiphon, Athens and Lacedaemon, Rome and Alexandria, Antioch and Tyre — all these have had their day and their sunset; their grandeur and their fall. In the face of such a pageant of history it would be folly to expect anything else of the existing civilisation. This age in America corresponds quite startlingly to the luxurious and disillusioned age of Antonines in the Roman Empire — when Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Athens and New Carthage blazed in the sunset that was to mark the death of the ancient world. A gradual death, of course, which took many centuries in dragging itself out.

If I were at all a mundane person — at all disposed to identify myself with one age any more than with any other — I would probably be greatly depressed by the existing phase of European culture; since I have no respect whatever for the hectic mechanical world which is supplanting the simpler, tradition-anchored world into which I was born. Fortunately for me, though, I am not greatly engrossed in external reality; so that my imagination is as free to live in another age as in this. It is only these broad, historic sweeps of life which interest me.

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