Written on April 22, 2018.
I was reading the very good blog post “The Cosmic Horror of Calvinism”, by Rob F. Martin, in which Mr. Martin states that the elements of Lovecraft’s horror “are merely secondary, serving to unearth a greater terror”:
This greater terror, known as Cosmic Horror (or Cosmicism), is the dread that accompanies man’s realization that he is utterly hopeless in the face of an indifferent, sometimes hostile, cosmos. There is simply no objective purpose to his existence. He is adrift in a vast, cosmic ocean. And one day, like dust on a scale, he will be brushed away by the cold breath of time and return to the nothingness from which he came. And, no matter how hard he may try, he is absolutely powerless to change his situation. In the end, he is left with a couple of options—he either goes mad from contemplating such a terrifying reality, or he protects himself from it and flees to the opiate of superstition.
And while Lovecraft’s monsters may point to the reality that Humanity is alone in the Cosmos, unprotected by divine justice, I do not believe Lovecraft dreaded Humanity’s lack of protection. He said himself that it was necessary to abandon hope of sense, order, or God’s help, that Humanity must accept its insignificance. And why not? This fear that Mr. Martin identifies may be peculiar to him, to Christians, or to all religious persons, but it bears examining.
It is true that the cosmos is indifferent; it is inanimate except by forces of physics. We live on a spinning ball in a spinning solar system in a spinning spiral arm in a spinning galactic cluster. It may be said that spinning is our lot. And it is true that objects sometimes collide, as in the case of the dinosaurs. The question is why this would produce terror, once understood. Let us answer each sentence of the above quotation.
“This greater terror, known as Cosmic Horror (or Cosmicism), is the dread that accompanies man’s realization that he is utterly hopeless in the face of an indifferent, sometimes hostile, cosmos.”
I may be hopeless to defeat a hostile cosmos, but if I consider this the sum of my existence, I am mistaken or deceive myself. If I do nothing but live in fear of that hostile cosmos, I paralyze myself. If I take the cosmos’ indifference personally, I flatter myself. If I create a caring god, I flatter myself even more. No; the only proper attitude “in the face of an indifferent, sometimes hostile, cosmos” is not to dwell upon it but to seize the day and the moment. It is all we have. Science works toward protecting us from asteroids and other natural disasters, but we must accept that circumstances are larger than we are. We must accept it not only because we have no choice but because it is, ultimately, acceptable. Any other scenario would mean we controlled the Universe, we outweighed circumstances, and this would indeed be unacceptable.
“There is simply no objective purpose to his existence.” Each person decides her or his own purpose; this too is acceptable. Nietzsche said the purpose of life was to live. We seem to desire external guidance on purpose whereas it is all up to us. My purposes are to care for my family, to write, to teach, to enjoy stories and truth. This is sufficient for me. Only you can decide what is sufficient for you. This is not a frustration but a joy. No one can dictate your purpose to you. You are free to decide for yourself!
“He is adrift in a vast, cosmic ocean.” Or acting with purpose.
“And one day, like dust on a scale, he will be brushed away by the cold breath of time and return to the nothingness from which he came.” Leaving her or his good works behind, content, a life well lived.
“And, no matter how hard he may try, he is absolutely powerless to change his situation [of impotence in the face of the indifferent cosmos]. In the end, he is left with a couple of options—he either goes mad from contemplating such a terrifying reality, or he protects himself from it and flees to the opiate of superstition.” I do not require control of the Universe, or proxy control through a deity that happens to agree with me on everything, to maintain my sanity. If I did, merely the lack of control of the Universe I suffer on this one planet would have been sufficient to drive me mad long ago. I did not go mad. I did not flee to the opiate of superstition. This proves there is at least one more choice: not minding not controlling the Universe. Who wants to control the Universe?
Apparently many, which brings me to the point of this essay. Since I have already dealt with the quotation’s flaws, let us analyze what is really transpiring here.
It is not that Humanity is afraid of a hostile universe without divine protection. That is a smokescreen. The person who wrote the above managed to write it without going mad or retreating into superstition, putting the lie to his own statements. No; Mr. Martin himself is experiencing the third way without wishing to admit it, perhaps. And since he is sane, rational, and, one presumes, content, what is the real problem?
The fear of self. You will note in the quotation above the fear of physical danger is outweighed by the fear that “one day, like dust on a scale, he will be brushed away by the cold breath of time and return to the nothingness from which he came.” This is not a fear of death but a fear of inconsequence, of not mattering in the cosmic scheme, of being ordinary or powerless to alter fate. While I write to gain some measure of immortality, I do not aim to escape personal nothingness. I do not enjoy life so much that I must extend it beyond nature. I accept that I will be brushed away by the cold hand of time like an ant under my foot the existence of which I am not even aware. I do not think I matter more than that ant in an objective or divine sense. If I matter more than that ant, it is only because I or those who love me feel I do, which too is subjective. I do not aspire to more than this. How could anyone wish to matter more than she or he does matter?
“And, no matter how hard he may try, he is absolutely powerless to change his situation.” And yet, looking at the plants and animals, we are blessed or cursed with elevated consciousness. Fish do not likely contemplate Kant’s categorical imperative. That we are able to do these things even for a brief, shining moment of life is not something to be lamented but celebrated. I myself am deeply grateful to exist, to have existed, for the time that I exist and have existed. When my time comes, despite losses great or small, I will still feel my time was worth it and everything I experienced was ultimately beneficial to others and myself. Life is worth living, however painful. Never to have been born is unacceptable, Einstein. Do not take the coward’s way out. No: make a difference while you are here and stop complaining that you don’t.
Are they afraid of having to make choices, of responsibility, of failing? That strikes me as the more likely possibility. They are not afraid of the hostile cosmos, of being adrift, of being powerless—they are afraid of being powerful! And why? Because with power comes responsibility. They fear not just the choices themselves but the very fact they must make choices. They call this being “utterly hopeless” with “no objective purpose”, “adrift”, and “absolutely powerless”. Never in my life have I felt these ways. I have felt confused about what my purpose might be, but even then I knew it was up to me to come up with it. I never lacked hope that my purpose would come to me. I have felt adrift in good ways, lazily floating downstream. I have never felt powerless.
And I think that is the issue, the issue that cannot be changed or even remedied with discussion: some people feel powerless, some people feel powerful. We have our natures. We are parts of Nature. This is right and proper.
My friend Jane Smiley says:
I think a lot of this is conditioning. If you are raised with the whip and the fear of GOD and then you grow up and discover how illogical the system is, and furthermore you learn in your science classes exactly what you state in your piece about the enormity of the universe, then everything that shaped who you think you are is destroyed, so you either have to protect that with increasing fear and aggression, or you have to come up with a different theory (like yours), but it is very hard to come up with a different theory when you have been conditioned to think and behave in a specific way.
And I agree. I was fortunate enough to be raised without fear of death, God, or the Universe. Antitheists such as my parents and myself feel no such dread, hopelessness, or despair. We consider “no objective purpose” the beginning of sentient freedom, for which we live. Only a person dissatisfied with life as it is would fear returning to nothingness or care to change the situation. The rest of us see it as natural and do not hate nature.
Please do not misunderstand me: there is terror in our existence, but Cosmic Horror can only be felt by those who do not feel sufficient in themselves, their purposes, and their loved ones–those who would control the Universe and never die, the unnatural.
They fear what they themselves might do in the face of freedom. They have looked at freedom, found it frightening, and found their own natures unacceptable. They not only fear but hate themselves.
There is much to fear, but if we live in fear, we do not live.