Happy Birthday, HP Lovecraft!

Cthluhu Pie

HP Lovecraft was not a sociologist by any stretch. Rather, he was an author of tales of “eldritch horror”, practically inventing his own subgenre and being rewarded with the creation of the adjective “Lovecraftian.” The last couple decades have witnessed a renaissance of Lovecraftian works – from new works of fiction like Charles Stross’ Laundry Files to new works of food (see above) to board games, more board games, and even more board games.* I have even argued elsewhere that Lovecraft was an influence on Bob Dylan and his iconic song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”** And that’s not even mentioning the (vulgar) South Park Cthulhu as Totoro mash-up.

More important to me – and to sociology, perhaps – was his influence on Jorge Luis Borges. Borges was also not a sociologist, but was an influential postmodern magical realist author whose insights are routinely cited by diverse academics from Goffman to Foucault to Collins to Olick to…

Knowing that Borges would later choose Lovecraft as one of his precursores, it’s easy to see the signs of influence. Here’s a bit from Lovecraft’s “The Tomb” that offers an unreliable narrator, but one that self-consciously denies the possibility of reliable narration at all and with it of an easy relationship between the real and the unreal:

In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.

Common themes in Lovecraft – and Borges – include fragments of non-existent books (though Lovecraft’s books were usually more magical, while Borges often made magic out of the mundane) and professors or academics as key characters. Professors in the Lovecraftian universe are always unearthing Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, which dreadful consequences for their own sanity, and perhaps for humanity as a whole. Here, for example, is one lovely passage from “The Call of Cthulhu,” perhaps Lovecraft’s most iconic story:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Borges would write similar things in “Funes, the Memorious”, about a man who was cursed with the gift of perfect memory, and in “On Exactitude in Science”, about maps so perfect they were worthless.

So, with all that said, let’s wish HP Lovecraft a happy 123rd birthday. Thanks for giving us a reason to be upbeat about our own limitations. And… Ia! Ia! Cthluhu Fhtagn!

*Interestingly, the Lovecraftian board games skew heavily towards the modern cooperative variant of board game – us against the board – which feels fitting, given the nature of his stories (an incomprehensible evil is barely glimpsed and drives us mad as we strive to avert its impending destruction of the world).
**As noted there, this argument is completely and utterly made up.

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