What is a human? An ape stumbling quite stupidly through a world threatening to collapse. An organism that considers itself to be thriving. It has done quite well in its own estimation. It has colonised almost everywhere on earth. It transforms things, environments. It makes the uninhabitable into habitation, environment into home, Earth into World. All that is coming to a close. In the midst of ecological breakdown we are being reduced to nothing- to jabbering madmen, survivors staring into the eyes of their own corpses.
We are told that by 2100 the planet could be 6C hotter than it is today. There is a 10% chance. This is not a negligible figure. Such a rise in average global temperatures will deliver a mass extinction- a great biotic die-off. The organic survivors of this catastrophe will face collapsing civil and material infrastructures, food poverty, severe shortages of drinking water, an increase in violence and psychopathology, and the prospect of a life that is nasty brutal and short. This is the merest and most cursory picture of what will become of these little humans.
HP Lovecraft gave us a glimpse at what such a world would be like in his story Till A’ the Seas. In that story we join a nameless man who serves as our anonymous human perspective on the inexorable dying of an Earth that is plunging into the sun. From the narrator’s perspective it is
‘as if the planet meant to return to that source whence it was snatched, aeons ago, through the accidents of cosmic growth’ (Lovecraft & Barlow).
It is as if the Earth itself were invested with some residue of consciousness, or if not consciousness then a desire to set right this ‘accident’. The expansion of the universe and the formation of the celestial bodies is construed as a cosmic disequilibrium so great and distressing that the Earth wills to set it right. Lovecraft’s narrator speaks of the Earth’s movement into the furnace of the sun’s thermonuclear ferocity as if it were a familial scene: the sun is conceived of as the ‘fiery parent’, and so the Earth must be positioned as child who has been separated, indeed ‘snatched’ away from the maternal embrace. The bonds of attachment resemble some invocation of a natural order beyond the merely material order. The Earth cast as the victim of a kidnapping that is identical to the formation of the solar system, the sun as the parent who welcomes the child’s return. Our very existence is a sideshow to this great cosmic Oedipal drama, an unimportant irritant like a bruise sustained by a kidnap victim bundled into the back of a van.
Along with this weird family scene that seems to mock our human families and the self-importance of the myths and structures founded upon them, is the idea of the Earth returning to its preferred state. The preferred state of the Earth is its own non-existence.
Lovecraft’s resolute materialism conveys itself in the trappings of a lunatic mythologisation, but this time not that of Cthullu or the Old One’s. Instead we are given something more akin to theosophical or gnostic superstitions: the Earth has a soul with desires. And yet we must pay attention to the “as if” that operates as to suspend such a concrete interpretation. The Earth has no soul and no desire and no will of its own, although it seems to. Beneath such seeming then is a blind and senseless drive- The Earth is blindly driving towards its own destruction as if it were a return to some state of equilibrium. It is hard not to think of Freud speaking of the death drive as a primitive inhuman urge subtending individuated organic entities to return to the state of inorganic “quiescence” prior to the emergence of life.
Regardless of whether or not Lovecraft or we as his readers believe in an actually existing death drive is irrelevant. The sense of horror is already given over to us. The “as if” secures it in our minds: the only way to cognize the Earth being swallowed into the sun is to imagine it blindly enacting an absolutely inhuman suicide. In this context the Earth becomes the Planet that operates according to its own geologic that has absolutely nothing to do with human enterprise, ingenuity or invention. In this setting our death is like the death of a parasite on a supremely more important host. The Planet is the Dark Gaia that neither knows we are here nor would care if it were even capable of doing so. We aren’t its victims or its puppets but the totally insignificant biotic fauna that happens to populate its scorched epidermal layers: tics on the skin of the Planet, burnt to a cinder, forgotten.
For all the horror of the cosmic indifference of planetary suicide, the story is packed with more immediately material and proximal terror. Take the description of the slow unfolding of the catastrophic temporality that we are already caught within:
The ever-present heat, as Earth drew nearer to the sun, withered and killed with pitiless rays. It had not come at once; long aeons had gone before any could feel the change. And all through those first ages man’s adaptable form had followed the slow mutation and modelled itself to fit the more and more torrid air. Then the day had come when men could bear their hot cities but ill, and a gradual recession began, slow yet deliberate. Those towns and settlements closest to the equator had been first, of course, but later there were others. Man, softened and exhausted, could cope no longer with the ruthlessly mounting heat. It seared him as he was, and evolution was too slow to mould new resistances in him (Lovecraft & Barlow).
It is this “ever-present heat” that leads the narrator to speculate on the possibility of the Earth’s secret suicidal drive- an inhuman and totally impersonal suicide, having nothing to do with psychologies or moralities whatsoever. It is as if the narrator shares in the story’s protagonist’s heat derangement as the last man at the end of things. Lovecraft describes this heating world perfectly, and despite the form it appears in it describes the consequences and gives some sense of the world we face. Or that our descendants face.
Lovecraft tells us that cities are abandoned when chronic sickness sets in, that wars would rage, that agriculture would fail due to arid lands, and that, after a migration to the artic regions, mankind will succumb to a universal insanity, complete with new cults and prophesies and human sacrifices as the museums are reclaimed by a wilderness that smothers out the last remnants of Enlightenment and civilisation. Finally, it is the boiling away of the oceans, at first a balmy succour that gives rise to improved agricultural conditions, that does for humanity. We drown in thirst.
It is as if Lovecraft were himself the possessor of a terrible prophetic power. To imagine the New England writer of weird tales huddling in his New York apartment, plagued by visions of the end of humanity as the temperature rose slowly around it to suffocate it- as the temperature rises to suffocate us. In this most material of horrors there is no need to invoke an Old One as the Old Ones are the Earth and Sun themselves.
Lovecraft’s climate of horror becomes a horror of the climate.
As ever Lovecraft makes use of his technique of describing that which defies description. For me this technique resembles nothing so much as the panic stricken survivor who cannot believe what has happened and yet nonetheless must desperately try to parse traumatic events. This stammering contradiction is the result of a brain that demands that things must make sense and that these things cannot make sense all at once. For the senseless to make sense is to destroy the navigational schemas that constitute the safe banality of our worlds and usher in an ontological lunacy that belongs to the order of the real itself. So he stammers, or rather draws us on, an unbelieving witness nonetheless speaking from a detached position of cool certainty:
It cannot be described, this awesome chain of events that depopulated the whole Earth; the range is too tremendous for any to picture or encompass. Of the people of Earth’s fortunate ages, billions of years before, only a few prophets and madmen could have conceived that which was to come—could have grasped visions of the still, dead lands, and long-empty sea-beds. The rest would have doubted . . . doubted alike the shadow of change upon the planet and the shadow of doom upon the race. For man has always thought himself the immortal master of natural things. . . .(Lovecraft and Barstow)
Our narrator existing after the end of the world freely admits he cannot fulfil the role of the one in the world-without-us. Lovecraft positions himself as the prophet or the madman seated comfortably in the “fortunate ages” of the civilisation. It invites us to ask whether we are still within the boundaries of that fortunate age, or whether we have stepped out into the beginning of the desolation. The narrator continues, giving us the valuation of humanity that is typical of Lovecraftian fictions:
And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind were summed up in this poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been! Now indeed had come an end and climax to all the efforts of humanity—how monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days! Not ever again would the planet know the thunderous tramping of human millions—or even the crawling of lizards and the buzz of insects, for they, too, had gone. Now was come the reign of sapless branches and endless fields of tough grasses. Earth, like its cold, imperturbable moon, was given over to silence and blackness forever (Lovecraft and Barstow) .
Is this a piece of speculative writing? a prophetic vision? a message sent back from the future? or is Lovecraft himself a bearer of the dark potency of some primal schizophrenic hyperstitional invocation? Is the narrator of “Til A’the Seas” in fact some alien intelligence- machinic or extra-terrestrial- recording the final endnotes in the history of the human race? Are we privy to these concluding lines as a torture? or as a warning, a kind of “brace for impact”? Is Lovecraft little more than the recording device of some analogue to Uatu the Watcher? Even that last comic suggestion would still inspire only the nervous laughter of minds pulled towards the notion that in this short story they are reading the actual obituary of their species. “The humans died, and it didn’t matter”.
Either way, reading this story undoubtedly inspires an uncanny sense of both foreboding and resignation. Here it is all to come, and already happened. Time- the basic coordinate of human existence- lies mutilated. What happens to the mind when time and space are wrenched from it?
And here we are somewhere in the middle of a process we cannot hope to reverse, despite all our arrogance. So much of this slowly unravelling doom is already here in the present day, and so much of what is not yet here is here already as if in latency- as if waiting to pounce. The catastrophe has already happened, it is just unevenly distributed.
Of course in Lovecraft’s story, co-written with anthropologist, the catastrophe isn’t caused by humans or by capitalism. He would not be interested in the masochistic narcissism of “The Anthropocene”, and despite his romantic anti-capitalism one couldn’t really see Lovecraft going in for talk of a Capitalocene either. The speculative moment of Lovecraft’s tale- that the Earth is making a suicide bid according to an involuntary terrestrial death drive- can be restated in more deflated terms: here is a concept of nature that is wildly indifferent, and hostile to human life because of it. It is nature that destroys us.
At the outset I asked what is a human? It is an ape that can
see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos…’ (From Beyond).
Curiously, Lovecraft’s writing reveals that the function of horror is to expose human beings to images and scenarios that might drive them insane in the hopes of this providing a therapeutic function against nature. To borrow a phrase from Frederic Jameson it is as if Lovecraft’s fiction operated as a “homeopathic expropriation”: an immersion into the primordial chaos of matter to better prepare us to survive the latent threat of insanity contained within it- or at least to mitigate the impact on collision of its furious demolitions.
As a rigorous materialist Lovecraft knows that humans are apes and that apes are part of nature. Yet nature is set up as a malignant force operating against the human, working towards its own extinction and dragging us down into fiery destruction with it. If Lovecraft will elsewhere maintain that humans are hardly any better he nonetheless sets up a kind partition between humanity and nature. The schism cannot be healed. One will destroy the other, or the other will destroy the one.
And the final verdict of mankind’s fate, given in the closing line:
a broken figure that lay in the slime.
Amidst all this, cries go out that we must
Save the Earth.
Save the Whales.
Save the Children.
Salvation and redemption: our last and most desperate religious sentiments.
HP Lovecraft and RH Barlow, “Till ‘A The Seas”. Here.