HP Lovecraft and the Myth of the Golden Age
I started reading H.P. Lovecraft again after a break from his work of far too many years. Specifically, I re-read Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, one of the Randolph Carter cycle. The story itself was published posthumously and HPL intended it as nothing more than a writing exercise. It was never a finished work. Regardless – or perhaps because – of this, it highlights the central themes in all of Lovecraft’s writing, Progress and the Myth of the Golden Age.
Lovecraft struggles to reconcile the ideas of progress, that science and technology improve the lot of humanity, and the golden age, the idea that the past was somehow better and more glorious than the present. The conflict between both ideas strike at the heart of the man himself. On the one hand, Lovecraft was a scientist. He wrote many articles for local astronomy magazines and even wrote a chemistry textbook for schools. On the other, he longed for a Georgian England which no longer exists and a world steeped in literary allusion.
As a result of this conflict, all the great feats of glory and heroism which occur in his stories are confined to the Dreamlands, the world which men his when they sleep. These actions include standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the tall and proud men of Lomar guarding the walls of the city of Olathoe from the barbarian hordes, or climbing the forbidden and forbidding peak of Ngranek to find the face of god carved upon it. None of his ‘real world’ characters performs such marvels.
There is something Jungian about Lovecraft’s Dreamlands although it is doubtful that the psychologist C G Jung ever influenced him. Each person (and other entities) has his or her own personal dreamlands where he or she goes when asleep. These lands touch and interact with each other and form a wider world which is called at times the Dreamlands of Earth. Other dreamlands for other worlds exist and there are gates and portals to travel between them. This schema matches quite closely some interpretations of Jungian idea of the collective unconscious.
Having now separated the golden age of legend and derring-do from the real world, he concerns himself with showing that not only was the past worse than the present but that it was worse in ways mere mortals can never imagine. The past was not an age of glory but a time in which named and unnmed horrors ruled the world and men and half-men cowered in the dark trying not to draw attention to themselves. The idea of progress is subverted. No longer is it a steady march towards truth and knowledge but the construction of an every more complicated shared delusion to hide the truth.
But in the early twentieth century, the march of science did indeed seems relentless and unstoppable. ‘Medieval’ ideas of were being smash everywhere one turned. There was a very real fear shouted from pulpits all over America that science may disprove the veracity of the Bible and displace god as the centre of meaning in the world.
How did Lovecraft deal with the revolutions in science and technology in his works? That progress exposes delusions as fantasy is not questioned by him. But it does not free us from the world of delusion but threaten to expose us to the harsh and maddening realities of the universe. Lovecraft insists that the same mental faculties which can invent and make real the illusions which protect us from reality are in the process of tearing down the very delusions which protect us from that reality.
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.
— Call of Cthulhu (1926)
EDIT: Check out this link to a blog post posted around the same time as mine. Spooky, huh? HiLoBrow: Cthulhu is Not Cute.