Retrospective Failure

In my first report card, my form master described me as, inter alia, having a “dry wit”. As might be expected of someone whose education involved report cards, form masters, and the casual use of Latin in sentences, the following several years of education amplified rather than removed this trait. And it persists to this day: Steve Turnbull has taken it as one of his missions to gloss my social media comments with a metaphor comparing my wit to wine so dry it is dust in the glass. So, it will come as no surprise I am fond of irony. However, for the same span of time, one irony has irritated me: divine irony.

While irony is often used as a label for saying the opposite of what you mean, the technical meaning is the broader idea of something having different meanings to different (theoretical) audiences: for example, the insertion of jokes for adults in children’s films. These audiences are not limited to real-world audiences: dramatic irony lets the reader/viewer know something a character in the story doesn’t, giving each a different perspective on the events of the story.

I enjoy irony in all its forms, from the emotional accessibility of sarcasm to the post-modern intellectual thrill of romantic irony – all except divine (or cosmic) irony. Divine irony is the trope that the universe (either as a divine being or a more nebulous process of fate) deliberately raises up a character only to equally deliberately bring them down. Perhaps the most famous example is Thomas Hardy’s manifesto for victim-blaming, Tess of the D’Urbervilles) in which events conspire to make each of Tess’s attempts at virtue at best fruitless; not wishing to spread his foulness I leave it to readers with a strong sense of self or pressing need to purge their stomachs to research further if they wish.

The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.

– H.P. Lovecraft

Frequent readers will no doubt be wondering how this fits with my enjoyment of the Cthulhu Mythos. The difference lies in the reason people fail: both suggests a world in which an individual’s actions are futile before immense cosmic forces, but in the Mythos we are truly insignificant; protagonists fail not because some malicious demiurge lurks waiting to change the rules after we have acted, but because humans are so separate in both power and perspective from certain beings that there is no real interaction.

Whether tragedies, comedies, or some fusion, satisfying stories are about protagonists facing some challenge (emotional, intellectual, or physical) and being changed by their response to it. They do not need to succeed, but their failure must have meaning. While a professor investigating the Mythos might never overcome Azathoth, he can overcome a cult who worships Azathoth and then die in the knowledge he saved his wife from being sacrificed; he need not fear Azathoth making his wife die of a heart attack after he has freed her.

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8 thoughts on “Retrospective Failure

    1. It’s a mixed blessing: not having something deliberately limiting our efforts means we can do more damage to our habitat; but, it also means we have no limits on our potential to transcend our limits.

      There are even critiques of Lovecraft’s work that suggest those entities that do appear to be actively against us (Nyarlathotep especially) are actually trying to show us this post-transcendence existence but the mental shift required to see it makes it seem insane/evil to humans who haven’t crossed over.

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      1. My impression was that most of the entities were indifferent to humans (although Cthulhu actually showed up at a revel by his worshipers in a swamp somewhere, didn’t he?). You’re right, though — Nylarlathotep assumed human form and interacted with humans. A study of Lovecraft’s letters would probably shed some light on the intentions behind the stories.

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        1. It depends which level of entity you are considering, and whether you are including entities created/used by writers other than Lovecraft himself. The Outer Gods are mostly indifferent due to the immense difference in scale and concerns, but at the different-but-of-the-same-magnitude level there is deliberate interaction.

          The Mi-Go put people’s brains in containers capable of travelling to places the human body can’t survive: how much of the horror comes from human’s visceral belief their body is intrinsic to the self?

          And the Deep Ones seek to gather descendants to them: is that actually compassion for people who would otherwise mutate without anyone nearby to support them?

          Lovecraft’s letters are extensive (I haven’t read even a significant minority). From what I have read – and seen glossed by others – the horror of a universe that doesn’t care is a big part of the metaphysics, but at the human scale the evidence of utter evil in the Mythos seems to be less certain.

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          1. Indeed, HPL’s universe is multi-faceted and more complex than many assume. Like you, I noted the subtlety of the idea expressed by the narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” at the end of the story that he and his cousin will be going home to their people, which gives a different perspective on the Deep Ones. But the Mi-Go are purely evil, by human standards. I guess it’s details like this that bring readers back to Lovecraft after they’ve read him for the shudder effect.

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            1. The Mi-Go seem hostile to humans; but then the vet seems hostile to my cat’s, despite only ever trying to benefit them.

              From the steps the Mi-Go take to deal with outsiders, I feel it is more likely they were hostile or at least uncaring rather than misunderstood assistants; but then real people have done terrible things in the service of a perceived greater good, so I’m not ready to claim for certain the Mi-Go don’t seem more evil than they are because they don’t have a good enough grasp of human psychology to communicate.

              Excellent point about this ambiguity being part of his enduring appeal. The cosmic dualism that Lumley and others added to the Mythos definitely holds me less.

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  1. I use a lot of Lovecraftian imagery and some of the names in my work, but my cosmology is based more on William Burroughs. My Outsiders have capabilities and modes of existence that are incomprehensible to humanity, but they’re not gods–they are cosmic parasites and con artists who deceive humans into thinking that they are much more powerful than they really are.

    That’s one of the themes of my work, the concept that all is only lost if you believe the hype and give up. Once you actually stand up and fight back, the boogeymen are revealed as cowards and bullies who, while formidable, are beatable.

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