Cosmic Head Scratch

One of the common themes of Lovecraft’s oeuvre and cosmic dread in general is that the threat comes not from some moral imperfection or defined antagonism but from mutual incomprehension, from a universe filled with intelligences so different from humans in outlook and scale that we are irrelevant. The analogy of humans seeming as ants is often made. However, that may be too cheerful an image.

From Spinoza’s proof that God exists to that one person on Twitter who can’t see you aren’t like them, humanity seems drawn to the idea that humans (either, in arrogance, the thinker or, in humility, some divine being that humanity echoes in form) can comprehend the universe; and, sealed within our comfortable skull fortresses, it is very easy to relax into the idea that we could know it all. So, how might one conceive of something with motivations that we cannot truly understand?

One of my favourite moments in Babylon 5 involves G’Kar trying to explain what it was like to encounter an alien from a race already ancient before the current spacefaring races had evolved. He picks up an ant from a plant with the tip of his finger then puts it back down again, then asks his companion how that ant might explain or even understand what had just happened. A similar parable exists that compares Lovecraftian entities killing humans with a human stepping on an ant: the human doesn’t step on the ant because the ant is it’s enemy, they mostly likely step on it without noticing.

What is a rock’s favourite position?
stuant63 – CC BY NC 2.0)

These images do give some idea of vast entities that affect humanity by accident or in fleeting curiosity. However, this might still be too comprehensible. While ants are not humans, they need to eat, to reproduce, and so forth; thus, the hypothetical ant encountering a human might not comprehend what has happened but would be correct in assuming the vast entity acted from a desire to live.

And one can view at least some of Lovecraft’s entities through the same lens: certainly the Deep Ones are driven by near human motivations; and interactions with other entities can be seen not as a permanently incomprehensible situation but as instance where we do not have enough data to say why it acts in a particular way but with enough interactions we could see the unspeakable horrors as merely feeding, reproduction, and so forth based upon different biochemistries.

However, Lovecraft tells us that some Mythos creatures aren’t like us in key ways that rule out a simple difference in expression of underlying commonality. Cthulhu, for example, is dead but dreaming; if he can die and return he does not have the drive to live that humans do; and without that, we cannot assume the drives that come from that survival drive (to eat, to reproduce, to avoid damage) exist in him. And Cthulhu is—as is shown by him being the popular image of Lovecraft’s work—one of the most comprehensible of Mythos beings, and is described as a priest. If a being that accessible to us, who is small enough to worship other Mythos entities, lacks the most basic of human drives, how might we have even the vaguest notion of what an Outer God might want.

Even those beings where a creature’s actions seem clear are not always compelling evidence of motivation. Lovecraft’s story Nyarlathotep seems to show the god as malevolent; however Robert Price makes a strong case that the god’s motivations in various stories could be intended to help humans and that we misinterpret them because we are blinded by our own beliefs.

Perhaps that is the greatest horror of cosmicism: that the image of being squashed like an ant beneath someone’s boot without them even being aware of it does not truly capture the extent to which our greatest qualities, deduction and empathy, are irrelevant.

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