Because reality is weird

by February 27, 2011

Master of "weird fiction", H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

When I was fourteen or so, I came across the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft in a maze-like used-book shop that my parents used to take me to, and spent many evenings after that lost in discovery of Lovecraft’s terrifying but fascinating cosmology. The premise shared by many of the stories is that our Enlightenment confidence in the rational order and knowability of the universe is cruelly misplaced, and that what lies behind “reality” as we perceive it is a master world of evil gods, other-dimensional beings, and colossal lost cities constructed from “non-Euclidean” geometry.

It is more than a little interesting, therefore, to discover that there is an emerging branch of philosophy many of whose practitioners hold in common a respect for Lovecraft’s work. In the fourth issue of Collapse, an interdisciplinary journal of art and philosophy, Graham Harman of the American University in Cairo sets out the connection between the discipline of “speculative realism”, Lovecraft, and philosopher-mathematician Edmund Husserl:

Against the model of philosophy as a rubber stamp for common sense and archival sobriety, I would propose that philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird. “Continental science fiction”, and “continental horror”, must be transformed from insults into a research program. It seems fruitful to launch this program with a joint treatment of Edmund Husserl and H.P. Lovecraft, an unlikely pair that I will try to render more likely. The dominant strand of twentieth-century continental thought stems from the phenomenology of Husserl, whose dry and affable works conceal a philosophy tinged with the bizarre. In almost the same period, the leading craftsman of horror and science fiction in literature was Lovecraft, recently elevated from pulp author to canonical classic by the prestigious Library of America series. The road to continental science fiction leads through a Lovecraftian reading of phenomenology. This remark is not meant as a prank. Just as Lovecraft turns prosaic New England towns into the battleground of extradimensional fiends, Husserl’s phenomenology converts simple chairs and mailboxes into elusive units that emit partial, contorted surfaces. In both authors, the broken link between objects and their manifest crust hints at “such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age” – or preferably, revive a metaphysical speculation that embraces the permanent strangeness of objects. If philosophy is weird realism, then a philosophy should be judged by what it can tell us about Lovecraft. In symbolic terms, Great Cthulhu should replace Minerva as the patron spirit of philosophers, and the Miskatonic must dwarf the Rhine and the Ister as our river of choice. Since Heidegger’s treatment of Hölderlin resulted mostly in pious, dreary readings, philosophy needs a new literary hero.

Intrigued? Then you’ll be happy to hear that Edinburgh University Press is launching a book series focused on speculative realism. Just don’t try reading it at night.