H.P. Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926 and I encountered it some time in the early 1970s. The opening paragraph has stuck with me these many years:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
The over-the-top prose is part of his appeal—the man would never be confused for Hemingway. But he is on to something here, this idea that we really don’t know how fucked we are. Read Genesis and you get the feeling that God and Man are all alone in Creation. Sure, we got animals and Wo-Man for company, but there aren’t any other Chosen Folks out there. Earth is it. We are the only sentient beings other than God in the universe. Now that’s scary. This is why God is around, to help you with that particular terror.
It’s not like science is any better. Our post-Darwinian world is filled with terrors as well, seeing that DNA proves we are all part of the primordial ooze. Everything from the virus to the orangutan are our kin. Our racial differences, so important to our culture and identity, are hopelessly trivial in the grand genetic scheme. The Space Age showed us a universe that was close enough to infinite in size and age that god got reduced to lower case.
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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
That’s one sentence! I think we are there, that frightful position with the terrifying vistas. Whether you believe the universe is filled with intelligent aliens or not, the fact remains that even the close ones are so far away on the human scale that it doesn’t matter. We ain’t meeting them anytime soon. And be you theist or atheist you are still standing on a barely hospitable rock racing its way through a thoroughly inhospitable space. Step off the rock, you are dead.
So that leaves us with the choice: madness or peace and safety? And if we choose the rational course, peace and safety, we have to choose a new dark age. Madness is the consequence of understanding. See the truth, lose your mind. Stay sane only by closing it. Or medicating it. Or otherwise occupying it with such things as the pursuit of happiness. If we really allow our minds to appreciate our cosmic insignificance, we’ll quit. The vastness of the known universe already dwarfs our consciousness, the more we learn only makes it worse. The atomic nature of reality is too weird for normal people, only quantum physicists can really discuss it, but the little we do know shatters our world. Best not to think of it and stay afloat in the macro-verse.
Extra helpings of religion and mysticism come round to the same end. Only through embracing a deliberate irrationality—faith in a particular set of stories—can you have hope. Otherwise it’s an eternity of hell. Choose a particular madness and devote yourself to it and the pain of existence will be ameliorated. God will save you.
So, do we flee from the deadly light of knowledge? Do we accept insanity as the price we pay for learning? Seems like we have to. Just because science is scary doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. People have been saying ‘the truth hurts’ for a long time and they are right. So we are going to have to learn to take it. It’s hard to let go of sacred assumptions and precious notions but they are, on a daily basis, reduced to mere cant.
I fear the dark age more than the light. Technology is now independent of the science that spawned it. It will grow and mutate and evolve along its own lines, on its own power. So it can be used to serve the overlords of the dark age just as easily as the wardens of the lunatic asylums. I think we all need a little more madness in our lives. That’s not to disparage the rational, just to say how can one be rational when staring out on the abyss?
In Genesis, God stares down the abyss, the face of the deep, and brings order out of chaos. Each day our minds perform the same task. We wake from our bewildering dream world and we sort out all the shit and get everything lined up for another go. Eventually we will succumb to the entropy, our bodies and brains will decay and return to the void, but we have to keep busy creating our world in the meantime.
Lovecraft was a paranoid loon, a racist misanthrope who longed for simpler days. Those types prefer the dark ages. But I’ll take my chances on the terrifying vistas and the deadly light. It’s kind of exciting out here—something new every day. We started as cosmic dust and we’ll end up as cosmic dust, but maybe we’ll learn something along the way.