“Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” first published in The Wolverine in 1921, is a story often held up as an example of Lovecraft’s overt racism since it plays on the “terror” of racial or genetic impurity—a horror story for the era of eugenics. But in this passage we see the roots of a building sense of the human species as not just inherently villainous to each other, but a danger to the world itself—our curiosity threatens all, starting with ourselves.
Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.
If I may, for a moment, conflate the words “science” and “technology,” the Industrial Revolution that Lovecraft was experiencing as he wrote this story has led us to the same conclusion reached by Arthur Jermyn, especially when we’re confronted by one study after another that lend inescapable truth to his assertion, like the study described in the USA Today article from November 19, “Climate change to trigger widespread hazards to Earth and humanity—many at the same time“:
“Greenhouse gas emissions pose a broad threat to humanity by simultaneously intensifying many hazards that have proven harmful in the past,” (Camilo) Mora said. “Further, we predict that by 2100 the number of hazards occurring concurrently will increase, making it even more difficult for people to cope.”
For example, in New York in 2100, people will endure four separate climate hazards, including drought, sea-level rise, extreme rainfall and high heat. By that time, Los Angeles will deal with three.
Although the scientists discovered few positive or neutral effects, the overwhelming majority of climate impacts are detrimental to humans.
“If we only consider the most direct threats from climate change, for example heat waves or severe storms, we inevitably will be blindsided by even larger threats that, in combination, can have even broader societal impacts,” study co-author Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin said.
I’m not prepared to light myself on fire yet, but even as a generally pro-science, pro-technology person, I can’t pretend that the Industrial Age hasn’t come at a severe long term cost. I don’t think H.P. Lovecraft had any sense that carbon emissions in 1921 would pave the way to disastrous climate change only detectable half a century in his future and disastrous half a century in ours, but maybe, like Mary Shelly before him, we could have listened to people who were at least asking that we be a bit more cautious in the stuff we invent and even more cautious of the machines we put into massive, wide-scale use having no idea of their long term impacts.
In his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft wrote:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We lie 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 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.
In this case, I tend to disagree with Lovecraft. I think the smarter we are the better. But a general fear of science has been around for, really, all of human history. Religions are founded on the concept of “ignorance is bliss”—that it’s better to repeat feel good stories than to know just how little the universe cares about us, not to mention all the ways in which it’s lined up to destroy us—and in Lovecraft’s lifetime only a few of the many extinction level events lurking in the black seas of infinity were known.
This definitely explains why America, while barreling to the Singularity, is awash in nonsense from both the left and the right, from the religious and the pseudo-scientific, leading National Geographic to ask: “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”
We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days—in books, articles, and academic conferences—that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.
This leaves us with anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, flat-Earthers, and anti-GMOers diving headfirst into their own new Dark Ages, all while watching the current measles outbreak run through Seattle, the climate actually changing now fast enough to see and feel, driving to their flat-Earther convention using the GPS on their phones that only works because of satellites in orbit around the spherical planet, all while happily munching organic foods and either pretending or somehow actually not knowing that being anti-GMO means they also have to be pro-starvation, especially for developing nations facing a rapidly changing climate.
Science has opened up such terrifying vistas of reality that it now feels like mythology. The universe around us was always assumed to be pretty weird but every day it’s getting weirder and weirder, and that weirdness is being revealed to us faster and faster. It’s now gotten so difficult to keep up that whole groups of otherwise smart people are falling off the speeding locomotive of scientific and technological progress somewhere along the way.
It can be drawn out of a careful reading of his fiction, but in a letter to Farnsworth Wright dated July 5, 1927 (Selected Letters II, 1925-1929, quoted in In the Dust of This Planet by Eugene Thacker) Lovecraft just came right out and admitted that…
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all… but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.
I understand if not everyone is comfortable with the idea that there’s nothing terribly special about humans, or worse, that a lot of what we pat ourselves on the back for (technology) is actually killing us and taking innocent fellow creatures down with us while we’re now smart enough (science) to know that we’re stuck to a whirling ball of rock adrift in the black seas of infinity and the killer asteroid, coronal mass ejection, or gamma ray burst that murders us all without malice of forethought is literally an ever-present danger.
There’s scary shit out there, and the smarter you are the more of it you’re confronted with, and the more you’re confronted with it the closer you get to the point where you just fucking crack.
At least, according to H.P. Lovecraft.
But how about this idea: In the same way that American conservatives were wrong, in the 1960s, when they said to the hippies: “America, love it or leave it,” when our Founding Fathers set up the Constitution under the general heading: “America, love it or fix it,” we can either freak out at the icky feeling that food made in a laboratory might conjure, flail about for someone to blame for random occurrences like autism, or keep burning fossil fuels because it’s cheaper and easier and anyway the oil companies won’t let us stop, than it is to think that maybe the same spectacular creativity that came up with the internal combustion engine and the atomic bomb could come up with the means to fix the mistakes—some of them innocent enough—of previous generations.