Most boundaries have their origin in our fears, imposed in a vain quest of isolating what frightens us on the other side. The last two centuries have been the era of eroding boundaries, the gradual disappearance of what were once thought to be unassailable walls between ourselves and the “other”. It is the story of liberation the flip-side of which has been a steady accumulation of anxiety and dread.
By far the most important boundary, as far as Western culture at least is concerned, dealt with the line that separated the human from the merely animal. It was a border that Charles Darwin began the process of destroying with his book The Origin of Species in 1859, but though it was strongly implied in that work that human beings also were animals, and that we had emerged through the same evolutionary processes as monkeys or sea slugs, that cold fact wouldn’t be directly addressed until Darwin wrote another masterpiece – The Descent of Man in 1871.
Darwin himself was an abolitionist and believer in the biological equality of the “races”, but with his theory, and especially after The Descent’s publication, the reaction to his ideas wasn’t the a scientific affirmation of the core truth found in the book of Genesis- that despite differences in appearance and material circumstances all of humanity were part of one extended family- but a sustained move in the opposite direction.
Darwin’s theories would inadvertently serve as the justification for a renewed stage of oppression and exploitation of non-European peoples on the basis of an imagined evolutionary science of race. Evolutionary theory applied to human being also formed the basis for a new kind of fear- that of “master races” being drug back into barbarism by hordes of “inferior” human types- the nightmare that still stalks the racist in his sleep.
Darwin held views that while attempting to distance his theory from any eugenicist project nevertheless left itself open to such interpretations and their corresponding anxieties. Here Darwin’s humanism is much more obscure than on the question of race, for he drew a conclusion most of us find difficult to accept- that our humanistic instincts had combined with our civilizational capacities in such a way as to cause humanity to evolutionarily “degenerate”. As he wrote in The Descent:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
Still, the ever humane Darwin didn’t think such degeneration was a problem we should even try to solve given, for in doing so we might lose those features about ourselves- such as our caring for one another- that made our particular form of human life meaningful in the first place. Yet, despite his efforts to morally anchor the theory of evolution his ideas became the starting point for the project to replace the religious nightmares populated by witches and demons that were being driven from the world from the light of an increasingly scientific and secular age with new “scientifically based” fears.
What indeed could have been more horrifying for bourgeois whites than barbarians breaching the gate they had so assiduously built, between Western and subject peoples, the upper and middle classes and the poor- who often were of another color and language, or lastly, erosion of the sharp line that had been established between man as the master of nature and nature herself?
H.G. Wells was one of the first to articulate this new seemingly scientific nightmare that would replace older religious ones. If evolution was even now reshaping our very bodies and minds should we not fear that it was molding us in ways we might dread?
Wells in his novel The Time Machine thus imagined a future in which evolution had caused a twisted bifurcation of the human species. The upper class after eons of having had every need and whim provided had become imbeciles and gone soft-his childlike Eloi. Yet it was Wells’ imagined degenerates, the Morlocks, the keepers of machines who had evolved to live underground and who lived off the flesh of the Eloi that would haunt the imagination of a 20th century beset by the war between classes.
In The Time Machine Wells reworked European anxiety regarding “savages” into an imagined future of European civilization itself that might be brought about should the course of future human evolution come to be shaped by the failure to address class conflict and preserve the types of challenges that made gave life meaning and had shaped human evolution in the past. He would explore a similar to erosion of boundaries, only this time between the human and the animal, with his 1886 novel The Island of Dr Moreau, which I’ve discussed on a prior Halloween.
Yet Wells would never explore the racial anxieties that were unleashed with the Theory of Natural Selection, probably because he remained both too intelligent and too humane to be taken in by the pseudoscience of race even when racism was a common opinion among educated whites. The person who would eventually give vent to these anxieties was a strange and lonely figure from Providence Rhode Island whose rise to popularity might serve as a sort of barometer of the early 21st century and its’ mixture of new and old fears.
I can’t say I’ve read much of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps because I am no great fan of horror fiction generally, but after reading his 1931 tale The Shadow over Innsmouth I did understand much better what all the fuss over the last decade or so has been about.
Lovecraft is an excellent example of the old saw that brilliance and moral character need have nothing to do with one another. Indeed, he is a master storyteller of a sort of who excels at tapping into and exploring the darker human emotions. Where Lovecraft especially outperforms is at capturing less the emotion of fear than the sensation of suffocating disgust. Yet for all his brilliance, the man was also, indisputably, a racist asshole.
The plot of The Shadow over Innsmouth deals with an unnamed antiquarian who in search of the origins of an obscure kind of “crown” finds himself in the bizarre and ultimately horrifying coastal town of Innsmouth. What the protagonist discovers upon his arrival at Innsmouth is something close to a ghost town, an almost post- apocalyptic place neither fully abandoned nor alive and inhabited. Despite the tale’s setting near the sea the atmosphere Lovecraft describes reminded me very much of what is left from the man made disaster that is the town of Centralia, a place where our fantasies of the underworld meet reality in a way I know all too well.
The backdrop is important for the message I think Lovecraft is trying to convey, which is that civilization is separated from barbarism and violence, the angelic from the demonic, or the human from the animal, by a razor thin boundary that might disappear in an instant.
Against this setting Lovecraft succeeds in a mashup of the anxieties that haunted Westerners over the course of the modern age. The churches of Innsmouth have been converted over to a type of devil worship. Indeed, one of the most striking scenes in the story for me was when the protagonist sees one of the darkly robed priests of this cult walking across the street and finds himself struck with a strange sense of mental insanity and nausea- what fear can sometimes feel like as I myself have experienced it. Still, Lovecraft is not going to center his story on this one deep seated, and probably dying fear of devil worshipers, but will hybridize it and create a chimera of fears old and new.
The devil the inhabitants of Innsmouth worship will turn out to be one of the deities from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, Lovecraft appears to have almost single-handedly revived the ancient Christian idea that the gods of “pagans” and “heathens”, weren’t, as modern Christian mostly understand them, fictions or childish ideas regarding the “true” God, but were themselves real powers that could do things for their worshipers- though for a demonic price. The ship captain who brought the worship of a dark gods from lands in the Pacific did so for purely utilitarian reasons- prayer to the entity works- unlike prayers to the Christian God, who in a twist I am not sure Lovecraft grasped the cleverness of, has left the the fishing community of Innsmouth with empty nets.
In exchange for full nets of fish, the people of Innsmouth agree to worship these new “dark ones” and breed with them like the “sons of God” did with the “daughters of men” in the Book of Genesis, and just like in the Bible where such interbreeding gives rise to human monsters hybrids that God later destroys with the Flood, in The Shadow over Innsmouth the product of these unnatural couplings result in similar hybrids only, in a dark reversal of both the Noah story and historical evolutionary movement from sea to land, the hybrids will be born human only to devolve by the time they reach adulthood into a sort of immortal fish.
Okay, that’s weird… and deep.
What’s a shame is that it’s likely Lovecraft we’ll be talking about in 2100, much more so than Joseph Conrad, who, despite attempting to wrestle with similar anxieties, and from a much more humane perspective, will likely be anchored in the 19th and 20th centuries by his historical realism.
Lovecraft will likely last longer because he was tapping into archetypes that seem to transcend history and are burned deep into the human unconscious, but it’s not just this Jungian aspect to Lovecraft’s fiction that will probably keep his version of horror relevant in the 21st century.
The very anxieties, both personally and in fiction, that Lovecraft exhibited are almost bound to become even more acute as fears over immigration are exacerbated by a shrinking world that for a multitude of reasons is on the move. These fears are only the tip of the iceberg, however, as boundaries are breaking down in much more radical ways, as the kinds of revolutionary changes in public perception of homosexuality and the transgendered within just the last couple of years clearly attests.
Add to that what will only be the ever more visible presence of cyborgs, the dread of animated environments, and ubiquity of AI “deities” running the world behind the scenes, and all this combined with the continued proliferation of subcultures and bio-technological innovations that will blur the line between humans and animals, and one can see why anxiety over boundaries may be the most important fear in terms of its psychological and political impact in the 21st century.
What makes Lovecraft essential reading for today is that he gives those of us not prone to such fears over eroding boundaries a window directly into the mind of someone who experiences such erosion with visceral horror that as in Lovecraft’s time (he wrote during the era when Nazi propaganda was portraying the Jews as vermin) quite dark political forces are prone to tap. For that we might be thankful that the author was as dark of soul as he was for because of it we can be a little more certain that such fears are truly felt by some, and not just a childlike play for attention, even while the adults among us continue to know there aren’t any such monsters under our beds waiting until the lights go out to attack.