Lovecraft and I Don’t Get Along

I’m going to make a terrible, terrible admission to you all that may ruin my oh-so-high and noble standing in occulture: I don’t like H.P. Lovecraft or his universes, and it’s not for a lack of trying, either.  At least half of my friends online and offline love the dude and his works, and all the works and worlds that he’s inspired, many of which actually working with the gods and entities from the Lovecraftian universe in an occult setting or dedicating some of their art and crafts to his world.  I’ve even taken a Vacation Necronomicon School a few years ago, a structured introduction to Lovecraft and his universe and how to write Lovecraftian horror and fiction.  I see Chthulhu this and Nyarlathotep that and Azazoth that other thing frequently and often.  And despite all that, I cannot stand the dude and his works.  I’ve known this for years now, but as my own spiritual life and practices have developed, I have a more solid understanding why.

The basic gist of his cosmos, as I understand it, is that the world is full of things.  Especially people, and especially white people.  And we as the logical, rational, material human race is responsible enough to abandon all but the most scientific of approaches to understanding the cosmos, especially white people.  But there are also other things in the cosmos that are bigger, stronger, and older than people, and especially white people.  And these things operate in a way that people cannot understand, especially white people.  This is obviously grounds for going insane or causing mass chaos and hysteria, because people are supposed to be the best, especially white people.

Please tell me you see where I’m going with this.

Now, I credit the fact to Lovecraft that he grew up in a late Victorian/early modern society and was enamored of what we nowadays call “hard science”, disregarding anything superstitious or religious as BS.  His family had a history of mental and psychosomatic illnesses.  He was brought up sheltered and lived as a recluse.  He held views that we’d consider racist in modern times, holding highest the Anglo-Norman people (from which he was descended), wanting to keep races distinct for the purpose of preserving cultural identity.  He was a man of his times, and especially the nighttime, and I understand that.

But the whole premise of his universe and drama just clashes so directly and fundamentally that I derive no enjoyment nor satisfaction from his works.  The way I see it, Lovecraft starts with the premise of a material cosmos and throws in the supernatural (magic, deities, etc.) almost as an afterthought, as if the metaphysical came from the physical and not the other way around.  In this light, the “gods” of Lovecraft’s universe are no more than beings that have had longer and more resources to evolve than humanity has, with abilities and knowledge that they’ve had more time and practice to develop than we have.  This makes them terrible, frightful, and deserving of crude and vulgar cults set up by the superstitious and unrespectable outcasts of the world.  Just as the poor become sycophants to the rich to eke out an existence by using some of the rich’s power, these low and vulnerable people turn to entities of cosmic power and fright against the more civilized and structured world of civilization.  But, because these mega-entities are so powerful, they stand to destroy all that civilization has made through the progress fueled by scientific advancement and industrialism.  We can’t have that, now, can we?

Basically, Lovecraft started with the basic ideas of social Darwinism and human (especially white human) supremacy over the world and showed how vulnerable we are.  This I agree with: there are things older than us and bigger than us and stronger than us in the cosmos.  I call them theoi, angels, gods, ancestors, totems, whatever; he calls them the Old Ones and Outer Gods and Elder Gods.  Where we split ways is that he finds the existence of these mega-entities incompatible with human understanding and outside our capacity to understand, inducing insanity, madness, and destruction.  I basically read his works as saying “But we’re humans! We’re supposed to be the best! HOW CAN SOMETHING BE BETTER THAN US I CANNOT HANDLE THIS KNOWLEDGE AAAAAAH.”  Note that this is what happens to the more civilized people, often scientists, while the lower classes of people tend to devolve and debase themselves into crude worship of these entities because they just don’t know any better.  But then, they not only don’t know better, but if they knew any better they’d go crazy, so they’re surviving where the civilized scientists can’t and becoming more powerful than civilization, which makes them a constant threat to the existence of humanity’s progress and civilized future.

Lovecraft, in spite of the cultural, scientific, philosophical, and spiritual heritage of humanity that actually exists, disregards all that we’ve actually done and posits it all as worthless in the long run.  Every story we’ve told, every building we’ve built, every discovery we’ve made, everything we’ve done and everything we’ve become is pointless and worthless in the cosmos, imprisoned as we are to this tiny rock in space, bound by our own limitations both physical and intellectual.  This is especially in contrast to beings who transcend spacial limitations (physical or metaphysical), whose power and knowledge vastly exceeds our own, who have their own aims and ends that either don’t take humanity into account at all or uses us for their own ends without regard for our well-being or survival.  All this boils down to, when we really think about it, everything we know and do is basically meaningless and there’s no point to anything.  The man himself even admits that his works are all about the futility and nihilistic pseudo-existence of humanity in the grand scheme of things:

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. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) 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.

If your worldview puts the material, physical world first and the spiritual, metaphysical world as second, or that the spiritual developed from the material, then you’re assuming that there’s nothing really distinct from the physical, since all things ultimately come from it, and all spiritual stuff is just a physical process we haven’t understood yet.  Everything that lives, going by Darwin’s theory of evolution, is merely accident and happenstance, and nothing is in control of anything except by sheer power alone.  One human may control thousands with enough power, but no power of humanity can ever dominate the world we find ourselves locked into and trapped upon, especially the existence of other and more powerful (though by no means “higher”) entities whom we can only cravenly worship in the hope of having other powers not being used over us.  The only thing that differentiates humanity from the Old/Outer/Elder Gods is the shitty and inexorable luck that we weren’t here first and weren’t strong enough to evolve fast enough.

But if your worldview puts the spiritual, metaphysical world first and the material, physical world second, or that the material developed from the spiritual, everything changes.  Instead of humanity happening at the same time or by the same processes of other mega-entities, we developed after them or by their involvement.  If the spiritual comes before the material, then no material process can begin to describe how the spiritual works, since it cannot apply; science is useless there, but only because science (as Lovecraft would have thought of it) operates only on the physical.  In that case, we need other tools of humanity: religion, superstition, spirituality, the occult.  These things, reserved for the poor and uncivilized in Lovecraft’s works, become the true tools of power and knowledge that can not only preserve our minds but expand them.  Yes, we can go crazy, too (too much knowledge does that to anyone in any field), but it’s not because we’re incapable of knowing these things, only because we get too used to operating on a spiritual level and not on a material one.  Insanity caused by knowledge isn’t a fundamental breaking down of comprehension, it’s expansion in a way that doesn’t mesh well with human custom and civilization.  Even if there are other and bigger entities in the cosmos, and even if humanity is stuck on this little blue speck in the infinite black, we still hold the keys to our own gates to infinity and aether and power that can put us on the level of any Old One, if not far higher.  Am I saying that spiritual entities always love and care for us?  Nope; demons, angry spirits, hell-beings, and the like from any number of cultures would love nothing more than to see us burn.  Am I saying that happenstance and accident didn’t create the cosmos, both spiritual and material?  It’s impossible to know without being God, and even then, when you’re God, there’s really nothing you can do that can be completely understood by a lower being because of God’s infinite nature.  And even if everything were an accident of creation, this doesn’t mean that a purely Epicurean, atomic-materialist cosmos is the only possible result where everything is random and nothing is ordered.  The possibility of order, however temporary, and to reflect on the nature of order and chaos is an indication that, if the universe isn’t strictly ordered, then order (and, therefore, meaning) is an essential component of it.

Humans, even in my worldview and spiritual learning, are not the top of the foodchain.  We may be powerful, but of course there are more powerful entities than us.  We may be smart, but of course there are smarter entities than us.  We don’t know everything, nor can we do everything.  The only course of action we have available to us is to learn and do as much as we can and then more, growing in our own power and wisdom.  We don’t need to get off this rock for that, nor do we need to understand the entirety of the physical cosmos, especially when power and origins lie in the metaphysical that physical laws cannot begin to describe.  Not all spiritual entities may care for us, but we must have come from some of them, and some of them are by no means indifferent to us.  Everything I describe is what Lovecraft refuted, and everything I believe is what Lovecraft denied.  While I won’t go so far as to say he’s wrong in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t matter to him either way if I did; his universe and worldview is less than helpful and more of an impediment to anything I do and study.

Nihilism and meaninglessness may make for an entertaining read, but it’s no more than the flip side of the “catch-penny romanticism” Lovecraft himself decries.

Clarifying Magic, Religion, and Ways of Life

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making good use of some of my Christmas presents (books on magic, religion, and the like) and heartily absorbing some of the points they make.  While many of the texts talk about specific ways to implement ritual practices or the general cultural milieu occult practices take place within, the overarching theme that’s being presented is that it’s really really hard to make clear distinctions between magic and religion based on the evidence we have of ancient cultures.  Sure, we might call ourselves “magicians” or “priests” nowadays, but the worldview we have when we apply these labels to ourselves is kinda weird when we consider what the ancients and our ancestors would have done.

For instance, a magician nowadays might set aside some time every day for magical work, but beyond that doesn’t do a damn thing; no prayers, no offerings, no involvement of “magic” beyond their set rituals.  Someone we might call devout or religious might go to church every week and occasionally get involved in scripture study with their friends, but outside of that barely involves themselves in religious activity.  We basically consider ourselves part-time magicians; part of the time we’re magicians, and the rest we’re just our normal mundane selves.  This is such a modern way of thinking, and so prevalent around us, that it’s hard to consider that it might have been any different for the people who have gone before us.

What would the ancients have done?  Rather than set aside times for doing magic or being religious, they involved these things literally all the time in everything they did.  Not one single thing was separate from magic or the gods or religion; not one single act had explicitly mundane purposes completely detached from the spirits.  Every herb picked, every meal served, every trip made, every speech spoken invoked the gods or spirits in some way, or was performed for some spiritual purpose no matter how small.  Rather than clearly thinking of something as magical or non-magical, or religious or non-religious, their entire lives were lived by incorporating the spirits in every action.  Of course, there were atheists and people with different beliefs doing the same thing as others who might be more canonical or traditional in their works, but that didn’t matter.  Everything actually done was the important thing, and even those who didn’t believe in a particular spirit or the efficacy of the spirit still performed the rituals just as everyone else did.

We might call this all the “religion” of ancient peoples, but it’s unclear whether they would have considered it so.  To an Athenian, their style of Hellenistic belief was simply what was always done; there was no set reference of texts, no central hierarchy, no canon.  The only things that were set were the festivals, the rituals, and the observances of the gods that, as far as they were concerned, sustained them in their livelihood and lives. There was no “religion” beyond daily life itself, and all the observances and stories that gave importance to their lives.

What do we consider “religion” nowadays for ourselves, though?  We might consider a set of canonical scriptures, a defined set of beliefs, some sort of priesthood or hierarchy, and regular observances of ritual or significant times.  We generally consider religion to follow an orthodox (literally “right teachings”) model, where belief is the core part of religion.  After all, given the past 2000 years of Christian development and influence on Western culture and philosophy, where Christians were more concerned with “what is the real word of God” or “what is heretical and against us”, this isn’t too surprising.  Christians have had a set of four gospel texts with a number of other texts appended on and deemed canonical by central authorities, with any deviance from these texts considered heretical.  A central authority deems whether a particular text is worth studying, or whether a particular person has been initiated into the priesthood, or whether a particular ritual is acceptable or not for use within the church.  It’s all very centralized and set in stone, and any deviance from the approval of the authorities is bad.  What the authorities believe is “religion”; what they don’t is deemed heretical or magical.

But this sort of central authority simply didn’t exist for most of human history, or even in a majority of world cultures.  Take Hinduism for instance; while there are a few central texts crucial to the understanding of Hindu philosophy and beliefs, there is no central hierarchy to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.  Local communities might practice their festivals or rituals differently, or might place more emphasis on one practice than another.  Different communities might hold different stories or myths to be more important than others.  They might add more scriptures, or consider fewer.  None of them dispute the correctness of each other, since other practices can augment or reflect one’s own in useful ways depending on need and practice.  The ancient Greeks are another good example; they might have had the Odyssey and Iliad to reflect ancient myths, or other bodies of myth and stories, but there was no central hierarchy to determine whether this temple had illegitimate practices or priests initiated incorrectly.  Even within the same city, the same god might be worshipped any number of ways, and that was alright.

Rather than following an orthodox model of religion, many cultures place more importance on orthoprax models, literally “right practice”.  So long as you do the rituals to spec (whatever that “spec” might have been), you’re in the clear.  You might think that the god is really some other god, or that the ritual has this importance and not the one others think is important, but that doesn’t matter so long as you actually get your hands dirty and do the work.  Even if the community is just a tightly-knit family with ten people, the rituals and practices and customs done would be considered legit by them, and that’s all that matters.  There is no standard to determine which practices or beliefs are right or wrong, beyond what’s done for a good reason.

Partially, this lack of orthodox standard is influenced by the presence of “set texts”.  Oral traditions, like the classical Hindu or modern Santería or other religions, don’t have any particular set texts.  They’re all spoken aloud, passed down by word from one generation to the next; while the songs may be the same, they’re ephemeral, and require people to memorize them.  Changes, especially if the songs are lost or misheard or inappropriate for further use, are organic and allow different communities to develop their own flavors of the original religion that reflect their own cultures and communities.  There’s nothing to compare against besides each other, no “canon”, to say that something is right or wrong.  If something simply isn’t done anywhere else and contradicts every other surviving practice, it might be weird, but if it works and gets the same stuff done, it’s hardly “wrong”.  It might not be acceptable to one group, but if it works within the group in which it developed, there’s nothing “heretical” about it, so long as it pleases their gods and gets the job done.

So what’s the big difference between magic and religion?  Honestly, there isn’t one as far as I can see.  Even to define the two is difficult enough, but might better both be put under a broader header of “spiritual customs” that a group or individual makes use of to accomplish certain goals.  Whether gods are invoked by name or a simple announcement of intent is made, these customs are something “extra” to the purely mundane causes and effects that somehow make the action fit in better with one’s life.  It would seem that religion is simply the approved practices of the majority or a central hierarchy, and magic is anything outside that realm within the same culture, but this definition is kinda weak.  What would we make of a curse tablet that invokes the gods of the underworld in a purely prayer format?  Is that magic, or religion?  Many people employed curse tablets, and there’s nothing overly disapproved of the wording.  The grey area between magic and religion is so large that it incorporates both magic and religion.

Within a particular pantheon or philosophy, so long as you do what’s done, you’re pretty much set.  Just because some central authority detached from your culture and need says that your actions are wrong doesn’t make it so, but not all authorities are completely detached on the matter.  For instance, if you try to invoke the Santería orisha Chango in a ceremonial magic working or use symbols and offerings that are more appropriate to the Greek thea Aphrodite, that’s probably not going to end up too good.  Why?  Because that’s not how Chango has ever been treated, nor how Chango ever grew by those that worship him, and it’s also likely that Chango himself wouldn’t agree with the practices.  It’s not bad to innovate, but it’s also not bad to listen to custom and tradition.

Those two words, “custom” and “tradition” have important etymological roots that can clarify and guide our practices.  Custom ultimately comes from the Latin word “consuescere”, meaning “to become used to with oneself”.  Anything that is done over time that has been adopted or integrated into a community, family, culture, or even individuals is a custom.  Tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning “to hand across, to hand down”.  Anything that we are taught to do, or picked up from others, or passed down from one generation to the next is a tradition.  Between these two, we already have a good body of things that can help us build our practice and educate us: the stories we’re told from birth, the tricks and quirks our parents show us in the kitchen or around the house, the polities and courtesies we show others that we were taught to show, all these things are customs and traditions that help us build ourselves into the people we are.

Neither customs nor traditions preclude changes to them or innovations of new practices, but customs and traditions should guide us and offer a sounding board for these new practices.  Thus, if a particular kind of fruit offered to Chango in Africa cannot be found in Cuba where he’s also worshipped, a substitute can be made if the new fruit is appropriate (similar color, taste, texture, etc.), or the practice might be eliminated entirely.  Offering Chango something entirely different with no connection or relationship to the original offering or anything Chango is known to like, however, may not be recommended unless Chango asks for it.  Similarly, if one’s traditions involve calling upon Chango with another set of gods that have been passed down by one’s family or culture (e.g. native American religions or pre-slave trade Caribbean faiths), asking for Chango’s presence with another god can be good if the two gods are known to get along well.  On the other hand, asking for Chango’s presence with a Celtic or Slavic god, when these gods are new to the family or culture and no connections between them have been formally made yet, may not end up too well unless one asks Chango and the other god how they might interact with each other.  Overall, it’s a respect thing.

In a sense, ritual acts might be considered “wrong” only if they’re disagreeable with the forces that they call upon.  If other people don’t like it, they don’t have to practice it or go along with it, especially if their traditions and customs dictate they act in certain ways that don’t agree with this other ritual.  If the spirits are okay with something and its continued use, there’s nothing wrong with taking that and passing it on for others to use.  If a ritual act gets something done or spiritually completes an act without harm and with benefits, it should be maintained and practiced by those who can use it.  That’s really the only difference between “wrong” or “heretical” acts and “right” or “proper” acts when it comes to ritual.  Acts that are deemed heretical and magical by central authorities, then, can be of no less use and efficacy than those that are deemed religious and proper, so long as the acts themselves don’t conflict with the customs and traditions that help build someone up into the person they are within the community that was also shaped by those customs and traditions.

So what’s the difference between magic and religion?  There isn’t one besides what’s deemed “proper” by someone who probably doesn’t matter.  What’s the difference between these and ways of life?  There shouldn’t be one for those who are serious about either.

There’s learning, and then there’s Learning.

“Study hard, party hard.”  That’s one good way to interpret Hermeticism from our point of view as incarnate humans in our material reality.  It also describes my entire college career.

I went to a party school, not gonna lie, but it was a damned good party school.  Highly accredited, good marks, good programs, good location; hell, it’s been put into the so-called Kudzu League, being one step under Ivy League colleges.  I applied knowing that a good number of my friends were going to the same college, moved into the dorms my first year, met a bunch of people, drank a lot of booze, hooked up with a lot of boys, coded a lot of programs, passed and failed countless assignments, and learned a fuckton about computer science, linguistics, Asian culture, and ethics.  It was an awesome time, and I loved it.

I went to college in the first place because, well, it was the proper thing for me to do.  I’ve always had an academic streak, I wanted to get out of the house, my family brought me up to go to college, and a lot of the things I wanted to do could be accessible only through college.  All things considered, it was the thing I should have done, so I did it.  When I applied, I got in with nary a hitch or delay (though FAFSA and student aid forms were and always will be a bitch).  I was accepted and was given a student ID and email which I then promptly linked up to my Facebook account; this gave me a kind of “body” to come in contact with the world, both academic and social, at college.  I moved in, did my work, did my play, graduated, and moved out of my last college apartment.  Now that college is passed and in the past, I’ve stopped using my student ID and email, and my Facebook is now deleted; my “body” I used to interact with the world is effectively dead, but I still keep in contact with my friends and professors.  In other words, I’m still me, but I’ve got a new place and “body” now, and new things to do and learn.

College was awesome, but sometimes I had to remind myself why I was there.  Some weeks, I’d do too much partying, drinking, staying out late, and hooking up.  It took a toll on my grades and ability to function properly, and sometimes affected my ability to stay out and party later on.  Other weeks, I’d do too much studying, staying up late in libraries, and focusing on coding and cramming.  It kept me a shut-in, I’d drop off the face of the earth to my friends, and eventually burned me out from doing much of anything besides sleep.  I came to college to do both: I came to college to learn about computer science and other things, and also to learn about people and how to interact with them (sober or otherwise).  If I stayed up all night every night partying, I’d’ve gotten nowhere, and I’d’ve forgetten that I came to college to learn.  If I stayed up all night every night studying, I’d’ve gotten nowhere, and I’d’ve forgotten than I came to college to learn.  I had to do both, because both were part of the college experience, the experience that I wanted for myself.

In a sense, the desire to learn and experience life in college in a fantastic part of Virginia with awesome people studying amazing subjects?  That could be called a kind of love.  A love for the place I was in, a love for the things I was doing, a love for the world I found myself in.  I went there for a purpose, and Lord knows I enjoyed myself while accomplishing that purpose.  That said, I still did my work and graduated on time, accomplished my purpose and ended my time at college.  I went home, told a bunch of great stories to my parents (who gave me incessant and unending amounts of aid, financially and otherwise), and then moved out again to start a new life with a new purpose.  My love is shifted for another experience and another world.

Some people, though, don’t do the same thing I did.  Some people’s love leads them to other paths that don’t include college.  Some people get hooked on the partying and drinking and fucking, which leads them to failing classes and spending more time than they should at a four-year university, or flunk out entirely.  Some people get hooked on the studying and learning and research, which leads them to pursue more degrees than they intended or than they have money for.  Some people just get dealt a bad hand and get caught up in issues not of their own creation, and something happens to their four-year term that expands, contracts, or stops it entirely.  Some people get sent to college for their own good instead of out of their own goodwills, That’s just life, after all, and different people get caught up in different things.

Now, all that above?  That’s one giant metaphor for human existence, according to some versions of Hermetic philosophy.

According to the Divine Poemander, the text describing the experience that really started Hermes Trismegistus off on his huge godly kick, mankind was made in the image of the Nous, the Mind, the First Father who thought up all of existence in all its forms on all its levels, from the highest and most ethereal to the lowest and most vulgar.  The Nous is all-knowing and ubiquitous, since that’s just its job.  We’re children of the Nous, so we take after our parent in that we want to know and want to be everywhere, but being only parts of the All, we can’t simply do that by simply knowing and being.  To that end, we have to go out into the cosmos from our parent’s wing, we have to explore new places, we have to learn new things, so that we can keep exploring and learning later on.

When we, as ethereal forms fresh from our parent’s house, came upon the district of the cosmos known as Material Reality, we peeked our heads in and wondered what the hell was going on here.  The boss of the place, Nature, saw us peeking in and welcomed us onto her turf, giving us material bodies to move around in and get used to her place.  While here, Nature played the good hostess and offered us whatever we can take grasp of.  “You asked for it.”  After all, we came here to explore and figure out what this place was all about, and while we’re here, we’re getting everything we want.  That’s pretty damn awesome.  We love it here.  It’s, literally, love that brought us here, love that created all this for us.  It’s the same love that brought mankind here that it was which brought me to college: I wanted to go, I was meant to go, it was good for me to go, so I went.

Of course, we can’t stay here forever.  The cosmos in its infinity is big, and Material Reality is only one part of it.  We can’t take our bodies with us after we die, and that’s probably a good thing: although having a body helps us in getting around this place, it might just be extra luggage in other places, if not a dead weight that hurts more than helps.  Even though this is an awesome place with all manner of fun and games, that’s all it is, and we can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re here to learn and get our Work done.  If we dawdle too much enjoying the drinking, partying, and fucking, then we forget that we came here to learn.  If we try to get out without actually experiencing this place and getting to know what Material Reality is all about, then we forget that we came here to learn.  The whole point of Hermeticism is to learn, do your work, and GTFO, but the thing about your work is that it involves all kinds of learning and in proper amounts.  Do that, leave, let your trappings of Material Reality die, and move on to more and different places of the cosmos to keep learning.  How else can we figure out what else there is if we don’t explore?