C. S. Lewis and H. P. Lovecraft on loathing and longing for alien worlds
Several years ago — almost seven, in fact (he said with a sense of temporal vertigo) — I published a series of posts here about what I then termed the “autumn longing,” that exquisite, fleeting, piercing experience of being tantalized by a vision of ultimate beauty and fulfillment that trembles just beyond the edge of our ability to attain or even fully imagine. The first post in the series was about C. S. Lewis, who gave what remains in my opinion the most complete and focused description of this experience in the English language. The second was about H. P. Lovecraft, who is far more well-known for writing about (and also for writing from) a vision of cosmic horror than a vision of beautiful longing, but whose life was centrally defined by an ongoing experience of this exquisite sehnsucht no less than Lewis’s was.
I went on to elaborate on these matters in a number of additional writings that have been published elsewhere, including “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H. P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti,” published both at Thomas Ligotti Online and in Lovecraft Annual; my two-part essay “Lovecraft’s Longing” for the North Shore arts magazine Art Throb; and a column titled “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing” for SF Signal.
Over the years I haven’t seen anybody else writing about this psychological kinship between Lewis and Lovecraft via the experience of sehnsucht, so it was a real joy to stumble upon the following a couple of days ago:
Much has been said about Lewis and Sehnsucht, the German word for “longing” or “yearning.” Lewis thought that this species of longing was itself a precious possession, more precious than anything to be found in this world, because it directs us to another world, a “far off country” whence all the good things in our world derive their goodness. We feel it in those fleeting moments when we sense beautiful things beyond our grasp. It is, as Lewis famously said in his afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress,
that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
. . . Lovecraft was not an alien to this longing. He felt it, too, but without the satisfaction hope gives it. . . . Is this what becomes of Sehnsucht when it is disappointed? Does it become the phantasmagoria of Lovecraft? Must those who either cannot or will not believe in the promise implicit in our longing turn upon the reminders of another world and defile them? The prospect fills me with pity.
These paragraphs come from a highly absorbing essay by Presbyterian pastor, successful young adult fantasy author (under the pen name “Mortimus Clay“), and former philosophy professor C. R. Wiley about the deep philosophical disjunction between Lewis’s and Lovecraft’s respective explorations and presentations of the theme of alien worlds and alien life. The fact that Wiley clearly “sides” with Lewis — something that’s not surprising, given the fact of their shared orthodox Christian worldview — doesn’t make his insight into Lovecraft any less valid or penetrating, and in fact helps to deepen it.
Here’s are key excerpts that illustrate the point:
Both Lewis and Lovecraft were interested in other worlds, that is, in alien worlds. And using the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, they explored the implications of alien worlds for human beings. But their respective visions are as alien to each other as the worlds they wrote about are alien to our own.
. . . Lewis believed that God is good — but his goodness is unleashed from human management. As he famously said: Aslan is not a tame lion. Nevertheless, even though Aslan disturbs characters in the Narnia stories, he does not disturb the reader. Lewis is too avuncular for that. He wrote the Narnia stories with children in mind, and his hands are warm and reassuring as he holds the hands of his readers. Even the Space Trilogy reassures us.
That is not what Lovecraft was after. He wanted to disturb us. At his best, we can detect in him a longing for the power that underlies all things. But for Lovecraft, it is an amoral power. Like people as wildly different as Mary Baker Eddy and Arthur Schopenhauer, Lovecraft believed morality to be a human attempt to tame and sublimate this power and to make it socially acceptable and useful.
Lewis did not think morality was a human artifice imposed on a primal life-force. Like the Apostle John, he proclaimed that life and light have the same source and occupy the same space. For Lewis, life is found in morality, and, like life, it is a gift we do not give ourselves.
It is this alien source of morality that modern people find disturbing. Reducing morality to human origins is a human attempt to tame it. For Lewis, that effort is the source of all our ills; the refusal to submit to our given limits is what alienates us from God. And that is where monsters really come from. Whoever they may be now — the White Witch or Weston — the monsters were once people. That is the frightening news Lewis has to share about human nature. It turns out that Lewis can scare people after all.
Lovecraft also believed that there is something monstrous at the bottom of human nature. Nearly all his stories have the feel of a confessional about them. They often narrate a process of discovery, creating within the reader a sense of dawning horror. Not infrequently, there is — at the zenith of the story — some dark revelation concerning the protagonist’s origins. . . . These stories end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.
But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.