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.

More: “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis, & and the Problem of Alien Worlds

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 1, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. C. S. Lewis is one of the writers I’ve been meaning to read for decades, but I just never get around to getting my paws on his books. This brilliant post has so whetted my appetite that I am off to Amazon.

  2. I’m currently reading When God Talks Back by T. M. Luhrmann. Its an anthropologists chronicling of an evangelical charismatic church. When these Christians become ‘saved’, and are turned into mediums, they frequently start bawling and crying profusely in great lament. Lovecraft frequently gives me this feeling of lament when he presents the veil in any of his stories, as a reader you pass over these abysses that he places into his stories, like sinkholes into the Underworld, and as readers he casts this spell on us and these emotions that Lovecraft relishes rise in us too. the Underworld is what we typically connect to lament, ghosts, and its not coincidental that charismatic christians channel spirits. in Paradise Lost, Milton presents the Underworld as a place of great sorrow and lament, even for Milton himself, a blind man, “no light but rather darkness visible” “torture, without end” that “still urges”. These ominous abysses fascinate us. there is definitely a cause & effect for me. in class, when I listen to others reading Milton for the -first- time, when they pass over these kind of sinkhole passages, I hear their rapture, their surprise

  3. I could never get into any of C.S. Lewis’ writings despite years of trying. Ten I read Till We Have Faces and I was beyond impressed. There as a depth in that book lacking in other of his writings of his with which I’m familiar. Personal suffering humbled him and allowed him greater insight.

    I’m not sure exactly how that novel might fit into the notion of longing. It’s been too long since I’ve read it. It does occur to me that longing is the ultimate enemy of simple unquestioning faith for longing leads to wonder and awe beyond human ken.

    Longing, in contrast to belief, s an experience. To a believer, experience is a tricky thing for experience can’t be controlled. A non-ordinary experience likely won’t perfectly conform to orthodox belief. Longing is dangerous.

    There was research done on this which showed those who had spiritual experiences ended up attending church less often. If you have a direct line to the Other, then priests and churches as intermediaries serve less of a useful purpose.

    • I think the growth of churches that practice the charisms compared to the ones that do not would point to the fact that people really do want to commune with one another to experience that ecstasy. Though yes certainly people who do yoga or reiki find that they can have similar experiences all by themselves. It will be interesting to see in the future what new temples get built that might cater to people of different cultural backgrounds.

      • I would consider charismatic churches as unusual examples, even exceptions to the rule, in our Christian society. Most Christians aren’t seeking ecstatic altered states of mind. But there might be certain eras when charismatic religion becomes popular, such as during times of social unrest and uncertainty.

        The question might be if what people are looking from religion is different today than it was in the past. Are people desiring actual spiritual experience more for some reason? What would cause such a change and is it permanent or temporary?

        I suspect it is just a temporary shift. During the populist era, people were drawn to experiential religion. The US has gone through several religious awakenings, but after each most people return to standard rule-bound religion. Even during the religious awakenings, I don’t know of any evidence that shows a majority of the population was involved.

        • The charismatic trend right now is dwarfing the influence of other forms of Christianity in the USA.

          • Yeah, during times of social unrest or uncertainty, the interest in such things does increase. However, the trend is these kinds of more charismatic churches tend to become more mainline over time, especially as society enters more stability. Then, a new phase of new charismatic churches eventually comes on the scene. This cycle has happened many times before.

  4. Charles Gutierrez

    This my be my own idiosyncratic point of view, but it’s hard for me to think of something of a word that encompasses both longing and nostalgia without thinking of the tango, particularly the tangos of Astor Piazzolla, such as “Vuelvo al Sur.” Which got me thinking about Borges, both because his poem “The Tango” expresses his particular sensucht, and because, like Lovecraft, he was fond of long nighttime walks around his natal city. In a way, I think Borges falls somewhere in between Lewis and Lovecraft. He is ultimately skeptical of the soul’s survival after death, and yet that does not guide his fiction to the same abysses that HPL’s goes to.

  5. I have always found Lewis to have a great sense of horror.When I read Perelandra (the second in the space trilogy) the scenes of when Satan shows up and his battles with Ransom were truly horrifying. They are a quiet-sick horror that was definitely on par with HPL’s slowly dawning revelations of cosmic despair. I think the difference between the two is that for Lewis Cosmic despair was what happened when the universe was broken, while for HPL despair it its steady-state.

  6. As someone who grew up with Lewis (Indeed one of my names comes from the title of one of his books) and who now has made some hay impersonating Lovecraft, this was a delightful discovery. Thank you.

  7. Wonderful and thought-provoking stuff – Thank you. Glad to see that ‘Kadath’ got a mention in the SF Signal article – that does indeed have some amazing descriptions of longing.

  8. Jung’s “Answer to Job” could be an interesting complement to this–Jung described a sort of “pyschological evolution” in the God of the Bible, where God went from more of a primal amoral wild force, like a personification of the raw power and creativity of nature, to one more capable of compassion for humanity, but still with a shadow side that shows up in the horrors in the apocalyptic side of Christianity (and also with the suggestion that Christ was a sacrifice to this darker side of God). And he also suggested “God” could be seen as a metaphor for, or another name for, the unconscious, with the “evolution” relating to a better integration of our conscious and unconscious sides. From the summary here:

    Yhwh’s decision, Jung says, to become a man is a symbol of the development that had to supplant the understanding of the god-image that came to Job. Thus god is said to act out the unconscious and forces humanity to harmonized and unite the opposing forces to which our minds are exposed from the unconscious. “The unconscious wants both: to divide and to unite.” (para 740) The unconscious want to enter into the light of the conscious but at the same time it continually thwarts itself, because it would rather remain unconscious (repressed?). In other words, God wants to become human, but not quite. The conflict is so great, Jung notes, that the incarnation can only be bought by a self-sacrifice offered to the wrath of god’s dark side.

    Thus everything depends upon the human: “immense power of destruction is given to the human and the question is whether we can handle it and temper our will with the spirit of wisdom and love. Jung believes that we will be unable to this by ourselves and thus require an advocate in heaven who will assist in the healing of the fragmented human. Psychologically, the individuated self stands for the goal of life which is a spontaneous production by the unconscious. The dynamic of this process, Jung continues, is instinct which ensures that everything that belongs to an individual’s life shall enter into it, whether we are conscious of it or not. Of course there is a great deal of difference in whether we know what we are living out, whether we understand what we are doing, and whether we accept the responsibility for our actions. But still, as noted previously, the unconscious both strives to enter the light of consciousness and yet shuns its glare.

    Thus the conscious realization of what is hidden confronts us with an insoluble conflict–at least as it appears to the conscious mind. But the images that arise out of the unconscious show a confrontation of opposites and the goal then must be their successful reconciliation (individuation). It is the task of the conscious mind to understand these images, says Jung. And even if we do not become conscious of this, the individuation process will continue on its own but we then become the victim of its forces and are dragged along the road to goal which we might go to upright were we merely conscious and reflective of the process. Hence, To Jung, all that matters is whether humans can climb up to a higher moral order, a higher plane of consciousness. But Jung believes that we cannot do this without help unless we become better acquainted with our own natures.

  9. It’s hard not to see Lovecraft (like Nietzsche) as writing in the shadow of Christianity. It is from the dark after-image of the Christian God that Lovecraft’s horrors well up. I wonder whether some of us have been steeped in secularism long enough to experience a sehnsucht that aspires to neither divine effulgence nor its horrifying absence, but to a kaleidoscopic numinosity of the everyday, an attention to the mystery in the interstices of the ordinary. A longing that opens onto the vast, largely unexplored realm that is neither moral nor immoral, but truly “beyond good and evil.”

  10. I think that Lewis and Lovecraft were united in yearning because they were both deeply conservative and as such, more prone to nostalgia and idealization. I am not really familiar with Lewis’s work – I have read only parts of Mere Christianity and am vaguely aware of the Narnia storyline – but I have had a soft spot for Lovecraft’s dream-cycle stories for two decades and have returned to them often; I see his Sehnsucht as the platonic/sublimated expression of a more robust longing, which incorporates sexual desire as well as the physicality of travel, exploration and adventure [ I recommend listening to Rammstein’s Sehnsucht, that is full of desire for long legs, Africa and Mexico!]

    Matt, are you familiar with Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese? For me, it is this sort of art that gives rise to this hard to define sense of longing. Other writers that have it down perfectly, include the South-African Breutenbach, who writes of the ‘kind of nostalgia for places we have never seen’ and Michel Ende – of Neverending Story fame – who wrote a short story about a man who accidentally came across a painting of a castle and made it his mission in life to find the actual castle and claim it as his home.

    If New England towns made Lovecraft Sehnsucht-crazy, one has to wonder what kind of writing he would have produced had he been able to visit Rome, Luxor, Petra or Angkor…

  11. I agree. I think that longing exists in many of us, but especially in those who write in the speculative genres. Readers along with writers want to peel back the layers, to see what isn’t normally there for us to see.

    I’m rather new to Lovecraft and haven’t been exposed to Lewis at all (except for the movies), but I know that Lovecraft tends to not detail the horrors at the base of his works. Is Lewis the opposite? Or do they both not peel back too many layers?

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