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Lovecraft, Tolkien, and the nightmare as “a necessary drug for the mass consciousness”


Here’s a description of the book Nightmare: From Literary Experiments to Cultural Project (Brill, 2013) by Russian-born literary and cultural scholar Dina Khapaeva, who is currently serving as chair of the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech:

What is a nightmare as a psychological experience, a literary experiment and a cultural project? Why has experiencing a nightmare under the guise of reading a novel, watching a film or playing a video game become a persistent requirement of contemporary mass culture? By answering these questions, which have not been addressed by literary criticism and cultural studies, we can interpret anew the texts of classic authors. Charles Maturin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Howard Philips Lovecraft and Victor Pelevin carry out bold experiments on their heroes and readers as they seek to investigate the nature of nightmare in their works. This book examines their prose to reveal the unstudied features of the nightmare as a mental state and traces the mosaic of coincidences leading from literary experiments to today s culture of nightmare consumption.

And here several interesting passages from a section of the book titled “The Culture of Nightmare Consumption.” The latter term, note, refers to Khapaeva’s contention, or rather observation, that today we live in and with “a consumer culture for the nightmare,” where the nightmare is “a staple consumption concept upon which today’s culture is extremely dependent.”

The works of J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft, which directly influenced contemporary fiction and the visual arts, can hardly be overestimated, and represented a new landmark in the formation of the Gothic Aesthetic. Their works laid the foundations of the contemporary culture of nightmare consumption and facilitated the nightmare’s penetration into everyday life, allowing it to exert a huge influence over the minds of millions of readers, viewers, and video game users.

. . . Tolkien and Lovecraft most probably had no idea of each other’s existence, at least while they were writing their main works. However, being united in the space of contemporary culture, their quests have merged into the single project of the Gothic Aesthetic.

. . . The rise of the Gothic Aesthetic in the 1990s occurred through a coincidence of several trends and factors that had started to emerge in the late 1970s. The birth of Gothic rock coincided with the peak of Tolkien’s popularity due to the translation of The Lord of the Rings into most European languages. These events had clear social consequences: Gothic rock produced the Goth youth subculture, while The Lord of the Rings inspired the rise of role-playing games. The writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose prose was instrumental  in promoting a fascination with nightmares, were also used as a model for role-playing games in the early 1980s, but his works gained true popularity in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when contemporary computer games were developed. Works by Tolkien and Lovecraft made a unique contribution to the rise of the Gothic Aesthetic, influencing the minds of millions of readers, users and viewers.

In the 1980s the nightmare gradually began to transform into a necessary drug for the mass consciousness; the public was not aware of its addictive effect until it began to require equine doses of direct and vulgar nightmares in order to achieve the desired effect. Over the last 20 years the nightmare has become the most desirable psychological state, and indeed any product on the pleasure market that does not imitate it seems to the contemporary consumer to be insipid and unreal.


Homer, Tolkien, and the ontology of visionary states in a materialist age


In his new book The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, English professor, writer, and classical guitarist Robert Tindall, writing with psychology professor and transpersonal psychotherapist Susana Bustos, “Weav[es] together the narrative traditions of the ancient Greeks and Celts, the mythopoetic work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the voices of plant medicine healers in North and South America [in order to] explore the use of healing songs, psychoactive plants, and vision quests at the heart of the Odyssey, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Tolkien’s final novella, Smith of Wootton Major.”

The words “heady” and “fascinating” seem insufficient to describe such a book. They’re also insufficient to describe the interview with Tindall that was published in February at Reality Sandwich. In addition to telling interviewer J. P. Harpignies about the motivations and origins behind the book, Tindall ably articulates the fatal problem with our contemporary Western worldview that combines a quasi-Cartesian rationalism with a reductive scientific materialism. He also addresses the ontological question of the reality or unreality of the beings encountered in visionary states.

For these and other reasons, my wholehearted recommendation is: click. Read. Slowly. Attentively. The following extended excerpts are just a small part of the whole.

TINDALL: When I first sat down to write on the striking parallels between the mythology of the ancient Greeks and the cosmovision of contemporary Amazonian peoples I thought I was writing a short article. Sixty pages later I knew I had a hydra on my hands, and I wasn’t able to lop off heads fast enough.

In order to explain how it was possible for the Sirens in Homer’s epic and the sirenas of the Amazonian waterways to be so uncannily similar, I realized I needed to explore the consciousness underlying these experiences among traditional peoples. It turned out that there is a primal experience of “permeability,” of a transparency to the elements, animals, spirits, stars, which has allowed human beings over the millennia to experience the sentience of the cosmos and derive valuable information from that communion. I eventually realized that this “primal mind,” sometimes derided as “animism,” underlies not only Homer’s work, but is also markedly present in the works of other authors central to the Western European literary canon, such as Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien has been a great inspiration to me ever since I was a boy. The cosmovision of The Lord of the Rings made more sense to me than anything else in the barren Reagan-era culture I grew up in the 1980s, and during my studies of medieval literature in the university I found myself following in Tolkien’s footsteps academically as well. Tolkien’s express purpose was to re-inject the vitality of the pre-Christian oral tradition back into the enervated Western imagination. He termed his endeavor “mythopoeic,” and some of his earliest writings are clear evocations of the primal mind of our ancestors. Given that my purpose was to revitalize the cosmovision of the Odyssey, I found myself enlisting the old master’s support.

. . . I think Tolkien has been cast in the mold of a brilliant academic with a marvelous, far-ranging imagination, yet a man of essentially modern rationality. I disagree. I think there’s more to Tolkien’s creative experience than is recognized.

. . . We’ve ended up in a narrow corridor of perception, one that privileges Cartesian consciousness as “normal,” the standard by which the worldviews of other cultures are measured. Yet, in fact, viewed ethnographically, the modern style of perception is rather peculiar. Who in their right mind would believe in a dead, mechanical universe, and of themselves as the sole arbiters of the meaning of their existence?

. . . HARPIGNIES: You seem to accept fairly literally some of the “magical” experiences described by some shamans and other practitioners you interview — episodes of “animal becoming,” of astral travel, of seemingly miraculous healings, of abduction by spiritual entities such as water spirits in the Amazon, etc. Are you convinced that these are objective phenomena, i.e. that these spiritual entities or forces are fully autonomous of [sic] humans and “real” in some way, or do you consider these phenomena too mysterious to fully understand and categorize?

TINDALL: “Real” is an elusive concept, especially in the world of shamanism. I know I went through a painful shift of paradigm during my first year of apprenticeship in the shamanic traditions of the rainforest. As an educated Westerner, I had been open to Jung’s ideas of archetypes and had experienced meditative states during my training as a Zen Buddhist, but my default setting was essentially Cartesian: I think, therefore I am. I was the center of the show, the only real consciousness in charge, and the idea of “spirits” or “entities” was a bit distasteful, if not downright spooky.

It was therefore with a mixed sense of wonder — Oh, brave new world! — and profound existential disorientation that I began to discover my little consciousness was only one wavelength in a vast transmission of sentience that permeated everything. Ugh. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

Somehow, with the support of those around me, I weathered it. I think it’s the process of adaptation, of crossing frontiers into other states of consciousness, which is far more interesting than the question of the ontology of spirits.

Really, phenomenologically speaking, we have raw experience, and that’s it. What I found in my own apprenticeship is encountering “spirits” that inhabit a vital cosmovision is the same as running your hand over the bark of a tree, diving into a river, or talking with your child. Things that go bump in the shamanic night all fit the criteria for “objectively out there real stuff” — and have real consequences in the daylight world.

In this sense, asking whether one “believes” in the reality of spirits is rather like asking if one “believes” in the reality of the ocean. The answer could be yes, but it seems rather awkward to say so.

— J. P. Harpignies, “Embarking Upon the Shamanic Odyssey: A Talk with Robert Tindall,” Reality Sandwich, February 18, 2o13