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The Teeming Brain Podcast #1: “Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror”

Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft

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Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror

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Do nihilism and cosmic meaningfulness stand in fundamental tension with each other at the heart of the horror genre? Were Lovecraft and Machen getting at fundamentally different moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical points with their respective horror stories? Does the (possible) tension between Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Machenian sacred terror constitute a fault line running right through the center of the horror genre and impacting its literature and cinema today?

These are the questions driving this first-ever Teeming Brain podcast, which has been, if you count back to the blog’s original launch, six years in the making. More immediately, it was recorded between November 20 and 28, 2012. Its origin can be found in three items: first, an article titled “Meaning to the Madness” — about Lovecraft, Machen, and the moral and philosophical ideas playing out in the current horror movie scene — written by Christian horror novelist Jonathan Ryan and published in Christianity Today; second, a response to and rebuttal of Ryan’s argument by Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin in “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness“;  and third, the vigorous conversation that grew up around that response both here and at Thomas Ligotti Online. There is also, fourth, John Morehead’s suggestion that this could all be turned into a stimulating podcast.

 

PARTICIPANTS:

This debut episode presents a roundtable featuring eight authors and thinkers in the areas of horror, philosophy, and religion, all of whom engage the questions described above plus a whole lot more.

  • Peter Bebergal, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and author of the widely praised memoir Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood.
  • Matt Cardin (host), founder and editor of The Teeming Brain and author of Dark Awakenings, Divinations of the Deep, and the forthcoming To Rouse Leviathan.
  • Nicole Cushing, author of the forthcoming horror novella Children of No One and the trippy bizarro fiction collection How to Eat Fried Furries.
  • Richard Gavin, author of the numinous horror collections At Fear’s Altar and The Darkly Splendid Realm and the Teeming Brain column Echoes from Hades.
  • T. E. Grau, fiction editor at Strange Aeons, author of the Teeming Brain column The Extinction Papers, and co-author (with his wife, author/editor/screenwriter Ives Hovenessian) of the forthcoming horror fiction collection I Am Death, Cried the Vulture.
  • John W. Morehead, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, creator of the blog Theofantastique (“A meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture”), and co-editor of The Undead and Theology.
  • W. Scott Poole, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston and author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting.
  • Jonathan Ryan, author of “Meaning to the Madness,” the highly praised supernatural/spiritual horror novel The Faithful (as Jonathan Weyer), and the forthcoming urban fantasy novel 3 Gates of the Dead.
Image via Tartarus Press, from “Arthur Machen vs. H.P. Lovecraft

To Cleanse the Doors of Conception: Psychic Dreams, Scientific Monsters, and Transcendent Realities

Dream researcher, Teeming Brain friend, and future Teeming Brain contributor Ryan Hurd — who has spoken about dreams, consciousness, sleep paralysis, and related matters at Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, the Rhine Center, and elsewhere — recently shared an account of an apparently precognitive dream that he personally experienced. As I was reading through it, in addition to finding his description of what happened to be rather fascinating, I found that a number of thoughts and recognitions were crowding forward from the peripheries of my awareness to announce the wider implications of such experiences. All of them have to do with the question of what’s really involved in and portended by exactly the philosophical effect Ryan identifies in connection with anomalous experiences in general, namely, a cracking of the “dam” of assumptions that lead most of us to explain away the significance of such anomalies for our worldview, or even to screen out a conscious acceptance and/or awareness of such things altogether. When this kind of breach in one’s personal cosmos is effected, the resulting flood of formerly rejected realities has the capacity to recast everything in ways that can be experienced as horrific, salvific, or even both at once. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 33

Recommendations this week, spanning a vastly broad variety of trends, issues, ideas, people, and subjects, include: the pressure on American policymakers to adapt to increasingly wild weather; Daniel Pinchbeck’s analysis of the wild weather and other aspects of our current ecological crisis as a collective planetary-spiritual experience of initiation into higher levels of consciousness; an assertion from Rupert Sheldrake that minds are not limited to brains; renowned philosopher Elliot Sober’s critique of renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos; an analysis of the crisis facing the American publishing and literary world in an age of epic corporate mergers, along with a (self-admittedly futile) call for the enacting of government policies to protect culture; and a fascinating analysis of the “Gospel of O”: the idea of “emptying yourself for Oprah” that stalks proudly and prominently throughout the American media-cultural-psychological landscape. Also see the final entry below for a heads-up about a conversation that’s currently unfolding both here and elsewhere on the Internet about the meanings of horror, as spurred on by a recent Teeming Brain column. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 30

This week’s (exceptionally long and varied) offering of intellectual enrichment includes: an argument that the likely death of economic growth is the underlying theme of the current U.S. presidential election; thoughts on the rise of a real-life dystopia of universal algorithmic automation; an account of how the founder of TED became disgusted with the direction of the iconic ideas conference and created a new one to fulfill his original vision; reflections by a prominent physicist on science, religion, the Higgs boson, and the cultural politics of scientific research; a new examination of the definition, meaning, and cultural place of “pseudoscience”; a deeply absorbing warning about the possible death of the liberal arts, enhanced by the author’s first-person account of his own undergraduate liberal arts education at the University of Chicago; thoughts on the humanizing effects of deep literary reading in an age of proliferating psychopathy; a question/warning about the possible fate of literature as a central cultural-historical force in the grip of a publishing environment convulsed by epochal changes; an interview with Eric Kandel on the convergence of art, biology, and psychology; a new report from a psychiatric research project on the demonstrable link between creativity and mental illness; a career-spanning look at the works and themes of Ray Bradbury; and a spirited (pun intended) statement of the supreme value of supernatural and metaphysical literature from Michael Dirda. Read the rest of this entry

I, Pet Goat II (SHORT FILM)

The mind boggles at this stunning animated film, released in summer 2012, that tells “A story about the fire at the heart of suffering. Bringing together dancers, musicians, visual artists and 3d animators, the film takes a critical look at the events of the past decade that have shaped our world.” With a “cast” that includes many massively important figures on the world stage (both ancient and modern, historical and mythological), and featuring a fairly amazing original musical score, the film is replete with mystical, occult, esoteric, and religious symbolism. It’s an instance of politically and religiously charged surrealism of the most edgy, beautiful, and mind-blowing sort.

If you’d like a breakdown of the “plot,” see this review at Greenewave. Otherwise, just open your mind and watch. More than once, preferably, if you want to catch all that’s going on.

The director is Louis Lefebvre. The production company is Heliofant, whose self-described mission is the use of computer animation, driven by art and artists from multiple fields, for explicitly philosophical and spiritual ends:

Based in the beautiful Laurentian mountains just north of Montreal, Canada, Heliofant is a nascent independent computer animation studio focused on creating experimental and challenging content. Bringing together artists from the fields of dance, music, computer animation and visual arts, the company is very interested in exploring the common ground that underlies many spiritual and philosophical traditions in a lyrical form.

Image via Heliofant

Doom from Above: When the End Arrives, Will Anyone See It Coming?

The Extinction Papers – Chapter Three

 

So few humans look to the sky these days, engrossed as they are with the glowing box on the wall, the interconnected device held in their hand, and the cracks in the pavement in front of them as they count each step to the grave. Add to this the contemporary obsession with navel gazing, and the vista above doesn’t stand a chance. Downward the eyes are cast. Ever downward, searching for salvation

But I still look up, because that’s where the mysteries still exist, and that’s where the end will come.

Armageddon will come from above as we scuttle like ants in a Petri dish. This has always been a part of human lore, but we seem to have forgotten, as our vision becomes more nearsighted and internalized.  In version of The End preached by the modern, literalist Christian tradition, the returning Jesus will descend from the clouds during the Rapture and take up all the properly saved believers, leaving the rest to the Tribulation slaughter under the hideous reign of the Antichrist.  In the cosmic horror writing of Lovecraft and other devoted Mythosists, the Outer Gods might someday decide to pass blindly through our neighborhood, bulldozing our reality and raining down destruction born in a reality not our own and certainly over our heads. The cinema has filled seats with flickering tales of duplicitous aliens who arrive on earth to suck the planet dry. Asteroids and meteorites pose a constant threat to both the continued existence of our species and the quality of American filmmaking. Solar flares could one day decide to burn our watery marble to an orbiting cinder. Once again and over and over, death comes from the stars, or even from our star, and even from those places closer to home yet still firmly elevated. Read the rest of this entry

The Gloaming (SHORT FILM)

It may be giving away too much in advance to describe this short masterpiece of visionary animation as a religious metaphor that channels and encompasses not just the entire history of human civilization but its possible future as well. Or maybe not. Judge for yourself. Indie film site Directors Notes included “The Gloaming” among its official “picks” for June 2012 and accurately described it as an exploration of “planetary birth and the rapid evolution of its populous [sic]  into exploitative war mongers.”

“The Gloaming” was produced by Sabotage Studio and directed by Nobrain, which is a pseudonym for a team of three filmmakers. “Saii, Charles and Niko met while they were working for post-production houses in Paris,” they say in their official self-description. “Saii was a compositing artist, Charles a CG artist and Niko a post-production supervisor.” Sabotage Studios is in fact their own creation; they launched it in 2001 as a post-production studio but then gave up control of it “to dedicate themselves to their own creations.”

For the easily offended, beware of not only scenes of (animated) violence but some explicit scenes of (animated) sex and nudity. For everyone, beware of helpless fascination with a piece of cinematic art that channels a disturbing premise into an even more disturbing conclusion.

Ancient pharaohs, temporal lobe epilepsy, and the birth of monotheism

Did the religious visions and experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, suffered across generations by a pivotally important royal family in ancient Egypt, give birth to monotheism? This newly advanced theory, which adds a possible new dimension to the longstanding and widely accepted belief that monotheism was founded by the pharaoh Akhenaten, a.k.a. Amenhotep IV (the father of Tutankhamun), sounds like something of a stretch. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Tutankamun’s mysterious death as a teenager may finally have been explained. And the condition that cut short his life may also have triggered the earliest monotheistic religion, suggests a new review of his family history … [A]ll of these theories [about Tutankamun’s death] have missed one vital point, says Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon with an interest in medical history at Imperial College London. Tutankhamun died young with a feminised physique, and so did his immediate predecessors … “It’s significant that two [of the five related pharaohs] had stories of religious visions associated with them,” says Ashrafian. People with a form of epilepsy in which seizures begin in the brain’s temporal lobe are known to experience hallucinations and religious visions, particularly after exposure to sunlight. It’s likely that the family of pharaohs had a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy, he says. This diagnosis would also account for the feminine features.

… Tuthmosis IV had a religious experience in the middle of a sunny day, recorded in the Dream Stele — an inscription near the Great Sphinx in Giza. But his visions were nothing compared with those experienced by Akhenaten. They encouraged Akhenaten to raise the status of a minor deity called the “sun-disk”, or Aten, into a supreme god — abandoning the ancient Egyptian polytheistic traditions to start what is thought to be the earliest recorded monotheistic religion. If Ashrafian’s theory is correct, Akhenaten’s religious experiment and Tutankhamun’s premature death may both have been a consequence of a medical condition. “People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal,” says Ashrafian.

“It’s a fascinating and plausible explanation,” says Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. However, the theory is almost impossible to prove, he adds, given that there is no definitive genetic test for epilepsy.

— Jessica Hamzelou, “Tutankamun’s death and the birth of monotheism,” New Scientist, September 5, 2012

(Story via The Daily Grail)

Note that Ashrafian lays out his theory in full in the September 2012 issue of Epilepsy & Behavior, in an article titled “Familial epilepsy in the pharaohs of ancient Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty.”

Image: Painting of the Aten from Amarna, Public Domain {{PD-US-no notice}} via Wikimedia Commons

Recommended Reading 24

This week we bring you an exceptionally rich list of excellent reading and, in two cases, excellent listening. Topics include: the inherent — and ongoing — problem with financial institutions that are “too big to fail”; the siege of higher education in its traditional form by tech startups and the exploding online college movement; the overt, frightening, and thoroughly Orwellian/dystopian militarization of America’s cities as domestic law enforcement is remade in the mold of a counterinsurgency operation; the sci-fi sounding but very real possibility of having your brain hacked and your sensitive data stolen via consumer-grade EEG headsets used in gaming and other activities; a brilliant interview with esoteric author Guido Mina di Sospiro by Teeming Brain columnist David Metcalfe at Reality Sandwich; research into the phenomenon of hearing voices and the ways that “normal” people can learn to speak to God; excellent new pieces on F. Scott Fitgerald’s epic depression, H.P. Lovecraft’s life and work (from the Smithsonian [!]), and the discovery of a copy of Frankenstein inscribed by Mary Shelley to Lord Byron; and two recent pieces from NPR on musical matters, the first examining America’s interesting shift toward a craving for “sadness and ambiguity” in pop music over the past 50 years, and the second profiling John Cage on the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Read the rest of this entry

Age of Philosophical Vertigo

Is it just me, or is there a large-scale, culture-wide meta-pattern taking shape when it comes to the status of philosophical ideas of the “Big Question” variety? Are questions about the nature of personal and cosmic reality, and even of ontology itself, going mainstream and joining the more standard issues of politics and economics as matters of widespread, above-board focus and discussion? And are these somehow linked to a growing fascination — or obsession — with the morbid and macabre? And is this all leading to a simultaneously wonderful and disturbing sense of universal disorientation? Consider the following:

In recent years the John Templeton Foundation has made news multiple times with its high-profile funding of research into religious and philosophical questions and issues. Most prominently, they awarded a $4.4 million grant to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to study the question of whether humans have free will and a $5 million grant to University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer to conduct “research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior.” Obviously, these things run directly counter to the mainstream intellectual and scientific culture/climate  where such issues and even the questions behind them have come to be viewed as suspect, worthless, and/or meaningless.

Now The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the ongoing efforts of the Templeton Foundation are starting to shift the intellectual playing field itself:
Read the rest of this entry