Word-Idols (or an examination of ties between philosophy and horror literature)

An ex­am­i­na­tion of any ties be­tween Philos­o­phy and hor­ror liter­a­ture is, in­deed, quite rare an un­der­tak­ing… There are many rea­sons for the scarcity of ar­ti­cles on this topic, rang­ing from a re­luc­tance to ac­knowl­edge hor­ror liter­a­ture as se­ri­ous (liter­ary) fic­tion, to Philos­o­phy it­self be­ing dis­missed as over­rated, su­perflu­ous or ob­so­lete. As with most cases of cat­e­gor­i­cal nul­lifi­ca­tion of en­tire gen­res or or­ders, this one as well can largely be at­tributed to lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with the es­sen­tial sub­jects they en­com­pass.

It can be ar­gued that there in­deed are grounds to as­sert a link be­tween Philos­o­phy and Hor­ror liter­a­ture. Socrates him­self, while pon­der­ing a defi­ni­tion of Philos­o­phy, notes that the noun thámvos—the Greek term for daz­zle – was tra­di­tion­ally re­garded as the pro­gen­i­tor of philo­soph­i­cal thought, and goes on to speak fa­vor­ably of this con­nec­tion. Socrates offers the in­sight that Philos­o­phy is a hunt for the source of the daz­zling sense a thinker may have of there be­ing un­known things in our own men­tal world; the sense that we are, both by ne­ces­sity and will, pro­gress­ing on a sur­face of things and slid­ing along, mind­ing to steer away from any chasms, while be­low the level of con­scious­ness is per­pet­u­ated a dark abyss of un­knowns.

Any­one who has read H.P. Love­craft would in­stantly rec­og­nize the afore­men­tioned image. A deep, un­ex­plored abyss teem­ing with po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous forces, jux­ta­posed to a rel­a­tively well-es­tab­lished sur­face area where hu­mans carry on their ev­ery­day lives with nei­ther the abil­ity nor the will to in­ves­ti­gate what lurks be­low. The lack of abil­ity it­self is to be ex­pected: the hu­man mind has its own limi­ta­tions, and so does the con­scious power of any in­di­vi­d­ual. The ab­sence of will, how­ever, does sig­nify fear.

That said, in Philos­o­phy the sub­ject mat­ter does not – usu­ally – al­low for lack of will to man­i­fest (what would a non-think­ing philoso­pher be?). Nev­er­the­less, it can be re­garded as self-ev­i­dent that will to ex­am­ine the depths of one’s own mind is gen­er­ally lack­ing in most peo­ple. It can be lack­ing in philo­soph­i­cally-in­clined in­di­vi­d­u­als as well, given there are top­ics which may cause even the sup­pos­edly self-in­dul­gent thinker to make the con­scious de­ci­sion to back down from fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion; these top­ics pri­mar­ily have to do with bring­ing into light what hasn’t been formed sta­bly be­fore: to self-re­flect, to in­sist in ex­am­in­ing one’s deeper world of thought is a lit­tle bit like hav­ing to look at a bright and blind­ing light that can­not be im­me­di­ately soft­ened. A dan­ger­ous and pow­er­ful beam which is po­tent enough to re­veal new and not en­tirely well-defined forms mov­ing about be­low the con­scious mind. Some­times – as in Plato’s Alle­gory of the Cave – one has to first look away from the Sun, and pre­fer to ob­serve not the forms them­selves but their idols as they are re­flected on the sur­face of a lake or river. Or choose to sim­ply re­tain a mem­ory of the first im­pres­sion, and then deal­ing only with the mem­ory, hav­ing re­placed the strik­ing and daz­zling origi­nal with a replica sculpted out of more fa­mil­iar thoughts and no­tions.

Let us re­call the open­ing para­graph of H.P. Love­craft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”:

“The most mer­ciful thing in the world, I think, is the in­abil­ity of the hu­man mind to cor­re­late all its con­tents. We live on a placid is­land of ig­no­rance in the midst of black seas of in­finity, and it was not meant that we should voy­age far. The sci­ences, each strain­ing in its own di­rec­tion, have hith­erto harmed us lit­tle; but some day the piec­ing to­gether of dis­so­ci­ated knowl­edge will open up such ter­rify­ing vis­tas of re­al­ity, and of our fright­ful po­si­tion therein, that we shall ei­ther go mad from the rev­e­la­tion or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. ”

Read­ing the above one can­not help but no­tice that a dis­cov­ery may lead to dis­aster; for two rea­sons: The per­son made the dis­cov­ery by stum­bling upon it, but in essence this lack of readi­ness can well be some­thing im­pos­si­ble to change and not even fruit­ful to at­tempt chang­ing. It may in­deed be caused by in­her­ent checks and bal­ances in the hu­man mind. The sense of so in­tense and om­i­nous a sur­prise is po­tent enough to de­mand metic­u­lous ex­am­i­na­tion: In De Mau­pas­sant’s dark short sto­ries we of­ten read of the nar­ra­tor hav­ing to take notes in the af­ter­math of such a pathos, and those are notes taken not with the end to fur­ther the in­sight granted by the origi­nal rev­e­la­tion, but in fact with an al­most an­ti­thet­i­cal goal: they are con­ceived and – per­haps – scrib­bled down so as to serve as an­other bar­rier be­tween the fright­ened note-taker and the dan­ger­ous glow of the daz­zling rev­e­la­tion, since they as­pire to dim the light by bury­ing it un­der pages and pages of a pe­cu­liar safety net. In Love­craft, again, we of­ten read the nar­ra­tor claim that he is writ­ing down his story not out of hope to es­tab­lish some log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion (and thus make his hor­ror diminish) but be­cause he wishes for an ac­count to re­main, an ac­count of a cursed bar­rier he stum­bled upon. The hor­rified thinker is forced to be­come a strange patent cre­ator and come up with means to re­press a dan­ger­ous sense origi­nat­ing in the depths of one’s own mind. The sculp­tor in H.P.L’s “The Call of Cthulhu” can bare to look at the idol he cre­ated, but only out of se­da­tion, while the origi­nal, wit­nessed in the dream, was im­pos­si­ble to with­stand.

As stated, most of the is­sues dealt with in Philos­o­phy do not im­me­di­ately bor­der so dizzy­ing or daz­zling a sense. Socrates did say that he was “al­most afraid” of ex­am­in­ing Par­menides, due to the nau­seous im­pli­ca­tions of the Eleatic Philos­o­phy; yet that was a dis­cus­sion on Dialec­tics, a branch of Philos­o­phy that deals with mat­ters which by their own na­ture are open-ended and the­o­ret­i­cal. And while po­ten­tially any ex­am­i­na­tion of no­tions them­selves may even­tu­ally lead the thinker to sense he isn’t aware of what lies fur­ther be­low (or even if any set foun­da­tion ex­ists in those un­lit depths of the un­con­scious from which all no­tions spring and are later on crys­tal­lized into terms to be used and com­mu­ni­cated freely) it is ob­vi­ous that the large ma­jor­ity of philo­soph­i­cal sub­jects are more dis­tinctly out­lined and con­se­quently ren­dered quite fit for smooth and rel­a­tively un­ex­cited dis­cus­sion.

And yet, Love­craft’s idea about an un­in­tended rev­e­la­tion does echo other philo­soph­i­cal-liter­ary sen­ti­ments by cel­e­brated au­thors. The sense of a crit­i­cal bor­der – an event hori­zon, so to speak – in con­scious­ness, is per­haps one of the most com­mon sub­jects in well-known liter­ary fic­tion, one ex­am­ined by au­thors such as F. Kafka, J.L. Borges, H. Hesse, C. Baude­laire and E.A. Poe. It is, I think, highly un­for­tu­nate that when it be­comes the cen­ter­piece in hor­ror liter­a­ture – as in the case of H.P. Love­craft’s works – the fo­cus usu­ally rests on the sen­ti­ment of fear and not on the ar­guably philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cholog­i­cal cause: the fear of the un­known.

Per­haps Love­craft him­self is – at least partly – to blame for di­vert­ing at­ten­tion from the philo­soph­i­cal mean­ing of his alle­gor­i­cal “in­va­sion” or “coloniza­tion” by “alien” life­forms; this type of furtive co­ex­is­tence may liter­ally be al­lud­ing to the nec­es­sary lack of aware­ness in all of us for what lurks deeper in­side our men­tal cos­mos. After all, don’t we fos­silize any sense of that deep into neat no­tions, and don’t we pro­ceed to carve – far less po­tent than the origi­nal – idols of those no­tions in the shape of words?

by Kyr­i­akos Chalkopoulos—ar­ti­cle can also be found at https://​​www.pa­treon.com/​​posts/​​word-idols-are-27458809