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

by KyriakosCH4 min read9th Jun 20194 comments


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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

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Your link has an extra parenthesis. ")"

Another interesting point of comparison is Lovecraft's shoggoths and the philosophical 'chimera'. The latter is used as the exemplar of nonbeing, "that which in no case actually is" from Plato through the Scholastics and Hume up to present idiom. The Chimera of myth (a lion with a goat-body extending from its back and a serpent for a tail) like the shoggoth implies a sort of arbitrarily, horrifically recomposable living matter (=X) or concrete hallucination, which can bear all empirical predicates in its domain just on the condition that none can be specifically true. Which has, on the one side, a clear relation to the Kantian thing-in-itself and its successors, and on the other, of the gray goo and paperclippers of technological speculation; not to mention, in our present, the versatility and power to assimilate of capitalist markets and commodity production. There's a weird coupling of nonbeing, beingness itself, and artifice - an artefactual, protean nothingness - here that seems to echo Heidegger's view of 'modern technology' as dissolving the world of singular things into an on-demand stock of thingsness; and stories like The Thing, The Andromeda Strain, and Annihilation.

Not going anywhere in particular (necessarily?) with this, just a pet subtopic...

The thing-in-itself indeed ties somewhat more clearly to the HPL mythos beings, in that they are (by majority; or at least the major ones in the pantheon) supposed to not be three-dimensional in the first place. The thing-in-itself is the object without having to be rendered by any specific observer's point of view.

While in (most) philosophy one doesn't examine a topic which is able to cause anxiety, the notions themselves do negate a possible anxiety which would be caused by any examination, in my view. Again, even the notion of the thing-in-itself is formulated as a singular point in a plane: you cannot analyze it to anything, because by definition it connotes impossibility to analyze or attribute qualities to it. It exists only as an idea of difference.

To use a simple example (not for you, who obviously are familiar with the notion), and to tie this to Parmenides (and Plato) which I mentioned in passing in my article:

While a desk gets picked up as something in 3D space, with form, size and other qualities, theoretically one can assume that the same object (desk) still would exist as something, even if its observer had no ability to sense space, position, movement or the other core qualities humans pick up with the senses. So the desk, assuming it exists for any observer regardless of what abilities that observer has, will have some unknown qualities that aren't dependent on observation; in this sense it is a thing as it is, a thing-in-itself, not to be known and distinct from any view we have of it.

Useful to note that while Kant made the term more popular, the thing-in-itself was already a known term in Plato's time and is mentioned frequently (eg) in the dialogue between Socrates and Parmenides.