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Cosmicism is the literary philosophy developed and used by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft in his weird fiction. Lovecraft was a writer of philosophically intense horror stories that involve occult phenomena like astral possession and alien miscegenation, and the themes of his fiction over time contributed to the development of this philosophy.
Principles of cosmicism
The philosophy of cosmicism states that there is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence, and perhaps are just a small species projecting their own mental idolatries onto the vast cosmos, ever susceptible to being wiped from existence at any moment. This also suggested that the majority of undiscerning humanity are creatures with the same significance as insects and plants in a much greater struggle between greater forces which, due to humanity's small, visionless and unimportant nature, it does not recognize.
Perhaps the most prominent theme in cosmicism is the utter insignificance of humanity. Lovecraft believed that "the human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure 'Victorian fictions'. Only egotism exists." Cosmicism shares many characteristics with nihilism, though one important difference is that cosmicism tends to emphasize the inconsequentiality of humanity and its doings, rather than summarily rejecting the possible existence of some higher purpose (or purposes). For example, in Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories, it is not so much the absence of meaning that causes terror for the protagonists as it is their discovery that they have absolutely no power to effect any change in the vast, indifferent, and ultimately incomprehensible universe that surrounds them. Whatever meaning or purpose may or may not be invested in the actions of the cosmic beings in Lovecraft's stories is completely inaccessible to the human characters, in the way an amoeba (for example) is completely unequipped to grasp the concepts that drive human behavior.
Lovecraft's cosmicism was a result of his complete disdain for all things religious, his feeling of humanity's existential helplessness in the face of what he called the "infinite spaces" opened up by scientific thought, and his belief that humanity was fundamentally at the mercy of the vastness and emptiness of the cosmos. In his fictional works, these ideas are often explored humorously ("Herbert West–Reanimator," 1922), through fantastic dreamlike narratives ("The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath," 1927), or through his well-known Cthulhu Mythos ("The Call of Cthulhu," 1928, and others). Common themes related to cosmicism in Lovecraft's fiction are the insignificance of humanity in the universe and the search for knowledge ending in disaster.
The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent
Though cosmicism appears deeply pessimistic, H.P. Lovecraft thought of himself as neither a pessimist nor an optimist but rather an "indifferentist," a theme expressed in his fiction. In Lovecraft's work, human beings are often subject to powerful beings and other cosmic forces, but these forces are not so much malevolent as they are indifferent toward humanity. This indifference is an important theme in cosmicism. The noted Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi points out that "Lovecraft constantly engaged in (more or less) genial debates on religion with several colleagues, notably the pious writer and teacher Maurice W. Moe. Lovecraft made no bones about being a strong and antireligious atheist; he considered religion not merely false but dangerous to social and political progress." As such, Lovecraft's cosmicism is not religious at all, but rather a version of his mechanistic materialism." Lovecraft thus embraced a philosophy of cosmic indifferentism. He believed in a meaningless, mechanical, and uncaring universe that human beings, with their naturally limited faculties, could never fully understand. His viewpoint made no allowance for religious beliefs which could not be supported scientifically. The incomprehensible, cosmic forces of his tales have as little regard for humanity as humans have for insects.
Though hostile to religion, Lovecraft used various "gods" in his stories, particularly the Cthulhu related tales, to expound cosmicism. However, Lovecraft never conceived of them as supernatural; they are merely extraterrestrials who understand and obey a set of natural laws, which to the limited human understanding seem magical. These beings (the Great Old Ones, Outer Gods and others)—though dangerous to humankind—are neither good nor evil, and human notions of morality have no meaning for these beings. Indeed, they exist in cosmic realms beyond human understanding. As a symbol, they represent the kind of universe that Lovecraft believed in, a universe in which humanity is an insignificant blot, fated to come and go, its appearance unnoticed and its passing unmourned.
- Joshi, The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, p. 12.
- Quoted in Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1999), referenced in Andrew Riemer's "A nihilist's hope against hope", 2003.
- See Fritz Leiber's excellent discussion of cosmicism in "A Literary Copernicus," in Discovering H. P. Lovecraft, ed. Darrell Schweitzer (1987).
- Price, "Lovecraft's 'Artificial Mythology'", An Epicure in the Terrible, p. 247.
- Price, "Introduction", The New Lovecraft Circle, pp. xviii–xix. Price writes: "One seeks forbidden knowledge, whether wittingly or, more likely, unwittingly, but one may not know till it is too late... The knowledge, once gained, is too great for the mind of man. It is Promethean, Faustian knowledge. Knowledge that destroys in the moment of enlightenment, a Gnosis of damnation, not of salvation."
- Price, "Lovecraft's 'Artificial Mythology'", p. 249.
- S.T. Joshi Interview - Acid Logic e-zine
- Mariconda, "Lovecraft's Concept of 'Background'", pp. 22–3, On the Emergence of "Cthulhu" & Other Observations.
- Burleson, "The Lovecraft Mythos", Survey of Science Fiction Literature, p. 1284.
- Joshi, S. T. (August 1997). "Introduction". The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. New York, NY: Dell. ISBN 0-440-50660-3 (trade paper).
- Houellebecq, Michel (1999). H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Brooklyn, NY: McSweeny. ISBN 1-932416-18-8.
- Fossemò, Sandro D. (2010). Cosmic Terror from Poe to Lovecraft. Italy.