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Archive for October 21st, 2013

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”
  –  Stephen Crane

H.P. Lovecraft (1934)In the comment thread of a recent column, there was a discussion on the relative merits of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction.  Now, obviously everyone is different and has different literary tastes; just before writing this I was involved in a Twitter discussion wherein I expressed the unpopular opinion that Stephen King “isn’t a bad writer, but doesn’t know when to stop” (i.e. his novels are hopelessly bloated).  I say “unpopular” not because people jumped on me for the opinion, but because of the obvious fact that King is a multi-millionaire precisely because a very large number of people like his work.  Similarly, a very large number like Lovecraft’s work, among them Stephen King.  There is, as the saying goes, no accounting for taste; for any given thing there are those who adore it, those who like it well enough, those who don’t have any opinion, those who actively dislike it and those who run screaming from the room when it’s as much as mentioned, with an infinite number of gradations between those points.  And that’s a wonderful thing; it would be a boring world if everyone had exactly the same preferences.

However, I must take exception to a factual point several commenters raised; it was opined that the chief horror in Lovecraft’s fiction derives from ill-defined monsters, or from the unknown.  But actually, that isn’t true; all of the horror in the best of Lovecraft’s mature oeuvre derives not from monsters (ill-defined or otherwise) or from fear of the unknown, but rather the opposite: the recognition of the utter, total, complete insignificance of not only any given individual, but of the entire human race and all of its works.  This is why Lovecraft harps upon dizzying time-scales and immense objects or creatures, and why his Outer Gods are so often mischaracterized even by casual readers: it isn’t that these beings are malevolent (as we understand the term); it’s simply that neither they nor the universe as a whole has any concern whatsoever for Mankind.  His beings aren’t plotting and planning to destroy humanity; few of them even recognize that the human race exists, except in the sense you recognize that soil bacteria exist.  In Lovecraft’s cosmos humans were merely the accidental byproduct of an ancient and long-lived race’s industry, and when we’re wiped out by unimaginably powerful entities it will be with the nonchalance of a cook wiping down the kitchen counters prior to preparing a meal.  Now, you may be of the opinion that he does a poor job of getting that point across, or that he wrote too many tales exploring lesser or more idiosyncratic fears (such as his thoroughly racist horror of miscegenation), or that his pacing is tedious and his use of adjectives excessive, or whatever, and you are certainly entitled to that opinion just as I am entitled to mine.  But I think it’s important to be clear and honest about why one dislikes something, rather than carelessly hurling inapplicable or inadequate insults at it.

Iron Man meets OdinOn several occasions, I’ve made similar points  about insults directed at me; I will listen to sensible criticism, and if it’s witty I’ll laugh right along with everyone else.  But if it’s childish, tinned and factually incorrect, you must forgive me if I just wipe it off the counter.  One valid criticism is that I’m often verbose: guilty as charged.  After all, how many writers would take the time to write almost 800 words just to introduce a few links they’d had floating around for a while?  Not many, I’ll wager.  But that’s exactly what this is:  merely a long (and I hope somewhat entertaining) introduction to three related websites which I hope you’ll find as fascinating as I did.  The first is the largest webpage in existence, an online scale model of the solar system; the second is a set of bar graphs, each a small fragment of the one below it, which may give you some idea of the immensity of Time and the microscopic fragment of it we occupy (I prepared a similar chart for my students when I taught world history back in 1987).  And the third is quite possibly the coolest thing on the internet: an  interactive size-comparison chart of the universe, all to scale (don’t click on this one until you have a good bit of time to explore it).  Together, they may help you to get a sense of what Lovecraft was trying to say about our utter and complete insignificance to the big picture, only without so many words.  Just the same, I think he would’ve enjoyed seeing them.

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