Archive for H. P. Lovecraft

Film Noir, Physics, and the Futility of Existence

Posted in Biographical, Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I decided to treat myself to the umpteenth viewing of a DVD of the  classical film  Double Indemnity. It’s a great movie that repays repeated viewing and is historically important for many reasons, not least because when it was released in 1944 it immediately established much of the language and iconography of the genre that has come to be known as Film Noir , which I’ve written about on a number of occasions on this blog; see here, for example.

After watching the film I had a look on Twitter to see if I had any messages and saw a thread about how modern physics inspires, in some people, an all-pervading sense of existential angst.  In the light of that discussion I decided to use my morning off to rehash that old post and add a few embellishments.

It’s difficult to define exactly what turns a film noir, but there are some common characteristics. First the male lead protagonist is far from the dashing romantic character portrayed in mainstream Hollywood fare. Often a troubled and dysfunctional character, cynical and hard-bitten, distrustful and alienated, the classic noir anti-hero is often a private investigator or in any case a loner who lives in a kind of moral vacuum. To counterpoint this, the female lead is usually a femme fatale, glamorous but duplicitous, sexy and dangerous, manipulative and assertive. There are definitely shades of Macbeth in that the female lead is usually a more compelling and impressive personality than the supposed hero. The inversion of stereotypical roles also serves to hold a “dark mirror” up to society, an effect which other elements of these films also strive to achieve.

The plots usually deal with the seedy side of human life: crime, betrayal, jealousy and revenge, much of it sexually motivated. Narrative strategies involve repeated use of flashbacks, first-person voiceovers, dream-like sequences, and unresolved episodes that emphasize the overall lack of moral direction. The photography is dominated by high contrast lights surrounding the protagonists with dark, threatening shadows while odd angles and unbalanced framing produce unstable, disorienting images. The chiaroscuro lighting makes even mundane encounters seem charged with danger or erotic suspense.

di6

This is a still from Double Indemnity which shows a number of trademark features. The shadows cast by Venetian blinds on the wall, the cigarette being smoked by Barbara Stanwyck and the curious construction of the mise en scene are all very characteristic of the style. What is even more wonderful about this particular shot however is the way the shadow of Fred McMurray’s character enters the scene before he does. The Barbara Stanwyck character is just about to shoot him with a pearl-handled revolver; this image seems to be hinting that he is already on his way to the underworld even before he arrives in the room.

Noir settings are almost exclusively urban: the resulting iconography consists of images of dark night-time cities with rain-soaked streets reflecting dazzling neon lights that intrude into the picture and fracture the composition. Interiors are almost always cramped and claustrophobic: dingy hotel rooms, night clubs or even the backs of taxi cabs. The dark outside world presses in on the characters and is full of danger. Soundtracks often include jazz in the bebop style from the late 1940s or early 1950s, with its jagged melodic lines and stuttering rythms, emphasizing the psychological instability displayed by the characters and settings.

The protagonists are trapped, perhaps just by mischance, in an alienating lonely world, usually a night-time city, where they are constantly in danger for their lives. The chaotic, random violence of this world gives rise to feelings of persecution and paranoia and a sense that life is absurd, meaningless, without order or purpose, and governed by contingency rather than design.

Much has been written about the origins of Film Noir, but it does seem clear to me that, although it is essentially an American style, it owes many of its roots to European existentialism, a point further reinforced by the fact that many great movie directors of the noir period (including the great Billy Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity) were in fact European emigres.

Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to say really was that during the course of watching all these wonderful films from a bygone age it struck me how much the language and iconography of modern cosmology shares this existentialist heritage. Our new standard cosmological model is full of references to the “dark” sector (dark matter and dark energy) which dominates the energy budget of the Universe, but which not just invisible but also unfathomable. The cosmos is lit by garish starlight from small islands of luminosity embedded in this sea of darkness. Long chains of bright galaxies stretch across space like rows of streetlights whose glare fractures and disturbs the celestial dark. We cling to a precarious existence on a tiny rock that is surrounded by danger. Even the stuff from which our atoms are made is completely overshadowed by alien matter. The universe is oblivious to us and we are irrelevant to it.

But it’s not only the surface imagery of cosmology that resembles that of a noir movie. The existentialist trend runs deep. Cosmology seems to be abandoning the idea that there is a design behind it all. The idea that there is a single explanatory principle “a theory of everything” that accounts for why our Universe is the way it is and why life is possible within it, is losing ground to the idea that there is a multiverse in which all possible laws of nature are realised; we just live in a place where life happens to be possible. I’m not at all convinced that it is a good route for science to follow, but many cosmologists seem to be accepting this kind of thing as the best we will ever do to explain the Universe.

The physicist Steven Weinberg summed up the way this view of the Universe challenges us:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. … It is very hard to realise that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realise that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

In an interview he put it thus:

I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science. I believe that what we have found so far, an impersonal universe in which it is not particularly directed toward human beings is what we are going to continue to find. And that when we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold impersonal quality about them.

The influential American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (known to his friends as “H.P.”), wrote a letter in 1919 that argued much the same:

As you are aware, I have never been able to soothe myself with the sugary delusions of religion; for these things stand convicted of the utmost absurdity in light of modern scientific knowledge. With Nietzsche, I have been forced to confess that mankind as a whole has no goal or purpose whatsoever, but is a mere superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity. Accordingly, I have hardly been able to experience anything which one could call real happiness; or to take as vital an interest in human affairs as can one who still retains the hallucination of a “great purpose” in the general plan of terrestrial life. … However, I have never permitted these circumstances to react upon my daily life; for it is obvious that although I have “nothing to live for”, I certainly have just as much as any other of the insignificant bacteria called human beings. I have thus been content to observe the phenomena about me with something like objective interest, and to feel a certain tranquillity which comes from perfect acceptance of my place as an inconsequential atom. In ceasing to care about most things, I have likewise ceased to suffer in many ways. There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much; that the only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering for the majority, and to derive whatever satisfaction is derivable from the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth (from Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner  (14 September 1919), in Selected Letters I, 1911-1924 edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, pp. 86-87).

I’ve thought about this quite a lot over the last few years and am gradually finding myself more and more in agreement with Lovecraft. I would say further that that one of the few things that make life bearable is the futility of existence. Futility is very reassuring. If all the shit that happens in this world were designed to serve some higher purpose then that really would be terrifying. And even more reassuring than its futility is the knowledge that we will soon return to dust and be quickly forgotten.

Here’s  Weinberg again, from the same interview quoted above:

…if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that — in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

Inspired by this, I’m going to make a point of existence not by doing science nor creating a work of art, but by making a nice cup of tea.

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Living in the Vortices of Infinity

Posted in Biographical, Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 16, 2014 by telescoper

As a boyhood fan of influential American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (known to his friends as “H.P.”), I was dismayed to discover some time ago a poem which revealed his obnoxiously racist attitudes. I always find it difficult knowing what to do when someone whose artistic work you admire turns out to have a dark side to his or her personality. It’s always hard to separate the creation from the creator. In the case of H.P. Lovecraft I’ve maintained an interest in him and his work, I suppose in an attempt to find some redeeming features.

Anyway, in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, I came across a passage which is reminiscent of the following quotation from an interview with physicist Steven Weinberg:

I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science. I believe that what we have found so far, an impersonal universe in which it is not particularly directed toward human beings is what we are going to continue to find. And that when we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold impersonal quality about them.

I don’t think this means [however] there’s no point to life. Usually the remark is quoted just as it stands. But if anyone read the next paragraph, they would see that I went on to say that if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that — in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

This is the passage in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters

As you are aware, I have never been able to soothe myself with the sugary delusions of religion; for these things stand convicted of the utmost absurdity in light of modern scientific knowledge. With Nietzsche, I have been forced to confess that mankind as a whole has no goal or purpose whatsoever, but is a mere superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity. Accordingly, I have hardly been able to experience anything which one could call real happiness; or to take as vital an interest in human affairs as can one who still retains the hallucination of a “great purpose” in the general plan of terrestrial life. … However, I have never permitted these circumstances to react upon my daily life; for it is obvious that although I have “nothing to live for”, I certainly have just as much as any other of the insignificant bacteria called human beings. I have thus been content to observe the phenomena about me with something like objective interest, and to feel a certain tranquillity which comes from perfect acceptance of my place as an inconsequential atom. In ceasing to care about most things, I have likewise ceased to suffer in many ways. There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much; that the only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering for the majority, and to derive whatever satisfaction is derivable from the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth (from Letter to Reinhardt Kleiner  (14 September 1919), in Selected Letters I, 1911-1924 edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, pp. 86-87).

I think my own philosophy of life is some sort of juxtaposition of these two…

At the Mountains of Madness

Posted in Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 1, 2012 by telescoper

Well, I don’t know whether it is some sort of Hallowe’en skit or what, but the estimable arXiv has certainly served up something unusual today, in the form of a paper by one Benjamin K. Tippett with the intriguing title Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific. Here is the abstract:

In 1928, the late Francis Wayland Thurston published a scandalous manuscript in purport of warning the world of a global conspiracy of occultists. Among the documents he gathered to support his thesis was the personal account of a sailor by the name of Gustaf Johansen, describing an encounter with an extraordinary island. Johansen`s descriptions of his adventures upon the island are fantastic, and are often considered the most enigmatic (and therefore the highlight) of Thurston`s collection of documents.

We contend that all of the credible phenomena which Johansen described may be explained as being the observable consequences of a localized bubble of spacetime curvature. Many of his most incomprehensible statements (involving the geometry of the architecture, and variability of the location of the horizon) can therefore be said to have a unified underlying cause.

We propose a simplified example of such a geometry, and show using numerical computation that Johansen`s descriptions were, for the most part, not simply the ravings of a lunatic. Rather, they are the nontechnical observations of an intelligent man who did not understand how to describe what he was seeing. Conversely, it seems to us improbable that Johansen should have unwittingly given such a precise description of the consequences of spacetime curvature, if the details of this story were merely the dregs of some half remembered fever dream.

We calculate the type of matter which would be required to generate such exotic spacetime curvature. Unfortunately, we determine that the required matter is quite unphysical, and possess a nature which is entirely alien to all of the experiences of human science. Indeed, any civilization with mastery over such matter would be able to construct warp drives, cloaking devices, and other exotic geometries required to conveniently travel through the cosmos.

Despite the unusual subject matter, it certainly doesn’t read like a skit, which means that if that’s what it is then it’s a very good one. Alternatively, it could just be that Dr Tippett might be taking it all a bit too literally. However, the paper is full of names that will ring a bell to anyone familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, especially those relating to Cthulhu. Anyway, sounds like an ideal topic for further investigation. Time to put my grant-writing hat on!

P.S. The title of this post is taken from ref. [2] in the aforementioned arXiv paper.

The Racism of H.P. Lovecraft

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on August 17, 2012 by telescoper

From time to time I’ve posted bits of poetry on this blog by H.P. Lovecraft, an author of fantasy, horror and science fiction stories that I discovered as a teenager and which made a big and lasting impression on me.

I never thought Lovecraft was a great writer, actually. At times his prose style is truly excruciating. But he was clearly a person with a remarkable imagination and he did write some genuinely frightening stories. He also had a big influence on many subsequent horror writers and film-makers.

It was only in later life that I started to read collections of his poetry, which is also uneven in quality but among which there are many gems. They’ve proved quite popular when I’ve posted them on here too, perhaps because quite a few of the followers of this blog also know Lovecraft’s stories.

But last night I came across this revolting poem, which reveals a side of H.P. Lovecraft’s character of which I was previously unaware.  Its charming title is On the Creation of Niggers:

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

I don’t think any further comment is necessary.

Astrophobos

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on June 23, 2012 by telescoper

In the midnight heavens burning
Thro’ ethereal deeps afar,
Once I watch’d with restless yearning
An alluring, aureate star;
Ev’ry eye aloft returning,
Gleaming nigh the Arctic car.

Mystic waves of beauty blended
With the gorgeous golden rays;
Phantasies of bliss descended
In a myrrh’d Elysian haze;
And in lyre-born chords extended
Harmonies of Lydian lays.

There (thought I) lies scenes of pleasure,
Where the free and blessed dwell,
And each moment bears a treasure
Freighted with a lotus-spell,
And there floats a liquid measure
From the lute of Israfel.

There (I told myself) were shining
Worlds of happiness unknown,
Peace and Innocence entwining
By the Crowned Virtue’s throne;
Men of light, their thoughts refining
Purer, fairer, than our own.

Thus I mus’d, when o’er the vision
Crept a red delirious change;
Hope dissolving to derision,
Beauty to distortion strange;
Hymnic chords in weird collision,
Spectral sights in endless range.

Crimson burn’d the star of sadness
As behind the beams I peer’d;
All was woe that seem’d but gladness
Ere my gaze with truth was sear’d;
Cacodaemons, mir’d with madness,
Thro’ the fever’d flick’ring leer’d.

Now I know the fiendish fable
That the golden glitter bore;
Now I shun the spangled sable
That I watch’d and lov’d before;
But the horror, set and stable,
Haunts my soul for evermore.

by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

The Ancient Track

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 6, 2012 by telescoper

There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track
Over the hill, and strained to see
The fields that teased my memory.
This tree, that wall—I knew them well,
And all the roofs and orchards fell
Familiarly upon my mind
As from a past not far behind.
I knew what shadows would be cast
When the late moon came up at last
From back of Zaman’s Hill, and how
The vale would shine three hours from now.
And when the path grew steep and high,
And seemed to end against the sky,
I had no fear of what might rest
Beyond that silhouetted crest.
Straight on I walked, while all the night
Grew pale with phosphorescent light,
And wall and farmhouse gable glowed
Unearthly by the climbing road.
There was the milestone that I knew—
“Two miles to Dunwich”—now the view
Of distant spire and roofs would dawn
With ten more upward paces gone. . . .

There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track,
And reached the crest to see outspread
A valley of the lost and dead:
And over Zaman’s Hill the horn
Of a malignant moon was born,
To light the weeds and vines that grew
On ruined walls I never knew.
The fox-fire glowed in field and bog,
And unknown waters spewed a fog
Whose curling talons mocked the thought
That I had ever known this spot.
Too well I saw from the mad scene
That my loved past had never been—
Nor was I now upon the trail
Descending to that long-dead vale.
Around was fog—ahead, the spray
Of star-streams in the Milky Way. . . .
There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track.

by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

Despair

Posted in Poetry with tags , on March 24, 2012 by telescoper

O’er the midnight moorlands crying,
Thro’ the cypress forests sighing,
In the night-wind madly flying,
      Hellish forms with streaming hair;
In the barren branches creaking,
By the stagnant swamp-pools speaking,
Past the shore-cliffs ever shrieking;
      Damn’d daemons of despair.

Once, I think I half remember,
Ere the grey skies of November
Quench’d my youth’s aspiring ember,
      Liv’d there such a thing as bliss;
Skies that now are dark were beaming,
Gold and azure, splendid seeming
Till I learn’d it all was dreaming—
      Deadly drowsiness of Dis.

But the stream of Time, swift flowing,
Brings the torment of half-knowing—
Dimly rushing, blindly going
      Past the never-trodden lea;
And the voyager, repining,
Sees the wicked death-fires shining,
Hears the wicked petrel’s whining
      As he helpless drifts to sea.

Evil wings in ether beating;
Vultures at the spirit eating;
Things unseen forever fleeting
      Black against the leering sky.
Ghastly shades of bygone gladness,
Clawing fiends of future sadness,
Mingle in a cloud of madness
      Ever on the soul to lie.

Thus the living, lone and sobbing,
In the throes of anguish throbbing,
With the loathsome Furies robbing
      Night and noon of peace and rest.
But beyond the groans and grating
Of abhorrent Life, is waiting
Sweet Oblivion, culminating
      All the years of fruitless quest.

by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

Posted (a bit late) to mark the 75th anniversary of Lovecraft’s death on March 15th 1937. You can see the very strong  influence of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven on this poem…