H.P. Lovecraft on Superstition

I’m in between blog major blog posts right now, but I thought I’d highlight another very timely essay of H.P. Lovecraft’s, in which he discusses superstition in times of trouble.  This can be found in the excellent collection of Lovecraft’s philosophical essays, and excerpts appear below the fold.  The essay appeared in the magazine Conservative 4, No. 1 (July 1918), pp. 4-5.

Merlinus Redivivus

In humanity’s age-long struggle for emancipation from the ignoble chains of superstition, no retarding influence has been more potent than that of national distress.  The inevitable result of a great war or social crisis is to cloud the atmosphere for rational perception; to inflame the imagination beyond the realm of calm analysis, and to give unbounded licence to untrustworthy impressions, superficial doctrines, antiquated fallacies, distorted coincidences, psychopathic delusions, and irresponsible thoughts to which wishes alone are the fathers.

Spiritualism, whose adherents now number many former men of science who should know better, is a frank surrender of judgment to vague subjective impressions.  None knows better than the sober psychologist how vivid some apparently occult manifestations may be to certain types of persons; yet the sober thinker can see further than the spiritualist, and can analyse the phenomena, tracing them to a material cause in the consciousness of the subject.

The prime obstacle to truth in this struggle is the will.  Overpowered by a desire to believe in the supernatural, men are everywhere ignoring patent scientific principles and encroaching upon borderlands where evidence is highly coloured with illusion.  Against common sense is arrayed a flimsy mass of dream-stuff which under ordinary conditions would be laughed out of court.

Were material communication really possible, or the dead able to make themselves known to the living, it is safe to state that the world would be a very different place.  Secrecy would be non-existent, and death would be no mystery.  In fact, the very rarity and frivolity of alleged spiritual messages are enough to condemn them as frauds or hallucinations.

However general may be the relapse of the world into mediaeval credulity, it is to be hoped that Anglo-Saxon sense and conservatism may exempt our particular realm from so pitiable an intellectual debacle.

This is another one of those essays which might as well have been written yesterday (except for the association of ‘conservative’ with ‘intellectual’).  Lovecraft was criticizing the rise of spiritualism during WWI.  I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions as to the contemporary relevance.

Reading passages like this really make me sorry that I didn’t get a chance to meet Lovecraft, and that he died so early in life!  He did have some surprisingly narrow-minded views (note his obsession with ‘Anglo-Saxon’ superiority), but overall he was a remarkably enlightened fellow.

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