Well, there hasn’t been much weird pondering for a bit – but now, I’m back, and thanks to China Mieville’s excellent introduction to the Modern Library edition of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, once again I’ve been a-pondering H. P. Lovecraft.
China sees him as a kind of crazed pulp modernist, breaking out of tradition despite himself, and deriving his sense of horror from his own fear of the shock of modernity – of the city, of other classes, of other races. He’s particularly interesting on Shoggoths, reading them as a Lovecraft’s image for the overwhelming hordes that surrounded and overwhelmed him in New York – ‘a hysterically hallucinated coagulum of the victorious insurgent masses’.
That difficult relationship with the masses is a very modernist thing; but I think there’s more that can be read into the Shoggoth. And that feeling comes from looking at Old One iconography, and understanding how Old Ones and Shoggoths interact within ‘At the Mountains of Madness’.
Let’s start with iconography. The key, repeated Old One motif is the five pointed star. Old Ones have five pointed ‘heads’, and they bury their dead within five pointed mounds. For them, the pentagram is both the physical and metaphorical seat of the self. And of course, the number five has a broader physical significance for them; five ridges run down their bodies, they manipulate the world with twenty five (five by five) tentacles, and they move through it on five separate five veined triangles.
Both humans and Shoggoths destroy five-ness. Humans dissect Old Ones, and (by implication) dig into their five pointed burial mounds; Shoggoths kill Old Ones by removing their five pointed heads. The human attack is – interestingly – far milder than the Shoggoth assault, taking place on a cultural rather than a physical level. I’d see it as emblematic of the initial human failure to comprehend what the Old Ones really are. By the end of the story, that misunderstanding has been rectified, as Dyer (the narrator) directly and enthusiastically claims kinship with the Old Ones, in his remarkable ‘they’re humans too’ speech – ‘radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!’, as he puts it.
By claiming the Old Ones as fellow humans, Dyer both forgives the Old Ones’ dissection of one of his own colleagues (and their slaughter of several others), and implicitly apologises for human intrusion into Old One tombs. For him, commitment to scientific knowledge trumps murder and related mayhem as a signifier of intellectual and emotional equality.
That’s a problematic stance; but let’s pass over that for a moment, and ponder the Shoggoth. Their attacks are more brutal, and more direct. They kill the Old Ones that the Pabodie party has discovered, just as they once rose up and massacred the Old One race. And they do so in a very particular way – by a beheading.
Humans made a symbolic assault / penetration into a dead Old One culture, and found equals; Shoggoths find (one assumes) abomination, and – having completed the destruction of a culture – now complete the eradication of the race. They smash Old One rationality, both on a general cultural and a specific personal letter. They break the fiveness – the orderliness – of the Old Ones, and that smashing is made literal in beheading.
It seems odd to use that word – beheading – when talking about animate vegetables from beyond time, but in fact – within the symbol structure of the story – it’s very appropriate indeed. Humans think from the head; Dyer understands Old Ones to think from the five pointed star; removal of that five pointed star is a beheading, both literally and in the broader sense that a rational, ordering intelligence has been destroyed.
Intriguingly, it’s only in mourning that intelligence, that Dyer realizes his kinship with it. It’s a very particular mode of thought; a mandarin rationality; an elite, ordering mind that views the world from a privileged, separate location and as such is in a position to dissect it (as the Old Ones dissect various dead humans and dogs, as we dissect them), to classify it (as the Old Ones are classified, and as they must have classified us), and thus to set itself at the world’s centre, and control and contain it.
Shoggoths break such controlling, mono-cultural rationalisation, and China reads such breakage as an emblem of Lovecraft’s horror at the New York masses that surrounded him; a symbol of the revolutionary mob, that unseats reason and breaks the high culture that HPL held so dear.
In this context, the fact that Shoggoths behead is fascinating; after all, beheading is a key revolutionary signifier, rooted in the guillotines of the French Revolution, the death of Charles I, and a broader sense of revolution as the decapitation of a certain kind of corrupted state.
But I digress. For me, the Shoggoth is more than a symbol of the revolutionary mob; it is (to return to my ongoing rant about the weird death of Humanism) an utterly compelling and utterly fantastic (in every sense) symbol for the conditions of the 20th century that broke the Humanist worldview, and that continue to make it an impossible one to sustain.
To understand just how that works, we need to go back to the core symbol of Old One rationality and culture, the five pointed star. At heart, it’s a pentagram; but the five pointed pentagram has a meaning that stretches far beyond magic, combining the Christian and the Classical to potent effect.
Including the five vowels, the five lettered name of Christ, the five letters of the Latin ‘salus’ (safety), the five wounds of Christ, the five senses, the Classical five elements, the five planets of the Renaissance solar system, and much more, the five pointed star is far more than just a vegetable head.
It triggers a complex set of associations to both Christian and Pagan culture, a set of associations that – combined – underpin the Humanist worldview, and that help support its sense of a rationally ordered comprehensible cosmos, with a divinity that is mirrored in man at its heart, and from that locus a total viewpoint that encompasses and orders all.
So, when Shoggoths attack, they’re doing more than beheading vegetables; they’re breaking the Humanist world view, and replacing it with something far more chaotic, far more anarchic, far more accepting of a chaos of multiple viewpoints and multiple versions of truth. Something very close to the postmodern worldview, in fact, which accepts multiplicity and a consequent inchoacy as a fundamental, defining principle of life.
That multiplicity is very literally represented in the Shoggoth, with its ‘myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down on us’ – perpetually renewed constellations of viewpoints, looking down on poor, scientific, monocular Dyer – taken literally, Die-er, an emblematically Dying man – and breaking his sense of the real.
Shoggoths are a blizzard of eyes; a cosmos of seeings; an inability to settle into any single, static, perpetually correct and ordered viewpoint or opinion set. From that point of view, Shoggoths ARE modernity, a modernity that embraces incoherence as a core principle of being. Shoggoths kill Old Ones, and Old Ones are representatives of an outmoded civilisation; a civilisation rooted in an impossibly ordered, impossibly rational worldview, a civilisation that Dyer recognises as being fundamentally human, by recognising its proponents as being like him.
But that civilisation is dead now, and its proponents are anachronisms. That might horrify Lovecraft but – visionary that he was – he could only see truly, and he shows us the truth, in fact he prophesies the truth. Humanism died with the 20th century, and as post-Humanist people, living in a post-Humanist world, we all helped kill it. If HPL met us, he’d be terrified; because we killed the Old Ones – the elders – the ones who made us, who made European civilisation – by moving beyond them. In 1931, Lovecraft wrote us all; mob that we are, we’re the Shoggoths now.