We Need To Talk About Cthulhu

Perhaps you, like me, have fallen back on the name of a cosmic abomination as an off-the-peg metaphor for something sprawlingly vast in time and space, monstrously abhorrent to behold, and existing outside of all human notions of morality. No, not Donald Trump but HP Lovecraft’s Great Old One, a horror supposedly even more disturbing than the thought of a Trump presidency: mighty Cthulhu.

Scan the index of a modern text by someone working in a university Humanities faculty and you will most likely encounter this name. Cthulhu has become a metaphor for something wholly other – sprawling, tentacular, supermassive, transcendent of Kantian ideas about time and space as a priori intuitions, the mental framework necessary to apprehend things-in-themselves. When academics reach for Cthulhu, these inhuman qualities are what they hope to transmit.

How did this fictional entity become a lazy metaphor for Humanities and Cultural Studies students and academics to fall back on (myself included)? Just what are they implying when they evoke HP Lovecraft’s creation? And how could such a non-existent object become so entangled in the logic of capitalism that is now available as a wool-knit toy, crocheted balaclava and as a variant of the Che Guevara T-shirt? These are some of the occult mysteries which this short essay will examine.

It might seem strange but it is possible to make it to the age of 38 without encountering Cthulhu in any of its (surely the abomination is gender neutral) cultural incarnations? I did. Improbably then, inevitably now, it was in a seminar on the Theory of Clouds, part of a Masters in Cultural and Critical Studies that Birkbeck runs.The teacher running the module, Esther Leslie, was discoursing on how Lovecraft was all the rage with the Speculative Realists and Object-Oriented Ontologists such as Graham Harman and Timothy Morton. Both names and philosophies were also new to me. Another student – a Lovecraft fanatic – picked up the thread, exapatiating at length on how the word Cthulhu is a mere approximation of the creature’s name, since humans are physiologically incapable of uttering it correctly. He then went the full cult devotee and not only demonstrated how it should be pronounced, but did so in a whole sentence of occult phonemes:

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn

He thoughtfully translated this for the mere mortals who sat agog beside him: In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. I left that seminar wondering how my life could have failed to encounter this fascinating fictional creation and its entanglement with cultural theory until that point. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the name of HP Lovecraft. It would crop up in the TLS from time to time under the genre heading ‘Horror’, which was enough at that time to have me turning the page.

Cthulhu first appears in the short story The Call of Cthulhu, which was completed in 1926 but only appeared in print in 1928 in a pulp fiction magazine called Weird Tales. Whilst Lovecraft is a master of the oblique description – abstruse references to Cyclopean structures which drip with green ooze, architecture consisting of non-Euclidean geometry, an inclination for archaic adjectives such as eldritch – in this story, he gives the reader a fairly straightforward account of Cthulhu’s appearance:

Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evidently pictorial intent, though its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the gure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.

Lovecraft even provided a sketch (Fig. 1) and embellished his creation within a genealogical history of other ‘Great Old Ones’ (Yog-Sothoth et al), forging a Cthulhu mythos of alien deities far exceeding the paltry timescales of mankind, whose abject alienness is often implied through human encounters with these abysmal creatures and the malign atmospheres they engender. The philosopher Graham Harman has grafted Lovecraft’s oeuvre onto his own Object-Oriented Ontology in Weird Realism, which rejects Kant’s imposed limits on human access to reality. For Harman, Lovecraft’s pioneering speculative fiction considers a universe beyond the confines of human finitude, giving equal weight to non-human perspectives of time and space.

Fig. 1. Lovecraft’s pen-and-ink sketch of Cthulhu from May 11, 1934

My interest is in how this non-existent object, the fictional entity of Cthulhu, has been subsumed into physical existence as a proliferating range of tangible commodities and aesthetic objects, inter alia, reimagined as a soft plush toy; innumerable works of fan art; wool-knit clothing items like the crocheted balaclava below; a board game, Arkham Horror; a Che Guevara-style T-shirt;  a cameo in South Park; and latte foam art. Something that was supposedly unfathomably alien, existing beyond Kant’s human understanding of time and space, monstrous in appearance and duration, has been contained, its terror diminished into hand-held cuteness by the logic of capitalism and various subcultures which have brought a subgenre into mainstream life.

The Oxford philosopher Tim Crane has written and spoken about the phenomenon of non-existent objects and the many curious facets of their non-existence. How is it, he asks, that we are able to make true statements about these non-existing entities, such as ‘Sherlock Holmes is the world’s most famous detective’? In the early 20th Century, Alexius Meinong’s work on the ontological status of these fictional objects led him to believe that their being is limited to being an object of thought, non-temporal. Subsequent philosophers coined the term ‘Meinong’s Jungle’ for the curious non-time and non-space where these mental ideas exist, or as he saw it, subsist. Such notions are catnip to anyone of a creative non-fictional bent, and I am currently making my own additions to Meinong’s Jungle, enframing the very notion of non-existence in a work which examines and plays with these ideas in relation to Sherlock Holmes.

A Late Heideggerian reading would see Cthulhu as having been Enframed. Enframing (das GeStell) is the mindset of instrumental rationality that turns everything in Nature into a resource (Bestand) to be used by humans. A strip of land is thus viewed as a housing development or a field of crops. What it can’t be allowed to do is simply exist as it is; it must exist for us in some way. Even were it to remain ‘natural’, this nature would be ‘enframed’ – demarcated as a green space preserved for humans to enjoy nature. For Heidegger, it has become the only way human subjectivity (Dasein) sees the world around it. Fictional entities and non-existent objects, such as Cthulhu, unicorns and Sherlock Holmes, can also be enframed, repackaged as films, TV series, computer games, toys, T-shirts and other merchandise.

The cultural theorist Mark Fisher provides another way of reading the fate that has befallen Cthulhu. He has written persuasively on Capitalist Realism, a term he has appropriated from Louis Althusser to describe the modern era as one in which no alternative to capitalism can be imagined. Fisher likens it to a ‘pervasive atmosphere’ conditioning the production of culture which acts as ‘an invisible barrier constraining thought and action’. Cthulhu here becomes an example of this ineluctable constraint. Even the fictional mind remains terrestrially-bound, delimited by its social milieu. This extra-terrestrial, which supposedly transcends our mortal notions of time and space, is actually wholly submerged within the human. It is culturally produced and reproduced – commodified, diminished, contained. The metaphorical Cthulhu doesn’t bespeak something monstrous and outside; it is human, all too human.

So perhaps what this name should come to stand for is the idea that no human fiction can represent whatever reality lies outside of the human frame. Cthulhu as the horror of our inability to represent non-human reality or escape the all-pervasive reach of Capital? At a time of political untruth and capitalist hegemony, that might usefully reflect the way things are going.  

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