Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Seneca Cliff According to H.P. Lovecraft

It is strange how sometimes fiction manages to catch human feelings and ideas in ways that are not easy to articulate in terms of facts and models. H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has been one of the world masters of the horror genre, managing to flesh out some of our deep fears.

We can read Lovecraft's story "The Doom that Came to Sarnath" as an allegory of our times. The prosperous and shiny city of Sarnath had a dark origin, the violence against the previous inhabitants of the region. The drama unfolds with all the characters mentioned in the story aware that they'll have to face some kind of retribution for what they did and yet refusing to admit that. And the retribution came to Sarnath in a form not unlike what the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted when he said that "growth is sluggish, but the way to ruin is rapid," the Seneca Cliff.

In our case, we know what we did to the Earth's ecosystem. We know about the greenhouse gases, we know about the slaughter of other species, we know about the pillaging of the Earth's resources. We know all that but, like the inhabitants of Sarnath, we refuse to admit it. What kind of retribution can we expect in the future?

It is curious how the knowledge of the horror we did to our planet takes the shape of the tales of the horror genre. It is something modern, the ancient just didn't have it. Think of Dante Alighieri: his Comedy is all about ghosts, but there is no horror anywhere in modern terms. Think of Shakespeare's Hamlet, there is a ghost, a skeleton, a dark castle, but no horror elements. Why?

But, if it is true that for everything that exists there has to be a reason, there has to be a reason also for us being obsessed with horror and monstrous creatures. And I think it is because we are creating them. Just turn on your TV and watch the news, don't you have the sensation of living a horror story written by H.P. Lovecraft?

Yes, the news looks today like a horror story, complete with eldritch monsters, dark creatures from the abyss, Cthulhu, Nyarlatothep, Azhathot, Shub-Niggurath, and all the others, coming from the lost city of R'lyeh. And you wouldn't be surprised to see that the tv announcer looks like one of the inhabitants of the destroyed city of lb that once stood in front of Sarnath, screaming at you from the screen, Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! 

And we will be forever prisoners of the monsters we ourselves created.


The Doom that Came to Sarnath
by H.P. Lovecraft - 1920

There is in the land of Mnar a vast still lake that is fed by no stream and out of which no stream flows. Ten thousand years ago there stood by its shore the mighty city of Sarnath, but Sarnath stands there no more.....

Read the whole text on the blog "Chimeras".


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)