Angst & Instability

I don’t know anyone who does not suffer from some form of Anxiety. I have written about this variously elsewhere on this site but the more research I do on psychology and philosophy (for work I might add, that is literally my job) the more it seems an inevitability of modern living. I was recently reading Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness Unto Death’ which he calls Despair, which he defines in the almost comedic way of: “relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation”. Soren was talking about the search for God and the idea of sin or simply a life without God being the eponymous ‘Sickness’, however there is a lot in the text that neatly describes the sort of depression that is on the rise today. For such a short but dense philosophical text, chiefly about God, it is worth the read purely because of its demand for self-exploration and understanding. In it Kierkegaard talks about the idea of ‘embracing oneself’ which is very much a buzzword amongst the positivity movement that is so prevalent today but more than that it grapples with the notion of the infinite and the finite and reconciling our place within both. As such ‘Sickness Unto Death’ can be seen as one of the earliest existential texts.

Even more interestingly Kierkegaard also wrote a text called ‘The Concept of Anxiety’ in 1844. In it he uses the analogy of a man at a cliff edge looking over the edge and being terrified by the drop yet with a compulsion to jump off. This internal conflict is what he defines as Anxiety or Angst: living in indecision. What this signifies is the dread that accompanies an awareness of our own freedom. The immensity of our abilities and our freedom in such a vast, and largely uncaring, universe is powerful and daunting, Kierkegaard recognizes this and gave us the definition for what teenagers around the world are accused of feeling every day. And he was right. What greater kind of indecision and accompanying dread is there in life than the transformation from a near total lack of awareness in childhood to almost too much awareness and understanding in adulthood? Every teenager is afflicted with angst because they have not yet learned to compartmentalize in the way adults do and bury ourselves in the minutiae of everyday life to ignore the immensity of experience and existence. Naturally, as a Christian, Kierkegaard says this is to do with sin and not accepting God but again need not be read that way. The idea of reconciling the finite and the infinite is a struggle which we all deal with. Or at least I thought it was.

HP Lovecraft is a horror writer from the early 20th century who built on this existential dread of reconciling our place in the Universe that was explored in a similar way in fiction by Ambrose Bierce and Robert Chambers but is definitely born of Kierkegaard’s explorations into Despair & Angst. I’m a fan of this type of horror writing and apparently I’m not alone, many things in popular culture at the moment are turning to this kind of existential horror in in either direct or oblique but always interesting ways. I wrote about this resurgence on this site previously too. Despite this it would seem this type of horror is purely the bastion of the straight white male. The thing that prompted me to write this piece was on Twitter recently, someone RTed a quote by William Hutson of the hip-hop group Clipping who said that “Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism is only terrifying if you’re a straight white man and you thought you were the centre of the universe anyway.” Now an important thing to know about Lovecraft was that he was a racist and anti-semite and these factors undeniably informed his writing. Writing at a time of post war civil rights meant a straight white dude was being confronted by his own existence, specifically (he thought) having his freedoms removed. Now whilst this is certainly true it does little to explain why Ice T recently talked about his love for the Lovecraft story ReAnimator on Twitter or the incredibly horrifying existential confrontation of Get Out that was such an enormous success. And, most tellingly, the cultural penetration of Game of Thrones which is purely about the existential threat of the amorphous Winter, the night that is “dark and full of terrors” and so on, and the futility of our fighting it (a topic explored by Wisecrack). Lovecraft’s brand of existential terror is indeed informed by his problematic beliefs but the genre itself only seems to become more and more potent as the years go by.

Despite the despicable racism, anti-semitism, nationalism and class disparity that continues today, life in the west has improved vastly since the late 19th century. Equality took massive strides forward over the last 50 years and we live in a world of technological wonders like the internet that has increased the living conditions of billions and the rise of automation in industry has given us more free time to do what we love. And yet here we are with all this luxury, realizing how it equally penalizes other nations and cultures, how automation robs people of jobs and their identity, with rising political beliefs of a return to old fashioned segregation and discrimination, sexism and a potent form of nationalism all on the rise not the decline. In short, the whole planet has been confronted with its own freedom and the truly awesome immensity therein and far from embracing this and attempting to make a far more equitable and sympathetic society utilizing all this incredible new tools at our disposal, millions have shied from it. Instead they prefer to close their borders, demand a return to the ‘good old days’, where freedoms were limited, people were told what to do and personal liberties were maintained violently. By extension this can be seen in individuals as much as it can different societies or nations or people.

Friends and family of mine live their lives very differently now to the way I saw it as a kid. With the gig economy and most relationships (of any kind) being cultivated online and therefore needing nothing more than our smart device to run most aspects of daily life, we are given an enormous amount of freedom. With a wealth of things to do, to live and to experience in our time we instead live our lives in increasingly smaller homes and binge-watching season after season of television shows. The response to this is often “well I can’t afford to do anything” which in itself is another existential argument but what we’re essentially saying is we want to forgo our choice i.e. we are living in indecision. Some people are dedicated to moving forward and doing things and smugly tell us about it online in a passive aggressive way that says ‘you should be doing the same, you lazy bum’, others are dedicated to regressing society and become President, whereas I think most of us are the ones stuck in that stasis of indecision, not knowing how to move forward or back and consequently not putting the effort into defining ourselves beyond the roles a steadily dissolving society has given us. We are freer than we have ever been as species (that does not mean there are not people who have little to no freedoms and are not subjugated) and yet far from accepting and utilizing this freedom the vast majority of us either shun it entirely or refuse to do anything with it and that, I believe, is where this epidemic of anxiety has grown from.

Far from being the exclusive malady of the white middle class, I think this existential anxiety is rife amongst humanity today, whatever your belief, creed, colour or nation. The need for creating purpose in our lives and a direction for humanity as whole has never been more necessary but equally never more ignored and therefore, Kierkegaard’s need to reconcile ourselves with the immensity of existence, with God or without, seems to be the ultimate test of our times. If we cannot learn to justify our own existence and our place in the universe we may be heading for a lack of it.

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Spectre at the Feast

Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story printed on Christmas Day in 1886 called ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. It’s a creepy story told in first person mainly about death and the afterlife. In 1895 Robert Chambers published a collection of short horror stories under the title ‘The King in Yellow’. The name is taken from a fictional play that drives anyone who reads it mad that is mentioned in most of the stories and serves as a connecting tissue for the whole collection. Quotes from the play introduce certain stories, one of them containing the line “But stranger still is Lost Carcosa”. Carcosa is mentioned in many of the stories too. Chambers made no secret of his homage to Bierce  and the stories from ‘The King in Yellow’ themselves share a similar dark atmosphere to ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. Some years later in 1926 a writer called HP Lovecraft began having stories published, now dubbed the Cthulu Mythos, concerning themselves with a genre he termed ‘cosmological horror’, the notion that the vast universe contained horrors we could not comprehend and how insignificant we were in the face of them. Lovecraft equally payed homage to Bierce and Chambers using similar techniques as theirs in his shorts: first person and unreliable narrators, dark and pervasive atmosphere, a book – the infamous Necronomicon – that reappears in many stories and many other themes, styles and settings that they used. Many writers have added to the intertextual horror of the Cthulu Mythos over the years but it seems there has been a rather pointed resurgence in popular culture in the last two years.

My interest was first piqued when I was watching the first series of True Detective, which remains an absolute favourite, and the murderer and his accomplices talk explicitly about Lost Carcosa, the Yellow King, and talk at length about theoretical physics and humanity’s entirely redundant place in the universe and at a key moment a character demands Rust “take off your mask” which is a direct quote from the King in Yellow. This is more of a subtext in the inferior second series but still there in many ways. This added a deep and dark extra layer to something that was already pretty grim. Then there was a computer game released for the latest console generation entitled Bloodborne. Bloodborne is, in its entirety, a fond doffing of the hat to Lovecraft with its sanity meter, Shoggoth-type monsters, dream-like horrors and continual references to the Great Old ones and cities beyond the stars (how Carcosa is often described), all set in the Gothic Victoriana of a fictional city populated by werewolves and madmen. These are two very popular, very well-known pieces of cultural ephemera making explicit references to little known horror stories over a century old.

This weekend I went to see a play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester called ‘Pomona’. It is named after the bizarre and empty island between the canals in the centre of Manchester. It’s poster features someone wearing a Cthulu mask. The play itself is set in a maybe-future-maybe-now Manchester where girls are disappearing and the lives that are thrown together because of this. It shares a lot in common with True Detective in its themes but more so in its references to cosmological horror. Characters in the play are playing a role playing game based on Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu and this may or may not be reflected in their real lives. The same paranoia, insignificance and helplessness infused within Bierce, Chambers and Lovecraft runs through the play like a stick of rock. Independently I could perhaps see that I was simply following my nose to seeking out these things being a fan of this type of high concept horror but it was then that the most subtle but definitely most striking entry into this canon showed itself without me having any idea it would be there.

I took a day trip to London to see Spectre as Skyfall had not only set itself as my favourite Bond but hands-down one of my favourite films and I had high hopes. Largely it delivered, it wasn’t as good as Skyfall (it was never going to be) and was rather long and flabby but was a hearken back to the late Connery/early Moore Bond films and was enjoyably fun and a bit daft. What truly amazed me, however, was its own references to the same intertextual lineage of cosmological horror present in Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloodborne, True Detective and Pomona. I’m sure at this point I am being scoffed at but let me explain… and if you haven’t seen Spectre please do so but don’t proceed beyond this point as there will be spoilers.

Spectre-Poster-1

First and foremost Spectre opens in the festival of the dead in Mexico City,  a hardly subtle planting of the flag in the same arena of the uncanny as the other entries but still a similarity. The concept of a shadowy organisation and corruption and paranoia and insignificance in the face of such a force are overriding themes in the others too and certainly in Spectre. The organisation itself is depicted as all pervasive and Bond having no idea what he is in for, “a kite dancing in the wind” but these are more general themes and ideas that I could easily just be bringing to the analysis without their overt presence within the film. As such let’s look at some specifics:

The most obvious is the meteorite. Blofeld (parenthetical aside: why the FUCK did they not just say who Christoph Waltz’s character was before hand? We all knew. The film’s called Spectre for fucks sake. Shit I hate marketing) brings Craig and Seydoux to look at the asteroid that created the crater where his base is, giving a little speech about the insignificance of man against the cosmos. Not only that but the asteroid is shaped with circular divots and drop lit creating the impression that the stone is covered in eyes. In short: it’s an inert Shoggoth from Lovecraft. Lovecraft also wrote a short called ‘The Rats in The Walls’ about a man driven mad by the scratching of rats in the walls of his house where he and his colleagues then explore discovering lost horrors in the foundations of the building. In Spectre Bond comically/drunkenly asks a rat who he works for only then for the rodent to disappear into the walls revealing a secret room beyond. Also worth mentioning a similar rat story is told (badly) by Vince Vaughan in True Detective 2. I did not catch the image but on the cork board above the picture Seydoux snatches in the secret room is a Victorian illustration that looked rather gothic horror. I’d be willing to bet on a freeze frame that is some thinly veiled reference to ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars. Oh and then there’s the mysterious Mr. White from Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace  (intertextual again) referred to as ‘The Pale King’. The safehouse towards the end is called ‘Hildebrand Prints and Rarities’ a reference to Bond’s own mythos and a Fleming Short called ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ about a rare fish that Bond goes fishing for (side note, Cthulu and associated monsters are beasts of the deep), the safehouse bears a striking resemblance to the description of the residence of Mr. Wilde in ‘Repairer of Reputations’ by Robert Chambers. Mr Wilde also has a cat, a scar and is well versed in everyone’s business using it for his own Machiavellian ends. Sounding familiar? There was also a wonderful moment where a crowd of drones tapping at keys suddenly halts and turns to face Bond in silhouette. A brilliantly chilling moment that isn’t a reference per se but definitely feels straight out of a Chambers/Lovecraft story.

The most blatant reference to Lovecraft/Bierce/Chambers however is in Spectre’s imagery and symbolism. In True Detective 1 the imagery of a vortex is seen throughout the series, either in the scrawls by the occultists or in the swirling flock of crows until it culminates with the swirling black hole of space Rust finally sees at the end of their case. In True Detective 2 two rorschach-like blotches seen above Vince Vaughan’s bed and on the tablecloth eerily reflect the empty sockets of his murdered colleague’s eyes. In Spectre the repeated imagery is the octopus logo of the organisation itself. Seen repeatedly throughout the film on the ring, it crops up in the corners of frame at regular instances but most subtly when Bond shoots the bulletproof glass which cracks in the same way as the film poster into the shape of the octopus. The octopus itself is shown in gargantuan size in the opening credit sequence, wrapping itself around naked and scantily clad women and none-too-subtly resembling every image of Cthulu available. If you think I am reading too much into this imagery Mendes put plenty in Skyfall, most notably the film’s use of Maritime paintings to convey Bond’s struggle for relevance in today’s world. For real, check it out. This kind of foreshadowing is used a lot in film, sometimes called a callback, and certainly if it is unstated this kind of visual storytelling is profoundly effective in conveying tone but also a deeper sense of a plot or subtext. Humans use symbolism to work through problems. Confronting our own failings is painful and difficult and not always rewarding which is why we tell stories with universal themes and identifiable characters and settings so we can project these feelings and thoughts onto the fiction and process our problems better. It is this cathartic process that can be refined and almost subconsciously adapted to tell a story or convey a point. Horror utilises this particularly well.

My favourite horror film is Don’t Look Now. It is not, on the whole, a scary film but it IS deeply, deeply unsettling throughout and it is the finale that is most terrifying. Roeg uses symbolism and imagery throughout the film to tell the story and to give the shocking ending such weight and horrifying depth. He uses three small things: broken glass, spilled water and the colour red. One of these will be in every scene in that film, maybe even every shot and it has a cumulative effect. From the opening shattering scene involving the broken glass spilling water onto the slide of a red hooded girl that mirrors their daughter’s awful drowning outside to THAT ending that will never leave me, the three pieces of symbolism and imagery connect the whole story start to finish and make it all the more haunting. It’s wonderful stuff. Spectre isn’t quite so involved but the use of its own symbolism that it undeniably cribs (maybe not intentionally) from those early horror writers lends the darker moments much more depth and weight.

So why now? Why is modern culture suddenly so keen on the cosmological horror of writers and stories from over a century ago? The pre-civil rights/post-war world Lovecraft wrote in, paranoia and the feeling of insignificance in the face of larger threats was ever present in society at the time. Lovecraft was also an indefensible racist and anti-semite, something that sadly pervades his work but goes a long way to explain where this resurgence of his and Chambers & Bierce’s brand of intertextual existential and worried horror in mainstream popular culture maybe coming from. We live in a world where (as Spectre also points out) the Snooper’s Charter is in headline news, we’re being watched by drones, innocent black people are being gunned down, school shootings are a near weekly occurrence, each new discovery from a comet to new pictures of Pluto places us in a inconceivably vast universe, wars abroad causing influxes of refugees to all shores across the globe and economic depression are almost all events shared with the time Lovecraft was writing.

‘The spectre at the feast’ is a turn of phrase in reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (oh look at that, another recent film) where Macbeth’s feast is ruined by him seeing the ghost of Banquo, indicating he cannot hide from his guilt as it is his burden. Some people sometimes call this ‘the elephant in the room’. We live in scary and uncertain times that we are struggling to find our place in and it should be deeply troubling to all of us that such massive global blockbuster fare as James Bond would be, intentionally or not, using iconography of a hundred years ago to reveal the horrors being wrought on the planet. This current crop of creative writers, directors, playwrites and game developers who are returning to these stories as they strike such a deep chord, are addressing our own Spectre at our own feast and I worry that this “fit is not momentary” and we should heed better this “very painting of our fears”.

6xjOR