Decolonizing Lovecraft: Part One

This is, at its core, a chaos magic essay. As a librarian, one of the principal features of chaos magic that attracted me to the model was the ability to draw inspiration and tech from literature. When one connects literature and the occult, it is not a far leap to Lovecraft, but Lovecraft is sticky. Lovecraft, the author, is problematic and I suspect that he knew that and cultivated it to some extent. The worst of him is his overt racism, as a person, which on a few occasions (much less than is popularly suspected) leaks into his fiction.

This creates a situation for those that want to pull on the threads in Lovecraft for chaos magic purposes. The magic-users that I run with hold no quarter for racism, oppression, sexism, misogyny. Some who approach Lovecraft choose to ignore the full implications of his body of work. Much like those authors who he bestowed the Mantle of Cthulhu upon as he was ripped from the world with a stomach full of cancer, these magicians pick and choose elements from his work for use in their tech and ignore the rest. This isn’t helpful. In doing so the door is opened for white power, proud boys, and other occult-appropriators to latch onto their work as their own citing the facets of the author they resonate with as a connection to the tech the original chaos mages developed. In order to make Lovecraft useful to the twenty-first century chaos magician, his work (not his person, which is not ours to manipulate) needs to decolonized.

My approach to decolonizing Lovecraft is through the initial use of what I call ‘esoteric theory.’ Esoteric theory is a version of reader-response theory that deconstructs a text with 1) the intent to draw practical magical tech and 2) decolonize the text so that it is forever useful to animist, chaos magicians, and any others that would look to the body of work for similar inspiration.

Literary theory isn’t familiar to everyone, nor is decolonization-as-a-process, so I will attempt to jailbreak and synthesize the two here. Humanities theory in general and Literary theory specifically is different from scientific theory in a very straightforward way. Scientific theory makes predictions that the practitioners go about to try and prove through the collection and application of empirical evidence. Literary theory is a cartographic event, an attempt at mapping. (Iser, 5) If literature is to be used for the purposes of practical magic, then the further it is mapped, the more detailed the cartography of ideas, characters and meanings, the more effective it will be in practice. If literary theory is to be decolonized then it also has to have within its structure a model that is inclusive of a resistance to empire and an embrace of hybridity. (Loomba, 199)

Our brand of literary investigation, esoteric theory, seeks to piece together data pulled from the framework of occult teachings — those stretching back to Alexandria and beyond to Neolithic spiritual practices lost to working memory but encoded in our language and culture. These data points are then held up to the light of resistance and hybridity, purified by its heat. It is impossible to predict the relationships that any given body of literature will have with a model of resistance. It is also impossible to divine any practical outcomes when being inclusive of hybridity, for hybrids are by nature unpredictable in appearance and nature. We, therefore, can not put forth any ‘laws’ that govern the process of esoteric theory. This alone makes our approach highly compatible with chaos magic. (Iser, 5)

Esoteric Theory, when applied to a text or corpus of texts is an attempt to piece together the elements of the text to create a framework that is usable by the 21st. century magic-user. It begins with a basic presupposition and evolves as the text is experienced through an esoteric lens. Bringing the element of decolonization in from our overall theoretical approach to a text, we find ourselves using a hag stone to view the text for literature isn’t only the words on the page but it is also the other stories that the text works to exclude. (Loomba, 201) Lovecraftian fiction is not just the monsters and madness on the surface. Between the lines of the text itself are the ghosts of colonization. They haunt the books there on your shelf and the ones and zeros of his corpus as it is presented online. Using our theoretical hag stone, we view the author’s body of fiction and see it for what it is — an ecosystem of the seen and unseen, interacting in hidden and unremembered ways. Our hag stone is a representative of the primary idea that separates humanities theory from empirical theory. Empericism is interested in discovering the ‘immutable’ laws of nature and literary theory is the process of triggering associations from the text that are generated from the interplay between what the reader reads and the ghosts of colonization that have infected the text. (Iser, 6) Magic has been doing this since the very beginning through the use of symbols and correspondences between different magical systems and magically-adjacent cultures.

The act of applying esoteric theory, which owes much of its approach to reader-response theory, is in itself an act of decolonization. The analysis of literature is most often approached with the author’s intent and meaning in mind. This is particularly so with Lovecraftian Fiction. Picking up our hag stone and looking at this corpus, we no longer see the author or the attempts to derive his true meaning from the volumes of *evidence* he left in the form of his correspondences. Peering through the hole in our stone we see the characters, we feel our response to them, and we see the ghosts of time and place that haunt the white space of the page. Reading Lovecraft with the intent to derive magical tech from the themes and and events in the text is not an act of problem-solving — it isn’t a puzzle to be solved — rather, it is an act of approaching a context-related understanding of the text with our very chaos magic goal in mind. (Iser, 7) Evaluating Lovecraft through the lens of esoteric theory is necessary to derive whether it is useful or not useful as a source for the practice of chaos magic. Can we understand both the practice of magic and the text better through this enterprise? Is the context actually relevant to occult practices (as many modern critics assert it is not)?

One text I found great inspiration in is the 1998 series of essays entitled ‘Post-Colonial Shakespeares’. One of our principle implements in our interrogation of Lovecraftian fiction is comparison. Looking to the near-universal texts of Shakespeare it is easy to find archetypes that we can speak with about our investigation. Othello is one of these archetypal forms. Othello is a man out of culture, but of his time. He is a penultimate ‘Other’. His interactions with the other characters in the play are a method of self-defense and a survival narrative utilized to gain power. (Loomba, 202) His power and stature in the play are unquestioned on the stage. His presence there, amongst the epicenter of both Imperialism and Occultism — 16th century Venice — allows one to take many different directions when investigating how his Otherness connects to a Post-Colonial archetype. (Loomba, 167) His cultural isolation, his inner narrative, and the world he inhabits can be plugged into Lovecraft in as many different ways. The most useful for us at this moment is how this comparison further elucidates the approach of esoteric theory.

Esoteric theory is an aesthetic response to how a piece or body of literature impacts a reader. (Iser, 57) Lovecraftian fiction is not a documentary, although it contains many documentary elements of the time and space in which the author lived. The Lovecraftian corpus is a thing that was brought into the world, a thing that did not previously exist. The experience of reading Lovecraft through an esoteric lens is akin to wearing occult virtual reality glasses. Traditional criticism of Lovecraft searches for the intent of the author, as a man, or the meaning that the text is supposed to convey. This is problematic with weird fiction in general and (like so many other things) in particular with Lovecraft. The search for the author’s intention is a Romantic frame and as such, can be considered a tool of colonization. (Iser, 58) This view does not serve our purpose, for even with an author like Lovecraft it is highly improbable that he ‘intended’ his works to be read as a grimoire or to be used as source material for practical magic. Therefore, the traditional approach to reading Lovecraft in a search for the meaning he was trying to convey will have to be supplanted with one that speaks to our own intentions for the text that is rooted in our own context as 21st. century magic-users. In shifting away from the Romantic frame we are turning on back on the colonizers and are free to interrogate the text for the elements that serve the purposes of decolonization in a legitimate and integrous manner.

Lovecraftian fiction is visceral and cannot be said to leave the reader untouched. Reading Lovecraft through an esoteric lens is closer to an event that happens to us rather than an action that is taken by us. The structures, the tropes, the often repeated memes and well-lived in environments are processed by the reader on many different levels. Lovecraftian fiction is also, and most importantly, a gateway the magic-user can walk through to experience the interplay between her own sociohistorical context and that of the characters in the fictional world. This creates two nodes with an edge between the text and its own context and another between the text and the magician experiencing the event of Lovecraftian fiction in search for methods of expanding and decolonizing her own practice. (Iser, 60) In applying the framework of esoteric theory to Lovecraft we eclipse the author himself, we erase him from the formula. Instead, we look at the context of the world around the text itself as it was being written. Simultaneously we apply our own reactions and our own sociopolitical context to the text. It is through the tension between these two points that we are able to derive the truths we require to put the text to use in our practice.

Esoteric theory is a search for ‘blanks’ in the text. Lovecraftian fiction, aside from a few examples of long-form novellas, is famously fragmented and short. One cannot help but feel that there is more to the story than the couple of paragraphs given us to experience on most occasions. Not even the most voluminous body of fiction can tell a tale in its entirety, thus ‘blanks’ are negotiated by all readers of fiction. Esoteric theory actively seeks out those blanks, the patterns they form, how the blanks are connected to the text and to each other, and uses this exploration as a jumping off point for ideation. This is the power of the approach. As with the monsters and mythos of Lovecraftian fiction, the magical tech and the tools of decolonization are rarely explicitly seen. As we experience the event of Lovecraftian Fiction, we meander down different forest paths, sometimes losing the path when we encounter blanks in the text. (Iser, 64-65) The lion’s share of Lovecraft’s narrators admit (often openly, sometimes in subtext) that they are and have been materialists and are loyal to empirical and colonial systems that placed them in a position of privilege — in the course of every tale the empiricist is either converted to a view of reality that breaks the materialist paradigm or (in the absence of conversion) that individual goes quite mad. What the text says is that the world is material and that the immaterial is irrational and incomprehensible. What the text does not say, the blank that it leaves for the reader, is that the true nature of reality is magical and the materialist paradigm is wrong.

Lovecraftian fiction was written for readers that are not us. Our sociohistorical context is vastly different from the weird fiction audience of the 20s, 30s and 40s. It makes little sense for us to view ourselves as the audience of the author. Nevertheless, we are engaged in a dance with the fictitious reader — a three-way tango between the fictitious reader and the narrator who evaluates the events of the text from yet a different sociohistorical perspective than either us or the fictitious audience. (Iser, 65-66) Lovecraftian Fiction is driven by the narrator in almost all instances — and sometimes as Burleson points out, it is driven by narrators nested within narrators. When reading his corpus through an esoteric lens, it is important to understand that the narrator is an agent in the text and not the author speaking to the reader. The text-agent is evaluating the events from his or her own perspective inside the universe of the text and the reader is informed through the attitudes towards the event which are built between the fictitious read and the real reader. With works written and taking place outside the real reader’s own temporal frame of reference, this transformation should be especially intense. Shining this light on the racism expressed in Lovecraftian Fiction we have the following interaction: The narrator is an agent inside the fictional universe. This agent (overwhelmingly a materialist whose fortune and privilege stems directly from colonial ancestors) reacts to other agents and events in the universe in a racist way. We then have the fictitious reader — the only agent in the process that interacts directly with the author. The author might or might not have had the intent to speak to a similarly racist fictitious reader. Given what is known of the author’s own personal life outside of this interaction it is more likely that the author is either expressing a personal value system to the fictitious reader or he is reflecting elements of his own temporal station in an unconscious way. None of that matters because the author is gone and the fictitious reader he wrote for has gone with him. All that is left is the text, its agents, its events and the real reader. The work that is left to do is for the real reader to form and understand her own attitudes towards the text. This part of the process happens when the real reader negotiates what Iser calls ‘negations.’ Negations in the text are the dominant positions of the narrator that us, the real reader, question and challenge. Without these challenges, this comparison, there could be no growth towards the goal of decolonization. Further, these negations were originally posed to the fictitious weird fiction reader of the early twentieth century and require their deck of archetypes and hidden meanings be reshuffled and reinterpreted in our esoteric critical frame. (Iser, 66) When working with the Lovecraftian Corpus for the purposes of deriving magical tech in a post-colonial, animist-centric world - the dominant worldview of the author is negated and replaced with a perspective that centers more on the experience and power of the ‘Others’ in the corpus — rather than the materialist agents that primarily provide the narration. It is through these networks of blanks and negations, of bitextual discourse between ourselves, the typically reviled materialist narrators and the largely innocent but no less challenged fictitious reader that we map the territory that is the Lovecraftian corpus. (Iser, 172)

Now that we have laid out the circle of stones that frame the literary theory that is the foundation of esoteric criticism, let us take a closer look at decolonization and post-colonial thought before bringing the two together. It is my estimation that these terms are widely used but their nuances are not adequately understood.

Decolonization, as a global process, refers to the dissolution of empire as a political entity. This is manifested as a degradation of the racial hierarchies, ideologies and infrastructures associated with that entity. It is also expressed as the manifestation of new sovereign nations and an uncovering of the delegitimization of indigenous rulers in the area that existed prior to colonization. (Jansen and Osterhammel, 12) Decolonization, as an act — specifically in the realm of literature, is the articulation of the point of view of the colonized. (Armand, 77-78) We can use Shakespeare as an example of both sides of this coin (it is more like a twenty-sided die — bear with me). Shakespeare is widely considered to be the pinnacle of ‘Englishness’ and as such, is a representative of empire. The performance and spread of Shakespeare to the colonized is an example of literature being used as a tool of colonization. (Loomba, 1) On the other side of that multi-dimensional coin, we have the aforementioned Othello, the Moor in Venice, who can read as a penultimate Other embedded at the seat of empire. Othello’s narrative can be read as an articulation of the colonized.

As chaos magicians, as Lovecraftian magic-users it is a key part of our practice to understand the processes and acts of colonization and declonization. (Armand, 80) We are thieves in the houses of magic, and one of those houses is built of the world of words that is one of the human race’s greatest and most unique contributions to the universe. Colonization as a process where White Christians oppressed the populous of and subverted the indigenous rule of lands overseas began building over five hundred years ago, around the beginning of the 16th century. This expansion was largely not the result of an overarching plan but rather was the result of a systematic exploitation of new lands and people as they were discovered. (Jansen and Osterhammel, 14) This exploitation typically began through the use of physical force but then was extended through the use of religious and secular education. That secular education, in the instance of the English empire, used Shakespeare as one of its principal tools. The Bard, however, never one to shy away from new interpretations and re-assimilation into new forms, can and has been used as a counter-weight against the pressure of colonization that continues today — especially in those areas where colonization has gone ‘underground’ and is now viewed by many as the status-quo of thought, act and deed — without revealing its own history or original intentions.

According to the author of Post-colonial Shakespeares, the Cuban poet Roberto Fernandez Retamar [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberto_Fernández_Retamar] has put The Tempest to work against its colonial parentage, in particular the character of Caliban. Caliban is the son of the witch Sycorax, and is often described as a half-fish, half-man hybrid (a form that should be familiar to the Lovecraftian Magic-User). Sycorax is traditionally seen as a syncretized form of Medea — the niece of Circe and the grand-daughter of Helios. Postcolonial critics view Sycorax as the archetypal mother of the colonized. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Medea joins her aunt Circe in her worship of Nyx, the consort of Erebos. Retamar pulls in Caliban as the symbol of the Mestizo America, an America of deep racial genetic diversity that continues to use the language of its colonizers (French, Spanish and English) and with language, many of the conceptual tools that inevitably go along with it. The archetypal Deep One, Caliban, with his fish and man parts, represent the racial and cultural expressions of the colonized as they are hybridized with the language and concepts of the West that were brought to them through the act of colonization. Retamar believes that ‘hybridity,’ as it is represented by Caliban, is an inherently subversive position and is in essence an appropriation of the colonizers culture for the express purposes of decolonization. (Loomba, 8)

Decolonization is the post-empire propagation of sovereignty; politically, culturally and economically. (Jansen and Osterhammel, 15) One way this growth is achieved through hybridization of forms. (Loomba, 9) The entire Lovecraftian mythos is populated with archetypes of hybridization, with Caliban being their ostensible king. When picking out magical tech from Lovecraftian Fiction, one nearly stumbles over spirit-forms that can be invoked and understood as representatives of a decolonized, hybridized world — just as Caliban can be extrapolated as the representative of a Mestizo America, born of his mother Sycorax who joins her aunt Circe in their worship of the primeval night. Decolonization through the vehicle of literature is achieved through bringing the voice of the oppressed to a place of power. As Lovecraftian Magic-Users we sympathize with the monsters and with those that live in their shadow - we align our sympathies with the Others and recognize through principles and practice that the true monsters in Lovecraft’s corpus are the materialists and those that still live on the fruits of empire.

Decolonization as a process is the shuffling of the deck of global power systems. It is the drawing a spread of reversals, laying down the card of institutional racism and the collapse of overt colonial rule. (Jansen and Osterhammel, 15) One would be forgiven for posing the counter-argument that by so strongly aligning those disenfranchised by empire with the monsters of Lovecraftian Fiction, that one is, in effect, calling the colonized monsters as well. In response, we can look again to our penultimate Other-Among-Empire, Othello. The Moor of Venice represents the epicenter of empires relationship with class, gender, sexuality, caste and colonial power structures (Loomba, 10). Othello, like Caliban, is perceived as a complex hero. When using the lens of esoteric criticism, it is understood that we see the hybrid forms in Lovecraft as a clearer representation of how the world is. We recognize that they are only viewed as monsters by the materialist ‘protagonists’ and narrators in his corpus. By using their tech in our practice we are aligning ourselves with the monsters and the uncaring cosmic entities on the deepest of levels. We see in them Othello, full of power and feared by the Venetians around him — we see in them the half-fish, half-man Caliban and we sympathize with him when he is on stage with Prospero, the true monster of the Tempest.

We are creating of ourselves the reversal and archetypally aligning ourselves with colonized and using our practice as a vehicle to further dismantle the intellectual and cultural dominion of a world infected with materialism.

REFERENCES

Armand, M. M. (2015). Healing in the homeland: Haïtian vodou tradition. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Iser, W. (2007). How to do theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publ.

Jansen J and Osterhammel J (2019). Decolonization: A short history. Princeton University Press.

Loomba, A., & Orkin, M. (2013). Post-Colonial Shakespeares. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.