Friday, February 24, 2012

The Weird Fiction of Daniel Defoe

It shouldn't come as a surprise to any readers of this blog that I'm rather interested in Weird Fiction, that so-fascinating niche of horror that was popularized and defined by H.P. Lovecraft in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (p. 1043, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction)

And so we have its foundations. The Weird Tale is a widening of perspective, a confrontation with the vastness of reality, a style of story that takes our limited and mortal perspective and enlarges it until we cannot help but scream at our own insignificance, cannot help but never again trust the fragile world of man about us. Lovecraft, of course, was not only a historian of the Weird but also its foremost practitioner. One of his most famous passages, one that brings forth and rams home almost every aspect of the Weird and of Lovecraft's own horrors, comes at the opening of The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (p. 335, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction)

Of course, many authors have followed Lovecraft, not the least of them Thomas Ligotti. But the invocation of the Weird is certainly not something limited to those few that have heard of it. The question of man's place in the cosmos is, needless to say, one that's been pondered often, and sometimes in unexpected places.

So we come to this post's sharp departure from what is traditionally thought of as horror fiction, or Weird Fiction, or anything of that sort. We're venturing all the way afield until we reach a certain, seemingly-deserted island, one where Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe's been forced to make his home. I will admit, I am not a fan of Robinson Crusoe, not of the man and not of the book. Nonetheless, the following quote did rather strike me:

This furnish'd my Thoughts with many very profitable Reflections, and particularly this one, How infinitely Good that Providence is, which has provided in its Government of Mankind, such narrow bounds to his Sight and Knowledge of things, and though he walks in the midst of so many thousand Dangers, the Sight of which, if discover'd to him, would distract his Mind, and sink his Spirits; he is kept serene, and calm, by having the Events of Things hid from his Eyes, and knowing nothing of the Dangers which surround him. (p.165-6, Robinson Crusoe)

Admittedly, the diction's more archaic than even Lovecraft chose to go, but the same ideas are there. The nigh-infinite nature of our existence, the unknowable and uncountable dangers about us, and our utter ignorance of our true position, even if here that ignorance is due to the mercy of a supreme being that is most certainly absent in the cold materialism of Lovecraft's mythos. Though the presence of that supreme being does make the whole thing a bit questionable, at least to me. It's all well and good that God has shielded us from these, as Lovecraft would have it, black seas of infinity, but it does rather raise the question of why that God, supreme creator of all and all that, chose to make those terrifying vistas of reality and those thousand dangers in the first place...

1 comment:

  1. Or: Mommy, why does God let bad things happen?

    Probably the first existential crisis of faith most people have, around age six or seven.

    If I was God, and I'm not saying I'm not, I'd provide texture to the world, so some people will crash against hopelessness, while others triumph over adversity. Thus free will can be exercised, and faith nurtured, absent hope of receiving a divine helping hand.

    Of course, once you've finished running from tigers or being beaten flat by hailstones the size of cricket balls, and founded a settlement and invented banks, some people will spoil it by claiming that their prayers are answered and yours' would be too if you were just a little more pious.