Doctor Moreau Meets Queer Theory

What makes humans human? Is it only our physical attributes, our bipedal stature, the sparsity of hair, and opposable thumbs? Is it more subtle than that, something in our mental capacity and our behavior? Or does humanity have any real essence at all? If slowly all his attributes were traded for a beast’s, would there ever actually be a single moment when the human became inhuman? And what if that experiment was reversed, if a beast were given the attributes of a man?

A Monstrous Vision

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of H. G. Wells’ science fiction classics, and one that treads close to the realm of horror. It features a biologist by the name of Edward Prendick who finds himself adrift after surviving a shipwreck in the year 1887. He is picked up by a passing boat, bound for a small island somewhere in the southwestern Pacific. Reaching the island, the captain of the vessel abandons him there with the cargo its inhabitant had requested—a shipment of animals.

Once there, Prendick realizes that the inhabitant of the island, one Doctor Moreau, fled more civilized regions for this abandoned place due to the controversial nature of his experiments. Prendick is not quite sure what these are, but from the abundance of animals and their tortured screams which endure for hours, he assumes it must include vivisection. Vivisection—surgical experimentation on live animals—was a very controversial topic at the time, and would continue to be for decades to come.

But it was not the cruelty of these live dissections that were the true horror of the island. As Prendick explores what will likely be his home for the better part of the next year, he comes across a group of people who vaguely remind him of pigs. Not long after, he is pursued by something bestial that, when seen in the open, is in the shape of a human, and is capable of standing upright. The next day, convinced Moreau is experimenting on humans, he flees into the forest. There he encounters an entire tribe of Beast Folk, resembling apes, dogs, goats, and things far more indescribable. They are led by a strange creature known as the Sayer of the Law, who chants out a series of rules which remind the Beast Folk how human beings ought to act.

Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the camp, and Prendick goes running. He is determined to kill himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. The doctor manages to talk him down, and explains that the Beast Folk are all animals, not men. He has taken the surgical sciences and tried to push them to their limits, using every imaginable operation to transform animals into men. Nor is he only altering their outward form—he is educating them to the point where they seek to act human. This is the meaning of the Sayer of the Law.

While this is decidedly horrifying, it does ease Prendick’s fears for his own life. He settles back in with Moreau and his assistant, biding his time until a ship comes along that is willing to offer him passage back to the civilized world. Before this happens, however, a series of misfortunes rock the island.

First, one of the Beast Folk is found to be breaking the Law. Rather than allowing himself to be captured and further modified by Moreau, he forces the men and animals to hunt him in a wild chase across the island. Prendick kills him, but the men suspect he is not the only one breaking the Law. Soon another rebellious man-beast kills Moreau, and not long after his assistant is also murdered. The humans’ dwelling places also goes up in flames, leaving Prendick alone on the island with the Beast Folk.

As the months pass, he lives among them. Initially, many were very human in appearance and behavior. But slowly each one begins acting more and more bestial, and their bodies slowly lose their human appearance. Moreau’s experiments could alter them for a time, but could not change them for good.

At last Prendick finds a way back to the human world. He is thought mad by many, and he has no proof of the fantastic tale he tells. Accepting this, he tries to settle back into civilized society. Yet something seems wrong. His experience on the island has forever changed his perspective.

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.

Plasticity

H. G. Wells’ monstrous vision has inspired no less than six film adaptations, some of them successful enough, and others as disastrous as Moreau’s experiments. Sequels and reimaginings have also been written, and more than one song features lyrics drawn from the Law and the events of the story more generally.

Despite its success in popular culture, Wells did not originally conceive of the idea as pure fiction. In 1895, he wrote an article titled “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he speculated that it might be entirely possible to totally alter an animal’s physical form through surgical and chemical means, to such an extent that it could no longer be recognized as whatever species it might belong to in a genetic sense. He mulled over this idea for some time. A year later, he published The Island of Doctor Moreau, reworking the gist of the article into the titular doctor’s explanation to Prendick of his doings on that island.

This radical notion stands close to the very heart of scientific materialism. Classical metaphysics—first explicitly described by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained by both Christian and Islamic philosophers—holds that everything in creation has a nature essential to it. A human is not human by virtue only of his outward form, but there is some nonphysical aspect of his being which makes him human and not a hairless ape. Modern empirical science is skeptical of such claims, finding little or no evidence for some spiritual, or at least nonphysical, essence that defines a species.

If the materialist reading of metaphysics is right, then Moreau’s experiments should, theoretically be possible. If all that separates man from beast is chemical composition and the arrangement of tissues, then sufficiently advanced technology and methods should be able to transform one into another. Of course, it may require a great deal of work to achieve such a thing, and then you’re stuck looking a ManBearPig and asking what you got out of it. But, if you really wanted to, there’s no reason you couldn’t do so.

This is not just idle philosophical speculation, either. The question of essentialism is actually a pressing social issue. The same metaphysics which says that man is separate from the animals, and the animals from each other, also suggests that men and women are different. Gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed spiritual and behavioral characteristics tied to whether one is biologically male or female. This is usually taken to imply that certain gender roles are natural and others are not, and that certain expressions of sexuality are natural while others are not.

Consider that wide gulf that separates materialist metaphysics from classical metaphysics. In the eyes of someone who holds to essentialism generally, and gender essentialism in particular, LGBT behavior is unnatural in a very similar way to what Moreau does. Boundaries are being crossed that ought not be crossed, the very nature of a person is being denied or altered. Whatever the motivations or the character of the person engaging in the behavior, the behavior itself is inherently transgressive.

Now flip that. In the eyes of a materialist, gender and sexuality are plastic. They are shaped and molded by social expectations, which evolve over time. With advances in science and technology, even a person’s anatomical sex can be altered. If those boundaries of gender and sexuality are so ephemeral, if they are subject only to the limits of the human imagination, then it is the person who holds to classical metaphysics that is monstrous. They seek to impose on others restrictions that are not themselves natural, not themselves a fixed element in the physical or social fabric of the universe. Such views appear prejudiced and oppressive, something that ought to be opposed.

Of course, not every materialist supports the LGBT movement, and not every person from a tradition that holds to classical metaphysics opposes it. It would, however, be surprising if we did not see some correlation between those belief systems and the cultural stances they suggest. Our beliefs about the nature of reality do, in fact, impact our politics and lifestyle.

It be a mistake not to mention the place of feminism in this discussion. The places of men and women in society are very much impacted by your views on essentialism. While essentialism can lead to a wide variety of relationships between the sexes, it does open the door to what is generally characterized as a more conservative view on gender roles. A materialist metaphysics, however, tends to open the door to much more radically feminist views. Cultures whose mythologies are inspired by these two different worldviews can be expected to look very different.

The Future of Humanity

While the question of plasticity is relevant to Millennials caught in the midst of the twenty-first century’s marriage wars, Wells would probably have found another implication far more interesting. If mankind is potentially subject to this degree of chemical and surgical modification, might scientists take the evolution of the human race into their own hands? Might they modify men to make them stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter? Might we accelerate our own progress and leap forward into utopia of supermen, impervious to the threats that once dogged our race?

In Wells’ own time, medical science was nowhere near advanced enough to bring this about. Human individuals could not be modified to such a great extent, and such modifications certainly could not be made to pass on to children. But the human race was conceived of essentially plastic, able to be molded. So scientists across the world, often backed by forward-thinking governments, sought to sterilize the unfit and, in some cases, promote the propagation of healthier bloodlines. Atrocities committed for the sake of human evolutionary progress have since earned eugenics a bad name, and rightfully so, but at the time it was considered a very progressive, humanistic enterprise.

While the molding of humanity through forced sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and mass murder are largely a thing of the past, not everyone has given up hope of transforming humanity with the aid of advanced science. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to use our advancing understanding of human biology and genetics to transition the species from its current state into a “posthuman” future. This posthuman ideal is envisioned to have capabilities so far beyond that of modern homo sapiens, that it could not be mistaken for the same species. While gene therapy certainly forms an element of this movement’s ambitions, they also embrace technologies that will merely push individuals beyond merely human boundaries.

Both the eugenics of yesteryear and today’s transhumanism look on the plasticity of the materialist metaphysic as essentially good news. While these things may push us out of our comfort zone as a species, they also point the way to a more promising path for our evolutionary future.

For Wells, however, at the beginning evolutionary naturalism’s heyday, these ideas still were still new and unsettling, sweeping aside things mankind once held certain. Behind the plastic veil of human flesh, he did not see the dawning of a superhuman future, but the dumb and snarling face of a beast, dressed in the trappings and taught to mimic the behavior of civilized man. Perhaps all our high technology and sophisticated cultures are merely a façade. Perhaps, he suggests, they merely conceal the Beast Folk that lie within.

 

 

 

 Post Script

In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on the idea of evolutionary progress in another of Wells’ works, The Time Machine, and to take a brief glimpse at the Planet of the Apes franchise. However, this particular theme of humanity, civilization, and our relationship to the beasts is a powerful one, and I plan on returning to it in further posts on Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian age and the stories of Conan the Barbarian, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

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Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

I have avoided using the word “atheism” in this project for a reason.

In some ways, it is far too narrow a term to do the job necessary. There are many kinds of people that look to science for answers, draw inspiration on variants of Darwin’s theory, and prefer naturalistic explanations for what goes on in the world around us. Some are rationalists, while others embrace intuition. While some certainly do disbelieve in any sort of God, others are for more open to a wide range of supernatural beings and phenomena. Some are even churchgoing Christians. Of course, many don’t really give greater religious or philosophical issues much thought, simply absorbing the vague habits of the culture around them. And for many, applying a religious/philosophical label like “atheist” entirely misses the point. Political or social and entertainment subcultures have far more significance to some people than metaphysical views, however important those views may be in grand scheme of things.

But when we talk about Cthulhu, we have to talk about atheism. This eldritch star-spawn derives his entire character, all his dread and primal horror, from the fact that to humanity, he can only be perceived as a divine being. Almost as disturbing as the tentacle elder being himself is the existence of his worldwide cult, that most ancient of devil-worshipping religions. When talking about Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, you can just be talking history. H. G. Wells can be about time and biology, and X-Men can be about race and politics. But when you speak of Cthulhu, you are dealing with theology.

The Call of Cthulhu is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s signature work. It forms the central piece of his mythology, and the title creature has become emblematic of cosmic horror in the popular consciousness. But far more than being a masterpiece of its genre, this story is a commentary on the origin and nature of human religion. It is that very commentary which inspires cosmic dread, which leads the characters to label the denizens of their world and the evidence of their presence not merely horrors, but “blasphemies.”

The tale, published in 1928, begins in the winter of 1926, just a few months after it was actually written. It follows the unfolding explorations of a man into the unknown, after the death of his great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic languages. Among Professor Angell’s belongings he finds a strange bas-relief, freshly made but in a style that hinted at great antiquity. Accompanying this is a bundle of rambling notes and newspaper clippings, chronicling some investigation his great-uncle had made in the year immediately preceding his death.

The papers quickly reveal that the bas-relief comes from an artist who sought help from the Semitic professor. He had been experiencing odd dreams recently, visions of a strange city with inhuman architecture, and the distant sound of alien syllables being chanted by terrible voices. He reproduced this bas-relief from his dream, and hoped that the professor could help interpret the mysterious hieroglyphs inscribed on it, beside the depiction of a monster originating from no known mythology.

At first, Professor Angell dismisses the young man as an eccentric, but when he mentions that the most commonly chanted phrase in his wandering nightmares is “Cthulhu ftaghn,” the scholar’s interest is immediately engaged. He asks the artist to keep him posted on these dreams, which continue throughout the month of March, stopping abruptly on April second. By this time, the professor has established that sensitive people throughout the world have been having these dreams, though not often ordinary people or scientists. It is as if some psychic presence is making itself felt on those more equipped to sense it.

Our protagonist then follows his great-uncle back to 1908, to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. There a New Orleans policeman presents a small statue made of odd material to the consideration of the assembled academics. They pass it around, trying and failing to guess where it might have come from. The figure itself is remarkably like what Professor Angell would later see on the bas-relief—a creature compounded of a dragon, a man, and an octopus, though far more alien and dreadful than any of these.

One anthropologist discloses that he has seen a figure very like this on an idol he found in West Greenland. It seems there was an evil cult within a certain tribe of that region, long feared by the other native peoples. He recorded their rites, from human sacrifice to certain strange ceremonies passed down over generations. Though it was difficult to record the words of this dark liturgy in Roman characters, he did manage to take down one phrase which startled the Louisiana detective, who had heard the same thing chanted in the swamps of his own region.

                “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Prompted by the others, the Inspector—Legrasse was his name—offers the translation given to him by one of his prisoners: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Following this revelation, Legrasse recounts his story of an expedition into the swamps of Louisiana to arrest the members of a voodoo cult accused of kidnapping and murder. In the depths of the bayous, close to an evil lake where monsters resided, they came across a dreadful ceremony. Devotees danced around a circular bonfire, in the center of which was the idol. Around them were hung the bodies of those they had stolen, and as they chanted strange words, it seemed inhuman mouths chanted back. The raid was largely successful, and the captured members of that cult describe to him a religion far darker than voodoo.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

This terrifying picture points to beings from beyond this world, strangers to the earth and humanity. These being, worshipped as gods, were beyond death, still capable of psychically influencing living men. Chained in some inexplicable manner by the movements of the stars—a force greater even than them—they would one day be liberated with the aid of their dark priest Cthulhu, and the undying cult that served him.

This is a radical recontextualization of religion. Gods worshipped by ancient cults are revealed to be nothing more than powerful beings from beyond the little realm which is familiar to us. Though subject to other forces in the universe, they are immeasurably greater than man, influencing him in ways his primitive science cannot begin to fathom. Though they bear no kinship to man, and their purposes are utterly different from our own, mankind still worships them as gods, still renders them religious devotion and unflinching service.

On the one hand, this is a radical demythologizing of religion. Rather than being a way of life inspired by an encounter with the truly transcendent, it is merely the superstitious worship of a stronger creature by a weaker, either ignorant of the danger the greater being presents, or out of a quite probably vain hope that useful creatures will be allowed to live. In the same way that man worships Cthulhu, dogs might worship men, and ants might worship dogs. This is no elevated contact with the Creator of the universe, no insight into the meaning of existence, the purpose of life. This is a move of self-preservation on the part of inferior life-form afraid of a superior one.

But just as it takes religion out of the context of the truly supernatural, it places it in the context of a new mythology. This world is once again a realm where all beings struggle to survive, often against each other. There is no transcendent judge, no transcendent standard of justice which might survive the brief life of humans on this planet. But there is delusion, a sort of ignorance and superstition trying to curry favor with what mankind fears and cannot understand. That is religion in The Call of Cthulhu—a lie inspired by fear.

But Lovecraft does not set forth some heroic alternative. There is no optimism in his world, no redemption from the terrifying vistas that surrounded a humanity beleaguered by monsters on this little island in the void. No, while he might look down the Eskimos and “mixed-blooded” cultists of the Louisiana swamps, he cannot exactly propose an alternative to their superstition—other than ignorance.

“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.”

In some ways, Lovecraft is the Calvinist of materialism. He does not promise that our own effort can save us, does not allow that the human spirit might be capable of dealing with the darkness in the world. No, instead he offers us the hard truth. Regardless of what we wish, the universe is what it is. It is not centered on us, does not take into account the feelings or petty presumptions of mankind. It is far vaster than the little patch we live in, and the rules of its operation are merciless and without exception. Of course, unlike the Calvinist, Lovecraft offers no salvation. There is no election in his world, and the ironclad laws have nothing to do with standards of behavior, only the grinding of eons and great forces against the thin edifice of our existence.

The Call of Cthulhu is a profound tale skillfully told. The masterful way Lovecraft layers and interweaves the narratives of our protagonist, his great-uncle, the artist, the anthropologist, the inspector, and others, keeps the reader constantly off-balance, switching from one view to another. But always those multiple views are driving at the same chain of evidence, towards the same inevitable conclusion. It builds from abstract philosophizing and the quiet dealings of an inheritor with the estate of a relative, up through rising action, from nightmares, and then a chilling police raid, and ultimately to a terrifying encounter with a monster on the edge of reality. It is no wonder this quiet New England writer has had the impact he did.

Christians would do well to learn from this insight into one potential materialist worldview. From this perspective we can see why some atheists find it so easy to dismiss believers, to simply not engage with the questions or ideas that Christians or other religious people have to offer. Confronted with such a view of the world, how could you not desire to drown your own fear of the uncaring universe, of the ultimate void, in easy ignorance and self-deception? To such a person, religion looks childish, the inability of weak people to confront reality like an adult. Have not many Calvinists treated broader, softer evangelicalism in much the same way?

Still, it is critical to keep in mind that this view does not represent the attitude of all who subscribe to a naturalist and evolutionary view of the universe. It is far different than the optimism of much of mainstream popular culture—utterly different from the sunny progressivism of Star Trek or the X-Men. The X-Files unmistakably fit in this scientific and Darwinian milieu, but is infinitely more hopeful, and far more human. Even the first season of True Detective, a show that confronts these themes more powerfully and directly than most, ultimately ends with a note of redemption and humanistic optimism utterly absent from The Call of Cthulhu. And as a result, all of these can have a far different perspective on the meaning of religion, and its place in society.

The Call of Cthulhu is a startlingly clear example of why I believe this project is important, why Christians need to examine deeply the stories told by those who hold to different worldviews. Not only can we gain a greater understanding of those people, and a greater sympathy—something essential to an evangelical attitude—but we can also gain a greater understanding of how stories reflect the deepest and most profound beliefs and longings of a culture.

Here we see the terror of certain understandings of reality, but also the refusal to ever actually give in to reassuring lies. There is a profound maturity, a profound adultishness present in this confrontation with the indifference of the cosmos. But in that terror and maturity we also see the love of something else, of a world that man can be at home in. In that longing for a world that Lovecraft believes does not exist, we see the incredible meaning and power of the Christian Gospel. If it is in fact true that a Creator does exist, and if it is in fact true that man is his special creation, and that all the suffering in the world is ultimately to be destroyed and all that is good is ultimately to be redeemed—that is a far more profound and joyous Gospel in light of such a dark alternative. If that is the case, then we ought to value our faith all the more—and we should also be more conscious of the value it might have for others.

Of course, all this is under the assumption that our faith does in fact conform with reality, that we are not just trembling ants grasping superstitiously at whatever might deliver us from the terrifying world round about. And to justify that assumption, we have to be willing to honestly confront the questions that trouble both us and our neighbors. Naturalism and Darwinism are not competitors to be shouted down—they are questions that must be answered. If we are right to offer the answers we do, then we must know how those answers address the questions—and we must not be afraid to ask the questions.

Of course, not every person has time to mire themselves in a thousand scientific, metaphysical, and exegetical issues. But as a community, as Christ’s body, we cannot stifle such discussions. Some among us must actually be willing to sincerely engage in them, to think and write and speak about them. We cannot all be philosophers, apologists, and theologians, but we are, as a community, called to be salt and light. Some among us must deal with them.

So, as someone interested in stories, I offer this investigation. If we delve deep into the mythology of the society we are a part of, we can learn what their concerns are, see the things they hold dear and the questions they struggle to answer. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way forward in our cultural engagement, either as apologists and evangelists, or else as storytellers in our own right. If The Call of Cthulhu is the product of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, then what is the product of a writer who sincerely believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There are few riddles more worth answering.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”

 

Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”

Marvel, the Gods, and Atheism

Marvel has a tense theology. Let’s lay some quick groundwork before tackling it.

One of the fundamental principles of classical monotheism is the Creator-creature distinction. Imagine a bubble. Inside is all of time and space from beginning to end. At one end of the bubble is the first domino ever knocked over, and all of reality ripples out from that first action, that first moment of creation.

Now, standing outside the bubble, outside of time and space and the chain of causality and reality as we can understand it, is the Creator. The Creator caused everything else to exist, and caused it to exist in the way it exists. But the Creator himself stands outside of that bubble of spacetime. Nothing made him exist. He just exists because that is what he does. He is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. Among other things.

In a monotheistic universe, all of reality is shaped by the personality and by the will of the Creator. To a very great extent, everything is just mimicking what Dad does. Each thing’s meaning is defined by the meaning he gave it, and its purpose by the intensions he has for it. And because he authored it all, he has authority over it.

In the Marvel universe, and in the imagination of those who deny any such being standing outside and independent of spacetime, this is not so. Puny mortals, superheroes, and gods all exist on a spectrum. There is no fundamental distinction between them.

Take Spiderman. Spiderman has superhuman sense, superhuman reflexes, and cool web-shooters. Your average Joe might be tempted to think his powers were supernatural, even godlike. But set him next to Thor, and there’s no comparison. Thor’s got mojo. He is so clearly godlike in comparison to Peter Parker, earthlings actually worship him. But set him next to Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), and again, there’s no comparison. So what if Thor is really strong and can fly? So what if he apparently lives for eons? Phoenix is more powerful than death itself. She controls space, she controls time, and she controls the thoughts inside a person’s mind, given a good excuse. Can most of the gods of classical paganism claim that?

And that’s why Joss Whedon’s refusal to let the Avengers bow before Loki makes sense. Sure, he’s a “god,” relatively speaking. He’s got oomph. He has power. But fundamentally he’s no different than any other creature zooming around the Marvel universe. Under the right set of circumstances, he can have all that taken away. Under the right set of circumstances—say, acquiring the Infinity Gauntlet—a puny human as klutzy and awkward and harebrained as Peter Quill might become top dog in the universe. The difference between one Marvel character and another is just degrees of power, which can be won or lost. There’s no real difference in kind.

And that’s why Captain America’s offhand remark that there’s only one God is such a big freaking deal. Perhaps Joss and the producers meant it as an offhand funny remark from a charmingly out-of-date super-patriot, but it has major implications. If Captain America believes that there is still a real God, a transcendent God, someone who stands outside of the bubble and stands as Lord of the whole shebang and judge of the actions of the Avengers and those around them—that changes everything.

In a world where the chain of being is all there is, there’s no reason for Iron Man or Thor or anybody else not to play with morality. There’s no reason they shouldn’t cross a line to get things done, let a few people die in order to save the world. Break a few eggs to make an omelet. The ends justify the means. It all comes down to what you think the greater good is and what you think you can get away with. Besides, if the other guy is bigger than you, and you let something as petty as your qualms about personal freedoms, or the sanctity of life, or whatever else get in your way, you’re going to regret it. There’s no room for that in the big leagues.

But if there is a just God standing outside of that chain of being, then you might be held accountable to him. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. Superheroes do not get a blank check and a free pass when they run around destroying cities or overthrowing democratically elected governments. There is a judge who will see justice done in the long run, and you are not him. And you might guess where I’m going with this.

Marvel’s Civil War plotline is ultimately about this question. In the grand scheme of things, are there limits to the authority of the guys with the supersuits and magic powers? Are they to be held to the standards of common mortals? Is there a God standing outside the universe who presides over the destinies of planets and the fates of the Avengers, or is it all a conflict between different degrees of power in a mechanistic cosmos? If the former, let’s put some brakes on Tony Stark. If the latter… maybe we leave the tough calls up to him. After all, he’s bigger.

Before I bring this in for a landing, let’s bring in another fictional universe. This is why H.P. Lovecraft, the materialist par excellence, is so comfortable with a universe filled with so many gods. The line between atheism and polytheism isn’t one that separates two fundamentally different mythologies. It’s just a question of terminology. If you believe that the world is one vast uncaring void, then maybe some small creatures the universe doesn’t care about worship other, larger creatures the universe also doesn’t care about. The gods of a polytheistic universe aren’t deities in any ultimate or transcendent sense, but they sure do look like it compared to the ants walking around beneath them. The Christian—or Muslim, or Jewish—disbelief in the gods of polytheism is simply nothing like the atheist’s or some polytheists’ disbelief in the Creator God.

And that is why Captain America can still not believe in pagan gods, even after hanging out with one.