Lovecraft, Cyclonopedia and Materialist Horror

Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (re.press, 2008) – a sprawling, schizoid meditation on oil, war, religion and the occult in the ancient and present-day Middle East – continues a tradition of ‘cosmic horror’ pioneered by the American ‘pulp’ writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and still best known to us from his many short stories, poems and novellas. Apart from the numerous direct references to Lovecraft and his so-called Cthulhu mythos in Negarestani’s philosophy-fiction, an implicit link exists between the two writers in their shared anti-humanism and decidedly objective, materialist approach to horror. For Negarestani, this is manifested in the Middle East as a living, sentient entity, but not in any spiritual or poetic sense: the region’s fundamental ideology is not mystical or even really occult in nature but “fanatically Tiamaterialist”. This is further entrenched by his development of a “blobjective” philosophy, which is to say, an ethics and ontology from the unique perspective of oil (“the blob”). But let us first examine how a similar philosophy emerged in Lovecraft’s uniquely hyperbolic brand of despair.

I. Lovecraft Will Tear Us Apart

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a man with a view of the universe that is almost unrivalled for sheer bleakness in Western fiction (although, as we shall see, certain disturbing currents in modern Iranian thought certainly give him a run for his money). From his ambiguously privileged vantage point, everything we do – individually or as a species – is pointless because we are pointless and the universe at large is utterly indifferent to our existence. Many commentators have pointed out that Lovecraft’s horror comes straight from a howling, primal fear and that fear’s manifestation as paranoia, but the paranoia here is not of the ordinary kind. Classic paranoia demands the existence of grand conspiracies, and of an object of these conspiracies which is identified with the subject of the paranoia. This form of delusion, as crippling as it may be to those who experience it, seems almost comforting next to Lovecraftian paranoia, which derives from the conviction that unimaginable cosmic forces are at work in the world and that they are not so much hostile to us – although it can seem that way from our limited, partisan perspective – as simply indifferent to us. To assume otherwise would be to assign our species an importance it most surely does not warrant in Lovecraft’s loveless universe. Hate is the flipside of love and the Great Old Ones do not ‘hate’ humanity any more than a man ‘hates’ a gnat he idly swats without even thinking about it. We are just not worth hating.

Michel Houellebecq explores this theme extensively in his masterful Lovecraft treatise, Against the World, Against Life. He points out that Lovecraft’s general disdain for and retreat from the material world and everyday life is an inheritance from his Puritan forebears, for whom physical reality generally was the Devil’s own domain; but while they at least consoled themselves with the delusion of eternal reward in the next life, there was no such spiritual security blanket for poor Howard P. A related paradox emerges from his ambivalent position with respect to Enlightenment values. An avowed atheist, he took absolutely to heart the discoveries of Copernicus, Cuvier, Darwin and (in his own lifetime) Hubble, which progressively decentred humanity from its perceived place in both space and time and did so much to undermine the notion of a Creator with a special place for us in His great Plan. But at the same time, core Enlightenment creeds such as personal freedom, self-determination and democracy – social ‘progress’ as a whole, in other words – evoked nothing but sardonic derision from him. As far as Lovecraft was concerned, Western civilisation was better off in the Middle Ages; we may have been ignorant and deceived, but at least we thought we had a meaningful place in the universe when the serf unquestioningly obeyed his earthly lord in echo of society’s obedience to its greater Lord, and before the sciences began to hint at the appalling scale and age of the cosmos.1)

But for Lovecraft, notions such as democracy were if anything an even graver and more ridiculous self-delusion than theism: “The word ‘freedom’, so cherished by Americans, prompted [from Lovecraft] only a sad, derisive guffaw”.2) This comes directly from his rabid cultural, intellectual and of course racial supremacism – the latter no doubt fuelled in part by the ‘scientific’ racism fashionable in his day, derived from a misinterpretation of that great 19th-century deicide, Charles Darwin, and used to justify imperialism and colonialism around the world. White, upper-class, English-speaking humanity may have represented the pinnacle of our species’ biological and cultural evolution, but that wouldn’t save it; for Lovecraft, it merely allowed it to serve as the perfect victim, whether for nameless extraterrestrial entities in his fiction or for the ‘lower’ races of humanity in his view of the real world. (See Houellebecq for an excellent analysis of this facet of Lovecraft’s psychological make-up, especially in regard to the two years he spent in a poor, ethnically heterogeneous neighbourhood in New York and the effect this experience had on his outlook.)

As Houellebecq points out, Lovecraft resolutely ignores two phenomena to which most people attach a great deal of importance: sex and money. This is because he personally had no interest in either and felt that neither had any place in art – they were base, vulgar things, the first of which is not worth writing about since it is a drive and function mankind shares with every other animal species, while the latter is the domain of bankers, economists and accountants: men who could hardly be further removed from the rarefied, ethereal world of poets and artists. This opens up a third apparent paradox in Lovecraft: he was avowedly opposed to all forms of “realism” in literature (which is to say, literature in which characters possess sex drives and bank accounts) but at the same time was obsessed with the idea of producing the horror reflex in his readers by showing them a slice, albeit a tiny one, of ‘ultimate reality’. It is always this glimpse of “terrifying vistas of reality”, as the famous opening paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu puts it, that leads to the downfall of his characters. The paradox is resolved by appreciating simply that the “realism” of the authors sneered at by Lovecraft is realism only inasmuch as it applies to human life on Earth in the present day as it is experienced by most people, with all its travails, loves, wars, temporary victories and petty defeats. He was interested in capital-‘R’ Reality, and humdrum “realism” has as much to do with Reality as an accurate description of a swallows’ nest has to do with the dark, limitless forest that surrounds it on all sides. It was with the objective, unflinching description of that forest that Lovecraft chose to evoke his cosmic horror – as Houellebecq puts it, “by introducing materialism into the heart of fear and fantasy, [he] created a new genre…there exists no horror less psychological, less debatable“. In light of Lovecraft’s radically anti-anthropocentric cosmology, Blake’s assertion that:

If the Doors of Perceptions were cleansed, every thing would appear as it is, infinite

takes on a potentially troubling new meaning. Who among us, who are typically struck dumb by something as manifestly finite and rationally comprehensible as the ocean or a mountain range, could honestly countenance the ‘infinite’ and retain the slightest shred of sanity?

While Lovecraft’s earlier poems and stories bear the unmistakable imprint of the more mystically - or spiritually-minded authors he admired – Edgar Allen Poe first and foremost, but also Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James and R. W. Chambers – it is in the longer stories and novellas written from 1926 onwards that we see the emergence of a rigorously materialist worldview. These are what Houellebecq calls the “Great Texts”, written after the author’s nightmarish sojourn in the great metropolis, and are the most explicitly science-fictional (as opposed to ‘Gothic’ or ‘supernatural’) of his writings. Here the Old Ones are revealed not as demons or malignant deities, as they appear in the earlier ‘Dreamlands’ cycle, but as extra-terrestrials. Some, such as the titular being in The Call of Cthulhu, appear to be made of some form of matter radically different from the atoms that compose our fragile world, but matter nonetheless;3) others, such as Yog-Sothoth, are perhaps better understood as a sentient, omnipresent force or energy field of some kind. Azathoth, the “daemon sultan” that “bubbles and blasphemes at the centre of infinity” surrounded by an endlessly circling procession of mindless, flopping entities, could almost be a supermassive black hole at the heart of a quasar, complete with accretion disc…

But it is foolish to try too hard to fathom exactly what the Old Ones ‘are’, since by their very (un)nature they exist on a plane of being far outside human understanding, and even to glimpse them directly leads ineluctably to insanity, death or worse. However, it may be instructive to look at some of the themes and concepts used by Lovecraft in these texts, which spring mainly from science and especially from theoretical advances and empirical discoveries that were at the cutting edge when the stories were written. For a start, developments in palaeontology such as the theory of plate tectonics furnished Lovecraft with a hideously ancient Earth, which allowed him to cast humanity as a very recent – and, accordingly, transient – phenomenon in a universe that had existed for countless aeons before our earliest grandapes came down from the trees and will still exist long after we are gone, seething with unguessable intelligences that will know little and care less about our fleeting existence.4)) These themes are explored best in stories such as The Shadow out of Time and At the Mountains of Madness, which develop the idea that extra-terrestrial beings of advanced intellect and technology colonised our planet in the deep geological past, and in fact foreshadow the ‘ancient astronauts’ hypothesis promulgated in the 1970s by Erich von Däniken.5)

Another Lovecraftian touchstone, non-Euclidean geometry, forms the mathematical basis of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published when Lovecraft was 25. It is surely relativity and the field of physical cosmology as a whole that inform Lovecraft’s obsession with different ‘spheres’ of space and time and provided such fertile ground for his paranoid imagination. The then-fledgling theory of quantum mechanics and the ghostly emanations of radioactive materials and x-ray tubes all find their place in Lovecraft’s stories, while the arcane tools and machines displayed to such sinister effect by Nyarlathotep6) are thought to have been directly inspired by a demonstration of Nikola Tesla’s spectacular electrical devices that Lovecraft personally witnessed as a young man (and which, to the devotee of Gothic fiction, must have seemed to spring straight from the pages of Frankenstein). The distant ‘spiral nebulae’, now known to be galaxies like our own, frequently appear in his fiction, and the discovery of Pluto in 1930 is ingeniously woven into the plot of The Whisperer in Darkness, set in the late ‘20s and published in ‘31. It is tantalising to speculate as to what Lovecraft would have made of certain concepts from modern cosmology and theoretical physics, which describe the very fabric of reality itself in terms of parallel universes, shadowy ‘hidden variables’, extra dimensions and tortuously ‘compactified’ spaces with exotic topologies:

[n]ot in the spaces we know, but between them, [the Old Ones] walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.7) (emphasis mine).

Finally, this obsession with ‘weird reality’ breaks free from physics altogether and finds expression in metaphysics and mathematics (see Dreams in the Witch House (1932/33), for example). Even the laws of geometry aren’t safe from the Old Ones’ relentless attack on our tiny, familiar slice of reality. The Call of Cthulhu contains perhaps Lovecraft’s best-known evocation of ‘non-Euclidean geometry’ in the ancient alien city of R’lyeh, which is full of angles that are “all wrong”, that appear acute but behave as though obtuse; one hapless man falls through a gap which “shouldn’t have been there” at all. One is unavoidably reminded of the fascinating ‘impossible figures’ beloved of the surrealist artist M. C. Escher. One of the co-discoverers of non-Euclidean geometry, the Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai (1802-1860), received the following fantastically Lovecraftian advice in a letter from his father, Farkas Bolyai, who’d instructed him in mathematics and had attempted the same problem:

You must not attempt this approach to parallels. I know this way to its very end. I have traversed this bottomless night, which extinguished all light and joy from my life. I entreat you, leave the science of parallels alone…I thought I would sacrifice myself for the sake of the truth. I was ready to become a martyr who would remove the flaw from geometry and return it purified to mankind. I accomplished monstrous, enormous labours; my creations are far better than those of others and yet I have not achieved complete satisfaction. For here it is true that si paullum a summo discessit, vergit ad imum.8) I turned back when I saw that no man can reach the bottom of this night. I turned back unconsoled, pitying myself and all mankind … I have travelled past all reefs of this infernal Dead Sea and have always come back with broken mast and torn sail. The ruin of my disposition and my fall date back to this time. I thoughtlessly risked my life and happiness — aut Caesar aut nihil.9)

And beyond geometry, it’s quite likely, given Lovecraft’s erudite interests in intellectual developments of the day, that he was aware of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931). If the Devil is in the detail, where better for Cthulhu to lurk than in the gaping chasm at the heart of logic itself?

Another philosophical influence – that of the doyen of antitheists, Friedrich Nietzsche10) – shows through strongly in this passage from The Call of Cthulhu:

The time [for Cthulhu’s resurrection] would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; wild and free and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals all thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame in a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.” (emphasis mine)
Nothing is true; everything is permitted.11)
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.12)

But we should not get distracted. Metaphysical terrors take a back seat to sheer physical horror in all of Lovecraft’s best writing. In many of his most celebrated passages the emotion that is evoked most strongly is not even fear per se but revulsion. There is always a hideous miasmic stench, there are always gruesome bioluminescent fungi and nameless slithering invertebrates; traditional horror tropes such as blood and bones are generally eschewed in favour of the ubiquitous slime. The very quantity of ectoplasm, mucus and miscellaneous snot in these stories is startling, before we even consider the stream of adjectives describing them, which gush from the author’s pen like the issue of a gangrenous sore. Perhaps the most evocative description of fleshly mortification is that suffered by the unfortunate Gardner family in The Colour out of Space (1927), who are not so much bodily consumed or even possessed by the sinister entity as they are parasitized and drained by it, reminding one of a hapless insect falling victim to an ichneumon wasp or predatory fungus. This is supreme science-fiction body-horror to rival even the psychosexual nightmare of the Alien films – the entomo-reptilian monster that stars therein having been created, of course, by the Swiss visionary artist and Lovecraft devotee, H. R. Giger.

II. Eye of the Cyclone

A comparable fate seems to befall Hamid Parsani, the fictional Iranian archaeologist in Cyclonopedia. After coming into possession of a mediaeval relic associated with an obscure pre-Islamic Persian cult, he begins to suffer from a leprous skin condition and a concurrent worsening of his already somewhat febrile mental state. Shortly before his final disappearance, one of his friends evocatively describes him as “a bulging syphilitic brain with a pink leech dangling at the root of it”.

Disease also plays a prominent role in Lovecraft’s evocations of horror, as does the trope of the hereditary curse; his biographers have often connected this to his father’s early death following a protracted mental illness which was almost certainly due to syphilis (compare Parsani’s mental and physical deterioration). Lovecraft’s mother also died mad, and the shadowy presences she claimed to see out of the corner of her eye may have directly inspired the hideous, pathogenic ‘Colour’. Pathogens both organic and otherwise thoroughly infest Cyclonopedia: notes in the text hint darkly at “inorganic demons” and the “price” they inevitably extract from humans who use them. Negarestani’s demons are resolutely non-spiritual in nature; they drift through space in the form of dust, buffeted by solar winds and guided by the geomagnetic field until they are absorbed into the atmosphere; they lurk in the soil in the form of bacterial spores and, most potently of all, beneath the soil and bedrock as the valuable, treacherous black ooze which seeps through the Middle East’s pores, spreading corruption, fanaticism and jihad wherever it goes.

Themes of objectivity and materialism, and a general sense of anti-anthropocentrism, are maintained throughout Cyclonopedia by the (ab)use of concepts from a variety of scientific and mathematical disciplines. A lengthy chapter describes the complex interaction of the solar and Tellurian magnetic fields, developing these into a twisted sadomasochistic vision of the relationship between the two bodies. An earlier section clearly fetishises the language of topology and cackles gleefully about the effects of burrowing creatures such as rats and worms in “radically ungrounding” the solid earth by turning it into a Swiss cheese of tunnels and fissures. The transition from whole to hole results from the efforts of burrowing agents to degrade the Earth, maximising its entropy and thereby bringing about the return of the Old Ones, representing heat death, or thermodynamic Apocalypse. Divine creation is subverted by diabolical “leper creativity”, as Parsani discovers, which again evokes the image of entropy: “fertility in terms of mess can only ‘get messier’”, Negarestani tells us in a chapter on dust and “Dustism”: the middle-eastern doctrine which “inspires a radical and concrete approach to the Outside”. What, after all, is concrete made of but dust?

A motif found in both Lovecraft and Negarestani that even further removes humanity from the central narrative frame is the idea that a land or location can be inherently cursed or diabolical entirely independently of the people who live or lived there. In Lovecraft this is embodied in the nameless and desolate spots where the Old Ones “broke through of old and where They shall break through again13) as the fabled Necronomicon puts it; for Negarestani, it is the oil-drenched and war-torn Middle East as a whole. Incidentally, William Burroughs thought much the same thing about the Americas:

Illinois and Missouri, miasma of mound-building peoples, groveling worship of the Food Source, cruel and ugly festivals, dead-end horror of the Centipede God reaches from Moundville to the lunar deserts of coastal Peru. America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.14)

Apart from Parsani, observations on the modern-day Middle East are also made by a reflective, deserting American colonel named Jackson West (geddit?), whose role in the drama is undeniably reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. In fact if any land is as blasted and inherently hostile to human sanity as Negarestani’s Middle East, it is surely Coppola’s Vietnam or Konrad’s Congo. The eye of this cyclone is a heart of oily darkness.

For Negarestani, violence and treachery are inextricably linked to alchemical, or even straightforwardly chemical, properties. Just as oil, the “resident Outsider” – an alien and unfathomable essence that by rights does not belong here at all – spreads corruption and decay through the Earth’s crust and secretly infects capitalist societies with jihad via pipeline and tanker, so the Old Ones have imbued the very physical stuff of our world with their blasphemous presence: “the wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness”, the Necronomicon reassuringly tells us. Again, it is important not to mistake this sentiment for anything as wishy-washy as spiritualism, even of the most diabolical kind; the Old Ones, like Cyclo‘s ancient Semitic war gods and demons of pestilence, are disincarnate in the same sense that a magnetic or gravitational field is disincarnate. We usually cannot see or hear them, but they are present nonetheless, and their nefarious influence is manifested again and again in unpredictable but unmistakable incursions into our precarious human world, our “guarded threshold”.

In Cyclonopedia, a whole array of seemingly ‘natural’ phenomena are revealed as the avatars or eldritch weapons of War itself. Dust, fog and mist pervade the battlefield, reducing visibility and spreading confusion; sand particles blown by high winds erode human structures, burying cities in the ever-encroaching desert and effecting daemonic communication just as they disrupt and scramble human communications. Negarestani reveals the author of the fabled Necronomicon, the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul al-Hazred, to have been a rammal, or ‘sand-sorcerer’: an adept in the art of Rammalie, or “communication with other worlds and aeons through the patterns on pebbles and desert sand15). The image of dust-laden storms and vortices of swirling winds, carrying alien (“xenobacterial”) information and influences into the human sphere, is an evocative and disquieting one from which the modern-day grimoire’s title derives. Its subtitle, “Complicity with Anonymous Materials”, refers to the infernal black ooze that permeates the book as it permeates the Middle East; it is the interaction of dust with oil – a heretical take on Aristotle’s elemental Earth and Water – that creates the primordial entropic mess of disease and disorder, “till out of corruption horrid Life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it16). Here Negarestani directly quotes Lovecraft in one of several explicit links between these two cacklingly pathological cosmologies.

The idea of anonymity or namelessness is reinforced in Cyclo‘s fascinating prologue, written by the American artist Kristen Alvanson who also illustrates the book. In it she flies from New York to Istanbul to meet a pseudonymous online acquaintance who never shows up, but books herself into the hotel he has recommended all the same. It is here that she finds a manuscript for a bizarre book – the main text of Cyclonopedia itself – along with several other clues, and discovers online that the manuscript’s author is an Iranian academic who has recently disappeared.17) The whole sequence is written from the point of view of someone not knowing really where or when is; obscure peregrinations about the nature of the flow of time in hotel rooms provide a postmodern counterpart to Lovecraft’s modernist musings on Einsteinian relativity. In a haze of heat, ennui and prescription tranquilizers, Alvanson has an autoerotic episode in which, perhaps half-dreaming, she has “repeated visions of being XXXed” and claims that it’s “not like making out with spirits” so much as a union with something that has “stripped itself of body in order to be a better subject of penetration, to be obscenely deeper” – again, the merely spiritual interpretation is denied in favour of something that is physical, albeit in a subtle and indescribable way. The section is cryptically titled ‘Incognitum Hactenus’, which is ‘explained’ later by Negarestani in the main text:

Incognitum Hactenus – not known yet or nameless and without origin until now – is a mode of time in which the innermost monstrosities of the earth or ungraspable time scales can emerge according to chronological time…In Incognitum Hactenus, you never know the pattern of emergence. Anything can happen for some weird reason; yet also, without any reason, nothing at all can happen. Things leak into each other according to a logic that does not belong to us and cannot be correlated to our chronological time

The particular horrific potential of Time itself is used extensively by Negarestani. In the chapter on “Dustism” he declares “It is dust that harbours the ancient without tradition, or ultra-modern ancientness” (emphasis mine) – anything that hails from abysmal depths of Time but has no human tradition attached to it is by nature horrifying. Lovecraft uses similar themes extensively, although here it is the simple magnitude of great age that is evoked for horrific effect – see, for example, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, in which the sheer ancientness of Egypt becomes, for the author, a source of transcendental terror. In Cyclonopedia, one chapter centres on the ‘Lamassu’, the war demon invoked by the Assyrians in what Negarestani calls the “Axis of Evil-against-Evil”. This five-legged bull-sphinx or centaur is described as an “occult-drone” in language seemingly more suited to the specification of some cutting-edge autonomous mechanised weapon. Unmanned drones of the sort used against the Taliban are described elsewhere in the book as “mechanical dread”; the language linking these devices to the Lamassu evokes exactly this “ultra-modern ancientness”. Elsewhere, dust and spores are described as “weapons-grade relics”, again combining the terminology of modern warfare (“weapons-grade” usually refers to the uranium or plutonium used in nuclear bombs) with the language of ancient magic, superstition and diabolical guardians.

Yet again, there is that fanatical anti-humanism; time scales are “ungraspable” because of their sheer geological or cosmological magnitude, and we encounter the “innermost monstrosities of the earth” that lurk down there, below the deepest mine shafts and boreholes. One is reminded of perhaps the only 20th century author to have created a fantasy universe with more widespread lasting appeal than Lovecraft, his brother in anti-modernism (if not in faith), J. R. R. Tolkien:

Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the World is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he…18)

The idea of “nameless things” gnawing or scratching at the very roots of the world is found throughout Indo-European mythology, and could well have been a major inspiration for Lovecraft as well as Tolkien. Negarestani has fastened onto much the same concept, except in his case we are dealing with something that is not merely nameless but actually formless: an inchoate substance upon which the entire global economy depends and whose supposedly organic, terrestrial origins Negarestani calls disturbingly into question. This is expounded in an early chapter which lists eleven possible “avatars of Oil”; perhaps the most striking is named “The Nether Blob” and is based on Thomas Gold’s hypothesis of the ‘Deep Hot Biosphere’. In this conception of oil’s Hadean origins, microbes – specifically, “primordial interstellar bacteria” – live in vast colonies deep within the Earth, excreting oil as a by-product of their obscure metabolic processes in a renewable and perhaps inexhaustible fashion. Here we have a biosphere entirely independent of the Sun and all so-called “Solar Capitalism” or “Solar Empire”; this motif of a black or rotting Sun deep within the Earth forms an important theme in later chapters. These bacterial colonies, assuming they really do predate the formation of the Earth itself, are unavoidably connected to the “Outside” – Negarestani’s catch-all term for that overwhelmingly vast sector of existence and process “delineated not by distance or region but by its exterior functionality of activity”. (This is effectively identical to Lovecraft’s conception of “ultimate reality”, to steal even the smallest glimpse of which is to risk madness and death.) Oil, in this case, plays the role of the “resident Outsider”; a “xenochemical” intruder that has become an “Insider” by virtue of its insinuation into the Earth’s inner regions. Taking a slightly more standard stance on the origins of fossil fuels, another avatar is described as “Hydrocarbon Corpse Juice: A post-apocalyptic entity composed of organic corpses flattened, piled up and liquidated in sedimentary basins (mega-graveyards)” – which, while not incompatible with the standard natural history of petrochemicals, is certainly a new way of putting it.

The flammable nature of oil and its byproducts is explored extensively in a linguistic analysis of the Avestan (old Persian) word “tafnu”, “fever”, and especially “tafnu tefno tema” or “the fever of fevers”, “an irrepressible malady [that] can blight both man and the earth” described in the Vendidad (book of “anti-demon laws”). Negarestani links tafnu with naft or naphta, the Farsi and Arabic word for oil itself. The connection is made via a third word, “taft”, which means “to burn slowly” and is linked also to the idea of incomplete burning, of combustion that doesn’t reduce the burnt object entirely to ashes but leaves a twisted, blackened residue. Negarestani even considers the similarity of taft to haft, the old Persian word for the number seven, and (perhaps a little spuriously) connects this to the Sun via Sunday, the seventh day of the week. As an aside, this convoluted chain of inferences and hints gives some idea of the labyrinthine structure of Cyclonopedia, the verbal and conceptual chaos out of which the author carefully allows threads of disturbing order to be drawn. “For every inconsistency on the surface, there is a subterranean consistency” – Negarestani’s maxim from the chapter on burrowing and topology could equally well apply to the book as a whole.

Dust, Oil’s elemental partner in Negarestani’s heretical cosmology, also plays the role of the “resident Outsider”. “As an inter-dimensional carrier, dust scavenges xenochemical particles (outsiders) as its cores or constituents, introduces and implants them into compositions, creations and establishments.” Solid objects created from dust, such as brick- or stone-built structures and even the human body in the standard Torahnic/Biblical/Qur’anic19) account of Creation, therefore include these “xenochemical particles” as an integral part of their makeup. This allows “the arrival of the alien not from without but from within” – fans of sci-fi horror should need no further clues to conjure up a satisfyingly gruesome cinematic image from this sentence. Parsani is attributed with the marvellous quotation: “Turning into dust is a sweeping tellurian event, an event operating in favour of the dormant, the Insider, the slumbering” – Great Cthulhu may be wet and slimy rather than dry and dusty, but he too is slumbering, dormant yet potent (“dead but dreaming”), the Outsider that became an Insider for the purpose of infiltrating the unlucky Earth.

It is not just on the microscopic (bacterial, viral, molecular) and megascopic (geological, astrophysical) scales that Negarestani weaves his themes of horror. Some of the most affecting passages in Cyclo describe occult practices that revolve primarily around the human body and a variety of unnatural processes that can be imposed on it; mutilation, cannibalism, autophagy and (auto-)sodomy are all used to subvert God’s20) “pro-creationist agenda” through the creation of perverted new forms of being – “till out of corruption horrid Life springs” – with scabs and scar tissue that have resulted from self-inflicted wounds on Ahriman’s21) body giving rise to legions of pestilential followers. This theme is continued in a discussion of pseudo-Jungian archetypes based on E. Elias Merhige’s film Begotten in which a ‘dead’ god is born of a woman (the Earth?) impregnated by the seed of a self-butchered God – identified by Negarestani with the Sun and ‘solar capitalism’ – mutated and horribly deformed, the progeny is an obscene parody of the true solar Logos that shines in space; this mutant-dead-god is identified with the ‘black Sun’ within the Earth itself, blasphemously concealed and making its presence felt through the influence of the hot black ichor that runs through the planet’s veins. The very human and visceral horror of stillbirth, miscarriage and teratology – the mooncalf, the changeling – is used here to evoke cosmic terrors that tug relentlessly at the subconscious and pre-conscious mind; the primal fear of the thing that should not be, an organic residue that would seem to have been cheated of any chance of life but is moving nonetheless.22)

Lovecraft, too, is a masterful evoker of extreme physiological wrongness even when no invasive parasite or pathogen is apparent. Consider the following lines from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward:

Respiration and heart action had a baffling lack of symmetry; the voice was lost, so that no sounds above a whisper were possible; digestion was incredibly prolonged and minimised, and neural reactions to standard stimuli bore no relation at all to anything heretofore recorded, either normal or pathological. The skin had a morbid chill and dryness, and the cellular structure of the tissue seemed exaggeratedly coarse and loosely knit.

Both writers are expert at making the reader feel uncomfortable in their own skin; in Cyclonopedia, the ancient Persian cult leader Akht’s degenerative leprosy from which he draws his sorcerous powers could just as easily have come from one of Lovecraft’s tales of progressive affliction visited on those who’ve had some contact with the Outside, such as the protagonist in The Shadow over Innsmouth. Again and again, it is the brute physicality and objectivity of horror that shines – or violently bursts – through.

III. Diabolical synthesis

Cosmic horror is not like other horror. It is vast in scope – utterly, crushingly vast – and derives its power principally from its impersonality. Lovecraft sums this up perfectly in Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, in which the narrator, lost in chambers of pitch darkness far beneath surface of hoary Egypt, begins to hear certain noises…

In their rhythmic piping, droning, rattling and beating I felt an element of terror beyond all the known terrors of earth – a terror peculiarly dissociated from personal fear, and taking the form of a sort of objective pity for our planet, that it should hold within its depths such horrors…

Here is a very plain and explicit statement of what could be called the central tenet of cosmic horror: “objective pity for our planet” and our species taking over from mere personal fear, or (from the reader’s point of view) fear for the safety of the character or characters in any one particular situation. This goes some way to explain why characters, as such, are so unimportant for Lovecraft; in most of his stories, there is an educated, cultured New England Anglo-Saxon, typically a university professor, student or academic of some kind, who is more or less interchangeable with the equivalent character in any other of his stories and whose main purpose is to provide fodder for the Old Ones or their avatars or progeny. One does not read Lovecraft for the ‘human interest’ angle – ‘inhuman fascination’ might be more apposite here, with ‘fascination’ taken in the sense of a rabbit transfixed by the gaze of a snake: drawn irresistibly to stare at something terrible despite every instinct to turn away and flee.

Great emphasis is likewise place by Negarestani on making ‘fodder’, or “a good meal”, of oneself for the delectation of the Outside. It is not through ritual depravity, degradation or intoxication that diabolical communion is achieved, as it is in Western Satanism (Crowley’s drug-fuelled orgies, for example), but through ironically excessive hygiene and purity, or “rigorous Overhealth”. This is how the ancient cult of Akht-Yatu opened themselves to the Outside: they made themselves into “a good meal” for Druj23), the “Mother of Abominations” or “Dead Mother of Contagions”. And what is Druj, precisely? “[N]ot a deity, [but] a nocturnal tide delineated by its inexhaustible openness to diffuse and pervade everything” – the equivalent role in the Cthulhu mythos is perhaps played by Yog-Sothoth, which is “co-terminus with all time and space”:

Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth…24)

Neither Druj nor Yog-Sothoth is anything as graspable or anthropomorphic as a deity. You can believe or not believe in a deity as you see fit: the entities conjured by both Negarestani and Lovecraft are that much more horrific for being elemental aspects of existence that one cannot escape from or evade any more than one can escape from space or time. Druj in particular presents a very physical threat to God’s creationist order – while dry dust in Zoroastrianism is an object of cleanliness, as soon as it mixes with moisture (“cosmic wetness”: napht, oil) it becomes Drujestan, the “House of Abomination”. This entropic process of mess-creation is diagrammed by the “Wheel of Pestilence”, which includes the self-devouring serpent Ouroboros and, appropriately, bears a notable resemblance to the modern ‘biohazard’ symbol.

Houellebecq’s point that Lovecraft’s stories involve neither sex nor money contrasts interestingly with Cyclonopedia. According to Houellebecq, all attempts to introduce the erotic into the Cthulhu mythos have been abject failures, but Negarestani weaves sexual themes into a number of Cyclonopedia‘s multifarious threads. In fact this isn’t quite true: the emphasis is not even on sex per se but on love. We are introduced to the “jnun”, or female (d)jinn, which act as gates to the Outside – “vulvo-cosmic singularities”, no less. It is through such entities that Abdul al-Hazred communed with “other worlds and aeons” in Rub-al-Khalie25) by becoming a “majnun” (madman), a man possessed by jnun in the sense of a delirious, maddening love. Lilith, Adam’s first wife and the prototype ‘succubus’, is described as the mother of the jnun in Arabic folklore; in Persian mythology, they are the daughters of Jeh or Jahi, the ‘first vampire’ and ‘Mother of Harlots’, Ahriman’s demon daughter spawned from his own mutilated body. Footnotes in the text are addressed by the author to his lover, “Sorceress”, to whom the book is dedicated, and speak of love as a terminal disease, a process from which there is no escape and which is characterised by the utter openness of each lover (“infected one”) to the other and the Outside while they at the same time turn their backs on the mundane world. This terminal or pathological love is described in terms of being burnt up, consumed slowly in fire, bodily engulfed in the sticky flames of petroleum products.

Economics, too, plays a part in Cyclonopedia, albeit in a rather indirect and very abstract way. Wahabbist jihadis are described as “Meccanomists”, constructing their own economic networks and systems in defiance of so-called “solar capitalism”. Ecology is linked to economics, in particular with respect to the “policy of underdevelopment and deliberate impoverishment bound to the exhaustibility of oil fields”, as Negarestani controversially describes fuel conservation measures justified by the so-called “myth of fossil fuels” (Gold’s ‘Deep Hot Biosphere’ again). From the same section – the list of oil’s “avatars” – a supposed anonymous contributor declares:

Petroleum poisons Capitalism with absolute madness…capitalism is not a human symptom but rather a planetary inevitability. In other words, Capitalism was here even before human existence, waiting for a host.

So not only do oil – the unholy lifeblood of the Middle East, and cosmic dust particles – sporulated crypto-demons, come ultimately from the Outside; so too does the economic ideology of the very Western warmachines that are embroiled in unwinnable wars against the “Tiamaterialists” and “Meccanomists”! Well, maybe – the section in question is presented as highly speculative, even within Cyclonopedia/‘s fictional framework. Negarestani elsewhere synthesises his thoughts on economics, alchemy and the environment:

Whereas Venice and its aquatic capitalism are asymptotically converging upon an indifferent nature which is a pit of slime and mold; its dry middle-eastern twin Dubai and its oily capitalism are plunged into the madness of petroleum brewed up by the deep chthonic earth.26)

Really, the ‘sexual’ and ‘economic’ aspects of Negarestani’s philosophy-fiction are so abstracted that they don’t, in any substantial way, contravene Lovecraft’s injunction for the horror writer to avoid realism at all costs. Rather, they refer to cosmic principles, in keeping with the overall theme of objectivity and anti-anthropocentrism.

The blurb for Cyclonopedia describes it as “a middle-eastern Odyssey, populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, corpses of ancient gods and other puppets.” The key word here is the last one. Lovecraft’s hapless humans are likewise puppets – controlled, manipulated and ultimately destroyed by forces they cannot hope to comprehend, let alone resist. For both the paranoiac from Providence and the Iranian polymath, the universe at large is alien, inscrutable and hostile. The best we can hope for is to blinker ourselves and get on with our lives, and not think too hard about the encroaching night.

post scriptum

I think it’s worth saying a few further words about the structure and style of Cyclonopedia, in addition to its contents and general themes. The book is a rather extreme example of the dictum ‘form follows function’, although ‘(mal)form follows (dys)function’ might perhaps be more applicable here.

As mentioned in the main body of the essay, Negarestani’s assertion that “for every inconsistency on the surface, there is a subterranean consistency” applies just as well to the book as a whole as it supposedly does to ancient Middle Eastern necropolis complexes. At every turn, the hyper-dense guerilla-academic style assaults the reader with historical or linguistic facts, invented ‘truths’, concepts and suggestions of concepts leaping out of the page, almost attacking the reader’s consciousness like a rag-tag army of fanatics. Juxtaposition of opposing themes is used throughout to maintain tension and maximise confusion: thus we have cutting-edge unmanned drones compared to ancient Assyrian war demons; the fanatical monotheistic urge towards desertification is linked to the deeply chthonic libido of the Earth and the rotting ‘black Sun’ within it; the curvilinear Arabic script, the lettering in which is inscribed the sacred Word of the Prophet, is revealed as a form of “Middle Eastern dracolatry”, connected to the great Sumero-Babylonian mother-serpent or she-dragon Tiamat, the Persian devil-worm Azhi Dahaka, the Egyptian Apep “and other coiling blasphemies”.

Negarestani’s huge array of thematic sources for the book have another interesting effect. It gives the text the feeling of a scavenging animal – in context, a jackal or vulture – promiscuously flitting from corpse to corpse as it feeds; the corpses in question being the academic disciplines of Middle Eastern languages and history, archaeology, geology, astrophysics, chemistry, mathematics, psychoanalysis and philosophy. Given Negarestani’s well-known interest in putrefaction, decay and ‘nigredo’, this seems to suggest a commingling of the decayed remnants of all these disciplines, melding their blackened, fermented juices into new and strangely fertile (de)compositions. Indeed, in contrast to the traditional idea of artistic creation through composition, it is precisely through decomposition that Negarestani achieves the desired effect of polymathematic phantasmagoria and delirious cosmic horror. “Things leak into each other according to a logic that does not belong to us…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has a clear antecedent in Lovecraft – consider the following lines from The Thing on the Doorstep:

As I stepped unsteadily forward, the figure made a semi-liquid sound like that I had heard over the telephone—“glub…glub…”

(In this case, a man’s body has been taken over by an Outsider-become-Insider – a psychic parasite – and his own consciousness has been transferred to the invasive entity’s previous vehicle, which is now far gone in organic decay and has been reduced to utter indifferentiation; it could have originally been more or less anything, in line with Henry of Langenstein’s observations about the entropic tendency of putrefaction towards sameness, morbidly wondering if an animal of a given species could be generated from the rotten carcass of another.)

The potential for decomposition and repellent softness to blasphemously imitate and subvert creation – “till out of corruption horrid Life springs” – is used to great effect by both authors. In Cyclonopedia, in particular, it gives rise to the entire concept of “leper creativity” whereby disease and disorder provide fertile ground for all manner of pestilential vitality. Uncharted regions…catalytic spaces…decay.

Further reading

R. Tomens, ‘Avant-garde is French for bullshit’ – a good discussion of how deliberately obtuse artistic/intellectual works like Cyclonopedia can be worth grappling with even if you don’t take them entirely “seriously” or wholly “get” them.

J. McCalmont, ‘Cyclonopedia – Madness/Theory/Truth/Nonsense’ – an in-depth analysis of the ultra-theoretical style of Continental philosophy exemplified by Negarestani, the reaction to this from Sokal, Bricmont etc. and a discussion of how something doesn’t have to be ‘true’ to be ‘real’, with reference to Lovecraft’s fictional ‘Necronomicon’.

Wikipedia, ‘Cosmicism’ – Lovecraft’s own term for his philosophy of fiction, drawing on themes such as nihilism, atheism, human insignificance and the human inability to comprehend the cosmos.

N. Masciandaro, ‘Gourmandized in the Abattoir of Openness’ – highly theoretical discussion of Cyclonopedia with respect to ‘theory vs. fiction’.

The Lovecraft Archive – (most of) H. P. L.’s collected works available online, free of charge.

1)
Lovecraft’s radical new approach to horror is explained succinctly by Sandro D. Fossemò in Cosmic Terror from Poe to Lovecraft: “Poe sinks in[to] the soul to knock down external reality, Lovecraft on the contrary sinks in[to] the cosmos to demolish inner reality.
2)
Houellebecq, Against the World, Against Life
3)
The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles…What is Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us…” (ibid); it is noteworthy that Houellebecq's’ most well-known novel is titled Les particules élémentaires (published in the English translation as Atomised).
4)
…[the Great Old Ones] have heard the roars of the very first mammals and will know the howls of agony of the very last.” (ibid
5)
Coincidentally – or not – a prehistoric petroglyph in Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, identified by von Däniken as one such ancient visitor, forms the basis of the ‘numogram’ in Cyclonopedia’s discussion of quasi-Qabbalistic number sorcery.
6)
Nyarlathotep, 1920.
7) , 13)
The Dunwich Horror, 1928/29.
8)
“If a little has separated from the uppermost, it turns to the lowest.”
9)
“Either [a] Caesar, or nothing.”
10)
For an analysis of Nietzsche and Lovecraft, see Sandro D. Fossemò, ibid.
11)
Hassan-i Sabbah
12)
Aleister Crowley, Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law)
14)
Naked Lunch, 1959.
15)
The physical reality of the desert is central both to Negarestani’s conception of the Middle East and to Lovecraft’s fictional occultist. The Necronomicon’s original Arabic title is al-Azif, signifying the nocturnal humming sounds sometimes heard in the desert and said in Arabian folklore to be the chattering of demons (djinn). Ryan Parker, in The Al Azif of the Mad-Poet Abdul Alhazred, explains that the standard explanation for this phenomenon – the calls of desert insects – is a Western invention and that true cause is “the vibration of silica sand in certain atmospheric conditions[,] usually triggered by the wind (although walking near the crest of certain sand dunes can also trigger it)”; this image resonates rather well with Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction saga Dune, which itself is a masterful exposition of desert-philosophy.
16)
H. P. Lovecraft, The Festival, 1923/25.
17)
The nested Russian doll of narratives based on a found text presented in Cyclonopedia more or less exactly mirrors the plot structure of The Call of Cthulhu.
18)
The Lord of the Rings, book III chapter 5.
19)
In the Islamic version of the Abrahamic Creation myth, the first humans are created from clay, just as Adam is made from dust in the Judeo-Christian account. Clay can of course be regarded simply as wet dust, or dust as dried clay. Humanity’s dusty origins are of vital importance in the Qur’an, for it is on this basis that Iblis (Satan) refuses Allah’s instruction to bow down to Adam and Hawwa (Eve), since he is himself a Djinn, or spirit of fire, and therefore considers himself superior to creatures made of clay. In the Sufi account, Iblis is ironically the most reverent of the djinn, and disobeys Allah only because he cannot countenance making obeisance to any being other than Allah Himself.
20)
The god in question being Ahura Mazda, the cosmic Logos or principle of Light, Order and Good in Zoroastrianism. Negarestani considers Zoroastrianism prototypical of monotheistic religions (despite the duality of Ahura Mazda and his ‘evil twin’ Ahriman) in general and of Islam in particular.
21)
Known in earlier Avestan texts as Angra Mainyu, ‘Destructive Spirit’ (cognate with ‘angry mind’).
22)
See David Lynch’s masterpiece of horrific surrealism, Eraserhead (1977).
23)
From an Avestan root meaning “to blacken”; as a noun it means “lie”, “deceit”, “betrayal”.
24)
The Dunwich Horror
25)
The ‘Empty Quarter’ in the southern Arabian desert, location of the semi-legendary lost city of ‘Irem of the Pillars’ (evidence for which has recently been discovered) and of the world’s second-biggest proven oil reserves.
26)
Solar Inferno and the Earthbound Abyss