Monday, March 31, 2008

Primordial Evil

I've been reading one of my H.P. Lovecraft books lately (The Tomb and Other Tales), and it seems to be one I haven't read before. I was surprised to see that Lovecraft ghost-wrote Imprisoned with the Pharaohs for Harry Houdini, who published it in his own name in Weird Tales. It's a lovely story. I also liked The Horror at Red Hook. (New York Detective Thomas Malone investigates the sinister underworld activities of one Robert Suydam, who seems to be involved in illegal immigrant trafficking and, as you might guess, Untold Terrors as well.)

Like the story He (which precedes it in this collection), Red Hook takes place in turn-of-the-century New York and treats cities in general as malevolent forces, not to be trusted, what with all their creepy tall buildings and--as illustrated in both stories--the tendency of buildings to collapse, floor by floor, at or around the denouement. Apparently this was a period when Lovecraft considered metropolitan areas to be scarier than, say, gargantuan tentacled underwater creatures. I wonder what he'd think of today's urban sprawl.

Anyway, near the end of Red Hook, Lovecraft says

Who are we to combat poisons older than history and mankind? Apes danced in Asia to these horrors, and the cancer lurks secure and spreading where furtiveness hides in rows of decaying brick.

I've noticed, in other places, Lovecraft referring to malevolent forces as destined to outlast mankind. It adds to the sense of bigness and badness to suggest that these horrors will still be around when mankind is no more. But this is the first time I've noticed (in my recent reading, anyway) explicit mention of evils predating mankind as well.

The mental image of apes dancing under nameless demonic influences is wonderful enough. (Demon Monkey Trance!) But let's take this to its logical conclusion. Pick your favorite Evils from Lovecraft, or Christian canon or Apocrypha, or the Kabbalah, or Sumerian Mythology, or wherever... Take them at face value, but put them in the scenario of evolved life instead of a world that was created in the same fiscal quarter as mankind (as most mythologies have it). This is essentially what Lovecraft is suggesting in the quote above, so let's think about the implications.

Evil as it's been portrayed in mythology has (for obvious reasons) such a human character, and such human concerns. The devil takes a personal interest in the downfall of individual men; demons specialize in endless specific human ailments. But if Evils are eternal, what the hell did they do before man evolved?

So, okay, they made apes dance. Fair enough. Probably a certain amount of mate stealing and inhospitable hooting during territorial disputes. The occasional pretending-to-groom-the-alpha-male-but-not-actually-removing-his-parasites as part of a nefarious-but-slow-moving coup. It's not that hard to think of ape-specific Evils, and, as this paragraph shows, it's more fun than it should be.

But what sort of unholy pressures did the eternal Evils apply to, say, the shrew-like Zalambdalestes in the Cretacious? Or the jawless fish Agnatha in the Cambrian? Or the earliest single-celled organisms?

Some specific Evils (death, disease) might have existed alongside Life the whole time, while others (betrayal, jealousy, porn addiction) presumably found their specialties later. But it raises the question: have these Evils had the same character all along, with some waiting untold eons for their respective victims to evolve? Or have the Evils themselves evolved, in which case there emerged, at some point, an Evil specially suited to the concerns of cyanobacteria?

Did the cyanobacteria's Evil have anything like an awareness of its horrifying purpose--a malignant mind of the kind we'd expect from Mankind's demons? Or did it have a tiny malignant non-mind appropriate to the level of cyanobacteria's development? If the latter, then what made it Evil, exactly? What does Evil mean if there's not a mind to revel in the depravity, or to recoil at the horror? Evil without sentience is just statistics.

The question Lovecraft's construction raises is this: if these Evils are eternal, then did they have more or less fun influencing Cretacious shrews than you and I? The obvious and boring answer is that mankind has allowed Evil to blossom in new and unprecedented ways. But I think it's more interesting to suppose the opposite.

I think it would be fun to explain these Eternal Evils in a way that's not at all humanity-centric, but that still retains some essence of what we understand to be Evil. It can't boil down to statistics, because statistics isn't evil--just boring. So what would it be?