Forms of Existential Angst (November 2018 Reading Review)

These are belated reviews of books I read across last year.  The delay is due to having read them to answer a feeling in myself.  I no longer feel the way I did last autumn, and as the feeling has passed the coherence of reviewing them together has loosened also.  I have given up trying to tie them together in any meaningful way, but perhaps putting them together here does make some sense.

  • Desert, Anonymous (2011)
  • The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, H.P. Lovecraft (1999 [1917 – 1935])
  • Out of Time, Miranda Sawyer (2016)

Recently I’ve been aware of a background feeling of mild unfocused anxiety.  I am generally happy, and positive in my day to day life, but the feeling is there underlying the bustle, and gently pressing when the world gets quiet around me.
Since having my son in January it has grown stronger and started to feel like something that has a shape, though I don’t quite know what that form is yet. I realised there’s been some subconscious grappling with it when, in October, I bought and started to read both a collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories and Miranda Sawyer’s midlife crisis book ‘Out of Time’.   As I read I felt I was trying to give a fleshly form to this inchoate angst, to reveal it for what it is: is it a commonplace symptom of mid-life, or an effect of an uncertain and ominous external environment?  Am I just aging? Or is it also that the feeling of cosmic angst provoked by an incomprehensible and latently hostile universe  – the ethos Lovecraft is famous for – is being forced upon us all with the realisation that humanity’s  ecological destruction means our species (or at the least our civilisation) may well already be in a state of extinction debt?  I’ve read a few things recently on the environmental catastrophe about to catch up with us, mainly articles and reports,  but the one that has most stuck with me is the anarchist pamphlet Desert.

Desert, Anonymous (2011)

The spectre that many try not to see is a simple realisation — the world will not be ‘saved’. Global anarchist revolution is not going to happen. Global climate change is now unstoppable.
Desert Anonymous, 2011

Back in March I read an anarchist pamphlet called ‘Desert’ (2011).  It’s worth reding even if, like me, you have little to do with the anarchist movement that it comes from and is seeking to constructively critique.  What spoke to me was the way it sought to force the moment of explicit engagement with the reality that there will be no world saving eco-anarchist revolution, and that we probably cannot save anything much like the 19th and 20th century societies that form the backdrop to anarchist thought.  That for all their self-professed radicalism, the anarchist movement is as suffused as the rest of our culture with an ingrained progressivism, an ideology of progress that sees the world as either inevitably, or potentially, improvable. And this blinds us all to, makes unthinkable, the situation we are in
The anonymous author sees the felt, but unacknowledged reality of the impossibility of ‘saving the world’ as a spectre haunting the movement, sapping its strength as long as people avoid facing up to it.  Only by directly grappling with it can we avoid its latent presence in our consciousness causing disillusionment and malaise, generating a ‘sadness and cynicism which signals a feeling of futility’ and infects every aspect of our lives.
This I think is a real and pressing problem. The current dislocation of Western politics is of course in large part related to shifting geo-political power, but in my (non-psychologist) view, also formed from and shaped by an hysteria displacing and repressing this existential fear as an entire psycho-socio-political order that ‘assumes progress to be the natural order of things’ becomes untenable (as Janan Ganesh suggests in offering a related diagnosis).
I realised reading Desert that I had lost my progressive beliefs, in this sense at least, at some point in the last few years -perhaps coincident with the beginning of the gnawing angst.  Much of my thinking is now underpinned by the assumption that things are going to get worse – or perhaps more accurately, things are going to get unrecognisably different in a way that makes our current concept of progress redundant. (And that I probably won’t like the new version of the world as much.)
It is maybe this belief in a fairly imminent and already ineluctable break or shift, that pushes me away from thinking my angsty feeling is just the usual crisis the comfortably middle-aged experience, coupled with the similarly common slow progression to small c conservatism as we age (and indeed party affiliation Conservatism).
Political expression of this middle-aged angst is commonplace – we see throughout history a belief in social decline mirroring the author’s own internal condition and desire to conserve what they know and understand. (I’ve been re-watching Kenneth Clark’s wonderful Civilisation. It is striking how much it is imbued with a sense of contemporary decline.  Almost all of his asides seem to point to it.)  These reflections though seem tied to seeing a worse but recognisable future, rather than an incomprehensibly alien future.  For visions of a future radically different dystopia science fiction is probably a better repository of ideas.
Having set out the problem of the available options seeming to come down to a choice between clinging to an unrealisable goal of world saving eco-revolution, or of paralysis in the face of the  seeming futility of any action, much of Desert then gets on with an attempt to sketch out:
What objectives, what plans, what lives, what adventures are there when the illusions are set aside and we walk into the world not disabled by disillusionment but unburdened by it?
While I enjoyed much of this – and found some of the material referenced useful – this kind of sketching of possible futures and responses is inevitably fairly speculative. Even at 67 A4 pages, Desert tends to the disjointed and unfocused. and given the breadth covered in such a small pamphlet, it is perhaps inevitably not truly convincing.
Desert is far from perfect, but it is short enough to read as a window into a politically thoughtful subculture, and/or just for its bracing desire to engage with the reality of our situation and its implications.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, H. P. Lovecraft (1999 [1917 – 1935])
I had my interest in Lovecraft’s work piqued when, a couple of years ago, I started playing the board game Eldritch Horror, based on the mythology he constructed (a fun co-operative game, I recommend it).  I was finally prompted to read this collection for the cosmic existential horror – as I’m feeling some of this dread myself at the moment.
Lovecraft delivers on this front, especially in The Call of Cthulhu, the opening paragraphs of which sets out our human limitations, and the dangers of our seeking to overcome them to see the terrifying incomprehensible truth:

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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Much is made of Lovecraft’s undoubted racism.  I don’t know enough to say if China Mieville’s claim that “the anti-humanism one finds so bracing in him is an anti-humanism predicated on murderous race hatred” is accurate.  From here, having read only this collection, while Lovecraft is racist this seems an aspect of a variegated misanthropy, not its driving force.  As the introductory lines above indicate, humanity – even his preferred civilised white parts – looks pretty pathetic through his lens, and our technological innovations, of which we are still so proud, so faithful to, just magnify and compound our folly.
This is a strong assemblage of short stories beyond just The Call of Cthulhu, showing real variety beyond this cosmic horror: from the horror humour of Herbert West – Reanimator, through the cannibal killer of The Picture in the House, to the occult theme of The Haunter of the Dark.
 What I hadn’t expected but really enjoyed was how the selection of stories showed Lovecraft’s chronological development. This collection is one of three, and each of the three books contain stories from different points of Lovecraft’s writing career, rather than being chronologically ordered volumes.  Reading through in order here one therefore gets a strong sense of Lovecraft’s development as a writer.
The earlier stories are more like fragments or simple scenes – very short, short stories. The later stories here contain many of the same elements but more fully developed.  For example, The Shadow Over Innsmouth develops the themes of the earlier stories Dagon and Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, very effectively.  The prose also improves over time: S.T. Joshi in his notes insists that The Hound is not simply over-written but in fact ‘an obvious self-parody’. I am not so convinced that the parody – if it is – is so obvious in any contrast with his earlier work at least.
The stories also develop to contain more action and less exposition as they progress: The Shadow Over Innsmouth has a lot of great action, contained within an effectively claustrophobic city setting, while The Call of Cthulhu expands the setting allowing the action a global scope.  One can see why Cthulhu has had the most impact, and is the setting most adopted and developed by other writers.  Many of the others deal with weird isolated events where the horror may be cosmic, but the action and setting are very contained.  Cthulhu has this much broader global scope and gives a sinister, shadowy global network of cultists to work with.
 S.T. Joshi, a Lovecraft scholar, has edited the volume and provided an introduction and notes. I skimmed the introduction as I am not much interested in Lovecraft’s biography; others many find it more useful and interesting.  The same applies for the rather copious notes.  These occasionally actively irritated me, seeming excessive in some stories, with a distracting superscript number every sentence at times; especially irksome to me as many of these notes were to give inter-textual comparisons across Lovecraft’s body of work.  Again, bigger fans of Lovecraft than me may find these more rewarding.   The selection of works though seems very good to me, giving a sense of Lovecraft’s scope and development as a writer.
More than anything though, Lovecraft delivers in evoking the psychological effect and the sheer inability of the human mind to cope with forces not amenable to reason or human understanding and control.  Lovecraft needed an extrinsic source of incomprehensible threat. I don’t think we need the Old Ones anymore. There is something of the hubris animating many of his protagonists in the face of  these cosmic existential threats in our current primitive cargo cult belief in salvation through sun reflectors or cloud seeding – or any other technological fix – as we proceed to wipe out every other living creature on Earth.
In reading the news we are forced, even if only in the nagging subconscious, to contemplate a humanless universe: a climatically extreme earth with only tardigrade like life persisting in its nooks and crannies and deep beneath the waters.  It seems we find ourselves at a point where we realise too late we do not understand what we have done or fully what its effects will be, and that human patterns of behaviour cannot help us escape or cope with the threat. Contemplating human extinction is not such a new feeling – it seemed an imminent prospect in stretches of the Cold War, and of course the threat of nuclear weapons remains – but the current crisis feels beyond our control and understanding and even our ability to affect once we do begin to understand – ungraspable by the human mind.  Lovecraft manages to capture horrors that still affect us today, and the grand existential angst of his cosmic horror is more apposite than ever.

Out of Time, Miranda Sawyer (2016)
I read this book on the strength of Adam Buxton’s lovely interview about it with Miranda Sawyer.  They talked quite a bit about the various pressures of middle age, and from Adam especially about the death of his father.  I’m feeling a lot of those pressures, and my father died a couple of years ago, followed a year later by my paternal grandmother.  I found I identified with a lot of what they were saying and took some solace from their discussion.
Sawyer’s book was a continuation of this for me. The overall effect is of someone honestly and intelligently working their way through a quiet crisis of middle age.  I liked this element, that a crisis doesn’t have to be big or flashy –the stereotypical sports car purchase, or running off with a gym instructor – to nonetheless be real.  That ‘a mood can gradually take over, change the way you feel about the facts [of your life]. Warp them into something different’.  That underneath the big exterior show there is a change within, and you can have the change within without the acting out.   The book starts strongly with setting out this general theme and her own quiet crisis, and this struck me as very astute and honest.
The next section is on her youth, the 90s and her life in it.  It’s less interesting, but perhaps necessary to set up how her life has changed.  This section on the 90s did also make me think that a longer historical view would help her: she seems trapped by the idea that radical youth culture being absorbed by the mainstream is novel to her (and, roughly, my) generation.  Of course youth culture has both challenged and upended parts of mainstream culture and in its turn been absorbed into the mainstream ever since it was invented – and again, an awareness of the invention of the teenager, and the commercial forces often driving all this, would help her too.  It becomes harder to become over attached and too idealistic about it.  Youth and youth culture has become freighted with too much importance in our broader Western culture, and this is something Sawyer has not only unquestioningly absorbed, but intensified in her own life, giving her the inevitable struggle she describes. (Or, perhaps I just didn’t have as good a time in the nineties as Sawyer and therefore miss it less.)
The rest of the book progresses through various themes relating to middle age: sex, fitness, looks, work, and, finally, death.  These all read as serious, well researched Sunday supplement magazine type pieces (I hope that doesn’t read as snide, I love these type of essays) – with light but apposite research and interviews fitted in and around anecdote and autobiography.  They are mostly enjoyable considerations that throw up interesting aspects of the issue, and give you some personal experience to compare with your own. It helps to be very roughly of a similar age I suspect: I found her considerations of different aspects helped me to think through this period of life, in this generation’s context.
Sawyer is very good on the centrality of routines to this stage of life if you have young children.  How both you and the children are subject to their routine, that first you, and then the school and extra-curricular activities construct. The routine is essential to managing this stage, but unforgiving. And if, like many of us, you’re used to a more free-flowing life, it can be quite something to accept and work within it.   She is good too, in the later parts, on the split, schizophrenic emotional state small children and their needs provoke: The ‘longest shortest time’ when they are still so young and wonderful, yet also so intensely demanding.   A confusing, difficult, dominant emotional state.
She is good too in introducing a gendered element here, but not pushing it too far.  It is true that more of this work of looking after children falls to women, so the female experience of mid-life is more likely to be shaped, and shaped more deeply, in this way.  It probably helps explain the different feel of her mid-life account, compared to Bill Drummond’ reflections (reviewed here).  For Drummond the children are there in the background, but when he talks explicitly about his routine, the main interaction with his children, and binding commitment to their routine,  is to breakfast with them.  Too much can be made of this though – I’ve looked after both of my children full-time for periods while they were (and are) this age, and it is not so unusual where I live.  This is a recent change I think – speaking to other parents in my area, it occasionally comes up how many more men are heavily involved in child care than was the case ten, or even five years ago.  Either way, I identified with her on the combination of frustration and an awareness of being in the middle of a fleetingly wonderful time with small children.
I also found Bill Drummond’s 45 a useful contrast with in her thinking on regret.  When Sawyer looks back she thinks – as surely most of us do at times – on how she did it all wrong, and how she would do it now.  I too miss the opportunities, free time and energy, but for me looking back like this also gives a sense that I now have a greater solidity as a person; I know better what I want and want to do (even if it has become harder to do with so many more other commitments).  There is a certainty of self, the lack of which can be crippling at points in your earlier life.  This is something Drummond mentions as he contemplates his elderly father’s response of ‘45’ to his question on what was the best age to be.  Maybe all of this is a simple fleshing out of the old adage that youth is wasted on the young – Sawyer makes no great claims for novelty – but it is worthwhile nonetheless.
I found the chapters a bit mixed in quality, with the later ones around work and routine the strongest for me. Even in the strongest sections though the problem of restricted perspective mars her insight.  Her individual struggle to overcome the difficulties of living by beliefs she absorbed from 90s youth culture when they no longer fit her world, clashes with, and too often overwhelms her broader insights.  She talks usefully of the need to let go of things, while still clinging tightly to a very limited set of beliefs based on the experiences of 90s music culture, and its specific iteration of the juvenile distinction between a mainstream and outsiders that most of us grow out of.  (Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s Rebel Sell  is an interesting take on the extensive use marketers make of these beliefs in a youth ‘counter-culture’, especially as they continue to be held by those long past youth.  Again this sort of interrogation of youthful beliefs would help Sawyer navigate her crisis. They also really hate Naomi Klein, so your enjoyment of the book may be affected by your opinion of her…)
I suspect the book may be of little interest to those outside of my age bracket, but I recommend it for anyone currently thinking about what it means to be somewhere around the mid-point of their life.  Sawyer is open, honest, engaging and thoughtful company throughout as she works out her own thoughts and feelings on reaching this point.