Acute Fear of the Gigantic Nameless Thing
I recently completed a literary survey of every piece of creative fiction I could find that H. P. Lovecraft wrote or collaborated on. At first, this was motivated by climate grief and my feeling that there is something important for Lovecraft’s work and his personal fears to say about the present moment. As someone who often thinks and speaks in metaphor, I find myself mentally juxtaposing the fictional horrors from Lovecraft’s work with snapshots of present cultural moments. And the last few days, as uprisings stir in cities all across the United States, I find myself somewhat obsessively thinking about this passage from “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926):
My uncle, it seems, had quickly instituted a prodigiously far-flung body of inquiries amongst nearly all the friends whom he could question without impertinence, asking for nightly reports of their dreams, and the dates of any notable visions for some time past. The reception of his request seems to have been varied; but he must, at the very least, have received more responses than any ordinary man could have handled without a secretary. This original correspondence was not preserved, but his notes formed a thorough and really significant digest. Average people in society and business—New England’s traditional “salt of the earth”—gave an almost completely negative result, though scattered cases of uneasy but formless nocturnal impressions appear here and there, always between March 23d and April 2nd—the period of young Wilcox’s delirium. Scientific men were little more affected, though four cases of vague description suggest fugitive glimpses of strange landscapes, and in one case there is mentioned a dread of something abnormal.
It was from the artists and poets that the pertinent answers came, and I know that panic would have broken loose had they been able to compare notes. As it was, lacking their original letters, I half suspected the compiler of having asked leading questions, or of having edited the correspondence in corroboration of what he had latently resolved to see. That is why I continued to feel that Wilcox, somehow cognisant of the old data which my uncle had possessed, had been imposing on the veteran scientist. These responses from aesthetes told a disturbing tale. From February 28th to April 2nd a large proportion of them had dreamed very bizarre things, the intensity of the dreams being immeasurably the stronger during the period of the sculptor’s delirium. Over a fourth of those who reported anything, reported scenes and half-sounds not unlike those which Wilcox had described; and some of the dreamers confessed acute fear of the gigantic nameless thing visible toward the last.
This is what 2020 has felt like. Honestly, it’s what everything since the 2016 election has felt like. Those of us who are marginalized in various ways or who are “psychically hypersensitive” have been feeling this impending doom that just builds from day-to-day. “Average people in society and business” seem to be able to go about their business more or less as normal, but black and brown people, queer folks, neurodivergent people…We’ve all been experiencing an “acute fear of a gigantic nameless thing” that becomes more tangible with each passing day.
I have maintained for a little while now that one of the reasons why I believe that embracing neurodiversity is in the interest of humanity as a whole is that neurodivergent people bring so much value to society with the sometimes peculiar ways we think and process information. One of the benefits I see very clearly is how we can serve as early warning that something in the system is amiss. As one example, people with sensory sensitivities have said for years that open-plan offices are terrible, and it turns out that they are terrible for getting work done even though most folks don’t have as intense a reaction to them. Neurodivergent people are canaries in the coal mine. We show signs of stress earlier and more intensely, but the danger is still real and present for neurotypical people. You’re just not aware of it yet.
Black people in America have been saying for years that policing has targeted them. We’ve seen ever more egregious examples with each passing year of police brutality, malfeasance, and murder. In Ferguson and now all across the country, black people are saying, “Police militarization is dangerous and harmful. We are being killed in the streets,” and middle-class white people haven’t felt that threat personally, so it’s easier to ignore. But danger grows over time. The “giant nameless thing” is just over the edge of the horizon, and it’s going to apply those tactics to an ever-widening base of people as resources concentrate into the hands of fewer people.
Queer people have been saying that gender norms and biological essentialism are prisons. Yes, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people felt those pressures earliest and most intensely, but the prison is encircling us all. Multiple generations of men have been taught that it’s not socially acceptable for them to show emotions other than anger, sarcasm, or lust. Women have had the expectation that they will disproportionately do all the domestic work to keep a house running—clean floors, everyone fed, dishes put away in the cupboard, children bathed—and somehow still they should have sufficient ambition to “lean in” and become stars in their chosen career. The danger is there. It’s rising, and it’s killing you all as surely as it’s killing the queer kids who are thrown out of their homes and families. The danger just happens to be less immediate and therefore easier to ignore.
I’ve written in the past that I’m uncomfortable with the framing of rights rather than liberation as the goal of political struggle. This is partially what I’m talking about. If you grant rights to incrementally more people but leave the damaged system intact, the threat is still there, just on the edge of the horizon. I’m not saying anything new here. Christians are hopefully aware that Jesus himself told us “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me,” (Matthew 25:40) or as Emma Lazarus so eloquently put it, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Even if you are purely selfish, rest assured that the indignities and horrors visited upon the marginalized, if unchecked, will eventually be used on you.