I just finished Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s book Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature. At first he captured my attention with his description of an ice-bound culture in which “dogs . . . were leaders of men” (44). But he details so many civilizations it started to read like a catalog: this kind of vivid material became too rare in the few pages of material accorded each civilization.
One thing did intrigue me: he quoted six lines from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and he did it right when I was thinking of the same thing. He surprised me again in the epilogue. He writes of an AIDS victim who built a memorial garden of decayed flotsam and jetsam on a desolate beach beneath a power station:
Civilization, we expect, will end on the beach. . . . Between the power station and the sea – symbol of human pollution and agent of revengeful nature – the garden, if not already dead, was made to die. Yet, as with so many civilized works, its very vulnerability is part of what makes it a monument of civilization: an act of defiance of the environment, a step in an unequal struggle.
I remember my first encounter with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game was a review of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, which compared the chance for player success to that of a group of ants attempting to derail a steam locomotive. Like the ants, Fernández-Armesto, doubts that human beings are “better than the rest of nature”. This man’s view of civilization is Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. Here’s the Call of Cthulhu RPG (d20 edition – I don’t think it misrepresents Lovecraft, for whom I cannot so easily find a quote):
Investigators . . . are not willing to surrender to destiny. Like Tolstoy, who in the face of poverty roamed the streets to give away all his money; or Dylan Thomas, who urged us not to go gentle into that good night, but rage against the dying of the light; or the man who stood before the tanks in Tienanmen Square, certain of defeat, but refusing to compromise.
The sentiment is universal. I just didn’t expect to find it in such a clear echo of Lovecraft at the conclusion of a book of history. How would Lovecraft react to his otherworldly vision of horror becoming so mundane?