Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In the Apartment at Redlands the Platypus Waits Reading: The Platypus Reads Part XXIX

I'm giving a lecture in less than a month on the evolution of Gothic and Horror literature. I've gone through reams of Poe, some Hawthorne, and jumped the Atlantic to pick up some Charles Williams. As it comes down to the wire, I have finally launched into that master of horror, H. P. Lovecraft.

My initial brush with Lovecraft in the form of "Dagon" and "The Call of Cthulhu" left me surprised. I don't know quite what I expected, but my first thought was "this is just like Poe." Indeed, it seems like that was what Lovecraft was going for. After reading a little bit of the critical commentary by S.T. Joshi, I learned that Lovecraft was conscious of being Poe's inheritor and sought to further refine and develop the genre of the American Gothic short story, or "weird tale." On that level, I think he succeeds more than admirably.

Moving from Lovecraft's technique to his content, I find further similarities with Poe. Both authors bombard the reader with constant insinuations that if there is something behind the physical world than it is either weak, indifferent, or evil. As to the state of the world itself, Lovecraft and Poe again seem to agree: it is decaying. In both writers, mental degradation is a key motif. Lovecraft develops this in typical fin-de-siecle fashion by adding "racial" degradation. In the worlds of Poe and Lovecraft, everything is decaying; people, places, civilization, the world itself. Only the select few realize this, however, and have to heroically struggle against the madness and despair that follows. This is a battle that the protagonists seem to lose with unnerving frequency. In what may be a case of life imitating art, both authors died young.

In spite of their artistic pessimism, Lovecraft and Poe display a deep longing for creative beauty. In a way eerily reminiscent of Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy," both authors seem to see the proper human response to the despair and hopelessness of the universe as acts of creation. The call of Cthulhu, after all, falls flat on the men of science and speaks most powerfully to the poets and dreamers. It is the human will to create something beautiful, however brief, that stands against the chaos and insanity of life. Whether this is heroic defiance, or opium dream, is left to the reader.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Platypus Prepared: The Platypus Reads Part XXVIII

Two and a half years ago, I was looking for the perfect groomsman gift to get the guys who had put up with so much just to see me get married. I thought of the usual gifts: cuff links (but they don't ever ware shirts that would require them), imported beer (but most don't drink), personalized beer mugs (see above), etc. Then I thought it might be nice for them to get something that they would actually use and enjoy. So for the guys who are supposed to be prepared for anything, I decided to go with "The Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks. The book was a hit. Everywhere you looked during the course of the day, you would see a groomsman squirreled away into a shady spot reading the sage green book. There was only one problem: I didn't have enough money to get my own!

Just recently, my wife was kind enough to buy a copy of "The Zombie Survival Guide" for me. I read it through in one weekend and found it refreshingly witty. The main point, of course, is enjoying the dead-pan gallows humor, but I did detect an undercurrent of something more. Over and over again, the book stresses getting back to basics, voluntarily giving up luxury and reestablishing community. This is all ostensibly to prepare for the imminent onslaught of the undead, but it got me to thinking. I wonder if the real appeal of the book is that it allows us to fantasize about having an exciting excuse to do what we know we should be doing anyway.

Let me explain. People love the idea of growing their own food, but it's hard and monotonous work. We all recognize our need for community, but it's frustrating and time-consuming to establish it. Think how many times a week you hear people saying things like: "I need to exercise more," "I need to cut back on the coffee," "I'm trying to buy more organic foods." Maybe a few will try these things for a time, but very rarely do these desires motivate anyone to lasting change. After all, it's not as if the world will immediately end if we have another Starbucks. But what if the world was going to end on Tuesday and our abstinence would help turn the tide? Then our abstinence, typically undertaken in the service of some vague notion such as "health" or a sense of First-World guilt, becomes a heroic act.

The "Zombie Survival Guide" is obviously written tongue-in-cheek, and that's where its final appeal comes from. Because "World War Z" is a fiction, the reader can have all the fun of fantasizing about a life full of adventure and meaning without actually having to make lifestyle changes that are uncomfortable. The reader can dream about a life of romance and adventure without feeling pressed to take any steps to make it a reality.