LETTER NO. 5: ON BODIES
by Chris R. Morgan
H.P. Lovecraft has a story called “The Whisperer in Darkness,” in which a literature professor travels to rural Vermont to investigate reports of strange phenomena. This turns out, of course, to be a winged alien race who’ve come to earth, they claim, to show its inhabitants their own world—Yuggoth—the contents of which are “wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination.” All that is required of travelers is that they allow them to remove their brains and place them in a special cylinder that keeps them alive, purely for practical transportation purposes, of course. This is an incomplete gist, I admit, and if you’ve read the story then more power to you. But in thinking of the subject at hand, H.P. Lovecraft, and this story especially, seems relevant.
“The Whisperer in Darkness” holds an odd distinction among Lovecraft’s stories as one of the more hopeful-seeming out of his otherwise bleak oeuvre. There’s no strong consensus on this point, but for my part that radical interpretation makes some sense, if only because of Lovecraft’s unique treatment of one of the most consistent, if not always central, preoccupations in his fiction: the body.
We don’t tend to think of Lovecraft as a very physical writer. His characters, his protagonists especially, are never more than ciphers. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s abstract, his narration is often a frenzied, almost mystical, overflow of archaic verbiage that obscures the environment more than it describes. And of course there are his various otherworldly monstrosities that were sometimes so horrifying as to be beyond any coherent description. But when not tending to his duties as the prophet of the cold, indifferent cosmos, his physicality makes itself known in notable ways. A Massachusetts town is darkened by generations-long interbreeding with an amphibian-like race dwelling off its coast in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In “The Outsider,” a lonesome man encounters a creature with “eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines” revealing “a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape,” only to find out that he is looking into a mirror. And in “The Colour Out of Space,” a comet smashes into a farm town, releasing a globule that degrades all life in its environment.
Lovecraft was a man of many hatreds, but encompassing all of them seemed to be an overwhelming hatred of the body. He hated that it grew and changed. He hated its required maintenance. He hated to touch or to have it be touched by other bodies. He hated its variety. Perhaps more than hatred of the body, it was a hatred of physical existence in total, and so the notion of a disembodied mind being taken anywhere but here would appear to be the single net positive in the Lovecraftian universe.
“Adulthood is hell,” Lovecraft wrote, somewhat appropriately, at age 30. Adulthood is many things to many people, of course, but above all it is the acceptance of oneself as an independent physical object. Indeed, modernity defines itself by the accommodations it offers to us as beings untethered to our past obligations and the restrictions they might have placed on us. Our bodies, and the sensations we invite upon them, are ostensibly our own. Adolescence is the preparation for its hazards, but no rigidity is, or can feasible be, imposed as to how we apply its lessons, for good and ill. But this is no great dilemma. People in vast numbers take their physical embodiment as granted. Even if it does not satisfy them there are plenty of avenues for revision. Our bodies are a visual and active extension of our priorities and character.
One of the novelties of the bizarre Equinox gym advertisements is the more explicit flaunting what their brand is offering: not proper health, which you can get through simply walking, but affirmation and inclusion. Participation levels are not fixed in our society, but there are clearly some that are preferred more than others. Equinox is an easy target for petty moralists who wish to decry vain individualism—or vain uniformity a la The Stepford Wives. But a virtuous homeliness is half-baked in its own way. And Lovecraft throws the vacancy of both notions into radical relief.
For Lovecraft, mind and body never seemed to be simpatico. They never seemed to want to do the same things or fulfill the same functions. Lovecraft was most suited with pursuits intellectual and imaginary, spreading his ideas and creating his worlds. On the other hand he was less suited for the demands we acquiesce to without much resistance: of being a living thing, with substance, integrity, and wants and needs. He did not resist these things in total, of course; he married, moved out of his hometown, made many friends, and traveled. But these were not constants in his life. There’s a lot of faux aristocratic presumption in his attitudes, to say the least, but seemingly coinciding with that is this idea that one’s physical make up is not only a burden on oneself, but can actively work against one’s interest. It is an idea expanded upon by John Carpenter in The Thing and David Cronenberg in Shivers, The Brood, and The Fly.
Once when I was walking in town, I passed a small gym where a man was supervising two women dragging ship anchor chains back and forth over the parking lot. (It doesn’t seem right that their arms were bent back, but the chains were huge, and that’s how it registers in my head.) Down the street from the community pool, and in between a carpet cleaning company and an industrial equipment supplier, it proved a rare glimpse of suburban Gothic, something out of Todd Solondz.
CrossFit, and likeminded regimens, are like Equinox in that they offer more than the standard human mechanical tune-up, but it goes a few steps beyond organic refinement. Most people tend to wave off CrossFit as an extremist subculture, a cult or a fetish. But there’s an anxiety underlying its intensity that should garner some sympathy. Simple vanity of “peak performance” doesn’t quite satisfy its ambitions. I see it as an extended plea for existence. It is a kind of body horror survivalism; cellular fortification against any form of subversion from within or invasion from without. It is a cure, of sorts; if not for mortality full stop then for the inevitability of mortality. “I do not go until I say I am ready,” their fine-toned flexes seem to announce. “I will be here for as long as it takes.”
All this is probably a bit boilerplate. The fetishization of exercise has been well established, not least of all in those who undertake it. And surely out of all the enemies to our bodies, we are not our worst. And I agree. In fact, I don’t particularly mind who does what with their own body. It’s the libertarian itch I insist on scratching. But I keep returning to the idea that the ailment is the body itself, and that we are biding our time until a more conclusive cure is found. But there is one in sight.
The film Her speaks to our infatuation with both artificial intelligence and humanity’s propensity for loneliness. (Weirdly, it is also about a professional letter writer.) But while talking with a friend on Twitter, I began to think about it in a different way. Instead of having someone create an AI surrogate, I started thinking of a technological advancement that would allow a person’s consciousness to be uploaded onto a server, from which people would be able to purchase robot companions with real memories and personalities, which they could switch on and off at their leisure. It is a Black Mirror episode that writes itself, to be sure; for I can much more clearly see the desire of someone wanting to forfeit their physical existence than I can see someone’s desire to purchase one for their smarthouse. But it doesn’t seem far-fetched all the same. What is social media but a kind of training for robot friendship? Has it not shown us a way out, albeit with imperfect results, from the rampant loneliness? Does it not also relieve us, with similar imperfections, of our physical burdens, allowing our minds to do the talking?
Perhaps the frayed state of our current social media landscape makes this both impracticable and unappealing in the short term. But it would not shock me to one day hear of a TED talk given by a dimestore Elon Musk about how he or she spent months sequestered in a Bay Area U-Stor-It plugging away at code for the “Yuggoth Cure.”
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.