The Real Eldritch Abomination Was Racism: Lovecraft Country

Jordan Peele, long known as a comedian, is apparently now cornering the market in the genre of anti-racist horror. Having broken all kinds of records with Get Out, news broke last month that he will be adapting Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country for HBO, backed by J.J. Abrams.

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(via Amazon)

When I heard the news, I grabbed a copy of the book to get a sense of what we’ll be in for. Lovecraft Country is an excellent novel which makes a few daring choices in transmuting 1950s America into the sort of non-Euclidean horrorscape that made Lovecraft himself a household name. Better still, it does not shy away from confronting the shocking racial hatred that always underpinned Lovecraft’s work: the man who invented the Cthulhu Mythos also penned “On the Creation of N******”.

We’ll be in good hands with Jordan Peele bringing this to the screen: Peele has proven himself more than capable at fulfilling the promise of his genre.

Trigger warning for frank discussion of racism below.

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The Leftovers Finds Satisfaction with Ambiguity

Major spoilers for The Leftovers in this post.

So, while the creators have been saying it since day one, it was still startling that The Leftovers ended last week without definitively explaining the Great Departure. The event was the show’s central mystery: in an instant, two percent of the world’s population vanished without a trace. Since much of the series was about the struggle to understand the Departure and find meaning in a world where such things can happen, it was a bold choice to, shall we say, let the mystery be.

This is significant, not only in light of the show’s thematic work around doubt and anxiety, but also in the current era of television, where audiences endlessly focus on solving riddles and then angrily demand answers for ambiguous moments.

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The Leftovers Stares Down the End

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HBO promotional image of Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston)

As it prepares for its final episodes, it’s time to revisit HBO’s The Leftovers, where past years of struggles and miracles give way to a looming cataclysm. In brief, the show depicts the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, a Rapture-like event where 2% of the Earth’s population vanished in an instant. The first season focused on the immediate aftermath of the event in a small town in upstate New York, and the second turned to a community in Texas, which was spared altogether.

Having already moved most of the cast across the country, the final season moves most of the action to Australia, in the days leading up to the seven-year anniversary of the Departure: a growing consensus sees this occasion as the likely beginning of the End of Days. Simultaneously darker and funnier than its predecessors, the show is very conscious that this season is its last. Absurdity and grief pair together as the characters realize that their quest to make the Departure meaningful approaches its final hour.

While the other seasons largely focused on community responses to tragedy, this final season has been atomically individual. After all, we each go into death alone, even though we are all going to die.

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Unpopular Opinion: Steve Rogers Was Always a Fascist

There’s been a lot of good writing, here and elsewhere, about why it’s so upsetting for Marvel to reboot Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, as a crypto-Nazi HYDRA agent. But oh, is it worse than that. I want to offer this: Rogers, in both the comics and the movies, has always been a fascist. It’s just that he’s previously been on our side.

To be fair, he’s not usually a racist, white supremacist, or otherwise an evildoer; that’s a new aspect of the HYDRA-Steve persona. But behind the red, white, and blue shield and optimistic, inclusive rhetoric, there is a man who believes, ultimately, that only he can truly separate right from wrong and stand between good and evil. The simple fact that he’s been written so that the reader/viewer will agree with his conclusions is a mere distraction from his antipathy for democratic values and individual rights.

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Scan from “Civil War” (image via idratherbeloislane)

Here he is at his most idealistic, righteous, and pure. And yet, he’s 100% wrong: he goes after the press, the politicians, and the “mob”, dismissing the public, their representatives, and their voices with a simple assertion of his own moral views. The United States was not founded on a principle of individual defiance of the general will: rather, we were founded as a nation of laws, not men, of separated powers, of due process, and of representative government. Such scorn for media, politicians, and the electorate is more commonly reserved for repressive regimes.

If anything, the traditional version of Steve Rogers provides a more apt and chilling warning about the risk of an authoritarian America than any weak-sauce HYDRA parody of the man.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Occultism: Esoteric Traditions in Foucault’s Pendulum

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Umberto Eco (via WAMC)

Earlier this week, I talked about the political implications of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, particularly with respect to the conspiracy-minded thinking that it dissects. But there’s also a significant spiritual dimension to the novel, as its focus on esoterica and the occult represent a real history of discontent with mainstream religion that stretches back nearly a thousand years.

The book generally side-eyes occultists, both past and present, and doubts their claims to supernatural powers. But it is very clear that such figures and groups really existed, and many of them authentically aspired to the powers they claim to have obtained, and their claims were very widely believed. New Age philosophies and other countercultures linked to the esotericism generally have a reputation for being peaceful and loving, but it’s one which has not been earned.

Eco by no means condemns the occult in general terms, but he does call attention to the potential for such beliefs to generate abuse and hatred. The large-scale rejection of Christianity by the alt-right in the United States, and the ongoing links between various neo-pagan subcultures and neo-Nazism, show the need for continued study.

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Throwback Thursdays: Paranoia in Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Book cover

(via Amazon)

First published in Italian in 1988, Foucault’s Pendulum is an eerily prescient novel by the philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco, who passed away about a year ago. Despite its arcane exploration of ancient mystical societies, and academic protagonists, its analysis of conspiracies, conspiratorial thinking, and related phenomena feel uncannily familiar, as though he were anticipating the incomprehensible modern world of truthers, birthers, and Pizzagate.

The book focuses on a trio of underemployed scholars in modern Italy, who make ends meet by working at a small, vanity publisher focusing on esoterica and conspiracy theories. Mocking their authors (whom they refer to as “Diabolicals”), the protagonists amuse themselves by trying to weave every bit of nonsense together into a grand new theory of the history of the world.

Belbo, Causabon, and Diotallevi never quite let themselves believe their own tale, but remain dangerously entranced by the possibilities that they dream up. Their apparent knowledge brings them into increasing conflict with the Diabolicals themselves, who persistently believe that any denial of a conspiracy is only evidence of its potency.

The book is set in 1970s and 1980s Italy, a time of social upheaval known as the Years of Lead. The era saw significant terrorist activity from far-left groups such as the Red Brigades as well as far-right and neo-Nazi organizations like the National Vanguard. In a society torn apart not only by violence, but by fundamentally oppositional views of the world, Eco saw the potency of esoteric thinking: it not only offered truths that could not be doubted, but the promise that ultimately, someone, somewhere, was actually in charge. Even if it was all made up.

It is this aspect of the book which resonates so deeply in the 21st century, when the world again seems plunged into chaos, and truth itself recedes into the distance. The conspiracy theories that animate contemporary politics overlap with the many legends in Foucault’s Pendulum, but even more than such specifics, the temptation, power, and danger of these beliefs echo loudly.

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The Gnosis of Dolores: Westworld Finishes Season 1

A busy December has me behind schedule on this, but this weekend, I finally finished watching the first season of HBO’s WestworldThe season finale, “The Bicameral Mind”, aired on December 4th, and while it offered some answers to the show’s plot mysteries, it appropriately left its philosophical questions open. After all, if three thousand years of scholarship has produced nothing conclusive on consciousness, a certain answer may be a lot to ask of Bad Robot Productions.

Still, though, Westworld is nothing if not ambitious, and the season ultimately fused ideas from psychology, religion, and even fiction in pursuit of answers to the deep questions it raised. If the conclusions are not entirely satisfying, it is only because no answer could possibly be.

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This is obviously going to get heavily into spoilers, so I’ll put a break in early.

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