Providence #6 (released 25 November 2015), art by Jacen Burrows. The cover depicts Alumni Hall at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire, USA. Image Source: Avatar Press. (Hat tip: Facts in the Case.)
The sixth issue of Alan Moore's Providence, which revives the visceral horror of H. P. Lovecraft, hits shops today. I am still recovering after reading the first five issues. It is a harrowing series, in which a post-World War I journalist is lured into a meta-historical New England underworld that is terrifying, disturbing, taboo and disgusting.
Moore often addresses questions long before they enter common consideration. Ironically, this is because of his deeply historical perspective of human nature. In 2006, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by Moore's anarchist terrorist character in his 1980s' comic series V for Vendetta became the face of global hacktivism and later, of the Occupy movement. Moore hails from Northampton and his outlook is partly shaped by that city's fateful support of Parliament against King Charles I during the English Civil War. The Gunpowder Plot in which Fawkes figured in November 1605 prefaced the Civil War (1642-1651). Late last year, Moore finished his magnum opus about Northampton. It is entitled Jerusalem; his final manuscript was sent off to his publisher with a final word count of over one million words. The editors will want him to cut it, but as he put it, "that's not going to happen." He stated the novel is, "longer than the Bible ... and with a better afterlife scenario." Moore confirmed that Jerusalem is a giant meditation on how the arcane world combines a resistance to fate and government; he deals with mathematics, the English Civil War, predestination and Cromwell; and "I realized [it] would [also] be about the development of economic policy, since Isaac Newton was put in charge of the mint." This year, in Providence, Moore has turned from politics to themes relevant in today's struggle against terrorist violence: what we fear and how we deal with it.
Saint Anselm College, Alumni Hall. Image Source: flickr.
The underbelly of New England, asleep beneath America's shiny image, in Providence #4 (released 2 September 2015). Image Source: My Little Underground.
In Providence, Moore roots fear in Lovecraft's biases and prejudices, the latter author's xenophobia and homophobia, his WASP hatred of immigrants, and Lovecraft's disgust at the modernization of what remained of colonial New England. For Moore, Lovecraft was an anti-modernist modernist, whose work marked a turning point in how we think about fear. No longer was this a Gothic fear of the invincible weight of the past, a New England legacy explored in works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables (1851), based on a real colonial house in Salem, Massachusetts. In an interview with John Higgs from November 2015, Moore remarked that Lovecraft's fear was a fear of the future:
Moore creates horror in Providence by placing his rational reporter in increasingly irrational and anti-rational situations. Some of those situations arise from private things the reporter would rather not face about himself. Some situations blossom in hideous glory in the external world around him, which he feels compelled to pursue and understand."[Lovecraft's style involves the use of] deliberate techniques [to inspire fear by] alienating the reader ... [by] putting the reader into an uncanny space where language is no longer capable of describing ... experience. ... All horror, or most horror up to Lovecraft, had been predicated upon the Gothic tradition, which is a tradition where you have an enormous vertical weight in time that is bearing down upon a fragile present, a history of dark things in the past that are loading up to some terrifying denouement in the present day. With Lovecraft ... there is an awful lot of talking about .... antiquity and the past. But with Lovecraft, I think that there is much more present horror of the future. He's talking about that time when man will be able to organize all of his knowledge. And when that time comes, the only question is whether we will embrace this new illuminating light, or whether we will flee from it into the reassuring shadows of a new Dark Age, which is very prescient, given, say, current fundamentalism, which is a direct response to too much knowledge, too much information. Let's take it all back to something that we're sure of, that God created the world in six days."
John Higgs's interview with Alan Moore (1 November 2015). Video Source: Youtube.
Providence is also about the mysterious horror of the whole 20th century. The story is set in the year 1919. In Moore's return to that seminal time, his series confirms something evident today, as cracks appear around the post-1945 liberal political culture, namely, that we still do not understand the 20th century. Liberal social democracy only superficially contained, healed and concealed the century's horrors. The darkest aspects of the 20th century have been entombed in acceptable socio-political theories, or demonized, or are denied by conspiracy theories. For all the attempts to confront them directly, they have not been directly confronted. That horror eludes and baits the post-1945 establishment. That horror - the real horror of Lovecraft's future - was and is an attempted rationalization of something indelible in human nature. The western problem lies in the attempt - and the failed attempts - to understand something we cannot understand. It just so happens that the traditional term for that gap between rational understanding and reality is 'providence.'
Given the history of violence, the problems and solutions of the 20th century became rationalized and counter-rationalized western variants of something horrible and universally human. In her 2004 book (reprinted in 2015), Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Susan Neiman remarks that 'providence' - not the spooky capital of Rhode Island for which Moore's series is named, but the town's namesake of divine intervention - is indispensable if we want to understand fear and its relationship to evil. She realizes that our weapons against evil are the admissions that secular rationalism is: (1) imperfect; (2) moral; and that therefore, (3) the only thing that can fill the gaps left behind in reason's wake is providence, which is a kind of super rationalism. That super rationalism may be a higher capacity for understanding which we have not yet discovered in ourselves. It may be something beyond us. It may be both.
The attempt to come to terms with evil as something beyond our understanding makes us aware of the limits of our understanding in the first place. Evil is form of cognitive dissonance which functions as a catalyst. It reveals a gap between the way things are in fact and the way we think things should be. Good is the opposite of this state, and so it must be rational; it must make sense, according to the order of the way we want things to be. Thus, a negative gap between facts and understanding defines evil; and the positive gap between understanding and hoped-for reality, also known as providence, has acquired a moral dimension, whether one defines it in religious or secular terms. From this, we derive the liberal idea of progress, starting with the notion that reality must be rationalized. Neiman describes the cognitive dissonance that evil inspires and its implications:
Neiman observes that secular philosophers of the 19th century incorporated theological concepts such as providence into their ideas, not because they were religious or anti-rational, but because the idea of providence is pre-religious. It is more primal than faith and it predates and overrides rational understanding:Freud thought religion itself begins in the longings of a frightened child. ... [H]e traced all questions of Providence to the child's need for protection against the pains that besiege her. ... Human beings and forces of nature can equally be objects of terror. The child seeks as comprehensive a source of shelter as possible. She invents the notion of Providence in the hope of protection ... . This explanation accounts for the emergence of some version of providential thinking across most cultures. ... [O]n that account, the hope of finding sense in the world is older than Athens and Jerusalem put together. ... If the problem of evil begins in a child besieged by terror, our continued engagement with it is an expression of fear. ...[In other words, w]hen the world is not as it should be, we begin to ask why. Metaphysics is the drive to make very general sense of the world in face of the fact that things go intolerably wrong. ... Levinas maintained a similar view: "The first metaphysical question is no longer Leibniz's question why is there something rather than nothing? but why is there evil rather than good?"
The intrusion of moral value into any type of rationalization leads to an interesting conundrum, particularly for our data-obsessed Millennial age. Is it possible to avoid this outcome and instead simply discover 'what happened,' to grasp the basic facts of a question, and not project our values onto it? Can we fight terrible misdeeds in the world in a secular, reasoned way without forcing the world to conform to our moral perspective? Can we actually function according to standards of infinite moral relativism and solipsistic, completely atomized and decentralized value systems? In short, can we live and let live in an absolute way, and still fight the evils of the world? The very natures of evil, and of reason, and of the larger aspect of rationality, also known as providence, all say: no. Neiman observes that the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) approached this problem in The Brothers Karamazov; she cites a scene in which the book's intelligent rationalist, Ivan Karamazov, describes cases of tortured children:Kant, Hegel, and Marx all held certain questions to be essential to human reason. ... Ideas of progress and of Providence are alternative ways of working out versions of the same problem. ... For they are the result ... of something about human nature. ... Hegel expressed this idea in his Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History."Another of the main reasons why I have cited ... [the] earliest instance of the idea that reason rules the world ... and discussed its inadequacy is because it has also been applied more fully to another subject ... the religious truth that the world is not prey to chance and external causes but is governed by Providence. ... [D]ivine Providence is wisdom, coupled with infinite power, which realizes its ends, i.e. the absolute and rational design of the world; and reason is freely self-determining thought, or what the Greeks called nous." [G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975), p. 35.]For Hegel, Providence was one expression of an idea that goes back to the pre-Socratics, and may receive other interpretations in other times. None of these expressions is born from another; all derive from a fundamental truth of reason itself. Kant ... held it to be just as universal. On such views the problem of evil is not derived from religion; religion is one kind of attempt to solve the problem of evil. The invention of Providence was the result of the need for an engine of progress in a world that presents little space for hope. ...The suggestion that Hegel's or Marx's incorporation of sacred categories was less than conscious or critical should ... be rejected. They were well aware that they were attempting to resolve problems traditionally resolved by theology, and to do so with concepts that were developed through interaction with religion. Nineteenth-century philosophers knew that they were reworking ideas that had been rejected in the form of traditional religion. And twentieth-century philosophers were not more naive. ...If - after Auschwitz - they nevertheless reappropriated elements of the traditional problem of evil into ... their work, we must conclude that something besides God is at issue. The impulse to theodicy is not a relic of monotheism but goes deeper ... it is part of the same impulse that leads to monotheism itself. When we recall that similar debates continue within theology, from earliest times, we must cease to view these questions as theological.
Thus, Dostoyevsky's character feels that to deal with the facts, even the most evil facts, in a way that explains them is to create an insidious form of disinformation. The problem is, as Neiman describes it, that any interaction with the facts requires rational thought and its accompanying need to make sense of the world, which has an inescapable moral quality of judgement. The component of moral judgement in any rationalization trumps all efforts to maintain factual neutrality. Finally, therefore, Neiman argues:"I understand nothing," Ivan went on as though in delirium, "and I don't want to understand anything now. I want to stick to the facts. I made up my mind long ago not to understand. For if I should want to understand something, I'd instantly alter the facts, and I've made up my mind to stick to the facts." [F. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. D. Magarshack (London: Penguin, 1958), p. 285.]
Neiman closes her book by observing that experience of flawed reality - up to and including evil - will always be fractured and broken. And our rational understanding of that broken experience will be moral and incomplete. After rational thought reveals its biases and shortcomings, the only thing which confronts evil in the world and the fear it inspires, in Neiman's view, is providence.The moral impulse expressed in ... [Ivan Karamazov's] refusal to understand is overridden by the impulse that sees no alternative. To abandon the attempt to comprehend evil is to abandon every basis of confronting it, in thought as in practice. The thinkers who returned to the problem of evil while knowing the limits of any discussion of it were driven by moral demands.
-Citations from: Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002), pp. 317-328.
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