These are just some sketchy thoughts I've been beaning around for the last few months. It occurs to me that the most interesting aspect of Lovecraft's fiction, particularly his later fiction, is the deliberate nature of his reversal of the Aristotelian ontology of life and non-life which has generally been reinforced by Western thinking since the Enlightenment. This hierarchy is probably familiar: at the bottom is 'inert', 'passive' matter, next above matter is insensate but growing plant life, above plant life is sensate and animate animal life, and above that we find rational, creative, and communicative human life. One might include one more hierarchical tier within the realm of the human--namely the civilized, cultivated, and allegedly superior category of white, European humans who reside above the rest of humanity (in Western thinking).
My contention is that HPL turns this hierarchy on its head with quite a bit of exactitude. For example, the alien races who displace notions of human superiority are often taxonomically identified with forms of life generally deemed to be simple, primitive, and less advanced than human beings: the Great Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness are classified as plantlike, the Mi-Go of "The Whisperer in Darkness" are a combination of fungus and arthropod, the Deep Ones of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" are a combination of fish and amphibian, the Shoggoths of Mountains and "Shadow" are reminiscent of unicellular or amoebic protozoan life. Pushing farther out from the realm of the living into the realm of the Ancient Ones themselves, the alien god-entities of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos tend to exhibit anomalies of behavior and makeup which associate them with a weird, material quasi-life. Witness Cthulhu's plastic composition, the strange ultra-dimensionality of Yog-Sothoth, and the depiction of Azathoth as a nuclear chaos--associating this last most radically with a picture of matter itself as infernal, chaotic, capricious, potent, and terrifyingly willful yet mindless.
There is one more component of Lovecraft's cosmology: the 'degraded' nonwhite cultists who often play a crucial role in this fictional world. Many simply write off Lovecraft's descriptions of these 'mongrel races' as symptomatic of his virulent racism, and while correct, this yet ignores a deeper association at work: His positioning of nonwhites as associated with the nonhuman entities of his cosmology is intimately linked to his deliberate inversion of the Western cosmos. In fact, I think his work more clearly than much other speculative fiction, demonstrates how deeply implicated racist ideology is within the traditional structure of Enlightenment humanism. Consider that humanism, in its concentrated effort to define the human being, is structured by a necessarily exclusionary logic--in order to define what it is to be human, something must be considered not-human. Historically this meant many marginalized nonwhite groups were deemed not human, and even when finally included within an 'expanded' definition of the human race, are treated as less-than-human by the Western whites who historically controlled and disseminated such definitions.
Lovecraft demonstrates, literally through his own racism, and in conjunction with his conceptual reversal of Aristotelian hierarchy, how closely tied together is the conception of the nonhuman as subordinate to the human and the conception of nonwhite humans as subordinate to white humans. This logic of subordination is not only mirrored between the two lines of thought, but the hierarchy is literally continuous from bottom to top. Put explicitly, Lovecraft's cosmology as a one-to-one reversal of Aristotle goes as follows: cultivated, white Westerner at the bottom, mixed-race nonwhite cultist above him, alien (but recognizably living) invertebrate-like creature above the cultist, and radically material god-entity residing at the top.
A final word on the problematic logic of humanism: the problem with merely expanding the definition of the human to include more and more categories is that there's a limit to how much the category itself can contain. At the limit, it will either cease to have any definitional meaning (perhaps the best-case scenario), or a kind of conservative backlash will contract the definition and attempt to return the term to its 'pure', highly exclusionary original state (one could argue that this latter is a continuously present threat). In essence, what can be gained through humanism for human beings can be lost just as easily through the same humanist logic. It seems, therefore, the best we can do is attempt to disassemble the Western concept of the human. I think, interestingly, that Lovecraft's work points out the way, and that's where I take up his fiction in my own art.
As a final note, I certainly hope this is not read as a defense of HPL's racism. There is far too much of that brand of apologetics rampant in fan circles, but there is also far too much in the way of simplistic analysis which dismisses as racist anyone who doesn't loudly condemn Lovecraft's work in total. While the former is indefensible and repugnant, the latter, to me, is crass and disingenuous.
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan