Lovecraft fully subscribed to the worldview of modern science, to what Michel Serres calls the Grand Narrative of science. He rejected all religion and all supernaturalism, declaring himself to be an atheist and a materialist.
“The cosmos is, in all probability, an eternal mass of shifting and mutually interacting force-patterns which our present visible universe, our tiny earth, and our puny race of organic beings, form merely a momentary and negligible incident. Thus my serious conception of reality is dynamically opposite to the fantastic position I take as an aesthete. In aesthetics, nothing interests me so much as the idea of strange suspensions of natural law – weird glimpses of terrifyingly elder worlds and abnormal dimensions, and faint scratchings from unknown outside abysses on the rim of the unknown cosmos. I think this kind of thing fascinates me all the more because I don’t believe a word of it!” ( Lovecraft, letter to R. Michael July 20, 1929).
His cosmos was scientific, but Lovecraft was aware of the danger of nihilism inherent in the transition from the religious worldview to such a scientific cosmos, indifferent to the life of humanity and to its cherished values.
In fact the problem is not so much science versus religion as the denoetisation of existence, the reduction to the human animal:
“Honestly, my hatred of the human animal mounts by leaps and bounds the more I see of the miserable vermin” (Selected Letters, 1.211).
Lovecraft’s materialism is not nihilism – the negation of all values, but cosmicism – the idea that our esthetic and moral values are of only relative validity, temporary and local concretions out of the the chaotic material flux of a vast and indifferent universe.
“Indifferentism”, understood as the indifference of the inhuman cosmos to insignificant human values, is not the problem, for why should the vast cosmos care about us? This is just the way things are for Lovecraft. However, cosmic indifference elevated into a human value and belief (pessimism, nihilism) is something else. Lovecraft’s stories constantly mock beliefs and cults as based on ignorance and anthropocentrism.
“Cosmic pessimism” is strictly a contradiction in terms for Lovecraft’s later philosophy. It represents a transitional anthropomorphic stage in the evolution from personalism to cosmicism. For Lovecraft’s Lucretian materialism we are nothing but atoms and the void, but the void is not reducible to mere emptiness. The void is also a plenum, from which all forms arise.
This void as plenum can be seen in Lovecraft’s last story “The Haunter of the Dark“, where the protagonist Robert Blake gazes into the “Shining Trapezohedron” an eerie complexly asymmetrical crystal:
This stone, once exposed, exerted upon Blake an almost alarming fascination. He could scarcely tear his eyes from it, and as he looked at its glistening surfaces he almost fancied it was transparent, with half-formed worlds of wonder within. Into his mind floated pictures of alien orbs with great stone towers, and other orbs with titan mountains and no mark of life, and still remoter spaces where only a stirring in vague blacknesses told of the presence of consciousness and will…. And beyond all else he glimpsed an infinite gulf of darkness, where solid and semi-solid forms were known only by their windy stirrings, and cloudy patterns of force seemed to superimpose order on chaos and hold forth a key to all the paradoxes and arcana of the worlds we know.
This experience of the void pregnant with multiple forms comes at a price, that of one’s identity. This loss of identity is ambiguous in its valence, and can constitute a negative version of the mystical experience if it is resisted or a more positive one if it is embraced. In the case of Robert Blake the experience is one of horror. He desperately clings to his identity as it begins to dissolve into that of Nyarlathotep:
“My name is Blake—Robert Harrison Blake of 620 East Knapp Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. . . . I am on this planet. . . .
“Azathoth have mercy!—the lightning no longer flashes—horrible—I can see everything with a monstrous sense that is not sight—light is dark and dark is light . . . those people on the hill . . . guard . . . candles and charms . . . their priests. . . .
“Sense of distance gone—far is near and near is far. No light—no glass—see that steeple—that tower—window—can hear—Roderick Usher—am mad or going mad—the thing is stirring and fumbling in the tower—I am it and it is I—I want to get out . . . must get out and unify the forces”
However the same experience can be actively sought out and welcomed as a merging with the plenum. This is what happens in the short story “Ex Oblivione“. The narrator is an experienced dreamer taking no pleasure in the mundane literal world. Perhaps this is the crucial difference with Robert Blake, who lives on College Hill and despite being a writer of weird fiction is too personalistic and literal-minded in his approach to the unknown.
In a golden valley of the dream world the narrator encounters a high wall with a locked bronze gate and desires to pass through it to the other side, despite contradictory reports of wonder and of horror waiting beyond. Finally the dreamer finds the instructions for the potion that will unlock the gate and finds happiness rather than horror in the loss of his identity:
But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hoped to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.
The paradox here lies in the act of enunciation. The purported author tells us the story of the dissolution of his identity “into that native infinity of crystal oblivion ” from which he came into life and to which he returned only, apparently, to be called forth once more. The ultimate character of the void is not that of a sterile empty chaos but of a fecund plenum of oblivion and birth of forms. Lovecraft’s encounter with this void did not lead to silence and despair or mad resistance but to literary friendship and the writing of weird fiction.
Note: there is a very interesting discussion of “Ex Oblivione” on The SFFaudio Podcast Episode #393 – AUDIOBOOK/READALONG: Ex Oblivione by H.P. Lovecraft