PROVIDENCE is a densely layered graphic novel devoted to re-imagining Lovecraft’s life and work in terms of the mythos that emerges from and subtends his creations.
These are not my “annotations” to the graphic novel, the people at the blog “Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence” have done an excellent job, and I am indebted to their work. I have also read with profit the discussions of PROVIDENCE on Sequart, by David Whittaker and by Matthew Kirshenblatt.
This is rather a set of “notes” in my digital Commonplace Book, recording my reveries or waking dreams as I re-read it. I am envisaging Moore’s work as a set of nested dreams, and adding my own to the already complex layering, dreaming the dream on.
The title PROVIDENCE is rich with multiple meanings when it is envisioned with respect to Lovecraft’s life and thought. One thinks first of divine providence, and the last comic in the series ends with Brears statement:
as far as anybody knows this is a predetermined universe, without free will. It’s all destiny,it’s all providence.
Lovecraft was an atheist and a mechanistic materialist, he did not believe in providence but he did believe in determinism. Strangely he was very attentive to dreams and he was fascinated by weird visions expressing anomalies and mad occurences that suspended or belied both divine providence and natural law.
“I am Providence” wrote Lovecraft in a letter to his aunt Lillian Clark. He was rejoicing at returning to his natal Providence after his two years’ exile in New York. Providence is not just a universal theological concept, it is also a specific geographical place.
The first sense of “providence” suggests generality and inevitability, the second suggests singularity and choice. Lovecraft chooses to return to Providence, after having chosen to leave it. Macrocosmic determinism is supplemented (or contested) by microcosmic, local freedom of choice.
A choice opens a bifurcation, or a bridge between two possibilities. Bridges are important in PROVIDENCE, which begins on its very first page on a bridge.
“Lillian” or “Lily”, whose mundane name is Jonathan Russell, is standing on a bridge in Bryant Park, New York City. He is tearing into pieces and throwing into the river a letter from his lover, Robert Black, who is the protagonist of the story if not the hero. The scene takes place after Black has broken with him despite Jonathan’s declaration of love, just before going to the local “suicide parlour” to put an end to his life.
Associatively, the name “Lillian” resonates with the title “Providence”, considering that Lovecraft makes his declaration “I am Providence” in a letter to his aunt Lillian.
“I am Providence” means also “I am not New York”. Lovecraft’s move to New York was a disaster, and he came very near to a nervous breakdown, perhaps even suicide. We find an echo of that experience in the opening paragraph of his short story “He“:
My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.
The protagonist of “He” had gone to New York in search of wonder and inspiration, but had found only horror and oppression. Robert Black moved to New York as a haven for his secrets: as a closet homosexual and a secular Jew. The move was motivated also by careerism, and he does not hesitate to choose his career over his secret life. He was also seeking inspiration as a writer, but this was not to be. His job as a journalist was petty and boring. Unlike Lovecraft returning to Providence, Black does not choose to return to his native Milwaukee. His quest to write a Great American Novel about a secret marginal underground America comes to dominate his life choices, to his undoing.
Much of Lovecraft’s fiction, and Moore’s PROVIDENCE, turns around the question: can a book plunge you into madness, make you go insane or drive you to suicide? But the same question can be posed in relation to a city. Can a city drive you mad? Lovecraft found this to be the case with New York, he was beginning to lose himself. Black too loses himself in New York, and plunges ever deeper into alienation and loss of self. He too, like Lily, will commit suicide at the end, unable to make the transition into the new world that his own quest and experiences, and their record in his Commonplace Book, made possible.
This new world, “Yuggoth”, will be the one dreamt by Cthulhu, whose birth at the end in issue #12 was made possible by Robert Black’s life and influence on Lovecraft, and by the influence that Lovecraft’s writings had on the modern world. Cthulhu will dream and so produce retroactively the circumstances, including Black’s undoing, leading to its birth.
This is a strange dream determinism, in which the future (re)writes the past to make its own existence possible. Dreams are bridges to other meanings and to other possibilities. The philosopher Bernard Stiegler emphasises this strange logic of microcosmic locality where bifurcations can be produced by means of waking dreams and visionary projects. As “Earth” our world is subject to mechanistic determinism and free will is an illusion, as “Yuggoth” it is subject to oniric determination, and producing a bifurcation and choosing one fork rather than another is a real pssibility.
Yuggoth is the Mythos name for the planet Pluto, but in the Mythos dream and waking reality commingle. Pluto is the name for the God of the Underworld, Hades, the world of shades and dreams. At the end of issue #12 Joshi, the Lovecraft scholar, asks “Is this our new world?”, and Brears replies:
“I think it’s Yuggoth now. I think maybe it’s always been Yuggoth”.
Cthulhu’s providence implies a very different ontology to the one compatible with divine providence, and a very different notion of determinism. Famously, Lovecraft’s aphorism “I am Providence” was enounced by Satan in his temptation of Saint Anthony. Thus the title “Providence” expresses another theme of the series, that of divine/demonic duplicity.