agnosia

The wisdom of knowing nothing.

Writing about Cthulhu

Copying another writing prompt response from reddit:

“I’d love to read The Call of Cthulhu from Cthulhu’s point of view.”

Well, I would too. I’m a big fan of HP Lovecraft, so I tried writing it.

I heard then a terrible noise
like the scratching of a thousand unborn
at the lids of their coffins;
once, twice, thrice I turned upon myself,
but the scratching continued.
"Ia! Ia!" I heard,
the mewling of children playing with fire,
"Ia! Ia! Cthulu Ftag'hn!" -
the very sound assailed my senses;
though it was to me as the buzzing of a gnat,
yet I was compelled -
the arrogance of these apes!
To call out words unspoken a thousand eons!
The sheer temerity of their crude, slavering tongues
to speak the name unspoken!
Yes, thus did I rise,
and thus did the age of Mankind come to an end.
In R'lyeh, where once I reigned, my host awaited me still.
As I woke from my slumber, I pulled at the festering stitches
holding fast the wounds between each world.
O, the magnificent horrors that issued forth!
A great cacophony of gnashing teeth,
of searching eyes and thirsting fangs!
A thousand millenia the apes had walked this planet;
A thousand seconds saw them crushed beneath it.
Awoken I ascended, beyond the waves and unto the skies.
I felt billions of minds shattering in exquisite agony,
tasted the fear of a million subjects warping at the knee;
like a clarion they rang out among the stars.
A trillion civilizations trembled,
as the void itself heard my call.

Here’s a similar response to another prompt:

Explain the rationale behind HIPAA confidentiality rules like you’re H. P. Lovecraft


Behind the shroud of death, an old one hides
He lies cold, unmoving, uncaring, in wait
I looked upon him once
His eyes dark, deep and chary
Senses incognate, cognizance insensate
O! The Madness that I saw waiting there
It tore me from the World that Is and transplanted me
Like a tumescence upon the fabric of time,
to a world beyond worlds, time beyond time
There in the Golden City he waits, uncaring, unmoving - cold.
Behind him, the countless legions of those he followed,
A cacophony of silence,
a tide endlessly waning with grim assurance.
I found I could not look away from his eyes,
those portals to this realm
of maddening, horrifying, terrible certainty.
Yet I found I must, or I should never return from it.
With a small, bleeding pen I scratched his name,
for all the world to know and only I to see.
He was followed by hounds.
Not the black and bleak hounds of lore,
the slavering Cú Sídhe
whom the Celtmen feared and worshipped in the age of Gods;
No, they came clad in white, with tarnished smiles
scrubbed bare by endless polish.
They knew the man, or so they said,
and sought to find the truth behind his madness.
They told me his madness lay with him,
but could deliver them his coffers and accounts -
as though the truth had any need for such petty things!
How could I warn them away from it, without betraying
my own horrible knowledge of that world beyond!
I knew them for what they were, hyenas -
viciously fixating on a fresh and lonely corpse.
I heard the unwavering voice of Law,
as though a page had been torn from the Necronomicon itself
and dictated clear in a pitch that only I could hear:
"Begone! Let this Health Information be ever Protected,
except for we, the Covered Entities,
who bask in the ebon glow of death.
The mental health status of a patient
shall not be disclosed without consent, even unto death.
You know nothing of this thing who was a man,
and ever more, so shall you remain."
Thus they fled,
like dogs seeing fire at the end of an endless midnight.
His madness went with him, the man who waited beyond worlds,
staring down from the precipice of a boundless tall cliff.
Only I, his health care provider,
shall keep the lantern of deathly madness lit,
in preparation for the day when it must light my own path.

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The Crusader and the Crone

A Witch attempts to kill the knight who has been hunting her for years by pretending to be a damsel in distress. As she discovers his ultimate weakness, she realizes she has fallen in love with him.

A while back I wrote the first draft of this as a response to the following writing prompt on reddit.com. It’s presented here, edited and updated for my own storage and, hopefully, your reading pleasure.

————————————————————–

“Help!”

Ser Galen’s eyes narrowed at the shriek, though he struggled to remain outwardly calm. He could not ignore an innocent in peril, but neither could he afford to lower his guard on their account. He had been a witch-hunter for years, and this would not be the first trap he’d been led into by his own compassion. Nor the last, he thought grimly, spurring his mount toward the sound.

It was late. The witching hour, it was called – the time just before midnight when the barrier between the world and the next was thinnest. The ideal time to strike back at a pursuer, or lash out at a victim. It was possible that the cry for help was issued from someone with a perfectly innocent reason to be here on the moor in the dead of night – but unlikely. Especially now, as he followed close on the trail of Amaranthin, a cunning and exceedingly dangerous witch. This was unlikely to be anything other than one of her ploys – but the faithful know that prudence is a poor substitute for justice.

“Hail, the desperate!” Galen shouted into the darkness, quickly checking the wards on his shield. “Are you in need of aid?”

“Yes!” Not the voice of a young woman – perhaps just old enough to be a grandmother. “Help me, please! My daughter, she’s not breathing!” He suddenly saw her come running headlong toward the light of his lantern, silhouette plain against the starlit brambles. “How far?” Galen asked, gently urging his steed forward. “Across the brook, milord, about a league. Please, she needs a priest!”

“Direct me, then,” he instructed, making the sign of the cross and throwing salt across his shoulder. “Ride with me. I would not separate a woman of God from her imperiled kin.” The woman ran to the horse and mounted up behind him with an ease that bespoke years of practiced horsemanship. Unusual, but not impossible – and the wards on his saddle were designed to ensure that any witch who tried to mount his horse would be greeted with unimaginable agony. “Forward here, ser, and turn to the left as you cross the brook!” she commanded confidently. Here tone was even more unusual than her equestrianism. Curt, sharp, and authoritative – unheard of for a peasant addressing a knight. And was it pain that cut short her breaths, or merely worry?  Curious.

They soon came upon the girl laying unconscious against a tree. Her mother leapt off immediately and cradled her, pulling one of the girl’s limp hands up to brush her face. She has knowledge of medicine, Galen realized. “Does her blood yet flow?” he asked, watching closely for her reaction. “Yes, her heart is beating, milord. Please, we need to bring her to a church! She may yet confess her sins and enter God’s kingdom in a state of grace.”

This was a trap, but not for me, Galen mused. Though fell creatures could never enter hallowed ground unbidden, they could try anything to gain an invitation. “She doesn’t need a priest, mother.” What am I doing? he wondered, but continued: “She needs her blood let, and tea made of willow. She’s been bitten by a snake, don’t you see how her hands tremble? Her blood will curdle and rot if we are not quick to push it from her.” Of course, he suspected, she knew this already. Like as not she had been the one to hold the snake. Many of his peers would already have put the both of them to the sword in the same situation.

“Ser knight, she’s been here cavorting with the Devil himself. Small wonder if she’s been bitten by a serpent. I would not want her to live in sin any more than to die in it, do you understand? Take us to a church at once!” She threw her arms about in a commanding gesture, but the fiction of the damsel in distress was gone. Galen felt his eyelids droop and his thoughts waver, a haze descending on him as though he were reaching the end of a long march through thick fog. Yes, a church – she should die in a church, he thought slowly.But soon his resolve caught up with him, and he shook the spell away.

Galen hastily threw a circle of salt around the girl and pushed the witch out, compelling her to remain outside its bounds. “Do you think you have authority over death, woman? Has all of your wickedness driven from you the memory of compassion?” She spat at this, but he continued. “Until the moment of death, all of God’s creatures may find redemption. Even this girl. Even you. Please do not make me end your life, and hers, tonight, when they can both be saved.” Scratching crucifixes into the circle, he set about the task of saving a life. Amaranthin watched briefly, her face a mixture of fury and amusement, before vanishing into the night. And so with the death of another she has again bought her own life, he thought absently as he sought for the adder’s bite.

Two grotesque punctures about the girl’s left breast marked the poison’s unmistakable entry. Quickly, he set to the bloodletting. An initiation ritual. He had seen these marks before, two neat scars on the corpse of every witch he had slain. And the next step, the profane resurrection on an altar of our Lord. Good that I did not bring her to a church. Grimly, wordlessly, he pushed the tainted blood from her wound.

He was there for some time, intent enough that he did not see the witch return. She placed a small clay cup at the boundary of the circle, the bitter scent of willow tea wafting over. Her expression neutral now, she quietly asked “Do you truly believe she can be saved?”

“Her wounds are not fatal. She may yet live through the night.”

“Stubborn as ever, I see. No, that’s not what I meant.” She looked away, pensive. “How long have you been chasing after me now?”

“Nine-hundred and sixty-two days,” Galen replied, not looking up. “Though if you count the days I spent as page to Ser Thalus, God rest his soul, the total is increased by eight hundred and twelve.”

She smiled at that. “That was a long time ago, now. He was never as careful as you are, Galen. Nor so concerned with the lives of blasphemers.”

“All are rendered equal before the Lord,” he recited in a monotone. “We shall not turn away those in need until they have turned away from our Lord God.”

“And do you think, even now, that she has not turned? That I have not turned? Would you stoop over even me, to push poison from my veins?”

“My lady,” Galen exhaled, the bloodletting complete. Cautiously extending one hand from the circle and picking up the tea, he addressed Amaranthin directly. “It saddens me that you do not understand that is precisely what I am doing now. The girl has been poisoned by a creature of Earth, but you have been poisoned by a creature of Hell. It is not too late for either of you to be purged of venom. All children of God are given the opportunity to repent until they are dead, even a mistress of the Adversary. My mission is only to ensure that you meet with one outcome or the other.”

Slow, ragged breaths were coming more strongly now from the girl. Looking back to her, he poured the tea across her lips, taking care she would not choke on it. He kept his gaze fixed downward as the witch replied, her voice incredulous.

“You would offer even me the mercy of repentance, after all that I’ve done? You think that even I have salvation to find in the arms of God? Oh, Galen.” She sighed, both of them quiet for a while. “How is it that you can be at once so discerning and yet so naive?”

They both remained in silence a while while life slowly returned to the poisoned girl, her breath returning in coughs and spasms. He hardly noticed that the witch had fled, but when he looked up she was gone. As he waited for life to slowly return to her would-be apprentice, he spoke half to himself, half to Amaranthin, half to God.

“It is in the nature of sin that it is temporary, but death is permanent. As long as a person shall draw breath, the Lord will not turn them away. He will not forsake you.” More softly he added, “I will not forsake you.”

“I daresay you will not,” Amarthin said, her voice suddenly close, whispering into Galen’s ear. In one motion he stood up, shield raised and sword drawn, but she was long gone.

The intrinsic and extrinsic in the problem of choice.

This post will be about the conflict between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and the extent to which I feel the former has swallowed the latter in modern society (and most societies throughout history.)

The problem of choice is perhaps the most fundamental question in all of human inquiry. I will not develop this point here, but take it as axiomatic that choice, if it is not the most fundamental question, is at least important enough to devote your attention to for 1000 words or so. One might ask what I mean by choice, and this is a reasonable question: by choice I mean simultaneously the problems of agency (will versus fate), valuation (important versus unimportant), and optimization (maximal versus minimal). If these 2-word definitions of agency, valuation, and optimization are unclear or insufficient, I should be glad to address them in a later post or a comments thread, but for now I would like to move on.

Accepting that choice – agency, valuation and optimization – is worth addressing, let us address each of its component problems in turn from the framework of intrinsic (self-evident) and extrinsic (externally-imposed) meaning and motivation. The easiest of the three to address in this way is the problem of agency, since it is almost by definition the conflict between the intrinsic and extrinsic. What I mean by agency here is what might be called an ontological problem of intrinsic control of the body – can the “self” even be said to exist, given the external world’s imposition of fate (in the sense of physical determinism)?

In a sense the problem of agency is absurd. We are, as human beings, completely entangled in the notion of being an agent and having a “self”; it is an intrinsic concept. As Descartes succinctly put it, cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.” But when we probe exactly what it means to “think” the question quickly becomes a troubling and worthwhile one. Modern physics has demonstrated that the external world is predictable, and modern neuroscience is fast approaching the same conclusion about the internal world. Can we really have “free will” if we obey predictable laws? Can we really be treated as agents if we are in a very real sense puppets on the strings of the universe?

Yes, of course we can!

I think it is clear, through some inspection, that freedom and responsibility – two of the cornerstones of agency – are not diminished by determinism. I think the problem of freedom is the one that is more viscerally disturbing to us as human beings, since we would much rather lack responsibility than freedom. (Yet these two concepts, freedom and responsibility, are fully and inextricably intertwined: the ability to make a decision freely implies culpability for its consequences.)

Freedom and responsibility are not diminished by fatalism, I argue, since we as human beings are able to distinguish the causative nature of our own minds from the fatal characteristics of the physical world; in other words, we are able (somehow) to recognize those physical facts which occurred as a consequence of our intention. To the extent that we are free to choose our own intentions, then, we have freedom to affect the world. Free will may indeed be an illusion, but it is a persistent one for the subject – we are stuck with the quale of freedom due to the very nature of consciousness. We are intrinsically self-controlled; indeed, the boundary of conscious control is perhaps one of the most natural ways of distinguishing the self from non-self.

This does not mean that we do not also experience the phenomenon of being extrinsically controlled, rather than intrinsically endowed with willpower. The conflict between the developing notion of the will over the lifetime of the individual (and the lifetime of a society) and the opposite notions of the self and non-self is a fundamental human conflict. In this conflict, the proper and healthy solution seems obviously to be the victory of the self (defined by its seemingly freely-made decisions) over the non-self in the battle for control of the body. The other solution – that the non-self controls the body – is indistinguishable from death, the state in which the will no longer has any control over the physical components of the body.

The assertion of self-control – a necessary consequence of the experience of a self – is an important part of the process of maturation of the mind (whether this occurs in childhood, as the notion of freedom develops, or in adulthood as the notion of responsibility develops). And yet self-control, like many things, seems to be defined intrinsically but given meaning only in the face of its opposite – we must be able to draw a boundary between self and non-self, between freedom and constraint, or else the concept of either is meaningless. Self-control, therefore, can only be developed through its temporary absence and later reinstatement. It is critical that this contrast be drawn for the mind to properly develop and exist as a separate entity from the physical world.

[At this point I make a departure from the problem of choice to discuss ethics in society. If you’re not interested in my rants about the social world, you can stop reading here.]

It is a personal feeling of mine that our modern society (and to a great extent every society, at some point in its lifespan) suppresses independent thought and action, without reinstating it, to its great peril. We have traded the priority of independence for the comfort of security. We are so caught up in our own safety nets that we do not know how to properly catch ourselves when we fall. The priority of safety – for the individual, for the society – is contrary to the priority of personal development, since ultimately any adequate level of psychological development involves the occurrence and recognition of failures as well as successes. We have forgotten, in the modern era, how to deal with a world in which control is given to the individual and taken away from the group. This is apparent in one of the most vexing modern (and historical) social conventions: the notion that ethics and morality come from without, and not within; that moral behavior is socially adaptable and can be arrived at simply by adherence to a code of conduct given extrinsically.

Nothing could be more false!

Truly ethical behavior may – and perhaps must – come into conflict with the establishment; the individual, in such situations, must be able to reconcile his or her own knowledge of what is right and wrong with society’s notions of these things, and to recognize which of the two is in error; and furthermore he or she must be able to resolve this conflict peacefully, rationally, and nonviolently, in a manner that is acceptable to both the individual and the society. This recognition and solution are impossible in an individual who is fully socially-adapted, since such an individual will never recognize an error in the society. Thus, unless a society is morally perfect (which ours is certainly not), it requires a certain amount of sociopathy from its constituents to pull it closer to the ideal, and the individuals who have exceeded the morality of the society   will necessarily be labeled as antisocial.

As a final remark, I will make reference to a popular quote (whose original author is evidently disputed): “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It is certainly not necessarily true that every sociopath is a morally superior individual. We must as a society be able to recognize and address dangerous individuals; but I believe we as a society must hold ourselves to the same standards we would hold a moral rebel to, as mentioned above; namely we must resolve our conflict as a society with them peacefully, rationally, and nonviolently. Morality can never be extrinsically imposed on an individual; he or she must arrive at it in their own way, from their own intrinsic values.

What is this blog for?

I’ve made some abortive attempts at blogging before, but made the mistake of restricting them to a single topic or group of topics – philosophy, spirituality, music, etc. – when in fact they would be far more likely to be updated regularly if I didn’t tie my hands before even beginning. Thus, I give you this blog: a collection of whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like it.