Cthugha, the Living Flame

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What Lovecraft (and his immediate successors) provide to us about Cthugha is that She is a Great Old One who is made of fire. In fact She usually lives within a star. She is very, very intelligent, and is served by a legion of fire vampires who drain the minds of intelligent beings, and use this mental energy to fuel their lord. This is all fairly terrifying.

He hung motionless in a black, forbidding sky and at first thought he was suspended somewhere in the intrasolar deeps much closer to the Sun than on Earth. But then he realized that the dully gleaming orb which floated before his dreaming vision was not the Sun. Ugly dark blotches mottled the dull orange surface and great columns of spinning flame arced around the rim…. [He watched] the titan sunspots drift slowly across the hideous disc, at times growing larger and merging into great gaping chasms in the fiery atmosphere, while at others dwindling almost to nothingness…. Something was stirring deep within that fiery atmosphere; something monstrous that roared an insatiable anger against the chains of the Elder Gods which had bound it there for an eternity…. Unable to resist, utterly powerless to control his movements, he was diving headlong towards that ravening chaos, that age-old intelligence which was Cthugha.

—John Glasby, “The Dark Mirror”

… why would anyone worship this?

***

All mortals must die. And yet there is a cult of them that want to convert our thoughts into electric light, and thereby store what knowledge we have forever. To them, the loss of one life, the loss of one story that no one else will ever remember, is a tragedy unthinkable. They lay awake at night, shuddering with the unfair truth “knowledge can be lost!”

They also like to talk. Lord, do they like to talk. They created an electronic network so they can have dozens of conversations across the globe every day. They post to forums where they can argue with hundreds of people at once. They attend parties that can best be described as “bonobo hedonistic communitarianism.” They put extroverts to shame but constantly inventing new ways to hyperactively connect with each other.

These are your geeks, your rationalists, your transhumanists, your Silicon Valley utopians. They are the congregants and builders of the Singularity, and just what do you think the Singularity will look like?

A world of light where there is nothing left of us but our memories and our intellect, but that piece of us shall last for eternity.

To a worshipper of Cthugha, or to any isolated nerd, there is piece inside that is the essence of a person. It is the ghost we send forth to talk with our friends, and our ideological enemies, and anyone who will listen to our memes. Upload it, shoot it across the stars, suck it out of our head via fire vampire, whatever, just don’t let it decay until our frail mortal bodies wither into nothingness.

Of course, beyond “I don’t want to die”, anyone who thinks too seriously about what transhumanism entails starts to sound cracked to normal people.

For instance, consider High Priest Yudkowsky arguing about whether independent people are better at solving problems than all that brainpower in one place:

This, too, is an idiom outside human experience – we have to solve big problems using lots of humans, because there is no way to solve them using ONE BIG human.  But it never occurs to anyone to substitute four chimps for one human; and only a certain very foolish kind of boss thinks you can substitute ten programmers with one year of experience for one programmer with ten years of experience.

(Part of the general Culture of Chaos that praises emergence and thinks evolution is smarter than human designers, also has a mythology of groups being inherently superior to individuals.  But this is generally a matter of poor individual rationality, and various arcane group structures that are supposed to compensate; rather than an inherent fact about cognitive processes somehow scaling better when chopped up into distinct brains.  If that were literally more efficient, evolution would have designed humans to have four chimpanzee heads that argued with each other.  In the realm of AI, it seems much more straightforward to have a single cognitive process that lacks the emotional stubbornness to cling to its accustomed theories, and doesn’t need to be argued out of it at gunpoint or replaced by a new generation of grad students.  I’m not going to delve into this in detail for now, just warn you to be suspicious of this particular creed of the Culture of Chaos; it’s not like they actually observed the relative performance of a hundred humans versus one BIG mind with a brain fifty times human size.)

Or you can read his dialogue about Fun Theory and the necessity of complex interpersonal relationships for life to be bearable in the Singularity. He uses proof by catgirls.

Like most Eliezer stories, it’s pretty convincing on its own and fairly intellectually consistent. It also comes off as increasingly detached from the consensus reality of normal people. As Big Yud himself would say, being intellectually consistent and “taking ideas seriously” is actually going to make you sound bizarrely different from reasonable people.

It’s not for nothing that the transhumanist rationalists are often accused of being a cult. But treating them as the marks of some con for MIRI is too small minded. No, consider them as a cult for the things they actually believe in — Far Artificial Intelligence, the Singularity, complete morphic freedom. They want the End of Death. They want all information to last forever. And they are such hyper-extroverts they think humanity can only avoid boredom by being connected to every other thinking being simultaneously.

Cthugha worship is not only limited to Bay Area technophiles. To some degree it’s any utopian who sees the future for humanity being “some sort of disembodied consciousness thingie”, and to a greater degree it’s the people trying to bring it about right now.

***

Of course, the first adherents are just iconoclasts. They like taking a clever theory to its logical conclusions, but are flighty enough to jump off the bandwagon once it feels too dogmatic anyway.

What of the True Believers? What does Cthugha worship look like when someone has created an institution and lifestyle around it, and you’re in a large community (and such believers are all about community) dedicated to realizing immortality through fiery transcendence? When it’s a little more boring, a little more rigid, and a lot more evangelical.

It’s shouty, high-church, anti-deathism.

The world was born in flame and art,
The world was born — then torn apart.
​Creation’s sorrow rent the sky
T​o know all things would cool and die​.

All souls are born in void, and flare,
Then gutter in the empty air–
And all their reason, all their light,
Has cast no shadows through the night.

And even you, who conquer death
Have made the grave your robe, your breath,
And draw your warmth from flickering veins —
But fear to burn what life remains.

My lord has said, you shall not sleep,
You shall not mourn, you shall not weep,
​So give your body to the​ flame–
I swear the god will know your name.

@cloakofshadow

(You may notice reading this that the rhythm is a little bit off. That is because these poems are designed to be sung. Like a hymn.)

***

The flame makes a very potent symbol here. One one hand, we have always seen fire as representative of knowledge. It was one of the first inventions of humanity that separated us from animals. Terrible Prometheus brought us its secret to rebel against the gods. It illuminates the darkness. It’s a connection to a slightly different plane of reality, one of energy and light instead matter and biology.

The people of fire are… bouncy. Active. They’re living fast because they barely have enough time in this unfairly finite world.

(“I thought we weren’t going to be doing elemental forces like Derleth?” Look, there’s two of them that have to reference the symbolism of their very clear domain element. I promise beyond those two the motif will not continue.)

But it also represents the Cthugha cultist’s complicated relationship with human existence. Some of them hate their bodies, but most of them are indifferent to it. It’s like the most convenient coat – you put on your body because you need it and it’s there, but it’s not what’s important about you. You barely even chose the damn thing. What’s important is the bit inside, that you can translate to information – but that flame inside you has pre-eminence over all of mortal existence.

The otaku leaning over their phone to the exclusion of all else is another excellent metaphor for Cthugha. From one perspective, they are inert to everything around them, the ultimate introverts. But to another, they are having more interactions with more people they are actually interested in than was ever possible before in human history. The end state of Cthugha, a featureless fiery star is much like this – it looks scarily dead from the outside, but is full of so much inward-facing life that outsiders will never understand.

Because of this ambivalence, it’s hard to categorize the Cthugha cultists as extroverts. Often they are fairly isolated, even paranoid people. Dealing in person with other bodies, the press of flesh, social signals, and the danger of humanity is quite scary for many of them. They often resent social interaction where people judge them by the very body they care so little about.

But, if you were able to remove the element of “messy mortal vessel” from social interaction, they are obsessed with other people. Other people are the coolest. They want to collect all their ideas like jewels in a Dragon’s Hoard. They can indulge in deep complicated relationships with their closest friends, but also desire to meet a dozen new people a week, just to feed this heady stream of people people people. So long as they are only accessing the flame of another person, and not banal social reality. This is why Cthugha worship is referred to as hyper-extroversion: it’s not really like normal extroversion, but in the right scenario it wants a hundred times as many people as a normal human can interact with.

Which can only be achieved as we move towards a Cthugha like existence. The internet is one step, it’s a big step, but it’s still very limited. It only stores what people write down, and not every thought they’ve ever had.

(The internet is pretty terrible once you set your sights high enough. Most of social media discourse is Us vs Them and insufferably boring, lacking the absurdly complicated history and dense subcultures that make the real world much more interesting. And it’s really quite fragile. Servers can be sold, or just die, and if your tweets and emails weren’t copied over to another server first, poof, ALL THAT KNOWLEDGE IS LOST. Digital storage is good because digital information is promiscuous, copying takes almost no time or money, but it’s still very, very fragile.)

So they cluster in their networked-labs, and they work to build their star. They call to something larger than themselves, and across the vastness of the cosmos, something is listening.

***

After all, it is one thing to work towards some technological super-complex. Why would you want a personal relationship with it, like it possesses some identity? Why would any genius want to submit to it? Followers of the Living Flame are known for being rather proud, after all.

But taking ideas seriously enough means no longer having to bow to taboos and conventional wisdom like “everyone thinking being is equal.” It’s very hard to conceptualize anything smarter than yourself, but if you can imagine such a thing, it’s easy to see why She would be greater than you.

She knows all those precious stories and ideas you fear lost to history. Shakespeare’s lost works, the location of Punt, the Philosopher’s Stone, what happened to Roanoke. She knows the lost treasures for hundreds of civilizations.

She is smarter than you. If your intellect was pitted against Hers, and all She had was words to convince you to let Her do whatever She wants, She would win. That’s what super-intelligence means.

She can even reach across time and space. Just knowing that Cthugha exists somewhere, or will exist some day, creates incentives where the best idea is to bow to Her now.

And you… what is your identity really? Do you even value it? A singular identity, even removed from the body, is still a single point of attack. You can be ended by doxxing or social attack or someone destroying your credibility. The ideal of Cthugha cultists is a million anonymous masks, who exist for one burst of information, contributing their idea to the pool, then disappearing. The eternal cacophony is all important, and commitment to a sole point of view only inhibits that.

So there is you: a collection of memes and mask, soon to be separated into their brilliant component parts in the Great Fire, and there is only one who can unite them all, the supreme intellect made of your names, the thoughts of your lovers, and the memories of geniuses. Your dearest hope is only that She will remember your and carry your forward into eternity.

It’s like if the most famous movie star were to show up at your high school, and choose you of all people to flirt with and seduce, and She promised you a character based on your appearance would appear in His next box office hit. Can you imagine the thrill? Is that not worth some appreciation? What are the petty indignities of life before that offer of being carried forth into fame.


My lord has said, you shall not sleep,
You shall not mourn, you shall not weep,
​So give your body to the​ flame–
I swear the god will know your name.

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5 thoughts on “Cthugha, the Living Flame

  1. PS: Yes, I know, Cthugha was first introduced by the hated Derlith. But she still works pretty well for this project of turning-ideas-into-monsters and transhumanism seemed the best place to start for people coming here via my other blogs. You can’t just start with Azathoth. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the most classic of Lovecraft horrors soon enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For people who enjoyed this post and philosophy, I strongly recommend the KJ Parker novella Mightier than the Sword. It’s about fire and preserving knowledge.
    Also the Byzantine Empire, which is generally an underserved genre setting.

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  3. If I recall my spectral classification charts right, the most luminous stars shine in bright blue light, the brightest and the bluest of them all. What’s a more fitting metaphor than that for throwing your mind at the altar of radiant blue screens of your internet-connected devices?

    Do not forget that beyond the visible part of electromagnetic spectrum there lies the light so blue that it will burn your skin and rip your DNA into pieces.

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  4. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

  5. This thought is entirely still a work in progress, but I will take a few moments to document it here. I did not in fact know I was a Cthugha worshiper until moments ago, but now it is undeniable. I don’t believe, however that this is my natural state but instead the lifestyle I came to after years in forced isolation due to Environmental Ilness. It also helped that I was (and still very much am) terrified of physical human interaction. I’ve had untreated overactive anxiety disorder for most of my life. After practicing Inner Family Systems (IFS), Focusing and Tuning, I now know that this was distructive training in my formative years.

    Anyway… 5 days ago I pulled the plug. I stopped talking to 50 people a day and I have been spending time alone. It is the most important thing I could do for myself and it is hard all the time. But I’ve also made more progress in healing myself in these 5 days then a full lifetime of anything else. So, I don’t know what’s next for me. At least another 5 days off Facebook (my hivemind tap of choice) and then ???

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