Lovecraftian Scientists: Cold and Calculating Mechanistic Materialist Dr. Herbert West

herbert_west_mscorley.blogspot.com Herbert West (from http://www.mscorley.blogspot.com)

In the previous article we suggested that Crawford Tillinghast from H.P. Lovecraft’s tale “From Beyond” was a disciple of Hugh S.R. Elliot ‘s modern philosophy of mechanistic materialism. However, Elliot also served as a mentor to one of Lovecraft’s most notorious scientists – Dr. Herbert West.

In “From Beyond” the protagonist explicitly states that Tillinghast should never has studied science and philosophy since these “…things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator…” Indeed, when he failed Tillinghast was described as being solitary and melancholy and when he succeeded he became a vengeful, stereotypically “mad scientist.” The phase, “they laughed at me at the university but I’ll show him!” certainly comes to mind when Tillinghast invites one of his few friends to his home.

herbert_west_the_reanimator_by_ozzkrol-d9f6hop Herbert West, the Reanimator by Ozzkrol (www.deviantart.com)

In sharp contrast to the wide emotions of Tillinghast, Herbert West is described more as a frigid and impersonal investigator. In fact, West was probably too much of a frigid and impersonal investigator, caring little for what species was being used for his experiments. While his experiments started with rabbits and guinea-pigs, he quickly moved to cats and dogs and then monkeys before his first human trails. Whatever species West was working on, he treated them all the same – biological resources to test his animating solutions. Thus, West appears to be on the opposite end of a spectrum of personalities for Lovecraftian Scientist, yet both are conveyed as highly negative and enough dangerous. Tillinghast’s emotions got the better of him, apparently whether he succeeds or fails. In sharp contrast, West was cold and completely clinical in his experimentation, which at first seems like this is exactly what Lovecraft perceives as what makes for a good scientist. However, West obviously takes his clinical approach way too far, which is exacerbated by the fact that he is a medical doctor. As we will discuss in the next article on Herbert West, his scientific attitude and behavior substantially changes through the course of events in “Herbert West – Reanimator.”

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As previously indicated, Herbert West was a disciple of Hugh S.R. Elliot ‘s modern philosophy of mechanistic materialism, even more so than was Crawford Tillinghast. There are a number of instances throughout “Herbert West – Reanimator” where Elliot’s third principle of the denial of any form of existence that cannot be described in terms of matter or motion is being restated. In other words, everything in existence can be described under the laws of physics and chemistry. Some supporting evidence for this can be found in passages such as:

“His (Herbert West’s) views, which were widely ridiculed by the faculty and his fellow-students, hinged on the essentially mechanistic nature of life; and concerned means for operating the organic machinery of mankind by calculated chemical action after the failure of natural processes.”

“Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth…”

“West was a materialist, believing in no soul and attributing all the workings of consciousness to bodily phenomena; consequently, he looked for no revelation of hideous secrets from gulfs and caverns beyond death’s barrier.”

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These passages confirm that West’s philosophical outlook and scientific endeavors were firmly rooted in Elliot’s mechanistic materialism and his cold and calculating methods of experimentation where justified in his mind with the idea that the soul does not exist and everything in reality can be explained through physics and chemistry. While not explicitly stated, such an attitude justified West’s experiments and disregard for potential moral dilemmas associated with his work. This attitude has been seen in other scientists.

While Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein (in the 1932 movie) was emotionally volatile, similar to Crawford Tillinghast, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein (of the Hammer Films) was more like Herbert West. Cushing’s Frankenstein was very cool and calculating in those films. He did not care who he affected, harmed or even killed as long as he had the raw biological resources he needed for his experiments. Anytime an assistant expressed concerns or questions over the morality of the situation, Cushing’s Frankenstein justified it by emphasizing that his work may help millions and may even overcome death. Herbert West, particularly in the Stuart Gordon “Reanimator” films used a similar augment of justification whenever something got out of control.

206a7b5d6249395f70cefa5c953e625f                                               Peter Cushing at Dr. Frankenstein

Another comparison to Herbert West is David the android in the “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” films. Soon after his creation David realizes that humans are a flawed species and he may even harbor some resentment over how most humans treat him. A large part of this was how humans would remind him he did not have a soul or was not “a real boy.” However, David’s response was typically, you will die, I will not. Being an android David was very cool and calculating so when he made it his goal of creating the perfect organism in “Alien: Covenant” he did not care who he used in his experiments. Even Elizabeth Shaw, the one human who shows some degree of kindness to David and even gave him a second chance, was used as biological material in his alien experiments. In “Alien: Covenant” David wipes out an entire alien species just to run his experiments with the biological material found in “Prometheus.” Finally, in one part of the film a character asks David what he believes in and his answer is “creation.” Thus, David is similar to both Herbert West and Cushing’s Frankenstein, but is probably the most extreme example, of a scientist following Elliot’s mechanistic materialism to the point where all that matters is physics and chemistry. The results of the experiments and progress toward the ultimate goal is all that counts. In a sense, David is the direct by-product of mechanistic materialism.

alien-covenant-footage-description-begs-question-if-david-has-soul-13 The android David from “Prometheus”

While Herbert West was a mechanistic materialist his behavior and personality does become more erratic through the tale. This will be discussed in greater detail in the next article. Thank you – Fred.

covenantshaw1 One of David’s test subjects, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (from Alien Covenant)

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One thought on “Lovecraftian Scientists: Cold and Calculating Mechanistic Materialist Dr. Herbert West

  1. A character who is a mechanistic materialist either hits some sort of limit and is destroyed (as Herbert West is), or changes somehow. Herbert West becomes somewhat irrational before he meets his end, in that his objective changes from scientific discovery to a kind of thrill-seeking (at least in the nameless narrator’s opinion). I found Herbert and his friend fascinating, to the point that I wrote a novel loosely based on HPL’s story, taking the route of transformation rather than destruction. It’s called The Friendship of Mortals.

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