Imagined Horrors, Eldritch Blasphemies (Interim thoughts on Lovecraft)
Updated: Mar 21, 2021
Those of you kind enough to read my previous Lovecraft post may well have been either impressed or horrified that I somehow managed to create 10 minutes worth of content without once referring to the hideous giant cephalopod squirming away obscenely in the centre of the room. Not Cthulhu - I name-checked him - but his creator's monstrous racism. Be assured, this is not because I was unaware of it. You hardly have to read widely in his work before it surfaces, nor did he make much effort to conceal it in his daily life. "Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterise New York", recounted his wife, Sonia, "Howard would become livid with rage. He seemed almost to lose his mind."
Sonia's juxtaposition of racist rage and mental instability points to a central contradiction in her husband's work. Lovecraft liked to see himself as a man governed by scientific rationality. He despised Victorian literature for its sentimentality and religiosity, whilst prizing the wit, elegance and reason of the18th Century. His view of the Age of Johnson was, to say the least, selective, conveniently ignoring its grubby, bawdy, boozy underbelly. However, his scientific pursuits - amateur astronomy, home chemistry, and extensive reading in evolutionary philosophy - would not permit him to look away from their more disturbing implications. Instead of revealing to him the majesty of a Newtonian clockwork or imbuing him with an Augustan mastery of his surroundings, they disclosed vistas of cosmic chaos that led him down tangled paths of terror, isolation and paralysis. No, he was not (as L. Sprague de Camp's 1975 biography led some to believe) agoraphobic or, on a personal level, misanthropic - even if his most vital friendships appear to have been largely (in some cases, entirely) sustained by letter - but his limited interest in human character, his queasily fastidious relationship with the physical and his xenophobia formed a tight knot at the centre of his literary production that would ultimately stifle it's development.
I say this in the full knowledge that some readers will disagree. I don't mean simply those who might be inclined to endorse Lovecraft's paranoia - one wouldn't be surprised to discover he had many fervent fans amongst the followers of QAnon - but also liberal critics who feel that too much attention has been given to this sole lamentable aspect of a distinguished oeuvre. Pre-eminent amongst these is S. T. Joshi, doyen of Lovecraft scholars and biographers, who in 2015 returned his World Fantasy Awards in protest at the WFA's decision to change the design of their trophy from a likeness of Lovecraft to a more generalised image of a dragonish tree before a full moon. This alteration, he has maintained, "was meant to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors", representing "a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness and explicit acceptance of...crude, ignorant and tendentious slanders". This protest is lent a certain frisson both by the intensity of some of Joshi's language - his describing the Awards as "irremediably tainted" strikes me as particularly inflammatory in this context - and the knowledge that he is himself, as his name might suggest, a person of colour.
Now, as someone who resents having constantly to apologize for admiring the poetry of Ezra Pound, the novels of Knut Hamsun, the plays of Strindberg or the music of Wagner, I share much of my generation's dismay at the current excesses of woke and cancel culture. Part of the value of literary study surely resides in confronting, contextualizing and assessing ideological difference, rather than simply attempting to rub it out. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how a statuette of Lovecraft might seem an inappropriate token of achievement within a genre currently benefiting from a particularly vibrant diversification. Also to sympathise with those who feel that the terms "crude, ignorant and tendentious" might more properly be applied to, say, Lovecraft's early poem "On the Creation of Niggers". Admittedly, a small question mark lies over the authorship of this vile piece of scribble (which one assumes was not intended for publication) but it can be no surprise that most Lovecraftians (including Joshi) accept the attribution. I can't help feeling there is something uniquely problematic about Lovecraft's racism that makes it impossible to ignore in any consideration of his work as literature (though, as you saw, I did try!).
It is partly a question of extent and intensity. For many - especially those whose knowledge of his music doesn't extend much beyond the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now - Wagner is, in the words of Alex Ross, "the very embodiment of artistic evil" and, true, he did offloaded foul opinions both in his speech and in various more or less unreadable prose writings. His thirteen operas, however, contain no direct racism whatsoever (unless you want to include the derogatory depiction of a mythical race of dwarves). Likewise, though racist and reactionary attitudes can be inferred across the 800 pages of Pound's Cantos, they contain only seven explicit instances of anti-Semitism. (Seven more than they should, of course.) By contrast, Lovecraft drops direct racist asides with startling casualness and frequency, as well as making xenophobia central to the meaning of such tales as "The Street", "The Terrible Old Man" and "The Transition of Juan Romero". Sure, these are early, minor pieces and the late fiction upon which his reputation chiefly rests is notably less deplorable, but the consideration of Lovecraft's work alongside that of complex artistic figures such as Wagner and Pound does make me wonder if the growing field of Lovecraftian apologetics isn't in some measure driven by a grudging awareness of his small achievement's vulnerabilities and doesn't, in fact, sometimes unwittingly expose them.
In the introduction to his Oxford World Classics selection from the tales, for instance, Roger Luckhurst seeks to contextualize Lovecraft's attitudes by drawing attention to the disquiet expressed by Henry James in his 1907 travel book The American Scene at the changes being wrought upon the country of his birth by immigration and desegregation. The Master was troubled by the babel of unfamiliar tongues that assailed his ears on the streets of New York and clearly found the black people he encountered there disconcertingly alien in speech and manner. But these alleged similarities of attitude to Lovecraft only point up more important divergences. James did not become livid with rage or fear he was losing his mind. He may not have been particularly interested in the background or culture of the Armenian labourer he attempted to converse with in French and Italian, but at least he did try - however ineptly - to engage with him. James had grown up part of a staunchly abolitionist family but knew few, if any, black people at all closely. His comments on the "improving" nature of integration for black and immigrant populations are certainly patronising, but not demonizing, do not deny these peoples' humanity, and can be forgiven (not condoned) when placed within the contexts of his time, age, class and experience.
The organic things - Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid - inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnameabilities.
After the frenzy of this oft-cited excerpt from the correspondence - so grotesquely overwrought, one might almost suspect self-parody - it astonishes me to come across the philosopher John Gray (in an otherwise highly perceptive essay) offhandedly declaring that "fortunately, the core of [Lovecraft's] work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments. His real subject is the inhumanity of the cosmos". Yes, his central subject is the inhumanity of the cosmos, but this nightmare vision of the American melting pot as a cauldron of noxious scum, conflating, as it does, "Italo-Semitico-Mongoloids" (he is confining himself here merely to the lighter-skinned "organic things" polluting the ghettos of New York) with "monstrous and nebulous adumbrations" and "deep sea unnameabilities", demonstrates that the link between the cosmic pessimism of Lovecraft's fiction and his "social and racial resentments" is inextricable and fundamental. The alien populations he encountered were the closest and most looming manifestation of the universe's annihilating indifference, their unbridled fecundity particularly revolting to a man at least partly repelled by sex.
One might also note the self-isolating nature of Lovecraft's interaction with his environment. His curiosity about the workings of nature, like Mrs. Jellyby's philanthropy in Bleak House, had something "telescopic" about it. The "organic things" are "nebulous", "vaguely formed", and evoked in language ("slithering and oozing") that implies a lack of definite shape. They were clearly too immediate a presence to be brought into focus. Pascal confessed feeling terror at "the profound silences of infinite space" and took refuge in religious faith. Denying himself the consolations of religion, Lovecraft one feels, could probably contemplate the vastness of space with equanimity. It was the dense messiness of the up close and biological he could barely bring himself to look at. Perhaps the most startling single instance of racism in his fiction, the description of the dead black pugilist Buck Robinson in the serial story "Herbert West - Reanimator" affords a sharp demonstration of this. Robinson's ring-name, "The Harlem Smoke", implies vagueness of form. The unnamed medical student narrator is overtaken by "involuntary shudders" after giving him "a moment's examination" which brings that individual black entity into unwelcome relief.
The horror provoked by Robinson's corpse is partly Darwinian. He has "abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs" - the implication, of course, being that the black man exists lower down the evolutionary chain than the white. (Indeed, in his "reanimated" state, he will revert to his ancestral quadrupedalism and cannibalism.) But it is also atavistic, Robinson possessing a visage that "conjure[s] up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon". It is a paradox that Lovecraft himself appears to have been at least intermittently aware of. The last quoted phrase echoes a passage in "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family" - an early and particularly alarming expression of anxieties over miscegenation and "degeneration" - where the tales of Africa told by the "fearless explorer" Sir Wade Jermyn lead to his confinement in a madhouse. "In a rational age like the eighteenth century it was unwise for a man of learning to talk about wild nights and strange scenes under a Congo moon." Not that Lovecraft was at all unique in his time for combining rational and atavistic assumptions. They rub up against each other problematically in the "psycho-dynamic" theories of Freud and (more explicitly) Jung, and co-existed, however destructively, in both Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia. John Gray is certainly right to declare that "[f[or all his scorn for the age in which he lived, Lovecraft embodied some of its ugliest (and most commonplace) beliefs and attitudes".
These days, Lovecraft is increasingly admired by "new atheists" (such as Joshi), sub-Foulcaultians, and anti-Enlightenment thinkers (including Gray) for his home-made "Cosmicist" outlook. Hardly, as many who should know better sometimes dignify it, a developed philosophic system (indeed, denying the validity of "philosophical" frameworks) this insisted upon the complete insignificance of humanity within a universe both godless and (crucially) beyond human comprehension. It goes further than much "traditional" atheism - for instance, that of Jean-Paul Sartre or Richard Dawkins - in refusing to elevate "humanist" values and potential. If, for Lovecraft, the Judeo-Christian God was created in man's image, rather than the other way round, that only served to point up mankind's pitiful limitations and delusions. (Womankind occupying a distinctly peripheral place in the Lovecraftian imagination.) Unfortunately, however, he needed those limitations and delusions more than most in order to function within a human world for which his sheltered childhood had left him hopelessly ill-equipped. This led to a certain disingenuousness in his anti-religiosity. Though he believed Catholicism and Protestantism to be equally deluded, he throughout his life supported puritanical social restraints, such as Prohibition, whilst readily admitting their ineffectiveness.( In Herbert West , for example, "[t]he prevailing spirit of Puritanism had outlawed the sport of boxing - with the usual result. Surreptitious and ill-conducted bouts among the mill-workers were common...".) He seems to have felt that puritan austerities - the worldly enactments of providential and pre-destination doctrines of the sort he despised - were preferable to the "superstitions" of Catholicism, the religion adhered to by most of the working-class Latin and Hispanic immigrants he would be so disagreeably jostled by on the streets of Brooklyn. It is no co-incidence that the 1920s saw the re-emergent Ku Klux Klan appoint themselves the enforcers of Prohibition in the American South as well as embracing violence and bigotry directed against Catholics and Jews with a fervour that rivalled that they had long reserved for Blacks.
Largely affectionate mockery has been directed at Lovecraft's (actually none too frequent) deployment of the adjective "eldritch" but, in fact, more emblematic of his vocabulary would be the terms "blasphemy" or "blasphemous", which chime with increasingly oppressive emphasis across his imaginative output. Strictly speaking, the concept of "blasphemy" can only exist in relation to one of "sacredness" or the "sacrosanct", a preserve of holiness. I am absolutely not implying that he was some sort of secret or self-denying theist all along - the most energetic contemporary exponent of the term "sacred" is not the Pope, let alone the Archbishop of Canterbury, but Donald Trump who, for all his Bible-brandishing, deploys it in the service of a violently protective secular conservatism - but, together with the grim litany of "unnameabilities" and "things that should not be", Lovecraft's "blasphemies" suggest that, lurking deep in his psyche was some stubborn concept of a natural order, a limited world of things in need of preserving from desecration.
In this he is rather characteristic of a strand of American literary modernism that reacted against the frantic boom of the Jazz Age by retreating into private mythologies. Though charged with an animism that Lovecraft would have rejected, the "Inhumanism" advocated by the currently unfashionable Californian poet Robinson Jeffers (1897-1962) shares with "Cosmicism" a "decentering" of the human conscience. Jeffers, who lived with his wife and children in a remotely situated house of his own design and construction, went so far as to eschew rhyme and metre from his verse on the grounds that they were artificial human impositions. His work, whether in long narratives such as Tamar, or shorter pieces, such as "Original Sin", depicts a world of unreflecting savagery, often unfolding within families torn apart by murderous or incestuous impulses. His lack of confidence in social or political initiatives would lead him to espouse extreme isolationism during the Second World War - a stance from which his once considerable reputation has never really recovered.
Yet, surprisingly perhaps, the materialist Lovecraft evinces an even stronger kinship with the Anglo-Catholic convert T. S. Eliot. Both shared a marked disgust at human physicality, displayed a stiff formality in personal relationships and were repelled by sex; both were troubled by ethnic and cultural currents within American society that they felt to be destabilising, Eliot's distaste early on resulting in self-imposed exile; both were extremely prolific letter writers but cautious and self-critical as creators; both rejected Romantic idealism and grappled with the inadequacies of language as a tool for apprehending reality; both were of an antiquarian disposition and, to paraphrase Eliot, shored up fragments against their ruin, appearing most at peace in secluded historic locations; both valued the aloof indifference of cats over the subservience of dogs; both were entrenched social conservatives and shocking racial supremacists. Lovecraft described The Waste Land, which he read shortly after its publication and would mock in his own poem "Waste Paper", as a "practically meaningless...rag-bag of unrelated odds and ends" but appeared to acknowledge that Eliot was confronting - if with a showy irony he found futile - a world that defied human ordering, and not imposing a sentimental rhetorical unity upon it.
After two decades of highly personal interrogations of Christian theology's relationship to the profane modern world, Eliot would eventually attain an austere serenity in the abstract chamber-music of the Four Quartets, before frittering away his remaining time and talent in a drearily quixotic attempt to resurrect verse drama. (He enjoyed considerably less success with this than Herbert West did with his reanimation projects.) Lovecraft attained, if not serenity, at least a dignified stoicism in the handful of fictions he composed after his 1926 return to Providence. I hoped to deal with these in this post but, having gone on far too long elaborating what were going to be introductory remarks, I realise that I will have to leave them for a third and (I promise!) final instalment. If you are depressed at the prospect of this, imagine how I feel. I'm as desperate to slip free of those slimy Cthulhic tentacles as any reasonably sane person would be. At least, having looked at issues of, "ideology" I should be relatively free to concentrate on questions of "artistry", (not, as you'll have gathered, that I feel they can be easily separated) and, whatever monsters - named or unnameable - hove into view, I will try to cultivate a cheerier tone than in the above.