Thursday, August 20, 2015

Old Man of Providence's 125th Birthday

Today marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of H.P. Lovecraft, a pulp horror/science-fantasy author who lived in obscure poverty, but whose legacy has, over the past four decades become as vast as an extraterrestrial monster/god. I have been a fan of HPL since my adolescence, as a perusal of my blog will reveal, but I am aware that the man was a racist even by the standards of his less-enlightened age. It's the typical conundrum of the fan- how does one separate an artist's oeuvre from that individual's racism, sexism, homophobia, or other form of bigotry.

There's a great post about Lovecraft on the website of The Atlantic which perfectly encapsulates the complexity of Lovecraft's legacy. Lovecraft was a nativist antisemite who married a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine and mentored a teenaged Jewish kid from the Midwest. Much of the horror that Lovecraft tried to elicit was rooted in fears of race-mixing or biological regression. His fear of a multicultural society is palpable in one of his infamous lesser works (the idea of Lovecraft feeling a frisson of horror as he passed the anything-but-sinister Ferdinando's Focacceria reduces me to a gale of guffaws).

Not having Lovecraft's hangups and, indeed, being the descendant of immigrants that Lovecraft would have considered "undesirable Latins" or "wild Celts", I find most of Lovecraft's horror tales overwrought and somewhat comical, though at his best, Lovecraft could be genuinely unsettling. Lovecraft did, however, conjure up an "eldritch" image of the universe, with humanity being an insignificant link in a chain of being spanning vigintillions of years and the breadth of the universe, seen and unseen. Given his view of ignorant, beleaguered humanity facing an uncaring universe, Lovecraft's racism is particularly vexing- if we're all we've got, why would we allow our small differences divide us in the face of an existential threat from powers that we can barely comprehend?

There is evidence that, shortly before his death at the age of 47 from intestinal cancer resulting from decades of poor (literally) eating habits, Lovecraft was beginning to engage in a bit of self-analysis. From a 1937 letter to fellow pulp author Catherine L. Moore, Lovecraft lambasted his thirty-three year old self:

I can better understand the inert blindness & defiant ignorance of the reactionaries from having been one of them. I know how smugly ignorant I was—wrapped up in the arts, the natural (not social) sciences, the externals of history & antiquarianism, the abstract academic phases of philosophy, & so on—all the one-sided standard lore to which, according to the traditions of the dying order, a liberal education was limited. God! the things that were left out—the inside facts of history, the rational interpretation of periodic social crises, the foundations of economics & sociology, the actual state of the world today … & above all, the habit of applying disinterested reason to problems hitherto approached only with traditional genuflections, flag-waving, & callous shoulder-shrugs! All this comes up with humiliating force through an incident of a few days ago—when young Conover, having established contact with Henneberger, the ex-owner of WT, obtained from the latter a long epistle which I wrote Edwin Baird on Feby. 3, 1924, in response to a request for biographical & personal data. Little Willis asked permission to publish the text in his combined SFC-Fantasy, & I began looking the thing over to see what it was like—for I had not the least recollection of ever having penned it. Well …. I managed to get through, after about 10 closely typed pages of egotistical reminiscences & showing-off & expressions of opinion about mankind & the universe. I did not faint—but I looked around for a 1924 photograph of myself to burn, spit on, or stick pins in! Holy Hades—was I that much of a dub at 33 … only 13 years ago? There was no getting out of it—I really had thrown all that haughty, complacent, snobbish, self-centred, intolerant bull, & at a mature age when anybody but a perfect damned fool would have known better! That earlier illness had kept me in seclusion, limited my knowledge of the world, & given me something of the fatuous effusiveness of a belated adolescent when I finally was able to get around more in 1920, is hardly much of an excuse. Well—there was nothing to be done … except to rush a note back to Conover & tell him I'd dismember him & run the fragments through a sausage-grinder if he ever thought of printing such a thing! The only consolation lay in the reflection that I had matured a bit since '24. It's hard to have done all one's growing up since 33—but that's a damn sight better than not growing up at all.

In his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft wrote: The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. By Lovecraft's admission, he was secluded, and had a limited knowledge of the world- it is no wonder that he was afraid of the "other". For this reason, I look on the man with more pity than contempt- his bigotry was a product of his terror, a terror that insured the two main aspects of his legacy- his cringeworthy racism and his fantastic literature.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

"It's hard to have done all one's growing up since 33—but that's a damn sight better than not growing up at all."

Is a fine quote.

mikey said...

It's the typical conundrum of the fan- how does one separate an artist's oeuvre from that individual's racism, sexism, homophobia, or other form of bigotry.

It's something I've never struggled with at all. To me, it's a simple matter to separate the man from his art. I'd never say he was a 'great man' - I'd merely say he made great art, which brought me great joy. The consumer of literature is not in any way the biographer - we don't have to make judgements about the author to make judgements about his work.

Indeed, we can find the author despicable while still finding his work enjoyable and even beautiful...