I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 116
We have already seen views like this espoused in “The Mound”; and later works of fiction will also ruminate on the idea.
Two books powerfully affected Lovecraft’s thinking on these matters, although he could say with justice that he had arrived at least nebulously at the same fundamental conceptions prior to reading them. They were Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes [1918–22]; translated in two volumes in 1926 and 1928) and Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Modern Temper (1929). Lovecraft read the first volume of Spengler (he never read the second, so far as I can tell) in the spring of 1927, and seems to have read Krutch no later than the fall of 1929.
Lovecraft had long been inclined to accept Spengler’s basic thesis of the successive rise and fall of civilisations as each passes through a period of youth, adulthood, and old age. He later expressed reservations, as many others did, on the degree to which this biological analogy could be pressed; but as early as 1921, in the In Defence of Dagon essays, he was saying: “No civilisation has lasted for ever, and perhaps our own is perishing of natural old age. If so, the end cannot well be deferred.” Here he went on to hold out a possibility that “we may be merely passing from youth to maturity—a period of more realistic and sophisticated life may lie ahead of us,” but even this frail optimism disappears by the later 1920s. In early 1929 Lovecraft gave his dissection of the causes for America’s decline:
Real America had the start of a splendid civilisation—the British stream, enriched by a geographical setting well-calculated to develop a vital, adventurous, and imaginatively fertile existence. . . . What destroyed it as the dominant culture of this continent? Well—first came the poison of social democracy, which gradually introduced the notion of diffused rather than intensive development. Idealists wanted to raise the level of the ground by tearing down all the towers and strewing them over the surface—and when it was done they wondered why the ground didn’t seem much higher, after all. And they had lost their towers! Then came the premature shifting of the economic centre of gravity to the relatively immature west; which brought western crudeness, “push”, and quantity-feeling to the fore, and accelerated the evils of democracy. Sudden financial overturns and the rise of a loathsome parvenu class—natural things in a rapidly expanding nation—helped on the disaster, whilst worst of all was the rashly and idealistically admitted flood of alien, degenerate, and unassimilable immigrants—the supreme calamity of the western world. On this dangerous and unstable cultural chaos finally fell the curse of the machine age—a condition peculiarly adapted to favour the crude and imaginationless and to operate against the sensitive and the civilised. Its first results we behold today, though the depths of its cultural darkness are reserved for the torture of later generations.
Democracy, quantity and money over quality, foreigners, and mechanisation—these are the causes of America’s ruination. In all honesty, I am not at all inclined to dispute Lovecraft on the first, second, or fourth of these. In this same letter he elaborated upon his precise complaints about democracy, especially the mass democracy of his day. What he found offensive in it was its hostility to excellence. Given that “the maintenance of [a] high cultural standard is the only social or political enthusiasm I possess.” the answer to him seemed (at least in principle) simple: establish, or recognise, an aristocracy of culture that will foster artistic excellence:
Nobody really gives a hang about existing aristocratic families as such. All that is desired is to maintain the existing standards of thought, aesthetics, and manners, and not to allow them to sink to low levels through the dominance of coarsely-organised, sordid-minded, and aesthetically insensitive people who are satisfied with less and who would establish a national atmosphere intolerable to those civilised persons who require more.
It would only be a few years later that Lovecraft would see the full extent of the problem—the conspiracy of democracy and capitalism that produced “mass culture” and made artistic excellence less and less economically feasible—and it would also take him some years to evolve at least a theoretical model for the reversal of this situation.
Lovecraft’s political concerns were at this time still in the realm of theory rather than in the politics of the moment. As late as 1928 he was still admitting that “my real interest in politics is virtually nil.” To Aunt Lillian he had expressed congratulations on the election of Coolidge in 1924, then never mentioned him or any political event for the next four years. He admitted to supporting Hoover in 1928, although I suspect this may have been largely because the Democratic candidate, Alfred E. Smith, vehemently opposed Prohibition (which Lovecraft still generally supported, although he was clearly aware of the difficulties in its enforcement) and also advocated modifying the restrictive alien immigration laws passed earlier in the decade.
Lovecraft has been criticised for not taking any notice of the stock market crash of October 1929, but the full effects of the depression were not manifest for several years; Lovecraft’s own revision service did not seem to suffer significantly as a result of the crash (not that it was ever a flourishing business), and in any case he had seen at first hand the hardships of unemployment in New York during the supposedly booming 1920s. And yet, the inclusion of extensive, and rather gloomy, political reflections in “The Mound” in late 1929 can hardly be accidental.
In terms of aesthetics, Lovecraft’s abandonment of Decadence and his nearly wholesale rejection of Modernism allowed him to revert to a sort of refined eighteenth-century view of art as an elegant amusement. Indeed, he had casually used exactly that phrase in a letter to Elizabeth Toldridge, and in her Victorian way she had expressed surprise and disagreement; so that Lovecraft was forced to add some nuance to this stance:
I wished to make it clear that the fun and function of poetry are all comprised within the process of creating it, and that it is needless and unwise to worry about what happens to it once it is written. Its importance resides in the pleasure it gives you during the writing—the mental and emotional satisfaction of self-expression. Once it has given you this, it has fully and adequately performed its function; and there is no need to bother about who else sees it . . .
This is similar to the views anent “self-expression” found in the In Defence of Dagon papers; now Lovecraft develops the argument by bringing in modern developments in biology, and in this way hopes to fashion a means for distinguishing true art from hackwork:
In stern fact, the relentless demands prompted by our glandular and nervous reactions are exceedingly complex, contradictory, and imperious in their nature; and subject to rigid and intricate laws of psychology, physiology, biochemistry, and physics which must be realistically studied and familiarly known before they can be adequately dealt with. . . . False or insincere amusement is the sort of activity which does not meet the real psychological demands of the human glandular-nervous system, but merely affects to do so. Real amusement is the sort which is based on a knowledge of real needs, and which therefore hits the spot. This latter kind of amusement is what art is—and there is nothing more important in the universe.
The crux of this passage rests upon the then-recent discovery of the importance of glands in affecting human behaviour. In making this discovery, however, many biologists and philosophers vastly overstated the case. Louis Berman’s The Glands Regulating Personality (1921)—a book recommended by Lovecraft in “Suggestions for a Reading Guide” (1936)—is typical: focusing on the endocrine glands (chiefly the adrenal, thyroid, and pituitary), Berman maintained that they control, and perhaps even cause, all the emotions as well as the imagination and intellect:
The internal secretions constitute and determine much of the inherited powers of the individual and their development. They control physical and mental growth and all the metabolic processes of fundamental importance. They dominate all the vital functions during the three cycles of life. They coöperate in an intimate relationship which may be compared to an interlocking
Let it pass that Berman’s argument is in part eugenicist and even racist (he claims that the Caucasian has a greater number of internal gland secretions and is therefore superior to the Mongoloid or the Negro); even in less extreme form his views were highly representative. Modern endocrinologists are much more reserved in their views: glandular secretions (hormones) are clearly of great importance to growth and sexual development, but the interrelation between glands, the central nervous system, and the mind and emotions is still much debated.
This emphasis on glandular “control” of emotion and intellect was, however, very useful to Lovecraft, in that it emphasised his long-standing belief in man as a “machine” who is at the mercy of forces beyond his control; his cautious embracing of Freud pointed in much the same direction. In his aesthetics Lovecraft then used this conception as a sort of objective way of distinguishing good art from bad; but what is left unclear is how anyone is to know except by some sort of introspection whether a given work of art has “hit the spot” (satisfied the “demands prompted by our glandular and nervous reactions”) or merely affected to do so.
Another phase of Lovecraft’s theory of art grew out of his notions of sense-perception. Being forcefully made aware from modern psychology that each person’s comprehension of the external world is at least slightly, and in some cases significantly, different from every other person’s (the differences depending upon heredity, upbringing, education, and all the other biological and cultural factors that distinguish each of us as human beings), Lovecraft came to believe that
good art means the ability of any one man to pin down in some permanent and intelligible medium a sort of idea of what he sees in Nature that nobody else sees. In other words, to make the other fellow grasp, through skilled selective care in interpretative reproduction or symbolism, some inkling of what only the artist himself could possibly see in the actual objective scene itself.
The end result—and this is a dim reflection of Oscar Wilde’s clever paradox that we see “more” of Nature in a painting of Turner’s than in the natural scene itself—is that “We see and feel more in Nature from having assimilated works of authentic art”; and so, “The constant discovery of different peoples’ subjective impressions of things, as contained in genuine art, forms a slow, gradual approach, or faint approximation of an approach, to the mystic substance of absolute reality itself—the stark, cosmic reality which lurks behind our varying subjective perceptions.” All this sounds a trifle abstract, and we have already seen an adumbration of it in the story “Hypnos” (1922).
Lovecraft’s reading of Krutch’s The Modern Temper brought him down from these abstractions and made him face the situation of art and culture in the modern world. Krutch’s book is a lugubrious but chillingly compelling work that particularly addresses itself to the question of what intellectual and aesthetic possibilities remain in an age in which so many illusions—in particular the illusions of our importance in the cosmos and of the “sanctity” or even validity of our emotional life—have been shattered by science. This is a theme on which Lovecraft had been expatiating since at least 1922, with “Lord Dunsany and His Work.” Indeed, I believe Krutch’s work was instrumental in helping Lovecraft to evolve his aesthetics to a new level. He had already passed from classicism to Decadence to a sort of antiquarian regionalism. But he was no ostrich: he knew that the past—that is, prior modes of behaviour, thought, and aesthetic expression—could be preserved only up to a point. The new realities revealed by modern science had to be faced. Around this time he began some further ruminations on art and its place in society, in particular weird art; and in so doing he produced a radical change in his theory of weird fiction that would affect much of what he would subsequently write.
Frank Long was again, somehow, the catalyst for the expression of these views. Evidently Long was lamenting the rapid rate of cultural change and was advocating a return to “splendid and traditional ways of life”—a view Lovecraft rightly regarded as somewhat sophomoric in someone who did not know much about what these traditional ways actually were. In an immense letter written in late February 1931, Lovecraft began by repeating Krutch’s argument that much of prior literature had ceased to be vital to us because we could no longer share, and in some cases could only remotely understand, the values that produced it; he then wrote: “Some former art attitudes—like sentimental romance, loud heroics, ethical didacticism, &c.—are so patently hollow as to be visibly absurd & non-usable from the start.” Some attitudes, however, may still be viable:
Fantastic literature cannot be treated as a single unit, because it is a composite resting on widely divergent bases. I really agree that “Yog-Sothoth” is a basically immature conception, & unfitted for really serious literature. The fact is, I have never approached serious literature as yet. . . . The only permanently artistic use of Yog-Sothothery, I think, is in symbolic or assocative phantasy of the frankly poetic type; in which fixed dream-patterns of the natural organism are given an embodiment & crystallisation. The reasonable permanence of this phase of poetic phantasy as a possible art form (whether or not favoured by current fashion) seems to me a highly strong probability.
I do not know what exactly Lovecraft means by “Yog-Sothothery” here. My feeling is that it may refer to Dunsany’s prodigal invention of gods in The Gods of Pegana, which we have already seen Lovecraft to have repudiated as far as his own creative expression is concerned; indeed, he said here of this type of material that “I hardly expect to produce anything even remotely approaching it myself.” He continued:
But there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than those of ordinary oneiroscopy; personal limitation regarding the sense of outsideness. I refer to the aesthetic crystallisation of that burning & inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder & oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself & its restrictions against the vast & provocative abyss of the unknown. This has always been the chief emotion in my psychology; & whilst it obviously figures less in the psychology of the majority, it is clearly a well-defined & permanent factor from which very few sensitive persons are wholly free.
That last remark may be a little sanguine, but let it pass. We are now getting more to the crux of the matter: Lovecraft was beginning to provide a rationale for the type of weird fiction he had been writing for the past few years, which was a fundamentally realistic approach to the “sense of outsideness” by the suggestion of the vast gulfs of space and time—in short, cosmicism. At this moment there was nothing here that was different from prior utterances of this idea, but Lovecraft was now keen on establishing that the relativity theory had no bearing on the matter:
Reason as we may, we cannot destroy a normal perception of the highly limited & fragmentary nature of our visible world of perception & experience as scaled against the outside abyss of unthinkable galaxies & unplumbed dimensions—an abyss wherein our solar system is the merest dot (by the same local principle that makes a sand-grain a dot as compared with the whole planet earth) no matter what relativistic system we may use in conceiving the cosmos as a whole . . .
Lovecraft went on to say that “A great part of religion is merely a childish & diluted pseudo-gratification of this perpetual gnawing toward the ultimate illimitable void”; but sensible people can no longer use religion for this purpose, so what is left?
The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-s
This may be the most important theoretical utterance Lovecraft ever made: the renunciation of the supernatural, as well as the need to offer supplements rather than contradictions to known phenomena, make it clear that Lovecraft was now consciously moving toward a union of weird fiction and science fiction (although perhaps not the science fiction largely published in the pulp magazines of this time). Indeed, in formal terms nearly all his work subsequent to “The Call of Cthulhu” is science fiction, if by that we mean that it supplies a scientific justification (although in some cases a justification based upon some hypothetical advance of science) for the purportedly “supernatural” events; it is only in his manifest wish to terrify that his work remains on the borderline of science fiction rather than being wholly within its domain.
Lovecraft’s work had been inexorably moving in this direction since at least the writing of “The Shunned House.” Even in much earlier tales—“Dagon” (1917), “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), “The Temple” (1920), “Arthur Jermyn” (1920), “From Beyond” (1920), “The Nameless City” (1921), and even perhaps “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1921–22)—he had already provided pseudo-scientific rationales for weird events, and such things as At the Mountains of Madness (1931) and “The Shadow out of Time” (1934–35) are only the pinnacles in this development. Pure supernaturalism had, in fact—aside from such minor works as “The Moon-Bog” (1921)—never been much utilised by Lovecraft.
What, then, do we make of a statement uttered less than a year after the one I have quoted above? “. . . the crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen.” Here, certainly, “something which could not possibly happen” must be regarded as supernatural. But the context of this utterance must be examined with care. It was made in the course of a discussion with August Derleth regarding William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” that masterful story of necrophilia; it was included in Dashiell Hammett’s Creeps by Night (1931), a very diverse anthology that also contained “The Music of Erich Zann.” Lovecraft, while admiring Faulkner’s tale, was maintaining that it was not “weird” because necrophilia is a mundane horror that does not involve the contravention of natural law as we know it. The letter continues:
Other author's books:
- Black Wings of Cthulhu 6Black Wings of Cthulhu (Volume Six)Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 3I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)Black Wings of CthulhuBlack Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 4Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 5
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