I am providence the life.., p.138

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 138


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  Lovecraft took frequent note of Long and Coughlin, and in the end he finally repudiated them—not for their economic policies (with which he was more in agreement than otherwise), but for their genuinely fascistic political tactics. But he never regarded them as serious threats. He wrote airily in early 1937 that “I doubt whether the growing Catholic-fascist movement will make much headway in America”[24] (an explicit reference to Coughlin) and later remarked, in regard to a broad group of pro-Nazi organisations in America: “Granting the scant possibility of a Franco-like revolt of the Hoovers and Mellons and polite bankers, and conceding that—despite Coughlinism, the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, and the K.K.K.—the soil of America is hardly very fertile for any variant of Nazism, it seems likely that the day of free and easy plutocracy in the United States is over.”[25] He might have been less sanguine had he seen how Coughlin—who was already becoming increasingly anti-Semitic by 1936—sloughed off his social justice pretence in 1938 and came out forthrightly as a pro-Nazi, attracting millions in the process.

  Lovecraft knew that Roosevelt was trying to steer a middle course between both right- and left-wing extremism; and on the whole he approved that course. Just after the 1932 election he remarked that a vote for the Socialist Norman Thomas “would have been simply thrown away.”[26] And yet, he supported Upton Sinclair’s radical senatorial campaign in 1934 and said that he would vote for Sinclair if he were a Californian.[27] He said nothing, though, about the vicious attacks on Sinclair by Republicans that led to his defeat. Nevertheless, although he yearned for Roosevelt to progress still farther and faster with reform, it quickly became obvious to him that the New Deal was the only series of measures that had any real hope of actually passing, given the violent resistance on both sides of the political spectrum:

  That is why we must go slowly and cautiously, lending our support to anything headed in the right direction which has a real chance of adoption, even if it does not suit us as exactly as some other plan which has less chance of adoption. . . . The New Deal, in spite of its present internal inconsistencies and frankly experimental phases, probably represents as great a step in the right direction as could now command any chance of support . . .[28]

  He referred to Coughlin, Sinclair, and Long as “salutary irritants”[29] who would help push Roosevelt more to the left (something that in fact happened following the midterm elections of 1934, which gave Congress a more liberal slant). But in early 1935 he was announcing that he wanted something “considerably to the left of the New Deal,”[30] although he did not think it was practicable; and by the summer of 1936 he expressed a naive irritation that the administration was “too subservient to capitalism”[31]—as if Roosevelt had any intention of ushering in real socialism (even of a liberal, non-Marxist variety) instead of merely shoring up capitalism!

  The death-knell of capitalism was indeed being rung by many political thinkers of the day, as was entirely natural in the wake of the depression, capitalism’s most signal disaster. John Dewey’s thunderous declaration—“Capitalism must be destroyed”—is prototypical.[32] Some of Lovecraft’s younger colleagues—Frank Long, R. H. Barlow, Kenneth Sterling—were wholeheartedly espousing communism, to the point that at the very end of his life Lovecraft expostulated in mock horror, “Damme, but are all you kids going bolshevik on grandpa?”[33]

  And yet, as time went on Lovecraft increasingly lost patience with the social and political conservatism of the middle-class milieu in which he found himself. He came to understand the temperament that led fiery youths like Long and Barlow to communism without being himself entirely inclined in that direction. Lovecraft was of course well aware that Providence was a bastion of Republicanism; by the time the election of 1936 he claimed to have nearly a family feud on his hands, as Annie Gamwell and her friends remained firmly opposed to Roosevelt, leading Lovecraft to explode:

  The more I observe the abysmal, inspissated ignorance of the bulk of allegedly cultivated people—folks who think a lot of themselves and their position, and who include a vast quota of university graduates—the more I believe that something is radically wrong with conventional education and tradition. These pompous, self-complacent “best people” with their blind spots, delusions, prejudices, and callousness—poor devils who have no conception of their orientation to human history and the cosmos—are the victims of some ingrained fallacy regarding the development and direction of cerebral energy. They don’t lack brains, but have never been taught how to get the full benefit of what they have.[34]

  Turning specifically to politics:

  As for the Republicans—how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license, or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical “American heritage” . . .) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.[35]

  How little things have changed.

  When the election actually occurred—with another landslide for Roosevelt against the hapless Alf Landon and a third-party candidate, William Lemke, a stooge of Coughlin and Francis E. Townsend, the proponent of old age pensions—Lovecraft could not help gloating:

  It amuses me to see the woebegone state of the staid reactionary reliques with whom I am surrounded. Around election-time I came damn near having a family feud on my hands! Poor old ostriches. Trembling for the republic’s safety, they actually thought their beloved Lemke or Langston or Langham (or whatever his name was) had a chance! However, the alert university element was not so blind—indeed, one of the professors said just before the election that his idea of a bum sport was a man who would actually take one of the pro-Lansdowne (or whatever his name was) bets offered by the white-moustached constitution-savers of the Hope Club easy-chairs. Well—even the most stubborn must some day learn that the tide of social evolution can’t be checked for ever. King Canute & the waves![36]

  Lovecraft’s last few months were perhaps spent in satisfaction, with the thought that Roosevelt could now continue his reforms and achieve a genuine moderate socialist state; it must have been a comforting thought as he lay dying.

  What Lovecraft was seeking, in the totality of his speculations on this subject, was the economic and political reform that was so cryingly needed, but also cultural continuity. He saw no conflict in this, since he wholly rejected the Marxist notion that culture is an inextricable product of socioeconomic forces, and that the alteration of the one inevitably entails the alteration of the other. In “Some Repetitions on the Times” he could not speak with sufficient loathing about the horrors of the Russian revolution and urges, a little frantically, that it is “worth going to any length to escape” a duplication of its effects in America:

  What the Soviets have done is to ensure a meagre livelihood to the least competent classes by destroying the whole background of tradition which made life endurable for persons of a higher degree of imagination and richer store of cultivation. It is their claim that they could not have guaranteed security to the humble without this wholesale destruction of accustomed ideas, but we may easily see that this is but a thin veil for a purely theoretical fanaticism bearing all the earmarks of a new religion—a fetichistic cult woven around the under-man’s notion of transvaluated social values and around a fantastically literal application and extension of the groping theories and idealistic extravagances of the late Karl Marx.

/>   This may sound self-serving—Lovecraft wants the cultural tokens of his civilisation to be preserved even with fairly radical political and economic reforms—but then, his economic suggestions were, at least on paper, capable of implementation without serious disturbance of the cultural fabric.

  Nevertheless, toward the very end of his life Lovecraft did indeed come to see the need for social and economic justice beyond any mere worry of a violent overthrow by the dispossessed. Capitalism was the implacable enemy, and it must go. The whole economic structure must be changed: “I am likewise no friend of aimless idleness—but I do not see why a savage and feverish scramble for bare necessities, made artificially hard after machinery has given us the means of easier production, is necessarily superior to a reasonable amount of sensible work plus an intelligently outlined programme of cultural development.”[37] Here again Lovecraft was coming to terms with technology—and, now, realising that it can be beneficial as well as deleterious. The machine can be the liberating friend of mankind, and it can allow society to end poverty and physical hardship instantly through a rational redistribution of resources; but old-time capitalism still rules the minds of business and government leaders alike. Lovecraft, finally abandoning his worries about a revolution of “under-men,” came to regard the whole issue of full employment as a simple matter of human dignity:

  I agree that most of the motive force behind any contemplated change in the economic order will necessarily come from the persons who have benefited least by the existing order; but I do not see why that fact makes it necessary to wage the struggle otherwise than as a fight to guarantee a place for everybody in the social fabric. The just demand of the citizen is that society assign him a place in its complex mechanism whereby he will have equal chances for education at the start, and a guarantee of just rewards for such services as he is able to render (or a proper pension if his services cannot be used) later on.[38]

  But the forces of reaction were relentless:

  The greatest peril to civilised progress—aside from an annihilative war—is some kind of basically reactionary system with enough grudging concessions to the dispossessed to make it really work after a fashion, and thus with the capacity to postpone indefinitely the demand of the masses for their real rights—educational, social, and economic—as human beings in a world where the great resources should be cornered by none. . . . Unsupervised capitalism is through. But various Nazi and fascist compromises can be cooked up to save the plutocrats most of their spoils while lulling the growing army of the unpropertied with either a petty programme of panem et circenses, or else a system of artificially created and distributed jobs at starvation wages on the C.C.C. or W.P.A. idea. A regime of that sort, spiced with the right brand of hysterical flag-waving, sloganeering, and verbal constitution-saving, might conceivably be as stable and popular as Hitlerism—and that is what the younger and more astute babbitts of the Republican party are quietly and insidiously working toward.[39]

  It is as if Lovecraft had a crystal ball and saw Ronald Reagan in it.

  As the 1930s advanced Lovecraft became more and more concerned not only with the problems of economics and government but with the place of art in modern society. I have already shown how the notion of civilisation was the central guiding principle behind all his shifts in political allegiance; and as he matured he became convinced that art could not retreat unthinkingly into the past but must—as he himself had done on an intellectual level—come to some sort of terms with the machine age if it were to survive and remain a living force in society. This created an immediate problem, for as early as 1927 Lovecraft had concluded: “The future civilisation of mechanical invention, urban concentration, and scientific standardisation of life and thought is a monstrous and artificial thing which can never find embodiment either in art or in religion. Even now we find art and religion completely divorced from life and subsisting on retrospection and reminiscence as its vital material.”[40] If the machine age is inherently unsuited for artistic expression, what is one to do? Lovecraft’s answer to this was a little curious, but entirely in consonance with his broadly conservative outlook. We need not rehearse his antipathy to what he considered such freakish artistic tendencies as imagism, stream-of-consciousness, or the recondite allusiveness of Eliot’s Waste Land, which were all, to his mind, symptoms of the general decline of this phase of Western culture. Avant-garde movements in painting and architecture similarly met with his disapproval. Lovecraft’s solution—spelled out in the essay “Heritage or Modernism: Common Sense in Art Forms,” written in late 1934—was a conscious antiquarianism:

  When a given age has no new natural impulse toward change, is it not better to continue building on the established forms than to concoct grotesque and meaningless novelties out of thin academic theory?

  Indeed, under certain conditions is not a policy of frank and virile antiquarianism—a healthy, vigorous revival of old forms still justified by their relation to life—infinitely sounder than a feverish mania for the destruction of familiar things and the laboured, freakish, uninspired search for strange shapes which nobody wants and which really mean nothing?

  This too is conveniently self-serving, but Lovecraft is acute in puncturing the pompous theorisings of artists and architects who were resolutely dictating the spirit of the age:

  If the moderns were truly scientific, they would realise that their own attitude of self-conscious theory removes them absolutely from all kinship with the creators of genuine artistic advances. Real art must be, above all else, unconscious and spontaneous—and this is precisely what modern functionalism is not. No age was ever truly “expressed” by theorists who sat down and deliberately mapped out a technique for “expressing” it.

  The real issue Lovecraft was facing was how to steer a middle course between “high” culture, which in its radicalism was consciously being addressed to an increasingly small coterie of devotees, and “popular” culture—notably the pulps—which was adhering to false, superficial, and outmoded standards through the inevitable moral conservatism such forms of culture have always displayed. This may be the primary reason for Lovecraft’s lack of commercial success in his lifetime: his work was not conventional enough for the pulps but not daring enough (or daring enough in the right way) for the modernists. Lovecraft correctly recognised that capitalism and democracy gave rise to this split in the nineteenth century:

  Bourgeois capitalism gave artistic excellence and sincerity a death-blow by enthroning cheap amusement-value at the expense of that intrinsic excellence which only cultivated, non-acquisitive persons of assumed position can enjoy. The determinant market for written . . . and other heretofore aesthetic material ceased to be a small circle of truly educated persons, but became a substantially larger . . . circle of mixed origin numerically dominated by crude, half-educated clods whose systematically perverted ideals . . . prevented them from ever achieving the tastes and perspectives of the gentlefolk whose dress and speech and external manners they so assiduously mimicked. This herd of acquisitive boors brought up from the shop and the counting-house a complete set of artificial attitudes, oversimplifications, and mawkish sentimentalities which no sincere art or literature could gratify—and they so outnumbered the remaining educated gentlefolk that most of the purveying agencies became at once reoriented to them. Literature and art lost most of their market; and writing, painting, drama, etc. became engulfed more and more in the domain of amusement enterprises.[41]

  The principal foe, again, is capitalism, in that it inculcates values that are actively hostile to artistic creation:

  . . . in the past did capitalism award its highest benefits to such admittedly superior persons as Poe, Spinoza, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Keats, and so on? Or is it just possible that the real beneficiaries of capitalism are not the truly superior, but merely those who choose to devote their superiority to the single process of personal acquisition rather than to social service or to creative intellectual or aesthetic effort . . . th
ose, and the lucky parasites who share or inherit the fruits of their narrowly canalised superiority?[42]

  America, of course, is especially bad in that the nineteenth century brought to the fore a psychology that vaunted money- or possession-grubbing as the chief gauge of human worth. This is something Lovecraft had always repudiated, and his new views on economics only emphasised his sentiments:

  . . . I always despised the bourgeois use of acquisitive power as a measure of human character. I have never believed that the securing of material resources ought to form the central interest of human life—but have instead maintained that personality is an independent flowering of the intellect and emotions wholly apart from the struggle for existence. . . .

  . . . Now we live in an age of easy abundance which makes possible the fulfilment of all moderate human wants through a relatively slight amount of labour. What shall be the result? Shall we still make resources prohibitively hard to get when there is really a plethora of them? . . . If “stamina” and “Americanism” demand a state of constant anxiety and threatened starvation on the part of every ordinary citizen, then they’re not worth having![43]

  But what then is to be done? Even if economic reform is effected, how does one change a society’s attitude in regard to the relative value of money as opposed to the development of personality? The solution was—again on paper—simple: education. The shorter working hours proposed in Lovecraft’s economic scheme would allow for a radically increased leisure time for all citizens, which could be utilised profitably in education and aesthetic appreciation. As he states in “Some Repetitions on the Times”: “Education . . . will require amplification in order to meet the needs of a radically increased leisure among all classes of society. It is probable that the number of persons possessing a sound general culture will be greatly increased, with correspondingly good results to the civilisation.” This was a common proposal—or dream—among the more idealistic social reformers and intellectuals. Did Lovecraft really fancy that such a Utopia of a broadly educated populace that was willing or able to enjoy the aesthetic fruits of civilisation would actually come about? It certainly seems so; and yet, we cannot hold Lovecraft responsible for failing to predict either the spectacular recrudescence of capitalism in the generations following his own or the equally spectacular collapse of education that has produced a mass audience whose highest aesthetic experiences are pornography, television miniseries, and sporting events.

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