I am providence the life.., p.140

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 140


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

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  Lovecraft also fleetingly turned his attention to another medium—film—but again his judgment was mixed. I have shown that he enthusiastically watched the early films of Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and others in the teens; but as the twenties advanced he lost interest, seeing films only when Sonia or Frank Long or others dragged him to them. Although talkies were introduced in 1927, Lovecraft took no notice of them until 1930: “Despite the recent improvement in quality in some films—due to the new talking device—the majority are as inane & insipid as before . . .”[69] I would not care to dispute Lovecraft’s judgment on the films he actually saw at this time.

  But it appears that Lovecraft was harbouring at least one misconception or prejudice that hampered his appreciation of film as an independent aesthetic mode. Of course, many of the films of his day—even those now regarded by misplaced nostalgia as “classic”—were extraordinarily crude and technologically backward; and Frank Long did not help matters any by taking Lovecraft to an endless series of vapid musicals or romantic comedies on the latter’s successive trips to New York. But Lovecraft seemed to feel that films based on literary works should be rigidly faithful to those works, and any departure from the text should be regarded as an inherent flaw.

  This prejudice comes into play specifically in regard to Lovecraft’s evaluation of horror films. In one choice passage he roundly abuses one relatively obscure work and two “classics”:

  “The Bat” made me drowse back in the early 1920’s—and last year an alleged “Frankenstein” on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh! And the screen “Dracula” in 1931—I saw the beginning of that in Miami, Fla.—but couldn’t bear to watch it drag to its full term of dreariness, hence walked out into the fragrant tropic moonlight![70]

  The Bat (in spite of Lovecraft’s mention of “early 1920’s”) must be the silent film of 1926, and is really more of a mystery than a horror film (it is an adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s best-selling mystery novel The Circular Staircase). Lovecraft elaborated upon his disapproval of Frankenstein to Barlow: “I saw the cinema of ‘Frankenstein’, & was tremendously disappointed because no attempt was made to follow the story.” But Lovecraft went on to remark: “However, there have been many worse films—& many parts of this one are really quite dramatic when they are viewed independently & without comparison to the episodes of the original novel.” But he concluded ruefully, “Generally speaking, the cinema always cheapens & degrades any literary material it gets hold of—especially anything in the least subtle or unusual.”[71] I believe that last utterance still carries a good deal of truth.

  Lovecraft expressed keen regret at not seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1922) both on its initial release and on several revivals; it is quite likely that he would have enjoyed this startling work of German Expressionist cinema. He noted seeing King Kong (1933), but said only that it had “good mechanical effects.”[72]

  Lovecraft’s abuse of Dracula came in the context of his refusal to grant Farnsworth Wright permission for radio dramatisation rights to “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Although Lovecraft occasionally listened to the radio for news and liked to “fish” for distant channels for imaginative stimulation, he had little respect for radio shows as an art form, specifically horror programs.

  What the public consider “weirdness” in drama is rather pitiful or absurd—according to one’s perspective. As a thorough soporific I recommend the average popularly “horrible” play or cinema or radio dialogue. They are all the same—flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations.

  One other medium Lovecraft sampled on a single occasion was television. On October 22, 1933, he wrote to Clark Ashton Smith: “Saw an interesting demonstration of television in a local department store yesterday. Flickers like the biograph pictures of 1898”[73] (a reference to the old film technique used from 1895 to 1913, chiefly by D. W. Griffith). Television was at this time still in its infancy. The first public demonstration of television had occurred in 1926, and General Electric had broadcast a dramatic presentation in 1928. RCA made tests in 1931 and the next year began experimental broadcasts; but mechanical difficulties caused blurry images, which no doubt prompted Lovecraft’s comment. Although interest in television continued to increase throughout the decade, the first television sets for public use did not appear until 1939.

  One other social issue—the place of sex and sexual orientation in life and literature—did, incredibly enough, on rare occasions come up for discussion in the last decade of Lovecraft’s life. Lovecraft does indeed seem to be among the most asexual individuals in human history, and I do not think this was a mere façade: certainly his letter to Sonia prior to his marriage (published as “Lovecraft on Love”) evokes only snickers today, and would probably have seemed extreme in its asceticism even in its own day; but there is every reason to believe that Lovecraft himself abided by its precepts, to the point that it surely became one (if only one) cause of his wife’s refusal to continue the marriage.

  We have also seen that Lovecraft exhibited quick prejudice against homosexuals when he met one in Cleveland in 1922. By 1927 his views had changed little; in a discussion with Derleth about Oscar Wilde (who, let us recall, was a clear source for Lovecraft’s Decadent aesthetics), he unleashed this remarkable passage:

  As a man, however, Wilde admits of absolutely no defence. His character, notwithstanding a daintiness of manners which imposed an exterior shell of decorative decency and decorum, was as thoroughly rotten and contemptible as it is possible for a human character to be . . . So thorough was his absence of that form of taste which we call a moral sense, that his derelictions comprised not only the greater and grosser offences, but all those petty dishonesties, shiftinesses, pusillanimities, and affected contemptibilities and cowardices which mark the mere “cad” or “bounder” as well as the actual “villain”. It is an ironic circumstance that he who succeeded for a time in being the Prince of Dandies, was never in any basic sense what one likes to call a gentleman.[74]

  (As an aside, let us turn to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where we find Capt. Obed Marsh described as a “great dandy” of whom “people said he still wore the frock-coated finery of the Edwardian age.” Marsh too had introduced sexual irregularities into his community.)

  Six years later Lovecraft intoned: “So far as the case of homosexualism goes, the primary and vital objection against it is that it is naturally (physically and involuntarily—not merely ‘morally’ or aesthetically) repugnant to the overwhelming bulk of mankind . . .”[75] How Lovecraft arrived at this view is a mystery; but I suppose it was common enough then—as it is now, sadly enough. No one need censure him for not revealing a tolerance toward homosexuality that is still a relative rarity in our own time. The point has been raised that many of Lovecraft’s own colleagues were gay, but he was surely either unaware of the fact (as in the case of Samuel Loveman) or their homosexuality had presumably not yet made itself evident (as in the case of R. H. Barlow). Lovecraft never commented on Hart Crane’s homosexuality on the few occasions he met him; but again, perhaps Crane made no overt demonstration of it in Lovecraft’s presence. He may have done so covertly, but Lovecraft was probably so ignorant of the matter that he perhaps did not recognise it for what it was.

  Nevertheless, on at least one occasion (late 1929) Lovecraft felt sufficiently informed on the subject of “normal” sexual relations to give friendly advice to one even more ignorant than he: Woodburn Harris, a resident of rural Vermont who evidently expressed some astoundingly naive and ignorant views on the subject of female sexuality. Lovecraft scientifically avers:

  a) the desire is more slowly excited than in the male;

  b) but, once excited, it is certainly just as strong, and according to a large group of physiologists, much stronger.

  c) eroticism is more of a motivating f
orce in the female than in the male—& there is a more persistent tendency to regard it sentimentally or cosmically.

  d) females, in the absence of the male, experience desires & frustrations just as intense as those of the isolated male—hence the savage sourness of old maids, the looseness of modern spinsters, & the infidelity or tendency thereto of wives left alone by their husbands for more than a week or two.[76]

  There is a great deal more, but this is enough to suggest that Lovecraft has arrived at his views jointly by a reading of various anthropological and psychological studies of sex and by actual sexual experience with Sonia. In the course of this letter Lovecraft mentions such things as Havelock Ellis’s Little Essays in Love and Virtue (1922) and other contemporary authorities, whom he presumably read or at least (as he frankly admits to doing in other matters) read representative reviews of their work. There is also a long discussion about the “many & complex causes of change in erotic standards” in his time—a largely neutral discussion in which such things as “decline of illusions of religion & romantic love,” “discovery of effective contraceptive methods,” and “economic independence of women” are listed in sequence.

  What is more, the question of the role of sex in literature found Lovecraft much more tolerant in his final decade. Of course, there is virtually no sex in the whole length and breath of his own work: heterosexual sex is rendered moot by the near-total absence of female characters, while homosexual sex, either between men or between women, would have been unthinkable given Lovecraft’s views on the subject. This is what makes Lovecraft’s comment in 1931—“I can’t see any difference in the work I did before marriage & that I did during a matrimonial period of some years”[77]—somewhat unhelpful. One must look very hard even to find hints of sex in the fiction: the undescribed “orgiastic licence” of the worshippers of Cthulhu in the Louisiana bayou, in “The Call of Cthulhu” is perhaps the only remotely explicit reference, while the suggestions in “The Dunwich Horror” (Lavinia Whateley mating with Yog-Sothoth) and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (the Innsmouth folk mating with the fish-frogs) are so oblique as almost to pass unnoticed. Not a word is said of Edward and Asenath Derby’s sexual relations in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” perhaps because they are irrelevant to the story; but nothing is even said about the potential anomalies of sex reversal. Ephraim Waite takes over the body of his daughter Asenath: what are his sentiments when he becomes a woman, and especially when he marries Derby? If, as this story suggests, Lovecraft regards the mind or personality (rather than the body) as the essence of an individual, is this marriage homosexual? What does Derby feel when his mind is thrown into the rotting body of his wife? If someone were to write a story on this basic premise today, it is unlikely that such issues would be avoided.

  But, as I say, Lovecraft loosened up on the subject, at least where works by other writers were concerned. From one perspective, he felt the need to continue battling against censorship (as he had done in “The Omnipresent Philistine” [1924]), an issue that was coming to the fore as the 1920s—an age of sexual awakening, liberation, and perhaps decadence in both life and literature—progressed. His chief opponent, predictably, was the rigid theist Maurice W. Moe.

  Lovecraft was addressing the issue of “that peculiar rage felt by persons over forty . . . concerning the free presentation of erotic matters in art and literature”[78] (he himself was seven months before forty when writing this), and—aside from predictably finding one more opportunity to trash the Victorian age (“the whole structure of Victorian art and thought and sexual morality was based upon a tragic sham”)—specified seven different types or methods of sexual discussion in art:

  1. Impersonal and serious descriptions of erotic scenes, relationships, motivations, and consequences in real life.

  2. Poetic—and other aesthetic—exaltations of erotic feelings.

  3. Satirical glimpses of the erotic realities underlying non-erotic pretences and exteriors.

  4. Artificial descriptions or symbols designed to stimulate erotic feelings, yet without a well-proportioned grounding in life or art.

  5. Corporeal nudity in pictorial or sartorial art.

  6. Erotic subject-matter operating through the medium of wit and humour.

  7. Free discussion of philosophic and scientific issues involving sex.

  He illustrated these seven methods with the following examples: 1) Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce; 2) Catullus, Walt Whitman; 3) James Branch Cabell, Voltaire, Henry Fielding; 4) Pierre Louys, the Marquis de Sade; 5) Giorgione, Praxiteles, or modern bathing-suit designers; 6) the dramatists of the Restoration; 7) Havelock Ellis, Auguste Forel, Richard von Kraft-Ebing, Freud. Of these, he declared that numbers 1, 2, 3, and 7 were not debatable at all—there was no question of censorship in these cases, and any imposition of it is barbarous and uncivilised; 5 was outside the present question because it was not, properly speaking, an erotic phenomenon at all (“No one but a ridiculous ignoramus or a warped Victorian sees anything erotic in the healthy human body . . . Only fools, jokers or perverts feel the urge to put overalls on Discobulus or tie an apron around the Venus of the Medici!”—the use of “perverts” here is exquisite); 6 was genuinely debatable, but even here Lovecraft did not think that much of a case for actual censorship could be made. Point 4 was the one on which he and Moe agreed; but Lovecraft turned the matter ingeniously to his advantage so as to enunciate his own moral and aesthetic foci: “These things are like Harold Bell Wright and Eddie Guest in other fields—pap and hokum, and emotional short-cuts and fakes.” Lovecraft nevertheless said he would not actually censor a copy of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs if he received one as a present, but would turn around and sell it for a young fortune!

  The matter came up for discussion three years later in connexion with Donald Wandrei’s unpublished mainstream novel Invisible Sun, a work that contained some fairly explicit depictions of sexual activity, although they were presented as part of an overall depiction of the general amoralism of modern youth. Here it was Derleth (who also read the work in manuscript) who found these passages objectionable. Although it is exactly in the course of this discussion that Lovecraft made his comment that homosexuality is “naturally” repugnant, he went on to say (not having yet read Wandrei’s novel): “although I detest all sexual irregularities in life itself, as violations of a certain harmony which seems to me inseparable from high-grade living, I have a scientific approval of perfect realism in the artistic delineation of life.”[79] After reading the novel, Lovecraft generally defended Wandrei’s use of sexual situations (including a soliloquy in which a female character fantasises about sex and ends up masturbating to climax, and another scene where a college party leads to public sexual intercourse), remarking: “Concerning the element of repulsiveness—I repeat that this is only a logical outcome of that repudiation of natural & age-old aesthetic attitudes concerning certain departments of life which (though neither new nor moral) arrogates to itself the title of ‘new morality’ . . .”[80]

  I do not wish to say a great deal about Lovecraft’s later metaphysics or ethics, for they do not appear to have undergone much significant change since the later 1920s. One thing may be worth emphasising here—the remarkable if complex unity of nearly all phases of his thought. It is clear that Lovecraft had worked out an all-encompassing philosophical system in which each part logically (or at least psychologically) implied the other.

  Beginning with metaphysics, Lovecraft espoused cosmicism in its broadest form: the universe, even if not theoretically infinite in space and time (Einstein’s notion of curved space is noted), is still of such vastness that the human sphere assumes a role of utter negligibility when compared to the cosmos. Science also establishes the extreme unlikelihood of the immortality of the “soul” (whatever that may be), the existence of a deity, and nearly all other tenets espoused by the religions of the world. Ethically, this means that values are relative either to the individual or to the race, but that (
and I have already displayed that this argument is fallacious and contradictory) there is one anchor of fixity for human beings in this cosmic flux—the cultural traditions in which each individual was raised. Aesthetically, the cosmicism/traditionalism dichotomy implies conservatism in art (repudiation of modernism, functionalism, etc.) and, in the realm of weird fiction, the suggestion of the simultaneously terrifying and imaginatively stimulating gulfs of space and time. Many of Lovecraft’s other predilections—antiquarianism, gentlemanliness of comportment, even perhaps racialism (as an aspect of cultural traditionalism)—can be harmonised within this complex of beliefs.

  How Lovecraft’s late political and economic views harmonise with his general philosophy is perhaps a little harder to gauge. That there is no contradiction between Lovecraft’s fervent, even compulsive interest in these matters in the last five years of his life and his general cosmicism—which purports to minimise human importance and human effort—is made clear by a single statement in 1929, even though the subject of discussion here is art: “Art, then, is really very important . . . though it abrogates its function and ceases to be art as soon as it becomes self-conscious, [or] puffed with illusions of cosmic significance, (as distinguished from local, human, emotional significance) . . .”[81] The distinction between cosmic and human significance is critical: we may not matter a whit to the cosmos, but we matter sufficiently to ourselves to fashion the fairest political and economic system that we can.

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