I am providence the life.., p.141

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 141


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

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  Now and then Lovecraft spoke more personally on his beliefs, desires, and reasons for living—still in a generally philosophical mode, but with no expectation of persuading anyone to adopt his views. One very poignant utterance was made to August Derleth in 1930:

  I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I continue to refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthensome quality. These reasons are strongly linked with architecture, scenery, and lighting and atmospheric effects, and take the form of vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory—impressions that certain vistas, particularly those associated with sunsets, are avenues of approach to spheres or conditions of wholly undefined delights and freedoms which I have known in the past and have a slender possibility of knowing again in the future. Just what those delights and freedoms are, or even what they approximately resemble, I could not concretely imagine to save my life; save that they seem to concern some ethereal quality of indefinite expansion and mobility, and of a heightened perception which shall make all forms and combinations of beauty simultaneously visible to me, and realisable by me. I might add, though, that they invariably imply a total defeat of the laws of time, space, matter, and energy—or rather, an individual independence of these laws on my part, whereby I can sail through the varied universes of space-time as an invisible vapour might . . . upsetting none of them, yet superior to their limitations and local forms of material organisation. . . . Now this all sounds damn foolish to anybody else—and very justly so. There is no reason why it should sound anything except damn foolish to anyone who has not happened to receive precisely the same series of inclinations, impressions, and background-images which the purely fortuitous circumstances of my own especial life have chanced to give me.[82]

  Much as I admire the logician in Lovecraft—the fierce foe of religious obscurantism, the rationalist and materialist who absorbed Einstein and retained a lifelong belief in the validity of scientific evidence—I think a passage like this, personal and even mystical in its way, gets closer to what Lovecraft was all about; for this is an honest and sincere exposure of his imaginative life, and—while there is nothing here that contradicts his general metaphysics and ethics—it humanises Lovecraft and shows that, beyond the cold rationalism of his intellect, he was a man whose emotions responded deeply to many of the varied phenomena of life. Persons may not have moved him—he may have genuinely loved no one in his life but his closest family members—but he felt intensely and profoundly many things that most of us pass over with scarcely a thought.

  The opening sentence of this utterance—a reflection of his abiding acknowledgement of Schopenhauer’s belief in the fundamental wretchedness of existence—may be of relevance in considering another series of statements that has caused a certain amount of controversy: his letters to Helen Sully.

  L. Sprague de Camp has interpreted these statements as revealing a profound depression on Lovecraft’s part in his later years; and, taken out of context—or perhaps without an awareness of their import—they could indeed be interpreted as such. Consider the following:

  In actual fact, there are few total losses & never-was’s which discourage & exasperate me more than the venerable E’ch-Pi-El. I know of few persons whose attainments fall more consistently short of their aspirations, or who in general have less to live for. Every aptitude which I wish I had, I lack. Everything which I value, I have either lost or am likely to lose. Within a decade, unless I can find some job paying at least $10.00 per week, I shall have to take the cyanide route through inability to keep around me the books, pictures, furniture, & other familiar objects which constitute my only remaining reason for keeping alive. . . . The reason I have been more “melancholy” than usual in the last few years is that I am coming to distrust more & more the value of the material I produce. Adverse criticism has of late vastly undermined my confidence in my literary powers. And so it goes. Decidedly, Grandpa is not one of those beaming old gentlemen who radiate cheer wherever they go![83]

  This certainly sounds pretty bad, but—although there are perhaps no actual falsehoods in any of it—a consideration of its context, and of some passages I have omitted, may allow us to take a different view.

  Reading the entirety of Lovecraft’s letters to Sully (we do not have her side of the correspondence), it becomes readily apparent that Sully was a high-strung, hypersensitive woman who was experiencing a series of disappointments (among them unfortunate love affairs) and was looking for Lovecraft to lend her some fortitude and encouragement. Lovecraft makes frequent reference to her “recent sombre reflections” and “feeling of oppression,”[84] and—in the very letter in which the above extract is drawn—even quotes some phrases in Sully’s letter in which she described herself as feeling “hopeless, useless, incompetent, and generally miserable” and Lovecraft as a “beautifully balanced, contented person.” Lovecraft’s tactic—which may or may not have been successful—was two-pronged: first, suggest that “happiness” as such was a relatively little-realised goal among human beings; and second, suggest that he was in a far worse position than herself, so that if he can be tolerably contented, so much more should she be.

  As to the first point:

  Of course, real happiness is only a rare & transient phenomenon; but when we cease to expect this extravagant extreme, we usually find a very tolerable fund of mild contentment at our disposal. True, people & landmarks vanish, & one grows old & out of the more glamorous possibilities & expectancies of life; but over-against these things there remains the fact that the world contains an almost inexhaustible store of objective beauty & potential interest & drama . . .[85]

  Lovecraft goes on to say that the best way to gain this mild contentment is to abolish one’s emotions, take an objective view of things, etc. etc.—things Sully probably did not especially want to hear and would probably have been unable or unwilling to carry out in any case. As her “sombre reflections” continued, Lovecraft felt that self-deprecation was the only option to make his correspondent feel better; hence the passage I quoted above. But here are some parts I did not quote:

  Meanwhile, of course, I certainly do get a lot of pleasure from books, travel (when I can travel), philosophy, the arts, history, antiquarianism, scenery, the sciences, & so on . . . & from such poor attempts in the way of aesthetic creation (= fantastic fiction) as I can kid myself into thinking I can sometimes achieve. . . . I’m no pining & picturesque victim of melancholy’s romantic ravages. I merely shrug my shoulders, recognise the inevitable, let the world march past, & vegetate along as painlessly as possible. I suppose I’m a damned sight better off than millions. There are dozens of things I can actually enjoy.

  But the point is, that I’m probably a thousand times worse off than you are . . . The gist of my “sermon” is that if analysis & philosophy can make me tolerably resigned, it certainly ought to produce even better results with one not nearly so gravely handicapped.

  And Lovecraft ends with the rousing peroration, “So—as a final homiletic word from garrulous & sententious old age—for Tsathoggua’s sake cheer up!” Again, I am not clear how well Lovecraft succeeded in relieving Sully of her depression; but certainly the passages in his letters to her cannot be taken straightforwardly as evidence of any depression of his own. Very little of the rest of his correspondence of this period corroborates such an impression.

  The one area of Lovecraft’s thought that has—justifiably—aroused the greatest outrage among later commentators is his attitude on race. My contention is, however, both that Lovecraft has been criticised for the wrong reasons and that, even though he clearly espoused views that are illiberal, intolerant, or plain wrong scientifically, his racism is at least logically separable from the rest of his philosophical and even political thought.

  Lovecraft retained to the end of his days a belief in the biological inferiorit
y of blacks and also of Australian aborigines, although it is not clear why he singled out this latter group. Even the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—where he obtained most of the information on Australia for “The Shadow out of Time”—declared that the aborigines’ “mental faculties, through probably inferior to those of the Polynesian copper-coloured race, are not contemptible. They have much acuteness of perception for the realations of individual objects . . . The grammatical structure of some North Australian languages has a considerable degree of refinement.”[86] Nevertheless, the general thrust of the article could lead someone like Lovecraft to believe that the race is irremediably mired in savage primitivism.

  In any event, Lovecraft advocated an absolutely rigid colour line against intermarriage between blacks and whites, so as to guard against “miscegenation.” This view was by no means uncommon in the 1920s, and many leading American biologists and psychologists wrote forebodingly about the possibility that racial intermixture could lead to biological abnormalities.[87] Of course, laws against interracial marriage survived in this country until an embarrassingly recent time.

  Lovecraft’s views on the matter no doubt affected his judgment of the celebrated Scottsboro case. In March 1931 nine black youths between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one were charged with the rape of two white women while riding on a freight train near Scottsboro, Alabama. In two weeks the defendants were found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to the electric chair. Lovecraft made no mention of the case at this time. After the convictions, the Communist-backed International Labor Defense took up the case, and in November 1932 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial on the grounds that the defendants had not received adequate counsel. The trial began in March 1933. The first defendant was again sentenced to death, while the trial of the others was postponed indefinitely because of the furore that erupted. Two years later, on April 1, 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction because blacks were systematically barred from the jury. In subsequent trials in 1936–37 five of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms; the other four defendants were dismissed.

  In May 1933 Lovecraft remarked to J. Vernon Shea, who clearly believed in the defendants’ innocence: “Naturally nobody wants to kill the poor niggers unless they were guilty . . . but it doesn’t seem to me that their innocence is at all likely. This is no low-grade lynching incident. A very fair court has passed on the case . . .”[88] Lovecraft charitably recommended mere life imprisonment for the suspects rather than execution, so that any “mistake” in their conviction could be rectified. In February 1934 Lovecraft, continuing to argue over the case with Shea, made the remarkable claim: “It doesn’t seem natural to me that well-disposed men would deliberately condemn even niggers to death if they were not strongly convinced of their guilt.”[89] To be fair to Lovecraft, there was little suspicion at the time that the alleged victims were fabricating the whole story, even though we now know that that was indeed the case; but it is dismaying how Lovecraft could be so oblivious of the deep-seated racism that routinely resulted in African-Americans in the South (and elsewhere) being convicted on poor evidence by white juries.

  But, as we have seen earlier, Lovecraft in the course of time was forced to back down increasingly from his claims to the superiority of the Aryan (or Nordic or Teuton) over other groups aside from blacks and aborigines:

  No anthropologist of standing insists on the uniformly advanced evolution of the Nordic as compared with that of other Caucasian and Mongolian races. As a matter of fact, it is freely conceded that the Mediterranean race turns out a higher percentage of the aesthetically sensitive and that the Semitic groups excel in sharp, precise intellection. It may be, too, that the Mongolian excels in aesthetick capacity and normality of philosophical adjustment. What, then, is the secret of pro-Nordicism amongst those who hold these views? Simply this—that ours is a Nordic culture, and that the roots of that culture are so inextricably tangled in the national standards, perspectives, traditions, memories, instincts, peculiarities, and physical aspects of the Nordic stream that no other influences are fitted to mingle in our fabric. We don’t despise the French in France or Quebec, but we don’t want them grabbing our territory and creating foreign islands like Woonsocket and Fall River. The fact of this uniqueness of every separate culture-stream—this dependence of instinctive likes and dislikes, natural methods, unconscious appraisals, etc., etc., on the physical and historical attributes of a single race—is too obvious to be ignored except by empty theorists.[90]

  This passage is critical. Now that his race has been stripped of any recognisable superiority over others (although, of course, the “concessions” he made as to the distinguishing features of other races are merely simple-minded stereotypes), how could Lovecraft continue to defend segregation? He did so by asserting—from an illegitimate generalisation of his own prejudices—a wildly exaggerated degree of incompatibility and hostility among different cultural groups. And there is a subtle but profound hypocrisy here also: Lovecraft trumpeted “Aryan” conquests over other races (European conquest of the American continent, to name only one example) as justified by the inherent strength and prowess of the race; but when other “races” or cultures—the French-Canadians in Woonsocket, the Italians and Portuguese in Providence, the Jews in New York—made analogous incursions into “Aryan” territory, he saw it as somehow contrary to Nature. He was backed into this corner by his claim that the Nordic is “a master in the art of orderly living and group preservation” [91]—and he therefore cannot account for the increasing heterogeneity of “Nordic” culture.

  Lovecraft was, of course, entirely at liberty to feel personally uncomfortable in the presence of aliens; he was even, I believe, at liberty to wish for a culturally and racially homogeneous society. This wish is, in itself, not pernicious, just as the wish for a racially and culturally diverse society—such as the United States has now become—is not in itself self-evidently virtuous. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks, and Lovecraft clearly preferred the advantages of homogeneity (cultural unanimity and continuity, respect for tradition) to its drawbacks (prejudice, cultural isolationism, fossilisation). Where Lovecraft went astray philosophically is in attributing his own sentiments to his “race” or culture at large: “We can like a fool or a boor even when we laugh at him. There is nothing loathsome or monstrous to us in weak thinking or poor taste. But for the cringing, broken, unctuous, subtle type we have a genuine horror—a sense of outraged Nature—which excites our deepest nerve-fibres of mental and physical repugnance.”[92] That repeated “we” is rhetorically clever but transparently fallacious.

  In my view, Lovecraft leaves himself most open to criticism on the issue of race not by the mere espousal of such views but by his lack of openmindedness on the issue, and more particularly his resolute unwillingness to study the most up-to-date findings on the subject from biologists, anthropologists, and other scientists of unquestioned authority who were, through the early decades of the century, systematically destroying each and every pseudo-scientific “proof” of racialist theories. In every other aspect of his thought—metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, politics—Lovecraft was constantly digesting new information (even if only through newspaper reports, magazine articles, and other second-hand sources) and readjusting his views accordingly. Only on the issue of race did his thinking remain relatively static. He never realised that his beliefs had been largely shaped by parental and societal influence, early reading, and outmoded late nineteenth-century science. The mere fact that he had to defend his views so vigorously and argumentatively in letters—chiefly to younger correspondents like Frank Long and J. Vernon Shea—should have encouraged him to rethink his position; but he never did so in any significant way.

  The brute fact is that by 1930 every “scientific” justification for racism had been demolished. The spearhead of the scientific opposition to racism was the anthropologist Franz Boas (1857–1942), but I find no mention of him
in any of Lovecraft’s letters or essays. The intelligentsia—among whom Lovecraft surely would have wished to number himself—had also largely repudiated racist assumptions in their political and social thought. Indeed, such things as the classification of skulls by size or shape (dolichocephalic, brachycephalic, etc.)—which Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard waste much time debating in their letters of the early 1930s—had been shown to be preposterous and unscientific even by the late nineteenth century. At least Lovecraft did not generally utilise intelligence tests (such as the Stanford-Binet test perfected in 1916) to “prove” the superior brain-capacity of whites over non-whites—something that, remarkably enough, has experienced a recrudescence in our own day.

  And yet, ugly and unfortunate as Lovecraft’s racial views are, they do not materially affect the validity of the rest of his philosophical thought. They may well enter into a significant proportion of his fiction (miscegenation and fear of aliens are clearly at the centre of such tales as “The Lurking Fear,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth”), but I cannot see that they affect his metaphysical, ethical, aesthetic, or even his late political views in any meaningful way. These views do not stand or fall on racialist assumptions. I certainly have no desire to brush Lovecraft’s racism under the rug, but I do not think that the many compelling positions he advocated as a thinker should be dismissed because of his clearly erroneous views on race.

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