I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 49
Meanwhile Lovecraft was not done travelling. Two more trips to Boston were made in the early months of 1921, both again for amateur conventions. On February 22 the Boston Conference of Amateur Journalists was held at Quincy House. In the afternoon session, beginning at 2 P.M., Lovecraft delivered a paper, written the previous day, on a prescribed subject, “What Amateurdom and I Have Done for Each Other.” I have earlier noted the benefits Lovecraft claims (rightly) to have derived from amateur journalism: the broadening of his perspective by encountering other minds, and the chance to offer his writings to an appreciative public. Lovecraft is also perspicacious, if predictably modest, on what he has done for the amateur cause: he initiated a searching but constructive brand of criticism through the official public and private criticism bureaux; he issued his own paper, the Conservative, from 1915 to 1919, even if “circumstances have since forced me to suspend its publication” (he would fleetingly resume it in 1923); he contributed voluminously to other papers; and he performed “my share of administrative drudgery both official and unofficial.” It is, on the whole, an eloquent statement, full of keen self-awareness. Lovecraft writes to his mother: “My own remarks were received with a surprising amount of applause, which naturally gratified me immensely.”
Lovecraft, still largely a United man, found himself greatly outnumbered by Nationalites at the conference; so he kept closely in the company of Winifred Jackson and Mrs S. Lilian McMullen (Lilian Middleton) as a “compact minority of purely United enthusiasts.” His skill in conversational repartee—which would reach its height at gatherings of the Kalem Club in New York in 1924–26—was beginning to emerge. When Laurie A. Sawyer, a devoted Nationalite, pointed out that her association was older and larger, Lovecraft produced a biological analogy: just as the dinosaur was older and larger than man, so was it also slower and duller!
After the banquet Lovecraft was to give a set speech on the designated subject, “The Best Poet.” He reports not reading it verbatim from the manuscript but instead making a number of extemporaneous asides which “evoked fairly thunderous applause.” Lovecraft does not specify the content of this speech, but it may possibly be the essay published in the March 1921 United Amateur as “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess.” This is, however, only a conjecture.
Afterward Lovecraft engaged in various discussion—mostly with W. Paul Cook and George Julian Houtain—but declined an invitation to sing, even though he had apparently done so at the September 1920 gathering. So Lovecraft’s days as a plaintive tenor were not wholly over! He caught a late train home, but because of an accident to a previous train did not reach 598 Angell Street until 3.30 A.M.
A month later Lovecraft returned to Boston for a St Patrick’s Day gathering of amateurs on March 10. This took place at 20 Webster Street. Members were seated in a circle in the parlour, and literary contributions were recited in sequence. Lovecraft on this occasion read the story “The Moon-Bog,” written expressly for the occasion; it received abundant applause, but did not win the prize. In the general discussion that followed, Lovecraft got into a philosophical discussion with a new recruit, Dr Joseph Homer (listed in the UAPA membership lists as living in Roxbury); this was not an argumentative debate, since Lovecraft and Homer saw things pretty much eye to eye, but it “drew about us rather a large circle of wide-eyed listeners; two or three of whom may have understood some of the words we used.”
Lovecraft was the only out-of-town guest at the gathering, and was to stay overnight; so that the discussion proceeded far into the night. He stayed up till 1.30 A.M. talking with Winifred Jackson and Edith Miniter, then retired to a guest room. The next day (Friday the 11th) was spent largely in varied discussions and in Lovecraft’s playing with the household cat, named Tat; ordinarily a shy creature, it deigned to be picked up by Lovecraft and sat purring in his lap. Lovecraft again caught a late train, but this time there were no mishaps and he returned home by 1.30 A.M.
Lovecraft was planning yet another trip in early June, this time to New Hampshire to visit Myrta Alice Little in Hampstead, near Westville (just over the Massachusetts border, a few miles north of Haverhill). I am not sure how Lovecraft got in touch with Miss Little; she had been a member since at least September 1920, and she may have been a friend of Charles W. (“Tryout”) Smith of Haverhill, whom Lovecraft had known at least by correspondence since 1917. Lovecraft reports that Little was a former college professor who was now attempting to be a professional writer. In spite of the length of the proposed trip, he wished to stay only one night, since he had felt very tired on the second days of his two overnight stops in Boston (July 1920 and March 1921). He planned therefore to visit Little on June 8, stay overnight, and then move on to Boston to attend a Hub Club meeting in Boston on the 9th. This would have been only the fourth state he had set foot in—Rhode Island and Massachusetts in 1890, Connecticut in 1903 (a visit about which we know nothing), and now New Hampshire. But Lovecraft’s one surviving letter to Little, written on May 17, 1921, was written only a week before the most traumatic event of his entire life up to this point: the death of his mother on May 24. How this happened, and how Lovecraft dealt with it, I shall examine in a later chapter.
In “A Confession of Unfaith” Lovecraft suggests that the immediate postwar period led to the solidification of his philosophical thought: “The Peace Conference, Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler (the modern), H. L. Mencken, and other influences have perfected my cynicism; a quality which grows more intense as the advent of middle life removes the blind prejudice whereby youth clings to the vapid ‘all’s right with the world’ hallucination from sheer force of desire to have it so.” These “influences” are certainly a heterogeneous lot, and they seem primarily influential in Lovecraft’s ethical, political, and social philosophy. What he does not state here are what appear to be the two central influences on his metaphysical thought of the time—Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe (1899; English translation 1900) and Hugh Elliot’s Modern Science and Materialism (1919). This is by no means to say that these two volumes alone shaped Lovecraft’s metaphysics, which in many important particulars can be traced back to the Presocratics, Epicurus, and nineteenth-century science; but these volumes, read apparently in 1918–19, helped to give direction to his views for several years to come, until new influences would compel him to modify his outlook significantly.
It cannot be said that Lovecraft chose especially eminent figures as the immediate sources for his metaphysics. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) was, indeed, a highly noted biologist, zoologist, and anthropologist, and with Thomas Henry Huxley was one of the leading proponents of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Lovecraft also read his The Evolution of Man (1903; a translation of Anthropogenie, 1874). The Riddle of the Universe (a translation of Die Welträthsel) is the summation of nineteenth-century thought on biology and physics, but the biological section is much sounder than the physical section, which was significantly vitiated only half a decade later by the Einstein theory. Haeckel is, perhaps justifiably, no longer held in much esteem as a pure philosopher. The English writer Hugh Elliot (1881–1930) was never held in much esteem as a philosopher, since he was merely a populariser of the subject and not a pioneer in any capacity; he wrote a few other books, including Modern Science and the Illusions of Professor Bergson (1912) and Herbert Spencer (1917). I cannot find any evidence that Lovecraft read any other work of his except Modern Science and Materialism, but this book encapsulated the doctrine of pure materialism ably enough to give him a clear foundation for his metaphysics.
Elliot lays down three main principles of mechanistic materialism:
1. The uniformity of law.
2. The denial of teleology.
3. The denial of any form of existence other than those envisaged by physics and chemistry, that is to say, other existences that have some kind of palpable material characteristics and qualities.
Lovecraft espoused all these tenets to the
1) The uniformity of law means that the sequence of cause and effect is constant throughout the universe, from the smallest sub-atomic particle to the largest quasar or nebula. This is the “mechanistic” part of mechanistic materialism—the universe is a mechanism that runs by fixed laws of Nature. It is not necessary for us to know all these laws—indeed, according to most materialists it is not even possible for us to do so—but it is theoretically conceivable. But what Elliot and many other nineteenth-century materialists ignored—or, more likely, were careful to brush under the rug—is that the uniformity of law is not a datum of physics but (as Hume was the first to suggest) an inference from all the accumulated data of physics. Before the introduction of quantum theory, there never had been discovered any genuine violations of causality, as physics, chemistry, and biology were explaining with ever-increasing thoroughness the purely mechanical activity of all entity. Even after quantum theory it is possible to “save causality” after a fashion.
2) The denial of teleology generally refers to the denial that the cosmos as a whole is progressing in some direction, especially—as in religious metaphysics—under the direction of a deity. The more restricted notion that the human race is evolving toward some (presumably better) state of existence is not a purely metaphysical conception, even in its religious guise, for ethical and political considerations can enter into it; but as propounded by most religious or quasi-religious thinkers, the notion refers to the divine guidance of mankind to a more exalted spiritual state.
3) Elliot’s formulation of this principle is a little unfortunate, since it is exactly the assertion of religionists and spiritualists that there are “other existences” which do not have “palpable material characteristics”—i.e., soul or spirit. Nevertheless, denial of spirit—or any non-material entity—is really the cardinal tenet and defining quality of materialism. It is conceivable to reject the first two of Elliot’s principles (most modern physicists would, at least in theory, reject the first, and several eighteenth-century philosophes denied the second, in that they asserted the ultimate perfectibility of the human race) and still remain a materialist; but the third cannot be so rejected.
Mechanistic materialism as a philosophy, of course, goes back to the Presocratics, specifically Leucippus and Democritus, the co-founders of atomism and very strong proponents of determinism. Epicurus followed Democritus in metaphysics but rejected him in ethics, at least insofar as he espoused free will, something that a rigid adherence to the “uniformity of law” principle renders theoretically impossible. The Roman poet Lucretius did no more than versify Epicurus’ philosophy, although he did so with breathtaking panache, and in so doing helped to introduce Epicurean principles to the Roman world and, ultimately, to the Renaissance.
Lovecraft displays considerable familiarity with all these ancient thinkers, but I am still unclear how he gained this information. Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus exist only in fragments. The remains of the first two were collected in Hermann Diels’s landmark compilation, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903), but Lovecraft’s Greek was never good enough to enable him to pore through this work; Epicurus’ fragments were not definitively collected until Cyril Bailey’s edition of 1926, long after Lovecraft was citing him as an influence. Perhaps he read (in translation) Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, which offer sound enough accounts of these philosophers’ views, although they tend to be chatty, biographical, and at times unreliable. Lovecraft certainly read Lucretius in Latin: he owned Jacob Bernays’s Teubner edition of 1879, and in 1927 he actually recited a line of Lucretius in a dream. Even handbooks on ancient philosophy were not common in Lovecraft’s day, but one has to assume that he read some such at a relatively early stage—perhaps during his hermitry of 1908–13. He owned Fénélon’s Lives of the Ancient Philosophers in an 1824 English translation, and this is as good a source as any.
Among modern thinkers materialism made considerable headway in the seventeenth (Hobbes), eighteenth (Helvétius, La Mettrie, d’Holbach), and nineteenth centuries, in part through the rediscovery of the ancient materialists and much more importantly through increasing advances in science. It is, however, a myth that Lovecraft was in any significant way influenced by eighteenth-century philosophy. Although he was very much influenced by the (English) literature of the period, he shows little familiarity with the great thinkers of the age, not even with the philosophes whom he would have found congenial. He tends to rattle off names such as “La Mettrie, Diderot, Helvetius, Hume, & dozens of others . . . in the supremely rational 18th century,” but with little suggestion that he has genuinely absorbed these philosophers.
In fact, Lovecraft’s chief philosophical influences are all from the nineteenth century—Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel, and others who by their pioneering work in biology, chemistry, and physics systematically brought more and more phenomena under the realm of the known and the natural. There is nothing to criticise in all this—Lovecraft, as a creative artist, had no need to be an encyclopaedia on the history of philosophy, and his philosophical mentors were, on the whole, about as sound as one could want for the type of outlook he came to evolve.
Let us return to Elliot’s three principles and see where Lovecraft stands in relation to them. The first—the uniformity of law—had by Lovecraft’s day become such an axiom of science that he accepted it as a matter of course; indeed, it was because he so firmly accepted it—and made it the foundation not merely of his metaphysics but of certain features of his ethics and even aesthetics—that he had so much difficulty coming to terms with quantum theory. Nevertheless, he did accept Elliot’s notion that human beings can never know all the “laws” of Nature because of the inescapable limitations of our senses. Elliot writes provocatively:
Let us first ask why it is that all past efforts to solve ultimate riddles have failed, and why it is that they must continue to fail. It is, in the first place, due to the fact that all knowledge is based on sense-impressions, and cannot, therefore, go beyond what the senses can perceive. Men have five or six different senses only, and these are all founded on the one original sense of touch. . . . Now, supposing that we happened to have a thousand senses instead of five, it is clear that our conceptions of the Universe would be extremely different from what it now is. We cannot assume that the Universe has only five qualities because we have only five senses. We must assume, on the contrary, that the number of its qualities may be infinite, and that the more senses we had, the more we should discover about it. (2–3)
I shall return to this staggering conception later; it is one that Lovecraft clearly found very stirring to his imagination, and it led Elliot himself to write with unwonted cynicism, “Our achievements are like the scratchings of a field-mouse on the side of a mountain” (27). Lovecraft, in any case, echoes Elliot when he states in the In Defence of Dagon essays of 1921: “Beyond a certain limit knowledge may be impossible to acquire with man’s present sensory and intellectual equipment.” This seems to leave open the possibility of some future development of humanity’s sensory and intellectual equipment, but Lovecraft probably did not intend such an implication; in any case, epistemology was the weakest area of his philosophical thought, simply because he did not pay much attention to it or felt it needed much attention.
It is on Elliot’s second principle—the denial of teleology—that Lovecraft felt most passionate. His cosmicism, engendered by his astronomical studies, had relegated the entire history of the human race to an inessential nanosecond in the realm of infinite space and time; and any suggestion—whether in metaphysics or in ethics—that humanity might conceivably have some cosmic (as opposed to local) importance caused him to unleash all his rhetorical weapons with a vengeance. One of the theories he toyed with in his battle against teleology was Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence—the
As to the origin of a supposed deity—if one always existed and always will exist, how can he be developing creation from one definite state to another? Nothing but a cycle is in any case conceivable—a cycle or an infinite rearrangement, if that be a tenable thought. Nietzsche saw this when he spoke of the ewigen Wiederkunft. In absolute eternity there is neither starting-point nor destination.
Gradually, however, Lovecraft was forced to give up the notion of eternal recurrence and replace it with the more scientifically plausible notion of entropy—the eventual degradation of all the energy of the cosmos to a state of mere radiant heat. Here he follows Elliot over Haeckel, who had denied entropy because he was so wedded to the conception of the eternity of the cosmos that he could not envision a time when all matter might be obliterated. Elliot counters:
If transformations of matter and energy are entirely reversible, taking place with equal facility in any direction, then the Universe might be regarded as a permanent existence, in more or less its present form. . . . [But] transformations do not take place equally readily in all directions; they tend very unmistakably towards what may be called a degradation of matter and energy. The Universe is running down; and, theoretically at least, a time may be imagined when it will have run down altogether, becoming still and “lifeless.” (61)
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- 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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