I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 51
There is a real restfulness in the scientific conviction that nothing matters very much; that the only legitimate aim of humanity is to minimise acute suffering for the majority, and to derive whatever satisfaction is derivable from the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth.
The secret of true contentment . . . lies in the achievement of a cosmical point of view.
Once again it must be emphasised that neither of these ethical precepts is a direct corollary of cosmicism; they are, rather, varying psychological responses to Lovecraft’s awareness of the cosmic insignificance of humanity in a boundless universe. In effect, they are somewhat bizarre conjoinings of Epicureanism and Schopenhauerianism. Just prior to the utterance of the second statement above, Lovecraft has written: “To enjoy tranquillity, and to promote tranquillity in others, is the most enduring of delights. Such was the doctrine of Epicurus, the leading ethical philosopher of the world.” But Lovecraft surrounds this utterance with the following:
One should come to realise that all life is merely a comedy of vain desire, wherein those who strive are the clowns, and those who calmly and dispassionately watch are the fortunate ones who can laugh at the acts of the strivers. The utter emptiness of all the recognised goals of human endeavour is to the detached spectator deliciously apparent—the tomb yawns and grins so ironically! . . . If one’s interest in life wanes, let him turn to the succour of others in a like plight, and some grounds for interest will be observed to return.
This is remarkably similar to a passage in Arthur Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism, virtually the only volume of Schopenhauer’s that Lovecraft appears to have read: “The best consolation in misfortune or affliction of any kind will be the thought of other people who are in a still worse plight than yourself; and this is a form of consolation open to every one. But what an awful fate this means for mankind as a whole!”
A later passage in this same letter of Lovecraft’s is one of his most poignant early ethical remarks, and here he explicitly ties Epicureanism, Schopenhauerianism, and cosmicism into a neat (if not logically defensible) whole:
About the time I joined the United I was none too fond of existence. I was 23 years of age, and realised that my infirmities would withhold me from success in the world at large. Feeling like a cipher, I felt I might as well be erased. But later I realised that even success is empty. Failure though I be, I shall reach a level with the greatest—and the smallest—in the damp earth or on the final pyre. And I saw that in the interim trivialities are not to be despised. Success is a relative thing—and the victory of a boy at marbles is equal to the victory of an Octavius at Actium when measured by the scale of cosmic infinity. So I turned to observe other mediocre and handicapped persons about me, and found pleasure in increasing the happiness of those who could be helped by such encouraging words or critical services as I am capable of furnishing. That I have been able to cheer here and there an aged man, an infirm old lady, a dull youth, or a person deprived by circumstances of education, affords to me a sense of being not altogether useless, which almost forms a substitute for the real success I shall never know. What matter if none hear of my labours, or if those labours touch only the afflicted and mediocre? Surely it is well that the happiness of the unfortunate be made as great as possible; and he who is kind, helpful, and patient with his fellow-sufferers, adds as truly to the world’s combined fund of tranquillity as he who, with greater endowments, promotes the birth of empires, or advances the knowledge of civilisation and mankind.
Touching as this is, I wonder how it is to be reconciled with statements made in 1921 (“I expect nothing of man, and disown the race. . . . It is better to laugh at man from outside the universe, than to weep for him within”) or 1923 (“Honestly, my hatred of the human animal mounts by leaps and bounds the more I see of the damned vermin, and the more I see exemplified the workings of their spiteful, shabby, and sadistic psychological processes”). But perhaps there is no real contradiction: Lovecraft, without being a genuine pessimist or misanthrope, was never blind to the follies and contemptibilities of humanity. But the long quotation above may help us to understand why Lovecraft initially derived pessimism from cosmicism. His various comments to the contrary notwithstanding, I suspect he did suffer a sort of disillusion when he contemplated the myriad worlds of infinite space; the first reaction may well have been one of exhilaration, but perhaps not much later there came to him the sensation of the utter futility of all human effort in light of the vastness of the cosmos and the inconsequentiality of mankind in it. At a still later stage Lovecraft turned this pessimism to his advantage, and it became a bulwark against the little tragedies of his own existence—his failure to graduate from high school and enter college; his failure to secure a job; his dissatisfaction with the progress of his writing—since these things could be regarded as cosmically unimportant, however large they loomed in his own circumstances. Lovecraft largely abandoned Schopenhauerian pessimism over the next decade or so, evolving instead his notion of “indifferentism”; but this should be treated at a later stage.
I have adduced the influence of Nietzsche on a number of occasions, but it is again not entirely certain which of his works Lovecraft read. As early as 1916, in the “Department of Public Criticism” for June 1916, he makes passing reference to Nietzsche as the “German iconoclast”; but “A Confession of Unfaith” makes clear that Lovecraft read Nietzsche only after the war. The first mention I have found in Lovecraft occurs in September 1919: “With Nietzsche, I have been forced to confess that mankind as a whole has no goal or purpose whatever, but is a mere superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity.” So far as I know, Nietzsche never makes this exact utterance anywhere, and it may be Lovecraft’s not entirely sound inference from a variety of Nietzsche’s works. In a letter of 1921 he makes a pun on Kant’s name (cant), which Nietzsche had made (in English) in Twilight of the Idols (Poe had also made it in “How to Write a Blackwood Article”). In this same letter Lovecraft continues:
Lest you fancy that I am making an idol of Nietzsche as others do of Kant, let me state clearly that I do not swallow him whole. His ethical system is a joke—or a poet’s dream, which amounts to the same thing. It is in his method, and his account of the basic origin and actual relation of existing ideas and standards, which make him the master figure of the modern age and founder of unvarnished sincerity in philosophical thought.
This is a trifle vague, and I do not know what Lovecraft’s comment on Nietzsche’s ethical system is meant to suggest. But the second sentence is clearly a reference to several of Nietzsche’s works, chiefly On the Genealogy of Morals, which strove to find the natural (as opposed to divine or objective) origin of the notions of justice, democracy, and equality in primitive social customs. Lovecraft echoes these ideas in a single sentence of the In Defence of Dagon essays (“Then out of the principle of barter comes the illusion of ‘justice’”) and in his later philosophical thought as well. But Nietzsche’s influence on Lovecraft, at least in the short term, seemed chiefly to be manifested in the realm of social and political theory, and I shall examine this elsewhere.
The whole issue of how Lovecraft could offer moral precepts at all, even to himself, in light of his confirmed determinism and denial of free will did not trouble him much, as it has rarely troubled other determinists from Democritus on down. Lovecraft was indeed a determinist, and a very acute one, as he discusses the idea with Rheinhart Kleiner in 1921:
Determinism—which you call Destiny—rules inexorably; though not exactly in the personal way you seem to fancy. We have no specific destiny against which we can fight—for the fighting would be as much a part of the destiny as the final end. The real fact is simply that every event in the cosmos is caused by the action of antecedent and circumjacent forces, so that whatever we do is unconsciously the inevitable product of Nature rather than of our own volition. If an act correspond with our wish, it is Nature that made the wish, an
But Lovecraft was aware of the possible conflict between determinism and conventional ethics, as a much later essay, “Some Causes of Self-Immolation” (1931), establishes:
It was of course recognised by determinists that behind any proximate base must lie the general flux of the universe, be it simple or complex; that is, that in the last analysis each human act can be no less than the inevitable result of every antecedent and circumambient condition in an eternal cosmos. This recognition, however, did not prevent such thinkers from continuing to seek for the more proximate base or bases, and to speculate upon the immediate strings by which human puppets are moved.
Perhaps Lovecraft is trying to have his cake and eat it too, here; but what he wishes to establish is simply that “free will” (in the conventional sense of conscious moral decisions for or against a given course of action) is in most, perhaps all, cases a myth because of those “antecedent and circumambient” conditions that cause a given ethical situation to occur and that cause each individual to make a decision in one way or another.
Curiously enough, Lovecraft once did believe in free will. In “A Confession of Unfaith” he records that among the benefits he derived from philosophical discussion with his fellow amateurs was that “I ceased my literal adherence to Epicurus and Lucretius, and reluctantly dismissed free-will in favour of determinism.” This does not tell us why Lovecraft relinquished free will, and a letter of 1921 helps only marginally: “As to free-will—like the Epicureans, whose school I followed, I used to believe in it. Now, however, I am forced to admit that there is no room for it. It is fundamentally opposed to all those laws of causality which every phenomenon of Nature confirms and verifies.” If this tells us anything, it is that—Lovecraft’s remark notwithstanding—he did not yield on free will through discussion with amateurs (unless it was with the Nietzschean Alfred Galpin) but through his absorption of the great trilogy of Nietzsche, Haeckel, and Elliot, who all unite on the issue. Incidentally, when Lovecraft refers to his former “literal” adherence to Epicurean free will, I can hardly believe that he is referring to the bizarre contrivance by which Epicurus (and Lucretius) tried to save free will. Epicurus first unwisely deviated from Democritus by asserting that atoms primordially did not fly in all directions but all fell downward in space; this itself is bad enough, but then—solely in order to salvage free will—he postulated a random “swerve” of atoms that ultimately led to the creation of material objects, and which also in some fashion guaranteed free will. The notion was much ridiculed in antiquity, in spite of what we can now see as a wholly fortuitous similarity to quantum theory. I cannot imagine Lovecraft accepting the swerve: what he terms his “literal adherence” to Epicurus must be merely his provisional acceptance of the principle of free will and not the specifically Epicurean reasoning behind it.
I have referred frequently to the so-called In Defence of Dagon essays. This title was devised by R. H. Barlow for a series of three pieces, “The Defence Reopens!” (January 1921), “The Defence Remains Open!” (April 1921), and “Final Words” (September 1921), which Lovecraft sent through the Transatlantic Circulator; it was perhaps the first time when he was compelled to defend his entire metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic philosophy, and these essays are among his most scintillating and rhetorically effective philosophical writing, far outshining the wooden and pedantic “Idealism and Materialism.” Lovecraft’s involvement in this group has been much misunderstood, and a detailed examination of it may be in order.
The Transatlantic Circulator has sometimes been taken to be an amateur journal of some kind, but in fact it was a loose organisation of amateur journalists in England and the United States who exchanged stories and poems in manuscript and criticised them. How long the organisation was in existence before Lovecraft’s entrance into it in July 1920 is unknown, but it is certainly not correct, as some have believed, that Lovecraft himself organised the group. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest either this nor that the organisation collapsed after Lovecraft’s exit from it in September 1921, for new members were entering it at precisely the time Lovecraft was withdrawing.
Also in doubt is the matter of who introduced Lovecraft to the Circulator. The choice would perhaps fall on John Ravenor Bullen, a Canadian amateur and a central figure in the organisation. Bullen is the only one of the known members of the Circulator with whom Lovecraft continued an acquaintance in later life; but did he know Bullen as early as 1920? There is no especial reason to doubt it. Bullen shows up in the UAPA membership list for the first time in July 1920, and it is quite likely that he got in touch with Lovecraft—who had just been elected Official Editor of the UAPA—then or slightly later. Lovecraft published a poem of Bullen’s in the July 1923 issue of the Conservative, but this issue may have been prepared much earlier; and in 1927 Lovecraft edited and wrote the preface to Bullen’s posthumous collection of poems, White Fire.
The preserved letters of comment from other members of the Transatlantic Circulator allow us to know precisely the number and dates of the pieces by Lovecraft sent through the organisation. Lovecraft made his debut with “The White Ship,” sent in July 1920; this was followed by two works, “Dagon” and “Old Christmas,” sent in November 1920; then followed “The Tree,” “Nemesis,” and “Psychopompos” in January 1921; “The Nameless City,” “To Mistress Sophia Simple, Queen of the Cinema,” “On Religion,” and “Quinsnicket Park” were submitted in June 1921; and “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” in September 1921, heralded Lovecraft’s exit from the group. There must, however, have been at least one original essay, now evidently not extant, sent through the Circulator, as in “The Defence Reopens!” Lovecraft refers to “the Wickenden objections to my philosophical views”; this was presumably sent in November 1920. Indeed, the autograph manuscripts of the three surviving essays may be rough drafts that Lovecraft typed up for distribution through the Circulator. No letters or essays from Wickenden himself survive, so that we have no idea of his identity or location; but letters by several other members, mostly commenting on Lovecraft’s stories and poems, are extant, and a number of these are quite acute. Lovecraft revised the final couplet of “Psychopompos” and the poem included in “Polaris” based on criticisms made in the Circulator.
Wickenden was Lovecraft’s chief philosophical opponent, and he does not appear to have been a very astute one, for he allows Lovecraft many opportunities to demolish his obviously false and poorly conceived theistic views. If Lovecraft is occasionally a little hard on Wickenden, he never indulges in mere abuse and actually ends up taking Wickenden’s views more seriously than they deserve. At one point he makes one of his noblest utterances, as he attempts to free Wickenden from the immortality myth:
No change of faith can dull the colours and magic of spring, or dampen the native exuberance of perfect health; and the consolations of taste and intellect are infinite. It is easy to remove the mind from harping on the lost illusion of immortality. The disciplined mind fears nothing and craves no sugar-plum at the day’s end, but is content to accept life and serve society as best it may. Personally I should not care for immortality in the least. There is nothing better than oblivion, since in oblivion there is no wish unfulfilled. We had it before we were born, yet did not complain. Shall we then whine because we know it will return? It is Elysium enough for me, at any rate.
There is every reason to believe that Lovecraft actually practised the above precept in the subsequent course of his life.
Philosophy was only one of Lovecraft’s many concerns in this period. Perhaps more significantly for his future career, he simultaneously began—or attempted to begin—separating himself from amateur activity and turning determinedly to fiction-writing. We can at last study the influence of Lord Dunsany on his fiction, as well as the many other tales of supernatural horror that laid the groundwork for his later, more substantial fiction.
11. Dunsanian Studies
Dunsany had published a mediocre poem, “Rhymes from a Suburb,” in the Pall Mall Gazette for September 1897 but otherwise gave little indication that he had any literary aspirations. But in 1904 he sat down and wrote The Gods of Pegana. Having no literary reputation, he was forced to pay for its publication with Elkin Mathews of London. Never again, however, would Dunsany have to resort to vanity publishing.
The Gods of Pegana opens thunderously:
Before there stood gods upon Olympus, or even Allah was Allah, had wrought and rested Mana-Yood-Sushai.
There are in Pegana—Mung and Sish and Kib, and the maker of all small gods, who is Mana-Yood-Sushai. Moreover, we have a faith in Roon and Slid.
And it has been said of old that all things that have been were wrought by the small gods, excepting only Mana-Yood-Sushai, who made the gods amd hath thereafter rested.
And none may pray to Mana-Yood-Sushai but only to the gods whom he hath made.
This rhythmic prose and cosmic subject-matter, both self-consciously derived from the King James Bible—and, as Dunsany admits in his charming autobiography, Patches of Sunlight (1938), from recollections of Greek mythology in school—introduced something unique to literature. The last decades of the nineteenth century had seen such things as the jewelled fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and the prose and verse epics of William Morris; but this was very different. Here was an entire theogony whose principal motivation was not the expression of religious fervour (Dunsany was in all likelihood an atheist) but an instantiation of Oscar Wilde’s imperishable dictum: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” While there are a number of provocative philosophical undercurrents in The Gods of Pegana, as in Dunsany’s work as a whole, its main function is merely the evocation of beauty—beauty of language, beauty of conception, beauty of image. Readers and critics alike responded to this rarefied creation of exotic loveliness, with its seamless mixture of naiveté and sophistication, archaism and modernity, sly humour and brooding horror, chilling remoteness and quiet pathos. Generally favourable reviews began to appear—including one by the poet Edward Thomas—and Dunsany’s career was launched.
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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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