I am providence the life.., p.75
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 75
This is one of the most notorious pieces of evidence of Lovecraft’s supposed insensitivity to modernism and to his innate aesthetic conservatism; but it is difficult to see what other reaction he could have made at this stage of his development. It should also be pointed out that many other reviewers—not merely stodgy Victorians like J. C. Squire but level-headed modernists like Conrad Aiken—also found the poem incomprehensible or at least ambiguous and incoherent, although some did not think it a bad poem on that account. As for Lovecraft, he may by this time have given up his literal adherence to eighteenth-century forms—or, at least, his requirement that all other poets do so—but the outward form of The Waste Land with its free verse and its seemingly random progression so offended him that he saw in the poem an actual instance of the aesthetic fragmentation of modern civilisation that other reviewers felt it to be expressing. As Louis Untermeyer wrote in a review that reflects some of Lovecraft’s own concerns about the work:
As an echo of contemporary despair, as a picture of dissolution, of the breaking down of the very structures on which life has modelled itself, “The Waste Land” has a definite authenticity. But even the process of disintegration must be held within a pattern. This pattern is distorted and broken by Mr. Eliot’s jumble of narratives, nursery-rhymes, criticism, jazz-rhythms, Dictionary of Favorite Phrases and a few lyrical moments.
Eliot rejected this interpretation of the poem, but there were clearly many who read it as such.
I think too much has been made of the supposed similarities in philosophy and temperament of Eliot and Lovecraft: to be sure, they may both have been classicists (of a sort) and believed in continuity of culture; but Lovecraft rightly scorned Eliot’s later royalism as a mere ostrich-act and heaped even more abuse on Eliot’s belief in religion as a necessary foundation or bulwark of civilisation.
Lovecraft’s immediate response to Eliot, and the modernists in general, was interesting:
. . . I have a high respect for these moderns as philosophers and intellectuals, however much I may dismiss and disregard them as poets. T. S. Eliot himself is an acute thinker—but I do not believe he is an artist. An artist must always be a child . . . and live in dreams and wonder and moonlight. He must think of the lives and colours of things—of life itself—and never stop to pick the glittering fabric to pieces. Alas! Who ever caught and dissected the sunset gold without losing it?
What this comment—and an analogous one in his Conservative editorial (“It is, for example, hardly possible that moonlight on a marble temple, or twilight in an old garden in spring, can ever be other than beautiful in our eyes”)—indicates is Lovecraft’s continued adherence to Poe’s beauty/truth distinction (beauty is the province of art, truth is the province of science) as filtered through fin de siècle Decadence, notably Wilde’s immortal first line from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” Lovecraft, indeed, never quite gave up on this belief, but he later refined it in such a way as still to convict the modernists of writing applied science, not literature.
But Lovecraft’s other response to The Waste Land—the exquisite parody “Waste Paper: A Poem of Profound Insignificance”—merits much greater attention; for this is his best satiric poem. One wishes, therefore, that there was even the least bit of evidence as to when this poem was written and when it appeared in “the newspaper,” as Lovecraft casually noted a decade later. This is the only occasion, so far as is known, that Lovecraft even mentions his poem; searches have been made in at least some of the Providence papers of the period—Evening Bulletin, Evening Tribune, Evening News—with no results. One would very much like to know what if any reaction the poem—signed “Humphry Littlewit, Jun.” on the manuscript—engendered among readers. It is, of course, unlikely that the printed version ever came to the attention of Eliot himself.
What Lovecraft very simply seeks to do in this work is to carry to a reductio ad absurdum his own claim in the Conservative editorial as to The Waste Land being a “practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general.” In many parts of this quite lengthy poem (135 lines) he has faithfully parodied the insularity of modern poetry—its ability to be understood only by a small coterie of readers who are aware of intimate facts about the poet—
I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born
After we left it but before it was sold
And play on a zobo with two other boys.
We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band
There follow references to the popular songs of the turn of the century (“And the whippoorwill sings, Marguerite”), citations of his own earlier poetry (“Thro’ the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber”), quotations of other poets (“Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring”—the first line of Pope’s translation of the Iliad), various experiments in stream-of-consciousness or free-association, slang (“No, lady, you gotta change at Washington St. to the Everett train”), and on and on and on. The ending can only be quoted:
Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones.
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Good night, good night, the stars are bright
I saw the Leonard-Tendler fight
Farewell, farewell, O go to hell.
In the shantih.
That delightful final pun “confirms the jerrybuilt quality of modern life and art,” as Barton L. St Armand and John H. Stanley remark; and as for the poem as a whole, its “scraps of twentieth-century conversations, news bulletins, public announcements, newspaper headlines, and advertising jingles reflect the mundane tawdriness of the present as contrasted to the epic grandeur of the past.”
Lovecraft was, of course, by no means alone in being disturbed, even traumatised, by The Waste Land and its analogues; but he gradually came to terms with modernism, although by no means sympathising with it. He would simply pursue his own way—not lapsing back into stilted Victorianism but not throwing tradition entirely out the window as he believed the modernists were doing. His final answer to the issue can be found in a letter of 1927, when he cites Ben Hecht’s Erik Dorn (a novel, published in 1921, whose mingling of Freudianism, Expressionism, and stream-of-consciousness with gritty realism and a fair amount of bawdiness was believed at the time to be a herald of the “new” literature) and The Waste Land as the high points of modernism and evaluates them and their congeners:
The keynote of the modern doctrine is the dissociation of ideas and the resolving of our cerebral contents into its actual chaotic components, as distinguished from the conventional patterns visible on the outside. This is supposed to form a closer approach to reality, but I cannot see that it forms any sort of art at all. It may be good science—but art deals with beauty rather than fact, and must have the liberty to select and arrange according to traditional patterns which generations of belief and reverence have marked with the seal of empirical loveliness. Beyond or behind this seeming beauty lies only chaos and weariness . . .
Here again the beauty/truth distinction is brought into play, along with the notion of art as a “selection” rather than as a literal transcript of phenomena. But the remark is full of paradoxes: if Lovecraft’s much-vaunted science (especially the science of psychology) has so “greatly altered our view of the universe and the beliefs attendant upon that view” (as he says in his March 1923 Conservative editorial), how can the artist continue to “select and arrange according to traditional patterns”? Lovecraft is desperately attempting to maintain that certain forms of “empirical loveliness” (whatever that may be) continue to be valid no matter how much we know about the universe and about the workings of our own minds. He is really trying to have his cake and eat it too—he is trying to be modern scientifically, but conservative aesthetically. We shall see this as a problem in his later ethics as well. For the present, however, he could only regard Eliot and his colleagues with horror
But what of Lovecraft’s assertion, in “The Omnipresent Philistine” (Oracle, May 1924), that both Ulysses and James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen are “significant contributions to contemporary art,” especially given his earlier scorn of the sexual daring of these works in his letter to Long? In the first place, it should be noted that Lovecraft never actually read Ulysses—at least, not all of it. In a late letter he admitted: “I have not read Ulysses, because such extracts as I have seen convince me that it would hardly be worth the time & energy.” The reference to “extracts” may imply that Lovecraft saw some segments of the partial serialisation of Joyce’s novel in the Little Magazine (March 1918–December 1920). But, more pertinently, the context of Lovecraft’s remark in “The Omnipresent Philistine” must be examined with care. This article itself was part of yet another minor contretemps, this time between Lovecraft and Sonia Greene on one side and Paul Livingston Keil (the young man who had accompanied Lovecraft, Morton, and Long to the Poe cottage in 1922) on the other.
The source of this dispute was a brief unsigned piece in the May 1922 Rainbow entitled “Opinion.” Although it is customary to regard unsigned articles in amateur journals as the work of the editor, my feeling is that Lovecraft at least contributed to this item, if not writing it entirely. It notes that several amateurs had remarked unfavourably on the philosophical views expressed in the first Rainbow (probably referring specifically to the Nietzschean sentiments of Lovecraft and Galpin), to which it responds that diversity of opinion is of value in expanding one’s horizons and, moreover, that “philosophical opinion has nothing to do with aesthetic quality.” Keil, in his journal Pauke’s Quill, had attacked this view, declaring that a critic must always consider a writer’s philosophical orientation when evaluating his or her work (a plausible view, although one that can lead to great mischief when used improperly) and going on to recommend a fairly broad censorship against “pornography” and other examples of literature that may present a “false” philosophical viewpoint. Sonia shot back with “Fact versus Opinion,” in the Oracle for May 1924, maintaining that critics must consider only the manner, not the matter, of an artistic product (a debatable assertion, but one that might be effective against those who object to “unhealthy” philosophies of life embodied in literature) and saying that the distinction of what is true or false philosophically is not quite as easy as Keil seems to have believed. Lovecraft’s response, in the same issue of the Oracle, went on in much the same way; and it is precisely because both Ulysses and Jurgen had been or were at that time the subject of such censorship (Jurgen had been seized by the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice in 1920, and the obscenity trial over it had ended in 1922 in an acquittal; Ulysses would remain banned in the United States until 1933) that Lovecraft felt the need to come to their defence. He took the standard, and sensible, liberal line against pornography:
Not many of us, even in this age, have any marked leaning toward public pornography; so that we would generally welcome any agency calculated to banish offences against good taste. But when we come to reflect on the problem of enforcement, and perceive how absurdly any censorship places us in the hands of dogmatic and arbitrary officials with Puritan illusions and no true knowledge of life or literary values, we have to acknowledge that absolute liberty is the lesser evil. The literature of today, with its conscientious striving toward sincerity, must necessarily contain large amounts of matter repugnant to those who hold the hypocritical nineteenth-century view of the world. It need not be vulgarly presented, but it cannot be excluded if art is to express life.
Lovecraft’s reserved approach to Modernism might perhaps be thought to have been vindicated by time. To what degree, really, does modernist prose continue to be the guiding light of contemporary writing? While Lovecraft would probably have had even less sympathy with certain aspects of postmodernism, conventional narrative made a quick recovery after World War II; very few writers use stream-of-consciousness much anymore. And as for poetry, it is not the chaoticism of Eliot that has dominated subsequent work but the slack, loose, colloquial, and utterly prosaic idiom of William Carlos Williams and his followers, to the point that one wonders whether there has been any genuine poetry written at all after the death of Frost, Auden, and Robert Lowell. The fact that contemporary poetry has dropped utterly out of the intellectual lives of even well-educated people may suggest that Lovecraft’s warnings against too radical a departure from tradition may not have been entirely unsound.
Meanwhile Lovecraft had simultaneously been hammering out a theory of the weird tale that would, with some modifications, serve him his entire life. This theory is, like his aesthetics in general, an intimate outgrowth of his entire philosophical thought, especially his metaphysics and ethics. The central document here is the In Defence of Dagon essays. He begins by dividing fiction, in a somewhat unorthodox manner, into three divisions—romantic, realistic, and imaginative. The first “is for those who value action and emotion for their own sake; who are interested in striking events which conform to a preconceived artificial pattern.” The second “is for those who are intellectual and analytical rather than poetical or emotional. . . . It has the virtue of being close to life, but has the disadvantage of sinking into the commonplace and the unpleasant at times.” Lovecraft does not provide an explicit definition of imaginative fiction, but implies that it draws upon the best features of both the other two: like romanticism, imaginative fiction bases its appeal on emotions (the emotions of fear, wonder, and terror); from realism it derives the important principle of truth—not truth to fact, as in realism, but truth to human feeling. As a result, Lovecraft comes up with the startling deduction that “The imaginative writer devotes himself to art in its most essential sense.”
The attack on what Lovecraft called “romanticism” is one he never relinquished. The term must not be understood here in any historical sense—Lovecraft had great respect and fondness for such Romantic poets as Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge—but purely theoretically, as embodying an approach not only to literature but to life generally:
The one form of literary appeal which I consider absolutely unsound, charlatanic, and valueless—frivolous, insincere, irrelevant, and meaningless—is that mode of handling human events and values and motivations known as romanticism. Dumas, Scott, Stevenson—my gawd! Here is sheer puerility—the concoction of false glamours and enthusiasms and events out of an addled and distorted background which has no relation to anything in the genuine thoughts, feelings, and experiences of evolved and adult mankind.
This remark, although made in 1930, makes clear that his enemy here is his whipping-boy of 1923, Victorianism. It was this approach—the instilling of “glamour” or significance into certain phases of human activity (notably love)—that Lovecraft believed to be most invalidated by the findings of modern science. And yet, his vehemence on this issue may stem from another cause as well: the possibility that his very different brand of weird fiction might conceivably be confused with (or be considered an aspect of) romanticism. Lovecraft knew that the weird tale had emerged in the course of the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so that, in the eyes of many, weird fiction itself was a phase of Romanticism and might be thought to have “no relation to anything in the genuine thoughts, feelings, and experiences of evolved and adult mankind.”
Accordingly, Lovecraft always strove to associate weird fiction with realism, which he knew to be the dominant mode of contemporary expression. This realism extended not merely to technique—“a tale should be plausible—even a bizarre tale except for the single element where supernaturalism is involved,” he says in a letter of 1921—but in terms of philosophical orientation. Of course, it cannot be realistic in terms of events, so it must be realistic in terms of human emotions. Lovecraft again contrasts romanticism (an “overcoloured representation of what purports to be real life”) with fantasy: “But fantasy is something altogether different. Her
In defending himself, and his writing, from charges of “unwholesomeness” and immorality (charges still made today against weird fiction), Lovecraft stated that the weird, the fantastic, and even the horrible were as deserving of artistic treatment as the wholesome and the ordinary. No realm of human existence can be denied to the artist; everything depends upon the treatment, not the subject-matter. Lovecraft cited Wilde’s pretty paradox (from “The Soul of Man under Socialism”) that
a healthy work of art is one the choice of whose subject is conditioned by the temperament of the artist, and comes directly out of it. . . . An unhealthy work of art, on the other hand, is a work . . . whose subject is deliberately chosen, not because the artist has any pleasure in it, but because he thinks that the public will pay him for it. In fact, the popular novel that the public calls healthy is always a thoroughly unhealthy production; and what the public calls an unhealthy novel is always a beautiful and healthy work of art.
In this way Lovecraft neatly justified his unusual subject-matter while simultaneously condemning the popular best-seller as a product of insincere hackwork. (He would use the same argument later for pulp fiction.) And yet, because Lovecraft realised that weird fiction was necessarily a cultivated taste, he was compelled to note repeatedly that he wrote only for the “sensitive”—the select few whose imaginations are sufficiently liberated from the minutiae of daily life to appreciate images, moods, and incidents that do not exist in the world as we know and experience it. Lovecraft stated in In Defence of Dagon that “There are probably seven persons, in all, who really like my work; and they are enough. I should write even if I were the only patient reader, for my aim is merely self-expression.” This comes dangerously close to the sort of coterie-literature Lovecraft condemned in the modernists; although he would no doubt reply that the limited appeal or understanding of his work is based upon its unusual subject-matter, not its deliberate obscurity.
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