H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
McSweeney's Books, 2005, ISBN 1932416188, 150 Pages, Paperback $18.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Review by Michael Cisco
Biographers are afforded a limited license to dramatize their subject’s lives, the reader understanding that phrases like “Shelley threw down his pen and...” are plausible inventions at best. Whether Shelley sets or throws down his pen isn’t a momentous question, but persistent novelization in a biography runs the risk of falsification. The risk is worth taking, because there is at stake the chance one might successfully conjure something out of the past. And that risk comes with the territory when one is assembling a narrative out of a collection of facts.
Houellebecq’s flawed book is a work of passion and intelligence, but like any caricature, it throws certain of its subject’s traits into distinct relief only by distorting the bigger picture. It’s a truism that biographers tend to write about others by writing about themselves, and this is a legitimate approach when there is an affinity or spontaneous similarity of orientation of author and subject. But any biographer taking this approach is pretty certain to fall into the trap posed by superficial resemblances between his own point of view and his subject’s, and take too much for granted.
This happens even in the most scrupulous biographies, and is so much the more prevalent in Houellebecq’s impatient and occasionally sloppy treatment of Lovecraft. The end notes inform us that many of Houellebecq’s quotations from Lovecraft cannot be traced, and that even Houellebecq himself is unable to account for them. These dubious quotes seem more attributable to misremembrance and inattention than to anything so actually calculating or malevolent as fraud, but it is strange the editor should treat so lightly what is actually a serious misrepresentation of the subject. No one has any good reason to take these untraceable quotes seriously.
Houellebecq assimilates Lovecraft much as Baudelaire assimilated Poe before him; perhaps this is why he gives himself leave to speak improvisationally for Lovecraft. Before anyone condemns this too heartily, it should be noted that many writers have felt the yen to write their own Lovecraftian stories, and this is Houellebecq’s irresponsible way of doing the same thing. He wouldn’t write a Lovecraftian story, but he would write a Lovecraftian addition to Paris Spleen. While French critics like Blanchot have raised scrupulousness and patience to an even excessively fine art, Houellebecq’s contraptional essay nevertheless takes a characteristically French approach. All is well as long as the reader understands that the author, taking his own bias and the inevitability of bias into account, will employ haphazard exaggerations and sweeping generalizations as a way of being honest about his own attitudes. Bias, to this way of thinking, is point of view, and must be acknowledged in the execution, or more correctly the performance, of the work. This is opposed to the more cautious, dissertational style of Anglo-American critics, who transform themselves into general speakers so as not to make too many big generalizations. The one shows his cards by ironic delivery, the other by carefully clearing the air.
Most of the points Houellebecq makes are partially sound but disintegrate in zealous overstatement; or begin as sweeping generalities which are not qualified until twenty or thirty pages later. Others fail to gain any traction at all because they are mere extrapolations from a stereotype of the poete maudit. The essay dates from 1991, meaning Houellebecq could not have had recourse to S.T. Joshi’s definitive Lovecraft biography, but this does not wholly explain why he should depict Lovecraft’s life-changing 1908 breakdown as the recoiling of an aristocrat from the vomitory ignominy of the bourgeois world. Joshi has plausibly argued that Lovecraft’s initiatiative crisis was less a discovery of horror in the world around him, and more the collapse of his self-esteem resulting from the disappointment of his ambition to become an astronomer. (Apparently, he was surprisingly inept at mathematics.) Houellebecq later acknowledges the extent to which Lovecraft was oppressed by the sense of his own failure, but he doesn’t connect this to 1908.
The discussion of Lovecraft’s opinion of Freud is also bungled. Houellebecq is in such a hurry he gets all his terms mixed up. He mistakes Lovecraft’s indifference to sex for hostility to sex, he conflates sex itself as subject in general with the popular treatment of sexual subjects at the time, and he crudely reduces sex tout court to anything having anything to do with Freud. So Freud = sex and Lovecraft is anti-sex (there is no intermediate, asexual position entertained here) and therefore anti-Freud etc. etc. Houellebecq keeps lunging crazily across the poles. Lovecraft, we are told, mentioned Freud a few times without being especially critical of him, but it is clear we are meant to understand that Lovecraft ultimately dismissed Freud in a slighting, offhanded, reductive manner more typical of Houellebecq than Lovecraft. We are told that Lovecraft summed Freud up in two words. Well...no, he didn’t. According to Joshi, Lovecraft probably never read Freud, making his evaluation of Freud of less moment anyway; but whenever Lovecraft did discuss him in his letters, the assessment was thoughtful and well-balanced. Most of Lovecraft’s criticism, at least where race was not concerned, had this measured, judiciously thorough quality.
Houellebecq has been rightly praised for emphasizing Lovecraft’s racism. He is entirely right in recognizing Lovecraft’s apprehension of competition from these “other races,” and he’s almost on to something here for a while, especially in this passage about Lovecraft’s reaction to African-Americans:
Their vitality, their apparent lack of complexes or inhibitions, terrifies and repulses him. They dance in the street, they listen to music, rhythmic music ... They talk out loud. They laugh in public. Life seems to amuse them, which is worrying. Because life is evil. (original ellipsis, page 113)
Lovecraft does seem to have been repelled by the uninhibited. It is stereotypical to speak of black folks dancing in the street, but then Lovecraft was dealing in stereotypes and not in experience. Listening to music is never a problem for Lovecraft, but rhythm as such did seem to induce anxiety for him. Adorno stupidly disapproved of rhythmic music because he felt it was hypnotic, suppressive of thought, and conducive to the fascistic choreography of large masses of people; that Lovecraft often associates rhythm particularly low pulsing of the kind that maddens the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” with feelings of oppression is well-spotted. Only a truly sheltered soul, like Lovecraft’s, could have believed that African Americans were much amused by life in the 1920s and 1930s, when racist violence in the US was at its worst.
When Houellebecq cites the frothier passages from the New York era as characteristic of Lovecraft’s racism, he doesn’t follow through any more than most other readers have. Certainly Lovecraft hated with as much emotional intensity as he could muster, but I would say these passages are at least as much characterized by a joy in invective for its own sake, so much so that I can imagine Lovecraft losing sight utterly of the actual objects of his hatred and becoming lost in whipping up those long chewy sentences of his. And this is typical of Lovecraft; the object, the plot element, or what have you, is only a peg to hang the writing from Lovecraft’s horror is in the language or it is nowhere.
While he profoundly appreciates Lovecraft’s prose, and correctly repudiates the dull condescension of many critics to his style, Houellebecq seems to have a tin ear for Lovecraft’s bantering sense of humor, and he sometimes takes for earnest what Lovecraft wrote in a spirit of drily self-ironic Johnsonian pomposity. He does not discuss Lovecraft’s preference for the shaggy-dog story form which builds, insofar as the plot is concerned, to anti-climax, and to a punchline outlined in italics. Much of his analysis of Lovecraft’s style, and content for that matter, will be unrewarding to those who know Lovecraft already.
For example, no one denies that Lovecraft wasn’t interested in characterization; this is a trait he shares with Poe. But it is inconsistent to say that his characters exist only to perceive, and then later to say that the perseverance of these characters in seeking out nightmarish things to perceive shows either obtusity or sublime courage. A cursory reading even of only those letters actually cited by Houellebecq (the ones that exist) shows that Lovecraft found at least one thing to admire in his fellow humans, that being the striving after knowledge (see Letters vol 1, page 61). Lovecraft’s characters do not drift passively from one hideous perception to another, they actively seek out the maddening truths that destroy them. Remember the narrator of “The Nameless City,” crawling in total darkness through miles of tunnel scarcely big enough to admit him, deep beneath a trackless desert, just to discover the source of an odd noise? Houellebecq observes that many of Lovecraft’s narrators end up paralyzed and staring haplessly at the onset of their own destruction, but, in his unaccountable haste to plaster everything with the label “nihilistic,” he fails to note that this paralysis is ambivalent, and owes something to an active desire to know which better meets the definition of fascination than a merely passive state. There is wish fulfillment at work all throughout the stories.
In Lovecraft’s fiction, human beings, or at least some of them, are just intelligent enough to apprehend the truth (or enough of the truth, which is arguably the same thing) if not quite mentally robust enough to handle it. This means that Lovecraft was not, for example, a strict Pyrrhonian skeptic, because his works depended on the possibility of certain knowledge for their effects even when that effect was the radical destabilization of the edifice of human certainty per se. Houellebecq only brushes against this when he notes the absence of Todorov’s ambivalence in Lovecraft’s fiction. Although he is quite right to note that absence, he is not when he asserts this is basically unheard of before Lovecraft: a similar absence of doubt can be discovered in Machen, in Blackwood, and in Bierce, to name a few.
Likewise, Houellebecq stops short when he insists Lovecraft regarded the world, and life, as evil. Evil implies malice. Did Lovecraft consider human beings significant enough to merit the malicious attention of cosmic beings? Is Cthulhu filled with venomous hatred of mankind and a chafing desire to torment humans, or is Cthulhu indifferent to humans, like an avalanche or an earthquake? Where is the evil in The Shadow Out of Time, or “Within the Walls of Eryx”? Are the Elder Things of At the Mountains of Madness, whom the narrator crucially calls “men,” evil? The shoggoths are horrible, but are they evil? It is interesting to note that the shoggoth is a figure for the irresponsible mob: a conglomeration of bubbles, neither distinct nor separate, mindless muscle employed by the aristocratic, historically-minded Elder Things chiefly for the purpose of construction. When the shoggoth appears, Danforth retains some scraps of his sanity by chanting Boston subway stops, but the shoggoth is a subway train it pipes, it’s covered in small lights, it’s cylindrical and hurtles through tunnels. The shoggoths overwhelm their former masters by crudely aping them, and specifically take over the cities of the Elder Things although one might be justified in wondering for what shoggoths would need the streets and buildings of a city. This is something like racism, but only like it Lovecraft is coming to anticipate the unsettling of one species by the other in a kind of cycle that is neither good nor evil, but indifferent ... unless it’s the indifference that is evil, but in that case, it would be evil only from the point of view of those who suffer for it. By the time of At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft’s idea of evil seems to have crystallized into the collusion of deliberative individuals with the forces of decay. Evil is a matter of betraying humanity, or the status quo perhaps, to the future.
Houellebecq does touch on, but frustratingly fails to develop, a really interesting question with respect to Lovecraft’s rejection of realism since realism presupposes that it’s possible to say what is and isn’t real. On the one hand, Lovecraft is obviously a fantasist, who turns from a stultifying, already-beyond-familiar, claustrophobically confined reality, to dreams. The conventional realist is one who dwells on sex and money without actually asking what sex and money are. Naturalist novels of the Zola school must look only at the strictly ordinary. Anything extraordinary is ruled out, and only the middle notes of life appear. Houellebecq is at his most refreshing when he bluntly dismisses realism as of no further use, but he might have gone so much further.
When one contemplates the human world of commerce and intercourse of all kinds in the broader context of the scope of time and space, the vastness of the universe, the evanescence of human life in the scale of cosmic time, then it is money and sex and political horse trading which become unreal. So, in this other sense, Lovecraft’s writing ascends to a higher register of realism in anticipating, truly weirdly, the kinds of questions existentialist literature will raise. In his emphasis on Lovecraft’s mythmaking and the strange power his work has to induce imitation and extension, Houellebecq is at his strongest and is perhaps righter than he understands, in the sense that Lovecraft seems actually to have created real myths instead of realist narratives. Houellebecq says there is something about Lovecraft that is not literary, and it seems to be that viral propensity of his work to propagate itself.
19 December 2006
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Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, which received the International Horror Guild’s award for Best First Novel of 1999, as well as The Tyrant (2004), and a number of other forthcoming novels.