H. P. Lovecraft was a crazy racist, but you should read him anyway.

OK, so I’ve been meaning to start this for a long time now. I haven’t, because here’s my problem. H. P. Lovecraft was a crazy racist. Here’s a link if you want a good chunk of the awful details.

http://www.racialicious.com/2014/05/28/the-n-word-through-the-ages-the-madness-of-hp-lovecraft/

In case you don’t want to read that, he called black people something between beasts and humans, (he used a word to rhyme with figure), claimed he wished he could exterminate whole races, at least initially thought Hitler had some damn fine ideas, and so on. But that’s not really what I want to talk about, and here’s why. The post implies that those of us who read Lovecraft either have no idea in the depths of hell he was a racist, or that we try to sweep it under the rug so as not to taint his majestic legacy. But here’s the thing. The very first thing I read of Lovecraft was “Dagon And Other Macabre Tales”. In it, there is an excellent introductory essay by T.E.D. Klein, called “A Dreamer’s Tales”. Though T.E.D. Klein doesn’t quote HPL’s thoughts on Hitler, or the poem opening the blog where he proclaims black people some sort of intermediate between man and beast, he is quite explicit, and does give detailed quotes, about Lovecraft’s racism. So let’s just accept the fact that most of us do indeed know that old HPL was a crazy, and get to some other points.

The author insists that we should pay attention to Lovecraft’s stories and ideas sure, but also not forget the fact that he was super duper racist, because it will help us “appreciate” his stories. I don’t think this argument works, and here’s why. There are two senses of “appreciate” that I think are relevant. One is, gain a deeper understanding of the story. This fails on its face. What deeper understanding of, say, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, do I gain by knowing Lovecraft was against interracial relationships? I mean, the story is about these undersea fish people aliens interbreeding with humans, such that their offspring transform into alien fish people. So OK, now that I know Lovecraft thought mixing races was equally hideous, now what?

How does knowing that ADD to my appreciation of the story? Does it become more relevant? Certainly not, in fact less so since I have no problem whatsoever with people of different races getting together if they’re so inclined. Does my knowing that Lovecraft held this belief add to the story? Nope. If anything, it detracts from it, because now I can’t think “wow yeah, what if there WERE alien fish people? That would be pretty creepy huh”? Now I guess I’m supposed to think, “oh alien fish people was code for Jews” or something. Congratulations, you’ve just reduced a weird/horror tale to a thinly veiled racist rant. Which brings me to the second understanding of appreciation, it helps gain insight into the story process, i.e. how/why it was written. Again, I’m not sure I buy this. Let’s take Psycho as an example, because I assume everybody’s familiar with it. Does it add to our understanding if we know that Robert Bloch wrote Psycho because he had issues with his own mother? How about if he wrote it based on deep psychological research, or based it on a particular person?

If I recall correctly, it was the latter two. I don’t know that it does. That is, sure, we might find some detail, oh that’s in there because real life serial killer guy did that, or that’s in there because he was reading about some psychological condition. But what I’m driving at is, does that change Psycho, as a story? I don’t think it does. I think the story can stand on its own, and I think, more often than not, these little tidbits, at least for me, bring the story down, so to speak. As another example, take The Birds. Fun creepy story, right? One of the things I love about it is, you never get a reason. This stuff just happens out of nowhere, and then it kind of ends.

I should note I’m thinking of the movie, as I haven’t read the book. So what if we learned, I’m making this up as an example, that the whole thing came from the author’s fear of chickens, because she was attacked by a chicken as a child? For the sake of accuracy I looked it up, and she saw a man plowing a field with seagulls wheeling over him and apparently thought “what if they turned hostile and attacked him”? My point is, I think knowing this stuff makes it very easy to go, “oh he wrote that thing about the giant spiders because he has a phobia of spiders”, and suddenly we’re not talking about the story anymore, but about the author. Which leads me to my other big problem with this post.

The author discusses somebody wanting to put up a statue of Lovecraft, laments the fact that they received the funds to do so, and then said about the inscription: “If I had put the bust together however I might have tagged it with something slightly different: H.P. Lovecraft
Beloved Racist & Anti-Semite
Also wrote stories.”

Oh, OK. We’re supposed to talk about his ideas and influence and all of that while of course understanding he’s a racist, but he “also wrote stories”. You might note, if you read the post, that the ONLY ideas talked about in HPL’s stories are racist ideas. I’ll also add that lots of people were racist, maybe not to the same extent, but they don’t seem to receive nearly as much press for it. Here are a couple of examples:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_work_of_Charles_Dickens

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_Then_There_Were_None

Now let me get back to why I didn’t want to write this. I did, because I’ve had people ask me about reading Lovecraft in light of his racism. But I also didn’t, because, were I to go by posts like this one, if I wanted to comment on a story, I should mostly comment on the evil evil racism, and I’m sorry, but that’s tiresome. There’s only so much time I feel like devoting to “yes yes, and here’s this racist bit here that detracts from an otherwise excellent story because …” Also, I still don’t understand how it matters, as the author implies, that Lovecraft believes things. For instance, in “Herbert West”, a character says, of a dead black boxer, that he had abnormally long arms he couldn’t help thinking of as “forelegs”. Again, I return to appreciation. What difference does it make whether that’s purely a fictional character speaking, or Lovecraft inserting his belief that black people are like apes? By which I mean, what difference does it make to reading the story? It’s a story about a guy who reanimates dead people, and parts of dead people, and about how you can go crazy with rationality and too damn far with science. But again, though the author mentions the story, and the racism naturally, we don’t hear about any of that.

So, let’s sum up with one of my favorite stories, it also has the virtue of being short so if you end up hating H. P. Lovecraft, well, at least you didn’t suffer much.

http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/p.aspx

First, let’s read this the way I presume the author of the post would like us to. Oh, it’s a rant against the filthy evil Eskimos! It even says so right at the end, and anybody who’s familiar with it knows that Inuto looks a lot like Inuit. The awesome people are tall and stuff, that means they’re white! Although, if we’re going to read the story this way, I have to say it reminds me very much of the Greek and Roman attitude towards other peoples, and we read the Greeks and Romans all the time. Since Lovecraft was heavily influenced by “the classics”, i.e. racist writers at the foundation of Western civilization, these attitudes are only to be expected. Note the Greek character of the one personal name, Alos.

Now, let’s talk about the story. This is clearly an amplification of zhuangzi’s (Chuang-Tsu’s) question after he woke up from a dream that he was a butterfly. How does he know the person him is real, and not the butterfly him? It’s an interesting question. I’ve heard people respond to it by saying that we know it’s a dream, or hallucination, or whatever because we have different words for those things, since we have the word for the concept “dream” then we know there’s a difference. Leaving aside the simple fact that this is wrong, we have the concept “unicorn” but we agree they don’t really exist even though we know differences between a unicorn and a horse, this still offers us nothing to distinguish between which set of events in this story is “real” and which is “a dream”. Then there’s the use of language: “Long did I gaze on the city, but the day came not.” This very much strikes me as largely poetry, even though it’s written as prose. Suppose the narrator is right? Was he reincarnated? Did he go through multiple reincarnations? Was his consciousness projected forward in time into another body while he was sleeping?

All of these strike me as much more interesting ideas for discussion than “yeah it was totally wrong for Lovecraft to call the Eskimos hellish warlike brutes’. Because here’s the thing. We all KNOW that’s wrong, or we should at any rate. And sure, you could link it with modern themes, we’re basically dealing with a clash of civilization vs. barbarians, shades of some conservative ideas about Muslims/Islam. But to my knowledge, nobody’s going “ah man you see? It’s just like H. P. Lovecraft said in Polaris man ,we gotta fight the bastards”! I suspect Lovecraft would have felt right at home with those claiming that we’re in a struggle of civilization against Islam. In fact, he wrote a story pretty much to that effect called “The Street”, though it wasn’t about Islam, though again, the more interesting point of the story is that the street basically performs a reboot of reality.

But it seems to me that to read this as the point of something like Polaris misses the point entirely. By all means, proclaim Lovecraft’s poem about how the gods made black people as the missing link, so to speak, as the worst sort of racist idiocy, just as we should proclaim as the worst kind of idiocy Aristotle’s idea that some men were simply born to be slaves. But we don’t say things like “Aristotle, racist, misogynist, also did some philosophy”, implying that the philosophy was just something that he did while taking a break from his hating on women and the lesser barbarian peoples. Absolutely, if we talk about Aristotle’s attitude towards women, or slaves, or barbarians, then we should explore it and condemn it. I don’t think that means we should, as IMO the author does with Lovecraft in the blog post, pick through all of Aristotle’s writings seeking out all the racism and so on, all the while proclaiming we shouldn’t ignore his ideas and contributions while not actually talking about any of them.

I’d further add that if anything, writers like Aristotle are even more problematic than writers like Lovecraft. Even if Lovecraft is a million times more racist than Aristotle, entirely possible, Lovecraft is writing fiction. He’s not trying to tell anybody how they should think, or what constitutes a good life, and so on. But just as well-informed people know about Aristotle’s racism, or even if they don’t, they reject his ideas that some men are simply born to be slaves when they encounter them, so too we can reject, say, the description of the boxer as “gorilla-like” in Lovecraft, but still read him because he wrote interesting stories which, for me at least, imply some interesting philosophical ideas in some cases. Whether the description is simply in the mouth of the fictional narrator, or near and dear to Lovecraft’s heart, shouldn’t matter one bit, for the same reason we can read Aristotle, knowing that he really believed that some men were born to be slaves.

I had originally intended to comment on all of Lovecraft’s stories, with links. I don’t know if I’ll actually do that or not. I may instead pick some an focus on my thoughts on some of Lovecraft’s interesting ideas, at least, the things that interest me. Part of this is because, as I’ve mentioned above, I feel like I’d have to keep addressing the topic of his racism, or conservatism, or lack of female characters, or … But it’s also true that, just as say episodes of The Twilight Zone, a number of his stories share ideas. It would probably be tedious to comment on every single story. I know a couple of people said they’d be interested in this, so here’s the first post. Feel free to comment, if you’re of a mind.

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