Lacking empathy....?

  1. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    In the JP's thread on attempting to introduce horror to a "literary audience", D_Davis made some comments which I found interesting, though I quite disagree with. However, as my disagreements center around the perception of HPL rather than the focus of the thread, I decided to respond to them in the Lovecraft forum rather than taking that thread so far off-topic. At any rate, here are the comments to which I refer:

    I have run across this assumption about Lovecraft before and, though there is a grain of truth to it, I would have to argue that it is both grossly oversimplified, and grossly exaggerated. (No reflection on DD in particular here; this seems to be a rather general impression.) I think it would be closer to the mark (though still not entirely accurate) to quote something which has been said of him elsewhere: "He hated humanity in the abstract, but he liked people" (or something very close to that effect). And I think it is also significant that W. Paul Cook, in his memoir of HPL, published some 6 years after the man's death, said, "I do not think there was ever a more widely loved man than Howard Phillips Lovecraft"; a statement which, given my researches on the man, I would say has a great deal of truth to it.

    What does all this have to do with Lovecraft's writing? Bear with me, and I think it will become clear.

    The fact is that HPL was rather a "stuffed shirt" in his early years (at least as an adult; as a child, he was quite a character, just as prone to mischief and childishness as any healthy, normal youngster; it was largely his isolation which did not allow him as frequent a chance to display this). But from the time he entered amateur journalism (1914, just around the time he turned 24), he began to lose large portions of that, and quickly found himself the center of an ever-growing circle of correspondents. People who, based on his essays and archaic poetry, were predisposed to dislike him, found themselves charmed when they met him, and quite often became lifelong friends. And this applied to a very wide variety of people, from the highly-educated and literate to the very lowest class and even those who were what would be called "shady" characters, such as E. Hoffmann Price often surrounded himself with. Even with these, Lovecraft had a tendency to quickly not only to become the center of attention, but to charm and fascinate the entire group, as can be seen in Price's memoir of him (see Lovecraft Remembered). And while he himself expressed no interest in "ordinary people", he never failed to get along with them when he encountered them, and generally to leave an impression, often quite positive (if sometimes quirky). And when he refers to such in his letters, the majority of the time his comments, while sometimes given to spoofing, are also usually warm and very often kind. He enjoyed unusual characters, and would sometimes include various idiosyncracies of such as he had run into in creating characters in his fiction.

    The point of all this is: I don't believe it is possible for a person who truly "hates humanity" to be able to have such congenial relations with such a wide variety of people for such a long term; and I certainly don't believe that a person with a genuine hatred of humanity would so often speak in his letters with sympathy, kindness, empathy, and a keen insight into such a variety of people as he met throughout his lifetime. And, as I just touched on, he often brought that experience with different people into the process of creating his characters.

    Now, it is true that his characters are more often subordinate to the "central phenomenon" of his fiction, rather than the central focus of the tale. This was a quite deliberate choice based on his aesthetics of the weird, which was to "crystallize a certain type of human mood"; and in order to do so, one had to stress the utter alienness and "outsideness" of the violation (or seeming violation) of nature involved; one had to focus the majority of attention on making that violation acceptable to a skeptical reader, to convince that reader, if only for the moment, that such things might be. This puts the characters in the background, so to speak, rather than in the foreground.

    Yet he did create some memorable characters, and certainly he invested many of his characters with a feeling of pathos, from the titular narrator of "The Outsider" (said character indeed being a synecdochical figure for nearly all his other characters), to Charles Ward, who blundered into his situation "for the sake of knowledge", to the poor damned Gardner family, whose plight stirs our pity as much as it does horror... in fact, the horror would not be nearly as strong without the pity we feel for such characters. And then there is Peaslee, a man who, in the course of the tale, loses nearly everything, and is left so terribly alone that not even the most sympathetic among his fellows can truly accept his tale or believe him, because none but he has seen the evidence. In the midst of billions, he is truly a man alone. Or Robert Olmstead, the narrator of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (unnamed in the finished tale, but whose name is mentioned in an early draft), who loses even himself.

    I would argue that, while Lovecraft's characters are not where the reader's vision is centered, they serve as the focusing lens for the tale, and it is only through our empathy with them and their plight that the tale of terror works at all; and that his ability to achieve this without putting them "center stage" shows that Lovecraft had a much better grasp of character and genuine (as opposed to popularly accepted) human psychology than is often realized....
     
    Jul 28, 2011
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  2. Ningauble

    Ningauble Lovecraftian

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    Well said!
     
    Jul 28, 2011
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  3. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    Good post, and I've somewhat (in a roundabout way) responded in my MWW thread. Oops.

    :)

    Anyhow, I can see your POV, and that might be the case given more readin of his letters and non-fiction or poetry. However, based on his fiction, I just can't believe that HPL's worldview was one in which he placed much stock in humanity. I think The Mountains of Madness very well sums things up - he believed that humanity was, at best, a great cosmic joke.

    Now, that's perfectly OK for someone to believe. However, because I come from a vastly different background I have a hard time empathizing with that, and with his characters. More times than not, I feel as though the humans in his stories are simply the punchlines to the joke of our existence, and that there is no use in us even trying to understand things, through science or religion, and especially the later. And what's more, it actually hurts us to try to understand, causing our feeble minds to implode. HPL reduces the quest for understanding to a dangerous game in which the the very best outcome is death.
     
    Jul 28, 2011
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  4. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Thanks, Martin! (Good to see you around!)

    Well, my argument, while taking things from his letters (and such things as the essay he wrote, "Life for Humanity's Sake", and his arguments for more humane working conditions during the Great Depression) still refers back to examples in his fiction where he did create characters who stick with the reader. I think it is an easy thing to miss unless one does read his fiction carefully; at which point his characterization emerges as much more solid (albeit subtle) than a casual reading might reveal. (Though, to tell the truth, the Gardners, Ammi, and even old Erich Zann, struck me this way in the horror fiction; while Iranon, Kuranes, and Randolph Carter made quite an impression on me in his fantasy pieces. I still find the final line of "The Quest of Iranon" a lovely and poignant touch and a great piece of characterization in the point it makes: "That night, something of youth and beauty died in the elder world.")

    As I said, there is a grain of truth in the contention; HPL himself also said that "Life is a jest, but the joke is on mankind"; and he had his outbursts of misanthropic vituperation (generally when under extreme stress or when seeing some particularly egregious bit of behavior of humans toward one another), and much has been made of this, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of his letters and essays send the image of a genuinely kind, caring, and generous (often to a fault) individual. One of my favorite passages from his letters addresses this quite well, I think. Though this section opens with expressing just such a sentiment as you describe above, he goes on to a result that is quite different than one might expect:

    -- Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner, pp. 184-85

     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  5. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Sorry for the double post, but....

    True, one doesn't see a great deal of this in his fiction (though it is expressed in "The Music of Erich Zann", through the narrator's thoughts), but nonetheless I think it does play its part in, yes, recognising that we are the playthings of a blind, senseless cosmos obeying mechanical laws of physical entity, but at the same time taking cognizance of our ability to perceive that state, and in expressing a pity that is anything but maudlin, but rather a recognition of the genuine tragedy (in human terms) of our position; an artistic stance which, frankly, I think shows a much deeper compassion for the human race than many a more optimistic writer does with their view that courage, love, and integrity will conquer all....
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  6. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    JDW, do you have the date for that letter to Kleiner?
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  7. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    If there is one thing that I think could make this forum a better place, it would be letting go of the fear of the double post.

    It's so bizarre!

    I've been a constant member of many, many forums/communitues since the BBS and IRC days, and I've never come across another forum in which the double post is something to even be mentioned, let alone something to be scolded over.

    If you have more to say, say it! That's why I'm here.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  8. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    I wish this attitude was reflected in more of his fiction - I'd probably get along better with more of it.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  9. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Yep; March 7, 1920. Interestingly, this was closer to his pricklier, more "reclusive" days than the period when he was doing so much traveling and meeting of people, being invited to stay for months at a time.....
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  10. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    And I do understand, and mostly appreciate, that the worldview on display in HPL's fiction elevates the kind of horror he worked in. It really is what gave him a unique voice and POV.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  11. Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Well-Known Member

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    I think there's quite a difference betwen viewing humanity as cosmically insignificant and hating it. We can be important to ourselves but unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

    I don't get the impression from reading Lovecraft that he was particularly misanthropic.

    And what about the likes of Algernon Blackwood? He was a very spiritual person, and this came across in his writing, but still often portrayed humans as being quite cosmically insignificant.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  12. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    I've only read one collection of Blackwood's but I felt more empathy for his characters, and more involved in their plight. Of course that could also be because I think he was a superior writer to Lovecraft, and thus was able to convey those emotions better.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  13. Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Well-Known Member

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    What about Ligotti, who is surely more misanthropic in his writing than Lovecraft?
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  14. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    He is, however I think he's also a superior writer and is able to convey things in a better way. There is a lot of emotion in something like My Work is Not Yet Done. When Ligotti uses a more traditional narrative with actual characters, I tend to feel more for them, or at least I feel the fear more.

    I think Ligotti is truly a more misanthropic person than Lovecraft was, but I feel more empathy in his stories. I rarely feel anything from Lovecraft, although I am consistently in awe of his imagination.

    I bet a lot of this has to do with the fact that I am not nearly as into Lovecraft as a lot of his readers are. I mean I like many of his stories a great deal, and I appreciate and respect the world of the mythos he helped create, but the truth is I don't think he was a very good writer, and I think he struggles in areas that authors like Ligotti and Blackwood excel.

    As important as he is, he is among my least favorite of the pulp/weird authors. I know that is sacrilegious to many, but I've always struggled with the majority of his fiction.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  15. Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Well-Known Member

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    Truth be told, I actually prefer the writing of both Ligotti and Blackwood. They both wrote, in my opinion, with a more consistantly high standard. Lovecraft on the other hand wrote quite a few duds. On the other hand, when he was on form, he is up there with the best.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  16. Terrible Old Man

    Terrible Old Man Worm That Gnaws

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    Getting back to the subject of Lovecraft's empathy or lack thereof, here's an interesting passage from At The Mountains Of Madness:

    Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming.
    They had not been even savages—for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch—perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defence against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia . . . poor Lake, poor Gedney . . . and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

    That's HPL, as always, expressing the deepest sympathy with anyone in the position of "outsider", even if that "person" happens to be an utterly non-human Elder Thing! I think HPL's writing shows an essential liking for people, but combined with that, pessimism that so few of them manage to be true individuals, as opposed to components of vast, impersonal mobs whose collective motives can be very unpleasant indeed. Basically he's saying: "To thine own self be true, but expect the Universe to crush you for it!"

    Paranoid, yes. But misanthropic? No, just rather choosy.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  17. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    Can't agree there, especially with his blatant racism. If anything, HPL uses the fear of the other as fuel for his horror.

    I think in Madness he was simply showing the admiration of one scientist for another, but also showing how fruitless their attempts at gaining any knowledge really were.
     
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  18. D_Davis

    D_Davis Well-Known Member

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    With all of this said, though, I should mention that lat month I re-read At The Mountains of Madness and loved it even more, despite the fact that it contains a number of elements I do not like, mainly massive amounts of infodump.
     
    Jul 29, 2011
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  19. Terrible Old Man

    Terrible Old Man Worm That Gnaws

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    Actually, Lovecraft's racism doesn't alter the fact that he's basically on the side of the outsider every time. When, for example, he gets paranoid about persons who are not entirely Anglo-Saxon, whether it's because they're African, Polynesian, mixed-race, or ghastly prehistoric amphibians, they've almost invariably taken over a town or part of one, and in that particular place, the white protagonist is the outsider. A solitary Deep One isn't a threat, just a hideous freak. What HPL really fears, and what happens to his protagonist in Innsmouth, is the mightmare of finding yourself in a situation where everybody else is in on some big, awful secret except you, because that makes you the freakish, shunned outsider!

    In his stories, swarthy sailors with foreign blood are a threat because they all belong to a frightful foreign cult that does terrible things, and people who find out their secrets are at the mercy of a whole section of society which will stop at nothing. The worst-case scenario is the Innsmouth situation, where every single person except you (and a deranged 96-year-old drunk) is literally a monster. Almost every time, "foreign" threats are represented by a faceless mod of like-minded people who are all out to get the hapless hero - exactly the same situation aries in The Festival, where the "foreigness" of everybody in the tale who isn't the hero is not that they're black or Jewish or whatever, but that they're dead, and have risen from the grave as giant possessed maggots (or something along those lines - I'm not absolutely clear on that point).

    It's also worth pointing out that in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, although the cult of the Deep Ones is imported from the South Seas, the islanders who commune with these creatures, and give Obadiah Marsh the idea in the first place, are wiped out by other islanders who don't agree with that sort of thing at all, just as at the end of the story, the US armed forces kill or imprison the entire population of Innsmouth. So it isn't people who aren't white who are at fault in this tale - it's anybody who cohabits with monsters. And normal people of any race are assumed to find such behaviour abhorrent.

    The only outsiders HPL doesn't side with at all are those who are a threat in themselves, such as the Whately Twins, who, in a somewhat ham-fisted way, are attempting to wipe out the entire human race, or persons such as Keziah Mason and Joseph Curwen (both Anglo-Saxon, and in the latter case, upper-class), who are simply evil through and through, and kill babies or perform horrific experiments on random people just because that's what they do.

    So the alien Mi-Go are unsympathetic because they've infiltrated a community to an unknown extent, and can place his protagonists in an alone-and-surrounded-by-hostiles situation, but the equally alien Elder Things are sympathetic because they themselves are in this situation. And the undead monstrosities of The Festival are monstrous because they run the whole town, whereas the (almost) equally undead Dr. Muñoz in Cool Air is an outsider, not a monster, because he has no sinister agenda, has committed no crimes except a sort of philosophical "crime against nature", but most importantly, because he is himself the shunned individual who must hide his secret from everybody else around him. Actually, there's no evidence that the revenants in The Festival have committed any actual "crimes" - it's just that a Wicker Man-style village where everybody is in on something except you is, to HPL, automatically evil.

    Really, what HPL felt threatened by was any like-minded group of people with a collective ideal or way of life that he found alien, and just about every time in his fiction that more than half a dozen people get together for one long-term purpose, it's something horribly evil, or at best woefully misguided. As soon as people began in his perception to clump together and lose their individuality, HPL hated then, but individuals of pretty much any variety were fine, which is a strange sort of racism, and seems to me more of a fear and loathing of any manifestation of crowd mentality than genuine hatred of any particular ethnic group. Why else would an anti-semite marry a Jew?
     
    Jul 30, 2011
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  20. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Thank you.
     
    Jul 30, 2011
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