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Lacking empathy....?

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#21
The subject of HPL's racism has been discussed at great length in another thread, but in connection with the above I will add that I do not think it was either a simplistic racism (at least in its manifestations) nor an entirely unthinking, knee-jerk-reaction type of racism, but something much more complex and difficult to nail down. As for whether or not he had a hatred or fear of certain ethnic groups... his own words on the subject make it pretty clear he did; and that he was even proud of being known as an anti-Semite when he was in high school, so those things are quite well established by documentary evidence. His views on blacks was, overall, appalling (as was the case with his views on Australian aborigines), but once again, he could make exceptions. His outburst at finding out that the editor of the Poetry Review (William Stanley Braithwaite) was black -- one which really should have been written on asbestos considering its intensity -- didn't prevent him from having a correspondence with him later on in life. And Sonia herself has commented on his views in her memoirs of him, as well.

I would also argue that the entire focus of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is fueled by his feelings about ethnics as expressed in writings from the early poem "New England Fallen" on; and in fact it is this ethnophobia which makes the final conversion of the narrator obviously the supreme horror of all, as he not only learns to live with the aliens, but loses what has been (up to that point) himself and becomes one, not just physically, but psychologically.

Yet, for all this I think, TOM, that you have much of it right in your posts. His sympathy was for the outsider, for the underdog, at least in the vast majority of cases; and even when it came to ethnics, it was a matter of "hating in the abstract", as those he met and got to know, he tended to like, often even admire. Hence, despite his anti-Semitism, he could admire Samuel Loveman and like him personally, have great empathy for him... and still puzzle how this person he so felt such a strong connection to could be a Jew.

As for the passage concerning the Old Ones... yes, he "redeems" them during the course of the story, often in subtle ways (use of "unhuman" rather than "inhuman" for their actions, thus removing the implied moral censure in favor of a distinction, crops up a little past midway in the story, showing how the narrator's views are already shifting toward sympathy and even a feeling of camaraderie toward them), and while it is, to some degree, a matter of intellect admiring intellect, he goes farther than that, into admiring character: persistence, courage, etc., and it is interesting that the highest compliment he can give them is to say "they were men!" -- indicating that HPL, despite his moments of misanthropy, felt there was much to admire in at least the best of our species.

Personally, I think that it is a combination of factors which has formed this idea of Lovecraft not being able to create characters, or at least characters one can empathize with -- obviously not quite the case, as there are many who do -- among which are his unique writing style, founded as it is on so much from the "Age of Reason", yet combined at times with the melodramatics of the Gothic school which also emerged from that same period; an almost clinical approach to his choice of words and prose rhythms to achieve certain effects; the fact that he does not allow his characters to ever be the main focus (save the central phenomenon, which is, in a real sense, a character -- just as the setting so often is, as was the case with the Gothic tale; and a very distancing approach to his characters' psychology -- in itself a way of affecting that stance of "outsider" and conveying it in unspoken ways to the reader from the outset. There are probably others as well, but these come to mind immediately. This sort of approach requires a much closer reading than most people afford anything they read; such a statement would apply to readers of almost any period. His works thus (again, like the best of the Gothics) require a certain leisurely approach where one savors and ponders what one reads, for there are resonances and ramifications which only come through with such a thoughtful and careful approach, while the more obvious resonances alone register with a more casual reading.

(Incidentally, I think this applies to much of his verse as well, the majority of which -- except for the fantastic verse -- has been condemned as "eighteenth-century rubbish"; my contention is that a large selection of it may not be particularly good verse, but there is a lot more going on there than meets the eye, and which only becomes evident once one ejects the preconceptions and begins actually reading those verses quite carefully and critically... at which time the sparkling wit, the joy in wordplay, the erudition, the satire, and sometimes outright farce, come through and make them actually a great deal of fun to read....)

At any rate, I continue to contend that HPL did create at least some memorable characters, and I strongly argue that his work shows a great deal of empathy... just not on the obvious levels to which we have become so accustomed....
 
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#23
I think it's simply going to come down to this:

I just don't admire HPL like you guys do.

:)
LOL. Could be. And part of that could be, in my case, my early exposure to the Gothic writing of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (before I was ten)....
 

D_Davis

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#24
LOL. Could be. And part of that could be, in my case, my early exposure to the Gothic writing of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (before I was ten)....
And hey, there is plenty of other stuff for us to agree on, and I've learned a lot from these last few threads.
 
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#25
In finishing my reading of Kenneth W. Faig, Jr.'s The Unknown Lovecraft, I found the following passage, which seems to me germane to this discussion:

However we cope with our cosmic insignificance, we may nevertheless hope, as did Lovecraft himself, to find multum in parvo. Measure zero sets can be fascinating, complex places fopr their members. It has been my lifelong belief that H. P. Lovecraft's writings enrich our humanity. They do not teach despair, but rather the perspective of looking at all existence from the perspective of "that fix mass whose sides the ages are" ("Continuity," Fungi from Yuggoth XXXVI). A natural disaster, a pandemic, a cataclysmic episode of human self-predation (e.g., a worldwide nuclear, chemical or biological war) -- any of these could spell the end of humanity on this planet. Lovecraft's cosmic perspective does not impoverish, but rather enriches our everyday lives as human beings on this planet.
-- p. 253​
 

Terrible Old Man

Worm That Gnaws
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#30
May I just chip in here to clear up a point so contentious that it probably needs to be dealt with? I am not a racist, and I don't in any way condone HPL's views in that area, though I will say that, since I'm almost entirely ignorant of his vast output of private correspondence, I don't know how bad he really was in that respect. But never once in his fiction do I get the impression that he is seriously suggesting that individual human beings should be harmed because they're the wrong kind of person. Every single time that he gets paranoid about another race, it's because he imagines them to be part of some vast. impersonal conspiracy that is somehow out to get him.

Which is why, as I've said before, he could come up with prehistoric space gherkins capable of ripping a grown man's head off, and then somehow end up going to great lengths to make them good guys, just because there are so few of them that they don't have the capability to form a club dedicated to having a go at him.

I'm reminded of a book I once read, the title and author of which utterly escape me (possibly somebody can help here?). The problem with it was that its author felt that its subject-matter was so important that he couldn't hire a ghost-writer, even though he himself was in no way gifted as a writer. But the gist of it was that he was a black man who, having been raised in a very liberal environment in sixties America, popped down to the deep South for some reason, and absolutely could not get his head around the instant, automatic mad racism that he encountered there.

So what he did was this. He phoned all the most appalling racists that he could find, and asked if he could interview them about their beliefs. The thing was, his college education meant that he didn't sound black on the phone. So, with a couple of horrible exceptions, these people were utterly confused when this person they had decided in advance was going to be a rational human being turned out to be this abstract thing they were supposed to hate. Just about all of them ended up being surprisingly nice to him by mistake, because most human beings are basically decent. Which was the point he was trying to make (fortunately he was right - I assume that if he'd been seriously wrong, he'd have ended up too dead to write the book). He even talked one guy into letting him try on his KKK robes for a joke - there's a photo of it on the cover.

Well, I think HPL was a bit like that - "Yes, obviously, blackness is intrinsically wrong and awful and subhuman - but, hanging this guy in front of us right now just for being black? Not that I'm changing my general attitude or anything, but somehow I'd rather keep it abstract, as opposed to actually hurting anybody." Correct me if this is wrong, but I think I'm right in saying that Lovecraft initially supported Hitler, but, at the very end of his life, began to change his views once it dawned on him that, if somebody took the views he professed to hold all the way in the real world, actual Jews would actually die. And somehow that wasn't such a good thing after all.

Which is why, without condoning it in the slightest, I can forgive HPL's racism. I believe that, if he'd been a more worldly person, he would have been less racist, because the difference between hating some abstract thing called a "darkie" who he never actually met, and causing genuine harm to another human being, were two utterly different concepts. And whenever he had the slightest suspicion they might be somehow connected, it caused him massive confusion. Which is why I'm willing to overlook his blatant flaws and keep reading him, as opposed to the likes of, say, Sax Rohmer, who makes it much plainer that, in his opinion, non-white people are basically evil, and he doesn't have a problem with that at all.

As I said, I'm not a racist, but, being a mere human, I'm sure I'm equally culpable in other ways, so I can totally sympathise with HPL having these unreasonable attitudes, yet, when he actually got to know these supposedly subhuman types, getting all conflicted because his instincts told him that this thing in front of him was potentially a friend, but his prejudices were telling him the exact opposite. Human failings I can forgive, and while HPL's failings can be quite nasty, I never, ever get that sense of "non-white people don't deserve to live so let's kill them!" from his tales.

Perhaps this ought to be in the racism rather than the empathy strand, but really, there isn't a vast amount of difference. Especially when we get into subjects like: "Is this person I'm talking to right now one of those Jews I'm supposed to hate? Hey, why don't I marry her, thereby confusing absolutely everybody, but especially me!"
 
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#31
That is one of the most thoughtful comments on the matter I've seen in quite some time and, I think, comes very close to the actual truth. While I have gone to great length to combat the idea that his attitudes do not constitute racism, I am also quite happy to agree that there is no evidence that he would have supported actual violence against a person of any other ethnos, though he did on more than one occasion veer strongly in that direction when it came to these groups in the abstract. His racism was a very complex thing, really, and not easily resolvable into any sort of stereotype; it was quite strong, and yes, nasty, and would have put him on the far right lunatic fringe today... but he also made such statements, concerning a very famed trial of black men accused of rape (the Scottsboro case, if memory serves), as "No one wants to hang the poor [blacks] if they're innocent, but..." and then going on to make the staggeringly naive claim that the jury in the case (in the Deep South) were impartial and just and not likely to be swayed by such prejudice... and, of course, history has proved him dead wrong on this. But in such cases, it is actually Lovecraft being too willing to believe that people are better than what he often tends to claim (again, in the abstract rather than the concrete) which trips him up. This, though, puts HPL squarely on the side of more humane and empathetic than even he tended to realize....

As I say, his brand of racism is a very complex thing, and I expect will continue to raise controversy for many years to come....
 

BAYLOR

There Are Always new Things to Learn.
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#32
What about Ligotti, who is surely more misanthropic in his writing than Lovecraft?
Sorry to revive this one , But I find this an interesting topic:)

Liggotti almost makes Lovecraft seem like sunny optimist by comparison.
 
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Ruina

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#33
Liggotti almost makes Lovecraft seem like sunny optimist by comparison.
Absolutely. Lovecraft's worldview basicaly was "Life is meaningless and full of suffering, that's why it's better to derive maximum amount of pleasure and beauty out of it while we are alive", while Ligotti is more like "Life is meaningless and full of suffering, everything is pain and despair, pleasure and beauty are illusions only and they won't help you". That's why I find Lovecraft's brand of cosmic horror almost comforting while Ligotti's is really depressing.
 

BAYLOR

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#34
Absolutely. Lovecraft's worldview basicaly was "Life is meaningless and full of suffering, that's why it's better to derive maximum amount of pleasure and beauty out of it while we are alive", while Ligotti is more like "Life is meaningless and full of suffering, everything is pain and despair, pleasure and beauty are illusions only and they won't help you". That's why I find Lovecraft's brand of cosmic horror almost comforting while Ligotti's is really depressing.

It sounds like read some Schopenhauer.;)
 
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#35
It sounds like read some Schopenhauer.;)
At least a selection of his writing: Studies in Pessimism, selected and translated by T. Bailey Saunders. Not a bad introduction to the man's work, and certainly it heavily influenced some of Lovecraft's thinking, as did portions of Spengler's The Decline of the West (though HPL also felt that Spengler drew the biological analogy far too broadly).... Another who influenced him was, not surprisingly, Nietzsche, though again he cautioned that he felt that Nietzsche's ethics were "a joke, or a poet's dream, which amounts to the same thing"....
 

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