Lovecraft's Themes

  1. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Very, very loosely, I would say that Lovecraft's themes (conscious or not) are the following (at least as revealed in the Cthulhu Mythos):

    1) The normal world concealing a far worse truth, to which ignorance may be preferable

    2) The smallness and unimportance of mankind in the true shape of the universe, leading to

    3) The fragility and perhaps futility of human progress and

    4) The ability of a few people - either unusually sophisticated or especially depraved, according to circumstances - to realise the truth and move from the banal reality to the greater world outside. The flip side is the crassness of the masses, generally not overtly discussed, but in part reflected in

    5) Inbreeding, degeneracy, corruption of society by monsters/foreigners, the violent stupidity of mobs and "the people" contrasted with the solitary intellectual, leading to

    6) A sort of non-hearty, intellectual fascism, repulsion of sex and retreat from "normal family life".
     
    Jul 3, 2014
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  2. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Understand -- my animus is directed at characteristics of contemporary literary studies. The Lacanian psychoanalytical thing and the obsession with "the Other" and the sophistical Derridean tortoise-and-Apollo delay of arrival of meaning show up, I expect, when these folk are discussing Jane Austen. That's what they're trained to do.

    As my much-esteemed professor-mentor U. Milo Kaufmann put it, "So many ways to miss the point"....

    I will refer here again to Brian Appleyard's Appropriating Shakespeare as a discussion of the kind of thing.

    Thanks for the list.
     
    Jul 3, 2014
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  3. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    That's seems recognizably Lovecraftian.
     
    Jul 3, 2014
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  4. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    While I've not looked into Lacan enough to have more than the vaguest impression -- surprising, given how much literary criticism I've read over the past 2-3 decades -- I have looked a bit more into Derrida and, while I certainly see certain difficulties, I think what was offered there remains a very valuable tool in critical studies.

    I don't know if you've ever read Donald Burleson's collection of some of his deconstructionist readings of Lovecraft, Disturbing the Universe, but (despite one or two provoking aspects) found it to be a very stimulating experience which brought out several layers I had never considered, as well as simply a fascinating read. I'd be interested in hearing your reaction to this one, should you ever give it a try.

    As for Mirannan' and Toby's contributions -- excellent comments; precisely what I was hoping for in opening this discussion. I don't have time to respond more than very briefly but I, too, would say that there is much here which is "recognizably Lovecraftian", and some very good insights there (and I'm glad someone brought in the fact that it was at that point that science, particularly cosmology, was undergoing such radical change and how this impacted HPL; a very important point).

    Dale: I am currently reading Graham Harman's Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, which approaches HPL as an important influence on the Speculative Realist movement, written by someone who is coming from a position of influence by such figures as Kant, Husserl, etc. A challenging book, to say the least, but so far well written and quite interesting. At any rate, I thought you might find the following of interest, given some of your comments and questions:

    -- p. vii​
    At which point he has a note:
    -- pp. 13-14; 262​
     
    Jul 4, 2014
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  5. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Well, I'm up with a bout of insomnia again (not as bad a thing tonight, as I'm off tomorrow, even though I've a ton of stuff to get done on that one day off), so I'll try to tackle some of this. I don't promise it will be coherent:p but I hope it will at least open things up for further discussion....

    I am even less "in the loop" when it comes to specifics on who or what is being taught in literature courses these days, though the impression I have garnered is that Lovecraft has indeed made considerable inroads in this respect over the past 30 years. I'll address certain aspects of this further below (I hope; see my caveat above) where appropriate.

    I think -- both from what I've seen and my own conclusions from an intense study of Lovecraft over the years -- that a part of the problem we're having here is this limitation placed on Lovecraft as a weird or science fiction or even fantastic writer, rather than simply as a writer. While it is indeed in these fields that his reputation was built, these are the genres within which he worked; but while initially beginning fairly close to the traditions of these genres, he rather quickly began to transcend them and move into realms of pure literature, as I hope to indicate below. I will hasten to add that this same problem has faced Poe, but in most instances he has long been removed from such limitations and seen as one of America's most important writers, perhaps its most important writer, period. Not surprisingly, the reasons this is true also apply, I think, to Lovecraft, albeit (despite HPL's almost idolatrous views on Poe) each writer was as different from the other in the end as one can well imagine. Again, I hope to clarify this later in this post.

    Again, I think this is terrifically limiting, not only to Lovecraft, but to any writer worth his/her salt; and it speaks more toward the blinkered stupidity of overclassification and overconcern with genre than it does to the merits of any writers involved.

    Which brings us to:

    I think this is the crux of the issue. The LoA series has long since moved beyond its initial boundaries, but this in no way indicates any lowering of canonical standards, but rather a recognition of excellence and importance within material which has traditionally (within the limits of the latter nineteenth through the twentieth centuries) been viewed as generic because it emerged from a particular marketing genre. As more academics and critics have moved beyond this sort of prejudice into looking at the material on its own merits, the exclusion or ghettoization of this material has increasingly become challenged, making it possible to realize that not everything which came from even the pulps was necessarily "pulp" in the derogatory critical sense; often it was simply the realities of the publishing industry and public acceptance which forced its publication there.

    As for the Penguin series, these, too, have moved beyond their initial purview and are including a wider variety of types of writing. Your mention of Burroughs is important because they make a distinction here that ERB is important not because he was necessarily a literary writer, but because of his impact on an enormous amount of popular culture and writing, and because he was a genuine innovator in the material which he produced. His actual writing is often criticized even within these circles for its slipshod qualities; but he remains a "classic" in the same way as a number of children's books or even heavily-flawed adult-oriented books do which nevertheless have achieved a certain status because of their impact on the popular consciousness rather than necessarily limiting such views to their genuine literary quality.

    In other words, there is a distinction in approach between the two series here. Lovecraft, for the reasons I will get into below, falls into both categories via different aspects of his writing.

    I have addressed some of this earlier, but there is more I wish to say here, because it is germane to why I think Lovecraft will continue to play an increasing role in academic studies of literature as well as why I think he will be in no way limited to the genre studies you have outlined above.

    First, Lovecraft is a genuine innovator, not only in the creation of a new "genre" of fiction, as it were, but in (and this goes to the theme of the thread as a whole) his major theme of questioning our perceptions of the nature of reality itself, including the medium of language through which we attempt to codify and transmit those perceptions. This is why, as Prof. Timo Airaksinen has said, Lovecraft is such a "difficult" writer; not only does he issue philosophical challenges concerning ontology, but his use of language is itself innovative in the extreme, often pushing language to its very limits, while nonetheless retaining the outward form of "staid, old-fashioned prose". While certainly indebted to his various influences, Lovecraft eventually forged an idiom which was entirely his own, which is one of the reasons why anyone who attempts to imitate his "style" or manner is doomed to failure from the start. Like Joyce, like Proust, or Kafka, no one can write as Lovecraft wrote, because his use of language and text was too intimate a part of his own psyche; in order to actually "write like Lovecraft", one would have to be Lovecraft. One can imitate certain mannerisms, but that is all. (This is also why so much earlier "mythos" writing fails on the literary level, while an increasing amount of it which has been emerging over the past 30 years succeeds; most of these writers have long since realized that attempting to imitate HPL is a dead end; instead they learn from him how to utilize his themes, concepts, and certain aspects of his approach to language within their own terms, making their own work as personal a form of self-expression as his was to him.

    In his own fashion, Lovecraft was, as I've indicated above, one of the greatest innovators in literary history, right along with Poe, Maupassant, Joyce, Kafka, or Proust (all of whom, save for Joyce, influenced him to some degree). If only for this reason alone, Lovecraft belongs in more than simply studies which cover a particular genre; rather he belongs as well to the wider field of general literature.

    There are stumbling blocks to this, of course, because of much of his chosen material, much of which still suffers from the sort of blindness exhibited by Edmund Wilson in his criticism of Lovecraft's work nearly 70 years ago. Yet a growing number of academics from various fields -- literature, language studies, philosophy, even physics -- appear to have come to the realization that, as has been pointed out by many others, the material itself (the alien races in particular) is not inherently something which cannot be dealt with in serious, mature literature, any more than ghosts or the supernatural or murder or sexual perversion are, either. Each of these has, in its time, faced the same objections; and each has had its own "redeemer" come along who proved that such material can, indeed, be a part of genuinely mature, intelligent, and far-reaching literature.

    The recognition that Lovecraft was perhaps in this (at least initially) anomalous position began as early as some of Prof. Mabbott's mentions of HPL, or Leiber's perceptive remarks, and first found a rather more thorough academic expression in the work of Maurice Lévy, even though the linguistic element was a minor consideration in his overall thesis on Lovecraft. Barton L. St. Armand got into this a good bit more, though still having it as a secondary aspect of his consideration of HPL's work; nonetheless, he addressed the vast levels of complexity within Lovecraft's writing in such a way as to strongly indicate how important a writer, literarily, he was. In recent years these aspects of Lovecraft's work have become increasingly recognized, with a corresponding increase in works concerned with him as innovator both thematically, philosophically, and linguistically; particularly strong on this are such books as Airaksinen's The Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft: The Route to Horror, Graham Harman's Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, and Sean Elliott Martin's H. P. Lovecraft and the Modernist Grotesque, as well as such studies as those by Burleson (Disturbing the Universe in particular, though his earlier A Critical Study also touches on these issues) and Waugh (both The Monster in the Mirror and A Monster of Voices).

    Because Lovecraft was an innovator on so many levels, his importance to the study of literature is only likely to continue to grow; already he is fast closing up on his idol Poe as an important figure for the future of fiction (again, an increasing number of writers are both examining and being influenced by him; writers from an ever-wider range of genres and approaches), and as consideration of his exceedingly complex use of language to attempt to convey that which truly cannot be expressed (because it transcends language and our previously-existing notions of the concepts language conveys), I think his importance to a much wider array of studies is likely to become evident. (I would point you to the second section of Harman's book, especially such things as his examination of the language and concepts, and their inescapable interdependence, in "The Colour Out of Space", for a good practical example of what I've only addressed briefly above.)

    Sorry... I'm finally flagging and ready to crash at this point. If possible, I may add more tomorrow (or, rather, later today)....
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2014
    Jul 6, 2014
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  6. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    First, I wish to issue a correction: While HPL may have been familiar with some of Kafka's work, I find no mention of him in his letters, so I will withdraw him from the list of "influences", along with Joyce. However, this does not alter my inclusion of him otherwise.

    Now... as a couple of brief examples of what I was talking about above, these excerpts from Harman's discussion of "The Colour Out of Space":

    Harman examines various passages from the story, sometimes posing a literalist reading such as Wilson used in order to indicate how Lovecraft transcended this sort of criticism by way of his very precise yet idiosyncratic and innovative use of language, and also by examining the techniques he used for some of the effects mentioned above. For example, he cites the following:
    He then goes on to break this down:
    Or in this passage, where he discusses the deaths of Mrs. Gardner and, more importantly for the point I'm making here, Nahum Gardner:
    *Harman has more to say on HPL's use of rustics, as well as animals, as more perceptive or at least more in tune with reality than their more sophisticated counterparts elsewhere... which ties in with a remark you made earlier, as I recall....
     
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  7. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    JD, not having read the books you cite, I will just say that you certainly appear, at least, to have marshaled evidence to show a number of professional literary critics attesting to Lovecraft's literary achievement. From what you say about their writing, however, it appears to me that they generally adhere to principles that are themselves, in my view, problematic at best. I don't know what impressions many Chronsfolk may have, should they wonder about the matter at all, about the current state of literary studies, but it's been very disputations for the past 40 years or so. For example, disenchanted with the prevalence of trendy literary theory in a high-profile organization such as the Modern Language Association, an alternative organization was established 20 years ago, now called the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers:

    About Us: ALSCW.org - Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers

    It is by no means a narrow and programmatic outfit. It publishes a journal, Literary Imagination, etc.

    Literary Imagination: ALSCW.org - Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers

    It's beyond me to go into a lot of detail about such matters, nor perhaps would that be appropriate for this thread anyway.

    It seems to me that real harm is being done to literary education and studies by the prevalence of Lacanian interpretation, e.g. as of King Lear here:

    http://www.english.org/sigmatd/pdf/publications/review.pdf

    Again -- as my mentor said, "So many ways to miss the point..."

    So while I haven't read the things on Lovecraft that you cite, I'm mistrustful seeing that they seem to be written by adherents of critical principles that elsewhere do mischief to literary studies. Of course, what I'm saying here is somewhat provisional.
     
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  8. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Question: What, in your view, are the principles to which they adhere which are so problematic? And (assuming they do adhere to these principles) why do you think these are problematic?

    One other point I'd like to address, which I've mentioned several times elsewhere, is the long-standing approach that each individual work should be a discrete entity unto itself in order for it to be truly successful as a work of art. This is something about which I am intensely dubious, even outright opposed, as a given thing. Meaning: I am not entirely opposed to it and find it in fact very useful and enlightening within several contexts; but I am flatly opposed to this being the way to view any artistic effort solely, as a considerable number of artists (literary or otherwise) have interrelationships within their various works to such a degree that one cannot extract the various layers of significance from any one without at least some knowledge (the more the better) of the others. Nor do I see this as a fault, as it is a natural outcome of the creative process for so many; a developing of themes and concerns and an ever-growing expansion of what that artist has to say in him/her on these subjects as part of a larger worldview. Lovecraft, obviously, fits into this category not only by his developing the "lore" of "the mythos" (a distinction which I frankly am finding increasingly irksome, given the surprising unity of his work as a whole), but also by how he uses each new piece to further explore the philosophical ideas which have gone before. If art is in truth "self-expression", then I see this as being every bit as valid as the view of discrete entities; each being simply one of many valid approaches to the artist's work.
     
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  9. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    By the way... which of the "Lear" pieces were you referring to? Or were you referring to both?
     
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  10. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    The first piece, Muller's "Lacanian Study."
     
    Jul 6, 2014
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  11. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    You're aware, though, that this tends to privilege modern authors (i.e. let's say from Milton forward), where we typically have lots more biographical materials such as letters, diaries, etc., than we do for earlier authors, let's say from Spenser and Shakespeare back.
     
    Jul 6, 2014
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  12. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Typically:

    1.The assumption that the key to understanding a society is (in Lenin's phrase) "Who whom?" -- i.e. the fundamental fact about any society is that the small minority with power will act always to enhance its control of others through the "hegemony" of arts, religion, government, law, language itself,* etc. (Above all, the hegemonist powers seek to control sexual activity and expression, with the corollary that sexual transgression [see below] is a blow against the Empire and, so, commendable. The more "transgressive" the author and the work, the better. Certainly, those introducing a typical academic of this type to Lovecraft should begin with "The Thing on the Doorstep.")

    2.The corollary to this grim view being that perhaps the biggest issue for evaluating a writer is the assessment of the degree to which he (almost always male) is a willing, perhaps even conscious, collaborator with the hegemonic powers -- or perhaps, in rarer situations, the bringing forward of an author (often a woman or a homosexual male) whose work provides a criticism of the status quo (perhaps subtly encoded until our own time) and, so, should be saluted, even if conventional literary merit is deficient.

    3.The backdrop to these persuasions being the view that values are cultural artifacts and weapons, imposed on nature, which has no values. Hence the positive value, with these critics, attached to words such as "transgression," "subversion," etc....

    4.... which helps one to see that what's at work is largely part of the narrative of the left's long march through the institutions. It may seem puzzling that a reactionary such as Lovecraft would appeal to adherents of the left, but that's nothing unusual really, cf. even its fondness for Nazi collaborators such as Paul de Man.

    5.Of course, all this academic radical chic coexists with a profound sense of entitlement to comfortable salaries, modest teaching loads, generous travel funding, and sometimes condoning of criminality from which, well insulated in their own neighborhoods, the academics themselves are largely protected.


    My comments will help to show why I think these principles are "problematic." I'm not saying that there's no useful suspicion that should be directed against the powers that be -- certainly not, especially in our surveillance-ridden America. That's another topic indeed.

    I would refer the curious to the ALSCW, to Brian Appleyard's Appropriating Shakespeare, to Tom McAlindon's Shakespeare Without "Theory," to the New Criterion, etc. for further discussion and documentation.

    I hope I won't be taken, in what I have said lately, to be mounting a covert attack on Lovecraft per se. I don't buy into approaches that would elevate his reputation by means of approaches that, elsewhere, I think often do harm to literary studies and sound thinking. I would be interested in seeing estimates of his achievement by ALSCW-type critics and scholars. Conversely, just as I earlier acknowledged some misgivings about "advocacy" in old-time "fan" writing about Lovecraft, now I have doubts about academic embrace of Lovecraft by advocates of an agenda that, on other grounds, I don't think sound. It's still advocacy, but now advocacy of "the narrative" (i.e. the long march) that takes up Lovecraft for that kind of reason. And sometimes, probably, for the furtherance of academic careerism!

    *This helps to account for the fondness of such academics for an esoteric critical vocabulary, impenetrable style, etc. When "logocentric" becomes a term of abuse, turgidity is liable to become a virtue, c.f. the old verbiage of Marxism-Leninism.
     
    Jul 6, 2014
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  13. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    I thought that was probably it, but wanted to make certain. I've not read the entire piece, but what I have has given me an idea of the sort of thing you're wary of. I'd say it's an interesting and even useful/valid reading of the play... but it has its limits and the piece tends to overemphasize things which support it and deemphasize things which argue against it... always something to be wary of.

    To some degree this is true; though I've seen examinations using only the internal evidence of the text to examine a writers' corpus in this way. A close examination of works with this idea (the coherence of a larger whole) in mind can bring out a great number of very good insights. As I say, I'm not opposed to the older model entirely; I just distrust it being so often touted as the approach to take, as if taking any other is automatically out-of-bounds or suspect.

    As for the approaches you give, of which you are so mistrustful... in the main, I tend to agree with you. As with so many other things, I think they can (and often do) offer valuable insights; but (as with so much Freudian criticism -- Jungian criticism tends to be more open) there is far too much of a dogmatic tendency for me to feel easy with them.

    On the works I've mentioned concerning Lovecraft... I can't say any of these actually take any of the approaches you cite here. Their examination of his radical use of language is almost entirely toward the enhanced aesthetic effect and the way the text and his philosophy and themes work as a nearly seamless whole; the extreme care with which he chose his words for very specific (yet often extremely complex) effect to enhance not only atmosphere but the implications both within the context of story and in the broader context of metaphysics. In other words, as an artist qua artist, not necessarily supportive or censorious of his stated philosophical stance. In fact, Prof. Airaksinen's work brought forth the following in a review from your humble servant: "he puts far too much emphasis on a Christian interpretation -- one of his earliest statements being that one of the pillars of horror literature is 'our basic fear of damnation without God' -- Lovecraft was a thoroughgoing atheist, and such a concern was completely alien to him)". And, of course, Robert Waugh examines Lovecraft in juxtaposition with a wide variety of literary figures, and from a variety of angles. I don't always agree with any of them, but I find them all to be very stimulating, and indicative of the growing acceptance of Lovecraft as worthy material for a wide variety of critical and academic approaches.

    By the way... you may find St. Armand's discussion of Lovecraft's use of blood in "The Rats in the Walls" (in chapter V of The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft) of interest, given that he brings in the religious importance of this symbol, to great effect.
     
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  14. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    In HPL's early astronomical writings for various newspapers, and even in his earlier fiction, he (as with many another writer) tended to refer to them as "island universes" or make the "other universes" claim. As the picture of cosmology changed, so did his views on this, and his references to it. Along with that came his ever vaster picture of the universe, in which humankind came to be a negligible experiment of "the deus naturae" both spatially and (necessarily) temporally; vastly important to ourselves, but of no significance to the vast cosmos-at-large.

    As you say, this realization of this vastness, so immensely (pardon the pun) different from the traditional view of the universe, with its impact on us emotionally and psychologically, is one of the key elements of his fiction (and one of the major points of discussion in his letters and several essays). Though it may not of itself be horrific, it is of such a stunningly alien nature that the type of sublime which it evokes is both awesome and terrifying. Even when the spatial element is not invoked, the temporal realization of our ephemerality and insignificance is there, as in one of his first "mature" pieces, "Dagon".

    As I've said elsewhere, I have increasingly found this division between what is labeled "the Cthulhu Mythos" and his other works to be not only a false differentiation, but an outright obfuscatory one in most contexts. It is useful for certain limited examinations, but beyond that it tends to be far too exclusionary, as nearly the whole of Lovecraft's fictional corpus (as well as a fair portion of his fantastic verse) is related thematically and often via a shared "mythology" or "anti-mythology" (depending on the source and point in his career).

    That said, the stories of "the mythos" are perhaps the most concentrated exploration of the cosmic themes you mention here (though not necessarily of some of the others).

    On the themes you've mentioned themselves -- while I have a few points at which I might disagree with you in details, I'd say overall you have posited some of the important themes of his work, and also (inevitably) some of the problems of his work for many. I refer particularly to #s 4 and 5 above, though the cosmicism of his work, given its "mechanistic materialist" aspects, also sits very uncomfortably for some. It is mostly on these two (with a necessary inclusion of part of the sixth) that I would have my (slight) disagreements with you. These would be as follows:

    When it comes to the "depraved" having such access, this is a point for some examination, as they seldom have this access of their own accord or due to any abilities on their part. Rather, they are usually the lower classes (uneducated, mediocre individuals, or extreme rural types) who are accidentally exposed to these "outside" forces, or are fit material for easy manipulation by these forces (as with the degenerate sailors, Eskimos, etc., in "The Call of Cthulhu", Keziah Mason in "The Dreams in the Witch House", etc.). One of the major exceptions to this is the unfortunate case of Joe Slater/Slaader who, product of inbreeding and isolation of community, nonetheless houses a superior being within his far from strong brain. Eventually this destroys the human being, leaving behind the cosmic entity which had been so long imprisoned in that form. What it interesting here is that the narrator of the tale, too, houses such a mind, one which is set free only in certain types of dreams (as with that which had been imprisoned in Slater) and, by implication and indirect statement, certain other members of our species. As I have argued elsewhere, this ties in with something which Lovecraft said about a piece of amateur fiction which he reviewed shortly before writing "Beyond the Wall of Sleep":
    Which, of course, goes to your fifth point, as Lovecraft often depicted them as (as he would describe them in "The Lurking Fear") "curiously likeable in many ways. Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation" (The Complete Fiction, p. 229). Now, while this is far from a flattering portrait of the inhabitants of such regions, it does hold within it a much greater sympathy than one expects from Lovecraft. It is snobbish and supercilious, but not intentionally cruel or vicious. This was by no means always the case, but he did seem to take a more sympathetic view the older he got and the more he got to know such people. Along with this went the peculiar trait which Harman mentioned in the quote above about these rural types actually being more in tune with reality than their more sophisticated counterparts. They are unable to articulate that which they sense or feel in any but the crudest terms, but they are more aware of the presence of the unnatural and more realistic in their realization of the menace it poses... an odd sort of stance for someone like Lovecraft to take, especially given his continuing distrust of these classes (and especially foreigners; but cf. the Italians in "The Haunter of the Dark", who at least attempt to form some sort of bulwark against the free movement of the entity in the church), but one which crops up again and again in his fiction.

    Thus, I would say that his views on these classes, thematically, is more nuanced and complex than simply to present them as a part of that corruption or degeneracy, for they can, depending on the circumstances, be a part of either "side" as it were. Nor, really, are the mobs in his stories of a violent nature. More often they are frightened and cowering, attempting to avoid the blow (as with the denizens of Dunwich or the squatters in "The Lurking Fear"), unless they are of those few who have given themselves over to these forces, ignorant as they may be of their true nature.

    Nonetheless, thanks for joining in the discussion -- good points all, and I hope others will join in with their own takes on these (and other points/themes?).....
     
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    Jul 7, 2014
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  15. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for giving my rather vague thoughts such serious consideration! I’m afraid that I’ve concentrated on the Cthulhu Mythos stories because they’re the ones I know best, the ones most stereotypically “Lovecraftian” (lots of tentacles!) and, to my mind, some of his best.

    As I was reading this thread, I was reminded of Orwell’s attack on Salvador Dali in “Benefit of Clergy”. Orwell, to put it simply, accepts that Dali is a good painter whilst finding him entirely revolting. The thing that Orwell seems to find the most repellent is Dali’s “perversity” – ie his morbid streak, his aesthetism, his snobbery, his lack of interest in normal human relations and his lack of the healthy salt-of-the-earth stuff that Orwell would be expected to like. It struck me that he would probably say exactly the same thing about Lovecraft. (This says a lot about Orwell’s hang-ups, too. Nobody seems to have noticed his strong interest in sex outdoors, for instance). I think all these charges can be laid at Lovecraft, and in a way, they stick. Lovecraft’s world isn’t a hearty one, but why should it be? You can’t kill Cthulhu the way you can defeat a member of the Thought Police. The evils in Lovecraft’s work are much deeper and subtler than human nastiness. I get the feeling that, if the Old Ones won, mankind would be swatted aside or devoured rather than tormented.

    Anyway, I should explain what I meant about “depravity”. I was thinking of depravity by elites – those with power and money, like the Waites or the Marshes – rather than yokels inbreeding and the like. Some of Lovecraft’s human villains seem like twisted intellectuals – Charles Dexter Ward, say – who are decadent not in seeking pleasure, but in not having the sense not to summon horrors from Beyond. Their decadence is really a lack of morals (which, interestingly, the “mob” has). I agree that there’s actually not all that much about yokels worshipping the devil, or not as much as you might expect. They are, as you say, more likely to be afraid than collaborating (in a couple of cases, the frightened-but-not-evil yokels are explicitly not white, for what it’s worth). Am I right in thinking that the Martense family were upper-class before they slid downhill?

    Which brings me to a slightly tricky point, perhaps no more than a nuance, about bigotry. While Lovecraft is never going to be an advert for tolerance or social inclusivity, his sort of bigotry seems to be that of an earlier age, rather than the violent cruelty that came out of Europe and Japan in the 1930s. I can’t help feel that while he was a neurotic, he wasn’t a downright evil person. He seems like a man from an earlier time – and I think wanted to be – with all the good and bad that that entailed. My suspicion is that he looked back to some sort of golden age, when society had been better put-together and people occupied a set place (and stayed there). The problem is that, to us, the conditions of a lot of people in that age would be pretty much intolerable. The other slightly uncomfortable question is whether, had he been less neurotic, Lovecraft would have come up with concepts as powerful as the Deep Ones or the de la Poers. I rather doubt it.
     
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  16. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Toby, we've had discussion of this point before, here at Chrons, and you might like to take a look at it, if you didn't do so the first time.

    http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/528635-failure-of-lovecrafts-project-1-of-3-a.html#post1421962

    The mere facts of the incommensurable size of the universe and of its age (quantity of light-years, billions of years) don't include our emotional responses to those facts, and the emotion of cringing terror before them is only one possible response.

    Moreover, in any event, the ancient West, at least, did know that the earth is tiny relative to the rest of the universe -- see the fourth of five statements here:

    Starry Messenger: Copernicus, Ptolemy, and Cosmology

    What Lovecraft did with the enhancement (not discovery) of knowledge regarding the immensity of the universe relates to his poetic imagination.

    Which brings me to mention something I've been thinking about for at least the past week or two as we've been discussing Lovecraft. What often gets discussed is his ideas as garnered from passages in his stories, his essays, and his letters; but I suspect that much of what brings people back to a number of his major stories is what we casually describe as the sense of wonder. That's where the "poetic imagination" I just mentioned comes in.

    [FONT=Arial,Sans-Serif][SIZE=-1][FONT=Arial,Sans-Serif][SIZE=-1]I have whirl’d with the earth at the dawning,
    [​IMG][​IMG]When the sky was a vaporous flame;
    [​IMG]I have seen the dark universe yawning,
    [​IMG][​IMG]Where the black planets roll without aim;
    Where they roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name.

    from "Nemesis"

    That happens to be from a poem, but I see a "poetic imagination" in some of his prose too.

    But this does seem to be something that's less susceptible to critical discussion than some other topics that, to me at least, seem somewhat beside the point if the point is to talk about what prompts one to reread him. But not everyone gets that from HPL, it seems. The sense of wonder may be stirred, for some, much more by a description of, say, wild flowers in a Thoreau passage.

    My own thought would be something like this: having experienced both, I wouldn't want to have been without those experiences. But I can't assume that a good reader who tries HPL will experience a sense of wonder (nor that a Thoreau passage will prompt it in someone who's never read that before).

    Then also, it does seem that, for the sense of wonder to occur, it often helps if someone reads a thing in adolescence. As he gets older he may return to the literary work repeatedly and still feel that stir, even while he may become aware of literary failings that he didn't perceive when he was 14.

    But my main point is that, if we want to talk about the sense of wonder as part of Lovecraft's excellence, we seem to have something that is more subjective than some other qualities relating to literary achievement.

    I'll leave it to others to decide whether a discussion of "sense of wonder" belongs here (Lovecraft's Themes) or at the related thread on his excellence. If folk decided to discuss the topic over there, perhaps a link could be made at this thread.

    So: what can we do, as regards the sense of wonder, other than just point to a given literary work and say: "That moves my sense of wonder. How about yours?"

    And: is it even a good idea to talk about the sense of wonder? If we start analyzing it, might we injure our experience of it?
    [/SIZE]
    [/SIZE][/FONT][/FONT]
     
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    Jul 7, 2014
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  17. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Certainly a major theme for much of Lovecraft's writing (nonfiction and poetry as well as his best-known fiction) is the antiquarian theme. It's one of the most attractive elements in his writings, so far as this reader is concerned, and one that contributes enormously to the "Lovecraft" reading experience. It was a central element of his personality and gives him some affinity with, say, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

    The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty — The American Magazine

    Just as I am grateful to Tolkien for, among other things, his contribution to my youthful imaginative and sensory response to nature, I am grateful to Lovecraft for his quickening in me a receptiveness to the charm of relatively old brick walls, board fences, etc., preferably down a brambly alley. I have always lived in places settled (by European-derived people) in the 1800s, much more recently than the colonial-period Providence HPL loved, but all the same I think I owe him something. I liked the antiquarianism of M. R. James too.

    This is something that can be distinguished from Lovecraft's eruption-of-menace-from-the-past theme already mentioned.
     
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  18. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Whooo! Some very good posts this time 'round! I'll try to give my own responses:

    I think this is the view most readers who haven't actually sat down and studied Lovecraft tend to have -- it even shows up in Luckhurst's Oxford edition, where he makes repeated references to the "tentacular horrors" as stereotypical Lovecraft. Like Poe and horror tales, there is some truth to this, but it is often exaggerated. Poe's horror (or even horror and detective tales, which often had horrific elements) were only a small portion of his fictional or poetic ouput, yet that is what most people know of Poe. So with Lovecraft, where the tentacle horrors actually occur in relatively few stories. Not that there is anything wrong with such, but I think it tends to limit an appreciation of what the man was doing, nonetheless.

    And, of course, the implication is that, being cosmic entities which are not limited by either space or time as are we, eventually they will win; and, yes, that will likely mean our extermination simply because we are nuisances, like mosquitoes or lice. And certainly in Lovecraft's fiction (with rare exceptions) his vision was a very dark one, as befits an attempt at addressing terror and similar emotions. But, as Dale mentions, there is also a sense of wonder at work there simultaneously -- something Lovecraft noted as a necessary ingredient for a worthy weird tale (see Supernatural Horror in Literature), and to which he was always susceptible.

    That clarifies a bit, and I think on that ground you may be right (Crawford Tillinghast; Joseph Curwen; Robert Suydam). I would take issue, however, that Ward is a "twisted intellectual"; naïve, most certainly; but his intent was never evil, but rather the seeking of knowledge; and having found a source which had had personal contact with the wisdom of the ages "from the horse's mouth", as it were (Curwen), his attempts to revive his ancestor and learn from him to pass on such wisdom for the benefit of humanity is more a noble goal than otherwise. The problem is that he was dealing with someone who had no regard for humanity, nor anything else save his own selfish goals; and it cost poor Charles his life. And yes, the Martenses were decidedly one of the great armigerous families of the region before they isolated themselves into degenerative inbreeding -- either through incest or through the limited number of menials about.

    I don't think he would, no. In fact, I'd say this (uncomfortable as it may be for some to admit it) is one of the driving forces of his fiction, and what powers some of his greatest works, linked as it is with Lovecraft's views (not uncommon for his day) concerning evolution and the possibility of descending that ladder under the right (wrong) conditions -- cf. "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family", "The Beast in the Cave", "The Rats in the Walls", "The Lurking Fear", etc., etc., etc.)

    But yes, I think he did hold to ethnic views which were (largely) of an older day, but which were still generally unquestioned in his own. I wouldn't say he didn't have his outbursts against ethnics in print, for they do crop up now and again in his early amateur journalist writings (particularly in his own The Conservative), but he never made any effort to put these rants into political action so far as I know; and this aspect of it tapered off a good deal over the years. It certainly never went away, and at times of stress could be quite virulent; but in general he mellowed in his views more than one might expect. This may be why, in later writings, we see a bit more sympathy for ethnics than we tend to get in the earlier ones. Not always much, but certainly lacking the vituperation of his earliest efforts.

    I think, however, that here we get into the Burkean sublime, which invariably involves "terror" and "awe" as intermingled and closely related responses (same as Lovecraft's "ecstatic fear" from "The Rats in the Walls"); consider Burke's list of tremendous things which evoke such a response. Lovecraft, here, is simply extending such to the larger scale of the universe itself rather than simply to mountains, ancient and gigantic structures, etc. And, as I note above, there is always an intermixture of both terror, awe, wonder, and fascination in these things, which blending is one of the hallmarks of Lovecraft's work in both prose and verse.

    I do not think examining that sense of wonder in any way damages it; from my experience, it tends to enhance it, even make it stronger, for such a discussion also involves broadening an appreciation for the things which stir that wonder, and hone the poetic sensibility toward it.

    When it comes to Lovecraft's, one of my personal favorites is his poem "Continuity", from the Fungi from Yuggoth sequence:
    There is in certain ancient things a trace
    Of some dim essence—more than form or weight;
    A tenuous aether, indeterminate,
    Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.
    A faint, veiled sign of continuities
    That outward eyes can never quite descry;
    Of locked dimensions harbouring years gone by,
    And out of reach except for hidden keys.

    It moves me most when slanting sunbeams glow
    On old farm buildings set against a hill,
    And paint with life the shapes which linger still
    From centuries less a dream than this we know.
    In that strange light I feel I am not far
    From the fixt mass whose sides the ages are.
    Or "Nostalgia":
    I never can be tied to raw, new things,
    For I first saw the light in an old town,
    Where from my window huddled roofs sloped down
    To a quaint harbour rich with visionings.
    Streets with carved doorways where the sunset beams
    Flooded old fanlights and small window-panes,
    And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes—
    These were the sights that shaped my childhood dreams.

    Such treasures, left from times of cautious leaven,
    Cannot but loose the hold of flimsier wraiths
    That flit with shifting ways and muddled faiths
    Across the changeless walls of earth and heaven.
    They cut the moment’s thongs and leave me free
    To stand alone before eternity.
    This, you will see, also includes that antiquarian sense which is, as you so rightly point out, such a vital part of the Lovecraftian experience.

    From what I've seen, a growing number are getting this aspect of Lovecraft, and realizing that this is a good part of what keeps pulling them back to him over the years. Nor do I think it necessary someone read these pieces when young to respond to them when older -- though I think analogous writings, which emphasize the sense of wonder, awe, mystery, illusive impressions of greatness, majesty, etc., are probably necessary, if they don't already have that tendency in large portion to begin with. For example, without reading such things when I was a very young child, would I respond as well to the final lines of Poe's "Spirits of the Dead"?
    The breeze -- the breath of God -- is still --
    And the mist upon the hill
    Shadowy -- shadowy -- yet unbroken,
    Is a symbol and a token --
    How it hangs upon the trees,
    A mystery of mysteries! --
    Even as an atheist and completely lacking a belief in the supernatural, I find this to be wonderfully evocative and beautiful, full of the intimations of something far beyond what the scene itself paints when taken literally (if one can take such a description literally). And I find tons of this in Lovecraft's work and, in fact, find more of it now than I did when I was young -- or, at least, recognize it as such on a conscious level more than I did then. And, as indicated by the responses of such as Harman (see above) I don't think reading Lovecraft at such an early age is at all necessary to respond to this element in his work... an element which Harman discusses at some length in his book.

    I think part of the problem, as I've indicated before, is the frame of reference with which we view Lovecraft. If we come to him expecting a take of horror, or terror, with monsters and gore and all that goes with them, then that is likely to be what we will get out of it. But if we approach Lovecraft without such preconceptions, we leave ourselves open to the various levels at which he works, and a "sense of wonder" is most decidedly a notable quality there, which runs throughout the bulk of his fiction. Take, for instance, several passages in "The Whisperer in Darkness" -- a flawed story, in my opinion, while nonetheless remaining one of his most important and, in some ways, one of his best. Here the "wonder" isn't so much the cosmic element itself, but rather the intimations of its presence within the Vermont landscape, and the near(?) sentience of that landscape itself.

    As for it being subjective -- well, yes. Just as color-blindness prevents a person from seeing the spectrum, so some are blind to this quality, or are intermittently blind to it; just as Lovecraft lamented the blindness to the "cosmic" element which was so important to him yet which so few he either knew or read seemed aware of. All one can do in such cases is to point out passages which evoke that for oneself (and others), and hope that some portion of it may register with the person in question.

    And once again, I would agree. This fear of the corruption, contamination, or outright dissolution of that which he valued from the past, was very important to Lovecraft and, along with that theme of the "alien", drove much of his work. Yet one cannot entirely distinguish this from his "eruption-of-menace-from-the-past" theme, either, as the two are often closely linked; again, that complex blending of emotional opposites which is such a large part of the fascination of Lovecraft's work, which is often very complex psychologically. Think, for instance, of the gamut of emotions, and of emotion-combinations, which are at work in At the Mountains of Madness, where one set of emotional responses often is modified or gives way to another as more information is added (e.g., the shifting of view of the Old Ones from terrifying menace to objects of sympathy and pity while still retaining large traces of the older response), and the even greater shift from what would seem to be the supreme terror (the shoggoths and what they represent) to something considerably more nebulous and yet more terrifying (the unspecified sight Danforth sees beyond those further mountains, and what is implied by those allusive references taken in conjunction with the intertextual references to other Lovecraftian writings, as well as Poe's Pym); yet even here with a mingling of awe, wonder, curiosity, fascination (after all, doesn't Lovecraft leave us all wanting to know, to see, what Danforth saw? Even given the impact of that experience as evidenced by what has happened to Danforth?)... and even beauty.

    All of this emerges from Lovecraft's fascination with antiquity, with the past, and with that "conflict with Time" which was so vital to the fulfillment of his aesthetic sense. A rich salmagundi indeed....
     
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    Jul 8, 2014
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  19. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    If I were going to design an illustrated selection of Lovecraft's writings, I might emphasize photographs of antiquarian vestiges plus astronomical scenes. For the latter, I'm not thinking of the familiar, gorgeous (if you like) but to me mostly unmoving, Hubble-type pictures, but rather relatively early pictures taken through earthbound telescopes. These give me more of a feeling of peering out into that vastness than the Hubble-type images do, and, of course, they would be redolent of Lovecraft's own era and of the kind of imagery that he might have pored over.
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
     
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    Jul 8, 2014
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  20. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    That last point may be the best; but as far as the impression of sheer vastness, I'd have to go for some of the Hubble's views of distant galaxies, such as we see here:

    Distant galaxies: Hubble image of galaxies at the Universe’s edge.

    There is one in particular which shows the galaxies in a spiral formation, as if caught in the field of a vortex, reminiscent of Lovecraft's descriptions of Azathoth at the centre of all infinity....

    Simulated Galaxy Cluster View

    That, and the realization that each of those tiny things is a cluster of millions or billions of stars, rather takes one's breath away....
     
    Jul 8, 2014
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