Lovecraft Again

2009 by Daniel Ust. All Rights Reserved.

My essay "The Philosophy in Lovecraft's Art" appeared in Full Context. It provided an overview of H. P. Lovecraft's fiction, albeit an unsophisticated and vituperative one. Remarks from others have pushed me to rethink my position. 1

The greatest flaw in the essay is that it ignores Rand's concept of "sense of life." No substantial mention of "sense of life" graces it; everything is instead reduced to philosophy. Lovecraft's stories and novels are used solely as examples of his basic philosophy. Literature is the most cerebral of the arts – not the best, but the one in which the link between art and philosophy is uncovered easily. This should not, however, allow one to lose touch with the sense of life vibrating throughout a piece of literature.

"Sense of life" is an overall emotional attitude toward reality and humanity. Terms such as "cheerful," "reserved," "gloomy," and "defiant" describe senses of life. Rand characteristically used "benevolent" and "malevolent," but that tends to put people together who are very different. The plays of Shakespeare and Sartre both seem malevolent. Is the malevolence purported to be in the former the same as that in the latter? These artists come from different worlds, as Walter Kaufmann maintains. 2 It should be evident that "benevolent" and "malevolent" are broad distinctions that should be used with care so as not to shut off inquiry.

An artist's sense of life controls the sort of art she creates, in terms of content and style. The consumer of art – reader of fiction, listener to music and poetry, viewer of paintings, etc. – responds, roughly symmetrically, with her sense of life to the work of art. The reaction is emotional: she gets a feel for the work, which can be different from her conscious evaluation. This is why Rand thought one could say, "This is a fine work of art but I don't like it" or "This is a poor work of art but I like it." The sense of life response can be separated from other aspects of the perception of art. It is an important but not the only dimension along which to measure an artwork.

With this in mind, while Lovecraft's fiction and poetry displays his philosophy, its main appeal is via its sense of life. The content is basically gloom and doom; the style a combination of objective narration with ambiguities. The combination in the latter is necessary because in Horror fiction, the emotions evoked cannot be sustained for long. Small doses work best.

This technique typifies Horror, but especially Horror of the fantastic type. 3 Fantastic Horror does not allow the reader to figure out whether the weird is real or a figment of the imagination. This heightens the dread and cashes in on Edmund Burke's maxim of clear ideas as little ideas – i.e., of clarity being manageable thereby less terrifying. 4 If fear of the unknown is a powerful fear, then not knowing whether the monster exists or is an illusion is even more powerful. Most of Lovecraft's works, Ramsey Campbell's Demons by Daylight collection and Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" are instances.

The projection of weirdness and refusal to be clear about its nature are anathema to Objectivism. This is not just an issue of context. Lack of clarity occurs throughout our lives and the good person should merely try to alleviate it where practicable. She should not try to clarify every issue. That might not only end in failure but would absorb her whole life. Yet the fantastic aims at unclarity as a goal – not as something to be tolerated but to be imitated.

While Rand seemed unaware of such distinctions, she deals directly though briefly with Horror, calling it "the metaphysical projection of a single human emotion: blind, stark, primitive terror." 5 She believes this is psychologically not philosophically based. Horror writers, according to her, are not projecting what they believe the world essentially to be like but to feel like. This is very perceptive, as Lovecraft claimed not that Cthulhu – one of his "monsters" – existed but that he was using it to elicit fear. His letters and essays, including Supernatural Horror in Literature, support Rand.

This should be compared with other types of Horror, the marvelous and the uncanny. The marvelous portrays the weird as real supernatural phenomenon. This overlaps with Fantasy fiction such as the works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. Bram Stoker's Dracula illustrates this. In it, Dracula is taken to be an existing creature, a vampire. There is no doubt in the novel as to whether Dracula is a real vampire, except in the beginning before any of the characters (and presumably some of the readers) know his nature. Lovecraft approaches this in only a few of his early stories and one novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

In the uncanny, the weird aspect is taken to be "all in the mind." Poe is the archetypal writer of uncanny Horror, his story "The Black Cat" and poem "The Raven" are popular examples. The uncanny need not signify madness, but only naturalistic explanation for the weird. Anne Radcliffe's The Sicilian Romance, a gothic novel, is an example of uncanny Horror too. The alleged ghost is found by the end of the story to be a living person. It might be said that the uncanny even reinforces a realist view of the world, as it always unveils the weird as something completely natural if not always normal.

Should Lovecraft in particular or Horror in general be avoided? There are three reasons one might answer negatively. First, a sense of life is not open to immediate and direct change. Can one can create a list of good sense of life qualities which can then be programmed merely by changing what novels one reads, music one listens to or style of clothes one wears? Changing one's sense of life is a slow and arduous process – assuming such change can happen at all and is desirable. To avoid a rationalistic approach, which reduces life to simple formulae, such as Don't read Horror, Listen to Rachmaninoff, etc., one must be willing to explore one's sense of life and be open to the chance that what one thinks at first to be negative might not be.

Second is a view of catharsis put used by Aristotle in his Poetics as interpreted by Richard Janko. 6 Janko thinks that catharsis is a means to refine character by redirecting emotions. Art can serve this purpose by showing how to feel (as well as act) the right way in extreme situations. These situations would test character if one found oneself in them, but few do. So, good literature redirects feelings along the proper course without actually putting the reader in the position of Hamlet or Howard Roark.

Is it possible to grow emotionally from reading Lovecraft's tales and identifying with his characters? In a sense it is, but perhaps there are more effective ways to do so. As a doctor can learn a lot about disease from working in a small town office, he might learn much more and more efficiently in a large teaching hospital. Might the same be said with art? Some art works seem more conducive to such growth.

It appears Sophocles' "Antigone" is better in this manner than Sartre's "No Exit." The latter play has an impact and if taken the right way illustrates how people in a certain situation act, but does it in any of its personae portray the right way to act? It's terribly one-sided, unlike "Antigone" in which the conflict between characters, between Creon and Antigone, Ismene and Antigone and Creon and Haemon, explore different ways of looking at the same problem, and nonjudgmental. Sophocles who is seemingly well versed in the complexity of human problems and how this results in tragedy is on a totally different plane than Sartre who is just showing us a tragic or absurd situation. Sophocles challenges while Sartre shocks. 7

Would Lovecraft be closer to Sophocles' end of this spectrum or the Sartre's? He seems closer to Sartre's end. There is an inherent and intentional one-sided-ness to Lovecraft's work. He does not illustrate how different people act in a horrible situation. Most of his stories focus on the reclusive scholar and his (Lovecraft's characters are almost always male) perspective on the situation. This does not mean all Horror is on or near the Sartrean pole or that there might not be some other redeeming value in Lovecraft (or Sartre). Even so, Lovecraft's work does not measure up well with this criterion.

Third, Lovecraft's work might be of pure entertainment value with little or no bearing on character. One would not think someone a bad person because they liked piano music more than violin music. Does the same apply to this kind of taste in art, especially of a taste for Horror? If so, there may be parts of esthetics beyond Rand's that are validly outside of moral judgment. These notions are placed here for consideration and should not be considered the last word on the subject.

NOTES:

  1. Stephen C. Boydstun and Michelle Marder Kamhi are among them. See also my "Toward an Esthetics of Horror," Summa Philosophiae, forthcoming [February 1997].
  2. Tragedy and Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979[1992]), pp258-269, pp295ff.
  3. See Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (New York: Oxford, 1990)
  4. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with Several Additions (New York: Collier, 1909[1757]), pp52ff.
  5. The Romantic Manifesto (New York: New American Library, 1975[1971]), p113.
  6. "From Catharsis to the Aristotelian Mean" in Amelie O. Rorty, editor, Essays on Aristotle's Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp341-358.
  7. See Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge 1995[1986]), Ch.3 and Kaufmann, ibid., for more on these examples.

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