Lovecraft as Philosopher
S.T. Joshi. H.P.
Lovecraft: The Decline of the West. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont
House, 1990. 155pp. $27.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.
This book by S.T. Joshi, one of the leading Lovecraftians, began as an expansion of the
essay on Lovecraft in Joshi's book The Weird Tale (1990), and is an outgrowth of
his interest in Lovecraft as a philosopher. It is nothing if not industrious; Joshi quotes
extensively from HPL's works and letters, and he has everything neatly arranged into
departments: Metaphysics, Ethics, Aesthetics, and Politics. After detailing Lovecraft's
philosophical development, he applies this scheme to the non-fiction in Part I and to the
fiction in Part II. Part III, "The Decline of the West," draws final conclusions based
on Oswald Spengler, although the connection between HPL and Spengler, at least to this
reader, appears rather tenuous. There are extensive notes, a bibliography, and that most
useful thing, an index.
Joshi contends that HPL is of some complexity as a thinker; he also claims that he is
consistent in his convictions and defends him against critics who believe they have
discovered a dichotomy in his beliefs. In the introduction, "On Methodology," Joshi
makes it clear that he distinguishes between "philosophical" and "rhetorical" writing.
At one point he remarks that HPL adapted his letters, to some extent, to his various
correspondents, but as far as I can see, no use is made of this observation in the work
Joshi's discussions are supported and documented by often long quotations and are
intended to show the breadth and depths of Lovecraft's reading. Joshi even suggests that
HPL, who apparently had no Greek, may have read Latin versions of the Greek philosophers
he is fond of mentioning. But did he? This question raises an early doubt: what did
Lovecraft actually read, and in what form? What did he read first-hand and what did he
only read of? Apparently, in all their enthusiasm, Lovecraft scholars have failed
to establish what books HPL actually had in his own library, the bulk of which came from
the extensive library of his maternal grandfather, where he had done his earliest reading.
Whipple P. Phillips, a real-estate broker, was a man of wide-ranging interests. His
library included scientific as well as historical and literary works, but how likely is it
that such a man owned books in Latin? And how much Latin or any other foreign language did
Lovecraft know? He had almost no formal education and was almost entirely self-taught.
Even though he was able to formulate Latin sentences and correct the Spanish grammar of
his correspondents, it seems less than probable that he was sufficiently fluent in any
language other than English to read books on difficult philosophical subjects published in
that language. It is probable, then, that he never read the Greek atomists himself and
knew of them only from encyclopedias and histories of philosophy--and perhaps from
translated passages in his beloved "long-s'd tomes," for 18th-century writers were fond
of quoting even the obscure thinkers of ancient times. We may assume that HPL's deficit
was greatest in the natural sciences, since most of the scientific books in his
grandfather's library must have been of a rather elementary and/or obsolete nature. HPL's
youthful preoccupation with chemistry and astronomy were of a similar elementary nature,
being more concerned with ancient myths, simple experiment and observation, than with a
theoretical understanding of science. True, he was aware of Einstein's theories and
quantum physics, but again it is unclear whether he really went to the sources or just
read popular magazine pieces. And how much mathematics did Lovecraft know? There is no
entry for mathematics in Joshi's index. One may wonder how much anybody can understand of
modern physics without a grasp of mathematics.
As sources for Lovecraft's metaphysics Joshi offers one Hugh Elliott, a popular
exponent of mechanistic materialism and author of Modern Science and Materialism;
Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist and popularizer of Darwin and materialism, totally
unread now, but even at the height of his fame never considered a philosopher of note; a
bit of T.H. Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Einstein, Tylor's Primitive Culture, Joseph
Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper (1929), a few atomists up to Dalton; and yes,
some Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, where the extent of HPL's reading is again uncertain.
Altogether not an impressive range of thinkers, and the really first-rate minds among them
HPL probably knew only from the writings of others.
And the situation gets worse as we progress through aesthetics and ethics to politics
with its subsections "Aristocracy and Socialism," "Society and Art," through "History" to
"Racialism." Every important political thinker from Plato onwards seems
to have eluded HPL. The principal source of HPL's racism seems to have been The Color
Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn(1905) by one William Benjamin Smith. As Joshi
notes, even in HPL's time better sources on biology were available, but HPL formed his
racial views early, never changed them, and apparently felt no pressing need to avail
himself of the latest scientific information on the subject. L. Sprague de Camp and others
have excused HPL's racial views by the observation that such views on the inferiority of
Blacks, Jews, and other ethnic groups were then common and socially accepted, but although
this may be an excuse for HPL as a human being, it cannot be an excuse for a thinker. Such
views indicate that he ran with the crowd and was unwilling to get at the truth in an
important matter, but instead preferred to hold on to outdated, ludicrous biasses, even in
the face of better knowledge. Such behavior damns any man's claim to being a thinker. The
point is, of course, that Lovecraft as a thinker just wasn't of any importance, whether as
a materialist, an aestheticist, or a moral philosopher. It is not, I think, important what
the actual sources of HPL's materialism were, for it was of such a common brand that he
could have taken his opinions from almost any materialist writer.
Another matter makes one extremely dubious of Joshi's argument that HPL was generally
an adherent of knowledge and truth but had certain reservations about knowledge. It would
be erroneous to attribute to HPL a dislike and distrust of knowledge per se (as Barton
Levi St. Armand does), but I don't see, given the enormous number of negative quotations
about knowledge in Joshi's book, why it shouldn't be the other way round: that Lovecraft
was no great friend of truth (whatever he understood by truth), liking knowledge a little
better, but disliking vast sectors of knowledge.
And does it matter much what HPL as a person "really" thought? He is foremost a
rhetorical writer, and intensely so, and it may not be true that the nature of his fiction
follows necessarily from his philosophy, but quite the other way round: that his
philosophy, at least in part, developed from his decision to write weird fiction.
As Joshi notes, weird fiction--or the horribly fantastic--is inherently a philosophical
mode of writing. Theoreticians of the genre--especially the French, from Roger Caillois
onwards--have stressed that weird fiction casts an ontological doubt upon the world. It
is, indeed, the only genre whose constitutive is a "break" in the natural order or a
clash of two rival systems of explaining the world, the natural and the supernatural.
In this regard, HPL, with his use of the suspension of natural law for fearsome
effects and therefore his stress on natural law (for without law, there can be no
suspension of law), was an important forerunner. He stressed the mind-shattering
experience of phenomena that run (or apparently run) contrary to natural law and thus
disturb the cherished certainties of the scientific age. This doesn't happen in SF, where
the basic axiom is that everything, however strange it may appear, can be explained by
natural means, nor in everyday life, where it occurs to nobody outside the occult or
lunatic fringe to consider even for a moment the possibility of a supernatural option.
Whatever physicists thought or think of quantum physics, the question of angels, ghosts,
or gods as an explanation does not enter at all.
HPL's decision to write weird fiction was also, because of the basic nature of the
genre, at least rhetorically, a decision for the supernatural, and
eo ipso a
decision against science. HPL makes use of many of the trappings of science and pays
lip-service to it as the ultimate arbiter of even ethical questions (where it is
incompetent), but the whole rhetoric and narrative strategy of his fiction is an onslaught
against the spirit of science as a free exchange of theories, their testing by a processes
of trial-and-error, and the importance of the on-going attempts to falsify previous
results. In science there is no such thing as "secret lore," "knowledge Man is
not meant to know," "forbidden books" containing terrible, mind-shattering secrets, or
excessive thirst for knowledge" (who is the judge of that?). In science there is no place
for the Faustian myth of Man overstepping his bounds, for the idea that knowledge is
harmful and should (or could) be suppressed, if need be with the help of the police (as in
"The Shadow over Innsmouth"), or for that famous piece of rhetoric at the beginning of
"The Call of Cthulhu":
The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have
hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will
open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we
shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and
safety of a new dark age.
Such conclusions stem, not from science, materialism, or even the famed "cosmic
indifference" of Lovecraft, but from his decision to instill metaphysical uncertainty and
fear by giving his "cosmic" subject matter a powerful emotional charge, a negative one,
and one bordering on hysteria. The emotions, not the intellect, are the fuel of weird
fiction, and HPL has merely grafted them onto science in a horrific parody of true
In aesthetics he again attributes a negative sign to knowledge; in his essay on Lord
Dunsany he says in effect that ignorance is the better part of beauty. By revealing the
sordid basis of motives and acts, Freud has stripped them of glamour and wonder
those illusions of heroism, nobility, and sacrifice" (quoted by Joshi, 48). It is better
to remain blissfully ignorant than to search for a new aesthetics that is perhaps based
less on comforting lies!
The sort of "knowledge" he has in mind is not open, not future-oriented, not
abstract, and not concerned with theories; it is rooted in the past, based on tradition
and history, founded in book-knowledge rather than the inquiries of free spirits, on
authority rather than proof, and connected with secret or forgotten supplements to
history. HPL is therefore, I think, more interested in historical scholarship than in
scientific enterprise; he has erudition in the classical sense rather than a mind thirsty
for knowledge and for understanding the world. His realm is quasi-history, not the
philosophy of science.
But there is something of scientific methodology in HPL's characters insofar as they,
unlike Poe's, are clearly intended as representatives of mankind. He is not concerned with
exploring the psychological states of individuals in extreme situations, nor are the
near-hysterical imaginings of his characters, who prefer madness to having to face to
horrible truth, delusions of no interest to anybody but themselves: they are instead
clearly meant as warning exempla for all mankind, as concrete instances of general laws
(as Joshi again clearly recognizes and upon which he elaborates in his conclusion).
The crucial question here seems to be whether there can be in principle any fact, any
phenomenon, any knowledge that would really have for humankind in general, or for that
vangard who will have to bear the brunt of "first contact" with alien spheres and the
unknown, such devastating consequences as those set forth in the quotation from
of Cthulhu." I should say that the very idea is contrary to all science and that nothing
like it has ever happened in our experience. The harshest blows to human pride and
complacency were probably those struck by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, none of which
caused any such reaction of cosmic despair. What met them was anger, rage, a desire to
suppress them, to burn them and their works, to settle the matter not in the forum of
science but with the power of society --in short, to turn a matter of science and truth
into a matter of politics. In Lovecraft's fiction "hideous" knowledge is suppressed,
locked up, burned, blown up, together with its bearers, but in our world what was
outrageous to one generation has been accepted almost as a banality by the next.
Such reactions are of course signs of insecurity, of the disturbance of the complacency
that derives from a false pride in whatever one considers the achievements of the group to
which one belongs or wishes to belong: New England, the Ayrans, the West, or whatever. A
"tainted heritage" is not something to be found in biology (where hybrids are usually
more vigorous), and HPL's emphasis on the concept leads one rather to search for skeletons
in the closet of the Lovecraft family.
Or take the indifference of the cosmos and the insignificance of human beings in it,
for HPL a source of despair and imbued with an overwhelming negative feeling. Again, this
is not a logically necessary conclusion. It might be argued that conventional religion
puts mankind in a much worse position. For compared to an infinite being (God), man as a
finite being is as nothing. Psychologically it is obviously quite satisfying to give
oneself up to a powerful father-figure, and a consolation to have been created in
image" and therefore to partake a little of His properties. But what is so depressing
about a situation without God, where there exists only a number of other finite species in
the universe, perhaps wiser and more powerful than humans, but in principle of the same
limited and finite nature, however strange in appearance, and therefore logically more
similar to us than an all-powerful God? The non-existence of absolute values in the cosmos
would guarantee our independence and autonomy and our freedom to establish our own ethical
systems, unfettered by external laws imposed on us by a god. That is, it could be a source
of extreme optimism, a feeling of freedom-- albeit a freedom obviously too terrible to
bear for Lovecraft, who found it more comfortable to dwell in a parochial Providence and
an England of the 18th century that existed only in the prison of his mind.
Finally, his aesthetics is not consistent with this "indifference of the cosmos." If
he took the insignificance of human feelings seriously, he should have tried to write
fiction of a kind truly apart from the conventions and sentimental feelings of popular
literature, of a kind that took no cognizance of human emotions at all but tried perhaps
to reflect the beauty of the stars and the elegance of the mathematical laws governing the
universe. As Joshi says himself, Lovecraft was revolutionary enough to have been met with
distrust in popular fiction, but not revolutionary enough to be accepted by the
avant-garde. In his fiction he chose not indifference but negativity: the powerful
feelings of fear, anxiety, distrust of the alien.
Joshi's monograph offers the reader much food for thought, not least in its manifold
selection of quotations, but the conclusions drawn by the reader from the quotations will
sometimes differ considerably from the exonerating interpretations Joshi provides.
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