Science Fiction Studies

#56 = Volume 19, Part 1 = March 1992

Franz Rottensteiner

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 itself.

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 "an 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 scientific endeavor.

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 "and all 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 "The Call 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 "God's 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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