Two Distinct Maladies

The serious, non-commercial aesthetics of today suffers, as I have suggested above, from two distinct maladies—the irrational & solipsistic freakishness of the subjective decadent, & the prosaic propagandism of the social theorist. The decadent concedes the existence of such a thing as disinterested art, but allows the futilities & absurdities & paradoxes & contradictions of the dying capitalist culture to disorganise him to such an extent that he can reflect nothing but chaos, paradox, hallucination, & ironic contrast. The theorist, on the other hand, refuses to admit that any such thing as art exists as an independent entity. To him (& he is usually an orthodox Marxist who reads an economic motive into everything from the motions of binary stars to the sighing of the wind in the trees), every human activity must have a direct bearing on the technical problem of organising human society for the optimum fulfillment of the majority’s physical needs; & art is justifiable only so far as it promotes the successful operation—or hastens the adoption—of a rational social order. Betwixt the two types, we get a sorry enough mess of nonsense & mediocrity. One gives us diagrams of scrambled conic sections or nightmares with locomotives floating in the sky over landscapes of skyscrapers twisted into spirals & dollar-signs, whilst the other gives us undistinctive photographic likenesses of Lenin & Stalin, educational posters urging children to brush their teeth, or grotesquely ironic murals shewing the triumph or the woes of the Mexican peon. To me, both of these attitudes seem essentially absurd. Each grows, I think, out of an excessively literal & exaggerated application of the idea that an artist should (or necessarily does) reflect something of his environment . . . . . although the Marxist position is part of a more elaborate maze of theory. This idea itself has always struck me as only loosely & partly true—& I certainly think that any attempt of the artist to keep it constantly in mind is ruinous to his work. We can produce real art only when we forget all about theory. It may be that our spontaneous results will indeed reflect something of our period & of our social sympathies in an unconscious way—but if we start out consciously with the idea of reflecting the period or airing our economic doctrines, we shall not get very far as artists. Of course, a person is now & then so naturally gifted with artistic genius that he cannot help producing real art as a by-product even when his conscious theories are of the most ridiculous & arid kind. Thus a surrealist crank or commercial hack or social propagandist may, by accident, evolve many a thing of undoubted power & authenticity. But even in such a case as this, the amount of waste is cruelly great. No matter how often the theory-handicapped or commerce-crippled artist manages to produce something good, we are always aware of how much better his results would be without the handicap. The real fact is that no artist ought to tie himself too completely or definitely to any particular period or aera. After all, the environment in which he develops is not merely that of one brief point in the time-stream. It is, rather, the sum of all that the ages have contributed to his civilisation. To the modern European, the sculpture of Phidias & Scopas & Praxiteles, the architecture of Ictinus, Callicrates, Metagenes, Dinocrates, Polyclitus, Hippodamus, & Apollodorus, the painting of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, & Raphael, & the music of Handel, Bach, & Beethoven, are just as vital & immediate & personally present as are the latest creations of his own chronological period; & any attempt to erect a new art without reference to such foundations must necessarily be hollow, barren, & fallacious. Our particular age is indeed one of decay & chaos & transition, so that it can probably contribute less fresh material to art than can most others—but why should this force all artists either to devote themselves to the job of portraying decay & chaos, or to forswear self-expression & become social & political propagandists? Are the existence & presence of the past annulled by the momentary disturbances of a readjustment-period? Is a Gothic cathedral less beautiful because we have ceased to believe what the builders of Chartres & Lincoln & Salisbury believed about the governance of the cosmos? Are the landscapes of Ruysdael & Hobbema ugly or meaningless because they were painted amidst a bourgeois-capitalist civilisation whose social & economic values we no longer accept? Suppose we do have our grain harvested by machinery & ground in complex mechanical plants with tangles of tall smokestacks? Does that alter the fact that over a great part of our racial history we used scythes & wind & water mills, or annul the powerful appeal of pictures laying stress on these ineradicable cultural landmarks? Up to a relatively recent time, no one thought of questioning the equal artistic values of themes pertaining to our past (no matter how outmoded) & themes pertaining to our present (which will soon enough be merely another phase of the outmoded past!)—both forming equal influences in the shaping of the long cultural stream. Though we did not use Egyptian pyramids or Greek galleys or Roman chariots, or believe in centaurs & mermaids, we found all these things of vital significance in art—as bearing on the life & beliefs of those ancestral ages which moulded & gave rise to ours. Why, then, must we suddenly proceed to claim that a painting of a windmill is alien & meaningless because we no longer depend on windmills—or aver that we must depict a placid meadow or woodland as a jumble of cubes & cog-wheels because (a) we feel the chaos of a dying social order & (b) are more used in an urban-mechanical culture to seeing cubes & cog-wheels than to seeing trees & kine & hedges & distant spires? To my mind, the ultra-moderns have (as in the surrender of some of the less sensitive & courageous & determinedly individual spirits to the new tottering Golden Calf of Mammon) simply flown off the handle—letting their heads become turned by the admitted rapidity & completeness of certain current mutations which really do not differ in kind from dozens of mutations of the past.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft criticizes contemporary trends in art, specifically Modernism, which has, he claims, rejected the Western tradition in favor of Marxist ideology and nihilism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 7 Feb. 1937. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 205-23.


When, Long Ago, the Gods Created Earth

When, long ago, the Gods created Earth,
In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next design’d;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill this gap, and join the rest to man,
Th’ Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Fill’d it with vice, and call’d the thing a NIGGER.

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “On the Creation of Niggers,” Lovecraft describes, using racist language, the mythological creation of African peoples, depicting them as less than human.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “On the Creation of Niggers.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, p. 389.

The Rolling Meadows All Neglected Lie

The village rings with ribald foreign cries;
Around the wine-shops loaf with bleary eyes
A vicious crew, that mock the name of “man”,
Yet dare to call themselves “American”.
New-England’s ships no longer ride the sea;
Once prosp’rous ports are sunk in poverty.
The rotting wharves as ruins tell the tale
Of days when Yankees mann’d the swelling sail.
The Indies yield no more their cargoes rare;
The sooty mill’s New-England’s present care:
The noisy mill, by foreign peasants run,
Supplants the glorious shipping that hath gone.
In arid fields, the kine no longer low;
The soil knows not the furrow of the plough;
The rolling meadows all neglected lie,
Fleck’d here and there by some foul alien’s sty.
The school no more contains the busy class;
The walls are down, the ruins chok’d with grass.
Within the gate-post swallows build their nests;
Upon the hill, the gentle master rests.
The mossy lane with briers is o’ergrown;
The bound’ry walls are shapeless heaps of stone,
And thro’ the mourning trees the winds in sorrow moan.

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “New-England Fallen,” Lovecraft describes, in racist language, the impact of industrialization and immigration on New England.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “New-England Fallen.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 385-8.

A Cringing Slave-Cult

Half the tragedies of history are the result of expecting one group to conform to the instinctive reactions of another, or to cherish its values. One of the worst examples of this is the cringing Semitic slave-cult of Christianity which became thrust upon our virile, ebullient Western stock through a series of grotesque historical accidents.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend James F. Morton, Lovecraft describes Christianity as a “slave-cult,” which suppresses the virility of its followers.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To James Ferdinand Morton.” 30 Oct. 1929. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 39-55.

With the South in Battle He Engag’d

The Northern bigot, with false zeal inflam’d,
The virtues of the Afric race proclaim’d;
Declar’d the blacks his brothers and his peers,
And at their slav’ry shed fraternal tears;
Distorted for his cause the Holy Word,
And deem’d himself commanded by the Lord
To draw his sword, whate’er the cost might be,
And set the sons of Aethiopia free.
First with the South in battle he engag’d;
And four hard years an impious warfare wag’d,
Then, deaf to Nature, and to God’s decree,
He gave the blacks their fatal liberty.
The halls where Southern justice once had reign’d
He now with horrid negro rites profan’d.

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “De Triumpho Naturae,” Lovecraft mocks abolitionists and the egalitarian beliefs that motivated them.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “De Triumpho Naturae.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 33-4.

That Pandaemoniac Sight

And as he snarled the phrase under his breath he gestured anew; bringing to the sky a flash more blinding than either which had come before. For full three seconds I could glimpse that pandaemoniac sight, and in those seconds I saw a vista which will ever afterward torment me in dreams. I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aërial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, and the clatter of obscene crotale, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.

DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the short story “He” (1925), Lovecraft describes, in racist terms, his apocalyptic vision of the future.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “He.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 119-29.

The City I Had Known Before

It was the city I had known before;
The ancient, leprous town where mongrel throngs
Chant to strange gods, and beat unhallowed gongs
In crypts beneath foul alleys near the shore.
The rotting, fish-eyed houses leered at me
From where they leaned, drunk and half-animate,
As edging through the filth I passed the gate
To the black courtyard where the man would be.

The dark walls closed me in, and loud I cursed
That ever I had come to such a den,
When suddenly a score of windows burst
Into wild light, and swarmed with dancing men:
Mad, soundless revels of the dragging dead—
And not a corpse had either hands or head!

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “The Courtyard,” Lovecraft describes a slum inhabited by the living dead.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Courtyard.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, p. 84.

Squalor and Alienage

But success and happiness were not to be. Garish daylight shewed only squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone where the moon had hinted of loveliness and elder magic; and the throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes about them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the loves of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart.

DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the short story “He” (1925), Lovecraft describes, in racist terms, the sense of alienation he experienced while living in New York City.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “He.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 119-29.

The Harlem Smoke

For that visitor was neither Italian nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a glass-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.

DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the short story “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), Lovecraft describes, in racist terms, the resurrected corpse of an African-American boxer.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Herbert West—Reanimator.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 50-80.

A Maze of Hybrid Squalor

He had for some time been detailed to the Butler Street station in Brooklyn when the Red Hook matter came to his notice. Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island, with dirty highways climbing the hill from wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall. Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter to the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian.” The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. Once can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing. The houses are generally in solid blocks, and now and then a many-windowed cupola arises to tell of days when the households of captains and ship-owners watched the sea.

DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the short story “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), Lovecraft describes the heterogeneous character of Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Horror at Red Hook.” The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 116-37.