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.

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The Blight of Modernity

To the southern New-Englander entering Vermont for the first time there is a sense of mystic revivification. On the towns of the lower coast the blight of mutation and modernity has descended. Weird metamorphoses and excrescences, architectural and topographical, mark a menacing tyranny of mechanism and viceroyalty of engineering which are fast hurrying the present scene out of all linkage with its historic antecedents and setting it adrift anchorless and all but traditionless in alien oceans. Swart foreign forms, heirs to moods and impulses antipodal to those which moulded our heritage, surge in endless streams along smoke-clouded and lamp-dazzled streets; moving to strange measures and inculcating strange customs. All through the nearer countryside the stigmata of change are spreading. Reservoirs, billboards, and concrete roads, power lines, garages, and flamboyant inns, squalid immigrant nests and grimy mill villages; these things and things like them have brought ugliness, tawdriness, and commonplaceness to the urban penumbra. Only in the remoter backwoods can one find the pristine and ancestral beauty which was southern New-England’s, or the unmixed signs of that continuous native life whose deep roots make it the one authentic outgrowth of the landscape. There are traces enough to allure and tantalise, but not enough to satisfy. With our keenest pleasure and satisfaction is mixed a certain melancholy; for it is upon the ghost of something beloved and departed, rather than upon the thing itself, that we gaze. Our own country and history seem subtly dissolving away from us, and we clutch frantically at the straws and symbols through which our imaginations may momentarily recall and recapture a past which is really our own.


DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Vermont—A First Impression,” Lovecraft describes the ways in which industrialization and immigration have reshaped the state of Vermont.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Vermont—A First Impression.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 4, Hippocampus Press, 2005, pp. 13-5.

 

Polaris

Into the north window of my chamber glows the Pole Star with uncanny light. All through the long hellish hours of blackness it shines there. And in the autumn of the year, when the winds from the north curse and whine, and the red-leaved trees of the swamp mutter things to one another in the small hours of the morning under the horned waning moon, I sit by the casement and watch that star. Down from the heights reels the glittering Cassiopeia as the hours wear on, while Charles’ Wain lumbers up from behind the vapour-soaked swamp trees that sway in the night-wind. Just before dawn Arcturus winks ruddily from above the cemetery on the low hillock, and Coma Berenices shimmers weirdly afar off in the mysterious east; but still the Pole Star leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey. Sometimes, when it is cloudy, I can sleep.

Well do I remember the night of the great Aurora, when over the swamp played the shocking coruscations of the daemon-light. After the beams came clouds, and then I slept.

And it was under a horned waning moon that I saw the city for the first time. Still and somnolent did it lie, on a strange plateau in a hollow betwixt strange peaks. Of ghastly marble were its walls and its towers, its columns, domes, and pavements. In the marble streets were marble pillars, the upper parts of which were carven into the images of grave bearded men. The air was warm and stirred not. And overhead, scarce ten degrees from the zenith, glowed that watching Pole Star. Long did I gaze on the city, but the day came not. When the red Aldebaran, which blinked low in the sky but never set, had crawled a quarter of the way around the horizon, I saw light and motion in the houses and the streets. Forms strangely robed, but at once noble and familiar, walked abroad, and under the horned waning moon men talked wisdom in a tongue which I understood, though it was unlike any language I had ever known. And when the red Aldebaran had crawled more than half way around the horizon, there were again darkness and silence.

When I awaked, I was not as I had been. Upon my memory was graven the vision of the city, and within my soul had arisen another and vaguer recollection, of whose nature I was not then certain. Thereafter, on the cloudy nights when I could sleep, I saw the city often; sometimes under that horned waning moon, and sometimes under the hot yellow rays of a sun which did not set, but which wheeled low around the horizon. And on the clear nights the Pole Star leered as never before.

Gradually I came to wonder what might be my place in that city on the strange plateau betwixt strange peaks. At first content to view the scene as an all-observant uncorporeal presence, I now desired to define my relation to it, and to speak my mind amongst the grave men who conversed each day in the public squares. I said to myself, “This is no dream, for by what means can I prove the greater reality of that other life in the house of stone and brick south of the sinister swamp and the cemetery on the low hillock, where the Pole Star peers into my north window each night?”

One night as I listened to the discourse in the large square containing many statues, I felt a change; and perceived that I had at last a bodily form. Nor was I a stranger in the streets of Olathoë, which lies on the plateau of Sarkis, betwixt the peaks Noton and Kadiphonek. It was my friend Alos who spoke, and his speech was one that pleased my soul, for it was the speech of a true man and patriot. That night had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns. Having taken the fortified places at the foot of the mountains, their way now lay open to the plateau, unless every citizen could resist with the strength of ten men. For the squat creatures were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour which held back our tall, grey-eyed men of Lomar from ruthless conquest.

Alos, my friend, was commander of all the forces on the plateau, and in him lay the last hope of our country. On this occasion he spoke of the perils to be faced, and exhorted the men of Olathoë, bravest of the Lomarians, to sustain the traditions of their ancestors, who when forced to move southward from Zobna before the advance of the great ice-sheet (even as our descendants must some day flee from the land of Lomar), valiantly and victoriously swept aside the hairy, long-armed, cannibal Gnophkehs that stood in their way. To me Alos denied a warrior’s part, for I was feeble and given to strange faintings when subjected to stress and hardships. But my eyes were the keenest in the city, despite the long hours I gave each day to the study of the Pnakotic manuscripts and the wisdom of the Zobnarian Fathers; so my friend, desiring not to doom me to inaction, rewarded me with that duty which was second to nothing in importance. To the watch-tower of Thapnen he sent me, there to serve as the eyes of our army. Should the Inutos attempt to gain the citadel by the narrow pass behind the peak Noton, and thereby surprise the garrison, I was to give the signal of fire which would warn the waiting soldiers and save the town from immediate disaster.

Alone I mounted the tower, for every man of stout body was needed in the passes below. My brain was sore dazed with excitement and fatigue, for I had not slept in many days; yet was my purpose firm, for I loved my native land of Lomar, and the marble city of Olathoë that lies betwixt the peaks of Noton and Kadiphonek.

But as I stood in the tower’s topmost chamber, I beheld the horned waning moon, red and sinister, quivering through the vapours that hovered over the distant valley of Banof. And through an opening in the roof glittered the pale Pole Star, fluttering as if alive, and leering like a fiend and tempter. Methought its spirit whispered evil counsel, soothing me to traitorous somnolence with a damnable rhythmical promise which it repeated over and over:

“Slumber, watcher, till the spheres
Six and twenty thousand years
Have revolv’d, and I return
To the spot where now I burn.
Other stars anon shall rise
To the axis of the skies;
Stars that soothe and stars that bless
With a sweet forgetfulness:
Only when my round is o’er
Shall the past disturb thy door.”

Vainly did I struggle with my drowsiness, seeking to connect these strange words with some lore of the skies which I had learnt from the Pnakotic manuscripts. My head, heavy and reeling, drooped to my breast, and when next I looked up it was in a dream; with the Pole Star grinning at me through a window from over the horrible swaying trees of a dream-swamp. And I am still dreaming.

In my shame and despair I sometimes scream frantically, begging the dream-creatures around me to waken me ere the Inutos steal up the pass behind the peak Noton and take the citadel by surprise; but these creatures are daemons, for they laugh at me and tell me I am not dreaming. They mock me whilst I sleep, and whilst the squat yellow foe may be creeping silently upon us. I have failed in my duty and betrayed the marble city of Olathoë; I have proven false to Alos, my friend and commander. But still these shadows of my dream deride me. They say there is no land of Lomar, save in my nocturnal imaginings; that in those realms where the Pole Star shines high and red Aldebaran crawls low around the horizon, there has been naught save ice and snow for thousands of years, and never a man save squat yellow creatures, blighted by the cold, whom they call “Esquimaux”.

And as I writhe in my guilty agony, frantic to save the city whose peril every moment grows, and vainly striving to shake off this unnatural dream of a house of stone and brick south of a sinister swamp and a cemetery on a low hillock; the Pole Star, evil and monstrous, leers down from the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey.


DESCRIPTION: In his short story “Polaris,” Lovecraft describes how his protagonist, having been lulled to sleep by the Pole Star, fails to warn the land of Lomar of an impending invasion.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Polaris.” The Dreams in the Witch House And Other Weird Stories. Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 1-4.

The Burning of Carfax

During the war our fortunes were extinguished and our whole existence changed by the burning of Carfax, our home on the banks of the James. My grandfather, advanced in years, had perished in that incendiary outrage, and with him the envelope that bound us all to the past. I can recall that fire today as I saw it then at the age of seven, with the Federal soldiers shouting, the women screaming, and the negroes howling and praying. My father was in the army, defending Richmond, and after many formalities my mother and I were passed through the lines to join him. When the war ended we all moved north, whence my mother had come; and I grew to manhood, middle age, and ultimate wealth as a stolid Yankee.


DESCRIPTION: In a passage from the short story “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), Delapore describes how the Union Army burned his family’s plantation, Carfax, during the Civil War.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Rats in the Walls.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 89-108.

Impressions of New York

Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which makes them very picturesque, and no nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbins totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes his impressions of a community of Orthodox Jews.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 29-30 Sept. 1924. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 63-76.

Rejecting the Melting Pot

No anthropologist of standing insists on the uniformly advanced evolution of the Nordic as compared with that of other Caucasian and Mongolian races. As a matter of fact, it is freely conceded that the Mediterranean race turns out a higher percentage of the aesthetically sensitive and that the Semitic groups excel in sharp, precise intellection. It may be, too, that the Mongolian excels in aesthetick capacity and normality of philosophical adjustment. What, then, is the secret of pro-Nordicism amongst those who hold these views? Simply this—that ours is a Nordic culture, and that the roots of that culture are so inextricably tangled in the national standards, perspectives, traditions, memories, instincts, peculiarities, and physical aspects of the Nordic stream that no other influences are fitted to mingle in our fabric. We don’t despise the French in France or Quebec, but we don’t want them grabbing our territory and creating foreign islands like Woonsocket and Fall River. The fact of this uniqueness of every separate culture-stream—this dependence of instinctive likes and dislikes, natural methods, unconscious appraisals, etc., etc., on the physical and historical attributes of a single race—is too obvious to be ignored except by empty theorists.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend James F. Morton, Lovecraft explains why he resents immigrants from outside of the Anglosphere.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To James F. Morton.” 18 Jan. 1931. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 266-80.

Into the Slums

Klei . . . proceeded to lead us into the slums; with “Chinatown” as an ulterior objective. My gawd—what a filthy dump! I thought Providence had slums, and antique Bostonium as well; but damn me if I ever saw anything like the sprawling sty-atmosphere of N. Y.’s lower East Side. We walked—at my suggestion—in the middle of the street, for contact with the heterogeneous sidewalk denizens, spilled out of their bulging brick kennels as if by a spawning beyond the capacity of the places, was not by any means to be sought. At times, though, we struck peculiarly deserted areas—these swine have instinctive swarming movements, no doubt, which no ordinary biologist can fathom. Gawd knows what they are—. . .—a bastard mess of stewing mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to eye, nose, and imagination—would to heaven a kindly gust of cyanogen could asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery, and clean out the place.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe, Lovecraft describes, in racist terms, the people of Chinatown and calls for their extermination.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Maurice W. Moe.” 18 May 1922. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 175-83.

Views on the Publishing Industry

As for New York—there is no question but that its overwhelming Semitism has totally removed it from the American stream. Regarding its influence on literary & dramatic expression—it is not so much that the country is flooded directly with Jewish authors, as that Jewish publishers determine just which of our Aryan writers shall achieve print & position. That means that those of us who least express our own people have the preference. Taste is insidiously moulded along non-Aryan lines—so that, no matter how intrinsically good the resulting body of literature may be, it is a special, rootless literature which does not represent us.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft claims that the Jewish community in New York controls the publishing industry in the United States.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 30 July 1933. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 229-32.

Rejecting Multiculturalism

But of course, the primary reason for such attempts is simply a sensible wish to keep every settled culture (Nordic or not) true to itself for the sake of the human values involved. No one wishes to force Nordicism on the non-Nordic—indeed, a real friend of civilisation wishes merely to make the Germans more German, the French more French, the Spaniards more Spanish, & so on.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft defends his views on race, ethnicity, and immigration, claiming that they are not the result of prejudice.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 25 Sept. 1933. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1976, pp. 245-59.

The Last Remnant of the Ancient Slums

Hell’s Kitchen is the last remnant of the ancient slums—& by ancient I mean slums in which the denizens are not sly, cringing foreigners; but “tough” & energetic members of the superior Nordic stock—Irish, German, & American. The slinking Dago or Jew of the lower East Side is a strange, furtive animal—with the coming of his kind the Bowery ceased to be picturesque, for his crimes are of the treacherous secret kind—he uses poison instead of fists, automatic revolvers instead of bricks & black-jacks. But west of Broadway the old toughs have made their last stand. True, they are not the blithesome, omnipresent ruffians of yore—but in spite of their relative tameness they still make it very unpleasant for brass buttons & blue coats. Policemen are likely to have bricks dropped on their heads, or to be beaten by roving gangs—last year one was shot. Squalor is extreme, but not so odorous as in the foreign districts. Churches flourish—for all the natives are devout & violent Roman Catholics. It was odd to see slums in which the denizens are Nordic—with shapely faces, & often light hair & blue eyes. Nowadays we associate evil with dark foreign features—but McNeil assured us that any one of these cherubic blond youths could use language calculated to make strong men faint, & could on occasion beat up a cop or stab a plain-clothes-man with the utmost nonchalance & savoir faire.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes Hell’s Kitchen, where his friend Everett McNeil lived, and compares it to New York’s other slums, which he claims are home to “sly, cringing foreigners.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 29 Sept. 1922. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 26-31.