Race in Lovecraft Scholarship (IV)

This little survey of mine is now entering lap number 4, and it’s still alive and kicking…

…it seems. I’ll sample not a whole lot more passages from Lovecraft scholars on the matter of race – in fact, I realize I hurdled enough of these (if only by Joshi) into earlier posts, and however strong I feel about it at times: it’s still a scholarly issue, not a matter of life, half-life, and death that needs to be settled with a comprehensively collected gamut of evidences – but rather concentrate on the one more serious attempt to engage the topic.

The position of Lovecraft scholarship on it, as far as it exists at all, was defined and outlined by Joshi and, no less emphatically, by the elder letterman of the field, Yozan Dirk W. Mosig, who had his debut in Lovecraft studies a little earlier than Joshi and who anticipated some of Joshi’s scholarly gustos – also, Mosig was a major figure in the “myth wars” that erupted over Lovecraft’s literary heritage, or rather: the interpretation of one of its components , the Cthulhu mythos, in more cutting edge Lovecraft lingo, the Yog-Sothoth-mythos or, more to the point, the Lovecraft mythos (and that is the version I prefer, in a rare but welcome consensus with Joshi – the Lovecraft mythos, as opposed to the Lovecraft cult, aka Lovecraft scholarship).

Other than these two, it’s rare to see Lovecraft scholars make an effort to deal with race, at all – don’t touch, don’t tell, and let’s hope noone is ever gonna read these nasty, snooty bites of racism with any degree of acerbity, any will to get behind the matter, rather than lolling the “context of the time” as an apologetic good-for-all curtain.

The one more serious attempt to engage the topic, authored by Robert H. Waugh – no doubt the most perspicuous and profound Lovecraft scholar to date. His take on the race matter is no less than…massive, massively argued. I quote from his The Monster in the Mirror (2006) –

Lovecraft’s racism is notional, stereotypic; his anti-Semitism is personal, something he felt in his bone, so deep that he himself probably did not know its causes. (85)

Pretty standard, so far, uncontentiously standard – and right to mention that Lovecraft didn’t know the causes: moments of introspection are not something to expect from him in mediation of his prejudices. That was just in preparation of the strike Waugh is now moving ahead to land straight on – enter complicity.

No way exists to avoid contamination; a clinical stance, a controlled rage or a statistical survey, too much implies our own innocence.[…]What should we do as readers of Lovecraft? Ought we to read critically, with every ounce of our moral sense alive, bracketing and dismissing such imagery as read word for word? What then becomes of the aesthetic effect that arises from the totality of the story? Is it not more likely, whatever our moral sense may be, that as readers we allow the total story to work upon us and that we translate such imagery into emblems of our own various and individual xenophobias? For how can it be that we are any of us innocent of fears and hatreds like these? (92)

What in all the world…is he doing here? It’s not that the critical notion of the reader’s complicity with the author is especially original – this has been around for quite some time, and I remember it from authors like Peter Brooks who proposed in Reading for the Plot a communion of readers, characters, and authors in a shared desire for the text.

But in that matter – communion is not so very inviting, is it? And Waugh is not speaking about an abstracised author whose biographical flesh has been ripped and stripped down to the marrow of a theoretical entity – he’s speaking about Lovecraft, 1890-1937, from Providence, RI, who was never hesitant to proclaim his racism in the starkest terms…

I can’t help thinking of that one Simpsons episode where, in a clash between Homer J. and evangelical neighbor Ned, the latter is gushing in something to the effect of whoever is without sin may throw the first stone – and then one of his sons is indeed throwing one and hits Homer (transcribed from memory) – I will throw one, as well.

Waugh’s idea is compelling, more: it’s operative, a real attempt to deal with race in the stories that keeps a sharp eye on their artistic integrity – it’s just marred by an unsightly drawback: there is nothing to translate. Most of the time (and I will come back to that in a latter post), Lovecraft doesn’t go ahead to encode his racism – very rarely in his letters, still rarely, but nor quite as much, in his stories. He doesn’t write metaphors and slurs vague enough, undefined enough so that they are able to contain the various fears of the (racial) other, as Waugh enlists them, – he writes HIS metaphors and slurs, to contain HIS fears, and these I find forever impossible to share. That’s exactly why the “context of the time” is so important to scholars like Joshi – it’s the only way to give to these, nowadays, grossly inappropriate racial slurs a working environment in which they do not appear entirely misplaced and outright stupid – that might not save their grace, but it saves their sense: they make some sense in the context of their time…they would not make sense if a modern interpreter brings his historical and ethical context to them. Once you do that, the pickaxe is over your head, swinging, and panicking you will trip over the breaks his racial slurs are hacking into the integrity of the text – and that, no, is not something that goes down in a scholarly branch as concerned as Lovecraft scholarship is with the homogeneity of the reading experience and the synonymity of author and work.

The dilemma is delicate, but not tasty – and it’s riffed with taints of inconsistency: it can’t be stressed enough to what extent that synonymity has been stressed, not only by Joshi. In this branch, the author IS the work, period, and no exceptions. Since it’s impossible to integrate his racism into that equation without running the risk of actualy justifying it, it has to be referred back to the context of the time, there to be judged by the ghosts of…whoever might want to act as an arbiter.

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