Race in Lovecraft Scholarship (V)

I used the four preceding posts to pitchfork the race topic and lift it into the limelight, like a price pig (or a price tofu ball). I hopefully was not too subliminal about observing that something is fundamentally wrong with a branch of scholarship that refuses to engage one of its central topics for sheer fright it might topple its delicate and fragile balance & claim to existence.

More so: if Lovecraft scholarship is ever to have the chance to enter academe – and it will – it must become possible to discuss and problematize every aspect of the man’s creative life without embarassment and reticence – every single aspect. That necessitates several steps, intertwined in such a way that the slightest lapse might collapse the whole operation…no, I’m just being tragic, when I’d better be detailed.

In his interesting, but not a little muddled and…eh…”associative” (for lack of a better word that expresses some chaos without implying outright contempt) study on The Philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft, Finnish philosopher-critic Timo Airaksinen has all of a Socratic benevolence when he claims, in his introduction, somewhere in the first few paragraphs of the book – since Lovecraft is nowhere the canon anyway, he finds, no harm is done when his scholarly cortege cultivates certain isolationist extravagances – a freak topic for freak scholars, so to speak. Hell, I should be glad that anyone reads him at all – isn’t that enough honor for a ghetto child like him? No way in hell.

Somewhat more to the point of his study, and in describing a private convention, a working policy, Airaksinen lays out a plan for reading the stories –

H.P. Lovecraft is a challenge to anyone who wants to write criticism about his work. Often he does not read well, which makes it necessary to approach him as a philosopher in disguise. When this happen, readers need to remind themselves of the postmodern fact that art is dead anyway, as aestheticians following Hegel and Arthur C. Danto say. (3)

I must have missed that funeral, merde – was that when they also buried history in one grand sweep?

He does not read well – therefore we must read him as philosopher, maybe in a row with Kant, Hegel, and other violators of their respective languages, who also do not read well, but still are read because their works are shaping intellectual history even now? Airaksinen is not very far from the mainlines of Lovecraft criticism here, just a little more extreme, in arguing that, really, it’s the philosophical substance that matters in Lovecraft, not the art – Joshi has devoted entire monographs to making the point, reading a philosophical depth into Lovecraft that only he sees.

What Airaksinen does is keep Lovecraft in an uneasy balance, floating at will between the the poles of philosophy and art (and, noteworthy enough, he’s reading in his study the stories, not the letters, where, if Joshi is to be believed, the most juice is hiding) – he still stands for art, but only a little, when it’s not so catchy to acknowledge. That halfway-covenant he has with critics like Airaksinen and Joshi is a pragmatic thing – which forever impedes an understanding of the whole Lovecraft phenomenon, and, simultaneosly, a moral judgment on the contents of his work.

Since his prose fiction is, to go by their understanding, no more than an outgrowth of his philosophical thinking, it must be judged by the rules of it, not by the rules of art – and, very conveniently, once you do that, listing predecessors like Häckel and Darwin to explain the meanders in his thoughts, his racism is utterly understandable, not to say – necessary (which is not to disdain either Häckel or Darwin). It fits into his austere mechanist-materialist understanding of the world and becomes a logical, coherently modulated ingredient. And it stands out only if you locate it in his art – Lovecraft was not a moron, of course, and certainly aware that he couldn’t make his stories the parading ground for his stark, racist mannerism that he so often his letters into.

That is the challenge: an account of his racism, or, abstract: an account of the ways in which he uses the supposed and actual racial other in his art, without sacrificing the integrity of it outright. Waugh suggests complicity as a cure here – and that, to me, suggests an obligation to sympathy (with Lovecraft, the person) we, the readers, are supposed to comply with. It doesn’t do anything for the reader, of course, but helps Lovecraft all the way – in a released embrace readers and author lock arms and cry out: Yes! We are guilty! All of us! Of Prejudices! Lovecraft had his, I have mine, we’re all in it together now!

Before I go on with that, I should finally get to the stories – and turn to his racism in action. I’ll postpone my ultimate how-to-guide on Lovecraft’s racism to a latter post…in the definite future.



1 Comment

  1. I finally got some time free to respond to your RiLS series again. Interested in finding out how the way I’m going about the “old news” of Hawthorne’s racism relates to your approach to race and Lovecraft.

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