Race and Decay (I)

After sampling the treatment of race in Lovecraft scholarship – and giving a slight taste, I hope, of how the topic has been underestimated, systematically, I would now like to explore – why it has been underestimated, meaning I would like to establish that a clear understanding of Lovecraft’s use of the racial/alien other is of crucial importance in so far as it relates to his use of historical time.

In short: it’s all falling apart, and I’d like to look into just who is held responsible for that.

That does not yet induce in any way apocalypse – in fact, I will show that his prose does not observe a straight, logical catenation resting on decay (as a Gothic motif) before it proceeds to annihilation. My hypotheses for these next two chapters, Race and Decay & Race and Apocalypse, tightly locked together both, of the investigation ingrain topics, to fill the best-of bucket for a moment, like time, sex, and free will. I don’t think this will amount to a reading of his stories that fully historicizes his racism and makes it palpable as a historical phenomenon – that’s more one of the priorities it will be my pleasure to cope with in my dissertation. How do I say it? I would like to describe his racism in aesthetic terms before I describe it in historical terms, which is not to say that the one is necessarily more important to us today than the other – maybe I’m granting a concession to Lovecraft here, maybe I’m not stringent enough to first read his stories for their racism – that’s where he makes productive use of it, after all, where he puts it to work, and that also calls for the precaution that I do not plan on qualifying it in any way because it is “only” in his stories, quite on the contrary. It’s the stories that matter to current day reception, not that enormous bulk of 70.-80.000 letters in which his racism stands out as a particular eyesore among much other highly redundant trivia. The great letter-writing-automaton Lovecraft had better be evaluated via his 60 or so prose items…via the smallest and yet most substantial component of the great total corpus he plastered with life. And death, but I’m coming to that.


The point, that absolutely relevant point to hold onto (like a respirator’s mouth piece in a deep cave diving experience 2 miles beyond the surface) if you would like to experience apocalypse is this: time. As simple as that. Apocalypse doesn’t need fancy, tech-affine processes and devices to end the world, it doesn’t even need nuclear missiles cast into the core of the Sun, no large-scale-catastrophe volcanoe eruptions, no bacteriological bile waves flooding the bronchioles of good American citizens – all it needs is a little time and a sense in the apocalyptized that she/he is part of a timeline, in whatever way – cyclical or linear, or both – it is happening to move. I’m still stirring small ponds of water only – and refrain from introducing finer distinctions to splice up the eschaton, as in: eschatology, into finer shades.

Apocalypses are for historic persons only.

And Lovecraft’s characters are anything but.

At this point, I’ll take in a themed epigraph, taken from David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, a 2004 prose collection that I really enjoyed reading. In a story titled “Good Old Neon”, the narrator (a persona of the author) describes his own death experience, in that I heard a fly buzz when I died-way of telling the story.

What exactly do you think you are? The millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions – even crazy ones like this, you’re thinking – that flash through your head and disappear? Some sum or remainder of these? Your history? Do you know how long it’s been since I told you I was a fraud? Do you remember you were looking at the RESPICEM watch hanging from the rearview and seeing the time, 9:17? What are you looking at right now? Coincidence? What if no time has passed at all?*

[then, in a copious and much longer footnote – and geez, how I love it when authors make the effort to annotate their fiction! Makes me feel like I never have to leave the sphere of academic annotation corpora, it’s so convenient!]

*[…]- how are you supposed to measure the rate at which time moves? One second per second? You can’t even talk about time flowing or moving without hitting up against paradox right away. So think for a second: What if there’s really no movement at all?

[and…back to the body of the text…]

The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universe inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul.

[Wallace, David Foster. Oblivion. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004. 178-179]

Wallace has a way of reminding me of Lovecraft in a very relieved way. In his The New Republic review of Wallace’s collection, James Woods squeezes the point for me –

There is really only one voice in this book, and it belongs to the writer whose weakest piece here, “Another Pioneer,” is a twenty-three-page shaggy-dog story whose only apparent raison d’être is to deploy the following words: “albinistic,” “melanistic,” “thanatophilic,” “ptotic,” “trypanosomic,” “hemean,” “omphalic,” “catastatic,” “malefic,” “extrorse,” “protasis.”

Not only that Wallace is a player with words (and the above would easily go as a mainstream critique of Lovecraft’s prose style), a wordherder holding exotic vocabulary valuables under the nose of the reader while at the same time he’s sneaking your unexpected horror into the lines, behind your back – as does Lovecraft, master of ragged punchlines & sneaky interline horror – he’s also here describing a time model that I find underlying in much of Lovecraft’s prose.

I would like to grab that model en route and see how I can use it: the narrator is proposing a sort of temporal matrix, in which time is no longer either linear or cyclical but rather – modular, coming piece by piece. This is posited & introduced, & prepared by the narrator to delude the paradoxes of the regular linear time stream – and his alternative has its scary implications: everyone is everything all of the time, at the same time. History exists only as humans have the ability to cut into the matrix and cover themselves with it, so that only selected insights – not everything, all of the time – are accessible to fellow humans: “It’s called free will, Sherlock.” (179)


I’ll continue that in my next post. Would that above matrix preclude the possibility of apocalypse? And how does it relate to Lovecraft?


1 Comment

  1. […] with the assertion that decay and also apocalypse depend on the historicality of their agents (Race and Decay I), that is: you have to somehow be on the historical timeline to be apocalyptized. I then went on […]

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