The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (III)

This is not so much a romanticized introspection into a patron-customer-relation, but rather a justification of a territorial expansion that was still rolling on when Melville and Bird wrote their novel.

Lovecraft never saw the Mississippi. Of course Lovecraft saw the Mississippi, in New Orleans (thanks to Kenneth Hite for the hint!). He never saw the west: his personal route of territorial expansion mostly took him all the way up and down the east coast and was memorized in several travelogues of varying literary merit – quote Sunand T. Joshi:

Lovecraft’s travel essays form a unique body of his work. True, few of us have the patience to wade through the eighteenth-century diction of A Description of the Town of Quebeck (1930-31) – his single longest work, and a self-conscious flaunting of his utterly non-commercial stance – but such things as “Vermont – A First Impression” (1927) or “The Unknown City in the Ocean” (1934; on Nantucket) speak poignantly of his constant need to be aesthetically revivified by actual contact with the relics of the past.

The droll caveat (“few of us have the patience” – obviously enough readers do to warrant a re-edition by Joshi`s able editory hands, and an affordable one, too) notwithstanding, the paragraph concludes concisely the terms of Lovecraft’s understanding of the land, of the country and sites in it – as a repository of memories to be cashed in on wandering through. His fictional treatment of nature and site is peculiar enough, not only because his places often tend to be so brittle and fragile that they promise to crumble even as you read them: he uses nature in a way that re-erects the frontier as it was in early generation Puritan times, pushed just slightly beyond the extents of the original colonies, but when you consequently come to this new frontier, prodded on by Lovecraft’s always prodding narrators, you find that Lovecraft was there before you, storing nasty, bileous surprises where you really don’t want to find them.

Stories like The Picture in the House depend on a sense of re-discovery, a sense of almost having been there before, but not quite – déjà vu with a generously applied layer of decay . The frontier the story leads us to is, however, a new one, not just a copy of the old Puritan style frontier: and Lovecraft seems to develop some touristy qualities when he has his narrator drone that –

But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

and –

In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen. Seized with a gloomy and fanatical belief which exiled them from their kind, their ancestors sought the wilderness for freedom. There the scions of a conquering race indeed flourished free from the restrictions of their fellows, but cowered in an appalling slavery to the dismal phantasms of their own minds. Divorced from the enlightenment of civilization, the strength of these Puritans turned into singular channels; and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folks were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed. Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days, and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream.

That is rolling so many potentially and actually ridiculous notions into a jumble, that I wonder if he even was awake when he wrote it in 1920, not just sleepwriting at the guidance of a spirit in the form of Cotton Mather who whispered to him and let him in on the dark secrets of the Northern Puritan warriors of the conquering race.

[The soundtrack is here supplied by Norwegian black something band Dimmu Borgir, who I remember having the dubious pleasure of seeing live some 10 years back.

The video (rather than a hearty thundering sermon) is the first thing YouTube brings up for the search term “puritanical”: well. Satan made them do it, I guess. They do have a decent bass drum, and I can imagine that laboredly demonic sprechgesang works well enough to impress your regular 16-year old who discovers for the first time that there is a metal bottom to the pop-ping chart world of music: it certainly worked on me when I was 16.]

Lovecraft’s notion of Puritanism, as far as it can be constructed, was quite negative – when they figure, they figure as exponents of oppressive religion and ignorant narrow-mindedness. Here, they are installed with a crude racial agenda – to make up for the deficit they, as the narrator imputes, grow into by severing the ties with their kind – that is, they alienate themselves from the body politic of Mother England (“gloomy and fanatical belief”), go into exile, and there they develop and rear their “Northern” heritage, whatever that is in this context: a Danish Viking seems to be insinuated here.

Gracefully, that is not the end – under that jumble of ethnically prejudiced bias lurks the dark.

Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed.

And all out of a sudden, wouldn’t they know it, these Puritans are inscribed into a Gothic register – and pay a tribute to Lovecraft’s creative license. Puritan sins may not have been elegant, but for the most part they were out in the open, explicitly named and re-cycled in preaching culture and religious discourse, and occasionally even tagged with names, so everybody in the community knew who to lay the finger of blame on. Sure, “unspeakable” sins were unspeakable – in public – but these were few. Debaucheries, hetero-sexual licenses, alcoholism, all of them: signs of an unholy covenant with the devil, are quite explicitly present in and around, for example, the Salem trials. Naturally, all these sins nailed to the public pillory served to appeal to that sense of cohesion that the Puritan settlers had started to lose around 5 minutes after they touched American soil.

It’s in a systematical denial of the community aspect – that personal sin is, indeed, very pertinent to the welfare of the whole community – that Lovecraft is here re-invoking a Puritan populace. For the “strange people” out in the wooded hinterland, sin is a very private and personal thing, to hide, to reel in in the dark, but not to actually engage in a public discourse: Lovecraft’s Puritans wouldn’t have ostracized and trialled Hester Prynne, they would have locked her away in an attic and found her a forced mating partner among the ranks of the alien pantheon.

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Race in Lovecraft Scholarship (II)

What’s the next best thing to a front page ad in the New York Times? Right you are – a front page appearance in that magnificently expertised blog here…

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There are a few things I would like tap.

First: it’s getting empirical. A little. The tiniest bit. In my last post, I quoted from a Joshi riposte from 1980 and sort of tried to dissect it. I might add, at this time, that I was not particularly neglectful to choose a 27-year-old passage. The graceful assumption that the branches of science are invariably proceeding to a beneficial end, all while straightening out bumps, factual and methodological, to finally reach at a smooth end, is not one that applies in Lovecraft scholarship – so far. Here, you might say, the great metanarrative of scientific progress is finally being disemboweled and halted in its course. Here, nothing is ever moving. And certainly not in this touchy fields of inquiry: race.

Let’s see. I started in 1980, and for the sake of convenience I’ll take the quote from the last post and pull it over here –

[1980] Mr Fredericks also makes note of Lovecraft’s “ugly racism”. He has passed a value judgment upon Lovecraft without consideration for the temper of the times and of Lovecraft’s social position. Virtually all members of his class were “racists” (although such a word is obviously inappropriate), and it would be as malapropos to blame Lovecraft for his racial views as to blame Herodotus for calling all non-Greek speaking people “barbaroi”. I do not wish to explain away Lovecraft’s views – they are significant in understanding certain aspects of his work and thought – but I feel that Lovecraft ought not to be condemned for holding the views he did. (Joshi, Sunand T. “In Defense of Lovecraft.” Science Fiction Studies 7.1 (1980): 111-112.)

[1990] “I have no interest either in condemning or defending Lovecraft’s view on this matter; it is of greater importance to ascertain their origin and purpose.” (Joshi, Sunand T. The Weird Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990)

[1996] (in explaining the name of Lovecraft’s feline companion, Niggerman) “Its name, it need hardly be pointed out, was not regarded as offensive at the time – or at least not as offensive as it would be now.”

[…]

“The whole issue of Lovecraft’s racism is one I shall have to treat throughout this book; it is an issue that cannot be dodged, but it is also one we must attempt to discuss – difficult as it may be – without yielding to emotionalism and by placing Lovecraft’s views in the context of the prevailing intellectual currents of the time.” (Joshi, Sunand T. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. West Warwick: Necronomicon Press, 1996)

[1999] “As for the first point, Lovecraft is as justified in seeking homogeneity of culture as many of us today are in seeking diversity and heterogeneity; these are simply two different ways to conceive of the makeup of a society, and there are virtues and drawbacks to both.” (Joshi, Sunand T. A subtler Magick. The Writings and Philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft. Berkeley Heights: Wildside Press, 1999)

Maybe at this point I should spare a word or two to explain why I’m doting, the way I am, on Joshi – it’s important to note that since the 1970s his name has been practically synonymous with Lovecraft scholarship as a whole (= Joshi and satellites). This has done a whole lot of good – by making L his personal pet author and focussing his scholarly energy on his afterlife, Joshi is responsible, , for opening Lovecraft to the world by making accessible, among other things, reliable editions of his works, of his myriad letters and his non-fiction writings that were just not available before. That alone would be grace and blessing enough, & reason to be grateful, and I am, honestly.

I can imagine that it is a real challenge to the man to describe L’s not so desirable traits, most notably his racism, “without yielding to emotionalism”, not only because he, Joshi, is more profoundly involved in Lovecraft’s afterlife than any person on this planet, but also because he would easily slide on the list of targets of Lovecraft’s racist invectives, being the son of Indian immigrants and not at all compliant with the WASP-standard. It might therefore be no more than a precautionary measure on his part not to problematize Lovecraft’s racism – and even he seems to reach a point where he feels the need to simply drop the well-cultured impetus that keeps him from bashing the man’s racism back into his face, straight on and no mistake.

My heart couldn’t help but bump, wildly, for joy and excitement, when I read an interview with Joshi where he comes to a bold apprise that he never reached in any one of his magisterial and influential scholarly and somewhat-scholarly works –

There is no denying the reality of Lovecraft’s racism, nor can it merely be passed off as “typical of his time,” for it appears that Lovecraft expressed his views more pronouncedly (although usually not for publication) than many others of his era.

This seems like a complete repudiation of his long-grown stance on Lovecraft’s racism and I found hard to believe in the very existence of it. I will have to try to verify that source before I set about on that chapter on Lovecraft scholarship, postponed until early next year. If this is indeed a verbatim quote, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a major step forward.
On the downside of the phenomenon that Joshi is in Lovecraft studies, his more than seminal position has also effected some not so blissful by-products – it has, very naturally (Joshi is, after all, a strong intellectual force in a very small and secluded field, and you would expect he’s making some major impact), streamlined Lovecraft scholarship and united it on a few battle positions, especially on the crucial issues that direct attention.

It’s quite a temptation to whisk away all pretense and let the polemic steamtrain roll, roll, roll…but instead of bowing to it, I’ll rather continue my nitpicking, in order to fish out some more instances for the big unnamable, race, and how it fares in Lovecraft scholarship – my next post will concentrate on the satellites to the Joshi moon. This may take some time – I also need to get rolling on that second chapter of my dissertation which I bravely managed to procrastinate on for several weeks, for sheer terror of the blank page.

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I’ll move on, once this banter is concluded, to actually read some of the stories (the problematic one, that is). Meanwhile, for the time being, I’m busy waving my index finger at this post here, by the constructivist Hawthornian (who also blogs on Hawthorne – I figure there must be other constructivist Hawthornians around, and just possibly some of these even blog), where he recounts, from memory, a line of conversations with his grandfather, on Hawthorne –

And speaking of “his time,” is it really so different than ours that we can’t attempt to evaluate it? Isn’t such an attempt also an attempt to evaluate our own time, as well? It’s not like I’m trying to let us off the hook by positing racism as a past problem–quite the opposite, in fact.

I find that opening sentence a little confusing – isn’t the constellation rather working in the reverse: the more different a time is from ours, the more removed it is in time and the less actual, historical substance there is, the more we need our own (value) judgments to re-construct a historical scene? Modern day attempts to write the personality (and personal traits) of grand figures of the ancient world, for example – Alexander, Hannibal, Augustus – usually tell way more about the historian than about the historicized, simply because a lot of imagination has to flow in to delineate these scarcely documented persons’ characters. Hawthorne and Lovecraft are much closer to our time and far more extensively documented than any of these ancient warlords, but that doesn’t mean we are under a greater obligation to get inside their heads, as it were, to pursue their logic as intimately as possible – rather, we need to find that logic (in their language, their deeds, and so on) and then translate it into our (moral – linguistic, if necessary) terms (which have changed remarkably over the past 150 years, as they are wont to), so as to make it comprehensible to a modern reader (for who we are writing, in the first place)…or at least that is my understanding of our profession when it’s talking about long past literary eras.

Did you make that post on, uhm, Hawthorne?

It would be sad injustice, the reader must understand, to claim that I had ever read that piece by the good Mr. Hawthorne, to whose I lecture I now posit a dangerously bold claim. I feel perturbed by the afterthought, the guilt is drilling holes into my literary conscience, but its cloak is shed now – there is no human way to hide its shameful flesh. On it, in staunch scarlet letters, is printed the verdict that only so very recently I have mustered the courage to face and subdue, namely – that I had never read The Custom-House.

I can say with some precision what kept me from it – I hate forewords, after-words, and anything like them – anything diverting attention from the body of the text. Hawthorne, of course, makes it clear in his 1850 preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter that his fictionalized auto-biographical sketch of his three-year tenure at his home town Salem’s custom house, see below, is a part of the body of the text.

The Salem CustomHouse

Well, no, what he says (still in the foreword) sounds a little different –

The sketch might, perhaps, have been wholly omitted, without loss to the public, or detriment to the book; but, having undertaken to write it, he conceives that it could not have been done in a better or a kindlier spirit, nor, so far as his abilities availed, with a livelier effect of truth.

That’s just a perfect example for a great author’s reticence and opacity when it comes to his personal motives – rather than brawl at length on what may have motivated this or that artistic move, he pulls up the narration, the narrator included, and makes them speak up.

The, in the first few paragraphs of The Custom House a reference to that other autobiographical piece of his, Mosses from an Old Manse, and –

And now—because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former occasion—

The rhetorical topos of modesty is naturally not quite so very convincing when it’s preceded by a foreword to the second, not first, edition of Hawthorne’s first commercially sucessful book – and in any case it’s here a rhetorical topos, not a pathos, as it is in Lovecraft, I’ve made the point before. You don’t get the feeling, when Hawthorne says something like it, that it does more than serve its original raison d’être, being a gesture to the reader, signalling that the narration is now about to take off for good.

As was pointed out to me by The Constructivist, no doubt the profoundest Hawthorne blogger for at least one millenium to come, or two, there is quite a lot of decay in The Custom House, and that is very true, as I now know – the building, as Hawthorne describes it, is like a well of decay in a decaying town, located at a crumbling wharf.

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf,—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life;

The bristling grandeur of an active commercial port is not something that Salem seems to know – if a ship makes it to the harbor at all, it is unloading things as profane as “firewood”.

What better place to discover the pleasures of hereditary sin than this reservoir of slowness, decrepitude, and inertia, where a few senior citizens (aka, the fellow custom officials that the narrator, fictionalized Hawthorne, ranks in character protraits) are on a fatigued guard to pass the tiny rests of their lives away) hang out, silent for the most, unless they make an effort to chuckle away at some age-old- & often-told episode from their lives on sea? For Hawthorne, guilt comes in the clothes of his colonial Quaker- and witch-hunting Puritan ancestors –

At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.

Then, proceeding in a little ligher timbre than this stern rapping at his breast (emphasis mine) –

Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself.

I don’t quite seem to be able to make sense of the paragraph – it’s clear that Puritans believed in hereditary sin, as well as hereditary grace, that made it impossible to extend the boundaries of the Church to just anyone, more or less innocent children included. They were admitted only, if I remember that right, through the half-way covenant in the 1660s that provided them a sort of trial membership that could, at a later time, be upgraded to a full membership. How then would it be a retribution for these Puritan forefathers of Hawthorne’s to see their descendant an idling writer?

As in Lovecraft, to go on, decay is topographical- that is, descriptive of a place – in the sense that it is both rising from a place and sinking into it: are the custom house officers decadent because they dwell for several hours a day in the custom house, or vice versa?

It’s emanating from the custom house, it seems, to which some ill destiny has driven a few residents (again, emphasis mine) –

In the first place, my coadjutors were not invariably old; there were men among them in their strength and prime, of marked ability and energy, and altogether superior to the sluggish and dependent mode of life on which their evil stars had cast them.

One might, possibly, go ahead and cite the, obviously, decent revenues that the government paid to custom officers as a more prosaic designation for the “evil stars”, but then, at the time of the narration, Hawthorne’s bitter irony is at full swing, and he’s in no mood to halt it for less grandiloquently tragic phrases.

He, the Custom House-Hawthorne, is given to antiquarian passion – which helped him discover, he claims, the original scarlet letter and the story behind it, in some bundle of documents that the British left behind when they evacuated their papers to Halifax. The past, therefore, is inspiratorial – it is the nucleus for the story – it’s also a means of legitimating the subsequent narration on Hester Prynne and the Scarlet Letter: he freely offers to present the original letter to anyone interested in giving him a call in the matter.

At the same time it is terribly stifling to his literary imagination (and the young poetry-scribbling clerk and colleague that he describes is another victim – as if the house’s inertia was a god-given law that may be violated only under caution: that is, poetry must be hastily scribbled, but not lived or enjoyed), it’s making him grow numb – and just as he’s railed onto the brink of braindeath, he luckily loses the job and is set free to tell the story. History, ultimately, is beneficial only when it’s turned into a living, breathing thing able to grab for the future on its own – such as a novel of the breadth of The Scarlet Letter. When it’s not transformed back into life, it’s no more than an inertiatic cesspool of decay suffocating vital imagination.

664, 665, hew, where did No. 666 go? – Ah well – 667, 668…

As long as I’ve worked on the apocalyptic in fiction, I’ve always considered it not so much as a set of plot items chronicling various stages of destruction and salvation, but rather a distinct way of giving structure to the plot’s timeline, a part of the story, but not necessarily of the plot. It’s a distinct interpretation of the timeline, uniting stories as widely different as, say, Melville’s The Confidence Man, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, and Lovecraft’s stories, of course. He seldom goes ahead to unroll his apocalypse to a full extent, the destruction of the planet and all included, although every now and then total destruction is a possibility – in The Doom that came to Sarnath, for example, or in small gemstones in prose like Nyarlathotep, where the speaker seems to be the last survivor after Nyarlathotep (a veritable AntiChrist figure anticipating the configurations that modern evangelist preachers on the last things give their main antagonist) gave the planet a not so very favorable makeover into chaos.

More often than not, however, Lovecraft’s apocalypse doesn’t entail destruction – but it always features decay to indicate that something is dangerously wrong with the timeline. Decay’s everywhere, percolated into society and carried away with its dynamics – and Dunwich, see the previous post, is so deeply invested in it that salvation is so far off that it cannot even be satirized. It’s not just the Whateleys that don’t quite conform with any conventional timeline – young Wilbur’s growth into preternatural adulthood takes only about 12 years (and at that age, he’s able to dig into the library archives of Harvard to unearth a complete copy of the Necronomicon).

The rest of the place joins the spiral. The most recent update to the town’s (infra-) structure seems to be a building from 1806. Most of the buildings are far older, musty colonial shacks that, for some reason, refuse to crumble as they should. The residents, that much is sure, don’t get very much done (and refurbishing that place would be a task for a legion of heavily tooled DIY kings), except the elementary basics required to keep the place going at least at some pace and integrated into New England economy, but then, wouldn’t you know it, the only mercantile enterprise of the place is hosted in what was once the town church.

There seems to be an unlimited supply of cattle around to sell and feed to the only resident of the heavy petting zoo that the Whateley clan-of-three installs in their mansion, the even more freakish brother of already freakish Wilbur that will one day not too far off help to usher a selected draft of Old Ones into the New England site, once the time is right.

Lovecraft was not the first to paint decay into the New England site like a busted pest sore, of course – but, Jeez, how far more radical in his will to decay he is than, say, Hawthorne, who situates the locus of decay into the individuum, from where it eventually transpires into the surroundings. The Dunwich Horror bears obvious debts, or: parallels, deliberate or not, to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – the more often I re-read the story, the more poignantly it seems to me like a festering, morbid version of the Hawthorne novel.

It’s all there – the secluded township, the uncomely offspring with uncanny abilities (Wilbur and his brother are naturally not nearly as endearing as little Pearl), the desire to circumscribe the other as closely as possible (a scarlet letter and a remote abode here, another remote abode there – and in both cases, the inhabitants are under constant scrutiny for every step they make) – with the only difference that Hester Prynne faces a community that may be corrupt and mendacious, but still operating on a scale of functional social contexts: there’s a communal tribunal that hands the scarlet letter to her, there’s a community that listens when Dimmsdale enters the scaffold to confess their unruly liaison, there’s a community to answer to and be answered by.

Not so in Lovecraft’s story – it’s not just simple inertia that keeps the townsfolk relatively still during the Whateleys’ exchanges with the Old Ones and their spawn – rather, it is the lack of social quantifiers to regulate responses to these forces. Dunwich, after all, is a god-less outcast village…of individuals. If these endure the decay they’re living in, they also endure the apocalypse at its tail end, and it is an absolutely private and subjective apocalypse.

Armitage, having read the hideous diary, knew painfully well what kind of a manifestation to expect; but he did not add to the fright of the Dunwich people by giving any hints or clues.

Armitage, the scientist-protagonist tasked with reading Wilbur’s unwholesome diaries detailing on the invocation rites necessary to call up the visitors from beyond, little later leads on a small troop of villagers in a concerted last effort to hunt down and destroy the thing [that] is a thing of wizardry. The Dunwich stormtroopers of death are not a little challenged with their new situation (emphasis mine) –

Then the germ of panic seemed to spread among the seekers. It was one thing to chase the nameless entity, but quite another to find it. Spells might be all right – but suppose they weren’t? Voices began questioning Armitage about what he knew of the thing, and no reply seemed quite to satisfy. Everyone seemed to feel himself in close proximity to phases of Nature and of being utterly forbidden and wholly outside the sane experience of mankind.

The only feasible way of solving the dilemma is to send those who are wholly outside the sane experience of mankind by definition, anyway, the scientists –

In the end the three men from Arkham – old, white-bearded Dr Armitage, stocky, iron-grey Professor Rice, and lean, youngish Dr Morgan, ascended the mountain alone.

The situation is absurd, in a slapstick-ish way – I mean, this bunch of stocky villagers is standing and waiting (and doing nothing in any way useful to find and fight what has escaped from the Whateley domain), and rather than getting out the guns (it’s 1928, they’re comfortable using telephones, as the story tells us, and sure it must be possible to procure some artillery to shell the monster back into his abyss), they’re sending a group of three scientists, two of them quite aged and the third a rookie, to ramble up the hill to do their job – how godawfully sluggish can you be?

[to be continued]