The Genetics of Horror: Sex and Racism in H.P. Lovecraft's Fiction
I notice to my amusement that Finland's most pretentious philosopher, Timo Airaksinen, has written a whole book on the topic "The Philosophy Of H.P. Lovecraft". Anything for publicity, I guess...
The Genetics of Horror: Sex and Racism in H.P. Lovecraft's Fiction
© 2004, Bruce Lord
H.P. Lovecraft's racism, if recent publications are an accurate indication, is slowly being understood to be not merely an embarrassing personal failing, or the product of a conservative New England upbringing at the turn of the twentieth century. Early apologists viewed Lovecraft's racism as an unimportant element that occasionally surfaced in the background of his literature; today it is viewed as a key element in understanding Lovecraft's fiction and the nature of the world he created with it. There has been much writing dealing with the presence of atavism, hereditary memory and biological determinism in Lovecraft, and his racism thus surfaces as a means of understanding how these forces work in his fiction. However, another of Lovecraft's unconventional views (though by no means as initially apparent or bombastic as his racism) intersects at this point. What is glaringly conspicuous by its absence in Lovecraft's tales of degeneration and cursed ancestry is the very means by which these themes come into being. In a word: sex. Lovecraft's anxiety over sex and women has been well documented and pondered over by his biographers,1 yet it is rarely discussed in connection with his fiction, apart from the occasional note that Lovecraft excluded women in his stories because of the confusion and apprehension he felt towards them. More importantly, the subjects of women, sex and reproduction are almost never connected with Lovecraft's tales of degeneration and the racism that underlies them.
It is my contention that Lovecraft's anxiety concerning racial degeneration and his anxiety concerning all matters sexual intersect at several points in Lovecraft's body of work, and that together they cast a new angle of light on Lovecraft's conception of humanity and its fate. In Lovecraft's vision of humanity in decline, sexual reproduction causes an effect exactly opposite to Darwinian evolution: negative biological traits propagate whilst positive ones become extinct. For Lovecraft, the ‘natural' act of reproduction is not equated with life, but with degeneration, decay, and eventually death. Lovecraft's primary conception of humanity as an insignificant species dwarfed by the sheer scope of the universe and the indifferent horrors that occupy it thus is coupled with another, equally horrific fate. Humanity, as portrayed in Lovecraft's fiction, is not only incapable of resisting the impact of racial and hereditary degeneration, but also incapable of maintaining itself ‘properly' via sexual reproduction, an act that for Lovecraft gives birth to nothing but nightmare.
The despicable mechanism and the divine hatred of life: sex and degeneration in Lovecraft's life
It is odd that so little has been written on the role of sex in Lovecraft's fiction and his anxieties regarding women. Sex is conspicuous by its absence in the majority of his work, and when it does appear, it does so in conjunction with some of the primary themes of Lovecraft's fiction. However, in his own words, Lovecraft felt that he "could not write about ‘ordinary people' because [he was] not in the least interested in them," and that "man's relations to man [did] not captivate [his] fancy" due to his cosmic perspective. As such, what he termed the "humanocentric pose [was] impossible" (Joshi, 181-82) for him to adopt. In light of this it should not surprise us that Lovecraft did not make reference to sex (I refer here to the entire subject of sexuality itself, not merely sexual activity) as a means of detailing characters, establishing context or even drawing the reader into accepting and believing his stories (Lovecraft typically used scientific detail for this purpose). Far from an emotive or romantic subject,2 Lovecraft saw sex as just another component in his mechanistic materialist philosophy (which I will outline shortly), specifically a very unpleasant and awkward one.
Lovecraft's introduction to the subject of sex came at age eight, when, recognizing a veiled but predominant subject in literature which adults were unwilling to explain to a child his age, he researched the subject in anatomy textbooks. As to how he felt when he made his discoveries, Lovecraft describes his experience in this way:
"The result was the very opposite of what parents generally fear - for instead of giving me an abnormal and & precocious interest in sex (as unsatisfied curiosity might have done), it virtually killed my interest in the subject. The whole matter was reduced to prosaic mechanism - a mechanism which I rather despised or at least thought non-glamourous because of its purely animal nature & separation from such things as intellect & beauty - & all the drama was taken out of it."
Regardless of how much of this statement is the reflective result of the constructed persona of a prudish old man (Lovecraft was signing letters as "Grandpa Theobald" by his mid-twenties and berating his correspondents for young and faddish behavior), or how much of this sentiment should be attributed to the clinical introduction Lovecraft had to sex or to his existing psychology at eight,3 this is a remarkable statement for anyone to make. Rather than simply ignoring the subject (as many of his critics have), or making the excuse that such matters are simply not suitable for discussion (Lovecraft almost never passed up an opportunity to cast himself as a moral puritan), Lovecraft here makes a point of stating his direct opposition towards one of humanity's most basic drives that is as key an element to the human condition as any. Additionally, should be noted that Lovecraft connects his thoughts on sex (which by his own admission range from indifference to disgust) to his philosophical position of mechanism, which is seen unanimously as the dominant ideology behind Lovecraft's fiction not only by his critics past and present, but by Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft's tales and letters are rife with references to mechanistic materialism, the most famous of which declares the inextricable connection between his personal world view and that expressed in his literature: "all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large."4 (SL II, 150) Sex, for Lovecraft, is clearly one such trifling interest. Furthermore, Lovecraft places sex in direct opposition to intellect and the pursuit of intellectual ends. Intellectual pursuits, whatever form they might take, were the hallmark of civilisation for Lovecraft, who remained what might be termed an amateur intellectual throughout his life, forever attempting to maintain a historically complete and contemporary grasp on all matters scientific and artistic.5 A more refined declaration of Lovecraft's view of sex and the intellect as polar opposites can be found in a letter to Frank Long in which he differentiates between Puritanism (ie, moral Puritanism) and intellectual Puritanism:
"And as for Puritan inhibitions - I admire them more every day. They are attempts to make of life a work of art - to fashion a pattern of beauty in the hog-wallow that is animal existence - and they spring out of that divine hatred for life which marks the deepest and most sensitive soul...An intellectual Puritan is a fool - almost as much of a fool is an anti-Puritan - but a Puritan in the conduct of life is the only kind of man one may honestly respect. I have no respect or reverence whatever for any person who does not live abstemiously and purely - I can like and tolerate him...but in my heart I feel him to be my inferior - nearer the abysmal amoeba and the Neanderthal man..."
(SL I, 315)
In addition to describing his views on (sexual) morality and the intellect, Lovecraft here introduces the themes of degeneration and misanthropy which figure greatly in his fiction. In the world view Lovecraft puts forth, a clear dichotomy can be drawn, with intellectual pursuits and moral chastity on one side, and physical pursuits, intellectual backwardness and degeneration on the other. Perversely, the very concept of life itself also seems to fall into the latter category, if we are to give Lovecraft's comments on the "divine hatred for life" any weight. This seems to indicate that Lovecraft is aware of the problems his condemnation of sexual pursuits creates; although sex is necessary for the propagation of life, life itself is just as distasteful as the means by which it is generated, and only the pure pursuit of intellectual matters can provide any solace to "the deepest and most sensitive soul."
If this dichotomy is the basis upon which individuals and societies are to be judged, Lovecraft does not refrain in passing that judgement on his own society. Unsurprisingly, Lovecraft's letters are rife with laments for the lost Georgian customs and values he highly idealised and emulated6 and the decadent and degenerate modern times he inhabits. What is surprising is that Lovecraft is not content with regarding the colonial days of America as the pinnacle of human civlisation. Lovecraft instead looks further back to classical Greece and Rome to find the epitome of human art and science. In an amateur journalism article called "The Case For Classicism" Lovecraft states:
"I cannot refrain from insisting on the permanent paramountcy of classical literature as opposed to the superficial productions of this disturbed and degenerate age...The literary genius of Greece and Rome, developed under peculiarly favourable circumstances, may fairly be said to have completed the art of science and expression...which all succeeding time has been powerless to excel or even to equal."
Joshi notes that the implications of this statement for all human cultural production are staggering: "there is nothing left for subsequent writers to do but imitate."7 (Joshi, 83) When Lovecraft's statement concerning classical culture are taken in the context of the dichotomy discussed above, the classical peak in cultural development stands against a process of degeneration along intellectual, sexual and moral lines that humanity has been unable to break free of. Thus we can see that Lovecraft's tales of successive inescapable degeneration are not only an extension of Lovecraft's own philosophy of culture, but also implicate a connection between degeneration and sex.
The subterranean peril: Lovecraft's racism
Cultural degeneration is typically associated in Lovecraft's letters and fiction with immigration and the subsuming of ‘proper' cultures by the ‘mongrel hordes' Lovecraft feared so much. A great deal of Lovecraft's substandard fiction incorporates this simpler form of cultural degeneration without implicating sex. There is an unfortunately large amount of Lovecraft's fiction that predominantly focus on simplistic racism. By simplistic I mean that the racism espoused does not make use of metaphor or communicate anything other than the inferiority of nonwhite races, and plays up the paranoias of foreign invasion via immigration or ‘Yellow Peril.' These stories, in addition to being poorly written, have not aged well and often blur together in the mind of the reader simply because of their indistinct and repetitive racist proselytizing. To give brief examples of Lovecraft's simplistic racism, I will quickly gloss "The Street" and "Horror At Red Hook," although numerous other stories could take their place (such as "He" or "Medusa's Coil"). "The Street" is a brief allegory written in 1919, in which the titular street represents the entire United States. After initial colonization by "good, valiant men of our blood who had come from the Blessed Isles across the sea," (Dagon, 343-344) trouble comes to The Street in the form of "swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words, and placed signs in known and unknown characters upon most of the musty houses." (Dagon, 346) The newcomers plot to "tear down the laws and virtues that our fathers had exalted; to stamp out the soul of the old America - the soul that was bequeathed through a thousand and a half years of Anglo-Saxon freedom, justice and moderation...[in which] many millions of brainless, besotted beasts would stretch forth their noisome talons from the slums of a thousand cities, burning, slaying, and destroying till the land of our fathers should be no more." (Dagon, 347) The night before this heinous revolution is set to occur, The Street implodes in on itself, killing all of its sinister inhabitants, its foundations having grown rotten and weak with decay and degeneration. Strangely enough, the image of American buildings seemingly voluntarily collapsing on foreign devils is repeated in "The Horror At Red Hook," which uses an occult mystery formula rather than stilted allegory. It is in "The Horror At Red Hook" that Lovecraft is perhaps at his racist worst. The two years Lovecraft spent in New York were the most miserable of his life for several reasons, but Lovecraft never failed to credit his unhappiness to the heterogeneous population of New York in the 1920s; the slum of Red Hook thus represented everything Lovecraft feared and loathed, and Lovecraft apparently saw little need to include much in the tale other than description in order to create what was, for him, a real life horror story. The descriptions of the immigrants in "The Horror At Red Hook" are virtually indistinguishable from those found in his letters from the same time. Lovecraft pads the lacking plot of "Red Hook" with reams of paranoid description. A brief excerpt: "From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky...occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguished lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through." (Dagon, 248)
In an infamous and particularly venomous letter to Frank Long, one can almost hear the bile as Lovecraft writes about the inhabitants of New York slums: "monstrous and nubulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoids and moebal; vaguely molded from some stinking viscous slime of earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilites." (SL I, 333-334) In "The Subway And The Shoggoth (Part I)," Robert H. Waugh discusses a popular American legend contemporary to Lovecraft's time revolving around a multileveled subterranean labyrinth that lay below San Francisco's Chinatown. Waugh notes similarities between this legend, cemented in the Fu Manchu fictions of Sax Rohmer, and Lovecraft's own fears of immigrant ghettoes teeming with unseen masses dwelling beneath the ground. While Waugh is discussing the underworld legend solely in connection to Lovecraft's fear of Asians in particular, "Red Hook" contains a smorgasbord of Lovecraft's racisms. While for the most part Lovecraft observed differences in the races he viewed as inferior,8 no such distinctions are found in "Red Hook": "the population is a hopeless tangle and enigma." (Dagon, 247) By name he mentions Syrian, Spanish, Italian, negro, Scandinavian, Asian, Arabic, Mongoloid, Persian, Kurdish, and Greek elements in Red Hook's population and does little to distinguish between any of these undesirables. The plot of the story, so much as there is one, culminates in a detective discovering a vast underground cove beneath the slums where occultists have been conducting their unspeakable rites. The detective's quarry, who has died under mysterious circumstances, is resurrected at an altar to an ancient demonic fertility goddess. The number of gods and religious traditions that are referenced in the chanting of the cultists are too numerous to mention; it is enough for Lovecraft to simply include whatever "foreign" and ergo evil tropes he can collect. In a frustratingly confusing ending, the reanimated corpse somehow upsets the ritual, and, much like in the case of "The Street" the houses above, "doubtless long rotten with decay in its most insidious form" (Dagon, 263) collapse9 while the detective faints in true Lovecraftian form. In both "The Street" and "Red Hook" no attention is paid to the long-term effects of the immigrant populations they depict; Lovecraft's imploding buildings kill them off before they become too settled, and so Lovecraft's anxieties concerning miscegenation and the sexual act remain unexplored in these reductive racial allegories.
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