I keep hammering on about this connection between modernity as a literary sensibility and modernity as a spiritual/religious/occult one. I’ve admitted that I have more a sense of how not to talk about it than I do of how to talk about it. It seems like what I need is a figure I can pore over easily–I love Benjamin and I’m enjoying Baudelaire, but that is too far-removed from what I know to provide a ready handle. Which, well, makes me think about H. P. Lovecraft.
He has several things going for him.
He is a literary figure, his work is thoroughly modern, and his literary production has played a significant role in shaping the contemporary occult scene. His influence on the occult scene is especially interesting because he himself was not an occultist, but he is clearly doing some reading in the occult for inspiration. He preserves the curious divergent convergence between art and occultism that seems so modern to me.
[Is it possible that the divergence isn’t peculiarly modern? I haven’t ruled it out. I just haven’t found a good case for it, yet.]
He is a local boy, giving me a readier context for comparison. Even as I enjoy expanding my considerations in a global/international direction, I am aware that it pays to have a well-grounded reference point.
Lovecraft’s distrust of modernity provides a good comparison with occultism, even as the occult work he tends to inspire possesses a very modern character. He loathes what T. S. Eliot’s popularity represents, he wishes Einstein were wrong, and when he talks about the effects of globalization, of the increasing proximity of foreign cultures and foreigners to his home, he does so with clear disdain and even horror.
Let me pause and let you take in that list. It’s scaled according to the discomfort I suspect folks who like Lovecraft will have with each element. Not liking T. S. Eliot? Yeah, that might make someone like me a little sad, but a lot of folks will shrug; different strokes for different folks. Disliking the Einsteinian revolution in physics? Well, that starts edging into the sorts of anti-science sentiments that circulate around creationism. The opposition to globalization? Well, that’s an issue with a lot of wiggle room…but, well, isn’t that last bit about foreigners downright racist?
Those things were all intertwined for Lovecraft and it shows up all over his private and public work. It’s the sort of thing that makes folks like Gordon eager to dismiss him (“lazy, racist shut-in [who] contributed nothing to chaos magic“) and come at his work through a safer indirect route (e.g., The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game). Even barring the nastiness of Lovecraft’s attitudes, his tone can border on the peevish.
I don’t think we can get off the hook so easily, though. Lovecraft, like him or lump him, is something of a neutron star. Dense, dark, and distorting the space around him all out of proportion to his size. That influence isn’t in spite of his habits of thinking, either. Rather, his habits of thinking provide structure to much of his horror.
(Lovecraft didn’t just write horror, of course. When he leaves the weird and horrific behind, though, he also leaves behind virtually all of his readership. Only the most devoted can make it through the Snorequests of the Whatsamajig Silver Something tl:dr. His straight-up pulp mostly deserves to be pulped.)
Lovecraft is racist, no doubt. He was racist in the most blunt and banal sense of the word. His is not the sometimes hard to see institutional racism, but the ugly and obvious sort of racism. He disliked having to deal with black, Italian, Asian (okay, it’s quite a list; etc., etc.) people, thought poorly of them on the basis of their ethnicity, and said nasty things motivated by those sentiments. Virtually all his work partakes of some element of this racism, though in many stories it serves mostly to provide Lovecraft with an eerie backdrop.
Lovecraft is also racist in a deeper sense. The horror that structures his stories derives in no small part from his own racism. Hoellebecq’s take on Lovecraft seems very solid on this point. To the extent that we enjoy his horror, we can’t extricate ourselves from a vicarious racism. Rereading At the Mountains of Madness recently drove this point home for me, hard and uncomfortably.
The disavowal that structures his horror is the very thing that gives it depth. Like the tube of the microscope or telescope, it provides a necessary distance through which he can examine his material. The slow erosion of that distance, the rising insanity, is precisely the loss of perspective that Lovecraft himself seemed to feel threatened by.
The images Lovecraft uses to describe the alien horror derives from his time in New York. This period shows Lovecraft’s racist language reaching a fever pitch in his own private writing and that racist language provides the basis for his description of alien cosmic horror. That makes the medium of his work, well, unattractive and paranoid racism, rooted in a personal sense of fear and inadequacy.
However, while we cannot divorce medium and message, we do need to note that there is a message distinct from the medium. That message encompasses Lovecraft’s intense discomfort with the implications of modernity more broadly, with the changes being wrought in both the human and physical sciences. It is surely no accident that Lovecraft’s stories so often feature scientists and scholars. The alien-ness of Lovecraft’s horror derives in part from the jarring disconnection of the experience of the object and the capacity to act upon it. The object turns hallucination, except in Lovecraft’s work the hallucination is presumed to have an intelligence. The failure of the hallucination to respond to the human here becomes the profound disinterest of the intelligence to humanity.
Lovecraft’s racist ideas provide him with a metaphor to explore his frustration with modernity generally. His distrust of Einstein would never have been more than reactionary had he not been able to fuse the new world of space-time to his phobic reactions to the racially mixed crowds of New York. The two become conjoined, allowing the new curves world of space-time to become the coordinate system of his fears.
Lovecraft thus becomes able to experience his fears of racial impurity divorced from their original context. The fictional frame anchors a sort of masochistic ecstasy: he can experience his fears but without that to which they are attached (racial mixture) being present to his consciousness. This is one of the truly weird things about Lovecraft’s weird horror. It is a masochistic disavowal of the modern world, a suspension of it in fiction that allows Lovecraft to indulge in speculations and fantasies about it. All these terrible, terrible things happen because people and things don’t stay where they belong, but a curtain of the fantastic keeps the world that he actually fears at arm’s length.
The masochistic impulse can be seen, too, where the fiction indulges in a fantasy that erases the distance, in which the alien swallows up the narrator in its delights. “The Outsider” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” are exemplars of this, in which the narrator crosses the boundary separating them from the horrific world. The suspension between the two worlds collapses, with the old world being reborn through the horrific new one. The union achieved is verbiage enflamed with deferred emotion.
Okay, this is all very literary criticism, but Lovecraft’s monstrosities, for all their alien-ness, are frequently portrayed in vivid naturalistic terms. The spiritual presences they seem capable of evoking, too, are distinct and not the generalized phobic projections of Lovecraft. How do we get at that, which is arguably the most important part of the modernity-occultism nexus that concerns me.
Since those figures are well-defined, we should perhaps turn to matters more concrete. Lovecraft had a wide-ranging mind and educated himself about scientific matters of his day. No doubt some of his inspiration came from his experiences with the diversity of life-forms we find on Earth. Why one form over another? Well, here I want to suggest that at this point we consider that it may have been spiritual influences operating through Lovecraft, making use of him as a medium.
Lovecraft was not inclined to trance states, but New York put him into an extreme state of agitation. His social anxiety, amplified through his racist expectations, could have become for him a kind of altered state. If this sounds strange, we should consider what Walter Benjamin says of Paris and its arcades, that the city becomes for its residents a “phantasmagoria” of faces and objects uprooted from the social relations that would otherwise ground it. Add to that basic phantasmagoric dimension Lovecraft’s own sensitive and eccentric disposition…I’m betting that would provide a raw receptivity to spirit.
The case of H. P. Lovecraft suggests that one of the joints connection literary modernism to occultism is the city. The beat of the city may be as capable as the drum in altering consciousness. Not only that, but the welter puts people and objects in constant motion, allowing novel constellations to appear through which a spirit may find a figure suitable to it. When the sensitized soul finds its attention caught by a spirit-filled constellation? The spirit gets an easy point of ingress and the sensitized person is likely to have an intense experience, whether they recognize the spiritual dimension of it or not.
When the person in question is of an artisitc inclination, prone to analyzing and making use of their experiences for aesthetic effect, it gets even more interesting. The manipulations to which they subject that experience become sketches of it, preparing would-be occultists to notice and observe similar patterns of experience. Not all art is of this sort; most explores forms of experience that are not so spiritualized. Yet, precisely because such art attends to the sense of the experience and not to a presupposition about it, a spiritual manifestation is likely to be described within art before occultism.
What the city makes possible, then, is a novel way for spirits to come into existence within the world. The crowds of people and things becomes a great gyre into which spirits pour themselves. Here we find the other foundation for the alien in Lovecraft, and arguably it is that aspect which remains most compelling. The alien has its basis in the novel forms of embodiment that the bustling modern city makes possible for a spirit, a form of embodiment that our own nestles within, not always comfortably.