Monday, September 6, 2010

Lovecraft on Race and Religion: Part 1

As many readers are aware, I'm compiling notes and outlines on H.P. Lovecraft's political economy and social theory as I go through essays and letters of his that I'm collecting. I recently got a collection of his letters from 1931-1934, and the other depression years are on their way soon. Why am I doing this? (1.) Treatment of his thinking on these issues so far has been quite superficial where it's been treated at all. (2.) He thinks quite deeply about economic forces that aren't treated in very great detail in the discipline formally, but were of considerable importance for the average citizen and for the Institutionalist school in the early 20th century (namely, mechanization, technological unemployment, inequality, monopolization, overproductionism, etc.). (3.) He has very interesting commentary on how the changes observed in the 20s and 30s relate to views on political economy in the early republic.

That's all well and good - but you can't get anywhere with Lovecraft in politics or social theory without running up against two big walls: his fascism and his racism. He was both - a fascist and a racist - but his thinking on these things can be surprising as well. He is by no means a fascist in the sense that Hitler was. My read of him so far is that he is more what we'd call a "technocrat" than a "fascist" today - but in the early 30s before the meaning of the word "fascism" changed irretrievably that term worked. That's a discussion for another time. Like everything I'm running across, Lovecraft doesn't rely (exclusively at least) on platitudes. He works through his fascism very carefully and I can't really do his thoughts on it justice here.

The other wall is his racism. Unlike his fascism (which I think is overstated by critics), his racism is undeniable, virulent, and out in the open. But again - almost chillingly - it's very carefully thought through. I think we have a tendency to treat racism as the arena of unthinking mobs. It's jarring to read someone carefully walk you through his racism - to see that it is nuanced and even differentiated from the racism of others. Lovecraft, for example, repeatedly makes detailed distinctions between what he calls "race-stock" and culture. He's been presented by some reviewers as embracing Anglo-Saxon superiority. Maybe he does at some point, but in the 1932-1933 period he takes great pains to argue that no "race-stock" is superior, and relentlessly mocks Hitler for making claims like that. Lovecraft argues that almost all races are equal - simply different - and his greatest concern is the cultural tradition that evolves with a "race-stock". His concern is that when "race-stocks" mix, culture is depleted because it is watered down by the incorporation of new cultures - and that cultural depletion is what he sees as the source of Western decline. In the period that I'm looking at, Japan had recently gone through a coup d'etat that established a new militarist government. Lovecraft comments extensively on this as well and praises both the Japanese and the Chinese, lauding their respective "cultures" and the cultural maintenance he expects from the new militarists in Japan - which of course contrasts sharply with the "yellow peril" views of most American racists at the time.

Two points complicate this race/culture line of thought: the "race-stocks" he does identify as biologically inferior (Africans and "Australoids"), and of course the Jews. I haven't worked through all of these letters yet, but so far he pays very little attention to the inferior "race-stocks". I suppose there's not much to discuss there, for him. The Jewish question is very interesting for Lovecraft - again because he is undeniably anti-semitic, but he's jarringly complex in his anti-semitism. Again - he mocks Hitler's anti-semitism incessantly and dismisses any notion that there's something unique or inferior about Jewish genetics - he dismisses that idea regularly. And that shouldn't be paritcularly surprising for anyone that knows anything about Lovecraft's personal life: he married a Jew, after all! That fact has puzzled a lot of Lovecraft critics, but it's not especially surprising when you read what he actually writes about them. And yet, he's definitely an anti-semite - I'm not arguing that he's not! His anti-semitism rests on his view that Jews are commandeering and distorting major cultural institutions, which of course is not an uncommon line at all among rank-and-file racists. But even this more traditional line of thought is intriguing - he identifies Knopf, for example, as a publishing house in New York that has been commandeered by Jews. You would think, then, that he wouldn't submit his stories to Knopf - but he does! You would think that when they subsequently reject his stories he would blame "the Jews" like a young, dejected Hitler. Surprisingly, he doesn't at all! At least not in any letters that I've come across (and again I stress I've only been through some). He curses Knopf and takes the rejection very hard, but you don't see any citation of Judaism. This is especially surprising since he's already identified this publishing house as a source of Jewish influence on culture. Instead, he identifies the marketability of his stories as the problem!

So Lovecraft's anti-semitism is (1.) explicitly anti-Nazi, (2.) unrelated to genetics or bloodlines at all, (3.) willing to accept a Jewish wife, while (4.) engaging in the oldest, basest critiques of Jewish cultural dominance, and yet (5.) when these identified Jewish cultural critics reject his works he chalks it up to the limited marketability of his own stories rather than any imagined Jewish avarice. The guy is very hard to get a consistent picture of, and I'm only reporting my impressions of a three year period (and yet, one does get the impression that if one were to get a clear picture of him, it wouldn't be a pleasant one)! As Hitler (who he already critiques severely) gets more open in his violence and anti-semitism in the 1934-1937 period I fully expect Lovecraft's views to get even more complicated.

In Part 2 I'm going to discuss a very interesting critique of Judaism (really of Semitic monotheism in general - including Christianity and Islam as well, but which he traces back to Judaism) and the relationship between religion and morality.
A semi-unrelated note: I came across a Cthulu emoticon that's kind of funny: (;,;)


  1. Personally I think that - had he lived and benefited from some fees from movie scripts of his stories - in the 'good times' of the 1950s he might have become interested in Ayn Rand - they were alike in so many ways.

  2. Really! Do you mind elaborating? I can see a few ways - the materialism/objectivity connection is somewhat strong. But it wouldn't have been where I would have gone first. Then again, I'm not too familiar with Rand - but he's never expressed that sort of stark individualism and I think his socialism would have been far too much for her.

  3. Having grown up in South Africa, I am well acquainted with the various 'intellectual' lines of racial/segregationist justification. I should add, however, that I was very fortunate to be brought up in a liberal environment; my parents (and their friends) actively opposed the Nationalist Apartheid government and supported change from within the country. More telling, of course, is the fact this change had already begun to take hold while I was young. (I was in junior school when SA had its first democratic elections in 1994...)

    Still, the point that I want to get at is that the 'preservation-of-culture' argument is among the most plausible justifications for the separation of races and its subsequent implications for inequality. Or, to rephrase with greater clarity, it is easier to understand how even distinguished and otherwise admirable men may have fallen into this line of thinking.

    Beyond Lovecraft, an immediate example of this is Jan Smuts. I admire Smuts for many things... Indeed, I think him to be one of "greatest" (if there is such a thing) South Africans ever, possibly second only to Nelson Mandela. His achievements are many - from statesmanship to academic to military - and he is certainly worth reading up on if you have a moment:

    However, Smuts has a stain against his name in that he was a proponent of racist policies; certainly by any modern standards. Similar in many ways, I suppose, to Lovecraft, Smuts' view was that the inclusion of a non-white majority would ultimately lead to destruction of (Western) civilisation in South Africa, and the rest of the region for that matter. Of course, I can appreciate that these views also need to placed into context: the clash of "advanced" societies with "undeveloped" societies and so on. I suppose we are all just children of our time.

    Given the progress we’ve made since then, I'd link to think we've grown out of these views, but I still see a number of parallels out there. Mosque in Manhattan anyone?

  4. "I think we have a tendency to treat racism as the arena of unthinking mobs."

    We do? Anyway, he sounds like your garden variety "intellectual racist" or "scientific racist." Lots of them running around in the 19th century and 20th centuries.

    As for fascism, you can call him an advocate of technocracy if you want to I suppose, but it still sounds like a rejection of liberalism, and that sort of things lead to similar places as fascism. It isn't hard to imagine him going all Father Coughlin (Coughlin didn't explicitly start out as a nationalistic loon raving about Jews and such, but he did explicitly reject liberalism) one or another variant of anti-individualistic, communitarian radical that reared its ugly head in the 1930s.

    "He thinks quite deeply about economic forces that aren't treated in very great detail in the discipline formally, but were of considerable importance for the average citizen and for the Institutionalist school in the early 20th century (namely, mechanization, technological unemployment, inequality, monopolization, overproductionism, etc.)."

    Which were fairly common themes for the time for certain intellectuals, etc. They spun them in varying ways of course.

  5. Anonymous,

    Lovecraft, Keynes and Rand all had an over-inflated self-importance about them certainly. Neither of them seemed to have an ounce of humility about them and self-reflection was a difficult matter, especially as they aged.

  6. Typical liberal BS. You need to define "racism" and "fascism" and why you perceive them to be "wrong". Lovecraft's views on race and culture are quite accurate, I think, closer to the truth than you're prepared to admit.


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