Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Lovecraft on Race and Religion: Part 2

In an October 17th, 1933 letter to Miss Helen Sully, Lovecraft writes:

"Yes - I read George Moore in youth, and have always thought the Catholic system weak in its relation to individual character. Ironically, it is the least personally strengthening because it is the most purely religious. Theoretically - and as a matter of universal acceptance in pre-Reformation times - the function of religion is primarily to exalt and serve some mystical and intangible entity or group of entities outside mankind. It has relatively little to do with human conduct and character - hence in classical and pre-classical antiquity we find religion largely ritualistic and orgiastic, whilst conduct (based on reason) remained the province of the non-religious philosopher. Christianity - or rather, the Judaism on which it was based - was the first religion to take a primary interest in ethics and assume a responsibility for conduct and character. That was the unique contribution of the Semitic temperament to western civilization - a very doubtful gift, since it removed ethics so completely from the aesthetic and logical field, transferring it to the jurisdiction of a mythical belief, that order and good taste threaten to vanish upon the ultimate and inevitable decline of the mythology. It would have been far better if we had kept our classical conception of ethics as a matter of beauty, good sense, and taste - the province of the non-supernatural philosopher - for its survival would not then have been so imperilled by the decline of religion. As Aryans, lacking the almost savage ethical sense of the desert-bred Semite, we are vastly better adapted to the conception of character as related to beauty, reason, and pride, than to the notion of divine moral law. Meanwhile our dominant religion has always been torn between two tendancies - one to return to the Aryan concept and become a system of mystical adoration letting morals more or less slide or putting them on a bargaining and excusing basis, and the other to live up to the specifically Christian ideal and mould better and more harmonious characters in the immediate world around us. The first tendency breeds the Catholic psychology, and the second the Protestant. As a result, Catholics are more purely religious - since Protestants, being after all Aryans to whome the feverish Semitic religio-moralism is impossible save for brief periods (such as that of intensive and literal Puritanism in England and New England), tend to lay more and more stress on human character and good deeds as opposed to mystical adoration, and therefore exercise the functions of the classically conceived philosopher rather than the classically conceived priest."

The line of thought is reminiscent of a piece he wrote in a circular letter in April, 1921:

"Modern civilisation is the direct heir of Hellenic culture - all that we have is Greek. Since the transient Semitic importation of ascetic idealism has run its course, can we not recapture a trace of the old pagan lightheartedness that once sparked that Aegean? Surely we can think of life as having something of beauty, and only a glutton wants eternity".

I think these selections provide interesting background for Lovecraft's underlying and somewhat obscure anti-semitism. He doesn't see Jews as being biologically inferior - that idea he makes clear in the 1930s, mocks Hitler for, and demonstrates his commitment to when he marries a Jew (the marriage ended, but not because of anything having to do with his wife's Judaism). He mentions the cultural dominance of Jews and the way these cultural arbiters alter American tradition, but as I outlined in the last post he never seems to pull out anything as indulgent as a "Hitler in art school" move, blaming Jews for any failures of his own publications - this despite the fact that his stories were rejected by the very publishing house Lovecraft had at another time suggested was overrun by Jews. So while he certainly doesn't stop talking about this stuff, concrete objections on his part are quite illusive.

In this passage, though, he puts a finer point on the influence of Judaism which I think might underly some of his other concerns. Judaism, for Lovecraft, made the misstep of fusing morality and religion. What was once the realm of philosophers and ethicists merged in Judaism with the mysticism and erraticism of the priest-class. Mysticism for Lovecraft the atheist is actually quite acceptable - his fiction is nothing if not mystical. Mysticism serves an important purpose for the human species. But that purpose is not to provide moral guidance - morality should be governed by rational thought.

All of this can be taken in different ways. Lovecraft was not the only one to revel in the prospect of a pagan revival in the interwar period - it was an important feature of Nazism too. It could go that way. Of course, the decoupling of faith and morality has also been important for modern liberal secularists who constantly have to respond to the fairly odd, question begging inquiry of "but how would we know right from wrong without God?".

Elsewhere - I can't find the citation right now - Lovecraft remarked that "Christianity did not civilize Europe - Europe civilized Christianity". I'm of course just getting into this material, and I'm not even primarily interested in his views on race and religion - but I am getting the impression that this whole line of thought is an important driver of all that Lovecraft has to say in these fields. If Lovecraft uttered a word about the "inferiority" of the Jews I might think twice (he does of course attach this word to others), but he seems more often to be inverting the traditional anti-semitic formulation - it seems like the biggest thing he faults Judaism for is giving birth to Christianity (rather than killing Christ).

Of course all of this is tentative and based on a work in progress, let me know. He may turn out to be less nuanced than he first appears. The man is still a racist and an anti-semite, there's no doubt about that. And no veneer of sophistication excuses that. But I do think (1.) you need to engage what he thought about race and religion if you engage his social theory - even though the social theory isn't primarily based on his thoughts on race and religion, (2.) if you're going to do that you can't just throw him into one big monolithic "racist" pile, and (3.) as you read this stuff you do find interesting thought processes - for example, the sources of morality and the "classical philosopher" vs. "classical priest" point is interesting and worthy of exploration for anyone, regardless of these questions of racism or anti-semitism that it motivates in Lovecraft's particular case.


  1. "It has relatively little to do with human conduct and character - hence in classical and pre-classical antiquity we find religion largely ritualistic and orgiastic..."

    A fairly old fashioned and incorrect notion of religion in antiquity.

    Anyway, most of his thinking seems to be pulled straight out of Nietzsche.

  2. Yes - he was a Nietzsche fan.

    I'm not knowledgeable about or much interested in the history of religion. How do you see the history of the relationship between ethics and religion, and how that relationship has changed over time?

  3. Well, religion in antiquity used to be viewed as "contractual" in nature, not as a source of ethics or even of intellect. Then the story was that Judaism/Christianity came along and changed all that. In other words, religion was an institution by which one bargained with the capricious Gods for favors. However, though one honored them, etc., one did not look to them for a moral compass.

    While some scholars still view this as accurate, it is IMHO incorrect. One need only look at the middle kingdom coffin texts or at the Goddess Ma'at to see how wrong this appraisal is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maat

    You find similar currents throughout Etruscan, Roman, Hellenistic, etc. religion.

  4. Then he and Ayn Rand have something in common.

  5. I've either read or skimmed most of Arkham House's published Selected Letters at this point (particularly any on society, science, history, etc.). There is still plenty of material out there, but your note that he never saw himself being persecuted by imagined conspirators or racial others, as he would tell it, is accurate as far as I can tell. And by the mid-1930s in the last years of his life, the race discussion did not disappear, but it seems to be lesser and sometimes (though not always softer). In particular, there is no more discussion of Hitler as there was in the earlier 1930s, and in at least one case he seems to have been quite appalled by the stories of violence coming out of Germany.

    As for his views of pre-Christian European Classical religion and paganism, he was unlikely to be cutting edge, and when he was, it was an edge that turned out to be dull. He saw himself as a Roman, and this identity formed very early in his life in the 1890s and 1900s. He continued to read, listen to lectures, and learn about the topic, but I suspect that since it was so important to him, he wasn't going to change much of his emotional connection. He read about new discoveries on Roman Britain in the 1930s, and did indeed change his views (happy that there was a more pronounced occupation, and one with a far more potent cultural impact, less happy but not denying that the Roman citizens and soldiers that contributed to what becomes Britain included Africans and Middle Easterners), but I suspect only so much.

    On European paganism, though, he was completely in trouble and didn't even know it. He saw Margaret Murray's Witch-Cult idea, the basis of the modern myth of an ages old pagan religion that Christians persecute as witches, as cutting edge anthropology. He also completely bought into the idea that this was the religion of racially-distinct pre-Indo-Europeans who came to be remembered as fairies. It directly inspired his idea of the Cthulhu Cult, pleasing him because it was so similar to Arthur Machen's fiction. He wrote long letters "educating" friends and others on the topic. Murray's ideas were not terribly well accepted at the time, though the Encyclopedia Britannica had her write the Witchcraft article, only removed in 1969 I believe. But they eventually became the fertile ground for Gerald Gardiner, and ultimately she has been called the Godmother of Wicca as a result.

    For this and other reasons, Lovecraft's ideas regarding the anthropology and sociology of religion were basically stuck in the Golden Bough era, and did not benefit from the developments in ethnographic research and related ethnology.

  6. Thanks so much for the insights, ahtzib - and welcome to the blog.

    Try to make an effort to check back in in the next couple days. I just got the '29-31 volume and the '34-37 volume a day or two ago and I might repost these thoughts and some of my (very preliminary) reactions to that, and I'd be interested in your take on it.

    If you missed my earlier post, I'm especially interested in collecting his economic thought - if you know of any letters/exchanges that are integral to this that are missing from the Arkham House collection I'd be really interested in knowing what I should look into.


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