Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Atavism, degeneration: one reason (among many) to read Lovecraft

For Lovecraft the present (for him, a period of approximately 200 years even during which there is notable decay and which ends decisively precisely at the moment he writes [he also makes some exceptions for classical Greek and Roman civilization]) is livable, acceptable — except that if you look even slightly under the surface the unbearable past is still horribly there, and the unbearable future is already horribly prefigured.

The past and the future are one for him, and they are horrible — time runs from chaos (particularly in the original Greek sense of the word) to chaos (the end state of the entropy thermodynamics alerts us to).

"Nyarlathotep . . . the crawling chaos . . . I am the last . . . I will tell the audient void . . ." The story named for that being begins with an utterance of its name, the word's pronounceable unpronounceability and recognizable unrecognizability (along with the fractured ellipses) a signal reminiscent of the grammatical oddities following the letter beth, ב, at the start of Genesis or the not-quite-reconcilable longtemps that Proust begins with*: a signal of a rift between the world (or what we think of as the world) and the word, that with this word we have left the world of appearances and have entered — something else. (Characteristically, the story's narration proper, the human "I", begins in the next paragraph with uncertain recollection: "I do not recall distinctly when it began..." Uncertainty, horror, dissolution: like his notion of the universe, Lovecraft's stories very often begin and end with these, and have much of them in the middle as well.)

*The observations about the openings of À la recherche and the Bible, and the connection between them, I owe — as I do so much — to Gabriel Josipovici, this time in The Book of God. (At any rate, full disclosure, I certainly am not capable of reading either of them in the original. The significance of beth's appearance as the very first letter of Genesis, according to Josipovici's account of some Talmudic interpretations, is that it is closed on all sides except that which faces the text that follows, marking the separation and distinction of the Bible from everything else.)

In encountering Lovecraft it at first seems peculiar, even laughable, that he has an equal terror of anything too new (subways) or too old (ancient temples). The immediate response is to think, this weirdo doesn't realize these are different things, and both innocuous. Bearing in mind what I've said so far, I think the more appropriate response is: we may not, but he realizes: these are the same thing, and both pose a fundamental threat.

He is famous, often ridiculed, for his tics, certain words that he repeats over and over like a kind of incantation against disintegration (his own? that of his work? of what he took to be the world?), some for more obvious reasons than others: "nameless", "squamous", "non-Euclidean"... I find it significant that among these, with equal weight given to both and both appearing often in what amounts to a single breath, are:



Any discussion of Lovecraft must come to his racism at some point; and here I will throw myself into it, reminding the reader and myself as I do that in what follows I am addressing only one aspect of the encounter with his work. If a terrible metaphor will help, what I've written thus far (what cries out for expansion) is for me the trunk of the Lovecraft tree, and the racism is just one (very large) branch — or root — or both.

He sees the presence of non-white (and inappropriately "ethnic" white) people in "his" society as a sign — literally a sign, not the thing itself in its full reality — of the irruption into the superficially livable present of both the ancient (atavism: the primitive) and what is to come (degeneration: what he would designate "decadence", what I would designate, with different significances and in the recognition that it is not arriving but accelerating, already having arrived, "modernity"). He is of course wrong, morally and factually, but his is a wrongness deeply rooted in "Western civilization" and its self-conception, and like many deeply held terribly wrong beliefs it is a recognizable distortion of the truth: in that modernity has built itself on the destruction/exploitation (two aspects of the same thing) of the foundation that non-"Western" people laid before modernity rolled over them (the past); and could not continue to stand without the constant rebuilding of that foundation through labor squeezed out of these same people through continual, well- or poorly-hidden violence (the ongoing present, for Lovecraft in my scheme "the future").

To put it mildly, I can certainly understand why any given person of color might not want to read Lovecraft; why go out of your way to expose yourself to more vicious racism? (I can equally understand why other people of color would want to read him.) But when white people refuse to read him specifically for this reason (I would not want to elide the fact that there are other reasons not to want to read him, though I likely would object to them all!) it often strikes me as a form of the liberal insistence that there is no problem (anymore), or that there will be no problem (soon), or that there would be no problem (if everyone would just ignore it), or that sure, there is a problem, but it lies anywhere-but-in-me. Part of what Lovecraft does is to lay bare — precisely by hurling himself into them! — the mystifications of liberal modernity. The racism is in us, and we are in the racism.

If this were all he did, to read him would be nothing more than to wallow in guilt (that ineffectual pleasure). But this is not all he does. Another part of what he does (emphasizing that he does much more still; remember the tree — I am staying on this same branch/root) is to remind us, to throw his very life and body into the understanding that the-way-things-are is not, emphatically not, permanent, that it is only a temporary and quite probably illusory state of being that has overtaken the past and will be overtaken in its turn by the future. The seeming stability of this way of life is merely the most superficial of disguises. I would call it modern and capitalist ideology covering for the profound instability of these systems; Lovecraft, no doubt, would not. We would both agree, though, that what it hides, what tearing it away might reveal, is as of now nameless, and indescribable.

(So as not to close with seeming to read hope into Lovecraft, I wish to clarify that this is not exactly what I'm trying to do. There is no hope in Lovecraft unless it is that sometimes our dreams may be pleasant. I suppose I am simply trying to say: the radical and the reactionary are not always as mutually exclusive as we'd like to think; and Lovecraft's insistence that modernity's appearance of inevitability, permanence, and stability is nothing but a lie is, despite and even as part of his most horrifying and hateful beliefs, again I say it is a radical movement.)

(A hypersimplified version of what I'm saying might be: for those of us who are not its direct victims and who are indeed in many ways its direct beneficiaries, haughtily to refuse to read what we find ideologically incorrect for this reason and this reason only is not a path even to purity of mind, let alone to righteousness of action.)

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