Confronting Lovecraft's racism


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2014/08/25/confronting-lovecrafts-racis.html


#2

In these days I'm rereading Lovecraft after many years and the first thing I thought after reading some novels was "Why Tolkien is usually seen as a right wing writer but nobody ever consider Lovecraft racism, that is much more evident in his writings?"


#3

I'm not sure how this is exactly news. Yes, there's stories like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" where the racism is subtext, but other stories like "The Horror at Red Hook" and "The Terrible Old Man" the racism is the text.


#4

As the daughter of a man who is basically obsessed with Lovecraft, I am so glad to see this discussion crop up. I finally did read some Lovecraft after many years of stubborn daughterly rebellion, and found the story ("The Call of Cthulhu") to be passably chilling but more striking for the shocking and casual racism in the text. Whenever I've tried to initiate a conversation about this issue with Dad and his Lovecraftian circle of friends, I've gotten a lot of eye-rolling and sarcasm and subject-changing and "he was a product of his time" and the usual bologna.

I've also read quite a bit (though not all of) Octavia Butler's work. (Yes, I initially picked it up because we share a first name, but that's not why I went on to devour so many of her novels.) She's just a much stronger writer, in my opinion. I suppose it's not really apples to apples, but frankly, I'd much rather see her likeness on the award. It's more than time.


#5

"he was a product of his time"

I would point out to your dad's friends that, even at that time, lots of people managed to have independent, enlightened, forward-looking, and even admirable traits, despite being surrounded by a society of, well, arseholes.

These people should be remembered, praised, and obsessed-with.


#6

I've been aware of this side of Lovecraft for a long time. Between that and the purple prose, I find him almost unreadable. However, I think it's silly to hold writers of long ago to modern standards. Even Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice.


#7

Fantastic comment!


#8

There's a major problem here that I think is our fault, rather than Lovecraft's.

As has often been established, he was a misanthrope. This means he hated everyone, man/woman, black/white, young/old.

Are his stories using insensitive/offensive stereotypes? Undoubtedly.

Are they limited to misogyny / xenophobia? No.

What we seem to have done in these "modern" times, is simply shift where our tolerances/intolerances lie. Smoking is being air-brushed away as easily as our racially hostile background seems to be.

Lovecraft's work is important for a number of reasons; But a major focus of that is that it reflects a certain time and place that horrifies us now - And should continue to do so.

Every one of us still harbours a darkness in our souls not only towards monsters, but towards our own people. And I think we should be confronted with that, rather than carefully delete those terrible scenes of what we used to be.

Because we still are that sort of people. And the ones that deny it the most are usually the ones doing it behind closed doors - just like Lovecraft.


#9

Pretty much every Lovecraft story finds its horror in the idea that an outsider intrudes on our society. Nearly every story is xenophobic. "At the Mountains of Madness" is a perfect example- while our protagonists are hunted by a shoggoth, the real horror of the story is simply discovering the Great Old Ones once ruled this world, and that man is not master of his domain.


#10

Growing up near Providence, I've been reading Lovecraft since I was 10. From the very beginning, I was struck by his racism. I find the excuses for his prejudices almost as equally deplorable as their catalysts. I still love reading Lovecraft, but my sense of morality squirms uncomfortably every time he writes something I mentally feel the need to condemn... and I would have found it hard to believe (but am now convinced otherwise) that scholars of Lovecraft would feel different.


#11

I've tried. How I've tried.


#12

Yes—but it's one thing to be xenophobic about godlike beings that are completely alien in appearance and indecipherable in motivation, and another to feel a similarly deep revulsion toward members of your own species.


#13

While I am ashamed to say, I haven't really read Lovecraft (I know, I know, I have no real good reason) I guess I have a "meh" approach to this.

I've said before you have to separate the art from the artist in all things, as just about everyone has a flaw that you will disagree with. Even if he was a horrible racist, his works obviously has been influential and important to literature and the genre in general (if it wasn't we wouldn't be talking about him.) Art doesn't mean it excludes concepts that are wrong and distasteful. I think one can enjoy someone's work while not condoning certain elements of it. I mean the mere mention of eugenics isn't wrong. One can write a story where a character or entity in the story is a supporter and/or perpetrator of eugenics or genocide or what ever and not be a supporter of it. In Lovecraft's case it appears he actually held these beliefs, which is unfortunate.

Still - if his work is still important for other reasons, we shouldn't shun it. Enjoy it for what it is, warts and all. Taking the bad with the good is part of life.


#14

Usually when people bring Lovecraft's racism I don't find it an interesting discussion. The man was a terrible, terrible racist - even racist by his own day's standards. I'm not sure what to do with that, though. For a contemporary author it would change how I felt about reading their work, but for a dead author with public domain works, there isn't much I can do about it. And I don't need anyone to tell me he was racist either, It's impossible to actually read Lovecraft and not notice the flagrant racism baked in.

This article is more interesting in that it tries to tie Lovecraft's xenophobia in as a foundational piece of his work. I'm sure it was very important to him, but the foundational horror of Lovecraft isn't xenophobia, it's our insignificance. Lovecraft's characters encounter the Total Perspective Machine - that's why they go insane.

I don't agree about horror of the At the Mountains of Madness. In fact, it contains the least xenophobic thing Lovecraft ever wrote:

What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

By calling the great old ones men, he eliminates xenophobia and replaces it with the idea that even star-spawned monsters are nothing. The spawn of Cthulhu and the Mi-Go are the same - merely people. And Kadath reveals that even our gods are nothing.

Lovecraft was sure that if we could see how meaningless we really were we'd lose our minds. The monsters are just metaphors for that. I think Lovecraft would have been able to write what he wrote without the racism (were he not racist) and it wouldn't have hurt the underpinnings at all.


Lovecraft - the geek laid bare
#15

How? The racism is part of his art. It's not like Orson Scott Card where all the offensive things he said about some group of people he didn't like were outside of the influential literature he created. That's what makes appreciating Lovecraft more complicated.


#16

Sure, I totally agree. We shouldn't stop reading problematic texts, but I think it's striking that the fans of this man's work just utterly refuse to acknowledge the problems. The racism/anti-Semitism ("BUT HE MARRIED A JEW"... yes, and?) issue is treated as beneath discussion. There's also this tendency among them to let Joshi decide what can or can't be discussed, a sort of "Well, if Joshi says it's okay..."

Just what I've observed. I must admit I've not delved too deeply into his oeuvre, because I dipped a toe in and it wasn't my cup of tea.

eta: If Dad's friends are reading this, no personal offense intended, please don't shun me at the birthday party.


#17

I heard a great interview with Wynton Marsalis. He expressed an appreciation for a composer who was racist (can't remember who at the moment). The interviewer asked him about this, Wynton said, and a paraphrase, I take everybody at their best so I get can the best from them. Basically, that he was interested in their ideas more than their flaws.

I thought this was a powerful way for an artist to look at the world. The Greeks had slaves. Do we throw out Aristotle and Plato? Nah, we read anyway them and we abhor slavery.

Lovecraft couldn't write a line of dialog to save his life. But that lingering sense of the weird -- the way his stories snap back to you as you drive through a small coastal town and catch a local giving you a weird sidelong glance? The way his stories open, Borges-like into larger and larger abysses -- that's stuff worth stealing. That's why I read Lovecraft.


#18

I guess I see, "He was a product of his times" as acknowledging the problem (it's not exactly accurate, I think I was pretty racist even for his time). They know he's racist. I just wonder, if we all agree that Lovecraft was racist and that many of his stories have blatantly racist aspects to them... what then? What do we do beyond nodding in agreement?

I think this article tried to do something more but basically missed what I think is the entire point of Lovecraft. It's just Nickle projecting his ideas onto the work. And I'll admit that I'm also projecting my ideas on to the work when I say the primary theme is insignificance (i.e., I can't say who is really "missing the point") but if we are just projecting our own ideas of horror onto the work then that shows that xenophobia isn't so central or necessary.

When Nickle criticizes Campbell's "The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants" for giving no real motivation for its protagonist aside from the quoted paragraph, I find it bizarre that he doesn't think that paragraph is sufficient. Nickle is in the one feeling a void left by the lack of xenophobia, I'm not.

So, you've already said that your father and his friends know Lovecraft is a racist, they've acknowledged it but not assigned any great importance to it. What importance should we assign? By that I mean, what should we do?


#19

Since I admitted ignorance on this, I concede I could be wrong. I guess I will either have to finally read some of his works, or get pointed to some excerpts.

I am going off of the fact that despite the racist content, the stories continue to be revered and inspire for reasons other than the racist content. I've never heard or seen anyone praise that aspect of his work. Certainly people read Mein Kampf still for historical reasons, with out agreeing with or even liking the author.

And again, one could have racist characters and content in their works and not hold those beliefs. The fact the author does hold these views as you said complicates things, but most people can read those things, acknowledge they are bullshit, and move on.


#20

We should change the likeness on the World Fantasy Award to someone else. Like Octavia Butler. smile