The World Fantasy Award will no longer be a statue of HP Lovecraft. I’m not sure how I feel about that1, but in reading the commentary by various writers, both pro- and con-, I think something important about HPL got missed. So like the Old Man himself would, I want to look at this from a non-Euclidean angle.
My training is in math and physics, and when I read Lovecraft, the alien-ness I feel comes not from the characters, but from the very nature of the reality he posits. It’s the existential terror I felt when I first had to grapple mathematically with the concept of infinity, or when I first really understood that when making a “quantum leap”2 the electron truly doesn’t cross the space between, that there isn’t a “space between” as we can grasp the concept. This idea, that we fundamentally cannot understand reality, that the world is stranger and more frightening than we can ever hope to grasp, I think is integral3 to what Lovecraft was saying; he wrote, repeatedly, that he was trying to convey a sense of cosmic “awe,” and that horror was the best way for him to do so.
And this doesn’t seem to be mentioned by anyone.
“The absolute silence of these empty spaces terrifies me.” – Blaise Pascal
This doesn’t dismiss his racism, but (at the risk of attacking a strawman) many of the “ditch the statue” arguments I’ve read seem to have three main points:
- He was a racist. (Undeniable.)
- He was a terrible writer. (Opinion. I personally find Tolkien insufferably boring.)
- His writing is bad because it’s all racism, sex, and tentacles.
It’s # 3 I want to talk about – basically, that he was a bad writer because his writing is nothing more than veiled allusions to the horror of miscegenation, the awful biological realities of human intercourse, that his aliens are nothing more than the non-WASPs he saw invading his home.
To which I say: take a physics class.
That’s all there, I agree, but that’s not the entirety, or even the point, of his writing – his fundamental message, and the reason he remains powerful for us today, is that modern science has forever removed us from a place of consequence in the cosmos. Our entire galaxy, everything we know and are capable of imagining, is just a pixel of light in the Laniakea Supercluster.
The racism and sexism and plethora of –isms that infest his work serve only to reinforce that primal, overriding feeling of worthlessness, of meaninglessness. And the repercussions of this are still playing out in Louisiana school rooms today.
So what worries me (and of course no discussion of literature or politics would be complete without some prognostication about the Death of the Republic)
“The kids these days.” – Ramses II, 19th Dynasty
what worries me is that literature has become, in the view of this science nerd at least, synonymous with politics. That we can’t see the scientific horror in HPL because we’re too booked up on the politics of identity. We look at Lovecraft and we see metaphors for race and sex because that’s all we look for in literature, and because Art no longer has anything to do with Science.
I say that most fervently as a poet; the only people who read poetry anymore are other poets, and at least part of that4 is that poetry has abrogated any connection with reality, and is often so highly encoded it takes years of training to be accessible. As far as science poetry, there’s just me5 and Sarah Lindsey.
“What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”
I say all this from my white-guy-privilege-pedestal; I understand that. I like to think that I’ve done more than most to overcome that, but I’m sure George Zimmerman said the same thing. I am not trying to deny that racism, sexism, etc., need to be addressed. What I am saying is that if this becomes the be-all and end-all of literature, if literature can serve only to divide us, and not to speak to universal truths about the human condition, how much is it worth – and how much will it be worth on the day when all the –isms go away?6 7
- Not that this will stop me from talking about it.
- Don’t get me started on the misuse of the “quantum leap.” That’s a (probably drunken) rant all by itself.
- Math pun intended.
- The part other than the Death of the Republic.
- Humility – not really my thing.
- I’m a poet – I had to take the cheap rhyme there.
- “Which will be shortly after the heat death of the universe.8
- Because we’re monkeys – we are programmed to schism, patrol the territory, and drive the Other away. And if politics doesn’t acknowledge that, well, see above re: Death of the Republic.
edit – added links, remove comment about adding links 11/10/15