Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Can you like stories written by unlikable people?

In high school, I fell in love with H. P. Lovecraft's horror stories. I was fascinated with the creaky, gothic atmosphere and the immense scale of them--monstrosities that had been hidden away for millions of years or travelled between the stars. But more than that, I was fascinated by Lovecraft himself. His father died in an insane asylum when Lovecraft was eight, and Lovecraft and his mother moved in with two aristocratic-but-poor aunts. He was bright, reading 1,001 Arabian Nights, The Iliad, and The Odyssey as a child, but because of his own psychological problems and lack of finances, he wasn't able to go to college. Instead, he made a living writing stories for pulp magazines like Weird Tales. This money was barely enough to survive on, and Lovecraft died poor and largely unknown.

As a gloomy, bookish teenager who was called "weird" more times than I can count, I saw Lovecraft as a fellow traveler, an author who gave voice to my fears and anxieties, somebody who could have understood me even when the people of small town Alabama didn't. Then I found out that Lovecraft was racist. Not just a little racist, either. He was a proud white supremacist, filling letters to friends with tidbits like, "Race prejudice is a gift of nature, intended to preserve in purity the various divisions of mankind which the ages have evolved."

These views seeped into his stories as well. For instance "The Horror at Red Hook," written during Lovecraft's ill-fated two year stay in New York, is set in a real-life immigrant neighborhood where, "The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another . . . From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion."

There isn't much story to "The Horror at Red Hook." While searching for a missing man, a detective discovers foreigners have built a pagan temple underneath the neighborhood. After the detective faints in horror, the temple caves in for no clear reason, killing the worshipers--the city itself stopping the "contagion."

I spent my teenage years and most my 20s, trying to either ignore or excuse Lovecraft's racism. I would point out that Lovecraft was a product of his time and a rather conservative upbringing. That his views softened some toward the end of his life. And also, he married the Jewish writer, Sonia Greene, so how racist could he really be? And "The Horror at Red Hook" is easy to dismiss since--sin-pitted foreigners or not--it's a lousy story. Even Lovecraft later said it was, "rather long and rambling, and I don't think it is very good."

But as I got older, it got harder and harder to ignore that some the best Lovecraft stories--the ones that would eventually redefine the horror genre--were preoccupied with family lineages, cults of depraved savages, and fears of genetic taint. For instance, one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," is told by an unnamed narrator who, while researching his family tree, stumbles into a New England fishing village where the inhabitants have been interbreeding with immortal sea monsters called "The Deep Ones" for generations.

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" has been adapted into movies, role playing games, and even a Metallica song. (The Lovecraft mythos is surprisingly popular with heavy metal bands.) People love it--I love it--because it's a wonderfully creepy story. But a lot of it's cold-sweat power comes from Lovecraft's genuine terror of miscegenation and foreign "contagions." Even though Italians have been replaced with fictional monsters, it's easy to see parallels between Lovecraft's descriptions of the people of Red Hook and the people of Innsmouth: "They were as furtive and seldom seen as animals that live in burrows, and one could hardly imagine how they passed the time apart from their desultory fishing. Perhaps—judging from the quantities of bootleg liquor they consumed—they lay for most of the daylight hours in an alcoholic stupor. They seemed sullenly banded together in some sort of fellowship and understanding—despising the world as if they had access to other and preferable spheres of entity. Their appearance—especially those staring, unwinking eyes which one never saw shut—was certainly shocking enough; and their voices were disgusting. It was awful to hear them chanting in their churches at night, and especially during their main festivals or revivals, which fell twice a year on April 30th and October 31st."

So should we do away with art created by distasteful people? It's not an easy question, and it's not limited to Lovecraft or even the written word. Pablo Picasso was one of the masters of modern art and a narcissistic, emotionally abusive jackass. Roger Ebert and other film critics have called Leni Riefensthal's Triumph of the Will one of the best documentaries ever made, despite the fact that it's Nazi propaganda.

Sometimes awful people make beautiful art. When you're a teenager who looks to writers and artists as role models, the first time you realize that, it hurts bad, like a girlfriend cheating on you.

But I still think art made by bad people, and even made for bad reasons, can have value. You don't have to like a person to want to know how their mind works. For instance, Lovecraft believed genetics were destiny (the most basic definition of a racist), yet his father died in an insane asylum. The big twist ending in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is when the narrator realizes his great-grandmother was one of the Deep Ones and that he will soon change into one of the disgusting creatures. Lovecraft railed against tainted bloodlines in real life and in his fiction, but one of the main reasons seems to be fear that his own bloodline was tainted with disease and madness.

Roger Ebert finds a similar mixture of fascination and revulsion in Triumph of the Will: There is a lesson, to be sure, in the zombie-like obedience of the marching troops, so rigid in formation they deny their own physical feelings. One searches the ranks for a smile, a yawn. But all are stern and serious, and so is Hitler, except once when he smiles as the horses are marching past.

It would be a better, more just world if artistic talent was only granted to the people who deserved it, the Vincent Van Goghs and W. B. Yateses who solemnly swear to use their art only to lift humanity up. But as long as we're living in this world, I don't think we lose any moral ground trying to understand people we don't like. In fact, we can learn a lot about them and ourselves in the process.

(Cross-posted on my blog.)


tanita davis said...

And that last sentence puts it all into focus for me. Thanks, Kris.

The English Teacher said...

Yeah, but Van Gogh suffered from depression, possible insanity, and committed suicide, so he's hardly the ideal role model either.
This is a great post and very thought-provoking. But, it's not just the artists/writers. Lincoln, for example, was really rather racist, even though he didn't like the idea of slavery. Does that negate his work in keeping our country together and helping to liberate thousands from bondage? No. He still did great things. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, yet he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Ah, the irony!
And it's in other fields as well. Certainly Tiger Woods has played some truly excellent golf in his time. But you'd hardly hold him up as a role model for a teen, would you? His conduct seems as distasteful as anything you've dug up on Lovecraft. But, hey, if you just look at his golf abilities, is that important? It's very much like the question you ask in your post.
I think the important thing is to be aware of the author's perspective, background, beliefs, etc. when looking at a piece. We're all colored by our world and experiences. The study of literature must include these things, and you've pointed out yet another reason why this is so.

Kristopher said...

Yeah, it took me quite awhile to come to that conclusion (20 or 30 years or so.) Glad you liked it.

as always ♥ Carol said...

Wow I'm not sure I'd ever really sat down and though about it but its true just because you might not like some one doesn't mean their work isn't worth liking. After all you can do some thing one day believing you are completely in the right until some one else comes and changes your ideas or opinions. Great post very thought provoking

as always ♥,Carol