part one, this is a continuing project to assess the details, letter-by-letter of the debate between Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft on barbarism and civilization. When leaving off last time, after the fourth letter in the conversation, Lovecraft (HPL) appeared willing to close that line of discussion, but he was going to make sure to have the last word. As we open here, with the fifth letter of the debate (but seventieth item of their overall correspondence), Howard (REH) seems like he might be willing to let it go, as well, but not without reaffirming his initial point.
Letter 70: REH to HPL (received November 2, 1932)
Whereas HPL had framed the topic as "the relative merits of barbarous and civilised life," when REH returns to the topic, he introduces it as "my preference for a theoretical former existence" (439). He also reminds HPL that he never claimed barbarism is superior to civilization. But this belies the impression we get from portions of the correspondence that do not explicitly belong to the barbarism/civilization discussion. For REH, barbarism is more than mere preference. Over time, the image of the barbarian comes to encapsulate his values, dispositions, and criticisms of society. The framing of his remarks as mere preference seems more like an attempt to avoid debate, which he likely sees as pointless anyway. In any case, REH concedes to HPL’s broadest point: "civilization even in decaying form, is undoubtedly better for people as a whole" (439).
Perhaps taking HPL's line about those who hold an overly flattering view of barbarism as an indirect reference to himself, REH denies romanticizing primitive life:
"I have no idyllic view of barbarism—as near as I can learn it's a grim, bloody, ferocious and loveless condition. I have no patience with the depiction of the barbarian of any race as a stately, god-like child of Nature, endowed with strange wisdom and speaking in measured and sonorous phrases. Bah! My conception of a barbarian is very different" (439).As he expands on his understanding of barbarism, it (initially) seems realistic. The barbarian was not merely passionate and intense, but unstable, undignified; not just amoral, but even plainly immoral and horrific. Far from the "noble savage" stereotype, barbarians as a whole lack civilized virtues, even to the point of being retreating, uncontrolled, and deceptive. And he was virtually imprisoned by the conditions of his existence and the powers to which he was subject. The barbarian was not his own: "He had no mental freedom, as civilized man understands it, and very little personal freedom, being bound to his clan, his tribe, his chief" (439). He belonged to his people, and ultimately to his chief and to his gods, both of whom exercised their mortal power over him arbitrarily and absolutely. At any moment and for the pettiest of reasons he could loose his life, or be forced to perform abominable acts even against his own offspring. Unlike the ideal civilized man, the dominant motivation in the barbarian’s life is unprincipled passion, "whims" – when not the tyrannical passions of his betters, then his own.
This is hardly an endorsement for REH’s earlier claim to wish to be reborn to such a life. It is also surprising that this barbarian is virtually a slave, and ultimately passive, without will, very unlike the portrait of a willful Conan that will eventually develop in his stories. So REH's turn here is revealing. Here we see the naked appeal of barbarism to him, even if it betrays some tint of romanticism after all.
"But he was lithe and strong as a panther, and the full joy of strenuous physical exertion was his. The day and the night were his book, wherein he read of all things that run or walk or crawl or fly. Trees and grass and moss-coverd rocks and birds and beasts and clouds were alive to him, and pertook of his kinship. The wind blew his hair and he looked with naked eyes into the sun. Often he starved, but when he feasted, it was with mighty gusto, and the juices of food and strong drink were stinging wine to his palate" (439).
His initial description is far from idyllic, but he cannot help but change his style of expression when he describes what compels him. Notably, there is the familiar theme of joy in physical exertion. This almost certainly is related to an earlier section in the same letter where he writes for more than two pages on his own physicality and preference for athleticism over mental activity. Similarly, the barbarian, with his animal-like strength and muscular form, has no need for self-conscious reflection, but is content to be absorbed in strivings. This barbarian is not quite the "noble savage" of earlier Romantics, but he remains idealized, even if along different lines. This barbarian does not speak in "sonorous phrases", but he lives in a quasi-mystical relationship with nature. He has little shelter from the punishment of the elements yet from them, and from beasts too, he gains knowledge. He is sensitive even to the earth and sky, which are his kin. And the overwhelming austerity of this life gave him special skill in wresting hedonistic delight from a rare feast. Though more romantic, this imaginative style is what attracts his readers to his stories; it is no surprise he perceived the world, even the world of antiquity, with the same flair.
In what appears to be frustration, REH acknowledges inability to make his point more clearly. A familiar experience, apparently, as he is resigned to it: no one has ever understood him on this point before, and he certainly does not expect anyone to do so. He reiterates the point from his previous letter that he would not want to adopt such a life, but given the chance at rebirth, "I'd choose such an existence as I've just sought to depict" (440). Again, appearing to sidestep ongoing debate, he states that his comments have nothing to do with "the relative merits of barbarism and civilization," but is a matter of "personal opinion and choice." At the end of this section REH seems as willing as HPL to end this particular discussion.
Letter 73: HPL to REH (November 7, 1932)
HPL calls REH's description of the barbarous life "magnificently graphic and comprehensive" (477-8). He acknowledges that REH suffers no illusions about primitive life as did Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But if REH understands its gruesomeness, why would he still wish to be born into barbarism? HPL attributes it to "the inexplicable diversity of human tastes."
HPL then reiterates familiar points – that the disadvantages of barbarism overshadow the disadvantages, that the barbarian is "blind and callous" to many aspects of a civilized intellectual and aesthetic life, that a barbarian gains more than he loses by acquiring civilization, and that the only ancient society he himself identifies with is the Graeco-Roman. The only roles in barbaric life he can imagine for himself are that of "a history-chanting bard or mystery-making shaman," but even these would be offer a "pallid and unsatisfactory ghost of what a mature civilisation might give" (478). He concludes similarly as once before: that he admires many barbarian qualities, but cannot identify with them.
Letter 75: REH to HPL (December 1932)
In this letter, REH’s contribution to the barbarism/civilization conversation is less revealing than several things he has to say on other related subjects.
First, REH writes about the importance of physical strength in a section that fills five pages. Two prominent ideas from this section are: 1) that while the mind is important, it is indivisible from and dependent upon the physical body; and 2) that it is important that a man feel equal to other men, and have the ability to fulfill the physical requirements of various scenarios, including forcibly standing up to other men, if needed (488-493).
Second, in a conversation about politics, REH demurs to identify with a particular party, but he does identify his supreme value:
"I have but a single conviction or ideal . . . : individual liberty. . . . I’d rather be a naked savage, shivering, starving, freezing, hunted by wild beasts and enemies, but free to go and come . . . , than [be] the fattest, richest, most bedecked slave in a golden palace . . ." (501).
He expands on this idea, citing a segment of verse expressing the lament of a black slave, he becomes nostalgic for the freedom of the early frontier, finally announcing, "I make no attempt to advocate a single ideal of personal liberty as the one goal of progress and culture. But by God, I demand freedom for myself. And if I can’t have it, I’d rather be dead" (502).
When he does turn to the "debate," instead of directly rebutting HPL’s claims about the advantages of civilization, REH further develops the basic equivalence he previously proposed (in letter 65). A civilized man would find barbaric life intolerable, but a person born to barbarism would feel "no lack of a fullness in life" (507). Then he illustrates the point. The barbarian feels no lack of civilization, just as the Indians felt no lack of whiskey, and the Europeans felt no lack of tobacco. As with whiskey and tobacco, "so are many other of the adjuncts of civilization. We can not get along without them now; but we would be better off if we had never discovered or developed them" (507). We might guess from other sections in the letters about which "adjuncts of civilization" he has in mind. In any case, it is clear that he counts them just as "artificial," "unnecessary," and unfortunate as whiskey and tobacco.
Here we see REH inching into debate mode. He strengthens and repurposes an earlier argument, not just to defend the integrity of his own fantasy, but to intellectually defend historical barbarism. It is easy to imagine that REH is beginning to see this discussion as a recapitulation of the oft repeated struggle of free barbarians against the tyranny of civilization.
But there is some incongruity between REH’s two lines of approach. On one hand, the difference between a barbarous and civilized life is basically one of acclimation to circumstances. On the other hand, under the conditions described in his last letter, violent, painful struggle would only yield bare subsistence. While it is not impossible for people in hellish conditions to find meaning enough to survive, such a task surely goes beyond mere acclimation, and it could hardly yield a "full life." For now, at least, REH is attempting to mesh his fantasy of barbarism with a defense of actual barbarism without facing the reality of its horror.
Next REH responds to HPL's stated preference to be a bard or shaman: "those are the very last things I should wish to be, were my lot cast among the uncivilized" (507). The shaman is the closest a barbarian can come to being civilized, REH claims. For that reason, it is an in-between existence, "a half world" that is "part savage and part budding consciousness." The shaman dimly glimpses a higher reality, and on that account feels a lack of intellectual attainment. Better to be "a complete barbarian," unbothered by the gloomy shadows that haunt the seer. A warrior or ordinary tribesman kills, breeds, feasts, and eventually dies terribly, but in never being troubled by "abstractions," he lives his life to the fullest, even if it seems shallow to modern men. From an external point of view, it is difficult to see the equivalence between the "budding consciousness" of a shaman and the intellect of "civilized man." Indeed, a philosopher might point out the vast difference between Reason and superstition. However, ever the individualist, REH speculatively compares the situations from the vantage point of individual consciousness: just as a "civilized man" engages his mind more than his body, so is the shaman more preoccupied with visions and "truths" than physical exertion.
Finally, driving his point home, REH concludes his remarks on the topic with another statement of equivalence: "Just as a man, dwelling in civilization, is happier when most fully civilized, so a barbarian is happier when fully barbaric" (507).
Letter 77: HPL to REH (January 21, 1933)
HPL sets forth to decimate the equivalence that REH made between the happiness of the civilized man and the barbarian in their own settings. He opens, remarking how complex this issue is, and difficult to judge, but then proceeds to do so with an apparent feeling of certainty.
HPL first counters REH's idea that the barbarian's happiness is equivalent to the civilized man's; the two states are quantifiably different. The experience of "underdeveloped forms of life" is limited to physical and crudely emotional stimulation, which occupies only a fraction of a fully developed human consciousness. As a result, barbarians are "really only a quarter or a sixteenth alive" (527).
The basis for his claim is "energy-conversion" – apparently the biochemical process that produces pleasure. He concedes to REH’s point that a barbarian could not miss something he does not know of, but he renders the point irrelevant. The matter of relative happiness is as simple as whether
As example, HPL considers a wooden stick, a starfish, a dog, a "savage", and a civilized man. In a state of maximum pleasure allowed by their natures and conditions, each converts vastly different amounts of energy: 0, 5, 100, 1,000, and 100,000, respectively (in undefined and theoretical units of happiness?)."the amount of pleasurable energy-conversion in the pitifully restricted consciousness of the barbarian can give him as keen a psychological satisfaction—as measured by any conceivable unit—as the stupendously vaster amount of pleasurable energy-conversion in the enormously greater consciousness-area of the civilised man" (527).For "the thoughtful investigator" is "mindful that all sensation is really chemical or physical action and therefore theoretically measurable in energy-units," and larger amounts of sensation are more poignant than smaller amounts (527).
HPL rounds out his argument by anticipating circumstances that could mitigate the margin of difference between the barbarian’s and the civilized man’s degree of pleasure, and then rebutting them. In the process he categorizes REH (along with Lord Monboddo, a Scottish anthropologist) as a "lover of barbarism." He then digresses into remarks about how some inferior races might very well be better suited to barbarism, but how that is no reason to hold back the superior races (529).
Even aside from his pejorative language about barbarians and his generally condescending tone toward REH, HPL’s argument contains several flaws. He might have had a good point about the effects of differing levels of stimulation on consciousness, however despite attempting to present it as scientific, it appears to be no more than a series of metaphysical assertions and assumptions. For example: that the mental stimulation possible in civilization is more than the intense physical stimulation of the barbarian’s struggle to survive; that more stimulation equals more pleasure; and that happiness is a simple matter of sensation or pleasure. Add to this the fact that his quantification of energy conversion is arbitrary, based merely on his bias.
Moving on from his main argument, HPL notes an irony in REH’s position: "[Y]ou undoubtedly belong . . . to the superior type which would lose most through a relapse of the world into barbarism" (529). It seems to go without his notice that REH never wished for such. He then attacks the coherence of REH’s fantasy of rebirth into barbarism. REH desires to be a barbarian warrior, but he in fact could never be. The flesh-hacking warrior’s qualities result from his lack of imaginative sensitivity, but REH’s imagination would never let him be anything other than a minstrel or shaman. Even exhausting physical exertion would never fully "stifle the restless questing of a mind as finely organised and alert as [his]" (529).
Suddenly HPL moves on from flattery to argue for the superiority of civilization with a series of loosely related claims. Most notably, he argues 1) that barbarism eventually fails because whenever there is a "lull in the deadly struggle for physical survival," barbarians cannot help but develop; 2) that "a sensible evolutionary standard" demonstrates the quantitative and qualitative superiority of civilization; 3) that every argument for barbarism is based on "fallacious romanticism and sentimentality" that disregards facts; and 4) that nearly all the defects of civilization are due to lapses into barbarism ("as a result of the ascendancy of brutish and greedy primitive minds").
|Robert E. Howard posing as a Pirate|
HPL concludes his tirade, again announcing his own victory over an imagined and merely projected opposition, as REH never made any of the claims that HPL here vanquishes: "Really, it is quite impossible to make out a soundly convincing case for barbarism. All the facts are against it. . . . Civilisation is not something to be rejected" (530).
(To be Continued . . .)