Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft: A Summary with Commentary (Part 2), by David Piske

Following on 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).

These comments, more than a lot of what is written in the conversation directly about barbarism and civilization, reveal the sources of REH’s developing view of and identity with barbarism. He must be free, and one who would be free must be forceful enough to back up the claim. However, it should be noted that this conviction about freedom stands in inexplicably stark contrast to the image of the essential bound and passive barbarian in his previous letter. These inconsistencies demonstrate a development in REH’s thought, a development which culminates in the later Conan stories.

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
"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).
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?).

H.P. Lovecraft
HPL allows for "metaphysical debate on this point", but he maintains that greater energy conversion yields greater pleasure (528). Since each being has a different inherent capacity for energy conversion (and therefore for pleasure), it is unlikely that the maximum pleasure for each type equals "identical emotional states." Thus, "The difference between the content of a barbarian and the pleasure of a civilsed man is that between numbness and agreeable sensation—between the taste of an inoffensive and faintly palatable food and that of a keenly delightful and well-seasoned food" (528).

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
What seems ironic is that these last points are loosely related and do not form a unified argument, yet some of them are probably the best points HPL has offered so far in the debate. Had he expanded on them without inflammatory hyperbole and condescension, and avoided metaphysical speculation, he would have made a stronger case, and avoided embittering his friend.

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 . . .)


Unknown said...

Overall, another excellent installment. I liked the "energy-conversion" quote. I hope there will be further examples of such hand-waving psycho-babble.

As for quibbles, I personally believe the "development which culminates in the later Conan stories" statement could be a bit more precise. It could be read as meaning Howard only began envisioning such a concept at that point, rather than the concept reached full fruition in late tales such as "Red Nails".

Some have argued that this debate (which began after the first few Conan yarns) is what sparked REH's views on the subject. I simply cannot agree with that.

A final quibble is the use of the "joke" photo of REH which, out of context, could be quite unflattering when seen by a newcomer to Howard's work.

Other than that, keep up the great work!

Todd B Vick said...

"Unknown", the use the REH photo was not intended to be a joke. I placed the photo there because it is actually a newly discovered picture of REH. Howard posed for that picture and probably liked it. It was fairly common for REH to pose for these types of pictures because his imagination was always at play.



Todd B Vick said...

"Unkonwn", BTW - I noticed my oversight in allowing anonymous comments to this blog - I've changed this setting, so please register to make any further comments. Thanks.


David said...

Dear Anonymous.

I'm not sure what you mean by "such a concept." If you mean barbarism, then it is obvious that it did not begin at "this point;" as I pointed out, these are the 70th and 75th pieces of the REH/HPL correspondence, and the 5th and 7th letters in the debate on this subject. If you mean something else, please clarify.

You are correct that this debate did not initiate REH's thinking about barbarism. Clearly his interest goes back further; REH and HPL discussed related topics early on in their correspondence. And to clarify: while REH had already written several Conan stories by the start of the "debate" in August 1932, the first, The Phoenix on the Sword, was published later, in December of the same year.

Tex said...


Follower # 9 checking in.

I've been REALLY enjoying the articles here, Professor Vick, and these two by visiting Professor Piske (who is kind enough to join us here at the Underwood College of Howardian Knowledge) on The Great Debate in particular.

However, I have to agree with Unknown.

While the Howard pic is indeed a newly discovered one, it looks out of place considering the serious tone of the piece and the intellectual debate between these two GIANTS. The HPL one is just fine, with Grandpa Theobald looking all intellectual and scholarly in the library, but the one of teenage Howard playing at pirates and scowling at the camera is a visual speedbump. This one...

or this one...

...suits the serious tone better. After all, this isn't just for Howard fans, but for Lovecraft fans as well. And if they're getting their first exposure to Howard the man, that pirate pic's probably gonna make them look cross-eyed at ole Two-Gun.

Piffley grumbles aside, the site as a whole is GREATNESS, and bookmarked at the top of my ever-growing REH folder, right there with the Forum.

Keep it up, fellers!

Charles "Tex" Albritton III

(it would be REALLY COOL if the articles here were eventually published in book form, hint-hint)

Todd B Vick said...

Hey Tex, thanks for the kind remarks and I'm very glad to hear you are enjoying David's series. I have a whole host of upcoming articles/posts from a wide variety of REH fans/scholars so please stay tuned! Cheers!