Sunday, November 8, 2015

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of REH and HPL (Part 5) by David Piske

At the present point of the epistolary debate between Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft (just over a year in), the direct arguments about barbarism and civilization have become dwarfed by their debates on a wide range of other issues, most of which are related to the original disagreement. This was inevitable since the concept of barbarism for Howard, and of civilization for Lovecraft represent a broader set of values and ideals. In the interest of thoroughness, our summary and analysis of the debate has broadened, taking a look at many (but by no means all) of these other topics. In addition to a debate of ideas, in these letters we also see both men's personality on display, for better and worse. Already in the last several letters, tempers have flared and seeming cooled. And in the two letters in view here, we see REH adopting the role of the iconoclast, smashing HPL's idols, while HPL labors to establish a common framework by which to determine meaning. Despite the civil and apparently genuinely friendly conversations about each other's writings and personal lives, on the topics of their controversy, resentment has crept it and seems colors many of the arguments.

Letter 87: REH to HPL (ca. September 1933)

After several pages of friendly chatting, REH returns to the debate with HPL, first addressing the value of art and intellect. Previously, the disagreement on this matter seemed resolvable. REH himself had pointed out the minimal degree of conflict between their positions. However, here REH again seems animated by HPL's haughtiness. REH begins his response regarding their multi-faceted debate by directly addressing their mutual resentment:
"In a previous discussion you quite obviously deeply resented what seemed like an attack on artistic values and other things you prized; rightly enough; yet now you denounce me as irrational, emotional and egotistical because I resent – or seem to resent – attacks on certain things I happen to prize rather highly. . . . I fail to see that it is any less my privilege to defend my tastes and ideals than it is another man's, even if I am not an artist" (634).
It is plain that REH feels just as much resentment now as HPL seems to have felt initially. He clearly objects to the way in which HPL has framed the debate. The last clause is especially revealing: "even if I am not an artist." Warranted or not, REH feels as if HPL considers him to be unqualified to hold and defend his views.

Next, REH objects to HPL's supposed attempt to "classify an entire personality according to the sources of its pleasure" (634). But HPL did not do this; actually, he explicitly denied this could be done. He maintained that certain pleasures are inferior to others, but he explained (at length) that because of uneven and compartmentalized development personality, otherwise superior men can find pleasure in inferior diversions. As a result, HPL says, it is an error to attempt "to classify men rigidly according to their pleasures" (621). REH appears occasionally not to grasp the subtlety of HPL's arguments, and now we see he completely misinterprets what is a fairly clear position.

Regarding HPL's claim that art is a sign of man's evolution (that is, his qualitative difference from amoeba), REH affirms the bare observation, but argues for its irrelevance. Art is no more characteristic of humans than other acts, like sacrifice. Or even negative qualities that humans tend to gloss over when defining themselves as a species: like treachery or sexual perversion. Man is unique among animals not merely on account of qualities he cherishes, but also by his unique faults. Humans are the only species capable of duplicity, he says, and most animals have more honesty and decency than humans. REH's point is clear, but its force is in doubt, for the very acts of duplicity and honesty, or categories of decency and indecency require consciousness, and cannot be attributed to (at least most) nonhuman species. Besides this, REH seems to miss the real gist of HPL's argument: that man's distinction from animals is not a matter of morality, but of complexity and development.

Not only does REH rebut HPL's claim that humans are higher than animals, he also objects to classifying men by their "virtues" into a similar hierarchy. He concludes the point caustically: "We have not yet reached the point where the superior man is supposed to exude perfume instead of sweat, to bleed ichor instead of blood, and to void ambergris instead of dung, but I expect that revelation almost anytime" (636).

After addressing a few issues of disagreement, REH comes to the matter of freedom. Previously, he had claimed that civilization diminishes individual freedom, and cited this as one of his criticisms of civilization. HPL then countered that there is no such thing as "total freedom," and that changes in the degree of relative freedom are inevitable, as social circumstances change. But these changes are minimal and easily adjusted to. Here, REH's reply appears more like a rash striking out than a pointed rebuttal. An argument for why the laws of civilization are overly restrictive would have been a more direct answer to HPL's argument. But instead REH denies that he ever claimed "total freedom," affirms that freedom is relative, and acknowledges that all men are bound by "natural limitations" (637). But then he says it is easy for philosophers to argue from this point that freedom is merely an illusion. He sarcastically illustrates the hypocrisy of such philosophers by posing a scenario in which they are forced from their congenial professions to take up the plough as farmhands (638). But HPL did not argue that freedom is an illusion; it seems that REH is projecting his disdain for philosophical hypocrisy and "sophistry" onto HPL and attacking a straw man, rather than countering HPL's actual argument.

As the debate has unfolded subject of the American frontier has become more prominent topic. Though REH had recently differentiated between barbarism and the frontier, his exaltation and longing for both show that, for him, they are closely related. In response to REH's earlier lament at the passing of the frontier, HPL pointed out that it was a merely transitional phase. Here REH replies that today's age is no less transient. A strange reply, as it does not negate HPL's point that the frontier is no longer fitted to the present society. Further, HPL had claimed that the frontier was unjust in that it gave all to the strong and took all from the weak. REH objects to this statement as "too sweeping" (638). Assuming that by "the weak" HPL means artists, REH argues that the modern world is no more lucrative for them than was the frontier. Then, perhaps confronting HPL's apparent prejudice, REH notes that successful leaders on the frontier utilized their brains as well as brawn. Indeed, he argues, intelligence is just as necessary on a farm as in a studio (639).

Turning to mount a defense of Gothic barbarism, REH denies that he minimizes barbarian suffering. But he maintains the two conditions are basically equal in their degree of human suffering. He admits: "Barbaric life was hell; but so is modern life. So was any life, in any age" (642). He clarifies his previous point: it is not that civilization causes all madness, insanity, grief, disease, social turmoil, and injustice, but that those things are present in civilization! Nor can the suffering he has seen be attributed to the victim's lack of civilization, or to living in a region of frontier tradition (again conflating barbarism and the frontier). Further he surmises (on the basis of newspaper reports!) that suicides, cases of insanity, and general discomfort in life are roughly equal in the East and West. Despite the understandable riposte to HPL's seeming haughtiness against Texans and pioneers, REH's points here do not support the equivalence he seeks to establish between barbarism and civilization.

The Romans battling the Barbarians
Next, REH challenges HPL's second main indictment against barbarism (the first being aesthetic development). HPL had claimed that today's age is relatively humane compared to the habitual outrages against the integrity of body under barbarism. REH rebuts this claim on two counts. First, civilization does not always regard bodily integrity as sacred. He gives example of the first point, observing that modern governments annul the "right" of bodily integrity in war time, though at least primitive German and Gallic soldiers had more purpose and enthusiasm when going to war. Further, he admits that primitive Germans sacrificed humans (as did, he says, the civilized Romans). But the numbers of those sacrificed did not exceed the number mutilated and killed in modern mines and factories. REH's point about war may be his strongest here, as the bodily effect of war is horrific enough (regardless of which weapons are used), and the mental effects are hard to quantify in our own time, to say nothing attempting to do so across epochs. However, the comparison of human sacrifice to accidents in mines and factories seems like a jaded equivalence between two categories of suffering that differ not only logically, but also psychologically (something which HPL will argue).

REH's second point is that maybe no one has any right to the integrity of their body if they cannot defend it. He does not expand on this point. And it is unclear whether he actually believes this, or is simply throwing up an objection to gain an advantage in the debate. On the one hand, we might think this is an insincere claim because REH has previously held honor and straight-forwardness as morally superior to deceit and trickery, and such a position rests on the acknowledgement of certain "rights" of others, and a corresponding restraint upon oneself. On the other hand, REH later makes a similarly jaded claim which appears inconsistent with his more moralistic side. Whether statements like these are insincere rhetorical moves, or evidence of a moral conflict in REH's thinking is open for debate. But regardless of his sincerity, or of whether he realized the implications of his claim, the point highlights the reality that "rights" mean nothing to those who don't recognize them; they must be asserted, and if necessary, defended. Ironically, it could be be argued that one of the values of society is that it provides and enforces a common definition of the individual's "rights," so that a person can go about his or her daily life without being constantly prepared to fight for their life.

Turning to other forms of suffering, REH begins to argue that famines could not have been too bad, because the Germans flourished, after all. And venereal disease was extremely rare or nonexistent. Then, he departs from the argument on suffering to make a case for barbarism's purer reasons for going to war. He also argues that civilization is more destructive than barbarism. When he eventually returns to his previous point of suffering, he says:
"I am not by any means certain that [barbarians'] suffering was greater than that of modern man. . . .  The mere fact that they expanded so greatly in numbers and importance shows that their lives were not unmixed rounds of suffering and agony.  A race can not develop under conditions too adverse" (644).
Next, REH returns briefly to the topic of art, but with particular connection with barbarism. He asks, if modern conditions are so conducive to art, why does this age produce so few real masters? To give force to his question, he contrasts this dearth of artistic flourishing with Florence in its Golden Age and England during the Elizabethan Age. Both produced more "artists of worth" than our present civilization, even though Italians and Englishmen of those times were "at least as ‘barbaric' in their ways and manners as modern Texans" (645).

Finally, concluding his defense of barbarism, REH asks HPL where he draws the line between the end of barbarism and the start of civilization. If the question sounds impossible to answer. More specifically, how are European countries of only a few centuries ago considered more civilized than the current American West? Here REH aptly seizes upon the ultimate weakness in arguing for "Civilization" (as such) – the imprecision and inevitable hypocrisy in applying the label.

"Civilized Violence"
Illustration of Police Brutality
In reply to HPL's argument that direct violence is not necessarily preferable to trickery (which he admitted is more ignominious), REH agrees that brutality and oppression of the weak are revolting. But he bypasses the point of the argument, and instead of rebutting, makes a different point. He says, "It is just a matter of deciding just what violence is necessary, an not actually wanton" (645). And this decision, he adds, varies ("like everything else") from place to place. This argument challenges HPL's position to make any judgement about violence in the West by reducing the question to a mere matter of opinion (as he has done with several issues now). Further, in justifying violence, REH places priority on considerations of "necessity" over "absolute abstraction of what is ‘right' and what is not" (645). By negating the value of abstract thinking on the matter, REH further undermines HPL's judgment.

There is a larger problem with the REH argument here, though. If he is prioritizing "necessity" as a just cause for violence, and implies that this is determined locally, and further, dismisses more abstract ethical consideration, then he ends up advocating no ethic at all. For the narrower (more local) the point of view, the easier it is to justify horrible acts by citing "necessity." But abstract reflection can identify self-serving biases that comprise more parochial attempts at rationalizing violence. If this is actually REH's argument, then it leaves the door wide open for stronger parties to feel perfectly justified in oppressing the weak – something which he claims to deplore.

[To Be Continued]

1 comment:

Scott Sheaffer said...

REH isn't the only one to draw a connection between human sacrifice and industrial accidents. In the 1927 film Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang, there's the hallucination scene around the time of a large accident. During the hallucination, the machinery takes on the shape of a temple entrance built in the form of the middle eastern god Molech's face. Molech was a deity to whom children were sacrificed by immolation. Both Howard and Lamg were operating in pre OSHA days. Thus, industrial leaders could and did care a lot less about workplace safety.