Thursday, November 12, 2015

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of REH and HPL (Part 6) by David Piske

Letter 89: HPL to REH (November 2, 1933)

Before turning to meatier matters of the debate, HPL addresses REH's charge of resentment. Using the third person point of view, HPL indirectly admits that he is exasperated by "his opponent" for "contravening common reason and attack the foundations of everything which makes life valuable to persons above the simian grade," but he brushes these feelings off as a "side issue" (660). To HPL, the only thing that matters is the truth of the arguments, and resentment is irrelevant and only muddies the argument with the "waste products" of emotion which should be ignored. HPL is sincerely baffled at REH's offense. He regrets the unintentional offense and insists that he does not have an arrogant attitude.

Next HPL attempts to clarify REH's misunderstanding of his point about the superior human personality and lower forms of entertainment. He reiterates his distinction between classifying things and classifying people who like those things. Indeed, HPL had labored to make this point in his original argument, and it is unclear how REH came away with the opposite impression. HPL affirms that the wisest man can gain pleasure from the trashiest sources (but on nonintellectual or nonaesthetic grounds) (662). He is unapologetic about recognizing the relative value of different things (for example, Eddie Guest's poetry is "crap"), and he cares greatly about their relation to the larger questions of political, economic, and social order; but he does not even think of judging individuals by their taste in entertainment (662-3).

In the next several pages of the letter (four pages, as they are formatted in A Means to Freedom) HPL does not directly rebut any of REH's arguments, but develops and defends his argument for the universal and quasi-absolute value of human development (being careful to distinguish this from a cosmic or sacred value). His argument is subtle and abstract, and he restates his main point numerous times in different ways until he finally arrives (halfway through his argument) at a more succinct thesis: "Human valuation of high development is universal" (664). Acknowledging his repetition, he explains that it is necessary because REH challenges the basis for evaluating everything (665).

In brief, HPL's argument is that societies possess parallel sets of values. Some of these are relative to a given set of conditions; others are more absolute, because they have to do with the physical welfare of the race. Together these values aim at the survival, welfare, and functioning of society. Through these values a universal feeling can be observed, that becomes a separate value parallel to the others: the desirability of advancement. Because of the universality of this value for advancement, national policy should encourage aesthetic and intellectual development, which is the highest expression of this development.

HPL labors to demonstrate that this position entails no elitism or depreciation of sturdier qualities that REH holds to be paramount; these sturdier virtues support the survival, welfare, and integrity of society, parallel with the ultimate value of advancement, which gives society its purpose. He draws an analogy to a Gothic cathedral. The "sturdier" values are like the foundation stones and buttresses, while intellect and aesthetic sensitivity are like its towers, traceries, and rose windows, which represent the "emotional exaltation" which was its purpose for being built (666).

Gothic Cathedral
As a final point of clarification, HPL agrees in principle with REH, that "Art is merely one of several manifestations of the highest stage of development" (666-7). Development, itself, is general and includes many different types of activities and occupations. For instance, scientists are just as exalted as artists. Also executives and administrators are essentially scientists in their own fields. Even great military leaders occupy the edges of this class (666). With this point HPL hopes to make clear to REH that he never intended to exalt art (as a profession) as the sole instance of human development, and he supports the sincere pursuit of any "line of effort."

In the next phase of the letter HPL responds to REH's specific arguments. First he addresses the argument that crimes and vices are just as, or more indicative, of humanity than our virtues. HPL agrees that "more effective performance of anything is typically human," but points out that the motivations behind most crimes are not the "fresh motivations" of art and intellect but are primitive and instinctual (667). And regarding REH's related claim that animals are morally superior to humans, HPL says that even if animals possess more honesty or decency than man (which a zoologist would dispute) those qualities are relative, and cannot compare to the animals' intrinsic inferiority (668). The overarching point of this rebuttal, as HPL emphasizes, is that the supposed moral superiority of animals is irrelevant because the distinction between humans and other animals that HPL has in mind is one of biological complexity and psychological sensitivity.

Turning to the matter of human freedom, HPL expresses confusion about the "bearing" of REH's new argument, especially its relationship to his older argument. The new argument he refers to is REH's scenario of the hypocritical philosopher being forced into manual labor. What is odd is that REH did not seem to intend this as a new argument, but rather to illustrate an argument against philosophical skepticism about human freedom. But by highlighting REH's distinction between congenial and noncongenial labor, HPL neuters REH's complaint about the restriction of freedoms under civilization.

HPL says he had thought REH opposes civilization's regulations, which necessary for collective life (which complaint, he says, amounts to mere "license and anti-social disorder") (671). But in his scenario of the philosophers, REH seems to accept 5-6 hours a day of congenial (intellectual) work as an acceptable level of freedom. On this the two men agree, HPL says, just as they agree on deploring the "excessive imposition of industry" (670). HPL states, though, that REH misplaces the blame. Civilization is not the cause for this restriction on the individual, but rather a laissez faire policy toward industry. The mechanization of industry under a government which regulates the economy will lead to more leisure for the manual worker (671-2).

The mechanization of industry (Manual Labor)
Next HPL replies to REH's remarks about the frontier. First, he admits that he has no first hand experience of the frontier, and might have been wrong in stating that it rewarded those with physical strength and murderous temperament. He proceeds to praise the frontier. He recognizes it as a necessary stage of development and admires its members for their sturdy characters. He also acknowledges that countless elements of the frontier carry over into American culture, and (in reply to REH's point) appreciates the intelligence required for success on the frontier (673).

In the last letter, HPL had argued that the frontier was a transitional phase, to which REH responded that the present age is no less transitional. Here HPL clarifies that he does not oppose the persistence of the frontier because of it's "intrinsic transientness;" indeed, he says, any age is ultimately transient. Rather, his point is that conditions have changed, and frontier folkways will no longer fit modern conditions. For example, violence was necessary on the frontier, but a remnant psychology of violence in today's setting is reprehensible (673).

But HPL directly rebuts the REH's denial that the pioneers intended to extend civilization. REH had asked, if they wanted to duplicate the regions they left behind, why did they even bother to go in the first place? The sentence itself is odd as the conditional clause contains the answer to the question: they went precisely to extend society. It is apparent that REH cannot identify with this motivation. HPL states that it is obvious that pioneers worked to establish the the same institutions they had known at home:
"They founded estates, set up courts, schools, encouraged industry and prosperity. . . .  That these solid founders wished to perpetuate a regime of sparse settlement, insecure life and property, violence as an arbiter, and all the rest, is hardly within the realm of probability" (673).
Turning to directly answer REH's question, HPL says they went West because they relished adventure. But that does not mean they wanted their new territories to remain undeveloped.

Coming to the main topic of their debate, HPL says that "the advance of civilisation is all clear gain" (677). He develops this claim along three lines of argument. First, he says, "As civilisation has advanced, the lot of the weak and lowly has steadily improved" (678). He cites examples of several areas in which crushing conditions for the vulnerable of society have given way to more tolerable ones. Considering oppression, in general terms, tortures and punishments were once common; in civilization they are now rare, and when discovered they are loudly protested. Prison conditions are so obviously better that to deny improvement is absurd. He argues that "the economic burden" is about to be addressed by civilized means. Because of the scarcity of resources in a "pastoral-nomadic society of barbarism," the strong will always claim the greatest portion, oppressing the multitude in the process. In contrast to this, HPL expresses his faith in a properly regulated mechanized industry: "The only thing which offers any promise of escape from this frankly and openly oppressive system is the institution of quantity production which civilisation and machinery have brought" (678). In the meantime, he says, REH should remember that those who suffer today are but a tiny minority compared to "vast hordes" who were oppressed in more primitive systems.

The second area of civilization's "clear gain" over barbarism, according to HPL, is in the integrity of the individual's body. He flatly denies REH's attempt to consider the violent maimings of barbarism as equivalent to various sources of injury in present society. Simply, "there is no comparison" (678). Whether considering occupational accidents, or "the very few additional diseases of civilisation," the "wanton, callous butchery of barbarism" is far worse. Barbarians held no respect for life and limb, but in society today "violations of physique are uniformly regarded as calamitous, and given every conceivable safeguard and remedy" (678-9). Regarding war, HPL offers perhaps his most dubious example. Admitting that war is common to all societies, he claims that civilization's hard work "to reclaim the victims" outweigh the greater destructiveness of modern weapons. And considering disease, he argues, "For every person stricken with a new disease in civilisation, thousands in barbarism suffered and died like flies from old diseases which civilisation largely holds in check" (679) He offers the virtual defeat of cholera, typhus, and yellow fever in civilisation as example, and contrasts this to the plague among the Algonquin Indians shortly before the European settlement of New England, in which three-fourths of their population died.

Austrians executing Serbs in 1917
As an appendix to this line of argument, HPL responds to REH's claim that the Goths could not have suffered too badly since they eventually flourished. HPL attacks the logic of this claim: the fact that the survivors flourish gives us no understanding of the scale of suffering and death of the weaker members. Furthermore, he states that when a group's hardship comes from its mode of life rather than from the environment, it is common for the weak to die. The only thing that the Goth's flourishing, demonstrates, therefore, is that they had strong members and occupied an environment that was "not essentially unfavorable" (679).

HPL considers his third line of argument, about the lack of mental development in barbarism, as the main point. As he has largely covered this ground before, this is his briefest argument, essentially calling to mind previous arguments. He reiterates that three-quarters of the barbarian's personality goes to waste and remains undeveloped. In the areas of "cerebral awareness, exercise, and gratification" the barbarian remains "imprisoned in a narrow dungeon of simple impressions" regardless of his innate capacity (679).

Having concluded his renewed argument for the superiority of civilization, HPL addresses a few questions asked by REH in his last letter. First, REH had asked if modern conditions are so conducive to art, why does this age produce so few real masters? (645). HPL offers three reasons for modern society's lack of artistic flourishing. First, the present age is in transition, and is scarcely settled in a psychological sense. Also, today a large proportion of "brains" have gone into science rather than art. Lastly, art has been in an experimental phase for the last 20 years (680-1).

Second, implying a challenge to HPL's connection between art and civilization, REH had highlighted the parallel existence of high art and a callous social order in Florence (during the Renaissance) and Elizabethan England. HPL replies that social development is uneven, so that societies can advance much more highly in some domains than in others. In the particular cases of Italy and England, the cultural recovery from medieval period was uneven, and artistic and intellectual development initially outpaced social and political development (because of the sources of their recovery – Greek thought via the Moors, and Byzantine scholarship via the decaying Eastern Empire) (681-2).

Next, HPL attempts to answer REH's question about the line between barbarism and civilization. He admits the line is ill-defined. As he had noted in a couple of arguments, HPL points out that social development is uneven. As a result, some groups regarded as barbaric have civilized qualities, and some groups regarded as civilized have certain barbaric qualities. But that simply raises REH's question again: on what basis are some groups regarded generally barbaric or generally civilized? HPL honestly admits that the basis is convenience and custom. Thus, while agriculture and city-building are are usual marks of civilization, the accuracy of classification of borderline cases (like Gauls and Teutons) is uncertain (682-3). HPL's candor here is surprising, or at least uncharacteristic, for he has admitted a flaw in the classification of barbarous and civilized societies. He had previously evaded an attempt by REH to consider the advanced features of certain barbarian cultures as argument against the uniqueness of civilization. Had HPL been more candid at the time, the conversation may not have become as polarized.

The Great Depression (Adequate distribution of wealth?)
Similarly, responding to REH's final summaries and recapitulations in his letter, HPL makes a surprising admission. He deplores the cultural implications of the world's wholesale mechanization. He has faith that mechanical quantity production is the only thing that can create enough resources for adequate distribution of wealth and resources, but it has also destroyed "traditional elements of adjustment and relationship," and impoverished life by "rendering many factors in the natural environment meaningless" (686). He laments that society has let machinery manage it, instead of vice versa. He sounds shockingly forlorn when he says, "I fear we haven't enough sheer intelligence and taste to effect such a restriction. ‘Plain living and high thinking' is too exalted a standard for a confused and already somewhat tainted race" (686). This is refreshing change from HPL's frequent haughtiness. Again, had he admitted this candid criticism earlier, the conversation would likely have gone a different direction, resulting in less resentment on both sides.

To be continued.

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)


1 comment:

Bobby Dee said...

Many of Lovecraft's arguments follow his general understanding of race, evolution, politics, and civilization: the idea (though he never used that exact word) of a chain of being, that life progressed from the most simple toward the most complex - which isn't an accurate view of evolution, as many organisms that look "simple" like amoeba can be very complex indeed, and just because you happen to be an intelligent biped doesn't mean you're necessarily more evolved than any other critter on the planet. HPL followed this logic through with the scientific racism of the day - the idea that some races were less developed (and therefore biologically and mentally inferior), with white people as the most advanced/specialized/developed of the lot; and "Aryans" as the most developed white people. Lovecraft was also something of a classist and believed in a kind of natural aristocracy of the "best," which is why he was more of an advocate of fascism than straight democracy.

Robert E. Howard never seems to have put into words his own complete understanding of race and politics to quite the same extant as Lovecraft - indeed, what we know about his views largely comes from this exchange of letters with HPL. They had a lot of implicit agreements about race and evolution (with a few explicit agreements), but I think it's on class that they mainly felt different. REH was much more sympathetic to and identified with the "average" man, especially any kind of "self made" figure, as opposed to any kind of elite, and resented authority. Lovecraft's "natural aristocracy" of the "Machine Age" was anathema to Howard.

They both sort of arrived at the same place, however, in that they thought that the civilization they were in was due to decline, or already beginning to decline, and had a similar understanding on the "degeneracy" of civilizations, probably owing much to the The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and similar works.