Sunday, September 20, 2015

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of REH and HPL (Part 3), by David Piske

Two years into their well-known correspondence, Robert E. Howard commented in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft about how strongly he identified with the barbarians of history, rather than with any civilizations. Lovecraft [HPL], who identified strongly with Rome, and who considered himself a civilized intellectual, evidently took this as a challenge and began to argue with Howard [REH] about this preference. While discussing the subject in three subsequent letters, REH expressed a wish to have been born into barbarism, and argued that there was contentment to be found outside of civilization, even if the latter is generally better for humanity. But by his fourth letter, prodded by HPL's insistence to argue for civilization's obvious superiority, REH started inching into debate mode, criticizing civilization and glorifying barbarism.

This entry is the third part in a project to examine this debate, letter-by-letter (see also part one and part two.), as found in the two volume set, A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, edited by S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke. (All page numbers refer to these volumes.) The previous two parts of this series each covered four letters, two by each man. As a result of the growing intensity of their debate, the arguments grow more involved, and material from other parts of their letters becomes more relevant. As a result, this third part examines only two letters, one by REH and the response by HPL.

Letter 78: REH to HPL (March 6, 1933)

As their debate intensifies, other conversations in the letters become more contentious, as well – the ideas of each topic feeding each other. As with his previous letter (in December 1932), many of REH's comments in other sections of this letter provide insight about his point of view on the topic of the debate.

In their argument over the the value of the mental versus the physical, REH is weary of debate. Both he and HPL believe in the subordination of the body to the mind, REH asserts; the main difference between them, he says, is too trivial to argue about. He is interested in mental and physical pursuits, while HPL is interested exclusively in mental ones. Accordingly, REH reiterates his agreement with HPL at several points over many pages. On one of these occasions, REH admits that the physical side of man is inferior to the mental, but asserts that it is yet a vital factor in the development of society (541). This idea will be repeated in his argument for the value of barbarism later in this letter, and in subsequent ones.

Celtic Ruler
Also, in their ongoing conversation about their political views, REH acknowledges that individual liberty (which he previously identified as his "supreme value") is impossible in highly developed civilization, which he states "is one thing I have against such civilizations" (542). He then indulges in a sarcastic rant.
"I realize the object of ‘good government' is not to fulfill what you call the catch slogan of liberty. No; its object is to emasculate all men, and make good little rabbits and guinea pigs out of them that will fit into the nooks designed for them, and stay there contentedly nibbling their fodder until they die of inanition. Liberty of action, is of course, impossible under these ideal conditions" (543, emphasis mine). 
REH allows that intellectual and creative freedom might remain through civilized development, but asks, "what about the people who are neither artists, intellectuals, or scientists? They do exist, in large numbers" (543, emphasis mine). REH's sarcasm indicates his annoyance with HPL's admittedly fascist outlook. Clearly one of REH's main criticisms of civilization is that it subordinates men to its system, a system which HPL lauds.

If the sarcasm is not enough to highlight REH's growing exasperation, he states it more directly.
"I think any emotion that I waste in looking back and wishing I had lived then instead of now, will hardly upset the social balance of the civilization in which I live. . . . I think I've managed to adapt myself fairly well to the conditions under which I am forced to live. . . . Because I chance to voice my inner feelings in the matter to one I consider as a friend doesn't necessarily imply that I go around in the buckskins and coonskin cap of a former age, or waste my strength in vain striving against conditions beyond my control" (543).
REH is beginning to express resentment that will continue to grow as the correspondence continues. He has repeatedly stated that his favor for barbarism is a personal preference, not indicating a political point of view. (In reality, however, the two are intimately related.) But HPL has insisted on attacking even REH's barbarian escapism as if it was a threat to civilization.

REH continues to express this annoyance when he turns to explicitly address the debate topic. Again he is bewildered about the direction that this conversation has taken. All he maintains is personal preference to be reborn among Celtic or Germanic tribesman, rather than Romans or Greeks for whom he feels no connection. Better yet, he would choose the American frontier between 1795 and 1895. This preference is no different, he says, than choosing to live in Texas rather than in civilized New York. And he reiterates: the "matter of relative superiority [of civilization] is beside the point" (546). Here REH seems uninterested in debate, but he has been dragged into it, and will by no means let HPL's presumed victory over barbarism stand without a reply.

Lord Monboddo
HPL stated in his last letter that the defense of barbarism depends on romanticism, and on that point compared REH with Scottish anthropologist, Lord Monboddo. REH replies, "I never heard of that Lord— whatever you call him. . . . I don't idealize anything" (546). And even if he were idealizing barbarism, according to REH, HPL is just as guilty of idealizing civilization. In any case, REH simply thinks he is better fitted to the frontier than to the current mode of life.

Of all HPL's barbs, REH seems most irritated by the implication underlying all of HPL's arguments – the superiority of the mind over all else. REH counters:
"Because I have read a few more books than my grandfathers read, and can scribble things on paper they couldn't, I am not such a conceited jackass as to fancy that my life is fuller and richer than theirs, who helped to fight a war, open a frontier and build up a new nation. Of all snobberies, the assumption that intellectual endeavors, attainments and accomplishments are the only worth-while and important things in life, is the least justifiable" (546).
While, logically speaking, the quality of a person's life is a different matter than its historical significance, a little trash-talking seems appropriate here, especially considering the conceit of HPL's last letter. REH's point is clear though, and echoes arguments he has made in other letters on a different topic: intellect alone is not sufficient for life, nor even the building of civilization.

Next, REH points out that HPL is misrepresenting his point of view. "You say it would not be fair to hold back the superior types on account of the inferiority of a portion of humanity. I never advocated that plan" (546). Indeed, REH stated more than once that "even a decaying civilization is preferable for humanity as a whole, than a state of barbarism" (546). Despite a fantasy to be reborn to barbarism, he has repeatedly maintained that in his "present state" he is unfitted for it. "I have never made any remark about wishing civilization to fall back into savagery. If I would wish personally to live life in a different sphere, that is quite another matter" (546).

REH next refutes HPL's muddied argument that REH's preference for barbarism is ironic. HPL stated that it is REH's imagination, which is the product of civilization, that leads REH to prefer barbarism. REH denies that his imagination is the product of civilization, as he is not civilized "according to the urban, Eastern standard" (546), which his friends frequently remind him. And he denies any irony or illogic in his position. In any case, he would gladly abandon his imagination, along with any other qualities that would not fit with barbarism, if he could only be reborn as a barbarian.

REH admits that he wouldn't gain much by such a change, but states that neither would he loose much, either. With this, he resumes arguing for an equivalence of barbarism and civilization. A barbarian (at least the original Aryan type) did take pleasure in slashing, and endured it when he received the same. "That was part of his life, just as grinding men and women to dust and crushing their souls into ashes is part of the civilized system" (547). Just as the barbarian tortured others, so civilization accepts and upholds "torture of its members in police-courts, prisons and mad houses" (547). Between this and the violence of the barbarian, REH sees "little difference." Furthermore, "civilized wars" any no less brutal than those waged by barbarians. They are certainly no less "disturbing to universal harmony" (547). While some of these comparisons are exaggerated, REH seems simply to want HPL to acknowledge that civilization does not alleviate all human suffering.

Next REH introduces a long overdue issue to the discussion, that of definitions. "Just what is civilization? Where does barbarism leave off and civilization begin?" (547). While initially they both took the idea of civilization for granted, here REH argues it is actually ambiguous, and lends to the impression of superiority without actually providing a measure for it. Given such ambiguity, how could one compare various civilizations (such as Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, and "ours"), even to one another? Each could be argued superior to ours in various ways, and vice versa.

What is Civilization?
Furthermore, "[w]hat constitutes the barbarian?" Far from being an obvious question, many groups that could be called barbaric rivaled or surpassed civilizations existing in their own times in many ways. REH's suggestions for areas of barbarian superiority range from vague and romantic to incisive ("spirit of exploration and adventure," knowledge of war and voyaging, ship building and navigation, and literature). Notably, REH lauds the Gauls and German tribes for courage, honor, and honesty that surpassed Rome's. Responding to HPL's earlier claim that barbarism is only attractive from the perspective of decadent civilization, REH asks, "do you not think that [Vikings] found their life good without that perspective?" (547). The self-glorification in their sagas demonstrate a vital people: "They were alive; they stung, burned, tingled with Life—life raw and crude and violent, doubtless; but Life, just the same, and worthy to be classed with the best efforts of the intellectual side of man" (547-8).

Taking the broader scope of the correspondence with HPL into account, especially REH's remarks in other parts of this letter, it is clear that REH wants to demonstrate that life is more than merely intellect, which HPL alone prizes above all else.  Indeed, this is REH's conclusion on the topic: "Because a man lives an active life rather than one of study and contemplation does not necessarily imply that he is dead from the neck up" (548).

Letter 79: HPL to REH (March 25, 1933)

In this letter HPL writes more on the debate topic than he has in any previous letter. Consisting of just over ten pages in the printed volume (one can only imagine how many handwritten pages!), his coverage of the subject here consists mostly of meandering arguments punctuated by reiterations of the same basic point – that civilization is superior to barbarism in that it minimizes human suffering and "expands man's natural capacities" as much as possible beyond those of animals (574). HPL makes several good points in the course of this series of arguments, but often they don't quite hit the target, or their force is diminished by some other factor. At this point, the debate feels like it has become plodding and muddy. As a result, the focus here will be only on select comments and arguments.

From the beginning of this section HPL persists in misconstruing REH's comments as an attack on civilization, and in projecting viewpoints on him that he never articulated. In addition, HPL heavy-handedly frames the discussion, assuming the role of the reasonable, clear-thinking gentleman, and portraying REH as misguided (even if sympathetically so). Indeed, HPL's opening comment appears to be an insincere expression of sympathy with REH's point of view. Rather than draw the two together, it seems like HPL's approach will only distance them, both through an odd use of third, rather than second person, and in minimizing REH's view while ostensibly sympathizing with it. He states that he can sympathize and has no quarrel with a person's romantic feeling of identity with barbarism, and his half-serious wish to escape reality into a fantasy world of his own imagining. Rather, HPL states that his quarrel lies with REH's "underlying assumption . . . that the barbaric state is intrinsically superior—in a serious sense—to civilisation . . ." (564). He portrays REH's "tacit position" as that "barbarism actually satisfied more of the normal human personality than civilisation does" (565). This seems like an odd claim. If REH had seemed to suggest at some point that barbarism was better for the normal human person than civilization, he more than cleared up that misconception in his last letter.

HPL states that barbarism is a normal, but early and temporary stage of social development. A race of people, he says, develops like a man. Accordingly, barbarism is akin to boyhood, characterized by "cruelty, callousness, thoughtlessness, ignorance, and general emotional underdevelopment" (565). As it matured, the "species" outgrew barbarism. There are still "backward" races that can be satisfied with barbarism, but at least for the Aryan, barbarism is obsolete.

Stone Age Hunter Gatherers
Surely HPL is right that barbarism represents a temporary, early stage of social development, but the force of this point is diminished by several factors. First, REH had stated in an earlier letter that change is a law of nature, and that no state of affairs, including anarchy, can endure indefinitely (500). Again, HPL's argument is against a "straw man" of his own making. Furthermore, HPL's ideal civilization, if it ever existed, is hardly the reality from which REH would like to escape; when the two think of "civilization," they are clearly thinking of two separate things. Finally, HPL's view is dependent on the concept of "race" as a definite category. (A concept which is now obviously erroneous.) When he states that "the species outgrew barbarism," it appears he means collectively or universally. However, he reveals otherwise when he says some "races" are yet suited to barbarism. It appears he believes that certain "races" (which attain civilization) set the high-water mark for the species' development, which is not necessarily attained (nor even possible) for all members of the species (including lesser "races").

Next, HPL undermines REH's fantasy to be born as a barbarian. In essence, HPL argues that this fantasy is incoherent: "[D]on't you realize that without that part of your personality—your imagination, perspective, etc.—you could not be yourself at all?" (565-6). He presses further, supposing what REH meant to say, and then refutes that, as well. HPL is not wrong; REH's wish to be reborn as a barbarian was an escapist fantasy from the beginning, and it became even more fantastic when he proposed becoming a different person. But this is the nature of fantasies, and HPL's insistence on taking away any ground for REH's fantasy, and arguing about it's probability seems unduly argumentative. He concludes this argument by suggesting that if REH would only think about the matter more seriously he would find that he doesn't really wish to revert to a barbaric "‘paradise' of slashing and mangling and plundering" (566).

When HPL addresses the accusation that he idealizes civilization, his response basically amounts to, I don't idealize; you do! He points out that he has admitted defects in civilization. Certainly he has, but very minor ones which affect a very small number of people. He then refutes REH's criticisms of civilization, if naively. Social injustices only affect a small proportion of people, whereas "barbarism's cruelty affected virtually everyone" (566). And besides, civilization should not be faulted for its injustices because it is doing its best to abolish them (567). Abuses of power by police happen, but they affect only a microscopic segment of the population, consisting mostly of "emphatically degraded types" (567). He asserts that most normal people in Anglo-Saxon society don't experience such troubles. Instead, all the cases of extreme cruelty mentioned by REH happen in parts of the country "which are least evolved out of the recrudescent barbarism of the frontier" (567). In any case, again, these abuses amount to nothing against the cruelty of barbarism. And lastly, modern wars are merely reversions to barbarism, not an attribute of civilization, occurring "not because of civilization but in spite of it" (567, emphasis mine). HPL misses REH's point, here. REH had not suggested that war (or any of the other faults he listed) is an attribute of civilization, but its continued existence mitigates the relative value of civilization.

Turning to REH's question of where barbarism ends and civilization begins, HPL acknowledges imprecision; the process is gradual, and impossible to classify except by recognizing various tendencies. He does not seem to recognize how the subjectivity of the task of classifying civilization actually strengthens REH's argument. REH had offered numerous examples of historical "barbarous" societies that rivaled civilization. His suggestion was that distinguishing barbarism from civilization is problematic. However, HPL seems obtuse to this point. He dismisses REH's historical examples, and praises these barbarous societies for being on the verge of becoming civilized. By acknowledging the subjectivity of classifying civilizations, he still has not recognized the bias in his own understanding of it.

"Civilization Versus Barbarism” by Bill Bonner
When HPL does attempt to define civilization, he lists several characteristics: permanent residence, the development of industries to support settlement, efficient social organization (in order to reduce waste and encroachment), elevated standards of knowledge and beauty, and a tendency to encourage personal development (569). This is the most concrete definition of civilization either party has offered up to this point. Arguably the last two items represent aims of one segment of society, but if the debate had started here it might have gone in a more constructive direction. When he turns to define barbarism, however, HPL is less succinct. He seems to have more of an impression than a clear definition. As a "mode of life" barbarism generally makes people more mindless and dull than civilized people. They are characterized by "orgiastic animal reactions" and "callousness toward the mutilation of living things" (569). They lack delicacy, sensitivity, and sympathetic imagination. In barbarism, "[t]he worst and most beastlike sides of man were overdeveloped, and the best and most human sides were underdeveloped" (569). Again, HPL seems to be simply contrasting a barbarian with his own concept of a refined, civilized intellectual, rather than offering any objective characteristics.

While refuting REH's equivalence between barbarism and civilization, HPL charges him with "undervaluing the human side of life" (569). The charge is based on a remark REH had made about the meaninglessness of art. HPL says that REH's prejudice "against the highest expression of the human personality" interferes with his ability to form a correct perspective on society (570). He suggests that REH encourages a form of social organization which fails to bring about the best in man, calling this position "destructive and anti-human" (571). A better policy, he says, is to encourage the development of those powers which distinguish humans most from animals.

Picking up on REH's honorable preference for directness over deception, HPL presents a new argument. Barbarism should not be preferred based on a false moral antithesis with civilization. A person might view barbarism as being characterized by directness, as opposed to the seeming trickery and deception common in civilization (572). But the real antithesis is not between barbarism and civilization, says HPL, but between those who are direct, and those who are tricky. He asserts (without argument or evidence) that there are just as many straightforward men in civilization as in barbarism. Those who are direct have the ethical sensitivity to recognize the rights of others, while those who don't have this quality are motivated by anti-social selfishness, and use whatever means are best suited to them. The civilized offender resorts to trickery, while the barbarian resorts to brute force. If barbarism appears to be more direct, it is because its anti-social offenders don't know how to use stratagem, and so resort to slashing. (This seems to be a clear instance of special pleading. He suggests that the directness of a civilized man is based on ethical sensitivity, but the directness of a barbarian is based on stupidity.) Nevertheless, there is a seed of a good point here. Barbarism is surely not as honest and straightforward as a romantic might believe. An ancient war chief would certainly use any advantage, even deception, over a rival cohort. It remains to be seen whether REH's romanticized view of barbarians will allow him to recognize it.

The rest of HPL's coverage of the topic consists mostly in clarifying his positions and assuring REH of his respect, though it comes off as patronizing. Even as he attempts to express his regard for REH's scholarship and imagination, he suggests that if REH would think more carefully he could abandon his sentimental biases and finally agree with him (HPL). Accordingly, HPL ends his argument by defending his association of REH with romanticist anthropologist Lord Monboddo, concluding "You err in damned good company!" (575).

(To be continued.)

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