Sunday, October 11, 2015

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of REH and HPL (Part 4), by David Piske

Three years into their written correspondence, and nearly one year into their debate on barbarism and civilization, the proportions of the "controversy" between Robert E. Howard (REH) and H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) expands with each exchange of letters. As the controversy advances, and at times intensifies, secondary topics that began without any intended connection to the debate become more and more directed toward this one issue, to the point that sometimes in discussing them, either the criticism or the defense of civilization is explicitly mentioned by one or the other. This is especially the case in their conversations about the relative value of the mind vs. the body, of art and intellect vs. other human endeavors (especially contrasting creativity and commerce), and the extent of human freedom and the degree to which different types of societies allow for it.

Letter 82: REH to HPL (June 15, 1933)

REH opens the current letter expressing happiness that they have come to terms with their apparently merely semantic argument about the value of the mental and the physic. Though with regard to the value of art, REH yet has much to argue, taking a decidedly commercial stand. He claims that the reason he writes as a profession is not out of a desire to create, but because of the money, and the freedom writing affords him. He respects that the joy of creativity can be "the breath of life" for artists, but denies a special status for creativity for its own sake, or to recognize special privileges for those engaged in it. Further, while he denies being an anti-intellectual, he refuses to "indiscriminately worship" intellectuals (592). And he admits to resenting the "sneers of the sophisticated" and hating anything that reflects a "supercilious viewpoint" (594). He denies special privilege and judges men on their merits alone:
"A man is only a man, regardless of how many books he has read, or written. Neither wealth nor erudition gives him any more fundamental rights than is due any man. That’s why I love the memory of the frontier; there a man was not judged by what he had or what he knew, but by what he was" (594).
Here, perhaps, REH demonstrates some vulnerability. The detestation and hatred which he admits to feeling seems to be born out of the sting of some slight, whether real or perceived. As he says, "I’ll be damned if I can see any reason why they should be loved and worshiped by the people they flay as boobs, morons and fools" (592). It seems only natural, then, that REH would long to return to a state in which his qualities would be recognized and valued, rather than criticized and depreciated.

Naturally REH then turns to the ongoing topic of freedom, which on previous occasions he identified as his supreme value. Despite this zeal, REH disassociates from "wild-haired young Liberals," and admits to knowing that his desire to live on the frontier is impossible. Nevertheless, he yet yearns for open land and to be free of the "wearisome things of civilization," like taxes, crowds, noise, unemployment, bank failures, gang extortions, and laws (594-5). While he is not one of those youngsters "clamoring for freedom," he seems to identify with their clamoring, speculating that it is "because of unrest and dissatisfaction with present conditions; I don’t believe this machine age gives full satisfaction in a spiritual way . . ." (596). Then turning again to the frontier, he further maintains that it holds an advantage for a certain type of person:
"Naturally, the frontier was hardly the place for a man who preferred  life of scholarly ease; no criticism of such a man involved. But that a good many men did consider the frontier preferable to a more settled form of life is evident by the mere fact of its occupation by people from more civilized parts" (596).
These "thousands and thousands" of men who sought the frontier, he argues further, were not inferior, nor broken, as is commonly thought, but wild and adventurous. This description harkens back to REH’s previous mentions of "extraverted" and hyper-vitalized types who will always be restless in domesticated society. He, like them, seek escape from the confinement of civilized life, not out of some defect, but out of their active character, which should not be looked down upon.

Frontier Expansion in the New America
When he turns to the formal topic of barbarism and civilization, REH appears to be a master of brevity in comparison to HPL. Whereas the section on the present debate in HPL’s last letter takes up 11 pages (as formatted in A Means to Freedom), REH’s response is less than a page and a half. Up to this point, it seemed that REH’s view of barbarism was informed by the American frontier, even in this same letter. But also, he had previously mentioned it in defense of barbarism a number of times. But here REH distinguishes the two: "The American frontiersman was not a barbarian; he was simply a highly specialized type" (596). Rather, the type of barbarism that he has in mind and defends is that of the (Celtic) Gauls and (Germanic) Goths. It would seem that REH has split his argument, dealing with the frontier and barbarism separately. 

With respect to Gothic barbarism, REH denies idealizing anything, and then admits that if he does exaggerate, he does so no more than HPL does. They are both doing the same thing, REH says: highlighting the strong points of their respective positions, and deemphasizing the weak ones. REH seems to understand here that the debate (at least as currently framed) is at an impasse, but by drawing the equivalence between their arguments he seems to be attempting to deflate HPL’s sense of superiority, which to REH might be the most irksome aspect of this controversy. Continuing, REH says that if he is exaggerating the sufferings in civilization, then HPL is exaggerating the suffering of the barbarian. Indeed, according to REH, HPL’s suffering barbarian is a "20th century scholar brutally thrust into alien and barbaric environments" (597). In short, REH accuses HPL of judging barbarism by modern standards. 

HPL further exaggerates barbarous conditions, REH says, by failing to distinguish between Gothic Ashanti or the Papuans. He claims the picture that HPL paints of barbaric conditions is more suited to the tribes of the Slave Coast. This charge seems odd since REH had not previously specified the type of barbarism he is defending, so one wonders why HPL should have made such a distinction. Also, the racist assumption underlying REH’s charge is that Gothic barbarians were different from, even superior to "savages" of Africa and "bushmen" of New Guinea. He does not elaborate on the reasons for this racial distinction, but it is plain that for REH not all primitive society is equal, and not all deserve even the name "barbarian."

Ashanti Priest

Next, REH continues his argument for equivalence between the sufferings of barbarism and civilization by asking "what constitutes human suffering?" First, while the Germanic barbarians had feuds and tribal wars, today there are strikes, child labor, sweat shops, unemployment, and gang-rule. Secondly, deaths in auto and machine accidents surely surpass those in tribal wars. While the first point for equivalence is debatable, the comparison of the number of deaths caused by machines and by tribal wars seems absurd. However, there is no reason to assume that REH is being intentionally hyperbolic. Concluding this argument, REH says the point is not that barbarians suffered less, but that the barbarian was at least as (if not better) fitted to endure and overcome the suffering of his age than modern man is to his.

Turning to rebut HPL’s argument that war in civilization is a reversion to barbarism, REH points out an incongruity. If HPL is right, modern wars would be executed by the least civilized among us, but in reality they are executed by those who most represent civilization: "statesmen, politicians, kings, lords of finance, and diplomats" (597). In any case, REH says, if attributing war to civilization is absurd, it is no less absurd to blame civilization’s faults on returns to barbarism. REH is keen here, for HPL’s idea of "barbarism" existing within, and spoiling aspects of "civilization" shows his argument to rest on a form of special pleading – enshrining civilization as an ideal, and categorizing all failures to live up to it as "barbarism."

In HPL’s last letter, he had noted that some people may prefer barbarism over civilization because they associate directness with the former, and trickery with the latter. He argues that the barbarian is not necessarily more honest for resolving conflict with violence. Rather, anti-social selfishness motivates both the violent confrontation of the barbarian and the deceptive strategies of the civilized grifter. And if the barbarian offender knew how to strategize, he would. REH here bypasses most of the argument, but acknowledges that the same motive animates both the highwayman and the swindler, and admits that he would rather be swindled out of money, than be attacked and robbed. But he points out that the manner of an act ought to be considered along with the motive. Anglo-Saxons, in particular, hold a deep hate for treachery, he says. To illustrate this, he provides two anecdotes. In the first, a man tried to cut REH’s throat with a knife in a fight, but through struggle only cut his hand. A second man had secretly cut the right stirrup of his saddle.
"The same motive was behind the knife that scarred my wrist, and the knife that cut my saddle leather. Both men wished to maim, cripple or kill me. But my feelings toward them are quite different. I have no grudge against the man who cut my hand. . . . But if I ever find out who it was that cut my saddle, I’ll be tempted to part his hair with a pistol butt" (601).
So then, REH seems to agree with a central tenet of HPL’s argument, but reserves a special antipathy for treachery which effectively neuters the overall point. By doing this he simply nurses a prejudice against treachery rather than analyzing the scenarios. Indeed, REH fails to distinguish between the aim of the highwayman who simply wants your money, and is content to leave you dazed, and someone with a murderous grudge against you. While treachery leaves you defenseless in both cases, one is more fatal than the other. This is a relevant point, especially considering a scenario in which an overwhelming direct physical confrontation results in the same degree of defenseless for the victim.

The Great Depression ca. 1930s
Before concluding his coverage of the topic, REH makes a couple rapid fire rebuttals, which seemed aimed primarily at HPL’s hubris. First, with all of civilization’s "enviable virtues," why is everyone not happy? Why are 12 million out of work and virtually starving? Here we see again that REH seems to want HPL to simply acknowledge the weight of modern suffering, rather than merely minimize or recategorize it. Second, REH states that moderns do not suffer because people in 1,000 years will be more advanced. In the same way, Goths did not suffer because we are more advanced than they. HPL never explicitly argued this was the case, so it might first appear that REH is merely attacking a straw man. However, on a closer look it seems like REH is highlighting the absurdity of HPL’s argument, based on the haughty tone of his rhetoric, and the narrow field of experience from which he draws in identifying civilization’s crown jewel.

The one and a half pages of REH’s discussion of this topic appears in the first half of his letter, which totals about 22 pages. Since he had "rambled" about many other topics, many of which bear no relevance to the debate, he provides a summary of several points before closing the letter. Regarding this debate, REH says that HPL is taking this argument too seriously; a personal preference for barbarism does not undermine civilization. Further, REH speculates that HPL feels resentment because he believes REH’s view implies depreciation of HPL’s ideals and pursuits, and so feels the need to defend them as much as civilization. But REH assures that depreciation is not his intention. In short, and perhaps getting at the root of their controversy, REH states his belief that no set of conditions, heredity, and environment creates sounder or superior values or modes of thinking.

 Letter 85: HPL to REH (July 24, 1933)

In response to REH’s several pages on the limited value of art, HPL rises to exalt it. While he agrees with REH that art is not the reason for evolution (for evolution has no reason), he asserts that an aesthetic sense is characteristic of the most evolved types. Though this implies no depreciation of other forms of of human activity (e.g., constructive and administrative activities) (620). Art and Reason, he says, are the human endeavors furthest removed from the animal level of development, therefore the most distinctly human. While art is not sacred, nor the most important endeavor for survival, or in building or maintaining a civilization, society ought to favor them because of their ability to expand the human personality.

H.P. Lovecraft
Turning to the topic of freedom, HPL states, "I do not think that any thoughtful system of government wishes to curtail this element beyond the degree necessary for group-survival" (624). Even before proceeding to his argument, this first line betrays a fundamental naivety. HPL seems to assume that society is lead by men as idealistic and unbiased as himself, and as apt to allow others as much freedom as possible. At the very least he seems blind to the reality that freedom, "necessity," and "group-survival" are all wide open to vastly different interpretations. While he would view them one way from his perspective of beneficent fascism, an aristocrat or a democrat (or a less beneficent fascist) could interpret them so differently as to make his statement meaningless.

Proceeding on, HPL argues that industrialized nations cannot return to frontier, and in any case, the frontier was not superior, for it was "cruelly unjust," just as much so as modern plutocracy, in that it gave all to the strong, and took all from the weak. Indeed, proponents of the frontier over-simplify matters, stressing material and assertive characteristics at the expense of more delicate and evolved ones. Further, while the frontier was necessary in its day, it was (like he said previously of barbarism) transitional. Surely the pioneers are to be honored, but by taming the wilderness they envisioned the development of a civilization, and would be perplexed that some who came after them might wish to return to violent struggle (624-625). Here HPL suggests that REH’s preference for the frontier betrays the pioneers’ intention to lay the groundwork for a civilization for later generations.

Next, HPL responds directly to the motivation behind REH’s desire for the perceived freedom of the frontier. In transitional times (like today), he says, men will naturally cling to the degree of latitude to which they are accustomed. But changes are necessary. And liberty is never perfect, but is always conditional, the result of compromises with changing circumstances (626). After time passes, the next generation will adjust to the new norm without resentment. Even considering such changes, he says, the "amount of latitude left to every normal man is still enormous . . . . vastly greater than that possessed by the average citizen in many of the earlier civilizations" (626).

In the section of his letter specifically addressing the topic of barbarism and civilization, HPL’s comments are the briefest he has made so far in the course of the debate. Beginning his single paragraph on the topic, HPL asserts that he certainly does distinguish Gothic barbarism from "the savagery of inferior races" (626), but even considering such distinction, barbarism still does not equal or surpass civilization. Evidently both men agree in a fundamental difference between the survival struggle of Germans and nonwhites; both acknowledge the relevance of the distinction without bothering to justify it.

Barbarism and Civilization.
Cartoon by M.C.G., December 7, 1899
Next, HPL agrees with REH’s point about relative differences between barbarism and civilization. Barbarians indeed did not view their conditions with our eyes, and they were adapted to them in a way we are not. But despite this relative adaptation, the average in barbarism is objectively far below modern Anglo-Saxondom. In terms of mental development, barbarians were undeveloped in large portions of their personalities, as opposed to the active mental life of civilized man. And regarding the integrity of the body, today’s age is relatively humane compared to the habitual outrages against the body in barbarism. While REH has charged that HPL is viewing barbarism from a civilized viewpoint, HPL has countered repeatedly with an attempt to propose an intrinsic difference between them. REH does not seem to recognize the force of this argument, as he has not yet responded to it.

In his last letter, REH acknowledged that the same motive is behind the violent attack of the highwayman and the swindler, but maintained a special antipathy toward treachery. Here HPL acknowledges the greater ignominy of trickery over direct confrontation. But he highlights the flaw in ending the analysis there. Not all violence is the same: "violence can assume extremely repulsive forms—especially when exerted by the strong against the weak, or under circumstances where the danger of equal combat is either wholly or partly evaded" (627). So then, repeating his earlier argument, direct physical confrontation is not necessarily "better" than treachery.

Compared to previous letters, HPL’s arguments here do not seem particularly intense or offensive. While his views betray more biases than he acknowledges, his arguments are subtle, and his tone here is less haughty than on previous occasions. It is difficult to see, then, what in this letter rouses REH so vehemently, for in his forthcoming response, he offers the strongest and most strident rebuttal he has offered to date.

To be continued.

[Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

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