Friday, May 13, 2016

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of REH and HPL (Part 8) by David Piske

Lovecraft in Brooklyn, 1922
Letter 100, HPL to REH (April 3, 1934)

This installment in the ongoing controversy with REH comes at least two months after REH's last entry. In that time the two men exchanged four smaller pieces of correspondence (two of which are lost), with (presumably) no mention of the topics of their controversy. HPL begins the letter acknowledging the impasse they have reached and expounds at length on the difficulty of conversations like theirs, which are based on values rather than facts. HPL lays out a course on which they can continue. They have no need to change each other's opinions, he says, only to make their own positions clear, and demonstrate their basis in "long and careful examination" rather than on "mere personal caprice" (730). But this seems disingenuous as HPL regularly comments on REH's resistance to being swayed by argument. With the intention of continuing their arguments, HPL identifies the core issues of their debate: "evolvedness versus unevolvedness, freedom versus order, civilisation versus barbarism" (729), and immediately turns to responding to REH's remarks.

Addressing REH's lengthy and somewhat bitter retort to the claim that he "refused to accept the basic standards of human development," HPL says that his intention was not that REH denied all values. Even though REH had indicated a belief that all values are"a meaningless jumble," HPL recognizes that this was hyperbole, and that REH surely holds a functional value system. His main concern is that REH overemphasizes certain secondary values, clouding his recognition of primary ones:
"I thought you were so strongly influenced by certain personal likings for things which might or might not be high in the organic scale, that you had come virtually to deny the existence of any basic organic scale. . . . You did certainly give signs that your personal likes were entirely disregardful of this scale . . ." (731).
From here he goes on to argue for a distinction between important human pursuits and trivial ones (731-4). Based on the intrinsic difference between simplicity and complexity, sensation and consciousness, there is an objective difference between merely simian activity, and human activity. By analogy, human activities can be classed from low and animal-like, to high and worthy.

He counters REH's claim that "a caterpillar is as important as a man" by first agreeing that the distinctions he is drawing are not cosmically significant. Indeed, to the universe a man is no more significant than any other creature. However, the distinction itself is intrinsic, and therefore even cosmically, absolute (731-2). To illustrate his point he says:
"We may like bulldogs better than men. . . . [But] to call a bulldog 'higher' than Xenophanes, Aristotle, Bacon . . . would be to strain our natural sense of proportion and probability to a rather grotesque extent" (733)
He concludes his lengthy argument by coming back around the the initial point (that REH's preferences for certain activities and qualities seems to disregard an objective standard of value):
 "It may seem strange and unacceptable to you, at present, to have a distinction drawn between the human effort which seeks to measure the universe, or crystallise a phase of beauty, or evolve a more harmonious social order, and that which seeks to apply science to the mutual slugging of two sullen giants—but that is something which must be left to time and to your instinctive sense of proportion. If what I have somewhat clumsily tried to outline above is not sufficient . . . then I greatly doubt whether I could in any way make this point clear at the present state of the debate" (734).
HPL's exasperation seems well-founded as it seems that REH does not fully grasp the argument from complexity/consciousness. But in any case, his exasperation shows that,despite his earlier claim, he does care about changing REH's mind.

Robert E., Howard
Previously, REH claimed that HPL too narrowly associated art with human superiority, and pointed to other professions (i.e., physician and football coach) which equally display human superiority. HPL clarifies that he does not consider the formal, professional activity of art as the highest form of human activity. Rather it an example of "a very typical aspect of human aspiration at its best," because of its "intrinsically rewarding" position as an "end in itself" (735). He acknowledges, as he has before, the value of, and even the skill and intelligence involved in certain other forms of effort (such as management of a business or a government), but implies that their value is instrumental, being concerned with "the mechanics of mere survival" and the necessity "to keep civilisation going." While formal art is not necessarily the highest form of human effort, "pure art and science more emphatically and conveniently illustrate the principle of reward—of a purpose in organised human life" (735).

Regarding the crucial issue of human freedom, HPL bypasses most of REH's remarks on the topic. Instead he says that REH exaggerated by comparing the situations of a prisoner and of a salaried worker. (It is not clear to me where REH made this comparison; I have been unable to locate it in any of the several previous letters.) HPL argues that an employed man "has about as much free time as the business man who employs him," and makes enough money "to have a fairly good time in life." And if eventually too much time is required of the worker, or not enough money is paid him, the solution is not a return to barbarism or the frontier, but rather further governmental control. Then HPL says that an individualist (apparently implying REH himself) may call himself free, but "if he does not comply with the terms of industry the freedom will be a foodless and shelterless one" (741). But this is precisely REH's point; compulsory compliance to the terms of industry in order to make a living is exactly the kind of thing that REH would wish to be free from. Then HPL concludes his paragraph somewhat provocatively, saying "no pioneering revival can provide a cure for this."

On the topic of the frontier, HPL confesses no first-hand knowledge, and admits his observations are tentative (742). But he suggests that no state of society, in this case the frontier, is "a paradise merely because it completely satisfies one special type of adventurous individual." He goes on to argue about the necessary impermanence of a society controlled by "adventurous men," eventually noting, "One can't expect the conquest of the wilderness to be a continuous process on the same spot" (743). Then he states his argument more pointedly, saying those (i.e., presumably like REH) who wish for a "prolongation of the primitive struggle" will have to find new, untamed regions.Understandably, HPL has repeatedly taken REH's preference for the frontier as an argument for its superiority. Here HPL reveals why:
"Of course you will say that you don't expect the frontier to be permanent—that you merely regret that you didn't live when it fully existed—but certainly, there must be a subconscious cherishing of a permanent frontier ideal behind your repeated attacks on all the attributes of settled civilisation" (743, emphasis mine).
Indeed, while REH repeatedly claims his view is only a personal preference, and that he does not wish for the permanence or return of the frontier, he also repeatedly denies the basis of this preference in sentiment, and argues as if for its intellectual validity. This is inconsistent and forces HPL to draw is own conclusion as to REH's motive.

Frontier School House
He continues by arguing that many things REH resents about civilization are not attributes of civilization, but rather products of decadence, and that all the opportunities of the frontier can be found within civilization, presumably in the large sections of the old frontier that are given to large-scale agriculture and stock raising, and which operate "under proper protection and legislation, and with a normal regard for human life, bodily integrity, and the providing of civilised opportunities for development . . . . . schools, libraries, and so on" (744). These are all valid points. The mention of rural locales which might have been more suitable to REH was a truly helpful point, and might have been better taken at an earlier point in their conversation, or even here if HPL's manner did not provoke REH to defensiveness. Indeed, a move to another town or region would likely have served REH well. On the other hand, while classifying the faults of society as products of decadence is arguable, such an abstract conceptualization is not likely to console a concrete-minded man who resents his society and fantasizes about escape from it.

Summarizing his objection to "excessively primitive conditions," HPL argues that "they do not give human personality a chance to develop fully, and to exercise the whole of its fruitful potentialities" (745). And precisely because the struggle to merely survive is not a reason for existence, "No average person of adult emotions can get the most out of life in a region where there is not enough security to allow schools, libraries, museums, and the atmosphere and conversation-opportunities which go with such things, to flourish." Here is HPL's argument at its simplest and most compelling, stripped of speculative and pseudo-scientific theories, and stated in fairly concrete rather than abstract terms.

Then HPL anticipates the counterargument, taking REH's previous claims and arguments to their most absurd conclusions—surely further than REH ever intended. To begin, he predicts that REH will deny the "superiority of a full personality." He claims that REH believes that no one needs more from life than what barbarism could provide and that a social order appealing only to "the adventurous type" is just as intrinsically good as one that satisfies "emotionally maturer types." Becoming even more pointed, HPL says that REH prefers a social order that caters to strong and courageous, yet crude, narrow and ignorant men, with few vistas and little sensitivity. REH, he says, would rather see the three-fourths of man's personality involving the most evolved instincts be "forever drugged to sleep," and would then "call the resultant quarter-man a whole man—and claim that a society framed to fit him is better than one framed to fit a really whole man" (746). This is all based, he says, on REH's refusal to recognize that any type of human activity is higher than another.

Anticipating yet another line of rebuttal, HPL says that even if REH concedes to the "theoretical superiority of a full personality" he would yet claim that "a savage culture of sadistic torturers and marble-players [is] just as good (even though not as 'high') as a nation of philosophers provided the members wanted nothing more than they had" (747). According to this view, HPL says, pleasure is simply "a balance between desire and fulfillment." Thus, a basking cat is just as happy as a scientist, poet, or philosopher engaged in their fields. In contrast, HPL maintains that "cultivation raises the appreciation-quota or pleasure-quota," and as such, "An enlightened and artistic man or group can have a vastly better time, intrinsically, than a barbaric man or group." The force of these reductio de absurdum arguments generally strong, and they correctly point out some of the more problematic philosophical ideas in REH's stance. However, they are weakened at points where HPL seems to actually mischaracterize REH's views, rather than demonstrating the absurd lengths to which they lead.

Before turning to briefly address a series of smaller related issues, HPL rounds out his argument against REH's supposed denial of human development citing a pseudo-scientific argument (at least from today's perspective) apparently derived from anthropologist Ernst Haeckl. He says that an individual develops through the same stages that his race has developed, from birth (corresponding with with "the low mammal stage") to senility (corresponding with cultural decadence) (748-9). From this he says that barbarism represents the emotional maturity of a 10-12 year old boy, and that it is "unsuited to the emotions of average normal adults of the white race" (748).

In arguing for the inefficiency of the frontier, HPL refuses to blame anyone, and notes the waste of resources and energy. This is an appropriate response as REH seemed to misunderstand HPL's argument in this regard, seemingly viewing the charge as a statement of blame. Consequently he challenged HPL to offer more efficient solutions to a few typical problems that might be faced on the frontier. In response HPL does not provide any solutions other than that of the rule of law in settling disputes, which he admits did not and could not exist on the frontier (752). Thus, the inefficiency and waste of the frontier was a product of circumstance.

Texas Frontier
Most of HPLs comments about violence in the modern West fall outside the purview of this summary, however one point is illustrative. REH had argued that the intrusion of Eastern business interest in Texas was responsible for the circumstances that cause most of the violence in the state. HPL agrees with REH that the oppression and exploitation of laborers by mine and mill owners is evil, and "every inch as crude as the violence of barbarism or the frontier" (754). REH takes the selfish and exploitative behavior of "civilized men" as evidence against civilization, whereas HPL argues that civilization does not abolish evil, but rather restricts lawlessness "enough to allow for the growth of a whole expanded life which could not exist without it" (754). This illustrates the intractability of their controversy in general. REH's criticisms of civilization seem to highlight it's imperfection, against which he argues for barbarism's equivalence. HPL, however, argues that civilization provides benefits that barbarism cannot.

When he comes at last to the primary topic of barbarism and civilization, HPL recognizes that the argument has become muddied by the discussion of the frontier. Barbarism is the more basic issue in their controversy, he says, and many of his previous arguments concerning values in connection with the frontier were really intended to bear on barbarism. As such he summarizes his main points against barbarism: that it fails to elicit "the highest parts of the human personality," and "could never satisfy the natural aspirations of high-grade men" (754-5). And as if to provoke the very resentment in REH that he earlier sought to ameliorate, he says barbarism "is essentially keyed to the emotions of small boys and unsuited to white adults at the present historic stage" (754).

Leaving summary aside, HPL turns to respond to the points REH raised in his last installment. First, he denies that the proportion of suffering in civilization today even comes close to that under barbarism. In particular, civilization is not alone in its use of oppression; barbarians also practiced it. They had slaves and serfs who were at least as miserable as the underprivileged today. The force of the argument here is that oppression in civilization cannot be counted to barbarism's favor since it, too, had just as much (if not more) oppression.

Still regarding suffering in civilization, HPL weakly tries to dismiss his earlier minimization of the number of "depression-suffers." REH had written, "You say the number of people who are suffering because of this depression is very small. . . . Some ten million unemployed is scarcely insignificant" (710-11). Here HPL says "of course it isn't 'insignificant,'" but it is "probably vastly less than the proportional number of sufferers in a state of barbarism" (755). Hardly an adequate response. Aside from failing to take the number seriously, and failing to offer argument or evidence for his claim, it seems HPL also misinterpreted REH's reference to the economic depression of the time as psychological  depression.

However, HPL's next observation is more germane. He cautions against comparing a class of people in one society to an entirely different class in another. It is not relevant, he says, if the lot of today's lower class is inferior to that of barbarian freeman, because they do not belong to analogous classes. The freeman in barbarism is actually more akin to a gentleman or petty nobleman (roughly middle class) in civilization. Likewise, the equivalent of civilization's lower class in barbarism are slaves and serfs, whom freemen considered as livestock. Turning this point back to the main line of his argument, he says it is not merely serfs and slaves who suffered under barbarism, but the entire race, as the hardships of nature, cruelty, and constant warfare or armed quarrel "left little enough for the barbarian to live for" (755).

Rather than rebut REH's erroneous arguments regarding barbarians' supposed greater resistance to disease, HPL essentially concedes the point. However, he notes the "hellish mangling" of their bodies in constant warfare. "They were constantly cutting one another to pieces for trivial and capricious reasons, yet lacked the art to patch themselves up as modern man manages to do" (755).

Regarding the barbarians' general quality of life, HPL demolishes the idea of any compensatory features of barbarism.
"Of their basic unhappiness there can be no doubt. Nothing in their lives rewarded what they had to suffer. Sombreness is in all their folklore, and you know from Tacitus how they languished in sloth and gluttony between their fits of ill-motivated butchering. They were innate sadists, and their quarels (sic) when coarsened by liquor were frequent and sanguinary. Just what redeeming feature life held for them is doubtful" (755).
 Then he demonstrates the perversity behind REH's glorification of barbarian bloodlust:
"If the pleasure of constant butchery sustained them, it does as much for many madmen today. . . . but I fancy a modern had better think twice before deciding that their savage blood-lust and blind courage and childish fits of exaltation formed any boon to be wished for" (755-6).
While the argument is effective in leaving little room for imaginative escapism into barbarism, personally it amounts to stabbing a finger into REH's chest. He even takes the provocation a step further by equating REH's elevation of freedom with warped idealization:
"If such latitude of choice (between equally repulsive courses) as the freemen possessed formed any transcendent boon sufficient to redeem the squalor and emptiness and savagery of their common lot, it surely can seem so only in the eyes of a special worshipper of the freedom-ideal!" (756).
The reference to "latitude of choice" and "freedom-ideal" leave little doubt that HPL is indirectly referring to REH's view of individual liberty, and his preference for barbarism on that basis.

Germanic tribes of the
Teutonic Forests
And in response to REH's claim about the relative advancement of Germanic barbarians, HPL is willing to meet him half way. "I don't doubt but that their pride and self-discipline and ethical ideas in certain fields gave them an intermittent psychological life of a sort—they had their bards, and some of their ideas and folklore display a strong sense of drama, and of the poetry in life" (756). But as usual, the two draw different conclusions from points they both agree on. HPL says: "But the point is that this was only an embryonic or nascent psychological life—merely a promising forerunner of what the race would later evolve" (756). And then, "To say that [this relatively more advanced barbarism] was better than the higher life which came after, and that it formed an adequate compensation for the murderous horror of average barbarian life, is to strain matters rather arduously!" (756).

HPL continues by vividly demonstrating the "murderous horror" of barbarism. REH had pointed to corrupt elements within modern society as example of civilization's imperfection. Here HPL contrasts these elements (e.g., corrupt police, mine-owners, gangsters)—and even contrasts the "routine, human ruthlessness of the ordinary Roman armies"—with the "pathological blood-frenzy and sadistic glee" of barbarism. No "fully reflective modern" could find joy or purpose for living amid such "degeneracy" (756-7).

Returning to a point made a little earlier, HPL writes: "The pre-Roman Britons had pulled quite a way out of sheer barbarism . . . but I suppose they were getting too civilised to suit a barbaric taste" (757). Here HPL shows that REH's observation about advancement among certain barbarian groups actually supports HPL's argument: the Briton's eventual advancement does not represent a high point for barbarism, but the first steps away from it.

To conclude his section on barbarism, HPL references an historical work called Wanderings in Roman Britain, by Arthur Weigall. Of several points made in the book HPL finds one particularly exhilarating:
". . . [T]he bulk of the conquered Britanno-Roman population was not driven out or exterminated, but was first enslaved and then absorbed by the conquering Saxons; so that we probably have as much Britanno-Roman as Saxon blood in our veins today" (757).
Following this historical point, HPL revels in sentiment: "[I]t certainly gives me a thrill to consider the likelihood of a real blood link with the mighty civilisation of which I have always felt myself to be spiritually a part. Ave Roma Immortalis!" (757). In contrast with his rational arguments in favor of civilization, here HPL's musing about his own plausible Roman ancestry seems just as fanciful and emotionally derived as REH's attraction to the Goths.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Todd B. Vick said...

To the person (unknown) who posted a comment about this part in David Piske's series. I apologize, in my effort to respond I hit the wrong button and deleted the comment and blogger would not allow me to undo the delete. HPL and REH did continue with their correspondence and essentially came to an impasse in their debate. But the debate did continue for a few more months.