Thursday, May 5, 2016

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of REH and HPL (Part 7) by David Piske

The 2015 Cross Plains Postal Cancellation
artwork by Mark Schultz

Almost a year and a half into the controversy between Howard and Lovecraft in their correspondence, the conversation has already taken several turns and led to flared tempers. The degree of resentment, especially on REH's part, seems to rise with every cycle of letters. As does HPL's exasperation. At the end of his last letter, HPL admitted to some misgivings about the effect of mechanization on culture, and worries about the future of civilization as mechanization progresses by the hands of an "already somewhat tainted race." Such a candid confession of doubt about the progress of civilization could be received favorably by REH, especially considering HPL's usual haughty optimism about civilization.

However it may be a matter of 'too-little, too-late,' as REH's resentment is already roused, and it seems like he may not even grasp all of HPL's arguments, even though he would never admit it. Indeed, instead REH seems to back off from arguing vigorously against civilization (perhaps seeing himself at a disadvantage on HPL's turf), and fall back onto his original statement—that his preference for barbarism is personal, not absolute. But first there are several accusations and misunderstandings that must be addressed.

Letter 95: REH to HPL (ca. January 1934)

Coming back to address their lengthy controversies, REH turns first to the topic of art and its relative place in the human scale of values. REH says that he finally understands the idea behind HPL's objections to his arguments: "You say I 'refuse to accept the basic standards of human development" (693). REH denies this charge and claims only to question HPL's ideas about what constitutes the criterion of development.From a cosmic perspective he believes all values are irrelevant:
"I am convinced that things are a meaningless jumble, that a caterpillar is as important as a man, that a baboon is as significant as an artist, and that it means absolutely nothing to the universe whether a man is an imbecile or a genius" (693).
But he does recognize a scale of values in human affairs, and claims that all of his actions reflect recognition of this scale. He speculates that HPL came to his inaccurate conclusion about him based on disparaging remarks about supposedly "superior" men in a previous letter (Letter 87). However, REH claims, he never denied the superiority of some types of men; he only questioned what he thought was HPL's narrow identification of superiority with the arts, and with the formal occupation of art, specifically.

In defense of his previous denial that art is higher than (at least) some other types of human activity, he points out that HPL has admitted as much when he said that various intellectual activities (e.g., science, statesmanship) are equal to art. REH implies that this is what he had meant in the first place, for he certainly did not mean to equate art with "the making of mud pies or the twiddling of one's thumbs" (694). But he says further that HPL too narrowly identifies superiority with intellectual pursuits. A superior man, he says, is one who, regardless of his line of work (from physician to football coach), attains the highest possible degree of development in his field. Then he says that HPL admitted as much in a previous statement when he stated that art is "merely one of the several manifestations of the highest state of development" (694).

REH concludes the matter denying that he repudiates "human values" and claims that they both agree that other things occupy the same level as art (694). REH seems to overstate the level of agreement between them here. First, HPL's argument is that certain types of human activity are higher. Excelling in one's profession is not necessarily a sign of the superiority HPL has in mind. Second, the particular kinds of activity that they each would consider on par with art has not been agreed upon.

Robert E. Howard
As noted before, human freedom has been one of the the most important topics in REH's controversy with HPL. The amount of ink spilled by REH on this topic attests to its importance to him; in A Means to Freedom this section covers over 12 pages, most of which follows a point by point rebuttal of HPL's arguments. He begins by correcting HPL's misunderstanding. Previously, HPL had stated that there is no "perfect liberty," and that the degree of man's liberty in any age is a result of social and economic conditions. REH admitted that freedom is relative, but seemed to conflate HPL's view with that of philosophical "sophists" who say that freedom is a myth, and he countered with the analogy of a philosopher forced out of his contemplative profession to work at hard labor for long hours. HPL, in turn, mistook the meaning of the analogy, taking it instead as a new angle to the argument. In his response here, REH says "there is no need to get a new slant on my conception of [freedom]—which is simply that there was more personal freedom on the frontier than there is in modern life" (697).

HPL on the shore of Magnolia, MA
in August of 1922
He acknowledges HPL's hope that mechanization will "usher in an age of leisure," but observes that it has not yet arrived. And merely "in passing" he observes that mechanization did not work out well for farmers. The tractor reduced the farmer's work, but prices for finished commodities increased while cost for the raw product did not, forcing farmers to double and triple their yields, and leaving many in debt and bankruptcy (697). Returning to the main thrust of his response, he reiterates that his previous analogy was a reply to HPL's claim that liberty is a myth (something which HPL did not say!).

He expresses resentment that his desire for freedom is considered merely romantic whim. He asserts that his motivation for writing is purely because of the freedom it gives him, and he mocks artistic aspiration. He caustically reiterates his view of philosophers theorizing away freedom, and likens his own craving for freedom with that of his forefathers who left Ireland for America: "An ideal that rules the lives of generations is no empty pose" (697).

Through the rest of this section, REH discusses his value and yearning for freedom in connection with the frontier and his wish to have lived on it. It is clear that the frontier crystallizes REH's primary values. His juxtaposition of urban and frontier life is a stark example. Whereas modern workers make a "bare living" as "cogs grinding in a soulless machine," the pioneers worked for themselves, made use of opportunities, and actually built something. Further, the frontier embodied "real democracy," and "Poverty wasn't degrading. The man, not the dollar, was the measure of merit" (698). He hits similar notes when he attempts to rebut HPL's claim that his view of freedom was "indiscriminate license and anti-social disorder":
"Don't you realize that the freedom of the West meant more than lack of restraint by law? It meant freedom from crushing taxes, from crowds, the hurry and rush of urban life, from the monotony of the sweat-shop or the office, from never-varying routine, from snobbery and from being merely a cog in the machine" (699).
Furthermore, REH is perturbed that his preference to live in a region without extensive limitations on conduct earned him the resentment of other, unnamed urbanites.

Together these claims illuminate much about REH's idea (or, more accurately ideas) about freedom. He lauds the ability to move and behave physically unfettered by crowds and legally unbounded by the restrictions necessary in a dense population. He further envisions freedom as a wide field of opportunities and adventures, as opposed to stale monotony of civilized occupations. A piece of this lust for freedom appears be an insecurity about poverty and the way that money distinguishes people according to socio-economic class. And lastly he emphatically demands for himself an existential freedom to direct himself and to define his own purpose apart from the system of life ("soulless machine") that would make him merely an instrument ("a cog") to its own purpose.

The Frontier
Moving to respond to another of HPL's criticisms, REH denies ever having wished that the frontier had continued to the present day, or that its methods should be applied to modern problems. And he emphatically denies advocating "six shooter justice" for modern conditions. He is resolute that he merely expressed admiration, and a wish to live on the frontier, rather than in his present circumstances, and showed that frontier conditions were not so bad as moderns believe (699). Also, to HPL's argument that the pioneers intended to build a civilization in the parts they settled, REH now says he did not deny this (though he had indeed expressed doubt on that point). Now he says that as the country was settled, the pioneers moved on to fresh country (700).

REH seems particularly rankled over the suggestion that Texas is given to more violent crime because of a remaining frontier tradition. He spends many pages distinguishing criminality from (apparently justified) violence, offering just reasons why men might turn to violence to resolve conflicts outside the law. In the course of his lengthy defense REH goes off topic and seems to unwittingly argue against his own point by explaining at length the code of honor that used to thrive in the southwest, whereby an insult could be justly met with a knife or a gun. He notices how times have changed since he was a boy. Then, unless they were actually fighting, he and his peers were "studiously polite to each other." Now, however, kids and even adults argue verbally without ever turning to
violence. Wistfully, REH says, "Fighting isn't nice, but it's preferable to wordy wrangles" (705).

Next REH responds to HPL's claim that the frontier was inefficient in achieving goals. REH argues that even people from long settled regions must grope to find solutions to problems, and in the process, they too, make mistakes. Then REH throws down the gauntlet by challenging HPL to offer more rational solutions to some common frontier disputes. And with a sarcastic thrust, he even offers a few scenarios to start him off.

Concluding his remarks about freedom and the frontier, REH attempts to spell out three primary points of contention with HPL's apparent convictions on the issue, and then rebuts each in turn. His first argument is with HPL's apparent view that REH's preference is "merely a silly romantic whim" (707). In contradiction to this, he says his desire is the same one that motivated his pioneering ancestors, and says that if preferring to live on the frontier is a silly whim, then so was the motivation of anyone who crossed the Alleghenies. Secondly, REH contends with HPL's seeming conviction that no intelligent man could honestly prefer the life of a pioneer. He briefly swats off thisclaim noting that it is hard for everyone to understand how someone else can like thingsthey do not. We are all more or less guilty, REH says, of this kind of provincialism. Lastly, he challenges HPL's apparent conception of frontier life as one of "unqualified misery and nightmare" (708).

Here REH's response is more substantial. First he says the frontier would not have been as nightmarish for pioneers as it would be for Eastern urbanites. In fact, "to certain temperaments, (not inferior by any means) the wild, open life of the naked countries appealed more than a settled, urban life" (708). He, himself, possesses this temperament and resents being viewed as inferior for it. In contrast with HPL's claim that this was an antisocial impulse, REH says "It was a nomadic urge . . . ; a desire for freedom not necessarily in defiance of law and order, but the desire to wander over new lands unhindered" (708). And not just to wander, but to live free of "the tyranny of money" (709). In closing, REH says that his comments about the frontier have been misunderstood. He spoke in praise of the frontier as a defense of his preferences, which HPL questioned. He states that they are not an argument in favor of the frontier's permanence, or the application of its principles to modern problems.

Coming back to the topic that originally started the controversy, REH spars over the nuances in their contrasts between barbarism and civilization. First, he corrects an apparent misunderstanding of his argument. He says he did not intend to argue that fewer people would suffer under barbarism than civilization, only that a barbarian would not suffer as much as a civilized man would in barbaric conditions. This claim seems less relevant as an argument against civilization than it does as a correction of HPL's apparent horror over harder life circumstances. Further, REH says HPL's argument implies that civilization "produces no conditions that lead to suffering." He points to sweatshops, strikes, and tenements as products of settled civilized life. While this point hardly establishes barbarism as a preferable state, this is a point HPL has not
adequately taken account of. This is plain in the way he minimized the unemployment crisis, which REH rightly rebuts, saying that ten million unemployed is hardly insignificant, and in addition many millions more are "unbearably pinched" even though they are employed (711).

Turning again to the comparison between barbarism and civilization in the areas of disease and accidents, REH offers even weaker arguments than before. While he grants modern gains in medical research (which he says is one thing that reconciles him to modern life), he claims that the "race" grows weaker. He both minimizes the effects of disease among barbarian populations and argues erroneously when he says, "undoubtedly [Germanic barbarians] had plagues that swept off thousands. But it is also very sure that they had more resistance than we moderns have. If not . . . they would all have died. There would have been no Aryan race" (711). Then he compares this to the frontier, where typhoid, malaria, typhus, and cholera wiped out many, yet inexplicably still concludes: "But they were essentially a healthy race" (711). He rounds out his biased argument about weakening of "the race" by claiming to have witnessed the increase of disease in his own lifetime due to "loss of hardihood" (711).

Germanic Warriors
Regarding accidents, he agrees that more Germans died violently under barbarism than is common in contemporary society, but argues that this was not a hardship because of their religion. After citing statistics about deaths and injuries to accidents, he seems to depart from his argument regarding barbarism and says that the hazards of modern life are not greater than those of barbarism, but they are greater than the hazards of the frontier. He concludes with the wildly false claim that the number of men killed and maimed under industrialization is "infinitely greater" than the number who suffered on the frontier (712).

Believing that HPL assumes that he admires Germanic barbarians because of their lack of development, REH states that they were more highly developed than HPL recognizes, and essentially recapitulates the claim he made at the start of their controversy: "I believe  they were developed to a point where life as one would have been more satisfying (to one of my temperament, if born among them) than would have been the life of a Roman plebeian, a medieval yeoman, or a modern European peasant or American tenant-farmer" (712). He credits Germanic tribal society with building dragon ships, forging swords and armor, creating the religion of Odin and sagas such as Beowulf, and distinguishes it from mere savages, such as "Australian bush-fellows, or the Borneo pirates" (712).

Next, REH corrects a misunderstanding. He had previously argued against setting an arbitrary rule about what things are of value. In context, "things" referred to various individual freedoms. HPL missed that context and misinterpreted REH statement. He called it a "refusal to accept the basic standards of human development." Here REH replies that his remark had nothing to do with standards of development, but rather was a response to HPL's claim that further regulation of individual life will not "destroy anything of real value in the process of living" (626). He explains: "If you had said 'anything of artistic or cultural value' I would not have disagreed with you. But your statement was too sweeping, when considering just what things are of value to the individual" (712). He then distinguishes between things that are valuable from an artistic or cultural point of view, and things which are valuable to the individual, citing a recent restriction in Texas against hitch-hiking as an example (713). While HPL had not advocated the restriction of hitch-hiking, REH's observation would seem to force HPL to recognize the value of (at least certain) individual freedoms, even if they do not have larger, cultural significance.

Before ending his letter with an account of an injury he sustained in a car accident, REH addresses his supposed bias against intellectuals. For two paragraphs he denies such bias. He states that he has no "indiscriminate prejudice" toward them (as opposed to 'discriminate prejudice'?), that he regards them with tolerance (or at least amusement), and that he does not count any as an enemy. However, in the course of his exposition of tolerance, he notes their tendency to skewer "less sophisticated individuals with their supposedly lacerating wit," expresses "disgust" toward some of them, refers to their easily shocked "quivering souls," calls at least a segment of them "baby intellectuals" and "rattle-brained," and even offers an account of "one young genius" who, while misquoting him, held him up in a national publication as an example of "twisted thinking and brutal psychology of the South" (715-6).

Despite such treatment, he denies being upset by the attack. He concludes, "I merely refuse to burn incense to every human being who calls himself an artist or an intellectual" (716). Clearly, despite his denials of bias and statements of tolerance, he views "intellectuals" as supercilious; he has said as much in past letters and demonstrated some bitterness over it. His unflattering characterization of "some" intellectuals seems to reveal his general bias, however much he expresses the opposite. This appears to be a pose intended to bolster an image of unthreatened and unaffected pride.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

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