Lovecraft’s Modernist Racism

This is adapted from a paper I presented at a conference last week. Apologies for the lack of referencing – I might go back and add it later. The Thacker quotes are all from In the Dust of this Planet, the Fisher is all The Weird and the Eerie, the Céssaire is ‘Surrealism and Us’, and the Miéville is from the interview with him in the back of The Age of Lovecraft.

H. P. Lovecraft frequently presented art as an object of fear and fascination: this post talks about how this manifests in two of his short stories, ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. In each story, art serves as a direct connection to what we might call the Outside: the unseen Real beyond what is usually perceived, the knowledge of which in Lovecraft’s stories invariably leads to psychological torment and the threat of social collapse. However, in both stories, the specific kinds of art associated with this Outside are explicitly racialised – and racialised fears around art were certainly no stranger to white, bourgeois society in the period in which Lovecraft was writing, with two key examples being the early reception of African-American jazz among the white establishment; and racialised fears around Modernist artwork, most clearly seen in the explicitly anti-Semitic denunciation of it by the Nazi German state in the 1930s.

Because art serves this dual purpose in Lovecraft’s stories, then, serving both as a connection to a horrific Outside and as an object of racist paranoia, it provides a lever by which we might get at one of the most pressing questions about Lovecraft and his legacy today: the extent to which the philosophical content of his stories, as well as the compelling ‘cosmic horror’ aesthetic, can ever be disentangled from the explicit white supremacist thinking that underpins much of his work.

This is a question that remains urgent because of the lasting influence Lovecraft has on philosophy, literature, and vast swathes of media right into the present. For example, he is influential on the critical and philosophical work of Mark Fisher and Eugene Thacker, which is useful to start thinking through Lovecraft’s work ontologically. Thacker describes both of their work as representing a shift in horror criticism away from readings, often rooted in Freud, that see horror as having a primarily therapeutic quality; that tend to reduce the object of horror down to the uncanny of individual psychology. Instead they advocate for an understanding of weird or horror fiction as concerned with that which exists ‘beyond standard perception, cognition, and experience’ as Fisher puts it; or in Thacker’s words, ‘a non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically’

For Fisher, Lovecraft’s work becomes the archetypal example of what he calls the Weird: an aesthetic mode fixated on ‘that which does not belong’, the existence of which indicates that semiotic systems we use to make sense of reality to be inadequate. Fisher writes that “a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.” Fisher crucially argues that the primary emotional response evoked by Lovecraft’s stories, and felt by his characters in response to the weird, is not horror or revulsion but fascination. We can clearly see this in how the narrators of these stories respond to the weird art objects that they centre around, obsessively attempting to learn more about them to the point of self-destruction. In Pickman’s Model, the narrator’s compulsion to learn more about Pickman’s art leads to a shocking revelation that unsettles him to the point of becoming unable to stand being underground, which makes travelling around Boston difficult; while the Call of Cthulhu starts with the narrator resolving to “search out the eccentric sculptor responsible” for a sculpture in his late uncle’s possessions, and ends with the his conviction that he will be murdered by the Cthulhu cult for what he has figured out, or else go insane, having caught a glimpse of humanity’s place in a vast and undescribable cosmos. In each story, the narrator’s fatalistic attraction to a weird art piece leads to their own downfall, the art itself becoming an egress towards a shocking encounter with the Outside.

In each of these stories, Lovecraft presents their weird visual art and weird ruptures with reference to real artists and movements. Pickman’s Model focuses on the horrific realism of Pickman’s paintings, leading to the revelation that they were drawn from life. The text references Henry Fuseli and Fransisco Goya directly, and though Pickman’s style seems less Romantic than Fuseli or Goya’s, the text allows them to serve as relatively close ‘models’ for Pickman’s work in the reader’s imagination. In particular, the painting ‘Ghoul Feeding’, which seems to particularly compel the narrator, is described to closely resemble Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son: a crouching ‘blasphemy’ gnawing on ‘a thing that had been a man […] as a child nibbles a stick of candy’.

In contrast, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ predominantly references more modern movements and pieces, including cubism and futurism in this description of the Cthulhu idol:

The bas-relief was a rough rectangle less than an inch thick and about five by six inches in area; obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing.

Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

Although they are here mentioned in the negative for their inability to match the qualities of the Cthulhu idol, as “although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing”,  the description of weird art in the text nevertheless often evokes contemporary movements, which we see as this description continues:

Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evidently pictorial intent, though its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.

Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

As seen here, the “impressionistic execution” obviously carries the weight of a specific movement in modern art, but so does the idea of an image that yields “simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature” – a distinctly surrealist montage of images that recalls the work of artists such as Max Ernst, whose Celebes here has elements of a corn-bin, an elephant, a bull, and a woman’s chest.

Max Ernst: Celebes, 1921.

Similarly, the comparisons to cubism from the non-Euclidean geometries of R’lyeh more or less go without saying: this proto-cubist piece by Picasso is a particularly clear example, though Lovecraft’s hyperbolic description of R’lyeh reads like a paranoid subversion of Picasso’s remarkably peaceful original.

Pablo Picasso: Houses on the Hill, 1909.

Later, Lovecraft describes the seaman Johansen as having “achieved something very close to” futurism despite never having encountered it in his descriptions of R’lyeh, “for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces”. In doing so, Lovecraft’s text positions the ‘wild vagaries’ of futurism as being a better representation of the Real than realism itself.

Umberto Boccioni: Elasticity, 1912.

If we think about it through Fisher’s understanding of the Weird, the difference between the artistic intertextuality of ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘Call of Cthulhu’, summed up by the opposition between Goya and Boccioni, is somewhat interesting: while Pickman’s Model certainly has elements of the weird as Fisher describes it, it clearly lacks the cosmic charge of Call of Cthulhu: humans are revealed to be sharing the Earth, and interbreeding, with nightmarish creatures; but there is little suggestion of the radically disruptive ontologies the encounter with Cthulhu and R’lyeh implies. The intertextual ouvre of Pickman’s Model is Gothic, and its monsters are largely associated with traditionally Gothic environments such as ruined old buildings, old graveyards, and forgotten tunnels – even as the creatures are revealed to exist in the present. Vivian Ralickas writes that ‘In reducing the educated subject’s experience of art to a primal instinct and communicating a worldview that undercuts the primacy of human beings, Pickman’s art therefore serves as a focal point for Lovecraft’s nihilistic notion of cosmic horror’. However, the creatures in Pickman’s Model largely resemble a vestigial species, confined to life underground in tunnels dug by human beings. In contrast, ‘Call of Cthulhu’ is unquestionably cosmic in scope, with its monsters threatening to burst into life like a futurist painting: while the narrator of Pickman’s Model is horrified by the ability of realist art to convey a terrifying, unknown, reality, Call of Cthulhu’s is haunted by the possibility that it might not be: that the reality will be revealed to be so strange that it is impossible to comprehend, led alone represent, even with cutting edge modernist techniques. Fisher writes that “Modernist and experimental work often strikes us as weird when we first encounter it” and that “there is an enjoyment in seeing the familiar and the conventional becoming outmoded.” However, the conservative perspective of Call of Cthulhu cannot imagine the conventional being replaced by anything other than total collapse, that “some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

This fear might make more sense when we consider how these artforms are racialised in each text, in light of Lovecraft’s own white supremacy. In Pickman’s Model, Pickman is only able to produce his most extreme work in a place that he doesn’t “believe three living Nordic men besides myself have ever seen”, while in the Call of Cthulhu, the Cthulhu cult are invariably racialised as ‘mixed’, ‘hybrid’, and ‘negroes’. As well as a conduit for a demonic Outside, in both Pickman’s Model and Call of Cthulhu art represents a means by which a racialised underclass can destabilise the white establishment, often through precisely the affective ‘fascination’ that Fisher describes. In Call of Cthulhu, weird art, which is described to resemble modernist techniques, is directly associated with anticolonial uprising in this telling passage of Call of Cthulhu:

[news] items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March. Voodoo orgies multiply in Hayti, and African outposts report ominous mutterings. American officers in the Philippines find certain tribes bothersome about this time, and New York policemen are mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22–23. The west of Ireland, too, is full of wild rumour and legendry, and a fantastic painter named Ardois-Bonnot hangs a blasphemous “Dream Landscape” in the Paris spring salon of 1926

Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

Lovecraft presents “voodoo orgies” in Haiti, tribal unrest in the Philippines, and resistance to the British Imperial state in India as equally significant effects of Cthulhu’s brief emergence to Ardois-Bonnot’s “blasphemous “Dream Landscape”” being exhibited in Paris; suggesting that they represent an equivalent threat to a global social order that is explicitly presented as colonialist.

In the period Lovecraft was writing, this connection between modernist painting techniques and a threat to a colonial western hegemony can be seen in two main ways: firstly, in the paranoid school of thought that presented modern art as an ‘enemy within’, which was made explicitly anti-semitic in by the Nazi German state in their ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibitions, decrying an imagined ‘Jewish influence’ supposedly at the root of modernist innovation. However, the Nazis were not alone in perceiving modernist art as a threat to Western values: Frederic Spotts notes that ‘Roger Fry’s post-Impressioist exhibition in London had been likened by British critics to “another Gunpowder Plot, an attempt to plan a bomb under the institutions of art’ [while] the art critic of the Times explicitly labelled it ‘degenerate’. In Call of Cthulhu, artists such as Ardois-Bonnot and the sculptor Wilcox are similarly presented at best as unwitting agents in a racialised plot against colonial hegemony, if not willing co-conspirators.

Wifredo Lam: The Jungle, 1943.

However, if Lovecraft saw surrealist images as associated with both psychological revelation and anticolonial resistance, then so did anti-colonial writers and artists themselves: particularly those associated with the concept of Negritude such as Suzanne Césaire, who associated surrealism with both violent anti-colonial revolution and the possibility of remaking the world without white supremacist hierarchies. She envisions that “Millions of Black hands, across the raging clouds of world war, will spread terror everywhere. […] Our surrealism will then supply them the leaven from their very depths. It will be time to finally transcend the sordid contemporary antinomies: Whites-Black, Europeans-Africans, civilised-savage: […] Colonial idiocies will be purified by the welding arc’s blue flame”. As a visual example of this sort of art, we might think of the Cuban Negritude Surrealist Wifredo Lam’s painting The Jungle, which in its mass of bodies and the inspiration it takes from African and indigenous culture resembles the ‘voodoo ritual’ from which police officers confiscate the idol in Call of Cthulhu – and where, “Void of clothing, [the] hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire” – in a shockingly racist description even for Lovecraft. It is hardly coincidental that the same images that anti-colonial artists such as Lam adopted as a symbol of strength mirror those which white supremacist writers such as Lovecraft present as objects of revulsion.

Although Césaire and Lam were not yet active as Lovecraft was writing, at that very moment the United States was a black cultural revolution of its own with the radical explosion of jazz that took place over the course of the 1920s. Though there is no explicit mention of jazz in his stories, it is nevertheless worth thinking about with regards to Call of Cthulhu’s voodoo ritual. Maureen Anderson notes that in early reactions to jazz in the white bourgeois press ‘the distinction between jazz and African tribal music disappears’, quoting a 1917 article from Literary Digest in writing: “The groups that play for dancing, when colored, seem infected with the virus that they try to instill as a stimulus in others. They shake and jump and writhe in ways to suggest a return to the medieval jumping mania”:“No doubt the witch-doctors and medicine-men on the Kongo used the same term at [their own] jungle “parties””. In other words, the fact that Lovecraft presents the ritual as an ancient tradition does not prevent its depiction from drawing on white anxieties around novel forms of black cultural production in the period Lovecraft was writing, as those too were understood as being somehow ‘traditional’ even despite their obvious novelty.

In fact, this construction of non-existent African traditions serves the same purpose in both texts, in denying black and brown people the agency of being artistic innovators themselves, instead arguing that what appears to be artistic innovation must actually be a previously unknown traditional practice. Like jazz, the cultural expression represented by the ritual first appears to be novel – “voodoo of a more terrible sort” than the locals had ever known, engaged in by practitioners of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds – but the constructed history of Call of Cthulhu allows the text to deny that the participants are themselves culturally innovative, arguing that they are simply being influenced by an Outside force. Similarly, while the Cthulhu idol itself, in its apparent fusion of traditional techniques and modernist innovation, might resemble the work of a Negritude Surrealist such as Lamb, its extraterrestrial origin denies its worshippers the agency of having created the object themselves. In other words, the possibility of cultural innovation among the underclass is presented as less likely than their simply retaining artworks created by aliens, meaning that the threat to material and ontological white supremacy Césaire sees Negritude Surrealism as presenting is wholly subsumed into the story’s distinctly unreal science-fiction worldbuilding.

In contrast, it is notable that In Pickman’s Model, the final twist is not simply that the dog-things Pickman paints are real, but that Pickman himself is one of them: “old Reid was right”, we are told, Pickman “wasn’t strictly human”. This inhumanity has been presented in extremely racial terms through the figure of Dr. Reid, who is described as seeing that Pickman’s “features and expression were slowly developing in a way he didn’t like” in a clear connection to the racist pseudoscience of phrenology. If we take Lovecraft’s ‘dog-things’ as a racist parody of the immigrant communities whose streets they live beneath, the ‘shocking’ final revelation is not only that this unassimilated part of the underclass exists, but that Pickman’s artwork is not a project of colonial representation from without, but the class representing itself from within. Unlike in The Call of Cthulhu, Pickman’s Model allows this racialised other the subjectivity to represent itself in terms that are not set entirely set by the colonial power despite Pickman’s realist technique, as he is apparently unperturbed by his expulsion from the Boston art community – much to the horror of the story’s narrator, and its presumed readership.

If we return now to Fisher’s conception of the Weird as fixating on objects which by their existence reveal that “the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid”, Pickman’s art remains exactly that: however, the ontologies that are being challenged by its existence are not those of a broad consensual reality, as readings such as Fisher’s focus on, but those of white supremacy. As I hope to have shown here, Lovecraft’s racism is not incidental to his stories or his worldview: as China Mieville writes, “it is racism that raises in him the poetic trance […] the antihumanism one finds so bracing in him is antihumanism predicated on murderous race hatred” – something Fisher and Thacker could have done with acknowledging in their own responses. It is for this reason that readings of Lovecraft’s work which focus on his understanding of an Outside without taking the time to deal with his ontologies of race will always be incomplete, because for Lovecraft the “standard perception, cognition, and experience” that the Outside exists beyond can only ever be that of Aryan males. The fact that Lovecraft presents artwork as both a conduit for inhuman agencies and those of a racialised underclass is because in Lovecraft’s stories people of other ethnicities occupy at best a liminal position in the category of human – deeply suspect, and probably dangerous. As China Miéville recognises, this is not an unfortunate quirk of the philosophy Lovecraft presents in his stories but, tragically, the foundation of it.

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