Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lovecraft and Racism

Over on his blog for the Geekually Yoked podcast, Leeman Kessler wrestles with the issues of portraying H.P. Lovecraft online, especially in a humorous manner, considering the man's heinous racism and anti-Semitism.  He writes:

When I started to play Lovecraft, I made a few rules for myself. I never want to apologize or make excuses for his views. I don’t think it would be honest to say in character, “I’ve seen the light! Multiculturalism is the greatest! How foolish I was!” From time to time I’ve come close but I never fully go over the line. It’s part of why I enjoy having his Evil Twin PH to tackle some of these issues as I did here and here. It’s a cheat that lets me address these issues but not betray the character, such as it is.
The other saving grace is humour. My show is a comedy and as such, I’m able to poke fun both at Lovecraft’s views and also use him to poke modern sensibilities. As Rachel and I just talked about on our most recent podcast, comedy is not just a distraction from drama but can be used to highlight it and throw serious subjects into stark relief and I think some of what I do on Ask Lovecraft reflects it.
Like Leeman, I do not accept the "He was a man of his times" excuse.  Even a cursory reading of his letters shows that his views sometimes bordered on the genocidal.  He had a paranoid fear of miscegenation that would embarrass the average Klansman.  And his anti-Semitism would be looked on with approval with the Nazis.

It's the latter point where he becomes very complex.  He had many Jewish friends, especially in the period when he was living in New York.  And he married a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, Sonia Green.  Despite that he would make casually anti-Semitic comments around her and when she would remind him he was married to a Jew he would get angry and say that marrying him made her a Lovecraft as if that somehow changed who she was.  That their marriage failed is not really any surprise, though how much can be blamed on his anti-Semitism and how much on the fact that they simply had incompatible personalities is open to discussion.

Despite all of this, I too am a huge Lovecraft fan. As I said, I don't accept the excuses about him.  Nor do I believe that you should separate the man from his work.  In HPL's case that is often impossible.  His racism clearly expresses itself in many of his stories, most famously in The Shadow Over Innsmouth which is clearly about his fears of mongrelization.  But it's a common thread in many other stories too.  In The Call of Cthulhu the worshipers of Cthulhu are either degenerate tribesman, backwoods Creoles (themselves a "mongrel race") or swarthy sailors from places like Greece and Portugal.

Whenever this issue comes up I invariably recommend the documentary Wagner & Me.  In it actor Stephen Fry tries to come to grip with being a fan of the operas of Hitler's favorite composer Richard Wagner despite himself being Jewish.  He asks the question can a Jew enjoy Wagner despite his virulent anti-Semitism?  Can anybody enjoy Wagner despite Hitler's imprimatur?

The key to reading Lovecraft is not to deny his racism but to accept it head on and see how it informs his work.  Intellectual honesty about him or Wagner or any other creative person with odious personal views is the key.

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