Metabolizing Lovecraft’s racism

Whereas I think what’s important about Lovecraft, and this is now an absolute standard after the work of people like Houellebecq and so on, is that there is nothing epiphenomenal about racism in Lovecraft. As Houellebecq says, it is race hatred that raises in him the poetic trance. And I think that’s exactly right. Which means that all those things that one’s talking about—all that kind of deep time, all that kind of deep novum, all that ecstatic collapse of the subject position—is predicated on master-race ideology, race hatred. So, in other words, the antihumanism one finds so bracing in him is an antihumanism predicated on murderous race hatred. And this is why you don’t get to escape it by saying “well, we’re not really talking about humans.”

I don’t think the racism can be divorced from the writing at all, nor should it be. What one can try to do in the case of Lovecraft—and in the case of many other writers, the case of Conrad, the case of Céline, and plenty of other writers of toxic opinions—is to try to metabolize it and understand and even appreciate the power of the text. You can only do so by unflinchingly taking on the extent to which that power is predicated on something which is brutal and oppressive. I don’t even want to call it a pathology of modernity, because actually modernity is constructed on these things. This work is spun from utterly toxic aspects of modernity and therefore it may illuminate them in certain powerful ways, and maybe give you a sense of the kind of imbrication of these kinds of toxic ideologies with the nature of everyday life.

One of the things I find powerful in Lovecraft is the way he can never forget this. And it seems to me to be the best way to get on with the fact that one finds Lovecraft’s texts very powerful is to unflinchingly and unblinkingly take on the extent to which what you are receiving is race hatred in poetic form. And you have to not just diagnose but excoriatingly attack that hatred, while acknowledging that it has some kind of diagnostic use-value and ecstatic power as a piece of cultural bumph. I’m alway comparing it with Heart of Darkness because somebody I admire once talked about Heart of Darkness as a great piece of work despite Conrad’s racism. I was thinking that the difficulty is that it is an amazing piece of work because of it. And I think that the shift from the despite to the because is a key thing in thinking about this.

This is a very problematic area. I don’t just mean that we have to “acknowledge” that he was racist. Acknowledgement is absolutely not enough, and I think that there can be a sense in which we “acknowledge” that he had regrettable opinions and therefore we’re inoculated and then, that done, we get to kind of geekishly enthuse about how cool these monsters are. No, that’s not okay. And particularly because of lot of modern aspects of geek culture are saturated in certain of these aesthetics.

My own feeling is that if you take stock of your own cultural sphere and cultural production and at a certain point, if a critical mass of them are saturated with fascist aesthetics, then something is going on. I think this sometimes about the number of theorists—many of whom are also Lovecraft fans—who are really into black metal, for example—and this is an easy one for me because black metal is not my thing—but there can be a kind of “Obviously I’m not agreeing with the Norwegian Nazi black metal bands, but the music does a certain thing I will now discuss.” But you know what: if your favorite books and your favorite music and many of your favorite films and this and this are all saturated with fascist aesthetics, maybe something is gong on here.

Maybe we need to reintroduce a kind of not merely diagnosis, but judgment. Maybe one has to turn around and be able to say that this is avery powerful piece of work, but it is not okay. I don’t know, but I’m open to this.

Certainly, in the immediate future what I would say is that the kind of unflinching metabolization of Lovecraft in terms of his attitudes toward race and so on can only be done on the basis that one does not explain it away; one does not simply “acknowledge” it and think it done. One has to see it as much more constitutive of his oeuvre than that.

—China Miéville, “Afterword: Interview with China Miéville” by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, from The Age of Lovecraft (2016) ed. Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, pp. 241-242

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