HP Lovecraft, pulp philosopher

Graham Harman's "Weird Realism" examines the metaphysical underpinnings of the cult author's bizarre oeuvre

Topics: LA Review of Books, Books, hp lovecraft, science-fiction, Philosophy, essays, ,

HP Lovecraft, pulp philosopherHP Lovecraft(Credit: Via Wikimedia Commons)
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Los Angeles Review of BooksH.P. LOVECRAFT’S WORK has not received a great deal of attention from literary critics. Until relatively recently, the majority of “treatments” of his oeuvre have been in the form of B-movies. While it’s surprising that Roger Corman, director of seven features based on the stories of Lovecraft’s great predecessor, Poe, only did one Lovecraft film (The Haunted Palace, itself marketed as “Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace,” despite being based on Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), some of the stable of effects of Lovecraft’s fiction — his characters’ tendencies to simply tell you their emotions (usually on a scale between repulsion and disgust), their inability to adequately describe the most startling creatures and architectures — make his stories ripe for the B-movie treatment. The telegraphed emotions of his characters justify stilted or hysterical acting, and the incomplete, contradictory visual descriptions of creatures like Cthulhu or the Old Ones — not to mention the “strange, beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars” hovering miles above us in At the Mountains of Madness — seem to cry out for a gauzy camera style that conceals the tawdriness of the set design, the recycled monster costumes, and the failures of the lighting crew.

Each Lovecraft story seems at once an absurd improvisation — pulling stuff out of his hat for the sake of filling pulp magazine column inches — and a careful extension of his basic principle that humans, were we to have any access to the true nature of the universe, would recoil with horror at how small a role we play in it and how much the universe doesn’t seem to care. He often introduces an entire new species of ancient, if not thriving, life form while also confirming, often by quick allusion or repeated phrase, the persistent powers of some previously introduced creature or cultural item, notably the monster Cthulhu or the writings of the “mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” contained in the Necronomicon. His oeuvre, expressed in fragments (Lovecraft never wrote a novel) did spawn a large body of what has come to be called “fan fiction” — even within his own lifetime, writers such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth devoted their careers to extensions of the Lovecraft universe — but little more than condescension from his intellectual contemporaries.



Lately this is beginning to change. The Library of America published a collection of Lovecraft’s best works in 2005, and today literary critics, and even philosophers, are finally beginning to pay attention to this defiantly unfashionable writer. In a way, this makes a certain kind of sense. Even if Lovecraft were not writing philosophy proper, much of the coherence of his “cosmicism” results not in the noncontradictory material or technological universes typical of most science fiction — think of the droids and lightsabers that populate the world of Star Wars — but in a singularly fraught metaphysical universe. In Lovecraft’s version of reality, laws seem to function in ways that make our foundational certainties — Euclidean geometry, the private experience of dreams, the inviolable divisions between human, animal, plant, and the nonliving, etc. — merely contingent: just the way things appear to us, rather than absolute necessities.

Perhaps the reason Lovecraft never wrote a novel is that he refused to be authoritative, a god in full control of a world, with total access to every drive and thought of its well-rounded characters. Novelists, with their pretenses to total access to their universes, invariably argue for the distinctiveness, not to mention the primacy, of human agency. Instead, Lovecraft wrote fragments of a novel, bits and pieces that never reveal the whole story but which, put together, poignantly suggest the impotence of human aspiration. If the short list of “failures” of Lovecraft as a writer drives away the average literary critic — who, like the novelist, will want to project some degree of panoptic vision — it’s proven fertile ground for the American “speculative realist” philosopher Graham Harman, whose new book on Lovecraft is not only an odd and exciting addition to his own rapidly expanding bibliography but also an affront to those critics who have mistaken Lovecraft’s virtues for faults.

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Few movements in recent philosophy have had as startling a rise as that of the writers loosely grouped under the heading “Speculative Realists.” Attention to this movement, which includes Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, and Quentin Meillassoux — sidestepping the controversy of whether it in fact is a “movement,” and, if it is, whether “speculative realism” accurately describes their program — is growing exponentially, not just in universities but also among the unaffiliated continental philosophy junkies who troll the blogosphere. The one principle that is inarguably shared by these philosophers is quite simple: they wish to retrieve philosophy from a tendency initiated, or at least made unavoidable, by the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the subject (meaning a human being) can ever know anything about the external world due to the very fact of subjectivity. For him, reality is always mediated by cognition, and the thinkable has a basic handicap: it is just thought. Nothing comes from outside into the mind, in other words, that is not turned into thought; the radical epistemologist argues that all we can know lies in the firm foundations of what is available to the senses, while the radical idealist argues that nothing remains in this thinking of whatever it was that spawned the thought, leaving one at the impasse of believing that all of reality is virtual, a bunch of mental actions. The result, according to the speculative realists, is that philosophy since Kant has been stuck with making this very mind→object relationship the locus and subject of philosophy, thus shutting down the project of metaphysics, the search for absolute laws beyond what can be established by experimental science.

Quentin Meillassoux has dubbed this mind→object relationship — the impasse that is at the heart of the Kantian tradition — “correlationism,” and the term has become a rallying cry for speculative realists. Harman’s philosophy displaces the mind→object relationship with that of object→object, the “mind” being just one object among many. Oddly, though Meillassoux names correlationism as the primary curse of the Kantian tradition, he also seems the most devoted of his peers to preserving the best part of it by making it the one place where he claims anything like an absolute exists. To Meillassoux (who, coincidentally or consequently, is also a fan of Lovecraft), the universe is not characterized by necessity (God-given or inevitable laws) but by a radical contingency, a “hyper-chaos” amidst which the only thing that could be seen as absolute is the mind→object relationship itself. How Meillassoux gets there is not our concern here; suffice it to say that the two philosophers share a fairly Lovecraftian attitude. They believe that there is a form of “realism” available to metaphysics, even when mucking in the world of what will always be unknown to human consciousness. This second Copernican revolution in philosophy, which situates the mind as one object in dizzying free-fall among many, might seem “the end of the world as we know it” for normative humanists, but the speculative realists, like Michael Stipe before them, “feel fine.”

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Harman, for all of his concern with objects (his branch of speculative realism has been christened “object-oriented ontology”), is not a materialist, and he’s certainly no empiricist. He believes that scientific pursuits that seek the elemental building blocks of the universe are getting most of the story wrong, for though we might be able to learn of the subatomic composition of, say, uranium, the banana or the West Nile virus, none of that knowledge exhausts the ways that an object can affect reality — which is to say, the way objects can relate to each other. An idiosyncratic feature of Harman’s philosophy is that “objects” for him are not just things, and certainly not just natural things, but also concepts, imagined entities, and nearly any entity that can have some effect on reality for however long or short a time, on however large or small a scale, and at whatever level of availability to human perception or “science.”

In Harman’s universe, then, not only are bananas objects, but so are aggregate things we create out of bananas (like banana splits), the component things that make up the banana (like the banana’s skin and its pulpy interior), imagined things we derive from bananas (like the Bananaman cartoon, or, I guess, Bananarama), as well as the corporations behind the cultivation, delivery, and marketing of bananas (like Chiquita Banana). This free-flow among a plethora of relations — from artificial to nature, from human to nonhuman, from “thing” to “idea,” with no possibility for hierarchy or a taxonomy — is a theme Harman picks up from “actor-network” theory, a creation of sociologist Bruno Latour, which posits the necessarily “hybrid” nature of a reality in which an arcane experiment in quantum physics could be affected by a sex scandal, an epidemic, Hurricane Sandy, political indifference, or a speed bump.

Harman worked as a sportswriter while pursuing his degree in philosophy, and any baseball fan knows that limiting your study of “reality” to the operations of physics misses nearly the whole story. Like a scientist, a fan might speculate on ball speed, the fitness of players, and even the level of oxygen available in Coors Field, but the play-by-play is incomplete without banter about the outrageous contracts, speculations about drug use, general kibitzing about the mythologies behind certain stadiums or franchises, the scandalous press relations of certain players, the classic games, the world records, and so on. We can discuss “baseball,” then, as an object composed of hundreds of other objects all in interrelation; to discuss the game merely on the level of physics — what empirical science would be able to tell us exists — would be absurd.

Harman is unusual in the metaphysical tradition in that he is comfortable with the fact that objects will never be fully revealed and that they in fact are always in a state of retreat, not simply from the mind (which is just another object) but also from each other. In Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Harman enlists Lovecraft in his battle with epistemology and materialism — Lovecraft himself expressed loathing for normative science, and certainly had no love for legitimate academics — but also against correlationism: the conviction that all the mind could ever know are purely mental phenomena, which ultimately led (and here we are brushing with broad strokes) to the so-called “linguistic” turn of much 20th-century philosophy (most characteristically that of Wittgenstein and Derrida). To that extent, Lovecraft’s failure to engage in the linguistic experimentation of his high Modernist contemporaries does not make him some kind of recalcitrant provincial, but rather a sensible (if xenophobic) voyager who simply did not want to make the claim that language was all there was. Lovecraft’s language “fails” only insofar as the narrators fail to get into words, to journalize, some experience that simply cannot be fully available to the meager human senses and mind. For the most part, Lovecraft is happy to use language as a simple, functional tool, rather than to insist at every moment through linguistic estrangement — like, say, a Stein or a Beckett — that language is not what you think it is (and, consequently, that language is everything). For Lovecraft, it’s the universe, not language, that is not what you think it is. So what is it then? Well, weird.

Weird Realism opens with an idiosyncratic set of short essays that lay out the method of the book. Harman notes that there is a choice that philosophers generally make between being a “destroyer of gaps” — those who want to reduce reality to a simple principle — and “creators of gaps” — those who point to those areas to which we will possibly never have access. He deems the latter “productionists” (in contrast to reductionists) and writes: “If we apply this distinction to imaginative writers, then H.P. Lovecraft is clearly a productionist author. No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess.” He then describes the more literary aspects of his method. “The Problem with Paraphrase” takes aim at critic Edmund Wilson’s tendency to rewrite the “content” of Lovecraft’s stories in his own terms and then attack that effigy rather than the writing itself. “The Inherent Stupidity of All Content” develops Slavoj Žižek’s theme of the “inherent stupidity of all proverbs” (in The Abyss of Freedom, in which Žižek amusingly proves that any proverb can be entirely reversed and give us access to an equally wise perspective). Harman combines both Wilson’s and Žižek’s techniques — ridiculously literal paraphrases in a variety of styles and attempted textual reversals — in a method of his own that he calls “ruination,” arguing that “after all, the fact that a statement can be ruined means that this has not already occurred. It also means that we can use possible ruinations, and sometimes possible improvements, as a method of analyzing the effects of a literary statement.” This is, in some ways, a scientific method: Harman wishes to isolate qualities of Lovecraft’s writings by driving them out of their hiding places, like subjecting a bacterium to a stain, intense heat, or a college lecture by Newt Gingrich in order to elicit new behaviors.

The practice of “ruination” demonstrates the incredible precision with which Lovecraft approached description. If Harman is enlisting Lovecraft as a foot soldier against bland, realist empiricism, he has to prove that Lovecraft’s apparent failures to describe were a form of intellectual honesty rather than simply bad, clumsy style. Harman describes two stylistic techniques of Lovecraft’s that highlight this very theme of failure. The first is the “vertical” or “allusive” style, typified in this passage from the “Call of Cthulhu”:

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 […] but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

For Harman, such a passage draws us away from trying to recreate the creature in the terms of our loathsome, mundane world of Euclidean time and space. Lovecraft situates the creature partly in the diseased imagination of a narrator who claims that the description is “not unfaithful” but hardly correct, and also “asks us to ignore the surface properties of dragon and octopus […] and to focus instead on the fearsome ‘general outline of the whole.’” In this way, Lovecraft opens up a “gap”: things are moving along swimmingly in the story, with the narrator sane and physical reality recognizably accessible and ordered; just at the moment when the narrator experiences something truly astounding — the color out of space, the shadow out of time, like in the title! — language breaks down, and all you are left with is the “general outline of the whole.”

The opposite method, which Harman calls “horizontal” or “cubist,” occurs when Lovecraft begins a description by claiming that he’s at an impasse, but then lets fly with an abundance of information, as in this passage from “The Dunwich Horror”:

It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and the known three dimensions. It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very manlike hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateleys upon it. But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous […] Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest […] had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worse; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.

And that’s just the beginning. “The power of language is no longer enfeebled by an impossibly deep and distant reality,” Harman writes. “Instead, language is overloaded by a gluttonous excess of surfaces and aspects of the thing.” It’s like one of those scenes that seem to occur at the climax of any long-form Japanese fantasy anime: a creature starts to expand, but rather than simply getting fatter, every aspect begins to take on its own form, like a Rembrandt turning into an Arcimboldo. Both methods isolate moments of “crisis,” in the sense Thomas Kuhn describes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: observations can be made but there is no place for them in the dominant scientific paradigm and hence no language, setting the stage for a “paradigm shift” that not only turns the apparent anomalies into “facts” but also drives a few scientists bonkers in the meantime. Maybe that’s why Lovecraft’s heroes are always getting nauseous when I, aStar Wars kid, would most expect them to be quite thrilled.

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The bulk of Weird Realism is comprised of 100 mini-essays, many only a page long, each of which examines a short passage of one of Lovecraft’s major stories. Most expand outward to examine narrative tropes and stylistic tics that recur across several stories. Fans of Lovecraft will be satisfied: Harman seems to have missed nothing. Of the volume of writings by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred called the Necronomicon, Harman outlines the many ways Lovecraft establishes its reality: by reminding us of the copies scattered in libraries across the world (notably a heavily-guarded copy in Harvard’s Widener library); by having the book appear in several lists with actual and fictitious books; by referring to several translations of the book; and finally — this goes beyond Lovecraft himself — by the fact of the book’s appearance in the stories of his circle of friends. (Curious to me is that Harman doesn’t address whether or not the Necronomicon actually exists, if not as a book then as a concept that has reality-effects. But perhaps that is a foregone conclusion for Harman.)

Harman’s take on a certain famous passage in which a sailor is “swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse” gives a particularly good sense of how he is able to skirt between literary and philosophical language with ease:

Lovecraft introduces a problem. Not only is Cthulhu something over and above the three creatures he partially resembles […] we now find that even acute and obtuse angles must be something over and above their qualities. There seems to be a “spirit” of acute angles, a “general outline of the whole” which allows them to remain acute angles even in cases where they behave as if they were obtuse. Not since Pythagoras have geometrical entities been granted this sort of psychic potency, to the point that they have a deeper being over and above their measurable and experienceable traits.

While the lovers of novels might be less pleased when Harman makes grand statements about Lovecraft’s greater importance to literature than Proust or Joyce (he does!), those of us with no visceral knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the history of philosophy can find pleasure in learning that there is, after Pythagoras (and before Kandinsky!), a tradition of attributing “psychic potency” to squares and circles. “[I]t is unclear how the mere fact of ‘behaving as obtuse’ would allow an angle to ‘swallow up’ an unwary sailor,” Harman continues:

Sketch the diagram of an obtuse angle for yourself, and you will see the difficulty in intuitively grasping what has happened. If the phrase “she looked daggers at him” is an example of catachresis in language, a misapplication of a word to gain metaphorical effects, then the acute angle obtusely swallowing a sailor is a fine example of catachresis in geometry. We might as well say: “It was the number 21, but it behaved as though it were the number 6.”

One way of reconciling this might be to consider the problem of painting. Any image that pretends to take place in “Renaissance perspective” is bound to have a “vanishing point” at which parallel lines will appear to converge. Consequently, in films — say an Expressionist one like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or the finale to Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, or Michel Gondry’s delirious music video for the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be” — we are repeatedly confronted with seemingly depthless triangles turning out to be boxes with hidden monsters or dancing girls in them, not to mention the reverse (poor Wile E. Coyote): landscapes with deep perspective turning out to be flat, painful façades.

But Harman’s approach is more interesting. Rather than treating the passage as a problem of ekphrasis (from my perspective it appeared acute, but it was really obtuse), he treats it as a statement about reality: the angle really is acute, but lo and behold, it has properties it simply hasn’t revealed to us yet! The knowledge that acute angles actually have four equal sides, or that an acute angle is really the discorporated spirit of Liberace, may be just around the corner.

There are some places where Weird Realism seems to fail, most notably when Harman makes evaluative claims about other writers; he doesn’t seem content to merely situate Lovecraft among the likes of Proust and Joyce, but suggests, if only briefly, that he surpasses them. He also doesn’t engage with any literary critical method later than that of Edmund Wilson and the New Critics. His apparent conviction, expressed largely through exclusion, that no features of other writers seem to produce the sorts of “gaps” that he finds so valuable in Lovecraft will no doubt be tested. I couldn’t help thinking of John Ashbery’s mid-career poetry, for example, or the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, both of which are filled with such mystifying gaps between object and description. The mini-essays seem to peter out at around 85 or so, especially during the last 11, where Harman seems content to note how the late story “The Shadow Out of Time” is just not as good as the earlier stuff; a little nip and tuck might have been in order. On occasion, it doesn’t quite seem like Harman is writing “philosophy” so much as noting a feature of the Lovecraft universe — which is to say, he slips into writing “literary criticism,” and might be just as happy citing Lovecraft’s linkages to Shelley and, say, later weird realist writers like Philip K. Dick or Samuel Delany as noting a feature of Hume or Kant.

But all of this points to what is one of the most salient aspects of Harman’s philosophical writing as a whole, which is that he sees his project as an ongoing conversation with his readers and with other philosophers. The title of his excellent book on Quentin Meillassoux, Philosophy in the Making, might just as well refer to his own work; philosophy, for Harman, isn’t just great minds articulating correct ideas, but philosophers building a structure together, testing it, revising it, and trusting that they will continue to disagree. So the porousness and apparent brokenness of these structural components of Weird Realism might just be my own misreading of the acute angle that chooses to act obtuse — as if a critic of literature could ever hope for things to be otherwise.

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