Saturday, July 24, 2004

Deconstructing Howard: An Observation of Lovecraftian Studies (Part I)

Early Lovecraft scholars such as Richard L. Tierney, Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., and Dirk W. Mozig pioneered serious Lovecraft criticism in the late 1950s and 1960s. The real boom did not begin until around 1979 with the premiere of Lovecraft Studies magazine and publication of the seminal H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism (1980) by S. T. Joshi, today’s principal and most prolific Lovecraft scholar.

The original aim of Lovecraftian studies was to promote an appreciation of Lovecraft's art to a wider audience. The idea was not only to get more people reading Lovecraft, but also to get literary academics to take him as seriously as they took Poe (at least) or Hawthorne (at best). Because academia tends to dismiss the horror genre as an unworthy source of "serious" literature, Lovecraft scholarship faced an uphill struggle. In turn, this created a curious backlash by Lovecraft scholars against mere readers of Lovecraft, especially so-called "fans." This over-sensitivity by scholars is somewhat understandable (to a degree), considering the damage done to Lovecraft's literary reputation for roughly 40 years (1939 to 1979). There were many books and articles throughout the 1960s and 1970s by people (some lay, some academic) who thoroughly misunderstood Lovecraft, and therefore their misconceptions perpetuated Lovecraft's status in the literary mainstream as a misanthropic hack writer. Joshi noted that "the championing of Lovecraft by the legions of horror and science-fiction fans, whose articles were not impressive criticism, tended to create the image that Lovecraft was some anomalous writer who was enjoying a brief popularity with uncritical readers" ("Lovecraft Criticism" 22-23). As the leading pioneer of Lovecraftian studies, Joshi laid out a ground plan for the direction he felt scholarship should take, and cited one of his main goals as being "the repeated attempt to take Lovecraft away from the world of fantasy fandom and to establish him definitively in the broader world of scholarly literary criticism" ("Development" 60).

The 1980s would contain some of the best Lovecraft scholarship to date. Joshi set about editing each one of Lovecraft's stories (over 1200 pages) for a revised set of Arkham House editions of his collected works: The Dunwich Horror (1984), At the Mountains of Madness (1984), Dagon (1986), and The Horror in the Museum (1986).  Scholars such as Robert M. Price and David E. Schultz continued to chip away at the crumbling edifice of the Derlethian mythos in the semi-annual journal Lovecraft Studies; Peter Cannon contributed his insightful and popular study, H. P. Lovecraft (1989), to Twayne's United States authors series; and Joshi ended the decade with an examination of Lovecraft's philosophy and ethics in H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (1990).

At the centennial of his birth, Lovecraft was being read more widely than ever, more academics were talking and writing about him, and he was finally gaining his own long-deserved entries in various encyclopedias, study guides, and literary desk references. In fact, the field of Lovecraft studies had become so broad, exhaustive, and successful that even Joshi began to modify some of his previous goals. In an address to the Lovecraft Centennial Conference in August 1990, Joshi looked toward a wider acceptance of Lovecraft by audiences both popular and academic. In his survey of weird literature, The Weird Tale (1990) — which covered Lovecraft and his heroes Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, and M. R. James —  Joshi encouraged his fellow scholars to redirect their efforts:
I no longer have any interest in much of the nuts-and-bolts work that takes up so much time in Lovecraft scholarship. . . . [U]nless some broader conclusion is made, it is all so much useless intellectual baggage — and brings us no closer to what Lovecraft's stories are really about. Whereas mainstream critics must struggle to absorb Lovecraft's letters and essays to understand the fiction, it may be advisable for the inner circle of Lovecraft scholars momentarily to forget this body of peripheral material and read again the stories as stories. (229)
While this comment does not totally contradict Joshi's earlier statement about taking Lovecraft away from the fans, it does take some of the sting out it. I believe Joshi had earlier hoped only for an organized and professional forum in which serious scholarship could be conducted. Lovecraft Studies provided that forum and served to reflect a more respectable atmosphere of Lovecraft criticism to the academic world-at-large than did, say, Fangoria magazine. And throughout most of the 1980s, the articles and essays in Lovecraft Studies comprised a healthy assortment of the serious formal literary, biographical, and philosophical schools of criticism, as well as an entertaining dose of mythology and symbolism.

Yet, as the Lovecraft centennial passed and scholars of Joshi's stature decried the accumulation of useless intellectual theorizing, Lovecraft scholarship entered a period of ennui. Scholars were clearly bored with endless arguments over the Cthulhu Mythos versus the Lovecraft Mythos versus the Yog-Sothoth Cycle of Myth versus the Arkham Cycle, ad nauseum. And then there were the interminable discussions about which story to fit into which mythos, leading once again to disagreement over what the mythos actually was in the first place. (Even Lovecraft did not know, and apparently did not care, since many entities appear in one particular story and then never show up again.) My favorite controversy was the long-standing argument over whether the Old Ones were supernatural entities/deities in the early Lovecraft before they became extraterrestrials in the later Lovecraft. Robert M. Price solved the problem by finally (and arbitrarily, in my view) declaring that they were all extraterrestrials — but I will save examination of that for another occasion.

The final evidence in support of ennui at large in the inner circle of Lovecraft scholars was actually presaged four years earlier by Joshi at the World Fantasy Convention on October 31, 1986. Participating in a panel discussion with other scholars on the question of what constituted the Cthulhu Mythos, Joshi blurted out:  
. . . I get bored by Lovecraft's stories, frankly. I don't reread them very often: I haven't reread a Lovecraft story in years, aside from the damn galley proofs that I had to read for the Arkham House edition. And after that, boy! I don't want to read Lovecraft for another ten years! ("Cthulhu Mythos"  24)
Now, to be fair, I have taken this quote a bit out of context. Joshi supplied a supplement to the article (converted from transcripts) claiming that his remarks were purposefully hyperbolic to achieve an effect, but I think this was definitely a subconscious giveaway. On the one hand, Joshi had just spent the better part of six years pouring over the crabbed handwriting of Lovecraft in autograph manuscripts and revisions of pulps while preparing four volumes of the collected editions of Lovecraft's stories for Arkham House. And to give the quote its proper context, Joshi was answering Will Murray's contention that the background details of Lovecraft's stories — the names, gods, settings, and books — were what made him the most fascinating to readers. "You need those things," Murray said. "Lovecraft appeals initially on a very pulpish level; he doesn't appeal on an intellectual level, but on an emotional, pulpish level — he appeals to what S. T. might call the 'baser' literary or non-literary instincts. . . . I still like those things — the little names and apparatus . . ." (24)
Here, Joshi interrupted and said:
But I think it is our duty as critics to go beyond that, because I think there is too much attention in the serious critical industry on Lovecraft — which is essentially Lovecraft Studies, Crypt of Cthulhu, and a few other places — to concentrate on these little things at the expense of shewing in greater detail what his whole world view was. I would in fact recommend much less attention given to the stories per se and more attention given to his lesser-known bodies of work — his letters, his essays, his poetry. How do they contribute to that vision? what place do they occupy? Personally, I now like Lovecraft's letters a whole hell of a lot more than his stories; I get bored by Lovecraft's stories, frankly. (24)
On the other hand, it is just as clear from this exchange that Lovecraft's main literary output — the stories — had been over-mined for whatever nuggets of insight they might offer at that particular stage of Lovecraft scholarship. Joshi seemed to be waging his own inner battle over an antipathy for Lovecraft's readership and a realization that the stories exist not just to be analyzed, but also to be read. The slight regard for fans was still there, but it evolved into an irrevocable disdain for fannish treatment of the stories by critics and editors, and this attitude rubbed off on many of Joshi's fellow scholars.  For a good part of the 1990s, Lovecraft scholars derided almost every book written by anyone outside of their inner circle, and even heaped scorn upon their own if a work seemed to flirt with being "popular." And it was during the 1990s that some scholars took Joshi's advice to return to the stories themselves a little too literally, starting with Donald Burleson and his unfortunate decision to turn from a formal criticism of Lovecraft to one of post-structuralism.

For the uninitiated, structuralism says that fictional texts are instances of scientific laws; post-structuralism says that scientific laws are instead unstable and slippery instances of textual fictions. Deconstruction follows post-structural tenets. Both structuralism and post-structuralism are branches of semiotics, or a science of signs. The theory says that the mind is subordinate to language; that is, instead of being the creator of meaning and symbols expressed through language, the mind is itself created by language. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss pioneer of semiotics, linguistics as a science should not study words and meanings, but the system of rules and distinctions that underlies them.

Donald R. Burleson is one of the more eminent Lovecraft scholars, and his Lovecraft: A Critical Study (1983) is still the best extended formal exploration of Lovecraft's work, story by story (if a little too heavy on plot synopsis). Yet, Burleson's Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe (1990) strikes me as a pointless and self-aggrandizing exercise in deconstructionist narcissism. It also marks the beginning of an era where Lovecraft studies have finally come full circle: if one of Joshi's early goals was to take Lovecraft's stories away from readers, Burleson's goal, apparently, was to take the stories away from Lovecraft himself. If Burleson and others did not totally succeed in this endeavor, they did manage to make Lovecraft Studies something less than the joy it once was.
Whether the excess of essay titles like "Metonyms of Alterity: A Semiotic Interpretation of Fungi from Yuggoth" (LS 30), "Lovecraft and Interstitiality" (LS 37), "A Note on Metaphor vs. Metonymy in 'The Dunwich Horror'" (LS 38), and "Sound Symbolism in Lovecraftian Neocognomina" (LS 39) had anything to do with the suspension of Lovecraft Studies and the closure of Necronomicon Press in late 1999 is not for me to say — though I have my suspicions. (Necronomicon Press and Lovecraft Studies resumed operation in May of 2004, thankfully.) But the 1990s saw too many essays of this sort discussing such things as grammatology, signifiers, Greek determinism, grail lore, and Edmund Burke's Philosophy of the Sublime. These essays are written exclusively for other Lovecraft scholars, of course; not because they are difficult to understand, but because I can't imagine anyone else who would want to read them. (The brilliant linguist Noam Chomsky once said, "Quite regularly, 'my eyes glaze over' when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of post-structuralism and postmodernism . . ." (Wikipedia).) One gets the feeling that there is, at the very least, a bit of posturing taking place in these somber, over-weighted exercises in Lovecraftian post-structuralism.

Disturbing the Universe was written 14 years ago, but Burleson and others were still practicing deconstruction in Lovecraft Studies and Crypt of Cthulhu in the last part of the 1990s before Necronomicon Press shut its doors. Consider this section on "The Colour out of Space":
The text subtly raises the whole question of origins in a most striking way, in connection with that ulcerous-looking area of grey powder marking the site of what was once the Gardner farm. Of this spot, the text remarks, "No other name could fit such a thing, or any other thing fit such a name". This statement, poetically balanced by chiasmus, attempts on the level of allegory to establish a one-to-one correspondence between "thing" and "name," that is, to establish a purely representational or referential theory of language, an equality of presence between signifier and signified or even between signifier and referent. The attempt is specious, of course, because, as we are in the process of seeing, the whole energy of the text gives itself over to readings quite at odds with such a hopelessly inadequate view of language. Everywhere the workings of the text operate to differentiate, to divide the pointings of the signifier, to deny any recoverably single signified in a signifier, to deny semantic fixity or center, or origin of any signified in any single signifier. But regarding origin, the text offers something even more covertly powerful by way of subversion. (Burleson 111)
Now, aside from the author's clever recognition of the commonly used rhetorical device chiasmus, what has he told us about the story or Lovecraft? Burleson is a superb scholar, but this sort of thing tells us more about Dr. Burleson than it does about H. P. Lovecraft. There is the vague suggestion that origins somehow lead to subversions in the story — but is that not one of Lovecraft's favorite motifs? This typical passage does not illuminate anything valuable or practical about Lovecraft (or the story), since post-structuralism itself divorces the texts from the author. Deconstruction removes all intentionality of the author from his work, so that, as Burleson explains, "the 'meaning' of a text can never be totalized or encapsulated or reached, because the nature of language is such that there are always elements of indeterminacy and is such that texts do not have edges or borders" (5). But this is like applying Heisenberg's uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics to stories, as though words were point particles whose location and velocity — or in this case, placement and meaning — cannot both be known at the same time: only one or the other. If meaning can never be reached, then what exactly is the purpose of examination?
Deconstruction may have some value in open forms of literature: playful and experimental works like those written by James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon — or the metafictions of John Barth and Italo Calvino, who purposefully constructed tales for deconstruction. But its usefulness when applied to closed literary forms such as the gothic tradition in which Lovecraft wrote is extremely dubious, however amusing or clever the application may be.

In a 1927 letter to Zelia Bishop, Lovecraft defined two essential qualities that an author should have. The first is a sense of "heightened vision . . . which invests the pageant of life with a mystic glamour" and a desire to capture it and share it with others (SL II.142). Of the second, he says (italics mine):
A natural author thinks of words solely in their aesthetic relations — in their power to grasp delicately and exquisitely his every shade of meaning and emotion, and to sing forth his dreams in music of surpassing loveliness. To him language is no haphazard, utilitarian thing, but the conjoined marble and chisel of a sculptor, wherewith perfect things may be bodied forth afresh in perfect beauty. (SL II.144)
Lovecraft spent countless days and nights revising his work, almost as fanatically as Flaubert, who was said to have spent an entire day on a single sentence in Madame Bovary. The effort such an author invests in the style and structure of his prose is aimed toward a single effect that cannot so easily be deconstructed to their elementary parts without destroying the fabric of the whole.

I fully admit that post-structuralism is not my field, and I probably know only just enough to be dangerous.  A humble writer myself, I tend to side more with a practical criticism. I do subscribe to the intentional fallacy for obtaining a deeper comprehension of a work; but the general reader should still be able to understand a story without knowing anything about the author or his intentions. The latter, if important, should be manifest in the tale. Of course, many of Lovecraft's stories are easier to understand if one is familiar with his philosophy, taken in context with the period in which they were written; but, in the end, I believe the stories must stand on their own.

Unlike certain schools of criticism, however, the goal of reading is not the analysis of parts, but the understanding of wholes. I have nothing against applied scholarship, only theoretical pedantry. I would like to see more Lovecraft scholars adopt a didacticism that gives pleasure as well as instruction to a secular audience: Peter Cannon does this well in many of his works, especially his H. P. Lovecraft (1989). (Unfortunately, Cannon was roundly criticized by his peers for writing a popular study of Lovecraft.) This does not mean that scholars should write for "fans" or the Cthulhu lunatics who think the Mythos and Necronomicon are real — but for plain, college-educated but non-scholarly people who appreciate good literature and Lovecraft's brand of the macabre. If the aim of scholarship is to bring Lovecraft to the attention of a much wider audience than the co-called "fans", then more essays need to be written for an audience other than scholars. Even among Lovecraft admirers, there are not very many who subscribe to Lovecraft Studies or Crypt of Cthulhu
I will call on Peter Cannon again for my defense, who, in replying to several reviews of his H. P Lovecraft in Lovecraft Studies, said that he preferred "non-technical criticism that is also a pleasure to read. . . . In my view, the best interpreters of literature are often the producers of it" ("In Defense" 27). He also noted that the best academic papers he had read in the PMLA "continue to be written in ordinary English, however abstruse their arguments or difficult their meaning" (27). On deconstruction and abuse of jargon, Cannon wrote:
At the same time, I can understand why some scholars feel the need to communicate with one another in a highly technical language, as do doctors, engineers, and others whose profession require mathematical precision. Though I have but a dim grasp of deconstruction, I'm willing to grant the validity of this post-structuralist approach to literature. I'd even allow that Lovecraft is an especially suitable subject to deconstruct, given the place of "ultimate Chaos" in his fiction. But as with any critical method, abuses can occur. I have a strong suspicion that the jargon and word play of which deconstructionists are so enamored illuminate the text no better than do experiments in parapsychology advance science. (27)
In the defense of Lovecraft scholars — especially Joshi, who has done so much fine work and is responsible for establishing Lovecraft scholarship as we know it almost single-handedly — the tendency to categorize everything as either professional academic criticism or superficial fannish adoration comes from the old struggle to place Lovecraft in the wider academic context he deserves and establish him in the literary consciousness of America. To do this, Joshi felt he had first to wrestle Lovecraft from the hold of these fans; but the simple fact remains that there is a middle ground. It is occupied by those who are not exactly scholars, not exactly fans, but true Lovecraft enthusiasts who also enjoy reading weird authors like Blackwood and Bierce, but with diverse and disparate reading interests outside the genre. 

Many of those in the middle ground are college educated, and they do not read horror, science-fiction, and fantasy exclusively. They may also enjoy reading William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Don Delillo. They probably read Poe and Canon Doyle when they were kids, Lovecraft, Tolkien, and Brautigan in their teens and twenties, and they like non-fiction books on quantum mechanics, string theory, and cosmology. They read philosophy. They are not the 14-year old white males who seem to make up most of the crowd at Lovecraft conferences (though they might have been 30 years ago). They are the people who travel in circles occupied by other people that the Lovecraft scholars are really trying to reach: the people who share their interests, but who may not have given Lovecraft a chance, or just have not discovered him yet.

If the idea is to get Lovecraft a wider audience, it is not very likely that 50-year old professors who teach James Joyce and T. S. Elliot are suddenly going to be swayed to an appreciation of H. P. Lovecraft, so just whom are the Lovecraft scholars trying to reach? Perhaps the 30 to 50-year old readers of the class I described previously. The young people in universities right now are a prime audience, of course, because Lovecraft Studies may indeed be lingering in some of their campus libraries. Naturally, Lovecraft scholars must write for other scholars and in a respectable forum that is up to the standards of academia; and as Cannon pointed out, specialist terms may often be unavoidable. But when so much of recent Lovecraft scholarship alternates between essays that read like instructions for operating a proton accelerator, and essays or reviews that display a condescending and marked contempt for so-called fannish efforts, it may be time to rein in the fascism toward popular treatments of H. P. Lovecraft by scholars and non-academics alike.

(To be continued in Part II.)

Works Cited

Burleson, Donald R.  Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe.
     Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
Cannon, Peter. "In Defense of TUSAS 549." Lovecraft Studies
     18 (Spring 1989): 25-27.
Joshi, S. T.  "The Development of Lovecraftian Studies,
     1971-1982 (Part III)." Lovecraft Studies 11 (Fall 1985): 54-65.
---.  "Lovecraft Criticism: A Study." H. P. Lovecraft: Four
     Decades of Criticism. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Athens: Ohio
     University Press, 1980. 20-26.
---.  The Weird Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Joshi, S. T. et al.  "What Is the Cthulhu Mythos? A Panel
     Discussion." Lovecraft Studies 14 (Spring 1987): 3-30.
Lovecraft, H. P.  Selected Letters (SL). Sauk City: Arkham
     House, 1965-1976; 5 vols.
"Noam Chomsky." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
     15 Jan. 2001. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Jul. 2004.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Welcome to The H. P. Lovecraft Studies Weblog

This weblog will contain daily thoughts on various aspects of critical literary study of H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), America's premier master of the weird tale. Please visit my H. P. Lovecraft: A Pictorial Bibliography site at
[This weblog is not connected with Lovecraft Studies magazine.]