H. P. LOVECRAFT
AGAINST THE WORLD, AGAINST LIFE
Preface to the Second French Edition
When I began this essay (I believe toward the end of 1988) I was in the same boat as some tens of thousands of other readers. Having discovered Lovecraft’s stories at the age of sixteen, I had promptly immersed myself in all his works that had been available in French.1
Later, with lessening interest, I had explored the work of those who continued the myth of Cthulhu, as well as those authors Lovecraft had felt closest to (Dunsany, Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith). From time to time, quite often, I would return to Lovecraft’s “great texts”; they continued to exert a strange attraction over me that contradicted my other literary tastes—I knew absolutely nothing about his life.
In hindsight, it seems to me I wrote this book as a sort of first novel. A novel with a single character (H. P. Lovecraft himself)—a novel that was constrained in that all the facts it conveyed and all the texts it cited had to be exact, but a sort of novel nonetheless. The first thing that had surprised me when I discovered Lovecraft was his absolute materialism; unlike some of his admirers and commentators, he never considered his myths, his theogonies, his “old races” to be anything other than purely imaginary creations. The other great cause of my surprise was his obsessive racism; never in the reading of his descriptions of nightmare creatures could I have divined that their source was to be found in real human beings. For the last half-century, the analysis of racism in literature has focused on Céline, yet Lovecraft’s case is more interesting and more typical. In his writing, intellectual constructs and analyses of decadence play but a very secondary role. As an author of horror fiction (and one of the finest) he brutally takes racism back to its essential and most profound core: fear. His own life is an illustration of this. A country gentleman, convinced of the superiority of his Anglo-Saxon origins, he felt only a remote disdain for other races. His stay in New York’s underbelly, in its slums, would change all that. The foreign creatures became competitors, enemies, who were close by and whose brute strength far surpassed his. It was then, in a progressive delirium of masochism and terror, that came his calls to massacre.
Having said this, the transposition is absolute. In general, few authors, even amongst those most entrenched in fantasy literature, have made so few concessions to the real. Speaking for myself, I have obviously not adhered to Lovecraft’s hatred of all forms of realism and his appalled rejection of all subjects relating to money or sex; but perhaps, many years later, I did benefit from the lines where I praise him for having “exploded the casing of the traditional narrative” through his systematic use of scientific terms and concepts. Regardless, his originality appears to me to be greater today than ever. I wrote at the time that there was something “not really literary” about Lovecraft’s work. This has since been bizarrely confirmed. At book signings, once in a while, young people come to see me and ask me to sign this book. They have discovered Lovecraft through role-playing games or CD-ROMs. They have not read his work and don’t even intend to do so. Nonetheless, oddly, they want to find out more—beyond the texts—about the individual and about how he constructed his world.
This extraordinary ability to create a universe, this visionary power, probably struck me too greatly at the time and prevented me—this is my only regret—from paying sufficient homage to Lovecraft’s style. His writing, in fact, is not implemented entirely through hypertrophy and delirium; there is also at times a delicacy in his work, a luminous depth that is altogether rare. This is especially true in the case of “The Whisperer in Darkness,” a story I had omitted in my essay and in which one finds paragraphs such as this: “Besides, there was a strangely calming element of cosmic beauty in the hypnotic landscape through which we climbed and plunged fantastically. Time had lost itself in the labyrinths behind, and around us stretched only the flowering waves of faery and the recaptured loveliness of vanished centuries—the hoary groves, the untainted pastures edged with gay autumnal blossoms, and at vast intervals the small brown farmsteads nestling amidst huge trees beneath vertical precipices of fragrant brier and meadow-grass. Even the sunlight assumed a supernal glamour, as if some special atmosphere or exhalation mantled the whole region. I had seen nothing like it before save in the magic vistas that sometimes form the background of Italian primitives. Sodoma and Leonardo conceived such expanses, but only in the distance, and through the vaultings of Renaissance arcades. We were now burrowing bodily through the midst of the picture, and I seemed to find in its necromancy a thing I had innately known or inherited and for which I had always been vainly searching.” [The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, H. P. Lovecraft, Penguin 1999, p. 243] Here, we are at a point where the extreme acuity of sensory perception is about to propel us into a philosophical perception of the world; in other words, here we are inside poetry.
Michel Houellebecq, 1998
. This, at the time, was quite difficult. The situation has changed completely thanks to the publication of three Lovecraft volumes in the “Bouquins” collection (Robert Laffont) under the direction of Francis Lacassin.
“Perhaps one needs to have suffered a great deal in order to appreciate Lovecraft…”
Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don’t care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All those prodigiously refined “notations,” “situations,” anecdotes… All they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our “real life” days.
Now, here is Howard Phillips Lovecraft: “I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.”
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). We need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism.
* * *
Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.
As for Lovecraft, he was more than a little fed up. In 1908 at the age of eighteen, he suffered what has been described as a “nervous breakdown” and plummeted into a lethargy that lasted about ten years. At the age when his old classmates were hurriedly turning their backs on childhood and diving into life as into some marvelous, uncensored adventure, he cloistered himself at home, speaking only to his mother, refusing to get up all day, wandering about in a dressing gown all night.
What’s more, he wasn’t even writing.
What was he doing? Reading a little, maybe. We can’t even be sure of this. In fact, his biographers have had to admit they don’t know much at all, and that, judging from appearances—at least between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three—he did absolutely nothing.
Then, between 1913 and 1918, very slowly, the situation improved. Gradually, he reestablished contact with the human race. It was not easy. In May 1918 he wrote to Alfred Galpin: “I am only about half alive—a large part of my strength is consumed in sitting up or walking. My nervous system is a shattered wreck and I am absolutely bored and listless save when I come upon something which peculiarly interests me.”
It is definitely pointless to embark on a dramatic or psychological reconstruction. Because Lovecraft is a lucid, intelligent, and sincere man. A kind of lethargic terror descended upon him as he turned eighteen years old and he knew the reason for it perfectly well. In a 1920 letter, he revisits his childhood at length: the little railway set whose cars were made of packing-cases, the coach house where he had set up his puppet theater. And later, the garden he had designed, laying out each of its paths. It was irrigated by a system of canals that were his own handiwork, its ledges enclosed a small lawn at the center of which stood a sundial. It was, he said, “the paradise of my adolescent years.”
Then comes this passage that concludes the letter: “Then I perceived with horror that I was growing too old for pleasure. Ruthless Time had set its fell claw upon me, and I was seventeen. Big boys do not play in toy houses and mock gardens, so I was obliged to turn over my world in sorrow to another and younger boy who dwelt across the lot from me. And since that time I have not delved in the earth or laid out paths and roads. There is too much wistful memory in such procedure, for the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell.”
Adulthood is hell. In the face of such a trenchant position, “moralists” today will utter vague, opprobrious grumblings while waiting for a chance to strike with their obscene intimations. Perhaps Lovecraft actually could not become an adult; what is certain is that he did not want to. And given the values that govern the adult world, how can you argue with him? The reality principle, the pleasure principle, competitiveness, permanent challenges, sex and status—hardly reasons to rejoice.
Lovecraft, for his part, knew he had nothing to do with this world. And at each turn he played a losing hand. In theory and in practice. He lost his childhood; he also lost his faith. The world sickened him and he saw no reason to believe that by looking at things better they might appear differently. He saw religions as so many sugar-coated illusions made obsolete by the progress of science. At times, when in an exceptionally good mood, he would speak of the enchanted circle of religious belief, but it was a circle from which he felt banished, anyway.
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure “Victorian fictions.” All that exists is egotism: Cold, intact, and radiant.
Lovecraft was well aware of the distinctly depressing nature of his conclusions. As he wrote in 1918, “All rationalism tends to minimalize the value and the importance of life, and to decrease the sum total of human happiness. In some cases the truth may cause suicidal or nearly suicidal depression.”
He remained steadfast in his materialism and atheism. In letter after letter, he returned to his convictions with distinctly masochistic delectation.
Of course, life has no meaning. But neither does death. And this is another thing that curdles the blood when one discovers Lovecraft’s universe. The deaths of his heroes have no meaning. Death brings no appeasement. It in no way allows the story to conclude. Implacably, HPL destroys his characters, evoking only the dismemberment of marionettes. Indifferent to these pitiful vicissitudes, cosmic fear continues to expand. It swells and takes form. Great Cthulhu emerges from his slumber.
What is Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us. Lovecraft’s terror is rigorously material. But, it is quite possible, given the free interplay of cosmic forces, that Great Cthulhu possesses abilities and powers to act that far exceed ours. Which, a priori, is not particularly reassuring at all.
From his journeys to the penumbral worlds of the unutterable, Lovecraft did not return to bring us good news. Perhaps, he confirmed, something is hiding behind the curtain of reality that at times allows itself to be perceived. Something truly vile, in fact.
It is possible, in fact, that beyond the narrow range of our perception, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts and other minds. Amongst these entities some are probably far superior to us in intelligence and in knowledge. But this is not necessarily good news. What makes us think that these creatures, different as they are from us, will exhibit any kind of a spiritual nature? There is nothing to suggest a transgression of the universal laws of egotism and malice. It is ridiculous to imagine that at the edge of the cosmos, other well-intentioned and wise beings await to guide us toward some sort of harmony. In order to imagine how they might treat us were we to come into contact with them, it might be best to recall how we treat “inferior intelligences” such as rabbits and frogs. In the best of cases they serve as food for us; sometimes also, often in fact, we kill them for the sheer pleasure of killing. This, Lovecraft warned, would be the true picture of our future relationship to those other intelligent beings. Perhaps some of the more beautiful human specimens would be honored and would end up on a dissection table—that’s all.
And once again, none of it will make any sense.
O humans at the end of the twentieth century, this desolate cosmos is absolutely our own. This abject universe where fear mounts in concentric circles, layer upon layer, until the unnameable is revealed, this universe where our only conceivable destiny is to be pulverized and devoured, we must recognize it absolutely as being our own mental universe. And for whoever wants to know this collective state of mind through a quick and accurate survey, Lovecraft’s success is itself a symptom. Today, more so than ever before, we can utter the declaration of principles that begins “Arthur Jermyn” as our own: “Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”
The paradox, however, is that we prefer this universe, hideous as it is, to our own reality. In this, we are precisely the readers that Lovecraft anticipated. We read his tales with the same exact disposition as that which prompted him to write them. Satan or Nyarlathotep, either one will do, but we will not tolerate another moment of realism. And, truth be told, given his prolonged acquaintance with the disgraceful turns of our ordinary sins, the value of Satan’s currency has dropped a little. Better Nyarlathotep, ice-cold, evil, and inhuman. Subb-haqqua Nyarlathotep!
It’s clear why reading Lovecraft is paradoxically comforting to those souls who are weary of life. In fact, it should perhaps be prescribed...