Monday, October 10, 2011

Why I Still Read Lovecraft (In Spite Of His Racism)

I was going through the 'likes' over at Greater Than Lapsed, and came across the following post from a blog called wtfwhiteprivilege:

"Just so we're clear: Lovecraft's racism doesn't make his work null and void. I just won't be reading any of it.
I think about what it would mean to have his work on my bookshelf. I am not a person of color, but my children will be.

What if they were to find that poem? What if they came to me,

“Mama, look at this. Did you know about this?”

I’m not going to lie to them, yes I did know. I disregarded what this man thought about my children for the sake of art. I knowingly read to them from a book by a person who thought they were sub-human. I hurt my children. Do you really think saying,

“Well, the author’s beliefs are separate from his work” is going to undo that hurt? Really?

Didn’t think so."
I am a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft's writing, and I am a white person (in a relationship with a white woman, with whom I have 3 white children). I am also aware of Lovecraft's racism, and have had to think about whether or not it should be cause not to read him. Although I can sympathize with quotation above, I don't think Lovecraft's racism is a deal breaker; not because I support the view that we should separate artists' biography and psychology from their work--I don't--but because I think H.P. Lovecraft's racism was a byproduct of his mental illness, and what we get when we read Lovecraft is a trip through the mind of a mentally ill man. To me, Lovecraft's work is in it's very essence a manifestation of his psychology and biography.  Anyone who has experienced isolation, fear of 'the other' ( I hate that phrase), paranoia, or morbid fears of any kind should recognize what is truly chilling about Lovecraft's work.

I should clarify that I don't find his work appealing in the voyeuristic way some folks find Wesley Willis appealing; I think Lovecraft was a true artist--not a sideshow act to gawk and laugh at. Through his art, he gave expression to his deepest fears and neuroses, and allows us to experience a taste of them when we read his work. I also believe that Lovecraft used art--as many mentally ill people do--as therapy, and what we witness in his writing is a kind of momentary exorcism.

So his racism doesn't bother me; not because I separate it from his work, but because I understand it in the context of his psychology, and his biography. If I ever had to answer the kind of hypothetical question the writer of the above quote imagined their young bi-racial child asking them, I hope this explanation would suffice.


Bridget McKinney said...

I still have a few Lovecraft books, myself, actually, and the discussion that was going on about him over on Tumblr has made me think about revisiting his work for the first time in a few years.

I can completely understand why people would choose not to read him because of his racism, but I'm just not sure that it matters. Given that there are far more books in the world than any of us are capable of ever reading, and so much that is good and/or worthwhile, it's not like people are necessarily missing out on anything by omitting any particular author from their reading list.

I, for example, will never read Orson Scott Card's books because he's a homophobic bigot, but I generally don't make a point of bragging about how I'm not reading him. **shrug**

It just seems like the best thing for people to do is to just be aware of what they are reading and to read with a critical eye regardless of who the author is. (And, of course, read widely and diversely.) A lot of authors are problematic for one reason or another, but that doesn't mean that they have nothing to say.

the elegant ape said...

The Mountains of Madness

I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic—with its vast fossil-hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice-cap—and I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain. Doubt of the real facts, as I must reveal them, is inevitable..

One of the most frightening books every written...