Commentary on Lovecraftian horror often takes a fixed stance on Lovecraft’s racism (was he a racist; is his work racist; does liking Lovecraft make you a racist) so this video by Athena Productions on whether art can be separated from artist was a pleasant surprise to my nuance-seeking mind. However, I noticed one critical factor that is missing: the same factor that explains why I don’t watch replays of international football game finals.
I went to a minor British public school at which I took English Literature to A-Level, then read a degree that included more than one philosophy module; so I’ve discussed Barthes’ theory and the wider question of whether a document can be separated from its creator(s) multiple times. The position in English legal practice is not merely that one can, but that one should actively exclude the creator’s person: in the many court cases I have argued or attended I cannot ever recall anyone mentioning the person who wrote a law, let alone basing the meaning of it on that person’s personality, background, or other features. This legal siloing fitted well with my already held belief one can separate the art from the artist; a belief I still hold.
Which brings me to what appears absent from the video: enjoyment. While the narrator does use the word “enjoy”, almost all of the words used to describe the attempt to separate—and the examples of attempting it with other works—are focused on study, analysis, and expansion of understanding of the world; a focus not on how the book makes one feel but on what lessons it can teach.
What we enjoy and what we find worthwhile lessons in can be very different things: as I’ve mentioned in several previous posts, F. Scott Fitzgerald does a superb job of writing about characters I don’t have any interest in reading about; thus, his books are not something I enjoy as a reader but are something I have assessed as a writer.
The same division lurks within the argument over separating Lovecraft’s work from his beliefs:
Can you enjoy a Lovecraft story without knowing anything about him or his time? Clearly, yes: I and many other people read them well before they ever encountered mention of his life and beliefs; indeed, it could even be argued it’s harder to enjoy them if you know about his beliefs first.
Can you study what Lovecraft intended his stories to portray and how well he achieves it without considering him and his time? Almost certainly not: one can draw upon what he describes or doesn’t, semi-ubiquitous facets of language such as plosives having a different psychological impact than softer sounds, and such to create some theories, but context is a big part of assessing craft.
There is a gulf between whether one is entertained by a book and whether one agrees with the author’s philosophies. As can be seen by a brief thought experiment:
Assume Lovecraft wasn’t intending to be racist. Assume he intended to show humanity’s differences are trivial in the face of a universe filled with threats that will squish planets without noticing. Does that mean someone who likes his work because the heroes are white and the villains aren’t isn’t a racist because that wasn’t Lovecraft’s intent?
What does that have to do with football? I don’t enjoy football.