Yog-Sothoth Doesn’t Play Ball Games

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.

8 thoughts on “Yog-Sothoth Doesn’t Play Ball Games

  1. This argument will go on forever, but a couple of things occur to me just now:
    1. Lovecraft’s stories were not intended to promulgate his racism. The racism shows up in some of them, but only because it was present among his core beliefs; it’s a kind of bystander in the stories. Some of his other writings, in his amateur magazine, for example, and maybe his letters, are blatantly racist.
    2. We have no way of knowing the personal beliefs of many writers of the past, and possibly of the present as well. We may consider their fiction entirely worthy, but it’s possible we’re commending the writings of someone with abhorrent beliefs.

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    1. I’m not aware of any evidence that Lovecraft intended his stories as propaganda, even as a secondary purpose; so he’s certainly not promoting racism in the way that, for example, D.W. Griffith intended his work would. As you say, his non-fiction is more racist, so it could even be argued he sought to keep his beliefs out.

      Obviously, as with all authors, his beliefs and experiences do shape his fiction unconsciously, so it’s fairly hard to argue that “Red Hook” doesn’t feature racist stereotypes even if one does hold the theory they represent common perception of the time rather than greater-than-average personal belief. So, there is an argument that Lovecraft’s works might spread racist ideas even if that wasn’t his intent.

      As indeed might almost any book.

      I certainly don’t know the beliefs of most authors I read: some years, I read over 200 books, some by famous authors but many by authors I know only by any bio they include in the book; so, I might be able to infer certain things from which traits they choose to give protagonists or antagonists, but I have no idea exactly where the line between the author putting words in someone’s mouth and skillfully portraying someone unlike them lies.

      Even if one does know an author’s beliefs, people are complex: if an author strongly supports measures to end prejudice against homosexuality in African nations but considers unemployment benefits are destroying society, which side of the line would they fall if I did accept that I shouldn’t read “abhorrent” authors?

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  2. After watching the video, I have to say, I don’t think “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is racist. Okay, one of its premises is that interbreeding with fishlike beings is a bad idea, but is that racist? You have to stretch the story elements for that interpretation. Racism appears in Lovecraft’s stories in the form of the “fat black men of Parg” who are “bought by the pound” by the moonbeasts as foodstuffs. Or the cat named “Nigger-Man.” Or the way ethnic groups are referred to in “The Horror at Red Hook.” No stretching or reinterpretation needed there. And yes, those casual details have their origin in HPL’s fundamental racism. Which leads us back to the subject of the video.

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    1. To me, whether or not “Shadow Over Innsmouth” can easily be read as racist depends on one’s definition of racism. Certainly—and Athena Productions do this in the video—it’s not hard to see how breeding with fishpeople could be interpreted as xenophobic: the Deep Ones are a metaphor for the social ills that come from foreign ways; however, Obed Marsh was an educated white man, so it certainly isn’t a tale about white being morally better than not-white; so, the question becomes whether Lovecraft’s xenophobia comes from racism, i.e. does he think the New England values that were abandoned were better because they were “white” civilisation or because they were civilisation at all. Given the point made about Cool Air, it could be argued Lovecraft’s xenophobia wasn’t just about race.

      Either way, I completely agree that there are Lovecraft stories that don’t require the same acceptance that the monster is a metaphor for xenophobia that stems from racism, so it does seem a poor choice as “poster monster” for trying to convince people Lovecraft’s work is inherently racist. I wonder if it has it’s position as such more because it’s among both the most famous and the most accessible of Lovecraft’s stories.

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  3. Isn’t the answer to the question of separating work from worker, art from artist is “it depends”?

    Sometimes writing is inextricably linked to the author. Manifestos, philosophical and influential essays.
    Other times, like with any barbaric, horrific tale told — we must assume the author, themselves, is not a deviant psychopath (right…?). Or, on a lighter note, think of of all the children’s books — are those authors all individuals who never grew up?

    Then again, perhaps we can assume that there is no way to entirely eliminate author-bias from any work. In other words, I can definitely believe that it is impossible to isolate a work from the worker. I’ll never read Mein Kampf or The Art of the Deal purely due to their origin. Knowing the artist (ha!) taints the art (double ha!).

    In 1000 years if some copy of either of those were to have survived and a clone of my persona wanders across them, I’m sure my clone would pick them up and read them unaware. Why then and not now, it all depends.

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  4. This potentially uncovers ambiguity in what we mean by “separate the art from the artist”: do we mean the work displays the artist even if we experience the work without knowing anything about the artist, or do we mean that we cannot properly experience the work without knowing about the artist? Both suggest an intrinsic link but are diametrically opposed on what it is: the first implying the work is unchanged by knowledge of the artist, the second that it is fundamentally changed by knowledge of the artist.

    “Manifestos, philosophical and influential essays” are potentially the clearest example of how these perceptions might affect a work: do we need to know anything about Aristotle’s life to gain meaning from Nichomachean Ethics? Are Aristotle’s thoughts on morality and politics even of value if they only apply to people who understand a specific period of Athenean history?

    Certainly, once one has an image of the artist that colours one’s experience of the art, but potentially only in the same way a fear of dogs colours footage of Crufts. For example, pen names: there are many authors who used pen names of a different sex, background, &c.; while calling these lies implies a moral judgement that might not be apposite, they are certainly untruths so someone who reads the work as if it were created by, for example, a mature man rather than a young woman brings things that are not in the work to it.

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