Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lovecraft's Providence, Literature and Reality

Illustration of Lovecraft's story "The Shunned House"
in Weird Tales (October 1937).



It's hard to mention Lovecraft without some cough of apology. Lately he's not just the darling grandfather of horror; his work has gained prestige from the attention of a number of literary figures, Joyce Carol Oates among them . Gawky as Lovecraft's oeuvre may be, he wrote with unique power about a kind of horror that he first--at least apparently--perceived and recorded. It's not because of his roots in pulp writing, then,  that Lovecraft remains an embarrassment. Many apologies, some more edifying than others, can be made for the nauseating views of Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, but for Lovecraft--whose racism, whose complete loathing of anyone religious (particularly Jews and Catholics) stood out in his writing as a sign of the cosmic horror for which he is praised--for him the apologies always fall flat. And one wonders, after all, if that vision of cosmic horror, exquisite as it may be, is inextricable from his racism, or at least from a deep conservative longing for the familiar in its author.

Horror fans who plunge into Lovecraft's longer works will not be shocked most by Dagon's mutant minions in the fictional town of Innsmouth. They will find most surprise by contrast in the peaceful descriptions of rural New England, and then find themselves in wonder at his loving portrayals of his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, for it is here--in the words and, apparently, in the place of Providence--that Lovecraft's longing finds moments of solace.

Lovecraft put this desire to striking use in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I find this story too long and fantasmagorical, its dreamscapes and bestiaries of dreaded creatures almost encyclopedic in their excitement as they appear before the dreaming Randolph Carter. But the narrative does have shape, one of departure from ordinary reality--a move Lovecraft always executes quiet nicely--to a lengthy dream of increasing horror, then back again to the real world. The crescendo of gaping cosmic emptiness, a kind of relief after dull pages of chimeras, arrives barely before the story's end. With it also come signs of creation.

Then in the slow creeping course of eternity the utmost cycle of the cosmos churned itself into another futile completion, and all things became again as they were unreckoned kalpas before. Matter and light were born anew as space once had known them; and comets, suns and worlds sprang flaming into life, though nothing survived to tell that they had been and gone, been and gone, always and always, back to no first beginning.

Carter's homecoming upon waking follows.  Nominally the homecoming is to Boston, but I suspect the city to be the New England capitol of Providence. The following is not Lovecraft's best writing, but, after the stupifying novelties described in the dream, we see where the true wonder of existence belongs.

So to the organ chords of morning's myriad whistles, and dawn's blaze thrown dazzling through purple panes by the great gold dome of the State House on the hill, Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room. Birds sang in hidden gardens and the perfume of trellised vines came wistful from arbours his grandfather had reared.

Descriptions of Providence appear in several stories, but in none better than The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. In a description of the titular hero we may see an outline of Lovecraft himself and his relationship to the city.

Charles Ward was an antiquarian from infancy, no doubt gaining his taste from the venerable town around him, and from the relics of the past which filled every corner of his parents' old mansion in Prospect Street on the crest of the hill. With the years his devotion to ancient things increased; so that history, genealogy, and the study of colonial architecture, furniture, and craftsmanship at length crowded everything else from his sphere of interests. These tastes are important to remember in considering his madness; for although they do not form its absolute nucleus, they play a prominent part in its superficial form.

And a little later we read a full-blown paean to Lovecraft's home.

Old Providence! It was this place and the mysterious forces of its long, continuous history which had brought him into being, and which had drawn him back toward marvels and secrets whose boundaries no prophet might fix. Here lay the arcana, wondrous or dreadful as the case may be, for which all his years of travel and application had been preparing him. A taxicab whirled him through Post Office Square with its glimpse of the river, the old Market House, and the head of the bay, and up the steep curved slope of Waterman Street to Prospect, where the vast gleaming dome and sunset-flushed Ionic columns of the Christian Science Church beckoned northward. Then eight squares past the fine old estates his childish eyes had known, and the quaint brick sidewalks so often trodden by his youthful feet. And at last the little white overtaken farmhouse on the right, on the left the classic Adam porch and stately facade of the great brick house where he was born. It was twilight, and Charles Dexter Ward had come home.

And one wonders why the exclamation mark didn't appear at the end of the last sentence was well as at the end of the first.

*   *   *

I had occasion to visit Providence a couple of years ago while attending a conference about Zen and its teaching of paying attention to bare reality, waking up to it in a way as Randolph Carter woke up from his bizarre dream quest. Colleagues and I visited the Federal Hill district with its marvelous Italian restaurants and narrow streets where pedestrians, thankfully, always have the right of way. At all times in Providence, down near the smaller inlets, inlets and harbors of Naragansett Bay, I was aware of a large hill overlooking it all. I'm sorry that I don't know its name, or even precisely which direction it lies from Federal Hill, my visitor's disorientation having gotten the better of me. But always I had this bit of Charles Dexter Ward in my memory:

Westward the hill dropped almost as steeply as above, down to the old "Town Street" that the founders had laid out at the river's edge in 1636. Here ran innumerable little lanes with leaning, huddled houses of immense antiquity; and fascinated though he was, it was long before he dared to thread their archaic verticality for fear they would turn out a dream or a gateway to unknown terrors. He found it much less formidable to continue along Benefit Street past the iron fence of St. John's hidden churchyard and the rear of the 1761 Colony House and the mouldering bulk of the Golden Ball Inn where Washington stopped. At Meeting Street—the successive Gaol Lane and King Street of other periods—he would look upward to the east and see the arched flight of steps to which the highway had to resort in climbing the slope, and downward to the west, glimpsing the old brick colonial schoolhouse that smiles across the road at the ancient Sign of Shakespeare's Head where the Providence Gazette and Country-Journal was printed before the Revolution.

And from this memory of a text I felt completely oriented. I was squarely in Lovecraft's Providence. I was not lost but at home in a text while I was lost in a new place. Fortunately I was able to enjoy my time in an area of town Lovecraft might have associated with "polyglot squalor," though there was no squalor visible. I had my own experience, but Lovecraft seemed to look down on me from that higher, unnamed promontory.

Literature can do funny things to us. Read Dante's Paradiso, then look up at the night sky and see if it is the same. At one time I believed literature could be graded by its ability to contaminate our perception of reality: the greater the better. Then there are those of us unfortunate enough to have grabbed a text--be it a novel, scripture or even one deployed in the spectacle of a movie--and used it as a guide in life; as a way to navigate in a world either unknown or too full of possibilities to discriminate one course from another. We are beset by bugbears that existed in print before they inhabited our minds and made us inflexible.

Of course we remain responsible for our imaginations and how they interfere with our perceptions of the real world and of our tasks within it. I fear I share some of Lovecraft's desire to stay home at all times or at least to see home as some kind of reward for the adventure taken. My hope is that I refrain from the hateful sentiments and ideas Lovecraft expressed and lived. But my home has often been in texts of all sorts, and an atrophy has set in with regard to life, one I hope to remedy through clear sight and action. I would refer to the prospect of "personal adventure," but the term grants it too much importance.

Adventure for Lovecraft was a journey from beloved a home to a vast, meaningless void, and it ended in a return to the hearth. The process of that adventure caused no great change in its heroes. That's a particularly hard limit to any literature, and yet in that author's narrow vision we glimpse a world, albeit an inhuman one at its horrible depths, that we very well might not have known without his efforts. Even if we decide to throw off that vision as useless or not our own, we are left with the old, nagging suspicion that our true home, or the reality, or the suchness we wake up to is not as real as it could be, authors and advertisers and family members have hopelessly contaminated us to see a certain way that is not to anyone's benefit. This is to say nothing of the strange filters we make for ourselves to peer at the streets and houses and hills of our world, its history, the expanses endlessly calculated and tentatively charted.

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