Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Was Lovecraft Really an Atheist?

I have been re-reading L. Sprague De Camp’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft, published in 1975.  I read it for the first time about 20 years ago.  At the time, I did not know that De Camp’s biography was controversial in any way.  Around the same time I tackled S.T. Joshi’s foundational H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, (1996), a more challenging book to read because of its thoroughness and academic tone.  De Camp’s book appears to be well researched, too, and was evidently of sufficient quality that it was nominated for a World Fantasy Award the year after its publication.

I have since learned that the book was considered by some to be overly critical, disrespectful of the author, and disproportionate in its views of Lovecraft’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  One professorial reviewer felt that De Camp’s book was written for juveniles, avoided “hard words” and was at best “adequate and superficial”.  (As a non-academician, I would interpret this to mean that the book was probably “readable, interesting, and useful”—which is how I feel about De Camp’s book).

Despite the fact that it was published over three decades ago, this is still a worthwhile biography, a good place to begin in coming to understand the uniqueness of Lovecraft’s work.  As with the criticism and interpretation of any text, whether from literature, law, science or scripture, no individual or collective can ever have the last word.  Creative works must be re-interpreted in every age and from every viewpoint—their meaning a product of conflicting perspectives and some sort of eventual synthesis.

Early in his biography, De Camp tries to determine the origin of Lovecraft’s skepticism and indifference to religion, especially Christianity.  He traces it to a childhood fascination with The Arabian Nights, which included the young Lovecraft pretending to be an Arab and a Muslim.  (This is where De Camp believes the name “Abdul Alhazred” came from.) 

More importantly, the biographer believes that the consequence of exploring non-Christian religions was to weaken the hold of Lovecraft’s family’s faith tradition, (this and his later studies of Greek and Roman mythology and history).  But this notion comes out of the late 60s and early 70s:  many were fearful at the time that the study of “comparative religions” would ruin the enthusiasm of young people for the Judeo-Christian beliefs of their parents.  Some in academia of course were not fearful of this at all and applauded it.  Four decades later, atheism and moral relativism have become the default positions on many American college campuses.

But was Lovecraft really an atheist, as so many have assumed, and which he himself evidently claimed?  Much of what he says about himself appears to be adolescent affectation.  I am speculating, but it seems to me that someone who has an underdeveloped sense of personal identity will seek first to define themselves in the negative:  I am not my parents, not a patriotic American, not a Christian, not a man of the 20th century, not an embracer of modernity, not a drinker.  Wait—where did that come from?  Why was Lovecraft an ardent Prohibitionist?

In my view, much of his fiction betrays a fascination and preoccupation with religious ideas, with clear echoes of biblical events and themes in his stories.  Just one example is his frequent reference to ‘nameless rites’.  These occur in “queer circles of tall stone pillars” on the tops of hills, as in The Dunwich Horror, or involve “writhing about a monstrous ring shaped bonfire…in the centre of which…stood a great granite monolith…”, as in The Call of Cthulhu, among other places.

Where do these images come from?  My knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome is admittedly not deep, but I cannot recall explicitly descriptive references to practices like these among the pagans.  However, there is a place where Lovecraft is more likely and more easily to have found them:  in the Old Testament.

                        And the people of Israel did secretly against the Lord their God things that were not right.  They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city.  They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them.  (2 Kings 17: 9-11)

                        And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal.  And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.  (2 Kings 17: 16-17)

It seems simplistic to label Lovecraft, (and naïve of himself to do so), as an atheist or materialist, when so much of what he wrote about deals with religious themes and religious imagery.  I would like to explore this further in future posts.

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