Saturday, December 7, 2013

‘Bromantic’ Relationships in Lovecraft

In the previous post mention was made of recurring patterns of images or symbolism in the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  For example, a common motif is that of an older man initiating a younger one into a larger and more terrifying understanding of his life in relationship to supernatural forces.  Though Lovecraft was an avowed atheist, the repetition of these images and others in his fiction betrays a preoccupation with traditional religious questions—the ultimate questions about life, death, and meaningfulness.  So it seems that stories such as He (1926), The Strange High House In the Mist, (1931), Cool Air (1928), The Festival (1925), The Silver Key (1929), and The Music of Erich Zann (1922), among several others, could be categorized as “mentor” stories.

Anyone who has ever spent significant time recording their dreams on a regular basis—as Lovecraft may have, given the prevalence of dream imagery in his stories—has probably noticed a similar phenomenon:  recurring images, people, activities and places.  If one develops the habit of daily logging of dream content, an experience of ‘déjà vu’ is very likely.  (Incidentally, developing the ability to recall one’s dreams is not all that difficult, despite many who may claim that ‘I don’t dream.’  Virtually all mammalian species dream.)  It is interesting that in Lovecraft’s poetry and fictional work, much of which seems derived from dream material, the same type of recurring imagery can be found.

And certainly one repeating motif is that of what we might now call a ‘bromance’—a close relationship between a pair of male characters.  To a certain extent, this is the only possible relationship in Lovecraft’s fiction, since it is otherwise devoid of women, children and pets.  Either the narrator is alone against some barely comprehended terror, or he shares the experience with a close male friend.  In some stories, the male bonding actually occurs in the dream world itself, (Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Hypnos).

In the story Hypnos (1923), two men share an experience of the nether reaches of the unconscious mind which proves fatal and transformative for one of them.  But are there really two different men in the story?  Superficially, the plot is preposterous and unbelievable.  If the supernatural element is stripped away, what happens is this:  the narrator finds an attractive man at a railway station, in the midst of some kind of seizure.  He shews the crowd away and takes him home with him.  That this is perhaps more than a typical ‘bromance’ is suggested by the narrator’s praise of the man’s physical appearance:

“I said to myself, with all the ardour of a sculptor, that this man was a faun’s statue out of antique Hellas, dug from a temple’s ruins and brought somehow to life in our stifling age only to feel the chill and pressure of devastating years….We talked often in the night, and in the day, when I chiseled busts of him and carved miniature heads in ivory to immortalize his different expressions.” 

As in The Tree (1921), ancient Greek mythology and culture is referenced, and both stories involve sculptors.   One suspects there is a longing for acceptance or ratification of the narrator’s growing relationship with the other man in Hypnos—it may be that the relationship itself is the fantasy or dream in view.  It is interesting that Lovecraft sets The Tree in ancient Greece, and heavily references the ancient Greeks in Hypnos—such a close relationship between two men would be less remarkable in that setting than it was in Lovecraft’s day. 

The two men study altered states of consciousness, take “exotic drugs”, sleep together, and share the experience of dreaming strange cosmic dreams together.  A kind of intimacy between them occurs in an ethereal, supernatural realm.  But the process appears to accelerate aging in both of them.  His friend, the more psychically gifted of the two, goes further into the void and is strangely transformed.  Yet in the end, no trace is found of the man—who is never named—save for a marble bust the narrator has carved in his own image.  The story closes with a focus on the artist’s terrible loneliness and madness—a suffering that he has endured well into old age.  Despite its flaws, this is one of Lovecraft’s more authentic stories.  

That Hypnos is a story about religious concerns is quite evident in the opening pages and at the very end.  The narrator actually begins the story with this remarkable prayer:  “May the merciful gods, if indeed there be such, guard those hours when no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep.”  (As opposed to “Now I lay me down to sleep…”)  In the end, the narrator is in great despair, “bald, grey-bearded, shriveled, palsied, drug-crazed, and broken, adoring and praying to an object…”  In view here are the bitter consequences and hazards of a particular sin:  idolatry.

Interested readers may want to compare Hypnos to an earlier story by Lovecraft, Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919).  In that story an invention allows the narrator to share dream world experiences with the inmate of an insane asylum.  This story is another example of the relatively few stories in which Lovecraft shows compassion for the plight of his characters.  It also has a more hopeful ending.

Thus far I have avoided much discussion of the question of Lovecraft’s sexual orientation, which remains essentially unanswerable given the lack of clarifying evidence one way or the other.  In my opinion, it is not all that relevant an issue for one to appreciate his work. Yet some illumination of the matter might increase our understanding of the man and the social and emotional conditions under which he created his art.  That said, the content of a number of his stories is suggestive.  Some of these stories have been discussed in earlier posts, which are listed below.

Clinical Lovecraft   (Beyond the Wall of Sleep)

Under the Olive Tree   (The Tree)

The Kvetch of Iranon   (The Quest of Iranon)

A Lovecraftian Gender-Bender   (The Thing on the Doorstep)

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