Sunday, June 26, 2016

H.P. Lovecraft as Foreign Policy Advisor

By now, many readers have encountered reams of analysis and bloviation, much of it apocalyptic, about the departure of Britain from the European Union.  The matter is serious, insofar as the Brexit foreshadows the further unravelling of the E.U.  There is talk of an impending Frexit and Nexit—and closer to home, even a Texit.  The rapid disintegration of the status quo in politics, economics and other venues is upsetting, the stuff of nightmares.  Yet this is what seems to be happening around the world right now—certainly in the U.S.A.   

Where can fans of old school horror, science fiction and fantasy turn for guidance and reassurance in these troubling times?  Does H.P. Lovecraft have any insights to offer about contemporary challenges in international politics?  Of course he does. 

But his observations are disquieting—and offer cold comfort. Lovecraft had much to say about the world politics of his time, and gave considerable thought to what he considered to be the ideal form of government.  To be fair, his views changed over time, away from “…my ideal of a government fitted to the machine age is a fascistic one…” to a more nuanced version of universal socialism.  (He outlines his proposal for a fascist industrial state in a letter to Robert E. Howard dated November 7, 1932.)   

The impact of immigration was also a concern of Lovecraft’s.  This had been an important issue throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a source of considerable social unrest, as it is now.  His notoriously reactionary and xenophobic views about race and ethnicity were expressed in both his fiction and his correspondence—and shared by his contemporaries.  His views in this area did not change much over the course of his lifetime.

Many of Lovecraft’s political and sociological ideas were expressed in correspondence to people like Elizabeth Toldridge, J. Vernon Shea, (especially) and Robert E. Howard, among others, in the early 1930s.  Lovecraft also outlined some of his ideas about future government in “The Mound”, a marvelous collaboration with Zealia Bishop that he co-wrote around this time.  In terms of historical context, 1932 and 1933 saw the ongoing invasion of Manchuria by Japan as well as the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany—the prelude to the Second World War.  Anxiety about world events and the possibility of war were aggravated further by the economic turmoil and devastation of the Great Depression.  Comparisons to our own time are unavoidable.

In a letter to Elizabeth Toldridge from January of 1932, Lovecraft offers a general theory of the fate of civilizations, which he based in part on his knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history.  This was prompted by a number of disturbing world events occurring at the time.

As for current political & social change—I don’t believe the present tendencies indicate any more than closely analytical people, (which of course, excludes superficial business men & bombastic politicians) have always expected since the wide application of machinery to industry and transportation…Moreover, all cultures perish sooner or later through sheer collective senility—& the more dynamic they are, the quicker they go…What is happening today is simply a necessary readjustment to institutions to fit a radically different set of actual living & working conditions & a tremendously enlarged field of knowledge…

In another letter to Toldridge, sent the following month, Lovecraft speculates about the advantages of war with Japan, which at that time was busy developing its empire in the Pacific.  He lists the traditional benefits of war: “…the stimulus to munition & other industries & the disposal of surplus population—& also, because such a war will probably be necessary in any case sooner or later in order to ensure Anglo-Saxon security in the Pacific.”  But he makes a more provocative point later on in the same letter about race, culture and civilization, one that is worth pondering today as we collectively oscillate between an uneasy globalism on the one hand and a virulent tribalism on the other:

In my opinion the paramount things of existence are those mental & imaginative landmarks—language, culture, traditions, perspectives, instinctive responses to environmental stimuli, &c.—which give to mankind the illusion of significance & direction in the cosmic drift.  Race and civilisation are more important, according to this point of view, than concrete political or economic status; so that the weakening of any racial culture by political division is to be regarded as an unqualified evil—justifiable only by the most extreme provocation.

Lovecraft’s letters to J. Vernon Shea in early 1932 are fairly militaristic in tone.  He indicates that war with Japan may be inevitable and “highly necessary” to preserve Anglo-Saxon interests.  “Pacifistic talk is merely evasion & idealistic hot air—”, he says, but acknowledges the value of treaty agreements to control minor disputes.  His view is fatalistic:  “There will always be wars, & the victors in them will always be those with the greatest wealth, man-power, stamina, & intelligent preparation.”  In a later letter to Shea he opines:

I’m not denying the extreme ill effects of modern warfare, or even that a future world war may mean the end of civilisation; but in spite of all that I can’t blind myself to the plain & simple fact that war is no more avoidable than earthquakes or cyclones…War is no formal institution which legislation can abolish.  It is simply the inevitable result of basic human instincts under certain recurrent & unavoidable conditions…No diversity of groups can ever be depended upon to act permanently & reliably together—& despite all the pretence and hokum there is no indication of any real trend in this direction.  Radically different interests & heritages make such a collective policy virtually impossible for all time—& he who banks on such a thing gets woefully left...[Emphasis mine, vis-á-vis the apparent fragility of the European Union.]

In another letter to J. Vernon Shea, this one sent in March of 1932, Lovecraft advocates for universal military training, citing the disorganization and lack of preparation of the U.S. military at the beginning of the First World War.  It seems he is arguing for a stronger national defense as a hedge against likely hostility.  “Suppose that emergency had been a sudden Japanese-Mexican invasion, (as we may have some day), instead of a distant conflict with allies already holding the enemy at bay.”  Oh my.

Most ominous in this pre-World War II correspondence of Lovecraft’s are his infamous comments about Adolph Hitler, which he wrote in a letter to Shea, dated May 29, 1933:

As for the Nazis—of their crudeness there can be no dispute, yet in many ways the impartial analyst cannot help having a certain sympathy for some phases of their position.  They are fighting, in their naïve & narrow way, a certain widespread & insidious mood of recent years which certainly spells potential decadence for the western world—& one can’t help respecting that intention, however ugly & even dangerous some of their methods may appear to be.  Hitler is no Mussolini—but I’m damned if the poor chap isn’t profoundly sincere & patriotic.

That a thoughtful and insightful writer like Lovecraft could be attracted to fascism is appalling, if only because we of the twenty-first century are eager to distance ourselves from his world view.  It would be more comforting if his social and political opinions, which he shared with many of his contemporaries, could be stored as dead dry relics in some museum case, safe and inert.  But his words sound very familiar—in fact we’ve heard something like them spoken again in the past few weeks.  Whatever becomes of the European Union—or the American presidential election for that matter—current events are eerily similar to those Lovecraft wrote about less than a century ago.   


  1. I'd argue "The Mound" and "At the Mountains of Madness" were closer to HPL's views of Plato's Utopia than his own vision of the future, but that's neither here nor there.

    As far as Lovecraft and fascism are concerned - you have to remember the period he was writing in, with memories of the Great War very fresh, the nadir of race relations in the United States with very strong anti-immigrant feeling (people forget how much Prohibition was driven by anti-immigrant bias, no to mention the Immigration Act of 1924) and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan. Lovecraft's slightly pro-Nazi sentiments - very often qualified by his disapproval of their anti-scientific bias against Jews - was largely pro-German, since Lovecraft still held that Germans and English peoples were both "Aryan."

    Lovecraft himself was very classist - he had this notion of a kind of natural aristocracy, the most mentally gifted and sensitive minds that would rise to the top and direct things, while most of the masses were intellectually inferior and incapable (this was expressed in his racism in a rather extreme degree, but HPL was always willing to admit admiration of individuals over groups). In such a conception, then, HPL saw "mob rule" (either Bolshevism or democracy) as deplorable compared to the rule of a mentally superior and (hopefully) enlightened elite.

    For what it's worth, HPL still thought the United States' best bet was to make common cause with Great Britain, and likewise was opposed to home rule in Ireland because he thought it better for all the "Anglo-Celtic" peoples to be together.

    Lovecraft's correspondents sometimes agreed with him, and sometimes did not. Robert E. Howard, for example, also believed in the inevitability of another global conflict, possibly a race war, with Japan, but was much less enthused by Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia or the Nazis.

  2. Thank you for your helpful elaboration of the historic context of these letters. Certainly Lovecraft channeled a number of perspectives on Anglo-American relationships, views on class and race, immigration and other issues that were prevalent at his time. I'm intrigued by some of the parallels between his time and ours, the kinds of assumptions people made which seem to be emerging again--it wasn't all that long ago.

  3. Yeah...on the immigration issue in particular, Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard wrote some things which could have been written today. I discussed this a bit with regard to their comments on Hispanic peoples in "The Shadow Out of Spain" article series:

  4. For a sympathetic overview of Lovecraft's politics: Radish #30, "Cosmic Horror".


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