Lovecraft as Feminist
(Important Note: Unlike my other HPL blogs, this one is not really about chess. In fact, Lovecraft hated games and competitions of all kinds, and would likely not approve of the photo header I made superimposing his face over a chess board. But if recent film directors can get away with casting the main character of a "Lovecraft" movie as homosexual (Lovecraft abhorred what he narrowly believed to be sexual deviancy as well) then I suppose I might be allowed this infraction! Several Lovecraft themed chess articles will follow this one in a few days.)
The life of early 20th century horror author Howard Phillip Lovecraft was filled with very polar differences. His father, a travelling salesman, was committed to a sanitarium when Howard was only three years old. The boy was told that his father had suffered from nervous exhaustion but modern understanding of the symptoms documented show that Winfield Scott Lovecraft likely suffered from acute general paresis and associative dementia brought on by an infection of syphilis. After his dad was placed under hospice, the boy was raised by his mother, her two sisters, and their father, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. It was largely the boy's grandfather who inspired his taste for literature and interest in the macabre. The stories he made up and told Howard sometimes bothered his mother, who already worried that H.P. was sickly and possessed of a sensitive imagination.
The origins and severity of Lovecraft's variously reported chronic illnesses have long been under debate. Whether the boy's maladies had a physiological basis or not, there can be little doubt that his mother's overprotective nature and the doting attentions of his aunts left indelible psychic impressions on him. Many later authors and contemporary critics alike have ascribed much of the man's hermetic behavior on the lack of an active male role model to round out Howard's childhood. But psychologically speaking, Howard's matriarchal fostering may have had very much to do with many of the themes and unique motifs of his outre work. In terms of Jungian and Freudian analytical ideas, fans of his stories willing to do a bit of inferential thinking might find they have more cause to thank his doting matrons than his yarn-spinning grandfather after all. As shall presently be explored, many key ideas and themes of H.P.L.'s stories are well grounded in what may well have been a veritably fanatical worship (and likely near divine apprehension) of the fairer sex.
To the well-read fan, a modern claim that H.P.L.'s work has a decidedly feminist bent may seem to border on the absurd. Lovecraft was well known even in his lifetime as a rather "old fashioned gentleman". Certainly, his family were not unnaturally wealthy. Yet Howard gave those who knew him a sense of propriety, strengthened no doubt by his obviously powerful intellect and his predisposition to use words and diction forms more accredible to a member of European gentry from a century before his life in rural New England than those oft used by his peers. His tastes, inclinations and grievances followed a similar pattern, including but not limited to his manner of dress, his social and political musings, and his customs of eat and drink. Much of this was likely due to his literary palette, of which several English authors were held in his high regard. Perhaps due to this, Howard possessed many hypocrisies and intolerant attitudes that were unseemly and atypical of his family's station and temporal existence. Perhaps the most remarked upon of these in modern analysis was Lovecraft's severe policies on immigration and cultural integration of any type whatsoever. In particular his attitudes towards Hispanic and African American people immigrating to the burgeoning cities of America were most vehement, and display a fear and ignorance of general humanity that is every bit as curious and appalling as when such propituents of hatred are uncovered in our lives today. In addition to his bigotry and xenophobic Jingoism (self-proclaimed in numerous letters to friends and colleagues), Lovecraft has also been described as a misogynist... and it is here that this article begins to confront some of the more locutius assumptions made in our day about Lovecraft's philosophy and the basis for his work. As it is hoped shall be discovered in this theorem, the nature of H.P.L.'s hatred for what he saw as hostile foreign cultures and his handling of feminine social values and mystique are vastly different, and should no longer be taken on the same level as merely the pretensions of a sometimes stuffy writer, who most obviously wished himself to be an English Gentleman of the 19th-18th century or even somewhat earlier stock.
Perhaps the main questions of the inquiry are merely this: What is a misogynist, really? Was Lovecraft a misogynist? How about feminism, what does that mean exactly? And finally, can a misogynist somehow be a feminist as well?
On the surface such a notion seems a dichotomy, if not an outright contradiction. Still, much of Lovecraft's upbringing and mannerisms were filled with such contradictions. It does not stand to reason that the truly curious seeker be turned from the path of understanding so quickly; are we so easily put off by a twist of logic as insignificant as this? The Bible, it must be said, is almost entirely built upon similar contradictions and yet it is not dismissed from public discussion and analysis so quickly. Let us take a moment and look at the questions a bit more carefully each in turn, and perhaps a path can be worked out which somehow satisfies logic without slamming a door (leading to what could be a very illuminating idea) in the investigator's puzzled face.
First off, what is misogyny? Dear Uncle Noah (Webster) would have us understand it as such:
"n. -A hatred of women."
Well, not very helpful. What about the definition in the medical dictionary of the same ilk?
"n. -a person who hates women."
Scarcely illuminating, is it? Sociology treats us with a bit more lucidity, but not much. Here is what wikipedia has to say, sourcing from a pair of sociology dictionaries:
"Misogyny..." "is hatred (or contempt) of women or girls. Misogyny comes from Greek misogunia (µ?s?????a) from misos (µ?s??, "hatred") and gyne (????, "woman")."
That doesn't seem to clear things up any. Yet under the same wiki article, we have also the following:
"Marcus Tullius Cicero reports that Greek philosophers considered misogyny to be caused by gynophobia, a fear of women."
This isn't earth shattering, but it is perhaps a step in the right direction of our own quest for knowledge. I do not wonder that this was as unpopular a notion when Cicero was writing as it is today. We seldom enjoy being informed that our dislike for something generally appreciates from our fear of it. Especially when we ourselves feel (if only deep down inside) that this is precisely the truth.
So here we are at the second question in our investigation: "was Lovecraft a misogynist?" It is not likely that we shall ever know what exactly were Lovecraft's feelings about the fairer sex, whether in general or as specifically referring to the women in his life. It begins to appear that the valuation of "Misogyny", just like the valuation of so many intangible things in our lives, is too subjective and open to interpretation for us to begin here with our investigations. yet Cicero has given us this other, more general principle to work with, this other word, 'gynophobia'. If we can perhaps forgive or at least ignore the propensity of linguists to define ancient Greek words with the use of other ancient greek words, there may be some material here on which we can at last begin our argument. Misogyny is too narrow and specific a concept, and carries with it a stigmata perhaps too difficult to struggle with against the backdrop of our own "politically correct" and culturally turbulent times. But fear is easily understood and examined, whether it is a fear we share or no. Clues to an outright hatred of women could be difficult to find and analyze in any atmosphere, particularly one as rife with pastoral and other archaic layers of thought as Lovecraft's work has become to our jaded, modern eyes. However, examples which point to a fear of women; or, at best an uneasy apprehension of them are not so difficult to uncover. Particularly when examining the underlying metaphysical and philosophical ideas by which any deep thinker might express or inwardly perceive the differences from one sex to the other, I believe that Lovecraft's fiction is every bit as revealing as would be a specific treatise on women written by the man himself, and in all likelihood his fiction would exceed such a work (if it existed) in this regard utterly, as I hope shall now be seen.
An intrinsic philosophical understanding of the differences between men and women has been mentioned. Of what would such a philosophy entail? It must be admitted that the answers are far from simple. One difficulty is that taken specifically, one person's philosophy is not likely to resemble that of another on any but the most general of points. Let us begin then with these least specific of notions concerning the relative difference of the sexes.
First off, the physiological differences in the primary sexual organs and all that these differences imply and portend. By design of structure and function, the female's primary sexual organs are occluded, internalized, and inclusive. By contrast the male organs are prominent, externalized and penetrative, if not blatantly exclusive and invasive. The sensations of their respective orgasms have been described on the one hand as dynamic and ululating, on the other as incremental and catastrophic. Conversely, the secondary sexual organs (assuming we accept the male breasts to apply to this category) stand in an inverse relationship- those of the woman being functional and pronounced, those of the man useless and quite unremarkable in all but the most unusual cases. We should expect the more abstract representation of these differences to follow suit, and one needs not look very far to ascertain that this is generally the case. Look for a moment at the ascriptions of the Taoist principles as they are attributed to either Yin (female) or Yang (male). On the male side we have heat, light, vibration, affirmation, effort. On the female side are attributed cold, darkness, stillness, denial and longing. If Western motifs are more to the reader's taste, let us look at some of the allegorical representations of masculinity versus those of femininity. Symbols of male virility are guns, trees, towers and forts, staves or animals like rams and dogs. Feminine symbols include ships, flowers, cloisters and fields, cups, and zoologically genteel creatures such as cats and birds. These principles have been explored mathematically as well, and much more succinctly than merely the four operations of addition/subtraction or multiplication/division may suggest. The descriptions of man as point and woman as circle used by various western occult orders throughout history was adopted from just these mathematical ideas, virtually unchanged from Egyptian metaphysical thought (Osiris/Isis/Horus) into Christian Theology (Father, Holy Ghost, Son) and to the "modern" basis of geometrical representations of the dimensions (point, sphere, line, square, cube).
Let us now take a look at some similar themes in Lovecraft's work (establishing or losing identity through external relationships vs identity based on self discovery, inclusive perception vs investigatory perception, clandestine vs overt systems and organizations, nature vs super-nature) and see if any predominantly "feminist" sympathies emerge.
We do not have to look very far. In the keystone tale of his own invented pantheon, "The Call of Cthulhu", Lovecraft has written what is likely to be the penultimate expression of his literary philosophy. The basis of this philosophy, though abstract, may well be the most emasculatory and feminist statement in the entirety of English-speaking literature from the twentieth century:
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” (H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu)
If it can be accepted that the urge for exploration and conquest of even natural mysteries has it's Freudian equivalent in the male libido and coital functions, it is no stretch to infer a greater dimension of meaning in this often quoted but perhaps not fully understood notion of Mr. Lovecraft. The idea is not just suggestive of the old world map legend, "here there be monstres", it is totally analogous. The point becomes a line when it penetrates the sphere it has been exclusive of. The idea that "something" terrible lurks somewhere along the unknown expanse of that line is hardly unusual. In this purest sense, the fear of some unknown hand grabbing your own as you grope in darkness for the light switch is the same as the quaint Latin notion of the awful "vagina dentata", or the even more practical fear (both antique and modern) of sexually transmitted disease. The argument for feminism stems from this; traditionally, the masculine point of view has been to challenge these fears. The belief seems to be that ultimately, victory over the unknown was not only noble and admirable on a peer level, but somehow approved of by divinity, or at any rate the laws of the universe themselves. Yet here we have young master Howard, not with a hesitant whine or a reedy hypothesis but a veritable shout of perceived truth- the clandestine is fatal. His signpost to us does not read "proceed with caution". It says "do not enter". His understanding was that Our fears and inability to perceive our position in the scheme of things is a blessing that protects us from madness and destruction. If the urges to penetrate and categorize are masculine there can scarcely be a more "feminist" point of view than that of Lovecraft, no matter that it may be far removed from the thoughts of many actual women of any age, living or dead. Lovecraft's literary dread and awe of the mysterious is reminiscent of a religious fervor, and in it's own way perhaps rivals even the fiercely mingled love and hatred of the legendary Thuggee hashashin for his unspeakable mistress, the Dark Mother Kali.
In fact, Freudian symbolism is extant in much of Lovecraft's work. The author of this thesis is no stranger to the idea, understood by even stodgy Siegmund himself that sometimes "a cigar is just a cigar". But how can one pass off the blatantly generative symbolism of "The Shuttered Room", in which a breached contract (and threshold) causes a monstrous gestation in the eponymous chamber? Regard for a moment the leg biting conclusion of "The Tomb", which is as close to "vagina dentata" as a man of Lovecraft's time and reputation could possibly allow! What are we to make of the "dark mother" archetype in "Dreams of the Witch House", a tale any Thuggee would have well understood? Or what could be a more blatant cheer for the power of the female seductive wiles than the dreadful secret of Astanath Waite from "The Thing on the Doorstep" (a deeply ironic conceit, as those who have read the story will realize)? If the oceans and seas of the earth are nature's womb, then what is Lovecraft telling us about his opinions of human women, with his stories of hideously mutated beings breeding in the deeps, sometimes even rising on dark tides to mingle their seed with that of our own? If gynophobia can be a manifestation of a type of dichotic feminism then Lovecraft's fiction was feminism of a superhuman calibre, regardless of what the man himself felt about things. It may also be interesting to note the near complete absence of sympathetic human females from Lovecraft's work, even of the "damsel in distress" variety so common in pulp fiction throughout written history. In addition to the female antagonists already mentioned we have also the hideous "Shub-Niggurath" or "Black Goat With a Thousand Young", who though never presented first hand in those stories written by Lovecraft himself was often mentioned by him, and appears to be a sort of Kali or Tiamat, with a liberal dose of a malign type of female Pan or libidinous but physically ghastly (and inhuman) Hecate thrown in for good measure. Though there are few female protagonists in Lovecraft's work, we may yet take this as further evidence of his discomfort with female thoughts and motivations. Whether by intent of the author or no, the fiction of Howard Phillip Lovecraft takes on new shades of meaning when read in this light, perhaps adding further to the sensation of alienation from nature and even from ourselves as a race of beings... that sensation likely being the most easily recognized feature of his work.