The following article is by Paul St John Mackintosh.
After the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, astute Anglo readers may have twigged that one writer whose name keeps coming up in that context, Michel Houellebecq, also happens to be H.P. Lovecraft’s biggest French fan. His seminal work H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie (H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life), first published in 1991 but only translated into English in 2005, was written well before the novels that won him actual fame, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994, tr. Whatever, 1998), and Les Particules élémentaires (1998, tr. The Elementary Particles, 2000), and reads as a love letter to Lovecraft – on the basis of a shared hatred for life and humanity. At least, in Houellebecq’s view. And especially for humanity of a different colour, community or creed.
Houellebecq praises Lovecraft in these terms: “Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.”
Actually, Houellebecq identifies and anatomizes Lovecraft’s prejudices in his book, more than he sympathizes with or endorses them. He saves that for his own work. You can see Houellebecq dovetailing racism and fear-mongering with critiques of rationalism and tolerance in his latest novel, Soumission (Submission), whose appearance earned him a cover caricature in the very issue of Charlie Hebdo that was at the press when its editors were massacred. He manages the hard task of whipping up fear against Islam while apparently praising it for anti-rational authoritarianism and subjugation of women, all attitudes he claimed to see mirrored in Lovecraft.
Plenty of critics and commentators have commented on how unlikely this affinity is. The cutting edge of French avant-garde literature claiming blood brotherhood with a pulp writer archaic even by the standards of the 1920s? Less surprising, though, when you consider Houellebecq’s other precursors who shared Lovecraft’s nihilism. E.M. Cioran, for one, the Romanian Francophone who just happened to develop a strong affinity to the Romanian Iron Guard in the 1930s and 40s. Knut Hamsun for another, Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner and later eulogist of Adolf Hitler. Or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a real diagnostic ancestor of Houellebecq, and house bard of French pro-Nazi collaborationism. Do I see a pattern emerging?
If I do, why? Because that pattern first started to trouble me when I came across it in the otherwise blameless context of Thomas Ligotti and his brilliant exposition on the philosophical dimensions of horror – or horrific dimensions of philosophy – The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. He situated Lovecraft in a continuity that included most of these writers, with a touch of carelessness over what some of them had actually done. Ligotti didn’t allude once to Cioran’s political activities, or Céline’s. And however mordant Ligotti’s take on the human race, I never thought that he actually wanted to see the extermination of whole swathes of it. Extinction of the whole, perhaps, but not of any part before any other. So why did so many of his exemplars?
How, if life is worthless and human existence meaningless, did these nihilists arrive at the conclusion that some human existences are more worthless and meaningless than others, and especially those that are different? If they have no faith in mere human reason, why did they espouse ideologies that are ridiculous? If they despise humanity, why did they cleave to fantastical populist dogmas of blood and race? Why were so many of them fascists? (And I’m using fascist here in the lower-case sense of sympathisers and fellow-travellers with the broad sweep of fascist right-wing authoritarian ideology, rather than actual members of existing fascist parties – although all the other writers I’ve just mentioned exhibited sympathy and support in word or deed with the fascist political movements of their times.)
Houellebecq was right to locate the origins of Lovecraft’s racism in fear, “the brutal hatred of a trapped animal who is forced to share his cage with other and different frightening creatures.” But is that simple physical fear? You could understand that in the case of Lovecraft, the mild New Englander, dumped in Red Hook, and Houellebecq’s attempt to put a sociopolitical context and an anti-capitalist spin on Lovecraft’s world-view, claiming that “the value of a human being today is measured in terms of his economic efficiency and his erotic potential – the two things that Lovecraft most despised,” did his early standing no harm in the eyes of a certain sector of the French left. Social dislocation can explain a lot for such figures, as Ligotti instances when he cites “the alienated protagonists who lead us through Hamsun’s Hunger.” But I’d root it more in existential terror. Ligotti draws the parallel between Lovecraft and Pascal, and if you want to see just how much terror those infinite spaces can inspire, well, read Lovecraft.
Lovecraft’s existential crisis, as with many other writers of his time, was certainly reinforced by political and historical events. As China Miéville has written, comparing Lovecraft to Tolkien: “Though Lovecraft never saw war, he did see, quite clearly, the social chaos that the First World War ushered in. The ‘Great War’ was the most shattering event in Modernity’s conception of itself as a rational, humane system: the paradox is that Tolkien, who experienced that carnage first-hand, attempted to turn his back on the truth of post-traumatic Modernity, whereas Lovecraft was thousands of miles away from the heart of horror, but was a neurotically acute barometer of society’s psychic disorders. These different approaches manifest in their fantasies. To put it with unfair crudeness, Tolkien’s is the fantasy of a man murmuring to himself ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, but not believing it; Lovecraft’s of a man shrieking ‘none of it is alright, nor will it ever be’. Unconvinced forgetting versus psychotic fixation: both are the results of trauma.” And you don’t have to listen hard to hear those Tolkienesque murmurs echoed in some of the other writers I cited. But in my view that social and political contextualization only opens the door to the existential dilemma underlying such nihilism.
Lovecraft’s cosmicism is now classed under one of the literary offshoots of existential nihilism. And Ligotti rightly links this to Nietzsche, who as he says, “not only took religious readings of life seriously enough to deprecate them at great length, but was hellbent on replacing them with a grander scheme of goal-oriented values and a sense of purpose that, in the main, even nonbelievers seem to thirst for.” And after an early flirtation with nihilistic atheism, Houellebecq seems to be following precisely that path – so long as he can get in a few hits on French secular rationalism and the Enlightenment in the process. “Atheism and secularism are dead, so is the French republic,” he proclaims, “More and more people can’t stand living without God.” And, he adds of Soumission, “my book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment.”
Actually, the more irrationalist and illogical a creed, the better for these writers, because it allows its followers to abandon the intellectual processes that threw them into the abyss of uncertainty in the first place. And by abdicating their own reason to some totem of authority, they regain the sense of primordial security and certainty they have lost. Houellebecq now regularly expresses sympathy with French Catholicism, as well as a distant affinity with doctrinaire Islam. Ditto with the fascist cult of action and propaganda of the deed, which allows believers to throw themselves into action as an outlet for their fears and a refuge from thought.
But those thinkers who are trying to suppress the inner threat in their own minds are always going to hate and fear contradiction from outside. The outsider, the foreigner, embodies uncertainty: They are a direct contradiction, an affront, to the simple, supposedly universal certainties of your own background and creed. The existential abyss yawns in the fissure between you and the Stranger. So the fascistic nihilist, or fascist who stars from nihilism, is driven to hate and oppose all aliens, all Others, in a fanatic effort to reclaim that original security and certainty. “Racism! Racism! Racism!” says Céline. “All the rest is idiotic – I’m speaking as a physician – Equality? Justice? What sick and disastrous casuistry – It will always work against us!” Hamsun protests: “The Negros are and will remain Negros, a nascent human form from the tropics, rudimentary organs on the body of white society. Instead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto studfarm.” Lovecraft channeled and sublimated those fears into his fictions: other writers let them go openly and full blast in their polemics and calls to action.
Lovecraft actually comes off pretty well in this company, in the light of recent moves to condemn him for his private attitudes. If you want to contrast the example of a conservative writer whose prejudices, however unpleasant, were voiced in private, only implicit or absent in his work, and harmless, versus one whose bigotry was virulently public, core to his work, and pitched to harm as much as such writing could, then contrast Lovecraft with Céline, who even the Nazi propaganda chief in occupied France condemned for his “savage, filthy slang” and “brutal obscenities.” Or with Houellebecq, flirting with religious and racial rabble-rousing for the sake of literary celebrity. Or even with Richard Wagner, proto-fascist prophet of volkish racial myth and life-denying disciple of Schopenhauer. And all of these had far more impact on the actual world, on real political sympathies – in short, far more of a public profile and platform for their prejudices – than Lovecraft did. Lovecraft died an obscure recluse: Houellebecq is now a celeb whose publishers seem vapidly glad to have a succès de scandale on their hands. Cioran, as Ligotti writes, “wrote that manual labor in a monastery is the closest thing to a solution for the madness and pain of existence … yet he himself was a literary man about town.” Céline was a guest of the Vichy French government in exile. Hamsun was courted by Hitler. Their nihilism seems mostly to apply to others, while they’re very happy to seek fame, success, and the patronage of the powerful with their screeds.
I’m not bracketing Ligotti himself with such figures. He at least seems to be tough-minded enough not to seek refuge from the logic of his position and sentiments in some fantasies of primal belonging or irrationalism. But their example should stand as a warning to those with similar feelings and views on where they could end up, if they heed those siren voices and relax their inner vigilance. You can be a nihilist or a pessimist, and be a Camus or a Beckett, or even a Lovecraft or a Ligotti. Or you can be a Céline or a Hamsun. Or a Houellebecq.
“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,” Lovecraft wrote. “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” As it happens, racial or cultural differences were part of the dissociated knowledge that Lovecraft and others had most trouble correlating, and many cultish literary figures have been working – and are still working – to bring about, or back, that new dark age.