James O’Meara on Henry James & H. P. Lovecraft
James J. O'Meara
The Lesson of the Monster; or, The Great, Good Thing on the Doorstep
We’ve been very pleased by the response to our essay “The Eldritch Evola,” which was not only picked up by Greg Johnson (whose own Confessions of a Reluctant Hater is out and essential reading) for his estimable website Counter-Currents, but even managed to lurch upwards and lay a terrible, green claw on the bottom rung of the “Top Ten Most Visited Posts” there in January.
Coincidentally, we’ve been delving into the newer Penguin Portable Henry James, being a sucker for the Portables in general, and especially those in which a wise editor goes to the trouble of cutting apart a life’s work of legendary unreadability and stitching together a coherent, or at least assimilable, narrative, for the convenience of us amateurs, from Malcolm Cowley’s first, the legendary Portable Faulkner that rescued “Count No-Account,” as he was known among his homies, to the recent Portable Jack Kerouac epic saga recounted by Ann Charters.
The “new” Portable Henry James attempts something of the sort (as opposed to the older one, which was your basic collection) by recognizing the impossibility of even including large excerpts from the “major” works, and instead gives us some of the basic short works (Daisy Miller, Turn of the Screw, “The Jolly Corner,” etc.) and then hundreds of pages of travel pieces, criticism, letters, even parodies and tributes, as well a a list of bizarre names (Cockster? Dickwinter?) and above all, in a section called “Definition and Description,” little vignettes, often only a paragraph, exemplifying the Jamesian precision, a sort of anthology of epiphanies, the great memorable moments from “An Absolutely Unmarried Woman” to “An American Corrected on What Constitutes ‘the Self'” from the novels, and similar nonfiction moments from James’ travels, such as “The Individual Jew” to “New York Power” to “American Teeth” and “The Absence of Penetralia.”
The latter section in particular is part of a defense which the editor seems to feel needs to be mounted in his Introduction, of the Jamesian “difficult” prose style (as are the collection of tributes, including the surprising, to me at least, Ezra Pound).
I bring these two together because I could not help but think of ol’ Lovecraft himself in this context. Is Lovecraft not the corresponding Master of Bad Prose? As Edmund Wilson once quipped, the only horror in Lovecraft’s corpus was the author’s “bad taste and bad art.”
One can only imagine what James would have thought of Lovecraft, although we know, from excerpts here on Baudelaire and Hawthorne, what he thought of Poe, and more importantly, of those who were fans: “to take [Poe] with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self. An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection”; James may even have based the poet in “The Aspern Papers,” a meditation on America’s cultural wasteland, on Poe. However, his distaste is somewhat ambiguous, as compared with Baudelaire, Poe is “vastly the greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.”
For all his “better” taste and talent for reflection, it’s little realized today, as well, that James’s reputation went into steep decline after his death, and was only revived in the fifties, as part of a general reconsideration of 19th century American writers, like Melville, so that even James could be said to have, like Lovecraft, been forgotten after death except for a small coterie that eventually stage managed a revival years later.
Are James and Lovecraft as different as all that? One can’t help but notice, from the list above, that a surprising amount of James’s work, and among it the best, is in the ‘weird’ mode, and in precisely the same “long short story” form, “the dear, the blessed nouvelle,” in which Lovecraft himself hit his stride for his best and most famous work. (Both “Daisy Miller” and “At the Mountains of Madness” suffered the same fate: rejection by editors solely put off by their ‘excessive’ length for magazine publication.) The nouvelle of course accommodated James’ legendary prolixity.
The editor, John Auchard, puts James’s prolixity into the context of the 19th century ‘loss of faith.’ Art was intended to take the place of religion, principally by replacing the lost “next world” by an increased concentration on the minutia of this one. Experience might be finite, but it could still “burn with a hard, gem-like flame” as Pater famously counseled.
That counsel, of course, took place in the first, then self-suppressed, then retained afterword to his The Renaissance. René Guénon has in various places diagnosed this as the essential fraud of the Renaissance, the exchange of a vertical path to transcendence for a horizontal dissipation and dispersal among finite trivialities, usually hoked-up as “man discovered the vast extent of the world and himself,” blah blah blah. As Guénon points out, it’s a fool’s bargain, as the finite, no matter how extensive and intricate, is, compared to the infinite, precisely nothing.
Baron Evola, on the other hand, distinguishes several types of Man, and is willing to let some of them find their fulfillment in such worldliness. It is, however, unworthy of one type of Man: Aryan Man. See the chapter “Determination of the Vocations” in his The Doctrine of Awakening: The Attainment of Self-Mastery According to the Earliest Buddhist Texts.
So the nouvelle length accumulation of detail and precision of judgment, in James, is intended to produce some kind of this-worldly ersatz transcendence. Was this perhaps the same intent in Lovecraft, the use of the nouvelle length tale to pile up detail until the mind breaks?
Lovecraft of course was also a thorough-going post-Renaissance materialist, a Cartesian mechanist with the best of them; when he finally got “The Call of Cthulhu” published, he advised his editor that:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. One must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.
But as John Miller notes, this is exactly what is needed to produce the Lovecraft Effect:
That’s nihilism, of course, and we’re free to reject it. But there’s nothing creepier or more terrifying than the possibility that our lives are exercises in meaninglessness.
What is there to choose, between the unrealized but metaphysically certain nothingness of the Jamesian finite detail, and the all-too-obvious nothingness of Lovecraft’s worldview?
What separates James from Lovecraft and Evola is, along the lines of our previous effort, is precisely what T. S. Eliot, in praise of James (the essay is in the Portable too): “He has a mind so fine no idea could penetrate it.” Praise, note, and contrasted with the French, “the Home of Ideas,” and such Englishmen, or I guess pseudo-Englishmen, as Chesterton, “whose brain swarms with ideas” but cannot think, meaning, one gathers, stand apart with skepticism. One notes the Anglican Eliot seeming to flinch back, like a good English gentleman, from those dirty, unruly Frenchmen like Guénon, and such Englishmen who, like Chesterton, went “too far” and went and “turned Catholic” out of their love of “smells and bells.”
What Evola and Lovecraft had was precisely an Idea, the idea of Tradition; in Lovecraft’s case, a made-up, fictional one, but designed to have the same effect. But that’s the issue: when is Tradition only made up? For Evola and Guénon, the mind of Traditional Man is indeed not “fine” enough to evade penetration by the Idea; he is open to the transcendent, vertical dimension, which is realized in Intellectual Intuition.
I’ve suggested elsewhere that Intellectual Intuition, or what Evola calls his “Traditional Method” is usefully compared with what Spengler called, speaking of his own method, “physiognomic tact.” I wrote: “A couple years ago I found a passage in one of the few books on Spengler in English, by H. Stuart Hughes, where it seemed like he was actually giving a good explication of Guénon’s metaphysical (vs. systematic philosophy) method. I think it could apply to Evola’s method as well” Hughes writes:
Spengler rejected the whole idea of logical analysis. Such “systematic” practices apply only in the natural sciences. To penetrate below the surface of history, to understand at least partially the mysterious substructure of the past, a new method — that of “physiognomic tact”— is required.
This new method, “which few people can really master,” means “instinctively to see through the movement of events. It is what unites the born statesman and the true historian, despite all opposition between theory and practice.” [It takes from Goethe and Nietzsche] the injunction to “sense” the reality of human events rather than dissect them. In this new orientation, the historian ceases to be a scientist and becomes a poet. He gives up the fruitless quest for systematic understanding. . . . “The more historically men tried to think, the more they forgot that in this domain they ought not to think.” They failed to observe the most elementary rule of historical investigation: respect for the mystery of human destiny.
So causality/science, destiny/history. Rather than chains of reasoning and “facts” the historian employs his “tact” [really, a kind of Paterian “taste”] to “see” the big picture: how facts are composed into a destiny. Rather than compelling assent, the historian’s words are used to bring about a shared intuition.
I suppose Guénon and Co. would bristle at being lumped in with “poets” but I think the general point is helpful in understanding the “epistemology” of what Guénon is doing: not objective (but empty) fact-gathering but not merely aesthetic and “subjective” either, since metaphysically “seeing” the deeper connection can be “induced” by words and thus “shared.”
What Guénon, Evola, and Spengler seek to do deliberately, what Lovecraft did fictionally or even accidentally, what James’s mind was “too fine” to do at all, is to not see mere facts, or see a lot of them, or even see them very very intently, but to see through them and thus acquire metaphysical insight, and, through the method of obsessive accumulation of detail, share that insight by inducing it in others.
To do this one must be “penetrated” by the Idea, Guénon’s metaphysics, Evola’s historical cycles, Lovecraft’s Mythos, and allow it be be generated within oneself. Only then can you see.
Speaking of “penetration,” one does note James’s obsession with “penetralia”; also one recalls the remarkable way Schuon brings out how in Christianity the Word is brought by Gabriel to Mary, who in mediaeval paintings is often shown with a stream of words penetrating her ear, thus conceiving virginally, while in Islam, Gabriel brings the Word to Muhammad, who recites (gives birth to) the Koran. Itself a wonderful example of the Traditional Method: moving freely among the material elements of various traditions to weave a pattern that re-creates an Idea in the mind of the listener. Do you see how Christianity and Islam relate? Do you see?
Finally, we should note that Lovecraft, for his own sake, did get in a preemptive shot at James:
In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James triumphs over his inevitable pomposity and prolixity sufficiently well to create a truly potent air of sinister menace; depicting the hideous influence of two dead and evil servants, Peter Quint and the governess, Miss Jessel, over a small boy and girl who had been under their care. James is perhaps too diffuse, too unctuously urbane, and too much addicted to subtleties of speech to realise fully all the wild and devastating horror in his situations; but for all that there is a rare and mounting tide of fright, culminating in the death of the little boy, which gives the novelette a permanent place in its special class.– Supernatural Horror in Literature, Chapter VIII.
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