YouTube has some very wonderful channels with content that is so deeply researched that it blows my mind. One such that I stumbled on to is called In Praise of Shadows and it focuses on the history of horror in film and literature.
A video on HP Lovecraft, in particular, caught my attention. However, it was not for the author’s role as a giant of horror fiction.
Lovecraft still inspires a lot of loyalty among readers. He is one of the few writers to have his name turned into an adjective (Lovecraftian, like Orwellian, Kafkaesque etc). But he also brings up a lot of revulsion, unsurprisingly, because of his openly and overtly racist views.
He was not shy about it. The details aren’t secretive. He named a cat, in one of his stories, N*****-Man. He also openly admired Hitler and maligned Celtic and Hispanic people.
However, in this video, In Praise of Shadows has also brought out a lot of Lovecraft’s personal qualities that show his softer side. He was tormented from his youth, very clearly suffered from mental illnesses, and was also much more personable in deed than he tried to depict in words. One can almost feel that Lovecraft was overcompensating for his personal failings (as he saw them) by taking on a belligerent persona.
And I think I largely agree. A person like him may have wanted to create some kind of literary warrior persona and tried picking fights. Trying to see himself as a member of a master-race could have helped him, temporarily, overcome his personal deficiencies. This does not excuse his behaviour. But it explains it.
One can imagine him as an internet troll, but vastly more eloquent.
And that’s the thing that made me wonder. Are we likely to be more sympathetic of a racist (or any other-ist), if they are better at communicating? Would Lovecraft have received any of the sympathy he does if he had not been a writer? Remember, many people with a history of trauma or mental issues lack the skills to express them.
As a corollary, would we have taken the effort to understand him if he, himself, was not able to communicate to us clearly?
Think of the Woody Allens and Pablo Picassos of the world. Were they indulged their questionable and criminal behaviour for so long if their vocabulary was halved? On the other hand, if some average Joe on the street also acts badly in order to overcompensate for his self-image, would we be willing to spend time in trying to understand why?
Lovecraft’s reputation was defended by his relatives and colleagues who wrote about how he behaved in private. How many people have highly literate acquaintances (in this case many of them being writers also) who can write beautifully in your defence and then have it read by others?
I am not condemning or condoning either choice. It’s not my place to do so. Rather, I am wondering if we do enough to understand the inner lives of those among us who cannot express it fully on their own. Otherwise we are determining a person’s access to our sympathies purely based on their language and not their personhood.
I feel that’s worth some thought. Language is a great barrier between people of different races, nationalities, and classes. Very often we may be suspicious or indifferent towards people whose expression differs from our own. If we are willing to defend a writer, we must try and defend others who cannot write. Or, if we are to condemn him, we must condemn those among us who we see as nice, in person. Let eloquence (or the lack of it) not be the deciding vote.
Even Lovecraft may have corrected himself, if only he was willing to step outside his linguistic neighbourhood and spend some time visiting those of others.