Initial Thoughts on Graham Harman on Lovecraft

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I’m told I’m 31% finished with Graham Harman’s Weird Realism. As a dabbler in speculative realism, and, especially, as an old-time Lovecraft fan forced by critical winds to revive his interest, I’m obligated to read it. But, as with any writing about Lovecraft, I suspect special pleading, and I cringe at the whiff of adolescent habits gone sour with the keeping.

And then there’s this, “No other figure in world literature is able to make such outbursts work so effectively,” a sentence that can be understood only as meaning I’m very deep into a shared culture. And, you know, guys read Lovecraft, and especially guys of a certain type. So there’s that. See also Americans certain that their TV is the “best TV ever.” That their preferred sport culminates in something called “the world series.” That superhero comic books matter (or, heck, that medieval superhero ‘comic books’ matter too, if I want to turn this back on myself). This  point, then, isn’t about absolute quality, but about the intensity of our interests, or about how our interests eclipse other things, or, more grimly, about the parochial dangers of not getting out into the wilds where you don’t know enough to crown anything as the best thing ever.

That said, I’m getting a lot from his care in reading Heidegger and Husserl and Lovecraft together. What Harman knows how to do he does very well. Harman’s reading of Heidegger has always been perfectly clear, while Husserl is much, much harder to understand. So, thanks to Harman: I now get it when he points out that Heidegger gives us a model of space, and Husserl one of time. And I now have a better of sense of the sensual unity of, for example, the dog or the gibbering goat god, and the various qualities of the dog or ggg as it moves along through our perception.

And I love his exercise in literal writing to make things worse. It’s hilarious (and an important illustration of his point that reality is not made up of perfectly translatable, i.e., reducible propositions; but it’s also hilarious). For example, imagine someone summarizing Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” as “Ireland’s wet and squishy.”

Here’s Harman’s first big example, on Nietzsche’s comment about Shakespeare, “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon!”, Harman imagines a boring literalizer who goes on,

“What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! For although we might expect the contents of Shakespeare’s writing to be a direct reflection of his personality, modern psychology teaches the contrary lesson. For in fact, what people write if often the opposite of what they are feeling inside. In Shakespeare’s case, the clowning in his comedies may actually be an effort to counterbalance painful personal experience with an outward show of good cheer.”

Then he adds: “Along with the bore just described, we can add other personae capable of leading Nietzsche’s remark into ruin:

  • The Simpleton: “How happy Shakespeare must have been that he played the buffoon so often!” (Here the twist of paradox is destroyed in favor of a facile correspondence between an author’s life and work.)
  • The Judgmental Resenter: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! And I must say I find it a bit pathetic that Shakespeare is so needy and always clowns around to try to make us like him.” (Nietzsche’s cool distance and non-judgmental appreciation of human pathos is extinguished in a cesspool of private bitterness.)
  • The Waffler: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! At least I’m pretty sure about that. The other possibility is that he was actually happy. I could go either way on this one.” (Here we lose Nietzsche’s gallant decisiveness.)
  • The Self-Absorbed: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! But I’m not like that at all. Personally, I take a balanced approach to life and don’t feel the need to overcompensate.” (Nietzsche’s vigorous interest in the outer world gives way to petty Main Street narcissism.)
  • The Down-Home Cornball: “Whenever he has those comical scenes, I ain’t fooled. I know Ole Billy’s got something stickin’ in his craw!” (Here we completely lose the aristocratic elegance of Nietzsche’s style).
  • The Clutterer: “What people like Shakespeare, Molière, Aristophanes, Plautus, Menander, Juvenal, Rabelais, and Brecht must have suffered to have such need of being buffoons!” (No longer is Shakespeare addressed as one solitary figure by another. Instead, we have a confusing general proposition about a long list of comic authors.)
  • The Pedant: “Shakespeare’s plays exhibit instantiations of a ludic affect that, as it were, bespeak an inversion of his ‘true’ state of mind. Much work has been done in this area, but a full consideration lies beyond the scope of this essay. See Johnson 1994, Miner and Shaltgroverr et al., 1997.” (This character combines aspects of the Waffler and the original Literalizing Bore.)

Touché. Guaranteed, this exercise will appear this semester’s English Composition class.

Finally, for today, because DEADLINES: in his discussion of “The Call of Cthulhu,” Harman laughs about Lovecraft’s comic touches: a Providence scholar seeking out a “mineralogist of note” in, of all places, Paterson, New Jersey; the absolutely ludicrous stereotype of the “excitable Spaniard”; and how no one could honestly find “African voodoo” frightening in itself.

Here’s a sad case where we need a historical reading. It’s not just that Harman arbitrarily swings between what Lovecraft might have been intending (“Paterson, New Jersey, a fairly arbitrary choice of location that must have made Lovecraft chuckle”) and our own response (“Most of us do not live in fear of African voodoo circles, or think of them in anything more than anthropological terms”) depending on what interpretation he’s promoting at any given moment. It’s that Weird Tales published “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1928. To my knowledge, Paterson was a thriving industrial town in the 1920s, and seeking out practical, scientific help there would be no more silly than looking for it in Detroit in the 1950s. It would have made more sense, in fact, given Paterson’s important connections to New Jersey’s then thriving mineral industry (see also Franklin, NJ). Harman just didn’t bother to track things down.

The excitable Spaniard is of course a symptom of Lovecraft’s pretentious Anglophilia (which he sends up most effectively in my favorite Lovecraft, always a feature in my lit theory courses to illustrate Bhabha, viz., “He.”)

As for the fear of “African voodoo”: well, this is a late witness, and all the more effective a counterargument for that. I remember a Sunday evening debate about the dangers of rock and roll in my parents’ church back in the … well, let’s just say that I had tickets for Love and Rocket’s “Earth, Sun, Moon” show in Seattle, and I didn’t want to have that wrecked. One old man, though, was sure rock and roll was of the devil because of the African drums. I quote. So.

And Harman writes of Lovecraft’s line about “New York policemen…mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22-23,” that “However blameworthy as a sample of Orientalism, Lovecraft’s reference to a mob of hysterical Levantines is genuinely frightening, presumably even for readers from present-day Lebanon and Syria.” Maybe. But I think “New York Levantines,” especially coming from Lovecraft, can only mean not “New York Syrians” or “Turks,” for example, but rather “New York Jews,” and while March 22-23 isn’t Purim in 1928, 27, or 26, it’s not far off, either. So, also: so.

There’s more to be said here about the dangers of a shared culture.

Surely no world philosophy is better suited to talk about this than object-oriented ontology.

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