Today is sunday. A day I normally do not care much about. But today also happens to be the 20th of August, which is the birthday of a man that has, for good or worse, shaped what I think of art and consequently of myself.
Today is the birthday of one Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
He was, without a doubt, a despicable human being. A bigot full of hate and self-doubt, capable of writing the most terrible letters of condemnation about imigrants that had the bad luck of arriving in the New World later than his family. His upbringing was decadent in the same sense that Thomas Mann was – the last heir of a formerly wealthy family, well educated and cultured but the last branch of a rotting family tree, most of them dying young and of psychosis or suicide.
And yet he has moved me.
A demanding feat for there is no heart to be found in his stories – not in conflict with itself, torn about its humanity or emotion, and neither one in harmony with anything. There is not even one character in his writing with something resembling a human heart. To the last they are lifeless academics, without friends or lovers, obsessed with minutia and dusty tomes. Not a single one of them I could identify with, even though I myself am a rather dusty academic who loves books more than people and smiles as horribly as Howard does.
And yet I sit awake some nights in my crooked house in old Vienna and I listen for the viola from across the street; for the voice and the sound that will tear apart the world I think I know. And yet I sit and wait for Erich Zann.
And yet I listen for the sound of the Rats in the Walls, the sound of the past creeping out of my home and devouring me, who is unable to stand what my forefathers have done, unable to bear the guilt of what little I know of them and their transgressions.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft for all his flaws – and there are many – has brought into literature what it means to have Angst. The true Angst of not knowing, of fearing what we do not know and would not want to know for fear of the lies we told ourselves. He has captured without so much as one single human emotion in his writing the human condition.
I am myself deeply confounded by this. Not because I think that every artist would have a moral duty to uphold or even should strive to be moral. I happily confess to being infatuated with Wagner and deeply, utterly, insanely in love with Wilde. There is no morality in art and if there were I wouldn’t have it.
Art is good or it is bad – but never evil.
No. I am torn for the simple reason that the very same Angst that Lovecraft has the honour of subtilizing has its roots in the fear of the other, be that human or not. That I can not – in this one instance at least – separate man and writing. And this…this is what troubles me and what makes him a figure of awe and suspicion.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft has managed to be one of a select few of artists in this past century. A man not of culture, not of education, but of conviction and pride. Take away his figure, his persona of the dreary man, never smiling, ever leering, and you take away the heart of his writing.
And that is what true artistry means.
So I guess it is just this that is to be done:
Happy birthday, you terrible old man.