Deadly pedantry: How (and how not) to murder art, literature, and H. P. Lovecraft


The “practical beginner’s guide” to H. P. Lovecraft that I published here last month has received a lot of attention and traffic, but not all of it has been necessarily positive. One observer, Teeming Brain regular xylokopos, commented, “What is the point of this detailed, beforehand investigation into the man’s life and correspondence[?] . . . . Doing any sort of online research in advance of reading the stories, will do the reader a major disservice. Why approach Lovecraft with already formed ideas about his themes and motivations?”

I certainly understand and sympathize with the criticism. Even before I clicked the “publish” button on that post, I noticed that I had given the prospective Lovecraft reader a fairly heavy load of introductory material. Chalk it up to my natural bent as a professional teacher of writing and literature, which leads me to focus on the undeniable fact that the very worthy work of a great many authors, and also of many other types of artists, isn’t readily accessible to a lot of people’s sensibilities.

Sometimes this hindrance is due to an inherent quality of idiosyncrasy, complexity, or some other sort of difficulty in the work itself. Sometimes it’s due to the passage of time, which has made an author or artist’s basic style, cast of thought, and/or cultural worldview remote and strange. Sometimes, as in the case of Lovecraft, it’s because of all this and more. Lovecraft, in addition to living and writing nearly a century ago, deliberately wrote in an antique and even archaic style, and to call his basic tropes and themes “idiosyncratic” is a gross understatement. Many modern readers who have heard of him approach his work eagerly at first but then bounce off in boredom, incomprehension, and disappointment.

This is why I think there’s definitely a place for the formal type of introduction that I laid out in my post. The “classroom”-type approach is intended to help a person by giving enough contextual information to facilitate an authentic appreciation and enjoyment of a given author, artist, or work of art or literature. Yes, when done poorly it can be insufferably pedantic, but when done well it can be a wonderful thing. Or at least it has been a wonderful thing for me personally, on the several occasions when I’ve been fortunate to have excellent teachers who introduced me to life-changing discoveries.

That said, I do take xylokopos’s criticism to heart, and I’m perfectly happy to admit that I myself have had many wonderful literary and artistic experiences by skipping the classroom approach and simply diving right into someone’s work.

I think the fact that this has all been on my mind in recent weeks may explain why two recently published essays that would have caught my attention anyway managed to catch it with extra sharpness. Each says something, and says it very well, about the danger of killing art and literature by playing the pedant and refusing to give the works a chance to speak for themselves. So of course I want to share them with you.

First, from The New York Review of Books, a meditation by Alfred Brendel on the dangerous distractions of biography when it comes to enjoying the works of great composers:

There are those who believe that delving into the biography of artists ensures a deeper perception of their art. I am not one of them. The notion that a work of art has to mirror the person of the artist, that man and work are an equation, that the integrity of the person warrants the integrity of his production — such belief seems to me to belong, particularly in the area of music, to the realm of wishful thinking. (The poet Christian Morgenstern has his hero Palmström assert that “there cannot be what must not be.”)

Beethoven’s frequently chaotic handwriting in his letters and musical autographs reminds us of his domestic disarray as we know it from pictures and descriptions. In complete contrast, there is the enduring order of his compositions.

The person of a great composer and his work remain to me incommensurable: a human being with its limitations facing a well-nigh limitless musical universe.

There are exceptional cases where events from the composer’s life can be traced in the music. Beethoven, in his Sonata op. 110, composed the experience of returning to life after a severe case of jaundice. Similarly, Schoenberg in his String Trio turned a major health crisis into sound. And Brahms conceived his D-Minor Piano Concerto under the impact of Schumann’s plunge into the Rhine.

Generally, however, the desire to link tendencies and incidents in an artist’s life to his compositions will lead us astray. The notion that a griever longs to compose his grief, a dying musician the experience of dying, or a person overwhelmed with joy his gaiety belongs in the realm of fairy tales. Music is full of counterexamples. Works of happiness, joyfulness, serenity, and even lightness have emerged in times of greatest personal distress. Let us rejoice.


Next, from The Wall Street Journal, an impassioned indictment of university literature classrooms by Lee Siegel, who says colleges have turned literature “into a bland, soulless competition for grades and status.” Thus, according to Siegel, the recent high-profile reports about the “death of the humanities,” and especially the decline of the English major, actually represent a development to be celebrated. I’ll quote Siegel at some length (and will point out that this is only a fraction of a much longer and deeply engaging piece of writing), because his point unfolds directly from paragraph to paragraph in an unbroken flow of lucid thought and emotion:

Literature changed my life long before I began to study it in college and then, in a hapless trance, in graduate school. Born into modest circumstances, I plunged with wonder into the turbulent emotions of Julien Sorel, the young romantic striver of Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” My parents might have fought as their marital troubles crashed into divorce, but Chekhov’s stories sustained me with words that captured my sadness, and Keats’s language filled me with a beauty that repelled the forces that were making me sad.

Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.”

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.

Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.

And just as we do not need to know about biology and physiology in order to love and to be loved, we do not need to know about, for example, Homer’s rhetoric or historical context in order to enter into Odysseus’s journey of wandering, rebirth and homecoming. The old books will speak to the oldest part of us. Young people will read them when they are touched by inexpressible yearnings the way they will eat when they are hungry. If they want to.

COMPLETE ESSAY: “Who Ruined the Humanities?

So, in conclusion, and in the spirit of all this, here’s a greatly foreshortened version of my beginner’s guide to Lovecraft for those who feel inclined to take the plunge “raw,” as it were, avoiding the danger of a deadly pedantry and letting their pure native reactions to Lovecraft’s writing be their guide.

How to Read Lovecraft: A Practical Beginner’s Guide

(Short Version)

STEP ONE: Read any of the following stories or all of them together.

  • The Call of Cthulhu – A series of dreams, a strange green statue found in the depths of the swamps north of New Orleans, the sudden appearance of a horrific island in the Pacific — these are but a few of the occurrences that portend the end of human civilization at the hands of great Cthulhu.
  • The Rats in the Walls — The descendant of the family de la Poer returns to Exham Priory and discovers the grisly secret of the family palate.
  • The Music of Erich Zann — A deaf-mute German plays a different sort of concert against the forces of the universe in a nightly battle which costs much more than his soul.
  • The Dunwich Horror — Dunwich, Massachusetts, a hidden village falling into its own decay of inbreeding and pestilence, experiences a new horror which threatens to destroy it all. Old Whateley makes a pact with Yog-Sothoth and rears a spawn from hell.
  • The Colour Out of Space — A meteor falls from the heavens, infecting a small farm and its occupants with a strange malady. What strangeness comes from the deepest of space to destroy everything it touches? (Note that this one has been adapted for film more than once.)
  • The Shadow Out of Time — An American professor in the early 1900s fears he is going insane when he unaccountably begins seeing strange vistas of alien cities. It emerges that he is being “possessed” by members of an alien race that project their minds through time and space to switch bodies with a host species and study cosmic history.
  • Pickman’s Model — Richard Upton Pickman is an artist whose ghoulish paintings are so realistic, so definitive, that most shudder at the mere thought of what they portray. Do his works stem purely from a dark and fertile imagination, or does his inspiration come from a more literal source?
  • The Whisperer in Darkness — When strange events and sightings lead a skeptical literature professor to investigate the truth behind legends of monstrous forces that live in the Vermont hills and abduct those who venture too close to their domain, he discovers an alien reality far more horrifying than anything he has ever dreamed of.
  • Nyarlathotep — A nightmarish, surreal prose poem depicting the apocalyptic events surrounding the arrival of Nyarlathotep, a man who travels from city to city in the modern world demonstrating supposedly supernatural powers and claiming to a member of the race of the Pharaohs who was recently awakened after twenty-seven centuries of sleep.

STEP TWO: Weep for your lost sanity.

(Acknowledgments: The last three stories on the list above were suggested as additions to the original list by Teeming Brain columnist Stuart Young and Teeming Brain readers Paolo Brabo and Daniel Gill).

Image: University College, Durham (Durham Castle) Crypt by A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 18, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I got upset (not dramatically) with a teacher the other day.. I don’t remember all the circumstances but basically we were studying Hamlet and my teacher was talking about how he goes mad, and I raised my hand and said that Hamlet goes mad after following his father into the Underworld, encountering the truth of what happened to him, and being haunted by that for the rest of the performance. My teacher didn’t get it. The eyebrow inside my mind so to speak went up sharply and I thought -he- was crazy. How could my professor not understand the whole point as I saw it which was that Hamlet encountered Death. He’s very much a trans-natural character, Inspired, he speaks in riddles of prophecies and portents, then later in the play Ophelia goes mad from the death of her father , she encounters death too. The connection between death and madness, mourning, is really clear, I thought.

    In Lovecraft’s Shadow out of Time the interlocutor is very much a daemon bringing prophecy and portents, and the madness that occurs is the madness of the poets and those who are Inspired .

    I really see this as the “Whole Point” in a way, to miss it is to miss the whole performance. Has nothing to do with racism or astronomy.

  2. I studied Renaissance drama in grad school. “A hapless trance” is an apt way to describe the grad school experience. Despite any haplessness or trance states I’m glad I spent as much time as I did reading plays.

    Lovecraft’s biography is a curiosity, but it shouldn’t interfere with anyone’s reading of his unique and incredibly dark vision. I couldn’t disagree more with the perspective he develops in his work, but I can appreciate it as a plausible theory for this often harsh existence.

    Daniel Gill, I don’t know where you’re studying, but if a student of mine had come up with the theory on Hamlet you put forward, I would have been very happy.

    • Last term I studied Jane Eyre , and the Yellow Wall-Paper. Among other things. People believe that Charlotte Perkins Gilman had a psychosis due to post-partum depression, which is fine, but The Yellow Wall-Paper, which is biographical about her life and the circumstances around her psychosis, is a gothic horror story about the onset of spiritual emergence psychosis from spirit mediumship. And given that its publication was within the high point of the spiritualist trend, and that spiritualism was called the principle cause of insanity in England, and knowing about the spiritual emergence psychosis that happens within mediumistic cultures around the world I really don’t think it is a stretch. That’s exactly what that story is about.

      From H. P. Lovecraft’s Superntural Horror In Literature,

      With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem Childe Roland; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, The Upper Berth and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, The Yellow Wall Paper; whilst the humorist, W. W. Jacobs, produced that able melodramatic bit called The Monkey’s Paw.

      This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.

      Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model. Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots. Moreover, much of the choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material whose massed effect may be of a very different cast. Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfill every condition of true supernatural horror-literature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether of not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.

  3. Wow, cheers for this Matt, I am happy my little comment motivated – even if it was only partially – your post.

    I suppose my psychological involvement with authors I love is different than what you experience as a teacher: for one, I do not feel the need to facilitate anyone’s introduction to them, I am quite happy with my selfish and elitist enjoyment without sharing it!
    But I also reckon, like others of our generation, that the Internet has laid waste to what used to be the process of discovering books and writers you love.

    In any case, I believe the biographical approach to be useless for most authors. I also suspect that writers’ correspondence is a particularly unreliable tool when it comes to better understanding their work: it is too similar to the enhanced digital selves people create and maintain on social media today. If I might be allowed to be vulgar, Lovecraft was a notorious bullshiter in his letters; I recall one where he was complimenting Bloch on helping him cross the road since he [Lovecraft] was an elderly gentleman. And that is when he was in his early 30s! Kafka’s view of himself in his letters is also unreliable and contradicted by most of his contemporaries that were asked about him.

    Borges wrote ‘Borges and I’ to explain the peculiar relationship, or rather, the peculiar duality of the writer-as-writer and the physical and social being that actually writes, but also lives. Kazantzakis wrote his autobiography as a diary of his inner life, as a series of spiritual exercises, and called the details of this actual, not-writing life, ‘fruit peelings to be thrown away’.

    Knowing how much HPL disliked blacks and squid will still not explain where Nyarlathotep came from. I find knowing about Borges’ sex life and Nietzsche’s stomach problems when he ate spicy stuff, equally unhelpful.

  4. Surely this is the best introduction to Lovecraft?

  5. Just read Nyarlathotep. I agree that it’s a good starting point for the Lovecraft neophyte. Gives the newcomer some idea of the HPL flavour but is short and accessible enough not to put people off. Some might argue that the plot isn’t up to much but that’s not the point, it’s all about the atmosphere.

    • Something has been bothering me for many years now,
      I had a spiritual emergence psychosis from the moment I began spirit mediumship through undergoing the self-loss. Now, in Concordia University, I have been pulling out books to do with mediumship from Vietnam and S.Korea, for instance. They explicitly state that initiation into mediumship -triggers- the psychosis. These are not sick people who are acting out in their delusions through mediumship, these are people who came to mediumship and then became severely ill. It turns illness on its head, really. The psychiatric field has its head in the sand about it. It’s all around them if they were to study spirit mediumship within traditional societies, and there is nothing glorified about it, yet in the west we are affronted by happy go lucky new age fluffy bunny attitudes about.. the abyss of insanity.. and occultists have this elitist prick attitude about the forces that if they had any real encounter with would displace their ego and make it subservient to their newly attained trans-natural condition. So here for me is the rub. There is nothing glamorous about it. I think H. P. Lovecraft really gets it. He really, really does. Mediumship is a transgressive endeavour. It’s not something you do like the purchase of a red convertible to get chicks.

      Is there any hope of Lovecraft’s cosmological pessimism to get credence in paranthropology?

      How much credence does affliction get within the study of psi?

      I often receive a very glamorous impression about it. It is anything but.

      • My own impression is that there really is a certain level of awareness about the things you describe. Daniel Pinchbeck, for one (and to name just one of the most prominent examples), displays this awareness of the horrific and disturbing side of entity encounters, spiritual possession, and mediumship in some of his writings. I think the ayahuasca-and-DMT subculture in general is pretty well acquainted with the horrifying aspect of consciousness exploration and spiritual emergence and the displacement of the conventional self by alien-seeming entities and intelligences. That said, I sympathize and agree totally about the generally “fluffy” view of all these things that currently reigns among the mainstream of American and Western types who are nominally interested in them. It would/will be interesting to see whether the southeast Asian tradition that forms your own personal center of gravity will ever, to any significant degree, escape the blank/blind spot that it currently inhabits among the Western spiritual-seeking set, since, as you’ve pointed out several times, it sometimes foregrounds these matters.

        When you say that “mediumship is a transgressive endeavor,” and you do so in the context of asserting that “Lovecraft really gets it,” I’m with you totally and passionately, since the connection between weird horror fiction and actual religious and spiritual experience forms my own personal center of gravity. When Lovecraft notes in Supernatural Horror in Literature that the supernatural horror response is something that’s basically coeval with religious experience throughout human history, and in doing so picks up on the famous identical theme that Rudolf Otto explores so masterfully in The Idea of the Holy — and all without being aware of Otto — this forms a nexus of themes and influences that has come to be largely definitive for my own inner life.

  6. This beginner’s guide to a beginner’s guide to Lovecraft is still a bit too advanced for me. Could you do a beginner’s guide to a beginner’s guide to a beginner’s guide?

    • Certainly, Stu. I can even offer it in four separate forms.


      OPTION ONE (literary): Read “Nyarlathotep.”

      OPTION TWO (semi-scholarly): Read the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on H. P. Lovecraft.

      OPTION THREE (cinematic): Watch the 1970 movie adaptation of The Dunwich Horror (which conveys at least something about HPL’s vision).

      OPTION FOUR: Combine the first three options. Use the first two clarify the third.

  7. I’m still having trouble understanding this. Which of the Great Old Ones is Option?

  8. Matt, you forgot to include Step 3: Buy a dictionary to look up all the weird words Lovecraft uses.

  9. I… never thought of myself as an especially studious person, but I thought analyzing literature was *fun*, linking art and history and intent together. I don’t think literature is sacred- I’ve seen garbage in literary magazines and masterpieces of human emotion on literotica. It’s not meant to be sacred, it just exists. The fun is in the playing with ideas around it and researching the world of the author.

    Maybe I’m nerdier than I thought, I don’t know.

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