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.
COMPLETE ESSAY: “A Pianist’s A-V“
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
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).