Is Art nationalistic?

Continuing this blog’s discussion of Art and artists…

I remember reading in a book of H.P. Lovecraft’s letters–one of the S.T. Joshi ones that I sadly no longer have, and wish I did–a letter where he stated something like “all Art is nationalistic”. He went on to describe how he thought all true Art must be influenced by a person’s feeling for home, by the soil and history of the place. (I apologize for being forced to paraphrase here–he put it much better, I’m sure.)

However, I think he was wrong. His own works go to prove him so. I suspect that when most people hear the name “Lovecraft”, they immediately think of Cthulhu. “Lovecraftian horror” is a genre of weird monsters from other dimensions, of unknown and incomprehensible beings.

Certainly, Lovecraft’s New England heritage appears in his stories, and no doubt his familiarity with the place was why he set most of his tales there. But the reason that anyone reads Lovecraft today isn’t because of his descriptions of New England towns and countryside, but because of his well-realized depictions of monsters and bizarre phenomena.

I’m fairly confident that Lovecraft never saw Cthulhu, except in his mind’s eye. I doubt very much if he went out for a walk in Providence and something about the place just made him think of the Great Race of Yith. And even if it did, many people lived in Providence, and yet only one of them ever came up with Lovecraftian horror. Now to me, that says it was the man, not the place, that made the stories what they are.

Truly, Lovecraft’s horror is very non-nationalistic because his monsters were creatures designed to be utterly alien to all human experience.  No matter where in the world you live, if Yog-Sothoth rolls into town, it’s going to be scary. That makes it a widely-accessible story.

The nature of Art and of Literature is that it addresses something fundamental about the Universe. It’s similar to the idea of the “monomyth” of Joseph Campbell. There is not only the one myth, I don’t think, but there are similar stories and concepts that resonate across time and space. Art is something that people still recognize, even when the circumstances that created it are gone.

There are always barriers to the understanding of Art–language, for an obvious one–but I believe Art represents the straining against such barriers, rather than the embrace of them.

1 Comment

  1. In my opinion, everything Lovecraft wrote or did was ambiguous to the extreme. An anti-Semite married to a Jew, an ardent supporter of science and rationality obsessed by absurd, ridiculous nightmares, a man that recklessly dreamt of vast expanses of outer space and was utterly maudlin about his hometown’s architectural peculiarities, a futurist loaded by an outdated, archaic language, etc.And I think it was necessary. In order to create something powerful, we need both extremes. Barriers have to exist to be overcome. The outlandish needs a firm foundation, or it will quickly evaporate. Maybe we can talk about the monomyth, but what makes its particular representation strong and impressive is not the structure, but the details, the details of Providence in the case of Lovecraft. Whatever they say about primitivism, but Yog-Sothoth cannot roll into Addis Ababa or Harare. For a Zimbabwean sculptor Yog-Sothoth means nothing. Its place is in Boston, New York and Paris.Well, but frankly, I have serious doubts about all that)) Maybe it’s just a matter of so-called psychological types. If I were left facing pure platonic archetypes, I’d be bored to death, whereas Plato apparently enjoyed talking of them.

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