July 16, 2017

Lovecraft and Literature: A Depersonalized Process of Tranquility Creation

Consider H.P. Lovecraft's advice to a fellow amateur journalist, Rheinhart Kleiner, related in a letter dated March 7th, 1920:

My advice to you would be to re-enter active amateurdom and follow my example of accumulating a Johnsonian circle of literary dependents--worthy folk who suffer more than you, and whose pain cou'd be assuaged by the exercise of the critical gifts which you possess in so great an abundance.

Lovecraft then goes on to reveal the secret of true contentment, which consists of the adoption of two philosophical perspectives (numbering below is mine):

1. I am convinced the secret of true contentment [...] lies in the achievement of the cosmical point of view; whereby the most cruel distinctions between great and small things are shewn to be merely apparent and unreal. 

2. The next philosophical step is to acquire the impersonal attitude--to divest oneself of egocentric consciousness, and assume the role of a spectator at the comedy of man.

From my perspective, Lovecraft is reflecting, and in a sober way, on the value of literature and literary culture (read fandom, if you'd like). Why write, read, think, and discuss with others?

Lovecraft's primary value is very similar to Epicurus' idea of "ataraxia," which is basically the tranquil state of being free from worry and anxiety. For Lovecraft, a way of cultivating "ataraxia" is to read, to become a writer, and these things done, to inspire others to read and to become writers. This is a subtle utilitarian view of literature. Lovecraft sees literature as functional in the most practical sense; his time spent as an amateur journalist made him see participating in literary culture as transactional and collaborative, a group activity where everyone is less concerned with their own legend and more concerned with the activity as a mode of salvation.

What is that activity? One might say simply "writing," "learning," "imagining," "entertaining," or "fandom," but Lovecraft doesn't get that specific. Earlier in the letter he put the goal of literary activity quite simply: To enjoy tranquility and to promote tranquility in others.

I find this refreshing. Lovecraft views writing, reading, thinking, and discussing as a depersonalized process of tranquility creation.