Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sante reviews HPL and Houellebecq

In this week's New York Review of Books, a none-too-generous review of HP Lovecraft's 'Tales' and an English translation of Michel Houellebecq's essay on the recluse of Providence, 'Contre le monde, contre la vie' ('H.P. Lovecraft. Against the world, against life' ). The author of the review is Luc Sante, the title "The Heroic Nerd".

The only truly positive thing Sante has to say about Lovecraft is that he had a flair for names (the names of Cthulhoid daemons, the nomenclature of New England places and people). Houellebecq's essay, perhaps the most interesting thing the French provocateur wrote and one of the most interesting analyses of the father of the cthulhu mythos, is for Sante no more than an 'idealized self-portrait' of Houellebecq.

Sante's article is superficial, and does justice to neither Lovecraft nor Houellebecq.

Houellebecq's analysis of Lovecraft's oeuvre:
  • Lovecraft created a modern-day popular myth, like no other author has. His work is a 'dream generator'. Reading Lovecraft is, for Houellebecq, a ritual. Thus, the use of Lovecrafts tales is very different from the use of traditional literature and it's greatness as a cultural phenomenon cannot be gauged by the criteria that are usually applied to literature. Lovecraft is not a novelist in the traditional sense of the word (with regard to Lovecraft as a mythographer it might be said that the Providence recluse succeeded where the surrealists failed - a good subject for another post).
  • Lovecraft's conception of cosmic horror (or, perhaps more accurately, cosmic nihilism) and misanthropy have given his work a shape unique in world literature. His work agitates against the world and against life. Lovecrafts literature is in this regard uncompromising. His monsters are inhuman, and his worldview inhumane.
  • Lovecraft's descriptions of dream architecture are so powerful and unique, it has become possible to use speak of 'Lovecraftian' as an adjective to describe architecture. It is an architecture of the sacred, as it is based on a living and emotional conception of the world (to which I myself would like to add that Lovecraftian dream architecture is geared towards a Rimbaudian systematic derangement of the senses, and very far removed from Bataille's conception of architecture as delineated in the original Documents, i.e. the expressions of the authority to command and prohibit, geared towards social prudence. Lovecrafts architecture is architecture against architecture).
  • More than a writer with a flair for names, Lovecrafts is one of that rare group of novelists who take poetry as their point of departure. His proclamations of the universal presence of evil are beautiful prose poems.
A review of both Lovecrafts tales and Houellebecqs essay which does not at all adress these points and which limits itself to grudgingly acknowledging that Lovecraft has a flair for names, does not deserve to be taken seriously.

To say, as Luc Sante does, that the portrait of Lovecraft in 'HP Lovecraft. Against the world, against life' is an idealized self-portrait of Houellebecq is sheer nonsense:
  • As Houellebecq points out, sex and money play not even the slightest role in Lovecrafts work. Anyone who has read only a single work of fiction by Houellebecq knows that the opposite is true in the Frenchman's novels: these are obscene, and money and social status play a significant role.
  • Other than in Lovecrafts work, the sacred plays no role in Houellebecqs oeuvre.
  • Houellebecqs self-image as put forward in the media is as far from being a puritanic, WASP-aristocratic scholarly recluse as one can get.
  • Lovecraft's life is described by Houellebecq as a role model for those who want to fail at living - hardly an idealizing description.
Thus, the Sante essay is not really worth reading. I'm thinking of buying Joyce Carol Oates essay on Lovecraft, also published in the pages of the New York Review of Books, from that publications website in the hope that Oates essay offers more insight than Sante's.

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