The Conservative Versus the Universe

scifiAs a counterpunch to left-wing science fiction writer China Miéville’s list of Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels for socialists, Samuel Goldman of the American Conservative penned “10 Sci Fi and Fantasy Works Every Conservative Should Read.” As Goldman explained, “I’m not suggesting that these books express conservative views as such. But they do raise questions for conservatives or develop ideas from which conservatives can learn.”

Goldman listed Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories as number seven. Following close behind was H.P. Lovecraft, particularly the “Cthulhu cycle” of stories. Lovecraft, as Goldman reminded us in his article, was Howard’s friend and mentor “who believed society had to be defended from the eternal danger of barbarism.”

The questions these writers raised have never been more urgent for conservatives. Both Howard and Lovecraft saw civilization and order as not only fragile but necessarily short-lived. In the fictional worlds these imaginative writers created, the values and beliefs that made life possible had to be defended against forces of chaos that inevitably had the upper hand. What counted was the protagonist’s resolve and dedication.

Lovecraft was a literary and financial failure in life, though in the 1960s and 70s, both conservative and counter-culture fans rediscovered him. Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and French novelist Michel Houellebecq have all credited Lovecraft as a decisive thematic and stylistic (if not philosophical) influence.

A bright and sensitive child whose parents died in the same insane asylum, Howard Lovecraft early on came to see the civilization around him as decadent and fated to give way to the forces of chaos. He agreed with Oswald Spengler that Western civilization was declining. On page 228 of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters he admitted:

It would be better if we could still be naive, beauty-loving, and ignorant — yet we cannot turn the clock back. Memphis and Nineveh, Babylon and Persepolis, Carthage and Ctesiphon, Athens and Lacedaemon, Rome and Alexandria, Antioch and Tyre — all these have had their day and their sunset; their grandeur and their fall. In the face of such a pageant of history it would be folly to expect anything else of the existing civilisation. This age in America corresponds quite startlingly to the luxurious and disillusioned age of Antonines in the Roman Empire — when Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Athens and New Carthage blazed in the sunset that was to mark the death of the ancient world.

Like Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard acquired his fatalistic view of the universe and civilization as a youngster. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian was a fierce but somewhat naive, and stubbornly principled outsider who had little patience with the soft and decadent city dwellers he often had to rescue. Conan’s attitude toward “civilization” and “progress” reflected Howard’s own views, formed by Howard’s childhood travels in the oil boomtowns his father served as a doctor in the half-wild Texas backcountry of the early 1900s. The saloons, oil wildcatters, and unscrupulous businessmen the young Howard encountered instilled in him the image of the city as a breeding ground of enervating luxury, corruption, and degeneracy.

Despite Lovecraft’s and Howard’s pessimism, both upheld personal codes of conduct they clearly believed as essential for their personal honor and sanity, as well as for the good of those they cared about. Conan was always quick to take up the cause of the weak and the unfortunate. A lady in distress would find not just a champion in the rough barbarian, but a hot-headed and passionate lover as well. To his comrades, Conan would remain fiercely loyal despite the perils. In Queen of the Black Coast, Conan lost his patience with a judge who demanded Conan testify against a comrade in arms:

“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wrath, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.

“But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign parts.”

And thus began yet another adventure.

Similarly, Lovecraft’s protagonists confronted madness and evil as a result of what often began as misguided friendship, idle curiosity, or even scholarly pursuit. Their struggles, however, were always doomed from the start. In one of Howard’s best tales, The Shadow over Innsmouth, the intrepid and resourceful protagonist managed to evade an entire town of half-amphibian, half-human monsters, only to discover at the end of the tale that he was one of them. Again, the forces of darkness and chaos proved inescapable.

Despite his fatalistic view of life, Lovecraft, like Howard, believed that a man must uphold certain standards, for his own sake and for others. On page 111 of his Letters, Howard made this explicit:

Surely it is well that the happiness of the unfortunate be made as great as possible; and he who is kind, helpful, and patient, with his fellow-sufferers, adds as truly to the world’s combined fund of tranquillity as he who, with greater endowments, promotes the birth of empires, or advances the knowledge and civilisation of mankind. Thus no man of philosophical cast, however circumscribed by poverty or retarded by ailment, need feel himself superfluous so long as he holds the power to improve the spirits of others.

As Samuel Goldman cautioned in his list for conservatives, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft may not have imparted conservative views in their highly readable and often disturbing fiction, but certainly raised issues every modern-day conservative must confront.

Comments are closed.