lovecraft and american history behind the veil

H.P. Lovecraft was an influential science fiction/fantasy and horror author in the early 20th century United States. His popularity has been on the rise for some time now, with his work and ideas featured in everything from board games to TV shows. My morning walk to the office in Providence passes though H.P. Lovecraft square, and monuments to him litter the East Side of Providence where he lived.

Lovecraft was also a massive and unapologetic racist. And his racism was not somehow an incidental and unrelated aspect of his persona, it was central to the themes of his work: xenophobia, fear of the unknowable other, threats to civilized men lurking at the edges of the Earth, and so on. Recognition of Lovecraft’s racism has led to two interesting and parallel kinds of reevaluations: on one hand, trying to remove him from a pedestal like a Confederate monuments (e.g. in 2015 the World Fantasy Award was changed to no longer resemble Lovecraft) and, on the other, producing a set of modern “Lovecraftian” works that explicitly reject his racism and xenophobia and re-read his works in that light. Two notable projects are Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, a book and then TV show that offers a kind “Get Out” rereading of Lovecraft where the real horror is racist white people, and Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series, so far containing a pair of novels that reimagines a classic Lovecraft story by connecting it to the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII and retelling that story from the perspective of the marginalized racial others whom Lovecraft so feared.

What I want to do in the rest of this post is, in that spirit, offer a re-reading of a fairly popular Lovecraft quote (from the opening “The Call of Cthulhu”) through the lens of Du Bois’s understanding of the veil to make sense of a recurrent dynamic in discussions of American history. First, here’s the quote:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

I’ve seen the quote referenced a few times in other contexts (such as this Atlantic article on Big Data), but I think there’s a Du Boisian reading of it that makes it a productive, if unintentional, insight into the power of racial ignorance and the persistent inability of white Americans to grapple with the facts of American history.

Let’s start with the veil. Itzigsohn and Brown offer a useful summary of the Du Bois’s concept of the veil as part of his larger construction of the concept of double consciousness:

Whites project their own constructions of Blacks onto the veil, and in this way the veil works as a one-way mirror: those on the dominating side of the veil see their projections of the racialized reflected on it. On the other hand, the projections of Whites onto the veil become realities that Black subjects have to process in their self-formation.

The idea here is that white people can’t actually see Black people for who they are, they see only their own misperceptions. Black people, in turn, are forced to learn these misperceptions and navigate around them even as they also recognize their falsity. This process produces a sense “twoness” as well as a “second sight”, the other concepts that together make up double consciousness.

So, in my reading, Lovecraft’s quote can be read as a kind of unintentional telling on himself. Lovecraft argues that the “human mind” (read here: the civilized white dude mind) would be driven mad if forced to grapple with the full complexities of reality. Through a Du Boisian lens, we could argue that what Lovecraft implies – without entirely knowing that he’s implying it – is that white people would be fundamentally driven crazy (or perhaps forced to abandon their investment in whiteness) if they attempted to grapple with the full horror of American history.

Think here about the recent furor over the New York Times’ 1619 Project, including the Trump administration’s 1776 Project rebuttal and more generally the conservative assault against Critical Race Theory. American history is complex and complicated. There’s a lot one could cover, and lots of room for debate and interpretation (e.g. exactly how profitable was slavery, when, and to whom?). But there’s also a lot of clear consensus. America was founded on genocide and slavery. Reconstruction was short lived and insufficient, and racist movements successfully reasserted a racist hierarchy after its end through new mechanisms. The legacy of those racist acts and structures, and new ones invented since, live in on in manifest racial inequalities in health, wealth, income, employment, etc. Yet simply laying out this consensus to the typical white American college student makes you sound like a conspiracy theorist or a madman from one of Lovecraft’s tales. As Paul Musgrave put it recently on Twitter (in the context of a discussion of the FBI’s long history of infiltrating and undermining left social movements, including the Civil Rights movement):

And commenting on the same thread, Louise Seamster wrote:

So, my argument in a nutshell is that Lovecraft’s quote unintentionally foregrounds how whiteness (“a placid island”) is rooted in ignorance, an ignorance that cannot survive putting together the actual sequence of events in American history into any reasonable narrative (“correlating the contents” of that history). Put another way: contemporary whiteness cannot coexist with an accurate understanding of American history. What Lovecraft’s story shows is, in a sense, how white minds grapple with moments where they seem forced to do just that. In this sense, it’s a kind of unintentional literary parallel to Jennifer Mueller’s work on how white students manage to read racism out of the history of the racial wealth gap through “a process of knowing designed to produce not knowing surrounding white privilege and structural white supremacy.”

I’ve experienced versions of this dynamic when discussing the history of racism in the US with friends and family. For example, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was in the news after it was featured in the beginning of HBO’s Watchmen series. This history was (until now) rarely, if ever taught, and the event – a horrific assault on a pocket of Black wealth known as “Black Wall Street” that included bombs dropped from airplanes – was largely unknown. And yet, when I discuss this event with many other white people, they can only interpret it as a unique, exceptional, and thus uncorrelated horror rather than an exemplar of a larger pattern of white violence. To do otherwise would require voyaging into the “black seas of infinity” and thus to see beyond the veil. It would require descending into madness or abandoning an investment in whiteness – which amounts to much the same thing to Lovecraft.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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