The Erasure of Style (Adam Thirlwell)

Avoiding Style (Graham Harman on Lovecraft)

Graham Harman's attempt to elevate H.P. Lovecraft to the pantheon of supreme literary artists in his book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Zero Books, 2012), begins with a defense of Lovecraft's work against what is probably the most famous dismissal of it, made by the critic Edmund Wilson in the 1930s. "The principal feature of Lovecraft's work," wrote Wilson, "is an elaborate concocted myth" about "a race of outlandish gods and grotesque prehistoric peoples who are always playing tricks with time and space and breaking through into the contemporary world, usually somewhere in Massachusetts." One of Lovecraft's stories, "At the Mountains of Madness," focuses on "semi-invisible polypous monsters that uttered a shrill whistling sound and blasted their enemies with terrific winds."

According to Harman, in his critique Wilson has unfairly "reduced to literal absurdity" Lovecraft's plots through an especially brutal "paraphrase," a term that Harman uses to describe any attempt to translate any "statement, artwork, or anything else" into terms other than its own. For Harman, Lovecraft is a writer whose work is especially noteworthy for its "deliberate and skillful obstruction of all attempts to paraphrase," and the burden of most of Weird Realism is to show how and why this is so. But is Wilson's paraphrase--if that's what it is--really unfair, a diminution of Lovecraft's actual achievement?

It certainly seems accurate to say that Lovecraft's work centers on the "elaborate concocted myth" of Cthulhu  and other related beings (the "Old Ones"), creatures who predate the appearance of human beings on Earth, who make occasional appearances in the present (providing the horror), and who originate from somewhere else in the cosmos. Perhaps the word "concocted" has pejorative connotations, but would the sense of the phrase markedly differ if Wilson had chosen a near-synonym such as, say, "fabricated"? Is it not simply true to say that in his stories H.P. Lovecraft fabricated an "elaborate myth," meaning one of Lovecraft's own creation? Isn't it also true to say that the creatures featured in this mythos are pretty "outlandish" (so outlandish that Lovecraft's narrators have a hard time describing them) and at times "grotesque"? In the first chapter of his book Harman refers to them as "monstrous creatures," and it's hard to see why this would be considered some kind of neutral description rather than itself a "paraphrase" that could be seen as just as condescending as Wilson's if we choose to forget that it is the very nature of horror that its creations be both outlandish and monstrous.

Similarly, it seems to me literally true and in no way a paraphrase of a Lovecraft tale to note that it is likely to be "playing tricks with time and space," that the "monstrous creatures" are likely to be featured "breaking through into the contemporary world," and that this is likely to take place in Massachusetts.(Arkham, to be more precise--although Wilson is correct that it might range outside of Arkham into the countryside as well). If anything, Wilson's characterization of "At the Mountains of Madness" seems even more accurate as a literal report on the creatures in that story. In short, I can find no compelling reason to regard Wilson's account of Lovecraft's work as reducing that work to "absurdity." I would not suggest that Wilson himself was attempting a neutral description, nor that he did not mean to communicate a negative judgment of Lovecraft's fiction. Clearly that fiction was at best not the sort of thing Wilson wanted to read; at worst it was too "outlandish" for him to take seriously absent some other compensatory quality he could not find.

Harman believes that any attempt to describe a literary work is going to be insufficient in capturing the spirit of the work (and sometimes such attempts can be just flat-out incorrect), and of course he is right. However, if Edmund Wilson can be faulted in his brief discussion of H.P. Lovecraft it is not because he has reduced the stories to absurdity (Wilson was perfectly aware that the novels of a writer like Dickens were full of the "outlandish," but he still thought Dickens a great writer) but because he has limited their possible appeal to their plots. His criticism is incomplete. It seems likely that had Wilson attempted a lengthier, more developed critique of Lovecraft's fiction he would have found little to recommend it in its atmospheric effects, its style, or its philosophical implications, but he would have more fully justified his position and more adequately stated his "paraphrase." Doubtless Graham Harman would have found it equally unpersuasive. But at this point dismissing Wilson because he is paraphrasing seems close to dismissing him because he doesn't like H.P. Lovecraft, and further dismissing any negative criticism because it can't escape the confines of Harman's conception of "paraphrase" (although presumably a positive evaluation can't, either.)

I myself think somewhat more highly of Lovecraft than did Edmund Wilson. But I don't think it's much of a defense to decry otherwise accurate, if only partial, summaries because they don't make the writer seem very serious. There are indeed elements of Lovecraft's fiction that can't be taken very seriously, and Wilson wasn't wrong to point this out. Only if you think Lovecraft's stories can't survive a focus on the goofier qualities of their plots would it even seem necessary to respond to Edmund Wilson. Graham Harman doesn't think that (although he probably wouldn't accept such a characterization of them), since most of his book is dedicated to showing that Lovecraft is also a stylist and a philosopher, but it does allow him to introduce the problem of paraphrase, which he will continue to pursue throughout the book as the primary form of criticism directed at Lovecraft's work, apparently presuming critics who finally can't consider a "pulp" writer like Lovecraft worth the effort to make more focused and nuanced criticism.

Most of the book is devoted to a systematic analysis of 100 passages from Lovecraft's fiction, each more or less concluding that the passage in question illustrates a typically Lovecraftian move, producing an effect that could not be created using some other move, cumulatively showing Lovecraft to be not just a good writer, but "one of the greatest of the twentieth century." Harman presents this as a form of close reading that avoids the flaws in the conception of close reading offered by New Criticism, which from Harman's perspective is guilty of a "holism" that puts too much emphasis on the "interrelations" among individual words, images and ideas within the work so that meaning becomes too dependent on internal (as opposed to external) context. This critique of New Criticism (specifically using Cleanth Brooks as example) is predicated on the philosophical assumptions of Object-Oriented Onotolgy/Speculative Realism, the currently prominent movement in philosophy of which Harman has been one of the most prolific proponents. I do not wish to focus on the validity of these assumptions per se, but only on the way Harman applies them to both literature as represented by H.P. Lovecraft and to literary criticism as represented by Cleanth Brooks--or at least by the account of Brooks Graham Harman provides.

My problem with Harman's characterization of New Criticism as exemplified by Cleanth Brooks begins with his initial description of what would seem to be a kind of first principle for New Critics: "A poem was to be treated as an autonomous entity, working like a machine to create certain effects." Although certainly "autonomy" is an important term in the New Critics' approach to "understanding poetry," there is little reason to believe that any New Critic, Cleanth Brooks especially, would consent to the idea that they regard a poem as an "entity" in the sense Harman has in mind. Since this sort of entity is more like a "machine," such a notion seems even more inappropriate as a characterization of the New Critics' contention that a poem should be read not as the means to a "statement" that could just as easily be paraphrased but as a self-enclosed work of art that indeed needs to be considered as a whole. Brooks does invoke the "organic" quality of a poem, but if this plausibly suggests a metaphorical "entity," it hardly seems consistent with the poem as "machine."

In my opinion, Brooks did not mean his account of poems as "organic," or his analogy between Keats's poem and the urn it apostrophizes, to literally objectify the poem as Harman does. In fact, Brooks in The Well-Wrought Urn is as likely to speak of the poem as an activity or a performance as to represent it as an object. Indeed, his analysis of "Ode On a Grecian Urn" specifically uses the terminology of drama to account for the poem's effects, his discussion of the poem's famous closing lines concluding that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare's 'Ripeness is all.' It is a speech 'in character' and supported by a dramatic context." Brooks does not claim merely that poems "create certain effects." The effects are of the sort that require a very active reader, one who does not wait for the poem to announce its "meaning" but in a sense "follows" the poem in the same way an audience member needs to follow a play.

In considering the label of "formalism" often employed to discredit Brooks and the New Critics, Harman defends Brooks but maintains that, nevertheless, Brooks "fails to acknowledge the size of the problem that results from downplaying the content of literature so severely in favor of structural irony and paradox." Here it seems to me that again Harman is not characterizing accurately the position Brooks takes on the vexed question of the relationship between "form" and "content." Brooks does not "downplay" content in favor of form because he believes that in a poem--at least in a good poem--the two cannot be separated. Brooks writes, "The structure [form] obviously is everywhere conditioned by the nature of the material [content] which goes into the poem. The nature of the material sets the problem to be solved, and the solution is the ordering of the material." In Brooks's conception of a poem, it is meaningless to abstract the content from the form because the former has been transformed by the latter in a seamless merger to become the poem itself. If we want to talk of the "content," we can find it only in the "ordering" that form has made of it, that makes the poem what it is.

This ordering is what Brooks means by "context," but more importantly it is the reader's perception of context that is the most crucial element in our appreciation of poetry, not the irony or paradox the poem itself insists on or that the poet has "intended." "Meaning" is what the reader helps to create, not what the poem communicates directly. Thus when Harman asserts that Brooks cannot be right when he claims that the meaning we take away from the final line of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" comes from "its relation to the total context of the poem" because he gives inadequate respect to "individual elements within the poem," he is effectively emptying New Criticism of its own specific content, since at its core is the principle that  "the total context of the poem" is the poem. To instead attend closely to "individual elements within the poem" in their own "autonomy" is to treat the poem as something other than a poem.

While Cleanth Brooks certainly wants to correct what he thinks are misconceptions about what makes a poem a poem, ultimately The Well-Wrought Urn is more about what a poem requires of the reader than what it requires of the poet, less about getting the meaning right by attending to "total context" than about allowing a poem to afford the reader the most expansive reading experience possible, although no one such experience will be expansive enough to exhaust the poem's potential effects or implications. "Irony and paradox" are only elements that contribute to this expansiveness, not those that somehow prescribe what features poetry must exhibit to be poetry. Thus when Harman asserts that Brooks overlooks the fact that "philosophy and science display as much irony and paradox as literature," he is arguably correct, but only in the sense that the subjects of philosophy and science can be paradoxical, not because they aspire to incorporate irony and paradox as discursive modes that help to deflect "meaning" and thus discourage coming to conclusions.

Harman's critique of the unjustified holism of New Criticism is finally his own justification for the approach to Lovecraft's work he takes in his extended analyses of passages (sometimes single sentences) from Lovecraft's best-known stories. Here he both grants the autonomy to the "individual elements" within a literary work he believes Cleanth Brooks denied and uses these passages to discuss Lovecraft's fiction more broadly. This exercise seems designed most urgently to defend Lovecraft against the charge that as a prose stylist he leaves something to be desired, a task Harman performs through a tactic he calls "ruination," which is the effort to determine whether in "discovering how a given passage might be made worse," we might also "find an indirect method of appreciating its virtues." Not so surprisingly, we discover that very few of Lovecraft's sentences can be ruined in this way, as most attempts to do so fall woefully short of approximating in a suitably reductive form anything like the stylistically impeccable, philosophically charged effects Lovecraft's prose achieves. Although Harman does also cogently explicate some of the recurring features of Lovecraft's body of work along the way, it is difficult to take the relentless demonstrations of the difficulty of ruining Lovecraft's signature strategies as anything less than a prolonged rebuke of Edmund Wilson for his condescending "paraphrase" of Lovecraft, condescension that has continued to shadow Lovecraft's work ever since.

Certainly Harman's defense is vigorous: "Far from being a bad stylist, Lovecraft often makes innovations that feel like technical breakthroughs of the sort Vasari finds in various Italian artists." He does not hesitate to use words like "brilliant" and "masterful," to the point that ultimately even sympathetic readers might wonder whether Harman is protesting just a little too much. It is entirely possible to find Lovecraft's stories (some of them) to be imaginatively conceived and full of effectively creepy creatures and also to find them full of wooden prose and stilted dialogue. It might even be the case that these stories do indeed have interesting philosophical implications, even that they illustrate the particular insights of Speculative Realism/OOO, but why in order to concede these possibilities we must accept that H.P. Lovecraft is also a supreme craftsman and stylist is not at all apparent. The impression left by Harman's readings of Lovecraft is partly of a philosophically-informed literary critic making perceptive comments about the writer and work at hand, and partly of an ardent fan of H.P. Lovecraft so convinced of his genius that no kind of praise could possibly seem excessive: "The idea that Lovecraft is outclassed as a stylist by the likes of Proust or Joyce. . .is not an idea to which I can assent. The opposite claims seems closer to the truth."

To his credit, Harman does pick out passages that are certainly vulnerable to criticism by readers who share Wilson's judgment. Thus he quotes this sentence from "The Call of Cthulhu":

He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic fashion; making me see with terrible vividness the damp Cyclopean city of slimy green stone --whose geometry, he oddly said, was all wrong. . .

The emptiness of phrasing--"strangely poetic," "terrible vividness, "oddly said"--is particularly concentrated here, but this sort of writing is quite common in Lovecraft's stories. Harman plausibly appeals to the importance of considering that the source of such writing is in a first-person narrative by noting that in this case the phrase "strangely poetic" registers the narrator's "hesitation at endorsing" this account, but the persistence with which Lovecraft's narrators resort to formulations like this could also as easily be taken as a sign Lovecraft thinks they are appropriately evocative. Even if we grant the narrator's right to his flat phrasing, however, "terrible vividness" seems especially bland, and while Harman asserts this "empty signifier" actually "functions more effectively than any concrete list of terribly vivid things could ever do," he thus neglects to consider that to achieve the verbally "concrete" does not necessarily entail a "list." Likewise Harman claims that "oddly said" signifies that "the net result remains problematic for the narrator" without noticing that it does so in a particularly colorless way.

Harman's most substantive claim on behalf of Lovecraft as a stylist is that Lovecraft's fiction achieves what Harman calls "literary cubism." He cites this passage among others:

    If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing—but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

Rather than presenting a concrete, unified image of this creature, according to Harman Lovecraft instead "splits the usual relation between an accessible sensual thing and its accessible sensual qualities," presenting "such a multitude of surfaces that it can no longer be identified with any mere summation of them," in the manner of Picasso or Braque. Perhaps it is true that Lovecraft's favored way of conveying the sheer otherness of his benighted world is to splice together such separate images, simultaneously affirming and asserting their essential incompatibility, but this begs the question of whether any particular such stacking of images actually works very well. In this instance, I must say I cannot myself find the blurring of octopus, dragon and "human caricature" (whatever that might be) to be particularly effective. Not only does there seem to be no discernible reason why these things (rather than three other things) should be yoked together, but the breathless way in which they are invoked strikes me as rather silly. The narrator obviously regards this composite thing as terrifying; I just can't. (It doesn't help that the creature is not merely "shocking" or "frightful" but "shockingly frightful," a yoking together of equally vague words such that their "summation" merely blends them in a haze of cliché.)

Although the premises of Lovecraft's stories are frequently intriguing (within the confines Lovecraft's more general vision of the lurking, ancient horrors lying behind our ordinary reality allows), and the best of the stories create a legitimately ominous atmosphere and are well-paced enough to make their revelations effective, they are also consistently marred by this kind of writing. Too often we come upon descriptions such as this:

    The Great Race's members were immense rugose cones ten foot high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes. They spoke by the clicking or scraping of huge paws or claws attached to the end of two of their four limbs, and walked by the expansion and contraction of a viscous layer attached to their vast ten-foot bases.

I have no idea what a "rugose" cone would look like, and unfortunately the rest of the description doesn't make it any more vivid. "Other organs" seems just lazy, nor do "distensible limbs" emerging from the "apexes" (of the creatures?) make me see the creature any better. This is not the result of Lovecraft trying to merely "suggest" otherwise incomprehensible entities, but of bad writing. And again I am simply not able to take seriously the image of this "great race" clicking and scraping its paws in order to communicate. By the time we see them in locomotion through "the expansion and contraction of a viscous layer attached to their vast ten-foot bases," I can no longer suppress my laughter. (And why is ten feet so "vast"?) A writer who not infrequently produces prose that is unintentionally funny cannot, in my view, be a supreme prose stylist surpassing Proust and Joyce.

It seems to me that in putatively attending to Lovecraft's "style," Harman is not actually concerned with Lovecraft's style at all. While not all of Lovecraft's descriptions are as clunky as this one (his descriptions of actually existing terrestrial nature can sometimes be quite nice), they occur often enough that according to any definition of "style" consistent with its proper application to works of fiction—as a measure of the writer's care and facility with language considered as an artistic medium—Lovecraft's style is perfunctory at best, at worst indifferent to "art." What Harman is really responding to in Lovecraft's work is its fanciful ideas: the notion that the geometry is "all wrong," that an entity might be three-things-in-one. That Lovecraft's fiction is full of these ideas is undeniable, and if they lead Graham Harman to think these ideas are remarkably congruent with his own, that the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft provides an apposite literary illustration of the philosophical tenets of Object-Oriented Ontology, I offer no objection. However, in most cases, when Harman claims to be examining Lovecraft's style, he is at best instead highlighting the articulation of these ideas—"simultaneous pictures of a an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature." There is very little in this sort of articulation that could meaningfully be identified as "style" in the first place.

A city "whose geometry was all wrong" is a productively vague notion, and of course Harman argues that its vagueness is precisely the point. Lovecraft is depicting an alternate reality so utterly unlike our own that our usual terms and concepts can't possibly make sense of it except to declare that from the human perspective it is "all wrong." And indeed in the climactic episode of "The Call of Cthulhu," in which we finally get a view of the "Cyclopean city," it is presented as geometrically weird, "all wrong" according to ordinary human experience. Yet even here, the description remains vague and colorless, as when the city appears "loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours," full of "crazily elusive angles." Lovecraft does at least provide some more concrete illustration of these crazy angles and other loathsome features: "In this phantasy of prismatic distortion [the door] moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so the all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset." In fairness, there are other moments in this account when Lovecraft offers some real writing: "The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality, for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to be revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings."

However, this passage still reveals Lovecraft's fundamental limitations as a prose stylist. The recourse to abstract, pompous vocabulary ("tenebrousness," "gibbous," "membraneous") and the melodramatic effect created through reflexive italicizing and emphatic phrasing ("aeon-long imprisonment"), added to the work Lovecraft wants those adverbially modified adjectives ("loathsomely redolent") to do, substituting for more generous description, gives me, at least, the impression of a writer trying to avoid style more than cultivate it. You can say that this prosaic, deliberately stiff and doggedly bland kind of writing is Lovecraft's chosen style—but that doesn't mean it's very good.


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