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The First Steampunk:
H. P. Lovecraft’s The Conservative

theconservative-frontcover2,877 words

H. P. Lovecraft
The Conservative: The Complete Issues 1915–1923
Foreword by Alex Kurtagić
London: Arktos, 2013

Prior to the internet, or even the telephone, how fast could a written message travel from one end of Manhattan to another? You might think a day or two, or even hours, but you’d be wrong. In the early part of the last century, a system of pneumatic tubes enabled a piece of paper, sealed in a capsule, to travel from Wall Street to Harlem in a matter of seconds.[1]

James Howard Kunstler, proponent of livable cities and enemy of our fossil-fueled “happy motoring” lifestyle, has observed that if the power grid went out (as he devotedly wishes), and our everyday technology was rolled back to before even the automobile, we’d be effectively in the 1900s, a period surviving records show was not experienced as a Dark Age whose inhabitants wandered around lifelessly, wishing they could fly to Bangkok in a couple hours.[2]

The point is — and so-called “conservatives” used to know this, before they became obsessed with “creative destruction” and “the rapture” — our ancestors knew a thing or two,[3] and lived quite well without all our “mod cons.”[4]

American popular culture has always been infused with a DIY ethic: “Yankee ingenuity,” Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and his “American Scholar” creating his own tradition, seeking an “original relation to the universe,” all the way to Robert Johnson’s Coke bottleneck guitar which Muddy Waters made loud nightclub-friendly with electricity. It lies behind America’s plethora of home-made religions, from uptight Mormonism and Fundamentalism to acid experimentation and cults of the space brothers;[5] the Old Weird America where the Amish farmer and the laid-back hippie become indistinguishable;[6] where people made their own damn culture and didn’t buy it from a global — or even a New York[7] — corporation.

The whole “steampunk” genre, and lifestyle, appears to address this loss, although it also seems to do so more as hipster nostalgia and “irony” rather than a genuine rebirth,[8] although the related interests in home brewing and beekeeping (both recently legalized in . . . New York City!) shows promise, especially for those prepping for the collapse.[9]

Anyhow, so back in the 1860s, folks became wild about printing and mailing around their own homemade newspapers or journals, and H. P. Lovecraft, who had entered a period of seclusion following his failure to matriculate and a nervous breakdown, jumped in as enthusiastically as any basement-dwelling World of Warcraft addict.[10]

In fact, you could say he pursued the gamer’s dream of becoming a game designer himself, moving from contributing to others’ periodicals to producing his own, The Conservative, whose issues are collected here.[11]

Lovecraft seems to have come out swinging, maintaining a quarterly schedule for two years, then backing off to a yearly issue, finally skipping several years and putting out two more issues, numbered as if the missing volumes had somehow appeared (virtually?). Although he didn’t write all of it, he wrote most of it; and it wasn’t just pseudo-Augustan poetry and essays about cats. Lovecraft had a mission: world dominance, at least of the amateur press universe:

Promoting his own vision of amatuerdom as a haven for literary excellence and a tool for humanistic education.[12]

In this capacity, he contrived to become the head of the Department of Public Criticism (lovely title!) for the whole ’zine — I mean, amateur journalism scene.

Otherwise, the Conservative promoted Lovecraft’s favorite crochets, being described by him as:

[. . . ] an enthusiastic champion of total abstinence and prohibition; of moderation, healthy militarianism as contrasted with dangerous an unpatriotic peace-preaching; [. . .] of constitutional or representative government, as opposed to the pernicious and contemptible false schemes of anarchy and socialism.

Indeed, the choice of name is significant, and it’s hard to tell at many points whether Lovecraft, addressing the reader in the name of The Conservative, is speaking as Editor of the journal of that name, as the archetypal “conservative,” or as himself.

Joshi is right to notify us that these are Lovecraft’s notoriously “conservative” opinions in their original form, before later modifications and nuance.[13]

We [sic] will find that some of Lovecraft’s early opinions are quite repugnant, and many of them are uttered in a cocksure, dogmatic manner greatly in contrast to his later views.[14] Nevertheless, it was evident to all amateurs that the editor of the Conservative was an intellectual force to be dealt with.[15]

But therein lies their charm. Consider this collection, to continue the pop culture metaphor, a kind of Lovecraft Unplugged.

Some quotes, which most of our reader may find bracing rather than “repugnant”:

It appears that the CONSERVATIVE’S review of Charles D. Isaacson’s recent paper was not accepted in the honestly critical spirit intended, and that Mr. Isaacson is preparing to wreak summary verbal vengeance upon the crude barbarian who cannot appreciate the loathsome Walt Whitman, cannot lose his self-respect as a white man, and cannot endorse a treasonable propaganda designed to deliver these United States as easy victims to the first hostile power who cares to conquer them.[16]

The strongest tie in the domain of mankind, and the only potential source of social unity, is that mystic essence compounded of race, language, and culture; a heritage descended from the remote past.

Why any sane human being can believe in the possibility of universal peace is more than the CONSERVATIVE can fathom. The essential pugnacity and treachery of mankind is only too evident; and that very nation, even though pledged, would actually abolish means of warfare is absolutely unthinkable.

On those damn’d immigrants:

Leaving their own countries in dissatisfaction, they assume the cloak of American citizenship; organise any finance conspiracies with American money; and finally, with an audacity almost ironical, call upon the United States for help when overtaken by justice! Half the detestable violence of the Irish “Fenians” and “Sinn Fein” ruffians was hatched in America by those who dare drivel about such a thing as “neutrality”!

Traditional hierarchy, but a nobility of achievement, not birth:

In Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy, every son of a noble is a noble. The titled class is very large, as a rule very worthless, and possess numerous privileges subversive to the rights of so-called inferior men.

Indeed, the honest yeoman is the true friend — and beneficiary — of a traditional society:

It has been more than once remarked, that there is an intangible bond of kinship betwixt the highest and the humblest elements of the community. Whilst the bourgeois complacently busy themselves with their commonplace, respectable, and unimaginative careers of money-grabbing, the artist and the aristocrat join forces with the ploughman and the peasant in an involuntary mental wave of reaction against the monotony of materialism.

Although many on the alt-Right may find issue with some of Lovecraft’s ideas, such as the value of teetotalism:

He who strives against the Hydra-monster Rum, strives most to conserve his fellow-men.

Or his sadly jingoistic enthusiasm for WWI, despite taking a broader view in evolutionary terms:

Englishmen and Germans are blood brothers, descended from the same stern Woden-worshipping ancestors, blessed with the same rugged virtues, and fired with the same noble ambitions.

Amateur journalism got Lovecraft back in contact with human kind, or at least the more acceptable specimens in this sadly non-18th century world, and for this we later readers can be thankful. Although he eventually shifted his attention to the pulp magazine world, the bulk of his time and writing would continue to be devoted to maintaining a sort of virtual existence via mail, this time with a far-flung network of correspondents, editors, and “revision” clients;[17] although Lovecraft traveled far more than many might think (Florida, Montreal), there were a number of lifelong friends that Lovecraft never met. [18]

Editor Kurtagić proudly notes that this is the first “professional” reprinting of The Conservative in 25 years (since the stapled pamphlet with only Lovecraft’s contributions, edited by Joshi) and the first complete edition in 35. Perhaps more importantly, we can add that the introduction is more than merely scholarly; unlike Joshi, Kurtagić is sympathetic to Lovecraft’s “conservative” agenda, striving to show how Lovecraft’s various opinions are, though not “systematic,” nevertheless consistent and well-founded; in this he succeeds, since, after all, they are.

For example, Lovecraft, though so thoroughly steeped in the Augustan poets that he could almost be said to write only pastiches himself, and opposed both to Whitman’s free verse and the contemporary Imagists like Pound or Eliot, also thoroughly approved of the Victorian-bashing favored by same.

It is time . . . definitely to challenge the sterile and exhausted Victorian ideal which blighted Anglo-Saxon culture for three quarters of a century and produced a milky “poetry” of shopworn sentimentalities and puffy platitudes . . .

But these two attitudes are no more “inconsistent” or paradoxical than the demand voiced by the proponents of “historically informed performance practice” such as Nikolas Harnoncourt, that we need to strip away a century or two of calcified notions of how to perform, say, Bach or Monteverdi, not so that we can achieve some mythical “authentic” sound but so that we can craft our own response to the music; again, “an original relation to the universe.”[19]

On one other matter, though, Kurtagić would draw Lovecraft’s ire. Speaking of The Conservative being “a haven for literary excellence,” Lovecraft begins the very first issue, right under the masthead, thusly:

The Conservative desires to apologize for any errors in proofreading which may be found in this issue. Circumstances . . . rendered haste a prime essential.

Constant Readers will recall that I’ve found a lot to criticize in the publications Kurtagić has put out under the Wermod or Palingenesis Project labels. Here, Arktos seems to have done a much better job of copyediting, for which they are to be lauded. Except . . .

In my experience, introductions, prefaces, forewords and the like are not infrequently presented without footnotes, [20] at least to material quoted from the main text to follow. I like my prefaces to give me some hint of what’s to come, a kind of “coming attractions,” and it’s nice to be able to turn to the quotations in context. So I was happy to see footnotes here, but then disappointed to find that they are wildly inaccurate, presumably due to changes in pagination during the editorial process. Now really, if you are going to provide footnotes at all, how hard is it to make sure a dozen or so in the prefatory matter are accurate? [21]

That said, this is really a must have for the Lovecraftian, as well as any Counter-Currents reader who would like to sample the pleasures of real olde skool alt-Right blogging.

Notes

[1] Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska was not far off in his reference to Al Gore’s invention as “the intertubes.” According to Wikipedia, “Eventually the network stretched up both sides of Manhattan Island all the way to Manhattanville on the West side and “Triborough” in East Harlem, forming a loop running a few feet below street level. Travel time from the General Post Office to Harlem was 20 minutes. A crosstown line connected the two parallel lines between the new General Post office on the West Side and Grand Central Terminal on the east, and took four minutes for mail to traverse. Using the Brooklyn Bridge, a spur line also ran from Church Street, in lower Manhattan, to the general post office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza), taking four minutes. Operators of the system were called “Rocketeers””

[2] As late as the ’60s and on TV no less, such a time could symbolize not the zombie apocalypse but the Good Olde Days, worth jumping off a train for; see “Next Stop Willoughby” — only the most iconic example of Twilight Zone’s somewhat disingenuous (where’s the ham-fisted “liberalism”?) nostalgia for the time when life was slower – or, equally disingenuous, com-symp Orson Welles’ lugubrious opening and closing eulogies of 19th century Midwest life in The Magnificent Ambersons. All this is related to the phenomenon I’ve called “liberal psychogeography;” see “The Gilmore Girls Occupy Wall St.” in The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012); the liberal attempts to eat his cake and have it too, by gentrifying small towns or neighborhoods (Martha’s Vineyard, the Hamptons, Ann Arbor, Greenwich Village) after the awful rednecks and other White ethnics who built them are purged.

[3] Pompous private scholar and anti-modern curmudgeon Harry Haller, the titular Steppenwolf of Hesse’s novel, strikes a rather Evola-esque note as he mocks his landlady’s son’s interest in radios among other modern contraptions, noting that communication through the air over long distances was a phenomenon well-known to the ancient Hindus. By the end of the book the humbled and drug-addled Haller will be forced by Mozart himself to listen to a broadcast of a Handel Concerto Grosso.

[4] Fr. Rolfe (“Baron Corvo”) observed that the magnificence of life in the Italian Renaissance lay not in a vulgar obsession with ever more “new” knowledge, but rather in the belief that everything was already discovered and known; a man could acquire a complete set of knowledge and then concentrate his energies in ever more elaborate and beautiful presentation thereof. See A History of the Borgias, Preface.

[5] See Donna Kossy’s Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief (Portland: Feral House, 1994); also see my reviews of The Magical Universe of William Burroughs (here) and Erik Davis’s Nomad Codes (here).

[6] Greil Marcus, The Old Weird America (Picador, 2011; published in 1997 as Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes).

[7] “New York City!” exclaim the cowboys on learning of the origins of their store-bought alsa.

[8] The season of Portlandia announced that “The Dream of the 1890s Is Alive in Portland.” The origins of the genre arguably lie on TV as well: The Wild Wild West (CBS, 1965-69), specifically the iconic character of Dr. Miguelito Loveless (played, I’m glad to point out, by my fellow Detroiter Michael Dunn), introduced in an episode with the rather Lovecraftian title “The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth.” The character, played by Kenneth Branagh, was still the only point of interest in the insultingly stupid 1999 movie, which attempted to cash-in on the fad, while simultaneously bowing to the contrary mania for making older works “relevant” by replacing White characters with negroes; a typically Judaic attempt to play all the angles by director Barry Sonnenfeld.

[9] See Claus Brinker’s review of Survive the Economic Collapse, here.

[10] The current job market for Brown University grads offers little hope of anything but the same poverty Lovecraft endured, although apparently what he really missed was access to Brown’s telescope.

[11] The move from consumer to producer prompts Kurtagić’s comparison to the ’zine and cassette scenes of the ’90s.

[12] I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft by S. T. Joshi (New York: Hippocampus, 2010); Chapter 6: “A Renewed Will to Live.”

[13] This was not, however, the liberal’s usual disingenuous “evolution” of opinion. For example, his Social Darwinist defense of capitalism would eventually, under the pressure of personal penury and the Great Depression generally, mutate into a qualified, then enthusiastic, support of the New Deal; but with typical Lovecraftian perversity, this was not in spite of, but because, it seemed like the closest thing to Fascism. Ralph Adams Cram came to the same conclusion; see my “Ralph Adams Cram: Wild Boy of American Architecture” in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[14] Not unlike the Simpsons’ “Comic Book Guy.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Isaacson, a fellow amateur journalist, was a “good” Jew of the Germanic, assimilating sort, but Lovecraft, although willing to praise his talents, always had a sharp eye — and pen — for the traces of the “Jewish mentality” that prevented him from appreciating Aryan literature and society.

[17] The astounding bulk of his letters dwarfs his fiction, and Joshi may be correct in suggesting that eventually, like weird pioneer Horace Walpole, his literary reputation may rest on these rather than the famous Cthulhu mythos. See I Am Providence, op. cit., Chapter 26: “Thou Art Not Gone.”

[18] Lovecraft’s remarks on friendship are often as odd as his comments about love and marriage. Robert E. Howard (Conan) died a few months before Lovecraft himself; hearing the news, Lovecraft remarked about how odd it would be to know that there was no longer anyone to collect mail at Howard’s PO Box. (Which is not to say that HPL did not otherwise express a normal sort of grief over the loss of his close friend (“Mitra, what a man!”); see Joshi, op. cit., Chapter 23: “The End of One’s Life.”

[19] Of course, Emerson was a big, early fan of Whitman, who, in turn, was another proponent of self-publication in both senses. Harnoncourt’s remarks occur in the liner notes to a one-disc sampler of the Teldec 153 disc box set, Bach 2000 (1999). It’s of note that the Traditionalist author and violist Marco Pallis was an associate of Arnold Dolmetsch, the distinguished reviver of early English music and one of the pioneers of the so-called “authenticity” movement, whom in turn directed Pallis to the writings of René Guénon; see “Biography of Marco Palllis,” here.

[20] Like book reviews, hah!

[21] Answer: not hard at all. In fact, I am informed that the corrections are already being made, so future readers need have no concern on this point.

 

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 2, 2015 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this very good review. I just need to point out two errors. First, the period covered is 1915-1923, not 1915-1925 (HPL published no further issues after 1923). Second, while Alex Kurtagić wrote a superb Foreword to the book, he was not the book’s editor. Really, the only editor was Lovecraft, as we simply reproduced the texts of the issues exactly as they were, although the interior of the book was prepared and checked by my colleague, Tobias Ridderstråle.

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