"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, July 15, 2019

Torn halves of weird decadence: My reading notes on Chapter 5 of Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939 by James Machin (Palgrave 2018).

Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939
by James Machin (Palgrave 2018).

CHAPTER 5 Weird Tales and Pulp Decadence

....Brian Stableford has identified a recognizable American lineage of East-Coast Decadence which he traces from Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, and George Sterling to Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft. He describes the latter as making 'extravagant, if belated, use of such Decadent tropes as hereditary degeneracy, ultimately formulating a strange cosmic perspective which made such degeneracy a condition of the universe' (132). Lovecraft and Smith were frequent contributors to Weird Tales (hereafter WT), which, I will argue below, brought Decadence, often undiluted, from the salons of fin-de-siècle Europe to the bustling newsstands of 1920s America.

The 'Weird Story Reprint'

....there were ongoing attempts at 'setting out a stall' in terms of genre, there was no particularly stable delineation of weird fiction established and throughout the first two decades (at least) of the title's existence, the matter of 'what was weird enough' to warrant inclusion was one of prolonged, occasionally fraught, and never-resolved discussion among the readership, editor, and contributors:

With WT a discourse community was formed, made up of editors, authors, readers, and fans who celebrated the nonrealist, extra-mainstream nature of speculative fiction in the early twentieth century, even as that community took apart that fiction and reassembled it into taxonomic categories—often in heated epistolary exchanges. (Everett and Shanks 2015, ix)

....Tracking this long conversation, undertaken by the WT discourse community across both WT and the FF, it becomes clear that WT in effect operated as two magazines in one: sex, violence, and formulaic space opera for the readers who wanted easy escapism, and a more purist form of weird fiction for the coterie of connoisseurs who lobbied for, and aspired to the status of, 'real literature' and valorized what they regarded as more cerebral contributions from writers like Lovecraft and Smith, logrolling for each other as well as aiming brickbats at the more formulaic pulp writing that appeared in the magazine. This is an argument that has never since been resolved over the ensuing history of genre in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first....

'The Weirder the Better'

....The suggestion by Hearn that 'weird' was a literary cliché did not, evidently, dissuade the publisher J. C. Henneberger from using the word for his new vehicle for stories in the Poe tradition that didn't quite fit anywhere else.

....the readership of WT overwhelmingly interpreted Henneberger's founding formulation for WT as meaning fiction and poetry dealing with themes, principally of supernatural horror, that avoided sanguinary extremes and romantic melodrama, and that strained against generic constraints.

....Catherine Turner has argued that the received wisdom that 'modernism generated its tradition outside of the commodity culture that surrounded it' has been undermined by subsequent scholarship (Turner 2003, 2). She suggests it has been demonstrated that 'modernism developed its tradition by becoming deeply embedded in the commercial market' and that subsequently 'we cannot take for granted that modern novels, even those of the avant-garde, were somehow significantly different from other literary commodities at the time' (2–3). Just as far removed from Theodor Adorno's conception of mass culture as 'modern art's commodified "other"' is Mark Morrisson's suggestion that as (Cook 1996, 106).

....Different avant-gardes (as a cultural impulse distinct from, but imbricated with, Modernism as a movement) have sometimes been defined in opposition to 'the mass-produced object' in which 'the creative individuality of the producer is negated' (Bürger and Shaw 1985, 29). Peter Bürger and Michael Shaw adumbrate 'avant-garde' by invoking pulp literature culture as a delineating apotheosis (or perhaps nadir) of Adornian soma culture:

Aestheticism is, among other things, a response to the total tailoring of production to the socially produced 'false' needs of recipients, a phenomenon that is typical of pulp literature. Aestheticism seeks to realize the unity of producer and recipient without surrendering the claim to a realization of creative individuality. But this necessarily entails a shrinkage of the attainable public to a small circle of connoisseurs so that the fact that works change nothing whatever in the real world becomes the very criterion of their value. Aestheticism can create the unity of producer and recipient only if it reduces a potentially all-inclusive public to the dimensions of a 'cercle' which takes in just a few individuals. (30)

....the WT discourse community was keenly aware of this tension between aesthetic ideal and the reality of WT as it appeared at the newsstands.

....Despite his attempts to secure a privileged position for high culture, Adorno also recognized what has been described as an 'interdependency' between high art and mass culture, and perhaps WT is best seen as an iteration of this interdependency rather than a simple exercise in the 'total tailoring of production' to the masses, with the pejorative implications of that assumption in terms of both the content and the audience such a judgement entails, in regard to the former presupposing a functionary cynicism in the cultural producer, whose agency is diminished and who is relegated to the position of a mere hack distanced and alienated from his or her creation. Once more, we return to a concern that there is a basic 'incommensurability of high modern art and the culture industry' or 'more utilitarian art dependent on industrial production' (Cook 1996, 106). Originating in his discussion of 'light and serious music' (105), Adorno subsequently expanded his conceit of high and low culture as 'torn halves' of a whole, arguing that a critical immanence in both as a totality was pre-conditional to any critical transcendence (the latter analogous to Bourdieu's irrealizable 'pure gaze' discussed in Chap. 3) (Young 1996, 27). If the torn halves are a condition of capitalism and a manifestation of its 'antagonistic structure', there is an essential paradox in the position of the critic:

If culture consists of torn halves that do not add up, then so too must the practice of cultural criticism be one of sameness and difference. As Tzvetan Todorov puts it, 'being outside is an advantage only if one is at the same time completely inside'. (27)

....In the May 1930 WT it was reported with some excitement that 'an authority on contemporary literature' had singled out WT for praise in the pages of the New York World, with the relevant piece reprinted almost in its entirety in that issue's 'Eyrie'. In fact, South African–born William Bolitho (1891–1930) was more celebrated for his journalism than as a literary critic, although he wrote one posthumously published novel (1931's Twelve Against the Gods) and certainly moved in literary circles; he was a friend of Hemingway's and Noël Coward wrote the preface for his nonfiction anthology Camera Obscura (1931) (Lynn 1995, 184). In his article on 'Pulp Magazines', Bolitho recognized in WT both the sporadic attainment of 'literariness'—which Bolitho tellingly describes as an 'unjust standard'—and the vitality of its discourse community:

....I know as well as anyone, that they are in a certain proportion, as large as you like, the product of hack writers. What does that matter? The strange thing in these circles is that criticism is much more remorseless and sincere than in the more pretentious. For hack or not, whatever the pay, each of the pulp magazine authors has to produce interest; he has to hold his readers, not merely to show how clever he is, or he is lost. And the standard, the unjust literary standard itself, is surprisingly satisfied often with them. Make no mistake about that. (Weird Tales 1930c, 582)

....Lovecraft derides the context of his writing—languishing in the 'humblest plane'—but also claims that through his commitment to 'real aesthetic expression' he is surpassing its limitations. On occasion, Lovecraft's views elide almost seamlessly with Adorno's condemnation of early twentieth-century mass culture as a manipulated reinforcement of false consciousness:

The popular tastes and perspectives are all false things of the surface unworthy of a sober thinker's attention, and […] the proportionate importance of the different factors in life is never even approximated by romantic popular literature with its artificial, catchpenny standards based on the dull comprehension of the brainless majority. Learn to lose interest in the tawdry and tinsel things exalted by cheap novelists, and to gain interest in the only two things worthy of a high-grade adult mind—truth and beauty. (Howard Phillips Lovecraft 1968, 2:326–327)

....As a reader, then, Lovecraft was as discriminating and critical in his responses to the highbrow as he was to WT. He also indicated on at least one occasion that his specialism was the result not of choice but of necessity:

When I say I can write nothing but weird fiction, I am not trying to exalt that medium but am merely confessing my own weakness. The reason I can't write other kinds is not that I don't value and respect them, but merely that my slender set of endowments does not enable me to extract a compellingly acute personal sense of interest and drama from the natural phenomena of life […] an art based on them is greater than any which fantasy could evoke—but I'm simply not big enough to react to them in the sensitive way necessary for artistic response and literary use. […] I'd certainly be glad enough to be a Shakespeare or Balzac or Turgeniev if I could! [italics in original] (Howard Phillips Lovecraft 1976, 4:267–68)

Lovecraft's Aesthetic 'Cercle'

....The 'master literary craftsman' concerned, Lovecraft, was approached by Henneberger at some point before February 1924 with an invitation to edit WT. Lovecraft's response to the proposal resonates (unsurprisingly) with many of the issues and tensions discussed above. The fact that Lovecraft saw them as insurmountable grounds for declining the offer of the editorship is perhaps more surprising, considering what must have been a very tempting proposition for the struggling, unemployed author (although there were other circumstantial explanations for Lovecraft's decision) (Machin 2015). Writing to Henneberger on 2 February 1924, Lovecraft expanded on his reasons for declining in considerable detail, detail which also sheds light on some of the issues discussed above. Lovecraft praises WT's editor at the time, Edwin Baird, remarking of the previous issue, 'that [Baird] could get hold of as many as five perfectly satisfactory yarns is an almost remarkable phenomenon in view of the lack of truly artistic and individual expression among professional fiction-- writers'. Lovecraft clearly did not regard the fact that WT was a pulp title as an implicit bar to 'artistic and individual expression', but rather the general rarity of these qualities as the obstacle.

....Lovecraft's reservations about the tenability of maintaining a high standard (or his definition thereof) of content for WT are nothing to do with the pulp market qua the pulp market. His criticisms and objections to contemporary publishing and reading practices would apply as much to the high-end 'slick' as they would to the lowliest pulp. There is here of course an implicit criticism of 'overspeeding' modernity itself. Lovecraft was certainly one of the twentieth-century 'hierarchists of culture' and 'disenfranchised' intellectuals described by Clive Bloom, who held a 'fascination born of horror' with 'popular culture and by implication mass-democratic society' (121). However, unlike F. R. Leavis, Lovecraft's keenly felt indignity was that as an author he was slumming it in the pulps.

Although Lovecraft turned down the editorship of WT, his role in the magazine—as a contributor and correspondent—developed over the ensuing years such that by the time of his death in 1936, he was one of the most keenly valorized and influential members of the WT discourse community. Moreover, he was a key player in the connoisseur faction outlined above, lobbying for the title to focus its attention on their own 'purist' interpretation of weird fiction, and away from science fiction and 'sordid, sanguinary gruesomeness'. In this regard, their activity was, almost to the letter, commensurate with Bürger's and Shaw's dictum that 'Aestheticism can create the unity of producer and recipient only if it reduces a potentially all-inclusive public to the dimensions of a "cercle" which takes in just a few individuals' (Bürger and Shaw 1985, 30). Brian Stableford has argued that Lovecraft's 'peculiar theories of the aesthetics of horror engulfed many of the writers who appeared in Weird Tales':

Lovecraft's aesthetic theories were thoroughly Decadent, and many of his other correspondents, including the poets Samuel Loveman and Vincent Starrett [who did much to renew American enthusiasm for Machen's writing at this time], assiduously turned out Decadent work for which there was no obvious audience at all. (Stableford 1998, 132)

....Rather than louche studio-- bound aesthetes, however, this new readership for Decadence was the modern American reader of pulp magazines, who may have been seeking out the cheap thrills disingenuously promised by the lurid cover art, but could just as easily find themselves reading Baudelaire, Gautier, Wilde, or Dowson.

Besides simply serving as a crucible for the talents of the Lovecraft cercle, WT and its discourse community undertook the first reflexive performance of the wider and ongoing connoisseur culture—discussed in Chap. 3—that uses 'weird fiction' as a mark of distinction. By this reading, beyond the expediency of using the term to liberate the writer from any obligation to employ increasingly tiresome generic structures and appurtenances, the New Weird of the early twenty-first century (see Introduction) could be accused of misplaced nostalgia. The attempt to use the word 'weird' to gesture back to a putative period (the 'Old Weird' of WT) before such distinctions—generic and artistic—ever had to be made is based on a misunderstanding. As I have demonstrated above, the WT discourse community was in fact consistently preoccupied with, if not dominated by, discussion of these same distinctions.

15 July 2019

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