The anachronistic nihilist

Since John Wright blogged about it, I decided to purchase a copy of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. I thought it might be OK at some point to encourage my boys to read.Don’t think so.For one thing, the racism about Africa is just too much to bear. Kane would never be a Nazi, and he would kill a Klansman without a second thought. But it is still just hard to read Howard on Africa and Africans. You can easily perceive this is the same era that gave us Tarzan and King Kong.

But, even more disturbing is the fact that the author, Robert E. Howard, killed himself at the age of thirty–partly out of grief over his dying mother, but also simply because, at that ripe age, he felt like he was past his prime.Wright blogs about a certain sort of pessimism in Howard’s vision….

s-kane.jpgThis romanticism had several branches and offshoots, but one branch that found its way into the pulps is what I call “The Romanticism of Despair” by which I mean, the pulp writer dwells on the existential horror of the world. The world is depicted as ruthless and meaningless, and fate is a thoughtless monster of iron hooves who will trample you. Human life, human history, the human world, are mere specks, microseconds, tiny bits of dirt spinning in a void of darkness about a minor, dim star.The Romanticism of Despair is found most clearly in H.P. Lovecraft, whose chthonic monsters and trans-cosmic horrors, despite his clumsy writing, have gripped the imagination of SF fans for decades, far, far beyond the merit of his short-stories would explain. What Lovecraft did was give (unpronounceable) names and (indescribable) forms to the basic ideas of modern existential despair. Between Copernicus and Darwin and Freud and Marx and Einstein, man has been thrust from his geocentric role as the favored creation, into a shocking minor position of astronomical smallness, no longer (if Freud is to be believed) in charge of his own mind, no longer (if Marx is to be believed) master of his own history. The blind inhuman forces of history, for Lovecraft, become blind and mad things indeed, Azathoth and the other insane, inhuman, infinite and utterly indifferent gods of his pantheon. Even the devil in Milton was more human than any of the Other Gods of Lovecraft. Lucifer lusts after the beauty of Eve, he pities the innocence of Adam, he regrets his loss of paradise, he is motivated by hate and despair, he clothes his actions in concern for public good, he speaks of freedom and rights, and, in every way, seems like a human being writ larger than life. Cthulhu is not human at all and not properly alive.Robert E. Howard wrote in the same vein. When Solomon Kane comes across an ancient monument or a lost city, the far past is always depicted as horrible; the things he fights are ancient survivals or cruelly inhuman sports of nature producing life blindly, things as powerful as Man, but not like Man. According to the ideal of the Romanticism of Despair, the past was not a Golden Age, for that would be too cheery a view: the past is where the primordial serpent-men of Valusia come from, or the inhuman sorcerer-kings who ruled Egypt before Adam, beast-headed gods and shambling horrors.The central point of this type of Romanticism is to have an Ozymandias moment: an traveler in an antique land comes across a crumbling monument, and his mind reels like a boy on a rollercoaster, because the vistas, the immensities of the eons seem to open up before his gaze, and his soul is pierced with desolation. The immensities are, of course, an immense wasteland, not an immense garden, because the point of an Ozymandias moment is to show the littleness of all human aspiration and ambition.Lovecraft, of course, merely had his characters quail when they saw the eons open their huge and unhuman eyes; Robert E. Howard’s characters react with the fury of Nietzsche or Byron, and they blow a horn or wave a scarlet banner and draw their swords to defy the inhuman fate that rolls toward them like a faceless juggernaut.

But the irony is that it is precisely Kane’s response that reveals his doom. He won’t stay strong forever. His reflexes will slow. Death cannot be halted. It wasn’t mighty foes that drove Robert Howard to suicide. (He often claimed to have been born too late because there were no more frontiers to explore. His writing about the ancient unknown was not despairing but wishful thinking that there was some territory that wasn’t open to modern analysis.) No, he killed himself due to impending weakness. If he couldn’t stay young he was better off dead. If all you worship is strength, then why prolong weakness?So in the end I get the idea that the somber Puritan isn’t that much different than the Def Leppard slogan on the Pyromania album. Kind of reminds me I need to blog about the way Joss Whedon brought the Angel series to an end.

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  1. Pingback: once more with feeling » The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

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