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Sure there are what you call "emptiness of phrasing" in Lovecraft, and most often in culminating points, the truth is many readers find it good in the situation. I think it serves to give incomparable violence in sound and rhythm, to show "the narrator's madness or incapacity to tell", and that's the point, we don't care about the meaning anymore. Oh, when i read that you don't "see the creature", i really think you don't get it.

Interesting read about Harman's book on Lovecraft. I got to the point about Cleanth Brooks and had to comment:

"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." Next, you emphasize that this merger is understood by Brooks as the reader's experience, rather than as an objective quality of the work or an authorial intention.

I don't think Harman misses the quoted point about Brooks at all. It is precisely what Harman means by "holism" in Brooks! Harman would also partly agree with your second point that the receiving human is a necessary ingredient in the work of art. What Harman objects to is the claim that form and content unify in a seamless merger. While form certainly plays out through content, Harman is arguing for a certain TENSION between a unifying force that lurks in the background and surprising eruptions of content (which after all makes the form seem alive and responsive, rather than static), not their invisible integration.

Similarly, it is not the blurring together of octopus, dragon, and human into one creature that Harman is interested in, but how each of those things as a whole is split from its original image and attached to another term, a "spirit of the thing" that both organizes and surmounts its qualities, the same way that the metaphor "man is a wolf" is not merely a conjunction of specific man qualities and wolf qualities, but uses the wolf in its totality to organize the basic image of man. Harman would never suppose that there ought to be some integrated and precisely identified attributes of octopus, dragon, and human; rather, he wants a cryptic totality that brings together three other totalities (octopus-system, dragon-system, human-system) into something new and largely inaccessible (eerily so in this case).

An example from Gravity's Rainbow: "In their brief time together Slothrop forms the impression that this octopus is not in good mental health, though where’s his basis for comparing? But there is a mad exuberance, as with inanimate objects which fall off of tables when we are sensitive to noise and our own clumsiness and don’t want them to fall, a sort of wham! ha-ha you hear that? here it is again, WHAM! in the cephalopod’s every movement." Slothrop senses a quality in the octopus not normally fixed to it, which relates to vague totalities ("inanimate objects") that do not have mental lives or even clear features in the first place (although one can't help but think of determinate objects like books and vases). And Pynchon has further split off normal octopus qualities from the octopus itself, naming it a "cephalapod" in conjunction with the "inanimate objects." Pynchon basically explains a bizarre metaphor in order to make it *just believable enough*, i.e., vaguely unified by this strange new mad octopus system.

I know what Harman is interested in, and he definitely finds it in Lovecraft. This makes Lovecraft a good illustration of Harman's philosophy, at least when viewed from Harman's pov, but it still doesn't make Lovecraft a good stylist. On the other hand, I don't demand that Lovecraft be a good stylist. This would make him something other than the writer he is.

I originally commented on what seemed like a misunderstanding about how form and content relate for Harman (so I described it and argued that he is accurate in his representation of Cleanth Brooks, and would add after looking at the book again that he never presents his own "100 passages" as an explicit contrast to New Criticism). But now I appreciate that you find this incidental to your larger view of Lovecraft and Harman's reading of Lovecraft. As your review nicely puts it, "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."

Yet the suggestion that Lovecraft illustrates Harman's philosophy well without at all being a good stylist raises a closely related problem. Harman's philosophy is about style, and his interest in Lovecraft centers on style. For Harman, the philosophical implications in Lovecraft's fiction are NOT thematic arguments that explicitly shape its content (like in Ayn Rand or Michel Houellebecq). Rather, they must be detected indirectly as emergent tensions between Lovecraft's worlds and his descriptions of them.

I don't want to hash out in detail here why I think Harman makes some good points about Lovecraft's style or why the cubist aspect is not his only substantive point -- it's already a lot for me to assume any of my comments deserve a reading -- but there are two points about the style/content stuff that I think I can get down here quickly.

* #1 (Paraphrase is neither bad nor convincing):
Of course Lovecraft fabricated elaborate myths about monstrous creatures. That doesn't bother Harman, and as you point out, he uses such terminology himself to describe Lovecraft. It would also be unfair to Wilson if Harman claimed that paraphrase diminishes Lovecraft's achievement. But your review suggests that this is exactly how Harman reads Wilson and paraphrase in general. What Harman argues is that it is not fair to judge literature on the basis of its literal content alone. He probably imagined that readers of popular modern fiction would find this claim obviously true -- especially those for whom Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro do not represent polar opposites. (And it is practically a truism in film.) Such readers would simply enjoy the examples Harman offers to more skeptical readers of philosophy, in which he puts Literary Canon stuff through the same critical grinder that Wilson used on Lovecraft. To repeat, Harman does NOT find literal reports inherently absurd and condescending. What bothers Harman is when people use it as the sole basis for judgments about the quality of the work. One example would be if a critic were to conclude that a work of fiction is childish pulpy hackwork on the basis of it being about monsters in Massachusetts.

* #2 (The false choice):
Your review constantly presents a choice between content and style. True enough, when Harman claims to be examining Lovecraft's style, he is highlighting the articulation of the content. But that is what style is: the particular way ideas are presented, how the content emerges and functions in a specific but never fully embodied way. In a complimentary sense, while Harman worries about paraphrase, he is never fully antagonistic to it: "It is too simplistic to present style as the source of all intellectual depth, and content as a plane of mere superficiality and banality." I won't dwell here except to note that Harman addresses many of your own complaints about Lovecraft's prose throughout his 100 examples. I would also draw your attention to "Comic and Tragic Intentionality" in Part One, where Harman argues that we ought to pay close attention to the reactions and commentary of the narrators as a factor of Lovecraft's style.

We probably don't agree on a definition of style. In fiction, style is not the presentation of ideas. Fiction doesn't have ideas. It has language.

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  • Daniel Green is a literary critic and sometime fiction writer. His reviews, critical essays, and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He has a Ph.D focusing on postwar American fiction and an M.A. in creative writing.

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