On “Polaris” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Pity those whose sense of self-worth dependent upon the history of people with a particular skull shape.

I remember once renting a cabin on holiday. The cabin was comfortable and nicely decorated but, like all holiday rentals, its kitchen was equipped with an assemblage of broken, dulled, and poorly washed utensils. I remember sitting down for breakfast on the first morning and taking a sip of coffee. About fifteen seconds later, I got up out of my chair, calmly walked to the bathroom, and puked my guts out.

I had not been feeling unwell prior to drinking the coffee and, truth be told, being physically sick didn’t put me off the remainder of my breakfast. It was just that some particulate involved in the creation of a cup of coffee turned out to be so incompatible with my digestive process that my body responded to its presence by immediately defenestrating the contents of my stomach.

I share this heart-warming story because my body’s response to that cup of coffee is quite similar to my brain’s response to fantasy: It’s not so much that I hate the genre, it’s just that my brain would rather violently expel its contents than metabolise a fantasy novel.

As you might expect, my inability to metabolise anything resembling traditional fantasy has left me dreading the arrival of the Dreamlands. “Polaris” may not be a full-blooded Dreamlands story but epic battles against races with silly names already have me sweating and looking for the nearest place to expel a cup of coffee.

The opening to “Polaris” reminds me a bit of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker in so far as it begins with an unnamed narrator staring up at the stars and appearing to be transported to another time and place. I say “appearing” as, while Lovecraft implies that his narrator is using his dreams to literally project himself into the past, the story feels like it is building on tropes and themes first explored in works like “The Tomb”, a story that can definitely be read as being somewhat ambiguous as to the reality of a dream-like projection.

Like “Dagon”, “Polaris” is a story built around a visual that came to Lovecraft in a dream, in particular the vision of a city that is equal parts Greek City-state and Medieval ruin:

And it was under a horned waning moon that I saw the city for the first time. Still and somnolent did it lie, on a strange plateau in a hollow betwixt strange peaks. Of ghastly marble were its walls and its towers, its columns, domes, and pavements. In the marble streets were marble pillars, the upper parts of which were carven into the images of grave bearded men. The air was warm and stirred not.

The City sits on a plateau that has long been under assault by hordes of ab-human scum. It turns out that while the Lomarian people are a nation of tall, grey-eyed, Alpha Chads with a history of standing firm against the sub-human menace, the encroachment of a great ice sheet is putting greater and greater pressure on the barbarian lowlands resulting in pressure being applied to the plateau-dwelling Lomarians.

Initially a disembodied presence, the story’s narrator soon realises that his dreams have placed him in the body of a Lomarian whose frail constitution has forced him off the front lines and into a watch tower:

Alos, my friend, was commander of all the forces on the plateau, and in him lay the last hope of our country. On this occasion he spoke of the perils to be faced, and exhorted the men of Olathoë, bravest of the Lomarians, to sustain the traditions of their ancestors, who when forced to move southward from Zobna before the advance of the great ice-sheet (even as our descendants must some day flee from the land of Lomar), valiantly and victoriously swept aside the hairy, long-armed, cannibal Gnophkehs that stood in their way. To me Alos denied a warrior’s part, for I was feeble and given to strange faintings when subjected to stress and hardships. But my eyes were the keenest in the city, despite the long hours I gave each day to the study of the Pnakotic manuscripts and the wisdom of the Zobnarian Fathers; so my friend, desiring not to doom me to inaction, rewarded me with that duty which was second to nothing in importance.

It is important to note the psychological similarities between this act of projection and the acts of projection and exploration described in “The Tomb” and “The Alchemist” respectively. Though we never learn anything about the story’s narrator, the Lomarian vessel turns out to be a pathetic figure who laments his nerdish physique and attempts to overcome it by identifying with the fate of more conventionally successful and masculine men. But I will return to this act of identification in a minute…

Lovecraft scholars have noted that the writing in “Polaris” resembles the fantasy writing of Lord Dunsany despite the fact that Lovecraft claimed not to have read any Dunsany by the time “Polaris” was completed. Never having read any Dunsany, I couldn’t possibly comment but I can say that the style of writing on display in “Polaris” is one of the many reasons I can’t stand fantasy: This is nothing but a succession of ridiculous made-up names spoken in a faux-archaic register that owes nothing to direct experience of a particular subject matter and everything to the manner in which ancient languages are taught to the children of the upper classes.

This is essentially a literary hack: People raised and educated within a certain class and cultural context are going to have a degree of vestigial emotional investment in the outcome of the battles described in classical literature. By echoing the syntax and vocabulary of classical literature, the author hopes to lure the reader’s brain into echoing a set of sentiments drummed into them by their classical educations.

Of course, it is worth bearing in mind that Lovecraft makes far less use of this technique than fantasy authors like Tolkien. I mean… almost every page of Lord of the Rings feels like someone shouting very loudly about how they much they enjoyed studying Anglo-Saxon at a college built by slavers and how they expect you to be infected with the same set of sub-Victorian brain worms. This begs the question as to how this kind of bullshit ever managed to find an audience outside of the people who happen to have endured the kind of rigorous ideological training regime provided by Lady Ottham-Bottom’s Academy for Fancy Little Boys Who Enjoy a Treat.

This story’s Wikipedia page cites a dude called William Fulwiler who claims that “Polaris” is an autobiographical story in so far as it gives voice to Lovecraft’s regret that he was born a Fancy Boy Who Enjoys a Treat and so was unable to go and fight in World War I. Having not read the essay in question, I can only assume that Fulwiler is basing his conclusions on a piece of correspondence combined with the fact that Lovecraft tried to enlist in the national guard despite knowing full well that he would be knocked-back on physical grounds. This was, after all, a man who couldn’t cope with the physical hardships of attending the local high-school. The idea of Lovecraft sitting in a trench in Flanders is so absurd that I find it genuinely hard to believe that Lovecraft could have felt regret at not fighting in World War I. If there was any regret on Lovecraft’s part, I suspect it had a lot less to do with actual war than it did with the kind of violent fantasies that are part and parcel of 20th Century ideals of masculinity.

The nature of Lovecraft’s supposed regret becomes a lot more clear once you realise who it is that the Lomarians are actually fighting:

It was my friend Alos who spoke, and his speech was one that pleased my soul, for it was the speech of a true man and patriot. That night had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns. Having taken the fortified places at the foot of the mountains.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer teams up with Mel Gibson to make a movie and Homer has the idea of suddenly cutting to a dog with shifty eyes as though suggesting that the dog is somehow the film’s secret baddy.  I am reminded of this joke whenever I think of the scene in The Call of Cthulhu when Lovecraft makes a passing reference to the “degenerate esquimaux” in a way that suggests that they might actually be the real antagonists of the story. “Polaris” taps into the same preposterous racist fantasy by blaming the fall of Lomar on the ancestors of today’s Eskimo:

They say there is no land of Lomar, save in my nocturnal imaginings; that in those realms where the Pole Star shines high and red Aldebaran crawls low around the horizon, there has been naught save ice and snow for thousands of years, and never a man save squat yellow creatures, blighted by the cold, whom they call “Esquimaux”.

While current systems of racial taxonomy may disagree, early 20th Century anthropologists tended to put people like the Inuit in a similar racial category to the inhabitants of China and Mongolia. So, while Lovecraft’s fear and loathing of the Inuit may now appear completely surreal and random, contemporaries would have understood that Lovecraft’s desire for racial holy war against the Eskimo stemmed from a belief that Eskimos were Asian and that people of Asian origin posed an existential threat to White People. A belief now commonly referred to as the idea of the Yellow Peril.

Working my way through Lovecraft’s early stories, I was struck by quite how many of his early works positioned him as a fundamentally pathetic figure: A man who surveys his family history, notes his status as a complete failure, and chooses to protect his ego by ignoring reality in order to engage with an idealised version of the past. While I find this pathetic figure both sympathetic and somewhat relatable, it is easy to forget how ugly things can get once your self-esteem becomes dependent upon your inclusion in broad socio-cultural groupings whose membership is effectively assigned randomly at birth.

Lovecraft fantasising about being the kind of man who could stand on a wall and protect Europe from a horde of ravening Eskimo is no different to the tubby middle-American dads who idolise the troops and dream of throttling members of Antifa: They are losers and failures who, confronted by their status as losers and failures, chose to outsource a chunk of their self-esteem by using the place their parents happened to fuck as a means of identifying with a country with a long and celebrated history of murdering leftists and brown people.

Lovecraft expressed regret at not being a warrior because American culture has long encouraged its men to associate virtue and personal flourishing with a succession of violently racialized fantasies. This current of ideological training runs through all Western institutions and it helps to explain why so many beloved works of popular culture involve violent confrontations with a racialized other. Western institutions don’t just assume that you hate… they train you to hate and that training continues every time you pick up a fantasy novel or watch a Superhero movie.

Stories like “The Alchemist” and “The Tomb” mine a deep vein of pathos stemming from the image of a man who surveys the real world only to declare ‘I reject your reality and replace it with one of my own’. The psychological processes at work in those stories are so transparently unhealthy that you cannot help but feel an ounce of pity for the thin-faced fancy man who enjoys but cannot afford an occasional treat.

The problem is that ‘my family used to be wealthy’ is not really a viable long-term solution to issues of self-esteem. I mean, for starters, the family’s wealth is written of in the past tense and then you get into the fact that while Lovecraft’s family may have been wealthy, he struggled to find an entry-level job in a booming economy. It’s the next step that makes things more complicated.

If you’re going to outsource your self-esteem to external institutions, the temptation is always going to be to latch onto the biggest and most powerful institution to which you can claim some form of belonging. A lot of people from historically marginalised groups derive a sense of self-esteem from identifying with institutions larger than themselves. In return, a lot of people who do not belong to historically marginalised groups think that they can latch onto whichever institution they belong to, regardless of the history that said institution might happen to have.

“Polaris” is a racialized moral fantasy. It not only involves a white man fantasising about standing on a rampart and helping to fight an Asian horde, it also imagines a history in which white men were the victims and the oppressed, but this history never happened. Once upon a time, chance smiled upon the Europeans and they used that lucky break to subjugate as much of the world as possible. I’m sympathetic to people who feel like losers and failures, I can also understand that growing up in a racist, nationalistic culture means that you are encouraged to identify with that blood-soaked past. I can understand the urge, but I can also see the dangers. White people who bolster their self-esteem through appeals to the white man’s blood-soaked history are not just pathetic… they’re reaching for something profoundly ugly. An ugliness that continues to do harm. An ugliness that tends to make me want to puke.

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