Eco’s Enemies, Lovecraft’s Horrors

Who are we to combat poisons older than history and mankind? Apes danced in Asia to those horrors, and the cancer lurks secure and spreading where furtiveness hides in rows of decaying brick. –H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

The opening essay in Umberto Eco’s book Inventing the Enemy discusses how people designate, describe and fictionalize their enemies to shore up their own identities. Eco includes lengthy descriptions of supposed hateful characteristics across borders and through the ages, and I found myself reminded of the prose of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

Eco on Inventing the Enemy

Eco notes that the enemy is always those who are different. Thus, they are described as having characteristics that we believe we lack. Eco takes an example of anti-Semitism from a 1788 essay by Baptiste-Henri Grégoire:

They generally have a bluish face, hooked nose, deep-set eyes, protruding chin, and strongly pronounced constrictor muscles around the lips . . . Jews are also prone to diseases which indicate a corruption of the blood, such as leprosy in the past and now scurvy, which is akin to it, scrofula, bleeding. . . It is said Jews have bad breath . . . Others attribute these effects to the frequent use of strong-smelling vegetables such as onion and garlic . . . Yet others say it is goose meat, to which they are very partial, that makes them dark and melancholic . . .

As seen in the above passage, the details ascribed to enemies are largely untrue, and they may be quite outrageous. Did Jews really have a propensity for kidnapping good Christian boys and girls, slashing their throats and drinking their blood? Did women accused of witchcraft really fornicate with the devil and fly on brooms? Did Germans really once have fouler smelling poop?

Enemies abound in our own time too, odious auras around them in the eyes of their haters. You may run across homophobes on television and the Internet claiming gay school teachers molest and indoctrinate children. Illegal immigrants are branded drug dealers and rapists and are said to steal jobs. Muslims are Islamifying Western civilization, when they aren’t busy just blowing it up. Feminists are ugly hacks bent on emasculating men. Male feminists are “dickless wonders.” Black Lives Matter protestors need to pull up their pants, talk right, and get jobs. White dudes, despite all their privilege, simply aren’t cool.

And so on.

It’s interesting how inventing the enemy engenders lists: So many enemies and so strong the hate for them that despicable characteristics accrue rapidly. Eco loves lists, and many of these bigoted barbs also show up in his novel The Prague Cemetery, whose main character has never seen an other he couldn’t disparage at length. And as I read these passages in Eco, I began to get a sense of déjà vu.

Yes, I had recently read something similar…

Lovecraft Inventing Horrors

In the short story “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), H.P. Lovecraft employs the language of inventing the enemy, and it too has an odd, enumerative style. Much of the story’s action takes place in the Red Hook district of New York, where Lovecraft places a seething, seedy mass of humanity “leperous and cancerous with evil dragged from elder worlds.”

Lovecraft’s catalog of the people in Red Hook is hard to pin down in a single list, for he sprinkles them throughout the story, but he mentions Syrians, Spaniards, Italians, “negro elements,” “slant-eyed folk who used the Arabic alphabet,” Kurds, “Asian dregs,” “blue-eyed Norwegians” and “throngs of mixed foreigners.” He describes them as evil-looking, squat, squinting, blear-eyed, pockmarked, swarthy and “better turned back by Ellis Island.” They live in poverty, they speak “the blasphemies of an hundred dialects,” they are filthy, noisy and stinky, and they engage in smuggling, bootlegging, kidnapping children, and “thievery, disorder, and the importation of illegal immigrants.”

Lovecraft, an American of English ancestry, clearly knew who his enemies were: foreigners, especially those with skin darker than his. I’m not well-versed in Lovecraft’s biography, but as his literary legacy has grown, it has been hard to miss accounts of his racism. Thus, one can only read with pleasure a retcon such as Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which tells the story of a hustler who plays a key role in the events of “The Horror at Red Hook.” Tom has his enemies, too. Their skin color tends to be lighter than his and they often wear a badge.

By the end of “The Horror at Red Hook,” Lovecraft’s invention of enemies extends to those unnatural and eldritch beings that he, more than any other author, has stamped on cultural consciousness — and they too are enemies in their otherness. In a letter (which I encountered here), he describes the thought behind his technique:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. . . . To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.

The most famous of Lovecraft’s creations are the Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos. In “The Horror at Red Hook,” Lovecraft’s descriptions rely more heavily on real Earth lore. Police Detective Thomas Malone eventually uncovers the heart of Red Hook’s depravity in underground caverns that have been halls for horrid rituals and passageways for beings from beyond. The prose is purple, elegant and turgid, before serving up another list:

. . . the nightmare horde slithered away in quest of the sound — goat, satyr, and aegipan, incubus, succubae, and lemur, twisted toad and shapeless elemental, dog-faced howler and silent strutter in darkness — all led by the abominable naked phosphorescent thing that had squatted on the carved golden throne . . .

Lovecraft doesn’t exactly equate these otherworldly beings with the rabble of Red Hook, but he does locate them in the same neighborhood and establish a spiritual connection. To the extent the author’s real views about non-Anglo Saxons are tucked into his descriptions of Red Hook and even his enumerations of cosmic horrors, it’s possible Lovecraft outdoes all others in inventiveness when inventing the enemy.

Overcoming the Enemy

At the end of “Inventing the Enemy,” Eco briefly addresses how we may rise above this awful need to invent enemies. His suggestion is nothing we haven’t heard before, but it’s no less helpful for that:

I would argue that morality intervenes not when we pretend we have no enemies but when we try to understand them, to put ourselves in their situation. . . . Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.

This kind of understanding has been on my mind for some time now. As one given to public opining, I make an effort to maintain an understanding, if not of “enemies” — the word sounds too harsh — then of those who hold different opinions.

Take conservatives. As a liberal, I’m supposed to believe they are, by and large, toothless, ignorant, red-neck racists sleeping with their cousins, or their guns, and showing up at Tea Party or Trump rallies with misspelled slogans on their dunce caps. But having grown up in communities that were rural and largely white and conservative, this description just doesn’t seem right for many of the people I know. I understand them, from their perspective, and sometimes the reasons for their beliefs and behavior aren’t as bad as liberals are willing to admit.

Or take Christians. The Internet has no shortage of atheists trolling them for being anti-science, homophobic, dimwitted sheep looking for the next opportunity to start wars against believers in other religions, mutilate some child’s genitalia, or picket a funeral. But I was once so deep into religion that I was basically a permanent fixture in the sanctuary, and many believers just aren’t the devils many non-believers think they are.

We will always have “enemies” in some sense of the term, but we can try not to be total assholes about it. We can make an effort to identify real, not imaginary, enemies and understand them. We can try to inform our rancor with learning. We can formulate honest arguments instead of loosing unhinged rants. And we can apply healthy doses of self-critique.

That won’t save us from Cthulhu when he awakens from his subaqueous slumber, but it could help us grapple with each other in the meantime.

Previous post on Lovecraft:

The Best and Worst of Alan Moore’s Providence

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