A Jewish Poet Looks at Lovecraft
by Norman Finkelstein
H. P. Lovecraft always seems to have been part of my literary imagination, but I must have begun reading him somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I still have my first paperback editions: the Lancer Books with exceptionally cheesy covers (“H. P. Lovecraft summons you to The Colour Out of Space…), the Beagle Horror Collection volumes (including stories by later Mythos writers), and the Ballantine Books Adult Fantasy series, with their charming but perhaps overly whimsical covers by Gervasio Gallardo. I read Lovecraft devotedly for a few years, while also reading a number of other fantasy and science fiction authors. Then I stopped, and began reading “serious” literature—Pound and Eliot, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Pynchon and Roth. My interest in Lovecraft lay dormant for a long time, but looking back over a period of some fifty years, I realize that his stories provided me with my first, and still one of my most intense, experiences of what I now understand to be the uncanny [das Unheimlich].
I refer specifically to the concept as delineated by Freud in his phantasmagoric essay “The Uncanny,” a text which, as some commentators have pointed out, is itself an instance of what it seeks to explain. In regard to Lovecraft, I would stress three qualities of Freud’s uncanny that I believe I recognized even when I read him at an early age: (1) “intellectual uncertainty”; (2) a sense of that which “ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light”; and (3) the pervasive influence of “silence, darkness and solitude.” Mark Fisher, who refines and extrapolates from Freud’s Unheimlich in his book The Weird and the Eerie, observes that Lovecraft is the preeminent author of weird fiction because his:
stories are obsessively fixated on the question of the outside: an outside that breaks through in encounters with anomalous entities from the deep past, in altered states of consciousness, in bizarre twists in the structure of time. (16)
Furthermore, “it is not horror but fascination—albeit a fascination usually mixed with a certain trepidation—that is integral to Lovecraft’s rendition of the weird” (17). The fascination with the weird which protagonists in Lovecraft’s fiction experience is mirrored by that of the reader of his work: in “The Dunwich Horror,” for instance, Armitage and his colleagues cannot take their eyes off the body of the dead Wilbur Whateley, and likewise, we cannot stop reading their increasingly compelling story. That was certainly the case for me, though my fascination with Lovecraft seemed relatively short-lived. But that proved not to be the case.
In my late twenties and early thirties, having finished a dissertation on modern poetry and begun my teaching career at Xavier University, I experienced a desire to return to my Jewish roots. Raised in a somewhat observant but mainly secular and assimilated Jewish family in New York City, I had drifted away from Jewishness. Literature had become my religion, and writing poetry (and criticism) was the practice of my faith. My “return” to Judaism was not primarily religious—it was literary. As I read intensely in modern Jewish literature, certain authors stirred up a vaguely familiar sense. These authors, such as Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and I. B. Singer, brought hidden things to light for me. Hardly Lovecraftian, they nevertheless summoned a distinct sense of an outside, twisting my personal experience of time in strange but fascinating ways, and above all, challenging a sense of stable identity. In the modern world, Jews are themselves insiders and outsiders; their sense of history is simultaneously continuous and full of traumatic ruptures. For me, Jewishness began to entail a feeling of the uncanny; Jewishness, as I experienced it, was both familiar and unfamiliar, heimlich and unheimlich, ancient and contemporary.
Add to this my discovery of Kabbalah through the work of Gershom Scholem, and Jewish history and culture became much more mysterious than I had been previously taught. Reading Scholem and other scholars of Kabbalah, I discovered that the rituals and customs I had taken for granted while growing up suddenly became portals through which I could enter other times and places. I began to see a deeper Jewish vision of cosmology, while at the same time learning that Judaism was as suffused with myth as any other faith. The question of belief, always problematic for me, was further cast in doubt. In his magisterial The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle notes that the concept, as delineated by Freud:
demands or presupposes a new way of thinking about religion….The experience of the uncanny, as [Freud] seeks to theorize it, is not available or appropriate to, say, a Jewish or Christian ‘believer.’ (20)
This accounts in part for the poems I began writing, poems that are also (in proper Jewish fashion) darkly ambivalent commentaries on the texts that proved so fascinating to me. Was I inside or outside of these texts? They blurred my sense of time and self, even as I wrote about them. These poems found their way into my first collection, Restless Messengers. However comfortable, however pleased I was with my “return,” it had also proved to be a little…weird.
Fast forward once again, this time another twenty or twenty-five years. I published a number of books of poetry and of literary criticism. I have written about Jewish literature, and about various other religions and belief systems as they are manifested in modern poetry. I spent years studying psychoanalysis at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute. Increasingly interested in gnosticism and hermeticism, I began teaching works that engage the sacred and the transgressive, and, while still writing recognizably Jewish poetry, I incorporated elements of the magical and fantastic in my work as well. In an inevitable return of the repressed, my interest in Lovecraft came back to life, as I observed academic criticism engaging popular genres and authors with greater seriousness.
Reading Lovecraft with the same enthusiasm as my fourteen-year-old self, but now equipped with an array of critical tools, I have to acknowledge and come to terms with the ideologically unsavory aspects of his work, his neurotic prejudices and tragic life history. Needless to say, his racism and antisemitism are painfully troubling to me, though in some respects, no more or less troubling than the cases of Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Jack Spicer, to name the modern poets about whom I’ve written, and who have unquestionably shaped my own poetry.
In my reading experience, Lovecraft’s case is closest to that of Pound, but the sheer quantity of Lovecraft’s hateful rhetoric exceeds even that of Pound’s correspondence and notorious radio broadcasts. Thus the question now arises, as it has for many writers in the past: what does it mean to admire and to acknowledge the influence of an author who detests and vituperates the beliefs, behaviors, and customs that have, to a great extent, made you who you are? Who excoriates your “race” and denigrates its history and culture? Who might well find you personally unlikeable if not downright loathsome? And—here is the heart of the problem—who expresses his feelings in language that is often so hyperbolic, and yet so closely intertwined with his most remarkable literary achievements, that it calls upon you to engage with it. We return to that moment when we stare down at the body of Wilbur Whateley, horrified but inescapably fascinated by something repellent and wrong. But in this case, we are looking not at a half-human monster, but at a human, all too human body of morally reprehensible prejudices. Both are equally malevolent.
“I am an anti-Semitic by nature,” writes Lovecraft in 1915; he continues:
The Jew is an adverse influence, since he insidiously degrades or Orientalizes our robust Aryan civilization. The intellect of the race is indisputably great, but its nature is not such that it may be safely employed in forming Western political & social ideas. Oppressive as it seems, the Jew must be muzzled.H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 10 Aug 1915, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 39
Here, Lovecraft establishes the pattern for over twenty years of epistolary invective, though as has been observed by many readers, his racism and antisemitism grow increasingly vicious (and his prose grows more extravagant) after his sojourn in New York City and his firsthand experiences with the teeming streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In many respects, Lovecraft’s writing on race and ethnicity is an instance of the pseudo-biological and anthropological discourse that was prevalent from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries in both the U.S. and Europe, culminating in Nazism. He observes that:
It is now definitely known that many allegedly Semitic types of today are not in reality Semitic or even white at all, but derived from Asiatic Tatar-Mongoloids who were Judaised by missionaries before their entrance into Central Europe from the Thibetan plateaux in the 8th or 9th century A.D. Of these are the queer-eyed, yellow-red, thick-lipped flat-nosed types seen in Providence’s North End and in many parts of New York.H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168
Like other American antisemites (again, I think of Pound in his correspondence), he sometimes affects a fake Yiddish accent, writing of Jewish merchants selling gentiles “ah nize pair uff $5.00 pents for $10.00” (A Means to Freedom 1.134). He maintains the longstanding belief, as prevalent today as it was then, that Jews control the media through their great wealth:
I didn’t say that Jews own all the papers, but merely that they control their policies through economic channels. The one great lever, of course, is advertising.H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 8 Nov 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 170
This power, in turn, leads to an undue Jewish influence on the nation’s literary culture:
But the Jews manage to get money and influence without losing a particle of their hard realism and unctuously offensive rattiness. They push brazenly ahead—in the intellectual and aesthetic as well as the practical field. Right now their control of the publishing field is alarming—houses like Knopf, Boni, Liveright, Greenberg, Viking, etc. etc. serving to give a distinctly Semitic angle to the whole matter of national manuscript-choice, and thus indirectly to national current literature and criticism.H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan. 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.134
And though he eventually came to disagree with Hitler and the Nazis in regard to antisemitic policy, and died before the Final Solution, he once unknowingly foreshadows the Holocaust. Writing of “the stinking Manhattan pest zone” full of “squint-eyed, verminous kikes,” he declares:
I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears… & the same goes for the dago slums!)H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 June 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 324
The complex historical and psychological reasons behind racial and ethnic prejudice vary for every individual; in Lovecraft’s case, his racism and antisemitism appear to arise from a combination of a deeply-seated sense of the superiority of the (increasingly threatened) New England “aristocracy” from which he believed he had arisen, which was exacerbated by personal circumstances, especially, as I noted previously, his precarious circumstances while living in New York. Simple ignorance of the ways of other cultures is always a contributing factor as well, and where there is ignorance there is usually fear. Lovecraft himself admits in his letters that he has no knowledge of Jewish customs or of the Talmud (Letters to F. Lee Baldwin et al. 117); instead, what he observes in New York are:
assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress.H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168
“Picturesque” Jews (Lovecraft is almost certainly describing Hasidim) versus “strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress”: this is the extent of Lovecraft’s vision of modern Jewish American life, except when he is raving about “squint-eyed, verminous kikes.” Sonia Greene, the Russian Jewish immigrant to whom he was briefly married during his New York sojourn, is described as “so volatile a Slav” when she first visits him in Providence; he refers to her as “Mrs. Greenevsky” and “Mme. Greeneva” (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 186-187,). According to S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, in Lovecraft’s mind:
Sonia was a properly ‘assimilated’ Jew, like his friend Samuel Loveman: she had adopted the mores of the prevailing Anglo-Saxon culture, so that her ethnic background was not an obstacle.S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz, Lord of a Visible World 13
The one area of Jewish culture which Lovecraft engages without prejudice and stereotyping—but still with a great deal of ambivalence—is that of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Bobby Derie has recently examined Lovecraft’s fascination with S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, which he saw onstage in New York in 1925, and with the film of The Golem, based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel, which had not yet been translated into English. Lovecraft mentions both works in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and has this to say about Jewish culture:
A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction.H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”
Broadly speaking, Lovecraft’s understanding of Kabbalah as a complex mystical tradition that is both emanational and linguistic is fairly accurate, based on his readings in the tradition of Christian Kabbalah and Hermetic magic—as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then again, there’s also something rather silly in his typically portentous “dark glimpses” and “spectral glamour.” This stereotypically dark and mysterious view of Kabbalah, which had already been studied carefully by non-Jews since at least the Renaissance, reinforces both Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and his antisemitism. For Lovecraft, Jewish magic (and some Kabbalistic rituals are unquestionably magical in their intent) is dark magic.
Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” is an overt example of his prejudice regarding Jews and Jewish magic. The evil Robert Suydam, the subject of Thomas Malone’s ill-fated investigation, is known as the author of an “out-of-print pamphlet…on the Kabbalah and the Faustus legend.” Indeed, Suydam is something of a Faust figure. In the first part of the story, when Suydam is presented as old and decrepit, he is seen:
loitering on the benches around Borough Hall in conversation with groups of swarthy, evil-looking strangers. When he spoke it was to babble of unlimited powers almost within his grasp, and to repeat with knowing leers such mystical words or names as ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Ashmodai’, and ‘Samaël.’H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”
Later, at the time of Suydam’s wedding, when his youth and vigor seem to have been restored, Malone takes part in a raid of one of Suydam’s Red Hook properties, where horrifying paintings and words are found on the walls:
The paintings were appalling—hideous monsters of every shape and size, and parodies on human outlines which cannot be described. The writing was in red, and varied from Arabic to Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters. Malone could not read much of it, but whathe did decipher was portentous and cabbalistic enough. One frequently repeated motto was in a sort of Hebraised Hellenistic Greek, and suggested the most terrible daemon-evocations of the Alexandrian decadence:
HEL • HELOYM • SOTHER • EMMANVEL • SABAOTH • AGLA •
TETRAGRAMMATON • AGYROS • OTHEOS • ISCHYROS •
ATHANATOS • IEHOVA • VA • ADONAI • SADAY • HOMOVSION • MESSIAS • ESCHEREHEYE.
Circles and pentagrams loomed on every hand, and told indubitably of the strange beliefs and aspirations of those who dwelt so squalidly here.H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”
What Lovecraft calls “Hebraised Hellenistic Greek” is in some instances Hellenized Hebrew, or simply Hebrew. Without unpacking all the terms, we can note that “Sephiroth” are the emanations of the Kabbalistic Etz Hayyim (the Tree of Life), “Adonai” is Hebrew for Lord, frequently appearing in Jewish prayers; “Saday” is a corruption of “Shaddai,” Hebrew for “Almighty”; and “Heloym” is probably a corruption of “Elohim,” another designation of divinity, in the plural. “Iehova” (Jehovah) is an Anglicized pronunciation of the “Tetragrammaton,” in Jewish belief the unpronounceable four-letter name of God (יהוה), and “Emmanvel” (Emmanuel) is a name associated with the Messiah, that is, “Messias.” “Samaël” and “Ashmodai” are indeed prominent figures in Kabbalistic demonology.
Suydam’s associates, we are told, “were of Mongoloid stock, originating somewhere in or near Kurdistan,” which Malone notes “is the land of the Yezidis, last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers.” The Yazidis are hardly devil-worshippers; their faith combines elements of Christianity and Islam, and they have been subject to genocidal persecution in recent years by the Islamic State in Iraq. Be that as it may, the black magic in “The Horror at Red Hook” seems primarily to be drawn from Kabbalah, despite Lovecraft having picked up these references from the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The figure of Lilith arises during the crisis of “The Horror at Red Hook,” when Malone experiences what the “specialists” later call a “dream,” a dream that forces him to resign from the police force and leaves him with what today we would term PTSD. In a Tor blog post on Lovecraft’s story, the horror writer Anne M. Pillsworth flippantly but I think accurately comments on Lilith’s role:
Lilith, supposedly Adam’s first wife and the consort of archangels! Here she’s sexuality in its most terrifying and least sensuous guise—she has become it, not even female, a naked and leprous thing. That titters. A lot. And paws. And quaffs virgin blood. And hauls male corpses around with insolent ease. Plus phosphorescent is so not the same as radiant or beaming, as a bride should be. Phosphorescence is what mushrooms put out, or rotting things, a fungal light.
The magically reanimated corpse of Robert Suydam flees from what appears to be his “wedding” with Lilith, destroying her golden pedestal (which Pillsworth accurately calls “phallic”) and dissolving into “jellyish dissolution”—whereupon Malone mercifully faints.
In his comprehensive article on Lilith (which appears in his compendium volume simply called Kabbalah), Gershom Scholem traces her origins to Babylonian demonology, and then on through thousands of years of biblical, Talmudic, midrashic, and kabbalistic texts. The common belief that she was Adam’s first wife, who insisted on her equality with him during sexual intercourse, is related in turn to her being regarded as a threat to women in childbirth and a strangler of infants. In Kabbalah, she eventually came to be seen “as the permanent partner of Samael, queen of the realm of the forces of evil (the sitra ahra). In that world (the world of the kelippot) she fulfills a function parallel to that of the Shekhinah (“Divine Presence”) in the world of sanctity: just as the Shekhinah is the mother of the House of Israel, so Lilith is the mother of the unholy folk who constituted the ‘mixed multitude’ (the erev-rav) and ruled over all that is impure.”
Lovecraft’s corrupt but essentially accurate understanding of Jewish concepts informs his sensational narrative, though it is Kabbalah itself, as a demonic set of figures, beliefs, and practices that comes to rule “over all that is impure.” Thus, the antisemitism which pervades his attitudes and correspondence insinuates itself into his fiction as well.
Having briefly surveyed Lovecraft’s views of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish mysticism, and considered how these play out in one of his stories, I want to make a few observations about my engagement with Lovecraft in my own poetry. Lovecraft’s presence is different from that of other antisemitic writers who have had an impact on my work. Like most poets, I am in part an echo chamber, in which one hears the voices of those who have come before me, including such great but vexing modernists as Eliot, Stevens, and Pound. This is a matter of form or style: tone, cadence, turns of syntax, charged words, conscious or unconscious gestures and allusions. For me, Lovecraft’s poetry, with its eighteenth-century rhyme schemes and skillfully handled but deliberately antiquated rhetoric, is much less engaging than his fiction. Rather, I return again and again to his fascinating inventions, which means that it is the stuff of Lovecraft’s stories that I like to play with—selectively, gingerly, and no doubt due to its very loaded themes.
These occasional games coincide with my move, in recent years, to more narrative poetry. Unlike any number of recent writers in the Lovecraft tradition, I have not been inclined to directly revise his work in order to undermine and deconstruct his prejudices. But this is not to say that my appropriations have neglected to address his faults entirely. Irony is my mode, though there is always an underlying sense of transcendental desire. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, including its morbidities regarding race, ethnicity, and gender is turned inside out.
One episode in my book From the Files of the Immanent Foundation involves Emma, an Afro-Caribbean psychic who is sent by the Foundation to a conference in the “Summerland.” There, in her astral form, she has a one-night stand with a handsome fellow who may or may not be related to Wilbur Whateley. When Emma, whose handler is none other than Armitage (now retired from his post at Miskatonic University), discovers how she was set up, she creates a computer virus that wreaks havoc with the workings of the entire Foundation. In my poem The Adventures of Pascal Wanderlust (in the collection In a Broken Star), Pascal, an androgenous adventurer and sorcerer-for-hire, has a disturbing vision:
…So Wanderlust ascends—
“Past Midnight! Past the Morning Star!” Her Voice
rushes by in the wind. The tzinorot beckon.
Each Face gazes outward as Wanderlust approaches.
These are the boundaries of the infinite spaces,
the non-Euclidean forms, studied in Antarctica
and Provence. Elder Things hanging with Shimon
bar-Yochai among the hills of Galilee. L’cha Dodi!
The throbbing in Pascal’s temples is more painful
now as the Book opens, floating in the silent void.
The Zohar, aka The Necronomicon. Sacred fantasy.
Drawings by Steve Ditko. Story by Stan Lee.
Later, Pascal, depressed, will take a walk on the beach and meet up with an old friend:
Wanderlust takes the new express from Innisfree
to Innsmouth. Settles into the cushy seat. Please
enjoy our complimentary Wi-Fi. Old-fashioned
Pascal prefers telepathy, tunes in expecting messages
from the beyond. Comes up with nothing but static.
The maggidim have been strangely silent. They have
nothing to say in the face of self-doubt. Negative
capability? Magic, they insist, is an art of the will.
So what will you do now? Wanderlust walks along
the strand, looking out to Devil Reef. An old friend
swims in for a brief visit. Stares at Pascal coldly.
“Nice to breathe the air of upper earth now and then.”
“Pascal Wanderlust is nothing but trouble! Sorry,
but that’s what great-great-grandmother said to me
before I left. Tries to right the balance and upsets it
every time. I told them the design was flawed ten
thousand years ago, but why listen to us? We dwelt
in the Abyss before the Beginning. What do we know?
And honestly, Pascal, all those Miskatonic researchers
following your last visit. Former Foundation agents,
every one. Take some advice from an old school chum.
You were a goth with eyeliner and your first pair of Docs.
I was a rich kid from Ohio obsessed with my ancestry.
I learned I could change—the hard way. You can too.”
Looking at these verses now, it occurs to me that Pascal, a sweet Jewish boy-girl who had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah attended by Deep Ones and Elder Things—and about whom I’m still writing—is in one respect Lovecraft’s spiritual descendent. This does not make Wanderlust, or Wanderlust’s author, altogether happy. But as the aquatic being that was once Robert Olmstead says to his old friend Pascal, “I learned I could change—the hard way. You can too.”
Norman Finkelstein is a poet and literary critic. His most recent book of poems, co-authored with Tirzah Goldenberg, is Thirty-Six / Two Lives: A Poetic Dialogue. He edits and writes the poetry review blog Restless Messengers.
Copyright 2022 Norman Finkelstein.