Surrealism and H.P. Lovecraft

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In my readings of the underbelly of 19th and 20th Century literature of late from the decadents to the surrealists, gothic to punk I came across an interesting little history of Surrealism by Patrick Lepetit The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies which mentions the exile period during WWII when many of the French Surrealists moved to America during that dark time. He speaks of their involvement in many various materialist rituals and practices both playful and serious within their tight knit community. Surrealists were interested in materialist and atheistic forms of the sacred and visionary, incorporating much of the darker elements of the ancient occult lore and hermetic alchemical traditions. They frowned on spiritualism and were adamant about a materialist form of ritual and practice. Officially the surrealist movement continued up to 1969. But even now many of its base notions have been incorporated by various artists and it continues to transform itself even in our era.

My interest in all of this has been to discover certain radical materialist discourses that used the various occultation material for its programs as well as experimental and heretical investigations into drugs, altered states of consciousness, arcane ritual and magical practices all based upon an atheistic challenge to monotheistic religious morality and official social norms. For Breton and his followers there was always a sense of revolutionary spirit underlying the transforming powers of consciousness and its use in art and materialist practices. History of the Surrealist Movement by French philosopher and art critic Gerard Durozoi is still the standard work of reference. But this one by Lepetit gives a nice overview of the magical elements within that history. It offers specific anecdotes, memoirs, fragments from journals, etc. Interesting.

At one point many of them came across the work of H.P. Lovecraft (himself a rationalist) and Lepetit shows how his new mythos impacted many of the surrealists of the age:

Inasmuch as we find ourselves among more or less malevolent powers, let’s add that the path of the surrealists during their American exile even crossed that of the Great Old Ones, Cthulhu, Dagon— the monstrous half-man, half-fish hybrid that makes a brief appearance in the Bible— Nyarlathotep, or Yog Sothoh, who had been awakened by the son of an Egyptian Rite Mason, Howard Phillips (H. P.) Lovecraft. Lovecraft, who was highly versed in the field of fantasy literature, as shown by his book Supernatural Horror in Literature, was the author of texts he called “Gothic horrors,” which possess elements reminiscent of Lautréamont, namely through their “horrifying reversal of the Christian thematic.”  Robert Allerton Parker was the first to devote a text to the author of “The Dunwich Horror,” with “Such Pulp as Dreams Are Made On” (which also examined the work of Lovecraft’s friend Clark Ashton Smith, whose name had already appeared in “First Papers of Surrealism” in issue 2– 3 of VVV in March 1943). Franklin Rosemont of the Chicago group and even Gérard Legrand in France were quick to follow suit; an article by Legrand, “H. P. L. and the Black Moon,” appeared in the first issue of Médium. In it Legrand writes, “Lovecraft’s grandeur resides in nothing less than the creation of a personal mythology that makes modern history look ridiculous. Scattered in pulp magazines until his death, this mythology is evidence of authentic occult knowledge treated with total freedom.” He then concludes this article, “Rarely has so much rigor been used to evoke abysses.” Robert Benayoun, in a brief item titled “Babel Revisited,” appearing in the fourth issue of Médium, sharply attacks the translator of an unnamed work by the “hermit of Providence,” but which could easily be The Color Out of Space, an ad for which appeared at the back of this same issue. Benayoun described the American’s “book . . . as spun from shadow” and saw in it “the greatest endeavor of collective panic of the half-century, the sure progression through the awareness of an anxiety drawn from the source of the ages.” He also took the trouble to praise the author’s “imperturbable, anachronistic, and solemn style.”

Legrand returned to this subject in La Brèche, n ° 8 (November 1965), adding, “Religious historians generally contain theosophists who don’t know it— those who Lovecraft criticized (not without naïveté) for their ‘blissful optimism.’” Remedios Varo, Jean-Pierre Duprey, and the future leader of the Phases group, Edouard Jaguer— contrary to Breton— also greatly esteemed the American, according to the testimony left by Jaguer personally in his book Le Surréalisme face à la littérature (Surrealism at the Hands of Literature),  as did Yves Elléouët. While deploring Lovecraft’s rudimentary style, Julien Gracq, who seems to have particularly liked “Dagon,” also felt Lovecraft was participating in the renewal of the novel by the efforts of imagination his books presume,  whereas Mandiargues reports in Le Cadran lunaire  on “the success of Lovecraft’s once scorned writings and of the audience granted to the people of his school.” Finally, Sarane Alexandrian, in his Histoire de la philosophie occulte (History of Occult Philosophy), makes this observation, whose full importance we shall see later: “A book on twentieth-century gnosis should also include the fantasy novelist H. P. Lovecraft, who was inspired by the Syriac text by Teodor bar Konaï on manicheism.” Konaï was the eighth-century author of a Liber Scholiorum, which “stands out,” Jean Doresse tells us, “by the strange nature of certain heresies it helped save from oblivion.”1


  1. Lepetit, Patrick (2014-04-24). The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies (pp. 114-115). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.

7 thoughts on “Surrealism and H.P. Lovecraft

    • Yea, there’s this whole strange underbelly of history that usually gets overlooked in the official academic works… most academic works in history, philosophy, etc. are usually so ideologically blinkered one begins to drift off asleep or double-back and look into the darker realms… 🙂

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  1. I found Lepetit’s book deeply unsatisfying – A diverse collection of quotations selectively combined out of context, surrounded by a series of open questions in order to give the impression of hinting at something deeper. It didn’t help that nearly all the references omit page numbers and a substantial number omit the publisher. However, perhaps this is the fault of the translator.

    If you are interested in this stuff, a much better book (albeit with a narrower focus) is M.E. Warlick, Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of a Myth (University of Texas Press, 2001).

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    • Yes, I have that as well. Yet, that wasn’t the point of the post.

      I already see the weakness of the book. It lacks context, yet even with that being said it fills in a gap that the other work on Ernst – as you say contextualizes in a much narrower focus. Truth is I enjoyed it not for the fullness of its contextualization, but that it would allow me to explore on my own the contexts of aspects of what he covered on my own. It’s more like popcorn and candy: doesn’t give you the meat, just gives you the sugar. One will have to dig deeper on one’s own, follow the trail into the full gamut of biographies, journals, art history, literature, poetry, academic and non-academic articles, etc. For him to have contextualized it he would’ve needed to write a much different more abstracted and colder work. Seemed he was following a more personal and less refined walk through the marvelous trail. I can see as an academic you want things to fit into that more rigid and codified pattern of scholarly work. His work in that sense is not scholarly by a long shot.

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      • If anything, I’m an ex-academic. My problem with the book is that he neither contextualizes his claims nor gives one the resources to ‘dig deeper on one’s own’ although, as I said, that might be the fault of the translation. So it’s the worst of both worlds. I’m fine with stuff not being scholarly so long as it has substance. I have a particular interest in surrealism and its fringes links to the occult and, as I said, found this book rather disappointing.

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