Since tonight is yet another edition of Ancient Aliens, this time revisiting the claim that the moon is a hollow alien space station, I have only a couple of brief things to talk about while we wait. The first is the weird trailer that Universal released for Matt Damon’s upcoming 2017 movie The Great Wall, or, as it will soon be known, The White Supremacy. I know that Hollywood believes that audiences won’t see an action movie that stars an Asian person, but how utterly bizarre is it to see Matt Damon leading the charge to defend medieval China from an invasion of dragons? Already this year we had a filmmaker apologize for making all of the Gods of Egypt lily white, and now Universal cut the trailer for The Great Wall—a movie directed by a Chinese director and funded in part by China—to make it look like all of the forces of Asia are helpless until the white guy shows up. The director, Zhang Yimou, said that he purposely put a white guy as the lead to follow “a film language that [Americans] are familiar with” in order to introduce them to Chinese culture.
While that may be depressing, this leads me to an interesting, if flawed, piece that ran yesterday in The A. V. Club. There, Joshua Alston takes on the question of whether H. P. Lovecraft’s racism makes his stories especially powerful and relevant during a period of racial resentment and unrest in the United States.
Trump has reached the cusp of the presidency by stoking those fears with the flair of a ringmaster. He’s also cribbed from some of Lovecraft’s most enduring themes, including Lovecraft’s exploitation of our common fear of the unknown and our anxiety about the unfathomable horrors to which we’re blind and powerless.
Alston makes the case that the political monsters conjured by Trump and his Republican allies follow many of the same patterns that Lovecraft used in creating his own monsters, namely stoking fears of the “other” and mythologizing issues and problems until they grow into an all-encompassing horror based as much on innuendo and belief as on anything factual.
I don’t think I entirely agree with Alston. While Lovecraft was, of course, a virulent racist who produced a number of racist stories (“The Horror at Red Hook” being Alston’s Exhibit A, but other examples are not hard to find), Lovecraft did manage in his fiction to universalize fears that originated in his own racism so that fear of racial minorities was only one part of an all-encompassing universal dread. In Lovecraft’s fiction (as distinct from his letters and personal opinions), it is only chance that led to white people having any special claim to civilization, and they are just as ignorant and deluded as any other group of human beings. Alston suggests that Lovecraft’s fiction treats “difference” as a “mortal danger,” but that reading is applicable only some of the time. In The Shadow Out of Time, the narrator, for example, learns to respect the Great Race by becoming one of them, and in At the Mountains of Madness the Old Ones are depicted as mostly humane (for a slave-owning aristocracy—it was a Lovecraft story after all). If we were to take the ideas expressed in “The Call of Cthulhu” more or less literally, Lovecraft seems to say that white Americans are intentionally blinding themselves to reality in order to preserve an illusion of cultural and racial control. This is decidedly more complicated than non-white = evil, even though Lovecraft as a man expressed such opinions rather frequently.
I agree that Lovecraft’s fiction does have resonance in our current climate, but I feel like it’s too reductive to say Lovecraft was racist so therefore his fiction serves as an analogy for Trumpism. Sure, the conservative heroes in his stories try to build walls to keep the Old Ones out and are constantly on guard for terrorism inspired by mad Arab prophets, but at the same time their dread isn’t just that the Other exists but rather the haunting realization that they are not the center of the universe. Here is perhaps the theme that speaks best to today’s world: Americans in general, and white Americans in particular, are having difficulty coming to grips with the fact that the terrifying forces of history have conspired to decenter them from their post-World War II role as the center of the world. As we move toward a multipolar world, a globalized economy, and a multiracial democracy, that sense that the old pillars of the earth have fallen is perhaps the closest connection between Lovecraft’s themes and the political moment of today.
That said, such readings necessarily take the perspective of a white reader. I can only imagine that those who are not white or not American would view his themes very differently.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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