“The Symphonic Ideal” (Oct 1916)

On the day when the UK so gloriously votes to leave the EU, it seems somewhat apt to re-publish H.P. Lovecraft (of all people), on the joys of hope and looking on the bright side, and the perils of a sour and biting cynicism. The co-incidence of the vote and my having the article in digital form is just that, yet there does seem something here which speaks to the sour precautionary grindings currently being heard from many British media commentators.

We live in the midst of a new and outspoken cynicism; the result of declining orthodoxy on the part of the religious, and of aimless iconoclasm on the part of the philosophical. The happiness once acknowledged in our minor joys and moments of respite from the burden of life, is now laughed at and despised as a mere narcotic to the intelligence; and we are bidden to dismiss as unreal those simple and honest delights which alone make human existence endurable. If aught but the severe satisfaction of perfect intellectual, artistic, aesthetic, and moral beauty chance to please us, we are straightway damned as superficial, and censured for our childish triviality of taste. [Lovecraft has a connoisseur of flavoured ice-creams and cats, among many other small pleasures suited to his extreme poverty]

   There recently appeared before the public a rather unsophisticated volume entitled “Pollyanna”, which preached a sweetly artificial doctrine of converting ills into blessings by the contemplation of possible calamities still more direful. After a period of enthusiastic laudation from the “jeune fille” [young girl] type of admirer, poor “Pollyanna” became the target of every penny-a-line hack reviewer and little-wit in Grub-Street [in the mainstream press]. They loftily demonstrated that the easing of melancholy by force of imagination is a vastly unscientific thing. Impossible, they vowed! Or, even if possible, it ought not to be; since ’tis a frightfully callow sort of mental regimen, quite unworthy of the mature mind! They all swore ’tis an affront to the eternal verities to be able to stop thinking of the world’s evil and to gather a little joy from that idyllic goodness and virtue of which the world undoubtedly possesses, or seems to possess, a little. The New York Tribune, in fact, deemed the inoffensive “Pollyanna” sufficiently culpable to merit a sneering editorial. [“On Being Gladder Than You Are”, New York Tribune, Sun. 3rd Sept 1916, p.2. On the occasion of a New York City stage adaptation of the book.]

   So runs the worldly-wise current of twentieth-century life! Your modern philosopher had rather be mature and miserable, than childlike and contented; and he deems you a monstrous imbecile if you can be happy at a time when he thinks you have not sufficient cause to be happy. Heaviness of spirit, he doth asseverate, is a sacred obligation of every thoughtful and responsible citizen. If you lack woes of your own, then go mourn at the wretched state of mankind in general!

   The Conservative [Lovecraft’s amateur critical journal] confesses to no little amusement at the wailing of these worshippers of morbid maturity. He even ventures to exhibit a leaning toward the side of immaturity; for is not maturity but the full-blown precursor of decay? It is dangerous to dabble in realities, and if more of us were able to retain the happy illusions of our infancy, those illusions would be so much nearer truth. Can any of our apostles of sophistication define what they mean by real happiness? Is it not more likely that all happiness is unreal; a golden fabric woven by fairies from the moonbeams of yesterday, and visible, like the Milky Way, only when more garish and conspicuous things are banished from the sight? A moment of retrospection, a snatch of song, a cadence of rhythm, a glance at the blue empyrean [the sky], the playing of the sun with the leaves of green trees, a chance act of benevolence — all these things sometimes bring what we uncultured barbarians are pleased to call happiness. Must we be utterly condemned if such happiness be found to have no cause save in physiological reactions or psychological stimuli? It is certainly grateful surcease from the pain of living, and what more could we desire? Is not fragrance fragrance, whether it come from the woodland violet or the stately cedar? If these simple pleasures be only drugs to help us forget reality, then let us accept the oblivion they offer. Nature designed them to soothe the roughnesses of our existence, and we should accept the gift with gratitude, rather than reject it with scorn. On the pleasures of the fancy rests all the mighty framework of art, poesy, and song. Stark, mature reality leads to the suicide’s vault. [Lovecraft would restate this sentiment a decade later, in the opening of his famous “The Call of Cthulhu” and also in the opening of “The Silver Key”]

   […] We are all much too serious, and too little disposed to promote the comfort of society. One refreshing zephyr of naturalness, whether in the primer-like and humour-lacking form of a “Pollyanna” or in the subtler shape of a Symphony, is to our weary spirits worth an hundred laboured essays on the art of correct thinking or the science of being wisely miserable. Wherefore, though Reason may goad us on in our sterner search for Truth, let us not contemn [Lovecraft’s deliberate use of the archaic form of ‘condemn’] the happiness which blooms by the roadside, nor cast aside unthinkingly the protecting cheerfulness of the Symphonic Ideal.

   —— H. P. Lovecraft.