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Self-Education vs. Higher Education

On the universal degeneracy of so-called higher education in the contemporary USA, I have made myself clear in any number of articles and essays since the mid-1990s.  Recently at The Orthosphere I described the last few years of my college teaching career at what I called “Upstate Consolation University,” supplying anecdotes about students and colleagues who reflect equally the functional illiteracy that has afflicted American culture for the last forty years, at least.  Can PhDs really be illiterate?  Yes.  While they have the specialized knowledge of a trained bureaucrat-scholar, they yet lack anything resembling the broad education of actual eminent minds in decades and centuries now remote and by the current generation completely forgotten.  The young faculty members lack philosophical depth – and that translates into an inability to employ intuition or imagination so as to transcend the boundaries of their narrow graduate school instruction.  Are American undergraduates illiterate?  Yes.  But they are more (or is the word less) than illiterate.  I would say that they proudly know nothing, except that pride requires knowledge of something and undergraduates have no knowledge of their lack of knowledge.  Still and all, their attitude is a prideful one with no discernible basis.  The cohorts of college graduates will not preserve the civilization that they inherit.  Indeed, they are not aware of inheriting it; their awareness fixates itself entirely on their devices.  Being past that, but holding it nevertheless as a background or context to my late-in-life contemplations, I pursue the leisure of my retirement, which consists mainly in eclectic reading of items high and low, with the recognition, late in life, that what is classified as high might really be quite low and vice-versa.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) – With a Rare Smile

An example – the “pulp” writers of the mid-Twentieth Century.  People generally use the phrase “pulp fiction” in the pejorative.  They assume that the storytelling purveyed by the large-format, cheap-paper, narrowly genre-focused monthlies and quarterlies of the 1930s, 40s, and the first half of the 50s amounted to no more than the vulgar titillation of combined violence and eroticism meant to divert attention from the tedious reality of life during the Depression and the subsequent world war.  According to this view, the authors of such diversions were penny-a-word hacks with no interest in human nature. They were mere commercial suppliers-of-prose who catered to an equally vapid audience of the unlettered whose primary attraction was to the lurid cover-art displayed so prominently on the racks of the corner newsstand.  It would be cliché to state that this view covers a significant portion of “pulp” fiction, but to paraphrase the writer Theodore Sturgeon, most of anything is junk.  What surprises me in my revisitation of the “pulps,” is how profoundly educated many of the writers were, how deeply their prose penetrated into the human condition, how thoroughly they perfected their literary style.  In the cases of three writers who exert a particular attraction on me – H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961), and August Derleth (1909 – 1971) – the stylistic refinement is evident not only in their fiction but in the robust informal prose of their letters.  These letters have been meticulously collected and edited by David T. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, the latter known as a prolific scholar of Lovecraftiana, and published by Hippocampus Press in handsome soft-cover editions printed on high quality paper.

The massiveness of the correspondence awes the reader.  The single-volume Derleth-Smith correspondence, under the title Eccentric Impractical Devils (2020), runs to 601 pages.  The two-volume Smith-Lovecraft correspondence, under the title Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill (2020), runs to 808 pages.  There are comparably large two-volume editions of the Lovecraft-Robert E. Howard and the Lovecraft-Derleth exchanges.  I mentioned above that I let my first-hand experience of contemporary institutional decadence play a contextual role in my leisurely exploration of the genre archives of the mid-Twentieth Century.  As it turns out, neither Lovecraft nor Smith completed his secondary education let alone attended college.  In the cases of Lovecraft and Smith, even primary school attendance was hit or miss, due largely to chronic sickness in the childhood years.  Whereas Lovecraft grew up in Providence, a genuine city, Smith and Derleth were denizens of small towns, the former of Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California and Derleth of Sauk City, in Southwest Wisconsin.  All three men came from economically challenged family milieux, but civic amenities, especially libraries, served them abundantly in youth.  All three became inveterate readers well before adolescence.  They advanced to adult books very early in their readerly careers.  All three became published authors, even though in venues of limited circulation, in their teens; and by their mid-twenties they were active commercial writers.  Lovecraft and Smith never attended college.  Derleth graduated from the University of Wisconsin with baccalaureate in 1930, but on the evidence his education was mostly extra-mural.

The epistolary exchanges between these men who wrote for a living, but never sat through a creative writing seminar, exemplify abundantly their richness of self-taught lore.  Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill, Vol. II, contains a letter addressed by Lovecraft to Smith postmarked 18 November 1933.  The two men often exchanged stories in manuscript and offered one another constructive criticism.  Smith had previously sent Lovecraft one of his tales of “Averoigne,” a fictitious early-medieval territory in what would become France centuries later.  The story, “The Holiness of Azédarac,” had meanwhile appeared in Weird Tales for November 1933.  Because it was freshly in his mind, Lovecraft commented on the printed text.  Lovecraft makes points, not so much literary-critical, but historical and philological.  While Smith knew French – he taught himself in his mid-thirties so as to undertake the translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal into English – his idea of how Latin transformed itself into la langue galloise implausibly foreshortened the timeline.  “The thing is,” Lovecraft writes, “that I’m in doubt about the picture of Roman Gaul in A.D. 475… especially the idea conjured up by the phrase ‘an obsolete variant of the French of Averoigne.’”  Lovecraft explains that, “in 475 no such language as French existed, the vulgar Latin of Gallia not being sufficiently differentiated from the parent stock to be any sort of separate speech.”  He reminds Smith that “Gaul was the last center of culture in a declining empire”; and that the classical tongue held on stubbornly in the region.  He lists a number of Fifth Century Gallic literary notables: “Ausonius, Avienus, Sidonius, Apollinaris, Paulinus, [and] Vigilantius.”

Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) – As Usual, Unsmiling

Lovecraft’s grasp of the lore compels him to continue for fifteen hundred or maybe two thousand fascinating words.  The historical label “Late Antiquity” did not exist in 1933, but Lovecraft understands that he discourses about an age no longer classical, or pagan, but not yet medieval, in the high sense, either.  He mentions the tail-end of the Germanic migrations and the disappearance of the Celtic dialects that these hastened.  Whence this treasure of knowledge?  “I’ve always been tremendously interested in the melancholy petering out of the Roman civilisation, & nowhere was the process more vividly illustrated than in the Gaul of the age of [St.] Ambrose.”  Thinking analogically, Lovecraft adds how “sometimes I fear the present is soon to become a sort of rough parallel.”  Smith had the same conviction – the Twentieth Century amounted to a period of civilizational dissolution.  After the lengthy excursion on the geo-politics of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries Lovecraft returns to the matter of language: “The famous Oath of Strasbourg – A. D. 842 – is the last surviving example of the popular Gallic language of the Dark Ages… called [in its day] Lingua Romana as distinguished from Lingua Latina.”  For Smith’s edification, Lovecraft reproduces two passages from the “Oath” in Latina, Romana, and Modern French.  He concludes with this: “All we can say is that by 842 the popular Latin had begun to display a definite differentiation in the direction of the modern Language later called French.”

At this point Lovecraft veers into a discussion of the latest editions of the science- and weird-fiction periodicals.  When he has treated that topic sufficiently, he takes up the witch-mania of the Late Medieval Period, making learned references to the bibliography of the subject, including Margaret Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921) and Montague Summer’s Geography of Witchcraft (1927).  The tone throughout indicates that Lovecraft gets much pleasure out of his topics; he assumes that Smith will extract pleasure in the same degree.  Given the sustained character of the correspondence, which went on until Lovecraft’s death in 1937, and the regular copiousness of the crossing missives, this can only be true.  In their letters, Lovecraft and Smith shared their respective self-acquired educations, which already overlapped in many ways.  A letter (mid-March 1933) in Eccentric Impractical Devils has Smith giving advice to Derleth concerning Derleth’s French, not quite up to Smith’s level, in a story entitled “The Paneled Room.”  Derleth had solicited Smith’s scrutiny, writing, “I am no good in that language.”  Where Derleth had written, “O Virginie, petite, voicé le docteur Grandon,” Smith corrects voicé to voici.  Where Derleth had written, “L’Enfant a tout dequieté,” Smith corrects a tout dequieté to est très fort tranquille.  And so on…   It is not an obligation for Smith, but a courtesy happily fulfilled for a friend whom he had not yet met in person.  Derleth, not incidentally, would become Smith’s publisher through the agency of his Arkham House Press, established in 1939 to preserve Lovecraft’s writings.

The Hippocampus books add up to several thousand pages of epistolary traffic covering the middle of the last century.  The range of topics, many of them erudite, stretches wide.  Eccentric Impractical Devils includes a letter (11 February 1949) from Smith to Derleth that delves into the origins of genre.  Derleth had sent Smith a copy of his quarterly Arkham Sampler (Winter 1949) containing a symposium on science fiction.  Smith read it “with great interest.”  He reacts to it with some focused criticism.  He writes how “it struck me that most of the contributors… failed to emphasize the historical aspect of the theme and were too exclusively preoccupied with its contemporary development.”  Smith insists that “for the proper understanding of the [science fiction] genre and of fantasy in general, some consideration should be given to its roots in ancient literature, folklore, mythology, anthropology, occultism and mysticism.”  Smith remarks that no contributor to the symposium mentioned Lucian, Apuleius, or Rabelais as “among the forefathers of the genre,” all three being “of prime importance.”  Smith sees Lucian and Apuleius as presenting complementary if opposing views.  Lucian, a materialist, aggressively satirized religion and metaphysics.  Apuleius, a prelate in the Cult of Isis and an adherent of the Platonist school, celebrated the mysterious and the occult.  Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass, Smith writes, “expressed… the power and glamour of a sorcery that was regarded as science by a moiety of his contemporaries.”  If Lucian’s skepticism were helpful in some contexts, so would be Apuleius’ convictions regarding “that mysticism which is seemingly eternal and common to many human minds in all epochs.”

August Derleth (1909 – 1971) – Amidst His Books

Modern “education” aims at inculcating dogma – narrow dogma, anti-intellectual to boot.  The magnificent self-education of someone like Smith enables a nuanced or one might say non- or even anti-dogmatic view of philosophical controversies.  Another fitting word would be openness.  Smith stood open to experience and never discounted the possibility of transcendence.  He cultivated transcendence in his writing, especially in his poetry, but in his prose too; and the probability is – he experienced it.  The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (2003) edited by Dr. Schultz and Scott Connors and published by the revived Arkham House Press supplements the Hippocampus editions.  It includes a letter (11 July 1950) from Smith to Samuel J. Sackett, an English professor at UCLA, who had noticed Smith, took him seriously, and proposed to write about him in scholarly venues.  Smith defends his “ornate literary style” to Sackett, replying to criticism over the years by people who found affectation in his prose and reacted to it with Puritanical indignation.  Smith writes: “As to my own employment of an ornate style, using many words of classical origin and exotic color, I can only say that [it] is designed to produce effects of language and rhythm which could not possibly be achieved by a vocabulary restricted to what is known as ‘basic English.’”  He adds that, “An atmosphere of remoteness, vastness, mystery and exoticism is more naturally evoked by a style with an admixture of Latinity.”  Smith relays to Sackett his admiration of Thomas Brown and Edgar Allan Poe, who likewise drew on a massive lexicon.  He also mentions Herodotus, from whom he borrowed ethnic terms, John Mandeville, and Gustave Flaubert.

In addition to the Smith-Derleth exchange, Hippocampus has issued the two-volume Lovecraft-Derleth exchange (2013), which takes the title of Essential Solitude.  Hundreds of Lovecraft’s letters to Derleth survive, but only forty in the other direction.  Derleth’s epistolary style tends more toward the functional than toward the literary.  Derleth also entered into a more conventional, business-oriented life than either Lovecraft or Smith.  His correspondence often concerns practical matters related to the establishment and operation of Arkham House and to his own progress as a professional writer.  The signs of an autodidact nevertheless make themselves known.  Derleth’s article “Lovecraft, Outsider,” which is included in Vol. II of Essential Solitude, remarks and appreciates his correspondent’s intellectually self-made status: “Because of his early ill health, H. P. Lovecraft became an omnivorous reader; he read everything upon which he could lay his hands.”  More than that: “His enforced seclusion lent to him a perspective more farsighted than he might otherwise have had; thus he was able in his correspondence to take a long view of present-day phenomena, and whether he wrote of Mussolini, of Poe in Providence, of Proust, of proletarian literature, of the cinema, he maintained an absolutely impartial point of view.”  Whether this statement is entirely accurate or not, it indicates that because Lovecraft escaped an institutional education, he could see things from his own angle.  This made Lovecraft’s judgments valuable to those who lived in closer proximity than he did to social conformism, yet distant enough to savvy that conformism posed a danger.  Lovecraft had been very much a mentor to Derleth, who was twenty years younger than the Rhode Islander.

In a letter to Lovecraft (31 May 1933), Derleth engages in literary judgments.  The topic is M. P. Shiel, a fin-du-siècle British writer who wrote genre novels and enjoyed a brief phase of popularity from about 1895 to 1910.  To Smith Derleth writes, “Shiel is… one of the great living stylists, quite up to [Arthur] Machen, though Machen is of the old school, and Shiel is of the new.”  Derleth writes that the “sheer beauty of [Shiel’s] style continues to fascinate me” because “he makes language flow like limpid water.”  How does Derleth know of Shiel?  He spent time in bookshops, especially second-hand and antiquarian bookshops and studied bookseller catalogues.  In my own experience, browsing among used books can constitute an education all by itself.  One of the deficits of the present day in 2021 is that second-hand booksellers have all but disappeared from the brick-and-mortar infrastructure.  It is true that one can still search out second-hand items online, but what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Angel of the Library shies from the searcher’s digital quest but readily joins his reconnaissance of dusty, narrow corridors crammed with hundreds of volumes.  One book leads to another.  Patterns emerge.  Contemporary technologies have canceled this manifestation of magical action – or as Carl Jung named it, Synchronicity.  Jung’s mysterious force, when it starts working its spell, leads its pupil to more than books.  Derleth reveals musical knowledge.  He mentions to Lovecraft (3 July 1933) that he has commenced a one-hundred-line dramatic monologue entitled “Liszt hears his Second Concerto: Weimar, 7 January, 1857.”  To pair with his recording of Liszt’s score, Derleth purchased “the wondrously beautiful and weirdly somber SWAN OF TUOMELA [sic], by Sibelius, a work which has an unplumbed depth of melancholy hidden in its deep tone.”

Hippocampus Press – 2020

The privately acquired knowledge of a Lovecraft, a Smith, or a Derleth puts the graduate-school learning, entirely putative, of young academicians to shame.  To what degree of awareness of high culture or genre culture can a newly minted assistant professor of Women’s Studies at a second-tier state college stake a claim?  What in the way of perspective can she possess?  Let the same questions be posed in regard to a twenty-two-year-old girl (with short-cropped blue hair, no doubt, and rings in her nose and lips) who has spent four years in the classrooms of Women’s Studies professors and proudly waves her un-repayable, borrowed-money baccalaureate at the commencement ceremony.  One sees thus the rapidly diminishing return of the pernicious anti-process.  The problem magnifies itself in that all humanities professors now possess the knowledge, such as it is, only of Women’s Studies professors.  Who in college today will ever hear the names Ausonius, Avienus, Sidonius, Apollinaris, Paulinus, and Vigilantius?  Thirty-seven years ago Penguin published a volume under the banner The Last Poets of Imperial Rome.  It featured Ausonius (310 – 395), whose long lyric poem “The Moselle” must have recommended itself to Lovecraft.  I found a beat-up copy in a shadowy corner on a low shelf in a once-rich but latterly decayed second-hand bookshop near Ithaca, New York, in 1990.  That establishment, the Phoenix, went out of business twenty years ago.  Nothing has replaced it.  I still own the Penguin anthology, which also translates poems by Claudius Claudianus, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, and Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius.

Lovecraft’s 1933 concern, in his letter to Smith, that the present age might constitute a parallelism, in its retraction of knowledge, initiation, and wisdom, with the Fifth and Sixth Centuries and their shrinking horizon of Classical Civilization has proven itself a prophecy, with a few cavils.  The term “Dark Ages,” which Lovecraft uses, now appears to clear-sighted historians as something of a misnomer.  The absolute break with Classical intellectuality posited by Eighteenth-Century “Enlightenment” types when they invented the Middle Ages — in order the better to praise themselves for being bright and beautiful — never happened in the way the mendacious story suggests.  When Western Civilization shifted from a Mediterranean orientation to an Atlantic one, it sustained continuity with its Mare Nostrum precursor.  Christian thinkers happily appropriated the Neo-Platonism of the Late-Antique pagans and recast it, with minimal modification, to accord with the New Testament.  Roman law still held.  It merged with the Germanic traditions of the Gothic princes who reigned as sovereigns in the former provinces.  The French writer Rémi Brague (born 1947) has put forth the hypothesis that Western Civilization since Rome has been self-taught and that its “text” was other than itself.  When Rome – quite early – became aware of Greece, Rome studied Greece and adopted its high culture.  The Goths studied Rome.  Far-sighted monarchs like Alfred the Great and Charlemagne hired clerics precisely to preserve, reassemble, and transmit the fragments of the earlier civilization.  The mode of instruction from Rome through the High Gothic was household education under tutors.  And household education is a type of self-education.  Generation by generation the family educates itself.  As Lovecraft’s prophecy intimates, the New Puritanism would forbid all that.  It would usher in an actual Dark Age.

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas F. Bertonneau is an intellectual and professor and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals, including William Carlos Williams Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Academician, Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.

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