Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Robert Howard means to me

For Jill

I believe that almost every monograph or article I've ever seen on Robert Howard has mentioned the same few facts: his upbringing and doctor father, his isolation in Cross Plains, Texas, his sick mother, his lack of lasting or deep relationships with women, his musculature, physique, or athletic prowess, his insistence on physical culture, his determination and sensitivity to contemporary ideas of masculinity (especially the idea of a man earning his own living or providing for his family, no matter his area of expertise or skill), his correspondence with Lovecraft (which is not as extensive as people want to believe), his "natural" writing ability, and his eventual suicide. Few of these facts are meaningful to me. I can not pretend to know anything at all about Robert Howard, even after reading biographies that place his life in context, letters through which he speaks to the men he called his friends, and exhaustively burning through story after story that he wrote - with a passion that I know pales next to his own creative joy and urges. The text is not the man. I look through all of these words and I don't find Howard anywhere. I find, perhaps, some of his desires, some of his projected fantasies, some of his core beliefs - or ideas he wished he could believe in, or wished he could form into a philosophy that would make the desert of Central Texas disappear at times. Most of the man is missing, but this is not something out of the ordinary. If I wanted to, of course, I could see as much of Robert Howard as I wished in his writing. I could know him as deeply as I know myself, as I would be using his work to investigate myself, to draw myself out, as it were, and frame my own beliefs using his words, his worlds. I want to know him, though. I don't know why. And so I take myself out of every one of his stories and see what remains...and what is there? Nothing. This is as it should be.

My last girlfriend, in what was probably the most thoughtful birthday gift I will ever receive in my life, surprised me years ago by telling me she was taking me on a trip to Cross Plains in order to see the preserved house of the Howards. In fact it was such a thoughtful gift, specific to my own personality and imagination, my own identity and past, that I didn't know how to interpret it. No one had ever done anything like that for me before, and no one has since. In my life it is almost the sole utterance of an external world that took notice of me, my curiosity, my obsessions, or my desires. I can not remember telling her about Howard, what he meant to me, what he had said to me through all of those days and nights reading his stories when I was younger, how much he inspired me and how much emotion he made me feel. If I could have said any of this, it is doubtful I would have. If I had, it is doubtful I would have been understood in the way I wanted to be. At the time, however, the gift in itself was a remarkable gesture both of kindness and interest, and I appreciated it (and was grateful for it) as I have never appreciated anything else. Of course my girlfriend did not share my enthusiasm for Howard or know, really, of how much of an impact his work had had on me earlier, but this only makes the gift that much more special, that much more selfless. I wonder if she ever knew how much it meant to me - both the gift and the thoughts behind it, the idea and the heart that would make such an event possible.

In Cross Plains, in visiting the Howard home, I wasn't especially moved by the sights before me. I tried to bring my consciousness across to what I saw and give it more meaning than what it immediately summoned in me, perhaps out of respect or out of the desire to feel something deeper than surface experiences. Immediacy almost never responds with deep feelings...those are saved for reflection afterwards. We explored the residence under the care of an elderly guide who talked about the conditions at the time of Howard's life and death, the life that would have been lived in that house. People who have been to Cross Plains know that the preservation society there have taken it upon themselves to "recreate" Howard's tiny bedroom at the moment, they project, of his suicide. This includes various papers scattered over a desk (indicative of the agony of composition?) and his semi-famous (notorious among Howard fans, anyway) suicide note, or poem, where he typed out a few lines of liturgical ritual - it is a sort of "pagan" farewell to the world, or at least it seems that it was meant to be. Howard, who composed most of his stories while enthralled by fantasies of the past or alternate worlds, related to reality and his own death through the metaphor of a pagan, fantastic language. He was, I believe, as much a spirit out of time as it is possible for the imaginative, creative writer or artist to remove himself and his desires from the present. There are those who would say that Howard did not so much as imagine his worlds and then describe them through the language of modernity as he entered his self-created alternate realities and then reported back to us as one of the elect, the far-removed. This gives his stories and the pagan, animalistic (often bestial, descending from Jack London's survivalism) philosophy of his self-determination an authenticity that we suspect in this ironic era. The belief in Howard's stories is too strong for modernity, it is something from an earlier age - I will not say a "simpler" age because that is in itself an oversimplification and, as such, completely false. If Howard did not wholeheartedly believe in the tenets of strength, passion, and determination that he allows his characters to express through their dialogue and actions (above all, Howard is about action instead of doubt, movement through despair if nothing else), then he is indeed a powerfully creative artist - which is to say a tremendous liar. If he did believe in the morals he uses as the skeletons of his fictions, then I feel justified even now in praising him both as an artist and a man. I can also, then, call his work propaganda for his own ideals, but that is the same as saying he is a writer.

What Howard means to me, even now, is the illustration and delineation of rude, ever-returning and ever-renewing strength, and the ceaseless war of passion. Howard's characters are revenants in that they seem immortal while suffering all the shocks that flesh is heir to, they create their own immortality by suffering in the present while constantly overcoming the force of death at the very limit or edge between death and life. That is to say that they are immortal in always dying yet never reaching a climax of death, they are human and yet deathless at the same time. As a child, this ethic of endless strength and unbounded energy (a force within nature that simply could not be stopped) was very attractive to me. Howard's unabashed, unrestrained sensuality and eroticism, his illustrations of primal drives and the primacy of the lifeforce, his rapturous writing that seemed to be a singing or possessed chanting in the grip of immensely strong sensations, his conversion of his own desire for life, the exotic, new experiences, the unleashing of his desires, the fulfillment of his creative urge, etc. into art is at all times exhilarating, even if the prose itself fails. In Howard's writing we see the imagination being transformed into reality in order to give meaning to a man's life - we see a man living through his dreams because he doesn't know any other way to survive.

U. Amtey
04 December 2004
04:50 CST