By Jason Ray Carney
Let's not prevaricate: Robert E. Howard was intrigued by violence. Boxing, gunplay, fencing, battle: these violent activities feature widely in Howard's works. But did he glorify violence?
Sometimes he did. Sometimes he didn't. It would be incorrect to claim that Howard articulated a sophisticated theory of violence. And yet, there is evidence that the young writer thought deeply about violence and did not always naively glorify it. Consider this passage from the James Allison story, "The Valley of the Worm." The narrator, James Allison, a disabled person who mystically recalls his several past lives, describes a pre-modern battle thus:
I cannot paint the madness, the reek of sweat and blood, the panting, muscle-straining effort, the splintering of bones under mighty blows, the rending and hewing of quivering sentient flesh; above all the merciless abysmal savagery of the whole affair, in which there was neither rule nor order, each man fighting as he would or could. If I might do so, you would recoil in horror; even the modern I, cognizant of my close kinship with those times, stand aghast as I review that butchery.
Howard is not James Allison, of course; but Howard, like Allison, was a modern; so, attributing Howard's sensibilities to Allison might be interesting. But did Howard, like Allison, "stand aghast" at bloody violence? This is a difficult claim to accept given the ubiquity of lovingly described violence in Howard's fiction.
What did Howard think about violence in general?
Perhaps a more directly biographical reference will help. Consider a passage from Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, a quasi-autobiographical account of Howard's life in the late 1920s. The protagonist, Steve Costigan, reflects on the attractiveness of football games to moderns:
Steve Costigan sat in the grandstands to see men clash and bleed, and he was frank in his admission of the fact. […] And in this respect was consciously honest, while the rooters, men and women who roared for a touchdown, were as unconsciously dishonest as those ladies and senators who thronged the amphitheaters of ancient Rome to discuss the skill and beauty of the chariot races […] and secretly thrilled at the sight of the charioteers who died under the frantic hoofs.
Here Howard strikes on one of his perennial themes, the hypocrisy of civilization, the way rules of polite comportment sometimes obscure and hide an underlying savagery. It recalls the young Conan the Cimmerian's oft-quoted reflection in "The Tower of the Elephant": "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing."
Howard does not always glorify violence in a naive way. Instead, he often acknowledges how, perhaps tragically, violence is a permanent feature of being human. In this way, Howard finds a surprising ally in a great intellectual of the interwar period, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the famous Jewish mystic and Marxist philosopher. In Section V of Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History (1942), he states, "Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein. / There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." Here Benjamin translates Marx's 19th-century theory of class antagonism as the engine of history into a lyrical idiom. For Benjamin, even the most beautiful art--e.g. Stravinsky's haunting orchestral composition, The Firebird (1910)--is nevertheless the dark exuda of a society animated by a never-ending struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Could those warbling notes of 1910 prefigure the cacophony of trench warfare?
Howard would brave that strange comparison.
Howard was fascinated by violence. Often, in a puerile way, he glorifies it in the register of pulp entertainment; and yet, his understanding of violence seems mature, part of a sincere tragic vision shared by many others, such as William S. Burroughs, who in a 1991 interview famously quipped, "This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games."
War and games. Swordplay and boxing. Gunplay and football.
Let a passage from a December 1934 letter to H.P. Lovecraft conclude this reflection. Howard has this say about the ubiquity of bloodshed in Texas history:
Frequently range-wars and feuds and fights were the result, not of deliberate aggression on either side, but simply because of economic, climatic and even geographical conditions beyond the scope of human control. [...] You can hardly pick out a western feud and say definitely that one side was 'ride' and the other 'wrong.'
For Howard, violence isn't only an issue of moral significance; it is also natural, like a storm, a plague, or an erupting volcano. Violence is not only ugly. Violence is sublime, terrifying, beyond our control.
Blogger bio: Jason Ray Carney teaches popular literature and creative writing at Christopher Newport University. He is the co-editor of The Dark Man, the area chair of the "Pulp Studies" section of the Popular Culture Association, and the editor of Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery.
The Pavilion Blog is the companion blog of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies. It features brief, conversational reflections related to Robert E. Howard at around 500-600 words. Interested in contributing? E-mail the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org