Clark Ashton Smith: Cosmicist or Misanthrope?

Steven Behrends

In his Foreword to Clark Ashton Smith's literary notebook, The Black Book,1 Marvin R. Heimstra uses the word "cosmic" six times in the course of three brief paragraphs, to describe Smith's literary inclinations and philosophical point of view. Mr. Heimstra is not alone in his choice of words: over the years, many critics and reviewers have labeled either Smith or his artistry with exactly this term. It may be, though, that we have an instance here of something more "said" than "true". Could it be that the critics have consistently misheard Smith's voice? In Clark Ashton Smith's writings, is it cosmicism or misanthropy that speaks the loudest?

First, what do we mean by a "cosmic" story (or poem or play)? By even posing this question we tend to be playing H. P. Lovecraft's game: he popularized the term, and in so doing put his finger on the most powerful and distinctive quality of his own work. Taking the lead from Lovecraft, I would say that such works are associated with concepts vast and vastly mysterious, and with the use of startling, unearthly imagery;2 they partake of a distant perspective, and above all are pervaded with an indifference toward human affairs, thus provoking a sense of our littleness and transience. We must be quick to point out that cosmicism can not be simply equated with the qualities of fiction on the grand scale (an association that would have us make bedfellows of Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" and Doc Smith's Planet-Breaker): a cosmic work need not be vast in scale, but can instead be vast in Its implications, by invoking gulfs lying unsuspected beyond daily life. A list of writers who have chosen to work from time to time in this arena would include Olaf Stapledon, William Hope Hodgson, Donald Wandrei, Lovecraft, T. E. D. Klein. Lovecraft himself would add Machen and Blackwood to the list, and exclude Lord Dunsany.

In the above description of the qualities that seem to characterize cosmicism, the words "unsuspected" and "mysterious" are telling. Both point to the same thing - to mankind's essential ignorance of the true nature of things. The cosmos is mysterious because mankind is ignorant; mankind is ignorant because mankind is small. But for what is to follow, it is extremely important to understand that this does not constitute a judgment against humanity, but rather a realization of the immensity, the inhumanity of the cosmos; as we would expect, the focus of the statement is not on mankind but on the impersonal universe. And this brings us to Clark Ashton Smith because, for all that he was many things, he was never an indifferent watcher of humanity. Smith's attitude was in fact quite hostile toward humanity as a whole, and herein lies one of two focal points for an understanding of his alleged "cosmicism". Into Smith's hostility, many have read indifference; and this, together with his Romantic penchant for describing events at the grand scale -and there is no grander scale than the astronomical - has led Smith's readers to proclaim his distant, "cosmic" viewpoint. (It is worth mentioning in passing that, for some readers, Smith has probably been carried Into the "cosmic" category on the coat-tails of his much more popular friend, Lovecraft.) Below, I discuss individually these two tendencies, towards misanthropy and Romanticism, that taken together give Smith the appearance of an author who writes from a distant perspective.

The temperamental gulf separating the poet Smith from his Auburn neighbors was immense. As one critic has noted, Smith's delicate verse, or his translations from the French of Baudelaire. were likely to find themselves in The Auburn Journal "on the same page as an ad for Cohen's July clearance of muslin undergarments";3 one of his stories groups poets of Romantic inclinations together with "double-headed snakes (and) five-legged calves".4 Smith's sense of isolation bred hostility, and his early letters to George Sterling literally bristle with hatred for his more mundane fellows. With time, the scope of his disdain widened, and at one point he called human beings "the stupidest, greediest and most cruel of the fauna on this particular planet"5 (no distant judgment, this!). Smith himself recognized the core of misanthropy (the recent reminiscences of a friend6 reveal that Smith avoided all restaurants save empty ones) the gave rise to his hostile attitude and his "personal disenchantment with the social world7": in a reflective letter to Lovecraft, he likened himself poignantly to Randolph Carter, a character in Lovecraft's "The Silver Key" who seeks to abandon the present-day world to regain his pleasant childhood. "With me, though," he said, "there is no conscious desire to go back in time-only a wild aspiration toward the unknown, the uncharted, the exotic. . . ."8. It was through fiction-writing and versifying that Smith sought his refuge, his "escape from the human aquarium"9 In Smith's short stories, the fictional worlds we encounter are often more anti-human than non-human (the distinction is epitomized by "Marooned in Andromeda",10 to when a voyager to an alien planet is swallowed by a carnivorous plant and is promptly spat out as unpalatable). He portrayed humanity less as an inconsequential bacterium against the immense backdrop of the universe, than as a pestilential virus. His story synopses provide the most succinct statements of intent, and here we see his acerbity and hostile point of view in their undiluted forms. A classic example is "Masters of the Dark Mountain"11, in which terrestrial voyagers to Pluto are tested by "highly evolved beings with a view to learning whether any relationship with terrestrials is desirable. Following the test, the Masters decide in the negative". In "The Forgotten Beast"12 ,so the last man on Earth is "regarded with aesthetic horror" by Earth's inheritors; and similarly treated are the colonists in "The After-Men",13 who return to the Earth after ages have passed and find themselves "regarded with horror, treated as monsters" by the sophisticated creatures that now dominate the planet.In "The Destination of Gideon Balcoth"14 a London businessman is abducted by aliens and whisked to their home world, to serve "as ocular proof that anything so unnatural and bizarre as humanity could exist". And in the completed story "The Seven Geases"15 the pompous and bellicose Ralibar Vooz, toward whom Smith is hostile as an individual, is told by a member of an advanced race of serpent-scientists that our species represents "a very uncouth and aberrant life-form". Clearley, Smith's misanthropy extended into his literary output.16

The second ingredient contributing to the perception of cosmicism in Smith's work is the epic and astronomical scale of many of his productions, both in poetry and prose. The astronomical universe was a place of grandiose beauty and powerful drama for Clark Ashton Smith, and he felt drawn to write of it: "To my imagination, [nothing] seems half so portentous as the going-out of a sun. I admit that I have been, and still am, obsessed by visions of stupendous dooms"17 When we read his poetic sagas of the sun, the wandering stars, comets, the abyss, it's natural for us to conclude that Smith's perspective is a cosmic one. But with closer scrutiny, we see that the approach Smith took with his versifying was classical and Romantic: forces and objects are personified, comets sing "songs" of their travels, etc. This sort of sentimentality is entirely at odds with a truly detached, cosmic outlook.

I must admit that I do find it difficult to reconcile the above arguments against cosmicism in Smith with his own statements about his viewpoint. He did, after all. pen the following: "Science, philosophy, psychology, humanism, after all, are only candle-flares in the face of the eternal night with its infinite reserves of strangeness, terror, sublimity".18 This could serve as the very motto and creed of cosmicism. And in a letter from 1930 he lamented that "there are not many people with a sense of the cosmic strangeness and mystery".19 But these statements notwithstanding, the bottom line is that Smith rarely endowed his productions with a sense of the cosmic. Even in a story like the aborted "Vizaphmal in Ophiuchus",20 a story he looked forward to writing because it would "not bring in any human characters it all"21 the characters and events Smith envisioned for it were all tediously mundane and "human"22. I cannot account for this general discrepancy between intent and result: perhaps Smith found the technical difficulties of maintaining reader identification and interest in the "cosmic" brand of story too daunting. Or perhaps Smiths definition of "cosmic" simply does not coincide with my own.

But now let me step back and in essence retract some of what I have said. While I do feel that the bulk of Smith's alleged cosmicism is a misinterpretation, he was capable on occasion of writing from a cosmic viewpoint unsoiled by derision and hostility. I find hints of the intrusion of the truly cosmic in several of Smith's productions: the mysterious classic "City of the Singing Flame" and the similar "Secret of the Cairn" (published as "he Light from beyond" - though in both we find the taint of an unwanted classicism. viz. the "Siren" motif of the first and the "Tree of Life" imagery of the second), "Master of the Asteroid", the concluding paragraph of "The Beast of Averoigne". perhaps others; at this point, of course, we are dealing with fine and subjective distinctions.

To summarize my own overall belief: what we have come to think of as cosmicism in Clark Ashton Smith is in fact something else, something that arose from the combined influences of two aspects of Smith's personality, the Romantic and the misanthrope. They together manage to give the appearance of a cosmic perspective in much of his fiction and poetry, but it is an appearance only. In short, for the true cosmicist Lovecraft, there was the immensity of the physical universe, while for Clark Ashton Smith, only the sense of distance and isolation from his fellow men.

Foot Notes:

  1. The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith (Sauk City WI: Arkham House, 1979.) [The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith]
  2. Dreams provided this sort of imagery for some writers, Lovecraft and Donald Wanderi being two examples.
  3. Hal Rubin, "Clark Ashton Smith-III-Fated Master of Fantasy" in Sierra Heritage, June 1985.
  4. The Monster of the Prophecy (West Warwick RI: Necronomicon Press, 1988).
  5. Letter to Robert H. Barlow, 16 May 1937; reprinted in Klarkash-Ton: The Journal Of Smith Studies #1 (Cryptic Publications, 1988). [Letter to Robert Barlow from Clark Ashton Smith (May 16 1937)]
  6. Robert B. Elder, interviewed by Henry Vester in Fungi #6 (Summer 1985).
  7. Letter to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. 24 October 1930 (Letter #l5 In Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H. P. Lovecraft [West Warwick RI: Necronomicon Press, 1987]).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Letter to Lovecraft, ca. 27 January 1931 (letter #20 in Letters to H. P. Lovecraft)
  10. Other Dimensions (Sauk City WI: Arkham House, 1970).
  11. The Black Book, item 16. [The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith]
  12. The Black Book, item 8. [The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith]
  13. Strange Shadows: The Uncollected Fiction and essays of Clark Ashton Smith (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1989).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Lost Worlds (Sauk City WI: Arkham House, 1944).
  16. In fairness to Smith, we should exercise some caution before treating some of his fictions as representing a misanthropic, anti-human world-view, for it is probably true to some extent that they also reflect a reaction against the narrow-minded humanism of the yarns being published at the time in, say, Wonder Stories. But I feel that enough examples could be taken from his fiction, poetry. and correspondence (both published and unpublished) to confirm beyond question his innate hostility towards humanity.
  17. Letter to George Sterling, 11 September 1912.
  18. Letter to Lovecraft, ca. Early October 1930 (Letter #13 in Letters to H.P Lovecraft).
  19. Letter to Lovecraft, ca. 24 October 1930 (Letter #15 in Letters to H.P Lovecraft).
  20. Strange Shadows.
  21. Letter to Lovecraft, ca. 16 November 1930 (Letter #17 in Letters to H.P Lovecraft).
  22. The same failing is demonstrated by the various gods and demons that Smith created for his fictions; all, regrettably, are "human" in their behavior and inclinations.

From: The Dark Eidolon 2, Necronomicom Press.

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