Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Part 1 – Lovecraft’s view of Freud

Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychiatry and psycho-analysis (from http://www.wikipedia.com)

Sigmund Freud is to psychiatry, what Newton is to physics or what Darwin is to biology. Freud was a doctor of medicine and is considered the founding father of psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry. He was born in 1856 and died in 1939 so his life overlapped quite a bit with HPL (1890 – 1937). Unlike Newton and Darwin who both died before HPL was born, but similar to Einstein, HPL was more critical of Freud’s ideas. However, like many new and emerging scientific ideas of his time, HPL does appear to keep a somewhat open mind in the consideration of some of these ideas. It is interesting that HPL appeared to be more critical of living scientists in his time and their newly developed hypotheses and theories (i.e. Freud and Einstein) than scientists who were dead. More than likely this was the “scientist” in HPL, keeping an open, yet objectively critical, mind when presented with new ideas. Obviously the hypotheses of Freud and Einstein did not have a large amount of empirical data to support them and it was not until these hypotheses could be tested that HPL (as well as the scientific communities in general) could begin to find some validity associated with them.

What is interesting is that HPL cites Freud’s work in some of his early fiction but not in his later work. For example, Freud is mentioned in both “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” and in “From Beyond” but not in his later work. However, Freud’s ideas are briefly mentioned in some of his revision work such as “The Electric Executioner” (co-written with Adolphe de Castro) and “The Trap” (co-written with Henry S. Whitehead).

Such references of Freud in HPL’s early work and its general absence in his later work make complete sense. Many of his early stories are included in his “Dream Cycle” and dreams were an important component of Freud’s psychoanalysis. Later stories focus and emphasize humanity’s insignificance in the Universe and Cosmos at large. Thus, if the entire species of Homo sapiens is insignificant, how significant can the mental health of an individual human be? Yet, in spite of this, eroding mental health and insanity is an important and sometime inevitable outcome of being exposed to outer cosmic or inter-dimensional beings. However, is the insanity due to the individual being exposed to these “things from outside” or are they society’s response to an individual trying to reveal the truth of reality (lock them up and drug them)? More than likely it’s a combination of both.

Lovecraft’s Dreams and Nightmares (art by Michal Oracz; moraczart.blogspot.com)

The first time HPL mentions Freud in his stories is in fact in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” To discuss this reference I think it best to include the first paragraph of that story in its entirety.

“I have often wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasional titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences – Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism – there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permit of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier.”

–        From H.P. Lovecraft’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”

In this quote HPL seems very dismissive of Freud and as S.T. Joshi cites in his annotated notes to the story in H.P. Lovecraft: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Classics 2001), HPL added the clause that refers to Freud in a later version of the story. As Joshi also notes HPL’s phase “puerile symbolism” probably refers to Freud’s emphasis on the sexual nature of many of his dream-imagery interpretations, something HPL would find difficult to comprehend (Joshi, 2001).

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However, HPL did not have a one-sided, simplified view of Freud. In I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (S.T. Joshi, 2013), HPL thought that Freud’s work of psycho-analysis would prove an end to idealistic thought in humanity’s march toward scientific objectivity. In another passage HPL noted that while he feels many of Freud’s ideas were erroneous, he “nevertheless opened up a new path in psychology, devising a system whose doctrines more nearly approximate the real workings of the mind than any heretofore entertained. We may not like to accept Freud, but I fear we shall have to do so” (Joshi, 2013). I think this last sentence says quite a bit about what HPL thought of Freud and the advancements he made in the field of psychology. Next time we will talk about Joe Slater and his journeys beyond the walls of sleep. Thank you – Fred.

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11 thoughts on “Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Part 1 – Lovecraft’s view of Freud

  1. Anyone interested in what Lovecraft really thought of Freud (and Jung, Alfred Adler, etc.) is advised to seek out his published letters. While Lovecraft recognized the prominence of Freud in the field of psychology, he didn’t particularly care for his theories, particularly with regard to sexual impulses and drives – though as Joshi noted, it’s not clear what (if any) of Freud’s actual books Lovecraft wrote, and he might well have based his understanding of Freud’s theories on magazine and newspaper articles.

    1. You are quite correct Bobby…I only reviewed Johshi’s comments in the Penguin Classics edition and his biography of HPL. Some day I must read HPL’s letters; have only read a few here and there. However, I did get the same impression that you described; that he did not care for Freud’s theories. Although he did recognize that they may have an impact on explorations into human psychology.

      1. Right. That’s precisely what I meant when I said Jung would have probably been more appealing to HPL.
        I suspect he would have considered Freud’s work just too “coarse”, as it was entirely based on sexual drive. But if I remember well, Freud is respectfully mentioned in the “defence of Dagon” (“The defence reopens”, 1921).
        Arguing (very cleverly) on idealism and materialism with the theist member of the “Transatlantic circulator” known only as “Mr. Wickenden”, HPL states that Darwin and Freud’s work can be discussed, but to simply put aside its basics is just ridicolous. One day or another, I will read those letters too.
        Roberto

      2. Thanks again Roberto – I have the 5 volumes of HPLs selected letters and have only read sections but I do need to read them in more detail.
        Fred

  2. Interesting article. I have not read much of Lovecraft yet but intend to. Freudian theory is interesting in the strong reactions intellectuals sometimes take toward it, in some cases accepting or doubting all of it. My own view is that some of the ideas may be correct but others were too speculative. I recently read an illustrated biography on Freud that seemed to take this general view too. I reviewed it on my site, and can post a link if interested.

    1. Yes, please include the link. My background is in biology and ecology. While I know a thing or two about the other sciences, I know absolutely nothing of psychology or Freud – thus any input you or anyone else can provide would be greatly appreciated! Thank you – Fred.

  3. Hi everybody. For those who dig italian, here’s the reference for the quick reply I left above on HPL, Darwin and Freud: “In difesa di Dagon e altri saggi sul fantastico” Sugarco, 1994.
    Pretty nice book as it collects for the first time the whole writings of HPL on weird fiction (save for the commonplace book) with a then-brand-new intro by Joshi and a funny essay by the italian editors on HPL’s “career” from a despised anonimity to the 90’s mediatic craze with role playng games and all…
    Guess the ref. to Freud can be also found in the Necronomicon press 1985 edition… or somewhere in the net.
    Roberto

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