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Monday, September 3, 2012

We need To Talk About Conan

This article was originally posted here:
 http://ferretbrain.com/articles/article-839

 Rather than include the entire article, I have chosen certain paragraphs where the author has either misrepresented Howard or expressed a negative opinion which I feel is unfounded. The quotes have quotation marks around them, and my comments do not. Before we begin let me explain that I am not saying with this critique that Howard wasn't a racist. And I don't think that Howard is completely without blame for his views because of the era he lived in. Several articles have shown that he was a little more racist than others of his time, even some of those he corresponded with. However it has also been shown that Texans were a lot more apt to being racist that most other Americans of that era. Here are the articles which may shed light on this:

 http://www.jasonsanford.com/jason/2010/09/robert-howard-racist.html

 http://www.rehupa.com/OLDWEB/romeo_southern.htm http://rehtwogunraconteur.com/?p=15823

 Now let's go to the article in question:

 "If the Silmarillion has a recurring theme of relationships with a divine hierarchy, said theme being possible to discern from a careful reading, The Hyborian Age has a frothing-at-the-mouth obsession with race which it screams from the rooftops. Apologists may point out that the text was intended to provide a cultural backdrop for the stories, and consequently could hardly afford to ignore issues of ethnicity, but this would be to ignore a lot of what Howard says in the essay itself - in which he clearly and directly outlines a pseudo-Darwinian theory of race, and a racialist theory of history. Specifically, the history outlined here is based on the fundamental axiom that physical evolution and cultural sophistication is inherently linked in human beings. The survivors of Atlanteans, in reverting to savagery, are described as devolving into "ape-men", physically regressing just as they culturally regress. This anthropocentric and mistaken view of evolution as a ladder rather than an ever-branching river is essential to Howard's fiction; in several Conan stories our hero comes up against apes who it is strongly suggested are the degenerate descendants of human beings."

 What the author doesn't mention is that Cimmerians, and hence Conan himself, are descendents of the Atlanteans who devolved into ape-men. Conan is of the "white" race and superior to everyone else in Howard's world...maybe not because of his race but more just because he's Conan. he's the "damnedest bastard that ever was" and that's why Howard is writing about him. The rest of the Cimmerians are described as smart and tough but not very fun to be around. Howard shouldn't be held at fault for believing in de-evolution; it was a concept at the time....and even later. The Urantia Book even defines the great apes as being the offspring of retarded humans somewhere back down the line of evolution. Also I never got the impression that Howard's ape-men were degenerate human beings-I can remmber one instance where the ape-man (Thak, who is mentioned in later commentary below)was described as being well along his way to becoming human and even without the wizard's help would have become "sapient' in a few hundred years. i believe the author is taking the history of the Cimmerians and blanketing it on every other group of people in the Hyborean world.

 "It is true that Howard was not alone in this ridiculousness - Lovecraft wrote a story about some guy who commits suicide on learning that some of his ancestors interbred with albino gorillas from Africa. However, whilst Lovecraft's fiction is often blighted by his bigotry, the fundamental axioms of the Cthulhu mythos are at least based on the fundamental irrelevance of all human cultures and endeavours on a cosmic scale, and so it is possible to produce fiction which is recognisably Lovecraftian without being a racist tit about it."

 In light of what I said above, I wonder who the author is claiming that Howard is being a "racist" about? The Cimmerians are the only ones who are explicitly stated as being "devolved" at a certain time. Is the author saying that Howard thought Conan was of the inferior race in the Hyborean world? Anyone who has read Conan would disagree.

 "The myth of barbarians at the gates ready to overthrow civilisations and their attendant cultures is precisely that, a myth."

 When the author states such an idea as the one in this sentence as fact, one wonders why he thinks the Great Wall of China was built. I was always taught that it was to keep out barbarians.

 " The Germanic kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire gladly accepted the Empire's national religion (or had been adherents of it for generations already) and soon came to think of themselves as natural successors to it. Kubla Khan, on conquering China, gladly let the civil service carry on as before because he realised you don't kill the bureaucracy goose that lays the golden tax eggs."

 And when Conan the Barbarian took over Aquilonia he didn't revert it to barbarism either, so what is the author's point?

 "Cultures have, of course, destroyed other cultures (or made earnest attempts to do so) repeatedly in history, but the idea that urbanised cultures with technologically sophisticated toys are in danger from non-urbanised cultures is only believable if you ignore a tremendous amount of world history."

 Or if you acknowledge that Rome was destroyed not by any civilized nation, but by waves of barbarians.

 "Still, Howard clings to the idea for dear life, and so The Hyborian Age is a long saga of one people being conquered by another over and over again. Howard does not seem to be completely against inter-racial mingling - there are some cases in which two races occupying the same area interbreed with the result that both their bloodlines are reinvigorated, but this is only the case when you have two races intermingling who are strong in the virtues Howard prizes."

 And if they were instead strong in virtues that Howard didn't value, how could he have seen that they were values?

 "The end of the Hyborian Age is, in fact, brought about by an ill-conceived attempt to impart the values of civilisation in savages. Arus is a priest who, in the name of promoting peace and non-violence, takes up missionary work amongst the cave-dwelling Picts. Soon enough, his teachings lead them to uplift themselves from savage tribes to a barbarian kingdom, which ends up sweeping across the world and eliminating all the old corrupt civilisations in their path. The segment narrating this is by far the most detailed part of the essay - for one thing, it's the only part which includes any named individuals whatsoever - so it's clear that it held some importance for Howard. The whole point about savage peoples not being softened or pacified by civilised missionaries does make me wonder whether it was a haphazard stab at social commentary on his part, arguing that colonialism simply expends the resources of the colonisers in providing infrastructure, technology, and sweet delicious guns to a bunch of savages who'll ignore all the "civilising influence" their colonisers bring to bear and eventually maul the hand that feeds them. Charming."

 This depends on your point of view. The Cimmerians at least are deppicted as an ideal race, and barbarism as a superior state of mankind. Now, the Ciommerians being a superior race is a racist view, no doubt...however, the fact that they are contradicts what the author is saying above. The Cimmerians cannot be comformed to civilisation because they are too strong to be brainwashed into an unnatural state, not because they are stupid or inferior. It's sometimes hard for modern people to grasp the idea that the savage might be a more honorable or favorable state to be in for some people. But hunter gatherers in the Ice Age had more freedom than we do now, had no cavities, were probably judged by nature and their peers on how strong and virulent they were instead of how cunning and false, and were a lot taller than the people who came to appear in the fossil record after the agricultural revolution (because subsisting on staple crops led to malnutrition). Also the idea of the "noble savage" occurs to many people, and they are often viewed as more moral or more environmentally conscience than civilized man. "The typical defence raised by Howard's defenders is that whilst he did have a view of history based on the clash of races, he didn't necessarily privilege any particular race over any others - sure, white people are riding high now, but Howard's ancient histories include races of brown-skinned Atlanteans being the dominant force at points in history. Everyone gets their turn in the sun, so what's the problem? Well, first off, let's remember that even if Howard did happily accept the idea that white people weren't necessarily at the top of the privilege pyramid throughout the whole of history, and was open to the notion that they might be knocked off the top of the pyramid in the future, that doesn't change the fact that at the time he was writing white people were the privileged class, and that remains the case to this day. The context Howard was written in, the audience he was writing for, and the context we read the stories in today are all relevant. And what sort of heroes did Howard write about? Overwhelmingly, white men standing tall against massed hordes, more often than not hordes of other races." Ummm...you'd be hard pressed to find many successful American pulp writers of Howard's era who WEREN'T white people- that's what the reader base wanted to read about. If he had not written about white people in that time in his market, we might not know about him because he may not have even ever gotten published. In fact, and sadly, it's still somewhat true today. there are still a lot more movies made in America about white people than any other race.

 "Even though I don't agree with the axioms on which the Silmarillion is based, I'm personally glad I took the time to wade through it, difficult though that was, because I feel it genuinely enriched my enjoyment of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to understand the various myths that those stories constantly allude to but rarely explain. Taking the time to properly read and understand The Hyborian Age - an essay which, due to its extremely dry nature, I had always skipped over before - has the opposite effect; it reveals just how ideological the Conan stories are. Much is made by Howard's defenders of the "nihilistic" and "amoral" basis of the stories, but whilst the tales do not adhere to conventional morality, they do nonetheless quite clearly push an agenda - the idea that civilisation is weak and phony, and only men who have been acquainted with violence since birth and to whom violence comes naturally can effectively defend themselves and others from animalistic savages. The distinction between savage, barbarian, and civilised peoples, and the essentialist characters of the different races, are reaffirmed in absolutely every Conan story. It is quite simply impossible to get away from these ideas. Which is a shame, because they leave a sick taste in my mouth whenever they come up."

 However, Mr. Arthur B, none of those things are racist except possibly "and the essentialist characters of the different races," which does not seem to be the only one that "leaves a sick taste in your mouth," judging by the way you stated it. Rather, you seem to be saying that something else offends you; namely, the idea of a 6 foot 6 hyper-robust Cro-magnon who practices fighting all his life being better at fighting than a modern metrosexual from New York who sits behind a desk all his life. I'm sorry if the facts of life offend you but none of us moderns would survive a fight with a Cro-Magnon.

 "What is particularly interesting is that in presenting the unformed and unblemished proto-Conan to us, Howard also explicitly endorses Conan as simply being a better human being than everyone else in the bar:
 'He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him, This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters.' Again, the claim by Howard's defenders that the Conan stories present an amoral and nihilistic view of the world seems kind of off here; it's hard to see a statement like the above as anything other than a value judgement on the inherent worth of Conan compared to the rest of the crooks in the tavern. You might try to argue that the above is written from Conan's point of view and therefore represents a judgement on his part, rather than on Howard's, but that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny if you look at the overall story - in which it's fairly clear that the first segment, concerning Conan doing his research in the tavern, is written as though the narrator were an invisible observer noting events unfolding in the bar during the preamble before honing in on the Kothian informant's view of things (and keeps Conan's motivations and inner thoughts a mystery), whereas the next section could more credibly be said to be told from Conan's perspective since the narration is focused on Conan and regularly chimes in with what Conan's thinking about things."

 Well, when an author writes "He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him," and then follows with "This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters," he is obviously writing from the view-point of the person designated as "He!"
 It isn't Conan's view, it's the view of the man who saw Conan's view. Also, praising Conan and calling the others rats isn't a reflection on race, it's a reflection on civilization vs. barbarism. One of Howard's main themes is that barbarians are stronger and healthier than civilized men (which was true for at least the first few thousand years after the agricultural revolution) and that civilization corrupts (which is also true according to many trains of thought).

 "But this time around, Murilo does not upstage Conan to the extent that Demetrio did in the previous story; Conan is most definitely calling the shots in this adventure. And on the whole, it's a pretty good story, packed with more dramatic reversals and surprises than many less talented fantasy authors manage in full novels, though there are some seriously problematic elements to it. As far as antagonists go, Thak is a kind of sleazy choice if you remember (or are even aware of) the whole thing with particularly "degenerate" savages reverting into being ape-men, and it is heavily hinted that this is the case with Thak."

 No, it isn't. Thak is an austrolapithecine or "primitive" homo erectus on his way to becoming "sapient." Howard talks about the places where these apemen dwell, and doesn't equate them with any fallen civilization.

 "Before he goes off to assassinate the Red Priest, Conan has a little unfinished business to deal with: his lady friend who snitched on him, and her guardsman lover. Conan stomps over to where they are shacked up, confronts the guardsman and kills him. Then Howard seems to balk at having Conan kill the woman as well - perhaps for fear of alienating his readership, or perhaps because he keeps kidding himself into thinking that Conan is basically a decent guy who treats women right, a character trait entirely inconsistent with the way Conan actually behaves. (That's going to be another recurring theme, I'm afraid.) So instead he has Conan pick her up and toss her off the roof of the building into a cesspit. Because violence, humiliation, and thick coatings of shit are perfectly alright but murder isn't, or something."

 Well would you rather be murdered or thrown in shit? I'd much rather be thrown in shit, myself. And just because he doesn't treat women right doesn't dictate that he shouldn't have an argument against killing him. Even today there are lots of deuchebags who treat women like shit but wouldn't hit them or murder them. There are lots of men who will fight and kill men but who balk at hitting or killing a woman, no matter how 'evil" the woman is. If that is not politically correct to you, it is still true. I myself have have hit men before, and probably will have to again someday, but I have never hit a woman, and I don't ever plan to.

 "This is the worst of all possible worlds. If Conan had dumped both the guardsman and the woman in the cesspit, then that'd be fine - Conan humiliates the people responsible for incarcerating him, everybody lets out a hearty lol, we move on. If Conan had butchered them both, then that'd be grimdark to the extreme and rather unpalatable, but at least it would put the woman on an even pegging with the guardsman - she was equally responsible for Conan's imprisonment, she ends up equally dead, it's not something we can cheer or applaud but it'd be grim and amoral and nihilistic and all that other shit the defenders claim the stories are. As it stands, the way Howard presents the scene implies that the woman is essentially human refuse who isn't even worth killing; when a man does Conan wrong, then it's just and right that Conan takes his bloody revenge, but when a woman does Conan wrong then she's a silly little thing who couldn't help her self and shouldn't be held to the same standard - instead, she should just be publicly humiliated, that'll learn her." Or he might have a moral code that dictates that the physically stronger sex acting ultr-violently against the physically weaker sex is inexcusable under any circumstances, but still feels that she needs to be punished in some way. "It gets worse though. In The Frost Giant's Daughter we learn that Conan is a frustrated rapist. The Frost Giant's Daughter is a tricky story to place in the chronology - although Conan is clearly meant to be quite young in it, and it's set way up in the frozen north in one of the few stories which take place in close proximity of his Cimmerian homeland, he isn't quite described in the adolescent terms applied to him in The Tower of the Elephant and some of Howard's correspondence seems to suggest Tower is meant to be the character's chronological debut. Either way; Conan's gone up north to fight alongside the Aesir (not-Vikings) as a mercenary. The story begins at the conclusion of an epic battle, of which Conan is the only survivor. Suddenly, a mysterious naked woman who calls herself Atali appears on the battlefield and teases Conan; Conan charges off after her across the frozen wastes, only to discover that she is the daughter of the god Ymir, and she makes it her habit to lure warriors off battlefields so that her brothers (who are much more giant-like) can kill them. Long story short, Conan fights her brothers and kills them, then decides that on balance he still wants to fuck Atali, and he ends up chasing after her and attempts to rape her; she is rescued only when her divine father shows up and spirits her away. There is no excuse possible for this story. In execution the prose is alright by Howard's standards and it succeeds at striking the mythic tone he was apparently going for this time around. But the subject matter at hand is completely vile. First off, there is absolutely no question that Conan intends to rape Atali, though Howard apologists have been known to claim otherwise. Howard leaves no room for ambiguity when it comes to Conan's motives here: he intends to chase Atali down, overpower her, and rape her. I suppose that if you were really trying your hardest to find a way to make the story palatable, you could interpret Atali's behaviour as being inviting at first, considering that her teasing can be summarised as "it's a shame you're not a manly manly man who could chase me down and have hot tundra sex with me, no way, you can't do that, nuh-uh, I double dare you", but even conceding that it might have that sort of angle to it at the beginning, it certainly doesn't by the end. Once Conan has confronted Atali's brothers and killed them, that really ought to be the end of Conan's plans to have sex with Atali, because there's no longer any room to argue that Atali might be playing some sort of consensual game with him; at that point, she's running for her life. Even worse than the story itself is the arguments I've seen people make trying to defend it. It seems that there are several Howard fans out there - I won't single any out by linking to them - who are perfectly happy to do the victim-blaming thing, arguing that Conan was provoked into trying to rape Atali and therefore he shouldn't be blamed for it when she was the one strutting about naked being a teasy tease-tease. It is of course indisputable that Atali was there to provoke Conan - that was kind of the plan. At the same time, there's a name for the sort of person who responds to provocation with rape, and that's "rapist". I'm not saying I'd necessarily respond well if someone plotted to lure into an ambush so their brothers can kill me, most people wouldn't. But it'd at least get me to reconsider the situation. I'd probably say to myself "Hm, perhaps this nice lady isn't trying to lead me to a dumpster full of mint-condition Warhammer 40,000 novels," (or whatever premise is used to get me to follow her down a dark alley). "Maybe," I would think, "a nice tea party and a stimulating discussion of the Horus Heresy novels wasn't her plan for this evening after all. Why, I ought to fundamentally reconsider my interactions with this person, because to continue angling after something which was never on the cards anyway would be downright irrational!" Conan doesn't work like that. He's here for sex and by Crom he's going to have it, whether Atali likes it or not. The fact that she's no longer teasing him or snidely suggesting that a real man would have chased her down already, that she's now scared and running to get away from this situation, means nothing to him. There's even a creepy rape-as-punishment vibe to make the whole thing extra nasty. I guess you could count this story as another one where the whole "it's supposed to be amoral and nihilistic!" Howard-defenders' bleat is actually true for once, but even if that's the case, who really wants to read anything this ugly and seedy? And besides, it isn't amoral because there is a clear (and abhorrent) moral to the story: don't wave your ass around like that or you'll get more than you bargained for. Reprehensible."

 One thing I think Arthur is missing here is that Atali is portrayed as a siren. She's a frost giant's daughter. Traditionally the women of giant kind are the same size as men and possessed of magical powers. Her allure is not just sexual, it is part of a magic spell she has over men. In normal or civilized men this magic spell might only inspire a man to want to have tea with her and read Warhammer books, but in Conan it kindles a desire beyond even his own control. She is clearly not expecting this, and realizes she's in trouble, because she has awakened the beast within and now she can't put it back to sleep. Conan is driven mad by the sexual magic, and can't stop himself, and is doing something he doesn't approve of himself because he has gone temporarily insane.

 "So, we've got racism by the score here: Bêlit, a woman whose skin is compared favourably to ivory, lords it over a bunch of black guys who worship her as a goddess. Naturally, Conan as another white person is qualified for a leadership role and responsibilities which it is never suggested any of the other crewmen gets even close to possessing."

 Or...because in Howard's world Conan is the baddest bad-ass ever to have lived and every woman wants him over any other man, regardless of the other man's race or culture.

 "Bêlit literally sails into Conan's world and within a minute of seeing him in action decides that they are going to fuck. She more or less declares this and Conan is glad to agree. Bêlit celebrates this by pretty much doing a striptease for Conan in full view of the crew, at the end of which they embrace and the scene fades to black, leaving us to wonder whether they bothered going to her cabin or just rutted in front of their underlings."

 I didn't wonder- he is pretty obviously saying they rutted it out on the deck. It's definitely an adolescent sex fantasy, and as one of the earlier stories was written by a still sexually adolescent writer. I'm not saying Howard was a teenager when he wrote it, but he lived with his mom in a sexually oppressive era. Lots of young boys have fantasies about fucking in public.

 "As well as all the slimy sexism and racism angles to this (supposedly powerful woman is rendered submissive before the brawny barbarian's boners, pirate queen considers burly, handsome black crewmen unworthy but strips for the first burly, handsome white dude she sees),"

 Wait,,, she's a pirate from a white race who raids white people and is exceedingly well-travelled but she's never seen a white man? Again, not saying Howard wasn't a racist but this part of the interaction isn't the proof you're looking for. "Speaking of white supremacist sex fantasies, wow, the next story is terrible. The Vale of Lost Women centres around Livia, a terrified white women who has been captured by a raiding party of the most horrifying monsters of the Hyborian Age: black people. Disgusted and afraid of everyone from the tribal chief Bajujh to the woman who brings Livia her food, Livia thinks she has her chance for escape when Conan, who has become chief of an allied tribe by virtue of being white awesome (just kidding, it's totally because he's white) comes to visit." Or because he's the best fighter of all time and could become the chief of any tribe of any race in Howard's world?

 "They make their escape, but unfortunately Livia gets lost due to being a silly civilised woman who needs a big strong daddy to take care of her and make the decisions for her. (This is a recurring motif of any story in which Conan has to take care of a white woman from civilisation, particularly those of the "slave escaped from a black master" variety; almost invariably, the woman in question will prove to have an almost infinite ability to get into trouble when outside Conan's supervision.) She stumbles into the titular vale, inhabited by the titular lost women, and they coo and pet her and give her drugs and it begins to look like one of them - or maybe several of them - might become Livia's big strong daddy. ("Her lips pressed Livia's in a long terrible kiss. The Ophirean felt coldness, running through her veins; her limbs turned brittle; like a white statue of marble she lay in the arms of her captress, incapable of speech or movement.") Having fulfilled his titillation quotient, Howard has his tribe of undomesticated homosexuals try to sacrifice Livia to a giant bat, because that is totally what lesbians do to nice straight white girls who fall into their clutches, and Conan charges in to save the day." "You might, based on the above summary, come away with a negative impression of the story. Take that and amplify it a hundredfold and you might have some idea how abhorrent the whole thing is. The "it's meant to be amoral" argument takes another crippling blow this time around, in which it is quite clear that despite frequent claims to the contrary Conan does have a code of honour and morality which he adheres to in this story." "You said I was a barbarian," he said harshly , "and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword's edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. Customs differ in various countries, but if a man is strong enough, he can enforce a few of his native customs anywhere. And no man ever called me a weakling! "If you were old and ugly as the devil's pet vulture, I'd take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the colour of your hide." "Set aside, for a moment, Conan's claim that he has never raped anyone, because we know from The Frost Giant's Daughter that this is purely a competence issue as opposed to being a matter of ethics." Or a matter of being unnaturally under a spell as opposed to him being in his right mind? "The point is, Conan has expressed here a moral outlook: namely, that black people are depraved animals and only a flint-hearted cur would leave a white woman in their clutches. No, friends, it's clear that the Conan saga does have a moral dimension, arising from a moral system that by today's standards has been banished to the fringe when it is stated this openly and aggressively but which is still very much with us in more low-key manifestations. Sure, I'll grant you that Conan immerses himself in the local culture to the extent that he becomes a tribal leader, but that doesn't change the fact that once a white woman is involved all bets are off, because at heart Conan, like Howard, is a paternalistic and racist asshole who considers it his job to protect white women from black men. Let's remember that at the time Howard was writing this very story, the moral principles outlined in the above speech were being to put into effect by white lynch mobs across the American South."

 OK there's no doubt that this is a racist attitude. But it is a racist attitude that has been held by many races in the past. Who better to relate to us the mindset of such racists than someone who was a living survival of that backwards train of thought, Robert E. Howard himself? Should we pretend that no human ever felt that way and erase it from our history books and the knowledge of mankind? Should we make prehistoric peoples out to be politically correct even though most of them seem to have been racist? Back then ignorance, paranoia, the fear of the other, and a sense of tribal identity has often been used to make that case. Who better to give us a glimpse of how those people thought than someone who still had those backwards thoughts? Arthur goes on to point out how Howard portarays women as in need of men's protection, but then points out that these are only civilized women and the barbaric ones don't need men, which makes me wonder why he tried to make the point in the first place. There's no doubt in my mind that Howard was a racist, and though he was more racist than most Americans of his time he may not have been more racist than most Texans, as explained in the other articles I mentioned. He was also mysoginistic, however I do not see where he was more chauvenistic than other men of his time, as the civil rights movement and women's liberation had not happened yet. My point with this article was to point out that Arthur goes beyond slighting Howard for racism and expects modern political correctness out of him too, and in some things he's gone beyond even modern political correctness in his criticisms. Sorry, but barbarians are gonna be tougher than Londonite metrosexual wussy boys. Civilization IS evil to some people. The average woman IS physically weaker than the average man. people WERE ignorant and racist and mysoginist in many countries before the modern era. The reason we like Howard wis BECAUSE he's raw and politically incorrect. His stories seem more real and savage than many modern ones who tip-toe around how real ancient peoples really acted and felt. We can't discount Socrates completely because greeks owned slaves and Socrates believed that his class was above common labor, and neither should we discount the work of Robert E.
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