A fiction writer, a mysanthrope, and a behaviorist walk into a bar…

One of the most known quotes from the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft is

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form.

from his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927.) Many people recognize it, and it’s a thought attributed to him even though the next sentence states he thought it was (or wanted to present it as such) common knowledge: “These facts few psychologists will dispute.” He didn’t believe he was discovering anything new.

In any event, I believe I may have stumbled upon Lovecraft’s inspiration for his famous statement.

I was reading H. L. Mencken‘s On Democracy (1926) —note that it was published just one year prior to Lovecraft’s essay— where the famous satirist mocks and attacks the idea of democracy, and in chapter 3 he talks about the new science of psychological behaviorism and the damage it has done to the dream of what he calls the “democratic man”:

One by one, the old psychological categories went overboard, and with them a vast mass of vague and meaningless psychological terminology.

On the cleared ground remained a massive discovery: that the earliest and most profound of human emotions is fear. Man comes into the world weak and naked, and almost devoid of intelligence as an oyster, but he brings with him a highly complex and sensitive susceptibility to fear.

He then writes about how that fear is at the source of our adult’s horrors, anxieties, and superstitions (and political superstitions, which is what interested him.)

The wording is not exactly the same, but both sentences say pretty much the same thing, and both mention psychologists. Obviously, my conclusion is that Lovecraft may have got his famous quote from Mencken. In fact, after discovering this coincidence, it dawned on me what “few psychologists will dispute” meant. Lovecraft wasn’t talking about psychoanalysis, he was talking (like Mencken) about the new behaviorism of J. B. Watson. In fact, both were probably thinking of Little Albert Experiment from 1920, when Watson conditioned a toddler to fear furry objects (which, through generalization, meant even Santa Claus.)

I have no definite proof, of course, and it may be just a coincidence, just two men who were aware of the latest psychological discoveries and worded their thoughts in a similar manner (or perhaps both paraphrased the same, unknown to me, source,) but it’s an interesting coincidence nonetheless. Besides, both writers were pretty similar in their beliefs (not so much in character perhaps): somewhat elitist and aristocratic, self-taught, both liked Nietzsche (and Lovecraft probably discovered him through Mencken,) anti-democratic, philosophically materialistic, anti-progressivists/liberalism, anti-socialists (but also suspicious of capitalism and its nihilism,) and anti-religious.

And as an interesting anecdote, the foremost Lovecraft biographer/scholar, S. T. Joshi, is also an H. L. Mencken editor!


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