Toward the Boardwalk: Lovecraft, Modernism and Boardwalk Empire
Lately, my world has been shrinking. First, the move to Finland, which has meant arrival in a land where I don’t speak the language. Of course, everyone – well almost everyone – here speaks English, but that’s countervailed by the notorious Finnish introversion. I find myself in a place far from most of my friends.
Then, the injury. A C-7 bulge, most likely. A recurrence of last year’s rupture. The Injury has forced a further contraction of my world. For a month, I’ve ended up retreating from all areas of life – exercise, parties, coffee – and found my rightful place on the couch.
The shrinkage has meant a renewed focus on several things: TV; reading; chocolate. Not necessarily in that order of importance.
One of my discoveries is the glory of Boardwalk Empire.
I’ve always had a thing for the 1920s.
First, the fascination came through the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who Stephen King once called the 20th Century’s dark and baroque prince. Lovecraft’s work holds many attractions, his combination of the liminal and the impossible; his representation of our terror at the thing which is greater than our mind’s ability to process it; the non-Euclidian geometry; the hidden and lost histories; the vast vistas of space; the fact that we too might be the monster. Lovecraft was a pioneer in all these.
Interestingly, Lovecraft’s interests combine also with the avant-garde movements of the 20s: cubism; mysticism; surrealism (and their own interest in tribal art). Even ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, Lovecraft’s most famous work, is structured like a modernist piece, a collection of fragments hinting at a larger tale. Cthulhu comes first as a figurine, a tribal statue, and here Lovecraft’s xenophobia kicks in. The city of R’Lyeh, where Cthulhu lives, is like something from a cubist painting, full of odd angles, or perhaps resembles Felix Nussbaum’s ‘The Mad Square’.
The Mad Square:
In his own way, then, Lovecraft is a product of the cultural space which created modernism: a space bounded by a technological revolution (automobiles, etc) the threat of proletarian upsurges on the one hand, on the other the remnants of the old feudal regimes. In an elliptical fashion, his kin include Yeats and Eliot. The second half of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ – my favourite poem – reads:
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
What rough beast, we might ask. And Lovecraft would answer: Cthulhu, who has a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun. Cthulhu, who comes from twenty centuries of stony sleep.
The Lovecraftian world of the 1920s has another attraction, for it is a world which we can access only as fragments, as manuscripts and poorly rendered recordings, as still black and white photographs, as occasional grainy film footage. The further back one goes, the more difficult it is for us to access it, but the 1920s stand on that borderland of the modern. Before the 1920s and there are hardly any films or sound recordings, few photographs. After the 20s and we begin to to be swamped by the deluge of material, all the way to the present day where the a surrounded by an overwhelming mass of material.
The fragmentary nature of our access to the times allows for the imagination to rove in powerful ways. Again, too little information and we have no purchase on the world, too much and there is nothing left for the imagination. But just enough information – a lone photograph of a lost man, a hissing recording, in places unable to be heard, the ten-second piece of film, showing the second half of a crime – and the imagination builds wild connections.
The 1920s then, for me, has always been a fascinating time.
So when I recently discovered Boardwalk Empire, and the world of the 1920s so lovingly reproduced – too lovingly, at times – then I was instantly hooked. Yes, it’s a mythical Atlantic City; yes it borders on melodrama; yes, it’s romanticised. But look at those cars! Look at what they’re wearing! Look at the hairstyles! Look at the boardwalk!
The writing is indeed fine, in any case. I shan’t discuss it much here, except to say, in my shrunken world, Boardwalk Empire has been keeping me entertained. It’s not at all Lovecraftian, of course. Nor has it shown us modernism (yet – I’m still in season one). But it does captures that time when we were on the cusp of the modern world, and yet so much still seems antiquated. It has shown us some of the social forces at play, in particular the interesting combination of the women’s movement and conservative prohibition, and of course it shows us prohibition itself and the gangsters who profited from it. There have been a couple of mentions of the Russian Revolution.
Will we see avant-garde artists? Dadaists and constructivists? Will we see the new Communists, inspired by the Bolsheviks? Will we get the sense of the world in upheaval, of the sense that the centre cannot hold? Perhaps Boardwalk Empire is too interested in gangsters. Or perhaps not. I’m sure I’ll look forward to whatever it offers.