We Are Not From Here
In Thomas Ligotti’s recent work of non-fiction, Eugene Thacker discovers a ‘concept horror’ innate to philosophy – the self-recognition of knowledge’s inevitable defeat
The idea of an American pessimism is an oxymoron. In a culture that thrives on entrepreneurialism, pharmacology and self-help, ‘pessimism’ is simply a fancy name for a bad mood. In a culture that prizes the can-do, self-starter attitude, to be a pessimist is simply to be a complainer; if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem. To live in such a culture is to constantly live in the shadow of an obligatory optimism, a novel type of coercion that is pathologised early on in child education in the assessment: ‘Does not like to play with others.’
If one were to compile a list of contemporary American pessimists, the list would be short, though Thomas Ligotti's name would likely be on it. To most who are familiar with his work, Ligotti is known as an author of horror fiction. His 1986 debut Songs of a Dead Dreamer immediately set him apart from his contemporaries. Filled with dark, lyrical prose, it displayed an unabashed appreciation for the tradition of the Gothic. It was composed of short texts that were difficult to categorise, and that barely contained narrative and plot. When it was published, Songs of a Dead Dreamer stood in direct contrast to much horror fiction of the 1980s, characterised as it was by slasher-style gore and violence, and a more brutalist approach to language. Ligotti's writing, by contrast, tended more towards an effusive, contorted prose that revealed almost nothing – though each of his pieces was steeped in a sombre, funereal mood more reminiscent of the ‘supernatural horror’ tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. All the horrors – the real horrors – remained hidden in a stark, unhuman nether region beyond all comprehension, and yet instilled directly in the flesh of the narrators or characters.
In a career that spans almost 30 years, Ligotti's work has remained committed to this tradition of supernatural horror and, given the trends, fads, and wild mood swings of the horror genre, such a commitment is an admirable anomaly. Which brings me to Ligotti's most recent book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (hereafter Conspiracy). Ligotti fans may find this book puzzling at first. For one thing, it is not a work of horror fiction; for that matter, it's not a work of fiction at all. But to call it a collection of essays or a treatise of philosophy doesn't quite do it justice either. Ligotti does comment at length on the horror genre and on a number of authors, from Anne Radcliffe and Joseph Conrad to Poe and Lovecraft. But Conspiracy is not just a writer's personal opinion of other writers. Similarly, Ligotti does spend much of the book reflecting on pessimism, reminding us of the freshness of grumpy thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer, while also pointing to more obscure or forgotten thinkers, such as the Norwegian philosopher and Alpinist Peter Wessel Zapffe. But Ligotti's approach is much too eccentric and uncompromising to be considered academic philosophy, and as a book Conspiracy is unencumbered by reams of footnotes or jargon-heavy vocabulary. Finally, Ligotti does address a number of topical issues in Conspiracy – research in cognitive neuroscience, the natalism/anti-natalism debate, global warming and over population, transhumanism, Terror Management Therapy, the popularity of Buddhism, and the self-help boom, among others. But the aim of the book is not simply to be topical, nor to present a ‘pop’ introduction to a difficult topic.
So then, what kind of book is Conspiracy? It is first and foremost a book about pessimism; but it is also a pessimistic book. While it contains critical insights into the heights and pitfalls of pessimist thinking, it also contains stunning indictments of our many pretentions to being human: ‘As for us humans, we reek of our own sense of being something special’; ‘What is most uncanny about the self is that no one has yet been able to present the least evidence of it.’iConspiracy constantly hovers around that boundary between writing about pessimism and simply writing pessimism, and nowhere is this more evident than in Ligotti's own brand of pessimism, which is at once uncompromising and absurd:
Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?ii
Different though it is from his previous work, Conspiracy is very much a Ligotti book, both in style and in the ideas it contains. In fact, I would argue that Conspiracy is the logical next step in Ligotti's trajectory as a writer. While the book is ‘philosophical’ in a general sense, in reading Conspiracy one gets the feeling that Ligotti has pushed the boundaries of horror fiction to the limit, where the next step would be to abandon the fictional elements altogether, dispensing with narrative, character, and plot, in favour of the ideas of horror fiction. It is not difficult to see a continuum stretching from the short, abstract mood pieces of Edgar Allan Poe, to Lovecraft's ‘documentary’ approach to horror, to a generation of post-war horror authors such as Ramsey Campbell. Lovecraft himself noted this in his 1927 essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, where he argues for an understanding of the horror genre in terms of thought – and the limits of thought – more than character, setting, or plot. It is an approach that, as Ligotti notes, characterises nearly all supernatural horror fiction:
In the literature of supernatural horror, a familiar storyline is that of a character who encounters a paradox in the flesh, so to speak, and must face down or collapse in horror before this ontological perversion – something which should not be, yet is.iii
This is horror fiction that is solely concept-driven, and the next step would be to abandon narrative altogether, or perhaps to sublimate narrative into a kind of non-fictional horror. In Conspiracy, Ligotti's writing moves from horror fiction to a concept-horror.iv On one page he will engage in a critical examination of a philosophers such as Albert Camus or Miguel de Unamuno, and on the next page his writing will amorphously slide into the prose poetry Ligotti fans will be familiar with: ‘Then it begins. This can't be happening, you think – if you can think at all, if you are anything more than a whirlwind of panic’; ‘This is the whispering undercurrent that creeps into your thoughts – nothing is safe and nothing is off limits’;
No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. This is our curse alone... Everywhere around us are natural habitats, but within us is the shiver of startling and dreadful things. Simply put: We are not from here. If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us.v
It is no surprise that the idea of pessimism lies at the core of Conspiracy, and in particular the status of pessimism in an era of radical changes in the environment and global human culture. That idea is encapsulated in what Ligotti calls Zapffe's paradox (named after the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe): the height of consciousness is to have revealed the uselessness of consciousness. A variant of this is given by the 19th century German philosopher, poet, and bank clerk Philipp Mainländer, who was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer: ‘the knowledge that life is worthless is the flower of all human wisdom.’vi Yet another variant is given in Ligotti's own words: ‘Nonhuman occupants of this planet are unaware of death. But we are susceptible to startling and dreadful thoughts, and we need some fabulous illusions to take our minds off them.’vii The problem is at once a problem of logic and an existential problem – dare we say, even, a religious problem. In Ligotti's exegesis, there is a negativity inherent in everything that exists, from inorganic matter to conscious thought, such that at its most developed state it negates itself (or consumes itself, or fulfils itself). The form of the problem is that, in its most crystalline form, X is tantamount to the negation of X.
Zapffe is an important figure for Ligotti. He not only extends the pessimistic diagnosis of thinkers like Schopenhauer, but he steadfastly refuses any panacea or redemption to the situation. Ligotti summarises the mountain-climbing philosopher's position:
As Zapffe concluded, we need to hamper our consciousness for all we are worth or it will impose upon us a too clear vision of what we do not want to see, which, as the Norwegian philosopher saw it, along with every other pessimist, is ‘the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive.’viii
In this situation, Zapffe diagnosed the various means that we as human beings have developed for staving off the radically misanthropic tendencies of consciousness (these include strategies such as isolating such thoughts from our everyday lives, anchoring them in belief systems such as religion or science, distracting ourselves with the here and now, and therapeutic sublimation of such thoughts in artistic expression). Zapffe's conclusions were starkly anti-natalist: not only should we cease to procreate, he suggests, but we should consider the best means by which we as a species can facilitate an extinction that is, in Zapffe's opinion, both inevitable and long overdue.
But Zapffe is only one of many personages that makes an appearance in Conspiracy. There is, as one might expect, a discussion of Schopenhauer and his thesis that all living beings are blindly driven by an anonymous and indifferent ‘Will-to-Life’. But there is also the German Schopenhauerian and suicide, Philipp Mainländer, who suggested a ‘Will-to-Die’ inherent in all beings, living or not – and who speculated on the possibility of God's suicide to correlate with that of human beings. And then there is the Italian writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter, who offers the idea that human beings are the puppets or playthings of unknown forces that may or may not exist – a conspiracy without conspirators. Such thinkers hold a privileged position for Ligotti. Their brand of pessimism refuses any redemptive move towards something beyond pessimism. Pessimism in this view is not simply a practical form of realism, keeping our feet on the ground and preventing us from getting lost in delusions of grandeur. Pessimism is also not simply another name for secularism, bolstering a renewed faith in human choice and action after the cold shower of the death of God. In short, in Ligotti's hands, pessimism stands in contrast to a ‘heroic’ pessimism that ultimately serves human goals and aspirations (and this comes through in Ligotti's more critical comments of thinkers such as Camus, Unamuno, and contemporary scholars such as Joshua Dienstag and William Brashear).ix
One of the ideas that best characterises Ligotti's brand of pessimism is that of the puppet. A leitmotif in much of his work, the puppet is for Ligotti the exemplar of concept-horror, an uncanny manifestation of the life-like that seems to blatantly contradict what we think we know about the world. ‘We need to know that puppets are puppets’, Ligotti notes. ‘Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does.’x Our relationship to an enigmatic, indifferent world in which we are embedded is similar, Ligotti contends, to that of the puppet:
Human puppets could not conceive of themselves as being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakable sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation. Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own – that you are making moves and thinking thoughts which seem to have originated within you – it is not possible for you to believe you are anything but your own master.xi
This is what intimately ties horror to philosophy – not that philosophy, which explains everything, would explain horror, making it both meaningful and actionable for us, but that philosophy – all philosophy – eventually discovers within itself a hard limit to what can be known, what can be thought, and what can be said. If works of supernatural horror are ‘philosophical’ it is not because they have explained anything – quite the reverse.
And in a sense this also means that what characterises pessimistic philosophies, particularly the kind that Ligotti is drawn to, is that they have internalised this lesson from the literary tradition of supernatural horror – thinkers like Schopenhauer, Mainländer, or Zapffe unknowingly write philosophy as if they were writers of horror fiction; they make this shift from a philosophy of horror to a horror of philosophy:
Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees – a blunder of blind nature, according to Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are – contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, existentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion?xii
This also means that this kind of thinking, in which horror and philosophy mutually imply each other, must also confront the obvious contradictions that are internal to it. Conspiracy is fascinating in this sense because Ligotti is constantly aware of building up a thought that must eventually undermine itself (and this is, no doubt, the reason for the carnivalesque, gallows humour that runs through much of the book). At one moment Ligotti will argue for a relation between the self and the world based on conspiracy – the world as perennially working against us, if only by virtue of our being mortal beings ephemerally existing in finitude and temporality. But at other moments Ligotti will acknowledge that this too is, in a way, the height of humanist thinking, though a perverted humanism that is still able to conceive of human beings as being the centre of the universe (love me, hate me, but let me know that you care...). Here Ligotti will argue for a relation between self and world based on neutrality, indifference, anonymity. And perhaps this is the horror of horrors – the blankness of the world, the blindness of being. Ligotti's thinking constantly wavers between these two aspects of pessimism, between indifference and malignancy, the neutral and the worst
Above all, Conspiracy is a document of the pessimist's dilemma: that the worthlessness of life and its philosophical realisation tends to become worthwhile (a ‘no’ becomes a ‘yes’). And in this, Conspiracy might be characterised as a form of ecstatic pessimism, a pessimism that is resolutely misanthropic and without redemption, but that also must constantly bear witness to the failure of thought that constitutes it.xiii Yet is a crumbling of thought that Ligotti has borne witness to again and again. Ligotti's 1994 book Noctuary contains a short piece, ‘The Puppet Masters’. It consists of a brief confession of an unnamed narrator who appears to have secret conversations with the puppets, dolls, and marionettes that lay about his room: ‘Who else would listen to them and express what they have been through? Who else could understand their fears, however petty they may seem at times?’ In an uncanny reversal, the narrator begins to suspect he too is a puppet; and the human-like puppets are also alarmingly unhuman. They are mute and indifferent, like puppet masters. The narrator continues, recapping one of Ligotti's recurring motifs, that of the puppet without strings, the conspiracy without conspirators:
Do I ever speak to them of my own life? No; that is, not since a certain incident which occurred some time ago. To this day I don't know what came over me. Absent-mindedly I began confessing some trivial worry, I've completely forgotten what it was. And at that moment all their voices suddenly stopped, every one of them, leaving an insufferable vacuum of silence.xiv
Eugene Thacker is the author of several books, including Horror of Philosophy (Zero Books) and After Life (University of Chicago Press). He teaches at The New School in New York
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Hippocampus Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0982429693.
i Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, pp. 52, 101.
ii Conspiracy, p. 104.
iii Conspiracy, p. 16. The literary theorist Tzevtan Todorov has provided what is still the classic study on this phenomenon in his book The Fantastic.
v Conspiracy, pp. 220, 221
vi Quoted in Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. 37, from Mainländer's main philosophical work, Die Philosophie der Erlösung (The Philosophy of Redemption).
vii Conspiracy, p. 28.
viii Conspiracy, p. 27.
ix We might also include, in this list of ‘self-help’ pessimists, Roger Scruton's rather bland The Uses of Pessimism and Alain de Botton's rather naive Religion for Atheists, both of which argue in favour of the healthy side-effects of pessimist thinking.
x Conspiracy, p. 16.
xi Conspiracy, p. 17.
xii Conspiracy, pp. 51-52.
xiii It is tempting to include others under this rubric of ecstatic pessimism: Ray Brassier, who also provides the Foreword to Conspiracy, and whose work engages with the philosophy of science; Reza Negarestani, whose work charts a path between horror and mathematics; and my own recent writing, which has been increasingly drawn to the aphorism. See Brassier's book Nihil Unbound; Negarestani's Cyclonopedia and his recent work ‘The Non-Trivial Goat’ (http://issueprojectroom.org/drupal/event/reza-nega...); and my piece ‘Cosmic Pessimism’ (http://continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/a...).
xiv "The Puppet Masters," in Noctuary (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1995), p. 172.