Thomas Ligotti: An Introduction to his Life and Work

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“This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige.”

—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

Thomas Ligotti (born July 9, 1953) emerged from a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. As he’d later quip: “I really have no special appreciation for the Detroit area that I’m aware of. As long as all the modern conveniences are available to me, I could live in a bubble city on the moon or in an underwater shopping mall.”1 He’d elaborate,

“I was born in Detroit, but I aside from my earliest childhood years I didn’t live there. I grew up in an upper-class suburb that bordered on Detroit. However, during high school in the 1960s I spent some time hanging out in dope houses in Detroit’s ghettos, and I worked in downtown Detroit for 23 years. I always enjoyed the spectacle of abandoned, decaying, and burned-out buildings and houses. … In many of my stories, I’ve tried to articulate an aesthetic of decay in both small towns and cities. I equate decline and decrepitude with a kind of serenity, a tranquil abandonment of the illusions of the future.”2

This sense of Decadence would come to dominate his writings and aesthetic vision. He told Neddal Ayyad in an interview that the “French already had a tradition of cynicism, morbidity, and pessimism from the eighteenth-century works of authors like Sade, Chamfort, and La Rochefoucauld. … This is the form of Decadence that has always interested me—the freedom, after thousands of years under the whip of uplifting religions and the tyrannical politics of the positive–which are nothing more than a means for crowd control—to speak to others who in their hearts could no longer lie to themselves about what they thought concerning the value, or rather lack of value, of human life.”3 Continue reading

Two Kind of Crime Fiction

The wildest ride in modern crime novel exoticum. A novel so steeped in milieu that it feels as if you’ve blasted to mars in the grip of a demon who won’t let you go. Read this book, savor the language-it’s the last-and the most compelling word in thrillers.
—James Ellroy

“Life is a bucket of shit with a barbed wire handle.”
― Jim Thompson

There always seems to be two kinds writers of crime fiction, the type of character who thinks even the worst criminal can be turned, change, redeemed; and the type that knows better, that knows that there’s nothing down there in that pit of darkness worth redeeming, that evil is not some moral thing attached to people but an actual metaphysical power, a thing that seeps in from the outside, that’s alien and abyssal without anything human in it. The first type of writer seems to have this progressive idea that one can reform such beings, while the other more cynical and pessimistic writer knows that the only thing that can be reformed is the idiocy of thinking one could make evil better, cure it, turn it to the good side. Such are the markers of deception and self-deception, we love to think people can change, that if they’d just been born in a better situation, been taught a little bit more about hope and optimism things might have turned out differently. The pessimist stands neutral in this hope business, doesn’t question the good, bad, or ugly. No. The pessimist just looks at what’s there in front of his nose, at the thing living there inside us all — implacable, inhuman, and indifferent to all our dreams and hopes alike.

“There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot – things are not as they seem.”
― Jim Thompson

Harry Bosch and Michael Connelly

That’s justice,” she said, nodding at the statue. “She doesn’t hear you. She doesn’t see you. She can’t feel you and won’t speak to you. Justice, Detective Bosch, is just a concrete blonde.

—Michael Connelly

As I’m watching the Bosch series from the beginning what interests me most is the politics, corruption, and deliberate stupidity of the muckety-mucks at the top, how small and insignificant power mongers always seem to be there in the background watching, waiting, biding their time to move up the ladder, use others in that process, and find ways to trash them, throw them to the wolves, and generally dispose of them when their purpose is done. The manipulating psychopaths in the street are nothing compared to the political psychopaths of the machine that runs the cops like a private business for profit even as they mask it as a service for public good.

Harry Bosch is a broken man, with a troubled past that haunts him throughout season one. Bosch, an orphan, his mother a prostitute who was killed and thrown in a trash-bin when he was young seems like a wounded knight righting the wrongs in a world that isn’t worth righting. Raised up in a house of horror, an institutional orphanage in the inner-city, Bosch has been anything but a model citizen. His rage at his mother’s death, at the State that put him in a hellhole where they threw young boys into solitary confinement for various infractions, Bosch came up the system scarred and marred by its insipid and destructive power over young men’s lives. Like a wounded angel he seems hell-bent on uncovering corruption wherever it lies, yet this dark side hasn’t turned him totally cynical and bitter. No. He seems like a tarnished Marlowe alright, but one that has seen the rough side and come out fighting for honesty and a sense of individual decency.  Even the woman he falls in love with is a corrupt little hustler, seeking her way up the corrupt ladder. She flubs the dub in an arrest, pulls her firearm and wounds herself then tries to pin it on the perp, but Bosch knows she didn’t and tells her to own up to it. She of course sees him as pure shit from then on siding with the perp against her, when Bosch is only doing the Marlowe thing trying to be an honest cop.

We see Bosch dealing with an ex-Wife who is a Profiler and Gambler, his daughter at that stage of rebellious teenagerly growth, and a police department where the blues and bulls seem always at odds. Most of the actors rise above the cliched responses. Harry’s partner played by Jamie Hector is smart and affable, a conscientious young black man facing his own problems plays it by the book most of the time. He seems to know Harry’s weaknesses and helps reign him in even as he supports him. There’s several other good supporting actors and roles in the series which keeps the ball rolling. Even the battle between the Lieutenant played by Amy Aquino whose life we see from time to time with her lesbian lover revealed, a child by a former marriage and her hard-nosed ability to fend off the enemy of both Bosch and her, Captain Pounds. Pounds seems to have some bad history with Bosch and rides him throughout season one. There’s the other grouping of the upper-tier echelons both in the department and in the political machinery that play out a sub-theme in the overall season, but I’ll let the wary reader watch the series to see that play out.

The investigation in season one plays out against the backdrop of two criminal cases. Bosch is called in to investigate the murder of a young man whose bones were discovered in the Hollywood Hills. The other case involves a psychopathic serial killer whose been caught red-handed and sees Bosch’s investigation on the tv while awaiting trial. The playout of these two intermingling storylines gives us the entangled sweep of the darkness both on the mean streets of L.A. and in the world of police politics and its corruption from the lowest to highest levels of city government. Bosch caught in-between the darkness of the streets, his own haunted past, and the politics of the State becomes the main theme that keeps the plot moving. Most of it seems cliched from an aesthetic standpoint, maybe because I’ve seen such things play out in both great and not so great crime and detective fiction in the past. But like any show like this it’s the actors that make the difference and this one is a winner in that regard.

Of course, in the series things aren’t all black-and-white, Bosch is dealing with all that childhood garbage as he wanders the City of Angels more like a fallen angel than a detective out of the Hammett mold. His own dark past pervades his hunt of various sex offenders and killers in this first season. In the typical mold so predictable Connelly’s script is pretty lame in a lot of ways, but the acting by Welliver and the other old character actors seems to pull it off. Even though Connelly is a successful crime fiction writer I’ve never truly found his works to be all that great, he’s too professional, knows the whole gamut of the tradition too well, too slick in his echoes of the original masters for my taste. Nothing really original in him. He’s a sort of commercial writer whose knowledge of Hard-Boiled fiction and its second gen writers for George V. Higgins to George Pelicanos etc. puts him in that after the fall literary worker position. His writing is adequate but nothing special, and maybe that’s my issue, he’s part of the old gin mill circuit writers seeking only one thing to make a buck off every book rather than actually delivering a dark tome on the state of our world, it’s corruption as it is not as a commercialized assemblage of echoes form previous eras. He doesn’t take chances. That’s why the Bosch series, although good, comes off trite and commercial for me because it repeats the cliches of past writers rather than creates something new out of our contemporary setting.

What Remains for Now

“Ah! We are getting to the end of dreams!”

—Thomas Hardy

For the most part I’ve always existed on the margins of the capitalist publishing world, never truly believing one needed to make money from one’s thoughts. I’ve immersed myself in the great literature, music, paining, and philosophies of the world; their history, criticism, and primary and secondary renditions. It’s been more or less a solitary venture in self-creation, exploring the in-roads of this strange world we have created in culture and civilization. Maybe in the end that is all we have: this history of human creatures, questioning the world and themselves, seeking in the tragic and comic the extreme drift of things and themselves. From the concrete to abstract levels of thought and mind humanity has created a realm external to itself, objectified itself in this mirror world of thought and feeling where it could dramatize its strengths and weaknesses; laugh and cry and go mad or become sane in the wisdom of its dark travels through time. I don’t know what will remain of any of this in a decade or a hundred years – or even a thousand generations. We’ll we even be here? Maybe not, maybe so. Maybe nothing of us will remain but the ruins of our leavings. But to have lived through it, touched base with some of the most creative creatures in our time and ages past is worth it all. What else is there? Nothing. We all share the same earth and universe – we all eat, breath, and survive the best we can. Otherwise, we have the world of literature, painting, and music… some in my country would add the sports just as the ancient Greek’s extoled the Olympiad. But flesh dissolves and remains no more… the externalization of culture in literature, painting, and music, and the sciences and philosophes, this only remains; or remains for us in this time and this place, at least. We cannot speak to the future… only what remains for us, now. Maybe our posthuman progeny in the wide humanity to come may hold our memories in the conclaves of a vast Artificial Intelligence capable of recreating in some far-flung quantum matrix the echoes of our human heritage. Who knows? Does it matter? Does anything? The only thing that matters for me this moment and place in time is the simple fact I am thinking these words.

Joe Koch: Good Paper – from Convulsive: A Collection of Weird Tales

convulsive-name-change-v2

Unencumbered by obscene wealth, Warynne carved out a sunspot in a city that screamed with artificial light.

—Joe Koch, Convulsive

In a sense Joe Koch is an inventor of language, a creator of those hidden layers in-between the folds of poetry and linguistic evanescence. She churns the threads of the grotesque and weird, charming the natural tremors of silence and noise alike that shape us to the powers of darkness that touch the physical and sensual face of fear. In his tale Good Paper gathered in his new collection of tales Convulsive she offers us the fantastic life of Warynne, a young child whose world is part of the dark loam of our earthy needs touched by the insanity of civilization. 

Our troubled relation to the past, to the religious worlds of Bible, Christianity, and the everyday techniques of survival in a hostile world become in the hands of Koch a part of a tale of Mother love and madness. We find Warynne at the intersection of earth, sky, and highway sinking down roots in a world of darkness: “Under the incorrect blink of wrong colors crowding an alley, in the three a.m. silence that outlasted loud pairings, on the snow-crushed trash of a spring-thawed slope abreast a highway intersection, Warynne grew a thick, long taproot into the willing flesh of the earth. In sun, in bliss, in silence, they were alone.” The deep history of the ‘taproot’, this striking and rapping need to belong to the organic world, to sink one’s roots, one’s self into the darkness, to take root or discover something stable and unwavering to stay one against fear. Even the name of the child, Warynne enters this ancient lineage, part of the Old English words for “root” were wyrttruma and wyrtwala which seem to merge with this strangeness of a child seeking roots, a past, a memory of birth and death. One thinks of an old anonymous English poem, Richard of Almaigne – A ballad made by one of the adherents to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, soon after the battle of Lewes, which was fought May 14, 1264:

By God, that is aboven ous, he dude muche synne,
That lette passen over see the Erl of Warynne:
He hath robbed Engelond, the mores, ant th fenne,
The gold, ant the selver, and y-boren henne,
For love of Wyndesore.
Richard, thah thou he ever trichard,
Trichthen shalt thou never more.

We know that this name (“Warynne”) inspired realism, joyfulness and benevolence, a sense of charm and persuasiveness, a creature whose inner power of adventurousness and inventiveness would lead to a more fantastical sense of reality. The life lesson touches on this person understanding that their luck in health can run out so they should take care of themselves. Such are the traceries of etymology and history that roots us in the rapping memories of familial loam. 

Warynne runs into mysterious beings named the “hawkers” who seem to offer him Jesus and salvation, but he “held as still as a tree trunk, with hair like leaves that rustled in tangled gusts.” (9) This intermingling of the human and plant pervades the tale, tale of biological horror that roots us in biblical and natural imagery tying us to the ancient legend of heroic Samson whose long hair and strength, the love and betrayal of Delilah and the Philistines, the dark voluntary death and suicide all commingle in a convulsive tale of anguish.

This mingling of the sacred terror of Samson pulling down the pillars and the grotesquerie of Mother presents the absurdity and surrealist vision at the heart of this tale: “Mother said the bible was holy. Hers dwelled in her bedroom, tattered by triangles marking corners and leeching a smell from its leather binding like animal musk. Transparent tissue pages crackled like the potato chip bags hidden under her blankets.” This sensual delight in books, in the touch of paper, its smell and organic richness, the living ink that awakens from its pages a world, a separate realm. All this brings Warynne’s imaginal life into convulsion. The very notion of convulsion “to pull away, to pull this way and that, wrench,” seems to suggest a tearing from the earth, a sense of separation and violence, a plant that is torn out of its ancient habitat, out of the safety and security of the darkness. The darkness of the tale is not a fear, the fear is of light, of “artificial light” – the “sunspot” of the city. This being wrenched out of one’s comfort zone and thrust into the ruins and corruption of modern life, a place where such creatures as the “hawkers” dwell. This is the terror and the pain of life to which Warynne is subjected.  

We are made of language, it’s what creates us. My love of those deep roots that reach back into the darkness before we became human is the etymological loam of our native soil. Nietzsche before he swerved into philosophical speculation was teacher of philology which was for the Nineteenth century what the Linguistic turn was for the Twentieth Century. This tracing of the usages, transformations, mutations, metamorphoses of meaning through time offers us a glimpse onto this thing we’re becoming. Words were once rooted in earth and community, and now seem to have wandered into the abstract and unknow air of being. We’ve forgotten ourselves and are becoming something other than human, now. The carnival of sense and sound, the music of organic life: the motions of trees, the wind flowing through leaves, the speech of air, sky, and earth. We listen to rivers flow, the mountain snow crackle below our feet, the mossy touch of stone and dampness in a cave, the smell of pungent aromas from a sulfurous spring or the sweet odor of ripe melon. The laughter or tears of a child, and old woman rocking on an old porch singing and whispering and old tune. All the subtle hints of life and death, change and necessity, love and hate, jealousy and revenge… our lives as humans. This is the dark loam that Joe Koch catches in the dream nets of his tales. His words dig down into the physical earthy history of time, local, and place; bring us back to the ancestral worlds of our roots, tapping into the dark hinterlands of meaning and fear. 

I’ll stop here, not to spoil the tale for those who wish to read this wonderful series of stories in Joe Koch’s new collection: Convulsive.


Buy Convulsive on Apocalypse Party: https://www.apocalypse-party.com/convulsive.html

 

Fear of the Unknown: The Heart of the Weird Tale

“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. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature.

When we say humanity is an irrational animal, we’re describing all the inner emotions of fear that trigger in us a sense of anxiety and flight: extinction, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and ego death. Psychologists describe these as the core fears from which all other derive:

Extinction—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express it than just “fear of death.” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Consider that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.

Mutilation—the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.

Loss of Autonomy—the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships.
Separation—the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. The “silent treatment,” when imposed by a group, can have a devastating effect on its target.

Ego-death—the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.1

As Salman Akhtar describes it fear is a dysphoric reaction to an actual object (e.g., a wild animal, a knife-wielding drunkard), event (e.g., an earthquake, a stampede), or situation (e.g., watching a horror movie, losing control of a car on an icy road) that is felt to be threatening. The extent of dysphoria in the face of approaching danger varies and four levels of fear’s severity are identified in the English language: (a) apprehension, which refers to a mild anticipation of a bad occurrence; (b) dread, which blends the conviction that one is facing danger with a powerful reluctance to encounter the scary object or situation; (c) panic, which denotes an overwhelming sense of being scared, coupled with alarmed hyperactivity (e.g., pacing, running away) and physiological arousal (e.g., increased heartbeat, laboured breathing); and (d) terror, which signifies an extreme degree of consternation, a feeling of doom, “catastrophic aloneness”, and psychomotor paralysis.2

This sense of apprehension, dread, panic, and terror are at the heart of horror and the weird. We’ve all felt a sense of apprehension when walking down a street at night, or entering a cold, dank forest full of thick bushes and trees, or plunging into an ocean and swimming among the torrent of waves, or any number of other landscapes of city or country, mountains or deserts. This sense that something may be lurking in that street, forest, or ocean; something that may or may not have designs on us, that may harm us or frighten us. This apprehension can suddenly turn into dread when we see a dark figure moving towards us out of that street, forest, or ocean. A dread that can turn to panic as we feel threatened by this unknown thing, this not knowing what it might be or do to us. Our panic can turn to terror when we realize that we are alone facing this person, thing, or object to the point that we feel a sense of impending doom, futility, and despair because of our vulnerability in the face of this monstrous thing arising out of the darkness around us.

Marlow a character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describes a fog that surrounds his vessel as they move up the Congo River:

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it— all perfectly still— and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves. I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air. It ceased. A complaining clamor, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap. I don’t know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise. It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us stiffened in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening to the nearly as appalling and excessive silence.

These various physical and biological changes Marlow and the crew undergo as they apprehend the strange, eerie, weird, and unknown sights and sound coming out of the murky fog are part of that ancient fear that drives our feelings of danger and flight. This physiological process which is part mental and part body suggesting that horror is an aspect of our mental life in which our physiological constitution is most notably implicit, that horror is essentially bio-horror and involves the tenuous negotiations between rationality and a looming biological plenum that defies rational mapping.3 E.R. Dodds in his eloquent study of the ancient Greeks and the Irrational describes the notions of their guilt-culture with its central fear of bodily biological horror as “a horror of the body and a revulsion against the life of the senses which were quite new in Greece. Any guilt-culture will provide a soil favorable to the growth of puritanism, since it creates an unconscious need for self-punishment which puritanism gratifies. But in Greece it was, apparently, the impact of shamanistic beliefs which set the process going. By Greek minds these beliefs were reinterpreted in a moral sense; and when that was done, the world of bodily experience inevitably appeared as a place of darkness and penance, the flesh became an “alien tunic.” “Pleasure,” says the old Pythagorean catechism, “is in all circumstances bad; for we came here to be punished and we ought to be punished.” In that form of the doctrine which Plato attributes to the Orphic school, the body was pictured as the soul’s prison, in which the gods keep it locked up until it has purged its guilt. In the other form mentioned by Plato, puritanism found an even more violent expression: the body was conceived as a tomb wherein the psyche lies dead, awaiting its resurrection into true life, which is life without the body.”4

This Puritanism and revulsion of flesh and body, the biology of horror is central to our Western Judeo-Christian traditions which if not fully conscious in our secular-atheistic culture still inform the darkness of our cultural heritage and the various literatures of terror, horror, fantastic, weird, and eerie works of authors from the Nineteenth century to the present. This sense of puritanism arose according to Dodd’s when the Greeks began crediting humans with an occult self of divine origin, and thus setting soul and body at odds, it introduced into European culture a new interpretation of human existence, the interpretation we call puritanical. (ibid.) As he describes it the “occult self” is a shamanistic idea:

Now a belief of this kind is an essential element of the shamanistic culture which still exists in Siberia, and has left traces of its past existence over a very wide area, extending in a huge arc from Scandinavia across the Eurasian land-mass as far as Indonesia; the vast extent of its diffusion is evidence of its high antiquity. A shaman may be described as a psychically unstable person who has received a call to the religious life. As a result of his call he undergoes a period of rigorous training, which commonly involves solitude and fasting, and may involve a psychological change of sex. From this religious “retreat” he emerges with the power, real or assumed, of passing at will into a state of mental dissociation. In that condition he is not thought, like the Pythia or like a modern medium, to be possessed by an alien spirit; but his own soul is thought to leave its body and travel to distant parts, most often to the spirit world. A shaman may in fact be seen simultaneously in different places; he has the power of bilocation. From these experiences, narrated by him in extempore song, he derives the skill in divination, religious poetry, and magical medicine which makes him socially important. He becomes the repository of a supernormal wisdom. (ibid.)

In our secular civilization such notions have fallen by the wayside, we no longer believe in such things as soul, occult self, magic, etc. accept as part of the folklore of ancient societies and the religious mythologies of the monotheistic world faiths. Of course, this does not rid of its impact or importance as a part of the supernatural lore that informs our deepest fears, and it is central to all forms of horror in literature and film to this day. As one author suggests,

…panic, anxiety, worry, and fear have taken hold of the American psyche and become the driving emotions behind a majority of our actions and decisions, to our great detriment. Numerous authors dissect and condemn the rampant “fear profiteering” in contemporary American society, arguing (correctly) that fear is used to sell products and shape political debates. Viewer-hungry news outlets manipulate our fear response and our brain’s inability to distinguish “real” threats from the abstract and anomalous terrors across the globe that appear within seconds on our smart phones and TVs. We live in an objectively safer world than ever before, but we’re bombarded with fear-triggering messages and worried about issues that likely won’t affect us and are far from our control. We are arguably consumed with fear.5

The late Mark Fisher in his study of the Weird and Eerie spoke of its fear as being one of a fascination with the Outside: “for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience. This fascination usually involves a certain apprehension, perhaps even dread — but it would be wrong to say that the weird and the eerie are necessarily terrifying. I am not here claiming that the outside is always beneficent. There are more than enough terrors to be found there; but such terrors are not all there is to the outside.”6 This notion of the ‘outside’ of the unknown in both the empirical and abstract sense speak to us of our inability to know or understand the world, the reality of things as they are in themselves. What ever since Kant are termed the noumenal / phenomenal divide. Kant separated the world into the epistemological and ontological. Epistemology deals with what can be known through our senses and our mental intuition: it’s study’s the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues. Ontology is a form of metaphysics which the ancients called the ‘science of being’: it deals with concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level. Kant in his own philosophy which has had a great impact on philosophy and the sciences since his time suggested that our apprehension of the world is shaped solely by our mind’s (brain) various mechanisms, and that we only ever have access to the world our mind creates, invents, constructs, and re-presents to us through the various categories of the Mind itself. Whatever the world-is-in-itself (i.e., “the thing-in-itself”) is absolutely inaccessible and unknown and unknowable to us and cannot form a part of our knowledge or epistemological framework. Ever since Kant’s time philosophers and scientists alike have argued about this inaccessible world beyond the mind-brain – Kant’s ‘noumenal’ realm of the Outside-Real and have sought by every means possible to overcome this divide, seek a way to know and understand the world as it is in itself. Philosophers have failed so far to do this, although many have tried and come up with various ingenious methods, strategies, and partial successes. Scientists see it as a non-problem since they deal strictly with the phenomenal world of sense-data rather than the unknowns and unknowable conceptuality of ontological metaphysics. For the sciences we are bound to the macro-micro physics that our tools of cosmological grasp entail from the greatest stretches of the stars to the smallest particles of our sub-atomic universe. Anything outside the range of the actual is pure mathematical theoretic awaiting instruments that can prove or disprove those theories.

Horror literature and the weird, uncanny, and eerie deal with the human condition toward this strangeness we feel in our inability to know and understand the world-in-itself, that we are cut off in a world of the Mind’s fabrication, a realm of human emotions, delusions, and illusions. Our fears stem from our apprehension that something is not quite right with the world, that the world we all share and know through the sciences and epistemology, or knowledge is not all there is, and that what remains outside this known world is both weird, strange, and full of terrors unimaginable. We are alone in a world we know nothing of and we are afraid. As Lovecraft put it at the turn of the Twentieth Century:

The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part. The phenomenon of dreaming likewise helped to build up the notion of an unreal or spiritual world; and in general, all the conditions of savage dawn-life so strongly conduced toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man’s very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition.7


  1. Albrecht, Karl Ph.D. The (Only) 5 Fears We All Share. Psychology Today. March 22, 2012.
  2. Akhtar, Salman. Sources of Suffering: Fear, Greed, Guilt, Deception, Betrayal, and Revenge. Karnac Books Ltd. 2014
  3. Morgan, Jack. The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film. Southern Illinois University Press. 2002
  4. Dodds, Eric R.. The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures). University of California Press. 1951
  5.  Margee Kerr. Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. PublicAffairs. 2015
  6. Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie (pp. 8-9). Repeater. 2017
  7. Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged. Hippocampus Press. 2012

Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud: The Primacy of Will – The Voluntarist Tradition

“As a psychologist of the will, Schopenhauer is the father of all the modern science of the soul. From it, through the psychological radicalism of Nietzsche, a straight line that reaches Freud and even those who have completed the deep psychology of it and have applied it to the sciences of the spirit. Nietzsche’s hostility against the intellect, as well as his anti-character, are nothing other than the philosophical affirmation and glorification of the Schopenhauerian discovery of the primacy of the will, of his pessimistic conception about the secondary and servile relationship of the intellect with the will. That conception, that is, the finding – which is not exactly humanistic in the classical sense – that the intellect is there to please the will, to justify it, to provide reasons that are often apparent and self-deceased, to rationalize the instincts, That conception, I say, encloses a skeptical-political psychology, a science of the soul of an inexorability and insight such, that it has not only prepared the terrain to what we call psychoanalysis, but it is already.”

—Thomas Mann – On Schopenhauer

Primacy of Will

It’s the Primacy of the Will over Intellect that pits me against most of the New Rationalism and Promethean visions of Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, and Peter Wolfendale with their Primacy of Intellect over Will Idealism after Hegel with its Mathematical turn… even Badiou and Meillassoux are more in this line as well among so many others. Very few follow Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud anymore… Deleuze came closest in the last century with his Anti-Platonic and Anti-Hegelian stance and return to Spinoza-Bergson. Their notion of the productive unconscious is none other than the primacy of the noumenal, the Will as creativity itself, the irrational system below the threshold in which Intelligence is subservient.

Who are the philosophers alive today that follow Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud? Are there any at all? And by that I don’t mean those like Eugene Thacker (a lesser light) who carry on the tradition through repetition of the thought in the garb of our era’s needs. No. I mean who actually takes hold of this tradition and transforms it, challenges it, and extends it with new conceptuality and frames-of-reference? Who has created a Philosophy of Will that not only follows these three, but creates in her own right a new philosophy of Will for our age?

Elements of voluntarism can be found as early as the philosophy of Augustine, who saw in will the basis of all other spiritual processes, and in the philosophy of Duns Scotus, with his emphasis on the primacy of will over intellect (voluntas est superior intellectu, “will is higher than thought”). A premise of the new voluntarism was I. Kant’s doctrine of the primacy of practical reason. According to Kant, although the existence of free will can be neither proved nor refuted theoretically, practical reason demands that we postulate freedom of will, for otherwise moral law would lose all meaning. Proceeding from this, J. G. Fichte saw in will the basis of personality and in the exercising of will by the ego the absolute creative principle of being, the source of the spiritual self-generation of the world. Moreover, in Fichte (as in Kant and the later exponents of German classical philosophy F. W. Schelling and G. Hegel) will is rational by its nature and the source of realization of the moral principle. In contrast A. Schopenhauer, in whose philosophy voluntarism first takes shape as an independent current, gives an irrationalist interpretation of will as the blind, nonrational, purposeless first principle of the world. Schopenhauer construes the Kantian thing-in-itself as will, appearing on various levels of objectification. Schopenhauer regarded consciousness and intellect as being one of the secondary manifestations of will. For Schopenhauer, as for E. Hartmann, voluntarism is closely connected with pessimism and the conception of the senselessness of the world process, whose source is unconscious and blind will. The voluntaristic ideas of Schopenhauer were one of the sources of the philosophy of F. Nietzsche.

The term “voluntarism” is also used to characterize social and political practices after Rousseau (i.e., ‘General Will’). But this whole tradition would become enmeshed in the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic and soon become a mishmash of historical processes and historical materialism. Only in our time is this being questioned. In the Nineteenth century Zola, Maupassant, Turgenev, and Tolstoy join Thomas Hardy were the heirs of this tradition, debating it with and against the Positivists and Neo-Kantians of the Era.

A few more notes on Voluntarism…

Let’s face it the voluntarist tradition which stems from its theological forbears in such thinkers as Augustine on to the various debates over Free-Will in our own time. The various forms it takes Metaphysical Voluntarism (Rational and Irrational), Psychological Voluntarism, Ethical Voluntarism, Political Voluntarism (I take this up elsewhere!), and Theological Voluntarism have differing nuances of this tradition.

Psychological Voluntarism

Voluntaristic theories of psychology represent men primarily as beings who will certain ends and whose reason and intelligence are subordinate to will. The outstanding classical representatives are Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Arthur Schopenhauer. Hobbes, for example, thought that all voluntary human behavior is response to desire or aversion, which he brought together under the name “endeavor”; he based his ethical and political theories chiefly on this claim. Hume maintained that reason has no role whatever in the promptings of the will; that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Schopenhauer, the outstanding voluntarist of them all, believed that the will is the very nature or essence of man and indeed of everything, identifying it with the “thing-in-itself” that underlies all phenomena.

The point of all such theories can best be appreciated by contrasting them with the more familiar theories of rationalism found, for example, in Plato’s dialogues or René Descartes’s Meditations. Plato thought that men ideally perceive certain ends or goals by their reason and then direct their wills to the attainment of these ends or goals. This is why he thought no man could knowingly will evil. Thus, in the Symposium he traced the ascent of the soul toward higher and higher ends, the supposition being that these ends are apprehended first by the senses and then ultimately by the pure or unfettered intelligence, which enlists the will or desire for their pursuit. The corruption of a man was for Plato precisely the dominance of the will, that is, of a man’s appetites or desires, this being a deviation from what human nature ideally should be. Descartes, similarly, supposed that the understanding first grasps certain ideas or presents certain ends to the mind and that the will then either assents or withholds its assent, thus following rather than directing the understanding.

Voluntarist theories reject this general picture as the reversal of the truth. Ends and goals, according to these theories, become such only because they are willed; they are not first perceived as ends and then willed. Hume in particular maintained that no sense can be made of the idea, so central to Plato’s philosophy, of reason directing the passions, or even of its ever conflicting with them. Reason, he argued, is concerned entirely with demonstrations (deduction) or with the relations of cause and effect (induction). In neither case can it give us ends or goals. Mathematics is used in mechanical arts and the like, but always as a means of attaining something that has nothing to do with reason. The computations of a merchant, for example, can be fallacious, but the ends for which they are undertaken can in no sense be fallacious or irrational. They can only be wise or foolish, that is, such as to promote or to frustrate other ends that are again products of the will. Similarly, Hume thought that no discovery of causal connections in nature can by itself have the least influence on the will. Such discoveries can only be useful or useless in enabling men to choose appropriate means to certain ends, which are in no way derived from reason. “It can never in the least concern us to know,” Hume said, “that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both causes and effects be indifferent to us.” Reason therefore can never produce actions or impulses, nor can it oppose them. An impulse to act can be opposed only by a contrary impulse, not by reason. There can, accordingly, be no such thing as a conflict between reason and passion, and the only way in which willed behavior can be “irrational” is for it to be based upon some misconception—for instance, on some erroneous conception of what is a fit means to the attainment of an end that is entirely the product of the will.

The theories of other voluntarists do not differ essentially from Hume’s theory, although there are differences of emphasis. All agree that men are moved by their impulses, appetites, passions, or wills and that these are incapable of fallacy or error. There is thus no such thing as a rational or irrational will, although one may will imprudently in relation to other things that one wills. J. G. Fichte expressed this idea when he said that a free being “wills because it wills, and the willing of an object is itself the last ground of such willing.”

Ethical Voluntarism

It is obvious that the voluntarist conception of human nature contains implications of the highest importance for ethics. If ends or goals are entirely products of the will and the will is neither rational nor irrational, then ends themselves cannot be termed either rational or irrational and it becomes meaningless to ask whether this or that end is really good or bad independently of its being willed. Hobbes drew precisely this conclusion. To say that something is good, he said, is to say nothing more than that it is an object of one’s appetite, and to say that something is bad is only to say that one has an aversion to it. Good and bad are thus purely relative to desires and aversions, which are, of course, sometimes quite different in different men. Wise behavior, on this conception, can be nothing other than prudence, that is, the selection of appropriate means to the attainment of whatever goals one happens to have. Hobbes thought that there is one goal, however, that is fairly common to all men: the goal of self-preservation. His political philosophy thus consisted essentially of formulas by means of which men can preserve themselves in safety and security within a commonwealth.

Essentially the same ideas were defended by Socrates’ contemporary, Protagoras, and are reflected in his maxim that “man is the measure of all things.” They also find expression in the philosophy of William James and are, in fact, an important aspect of pragmatism in general. James thought that things are good solely by virtue of the fact that they are “demanded,” that is, that someone wants them or lays claim to them, and he noted that such a demand might be for “anything under the sun.” Considered apart from the demands of sentient beings, nothing in the universe has any worth whatsoever. Hence James concluded that the only proper ethical maxim is to satisfy as many demands as possible, no matter what these happen to be, but at the “least cost,” that is, with the minimum of frustration to other demands. It is clear that within the framework of voluntaristic theories like this, no meaning can be attached to asking what is truly worthy of one’s desires, unless this question is interpreted to mean “What is in fact satisfying of one’s desires?”; nor does it make sense to seek, as did Immanuel Kant, any metaphysical principles of morals. Truth and falsity in ethics are exhausted in questions as to the truth or falsity of various opinions concerning the utility of proposed means to the achievement of ends, that is, to the satisfaction of appetite, desire, and demand. They have no relevance to any questions concerning ends themselves.

Theological Voluntarism

Just as the theories thus far described give prominence to the human will over human reason, so certain theological conceptions give prominence to the divine will. Perhaps the most extreme form of theological voluntarism is exemplified in the thinking of St. Peter Damian (1007–1072). He maintained that human reason or “dialectic” is worthless in theological matters, for the simple reason that the very laws of logic are valid only by the concurrence of God’s will. God is omnipotent, he said, and can therefore render true even those things reason declares to be absurd or contradictory. It is thus idle for philosophers to speculate upon what must be true with respect to divine matters, since these depend only on God’s will.

A very similar idea has found expression in many and various forms of fideism, according to which the justification of religious faith is found in the very act of faith itself, which is an act of the will, rather than in rational proof. Thus Søren Kierkegaard described purity of heart as the willing of a single thing and emphatically denied that such notions as reason and evidence have any place in the religious life. William James, following suggestions put forth by Blaise Pascal, similarly justified the will to believe, defending the absolute innocence, under certain circumstances, of religious belief entirely in the absence of evidence. Many contemporary religious leaders, pressing the same notion, give prominence to the idea of religious commitment, suggesting that religion is primarily a matter of the will rather than of reason. This is, in fact, traditional in Christian thought, for even the most philosophical and rationalistic theologians, such as St. Anselm of Canterbury, have almost without exception given priority to the act of faith, maintaining that religious belief should precede rather than follow rational understanding. This idea is expressed in the familiar dictum credo ut intelligam, which means “I believe, in order that I may understand.”

Perhaps no religious thinker has stressed the primacy of God’s will in questions of morality more than Kierkegaard, who seems to have held that the divine will is the only and the ultimate moral justification for any act. Strictly understood, this means that an action that might otherwise be deemed heinous is not so, provided it is commanded by God. In the fourteenth century this was quite explicitly maintained by William of Ockham. William said that the divine will, and not human or divine reason, is the ultimate standard of morality, that certain acts are sins solely because they have been forbidden by God, and other acts are meritorious only because they have been commanded by God. He denied that God forbids certain things because they are sins or commands certain things because they are virtues, for it seemed to him that this would be a limitation upon God’s will. There can be, he thought, no higher justification for any act than that God wills it, nor any more final condemnation of an act than that God forbids it. The moral law, accordingly, was for William simply a matter of God’s free choice, for God’s choice cannot be constrained by any moral law, being itself the sole source of that law. This view is frequently echoed in religious literature but usually only rhetorically.

Metaphysical Voluntarism

Voluntarism in the metaphysical sense is the theory that God or the actual nature of reality itself was or is conceived by a form of will. A Medieval Scottish philosopher, John Duns Scotus once thought voluntarism was the philosophical emphasis on a divine will as well as human freedom. He believed that the will determines which items in life are good and the will itself cannot be defined by anything else.

19th Century voluntarism arose from Immanuel Kant and his thoughts on “primacy of the practical over the pure reason” where he states that intellectually humans cannot know ultimate reality as they are incapable of doing so, but this need not, or must not interfere with the obligation to act as though the spiritual character of reality was certain.

As voluntarism evolved two distinct lines formed including Rational Voluntarism, originated by Gottlieb Fichte, who said the world and its activity is to be understood for the activity of the practical reason, through which, the will achieves complete freedom and moral realization. Also, Irrational Voluntarism, originated by Arthur Schopenhauer, who said the will is irrational, and an unconscious urge as compared to the intellect which acts as a secondary means. He believed that all action is inherently blind as far as the will was concerned, and that power and existence of the will are always asserted.

A number of thinkers have believed that the concept of the will is crucial to the understanding of law, ethics, and human behavior generally; a few have suggested that it is crucial to the understanding of reality itself. Such suggestions are found in the philosophies of Fichte, Henri Bergson, and others, but in no philosophy does it have such central importance as in that of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer thought that will is the underlying and ultimate reality and that the whole phenomenal world is only the expression of will. He described living things as the objectifications of their wills and sought to explain not only the behavior but also the very anatomical structures of plants, animals, and men in terms of this hypothesis. The will was described by Schopenhauer as a blind and all-powerful force that is literally the inexhaustible creator of every visible thing. The sexual appetite, which he considered to be fundamentally the same in all living things, was described by him as a blind urge to live and to perpetuate existence without any goal beyond that, and he denied that it had anything whatever to do with reason or intelligence, being in fact more often than not opposed to them. The religious impulse found in all cultures at all times was similarly explained as the response to a blind and irrational will to possess endless existence. In the growth and development of all living things Schopenhauer discerned the unfolding of the will in nature, wherein certain things appear and transform themselves in accordance with a fairly unvarying pattern and in the face of obstacles and impediments, solely in accordance with what is willed in a metaphysical sense but entirely without any rational purpose or goal. On the basis of this voluntarism, he explained ethics in terms of the feelings of self-love, malice, and compassion, all of which are expressions of the will, and he denied—in sharp contrast to Kant—that morality has anything to do with reason or intelligence. He argued that men have free will only in the sense that every man is the free or unfettered expression of a will and that men are therefore not the authors of their own destinies, characters, or behavior. Like other voluntarists, Schopenhauer thus emphasized the irrational factors in human behavior and, in doing so, anticipated much that is now taken for granted in those sophisticated circles that have come under the influence of modern psychological theories.

See also: Anselm, St.; Bergson, Henri; Descartes, René; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Dialectic; Ethics, History of; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Fideism; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Pascal, Blaise; Peter Damian; Plato; Protagoras of Abdera; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Socrates; Volition; William of Ockham.

Emile Zola’s – The Joy of Life: A Pessimist’s Life

Emile Zola in The Joy of Life will pit the pessimist and follower of Schopenhauer against his fiancé, Pauline…

“In Lazare the unavowed terror of ceasing to be was, by a logical contradiction, blended with a ceaseless braggart insistence upon the nothingness of things. It was his very terror, the want of equilibrium in his morbid temperament, that drove him into pessimistic ideas and a mad hatred of life. As it could not last for ever, he looked upon it as a mere fraud and delusion. Was not the first half of one’s days spent in dreaming of happiness and the latter half in regrets and fears? He fell back again upon the theories of ‘the old one,’ as he called Schopenhauer, whose most violent passages he used to recite from memory. He expatiated on the desirability of destroying the wish to live, and so bringing to an end the barbarous and imbecile exhibition of existence, with the spectacle of which the master force of the world, prompted by some incomprehensible egotistical reason, amused itself. He wanted to do away with life in order to do away with fear. He always harped upon the great deliverance; one must wish nothing for fear of evil, avoid all action since it meant pain, and thus sink entirely into death. He occupied himself in trying to discover some practical method of general suicide, some sudden and complete disappearance to which all living creatures would consent. This was perpetually recurring to his mind, even in the midst of ordinary conversation, when he freely and roughly gave vent to it. The slightest worry was sufficient to make him cry that he was sorry he was not yet annihilated; a mere headache set him raging furiously at his body. If he talked with a friend, his conversation immediately turned upon the woes of life, and the luck of those who were already fattening the dandelions in the cemeteries. He had a perfect mania for mournful subjects, and he was much interested in an article by a fanciful astronomer who announced the arrival of a comet with a tail which would sweep the earth away like a grain of sand. Would not this indeed prove the expected cosmical catastrophe, the colossal cartridge destined to blow the world to bits like a rotten old boat? And this desire of his for death, this constant theorizing about universal annihilation, was but the expression of his desperate struggle with his terror, a mere vain hubbub of words, by which he tried to veil the awful fear which the expectation of his end caused him.”

—Émile Zola, The Complete Works of Emile Zola

Many of Zola’s own disciples, most famously Maupassant and Huysmans, and later other leading lights of the literary decadent movement in France, not as well-known outside France, abandoned Zola’s “optimism of the intellect” and gave in whole-heartedly to the pessimism of the will and even eventually to nihilism. Schopenhauer was one of the leading intellectual figures for these writers, and his theories became very popular, especially as the general cultural mood in France soured after the catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Zola’s most sustained engagement with Schopenhauerian ideas and its critique is in his novel La Joie de Vivre (a recent English translation is titled The Bright Side of Life). It is not very well known and doesn’t seem to be very widely read in English, but it is one of my personal favorites of his novels. It is one of the most powerful evocations of the struggle between the two forces of optimism and pessimism about the nature of life. (see: Alok)

In The Joy of Life pessimism is confronted with optimism but being Zola, this is not about extremes but calibrates positions along a spectrum from the morbid, neurotic Lazare who cannot find any way to live knowing that someday he will die, to his father M.Chanteau crippled with agonizing gout and yet clinging stubbornly to life. At the heart of the book is Pauline Quenu, a personification, I think, of the joie de vivre of the title: ‘she was, indeed, the incarnation of renunciation, love for others, and a goodness extending to the whole of errant humanity’. Being a Zola character, Pauline is no saint: she’s jealous, she loses her temper, she desires a married man, but she finds a way of being not just content but actively happy despite all that life throws at her. Here is Pauline speaking against the ‘disease of pessimism’:

Pauline, however, in the pride of her self-devotion, was determined to gain the victory. She recognised the source of her cousin’s disease, and tried to impart to him some of her own courage by giving him a love of life. But her compassionate kindliness seemed to receive a continual check. At first she made open attacks upon him with her old jests and jokes about ‘that silly, stupid pessimism.’ ‘What!’ she said, ‘was it she now who had to chant the praises of the great Saint Schopenhauer, while he, like all the humbugging pessimists, was quite willing to see the world blown to pieces, but refused to be blown up himself?’

In another work The Kill the reader is plunged into a world of passion and sensation: a world of corruption and greed. In Zola’s eyes, France in the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is a dynamic society weakened by decadence, corruption and sexual promiscuity. Time and again in his Rougon-Marquart series he returns to this issue, finding evidence in every quarter— government, business, religion — of a diseased nation.

Zola’s stance as a naturalist allowed him to study pessimism, decadence, and the world of the streets where the corruption of society had imposed on the working class a morbid and deathly existence without hope or optimism. The superficial optimism of the higher classes was for Zola an easy target, and he would work it for all it was worth in various ways throughout his novels. In later life he saw his own position turning into an anachronism, he would still style himself with irony and sadness over the lost cause as “an old and rugged Positivist”. This sense that the supposed optimistic positivism with its scientific determinism and naturalism had failed him and left him in despair under the sign of melancholy and Saturn, bereft of hope and happiness pervades this last period. And, yet, he’d still avow the hard-nosed line of that dogmatic philosophy to the end.

In our time another writer in France would take up that same battle between pessimism and positivism, Michel Houellebecq:

“Between Schopenhauer and Comte, I finally made my choice; and gradually, with a kind of disappointed enthusiasm, I became a positivist; to the same degree, I ceased to be a Schopenhauerian. Nevertheless, I nowadays rarely reread Comte, and never with a simple, immediate pleasure, but rather with the somewhat perverse pleasure (which can admittedly be really intense once you gain a taste for it) that one often derives from the stylistic quirks of unbalanced minds; but no philosopher, to my knowledge, is so immediately agreeable and reinvigorating to read as Arthur Schopenhauer. It is not even a matter of ‘the art of writing’, or any such nonsense; those are elementary rules that everyone should follow before having the nerve to propose their thought to the attention of the public. In his third Untimely Consideration, written shortly before he turned away from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche praised the latter’s profound honesty, his probity, his uprightness; he speaks magnificently of his tone, that somewhat grumpy good humour which fills one with distaste for elegant writers and stylists. Such, in a broader form, is the purpose of this volume: I propose to show, through some of my favourite passages, why Schopenhauer’s intellectual attitude remains to me a model for any future philosopher; and also why, even if you ultimately find yourself in disagreement with him, you cannot fail to be deeply grateful to him. For, to quote Nietzsche again, ‘merely because such a man wrote, the burden of living on this Earth has been lightened.’”

—Michel Houellebecq, In the Presence of Schopenhauer

Reading Thomas Mann’s essays on Schopenhauer, Freud, and Goethe

“An image of the world lived and suffered with the entire human being will carry in its exhibition the wedge of the beautiful; He will not have anything of dryness, of the boredom that produces the mere intellectual speculation to the senses; It will arise as a novel of the Spirit, as a symphony of articulated ideas wonderfully, developed from a core of thought present everywhere; It will arise, in a word, as a work of art, and acting with all the charms of art. And just as, according to ancient grace and gift, according to a deep kinship that exists between suffering and beauty, pain is redeemed in the work of art through form, thus beauty guarantees its truth.”

—Thomas Mann, Schopenhauer

Mann, an ironist, seemed infatuated with Schopenhauer, Freud, and Goethe. Like some latter-day shadow of the Idealists his essay is a little pompous and flamboyant in its overdetermined verbosity. This notion of pain being redeemed through art, form and beauty seems a little ludicrous to many of us now, a quaint nod to a dead era of Idealism. He was better in his stories and latter self-deprecating works like Felix Krull. I’ve tried at times to read through those long tomes Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain but have found them to be too formal and designed like a bricklayer. Henry Mill in his Books in My Life once said of Mann,

“I mentioned Thomas Mann. For a whole year I lived with Hans Castorp of The Magic Mountain as with a living person, as with a blood brother, I might even say. But it was Mann’s skill as a writer of short stories, or novelettes, which most intrigued and baffled me during the “analytical” period I speak of. At that time Death in Venice was for me the supreme short story. In the space of a few years, however, my opinion of Thomas Mann, and especially of his Death in Venice, altered radically. It is a curious tale and perhaps worth recounting. It was like this … During my early days in Paris I made the acquaintance of a most engaging and provocative individual whom I believed to be a genius. John Nichols was his name. He was a painter. Like so many Irishmen, he also possessed the gift of gab. It was a privilege to listen to him, whether he were discussing painting, literature, music, or talking sheer nonsense. He had a flair for invective, and, when he waxed strong, his tongue was vitriolic. One day I happened to speak of my admiration for Thomas Mann and, before long, I found myself raving about Death in Venice. Nichols responded with jeers and contempt. In exasperation I told him I would get the book and read the story aloud to him. He admitted he had never read it and thought my proposal an excellent one.

I shall never forget this experience. Before I had read three pages Thomas Mann began to crumble. Nichols, mind you, had not said a word. But reading the story aloud, and to a critical ear, suddenly the whole creaking machinery which underlay this fabrication exposed itself. I, who thought I was holding in my hands a piece of pure gold, found myself looking at a piece of papier-mâché. Halfway through I flung the book on the floor. Later on I glanced through The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, works I had regarded as monumental, only to find them equally meretricious.”

—Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

That tells us more about Miller than Mann for sure, yet there is some truth to it. Mann and Miller were opposing types of writers, the one harbored a need for order, structure, and formalism; the other was a ‘from the hip’ chaotic rogue of the street worlds of New York and Paris. Mann was a master craftsman while Miller like his mentor Walt Whitman created a larger-than-life persona to run the streets and pull in the living breath of a vitalistic world. Mann lived through the Mind, Miller the body…

Erich Heller in his study of Man The Ironic German says the novelist “tells a story about people who live in a world philosophically interpreted by Schopenhauer (and re-interpreted on the basis of identical metaphysical assumptions by Nietzsche-with considerable effect, as will be seen, upon Thomas Mann). Schopenhauer’s philosophical system itself reads like an imaginative invention, profoundly felt and contemplated, persuasively told, and in its own way as ironical as the best stories written by Thomas Mann.” (24) He’d go on to say this of Schopenhauer,

“The plot of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, like the plot of all good stories, turns upon a contrast and an opposition: the conflict between the world-a world the true nature of which is the Will to be what it is, a will willing itself without sense or reason-and the mind of man; for the mind of man, the result of a mysterious accident in an otherwise smoothly-running universe, is endowed with the gift of recognizing the Will for what it is; it is free to take offence at the Will’s unreason and senselessness, and oppose all its works. It can will against the Will and, in an act of heroic self-realization, withdraw from the ‘World-as-Will’ in order to settle somewhere where there is no Will, and therefore no world, and therefore-nothing. It is at this point that Schopenhauer’s philosophical system issues in paradox, with irony taking over from logical consistency. For this nothingness which is where the Will ends-and logic must indeed insist upon this nothing if the Will is to be truly the Alpha and Omega of everything which has any real existence-:- reveals itself as the fullness of the spirit; and Schopenhauer’s prose, the prose of a great writer, rises to dithyrambic heights in praise of this ‘nothing’… ” (24-25)

Mann himself would say this of Schopenhauer: “Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy has always been felt as an eminently artistic philosophy, even more, such as the philosophy par excellence of artists. And not because it is in such a high degree, to such great extent, a philosophy of art – of fact its “aesthetics” occupies a quarter of its total extension; nor because its composition possesses clarity, transparency, such perfect coherence; Neither because his exposure has a force, elegance, precision, a passionate ingenuity, a classical purity and a great serene rigor in his literary style, all of them who had never seen themselves before in German philosophy: all that is just “Phenomenon,” is only the necessary and connatural beautiful expression of the most intimate essence of this thought, of its nature. This is a nature full of tensions, an emotional nature, which oscillates between violent contrasts, between instinct and spirit, between passion and redemption; It is, in sum, an artistic-dynamic nature, which cannot be revealed more than in forms of beauty, which cannot be revealed more than as creation of truth. And that creation of the truth is something personal, something that convinces by the force of its character lived and suffered.”

All this metaphysical humbug gets a little grating when he speaks of ‘truth’ and its creation. In our age such veritable have lost their bite when our sciences as our politics is bound to the moneyed classes, and philosophy turns inward toward the analytical and speculative regions of mathematics hiding among the layers upon layers of elite thought rather than the existential lives of actual humans in the street. Most of us seek something that speaks to us at a personal level, at the level of our actual lives-as-they-are-lived in the pain, squalor, and existential zones of war and death. We don’t want these realms of beauteous truth and form, but the nitty-gritty sustenance that feeds our lives and keeps us going in this world of ruins.

Vladimir Nabokov: The Wood Sprite

“With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand, and touched the back of a shabby armchair. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly.

“It’s so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each other for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?” His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy— I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness.…

No, it can’t be: I’m alone.… It’s only some capricious delirium. Yet there really was somebody sitting next to me, bony and implausible, with long-eared German bootees, and his voice tintinnabulated, rustled— golden, luscious-green, familiar— while the words were so simple, so human.…

“There— you remember. Yes, I am a former Forest Elf, a mischievous sprite. And here I am, forced to flee like everyone else.”

—Vladimir Nabokov, The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s tale of the wood sprite that finds him in a modern city in America becoming a vehicle for the everyday fantastic or weird, a way of conveying his nostalgia for a lost Russian childhood, of a world now under tyranny and the grind of Industrial destruction. The wood sprite complains of his own loss of the ancient forests which have been chopped down, of his search for a new home, of his terror at every turn as he runs into humans who are impinging on his and others of his kinds last refuges. It’s a tale of the slow and methodical destruction of the natural order that has been a part of our heritage for millennia and is now almost dead and buried under degradation, corruption, and modernity. Thomas Ligotti once stated that Nabokov was a major influence on his on tales: I did my best to ape the lavish language and maniacal first-person voice of Vladimir Nabokov, as well as copping his brilliant strategy of using a fantastic narrative to tell a fantastic story. It’s a simple idea, really, although few writers before him had employed this very commonsensical approach to fantastic fiction. Nabokov conjured a spectral world right before the reader’s eyes, often, I’m sure, without many readers noticing that he had done so. Of course, there are any number of authors with fancy prose styles and intricate, though not necessarily fantastic, narrative structures, but Nabokov’s works also conveyed to my mind a profound perception of a perilous and senseless cosmos upon which art may pose a temporary, though ultimately helpless, order. There’s a line in his short novel Pnin that goes, I hope I’ve got this verbatim: “Harm is the norm; doom shall not jam.” It’s the background of bleakness with a foreground of hypnotic artistry that has appealed to me in Nabokov…”1


  1. Paul, R. F., and Keith Schurholz. “Triangulating the Daemon: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” Esoterra No. 8 (Winter/Spring 1999): 14–21.

Michael Cisco and Weird Fiction

When writers, readers, and critics bring together the elements of the supernatural, the bizarre, and destiny, they produce weird fiction together by means of the genre. The genre produces individual stories as well as their “environment,” which is not only their audience or “theatre” but also the creative climate that perpetuates the genre.

—Michael Cisco;. Weird Fiction: A Genre Study

Michael Cisco in his new academic study of Weird Fiction insists that,

“Instead of thinking of a canon in terms of provisionally fixed genre boundaries, this approach will think of canonizations; whenever a certain culture of weird fiction develops, it organizes its own canon, and as new kinds of weird fiction are created, new canons arise and old ones adjust.”1

I’ve always seen Weird fiction as a sub-genre within the umbrella genre of the Fantastic. A lot of battles have ensued as to what the fantastic entails, but Todorov’s base idea that it falls somewhere in-between the two extremes of the ‘Marvelous’ (Supernatural literature) and the ‘Uncanny” (Psychological literature). The Fantastic gathers within its umbrella the various extremes of the grotesque, horror, weird, eerie, satire, etc. As Italo Calvino a postmodern member of that fantastic tribe which derives from authors like E.T.A. Hoffman, Jan Potocki, Poe and his mimics, Lovecraft and his circle, Machen, Blackwood, Jorge-Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, William Kotzwinkle, and so many others tell us,

“The fantastic tale is one of the most characteristic products of nineteenth-century narrative. For us, it is also one of the most significant because it is the genre that tells us the most about the inner life of the individual and about collectively held symbols. As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times. We note that the fantastic says things that touch us intimately, even though we are less disposed than the readers of the last century to allow ourselves to be surprised by apparitions and phantasmagoria. We are inclined to enjoy them in another way, as elements in the spirit of a bygone era.”

—Italo Calvino. Fantastic Tales

Calvino would divide the various forms of the fantastic into the Visionary Fantastic and the Everyday Fantastic. In the first would be such authors as Jan Potocki, Joseph von Eichendorff, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Sir Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, Philarète Chasles, Gerard de Nerval, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, Théophile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, andJoseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the second, Edgar Allan Poe, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Guy de Maupassant, Vernon Lee, Ambrose Bierce, Jean Lorrain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells. This is a diverse set of authors from the Nineteenth century that would influence later authors of the various sub-genres within the Fantastic.

The great theoretician of the Weird Tale is without doubt H.P. Lovecraft whose views in his study of that genre suggests,

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model. Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots. Moreover, much of the choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material whose massed effect may be of a very different cast. Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect,[9] or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means,[10] is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. The one test of the really weird is simply this— whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.”2

For Lovecraft the expressive mode is the proper form of the weird tale. Expressionism is a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Northern Europe around the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists have sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality. As Ligotti a major weird tale author in out moment says, “I most identify with Expressionism. All of my stories have had their origins in a mood or attitude that I wanted to convey to the reader. When I first began writing, I realized that my subject matter would necessarily derive from my own life. I’ve never been a worldly person. Thus, I never had at my command either much in the way of practical knowledge or a wide range of lived experiences.”3 This subjective and personal approach through mood, atmosphere, and sensation that seeks to convey a view onto the world of the weird as a mode of fear, dread, and cosmic horror connects us to the modern and postmodern secular-atheistic visionary fantastic and its singular apprehension of reality and the Real/Unreal. Ligotti sums this up nicely in one of his own tales,

Now standing before the window, his hands deep in the pockets of a papery bathrobe, he saw that something was missing from the view, some crucial property that was denied to the stars above and the streets below, some unearthly essence needed to save them. Though unspoken, the word unearthly reverberated in the room. In that place and at that hour, the paradoxical absence, the missing quality, became clear to him: it was the element of unreality, or perhaps of a reality so saturated with its own presence that it had made a leap into the unreal.

—Thomas Ligotti, The Spectacles in the Drawer (First published in Etchings And Odysseys #10, 1987)

Harold Bloom divides tale writers into those like Anton Chekov (Realists) and Kafka (Phantasmagorists): “If the primary tradition of the short story is Chekhovian, the alternate mode is Kafkan-Borgesian, nightmare phantasmagorias. Lawrence and James have recognizable qualities that are Chekhovian, and neither were precursors of Borges.”

Rosemary Jackson in her study Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion says,

“The fantastic is predicated on the category of the ‘real’, and it introduces areas which can be conceptualized only by negative terms according to the categories of nineteenth century realism: thus, the im-possible, the un-real, the nameless, formless, shapeless, un-known, in-visible. What could be termed a ‘bourgeois’ category of the real is under attack. It is this negative relationality which constitutes the meaning of the modern fantastic.”3

Northrop Frye in his early allegorical study of modes of genres ‘Anatomy of Criticism’ defined the fantastic as a mode of Romance:

“Romance peoples the world with fantastic, normally invisible personalities or powers: angels, demons, fairies, ghosts, enchanted animals, elemental spirits like those in The Tempest and Comus. Dante wrote in this mode, but not speculatively: he accepted the spiritual beings recognized by Christian doctrine, and concerns himself with no others. But for a late poet interested in the techniques of romance— Yeats, for instance— the question of whether and which of these mysterious creatures “really exist” is likely to project itself. The high mimetic projects mainly a quasi-Platonic philosophy of ideal forms, like the love and beauty of Spenser’s hymns or the virtues of The Faerie Queene, and the low mimetic mainly a philosophy of genesis and organism, like that of Goethe, which finds unity and development in everything. The existential projection of irony is, perhaps, existentialism itself; and the return of irony to myth is accompanied, not only by the cyclical theories of history mentioned above, but, in a later stage, by a widespread interest in sacramental philosophy and dogmatic theology.”4

Frye sees it within the mode of the fantastic the extremes of High-mimetic and Low-mimetic forms. On the other hand, Michael Cisco frames his notion of the Weird within the postmodern world of Derrida and Deleuze, favoring Deleuze’s affirmative stylistics over Derrida,

“The genre of weird fiction is a means of production. With it, a writer produces stories which, as commodities, have a dual orientation, both use and exchange values. While, in this monograph, the orientation towards a use value will be more important— and rightly so, since it is the use value that involves something immanent to the work of art— the use value of a weird tale can’t simply be divorced from its exchange value without a word or two about it. Here use needs to be understood as the realization of desire, rather than the narrower realization of practical utility.”

In this sense he sees the weird within the literature of desire rather than subversion (Jackson), more in the Paterian and Wildean tradition of aesthetics of desire than under the auspices of those like Adorno and the Negative Theology of existential thought (Heidegger-Derrida). Ultimately for Cisco Weird fiction as a genre is generalized,

“Weird fiction involves the supernatural. This can then seem to be determinative for the genre, such that every story is understood in terms of a logical duel between the supernatural and whatever is considered to stand in opposition to the supernatural— generally, science or materialism. Weird fiction isn’t anti-science, may indeed be very much pro-science, but characteristically objects to imposition and dogmatism, to the arbitrary limits that our ideas of the world, humanity, and ourselves impose on imagination and desire. The major mode identifies two opposing poles, generally in order to identify the pretender and elect the real thing. Minor literature doesn’t do this— instead, it occupies the major work and makes use of it for its own ends. A story that frankly affirms the supernatural over materialism or science, or vice-versa, may be weird, but it is not minor. The minor form takes existing clichés, scientific or supernatural, and makes new use of them. Weird fiction isn’t an anti-capitalist genre, either, but it does often register an objection to the way capitalism not only forecloses choices but misrepresents the loss of possibilities as a kind of liberation. In its particular interest in destiny, weird fiction also addresses the way that capitalism divorces people from any grounding, by staging a kind of revenge of the ground. Weird fiction is not feminist or anti-racist and is often filled with prejudice, but it does also at times undermine the confining categories of sexism and bigotry.”5

Cisco updates the weird for our age’s sensitivity to issues of race, sex, and politics and yet moves beyond these to explore both the roots and the possible future of the (sub) genre as well.  As he suggests,

“Weird fiction walks a line with a conservative idea of a transcendent moral order as an important instrument for maintaining a political status quo on one side, and, on the other side, a radical idea of a cosmos that is inherently inimical to any status quo. It would be stupid, though, to miss the utility of the chaotic cosmos for a conservative status quo, or of the idea of a transcendent moral order for the radical side. Radicals call on eternal verities all the time, as Dr. King did, and conservatives have pointed to cosmic chaos to validate the importance of invented stability, as Lovecraft did. So the line weird fiction walks divides two tendencies in thought, but each tendency is itself able to go in two directions.”

Cisco’s book moves through a focus on the Supernatural, Bizarre, Destiny, and various Case studies to help further a more expansive notion of the Weird as a genre. Ultimately, he contends that a “weird tale involves a bizarre encounter, which is the self-difference of the ordinary, that marks a character with a destiny, which is change, in order to produce the supernatural, understood here to mean a sense of the infinity of experience involving the limits of reality, for the reader. In a way, this supernatural production amounts to the mark of destiny being found on the reader as well. The weird tale can unfold in a major or minor way. In the major mode, it will develop into a judgement against those who do not maintain and desire the standards of the everyday, while in the minor mode, the tale issues a warning: do not cling to identity, all experience is infinite, and so you will no longer be who you now are.”

Sadly, the book is an academic one published in an academic press (Palgrave) so the price is exorbitant for the average reader. I received a copy for review otherwise I, too, would not have invested in it. Too bad they offer such interesting studies at outrageous prices. I guess one will need to gain access to it through university libraries or local library inter-state loans. It’s definitely worth careful study if you’re a scholar, but for the average reader it’s a little dry and dusty reading like most academic studies. I still enjoyed it but then I’ve read most of the critical classics in the field and apprehend its update to that world of academic study of the weird and fantastic.

You can find it on Springer: <https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-92450-8&gt;


  1. Cisco, Michael. Weird Fiction: A Genre Study. Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2021 edition (March 22, 2022)
  2. Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged . Hippocampus Press. 2012
  3. Ligotti, Thomas. Interview: Thomas Ligotti and Xavier Aldana Reyes (June 2019)
  4. Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press; 2nd edition (May 19, 2020)
  5. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 26). Taylor and Francis.

Joseph Conrad: The Nameless Woman – Queen of Night and Darkness

“And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.”

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

It’s late, I’m tired. Okay, finished Conrad’s Heart of Darkness again after a few decades. Sadly, for me it was ultimately an aesthetic failure. Why? Because the whole thing is based on deception and self-deception from end to end. Marlow, the Narrator, Conrad, Kurtz, Kurtz’s finance… the only one in the whole book that was undeceived is the “Woman” who is never named. Over and over, I come to the conclusion that she was Kurtz’s lover and her very control of the tribes and even him become the focal point of what remains unsaid in the novel. Even Marlow is left in the dark about this unknowing of this secret love-hate relationship. Even when Kurtz is carried into the Pilot House and is confronted by Marlow, Marlow seeks some answer that is not the answer he seeks; one that is left unsaid in the saying:

“We had carried Kurtz into the pilot house: there was more air there. Lying on the couch, he stared through the open shutter. There was an eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance.

“Do you understand this?” I asked.

He kept on looking out past me with fiery, longing eyes, with a mingled expression of wistfulness and hate. He made no answer, but I saw a smile, a smile of indefinable meaning, appear on his colorless lips that a moment after twitched convulsively. “Do I not?” he said slowly, gasping, as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural power.”1

It’s all in that “Do I not?” Of course, Kurtz understood. This is H. Rider Haggard’s She-Ayesha, the woman as Queen of Night and the World. It’s her, not Kurtz who is the power of darkness in the book, the lover and daimon which haunts the book and is it’s creative agent. And, yet, the narrator, Marlow, and Kurtz’s fiancé are left in the dark obscurity of never knowing, but only lost in their own illusions, deceptions, and self-deceptions. What makes it weak is that Kurtz is just the poor boy trying to make good, trying to become rich… the poet like Rimbaud who woke up out of his dubious childhood of delusions and sailed off to African to become rich. The whole notion of Kurtz’s eloquence, his voice, the whole argument by Marlow of the man’s greatness is a wash out, a lie, a self-deception. The man is nothing but a seeker of riches for all his supposed solitude, he returned to the tribes because of his love-hate relation to ‘The Woman’ not because of some mission or sustained preoccupation with solipsism. Marlow is deceived the whole way through, even at the point of lying to the fiancé when at the end she asks about Kurtz’s dying words: “‘ The last word he pronounced was— your name.’

What Kurtz actually said in the final moments and Marlow’s on thoughts:

“”Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror— of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—

“‘ The horror! The horror!’ ”

I blew the candle out and left the cabin.

We’ll never know what that horror was, but I suspect it is more about the ‘Woman’, the nameless ‘Woman’ he could not rid his mind of her hold was that great on him. Here is the scene we first encounter the helmeted woman:

“Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest, and near the river two bronze figures, leaning on tall spears, stood in the sunlight under fantastic headdresses of spotted skins, warlike and still in statuesque repose. And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.

“She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

“She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow fell to the water’s edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle, a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if her heart had failed her. The young fellow by my side growled. The pilgrims murmured at my back. She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon the unswerving steadiness of her glance. Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer into a shadowy embrace. A formidable silence hung over the scene.

“She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of the thickets before she disappeared.” (55-56)

This is the goddess of Night and Darkness, the Witch Queen herself who is the center and circumference of Conrad’s vision as seen through Marlow’s eyes. She is Kurtz’s mistress, lover, and goddess. One imagines Robert Graves the poet who worshiped the goddess in all women reading this passage and saying: “Ah!, yes, this is her, my Queen, the Goddess!” Strangely I have yet to find any critic whoever took this slant on Conrad’s book. She is the embodiment of the earth whose power comes from “the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life” at the heart of all things. Maybe, the heart of Conrad’s darkness is the vitalist will of the cosmos in all its dark power and immensity.

All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean –
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.
—Robert Graves

The only two other women in the novel are the Aunt who helped Marlow gain the position and the ‘intended’ wife or fiancé who mourns his death. One Critic in Women’s Role in “Heart of Darkness” suggests “the African lover, represents darkness and the raw savageness of Africa, while the other, Kurtz’s intended, portrays trust and naivety of European women.”2 This critic goes on to say:

Joseph Conrad portrays women characters simplistically in black and white. The white European women are innocent and ignorant. They are misinformed by the men, and Marlow believes this is for society’s sake. In his society, the women are powerless and misinformed, and society is civilized.

I disagree with this. Conrad’s whole use of understatement and misdirection throughout the novel points us to Marlow’s misreading to the whole affair rather than a black and white reading of women. Marlow never recognizes the truth of the African Witch Queen whose power of the Kurtz and the tribes goes unsaid. Conrad’s critique is not of women but of the whole white supremacist male dominated view of reality that overlooks women and forces them into such roles to begin with. It’s a critique of the patriarchal philistine worldview that Conrad displays. Kurtz is a man torn between a world he resents and hates, and a world of darkness that tempts him and awakens in him that ancient vitalistic force of the feminine sacred that pervades this world of jungle and river. In the end it is Marlow who is unknowing, bound to the simplistic world of men who are civilized and full of mental Idealisms. Kurtz could care less about these Ideas of his, he uses them as a defense against his fear of the unnamed Woman and what she is. She is the ‘horror, the horror’. She is the darkness at the heart of Conrad’s story. She is the incarnation of the dark will central to this gnostic story.

I doubt that Conrad ever knew much about Gnosticism consciously, but many of the patterns that shape his fictions form a dark gnosis that follows the Valentinian allegories of Sophia and her son, Ialdabaoth (Old Testament: Yahweh): “This creation is structured according to the archetypal pattern of the higher Pleroma, for Ialdabaoth contains this pattern in himself by virtue of being Sophia’s son. It is now Ialdabaoth’s daydream that takes on the con,sistency of matter, emerging from the bottom of his unconscious, which guards in itself the buried treasure of his genetic memory.”3 As Couliano interprets the mythos:

Demiurge continually stumbles upon transcendent models that are imprinted in his thought, which means that the world of the conceited creator still preserves a weak trace of the Pleroma; yet these archetypal phantoms are deprived of Reason and Light, “they are the product of nothing,” and they will revert to nothingness. The Archons themselves are shadows of pleromatic entities, and if they fight one another all the time it is because each one of them has a faint memory of a distant and noble origin, and therefore each one is persuaded of his superiority over the others. (97).

Throughout the book we have the interplay between the omniscient narrator (Conrad) and Marlow. Marlow is an unreliable narrator caught in the demiurgic cosmos of ignorance and error seeking to understand the dark demiurge of this tale: Kurtz. He stumbles from ignorance to deeper error never truly understanding Kurtz or the women who are aspects of Sophia in her various manifest forms. The unnamed woman is the dark side of the mythos: Lilith – the wife and sister of Ialdabaoth (Yahweh). Lilith is a demonic character in Judaic mythology, supposedly the earliest she-demon and the wife of Adam. She is mentioned in Late Antiquity in Mandaean Gnosticism mythology sources from 500 CE onwards.

Her house sinks down to death,
And her course leads to the shades.
All who go to her cannot return
And find again the paths of life.
— Proverbs 2:18–19

Kurtz cannot return to civilization he has succumbed to her power and her domain. His very act of defiance leads to his death. The horror he speaks of his is his discovery of who she is, but he can speak her name. She is part of the ancient silence. When Marlow describes the scene of the tribesman in the bush, he says,

The consciousness of there being people in that bush, so silent, so quiet— as silent and quiet as the ruined house on the hill— made me uneasy. There was no sign on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs. The woods were unmoved, like a mask— heavy, like the closed door of a prison— they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence.

This ‘hidden knowledge’ – the dark gnosis of the tribe who harbors the first Eve, Lilith, in their midst. She who cannot be named. In Mandaean scriptures Lilith inhabits the World of Darkness. What is referred to in the Bible as Sheol. This is the heart of darkness: ‘the horror, the horror.’

I don’t have time to go through all the various traces in the book that imply such a reading. It’s late, and sorry to say I need sleep. I hope to take this up again at some future time. Hopefully my reading if nothing else has been interesting for you.


  1. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Dover Publications; 1st edition (February 29, 2012)
  2. Women’s Role in “Heart of Darkness” <https://englishliterature.net/notes/womens-role-in-heart-of-darkness&gt;
  3. Couliano, Ioan P. Tree of Gnosis. Harper Collins. 1992.

McBain, Deleuze, and Hyper-Objects

“The smell inside a tenement is the smell of life. It is the smell of every function of life, the sweating, the cooking, the elimination, the breeding. It is all these smells, and they are wedded into one gigantic smell which hits the nostrils the moment you enter the downstairs doorway. For the smell has been inside the building for decades. It has seeped through the floorboards and permeated the walls. It clings to the banister and the linoleum‐covered steps. It crouches in corners and it hovers about the naked lightbulbs on each landing. The smell is always there, day and night. It is the stench of living, and it never sees the light of day, and it never sees the crisp brittleness of starlight.”

—Ed McBain, Cop Hater (87th Precinct Mysteries Book 1)

One could push ‘smell’ into the Lovecraftian cosmos and have a strange beastly thing coming alive in the lurking corners of tenement darkness with such thoughts. McBain’s animation of smell into a vital living thing is almost Deleuzian. For Deleuze and Guattari, the rhizome is not a bad organic form, but instead is the model for an entirely different model of thought. Two models become apparent. if we look at the ‘arborescent’ model of thought, then we find that its self-sufficiency closes itself off from the outside, then its relation to the world is going to be one of representing, or imitating. Thinking on this model involves a kind of comparison, therefore, between two entities, thought and the world, that each are complete in themselves. While we can try to overcome this split, for Deleuze and Guattari, at the heart of the rhizome is a form that connects elements in diverse ways. There is no central ideal as to how the parts, or even which parts, are to be connected together. For Deleuze and Guattari, this implies a model of thinking whereby thinking is another element to be intertwined with the world, rather than an element that stands outside of it and reflects it.

Second, the kind of hierarchical model of thought we find with arborescence works fine for determining what something is, but it is limited to qualifying systems that already exist, rather than explaining where they come from. The arborescent model presupposes a central moment, the trunk, and show how this is differentiated, and so cannot explain its constitution. For Deleuze and Guattari, there is no center to the rhizome, and so we can explain how new systems become constituted through the assemblage of elements that differ from each other. As an example of the logic of the rhizome, we can introduce an archetypally rhizomatic system for Deleuze and Guattari: the wasp and the orchid. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the Ophyrs genus of orchids which attract wasps with a modified petal resembling a female wasp. As the male wasp attempts to copulate with the petal, pollinia become attached to its body:

The line or block of becoming that unites the wasp and the orchid produces a shared deterritorialization: of the wasp, in that it becomes a liberated piece of the orchid’s reproductive system, but also of the orchid, in that it becomes the object of an orgasm in the wasp, also liberated from its own reproduction.

The rhizome forms what Deleuze would describe as an ‘assemblage’. An assemblage is a constellation of singularities, stratified into the symbolic law, polis, or era. A constellation, like any assemblage, is made up of imaginative contingent articulations among myriad heterogeneous elements. This process of ordering matter around a body is called coding. According to Deleuze and Guattari, assemblages are coded by taking a particular form; they select, compose, and complete a territory. In composing a territory, there exists the creation of hierarchical bodies in the process of stratification. Drawing from the constellation metaphor, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the constellation includes some heavenly bodies but leaves out others; the included bodies being those in close proximity given the particular gathering and angle of view. The example constellation thus defines the relationships with the bodies in and around it, and therefore demonstrates the social complexity of assemblage.1

I think of Harman’s ‘real object’ that makes contact through its sensual appendages, this hidden thing, almost vitalistic, that lives in the dark corners of everything, waiting, waiting like a panther ready to pounce and strike its victim. I still think of Harman’s objects as incarnations of Schopenhauer’s Will as the will in every thing, object, person – singular in manifestation, but like a quantum vat connected below the threshold (i.e., like mushrooms connected by the large community of roots it’s attached to spread out under the forest loam, hidden to the inquiring eye but present in the darkness like a blob roaming the earth underground untouched.). Are like Morton’s hyperobject that exists in several dimensions at once. Here’s Morton describing a hyperobject:

Hyperobjects have numerous properties in common. They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity. Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time. And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans.2

This sense that below the surface of life, below the threshold of sense-data, the texture of what we know and can know there is this thing living in the interdimensional zones of habitation, lurking in the interzones of being like some dark living presence unfolding its mysteries in and through the appearances of time in the mattering fold of vibrant life we see, feel, touch, and smell. This vital thing of the energetic cosmos permeating existence, acting from its blind world in the visible realm like an idiot god. Schopenhauer’s Will-to-life or just the blind “purposeless purpose” of modern quantum science.

“Instead of exiling objects to the natural sciences (with the usual mixed emotions of condescension and fear), philosophy must reawaken its lost talent for unleashing the enfolded forces trapped in the things themselves. It is my belief that this will have to be the central concern of twenty-first-century philosophy.”

—Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects

Harman returns us to trope – to those “colors of the mind” (Angus Fletcher) that tell us that reality cannot be locked down with some staid unified descriptive science or logic, that reality is open and undefinable yet can paradoxically enter into our linguistic traces as metaphor, metonym, hyperbole, or many of the other figures of speech and intellect that make up the rhetorical and conceptual heritage of philosophy, art, literature, etc.; it is those turns of phrase and troping that are at the heart of Harman’s enterprise – a world wherein we are “one chemical in the lab, one species of leopard in the zoo, one atom in the haystack”. Allure is the gum, sincerity the active force working through intention in the world that is not bound by consciousness, yet is part of the mental fabric of things as existents. What Harman in effect is saying: let us have the poetry of existence rather than its literal death. Reality cannot be reduced to Mind, Language, or Scientific description. Reality is an open and indefinable ever-changing realm of the dark Will-below-the-threshold of metamorphosis, change, and becoming within which, we are but one and unified, singular yet connected among many entities through this all-pervading force or ‘Will-to-live’, each impinging upon the other in a carnival of existence.


  1. Somers-Hall, Henry. Deleuze and Guattari on the Rhizome: One or Many Plants? <https://www.plantphilosophy.org.uk/histories-of-plant-thinking/deleuze-and-guattari-on-the-rhizome-one-or-many-plants/&gt;
  2. Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Posthumanities). University of Minnesota Press. 2013

Nietzsche’s ‘Birth of Tragedy’ – Is there a Pessimism of Strength?

“To say it once again: today I find it an impossible book – badly written, clumsy and embarrassing, its images frenzied and confused, sentimental, in some places saccharine-sweet…”
—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy 

“Flight from boredom is the mother of all art” (8,432). 
—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Who will from adolescence forget these lines penned by a convalescent recuperating from some ailment:

“A few weeks later, and he himself was to be found beneath the walls of Metz, still struggling with the question mark that he had appended to the supposed ‘cheerfulness’ of the Greeks and Greek art; until at last, in a month of the most profound suspense, when peace was under debate in Versailles, he too made peace with himself and, slowly convalescing from an illness contracted in the field, gave definitive form to The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Out of music? Music and tragedy? Greeks and the music of tragedy? Greeks and the pessimistic art form? The most accomplished, most beautiful, most universally envied race of mankind, those most capable of seducing us into life – they were the ones who needed tragedy? Or even more – art? What for? – Greek art?…

The reader might guess where the big question mark of the value of existence was raised. Is pessimism inevitably the sign of decline, decadence, waywardness, of wearied, enfeebled instincts? – As once it was with the Hindus, as it seems to be with us ‘modern’ Europeans? Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, terrible, evil, problematic in existence, arising from well-being, overflowing health, the abundance of existence? Is it perhaps possible to suffer from over-abundance? A tempting and challenging, sharp-eyed courage that craves the terrible as one craves the enemy, the worthy enemy, against whom it can test its strength? Wishing to learn from it the meaning of ‘fear’? What is the meaning, for those Greeks of the best, strongest, most courageous age, of the tragic myth? And of the tremendous phenomenon of the Dionysiac? And of the tragedy that was born from it? And on the other hand, that which brought about the death of tragedy: the Socratism of morality, the dialectics, modesty and cheerfulness of theoretical man – could not that very Socratism be a symptom of decline, fatigue, infection and the anarchical dissolution of the instincts? And might the ‘Greek cheerfulness’ of the later Greeks be nothing but the glow of sunset? The epicurean will against pessimism merely a precaution of the afflicted? And science itself, our own science – what does all of science mean as a symptom of life? Might the scientific approach be nothing but fear, flight from pessimism? A subtle form of self-defence against – the truth? And, morally speaking, something like cowardice and falsehood? Amorally speaking, a piece of cunning? Oh Socrates, Socrates, was that, perhaps, your secret? Oh, secretive ironist, was that, perhaps, your – irony?”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

This is what grabbed me then and still does: “Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, terrible, evil, problematic in existence, arising from well-being, overflowing health, the abundance of existence?

Nietzsche would battle with Schopenhauer’s version of pessimism his whole philosophical life. He’d come to his notion of this difference in his conceptual framework of the difference between “active” and “passive” nihilism. But Nietzsche was a sick man, ailing from both physical and then mental ailments that would be his undoing. We still do not know for sure, all we do know is this would drive much of his philosophy. A throwback to the poets and sophists he’d question the whole truth-bearing stance of the Platonic-Socratic tradition and find it wanting. In his vitalistic turn he’d seek out a philosophy of life and health rather than truth. Nietzsche’s flamboyant, rhetorical style with all its verbosity and over-the-top extravagance and exuberance always seemed a little too hysterical, a little too much on the edge of madness as if he were about to take flight for parts unknown. One wanted a sober creature who could dip his pen in the viperous wit of the cynic rather than the hyperbolic vats of the poets. 

As a young man I loved this chirping extravagance, the poetic philosophy of a vitalist exuberance. Weaned on the poetry of William Blake and the Romantic poets of England this style triggered in me a sense of mysteries about to be unleashed, the dithyrambs of ancient Dionysiac women dancing and tearing flesh. Now it only exasperates me for what it is: the scribblings of a lonely man whose mind sought in the texts of the Greeks what he could not find in real life. His slow disenchantment with Wagner and the German world of art and music, philosophy and history became for him a despairing revelation and torment. Unable to find outer love in women, he’d visit the brothels and whores of various cities as he journeyed across Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Lost among his own solitudes he would dream of a future man. Saddened by the capitalist spirit, and the philistines of the market democracies of his day he would invent the fantasies of the Übermensch, the Death of God, and a hatred of the Christian mythos which in its pathetic manifestation in Enlightenment Man he felt led to decay, ruin, and decadence of society. A decadence he believed would end in ‘The Last Man’. 

His love of music would never falter, and as his biographer puts it,

Nietzsche experienced music as authentic reality and colossal power. Music penetrated the core of his being, and it meant everything to him. He hoped the music would never stop, but it did, and he faced the quandary of how to carry on with his existence. On December 18,1871, Nietzsche traveled from Basel to Mannheim to hear Wagnerian music conducted by the composer. Upon his return to Basel, he wrote to his friend Erwin Rohde: Everything that. . . cannot be understood in relation to music engenders …. downright aversion and disgust in me. And when I returned home from the concert in Mannheim, I actually had a peculiarly exaggerated weary dread of everyday reality, because it no longer seemed real to me, but ominous” (Β 3,257; Dec 21,1871).1

Music seemed to buffer and protect him from the ‘ominous’ sense of a world gone wrong, a world of misery, pain, and suffering which he would seek to forget and sublimate through philosophy and music. Commenting on this need for music against the mundane world of everyday life and boredom Rüdiger Safranski suggests of Nietzsche: 

However, even “boredom” has its aura of mystery and is imbued with a singular pathos by Nietzsche. Boredom, from which art provides a refuge, becomes terrifying—the yawning abyss of being. When people are bored, they regard the moment as an empty passage of time. External events, as well as people’s sense of self, become inconsequential. The phases of life lose their intentional tension and cave in on themselves like a soufflé removed from the oven too soon. Routines and habits that otherwise provide stability suddenly prove to be nothing more than façades. Finally, the eerie scenario of boredom reveals a moment of true feeling. When people find nothing to do with themselves, nothingness besets them. Against this backdrop of nothingness, art performs its task of self-stimulation—a virtually heroic enterprise, because people on the verge of a breakdown need to be entertained. Art steps in as a bridge to prevent succumbing to nihilist ennui. Art helps us live; without it, life cannot stem the onslaught of meaninglessness. (20).

That would be one of Nietzsche’s downfalls, his inability to accept this universe on its own terms, he needed art —sublimation of experience into some form of artistic expression to keep him sane. When this failed, he would enter that stage of his own delirium. Whether it was brought on by some physical ailment or not, it was his slow withdrawal from the world that would entrap him in his own night and delusions. Sadly. 


  1. Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. W. W. Norton & Company; F First Paperback Edition Used (January 17, 2003)

Eugene O’Neill: The Darkness of America

“We are such things as rubbish is made of, so let’s drink up and forget it.”
― Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” – William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The line appears in Act IV, Scene 1.

This parody of Shakespeare’s famed line befits the Irish Bard of pain, misery, and drunkenness. Harold Bloom even though he didn’t much like Eugene O’Neill’s worldview based as it was on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud would give him an underhand compliment as the progenitor of American Drama. Before O’Neill there was nothing of repute on the stage worth notice.

“O’Neill would appear to be the most non-Emersonian author of any eminence in our literature. Irish-American through and through, with an heroic resentment of the New England Yankee tradition, O’Neill from the start seemed to know that his spiritual quest was to undermine Emerson’s American religion of self-reliance.”

I’ve read and reread O’Neill most of my adult life, watched some of the best adaptations in screen and stage (Chicago theatre, not Off-Broadway!). I agree with Bloom’s estimation of O’Neill’s undermining of Emersonianism with its incessant optimism and up-beat American myth of exceptionalism and transcendence. Not sure if O’Neill ever read the late Emerson whose Conduct of Life essays would turn against his own optimistic heritage, but that is no import, what we have is the inheritor of that ancient lineage of pessimism found in Sophocles. O’Neill would return us to Sophocles and the pessimism of Racine among others for his dramatic thought on that irrational force that conquers us all. Only that old curmudgeon, Robert Penn Warren, the Agrarian conservative of the Old South clap track would be more anti-Emersonian. Unlike Warren, O’Neill would not pretend to political prophet, but rather keep to the loner, the solitary nihilist on the edge and margins of life: the drunk, loser, and all those failed and broken creatures that emerge from the hinterlands of the American Nightmare.

“Happy roads is bunk. Weary roads is right. Get you nowhere fast. That’s where I’ve got—nowhere. Where everyone lands in the end, even if most of the suckers won’t admit it.”
― Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Talking of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh Bloom suggest the play’s “true argument is that your own soul cannot be possessed, whether by possessing something or someone outside it, or by joining yourself to a transcendental possibility, to whatever version of an Emersonian Oversoul that you might prefer. The United States, in O’Neill’s dark view, was uniquely the country that had refused to learn the truths of the spirit, which are that good and the means of good, love and the means of love, are irreconcilable.” (Bloom’s Critical Views) In a world where transcendence is a inherent myth handed down from the times of the Greeks and Romans, central to the whole Judeo-Christian worldview, we are left in our secular world of atheistic and Enlightenment humanism within an immanent cosmos of nihilism where there is no escape, no reprieve, no exit.

O’Neill was a metaphysical nihilist, whose desperate faith in art, and phantasmagoric naturalism left him in a world bereft of hope and any promise of transcendence. A solitary voyager of our nihilism he would stare into the abyss, but nothing would stare back of its silent black void. “His strength was neither in stance nor style, but in the dramatic representation of illusions and despairs, in the persuasive imitation of human personality, particularly in its self-destructive weaknesses.” (Bloom) We see this in the various family tragedies and in his own life. Bloom’s Gnosticism is not O’Neill’s tragic view, but the notion that O’Neill’s characters live in the kenoma – the great emptiness of things seems fitting in its nihilistic vectors. Comparing him to Beckett he states: “All that O’Neill and Beckett have in common is Schopenhauer, with whom they share a Gnostic sense that our world is a great emptiness, the kenoma, as the Gnostics of the second century of the common era called it.”

His biography tells us,

In the winter of 1952, the intolerable possibility that some intrepid director might produce what he’d finished off his Cycle after his death moved O’Neill to a desperate act: he and Monterey must destroy the manuscripts. For hours, according to Monterey, they tore the pages up into little pieces, and she flung them into a fire. “It was awful,” she recalled. “It was like tearing up children.” After that, he lost any will to live. “He died when he could no longer work,” Monterey said. “He died spiritually. And it was just a matter of dragging a poor, diseased body along for a few more years until it too died.”  All the while, O’Neill refused any comfort from the possibility of God or an afterlife. “When I’m dying,” he’d insisted, “don’t let a priest or Protestant minister or Salvation Army captain near me. Let me die in dignity. Keep it as simple and brief as possible. No fuss, no man of God there. If there is a God, I’ll see Him and we’ll talk things over.”1

The irony of that last sentence seems fitting for a man who did not believe in God. A nihilist joke at having been born into a Catholic world he hated and yet could not escape.


  1. Robert M. Dowling. Eugene O’Neill (Kindle Locations 9079-9087). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Cornell Woolrich’s Dark City of Evil

“I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”
― Cornell Woolrich, Blues of a Lifetime: The Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich

In Cornell Woolrich’s Deadline at Dawn our old friend the evil demiurge shows up again as the female protagonist personifies the intelligence that pervades the city corrupting everything in it:

“‘It’s the city itself. You think of it as just a place on the map, don’t you? I think of it as a personal enemy, and I know I’m right . . . I only know there’s an intelligence of its own hanging over this place, coming up from it . . . and when you breathe too much of it for too long, it gets under your skin, it gets into you. . . . Then you can go anywhere—home or anywhere else—and you just keep on being what it made you from then on.’”
The notion that a city can take on the corrupting shape and dark power of this demiurgic force comes out in this grim picture of a hotel: ‘Doors, dark, oblivious, inscrutable. . . . All hope gone from them, and from those who passed in and out through them. Just one more row of stopped-up orifices in this giant honeycomb that was the city. . . . No moon ever entered there, no stars, no anything at all. They were worse than the grave, for in the grave is absence of consciousness. And God . . . ordered the grave, for all of us; but God didn’t order such burrows in a third-class New York City hotel.’

This notion of the city as an evil force, a dark intelligence in which the people, the buildings, the streets and every aspect of its workings is bound to an overarching ‘active darkness’ – a personal daimon or force of evil ‘genie loci’ (Spirit of Place – yet, inverted in this instance!) is central to much of noir and horror fiction alike.

Before the spread of Christianity, the ancient people believed in the Genius Loci also known as spirits of place. Rivers, wells, and springs were guarded by powerful water spirits. Mountains and caves were the residence of land spirits. Whether the ancient people believed these were the actual spirits of the mountains or rivers or merely spirits that lived and guarded these sacred places is left for debate. One thing is for sure – there are too many legends, folktales, and sagas in which the ancient people not only believed in spirits of place, but they also worshiped them. These were natural and elemental daimons, but with the rise of city life such entities took a dark turn and are no longer protective but rather harbor ill-will against humans. Mix this with the strange anti-Platonic notions of the 2nd Century Gnostics which were suffused with an anti-Cosmic overturning of the Old Testament God of War, Yahweh, and one gets a dark daimon indeed.

Even his scenes of the inner-city bar life where those ‘walking dead men’ he is famed for show up reveals the daimonic power of darkness: “‘It was a dive, and the squirming, wriggling forms of life that infested it belonged below the ground, should never have come up out of it . . . blind worms, invisible slits for eyes, seeming to try to climb down inside their own glasses.’” This is no longer a human world but a zone of inhuman decay, corruption, and slow annihilation under the auspices of darkness. As Joel Lane – an astute critic of Woolrich and weird tale author of some accomplishment – puts it such scenes are an apt metaphor of Woolrich’s own career: “The public want the darkness, but only if it’s fake: a real darkness is too much for them.” When humans are confronted with the stark existential truth of the darkness of their own lives and environments they run, they seek escape rather than confrontation with the evil they live in like worms in a cesspool of slime.

Thomas Ligotti’s Politics of Despair

“We are gene-copying bio-robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe.”
― Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror

Been slowly rereading aspects of Thomas Ligotti for signs of political critique. He leans toward the socialist, but for the most part Ligotti himself is a-political due to his non-involvement with society in its outer worldly forms. Close off in his private hell he lives in an agoraphobic state most of the time, only allowing himself contact with a few friends and family. I was rereading The Frolic again today and realized there is a subtle critique of the liberal reforming ideology coming out of the Rousseau’s traditions. The notion of prisoners being brought up in bad situations which mark them for life and become if not the cause of their criminality at least shaping it. In the story Dr. Munck comes to this new prison with all the liberal enthusiasm of a young Idealist full of hope of social reform, but soon turns cynical and despairing, his disenchantment of the whole liberal reform movement suddenly turning dark as he says:

“I’m no aesthete of pathology. It’s never been my ambition to study mental disease without effecting some improvement. So why should I waste my time trying to help someone like John Doe, who doesn’t live in the same world as we do, psychologically speaking. I used to believe in rehabilitation, not a purely punitive approach to criminal behavior. But those people, those things at the prison are only an ugly stain on our world. The hell with them. Just plow them all under for fertilizer, I say.” Dr. Munck then drained his glass until the ice cubes rattled.

“Want another?” Leslie asked with a smooth therapeutic tone to her voice.

David smiled now, his illiberal outburst having purged him somewhat of his ire. “Let’s get drunk and fool around, shall we?””
—Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer

At the heart of Ligotti’s stance is his notion of freedom: “This is the form of Decadence that has always interested me–the freedom, after thousands of years under the whip of uplifting religions and the tyrannical politics of the positive–which are nothing more than a means for crowd control–to speak to others who in their hearts could no longer lie to themselves about what they thought concerning the value, or rather lack of value, of human life.” (Interview: Neddal Ayyad)

On Social Progress he states: “Human life moves in only one direction-toward disease, damage, and death. The best you can hope for is to remain stagnant or, in certain cases, return to a previous condition when things weren’t as bad as they’ve become for you. For instance, I now work on a freelance basis for my former employer, except the sort of work that I do outside of the company is the work I used to do twenty years ago as an employee of the company. For me, this is a “change” for the better. Broadly speaking, you can argue that there’s such a thing as “social progress” because, for example, people are no longer literally enslaved to other people. But slavery was an innovation, a progressive solution to labor shortage I don’t think that things ever change for the better in the way that many people believe they do. They only assume different masks of the worst. One can only hope that these masks hold tight as long as possible before revealing what is beneath them.” (Interview: Thomas Wagner)

He speaks of his antagonistic relation to sci-fi and especially the sociological fiction of such writers as Ursala K. LeGuin: “I didn’t care for Le Guin’s agenda and didacticism, and I couldn’t help but extrapolate that all sci-fi would have some social or political agenda that wasn’t anything I cared about. And in general, I don’t care about humanity’s future, or futuristic parables about humanity’s state in the here and now.” (Interview: Venger Satanis)

The closest he comes to a political stance is in this interview: “I really haven’t heard much about pessimists being apolitical. Like any other quality of temper, I think this depends on the person and doesn’t have anything to do with pessimism. While I’m what is called a moral anti-realist, it seems obvious to me that some forms of social circumstances are innately better than others. Much of this has to do with those in power at any given time, but I do hold that a society that leans toward socialism is superior to one that favours capitalism. Of course, much of my feeling is a function of the intensity with which a certain form of socio-political life coheres. Paleo libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and practically every type of conservativism appears conspicuously abhorrent to me, and I can’t understand the mentality of people who adhere to these types of social organization.” (Interview: Xavier Aldana Reyes)

Some have tried to discover politics in his short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done which deals with corporate America and the horror of office jobs, but as Ligotti told one interviewer: “While My Work Is Not Yet Done uses the corporate system as a starting point, this is only so that the story can go on to depict the all-encompassing system of human existence-in fact, all organic existence-as something fundamentally and inescapably evil.” (Interview: Thomas Wagner)

Ligotti’s worldview is based on pessimism, but his pessimism is personal and non-metaphysical: “My pessimism doesn’t have a metaphysical basis like Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Live, which I never understood as a reading of the universe that would necessarily lead one to a grim view of life. To me, it seems closely related to Bergson’s elan vital. At the same time, I’ve used the idea of anima mundi in a few stories to represent the same kind of driving force as the Will-to-Live, with the difference that it’s a personal evil not an indifferent type of energy that makes the world move as it does. Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Live is as difficult to swallow as any other monist explanation for everything.”

Closer to those noirish writers whose dark novels of the horrors of modernity and urban decay, squalor, and despair deal with the broken lives of the working-class men and women who litter the ruins of our cities Ligotti’s philosophy and art instill a deep sense of the wrong turn humans made as they developed civilization. In many ways his works resemble those of such noir writers as “John Franklin Bardin, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Derek Raymond and James Ellroy” even as he extrapolates it into existential horror. His horror like theirs deals with the loneliness and hollowness of modern life, of the despair and hopelessness of humans in the face of cosmic indifference and malevolence. Yet, unlike his pessimist forbears he moves in a very personal direction and offers us an existential vision of horror rather than some supernatural and metaphysical mode of transcendence. For Ligotti there is not beyond only the dark realization of consciousness cut off in a cosmos it did not make much less understands. “This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling.” (Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror)

The Active Darkness: The Horror of the Real

“If today we overtly abandon the idealistic point of view, as the Gnostics and Manicheans implicitly abandoned it, the attitude of those who see in their own lives an effect of the creative action of evil appears even radically optimistic.”

—Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess

“In this sense, Being always stood in opposition to thinking as something impregnable, so that the Philosophy that would explain everything found nothing more difficult than to provide an explanation for precisely this Being. They had to explain this incomprehensibility, this active counterstriving against all thinking, this active darkness, this positive inclination toward darkness. But they preferred to have done away entirely with the discomforting and to resolve fully the incomprehensible in comprehension or (like Leibniz) in representation [Vorstellung].”

—Schelling, The Ages of the World

So those who followed Kant into representationalism sought to escape the horror of the Real; and, instead of working through this ‘active darkness’ at the core of Being — comprehending it on its own terms, they sought to escape it, deny it, cover it over in their philosophies of representationalism: their Idealism. As Schelling puts it,

“Idealism, which really consists in the denial and nonacknowledgment of that negating primordial force, is the universal system of our times.” (Ages of the World, 34).

Schelling puts it point blank that Idealism is a defense system, a system of denial, distortion, and delusion, a protection against the truth of the active darkness, the primordial force at the heart of existence (Being). All representational thought is a denial of reality and the Real. What is the Real? As Benjamin Noys states:

Whereas Lacan noted that the concept of the ‘Real’ initially presented itself to psychoanalysis ‘in the form of trauma’ (1979: 55), Žižek figures this trauma as a moment of horror. Although the ‘Real’ is positioned by Žižek as unrepresentable he constantly tries to approach it by allusion to contemporary horror Gothic texts, from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) to the works of Patricia Highsmith and Stephen King. These texts provide the figuration of the breakdown of representation in the revelation of the appearance of the Real as a horrifying ‘Thing’.1

We might say that the shock of the Real is the moment when we are faced with this “primordial force” that Schelling speaks of as the horror of what cannot be named, represented, symbolized, or reduced to any form of human apprehension and meaning. It is the ‘active darkness’ that surrounds us on all sides, the living presence of – at least for me, Schopenhauer’s “Will” at the core of movement and becoming. Georges Bataille speaking of the ancient Gnostic cults in Greece offered a glimpse of this ‘active darkness’ as a creative principle:

In practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles. Attributing the creation of the earth, where our repugnant and derisory agitation takes place, to a horrible and perfectly illegitimate principle evidently implies, from the point of view of the Greek intellectual construction, a nauseating, inadmissible pessimism, the exact opposite of what had to be established at all costs and made universally manifest. 2 (Visions of Excess, 73).

Against all forms of representational thought and Idealisms Bataille states further: “It is difficult to believe that on the whole Gnosticism does not manifest above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for obscene and lawless archontes, for the head of the solar ass (whose comic and desperate braying would be the signal for a shameless revolt against idealism in power).” (74). These ancient allegories and fables of archontes, dark angels, etc. are prefiguration’s of those surmised notions in modern quantum physics of dark energy and dark matter which support the visible universe around us.

Noys describes this concept of the Real in Lacanian Zizek’s terms as “Gothic: maintaining it as the ‘unspeakable’ and horrifying disruption of our sense of reality.” (3) It’s this breakdown of our representational image of reality, the withdrawal of our defense systems against the primordial force of mattering, of base matter that cannot be represented which is the movement of the world and its ‘active darkness’.

We are taught that the normal everyday world we wake up to — work and play in, is the only true world, our world as the phenomenal core of reality as we know it. But the Real as an active, evil, and creative force, a primordial force of ‘active darkness’ strives against this normalization, this delusion and illusion that we have created – the Symbolic World. Our horror of the truth of the world-as-it-is-in-itself led us into a false world, false reality built out of a tissue of lies and representations. Noys using Zizek’s philosophy suggests we live in a Gothic world: “on the one hand we have the Real as the monstrous outside, the ‘Thing’, which we cannot ever truly approach but can only ever protect ourselves against through the formations of fantasy. On the other hand, the injunction of Žižek’s Gothic is to recognize the monster as the projection of our own excesses, as our own refusal to admit the negativity at the heart of our existence. We relocate the horror from the outside back to the inside. This can only ever be a temporary transgressive manoeuvre as the Real always remains fundamentally untouchable: outside the law and language.” (4)

The Real always remains outside the law and language, outside our ‘Human Security System’ – all those representations of human meaning that hide from us the world-in-itself which is forever unrepresented and unrepresentable. Just like all those Gothic horror movies and science fiction films like the Alien we are left with the monstrous Realm as an exterior or Outside force that seeps into our normalized world of the human: “The horror emerges through the transgressive gesture but remains, fundamentally, untouchable and exterior.” (Noys, 4). The closer we come to confronting the horror of the Real the more we fall into our own projections, our illusions and delusions. As Noys commenting on H.P. Lovecraft’s argument about the “inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” he asks:

What remains is the question of how to truly confront the Real; but does this, as in Lovecraft’s statement, only lead us to the impasse in which we ‘either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age’? (5)

Most of us when confronted with the horror of life and death blind ourselves to its darkness, accepting the banal notions that religion, philosophy, and the sciences offer us in the way of explanation. Comforted by the supposed explanatory power of these social institutions of authority in our lives we accept their representations of safety and security against the darkness of existence. And, yet, something still nags at us from the outside, some dark force gnaws at our mind seeking through dream or nightmare to awaken us from this false reality of comfort and delusion.

Contemporary Gothic is the portrayal of the Real not as some Outside monstrous force but as the dark side of our own socialization, our Society itself as a force for delusion and illusion, a trap within which we are all bound in a gothic nightmare world. Our confrontation with the symbolic order of society, capitalism, and the planetary degradation at the hands of this global system of delusion and illusion binds us in a darkening chamber of madness. In this sense the modern capitalist system is a monstrous parasite feeding off its human host: “Capital parasitizes itself on ‘pure life’.” (Noys, 8) Noys in conclusion offers a reading of the Gothic in all its duplicitous forms as forming a “parallax view” (Zizek) of the Real (I quote at length):

What Žižek’s modern Gothic demonstrates for us is this possibility of reading the Gothic towards the de-reification of the Real and the registering of the distorting effects of antagonism. This process also involves a reading from the Gothic to psychoanalysis, to refuse Žižek’s tendency to expel the Gothic from his text. Rather than forming a vicious circle, in which psychoanalysis finds its confirmation in the Gothic and the Gothic finds its truth in psychoanalysis, we have the possibility of a hermeneutic circle of deepening understanding. It is the Gothic text itself that offers sophisticated resources and narrative strategies for holding together the ‘parallax view’ of the Real – neither collapsing the Real into an immediate symbol of antagonism nor reifying the Real as monstrous. This, we could say, is an instance of the problematic role of narrative fiction or literature in psychoanalysis, which all too often treats texts as mere exemplars. In the case of Žižek his love affair with the Gothic sours at precisely the point when a return to the Gothic is most necessary, dismissing the Gothic as believing in the ‘real Real’ leads him to miss the ‘geometric’ Gothic that registers the disturbing effect of the ‘topological twist’ in the parallax view between the Gothic and psychoanalysis. It is in this topological twist that horror itself is rendered as the appearance of social reality, the Gothic distortions and curvatures of capitalist space, and here where psychoanalysis can and should re-encounter the Gothic.” (Noys, 11).

The notion that a new Gothic can deepen our understanding of the Real without falling back into a dualistic confirmation on either side of psychoanalytical divide in thought, one in which the Real collapses into “an immediate symbol of antagonism nor reifying the Real as monstrous”, delivers us to an existential appreciation and acceptance of the paradoxical relation we have with reality and the Real. Noys would against Zizek’s Gothic mode return us to the horrors of the social and political Real where “psychoanalysis can and should re-encounter the Gothic”. Our task is to understand the mechanisms, defenses, and entrapments within which we are trapped by the social, political, and economic forces in a false reality of delusion and illusion. The ‘topological twist’ that unveils the ‘active darkness’ at the core of the Real works to break apart this deluded social construct – the ideological and symbolic structures of the world we live in like a bad rendering of the Matrix film and open us once again to the monstrous creativity of the universe itself rather than be trapped in the closed worlds of civilization and its isolation, imprisonment, and corruption.


  1. Noys, Benjamin. The Horror of the Real: Žižek’s Modern Gothic. International Journal of Zizek Studies: Volume Four, Number Four (p. 2)
  2. Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess. Univ Of Minnesota Press; 1st edition (June 20, 1985)

Ressentiment: The Ruination of Humanity and the Last Man

“Do not store up resentment against your neighbor, no matter what his offence…” – Sirach

“Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

How many of us if we did make it to the other side, become full blown psychotics enabled to see the world whole and mad, would? What keeps us tied to this mundane world of work where zombies and puppets are enslaved in a cave of delusion and illusion? Why do we fear the world-in-itself? Why do we seek in the vein illusions of this time-world an escape from reality? What are we really defending ourselves against? Why is the world so terrible and terrifying that we as humans built an illusory one to hide in? Even now as the constructed world crumbles into ruins around us we become more hysteric, our politics more negative, and full of that dichotomous angst that shifts us into pure hatred of each other.

I often think of that of that ancient myth of the apocalypse, of the separation of the goats and sheep… this allegory seems to be playing out in our politics of liberal left-wing and conservative right-wing extremes. One sees it every day in the media, the pure hatred of each side for the other, the continual atrocity of words displayed like some ritual burning at the stake of each other’s stance in life. We seem to be devolving into our ancestral mode’s day by day… taking on the primitive rituals of scapegoating and expulsion.

There’s a sense of violence in the air, the stench of human fear and terror at what they do not know or understand. Their displacements of this into politics spells ultimate doom for the modern world. We are living out the horror narratives of our own childish fears and dreads. We are the victims of our own hates and despair. We are turning the world to ruins because we cannot accept the world on its own terms, instead we seek to make the world over in our own image. This will be the ruination of the human species.

Nietzsche envisioned the Last Man – a culture which seeks only passive comfort and routine, avoiding everything that could potentially bring risk, pain, or disappointment. A society controlled by the need for security and safety against itself and others, against the horrors of famine, pestilence, climate degradation, war, and the ‘human condition’ itself. Humans that are willing to give up their supposed freedoms for restrictions and government supervision, a society of pleasure and sensual escapes, money and power. The illusions of success instead of real success.

Horror and the weird narratives of strangeness that are published in small presses across the world depict our world as it is under the sign of death and disfigurement, the contortions and corruptions of symbolic landscapes that turn surreal and dark as our world unravels into ruin. The worlds of the psychotic – depressive and other forms of psychosis and schizophrenia set in as our world undergoes mutations and metamorphosis by the power of technology run amuck. We seem to thrive on conflict, on creating out of our planetary system a hellish paradise within which we can live out our worst nightmares.

“The human race sleepwalked to oblivion, thinking only of the corporate logos on it’s shroud.”
― J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come

Truth is most of us live in a deranged reality already we don’t need to become psychotics it is the state of the world. Psychosis is the path of freedom out of this derangement not a means to maintain its horrors and strangeness. How can you medicate someone who sees too much?

Most of modern psychiatry teaches us psychosis is abnormal, when in fact it is we who are abnormal living in a false world of appearances. We’ve constructed a cage against reality. Open the doors, break down the walls, let the Outside in…

I don’t need no walls around me.
And I don’t need no drugs to calm me.
I have seen the writing on the wall.
Don’t think I need any thing at all.
No. Don’t think I need anything at all.
All in all it was all just the bricks in the wall.
All in all it was all just the bricks in the wall.

—Pink Floyd, The Wall Lyrics

Step outside and let the strangeness in… tear down those walls!

Joel Lane on Thomas Ligotti

Joel Lane on Thomas Ligotti:

“One of the metaphors that runs through Ligotti’s work is the journey from twilight to night. Psychologically, this could represent the transition from neurosis to psychosis: from living on awkward terms with external reality to living in a deranged internal reality. But it also represents a shedding of the human, a recognition of the contingent and unstable nature of identity.

While Ligotti is inclined to be negative about the human condition, he does not share the anti-humanist perspective of Lovecraft. His sympathies lie with the displaced and dispossessed, while he hangs the powerful—those who control, exploit and deceive others—out to dry on the web of their own hypocrisy. There are echoes of specific cultural experiences: the European immigrant in America, the child in a Catholic family, the underpaid worker in a corporate office. His anger and disgust are social in basis—though, ultimately, social injustice provides him with a metaphor for all areas of human experience. The overriding emotion in his work is a sense of grief at the ruin of hope and the loss of illusions.”


  1. Joel Lane, This Spectacular Darkness: Critical Essays (“THE RUINS OF REALITY: Thomas Ligotti and the uses of disenchantment”)

Anne Sexton: Gods – from The Death Notebooks

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GODS

Mrs. Sexton went out looking for the gods.
She began looking in the sky —
expecting a large white angel with a blue crotch.

No one.

She looked next in all the learned books
and the print spat back at her.

No one.

She made a pilgrimage to the great poet
and he belched in her face.

No one.

She prayed in all the churches of the world
and learned a great deal about culture.

No one.

She went to the Atlantic, the Pacific, for surely God.

No one.

She went to the Buddha, the Brahma, the Pyramids
and found immense postcards.

No one.

Then she journeyed back to her own house
and the gods of the world were shut in the lavatory.

At last! she cried out,
and locked the door.

—Anne Sexton: The Death Notebooks


On October 4, 1974, Sexton had lunch with Kumin to revise galleys for Sexton’s manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, scheduled for publication in March 1975. On returning home she put on her mother’s old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage, and started the engine of her car, ending her life by carbon monoxide poisoning.

In an interview over a year before her death, she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing Toward God in 20 days with “two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.” She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her death.

The Blindness

Whitman enforces upon Pound and Eliot the American difference, which he had inherited from Emerson, the fountain of our eloquence and of our pragmatism. Most reductively defined, the American poetic difference ensues from a sense of acute isolation, both from an overwhelming space of natural reality, and from an oppressive temporal conviction of belatedness, of having arrived after the event. The inevitable defense against nature is the Gnostic conviction that one is no part of the creation, that one’s freedom is invested in the primal abyss. Against belatedness, defense involves an immersion in allusiveness, hardly for its own sake, but in order to reverse the priority of the cultural, pre-American past. American poets from Whitman and Dickinson onwards are more like Milton than Milton is, and so necessarily they are more profoundly Miltonic than even Keats or Tennyson was compelled to be.
—Harold Bloom – On American Poets

Bloom was an Idealist and hater of the natural order of fate, chance, and necessity. It shows in his fantasy of gnostic anti-naturalism, a vision of the spark overcoming existence to return to some realm of pure light – the Pleroma. The myth of allusiveness and priority would haunt him and many poets, but there are others who did not wash themselves in such visions of escape but sought to immerse themselves in this world in all its cruel majesty. I follow those… so what if we’re all ‘late to the party’ living after the fall, the labored apocalypse that happened yesterday or the day before. So, what if we’re all the living dead amid the ruins of time. So, what… old Blake once said of Milton “Milton was of Devil’s party without knowing it”. Some of us know it in the darkest part of our minds and flesh… but what is that but the dark Will, the blind idiot god of this strange thing we live in? The “purposeless purpose” that runs through all things, agent without awareness – the blind will of creation and destruction – our quantum reality.

This amalgam of poetry and late nineteenth and early twentieth-century scholarship seem apropos as we enter our own late wasteland of climate change and the corruption of politics and the humanist ideals. In our posthuman age the whole notion of studying the ancient horrors and fears of our tribal and medieval ancestors seems quaint as we construct our own dark worlds of annihilation. But this was the fare I grew up with and studied. And the notion of the Wasteland (even in such luminary’s popular works such as Stephen King) still populate our dark imaginal. Even David Foster Wallace in his unfinished novel The Pale King echoes the dark beauty amid the vegetal cruelty of existence:

“Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spine cabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.”
—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Even the poet of America, Walt Whitman knew of that gloom below the night’s insoluble riddles:

Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn forest,
Of the moon that descends the steeps
of the soughing twilight,
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk
—toss on the black stems that decay in the muck,
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry limbs.
—Walt Whitman, Son of Myself

Eliot was a son of Whitman whether he acknowledged it or not. Poe inhabited his blood, Laforgue his mind. Ages ago I read about the mythos of the Wasteland.

April is the cruellest month,
breeding Lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing Memory and desire,
stirring Dull roots with spring rain.
—T.S. Eliot “The Wasteland”

In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern city of Nemil is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.

—Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough

The more closely one studies pre-Christian Theology, the more strongly one is impressed with the deeply, and daringly, spiritual character of its speculations, and the more doubtful it appears that such teaching can depend upon the unaided processes of human thought, or can have been evolved from such germs as we find among the supposedly ‘primitive’ peoples. Are they really primitive? Or are we dealing, not with the primary elements of religion, but with the disjecta membra of a vanished civilization? Certain it is that so far as historical evidence goes our earliest records point to the recognition of a spiritual, not of a material, origin of the human race; the Sumerian and Babylonian Psalms were not composed by men who believed themselves the descendants of ‘witchetty grubs.’The Folk practices and ceremonies studied in these pages, the Dances, the rough Dramas, the local and seasonal celebrations, do not represent the material out of which the Attis-Adonis cult was formed, but surviving fragments of a worship from which the higher significance has vanished.

—Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance

The mythos of the Grail, Fisher King, Wasteland, and Quest of the Knights seeking to restore order and life to a realm laid bare and waste by war, famine, pestilence, disorder and chaos seem like our own age of political and social despair. But we have no Knights, no valiant men or women seeking the Holy Grail that will save us, redeem us, salvage what remains of civilization and its sickness, decay, decadence, and ruins. We are alone and isolated in a wasteland of our own making, denizens of a world of ruin and darkness. There is no escape of salvation from our own darkness. We will suffer it alone and in despair.

Cornell Woolrich: Prince of Despair and Darkness

“IT’S HARD TO SAY GOOD-BY FOR GOOD AT ANY TIME OR ANY place. It’s harder still to say it through a meshed wire. It crisscrossed his face into little diagonals, gave me only little broken-up molecules of it at a time. It stenciled a cold, rigid frame around every kiss.”
—Cornell Woolrich, The Black Angel

Woolrich is considered the father of noir, the voice of pain, loneliness, and despair. Black Angel gave us despair under the weight of young love gone sour and deadly. A young woman whose husband was a cheater, accused of murdering the very woman he supposedly was leaving his twenty-two-year-old wife for. Sentenced to the electric chair, isolated, alone. His soon to be widow a shadow creature living in the city of death. Both remain nameless because like most dark allegory’s names don’t matter only the suffering that is endless does.

Most of us face things that just don’t make sense, that end up just seeming wrong as if there was some form of absolute malevolence – an entity of the earth, air, fire, and water riding us, doom-ridden into the blackest abyss; some force that has it in for us, seeks joy in our pain and suffering. This is the world Woolrich throws us into, a world where fate and necessity hold us in the palms of their puppeteer hands like master players whose only satisfaction is to see how much we will squirm, see how much pain we can endure before we break. There’s nothing kind or gentle in this dark world, it’s all facade through and through. The people are all backdrop props, minions of the very force whose sole satisfaction is sucking as much joy from our lives as it can. This dark malevolence feeds off our suffering. Its world is a pain factory in which it feeds on fear like a wounded god whose wounds will not heal. Mindless of its own actions and consequences it pulls us into every avenue of despair available. The cul-de-sac of this dark labyrinth hides no Minotaur only the empty space of regret that haunts every day of our lives, a regret that we do not understand much less feel; no, it’s the kind of unfeeling mood that numbs and permeates our existence to the point that all we feel is blackness and unbeing. It’s as if life in us were unraveling into nothingness, a slow-motion film we were watching in reverse. Living life but knowing only death in our bones. This is the world of Cornell Woolrich.

“I was trying to cheat death. I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me. I was only to stay alive a little brief while longer, after I was already gone.”
—Cornell Woolrich

The Hard-Boiled Style

“The face she made at me was probably meant for a smile. Whatever it was, it beat me. I was afraid she’d do it again, so I surrendered”
― Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.”
― Ross Macdonald, The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator

A week back began reorganizing my reading and library again. Been rereading crime fiction of late. Gathered up all those old Black Mask collections with Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op. The works of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe. And, of course, the Lew Archer series by Ross Macdonald. I think those three gives one the best overview of that tradition in the Hard-Boiled styles available. Hammett was the cynical observer with the hands-on pragmatism he’s known for in those stories. Most of them are now available in various Otto Penzler Mysterious Press versions. All the Raymond Chandler works of his Knight of California, Philip Marlowe is still in print. Same for that more psychologically oriented investigations of Lew Archer. I think Archer is still my favorite writer, more polished and adept in novel construction than the other two. Nothing against Hammett or Chandler, the first was under the gun to write his stories for the Black Mask pulp style and editors, Marlowe was just a bad writer even though many of his passages are excellent, his overall plotting and ability to construct a novel sucked. Macdonald’s works never failed to hold your interest and kept the plots moving along.

There’d be a great many writers after these three, but each of these writer’s marked out the basic style and territory and still hold the honored place of open that space of literature others would follow.

Dashiell Hammett

Opening to Arson Plus the first story by Dashiell Hammett published in Black Mask, 1st of October 1923:

Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.

“Fifteen cents straight,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.”

I had been doing business with this fat sheriff of Sacramento County for four or five years— ever since I came to the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco office— and I had never known him to miss an opening for a sour crack; but it didn’t mean anything.

“Wrong both times,” I told him. “I get two of them for a quarter; and I’m here to do you a favor instead of asking for one. The company that insured Thornburgh’s house thinks somebody touched it off.”

—Dashiell Hammett. Arson Plus and Other Stories

There’s always that dry, acerbic quality to the Hard-Boiled style which quickly reduces the physical details of a scene or character to a few well qualified observations. There’s an aggressive punchiness to it as if every conversation was a game of wits and war. Thriving on conflict it’s a male world of low-life criminals, scam artists, liars, thieves, scoundrels, gangs and a street-level sense that everything with the world has gone to hell in a handbasket and the only way to deal with violence is either with a gun or the surety of a superior brain. The Continental Op was Hammett’s alter-ego. He’d been in Pinkerton’s since WWI and knew the ins and outs of that world like the back of his hand. He’d only left it when ordered to kill a union leader by his bosses. He refused and was fired. A few days later another agent of Pinkerton’s killed the Union Boss.

It’s that integrity and honor code that Hammett tried to show in his written works, a sense of right and wrong that had nothing to do with any religious view but everything to do with that innate political sense that he showed through his solidarity with the working classes. He’d live to suffer that during the pogroms of the fifties under McCarthyism and the American Fascism of the right-wing extremism of that era. An extremism that is once again surfacing in various regions of our own day here in America as both extreme nationalism, religion, and politics commingle in a deadly mix.

Raymond Chandler

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep: A Novel 

Chandler’s Knight Errant wandered the streets of L.A. like a man who knew the world was corrupt but would offer it chance to redeem itself. He was no Christ, but rather a sorrowful knight who roamed the mean streets like Robert Browning’s lost troubadour seeking the lost tribe of male dignity. As one critic put it: “Chandler’s introverted hero, Philip Marlowe, is distinguished from his predecessors and contemporaries in possessing a more socially conscious code of ethics than that typical of the genre’s heroes; this quality of reflection is consistent with democratic consideration of the thoughts, beliefs, and ethics of others.”1 As Woody Haut puts it: “Without a working-class background, Raymond Chandler could personalize his narrative and single handedly reinvent the genre. He accomplished this through a sophisticated parody of Black Mask fiction. Concerned less with the state of society than with the society of the state, Chandler, once a businessman and a director of independent oil companies, guided his narrative down a cultural and literary cul de sac, successfully decoding the culture until his style turned into a literary cliche.”2 As his character Philip Marlowe would say of himself:

I’m a romantic… I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what’s the matter. You don’t make a dime that way. You got sense, you shut your windows and turn up more sound on the TV set. Or you shove down on the gas and get far away from there. Stay out of other people’s troubles. All it can get you is the smear.

Ross MacDonald

“This is Cabrillo Canyon,” the driver said. There weren’t any houses in sight.

“The people live in caves?”

“Not on your life. The estates are down by the ocean.”

A minute later I started to smell the sea. We rounded another curve and entered its zone of coolness. A sign beside the road said: “Private Property: Permission to pass over revocable at any time.”

—Ross Macdonald. The Moving Target 

Woody Haut sums it up best: “Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is arguably pulp culture’s most humane, if not realistic, private detective. Along with Chester Himes and Charles Willeford, Macdonald brought private investigation safely through the pulp culture era and into the 1960s. In the process he was astute enough to make his own investigation of the genre: “I tried to work out my own version of the ‘hard-boiled’ style, to develop both imagery and structure in the direction of psychological and symbolic meaning.”3

Explaining the difference between his own style and that of Chandler he once told an interviewer: “Chandler… wrote like a slumming angel, and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence. While trying to preserve the fantastic lights and shadows of… Los Angeles, I gradually siphoned off the aura of romance and made room for a completer social realism… Archer is not so much a knight of romance as an observer, a socially mobile man who knows all the levels of Southern California life and takes… pleasure in exploring its secret passages. Archer tends to live through other people, as a novelist lives through his characters.” 

In his essays he’d speak about the art of such fictional private eyes: “The murder story… offers the mind some knowledge and control, but tends to return that knowledge to the physical, the scientific, the social, the merely commensurable. The center of man is… avoided as if there were a darkness there, beyond the reach of understanding… [I]n the works of Hammett and Chandler there is a… division between the hunter and the hunted, the knower and the known… The detective… is invulnerable, perhaps miserable. He deals in death but is untouched by it… he represents our lingering fear of death, and our… inability to submit ourselves or our imaginations to tragic life. We live in the illusion of the hunter even while we are being hunted.” We’ve seen this ‘fear of death’ in various psychologists and sociologists from Freud, Marcuse, Brown, and Becker’s The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil. 

Lew Archer would move us past the romantic image of Chandler’s PI and into a more nihilistic investigator, one who would study the empty lives of his perpetrators and victims alike. As Haut would say, 

Macdonald was successful in moving the genre beyond Chandler, and, in adapting his writing for the 1950s, is one of the few writers unafraid and untarnished enough to go down those not so much mean as meaningless suburban streets. Though Macdonald implicates both hunter and hunted, he leaves Archer outside that particular investigation. Finally, Macdonald’s insistence that he is replicating reality is, in the end, no more believable than Chandler’s cavalier attitude towards the world. Though he may lack personal perspective, Macdonald’s honesty, intelligence and sense of reality have done much to legitimize detective fiction. (ibid.)

The rock-stars of crime fiction besides Hammett and Chandler and Macdonald in the early years would at least begin their aficionado list with: David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy, William P. McGivern, Robert Finnegan, Charles Williams, Dolores Hitchens, Gil Brewer among so many others. Despair, existential dread, the anxiety of the modern world, the hellish landscapes of the metropolis and the low life menace of hoodlums, gangsters, robbers, thieves, scam artists, gamblers, killers, and psychotics hiding in every dark alley and rain-soaked street. The life before, after, and during WWII. Even in the UK there was Marc Behm, Derek Raymond, and Jerome Charyn. In France the Serie noire had already scooped up the American and UK pulp stars and was thriving as it is to this day. I began reading Jim Thompson early on in all the Black Lizard editions during the late seventies and eighties. But then dug in old bookstores through my travels as a contract engineer. Back in those days the darker stuff was either hidden on back shelves are just left to rot in bins. Strange how times have changed.


  1. John Paul Athanasourelis. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed 
  2. Haut, Woody. Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War. 280 Steps. Kindle Edition.
  3. (ibid.)

The Last Time

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Sometimes I remember the last time I saw my old man, the look in his eyes as he said: “Someday you’ll understand, son.” Of course, I never did… understand. But I do remember the look, the gaze of a little boy lost in a big man’s body. That haunts me to this day.

My mom divorced his ass for his sexual escapades (‘his whoring ways’), but mostly because he was an alkie (‘he drank like a fish’). Maybe that’s why I can identify with these various crime fiction writers who portray alkies on the mend, wounded men whose lives of quiet — or not so quiet, desperation have left them full of black bile —melancholic distemper, bleakness, and failure. Because I remember my old man soused. I know others have probably had alcoholic fathers who went whoring to prove their manhood, etc. The old adage my mother once told me was about the first three days of their marriage, that he was drunk the whole time. She also said he had a problem. Now they have a fancy medical term for it: Erectile dysfunction. What a name, huh? Either way I was conceived during that drunken three-day honeymoon or at least ‘so goes the story’. I already know now my mom gave away a young girl (or – her mother, my grandmother, did…) for getting pregnant by a Preacher’s boy at the ripe age of sweet sixteen. My Mom wasn’t all roses and cream, either. So, I’ve often wondered if I too was a bastard ‘out of wedlock’ and they had a shotgun wedding to cover up the fact. Oh, growing up in the South… the wonders of the stupidity.

By the time I’d gotten around to forgiving his ass for the hurt he’d caused my mom, sister, and myself he was already dead, his ashes spread across the ocean just south of Catalina Island. I didn’t know this at the time. Only found out after he’d been dead by suicide from a shotgun slug, one he’d inflicted on himself due to inoperable stomach cancer which from what I here was excruciatingly vicious and painful beyond telling. His old man had done the same: been an alkie and had at some point committed self-murder. I don’t know the story to that one. I do know my father’s mother was totally loony, a real basket case. I’d seen her in action a time or two before all this happened. Childhood lays there in one’s mind like a bad dream that will not go away. I remember Cioran always reverting to his childhood as a sort of paradise, for me it was a hellish paradise where nothing good ever happened and almost anything that could go wrong did.

These little tidbits of memory that jut up from time to time like barbs from a rusty fence cutting so deeply they leave open wounds and scars on your ass and mind they keep reminding one of just how much hate one still harbors in one’s flesh and bones. Does anyone actually live a life like that? Maybe my memories are a series of sorrows, black angel dust in my psyche that bleeds and bleeds and bleeds… the more I try to stop the blood darkening my being the more the stench and corruption keeps churning up out of the blackest abyss.

The older I get the more ferocious my mind is toward all those black fragments hanging in the darkening loam of memories seeping out of hell… some traumas one will never escape till one exorcises those personal demons in a fiction so deadly and toxic that it drives them, the memories, and oneself completely insane.

“I was in my apartment, trying to shed the remnants of the dream about my father. A loud howl of anguish had awakened me. I’d sat up, terror in my soul, wondering what on earth was happening to some poor fucker to make them emit such a sound, then felt the tears on my cheeks and realized the person who’d made the cry was me. I don’t think distress gets more awful than that.”
— Ken Bruen, Priest: A Jack Taylor Novel

Been there, done that… hell is not ‘other people’ (Sartre), but the remnants of those revenants that haunt one’s past in the vivid nightmares of memory where one is condemned to live in a bleak limbo for eternity.

Jean Rhys: The Illusion

OIP (4)

I shut the door hastily. I had no business to look or to guess. But I guessed. I knew.
—Jean Rhys, The Illusion

Reading Jean Rhys Collected Stories this evening. She had such an exacting, pithy style enabling her to state what needed to be said in an economical and ferocious manner. Her ability to ferret out the inner core of a person without falling into ironic dismissal gave her voice that clarity and assurance of one who has seen into the darkness without belaboring the point. Her pessimal stance allowed her to reveal the delusions by which we live while at the same time showing that it is these perversions of personality that give our lives if not meaning at least a certain innate verve.

In The Illusion she describes an English woman whose ugliness drives her to seek beauty as a painter but hide her need for the illusive beauty of the body. She falls ill and her friend, the narrator, discovers in her wardrobe the most colorful and elaborate dresses fit for a queen. And, yet, the English woman, Mrs. Bruce – a middle-aged spinster has never been seen wearing such extravagant fare. the narrator imagines Mrs. Bruce in her tentative forays into Paris seeking out the various salons and boutiques and buying each of these luxuriant couture and Avant Gaard items, wearing them before her mirror and sighing only to hide them once again in the dark. After the illness she is confronted by her friend:

“When I was allowed to see Miss Bruce a week afterwards, I found her lying, clean, calm and sensible in the big ward – an appendicitis patient. They patched her up and two or three weeks later we dined together at our restaurant. At the coffee stage she said suddenly: ‘I suppose you noticed my collection of frocks. Why should I not collect frocks? They fascinate me. The colour and all that. Exquisite sometimes!’

Of course, she added, carefully staring over my head at what appeared to me to be a very bad picture, ‘I should never make such a fool of myself as to wear them . . . They ought to be worn, I suppose.’

A plump, dark girl, near us, gazed into the eyes of her dark, plump escort, and lit a cigarette with the slightly affected movements of a non-smoker.

‘Not bad hands and arms, that girl,’ said Miss Bruce in her gentlemanly manner.”
—Jean Rhys. The Collected Short Stories
————————

The unmasking of the illusion comes in that “gentlemanly manner”, an irony of irony understated and tempered in merciless prose. Her ability to cut to the chase, discern the inner core of a person’s being, this ability to tease out through prose the dark impenetrable masks that covers over the small quiet desperation at the heart of her characters’ lives. This alone makes her work have staying power.

Rereading Crime Series this Summer: Bruen, Lansdale, and Burke

“There’ll be times when the only refuge is books. Then you’ll read as if you meant it, as if your life depended on it.”
― Ken Bruen, The Killing of the Tinkers

“Some things you do, not because they’re pleasant, but because they have to be done.”
― Joe R. Lansdale, Devil Red

“I wanted to believe he was mad. Unfortunately, I no longer knew what madness was.”
― James Lee Burke, Robicheaux

When we reread a favorite author’s books, we always discover certain aspects of their work we’d either forgotten or hadn’t caught out in the first place. For the summer I’m rereading the crime fiction of Ken Bruen (Jack Taylor Series), James Lee Burke (Dave Robichaux Series), and Joe Lansdale (Hap and Leonard). The first and last had TV series made of their offbeat private eyes.

Into Bruen’s fifth novel The Priest at the moment, and like the previous ones I’ve discovered that each is written in media res (in the midst of things), and yet each is also as we discover in specific passages Bruen drops here in there through the series a retrospective takes on various incidents in Taylor’s life as a would-be investigator as seen after-the-fact vantage point. It’s as if each story (novel) is part of some dark imponderable curve in the life of Taylor’s sordid and pessimal self-destructive journey to the end of night (Celine). Crime fiction like its cousin noir and detective has always lent itself to both allegorical reference and self-confession, but the self being portrayed is usually the psychological man on the edge of sanity. Most of these men are broken in one way or the other, alkies or drug addicts and smokers whose habits are forms of escape from reality and themselves. In some ways most of these crime series is an inversion of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, instead of a slow movement through the darkness of life into the light we discover instead a deep turn into the darker labyrinths of some private hell where paradise is only a dream of madness rather than bliss.

It’s just the state of the game for this sub-genre. I’ve been reading this line of fiction for 55+ years, not because it deals with criminals as such but because most of the creatures within these writer’s pages are doomed losers, rejects, misfits, and scumbags beyond any hope of redemption or reprieve. And yet the men who squander their lives in these pages all seem to have a certain heroic touch of understated power, a power to understand society and themselves that seems worthy of study not so much because they offer any wisdom. No. What they offer is just life, life in the raw; the lived life that touches the base truth of the human condition without seeking some justification. It’s that above all that all these sub-genres deal with, the dark side of the human condition: the anger, rage, and despair that drives men into hellish acts of madness, rapine, and murder. There is always something unique in their despair to pull out, examine, and analyze that touches base with our own inner darkness, that teaches us not so much about the meaning of life since there is none. What it teaches us is what words cannot tell us to meet this existence on its own terms even if that brings pain, suffering, and despair.

Rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Rereading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

“Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.”
—Joseph Conrad – Compete Works

The above is the first description we get of Marlowe from the outside through the narrator. In this image Marlowe seems almost aesthete, monkish and a little sickly (liver, jaundice?), posing in some meditative form as if he were a Buddhist priest. Not sure how much of an influence Thomas Hardy and his pessimistically minded novels infiltrated Conrad, but both immersed the reader in metaphysically charged landscapes of doom and gloom:

“The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.”

That image of the “mournful gloom, brooding motionless over” the city on the edge of the ocean seems to echo the Bible’s gloomy spirit hovering over creation giving birth out of chaos and nothingness. One thinks of John Milton’s brooding spirit,

“Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant..”
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

This melancholy, brooding spirit of the pessimal pervades the Heart of Darkness as its inner force and Will… the dark power shaping the outer and inner forces of the characters and landscape. One thinks of the Italian poet of the pessimal, Giacomo Leopardi, who knew the Dark Will so well:

King of the real, creator of the world,
hidden malevolence, supreme power and supreme intelligence,
eternal giver of pain and arbiter of movement…
– Leopardi, Canti

Harold Bloom in his usual romantic afterglow disgruntlement with any writer who didn’t fit into his canon of the sublime said,

“Heart of Darkness may always be a critical battleground between readers who regard it as an aesthetic triumph, and those like myself who doubt its ability to rescue us from its own hopeless obscurantism. That Marlow seems, at moments, not to know what he is talking about, is almost certainly one of the narrative’s deliberate strengths, but if Conrad also seems finally not to know, then he necessarily loses some of his authority as a storyteller. Perhaps he loses it to death—our death, or our anxiety that he will not sustain the illusion of his fiction’s duration long enough for us to sublimate the frustrations it brings us.”

The frustrations are those of all who view the world not through the Bloomian sublime but through the pessimal vision of the dark will of the “purposeless purpose” that pervades the energetic cosmos of actual existence. The dark undertow of fate and destiny, chance and necessity, chaos and order working together in cyclic unison to undermine any sense of lasting sublime. Yet, even in his offhand complement to Conrad’s masterpiece Bloom reveals its strength and abiding influence:

“Heart of Darkness has taken on some of the power of myth, even if the book is limited by its involuntary obscurantism. It has haunted American literature from T.S. Eliot’s poetry through our major novelists of the era 1920 to 1940, on to a line of movies that go from Citizen Kane of Orson Welles (a substitute for an abandoned Welles project to film Heart of Darkness) on to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.” (Bloom’s Critical Views)

There are moments that work against any notion of the sublime giving us an anti-sublime that corners us in the dark abyss without any form of fact of reason, only an image like the smile of the Chesire Cat:

We had carried Kurtz into the pilot house: there was more air there. Lying on the couch, he stared through the open shutter. There was an eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance.

“Do you understand this?” I asked.

He kept on looking out past me with fiery, longing eyes, with a mingled expression of wistfulness and hate. He made no answer, but I saw a smile, a smile of indefinable meaning, appear on his colorless lips that a moment after twitched convulsively. “Do I not?” he said slowly, gasping, as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural power.

The obscurity of that smile floating over the abyss of dead bodies, the organismic world of darkness and nihil which goes against Bloom’s cheery world of Romantic Idealism where Beauty, the Good, and the Sublime live only in the fantasias of poet’s and philosopher’s minds. Instead, this is the smile of knowing, the gravitas of the doomed pulling us down into the mud and muck of the grotesquerie of existence: the base materialism of death, decay and ruin where all things must end in the entropic void, and the brooding spirit of gloom and doom pervade the duration of night’s eternity without hope or justification, nor the light of that spark by which creation first broke from nothingness.

Ancient Greeks, Shamanism, and Remote Viewing

“It was in Greece that the new religious pattern made its fateful contribution: by crediting man with an occult self of divine origin, and thus setting soul and body at odds, it introduced into European culture a new interpretation of human existence, the interpretation we call puritanical.”
—Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational

“Remote viewing’s aftereffects were more than a little bit like those of a hallucinogenic drug.”
—Jim Schnabel, Remote Viewers

Various traditions of the ancient Greeks suggest as E.R. Dodd’s in his study of the Irrational that they held the ability of trance and bilocation:

“A shaman may be described as a psychically unstable person who has received a call to the religious life. As a result of his call he undergoes a period of rigorous training, which commonly involves solitude and fasting, and may involve a psychological change of sex. From this religious “retreat” he emerges with the power, real or assumed, of passing at will into a state of mental dissociation. In that condition he is not thought, like the Pythia or like a modern medium, to be possessed by an alien spirit; but his own soul is thought to leave its body and travel to distant parts, most often to the spirit world. A shaman may in fact be seen simultaneously in different places; he has the power of bilocation.”1

He speaks of Hermotimus of Clazomenae, whose soul travelled far and wide, observing events in distant places, while his body lay inanimate at home. Such tales of disappearing and reappearing shamans were sufficiently familiar at Athens for Sophocles to refer to them in the Electra without any need to mention names.
Dodds, Eric R.. The Greeks and the Irrational

A remote viewer working for the CIA in military spying tells us,

“We move like ghosts through the ether, silent and undetectable, gathering information that can’t be gathered any other way. To Al Qaeda, we are of the Djinn; to the FBI, we are Psychic Spies.”2

As another expert in the field explains it: “The term “remote viewing” was, on the surface, a sanitized, high-tech synonym for the old term “clairvoyance.” Clairvoyance, technically, was merely the ability to see things at a distance, in real time. In other words, it was a negation only of three-dimensional space. Yet Atwater, Riley, McMoneagle, and the others in the unit believed that remote viewers also could cross the fourth dimension—time.”3

The parallels between ancient shamanic notions and this military paranormal investigation termed “remote viewing” hint at aspects of our interaction with the Real / Noumenal etc. as if it were a medium through which one can like a quantum particle be in two places at once: bilocation. I think we’re still children trying to understand aspects of reality that our sciences and philosophies still do not grasp fully, and ancient religion toyed with it in the use of hallucinogens (entheogenic substances) but couched it in the fables and parables of their time to control and manipulate the tribes. Even now one can watch these silly programs on TV Ghost Hunter, etc. and see how much superstition surrounds it. It’s interesting that the top brass in both the military, CIA and other organizations didn’t care how the process worked only the results it offered them for their agendas. Either it produced results or it didn’t, that’s all that mattered to them. Pragmatic results, nothing more.

Over the years of studying occulture, magic, etc. I’ve taken a more naturalist and scientific approach to most of the history of Occultism which was always couched in pseudo-religious and mystical terms rather than in those of the naturalist perspective. I think there is some hidden medium that permeates our natural and phenomenological world that like air or ocean is invisible only because it is the greater surround of our existence, and like fish in water they only realize their enmeshed in this environment when they are thrown out of it onto dry land gulping for air. We’re the same when we imagine an astronaut stepping into space without a suit. Yet, this noumenal medium permeates even these various levels of Being through and through. So much of our classic philosophy speaks to aspects of it but with Kant it was closed off from philosophical speculation, discourse and discussion binding us to the phenomenal world that our senses come to know and leaving irrational realms of intuition to silence. I think Kant was wrong and much of current scientific endeavor along with various philosophical investigations in our contemporary world are proving him wrong and opening us to a new vision of an ancient worldview.


  1. Dodds, Eric R.. The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures) . University of California Press.
  2. John Vivanco. The Time Before the Secret Words: On the Path of Remote Viewing, High Strangeness and Zen
  3. Schnabel, Jim. Remote Viewers . Random House Publishing Group.

The Road of Excess

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”
― William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

This is one of the first things I ever memorized, and it’s stuck with me all my life. I might say it’s the guiding principle to which I subscribe. Here’s another,

“I’ve often lost myself,
in order to find the burn that keeps everything awake”
― Federico García-Lorca

I’ve lived with my manic-depressive cycles my whole life. I never ended in some institution, never took meds for it. From what I’ve read they numb you to life, close down your moods and leave you hollow inside, a zombie… Oh, sure, then you can exist, wander about in life, but what the heh… is that life? No. I’d rather live with the excess of this madness than miss the journey of existence in all its pain and suffering. I want to experience this thing not escape it. One reason I ardently disagree with Zapffe, and Ligotti is just that point. Who the fuck wants to shut down this semblance of awareness of existence? Limit its powers? So, what if it’s a mistake. I’m not the one that made it, so why should I pay for it? I’m here, now, and I’ll as Blake before me ride the tiger of excess, thank you…

As Lorca said: ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’  Thus, duende is a modal power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.” Again, Lorca: “The real struggle is with the duende…. To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline. All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that it breaks with all styles….” 

Cioran wallowing in his cage of despair, Ligotti closed off in his agoraphobia and solitude, all those who are fearful of existence and the strange world surrounding them with all its monstrous affects. Bullshit. I want to feel it all… let the daimon out of his cage. As Stefan Zweig in his study of the daemon in the works of Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche suggests:

It seems as if nature had implanted into every mind an inalienable part of the primordial chaos, and as if this part were interminably striving — with tense passion — to rejoin the superhuman, suprasensual medium whence it derives. The daemon is the incorporation of that tormenting leaven which impels our being (otherwise quiet and almost inert) towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation, and even self-destruction.

Against Schopenhauer and his renunciation of the Will I have sought to affirm it in all its torment, let the daimon (duende) ride me into the monstrous madness of the noumenal surround. It’s not an easy path, and I wouldn’t even suggest it for most humans. No. I agree with most of the psychologists and all those that fear it, it is not all wonder and awe but rather a dark current of energetic power that one can never control. Its realm is not this world, and yet it is. There being no other. No beyond. No Transcendent order or separate realm of Platonic Forms-Ideas… these are all here we just do not apprehend it in actuality. I think Deleuze was on to something and knew one could not plainly state it even with the greatest finesse of philosophical conceptuality. He tried. We are creatures who can intuit it, but not know it by way of description whether of natural language or mathematics. We feel it in the dark inner hole of our being as it surges upward through us. That is all. The poet Leopardi knew the dark Will:

King of the real, creator of the world,
hidden malevolence, supreme power and supreme intelligence,
eternal giver of pain and arbiter of movement…
– Leopardi, Canti

The Death of Sonny Barker

“All things are full of weariness…”
—Koheleth

Sheriff Beauregard Tillman is as old as the hills surrounding the small town Aniston. One looks on that mottled visage full of scars and wrinkles almost believing it’s true. Why they called him the Sundown Man was a story with a strange twist, one I’d rather forget since it brought with it memories I’d rather leave buried in the dust under a dead sun.

The Sundown Man’s impish eyes swirled in his skull like a squirrel’s nut-baked squint, a shock of fiery red hair barbed and wiry falling around his thick shoulders, and a frazzled gray beard breaking from the copper stubbed scars on his jaw all seemed to spell danger as I eyed him. He had the smug look a jackal might have as it pondered a dead carcass. For all the sparks in his eyes they were stone cold and black as a winter night as I studied them for any sign of weakness. He squatted in the dirt like a deadwood stump, waiting for an answer I’d never give. As far as I was concerned, he could wait there till hell froze over for all I cared. I didn’t give a shit one way or the other.

We both looked at the dead body before us.

“Did you know him?”

“Did I know him… does a man ever know another man?”

We both waited there in silence for a few more minutes while the crime-scene boys snapped photos and searched the mesa for any more signs of struggle or evidence. Doc Haldan was examining the body shaking his head, making notes. “This boy’s been through some rough shit,” he grunted.

I said nothing.

Sonny Barker. We went back a long way. Like most of my friends I’d met him in Jeb’s place down by the rail yard downing hot shots and telling lies about the war. We’d both served there in different regions. Life hadn’t been kind to either one of us. But that’s the way of things, isn’t it? Even love of a good woman doesn’t last. Nothing does. We live out our lives expecting things will get better as time goes on, but it never seems to work out that way; instead, things go wrong at every turn as if there were some dark power behind it all pulling the strings of our natural misery. Oh, hell, I’d been down that road too many times.

“Sonny Barker was my friend. And whoever the hell did this to him is goin’ to pay and pay dearly.”

“Now Jake,” the old sheriff gave me that look, the look that said, ‘don’t even go there, that way lies death or jail’.

“Don’t even try to stop me, Beau, Sonny was my partner, and someone did him in and I mean to find out who the hell it was so don’t you try to stop me. You here?”

“I here, ya… but I’m the law, you’re not. So don’t you dare cross the line with me on this. Do you here?”

I looked in his dark fiery eyes and could only think of one thing: My friend Sonny Barker is dead, and I’ll have my revenge on the bastard who did him in.

“Yea, I hear you, but listen up Sonny and I go way back and whoever did this to him is goin’ down and no one, not you are all the men you can muster is goin’ to stop me from finding this bastard in my own way and my own time.”

“Now, son…”

“Don’t you dare…” I barked like a rabid dog.

“Okay, Jake, okay… at least let’s do this the right way, let me deputize you for the duration, and you toe the line and report to me and keep your nose clean. Can you do that?”

Beau made sense, and I knew my anger had the best of me, I yielded, nodding in agreement. He shook my hand and motioned to one of the boys to get me a badge.

*

We all hide things from each other, even those we love. We make excuses to ourselves, rationalize, tell ourselves it’s for their own good. We lie to them and ourselves. Deceit and Self-deception seem the rule in life rather than the exception.

I knew Sonny held things back, had secrets. No one lives as we did without making enemies along the way. I knew that all too well. But Sonny, nah, he seemed to let things slide off him like water off a duck’s back. If not, exactly a lady’s man he had that charm that kept them coming back for more, and that’s what got him in hot water more times than one might like to admit. He had a hankering for married women, seemed to relish stealing a man’s wife for a night. He’d been in a few close calls because of it, but nothing serious even if these business types tried to threaten him with legal repercussions or something more violent. He’d just laugh about it, shrug it off, and do it again the next week. I just shook my head and tell him “One day it’s goin’ to catch up with you, buddy; one of these days.” He’d just smile.

But this was different, this wasn’t about some enraged husband out to get revenge. No. This was something much more sinister and personal. I had to get to the bottom of it, understand what Sonny had been up to in the past few months. We’d fallen out of touch for a while with my last contract job. I’d been gone for almost six months. Didn’t seem like a long time but in a small town like Aniston six months is like an eternity. What the hell had Sonny been doing with his life? Maybe Marta his ex might know something; it was worth a try. But I dreaded seeing her, dreaded the guilt it bore. There was history there, history that just went too deep under the rails between us. And, yet, I had to face it, had to forget it and move on… for Sonny’s sake.


From a crime novel I’ve been reworking for a while…

Hubert Selby Jr.

I suspect there will never be a requiem for a dream, simply because it will destroy us before we have the opportunity to mourn it’s passing.
—Hubert Selby Jr.

Hubert Selby Jr. wrote the pain of being dead while alive. He wrote of the dark corners of the American psyche where the darkness lives on in the vengeance of desperate flesh and men know only one thing: death, misery, and revenge. The people inhabiting his stories are those who remain forgotten, lost among the closed cells of crumbling ruins, decaying city streets and back alleys, neighborhood bars where old men sit silently and young men full of raunchy laughter and black spleen bark at the murderous night. Like Celine he inhabited the silences of our misery like an angel of despair touching on the brokenness of time’s immeasurable stillness where the stone eyed denizens of nothingness fold back their hollow eyes and let the madness out. The dark poetry, the rhythmic beat of life, the jazz of existence moving among the lost ones, the broken ones, the losers, dreamers, junkies, alkies, street-bums, drag-queens, and the myriad creatures whose lives constructed out of hell’s bleak world roam these pages seeking the one thing they will never find: love.  He wrote down our sorrows and our nightmares, gave us the darkness at the core of our emptiness where the light that sparks a muted hope seeks nothing more than the blessing of extinction.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
The Room (1971)
The Demon (1976)
Requiem for a Dream (1979)
The Willow Tree (1999)
Waiting Period (2002)

from The Queen

“She wanted them to think he was her lover, but more than that she wanted him as her lover. Even if only once. If only that. She took another bennie with her gin and listened to the music. The Bird was playing. She tilted her head toward the radio and listened to the hard sounds piling up on each other, yet not touching, wanting to hold Vinnies hand, the strange beautiful sounds (bennie, tea and gin too) moving her to a strange romance where love was born of affection, not sex; wanting to share just this, just these three minutes of the Bird with Vinnie, these three minutes out of space and time and just stand together, perhaps their hands touching, not speaking, yet knowing … just stand complete with and for each other not as man and woman or two men, not as friends or lovers, but as two who love . . . these three minutes together in a world of beauty, a world where there wasnt even a memory of johns or punks, butch queens or Arthurs, just the now of love . . .”
—Hubert Selby. Last Exit to Brooklyn

The Abject World

The abject from which he does not cease separating is for him, in short, a land of oblivion that is constantly remembered.
—Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater of pain, suffering, and horror: crawling life, organismic life, the predation of life, the cannibalistic vat of a sun-borne festival of continuous survival, eating, sex, and death. Humanity has sought ways to deny this fact through religion, art, philosophy and every form of Transcendence. We seek to overcome the end game of mortality in dreams of immortality. In that sense my whole philosophy of existence remains with the actual and the immanence of a this-worldly thought that seeks to understand why we deny reality and the Real? I could care less about what happens before or after our existence. I only care about what happens here, now. As Earnest Becker in his last work, Escape from Evil made clear:

Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed-a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strange fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to. Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons that Darwin so shocked his time-and still bothers ours-is that he showed this bonecrushing, blood-drinking drama in all its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms. If at the end of each person’s life he were to be presented with the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested. The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish. The din alone would be deafening. To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.1

“Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms”. A truism that bears repeating over and over because we as humans hide that fact from ourselves to assuage our sense of guilt and anxiety that we, too, are merely food for the organismic festival of death this planet is.  Pick up any horror novel or collection of weird tales with all their varied assortment of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, mummies, demons, or elder gods, most horror relies for much of its effect on the direct collision between the natural and the unknown, between what we believe to be true about the world and what we fear may be the reality just outside our perception of it. As Lovecraft suggested long ago “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. As Eugene Thatcher, a young philosopher puts it,

I would propose that horror be understood not as dealing with human fear in a human world (the world-for-us), but that horror be understood as being about the limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world-without-us).2

To think the inhuman and non-human world-without-us, a realm devoid of our anthropomorphic and humanist ideals, culture, and civilization where the stark power of darkness reigns under the full blast furnace of the Sun.  As Fernando Pessoa in his The Book of Disquiet says,

I write my literature as I write my ledger entries – carefully and indifferently. Next to the vast starry sky and the enigma of so many souls, the night of the unknown abyss and the chaos of nothing making sense – next to all this, what I write in the ledger and what I write on this paper that tells my soul are equally confined to the Rua dos Douradores, woefully little in the face of the universe’s millionaire expanses.3

As Blaise Pascal a few centuries ago remarked: “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.” We live in a sea of darkness surrounded by the innumerable stars and galaxies we may never know or see other than the distance of their light as it sheds its dead rays on us from some ancient past to which we do not have access. It’s as if everything has already happened and we are only living its death even as we live our lives, the ghosts of ancient worlds gone into the abyss haunt our daily lives like memories of forgotten dreams. We are alone in a realm we did not create much less understand of know. We question these fragments of the only reality we know and fill it with our human thoughts not knowing whether these are real or unreal.

Philosophers and scientists alike seek to provide us answers to the ultimate questions about existence to assuage our pain and suffering. Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Lao tzu, Confucius, Zarathustra, and so many ancient bearers of the ‘truth’ belabored the miracle of life offering in poetry or speech that various parables and ideas that now fill thousands of volumes of commentary on the religious and sacred ways of existence. For a little over two-hundred years we in the West have sought above all to escape this religious world of our ancestors in a secular and atheistic worldview based strictly on the ‘human condition’ of being animals in an organic and anorganic cosmos.

Some thinkers on horror opt for a biological view such as Mathias Clasen in his Why Horror Seduces claiming that “horror fiction is crucially dependent on evolved properties of the human central nervous system, and thus that a nuanced and scientifically valid understanding of horror fiction requires that we take human evolutionary history seriously.”4 Others like Brad Baumgartner see horror as an apophatic anti-mysticism, one in which unlike “traditional mystics, horror writers do not seek union with the divine.” He goes on to suggest that in horror we find a “logic of negation” which “in relation to the horror of reality” we find a “horror effectuated by our alienation from absolute unreality, horror’s analog to the medieval mystic’s God.” (4) He discovers in certain contemporary weird horror authors like Thomas Ligotti a “dark mysticism”: we find a perverse darkness mysticism: always already living in immanent darkness, a state of, we might call, noct(e)rnity, there is nothing to “wake up” to, and even if there were, it wouldn’t be worth waking up for it.” (4) In this kind of horror as Baumgartner suggests we discover a horror fiction that “deploys apophatic techniques in order to describe negatively the indescribable.” (3)

We all know and see, feel and touch the phenomenal world around us, our sciences can describe the most distant galaxies and peer into the heart of the quantum void and tell us about the quarks and “Higgs Bosun” or so-to-speak “God Particle”. But there is something else, something we ‘intuit’ at the edge of this phenomenal world we inhabit, something we know is there but that we cannot apprehend through our sense only through the intuition of our minds. Kant labeled it the noumenal and just as quickly made it off-limits to science and philosophy. It became a blank placeholder for all that which lies outside reason and our ability to describe in natural language or mathematics. And, yet it persists in the dark hollows of our deepest imaginings, our expressions in art, painting, music, and the various threads of superstition, religious, and sacred realms long abandoned to the mystic fringe.

Another thinker of horror speaking to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s many tales states that the main character is caught in a ‘liminal state’ of ontological paradoxes, one that invites the “reader to question the boundary between life and death, human and non-human, consciousness and world, spirit and matter. What seems to be a story about speculative technology turns out to be a story that is also about speculative metaphysics, about the possibility of some horrific vitalism, life sustained by the power of the will rather than the operation of organs. Such philosophical speculations are not illustrated using the dry, detached tone of the metaphysician, however, but with expostulations of growing repugnance…”6 That disgust might be central to horror of the unknown and our fear and dread of both the underlying truth of our organic life and the strange and bewildering powers that seem forever impinging on us from the Outside in is central to a certain mode of being in the world. As Newell states it many of us “dwell with both disgust and fascination upon things beyond the limit of thought: what it is like to be dead, what happens to consciousness after death and the mystery of thinking matter. Such stories are speculative portals, vortices through which realities otherwise unthinkable might be imagined. They seek to propel readers vertiginously into the realm of the unknown.” (9-10)

The ‘realm of the unknown’, the ‘noumenal’, the void of the immaterial realm that seems to float between the real and irreal, reality and unreality. Philosophers have argued over Kant’s notion of the noumenal from the beginning. There isn’t any agreement among them as to what he meant by this strange concept. My recent excursion into Deleuze demonstrates this in that for him Kant’s noumenon is internal to the phenomenal. For Deleuze, the noumenal is the being of the sensible, and can only be encountered or intuited, not represented. This goes with Deleuze’s anti-representational philosophy which harbors an attack on all forms of Transcendence opting instead for an absolute ‘univocity’ (Spinoza) which relies on a pure ‘plane of immanence’:

The process of encounter which forces us to think is not a sensible being, but the being of the sensible. It is not what is given, but that by which the given is given. The encounter is forced into the sensible realm by intensity. Intensity is real, but insensible in terms of representation, unthinkable in terms of concepts. The real transcendental condition of the given is the virtual Idea, within which intensities flow and surge. Conceptual thought is not applied to already given objects, but instead, thought is forced on us in the encounter. The virtual Idea refers to the genetic and temporal process of pure difference based in intensity. There is no external conditioning of the object of experience, but only internal generation and determination of the real object. There is no duality between concept and given.7

One could almost suggest a parallel between Kant’s distinction between phenomenal / noumenal and Deleuze’s distinction between actual / virtual. He derived the notion of Virtual from Bergson:

…from Time and Free Will, wherein Bergson distinguishes the subjective and the objective, appears to be all the more important insofar as it is the first to introduce indirectly the notion of the virtual. This notion of the virtual will come to play an increasingly important role in Bergsonian philosophy.12 For, as we shall see, the same author who rejects the concept of possibility – reserving a use for it only in relation to matter and to closed systems, but always seeing it as the source of all kinds of false problems – is also he who develops the notion of the virtual to its highest degree and bases a whole philosophy of memory and life on it. (43) 8

In another passage Deleuze remarks on Bergson’s use of the virtual: “What Bergson calls “pure recollection” has no psychological existence. This is why it is called virtual, inactive, and unconscious.” (55) For Deleuze then the virtual is about the pure ontology of time and recollection: “Strictly speaking, the psychological is the present. Only the present is “psychological”; but the past is pure ontology; pure recollection has only ontological significance.”(56) This notion of time, ontology, and recollection all develop in Deleuze metaphysical system of difference and repetition:  “It is a case of there being distinct levels, each one of which contains the whole of our past, but in a more or less contracted state. It is in this sense that one can speak of the regions of Being itself, the ontological regions of the past “in general,” all coexisting, all “repeating” one another.” (61). Deleuze will speak of the ‘virtual coexistence’ of all the levels of the past, of all the levels of tension, extended to the whole of the universe: “This idea no longer simply signifies my relationship with being, but the relationship of all things with being. Everything happens as if the universe were a tremendous Memory.” (77)

It’s as if each of us harbors within ourselves the memory of the universe because the whole of this virtual past, the ontological vectors of everything that has ever happened, exists in a virtual state of coexistence in a virtual memory that we can recollect. “This extension of virtual coexistence to an infinity of specific durations stands out clearly in Creative Evolution, where life itself is compared to a memory, the genera or species corresponding to coexisting degrees of this vital memory.” (77) In fact, as Deleuze suggests, Bergson’s notion of simultaneity exposes an ontology of time as singular and one (monism): “The Bergsonian theory of simultaneity thus tends to confirm the conception of duration as the virtual coexistence of all the degrees of a single and identical time.” (85)

Deleuze will ask the question: What does Bergson mean when he talks about elan vital? “It is always a case of a virtuality in the process of being actualized, a simplicity in the process of differentiating, a totality in the process of dividing up: Proceeding “by dissociation and division,” by “dichotomy,” is the essence of life.” (94) So, life is this process by which the virtual is actualized through absolute differentiation and division, or difference and repetition. We are immersed in the virtual even as we as creatures of the actual live out our lives in obliviousness to its hold on our minds and bodies. It is the virtual that sustains us and immerses us int he dark memories of Time which impinge on us through dreams, visions, and lucid light of hallucinogens. The horror of the world arises out of this virtual realm where the mythical structures that support us reside like so many demons or daemons awakening us to the dread and terror of the unknown.

It’s as if there is something in this past, in the ontological spaces of Time’s dark virtual chambers that we have forgotten or repressed and need in our collective imaginings to remember and make ‘real’ or ‘actual’ again in our lives to become whole in our becoming. The late Mark Fisher in his small book The Weird and the Eerie asks: “Does not any real rejection of civilisation not entail a move into schizophrenia — a shift into an outside that cannot be commensurated with dominant forms of subjectivity, thinking, sensation?”9

Is this not the virtual continuum?  As Fisher surmises: “The place beyond the mortifications of the Symbolic is not only the space of an obscene, non-linguistic “life”, but also where everything deadened and dead goes, once it has been expelled from civilisation. “This is where I threw the dead things…” Beyond the living death of the Symbolic is the kingdom of the dead: “It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead.” (102) We are caught in the dualistic trap of believing we are physical creatures born of matter (mother). We are bound to the oragnic treadmill of “birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death” as if this were all of it. Stuck in this soup of vital organicism we either seek a way out through some notion of Transcendence, or a more fantastic way in through Cyborgisation and merger with our machinic children or by way of enhancement dreams of genetic engineering. Whether of the older religious forms of immortality or the newer Transhuman forms offering a this-worldly immortality we seek to stay our existence against the notion of finitude.

For Fisher the weird and eerie were about the Outside, the great Unknown: “The allure that the weird and the eerie possess is not captured by the idea that we “enjoy what scares us”. It has, rather, to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience.” (8) We seem to intuitively grasp that there is something else, something more that we are mission or that surges within us reminding us of this greater reality we’ve been cut-off from. Much of the occulture surrounding the weird, eerie, and strange is just this sense of something we know but cannot grasp with our senses. A knowing that is a non-knowledge of things as they are rather than as they appear to us. Again, as Fisher tells it: “the weird is constituted by a presence — the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing or there is nothing present when there should be something.” (61) In both instances there is this inability to represent this presence or absence in the weird and eerie.

Everything actual, everything that common sense and the sciences deal with is representable. We live in a natural world and our culture is based on the naturalist ideology and belief that we can through our minds and technologies access and describe this world in all its ramifications. We have this deep-seated need to control and master our world through scientific know-how and philosophical truth. Our fear is that this may not be all there is, that there may be something just outside the frame we cannot access or reference. This dread at the heart of the human that we are surrounded by forces we will never control or master. This is the Outside, the Noumenal, the Thing-in-itself, the Virtual… The Abject World.


  1. Becker, Earnest. Escape from Evil. Free Press; Reissue edition (March 1, 1985)
  2. Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 (p. 8). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  3. Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. Penguin UK. 1998
  4. Clasen, Mathias. Why Horror Seduces (p. 4). Oxford University Press. 2017.
  5. Baumgartner, Brad. Weird Mysticism (Critical Conversations in Horror Studies) (p. 3). Lehigh University Press.
  6. Newell, Jonathan. A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937: Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror (Horror Studies) (p. 9). University of Wales Press.
  7. Byrne, Thomas. Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism, Part 2. Dec 29, 2021 <https://medium.com/life-as-art/deleuzes-transcendental-empiricism-part-2-f274e279c802&gt;
  8. Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism.
  9. Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie (p. 100). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.