Epicure of Pessimism: The Horror of Thomas Ligotti – Part I

“Generalists of disillusionment broadcast on a wider frequency. Yet their message, a repetitive dirge that has been rehearsed for thousands of years, is received only by epicures of pessimism, cognitive mavericks who have impetuously circled the field in the race to the finish line.”
– Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

In a recent interview Thomas Ligotti reflecting on the displacement of literary masters like H.P. Lovecraft and Bruno Schulz toward a more philosophical turn in the pessimism represented by Peter Wessel Zapffe confessed:

“Yes. As I’ve said before, literature is entertainment or it is nothing. Before I die I’d like to find something more than entertainment, although I doubt I will. Lately I’ve been thinking about television as a “way” to deliverance. Not long ago I read that television produces alpha waves in the human brain, something that meditation also does. Who knows, I could become liberated from suffering by watching cop shows and reruns of Seinfeld.”

What’s interesting here is not the irony of such a pursuit but that Ligotti, an avowed atheist and pessimist,  would use such Buddhistic language in his need for ‘deliverance’ and liberation from suffering. The idea of Ligotti sitting in front of a television watching banal comedy and action series in pursuit of a new liberationist “way” like a new age guru of some arcane cult of technological rapture seemed both absurd and reassuring at the same time. J.G. Ballard and some of his writings came to mind as I read that last sentence where he juxtaposed the absurdity of a group of scientists studying people watching tv as a form of ‘alpha wave’ therapy as if suffering were just another technological problem to be solved by the elite harbingers of our technocratic future.

Mark Samuels tells us Thomas Ligotti was born in 1953, a second-generation American of predominately Sicilian heritage. Brought up a Roman Catholic, Ligotti had rejected the doctrines of the church by his late teens. After habitual use of drugs and alcohol in the late 1960s, he suffered the onset of a lifelong chronic anxiety-panic disorder in August 1970.

In his latest book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti pursues reflections more philosophical and literary in his pursuit of an epicurean pessimism. As a touchstone he uses the work of Zapffe in defining the limits of such a pursuit. Peter Wessel Zapffe (December 18, 1899-October 12, 1990) was a Norwegian metaphysician, author and mountaineer. The central tenet of Zapffe’s philosophy can be found in his short work The Last Messiah in which he describes humanity’s metaphysical quandary when faced with the paradox of being human. He discovers at the heart of our humanity a lack, a metaphysical need, an emptiness, a void that cannot be filled. And the tragic fate of all humans is to pursue through illusionary defense mechanisms a denial of this lack, this void. He uses a religious metaphor to describe this catastrophe, this dark severing “breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily- by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being. Its weapon was like a sword without hilt or plate, a two-edged blade cleaving everything; but he who is to wield it must grasp the blade and turn the one edge toward himself.” Human kind had discovered ‘consciousness’, an awareness of its separateness from the animal and vegetable life surrounding it, and this dark secret, this subtle distinction of mind and intellect would forever separate it from the foundations of its existence and produce the hallmark of our lives: the knowledge of pain and suffering that is organic existence. This knowledge and awareness has produced in humans a ‘relentless state of panic’, and that “such a feeling of cosmic panic is pivotal to every human mind.”

He tells us that there are four basic defenses that human kind has pursued throughout its existence against this ‘panic’:

Isolation: “By isolation I here mean a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.”

Anchoring: “Anchoring might be characterized as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness.”

Distraction: “A very popular mode of protection is distraction. One limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions.” One can think of our American form of distraction: Movies, Football, Rock Concerts, etc…

Sublimation: “The fourth remedy against panic, sublimation, is a matter of transformation rather than repression. Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into valuable experiences. Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.”

Zappfe tells us that none of these four defensive postures has ever truly won the day against the paradox of our humanity, and “if we continue these considerations to the bitter end, then the conclusion is not in doubt. As long as humankind recklessly proceeds in the fateful delusion of being biologically fated for triumph, nothing essential will change. As its numbers mount and the spiritual atmosphere thickens, the techniques of protection must assume an increasingly brutal character.”

Into this mixture of despair and pessimism steps Thomas Ligotti, horror writer, and epicurean of pessimism. In this latest interview Ligotti describes his life as being one long “journey of disillusionment, one after another. And that’s not just my persona talking.” In his short story The Shadow, The Darkness the main character Ranier Grossvogel describing the cure he received after collapsing due to the failure of his art exhibition, says, “I was treated, I descended, so to speak, to that deep abyss of entity, where I could feel how this shadow, this darkness, was activating my body. I could also hear its movement, not only within my body but in everything around me, because the sound that it made was not the sound of my body. It was in fact the sound of this shadow, this darkness, which was a powerful roaring – the sound of strange and beastial oceans moving upon and incessantly consuming black and endless shores… Before that night I had never experienced the world purely by means of my organs of physical sensation, which are the direct point of contact with that deep abyss of entity that I am calling the shadow, the darkness.” We discover that Grossvogel’s awakening to the dark entity below the threshold of existence came about from his failure at “sublimation”, the failure of his pursuit of an identity, a self in his art. Lacking a defense against the dark truth at the heart of this unreality of our existence he discovers the shadow, the darkness that surrounds us all.

Grossvogel goes on to instruct his ineluctable audience that his ‘metamorphic cure’ came about with the conscious awareness that “I could now know the world directly through the senses of my body… and I saw with my body what I could never have seen with my mind or imagination during my career as a failed artist. Everywhere I travelled I saw how the pervasive shadow, the all-moving darkness, was using our world. Because this shadow, this darkness has nothing of its own, no way to exist except as an activating force or energy… Hence, the shadow, the darkness uses our world for what it needs to thrive own.” Like Schopenhauer’s dark “Will” that blindly lives us this shadow, the darkness is a blind god striving in an abyss of mindlessness. In this Grossvogel finds his salvation, his cure: “My only hope lay in my ability to make a metamorphic recovery, to accept in every way the nightmarish order of things so that I could continue to exist as a successful organism even without the protective nonsense of the mind and the imagination, the protective dream of having any kind of soul or self.”

Is this Ligotti’s alter ego, his semblance, his brother, the failed artist who has awakened from his literary cave to find not the power of mind and imagination, but the stark truth of a “body that has succeeded in perceiving how everything in the owrld actually functions.” Behind this is another story the Tsalal. The word itself Grossvogel informs us is from the Hebrew meaning ‘to become darkened… to become enshadowed’.

In an interview Ligotti admits he “ripped off the word Tsalal from Poe’s “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” in which it refers to a land where everything is black. Tsalal is a Hebrew word related to the idea of darkness and darkening. In using this word I’m simply following a convention of horror literature which is best known to me in the works of Lovecraft, although I don’t think of it as being specifically related to anything in Lovecraft’s fiction. At the time I was writing “The Tsalal” and “The Shadow, the Darkness,” this seemed like a grand, to the point of grandiosity, word to serve as a sort of summation of what I was thinking and feeling at the time.”

S.T. Joshi considers this tale an intellectualized horror of which Ligotti is a master. Yet, Joshi, unable to penetrate the surface glitz of the tale’s linguistic trappings sees its philisophical premise to be both dry and moribund even if its telling is both compelling and entrancing.

In this tale we meet a group of puppet like entities who have returned to the town of Moxton. None of these entities “could say how it was that they had returned to this skeleton town”.  Each of them appears controlled by a dark force, each paralyzed in a “state of soul known to those who dwell on the highest plane of madness, aristocrats of insanity…”.

They’ve returned to face the one who stayed behind, Andrew Maness. In the next scene we see Andrew standing before a book marked in indelible ink: TSALAL. The words he reads from the book invoke an oracle of things to come, glyphs of a nightmare yet to be imprinted: “The last vision dies with him who beholds it. Blessed is the seed that is forever planted in darkness.” Andrew adds in summation: “But the seed that has been planted still grows.”

Ligotti’s horror is above all atmospheric, there is always a deep entwining with the details of the encompassing physical landscape. Houses, streets, day and night, the desolation of small things, the utter banality of a matter-of-fact world where everyday horrors are not unexpected but always seem to portend some temptation for a revelation forever about to happen. The bleakness of these landscapes comforts us, the repetition of verbs and adjectives that like some encyclopedia of occultation become our guides in a steady journey toward a final despair. His protaganists love to walk, to watch, to listen to the desolate sounds of night and darkness. They thrive on solitude even in the midst of a crowd. In the scene name ‘The Power of Place’ he describes this bleak serenity with a Lovecraftian nod and leitmotif:

“Surrounding this area were clusters of houses that in the usual manner collect about the periphery of skeleton towns. These were structures of serene desolation that had settled into the orbit of a dead star…. There were even moments when the entire veil of desolate serenity began to tremble with the tumbling colors of chaos.”

In the next scene we wander with Andrew into memories of childhood. His father, a black friar, a preacher of fundamentalist christian revelation and apocalypse hounds the boy into submition. And, yet, Andrew, is drawn toward the forbidden, the dark and trembling worlds hidden in the black pages of certain books in his father’s library. Books that would teach him a new “cosmology of nightmares”. How wonderful it was to wander into this library of forbidden relics, a biblophiles ultimate paradise, a pain artist of extradinary desires: “He became bound to the worlds he imagined were revealed in the books, obsessed…” And, like any lawless one, a breaker of oaths, a prodigal of lost ways, he “began to plot in detail the map of a mysterious universe – a place where the sun passed from view, where towns were cold and dark… a neverending night had fallen upon every imgaginable landscape.”

In those nights of a dark dreaming Andrew even dared to enter that region where thought and dark raptures intertwine where he pursued a “counter-creation” and “the books on the shelves of his father’s library could not reveal what he desired to know of this other genesis.” Even while suppressing the truth of it to himself and his father he was tempted to a final transgression, to absolve himself of the vein heritage of his ancestral faith by recovering a hidden knowledge, a gnosis of a blacker faith, one revealed in “the scripture of a deadly creation, one that would tell the tale of the universe in its purest sense.”

It’s into this realm that we discover Andrew’s darkest secret, the secret of his father’s true heritage, a heritage his father was both in terror of and afraid of abandoning. As Andrew says, “You preached to me that all change is grotesque, that the very possibility of change is evil. Yet in the book you declare that ‘transformation is the only truth’ – the only truth of the Tsalal, that one who is without law and reason.”

He echoes the black words of his father’s book: “There is no nature to things… There are no faces except masks held tight against the pitching chaos behind them.” And the harshest truth of all: “Above all you pronounced that there is no salvation of any being because no beings exist as such, nothing exists to be saved – everything, everyone  exists only to be drawn into the slow and endless swirling of mutation that we may see every second of our lives if we simply gaze through the eyes of the Tsalal.”

It is in this that we learn the truth of what Ligotti quoting the philosopher Julius Bahnsen meant when he said “Man is a self-conscious Nothing”.  No wonder Ligotti sees any form of self-transcendence as not only a lie, but a delusion that produces more horrors than any nightmare of reason. If we have no self, if there is nothing to be saved, there is nothing to discover beyond the morbid physicality of our trivial animal lives. We are nothing more than apes who have strayed into a world of consciousness we neither asked for nor can be absolved of. We are dancing monkeys on a spinning wheel of a planet that has no other destiny than the twisted fate of the endgame of the final heat-death of the universe.

If there is no transcendance, there is no knowledge or wisdom worth having. We can all sit down with the author of Ecclesiastes and lament the day we were born: “I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

But as an epicure of pessimism Ligotti must get the last word:

“I know in a way I never knew before, that there is nowhere for me to go, nothing for me to do, and no one for me to know. The voice in my head keeps reciting these old principles of mine. The voice is his voice, and the voice is also my voice. And there are other voices, voices I have never heard before, voices that seem to be either dead or dying in a great moonlit darkness. More than ever, some sort of new arrangement seems in order, some dramatic and unknown arrangement – anything to find release from this hearbreaking sadness I suffer every minute of the day (and night), this killing sadness that feels as if it will never leave me no matter where I go or what I do or whom I may ever know.”
– from the Bungalow House

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