The Miserablist: Thomas Ligotti’s Puppet Philosophy

“Man is a self-conscious Nothing.”
– Julius Bahnsen

“To live is to war with trolls.”
– Henrik Ibsen

In his recent work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race a specter haunts the very fabric of its fractured pages, a hidden ghost-like presence that is revealed by its pervading absence: the work of the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen. Radoslav A. Tsanoff tells us that at the heart of Bahnsen’s philosophical system is an irrational “atheistic individualism, a world-view of the meaningless eternally self-tormenting and self-rending chaos of will-forces: a dismal view of a woeful and futile world: miserabilist is a mild name for it. [1] Tsanoff suggest that for Bahnsen the only “pessimism worthy of the name is a pessimism tragically earnest and at the same time grimly humorous: I am a puppet in the hands of Infinite Perversity, and there is absolutely no way out of it, but I know it, and so take the puppet-play in which I take a part with a sense of humor; I laugh at the puller of the strings, and this is my revenge” (362). As another author, Edward Conze, describing the philosophical pessimism of Bahnsen, says, “He describes a world, as it appears and corresponds to a person who does not want to persevere, but who wants to annihilate himself. The person he has in view is so disgusted with life that he annihilates all he does. He simultaneously affirms and denies his self-preservation, he is interested at the same time in his own destruction and in his own preservation.” [2]

As Ligotti tells us himself, “While Bahnsen does not figure in the following pages, I should say that his negative spirit is nonetheless present in this work, the brunt of which is concerned with how blind we are to the horrors of our existence as well as how adept we have become at sloughing them off” (p. 9). Ligotti offers us two rules of thumb to guide us in our confusion: the first is that “our positive estimate of ourselves and our lives is all in our heads”; and, second, “if you must open your mouth, steer away from argumentation” (p. 10).

It is this grizzly puppet philosophy with its pessimistic humor of the gallows that marks the spirit of negativity pervading Ligotti’s new work. Of humans and puppets he says, “We are somebodies who move freely about and think what we choose. Puppets are not like that. They have nothing in their heads. They are unreal. When they are in motion, we know they are moved by an outside force. When they speak, their voices come from elsewhere. Their orders come from somewhere behind and beyond them. And were they ever to become aware of that fact, they would collapse at the horror of it all, as would we” (p. 11). James Trafford says of puppets in Ligotti’s stories that “the puppet figures as the insensate and sub-personal reality hidden beneath the ‘mindless mirrors’ of our naïve reality. Puppets function as ‘conduits to the unreal’, through whose agency hallucinatory phenomenality bleeds into a simultaneous concretization of the oneiric. Life is played out as an inescapable puppet show, an endless dream in which the puppets are generally unaware that they are trapped within a mesmeric dance of whose mechanisms they know nothing, and over which they have no control. … [the] puppet is not merely an mocking parody of man, it is the unmasking of the animate face of insensate reality, the unveiling of the inexorable mechanics of the personal”. [3]

We are victims of our own success, animals who know that they are alive, who invent solutions to impossible threats against veritable extinction and annihilation; governed by the wayward knowledge of our conscious minds we wander through the maze of time like puppets on the strings of a master magician. But the only magical manipulator behind the scenes is the mad philosophy of a disquieting thought: the insidious parody of a dream turned nightmare revealing that there is no one and nothing behind the curtain of being to pull the strings. Instead we are faced with a hyperchaotic universe of which we know nothing more than the rudimentary fragments of a delirious thought. Objects drift among the voids like solitary gods, withdrawn from each other in their own exclusive silence, each in tune with the music of their foreign and domestic neighbors only through the feral savagery of a sensual allure, one that closes the gap between things opening up the horror that is.

As I began thinking about miserabilist’s and the roots of this dark mode I returned to the work Isidre Nonell, a painter of the dark sublime – chronicler of ‘the beauty of the horrible’.[4]  He chronicled the sad face of reality, the lives of marginal, solitary gypsy women and other people who lived on the extreme edge of poverty and dejection. In 1898 after the loss of Cuba and the Phillipines, the last of the Spanish Colonies, he joined in with the early intellectual and artistic movement of poets, writers, and painters that were characterized by their metaphysical pessimism, and a deep seated desire for social and political regeneration. As he chronicled the despair of the poor he saw within their lives an abjectness, a dysphoria tempered by bleak fatalism: cast off from society they seem to accept their fate with sublime indifference like abandoned objects withdrawn into the silence of their own broken and ruinous interiors, with little or no communication from their neighbors, their eyes vacant and full of black fire turned inward upon an abyss that is pure vacuity; an aesthetic of the black void.

In these dark earthy paintings one is reminded of Lorca’s vision of duende. As Christopher Maurer, editor of “In Search of Duende”, tells us at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. Lorca tells us the “duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”. He suggests, “everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.” (Maurer (1998) pp. ix-xx)

It is this quest for the ‘beauty of the horrible’, the black sounds that call to us from the ‘great outdoors’, the dark duende with its earthy daemonic vision of the irrationality and meaninglessness beyond human consciousness that pervades Ligotti’s stories with their ruinous spirit of abjectness and malaise; a fatal necessity, an amor fati, a love for the void that hearkens to us from afar like that ancient tribe of sirens who once tempted Odysseus toward the maelstrom of the deep oceanic abyss. In some of them I’m almost reminded of Henrik Ibsen’s scorpion anecdote: “While I was writing Brand I had, standing on my table, a scorpion in an empty beer glass. Occasionally the creature sickened; then I would give it a bit of ripe fruit, which it through itself furiously upon and poured its venom into; then it got well again” (Correspondence, Letter 74). At the end of Ligotti’s short story, “My Case for Retributive Action”, after all the main character has endured he extracts the venom from a former patient, who was the victim of some terrible scientific experiment – that reminds one of the Nazi occupation camps in all their luridness. He then proceeds to use the extract upon the doctor and himself as a final gesture to the insensible regime of insanity surrounding him, then he tells his friend:

“The second vial I offer to you, my friend. For so long you have suffered from such gruesome obsessions which our doctor did not, or would not, alleviate. Do with this medicine what you must. Do with it what your obsessions dictate. You might even consider, at just the right moment, giving the doctor my greetings…and reminding him that nothing in this world is unendurable—nothing.”

Yet, unlike Ibsen’s scorpion, that “got healthy” from its venomous attack upon fruit, and continued to endure its isolation in the glass cage under the ice-cruel gaze of the dramatist, we do not apprehend such violent gestures of mock delight in Ligotti’s characters; instead we see the power of Nonell’s sad gypsies who stare into the void seeking neither solace nor redemption but just that long endurance of the terror that is – existence in a universe beyond our conscious minds that knows nothing of us and cares little for our human needs and desires.

Thomas Bernhard in Gathering Evidence once spoke of a truth that comes from lies,

‘Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth.’

Is not this the truth of Ligotti as well? He speaks of the Norwegian philosopher and man of letters Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990), who’s essay “The Last Messiah” had a profound impact on him, telling us in a cogent and insightful passage that Zapffe “inferred that beings with consciousness are a mistake in the world of nature. We have a need that is not natural, one that can never be satisfied no matter how many big lies we swallow” (p. 19 CATHR). One wants to say with King Lear, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”. After such knowledge we can only affirm, with Ligotti, that there is “nothing to be and there is no-one to know”.

Ligotti has admitted in interviews that he suffers from anhedonia, which is an inability to experience pleasurable emotions from normally pleasurable life events such as eating, exercise, social interaction or sexual activities. Ligotti tells us that the “…anhedonic can’t even conceive of wanting to have his emotions back. That, too, seems stupid and empty and useless. All you want is for the hurt to stop. But even suicide seems pointless. One would have to become emotionally energized past the anhedonia in order to conceive of suicide as a solution.” [5] Instead of suicide Ligotti suggest a far more profound solution to the human dilemma: elimination of consciousness itself, the devolution of the human species into pure animality: “I couldn’t possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists. Assuming that anything has to exist, my perfect world would be one in which everyone has experienced the annulment of his or her ego. That is, our consciousness of ourselves as unique individuals would entirely disappear. We would still function as beings that needed the basics—food, shelter, and clothing—but life wouldn’t be any more than that. It wouldn’t need to be” (ibid: Ligotti Interview).

This is what brings Ligotti’s nightmare world of the unreal into alignment with such transcendental nihilists as Ray Brassier who wrote in his book Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction that the “…earth will be incinerated by the sun 4 billion years hence; all the stars in the universe will stop shining in 100 trillion years; and eventually, one trillion, trillion, trillion years from now, all matter in the cosmos will disintegrate.” Extinction is our future. Nullity. Kaput. Ligotti agrees, but puts it into a personal context, saying, “There will come a day for each of us—and then for all of us—when the future will be done with. Until then, humanity will acclimate itself to every new horror that comes knocking, as it has done from the very beginning. It will go on and on until it stops. And the horror will go on, as day follows day and generations fall into the future like so many bodies into open graves.” (p. 129).

*      *      *

“Puppetry is the realization of the ethics of the weird: in conformity to my intention, I enforce the radically exterior intention of nothing. … This is another way to say that by abiding to their intention for remaining in themselves, the objects are puppet-pulped by the intention of nothing. Nothing vermicular looms out of the intended and makes it problematic. The universe is infinitely weirder when we know, that even the gimmick of ex nihilo is the perforation of something with nothing, not the other way around.

– Reza Negarestani

As for the puppet musings of this puppet philosopher we have this superb lambast:

“Whether we are sovereign or enslaved in our being, what of it? Our species would still look to the future and see no need to abdicate its puppet dance of replication in a puppet universe where the strings pull themselves. What a laugh that we would do anything else, or could do anything else. That we might be only self-conscious nothings would not really be a secret too terrible to know—a paradox and a horror . . . the insufferable condition of a planet of puppets that are aware they will die, shadows without selves enshrouding the earth, puppet-heads bobbing in the wind and disappearing into a dark sky like lost balloons. If that is the way things are, go shout it from the rooftops and see where it gets you” (p. 128).

In one of those equivocal stories of Ligotti’s that leave us in a metaphysical quandary between the void and its stubborn thought, The Dream of the Mannikin, we listen as the protaganist is caught up in a zone of terror and annihilation from which there is no escape:

“I can’t go on like this! You have strange powers over me, as if you didn’t already know. Please release me from your spell… Who really gives a damn about the metaphysics of invisible realms anyway? It is only emotions, not abstractions that count. Love and terror are the true realities, whatever the unknowable mechanics are that turn the wheels, and our own.” [6]

Yet, for Ligotti it is just the opposite, for as his anhedonia testifies, emotions are of little or no account in the scheme of things for such as he; much rather is the withdrawnness of a glassy eyed mannikin with its “gleaming eyes” emptied of all thought and being. As he says of this condition, “I’m completely detached from anything, including myself and anyone around me. Doing anything just seems plain stupid, which in my opinion it ultimately is. This is the lesson of anhedonia, which is an eminently rational state” (Cardin: Interview ibid.). As for emotions he continues, saying: “But if you’re going to do anything, you must be in an irrational state of emotion, and without this irrationality your life is just numbers: how long, how much, how many, how far. Emotion gives an illusory focus and meaning to our lives. When the feeling is gone, so is that sense. This sense is a motivator yet it also fools you into thinking that something is important when it’s not in the least important, except as an engine for your meaningless life” (Cardin: Interview ibid.).

Is this not the militant dysphoria of an anti-vitalistic cold philosophy of inhumanism? Dominc Fox in his new book Cold World describes a world where the rule of unpleasure becomes the motivating force, where the world of dejection and the politics of despair unite under the banner of a politicized unpleasure. But is Ligotti political in this sense? In a recent interview on  Macabre Cadaver he takes up both euthanasia and justice in the world as topics worthy of comment:

On Euthanasia:

“Why is euthanasia so despised? Answer: Because too many people are barbaric sons of bitches. And even in those places where euthanasia is allowed, you can’t be assisted in dying until you’re suffering to the brink of madness. … There is nothing in this world as important as to be able to choose to die in a painless and dignified manner, something we do have the ability to bestow on one another. If euthanasia were decriminalized, it would demonstrate that we had made the greatest evolutionary leap in world history. If we could only arrange society so that we didn’t have to fear—every one of us—the throes of agony that routinely precede death, I would be proud to call myself a human being.”

On Justice:

“Besides euthanasia, I think it would be great if human beings were more concerned with justice than they have been. I remember seeing a documentary in which several people were asked if the Beatles were right in singing “All You Need Is Love.” When the sixties radical Abbie Hoffman was interviewed on this matter, he said, with apologies to the Beatles, that all you need is justice, not love. This reply profoundly resonated with me. Not long ago, I watched a lecture on the Internet in which Chris Hedges, author of The Death of the Liberal Class, proposed a spectrum in which justice was positioned at one end and freedom at the other. His claim was that liberals tended toward the justice end of the spectrum and conservatives at the freedom end. Anyone with a brain can see the truth of Hedges’ assertion. Of course, the implementation of justice far and wide would be impossible, while freedom reigns all over the place, especially the freedom to deny other people justice. If this statement sounds like it was made by a contestant for the Miss America crown, so be it.”

So yes one might consider Ligotti a man with a militant dysphorian view of politics in general. Yet, what does this mean exactly. Alex over at splintering bone ashes tells us that the “the politics of this form of militant dysphoria is deeply paradoxical, and seemingly always in danger of either sliding back into the logic of the vital or its dark inverted doppelganger, a reification of dysphoria itself” (The Paradoxes of Militant Dysphoria). He goes on to say,

“Take for example the writings of the ontological horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At the level of content there is a radical denial of the vital, and yet this very disavowal enables the works to pulse with certain inhuman vitality. Within the libidinal economy of the depressive mind, whilst life itself is refused, the life of the depressive economy, of the inverted libido, becomes omnipresent, becomes a new kind of life. Ligotti, for example, whilst claiming an absolute anhedonia, a freezing up of the machinery of desire and enjoyment into a crystallized, timeless, ice-like tableaux, at the level of productivity remains motivated. Fundamentally of course, Ligotti still writes. Instead of a refusal of the vital, of enjoyment, the dysphoric libidinal economy seemingly learns to enjoy displeasure, to metabolize disenchantment itself as a new kind of alternative energy source. Again this leads us back either to the vital, back to the world which seemingly the dysphoric appears to be escaping, but are in fact simply reconfiguring their internal relation to. Or, alternatively, towards a genuine absence of energy, which would preclude any political activity whatsoever. Problematically, if the dark libidinal economy takes hold, it serves only to perpetuate itself, and therefore will never rise to risk the elimination of the very things which enable its perpetuation. In a political context the refusal to enjoy, to take the apparent fruits of consumerist late capital and receive pleasure from them, comes to take on its own negative enjoyment, to become an inverted pleasure all of its own. At best a malign energy distinguishes the militant dysphoric from the merely dysphoric” (ibid.).

This mixture of marxist anaylysis, speculative realism, and horror might seem odd to many, but there are some valid and invalid points here concerning Ligotti. I do not agree that Ligotti “seemingly learns to enjoy displeasure, to metabolise disenchantment itself as a new kind of alternative energy source” (ibid.). Ligotti finds no pleasure in writing as we have seen emotion for him is the great lie that gives “an illusory focus and meaning to our lives”, one that “fools you into thinking that something is important when it’s not in the least important, except as an engine for your meaningless life” (ibid. Cardin: Interview).

Speaking of our need to think politically Alex tells us “the amassing of negativity within a social-economic system at the affective and economic levels might trigger the calling into question of the coherency of such a system, and the emergence of the truth of it, a new world born from its ashes” (ibid.).

This might be true for a speculative Marxian critique of things, but for Ligotti what might be closer is Alex’s continuing description of the militant dysphoria of a final despair beyond the political horizon of any utopian future: “But if there is no worst, that we can advance ever worstward ho without limiting point, the necessary dialectical grip or friction for a conventionally oppositional change is absent. The very point of sublation which might imply the alteration of the world of life from which the militant dysphoric has fled is absent, and instead a non-dialectical form of negativity rages without end” (ibid.). Is this the paradoxical limit within Ligotti’s world? We have seen a tendency within his writings toward a more expansive, if dysphoric, anomie in all things philosophical. Even his landscape of horror where the politics of the real have become such a focal point of late seem to be beyond any normative justification other than the transcendental nihilism of a final withdrawal into the void.

Even philosophers of repute have joined in on the bandwagon of this strange combination of dejection and dysphoria. Such journals as Collapse have devoted a volume to horror with essays from fictional writers such as China Mieville, and Novelis and critic Michel Houellebecq; as well as rising stars on the speculative realist scene. What is it in both Lovecraft and Ligotti among other horror writers that has sparked such an academic and cultural renaissance? Are we seeing a resurgence in the ‘beauty of horror’ that the artist Nonell and Picasso of the Blue period saw? This abject realm of dysphoria of the unpleasure and blatant fatalism of a blue world full of bleak and icy despair is at the heart of most horror. This is what Eugene Thacker qualifies as the “non-Being of Life [that] can be situated either ‘above’ or ‘below’ the scale of the human – on the one hand there is the strata of Thomist ‘spiritual creatures’ or the strata of Aristotelian creaturely life, while on the other hand there is the strata of demonic multitudes or the strata of subhuman plague and pestilence”. [7] He goes on to ask, “If ‘Life’, as opposed to ‘the living’, is always receding into the anonymous ‘there is’, does this then mean that Life is really Life-without-Being?” (ibid.)

Ray Brassier in his work would probably say yes to “Life is really Life-without-Being”. His transcendental nihilism finds behind the façade of the inhuman an order of nonsense and meaninglessness, one in which our dependence upon either an object-dependent or attitude-dependent understanding of objective or non-objective truth is betrayed by the very meaninglessness of existence below our gaze: which can lead us toward either a rational science or an irrational metaphysics. (Essay on Transcendental Realism p.  43)  In another essay he describes the history of early modernism with its emphasis on the ‘myth of experience’ and the primacy of an idealist position at the heart of post-modern philosophies that place “human subjectivity, understood in terms of the interdependency between individual and social consciousness” at the forefront of cultural theory “impedes our understanding of the ways in which the very nature of consciousness is currently being transformed by a culture in which technological operators function as intrinsically determining factors of social being” (Genre is Obsolete Multitudes, No. 28, Spring 2007). He goes on to describe how a posthumanist vision is reshaping human subjectivity and consciousness through the use of Neurotechnologies:

“Neurotechnologies, including cognitive enhancers such as modafinil, brain fingerprinting, neural lie-detectors, and nascent brain-computer interfaces, are giving rise to phenotechnologies which will eventually usher in the literal manufacturing of consciousness in a way that promises to redraw existing boundaries between personal and collective experience and recast not only extant categories of personal and collective identity, but also those of personal and collective agency” (ibid. p. 70).

In such a world we can wonder what horrors are in store, but we might not need to look too far for Ligotti shows us a universe that is dsyphoric and nihilistic, one that is fascinatingly revealed in the story of The Clown Puppet, where the protagonist receives certain visitations from a puppet clown (agent of the Big Other?) at different junctures in his life. None of these strange encounters is every very revealing, instead they seem to be both banal and utterly absurd in their marked propensity to undermine any meaning whatsoever. The protagonist is working in a medicine shop one night when the clown suddenly appears handing him a small book, a passport – the passport of his boss, Ivan Vizniak. This intrusion surprises him because he had never thought that anyone else would become a part of the vastation. The puppet floats before him with its dead eyes hollowed out of some hellish mind, bound to strings that vanish in a blur above it in the ceiling where some invisible puppeteer of the abyss hides, withdrawn in his dark objecthood, while the clown puppet like some sensuous artifact of wood and string dances on the hollow thoughts of a mad god. Just as protagonist is about to lose his mind and do something rash, the puppet turns its head toward the back of the store where a curtain covers a small store room. The puppet moves off in that direction just as the proprietor who has been sleeping above raps his knuckles on the front door of the shop. The protagonist startled opens the door letting in the old proprietor, Vizniak. Vizniak wanders around in a stupor pointing to the ceiling and reddish-glow that myst-like hovers over everything and says, “The Light… the light” (p. 540). The protagonist unsure if the visitation is over or not trys his best to get Vizniak to return to his room, but the old man refuses and seeks out the bathroom behind the curtain at the rear of the store. After a while the protagonist realized that Vizniak is not coming back. He’d always assumed that he was alone, that he’d been singled out, “cultivated for some special fate. But after Mr. Vizniak disappeared behind the curtained doorway I realized how wrong I had been” (p. 541). He reflects on this, saying,

“Who knows how many others there were who might say that existence consisted of nothing but the most outrageous nonsense, a nonsense that had nothing unique about it at all and had nothing behind it or beyond it but except more and more nonsense – a new order of nonsense, perhaps an utterly unknown nonsense, but all of it nonsense and nothing but nonsense” ( p. 541).

As for the beauty of horror, the aesthetic appeal and allure of its strange worlds, Ligotti gives us his version of the reader’s sublime, saying that the “fascination of reading may derive neither from the subject portrayed nor from the language that portrays it but from the relationship between the two – that is, a relationship in which literary language does not communicate subject matter but rather processes it, a debased intercourse between life and art, the offspring of which is a recombined creature born of experience and expression. A unique little bastard” ( p. 27). [8] Language here seems to be a productive power rather than a passive medium of communication, which seems to follow the hidden traces of the real into all its unbounded horror; or, as Ben Woodward recently said,

“If horror is more real than we are, if horror is metaphysical, [and] horror permeates nature structurally, then ideation is horror unbound, as Brassier’s thinking is transcendentally bound to nothing, Ligotti’s thinking is bound to the horror of thought’s emergence which we can think only as evolving from an unknown darkness – thought can only be thought as thought, as our means towards relating to what thinks, to thoughts, and to what is outside of thought. In Ligotti’s world however, it is difficult to know whether reality lives between thought-as-horror and metaphysics-as-horror”. [9]

Graham Harman in a recent essay on Lovecraft, which in some ways could be said of Ligotti, too, told us the “…great horror of Lovecraft’s universe lies not in some sublime infinite that no finite intelligence can fully grasp, but in the invasion of the finite world by finite malignant beings.” [10] He goes on to say,

“The terror of Lovecraft is not a noumenal horror, then, but a horror of phenomenology. Humans cease to be master in their own house. Science and letters no longer guide us toward benevolent enlightenment, but may force us to confront ‘notions of the cosmos, and of [our] own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralyzing’, and ‘impose monstrous and unguessable horrors upon certain venturous [humans]’” (ibid. p. 341).

If we are no longer masters in our own house then whose fault is it? Are we victims of our own evolutionary success? The horror that Graham speaks of is the of the surface texture of our sensual world and of the cosmic background of chaotic entropy that surrounds us in a seething matrix of energy. Is consciousness a disease; an accident that shouldn’t have been? Ligotti who was deeply influenced by both Poe and Lovecraft among other miserablists of the nineteenth and twentieth century has described this effect of homelessness in a bungalow universe:

“I try to experience the infinite terror and dreariness of a bungalow universe in the way I once did, but it is not the same as it once was. There is no comfort in it, even though the vision and the underlying principles are the same. 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” (6:532).

The critic Harold Bloom once named this condition the kenoma, the vastation of our catastrophic universe, the “cosmological emptiness,” a realm of “repetitive time, meaningless reproduction, featurelessness…” ( Omens of the Millennium: 1980: 239). Yet, unlike the Gnostics who quested for god, who sought the pleroma, the place of rest: “a paradoxical world of tensely vital peace, and a calm yet active ecstasy”, Ligotti is bound to the great outdoors of thought and being, the Kenoma, the void that surrounds us in solitude and misery (ibid. Bloom: 240). Ligotti is neither anti-cosmic nor a follower of that Hegelian path toward “being at home in the world”; instead, he is bound to the chains of the void, a willing accomplice and progenitor of a darker sublime, the ‘beauty of horror’ that would slaughter any thought of escape, any path toward transcendence of this black and abysmal realm, and offers us only the destruction of all egoistic sublimes, all transcendental idealisms that would see in the correlation of self and world some magical key to thought and being. He brings us to the edge of the mind’s resistance, to the floor of the real where there is no substrate, no substance, no seething realm of endless torment and delight, only the cold vitalism of a darker truth: that consciousness is the terror from which we are trying to escape, and the only path of redemption leads not out of this void towards some paradise of light and the absolute, but deeper into its intricate and deadly labyrinth where devoid of all conscious thought we may once again live out our lives in creaturely solitude at one with the carnivorous universe.

As Robin Mackay says in the editorial introduction to Collapse IV on Ligotti, “No less than his fictions, Ligotti’s straightforward account of our ‘malignant uselessness’ succeeds in so far as its language – like that of Lovecraft’s eldritch incantations– ceases to be representational and begins to summon the very desolate reality it describes, doing away with all cultivated distance and calm objectivity. Ligotti counsels precisely this surreptitious promotion of disillusionment, to be carried out patiently by those in every age to whom it falls to carry on the bad work, hastening the dissolution of the horrors of consciousness and life, and returning us to the void.”

But is this all? Is there not something else, a remainder that cannot be put into language? Graham Harman in his new work Circus Philosophicus describes a myth of the bridge in which he tells a tale of thought and being to his former lover, Olympia. In this myth he relates an imaginary descent into a philosophical hell guided by Dante’s former master, Virgil. Demons have come to the bridge and have begun the great destruction of all objects in the universe. He goes on saying,

“As a known champion of objects, I am summoned by Virgil to cross the Styx and defend the various chairs, horses, pine trees, hammers, and stones that the demons push into the molten lake where all is one. En route to our conflict with these howling fiends, we pass through Limbo to visit the horde of pre-Socratic thinkers, recruiting them for our journey into darkness” (Circus Philosophicus: Zero Books 2010, p. 18-19).

Virgil summons the demons from the bridge who arrive and surround the philosophers, and after concourse between Virgil and the demons an agreement is struck, a challenge is given, one in which those who can “refute the claim that the molten lake is the ground of all things shall depart the underworld intact, liberated along with all the previously doomed objects, hauled and escorted back to the sun by an honor guard of centaurs and basilisks. But all who fail shall be pushed to oblivion in the lake” (ibid. p. 20). One after another the pre-Socratics come forward and take up the challenge and all fail the test: Thales, defender of water; Anaximenes, king of air; Empedocles, who once valiantly plunged into the fire of Mt. Aetna; Heraclitus the Obscure, dark knight of flux; Democritus, father of atoms; Anaximander, defender of the apeiron; Parmenides, skillful lawyer of the illusion; and, Pythagoras, who made number the substance of all; and, then finally Anaxagoras (ibid. 20-22). Anaxagoras a favorite for Harman becomes the final victim of the demons, and as he says,

“For Anaxagoras, since all that exists arose from the same monolithic block of reality, everything contains pieces of everything else. Even in my body there are pieces of horse, shark, tiger, and tree, though the pieces of me are dominant and hence I appear as what I am, rather than as these other things. The point of the theory is twofold. First, it provides an explanation of how one thing transforms into another: if I am devoured by sharks and my flesh converted into their own, this is clarified through the fact that I am already somewhat shark-like. Second, it tries to show that things can appear as distinct despite their common root in a unified whole. But you know I hold this idea to be false” (ibid. 23).

Anaxagoras loses his wager with the demons Harman tells us describing the distinction between the ‘potentiality’ and ‘virtuality’ of things and the differance that makes a difference. Speaking to Oympia and her confluence with Anaxagoras he says “I deny your claim that actual objects are the surface result of a deeper continuum of pre-individuals eveloped in a virtual state. There is no way to avoid some concept of individual substance, and hence Anaxagoras is guilty like the rest of contending “is simply a united whole,” one and many, in which any given object is “already interwoven with all others in a sort of continuum” (ibid. 24). With forlorness Harman watches poor Anaxagoras follow the previous tribe of pre-Socratics into the leaden lake of fire. Finally the myth is absolved and forgotten, yet the bitter feud between Olympia and Harman remains which causes a final thrust from her in the form of a quote from Simondan: “The operation technique that requires a form has a passive and indeterminate matter … is essentially the operation commanded by the freeman and executed by the slave…” (ibid. 25). Harman stunned by this slap in the face of his former lover tells us the tone was gracious but the message was clear and defiant; yet, as he says, there “was an aggravating factor that my system has never contained any passive or indeterminate matter in the first place, or any matter at all, but only an infinite regress of forms” (ibid. p. 25).

Harman’s world has objects all the way down: “we have a universe made up of objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects”, as “every object is both a substance and a complex of relations” (GM, p.83). If there is no regress, then there remains an ultimate level of reality at the bottom, a stance entirely incompatible with OOP. [11] Nathan Coombs tells us that “Harman advocates a properly ontological solution in which every relation forms a new autonomous object. As he puts it: “two vicariously linked real objects do form a new object, since they generate a new internal space.”  As such, alongside the fact that any seemingly integral object such as a washing machine can be decomposed into an infinite regress of objects of which it is constituted (right down to its atoms), then, equally, relations between seemingly non-integral composites, if they have a relation at all form a new object. Even a human perceiving a tree forms a new object, which in itself constitutes a reality inexhaustible in its relation to any other object or observer. It thus transpires that object oriented philosophy is more relational than it first appears; if every new relation forms an object, it only resists the total relationism it rejects through the horizon of withdrawl it concomitantly posits, where there are ontologically necessary holes within the relational matrix.” [12] What aligns Harman with both Lovecraft and Ligotti is a form of materialism without matter: ““What separates this model from all materialism is that I am not pampering one level of reality (that of infinitesimal particles) at the expense of all others. What is real in the cosmos are forms wrapped inside of forms, not durable specks of material that reduce everything else to derivative status. If this is ‘materialism’, then it is the first materialism in history to deny the existence of matter.” (Tool-Being: 293)


It’s this infinite universe of objects wrapped in objects in an infinite regress without end: a Chinese box theory of reality that invokes Ligotti’s clown and puppet theatre of cruelty and nihilism. In his story the Red Tower Ligotti invokes this deadly universe of corruption and regress telling us that everywhere he goes people are talking about the red tower, about its “nightmarish novelty items or about the mysterious and revolting hyper-organisms, as well as babbling endlessly about the subterranean system of tunnels and the secluded graveyard whose headstones display no names and no dates designating either birth or death. … I hear them talk of it everyday of my life. Unless of course they begin to speak about the gray and desolate landscape, the hazy void in which the Red Tower – the great and industrious Red Tower – is so precariously nestled. The voices grow quiet until I can barely hear them as they attempt to communicate with me in choking scraps of post-nightmarish trauma” (ibid. 6: 550-551). Isn’t this just it: caught in the meshes of endless productivity, hive like in our communal thrashing and vying for survival on a planet floating amid the gray silences of the Void we all sit in the deep tunnels of thought and being waiting for the great Red Tower to start up “its operations once more” (551). A nihilistic machinic universe of “putrid creations, ultimately consummating its tradition of degeneracy, reaching toward a perfection of defect and disorder, according to every polluted and foggy rumor concerned with this issue” (550).

Yet, in the end it all comes down to one’s stance toward the ‘beauty of horror’ at the heart of this unreal world,  for the few among us, the miserabilists and generalists “…of disillusionment broadcast on a wider frequency.” [12] Yet our “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 a race to the finish line” (ibid.).

1. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2007 Thomas Ligotti)
2. The Objective Validity of the Principle of Contradiction (Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 38. (Apr., 1935), pp. 205-218.)
3.  The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood by James Trafford (Collapse IV 2008)
4. Pincell (Miquel Utrillo i Morlius), ‘Pablo R. Picasso’, in Pèl & Ploma, no. 77,June 1901, p. 15.
5. . . “It’s all a matter of personal pathology”: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti . . (Published in The New York Review of Science Fiction Issue 218, Vol. 19, No. 2 (October 2006))
6. The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti (Carroll & Graf 1996)
7. Nine Disputations on Theology and Horror by Eugene Thacker (Collapse IV 2008)
8. The Thomas Ligotti Reader Essays and Explorations ed.  Darrell Schweitzer (2003 Wildside Press)
9. Thoughts on Ligotti’s Conspiracy against the Human Race by Ben Woodard (9.18.2008)
10. On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl by Graham Harman (Collapse IV 2008)
11. (Dictionary of concepts for Graham Harman’s object oriented philosophy by Mike at Avoiding/the Void)
12. Nomological Disputation: Alain Badiou and Graham Harman on Objects by Nathan Coombs (Paper prepared for the ‘Real Objects or Material Subjects?’ conference at the Philosophy Department of the University of Dundee, Scotland, March 27th-28th, 2010.)
13. Thinking Horror by Thomas Ligotti (Collapse IV 2008)

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