“We need books that affect us like a misfortune, that hurt us a great deal, like the death of someone whom we loved more than ourselves, like a suicide, a book must be an ax in a frozen sea inside us.”
– Kafka writing to Ernst Pollak
Harold Bloom writing on Edgar Allen Poe told us that “something primordial in Poe tapped into a universal anguish.” Bloom also subscribes to the dictum that the subtle art of criticism, and art for that matter, can only teach us “how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves… the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality…. the rest is silence.”
Within that strange realm we call the modern weird tale one can see the ‘universal anguish’ shaping itself into an aesthetic splendor full of cognitive power and deep wisdom. The modern weird tale marks out a territory of myth and imaginative literature which gives to both its practitioners and its readers a counter-sublime. At the heart of this dark fantastic is a raging confrontation and displacement of the real by the ‘Order of the Unreal’.
As one of its post-modern masters, Thomas Ligotti, inhabits a special place where the confrontation with mortality takes on an agon which is at once a lie against time and ignorance, a battle against the illusionary traps that engulf people in a nightmare world of panic and anxiety. A cascade of stimulants and hormones – adrenaline, epinephrine, glycogen, cortical, norepinephrine, among others – flood all the cells of the body via the bloodstream releasing a dread anxiety that sends each victim scurrying irrationally into the dark recesses of imagined safety. Agoraphobic. Full of that dread of others that is the earmark of certain type of insanity the victim falls prey to paralyzing terror, begins to shake uncontrollably, nauseous, trembling, sweating… The victims of this dark fate are part and partial of what Ligotti calls the ‘human phenomenon’:
“The human phenomenon is but the sum of densely coiled layers of illusion each of which winds itself on the supreme insanity that there are persons of any kind when all there can be is mindless mirrors laughing and screaming as they parade about in an endless dream.”
In some ways Ligotti inhabits an inverse relation to Oscar Wilde’s high aesthetic: “That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. It is the only civilized form of autobiography as it deals not with the events but with the thoughts of one’s life… the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.”
For Ligotti on the other hand it is not the events or thoughts of one’s life that count, but the dreams, the nightmares; the dark teeming forces that inhabit the shadow worlds just beyond the hinterlands of consciousness. For Ligotti the self is null and void, instead the daemon, the dark central force of our unconscious life is the central dictum. This great withdrawal from an investment in Self comes at the high price of dehumanization. Yet, it is not in the form of an inhumanistic philosophy ala Robinson Jeffers –“a shifting of emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” Instead Ligotti’s daemonic sublime is similar to the thoughts of Emmauel Levinas and Helene Cixous.
Levinas saw this daemonic process as a self-emptying which opens the subject to the great ‘Other’, an evacuation of the self to ‘make way’ for the other, or an “expulsion of the self outside of itself … the self emptying itself of itself(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997).” Yet, Ligotti does not recognize any great ‘Other’, being an atheist with nihilistic proclivities he inhabits an abyss where the mind is its own dark benefactor and destroyer, cut off in its own solipsistic prison of doubt and pain; neither a mortal god nor a devil just a harbinger of that dreaded country of the mind from which there is no escape.
Hélène Cixous on the other hand sees this process as a relentless ‘de-selfing’ and ‘de-egoization’ which provides the distance necessary from which to hear the great ‘Other’. But Ligotti, unlike Cixous, hears only the harsh sounds of a mad god, a Lovecrafting idiot maker, a broken and torn craftsman who is himself a misguided creature of our own panic driven imaginations rather than any objective semblance of a saviour.
It was Slavoj Zizek that hinted at an idea that made me rethink Ligotti’s stance regarding Buddhism. Zizek remarking on the politics of Buddhism in regards to the West saying that Buddhism because of its “distancing” effect offers no practical engagement with the world on a material basis.
“The only “critical” lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence.”
Ligotti being neither a political writer nor an advocate of Zizek’s path of political “liberation” would only agree that we are living in a “theatre of shadows, with no substantial existence”. Ligotti has made his own remarks concerning Buddhism. He sees Buddhism as a prototype for the field of neuroscience “which may yet deliver a blow from which the self-image of humankind will not soon recover.” Ligotti admires the first two of the Buddha’s precepts: “Aside from its lack of a god-figure, it sits atop two courageous and cogent observations, numbers one and two of the Four Noble Truths. The first is the equation between life and suffering. The second is that a craving for life is the provenance of suffering, which is useless and without value.”
In My Work Is Not Yet Done Ligotti’s interlocutor says: “We were brought into this world out of nothing. . . We were kept alive in some form, any form, as long as we were viciously thrashing about, acting out our most intensely vital impulses. . . We would be pulled back into the flowing blackness only when we had done all the damage we were allowed to do, only when our work was done. The work of you against me. . . and me against you.”
He goes on to emphasize this point in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Because we have no natural enemies, we must look to our fellow puppets for our prey, falling upon everyone and everything like a stick-wielding Punch, beating the dickens out of whatever irritates our consciousness of difference.” This is the kernel of Ligotti’s daemonic counter-sublime, his vision of all against all, a war against the human race. But do not look for any sympathy concerning the earth. No. Ligotti is no lover of the environment, nor a New Age guru of the flower child era, instead his is a harsh lathe of dark light slicing the illusions of our investments in any religious impulse that would center itself in a salvation of Self or Earth.
Ligotti sums up his stance regarding life in his interview with Neddal Ayad where he concisely defines Peter Wessel Zapffe’s legacy:
“…human beings in general and human consciousness in particular are a mistake of nature and that the human species should stop reproducing as soon as possible in order to put an end to the tragic horror of our lives as conscious beings who spend all our time deceiving ourselves that life is worth living.”
Maybe this could be Ligotti’s epitaph:
“Pessimist conclusion: at all levels, the systems of life—from sociopolitical systems to solar systems—are repugnant and should be negated as MALIGNANTLY USELESS.” (Conspiracy Against the Human Race)
But I’d rather end on a more literary note of horror: “The sinister, the terrible never deceive: the state in which they leave us is always one of enlightenment. And only this condition of vicious insight allows us a full grasp of the world, all things considered, just as a frigid melancholy grants us full possession of ourselves. We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.” (Medusa)
In that one sentence is the dark gnosis of Thomas Ligotti: “We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.”