Thomas Ligotti: Speculations in Black

“At first there was no specific mention of Ascrobius, but only a kind of twilight talk — dim and pervasive murmurs that persistently revolved around the graveyard outside of town, often touching upon more general topics of a morbid character, including some abstract discourse, as I interpreted it, on the phenomenon of the grave.”
– Thomas Ligotti, His Shadow Shall Rise to a Higher House

Reading Ligotti is like listening to the disquisitions of a hermetic scientist or the dissonant music of an infernal composer – one who is continually fascinated by the arcane mysteries that traces the liminal and shadowy realm of nonbeing unto the furthest reaches of the darkest Abyss: a realm of the unreal just beyond the nothingness that is and the nothingness that is not, a black world that is not so much separated from our own as it is the very groundless ground and source from which our world arises out of the great Void. An infrastructure of corruption that permeates the very smoothness of our late capitalism, a nomadic world that slips agential to the fake worlds we inhabit.

Ligotti’s  characters always seem to be wandering down the lonely roads and byways of certain ruinous cities and  towns where the negative potency of corruption and decay give birth to the metaphysical potencies of a hellish paradise and the nightmares of a joyful cruelty at the heart of non-being.  Following these philosophical prodigies down the dark nooks and crannies of these strange and disquieting old villages, where the expectant guest who will never arrive but is always already there in all his unfounded wonderment, we begin to see the hideous amplitude of a primoridial world rise out of the bones and ashes of a cosmic catastrophe that overtook reality so long ago that even the darkest mind founders amid its necrotic zones.

One of my favorite stories is His Shadow Shall Rise to a Higher House, which opens with one of those natural yet strangely disquieting paragraphs that set the tone for most of Ligotti’s speculative musings:

“In the middle of the night I lay wide awake in bed, listening to the dull black drone of the wind outside my window and the sound of bare branches scraping against the shingles of the roof just above me. Soon my thoughts became fixed upon a town, picturing its various angles and aspects, a remote town near the northern border. Then I remembered that there was a hilltop graveyard that hovered not far beyond the edge of town. I never mentioned to anyone this graveyard which for a time was a source of great anguish for those who had retreated to the barren landscape of the northern border.”[1]

What’s interesting in this passage is how certain black sounds emerging from the outer world awaken in the mind of this, as yet, anonymous speaker architectural images of a remote town on the northern border. These harsh sounds of the “dull black drone of wind” and the “bare scraping against the shingles” break into the mind from the great outdoors of existence like the reverberations and repetitions of an alien universe. Yet it is this droning and scraping that helps focus his attention upon the strange geometric monstrousness of the town’s “various angles and aspects”, and from this imaginative reverie comes a memory from the hinterland of the mind that brings with it the image of a “graveyard” that was the originary force of a “great anguish” for the people of this “barren landscape of the northern border.” That the town exists on the boundaries of some undefined zone, county, country, etc. is in itself a part of the disquieting prelude to a horrible event. Kant distinguishes between the “remarkable differences” of the Beautiful and the Sublime, noting that beauty “is connected with the form of the object”, having “boundaries”, while the sublime “is to be found in a formless object”, represented by a “boundlessness”. Kant also believed that we cannot conceive of a mind-independent reality without a mind to conceive that mind-independent reality. But there is reason to believe that Kant was wrong about this and that there exists a reality totally and absolutely independent of our human thoughts and is indifferent to our human plight as well.

Timothy Morton tells us that we get most of our ideas about the Sublime from Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, and that “for Burke the sublime is the awesome power of an external authority—shock and awe. For Kant the sublime is the experience of inner freedom based on a momentary feeling of cognitive failure.”[2] He goes on to tell us that both Sublimes are part of that post-Kantian heritage that Quentin Meillassoux describes as “correlationist”, and that both sublimes assume that “the world is specially or uniquely accessible to humans; the sublime uniquely correlates the world to humans; and, what’s more important about the sublime is a reaction in the subject” (ibid.). Instead of these correlationist sublimes Morton offers instead a speculative sublime, “an object-oriented sublime” that  refers us back to the oldest writer on the Sublime, Longinus, in his Peri Hypsous, which according to Morton is a sublime “about the physical intrusion of an alien presence” which can “easily be broadened to include non-human “experiences” of the sublime” (ibid.).

Without going into the history of the Sublime I think a review of the Longinian concept of ekphrasis is pertinent to our discussion of Ligotti’s sublime horror. It was Paul Friedlander who once taught us that true description is the representation of the surface appearance of a work of visual art, and that ekphrasis should try to represent, as faithfully as possible, the visible features of a work.[3] Leo Spitzer delimited ekphrasis as “the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art, which description implies … the reproduction, through the medium of words, of sensuously perceptible objets d’art”. [4] It is in this sense of one form of art being used to reproduce or describe another form that is the essential element of ekphrasis. Artists use their own literary and artistic genre of art to work and reflect on another art to illuminate what the eye might not see in the original, to elevate it and possibly even surpass it. There is also the idea of “notional ekphrasis” which may describe mental processes such as dreams, thoughts and whimsies of the imagination. It may also be one art describing or depicting another work of art which as yet is still in an inchoate state of creation, in that the work described may still be resting in the imagination of the artist before he has begun his creative work. The expression may also be applied to an art describing the origin of another art, how it came to be made and the circumstances of its being created. Finally it may describe an entirely imaginary and non-existing work of art, as though it were factual and existed in reality. [5]

Timothy Morton describes how Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Sublime with its “ultra vivid descriptions” works as a form of ekphrasis. In contrast to the sublimes of Burke, who located the sublime in the power of the object over a subject; and, in Kant, for whom it was located in the freedom of the subject; Morton sees in the Longinian sublime  an “intimacy with an alien presence” and described this sublime as “what evokes this proximity of the alien”. [6] He goes on to tell us that the Longinian mode of ekphrasis  “is not about the reaction of the (human) subject, but about rhetorical modes as affective contemplative techniques for summoning the alien” (ibid. p. 10). It reveals to us the strangely unnerving power of objects, in that the “subject” is revealed to be an assemblage of objects “that can be acted on physically” (ibid. 10). The idea that objects can have relations among themselves without our determining subjectivity or our human proclivities toward a subject/world correlation that has held us spellbound to Kant and his heritage for two hundred years is at the heart of this return to the Longinian sublime and its influence on the Object-Oriented Sublime of Graham Harman and Morton. Ultimately this OOO Sublime is about the melancholy of a subject cut off from the depths of “a world without reference to a subject” (ibid. p. 17). Morton goes on to tell us:

“The more the ekphrasis zaps us, the more we fall back into the gravity well of melancholy. Sentience is out of phase with objects, at least if you have a nervous system. So melancholia is the default mode of subjectivity: an object-like coexistence with other objects and the otherness of objects–touching them, touching the untouchable, dwelling on the dark side one can never know, living in endless twilight shadows” (ibid. p. 16).

Since Nature and the Transcendental Subject no longer exist, which is at the heart of a non-correlationist philosophy or speculative realism then what is left? Morton tells us that it is “things”, the utterly interminable universe of objects beyond any thought of the human or subjectivity. This philosophy agrees with the basic tenets of Science in that there is no “Big Other”, nothing that is not a part of the system of the universe that could define it from outside in an Archimedian fashion. Even materialism as it has come down to us is not without its faults, as Morton relates it: “OOO is troubling for materialisms that rely on any kind of substrate, whether it consists of discrete atoms or of a continuum. Materialism lopes along hampered by Newtonian–Cartesian atomistic mechanism on the one hand, and the formless goo of Spinoza on the other” (ibid. p. 19). In the world of quantum mechanics we discover objects and phenomena  that “are not simply hard to access or only partially “translated” by minds and other objects. They are irreducibly withdrawn” (ibid. p. 19). Quantum Theory is the only true realist approach to objects, and it “positively guarantees that real objects exist! Not only that–these objects exist beyond one another.

Quantum theory does this by viewing phenomena as quanta, as discrete “units” as described in Unit Operations by OOO philosopher Ian Bogost. “Units” strongly resemble OOO “objects” (ibid. p. 20). It is this “withdrawness”, this ability for objects to withdraw their relations to other objects that moves us beyond any form of nihilism as well suggests Morton, saying, “Relationism holds that objects are nothing more than the sum of their relations with other objects. This begs the question of what an object is, since the definition implies a potential infinite regress: what are the “other objects”? Why, nothing more than the sum of their relations with other objects–and so on ad obscurum. At least OOO takes a shot at saying what objects are: they withdraw” (ibid. p. 26).

Morton tells us that objects cannot be defined by their relations to other objects, but that this does not mean that they do not have relations: it simply means “how they appear has a shadowy, illusory, magical, “strangely strange” quality” (ibid. p. 27). He goes on to say,

“Life forms and non-life forms are unique and strange precisely because they do derive from one another. Yet all kinds of life forms scuttle around, and objects proliferate. What we should drop are the concepts Nature and Non- Nature. Heidegger describes how things are intermodulated: we never hear the wind, only the wind in the door” (ibid. p. 28).

It’s this intermodulation of objects that returns us to Ligotti and his first paragraph with its strangely strange “dull black drone of the wind outside my window and the sound of bare branches scraping against the shingles of the roof just above me” (ibid.). Its the physicality of the droning wind whistling round the window and the branches as they “scrape against the shingles” that releases for a moment at least a strange relation within the mind of this particularized subject, awakens within him an anomalous set of objects that unfold in an ekphrasis that translates the artistic picturing of the town with its “various angles and aspects” into reverie, then releases the memory image of that weird object of the “hilltop graveyard that hovered not far beyond the edge of town” (ibid.). The image of a “hovering” graveyard is indeed a “strangely strange” object to envision and does appear as shadowy, illusory, and magical.

*     *     *

“You see what has happened,” Dr. Klatt said to us. “He has annulled his diseased and nightmarish existence, leaving us with an uncreated grave on our hands.”
– Thomas Ligotti

In one of those rare moments Ligotti, in an Interview with Darrel Schweitzer, tells us “I was a Catholic until I was eighteen years old, when I unloaded all of the doctrines, but almost none of the fearful superstition, of a gothically devout childhood and youth.”[7] Is Ligotti haunted by the spectrality of a childhood faith? Hauntology is the discursive processes that create and shape conditions of what Derrida calls spectrality, a ‘non-living present in the living present’ that is no longer with us but somehow continually appears.[8]

Is this not what haunts the small border town in the north? We are told that a Recluse, Ascrobius, has recently been buried in the town graveyard on the hill. We also learn that Ascrobius suffered from a malady that left his body deeply riddled with deformities, yet he had somehow managed to survive and had become intensely contemplative and philosophical in his solitary life. At first no one missed Ascrobius until certain citizens began to have a “kind of twilight talk — dim and pervasive murmurs that persistently revolved around the graveyard outside of town, often touching upon more general topics of a morbid character, including some abstract discourse, as I interpreted it, on the phenomenon of the grave” (ibid.).

One wonders if the citizens themselves are none other than undying revenants, what Powys once called “strange figures, “ces spectres agités,” as if they were passing from twilight to twilight through the silvery mists of some pale Corot-picture, passing into thin air, into the shadow of a shadow, into the dream of a dream, into nothingness and oblivion.” [9] Yet, these voices seemed to take on a life of their own, become disembodied and emerge from “shadowed doorways along narrow streets, from half-opened windows of the highest rooms of the town’s old houses, and from the distant corners of labyrinthine and resonant hallways. Everywhere, it seemed, there were voices that had become obsessed to the point of hysteria with a single subject: the “missing grave”(ibid.).” Certain legends on Japan speak of Japanese Yōkai,

“In ancient Aomori prefecture legends, Uwan is a disembodied voice that inhabits old, abandoned temples and homes. When a person enters a haunted building, the formless spirit belts out an ear-piercing “Uwan!” (hence the name). The voice is only audible to people inside the building — those standing outside hear nothing. Uwan consists only of sound and poses no physical danger.” [10]

This idea of disembodied voices is what Slavoj Zizek calls a “voice without source”, and they are “instances of “partial objects,” which according to Zizek, are instances of drive in the world.”[11] As Zizek would have it these disembodied voices “stand for drive at its purest: an ‘undead’ partial object that functions as a kind of impersonal willing: ‘it wants’, it persists in its repetitive movement, it follows its path and exacts its satisfaction at any price, irrespective of the subject’s well-being. This drive is that which is ‘in the subject more than herself’: although the subject cannot ever ‘subjectivize’ it, assume it as ‘her own’ by way of saying ‘It is I who want to do this!’ it nonetheless operates in her very kernel.”[12]

Yet, the very subject of these hysterical disembodied voices is the “missing grave,” which remind one of this mysterious borderland world beyond the margins of all change, where the “dim vague feelings of humanity take to themselves shadowy and immortal forms and whisper and murmur of what except in music can never be uttered” (Powys).

It is within this mileau we are told that of the doctor and scientist, Klatt, who began speaking of the “recent anomaly not as a missing grave, or even an absent grave, but as an uncreated grave…” (ibid.). We know that doctor Klatt was close to the missing Ascrobius, and that his “reputation” became “closely linked to that of the deceased individual who was well known for both his grossly deformed body and for his intensely contemplative nature” (ibid.). The proximity of this anomalous combination of a “grossly deformed body” with an “intensely contemplative nature” produces a grotesque sense of “total strain, a tense grimace to which is added the demonically seductive pallor of a man who has struggled along horrible, dark precipices.”[13]

Dr. Klatt tells us that Ascrobius “should be viewed as most monstrous and freakish, qualities that emerged as a consequence of his intensely contemplative nature. “He had incredible powers available to him,” said the doctor. “He might even have cured himself of his diseased physical condition, who can say? But all of his powers of contemplation, all of those incessant meditations that took place in his high back-street house, were directed toward another purpose altogether.”(ibid.)” He goes on to tell us that what Ascrobius sought was “was an absolute annulment, not only of his disease but of his entire existence. On rare occasions he even spoke to me,” the doctor said, “about the uncreation of his whole life” (ibid.).

Michael Austin tells us that total annihilation can never be accomplished that ” the possibility of ghosts returning in a Spectral Realism, the idea that their bones could reassemble, perhaps not in the same way, but in the same spirit. In this way, a ghost can never achieve the perpetual peace of absolute non-existence, but is always only “almost dead.” No ghost is ever entirely here, nor are they ever entirely absent.” [14]

I will leave some of the mystery of the story to the reader, yet this idea of the ghost that is “never entirely absent” reverberates within the folding movement of the final paragraph:

“Although I cannot say that I witnessed anything myself, others reported signs of a “new occupation,” not at the site of the grave of Ascrobius, but at the high back-street house where the recluse once spent his intensely contemplative days and nights. There were sometimes lights behind the curtained windows, these observers said, and the passing figure outlined upon those curtains was more outlandishly grotesque than anything they had ever seen while the resident of that house had lived. But no one ever approached the house. Afterward all speculation about what had come to be known as the “resurrection of the uncreated” remained in the realm of twilight talk” (ibid.).

Maybe this is what Nietzsche meant when he said in an enigmatic aphorism:

“Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.”
The Gay Science

1. Weird Tales, Spring 1999 p. 28-32.
Sublime Objects, Arcade 10.10.2010
3. Johannes von Gaza und Paulus Silentarius, ed. P. Friedlander (Leipzig-Berlin, 1912)
4. Leo Spitzer, ‘The “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in Essays on English and American Literature, ed. Anna Hatcher (Princeton, 1962), p. 72.
Ekphrasis, wikipedia article
6. Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology, Timothy Morton
7. Speaking of Horror: Conversations with Masters of the Field – Borgo Press (December 1, 1994)
8. Freccero, Carla. 2006. Queer/Early/Modern (Durham & London: Duke University Press)
SUSPENDED JUDGMENTS ESSAYS ON BOOKS AND SENSATIONS John Cowper Powys (Copyright, 1916, by G. Arnold Shaw)
10. Yokai, wikipedia article
11. Monsters, Demons and Partial Objects – Complete Lies (June 3, 2009)
12. Love beyond Law, Slavoj Zizek (© lacan. com 1997/2005)
13. On the Heights of Despair, E.M. Cioran (University of Chicago, 1992 p. 18)
14. The Bones of Ghosts 1: Hauntology and Architecture 
– Complete Lies (March 9, 2009)

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