Thomas Ligotti, Miami: The Collapse of the Real


Speaking with the dead can be so instructive. They remember what the living have forgotten, or would not know if they could. The true frailty of things.
…….-Thomas Ligotti,  Grimscribe

In Thomas Ligotti’s The Mystics of Muelenberg we’re presented as usual with a world which is askew, tipped in favor of the strange and deformed, the grotesque and macabre rather than the glittering façade of some Platonic realm of the marvelous:

If things are not what they seem—and we are forever reminded that this is the case—then it must also be observed that enough of us ignore this truth to keep the world from collapsing. Though never exact, always shifting somewhat, the proportion is crucial. For a certain number of minds are fated to depart for realms of delusion, as if in accordance with some hideous timetable, and many will never be returning to us. Even among those who remain, how difficult it can be to hold the focus sharp, to keep the picture of the world from fading, from blurring in selected zones and, on occasion, from sustaining epic deformations over the entire visible scene.1

From time to time I like to reread these demented stories of a mind that has suffered the bitter sweetness of its own forgotten wisdom. The notion that the world that most of us behold is held together by a secret group of individuals scattered across time, a forbidden sect that has been stamped with the task of binding the hellish deformations of reality and containing its force is strangely disquieting. That this dark brotherhood of the mad and insane, the eccentric and oddball are our only hope against the powers of hyperchaos, the Keepers of the Great Art, those who balance the thin red line between reality and the unreal and weave the invisible threads that ubiquitously connect us all in a timeless world of illusion is a truth that if accepted would in itself drive us all insane. So that the troubadours, jongleurs, tricksters, and mad shamans who wander the broken boundaries of existence and keep us safe, while they move in two worlds at once: split between the real and unreal, brokering the lines of flight that bind and unbind reality. They are the mad ones who defend us against the insane truth, who channel the secrets of existence in parables and allegories, while living out in their own lives and minds the inevitable corruption that would destroy the rest of us.

One can imagine that from time to time one of our benefactors succumbs to the power of the other side, is lured and tempted to give into the secret force of its entrapments. This forces us to think about our own part in this madness and how we are ourselves corrupted and corrupting in our very inability to separate the real and unreal in our lives. What if one were to wander into one of those abandoned zones, a zone of exclusion and corruption, move in the world where reality was unprotected, where the balance had suddenly shifted exposing the truth behind the curtain of lies; where appearance as appearance gave up its artificial semblance and exposed the underlying nullity, the dark abyss of nothingness and formlessness? What if one saw behind the phenomenal and into the noumenon and discovered that it was a hyperchaotic sea of time without sense or reason? What if the hyperchaos that surrounds us suddenly presented itself without illusion, opened its dark powers to you vision: what would you do? What could you do?

There are those such as Lacan and Zizek who suggest that the saving grace is that we have an inbuilt gap or split, that keeps us bound in a subjective transcendence of illusory fictions. That the sea of appearances and phenomena around us are all that we will ever have direct access too. That our brains, our minds are shaped by rules of language and logic that enforce the barriers against the truth of the Real for our protection. That if we were to know reality as it is we would all go mad. Yet, others have boldly suggested that this too is a lie, a fiction: that in truth the world that we believe is real is itself the great fiction, the lie upon which we have obliterated the real world and replaced it with a hyperreality so real that we are now lost in an abyss of our own making. Will we find our way out of this labyrinth? Where is Ariadne’s thread to guide us back to the formless sea of unbeing?

In the old Gnostic mythologies the Archons (kelippot, dark vessels) were the Watchers who keep us locked away in Time’s Prison. What if the reverse were true? What if in fact they are our secret defenders? What if they were the secret or hidden, occult brotherhood who have all these eons protected us from ourselves? What if what we should fear is our own powers? What if in fact we were the dark gods who have forgotten our own powers, and the gatekeepers were put in place by us to protect us from our terrible deeds, our own horrendous past? What if we are the destroyers against which we have built up such dark mythologies, and that if we ever tore down the barriers between our world and the Real we would discover the terrible truth of our own dark secret? That the evil we project upon darkness is the face of our own abysmal nature? What then? Maybe Time is a Prison we built against our own terrible existence, and that the only thing between us and oblivion is the gates of illusion. Would you still storm the gates if you knew this to be the truth?

In the old mythologies of kabbalism is the notion of restitution (“Tikkun ha-Olam“), or the ‘lifting of the sparks’ (Netzotzim) – the notion that throughout time a slow and methodical metempsychosis of the original sparks of light that broke away from the dying embers of a Dead God as he died during the cataclysmic catastrophe that gave birth to our Universe would one day be restored and brought together in an infinite Body of Light, the Adam Kadmon of Living Fire at the End of Time. What if the opposite were true, what if what we are seeking is not a restitution but the annihilation of the sparks, a dark gnosis in which each of us slowly awakens to our own suicidal glory of annihilating the light of which we are shadows and embers of a darker realm of seething energy? What if instead of total restitution there is a total unmaking and unbinding of the Light into utter darkness and hyperchaos? That Time will end only when the last of the sparks is annihilated in this ocean of the abyss? We know that our universe of stars, dust, and light is but a minimal dance upon a ocean of dark matter and energy, that in truth what we call the universe is but a small fraction of this colder dimension, a truth that we cannot quantify nor know but infer from the instruments of our sciences and mathematical theorems. As Ligotti in his tale will say:

For no one else recalls the hysteria that prevailed when the stars and the moon dimmed into blackness. Nor can they summon the least memory of when the artificial illumination of this earth turned weak and lurid, and all the shapes we once knew contorted into nightmares and nonsense.  And finally how the blackness grew viscous, enveloping what light remained and drawing us into itself.  How many such horrors await in that blackness to be restored to the legions of the dead.

Choramancy: A User’s Guide

Came across an interesting essay in Mind Factory yesterday in which a consulting group was hired by the City of Miami because it had a “image” problem. People were perceiving Miami as deadly and crime ridden, a place where terror lurked in the sun and shadows everywhere. So the Florida Research Ensemble (FRE) developed a prototype for an inventional consulting practice, tested in the city of Miami, Florida.1 The notion that one could hire a consulting practice to invent reality struck my humor button, till I began thinking about Ligotti’s tale. This notion that people could invent an image, align the appearances of reality in such a way that the public at large might suddenly be lured to believe that a City that only yesterday was seen as a terrifying and hideous nightmare world of crime could become a sunny and happy world full of light and gaiety struck me odd.

For FRE the problem was simple: it was a public relations crisis of the first order: the damage done to the image of Florida by the murder of a number of tourists had caused their client untold revenue and tourist dollars to be lossed in the past few years to a perceived reality. What was needed was to change this perception, to invent a new perceived image of reality to replace this bad economic image that had caused their client to lose revenue.

As part of the image crisis management FRE was set a task to create a “Fifth Estate”: develop a practice for the internet that allows netizens to become agents of a “fifth estate,” giving citizens a voice in the public policy process equivalent at least to that of journalism…(KL 3291) What they discovered is that our of 41 million visitors over a 14 month period that nine tourists had been killed (3.2% of Miami’s murders). As one official said:  “We have a huge perception problem, but nonetheless a real problem.” What transpired after bad publicity from news outlets is that the Commerce Secretary suspended tourist advertising temporarily, while countering negative news coverage. In the tourism business, he said, image is the business and has a direct bearing on the health of the industry. (KL 3318)

Between News, Noir and Hard-boiled fiction, huckster propaganda (to sell real estate off-shore), Haitian and Cuban boat immigrants, etc. the city was caught in a continuous oscillation between two competing narratives, that of “Magic City” and “Paradise Lost.”(KL 3441) The works of Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford, and in the Television series Miami Vice had over the years contributed to tourist imagery of the noir and crime element fears as well. As they discovered:

Sheila Croucher, in Imagining Miami, summed up the issue: “Miami is a city without true substance, a state of mind instead of a state of being.”[ 168] As James Donald observed, every city is a state of mind that owe as much to discourse as to people and place. “ [The imagined city] has been learned as much from novels, pictures and half-remembered films as from diligent walks round the capital cities of Europe. It embodies perspectives, images, and narratives that migrate across popular fiction, modernist aesthetics, the sociology of urban culture, and techniques for acting on the city.” (KL 3459)

Over the years news, advertising , noir fiction had all contributed to the invention of Miami’s image as a crime infested world that had slowly accrued into peoples (tourists) minds and dissuaded them from viewing this city as a travel destination. So FRE realized that if every city is a state of mind then they’d need to change the image of the city to create an atmosphere, a feeling, an ambiance more congenial to tourist travel.

As they discovered they’d need to participate in genre building and reformulate the city from the formulaic mode of Miami Vice to one of Miami Virtue. One aspect of this was the notion of theoria: The discourse of the sages of the ancient theoria that we had adopted as a relay for the new consultancy expressed the state of mind known as “ataraxy,” a kind of serene indifference to the accidents and tribulations of the external world. (KL 3516)

To build a new image of the city they started with a notion of psychogeography: the mapping of the city as an allegorical story that could be mapped to a tourist cognitive vision of the world.

The relevance of mystory as a basis for testimonial is that it is a holistic practice, designed originally as a way to compose simultaneously in four (more or less) discourses. What one testifies to in the first place is the inventory of identifications or quilting points constituting one’s feeling of being a unified “self.” Mystory is a cognitive map of its maker’s psychogeography. The popcycle that I worked out in Heuretics remotivates an allegorical quaternary. The four levels of allegory serve as the four elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) into which Plato’s chora sorted chaos. (KL 3664)

I want go into the details which are lengthy and go into the background of allegorical terminology, etc. Needless to say they updated the older forms of allegorical systems with current scientific and philosophical models.

Ultimately they narrowed their focus to one specific zone: the Miami River. Here the Haitian population lived amid the ruins of old ships, buildings, and make-shift housing projects. The group began to weave the history, mythologies, stories, and milieu of their culture into the tourist image the City could shape to a new image that would allow both the Haitian population and city to benefit from each others cultural mix through an allegorical exchange of images. They were able to accomplish this through a mixture of photography, story, advertisement, fiction, and other intermediation that allowed the perceived threat of the alien other (“alterity”, “aporia”) to be brought from the Outside in in such a way as to open an exchange between the various elements of both cultures that had been wary of each other.

As they realized following the work of Michael Serres the tourist situation, like every other intersubjective experience, must take into account as least three positions: host, guest, “parasite”. (KL 4170) This allowed them to shape a policy that had once been based on exclusionary practices to become one on inclusion:

Applied to the policy question of the Caribbean Code, this formula proposes the suspension of the interdiction and boarding of Haitian vessels by the Coast Guard, to be replaced with the “boarding” of Haitians at city expense: “learn about boarding from boarding.” (KL 4174)

The politics of the stranger, in contrast, puts the interests of the other first, without expectation of reciprocity. It remains to be seen what sort of policy might be entailed by the aporia of hospitality, but its impossibility in principle is nearly the inverse of Prisoner’s Dilemma. “For unconditional hospitality to take place you have to accept the risk of the other coming and destroying the place, initiating a revolution, stealing everything, or killing everyone. That is the risk of pure hospitality and pure gift.” Pure gift, in other words, constitutes the impossible necessity of ethics unbounded by the external authority of some Master Signifier (God, King, etc.). (KL 4189)

ashes and putty

“I once knew a man who claimed that, overnight, all the solid shapes of existence had been replaced by cheap substitutes: trees made of poster board, houses built of colored foam, whole landscapes composed of hair-clippings. His own flesh, he said, was now just so much putty. Needless to add, this acquaintance had deserted the cause of appearances and could no longer be depended on to stick to the common story. Alone he had wandered into a tale of another sort altogether; for him, all things now participated in this nightmare of nonsense. But although his revelations conflicted with the lesser forms of truth, nonetheless he did live in the light of a greater truth: that all is unreal. Within him this knowledge was vividly present down to his very bones, which had been newly simulated by a compound of mud and dust and ashes.” (Ligotti, KL 1529)

This notion that reality is malleable, that we can reinvent realities for tourists or allow ourselves to follow our own tendencies into the unreal worlds around us is part and partial of the current state of theoria. That a city we perceived as dark and shadowy only yesterday could suddenly manifest itself as a magic kingdom or vice versa as a nightmare world of inordinate monstrosity is to know that reality is no longer a solid fixed substance, that form is a floating signifier both material and immaterial and unbounded.

That nothing is real, that everything might take on the hues of unreality and metamorphosis, and that change might just find you in the nightmare of nonsense and strangeness is par for the course in a world where things are not what they seem. As Ligotti’s narrator states it: “In my own case, I must confess that the myth of a natural universe—that is, one that adheres to certain continuities whether we wish them or not—was losing its grip on me and gradually being supplanted by a hallucinatory view of creation. Forms, having nothing to offer except a mere suggestion of firmness, declined in importance; fantasy, that misty domain of pure meaning, gained in power and influence.” (Ligotti, KL 1534)

If as many materialists from Giordano Bruno to Bataille and in our own time Nick Land have attested: matter is formless and energetic, and our so called reality is but a mask for the greater unreality or surreality of the immanent darkness that our own brain distorts and deforms. We may live in a world that could change at any moment into something else: is this horror or comforting? The collapse of the real into the unreal might be an excessive joy for some, and for others a corruption beyond all belief. Hell or paradise: isn’t this in the eye of the beholder? As William Blake once hoped, what we need is a marriage of heaven and hell: “Energy is Eternal Delight.”

As the narrator describes the thoughts of Klaus Klingman: “I am a lucky one, parasite of chaos, maggot of vice. Where I live is all nightmare, thus a certain nonchalance. I am accustomed to drifting in the delirium of history.” (KL 1562) Klingman who is neither a protector nor a defender against the ancient curse of corruption, a man who simply drifts between the gaps like an alien priest of some insubordinate sect. A man who knew the truth but had bypassed its message for a more serene terror. He’d become the witness to the slow decay, the coming disintegration of things. Mulenberg, the center of the vast abject triumph of the nameless fruit: “Throughout the town, all places and things bore evidence to striking revisions in the base realm of matter: precisely sculptured stone began to loosen and lump, an abandoned cart melded with the sucking mud of the street, and objects in desolate rooms lost themselves in the surfaces they pressed upon, making metal tongs mix with brick hearth, prismatic jewels with lavish velvet, a corpse with the wood of its coffin.” (KL 1609)

As Bataille would say existence “no longer resembles a neatly defined itinerary from one practical sign to another, but a sickly incandescence, a durable orgasm” (p. 82).3 The lonely brotherhood that had for so long held back the corruption of the universal decay had abandoned the city leaving the people to fall before the bleak misery of things: “All were carried off in the great torrent of their dreams, all spinning in that grayish whirlpool of indefinite twilight, all churning and in the end merging into utter blackness.” (KL 1614) Like the Pleroma of the ancient gnositcs the people were in the place of the dark light without knowing it, the place where time, memory, and thought were forgotten in the silence of night and chaos. As Klingman will tell the young narrator:

I am one with the dead of Muelenburg . . . and with all who have known the great dream in all its true liquescence. (KL 1624)

 As if enacting a parody of the Great Art, the alchemical ceremony of fire, Klingman anoints the narrator who is seeking to know the truth of the ancient world to which Mulenberg has succumb: “To cure you of doubt, you first had to be made a doubter. Until now, pardon my saying so, you have shown no talent in that direction. You believed every wild thing that came along, provided it had the least evidence whatever. Unparalleled credulity. But tonight you have doubted and thus you are ready to be cured of this doubt.” (KL 1627)

Doubting the murderousness of existence is the first step into oblivion. As Klingman in a moment of dark clarity tells the young initiate: “This is my gift to you. This will be your enlightenment. For the time is right again for the return of fluidity, and for the world’s grip to go slack. And later so much will have to be washed away, assuming a renascence of things. Fluidity, always fluidity.” (KL 1631)

Maybe this is all we can expect now in our world, a slow withdrawal into that cold night of time without Time, a measured movement into the liquidity of things where life will be washed in the blood of Death without appeal. For too long we have held on to the myth of solidity, fixed the world into static objects; left the movement of the shadows fall before our inner gaze. We’ve lived in the sun too long, let the daylight shape our lives and thoughts. Now is the time of Night and Chaos. All hope of those of the dark sect gone back down into the dark folds of the immaterial material of the universe, where energy and light, the intransigent envelope of nothingness dissolves in a recourse to everything that compromises the powers that be in matters of form, ridiculing the traditional entities, naively rivalling stupefying scarecrows. (Bataille, p. 51) The Great Unraveling has begun, the slow and methodical decomposition of all things into the darkness. We who once believed in the myth of light have found the power of darkness to hold the pure energy, that active principle of matter: eros and thanatos, twins of the dark path call to us at the crossroads of time and the pure instant. Where we find the hanged one upside down in the place of the headless delirium of the Pleroma we will at last discover the impossible shape of Time.

  1. Ligotti, Thomas (2012-05-13). Grimscribe (Kindle Locations 1524-1528). Subterranean Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Armand, Louis; Zizek, Slavoj; Critchley, Simon; McCarthy, Tom; Wark, McKenzie; Ulmer, Gregory L.; Kroker, Arthur; Tofts, Darren; Lewty, Jane (2013-07-19). Mind Factory (Kindle Locations 3272-3273). Litteraria Pragensia. Kindle Edition.
  3. Georges Bataille. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Univ. Minnesota Press, 1985)

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