Thomas Ligotti: The Horror-Maker


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from Allan and Adelaide: An Arabesque (1981) by Thomas Ligotti

Straight toward heav’n my wondering eyes I turned
And gazed a while the ample sky, till raised
By quick instinctive motion up I sprung …
…………“Thou Sun,” said I, “fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth so fresh and gay,
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?
Not of my self; by some great Maker then,
In goodness and in power preeminent;
Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier then I know.
………..– John Milton, Paradise Lost

Unlike Milton’s orthodox God of Creation who appears so full of goodness and wisdom, the Gnositcs – or, at least the Sethians – would envision the dark force of universal catastrophe as the Maker of Horrors rather than Paradises, a blind and terrible force at the heart of the cosmic degradation who is neither good nor evil but is the force of matter as active principle of unending existence. Ligotti’s Horror-Maker revitalizes this ancient mythos of a darker Gnosticism as an atheistic paradigm that removes both gods and angels and puts the blind forces of natural existence and the sciences at the heart of his allegory of cosmic catastrophism. Situated in that same cosmic abjectness as H.P. Lovecraft he explores a realm where the void harbors nothing more than the energetic powers of our own unconscious mind, a realm where the outer moves inside like a ravenous beast seeking a consuming ecstasy in excess of its own broken vessels.

In the ancient Gnostic mythos Samael is the third name of the demiurge, whose other names are Yaldabaoth and Saklas. In this context, Samael means “the blind god”, the theme of blindness running throughout gnostic works. His appearance is that of a lion-faced serpent. In On the Origin of the World in the Nag Hammadi library texts, he is also referred to as Ariael, the Archangel of Principalities. An allegory of Time and Matter, of the endless return of an active principle, an undying and unyielding immanence at the heart of things: the living power that enfolds us and delivers us to the nightmare of the universe.

Think of Shakespeare’s great play The Tempest where Ariel is a spry spirit or angelic creature that the evil witch Sycorax imprisoned in a tree because the “delicate” spirit didn’t have the heart to do her bidding. Prospero the Magus frees the spirit who then gifts him with unearthly wisdom and power; yet, under this guise we see a hint of the old blindness working its way out in a new form. Of course Shakespeare turns the myth to more comic and changeful pursuits. Prospero is tricked into changing his mind, a puppet handled by Ariel gracefully to do this spirit’s bidding under the guise of an autonomous act of the Mind, bringing with it a happy conclusion to love and romance. Yet, even here in Shakespeare a knowledge and gnosis of the old paths cross mind-wise in the allegory of comedy and romance.

Georges Bataille in his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism would see in this ancient mythology a notion of matter as active principle: “It is possible to see as a leitmotif of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action).”

Jacque Lacan sometimes represents what he would term the Real as a state of active matter, as a time of fullness or completeness [what Gnostics would term the Pleroma] that is subsequently lost through the entrance into language. The primordial animal need for copulation similarly corresponds to this state of active matter. There is a need followed by a search for satisfaction. As far as humans are concerned, however, “the real is impossible,” as Lacan was fond of saying. It is impossible in so far as we cannot express it in language because the very entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the real. Still, the real continues to exert its influence throughout our adult lives since it is the rock against which all our fantasies and linguistic structures ultimately fail. The real for example continues to erupt whenever we are made to acknowledge the materiality of our existence, an acknowledgement that is usually perceived as traumatic (since it threatens our very “reality”), although it also drives Lacan’s sense of jouissance.

Yet, what if instead of being driven by “need” as in Lacan, we are driven not by a lack, but an overflowing immanent power, an ecstatic plenitude that needs to overflow the boundaries of all limits, otherwise become sick and destitute? Wasn’t this at the heart of Freud’s theory of drives? Lacan muted this and introduced need and lack into an otherwise Freudian universe of catastrophe and chaos. What if instead of a lack at the heart of being there is a fullness, a darker truth of an active principle of production that needs to flow, needs to escape the boundaries of reason and civilization? Wasn’t this at the core of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of Lacan? What if our very laws that bind this ancient power within humanity is what has made us sick and nihilistic? What if we need to escape these old laws of morality and normativity, to explore our ancient heritage in the worlds of libertine ecstasy?  What if instead of Stoic reduction of pleasure and pain, we need to push pleasure and pain to the extreme limits of our human capacities, to overflow the barriers that keep us tied to outworn forms? What is what we seek is to transgress the limits of self-imposed exile, rejoin the universe of power and eros? Consume the riches of the universe in its glorious excess? As Nick Land would eloquently put it:

Excess or surplus precedes production, work, seriousness, exchange, and lack. The primordial task of life is not to produce or survive, but to consume the clogging floods of riches – of energy – pour down upon it.2

Jouissance has been noted  as a transgressive, excessive kind of pleasure linked to the division and splitting of the subject involved. One might see it as a form of commingling of eros and thanatos, a pleasurable pain or painful pleasure – an excess that brings the sensual and orgasmic delights to a limit that bursts beyond and into that voidic delight where annihilation and opposites endure beyond human endurance. Rather than the apathy and affectlessness of cold embittered logic and mental masturbation of priestly sadists we should listen to the great Sufi mystic Rumi who once said:

Pain renews old medicines and lops off the branch of every indifference. Pain is the alchemy that renovates—where is indifference when pain intervenes?1

Ariel Glucklich in her study of Sacred Pain will argue that religious pain produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental state of being. More succinctly, pain strengthens the religious person’s bond with God and with other persons. Of course, since not all pain is voluntary or self-inflicted, one mystery of the religious life is how unwanted suffering can become transformed into sacred pain. (p. 6) But what of sexual ecstasy, what of the gnostic libertines who sought out the extremes of physical and mental jouissance, the pleasure-pain or joyful sorrow of ecstatic immanence: a darker gnosis than that of the later mystics of the Light? What of the powers of darkness and active matter, of the archons and their endless measure of immanent bliss and pain, the jouissance that brings about a horrible mercy and excessive delight in nightmares?

What of the atheist, the unbeliever, the wandering tribe of Cain? What of those who seek not God but the extremes of physical jouissance, the excess where pain and pleasure merge in a physical and mental event of exquisite power and breadth. What of the tradition from Baudelaire to now of the drug induced visionary gleam of those immanent realms of dream and nightmare, the offering of glimpses into a cosmic degradation and contamination of a dark gnosis. Where being “alone with the alone” is not some transcendence of the cosmic fun house, but rather a deeper involvement in its bleak voidic energy – an immanent degradation and awakening to our relation to our eternal life as twitching vibrant matter? (This is not a vitalism!)

There is no pantheistic god hiding in the darkness, no living allegory of the Gnostic Blind One. Instead this is the atheism of eternal return of which Nietzsche dreamed forward. Where things merge in the dark alcoves of matter, a matter that is no longer dead but active and excessive and transgressive. Where the cosmic anguish and spasms of dying galaxies, and the immeasurable drift of a trillion nightmare scenarios engender a writhing plenitude of pleasurable pain, a jouissance bringing forth such endless wonders and monstrosities that one seeks not some salvation by way of transcendence, but rather the slow and methodical merging with the immanence of power that is already flowing through every nook and cranny of one’s being and the universe? Metamorphic transformation in a spiraling movement of endless Time.

What if we ourselves are the blind gods set adrift in a universe of death where only the nightmares break through the barrier and gap of the Real, and with each step we take we enter another chapter in our already endless death-in-Life? An eternal return of the great round of eros and thanatos: the universe as catastrophe and pure jouissance. What if we ourselves are the very powers who squander our lives in trivial games of human degradation, while in truth our task is to set free the horror of the Real and let the games of love and death begin in transgression and ecstasy? Maybe as Ligotti affirms: “There is no refuge from the living void, the terror of the invisible.” We are the void, and the terror is of our own making, for we are the Horror-Makers of this charade, this catastrophic universe of pure death and jouissance, of erotic ecstasy in endless degradation and corruption. Sepulchral metamorphosis and transformation, the dark energy of an active principle in matter moving through all things invisibly – as in Blake: “Energy is eternal delight!”

Catastrophists of nightmares and wonders, monstrosities and cosmic degradation: the endless play of eros and thanatos in a realm of pure jouissance – matter at play with itself in eternal delight. Civilization and Language were invented to stave off this very truth, to build walls, gaps, and cracks in the cosmic movement; to bind it and keep it at bay. Yet, it will not go away. You cannot hide from what you are, neither can you exclude the terror of your own inner being. The mythologies of the Real are nothing more than one more mask for this dark energy that labors both within and without us doing what it has always done from the beginning of time; for indeed it is the labor of Time.

We are the very monsters we so fearfully project into our allegorical mythologies. We are the terrors and powers of this universal crime, who have forgotten our sad estate in the cosmic palace of horror. Like minions of a deadly deed we create fictions to hide from ourselves. We are slaves to impulses we once owned as our own. We are afraid to enter the stream of continuous degradation and be as we are, the heirs of a vast catastrophe that we ourselves made. For we are the Horror-Makers. The dark gnosis is to know that we are in the place of nightmares without knowing it. A place from which we have sought exit for so long through all our mythologies of salvation beyond despair, when all we needed to do was to enter the final stage of our metamorphosis and be transformed by the active principle at the core of this universal composition and decomposition. To know and be known by the blindness that is our degradation and our glory.

Do you understand me now?

The one eye of the Godhead is blind, the one ear of the Godhead is deaf, the order of its being is crossed by chaos. So be patient with the crippledness of the world and do not overvalue its consummate beauty.
……………– C. G. Jung,  The Red Book

  1. Glucklich, Ariel (2001-10-18). Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (p. 4). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Nick Land. The Thirst for Annihilation. (Routledge, 1992).

3 thoughts on “Thomas Ligotti: The Horror-Maker

  1. “The universe is only a furtive arrangement of elementary particles… The human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ Only egotism exists.” — H.P. Lovecraft

    Liked by 1 person

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