Thomas Ligotti: The Order of Illusion

It seemed to him that the old mysteries had been made for another universe, and not the one he came to know. Yet there was no doubt that they had once deeply impressed him.
………– Thomas Ligotti, Noctuary

Most of Thomas Ligotti’s characters are forgettable, anonymous and seem to wander through the haze of things like jack rabbits that have just been caught out by the high amp lights of some devilish crew bent on mayhem and annihilation. The Order of Illusion like many of his other tales ambles from contortion to utter degradation in less time than it takes to blink one’s eye. “Intoxicated by their wonder, by raw wonder itself, he might never have turned away from the golden blade held aloft by crimson hands, from the mask with seven eyes, the idol of moons, from the ceremony called the Night of the Night, along with other rites of illumination and all the ageless doctrines which derived from their frenzies.”1

So it goes. Our celebrant celebrates the “night of the world” as Hegel once called it. The gnosis of some dark knowledge so secretive that even the cult members themselves must never speak of it. Instead they in orgiastic jouissance, in excess wring the last dregs of pain beyond pleasure, steeped as they are in the heritage of illusions. Like members of some last pittance of the human corruption they seek not a god beyond things, but rather the truth within the realm of daemonic energy that is matter itself. There is no beyond, only the testament of blood and flesh, the scorched delights of cruelty and pain, the sacred dance of entropy the rides the swirling abyss like a tiger after its prey. No. These are the monks not of some abstention or ascesis, but rather the cenobites of pleasures so difficult that few would dare to enter the path much less realize its dark turn into being’s final event. This is no apocalypse, there is no escape; only the endless night of chaos and temporal distortion and contortion. The twisted fated loops of a derision that has sought for far too long a consummation in an immortal death without end. The (in)existence of that which has no name but is everywhere worshiped under the guise of rebellion and emancipation of evil.

Life as the endless formlessness of death.

A sense of wonder. As Alphonso Lingis, that late phenomenologist of the sensuous folds of things in their wonder, will tell us:

Material things do not just lie naked about us; they engender perspectival deformations, halos, mirages, scattering their colors in the light and casting their images on surrounding things. Living bodies rest rumbling and move rustling, striking up echoes; they push on leaving traces and stains, projecting telescoping images of themselves in the transparent air and into translucent substances, casting profiles of themselves and shadows on opaque surfaces. They do not occupy their spot in space and time, filling it to capacity. The names, the classifications, and the concepts with which we recognize them does not grip on to some inner coherence; they only skim over streams of departing images.2

This sense that things are more than they appear, that there is this excess that escapes our ability to describe in math or poetry the churning ocean of energy that seems to shape the world of phenomenon around us. This is wonder. We trace the word itself into Old English wundor “marvelous thing, miracle, object of astonishment,” from Proto-Germanic *wundran (cognates: Old Saxon wundar, Middle Dutch, Dutch wonder, Old High German wuntar, German wunder, Old Norse undr). 3 Things seem to abandon these fragmentary surfaces and appearances, images, mirages, shadows as they move, interacting with other surfaces and mirages and also with eyes that are moved and shocked and delighted by them. (Lingis, 126)

We seem to wander through life dazzled by the display of things, shocked by their strangeness, wondering at their power and hold over us, the allure of their beauty or repelled by the grotesque and ugliness of their encrusted skin and textures. We live in a realm of sensuous apprehension, and yet we feel there is something shaping, binding, tugging at us just below the surface of these objects that roam through the world around us in fear and trepidation. We’ve even build cults and dark temples to the Night or Sun to capture the essence of such emotions at such wondrous shocks. Yet, as in all things the newness and shock at such things slowly dissolves, crumbles, folds itself into some hidden realm, some site just beyond our gaze, where we come to the end of wonder and realize we are in a maze of unknowing. What we seek is to know more than can be known, to grasp the hidden life of things, to see into the darkness and reveal its secrets. So we build strange rituals and cults to apparitions, to unknown gods, to monstrosities; perform sacred dances, sing songs, speak magical words; create altars to this unknown unknowns, burn incense, candles, and offer obeisance just for a singular glimpse behind the curtain of things.

“How was it they failed him? When was the first moment he found himself growing impatient with their music and their gyrations, when the first moment he witnessed these mysteries and descended into another kind of wonder?” says Ligotti’s anonymous character. Is this not the moment of awakening, when the atheist first realizes he is in a prison? When he realizes that the rituals, the prayers, the ancient rites and practices, the dogmas and creeds, the sayings and wisdom, the magical artifacts and icons that once held forth the mysteries of existence seem dead for him? When he wanders aimlessly through existence as if lifeless, the world around him receding from him as if it no longer held some secret suchness or thatness; rather veiling an emptiness and nothingness, a void or kenoma? The moment he wakes up and realizes everyone is performing the ceremony of life without him, that he alone is forced to look on this debacle of mockery and confusion in fright and fear? He sees the people around him going through the motions, performing the vast array of rituals, the daily habits of our human lives, the customs, laws, and basic necessities of sociality? And they are doing this as automatons, as robotic, mindless mechanisms of flesh and blood that have no clue that their lives are meaningless, that the rituals and practices have no efficacy, no longer shock?

These mysteries thus condemned all that lay outside of them to triviality, whether deserving of this fate or not. Injustice was their essence and their power. Had these routines of enlightenment actually been intended for a universe not undermined by mockery and confusion? But to bother even with the dream of such a place was useless, especially when he could conceive a plan more to his purpose. This entailed nothing less than the invention of a cult, a solitary one to be sure, better suited to his profane vision. (Ligotti, KL 2360)

So we go our solitary way seeking something else, some profane vision of things because the old world is dead to us. Of course for Ligotti’s character this will entail an turn within and without, a turn away from those others who he no longer belongs too, nor can communicate with. He’ll wander into the desolation “locate a site of worship, a place abandoned, old, isolated, and decayed”. A place where the dead world opens up to something ill-defined, where he can begin to once again seek that shock of wonder that once gave his life such power. Here he’ll build a “numinous structure—bashed in roof and battered walls—he cluttered with the fetishes of his new creed. These consisted of anything he could find which had a divine aura of disuse, hopelessness, disintegration, of grotesque imbecility and senselessness”:

Dolls with broken faces he put on display in corners and upon crumbling pedestals. … Standing before the altar, he raised his arms over something that smoldered, which was his own dried excrement upon a tarnished plate. He glanced about at the defunct forest of which he was king, at the brittle twisting branches (some of which were adorned with hanging dolls and other things), at all the various objects of refuse he had added to his collection. And finally he widened his mouth to speak, and he said … nothing.  (Ligotti 2364-2375)

Is this not our predicament? The Silence is our lot, we no longer have words to say what we would say, and the words we have no longer hold the power to say anything, anything at all. So we stand in the midst of our silent temples of despair and degradation like creatures who know they’ve lost something, but can’t quite remember what it is they lost. Slavoj Zizek, the giant of Ljublijana, will state it this way:

The Freudian answer is the drive: what Freud calls the “drive” is not, as it may appear, the Buddhist Wheel of Life, the craving that enslaves us to the world of illusions. The drive, on the contrary, goes on even when the subject has “traversed the fantasy” and broken out of its illusory craving for the (lost) object of desire. And therein lies the difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, reduced to its formal minimum: for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive (as Lacan put it in the last pages of Seminar XI: after the subject traverses the fantasy, desire is transformed into drive).4

We who are driven, who crave more, crave the excess within things that seem to elude us and allure us at the same time, this drive that secretly rides the beast of time, the images that fall away, a force that goes on – “traverses the fantasy” even beyond the illusive dance of mind in search of its lost objects we move even in our dead worlds repeating the gestures of those who once knew wonder. Is this it? Is this why the anonymous wanders away from the tribe, alone, seeking a new way of overcoming the illusions on which our desires are based and confronting the void beneath each object of desire?

In ancient times fantasy, or phantasia referred to the coming-into-appearance of entities, to their un-concealment against the background of withdrawal/ concealment. As such, phantasia concerns Being itself— in contrast to modern subjectivism, wherein fantasy designates man’s “merely subjective” fantasizing, disconnected from “objective” reality:

In unconcealment fantasia comes to pass: the coming-into-appearance, as a particular something, of that which presences— for man, who himself presences toward what appears. Man as representing subject, however “fantasizes,” i.e., he moves in imaginatio, in that his representing imagines, pictures forth, whatever is, as the objective, into the world as picture. (Zizek, 4203)

Lacan’s precise use of fantasy restores something of the original Greek meaning: “fantasy” has for him a kind of transcendental status; it is constitutive of reality itself, a frame which guarantees the ontological consistency of reality. (Zizek, 4207) This notion of reality being guaranteed by fantasy seems apt as we study the fantastic worlds of Ligotti. For him there is this layering and indefinite boundary between the Real/Unreal. His characters seem to define the borders of these tremulous zones where sense and logic break down and the unknown reveals itself only in the phantasies of strangeness.

Yet, even here at the end of things, our anonymous hero in silence seeks what cannot be heard or said realizing “this contentment did not last; how could it? Illusion throws its invisible shimmer over all things, no matter what level of debasement they have struggled to win. Whatever may appear, sooner or later, will appear in greatness. Thus, gradually, the pathetic, lusterless world he had made, and labored to make low, had rebelliously elevated itself beyond its surface of decrepitude and assumed a kind of grandeur in his eyes.” (Ligotti, 2375)

Even in our despair the world takes on a certain measure of the daemonic sublime. Things seem even in their utter corruption to glow with a secret existence that we cannot know or touch. Here, just here out “effort to strip away the finery of objects and events, and to exist only in the balm of desolation, was a failure. The experiment had only resulted in the discovery of a deeper stratum of preciousness in things.” (Ligotti, 2382) As Lingis relates it:

We are forces on the move, we are free, because we shed the images of ourselves as we go, and do not whip around to gather them up. We are active because we release our fevers and our fervors into the things we pass. We are strong because we discharge our forces into things that roll and rise. We laugh because we release our light and our warmth gratuitously, without asking in return, feeling happiest, as the sun does when it pours the excesses of its gold upon the seas. We are free because we are not imprisoned in our form or in our forces. (Lingis, 127)

This sense of shedding images, releasing our fevers into things, discharging our forces into the undulating fabric of dolls, artifacts, icons, incense, flames, songs… as if “the pathetic, lusterless world he had made, and labored to make low, had rebelliously elevated itself beyond its surface of decrepitude and assumed a kind of grandeur in his eyes” (Ligotti, 2377).

What is beyond the limit of things, beyond the screen which denies us (protects us from) any direct access to the In-itself? There is only one convincing answer: what is “really” beyond the limit, on the other side of the screen, is not nothing, but rather the same reality we find in front of the screen. As Zizek spouts “what counts is that one part of ordinary reality is separated from the rest by a frame which designates it as a magical space of illusion. We have one and the same reality, separated from itself (or, rather, redoubled) by a screen.” (Z, 8628) If there is a field of reality, then it is not enough to claim that reality is inherently fantasmatic, that it is always constituted by a transcendental frame; this frame has to inscribe itself into the field of reality, in the guise of a difference between “ordinary” reality and the ethereal reality: within our experience of reality (structured by fantasy), a part of reality has to appear to us as “fantasmatic,” as not “real reality.” (Zizek, 8628-8640) The not “real reality” is for Ligotti fans, the trope of the Unreal. Ligotti will use the metaphor or concept/image of Unreal throughout his oeuvre for those moments of disequilibrium when the Real and Unreal come into alignment/disjunction, when the fantasy is traversing the cut between the two revealing not in words but in the mode of being itself the impossibility of that desiring object lost in the fabric of being.

Of course Ligotti brings our dead soul back to its circular environs as the unlikely guest who was once the lowest of the low takes on “the accoutrements of high priest, he could not suppress a smile as he gazed upon the wide, dead sky ” (Ligotti, 2393). Having entered the silence, he could now return to his former clan of automatons with his eyes open, knowing that one must of necessity make a choice, choose one’s fate, reenter the stream of meaningless chatter and the buzzing of inanity; for this is the task of all who know there is nothing behind the appearances but the secret truth of our own lives, an unknowing that seems to preclude our mind and its excessive need to know.

Now his are the crimson hands which hold aloft the golden blade, his is the face behind the mask with seven eyes. And he is the one who stands in shining robes before the massive idol of moons, trembling the while with wonder. (Ligotti, 2394)

 So in the end we turn full circle, return to the scene of the crime, discover once again the life in death, corruption, decay, putrification within the darkest of holiest worlds of Night. But what has returned this failed prophet of annihilation to his former glory, brought him once again to the power of wonder? How has he suddenly discovered out of the revealing truth of the ancient curse of time the ability to rise now as the High Priest of Death? Is it not the truth of illusion itself? Is it not his ability to live in the fantasy that supports reality? Has he reaffirmed that there is nothing behind the façade? The mask is all? We are the host of that curse come at last to the secret tribunal of time, keepers of the mysteries of the deadly truth that this is it… there is nothing else? Maybe Nietzsche was right after all, accept the allure of the illusive dream, the dream life you live in Illusion’s Kingdom. Enter the game that lures you onward deeper into the labyrinth of Death’s checkmate. Join your brothers of the Order of Illusion, roam the hinterlands where madness reigns and life affirms its last joy.  Is this in the end a wonder and a trembling?

  1. Ligotti, Thomas (2012-06-25). Noctuary (Kindle Locations 2354-2356). Subterranean Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lingis, Alphonso (2011-09-15). Wonders Seen in Forsaken Places (p. 126).  . Kindle Edition.
  3. Online Etymological Dictionary: Wonder.
  4. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 3147-3153). Norton. Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Ligotti: The Order of Illusion

  1. “It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it, even with the best right, but without being OBLIGED to do so, proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring beyond measure. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life in itself already brings with it; not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes isolated, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing such a one comes to grief, it is so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it, nor sympathize with it. And he cannot any longer go back! He cannot even go back again to the sympathy of men!” — Nietzsche, BGE

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