His absolute: to dwell among the ruins of reality.
—Vastarien, Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory
Thomas Ligotti touches that aspect of the mind that seeks to be elsewhere. He’s exasperated with the world he has been thrown into and has for the most part sought another all his life. Can it be possible that the rendering of such a character as Vastarien in the short story of that name hints at the underlying worldview that has either trapped or unleashed the imagination of one of the great horror writers of our era. I’ve personally been fascinated by his stories for almost twenty years, coming back to them from time to time as I did not with such writers as Poe and Lovecraft his forbears. What is it that instills repeated readings of his work? Maybe it’s as Vastarien himself puts it about our world, that it seems to be lacking something, that something is missing, incomplete: “the missing quality, became clear to him: it was the element of the unreal”.1
This notion of the unreal summons up so many things for both Vastarien and for us as readers and habitués of Ligotti’s oeuvre. For Vastarien “standing before the window, his hands tearing into the pockets of a papery bathrobe, he saw that something was missing from the view, some crucial property that was denied to the stars above and the streets below, some unearthly essence needed to save them. The word unearthly reverberated in the room.” But it is not the false power of religious vision that haunts Ligotti, nor the vein raptures of saints and madmen of the cloistered variety, but rather a place of intimacy, a city of echoes and dreams where one can once again know in the depths of strange streets an order of the unreal, “where an obscure life seemed to establish itself, a secret civilization of echoes flourishing among groaning walls”.
If madness is the ground of Reason, its other face and dark brother whose power over us must be conquered if we are to become whole and free —that is, normalized — then is the quest of Vastarien to reenter the gates of madness or does his quest harbor some other more formidable end? Vastarien in his quest to uncover the traces of such an unreal world, a paradise of dark wonder and rapture had sought for years in the out of way stalls and venues of rare book stores a hint that would provide the keys to unlock its mysteries. But none had been found. Oh there had been hints and wonders here and there, but most of the authors and visionaries had in the end failed the test. As Vastarien relates it he “had, in fact, come upon passages in certain books that approached this ideal, hinting to the reader—almost admonishing him—that the page before his eyes was about to offer a view from the abyss and cast a wavering light on desolate hallucinations. To become the wind in the dead of winter, so might begin an enticing verse of dreams. But soon the bemazed visionary would falter, retracting the promised scene of a shadow kingdom at the end of all entity, perhaps offering an apologetics for this lapse into the unreal. The work would then once more take up the universal theme, disclosing its true purpose in belaboring the most futile and profane of all ambitions: power, with knowledge as its drudge.”
Then Vastarien is awakened from his reveries of unreal paradises by a crow of a man, a thin little frog that squawks at him inquisitively: “Have you ever heard of a book, an extremely special book, that is not…yes, that is not about something, but actually is that something?” Such a strange question from an even stranger personage Vastarien is taken aback. Intrigued by the question which reminds him of his own passionate quest for a book that would reveal the road map to his infernal paradise he’s about to ask the man of it when suddenly the little man interrupts him and is off speaking to the proprietor of the store dismissing Vastarien and the question without further adieu.
This idea that book would not only reveal and represent the object of his dreams and nightmares, but that it in itself would be that very world astounded Vastarien. How could an object whose qualities were only the linguistic traceries of an infinite sea of language ever unfold and open the doors to a secret kingdom. Vastarien had to find out. Feeling abandoned and frustrated our Vastarien followed the two men into the alcove at the back of the store where many unusual volumes lined the shelves. As the narrator relates it:
Immediately he sensed that something of a special nature awaited his discovery, and the evidence for this intuition began to build. Each book that he examined served as a clue in this delirious investigation, a cryptic sign which engaged his powers of interpretation and imparted the faith to proceed. Many of the works were written in foreign languages he did not read; some appeared to be composed in ciphers based on familiar characters and others seemed to be transcribed in a wholly artificial cryptography. But in every one of these books he found an oblique guidance, some feature of more or less indirect significance: a strangeness in the typeface, pages and bindings of uncommon texture, abstract diagrams suggesting no orthodox ritual or occult system. Even greater anticipation was inspired by certain illustrated plates, mysterious drawings and engravings that depicted scenes and situations unlike anything he could name. And such works as Cynothoglys or The Noctuary of Tine conveyed schemes so bizarre, so remote from known texts and treatises of the esoteric tradition, that he felt assured of the sense of his quest.
Then it happened, he came upon a “small grayish volume leaning within a gap between larger and more garish tomes”. Something about it attracted him, a magnetic appeal that forced him to act, and to his delight the small indistinct book revealed something he’d never seen before. It’s this singular paragraph that harbors the promise of so much that we allow it to unfold:
It seemed to be a chronicle of strange dreams. Yet somehow the passages he examined were less a recollection of unruled visions than a tangible incarnation of them, not mere rhetoric but the thing itself. The use of language in the book was arrantly unnatural and the book’s author unknown. Indeed, the text conveyed the impression of speaking for itself and speaking only to itself, the words flowing together like shadows that were cast by no forms outside the book. But although this volume appeared to be composed in a vernacular of mysteries, its words did inspire a sure understanding and created in their reader a visceral apprehension of the world they described, existing inseparable from it. Could this truly be the invocation of Vastarien, that improbable world to which those gnarled letters on the front of the book alluded? And was it a world at all? Rather the unreal essence of one, all natural elements purged by an occult process of extraction, all days distilled into dreams and nights into nightmares. Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous—wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.
Nightmare made normal. This book that neither revealed an object, nor conveyed some symbolic representation of another world, but in fact brought Vastarien and the world together forming a new third object, where both entered into the force of madness and wonder. One would almost want to say that this is a parody of the most extreme idealist quest imaginable, and yet it is different an inversion of that romantic mythos with its death prone heroes such as Shelley’s Alastor.
Ultimately Vastarien is able to purchase this work and bring it home, a book that “did not merely describe that strange world but, in some obscure fashion, was a true composition of the thing itself, its very form incarnate”. This notion of a book breaking all the bonds of representationalism, of freeing us from the mediation of language, of symbols, of the infinite traceries of the undecidable realm of false promises and becoming for us the very thing itself we’d sought all those years. This is what Vastarien had found. One has to ask why humans possess the need to quest after such impossible objects. That we lack something, that we are incomplete, that there is a pit, a void in the recesses of our being that forces us to seek amends, to seek an answer to the quandaries of our torn and bleeding heart. This quest for the Absolute. But not a quest for God, not a quest for some simple answer or trope, some all encompassing One that can assuage the pain at the core of our being. No. We will not stand for hand-me-down mythologies of salvation and transition. No transcendental beyond for us, but rather the thing itself.
Of course in the end things do not end well for Vastarien. Locked away in an insane asylum we discover that the interns have daily to inject him with passivators, because he reads and rereads a certain book that will not go away. Oh, no, not they have not tried. They have. But the book always returns to its victim releasing the dark torments that he sought for so long…
This short story reminds us that underneath the veneer of our homely lives lays an order of the unreal, a void of the void, a darker structure of strangeness and disquiet that over millennia of techniques we have managed to build for ourselves a prison house of Reason to fend off and keep at bay the truth of this mad realm. Every once in a while a creature will break through the barriers of this prison of Reason we’ve trapped ourselves in, this normalcy and consensual hallucination of culture and sanity we call modern civilization. If one manages such an act of violence against the order of the real and Reason he/she is quickly imprisoned and barred from the normals, hidden behind professional medical systems and the Law. But in our time the vast prison is crumbling and the light of the unreal has been slowly seeping into our world from the great Outside. Oh, we turn a blind eye to it, we find scapegoats and madmen to fill the chinks and gaps with reasonable explanations and explanada. We hide in our artificial prisons of language and culture and carry on our lives as if the enemy is not us but some false system of religious or philosophical bullshit. We reach out to the sciences to find the answers promised us. We shift our fears of the haunted landscapes from the past to the ever-present threats of war, famine, and apocalypse. The whole genre of children utopian novels, or that of Apocalypse culture seem to bare witness to this as a traversing of the fantasy that is our times. These fears keep our minds preoccupied and allow us to forget the pull of the unreal just below the surface of our artificial climes. We’ve become so enamored of our prison that we’ve forgotten there ever was a great outdoors of Being inhabited by nightmares. Instead we live in a narrow prison of consciousness feeding each other the sincere lies of our immediate and daily lives of survival and propagation. Our keepers patrol the horizon of our world seeking out those who have found the escape routes back into the void, and with the power and dominion of the Law and State they incarcerate and imprison those who are so bold as to offer a vision of the unreal realms. For our world is a tidy and normal world controlled to keep us passivated and herd like in our mental straightjackets. We are the victims of our own success.
Authors like Ligotti hint at the brokenness of our world, open the door onto those strange and misplaced realms we’ve all forgotten except in the deep imaginaries of our nightmares.
A Philosophical Coda
As I was thinking about Ligotti’s tale of the Book that is a World I remembered that congenial author short stories Jorge-Luis Borges (a favorite author!). In one of his most often anthologized stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he imagines an entirely hypothetical world, the invention of a secret society of scholars who elaborate its every aspect in a surreptitious encyclopedia. This First Encyclopedia of Tlön (what fictionist would not wish to have dreamed up the Britannica?) describes a coherent alternative to this world complete in every respect from its algebra to its fire, Borges tells us, and of such imaginative power that, once conceived, it begins to obtrude itself into and eventually to supplant our prior reality.2
Borges would hint at the possibility that our universe is itself a regressus in infinitum – and, that we are all repeating the gestures of a circuit that has no outlet (its all been done before!). This illustrates Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise which embodies a regressus in infinitum which Borges carries through philosophical history, pointing out that Aristotle uses it to refute Plato’s theory of forms, Hume to refute the possibility of cause and effect, Lewis Carroll to refute syllogistic deduction, William James to refute the notion of temporal passage, and Bradley to refute the general possibility of logical relations. Borges himself uses it, citing Schopenhauer, as evidence that the world is our dream, our idea, in which “tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason” can be found to remind us that our creation is false, or at least fictive. It’s in this sense that Ligotti poses the addition or subtraction of the Unreal from the real, that we are all part and partial of an infinite regression into the spurious realms of a universal nightmare of Reason. (see John Barth below)
Thinking through this notion of the breakdown of our worldview, of Zizek’s big Other – the Symbolic Culture we’ve built up over eons to enclose us in a realm of safety and apathy in which our accepted horizon of what is real and unreal, of the commonsense realm of our everyday life that goes without saying, almost a background noise of inertia and total blindness, brought me back to my recent readings in philosophy of how our end game of present society is breaking apart into fragments – a Humpty-Dumpty vision of the crumbling of Western and Eastern and Middle-East civilizations into so many broken pieces that no one will ever be able to put it back together again. Which leaves us in this intermediary period of a void, a black hole in the fabric of fictions we’ve been telling ourselves for so many millennia we began to think that it was permanent. Instead we find ourselves being impinged on by other realms, realms of the Real that we had forgotten existed because we were so well policed in our imaginations by the media lords of our age into accepting the truths of philosophy and the sciences as the end-all-be-all of our view of existence. Instead our psychotic break with the past is leaving us in a quandary in which our whole world civilization is at war for a new worldview. Ligotti’s vision of the unreal and existing in the “ruins of the real” hints at this unraveling of the symbolic order that has imprisoned us for so long that it became habit.
So in our paranoid state of fear and trepidation we grasp at any past, any tradition, anything at all that will give us hope from despair, etc., all the while believing we can restore the age old dream of a utopian society of peace and plenty. Instead we produce more friction, more war, suicides, hate, fear, and the mingling of age old superstitions. As the dark waters of the Real seep in from the Great Outdoors of Being we are frightened to death, not understanding that this is needed, that to free ourselves of the burden of our past, our traditions, our prisons we must step out into the ocean of the void and begin again…
Like the Shamans of old Ligotti has seen into this strange new realm of the (Un)Real. The “contamination of reality by dream,” as Borges calls it, or in Ligotti’s tormented pessimism the contamination of the real by nightmares. In one of his other stories Dream of a Mannikin the narrator will hint at the solipsistic nightmare of a self-reflexive universe of despair we’ve all created for ourselves and have become passive and apathetic mannikins:
Contemplating the realm of Miss Locher’s dream, I came to deeply feel that old truism of a solipsistic dream deity commanding all it sees, all of which is only itself. And a corollary to solipsism even occurred to me: if, in any dream of a universe, one has to always allow that there is another, waking universe, then the problem becomes, as with our Chinese sleepyhead, knowing when one is actually dreaming and what form the waking self may have; and this one can never know. The fact that the overwhelming majority of thinkers rejects any doctrine of solipsism suggests the basic horror and disgusting unreality of its implications. And after all, the horrific feeling of unreality is much more prevalent (to certain people) in what we call human “reality” than in human dreams, where everything is absolutely real.3
This reversal and dialectical move or inversion of the real/unreal in the awakening of many of Ligotti’s anti-protagonists give hint of this underlying theme of the unreal world impinging upon our safe have of utter mindlessness and generative madness. For in this sense as Zizek has repeatedly show Reason is not the obverse of madness but its completed mask.
The narrator in the Sect of the Idiot will offer this
The extraordinary is a province of the solitary soul. Lost the very moment the crowd comes into view, it remains within the great hollows of dreams, an infinitely secluded place that prepares itself for your arrival, and for mine. Extraordinary joy, extraordinary pain—the fearful poles of the world that both menaces and surpasses this one. It is a miraculous hell towards which one unknowingly wanders. And its gate, in my case, was an old town—whose allegiance to the unreal inspired my soul with a holy madness long before my body had come to dwell in that incomparable place.4
Again this opening to the unreal, to those locus miraculous sites of explosion and seeping, those gaps in the contours of our safe world of sleep that harbor doors into the unknown. “No true challenge to the rich unreality of Vastarien, where every shape suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world. No horror, no joy was the equal of the abysmally vibrant sensations known in this place that was elsewhere, this spellbinding retreat where all experiences were interwoven to compose fantastic textures of feeling, a fine and dark tracery of limitless patterns. For everything in the unreal points to the infinite, and everything in Vastarien was unreal, unbounded by the tangible lie of existing.”5 This notion of Vastarien as a place, a site of the unreal, a realm apart and away, elsewhere from our everyday mundanity and sleeplessness: our somnambulism and death-drive repetition of safety and mere motionless movement.
Again in the short tale The Mystics of Muelenburg the narrator relates
I once knew a man who claimed that, overnight, all the solid shapes of existence had been replaced by cheap substitutes: trees made of flimsy posterboard, 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.6
This openness to the madness of our fake world in which only the madman has returned to tell a tale of the unreal reality of our own world while hinting at the greater truth of another realm situated not just beyond appearances (which is still the old Platonic two-world hash), but of this world seen as it truly is from a new perspective. The mad poet William Blake once sang of this:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The narrator in Mrs. Rinaldi’s Angel explains how fragile our supposed real world of common sense reality truly is, saying,
How well I knew such surroundings, those deep interiors of dream where everything is saturated with unreality and more or less dissolves under a direct gaze. I could tell how neatly this particular interior was arranged—pictures perfectly straight and tight against the walls, well-dusted figurines arranged along open shelves, lace-fringed tablecovers set precisely in place, and delicate silk flowers in slim vases of colored glass. Yet there was something so fragile about the balance of these things, as if they were all susceptible to sudden derangement should there be some upset, no matter how subtle, in the secret system which held them together.7
Again we ask is the Kant re-written from the perspective of a critique of pure reason, but rather of a critique of pure madness? And if we see within the confines of this critique the maps of a world which is ours seen not through the safe eyes of Reason but through the indirect appeal – not of unreason, but of the unreal itself, then could we say that our world is itself the very thing, the book, the place and site of the Unreal? There being no Platonic other world, no safe haven beyond appearances, but rather the appearance of appearance as manifest madness. But then what is this madness that Reason fears? If madness is the ground of Reason, and Reason is itself a form of and horizon of madness, then is it possible that Reason is but the attempt to bind with magical force the power of the Unreal surrounding us?
Another mad poet Arthur Rimbaud would apprehend this at a youthful age then renounce the path, but before living on into a dead world he would write:
“The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is knowledge of himself, complete: he searches for his soul, he inspects it, he puts it to the test, he learns it. As soon as he has learned it, he must cultivate it! I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet becomes a seer through a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All shapes of love suffering, madness. He searches himself, he exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences. Ineffable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed one–and the supreme Scholar! For he reaches the unknown! ….So the poet is actually a thief of Fire!” (see)
This combination of criminal, accursed one, and scholar brought into unison seems apt for Ligotti as well. A slow and methodical derangement of the senses that bind us to the culture of Reason, the big Other and Symbolic Order of the real in which we are imprisoned suddenly falling away revealing a realm of torment and paradisial wonder. And, yet, even the average citizen of this faded dream of the Real can still stumble upon those places of power that lead to the Unreal:
For there are certain places that exist on the wayside of the real: a house, a street, even entire towns which have claims upon them by virtue of some nameless affinity with the most remote orders of being. They are, these places, fertile ground for the unreal and retain the minimum of immunity against exotic disorders and aberrations. Their concessions to a given fashion of reality are only placating gestures, a way of stifling it through limited acceptance.8
A sort of minimalism of our current prison world in which the lineaments of the unreal shine through, but only through the very protected power of the inhabitants of this borderland of the unknown. In fact the “citizens of such a place are custodians of a rare property, a precious estate whose true owners are momentarily absent. All that remains before full proprietorship of the land may be assumed is the planting of a single seed and its nurturing over a sufficient period of time, an interval that has nothing to do with the hours and days of the world.”9
A final quote:
No one gives up on something until it turns on them, whether or not that thing is real or unreal.
—Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory Kindle Edition.
- John Barth. The Friday Book (Kindle Locations 1452-1456). G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 1080-1086). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 2992-2997). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 3541-3545). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 5285-5291). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7407-7411). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7878-7881). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7883-7885). Kindle Edition.