Thomas Ligotti: There Is Something Wrong With The World

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. … But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it.

—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race

In an Interview Thomas Ligotti describes the aberration that is our life in the universe: “Other people might have simply concluded there was something wrong with them to have emotions that made them feel outside of the world around them. My conclusion was exactly the opposite. I concluded that there was something wrong with the world. And now I was in tune with everything that was wrong, everything that had been wrong since I was born, since life evolved on this planet, since the universe began, and perhaps even before that.”1

“Perhaps,” opens us in that last sentence to an ambiguous relation to our notions of the cosmos in Ligotti’s thought. It’s as if underlying his pessimism is an open door into the unknown and unknowable fractures in reality, the gaping holes that thought alone cannot think, an incompleteness and possibility of something outside our very thought of beginnings which harbor a more destitute and abyssal nightmare than we can imagine. This sense of wrongness, that the world is not what it seems, but is much more dangerous and incomprehensible than our sciences with all their theoretic power of mathematical precision can reveal; for underneath all the calculations, all the theorems is something hiding in plain sight but invisible to our mental calibrations. Ligotti’s apprehension of a universal tilt, a “wrongness” with the world and life in this universe goes beyond our ability to reckon or conceive, is situated outside our earthly configurations and philosophies to know. And, yet, we can sense it, feel it, without being able to think it. The Gnostics once believed there was a form of knowing outside Reason, outside the visible calculable realm of appearances, something that opened onto the void, the great vastation and emptiness; what they would term the ‘kenoma’: in the Gnostic schema(s) the kenoma (emptiness) is the imperfect and the antithesis of pleroma (fullness), where all are in a state of privation and unreality.

The notion of the Unreal in Ligotti’s worldview,  not unlike the concept of maya (illusion) in the various Indic traditions, is different, is more abyssal and indifferent to our desires or thoughts alike, seeking neither to delude us nor seduce us into some nefarious relation of entrapment, either through our own internal needs and desire, or from some outer magnetic field of attraction beyond our control. Instead as Ligotti will say elsewhere: “We are defined by our limitations; without them, we cannot suffice as functionaries in the big show of conscious existence. The farther you progress toward a vision of our species without limiting conditions on your consciousness, the farther you drift away from what makes you a person among persons in the human community.”2 This sense of the kenomic privation and unreality of both world and self is at the core of Ligotti’s world and fiction. Agreeing with the philosopher Zapffe, “the sensible thing would be not to go on with the paradoxical nonsense of trying to inhibit our cardinal attribute as beings, since we can tolerate existence only if we believe— in accord with a complex of illusions, a legerdemain of duplicity— that we are not what we are: unreality on legs.” (Conspiracy, pp. 41-42)

The point here is that without our illusions and seductions the whole façade or human consciousness and existence breaks down leaving us entrapped in a never-ending nightmare of unreality. For Ligotti and others of like mind this state of things can no longer be denied. Ligotti sees the world naked, stripped of its veneer – the duplicitous illusions by which others energetically prolong the delusions of their lives that sustain  the world as real. For Ligotti on the other hand there is something behind the scenes of life that is “pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world“. (ibid., p.54) Explicating this process in Zapffe, Michelstaedter, Mainländer, and Bahnsen he states:

For Zapffe, the evolutionary mutation of consciousness tugged us into tragedy. For Michelstaedter, individuals can exist only as unrealities that are made as they are made and that cannot make themselves otherwise because their hands are forced by the “god” of philopsychia (self-love) to accept positive illusions about themselves or not accept themselves at all. For Mainländer, a Will-to-die, not Schopenhauer’s Will-to-live, plays the occult master pulling our strings, making us dance in fitful motions like marionettes caught in a turbulent wake left by the passing of a self-murdered god. For Bahnsen, a purposeless force breathes a black life into everything and feasts upon it part by part, regurgitating itself into itself, ever-renewing the throbbing forms of its repast. For all others who suspect that something is amiss in the lifeblood of being, something they cannot verbalize, there are the malformed shades of suffering and death that chase them into the false light of contenting lies. (ibid., p. 55)

The bleakness of this dark thought of the extreme powers at play in the universe would lead the normal man into madness and suicide, but Ligotti and others such thought leads only to the knowledge that we are living in an infernal paradise whose only telos is never-ending omnicide. This viral thirst for annihilation and self-renewal at the heart of the universal kenoma-vastation ruled over by impersonal laws and inhuman forces beyond our comprehension align well with both the Lovecraftian pantheon of Old One’s and the ancient inverted cosmos of the Gnostics who believed our universe was and is a catastrophe-creation and fall, a mistake created by a demiurgical blind power; mindless and impersonal to our desires and needs alike, a machinic system of an endless vicious circle without outlet. If there ever was a vision of hell it is the one without gods, a machine of death who has no maker, self-made monstrosity whose cannibalistic enactments and engorgements make the most macabre and grotesque tales we as humans could contrive fare for kindergarten matrons and educational devices for apotropaic dissuasion. Tales of the weird and horror become in this sense the narratives of grand illusions and entertainments that keep the truth at bay, revealing only by way of words and image the unreal as mitigated by the world of aesthetic distance and illusion.

Against realists of every persuasion Ligotti says of those who tell us we must “get real” and accept untruth as truth, a utopia of the Real: “A utopia in which we no longer deny the realities we presently must repress cannot be realistically hoped for. And who except a pessimist would wish for that utopia?” (ibid., p. 71) And, against all those who would discover some anti-natalist message in Ligotti, or some deep environmentalist agenda of wiping the human race off earth by way of species suicide, he states flatly:

As appealing as a universal suicide pact may be, why take part in it just to conserve this planet, this dim bulb in the blackness of space? Nature produced us, or at least subsidized our evolution. It intruded on an inorganic wasteland and set up shop. What evolved was a global workhouse where nothing is ever at rest, where the generation and discarding of life incessantly goes on. By what virtue, then, is it entitled to receive a pardon for this original sin— a capital crime in reverse, just as reproduction makes one an accessory before the fact to an individual’s death? (ibid., pp. 78-79)

No, he’ll have none of that. Commenting on the German neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, who came to the conclusion in his Being No One that humans evolved the illusion of self as a survival technique, a naïve realist delusion to help us cope with and repress the very dark truth of our own unreality: ‘Conscious subjectivity is the case in which a single organism has learned to enslave itself.’ (ibid., p. 106) Deluding ourselves that the world is real and that we are, too, is to repress the harsh truth, to mask as Ligotti will remind us “the single most startling and dreadful revelation for human beings: that we are not what we think we are. Assuaging our qualms about such a deplorable enlightenment, Metzinger avers that it is “practically impossible” for us to attain realization of our unreality due to inbuilt manacles of human perception that keep our minds in a dream state.” (ibid., p. 106)

In many ways humans over eons have developed civilization as a safeguard against this impossible truth of the world and universe, invented a utopian playground of work and play to deny the unfolding trauma of our delirious enslavement to illusion. The insanity of our sociopathic civilization tied as it is with a utopian desire to escape the truth of reality by repressing it, by building a nexus of illusions, a simulated world of erotic delight and happiness has led us into a dead end zone of hyperviolence and aberration. Commenting on Zapffe’s conjectures that with the passing of generations the more profligate will become humanity’s means of hiding its disillusionments from itself: the more brainless and delusive its isolation from the actualities of existence; the more stupefying and uncouth its distractions from the startling and dreadful; the more heavy-handed and madcap its anchorings in unreality; and the more callous, self-mocking, and detached from life its sublimations in art. “These developments will not make us any more paradoxical in our being, but they could make all manifestations of our paradoxical nature less effective and more aberrant.” (ibid., p. 175)

The fractures in the armature of our defensive mechanisms, the torturous aberrations into which we’ve seduced ourselves into delirium, the global breakdown of this grand narrative of human concern and security is imploding all around us. The signs of chaos and the ingress of the unreal into our world as if from Outside in is slowly eroding all the old myths and tales we invented to hide the truth from ourselves. With the advent of modernity the key myths of human salvation and redemption, the notions of heaven and all other utopian worlds of promise have since the Enlightenment one by one fallen by the wayside corroding the old worldviews of the Human Security Regimes that held our illusions together while repressing the dark truth of the Unreal.  As Ligotti will sum it up (and I quote at length):

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.

Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are. (ibid., p. 182)

If you have the tendency that drags everything down into the abyss you’ll agree with Ligotti when he says:

“For better or worse, pessimism without compromise lacks public appeal. In all, the few who have gone to the pains of arguing for a sullen appraisal of life might as well never have been born.”

Over the years of writing on pessimism on my blog since my early years on LiveJournal (2001) to my change over to WordPress in 2012 the darkest segments of my gaze into the pessimistic worlds of philosophy and literature have seen little favorable reaction from readers of my blogs except that small minority that sees as I do this uncompromising view as their inner truth and diagnosis of the “festival of carnage”. The truth is that most react with horror and disgust at such a bleak view of the world and universe, and as Ligotti again correctly surmises,

“…when it comes to existential judgments, human beings in general have an unfalteringly good opinion of themselves and their condition in this world and are steadfastly confident they are not a collection of self-conscious nothings.”

Hell, I know myself that the gloom and doom of this view onto life if taken too seriously can lead to madness. I think that’s why I’ve developed over the years my own defense mechanisms by way of a quirky humor, a sardonic wit and irony to keep at bay those times when even I become too depressed. Humor is above all (and, I don’t mean the satiric jibe or gallows humor) the only reprieve from such abyssal seductions. But even it should be tinged with the dark fires of an uncompromising gaze onto what is. I’ve seen recent philosophers weave such a web of words from various traditions of Idealism and Materialism of late to cover over the truth using mathematics, diagrammatic, and other edgy forms of thought that I often wonder if they truly believe their own horseshit or not. Take away the power of rhetoric and sophistry and what remains of a philosopher’s thought? Not being a philosopher, but rather a creature undefinable by any category I’ve seen my own thoughts wander through the gamut of autodidactic quests, pondered so many various thought-forms from a myriad of traditions that to lock oneself into any of them is a sort of safeguard against openness and incompleteness. This notion of the universe as open and incomplete rather than a closed entropic totality seems for me at least to allow for that negative capability of which John Keats once described so eloquently:

‘The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.’

Knowing that the world is not for-us, that the impersonal and indifferent universe is a realm of unfolding chaos and mayhem; and, yet, that there are underlying forms of order beyond our Reason to collate (Lovecraft) – offers one – if not a consolation, at least an acknowledgement that as self-nothings: accidents of time, evolution, and the mystery of obscurity and contradiction that is this universe, is for many of us to accept that we may never uncover the underlying mechanisms and structures of knowing and being. But that this is enough: to have lived, loved, and been a part of something that is and remains a mystery that drives us, puzzles us, and gives of the courage of our hopelessness to continue… for we seek not a place to rest, but the never-ending restlessness of the quest of intelligence and Mind to know and understand even if there is no answer forthcoming out of the Void.


1. Vastarien, Vol. 1, Issue 1 (p. 84). Grimscribe Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 33). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.

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