Thomas Ligotti on Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899– 1990)

Why did I not perish at birth; why did I not die as I came from the womb?  —The Book of Job

All things are full of weariness… —Kohelet: Ecclesiastes

For Thomas Ligotti what separates and divides us as humans from each other is our acceptance or rejection of life’s value: our awareness of being alive, of knowing that we know; this division puts those who affirm life’s value in the category of optimists, while those who counter such affirmation with a negative “No” are placed in the category of uncompromising pessimism. In the white heat of discovery one imagines Ligotti – a great reader of books – coming on the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe’s (1899– 1990) essay “The Last Messiah” (1933) for the first time, realizing that here, just here a man had spoken what Ligotti himself had thought and believed for quite a long time; that human existence is a tragedy, and that consciousness is at the core of this tragic world. In this essay as Ligotti says of this eloquent work: “Zapffe elucidated why he saw human existence as a tragedy.”1

The notion as to why humans over eons of time became conscious beings, self-aware nothings – as it ’twere, has been investigated by the ancient Greeks, the early Buddhists, and every thinker one can imagine up through our current crop of cognitive psychologists, philosophers of mind, and neuroscientists. The quarrels over what consciousness is may never have an end, and yet that we are aware of our awareness – this subtle loop of mirrored duplicity, of recognition and dismay at being both in and outside the game of life has been at the heart of human misery from its beginning. As Zapffe says (quoted by Ligotti):

A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily— by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being. Its weapon was like a sword without hilt or plate, a two-edged blade cleaving everything; but he who is to wield it must grasp the blade and turn one edge toward himself. (22)

This dark breach in the world, a gap between knowing and known, the self-lacerating power of negation that distances us from the world and our selves even now causes consternation in the heart of many humans who are dismayed at being alive, and of knowing that they are alive. As Ligotti will ask, “Could there be anything to this pessimistic verbiage, this tirade against the evolution of consciousness?”

Against the pessimistic worldview of Zapffe Ligotti will offer us the optimist’s challenge by way of Nicholas Humphrey in an interview,

Consciousness— phenomenal experience— seems in many ways too good to be true. The way we experience the world seems unnecessarily beautiful, unnecessarily rich and strange….

[T] he more I try to make sense of it, the more I come back to the fact that we’ve evolved to regard consciousness as a wonderfully good thing in its own right— which could just be because consciousness is a wonderfully good thing in its own right! (24)

A good thing? Consciousness? It’s this diametric view onto consciousness and its value which separates and divides our species into optimist and pessimist as if the binary polarity of human belief came down to this key problem facing human kind. Should we throw our hands up? Ligotti presented with this paradox of paradoxes ironically suggests:

Both Humphrey and Zapffe are equally passionate about what they have to say, which is not to say that they have said anything credible. Whether you think consciousness to be a benefit or a horror, this is only what you think— and nothing else. But even though you cannot demonstrate the truth of what you think, you can at least put it on show and see what the audience thinks. (24)

So what does the audience think? So many theories about consciousness have arisen in the course of the past two millennia that it would be difficult to provide a short history in this post. Instead, as Ligotti suggests in his commentary on Zapffe’s notions:

Consciousness is connected to the human brain in a way that makes the world appear to us as it appears and makes us appear to ourselves as we appear— that is, as “selves” or a “persons” strung together by memories, sensations, emotions, and so on. No one knows exactly how the consciousness-brain connection is made, but all evidence supports the non-dualistic theory that the brain is the source of consciousness and the only source of consciousness. Zapffe accepted consciousness as a given and moved on from there, since he was not interested in the debates surrounding this phenomenon as such but only in the way it determines the nature of our species. (25)

So against Descartes and the dualists of the mind-body Zapffe along with many other thinkers sees consciousness as tied to our brain’s circuitry and feed-back loops, a black box that may or may not provide us at some future date the actual workings underpinning this connection (i.e., the various branches of research into the brain in contemporary sciences may someday succeed in not only mapping the brain but providing the mechanisms that give birth to consciousness itself, etc.). Either way Zapffe according to Ligotti was concerned with the outcome and aptitude of consciousness rather than with its origins and evolution.

What’s interesting in reading Ligotti on Zapffe and his enemies is the subtle irony and dark humor in his portrayal. Ligotti in this work is obviously on the side of the pessimists, a small group of individuals in any era as compared to the greater majority of eternal optimists. Optimists reject pessimism outright without even an iota of congenial investigation. Even in his introduction to Pessimism the philosopher-commentator would see pessimism as a problem rather than a solution, a specific malaise and temper of what he’d term “Weltschmerz“.2 A concept that  literally means “worldpain”, and  “signifies a mood of weariness or sadness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering,” whose origins have been traced back to the 1830s, to the late romantic era, to the works of Jean Paul, Heinrich Heine, N. Lenau, G. Büchner, C. D. Grabbe and K. L. Immermann. ( 1) Later on this term would give way to another term which would “acquire a broader more serious meaning: it was no longer just a poet’s personal mood; it was a public state of mind, the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist.” (1)

Humans as a species over time became aware of the rest of organic creation and that for most if not all organic species we share this planet with are oblivious of their existence. Most organic creatures on this planet live out an endless cycle of survival, reproduction, death— and nothing else. (L, 28) Only humans are aware of this cycle and realized that in the end one dies. This knowledge of death and finitude would create in our ancestors a sense of foreboding that would lead them to seek out answers through magic, religion, and, then, philosophy and poetry to answer this strange quandary of existence. As Ligotti will say of it

We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering— slowly or quickly— as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are— hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones. (28)

Suffering, pain, and time seem to all be interconnected in this notion of birth, growth, maturity, age, and death cycle – the organic worldpain within which we are “time” (Heidegger). As Bruno Bosteel’s in his essay The jargon of finitude explicating Heidegger puts it: “We are not ‘in’ time so much as our innermost being ‘is’ time.”  In his ‘New Refutation of Time’ Jorge Luis Borges the Argentinian metaphysical idealist and author of short tales of the fantastic once wrote:

To deny temporal succession, to deny the ego, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not horrible because of its unreality; it is horrible because it is irreversible and ironbound. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. (Quoted by Bosteel’s in his essay!)

All this is to say that what consciousness is is Time: not an awareness of time, but time’s flow, its movement, its struggle within the organic tomb of flesh and blood we term the human. Our awareness of this fact has led most humans to a life of absolute delusion and delirium and denial so that for them optimism and escape from the truth into a life of absolute illusion has become the mainstream path of living on this planet. As Ligotti summarizes:

Nonhuman occupants of this planet are unaware of death. But we are susceptible to startling and dreadful thoughts, and we need some fabulous illusions to take our minds off them. For us, then, life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would leave us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, staring void. To end this self-deception, to free our species of the paradoxical imperative to be and not to be conscious, our backs breaking by degrees upon a wheel of lies, we must cease reproducing. (28-29)

This anti-natalist conclusion is at the core of Zapffe’s “The Last Messiah”. In a 1959 interview Zapffe would say,

The sooner humanity dares to harmonize itself with its biological predicament, the better. And this means to willingly withdraw in contempt for its worldly terms, just as the heat-craving species went extinct when temperatures dropped. To us, it is the moral climate of the cosmos that is intolerable, and a two-child policy could make our discontinuance a pain-free one. Yet instead we are expanding and succeeding everywhere, as necessity has taught us to mutilate the formula in our hearts. Perhaps the most unreasonable effect of such invigorating vulgarization is the doctrine that the individual “has a duty” to suffer nameless agony and a terrible death if this saves or benefits the rest of his group. Anyone who declines is subjected to doom and death, instead of revulsion being directed at the world-order engendering of the situation. To any independent observer, this plainly is to juxtapose incommensurable things; no future triumph or metamorphosis can justify the pitiful blighting of a human being against his will. It is upon a pavement of battered destinies that the survivors storm ahead toward new bland sensations and mass deaths. (Quoted by Ligotti: 29)

In a world projected to reach 9.5 Billion by mid-century one can only conclude that no one has heeded such bleak advice as of yet. Ligotti will continue his eloquent tribute and commentary on Zapffe’s essay, along with explicating Zapffe’s strategies for limiting human consciousness against too much truth, which I will leave for the reader to pursue on her own. I think we have seen the tendency and endpoint of the pessimists worldview and what it offers us as a resolution to the problem of humanity. As with Kohelet in the Hebraic book of Ecclesiastes which Michael Chabon describes this way:

“Horror grows impatient, rhetorically, with the Stoic fatalism of Ecclesiastes. That we are all going to die, that death mocks and cancels every one of our acts and attainments and every moment of our life histories, this knowledge is to storytelling what rust is to oxidation; the writer of horror holds with those who favor fire. The horror writer is not content to report on death as the universal system of human weather; he or she chases tornadoes. Horror is Stoicism with a taste for spectacle.”

~ Michael Chabon

One need not be a Joseph Conrad or his character Kurtz to say: “The horror! The horror!” As Ligotti will conclude humans will go on, they will continue to deny the darkest truths, or will channel them into aesthetic entertainments and apotropaic images to keep the beast at bay:

As a species with consciousness, we do have our inconveniences. Yet these are of negligible importance compared to what it would be like to feel in our depths that we are nothing but human puppets— things of mistaken identity who must live with the terrible knowledge that they are not making a go of it on their own and are not what they once thought they were. At this time, barely anyone can conceive of this happening— of hitting bottom and finding to our despair that we can never again resurrect our repressions and denials. Not until that day of lost illusions comes, if it ever comes, will we all be competent to conceive of such a thing. But a great many more generations will pass through life before that happens, if it happens. (84)

  1. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 21). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (p. 1). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.