Fantastic Homelessness: Sacrifice, Violence, and the Aesthetics of Horror

He was merely the inheritor of lost images; he was their resurrector, their invoker, their medium, and under his careful eye and steady hand there took place a mingling of artistic forms, their disparate anatomies tumbling out of the years to create the nightmare of his art.1 —Thomas Ligotti, The Troubles of Dr. Thoss

The best horror never reconciles us with the world or ourselves, but rather leads us to that irreconcilable moment when self and world enter into a third movement in which both are destabilized by the violence of the impossible . Moving in that sphere of pure contradiction that neither lifts one up to the sublime, nor pulls one down into the abyss of abject negativity these authors of the weird offer us what John Keats in a letter to his brother John described as Negative Capability:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”2

This mutual contamination of self and world without reconciliation or recognition in the sense of Hegel’s dialectic which would close down meaning to some reduction of singular, unitary, and literal form, instead opens us to the self-sacrificial discognition between self and world that situates both outside the fence or hedgerow of our socio-cultural gatekeepers. Instead of reducing the encounter to the normalizing processes of interpretation, the best horror unleashes the forces of the irreconcilable, contradictory, and unknown leaving us unable to reduce the facts to a stable or unified meaning. The best horror seeks to experience the unknown as unknown, and thus the nightmare, as it is, eschewing conciliatory modes of interpretation and allowing it to enact an operation that maintains and even courts contradiction and conflict with any and all known systems of meaning: religious, scientific, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical. etc..

You are witness to all that exists or ever could exist. And yet, somehow concealed in the shadows of all that you can see is something that is not yet visible, something that is beating like a thunderous pulse and promises still greater visions: all else is merely its membrane enclosing the ultimate thing waiting to be born, preparing for the cataclysm which will be both the beginning and the end. To behold the prelude to this event must be an experience of unbearable anticipation, so that hope and dread merge into a new emotion, one corresponding perfectly to the absolute and the wholly unknown.  —Thomas Ligotti, The Spectacles in the Drawer

To anticipate, to bring into relation the thing we hope and fear, the power of horror as the unknown. To enter that space of doubt and uncertainty where the destabilizing  force of self and world confront one another is the gamble that the best horror renders in its quest to reveal the tension at the core of existence, excluding all idealisms, and opening us toward the real and actual ambiguity that cannot be reconciled and leaves us doubting both our ability to reconcile or recognize the object of horror. Breaking with the cultural nexus of meaning that seeks to reduce and control experience through a careful elision of contradiction and reconciliation by normalizing the unknown, the social arbitrators of taste seek to tame rather than confront the impersonal and indifferent forces at the heart of existence. This is why so many horror writers end up renormalizing their work and leaving the reader with some theory of meaning as to what took place rather than exposing the reader to the unknown as unknown; that which cannot be named or recognized, reconciled or redeemed by language or consciousness. The best horror leaves the reader in that disturbed place of contradiction without giving her the keys to its interpretation, thereby allowing the tensions that are irreconcilable to science or art to remain unbound; beyond our power to know or access directly.

Who knows how many others there were who might say that their existence consisted of nothing but the most outrageous nonsense, a nonsense that had nothing unique about it at all and that had nothing behind it or beyond it except more and more nonsense—a new order of nonsense, perhaps an utterly unknown nonsense, but all of it nonsense and nothing but nonsense.  —Thomas Ligotti, The Clown Puppet

Horror—raw and unbound—is thus transgressive in its very heterogeneity; it is impossible to assimilate. The thinker Georges Bataille once proposed the term “heterology” to name his nonreductive “practical and theoretical” interpretation of the “wholly other”—that which exceeds, evades, or is abjected from closed philosophical, scientific, religious, economic, or other systems.3 The best horror cannot be reconciled or reduced to any unitary system of interpretation without taming it and obliterating its affective relations that open us to the other and unknown. The best horror opens us to the contradictoriness of ecstatic beauty and extreme horror of self and universe. Ecstasy—a shattering of the self and an intimate communion with the unknown—comes not by the imposition of reason but through the violence of a dream-sequence that sacrifices the self: an awakening within nightmare.

There is no way out of the nightmare once you have gone so far into its depths. —Thomas Ligotti, Severini

The nightmare of horror, approached as a heterological phenomenon, enacts a reversal, infecting and intoxicating our profane or hypernormalised life. It upsets the all too rigorous workings of reason. It decays, toxifies, and alters or deranges our rational everyday consciousness. Tales of horror lead the protagonist to the extreme moment of sacrifice of self to nightmare, breaking with the normal world and entering the destructive realm of self-lacerating nothingness. It is to risk an unholy nightmare that cannot be owned and to dream an experience of the infernal outside beyond the power of knowing. A system of non-knowledge rather than knowledge. (Bataille)

Thomas Ligotti describes this process in his short tale “The Sect of the Idiot” as follows:

I seemed to be an unseen speck lost in the convolutions of strange schemes. And it was this very remoteness from the designs of my dream universe, this feeling of fantastic homelessness amid a vast alien order, that was the source of unnameable terrors. I was no more than an irrelevant parcel of living tissue caught in a place I should not be, threatened with being snared in some great dredging net of doom, an incidental shred of flesh pulled out of its element of light and into an icy blackness.3

There is a legend past down among certain ancient tribes of the desert, nomads of a darker truth which goes something like this:

It was quite amazing that they were in the infernal paradise without knowing it and that they alone were able to unravel it, inasmuch as they were not able to perceive and recognize the malevolence in whom they were.

I’ve taken the liberty above to rephrase the ancient Valentinian Gnostics, who were oriented toward a more soteriological sublime of redemption and salvation into Heaven. In my theory fiction above we’ve entered the dark regions of the Ligottian cosmos where the unnamed idiot god, the malevolence within the void of voids – a negative sublime of subtraction rather than any positive addition erases self and world in a mutual contamination and corruption beyond which there is neither redemption nor salvation but rather as Ligotti would have it an “enlightenment by darkness”. 4 Of course for Ligotti such an enlightenment can never truly occur in a horror narrative, at best it is a self-parody of nightmare rather than some manifest religious ecstasy in extreme horror.

Yet, strangely it would be Bataille who would seek out such a dark path toward degradation and a base materialist aesthetic of horror which would blend sacrifice and violence with “divine ecstasy and extreme horror”. In the mid-1920s Bataille was still an aspiring writer who suffered certain paralyzing inhibitions. He sought out a heterodox psychoanalyst whose treatments consisted in confronting his patients with certain horrific scenes that acted as a shock therapy meant to awaken the suffering individual out of their zombie like states of paralysis. As one commentator put it:

It was Dr. Borel, by all accounts a most affable individual, who gifted Bataille with the now iconic photos of a Chinese man undergoing the lingchi method of torture and execution, in which flesh, organs, and limbs are slowly sliced from the still-living victim until he succumbs—“death by a thousand cuts.” Bataille meditated upon this “insane” and “shocking” image of “pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable,” with the fervency of a monk contemplating the crucified body of Christ. Th e meditation elicited an ambivalent spiritual convulsion whose reverberations carried into Bataille’s final days. And like the Christian mystics with whose spiritual literature he was so well versed, Bataille found in his meditation a path to a sinister rapture and a dark insight. He closes his last book, The Tears of Eros, with a commentary on the photo: “What I suddenly saw was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror. ”Bataille’s highly unusual, indeed harrowing, course of analysis was “decisive”—liberating in its “brutal efficacity,” putting “an end to the series of dreary mishaps and failures in which [he] had been floundering, but not to the state of [his] intellectual intensity,” which remained undiminished. (NE, p. 3)

This theme of a dark enlightenment that would release the sufferer from the burden of self, an annihilation of the ego-perspective of self-reflecting horror runs through many horror writers. In such horror one finds a Nietzschean will to destruction coupled with a transgressive discipline of toxic degradation that is at once erotic and intense. Bataille whose aesthetics of horror centered in on a “desire for intimacy“, for a mode of communication that demanded the wounding of self-enclosed individuals. As he’d put it: “‘Communication’ cannot proceed from one full and intact individual to another. It requires individuals whose separate existence in themselves is risked, placed at the limit of death and nothingness.”5

Rather than a form of transcendent mysticism such a horror aesthetic presents a more earthly and horizontal, atopic and heterogeneous approach. Horror tortures and contorts language and writerly forms, seeking to communicate a formlessness that parodies the mystical agnosia, and apophatic aporia that Bataille once called “the impossible.” Th ese books are anti-transcendent monstrous hybrids, at once or by turns left-hand path spiritual notebooks, autobiography, dream journal, fiction, fantasy, and quasi-philosophical expositions that take the notions of infernal books of damnation as their theme, and a redemption by degradation and self-sacrifice of self or other. Many writers of horror link the history and practice of art to the history and practice of religious sacrifice and erotic bliss. Whether through economics, erotics, or aesthetics, these writers seek to overcome concern with the ever lastingness of the individual self through negative operations—sacrifice, orgiastic festivals, art, and the like. Generosity, expenditure, waste, and sacrifice are imperative.

It is, ultimately, sacrifice as a means of contact with, or activation of, the dark or infernal sacred that these writers of horror see as the central question of their work and indeed of human existence. And it is in sacrifice, in whatever form—mysticism, eroticism, art, poetry, gambling, and other “deficit operations”—that such writers find a key to the “sovereign” existence of which Bataille tells us of an “existence free of all limitations of interest.” (below) To break out of our zombie existence within the social and economic order of waking death we live in as utilitarian slaves to a society based on narcotizing our lives to the point of idiocy is central to the horror aesthetic. According to Bataille (who extends and modifies Durkheim), the profane world is the sphere of useful (Utilitarian) activity, goal-oriented thought, instrumental reason, and concern for the discontinuous, individual self. It is the workaday world of utility, lasting order, and the accumulation of goods against the threat of death. The dark sacred, in stark opposition, includes those moods, moments, and operations that undo, always and only for a fleeting time, the usefulness of mere things, the pretenses to accomplishment, the claims of our future-oriented projects, the limits of mere reason. Sacrifice is a transgression of those prohibitions that constrict and restrict human experience, soldering the individual into a hermetic shell of self-protection defined by pecuniary interest, individual concern, and fear of death. (NE, p. 7)

The aesthetic of horror seeks to break the hold of the profane utilitarian vision of life under instrumental reason, and yet it knows that this  world of discontinuity, can never be definitively erased; it knows all too well. Yet what it desires to do in its rhetoric of the unreal is “to bring into a world founded on discontinuity all the continuity such a world can sustain.” (NE, p. 7) Following Bataille the aesthetics of horror seeks continuity, intimacy, sovereignty: these demand the ceaseless transversal operation of negativity, the risk of transgression, the relentless unraveling of the work of instrumental reason. Sovereignty is thus achieved by turning the tools of reason and project against themselves. “The issue,” Bataille writes, “is not that of attainment of a goal, but rather of escape from those traps which goals represent.” To exit the instrumental self for the ecstatic rapture of self-annihilation is the quintessence of the infernal sacred—with a vengeance.

And, yet, as we discover in Ligotti such fulfillment of the aesthetic of horror is temporary, a momentary glimpse of such a dark enlightenment rather than is sustained communication. For most seekers of such a passage into enlightened darkness there is only disillusionment and failure, for books cannot provide us through the rhetorical strategies of language alone the key to such a communication. As one of Ligotti’s characters puts it as he has sought through book after book, library after library:

…the books before him, all of which were sodden with an obscene reality, falsely hermetic ventures which consisted of circling the same absurd landscape. The other worlds portrayed in these books inevitably served as annexes of this one; they were impostors of the authentic unreality which was the only realm of redemption, however gruesome it might appear. And it was this terminal landscape that he sought, not those rituals of the “way” that never arrives, heavens or hells that are mere pretexts for circumnavigating the real and reveling in it. For he dreamed of strange volumes that turned away from all earthly light to become lost in their own nightmares, pages that preached a nocturnal salvation, a liturgy of shadows, catechism of phantoms. His absolute: to dwell among the ruins of reality. (NF, Vastarien)

Horror can take us to the limit of language but not enter the infernal paradise itself. Yet, this failure is not of horror itself but of the very truth of our own self-egoistic inability to erase that very thing we are as conscious beings bound to our pragmatic and utilitarian worlds of work and play. In the end as Ligotti surmises all “horror is entertainment and nothing else”.

  1. Ligotti, Thomas. The Nightmare Factory. Carroll & Graf (June 27, 1996) (NF)
  2. Scott, Grant F. Selected Letters of John Keats. Harvard University Press, 2002. (p. 60).
  3. Biles, Jeremy/Brintnall, Kent L. eds. Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy). Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015) (NE)
  4.  Ligotti, Thomas.  Interview with Thomas Ligotti by Robert Bee. Published by Thomas Ligotti Online 04-10-2005
  5. Bataille, On Nietzsche, On Bataille’s understanding of communication and community, see the exchange between Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy: Blanchot, “Th e Negative Community,” in Th e Unavowable Community, –; and Nancy, The Inoperative Community, –; see also the essays collected in Mitchell and Winfree, eds., The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication.

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