Most horror, whether it’s real or fictitious, literary or cinematic, deals with the eruption of chaos into human existence…
—Clive Barker, Where Nightmares Come From
On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border where identities do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.
—Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror
But what is chaos? Have we even begun to discern this uncanny guest in our midst, tempted it to reveal its cruel art? “Above all else, chaotic textuality must affirm conflict as an indispensable component of its endeavor; it must not only accept and brave the emergence of conflict but also actively pursue a new definition of creative violence. Indeed, it must even go so far as to strive toward the actualization of a will to cruelty; it must violate and overturn, tear and disfigure the cosmos of the text without judgment, without mercy, vowed only to the unrelenting and all-consuming practice of the brutal.”1 Schopenhauer believed that at the heart of the cosmos was a “will to live”; Nietzsche, a “will to power”. Others have like the pessimist Philipp Mainländer – the pseudonym of Philip Batz, believed that the universe was a mere device for God’s own suicide, and that we were his chosen vehicles to carry out the dire process given within us a “will to death and suicide”.2 Antonin Artaud would develop an art of cruelty, whose aim was to extend consciousness into realms previously considered unknowable, such as death and our primal origins. Into the treacherous regions of drugs and magic. He believed liberation of the subconscious and full realization of the nature of cruelty would enable us to know ourselves. This self-knowledge was to produce a revolution in thought, because its liberating effect was not to be restricted to the arts but must embrace everything.3 As one essayist states it:
What Artaud primarily means by cruelty is “rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.” Such determination is in service of a “blind appetite for life capable of overriding everything” in its aim to wake people up—jolt them out of complacency—and put them in touch with vital forces of creativity that cannot but upend settled patterns of thought and conduct.4
In this sense Artaud was a dark vitalist and follower of Schopenhauer’s “will to life” as the endless destructive power of malevolence at the core of cruel existence; an almost Gnostic demiurge and blind god of lust and sex, power and vitality in endless creativity through the kaleidoscopic permutations of a never-ending wheel of life and destruction in a cosmos without end.
Maurice Blanchot another literary thinker and author of the same era as Artaud would as if in parody of the old symbolist notion of “Art for art’s sake!” develop the notion after Artaud of “Cruelty for cruelty’s sake!” against the self-gratifying strictures of the divine Marquise de Sade who once promoted cruelty as a form of pornographic and self-congratulatory excess and transgressive act for the purposes of masturbatory fantasy. Instead for Blanchot cruelty lead to a much darker cosmos of crime and transgression in which the height of cruelty, cruelty for the sake of cruelty, led not only to the sacrifice of the victim but of the perpetrator too. (NE 42)
Unlike the cruelty of Sade which only ever furthered the interests of self-affirmation the thinker and extreme surrealist Georges Bataille sought in his own philosophy of cruelty the self-lacerating dissolution of the self in annihilation. Not a literal but rather figural self-negation and return to the continuity of animal becoming and chaos. As one essayist puts it:
Indeed, Bataille’s emphasis on self-negation is so prominent that many interpreters have read his explorations of cruelty as nothing but a means toward self-dissolution. The shock of cruelty ruptures one’s psyche, leading to the ecstatic dissolution of self-negation. This is correct, to be sure. However, there is just as importantly the precisely opposite dynamic. The shock of cruelty is also the shock of beholding individuals who are subject to no constraints, who obey no norms, no conventions, and no authorities other than themselves. (NE 47)
This sense of being outside the Law, of no longer belonging to the community of the living and the social world of norms, of being dead and part of the lawless continuum of horror and chaos is at the core of this Bataillean cosmos. For Bataille acts of crime like serial killing and mass murder, genocide and other horrific forms of annihilation (although he never mentions these outright) are something we must reckon with at the core of our own inhumanity. His point being that if we do not see in ourselves the insubordinate drive that so easily turns to cruelty, we will not be in a position to grapple with cruelty adequately. (NE 49)
In ancient literatures of epic, tragic, and lyric the hero was someone who subjugated Nature and dominated the events of history with the strength of will and of courage. He founded the city and warded off the demonic forces of chaos. The natural order has always been seen as chaotic and daemonic. As Camille Paglia suggests in her epic survey of literature
Society is an artificial construction, a defense against nature’s power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature. Society is a system of inherited forms reducing our humiliating passivity to nature. We may alter these forms, slowly or suddenly, but no change in society will change nature. Human beings are not nature’s favorites. We are merely one of a multitude of species upon which nature indiscriminately exerts its force. Nature has a master agenda we can only dimly know.5
Humans caught in the mesh of the natural order, bound within a realm of overpowering and chaotic forces of destruction lived day to day between flight and fear. Our worldly religions grew out of our need to placate these dark powers that sought nothing but our demise. Through ancient forms of magic, superstition, and religious rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements, and a continuous supply of sacrificial blood on the altars of cruel gods of lust and power we built of systems of cruelty to allay the chaos of existence. Against the dark gods of chaos and destruction we invented the all-powerful god(s) of heaven to protect us. All our myths yoked us to a dualistic struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, peace and destruction. But as Paglia puts it “let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake— anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.” (SP 1)
H.P. Lovecraft would document this supernatural world of fear of the unknown in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (and I quote at length):
Man’s first instincts and emotions formed his response to the environment in which he found himself. Definite feelings based on pleasure and pain grew up around the phenomena whose causes and effects he understood, whilst around those which he did not understand— and the universe teemed with them in the early days— were naturally woven such personifications, marvellous interpretations, and sensations of awe and fear as would be hit upon by a race having few and simple ideas and limited experience. The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part. The phenomenon of dreaming likewise helped to build up the notion of an unreal or spiritual world; and in general, all the conditions of savage dawn-life so strongly conduced toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man’s very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition. That saturation must, as a matter of plain scientific fact, be regarded as virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned; for though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings around all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained. And more than this, there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue, which would make them obscurely operative even were the conscious mind to be purged of all sources of wonder.6
In many ways what Lovecraft was describing in his work of the literature of horror and the supernatural was the process over the past two-hundred years of the secularization and disenchantment of the cosmos from its ancient defense systems of belief and superstition in religious forms of belief and interpretation of the unknown and chaos of the natural order. This disenchantment of the cosmos led Nietzsche to term it the age of nihilism in which all the meanings that had sustained us throughout ten thousand years of agricultural civilization of the first city dwellers and farmers had fallen into abeyance and given way to a world of decay, decadence, and despair in which all hitherto known forms of valued had become valueless.
Living as we do in the aftermath of such a world we have no overall form of meaning across the various civilizations and cultures of our planetary community that can give us a sense of shared value. Instead the ancient enemy of humanity, chaos and disorder have erupted in our midst and we grasp for any meaning that can give us a foothold within which to discover sanity in this age of chaos and cruelty. And, yet, all we discover is monsters and horror on all sides. As Julia Kristeva tells it:
In a world in which the Other has collapsed, the aesthetic task—a descent into the foundations of the symbolic construct—amounts to retracing the fragile limits of the speaking being, closest to its dawn, to the bottomless “primacy” constituted by primal repression. Through that experience, which is nevertheless managed by the Other, “subject” and “object” push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject. Great modern literature unfolds over that terrain: Dostoyevsky, Lautreamont, Proust, Artaud, Kafka, Celine.7
Whereas she takes the high-road of literature there is the darker and more powerful road below the surface that began with the counter-currents in culture of the Gothic, Macabre, Grotesque, Fantastic, Weird, and Eerie tales from Poe and Lovecraft to our own age of horror literature of King and Ligotti and a multitude of others. The Abject as Kristeva reminds us “wavers between the fading away of all meaning and all humanity, burnt as by the flames of a conflagration, and the ecstasy of an ego that, having lost its Other and its objects, reaches, at the precise moment of this suicide, the height of harmony with the promised land.” (PH 27)
Horror literature helps us negotiate this terrain of non-meaning in an age of nihilism and pessimism, an age that has no external ballast; no outward norms or accepted systems of meaning that all can agree on. Instead we move among the fragments and ruins of civilization and culture as it collapses into chaos all around us. Rocked as we are between political disorder and chaos, a world teetering on the edge of self-annihilation between authoritarian regimes that bolster up false gods of war and violence, cruelty and sadism. We struggle to attain some sense of sanity in the midst of this transitional phase-shifting world of chaotic ruins. Some give in to the false gods of darkness and chaos turning violent and cruel, committing acts of utter destruction and mayhem such as the recent trend in mass murder and racial madness that rules certain authoritarian systems. These rogue elements turned monstrous open up deep wounds in our cultural psyches releasing the agents of chaos and despair in our midst.
Eugene Thacker in his trilogy on the horror of philosophy argues that in “our era of natural disasters, climate change, global pandemics, and the ongoing specter of bioterror, we are continually invited to think about the extinction of the human race in terms that are at once philosophical and at the same time in terms of the themes of which the horror genre is made.”8 There’s a sense he suggest that we’ve come to the limits of both human and natural orders, and that the ensuing collapse of both is at hand:
Crumbling cities, flooded cities, quarantined cities – the corporeal coherence of the polis seems to be constantly under attack at the very same moment attempts are made to re-fortify its boundaries and to re-articulate the conceptual apparatus for doing so. In the midst of these fissures and fragmentations, bare life is constantly rendered in its precariousness, a life that is always vulnerable, tenuous, happenstance, and therefore always an exceptional life. Nowhere is the precariousness of life rendered with such detail as in the medical and public health concerns surrounding “biodefense.” That the bios can be defended is itself noteworthy; but more relevant is the notion that the bios can be defended against the attacks of terrorism as well as the “attacks” of nature. In the case of bioterrorism, the two attacks become indissociable, culminating in a body politic that is both natural and artificial, threatened by the same form of life that constitutes it. (TLTN)
What Thacker surmises is that we are now living in Dante’s Infernal City of Dis – the eternal killing zone of the living dead, a world much like that spoken of by the ancient Gnostics as Anareta – the planet which destroys form and returns us to the tohu-bohu of formlessness and absolute chaos. Leo Daughter in an essay on Cormac McCarthy’s gnostic novel Blood Meridian interprets the reference by one of the character’s in the novel who describes the sleeping Glanton gang “with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a nameless wheeling in the night” (BM 46), saying: “Anareta was believed in the Renaissance to be ‘the planet which destroys life,’ and ‘violent deaths are caused’ when the ‘malifics’ have agents in ‘the anaretic place’ (OED entry, ‘anareta’) … the implication is clearly that our own Earth is Anaretic” (163). As Petra Mundik expanding on this suggests “McCarthy’s evocative description of malevolent landscapes, in which “death seem[s] the most prevalent feature” (BM 48) can thus be read as Gnostic portrayals of a nightmarish, Anaretic world.”9
The notion that our planet is anaretic, a killing zone ruled over by dark archons, ancient deities of madness and chaos like those that H.P. Lovecraft once envisioned in his Cthulhu mythos seems far fetched, and yet our systems of meaning in this late capitalist world of ruins offers nothing at all – a realm of nihilism and madness without sense or value. So we look to the literature of terror and horror, to the weird tales of Lovecraft and Ligotti and so many others seeking ways of understanding the fears haunting our meaningless landscapes hoping against hope that the counter-worlds of the Unreal will offer an inkling of meaning onto the dark Real of our current malevolent realities. Ultimately horror represents the ultimate darkening of our crises, of our most intimate and most banal apocalypses. In our secular age the literature of terror and horror have taken the place of the sacred, which, to the extent that it has left us without leaving us alone, calls forth the monstrous powers of imagination against the civilized malaise and apathy of our capitalist era. Because it occupies its place, because it henceforth decks itself out in the sacred power of horror, literature may also involve not an “ultimate resistance to but an unveiling of the abject: an elaboration, a discharge, and a hollowing out of abjection through the Crisis of the Word”. (PH 218) The image from 9/11 of the “falling man” may be the icon of our age, an age in which the great towers of capitalist desire are crumbling into dust and we with them. The lone man falling into the abyss without return symbolizes nothing more nor less than the apocalypse of our secular dreams of power and artificial nightmares.
- Bahbak Mohaghegh, Jason. New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East: The Chaotic Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan; 2010 edition (November 8, 2010)
- Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (p. 202). OUP Oxford.
- Corti, Victor (ed.) Antonin Artaud: Collected Works Volume I. (Calder and Boyars Ltd. 1968) p. 14.
- Biles, Jeremy; Brintnell, Kent L. (eds.). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion. Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015) NE
- Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae. Vintage (August 20, 1991) (p. 1).
- Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged. Hippocampus Press.
- Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (April 15, 1982) PH 27.
- Thacker, Eugene. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy: Vol 3. Zero Books (April 24, 2015) TLTN
- Mundik, Petra. A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy. University of New Mexico Press (May 15, 2016); Daughtery, Leo. “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy.” Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Rev ed. Ed. Edwin T. Arnold and Dianna C. Luce. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999. 159-74.