Horror Literature as Extreme Pessimism

Mainländer sees this process of cosmic death taking place all throughout nature, in both the organic and inorganic realms, and he goes into great detail about how it takes place everywhere in the universe.

—Frederick C. Beiser,  Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900

The new genre of supernatural horror fiction had its roots in Gothic literature, but it evolved as a specific response to the pressures of modernity. Suddenly it was essential to ask new questions about human nature and our place in the world. Horror fiction was both a wake for Christianity and an attempt to generate new myths—or a new kind of imagination—that could deal with the new realities.

—Joel Lane,  This Spectacular Darkness: Critical Essays

In many ways pessimism was a reaction to the influx of texts on Buddhism, Gnosticism, and Egyptian metaphysics during the early Nineteenth Century. This Western reception of these notions would spawn a typical misreading of these ancient peoples thoughts, but one that would invent a new secular negativity against all the Idealist and Socialist Utopianism that were part of the mainstream culture of the era.

For the past year I’ve plunged through most of the works on pessimism I could find, along with original source material (Philosophers and Literary forms, etc.), and secondary works during that era and through decadence, modernism, post-modernism, and our own era of speculative philosophies.

What I’ve always loved about horror literature is its unique ability to set this philosophy into imaginative and atmospheric landscapes with characters whose lives enact the extreme modes of pessimism from every angle possible, thereby creating a genre that tests these philosophical worldviews to the max. It wouldn’t be remiss to see many of the pessimistic philosophers themselves as inventing fictive as if (Hans Vaihinger*) scenarios in which to test their bleak views. One such is Philip Mainlander whose grim cosmology of death and pessimism went so far as envisioning our universe as the mode by which God himself chose to commit suicide. Frederick C. Beiser, in his exploration of pessimism in Germany: Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 states Mainlander’s position:

As God saw that he existed, he was not amused. Sheer existence horrified him, because he recognized that nothingness is better than being. So God longed for nothingness. Since, however, he could not immediately negate his existence, he decided on a suicide by proxy. God would destroy himself through other things, by creating the world and fragmenting his existence into a multitude of individual things. To achieve his goal of complete non-existence, the total serenity of nothingness, God had to create the world as the necessary means toward his self-destruction. …

That vision is, to put it mildly, macabre. We now enter the darkest recesses of Mainländer’s imagination, which fabricate for us a grim cosmology of death. What the metaphysician sees from his exalted standpoint of the whole of things, Mainländer attests, is that everything in nature and history strives for one thing: death. There is in all things in nature, and in all actions in history, “the deepest longing for absolute annihilation”. In his earlier chapters of his book, in the discussion of physics, ethics and politics, Mainländer wrote about the individual will to life as the very essence of everything, not only of every human being, but also of every thing that exists, whether inorganic or organic. Now in metaphysics, however, we see that this was only a limited perspective, because the striving for existence or life is really only a means for a deeper goal: death. We live only so that we die, because the deepest longing within all of us is for peace and tranquillity, which is granted to us only in death. In this longing of all things for death, we are only participating, unbeknownst to ourselves, in the deeper and broader cosmic process of the divine death. We long to die, and we are indeed dying, because God wanted to die and he is still dying within us.1

This notion of a will-to-death or suicide as rooted within the darkest contours of the human will seems at first sight ludicrous, and yet one wonders. Much horror literature is situated within the world that stretches from Gothic Romance, Poe, Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti; and the various extremities of horror from splatterpunk, bizzaro, body-horror, unto the more speculative, intellectual, and metaphysical forms. Each seeking to display the darkest fears and terrors we as humans face in our everyday lives. Most of it leads to one basic conclusion: that life is a monstrous thing, the universe of organic life is a killing machine, and consciousness is a  curse, not a gift; and that the best we can hope for is to quickly end this monstrous show of pain and suffering through either suicide or anti-natalist forgoing of birth. Of course pessimists know without doubt that most humans are optimists and want to see the silver lining on the clouds of life, denying the very truths of the pessimists worldview. For most pessimists this is just par for the course, knowing that denialism is something humans are good at, that we seek illusion, phantasmagoria, and diversions from such harsh truths. As T.S. Eliot once suggested: “Humans cannot bare too much reality.” No, they cannot. Yet, horror writers continue to spoon feed them with these dark truths in forms both more palatable and fascinating. Whether through film, literature, painting, poetry, etc. the horror genre opens us up to both the cosmic ontological and more physical existential threats that seek to prolong our suffering in this world of pain and struggle. The horror genre converges on our deepest notions of truth and reality, of the underlying core of our inhuman (non?)essence, entertaining and instructing us in the ways of pessimism; guiding us toward those unseemly truths that help us know and feel the dark worlds of extreme pessimism that impinge on our consciousness 24/7.

Notes*: In Vaihinger’s philosophy of “as if” he describes “The’ As if’ world, which is formed in this manner, the world of the” unreal” is just as important as the world of the so-called real or actual (in the ordinary sense of the word) ; indeed it is far more important for ethics and aesthetics. This aesthetic and ethical world of ‘As if’, the world of the unreal, becomes finally for us a world of values which, particularly in the form of religion, must be sharply distinguished in our mind from the world of becoming.” (47) If one aligns this with the notion that horror tales create these “as if” worlds of the unreal that expose the so called world we take for as real as mere illusory impositions of sociocultural fictions and ideological constructs, then we begin to unravel the rational worlds of society into the irrational worlds of the unreal “as if” to deal with the monstrous indifference of the universe and of the other in ourselves as the inhuman.

  1. Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (p. 218). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

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