Thomas Ligotti’s Death Poems: A Commentary #1

Here You Go

Death is frightening,
and dying just as bad.
Say what you will,
we don’t take it well.
Then how can we live,
with all that ahead?
Something must be
fooling us constantly.
Our brains are tricked
so that we don’t believe,
for whatever reason,
we won’t go on and on.
Our thoughts are clouded
so that we can’t conceive
the exact process
that’s waiting for us.
Or perhaps we think that
when the moment comes
someone else will arrive
to take over—we’ll survive.
Where logic is concerned,
we’re all thumbs.
How couldn’t we know
we were born to go?

Ligotti in an interview would say of Nabokov,

The unique thing about Nabokov is that he practiced the writing of fiction as a form of sorcery. His novels and stories draw you in with their language and their humor, not to mention his troupe of demented narrators who seem to be descendants of Poe’s band of madmen. But behind the language and the humor there is another dimension, a world of a terrible desperation where Nabokov works like a wizard to make the impossible happen right before the readers eyes–specifically, to defeat the limitations of time and space, to recover the losses brought about by the ravaging vicissitudes of one’s life and by the course of history itself, and, ultimately, to defeat death.2

“Never to be born, is by far the best; but if you are alive, the best is to return quickly from where you came.”
—Sophocles’ Oedipus at Kolonos

What Nietzsche called “the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere” is activated by a refusal to accept dying. And the heart’s desire to win distinction, including literary distinction, according to Samuel Johnson has the same drive: to evade the consciousness that is reduced to vertigo by the thought of ceasing to be.3 Schopenhauer – whose philosophy would engender a return to the value of existence, would ask the central question: Is life worth living or not? His puzzle of existence is what we might call “the Hamlet question”: “To be or not to be?” That question arises naturally, Schopenhauer thinks, whenever we reflect on two fundamental facts of human life: the existence of evil and the omnipresence of suffering.4 Being both a secularist and atheist Schopenhauer would seek an answer that was both non-theological and non-teleological; for in his worldview there was no place for God, and if God was out of the picture then unlike the philosophes of the 18th Century there was no battle between faith and reason, and thereby the whole notion of a Plan for humankind was both erroneous and mute. As Beiser will suggest,

If there is no God to redeem suffering, and if there is no God to ensure that good triumphs over evil, the problem of existence poses itself anew. Is life really worth living if it contains more suffering than happiness, more evil than good, and if it promises no reward or redemption in some life to come? (pp. 17-18)

These were and are the central questions of pessimism, and Thomas Ligotti as an inheritor of those questions would through both horror stories, philosophical peregrinations, and poetry seek in various diverse questionings— if not an answer, then at least a way to pose them in different and more enlightening ways for himself and his readers.

In this series of commentaries I hope to shed a little light on Ligotti’s poetry as it pertains to his own aesthetic and didactic stream of thought; for ultimately it is that Hamletian question of whether life is worth living or not? —

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1)

In the first six lines of Here You Go Ligotti lays down the leitmotif of the puzzle. Death is fearful, but dying itself; or, the process of being aware of the slow decay and decline of the body and flesh into finality is just as bad. But for whom is it bad? Is Ligotti speaking for all humans, or for that majority who seek only to cling to life at all cost? The optimists that value life as a positive, as something we should strive to preserve and prolong as long as possible. What Schopenhauer would term the Will-to-live at the core of the human delusion.

In Schopenhauer’s time many philosophers would view his pessimism as dangerous and to be reckoned with as a soldier would deal with a enemy: destroy it. Both the Neo-Kantians and the Positivists of the age sought to instill hope and a politics of progressive change and upward mobility in their constituents, so that someone like Schopenhauer who espoused neither hope for the future nor a progressive agenda had to be squelched and snuffed out as quickly as possible. Against all these do-gooders, these philosophers and politicians; these optimists who sought only to make the world a better place through science, technology, political reform and public education, he offered only the ice cold truth of futility. Instead the message of pessimism that Schopenhauer offered was simple: Rather than striving to create a better world, we should renounce our will to live and attempt to escape the world in religious and aesthetic contemplation. (Beiser, 43)

For Ligotti if death and dying are a sad affair, then “how can we live, / with all that ahead?” His answer is strangely comforting in that after Darwin and various other efforts at understanding the human animal; ending in those sciences that would reverse engineer brain and consciousness itself, he would conclude that humans are uncannily gifted with a specific delusion: our brains block out all those futile truths that pessimists spout as gospel, by a trick of nature our brain filters out those subtle traces of future death and dying making us believe we can become immortal; that we need not die, but “go on and on,” deluded by the very natural processes that help us survive and propagate our species. All our religions and comforting dreams of immortality like transhumanists (who fantasize of life-extension and ultimate materialist resurrection and immortality), we continually invent lies against the truth of finality and finitude; against death and dying.

How couldn’t we know
we were born to go?

We can’t because our brains lie to us, hide the truth from us and instead invent dreamscapes of delusional grandeur and phantasmagoric excess,  where heavens and hells populate the fantastic worlds of myth, fable, and religious dogmas; else the utopian dreams of elsewhere’s and elsewhen’s spin out there never-ending hopes for a better world. We all seem bound to the treadmill of optimism like puppets on a string, deluded by the very natural forces that are otherwise both malevolent and indifferent to us and life itself. Pessimism seeks to strip us of those deluded lies, lay bare the indifferent background of our cosmological futility; and expose the underlying mechanisms that keep us clinging to the Will-to-live on and on. Or as Ligotti in the Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror puts it,

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. As history confirms, people will change their minds about almost anything, from which god they worship to how they style their hair. But 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.5

As Robert Trivers from an evolutionary biological view states it:

Deception is a very deep feature of life. It occurs at all levels—from gene to cell to individual to group—and it seems, by any and all means, necessary. Deception tends to hide from view and is difficult to study, with self-deception being even worse, hiding itself more deeply in our own unconscious minds. Sometimes the subject must be ferreted out before it can be inspected, and we often lack key pieces of evidence, given the complexity of the subterfuges and our ignorance of the internal physiological mechanisms of self-deception.6 …

In fact our brain actually works better according to Trivers when “it is unaware of the ongoing contradiction”. Ultimately as Ligotti will suggest “Where logic is concerned, ‘ we’re all thumbs.” We’re born with innate mechanisms of self-deception, and deception of others: ” In some cases, self-deception may give a direct personal advantage by at least temporarily elevating the organism into a more productive state,” says Trivers. So it seems we are already bound to a wheel of ignorance and self-deception by natural selective processes that over eons helped us survive and propagate our species, but that in these late times of an over-conscious and almost sociopathic residue have turned to a more psychopathic deception of others as well. Puppets of a deterministic system of organic propagation we have become our own worst enemies, not even knowing what we do or that we are puppets of such natural processes. As Ligotti will remind us by choosing as the epigraph of his CATHR,

Look at your body—
A painted puppet, a poor toy
Of jointed parts ready to collapse,
A diseased and suffering thing
With a head full of false imaginings.

—The Dhammapada

  1. Ligotti, Thomas. Death Poems . Crossroad Press & Bad Moon Books. (September 25, 2014)
  2. Ayad, Neddal. Literature Is Entertainment Or It it Nothing: An Interview With Thomas Ligotti.
  3.  Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (October 1, 1994)
  4. Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (pp. 16-17). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
  5. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 14). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. Robert Trivers. Deceit and Self-Deception. Penguin Books Ltd. Penguin Books (2014)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s