Viewed from the heights of reason, all life looks like some malignant disease and the world like a madhouse.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When you have understood that nothing is, that things do not even deserve the status of appearances, you no longer need to be saved, you are saved, and miserable forever.
—E. M. Cioran
What we seek is the metaphysics of autonomous shadows, the poetry of the twilight of disillusion.
Gnosticism is the faith of people who believe themselves to be machines.
The Counter-Sublime: The Aesthetics of Twilight – Dissolution of Subject and World from Poe to Ligotti is the latest revision of my book which first began with the singular work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Over time and realizing Ligotti’s fascination with Poe, Lovecraft, the Decadents and certain of their modernist progeny; along with my studies in the tradition of dark Romanticism from Baudelaire to Bataille on through the postmodern turn ending in such thinkers as Nick Land and others I’ve discerned a Counter-sublime, a parody and inversion of the Kantian or Romantic Sublime. M.H. Abram’s Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature opened my eyes to the Romantic and Gothic Sublime which underpinned both Germanic Idealism and its Romantic progeny, a revolutionary ideology of progress and democracy, self and world that has been the central feature of the past two hundred years in Progressive Liberal Civilization.
Most on the Left side of feminism despise Camille Paglia in her controversial Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, but when one studies her basic premises without the ideological blinders on, she reveals the basic premises of the counter-sublime in all its force and power:
“My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns into decadence. Nature is a hard taskmaster. It is the hammer and the anvil, crushing individuality. Perfect freedom would be to die by earth, air, water, and fire. … Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges. I called it an intersection. This intersection is the uncanny crossroads of Hecate, where all things return in the night. Eroticism is a realm stalked by ghosts. It is the place beyond the pale, both cursed and enchanted.”
Camille Paglia’s notion of art as apotropaic, as a lure and allurement, a way of stilling and freezing the horrors of the Outside, luring it into the ritual space of art where it can be trapped, caged, and exorcised of its ancient terror is at the core of most weird tales. One thinks of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. The hidden painting of Dorian that holds the ancient terror of decay, old age, and death. The Platonic Dorian, the beautiful boy, whose charmed life lived in pleasure and freedom, the sensual immediacy and power of his strange physical magic all tied to the black mirror of his evil inner self, his daemon trapped and held frozen in the enclosed temenos, or sacred space hidden away from prying eyes. Then the denouement the release of the daemon-demon from its cage, its enclosure through an act of violence and release that reveals the truth that cannot be exorcised nor escaped: death and corruption are Nature’s ultimate debt, one that all, even the beautiful must pay in full.
From its beginnings there has been a counter-critique and counter-sublime, one might almost say an anti-aesthetic, one that would negate the Rousseauistic Nature philosophy of Idealism of philosophers and poets alike. Cynical and pessimistic it would attack the liberal worldview both from within and without in art, philosophy, and politics. If the original Sublime from Longinus through the Analytic Sublime of Kant and the Romantics of German, Italian, and English poets, dramatists, and Gothic traditions entailed the Idealism of transcendence and the reinforcement of Self and World, then the Counter-Sublime would begin its reversal and an entropic worldview of the decline, dissolution, and unmaking of Self and World in a philosophy of absolute immanence. This Negative Sublime which would arise out of the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer, Edward Von Hartmann (The Unconscious), Philip Mainländer. Julius Bahnsen, and Fredrich Nietzsche would culminate in the darkest of existential and nihilist pessimisms of Peter Wessel Zapffe and Emile Cioran. Beyond these philosophical thinkers is the subtle and stylistic innovations of the tradition of entropy and nihilism that I see in artists, composers, painters, and sculptors from Baudelaire and Poe to the Postmodern Sublime ending in our own Posthuman worldview.
That the Counter-Sublime is atheistic, anti-Christian and critical of the utilitarian civilization, culture, and politics of the liberal progressive ideology is at the heart of my argument. There have been many critical appraisals of the notions of Progress both in art, culture, and politics, and my intent is not to add to this growing literature. Rather I hope to tease out the various strategies of the underground worldview that arose in opposition to the Romantic Sublime and its revolutionary vision of life, art, and politics. The thought and work of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau underpin the liberal worldview in all its ramifications even in our own time of crisis. It’s influence on both the German and English Romantics and their heirs is apparent everywhere and continued to influence the next two hundred years of artistic and political thought both positively and negatively. Ours is a hybrid culture, there was never any dogmatic ideology, but rather a strange amalgam of pragmatic and critical approaches during the so-called Age of Critique.
The Nineteenth Century is replete with this oppositional culture wherein the mainstream world of commerce and utilitarian work-a-day world was ruled by the iron fist of law, order, reason, and a naive realism in the arts. But under the veneer was a dark world of night and chaos, murder and mayhem, war and ideological madness wherein the hidden worlds of the occult, spiritualism, ghosts, mediums, and decadence reigned. In the belly of the beast lived the unruly worlds of sex, cruelty, and metamorphosis. A mutant world of genius and madness in art and life, philosophy and politics.
Nietzsche would proclaim the ‘Death of God’ and open the door onto the abyss of nihilism that would in postmodernism nosedive into the ‘Death of Man’ – the so-called ‘Death of the Subject’ within post-structuralist discourse that would culminate in the post-human discourses of our own contemporary era. The various philosophies of transhuman, inhuman, and posthuman discourse work within both the older Sublime and Counter-Sublime and their mutant derivatives. No one could master all the texts involved in such an enterprise, and I’ll not even attempt such an encyclopedic adventure. All I’ve been able to do is pull the bare minimum thread of such an enterprise together out of my lifelong reading and thinking on this strange and uncanny world.
The tension between ultra-rational philosophies of Intellect and Intelligence and those of the irrational and affective voluntarist traditions have always been there, one or the other gaining ascendancy in every generation of academic and non-academic thought and, —yes, zeitgeist or Spirit of the Age. This is just as true in our time. The previous generation of postmodernism with its concern for the black holes in rhetoric, the dark abyss of discourse and undecidability, etc. has given way to a new generation whose concerns for clarity and intelligence have given us the New Rationalists has gained the ascendancy in a new wave of thinkers under the umbrella of the dubious terms Speculative Realism. Whether it will last is to be decided. Many castigate such a term, others not. At the heart of it is a questioning of the whole tradition of thought that began with Kant and both its Idealist and Materialist heirs, culminating in the generation of Jaques Derrida and Giles Deleuze and their progeny in our own era of the posthuman.
Most of the Twentieth Century was one long admission that the vision of Locke and Rousseau of a gentle and kind Nature and a vision of developing a utopia based on the liberal dreamworlds of politicians and philosophers, poets and madmen was a lie, a sham, a failure. Two great wars and so many others showed us that humankind sought what Nietzsche stated over and over: a Will-to-Power of himself and the world, a self-mastery of all through intellect and reason, a culture of science and war. The failure of the Rousseauist worldview would end in Fascism and Communism and a realm in which humans had become mere fragments and victims of these great collectives.
If the Kantian tradition of anti-realism tempered its worldview as a last humanism, shoring up the last threads of the links to the Western traditions of humanism and Christian Civilization, then the posthuman philosophies of our own era are a direct critique and culmination of or completion of the traditions of nihilism which formed the counter-traditions attacking Kant and his progeny. The tension between these two worldviews and philosophical heritages seems to be at the heart of our present global crisis as the world powers unconsciously or not vie with each other over the dead corpse of the Liberal West. The progressive era from Kant to our own day is in decay and decadence, its political, social, and cultural manifestations in total chaos and self-annihilation. One might even say we are in the midst of an apocalypse as Western Civilization enters the abyss of its own last gasp…
Humanity’s love of unreality, its denial of reality (if you will), has always allowed it to impute and personify its madness into collective nightmares. Our phantasmagoria knows no bounds. Emile Cioran in History and Utopia wrote in a Letter to a Friend, saying,
If a man has not, by the time he is thirty, yielded to the fascination of every form of extremism—I don’t know whether he is to be admired or scorned, regarded as a saint or a corpse. Lacking biological resources, has he not located himself above or below time? Positive or negative, the deficiency is no more than that. With neither the desire nor the will to destroy, he is suspect, he has triumphed over the demon or, more serious still, was never possessed by one. To live in any true sense of the word is to reject others; to accept them, one must be able to renounce, to do oneself violence, to act against one’s own nature, to weaken oneself, we conceive freedom only for ourselves—we extend it to our neighbors only at the cost of exhausting efforts…
As Eugene Thacker puts it in his preface to Cioran’s History and Utopia: “Cioran proposes nothing—and, perhaps, therein lies his “politics.” Neither heroic nor tragic, nor even comedic—History and Utopia is the testimony of someone who has given up on politics because, in part, he has given up on the human—or at least the image of humanity that incessantly feeds the political machinations of both history and utopia.”
“How could it be otherwise on a planet where flesh propagates with the shamelessness of a scourge? Wherever we go, we come up against the human, a repulsive ubiquity before which we fall into stupor and revolt . . .”
All that remains is this void of refusal, though it is, in Cioran’s own words, “a void that affords plentitude, a fulfilling void.”
At the ripe old age of sixty-nine I just hope to live long enough to complete this task, not in Cioran’s shadow of suppression but in the dark and pessimistic light of an abyssal enlightenment in infernal thought. I’ve talked about it for years, but only recently have many of the threads of the puzzle come together so that the fragments I’ve been collecting from one end of literature and philosophy to the other might coalesce into a vision that both clarifies and discloses our current predicament and crisis. One could say I’ve struggled with this task most of my life, gathered the Ariadne’s scarlet thread into a monstrous labyrinth of textuality, an abyss of radiance within which the Minotaur in all his bleak and somber gloominess resides. Maybe in the end my work is an open invitation to the inhuman or posthuman sublime, a world at once grotesque and sublime, in which the unsayable and unthinkable awaken us from our sleep in time and give us back again that dark and radiant abyss of the unhuman alterity which we so crave.