Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947) employs the Faust myth in a similar way: the ‘demonic’ spirit is one which reveals everything as ‘its own parody’, and which sees through forms to the formlessness they conceal. Through Leverkühn, the artist, a demonic voice calls nature ‘illiterate’, mere vacancy, and the universe a space filled with signs deprived of meanings. Transformations of the Faust myth epitomize the semantic changes undergone by fantasy in literature within a progressively secularized culture. The demonic pact which Faust makes signifies a desire for absolute knowledge, for a realization of impossibility, transgressing temporal, spatial and personal limitations, becoming as God. But this desire is represented as increasingly tragic, futile and parodic. In a general shift from a supernatural to a natural economy of images, the demonic pact comes to be synonymous with an impossible desire to break human limits, it becomes a negative version of desire for the infinite. In the modern fantastic, this desire expresses itself as a violent transgression of all human limitations and social taboos prohibiting the realization of desire. In these versions of Faust, the naming of the demonic reveals a progressive pull towards a recognition of otherness as neither supernatural nor evil but as that which is behind, or between, separating forms and frames. ‘Otherness’ is all that threatens ‘this’ world, this ‘real’ world, with dissolution: and it is this opposition which lies behind the several myths which have developed in the modern fantastic.
—Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion
All books are exits from life. Books must be destroyed.
—Mark Samuels, The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales
The Collective was putting tenets into action that few dared even to consider. It destroyed works because it believed none had meaning or significance, because words only mean other words and chase each other, in a linguistic game of tag, to a void. The Collective’s operatives were terrorists, empty visionaries, who, in a perverse fashion, could be said to have collaborated with an author, even if only through destruction. And in fact they found that the most effective operatives were authors who had been turned to their cause: poachers turned gamekeepers.
For the vast majority of people, books were simply ornaments to a room, advertising their owners’ intellectual vanity. One in a million books was ever re-read and the so-called classics were mostly dipped into and unadmittedly discarded or force-read. Not though by academics, who canonised these “classics” and lived like parasites on the obscurity they generated. The masses were as vile in their own way. They read drivel churned out by illiterates. These illiterate authors had allowed themselves to become “product”. And then there was the worst of all: books that instructed us on how to live, when to turn to such books was a symptom of the disease, not its cure.
The activities of these secret book-exterminators were not confined to the destruction of published works. They were invariably ready to obliterate manuscripts of all types that came into their possession willingly or unwillingly. The merits of a writer’s work were of no interest to them and they viewed the existence of literary work as a proliferation of vermin, being only too willing to act as pest controllers in this regard. All texts were without a centre of meaning. Their interpretation rested with the reader, not the author. There could be no agreed purpose to a text. All was chaos. The text was an autonomous entity. In short, without the reader the text did not even exist save as a cipher. …
So he asked how the Collective could justify the destruction of his very identity, as only this measure would rid him of his bibliophilia for good. And Yaanek told him frankly that any notion of individual identity was a lie. There is no “self” to destroy. Once Glickman had grasped the final truth that the “I” does not exist, that his past life was illusory, then he would be free. All perception is a series of mental states, unfixed, fluid; like text, devoid of central meaning. The destruction of books was simply the first stage of a greater purpose: the gradual elimination of human consciousness. “We are anti-publishers,” said Yaanek, “and ultimately, anti-thinkers.”
And information was drained out of everything.
from Mark Samuels, The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales
To read Mark Samuels “Glickman the Bibliophile” is to be transported into realms fused with Thomas Ligotti and Franz Kafka, a world where both bureaucracy and the erasure of Self become the all-encompassing imperative. The insanity of such an imperative in which all knowledge and thought become anathema, and the ultimate goal is the extinction of information in all its forms: mental, physical, and… metaphysical. Such is the realm of hell, a place where mindless humans perform the essential task of the destruction of thought and thinking, books and authors. One could say the ultimate goal is the uncreation of all sentience: consciousness itself as the ultimate disease for which the cure is annihilation. Dark indeed is such a thought…
- Samuels, Mark. The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales. Chomu Press (March 16, 2011) (“Glickman the Bibliophile”)
Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy – A Literature of Subversion discusses the opposing aspects of two trends: the one pushing toward the unnameable ‘nameless thing’ of horror fiction; the other of the anti-realist ‘thingless names’ of the signifying process itself cut off in the prison house of language:
Red Planets we have. We should not neglect the red dragons.
Realism gives me the impression of a mistake. Violence alone escapes the feeling of poverty of those realistic experiences. Only death and desire have the force that oppresses, that takes one’s breath away. Only the extremism of desire and death enable one to attain the truth.
― Georges Bataille, The Impossible: A Story of Rats
In one of his usual drifts Slavoj Zizek tells us the reproduction of the Real in our time is handled by the vast mediatainment system whose sole responsibility is to reproduce the capitalist fantasy: “the world in which the corporate Capital succeeded in penetrating and dominating the very fantasy-kernel of our being: none of our features is really “ours”; even our memories and fantasies are artificially planted. It is as if Fredric Jameson’s thesis on postmodernism as the epoch in which Capital colonizes the last resorts hitherto excluded from its circuit is here brought to its hyperbolic conclusion: the fusion of Capital and Knowledge brings about a new type of proletarian, as it were the absolute proletarian bereft of the last pockets of private resistance; everything, up to the most intimate memories, is planted, so that what remains is now literally the void of pure substanceless subjectivity (substanzlose Subjektivitaet—Marx’s definition of the proletarian).”1
In this sense the supposed sciences that were to produce truth and set us free of our ancient enslavement to religious consciousness and the empirical ego-self etc. through neurosciences, seem bent on migrating into new ideologies and scientific philo-fictions of non-human, posthuman, inhuman, anti-human, transhuman (all vying for the next enslavement or fantasy production of the Real). Just at the moment when capitalism in its old neoliberal form is deteriorating, decaying, and dying before our eyes the beast itself, Capital, is migrating into another fantasy, another world…
When I started writing this book, I vowed to keep my madness out of it.
—Nicole Cushing, A Sick Gray Laugh
Nicole Cushing is the Bram Stoker Award® winning author of Mr. Suicide and a two-time nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award.
Various reviewers have described her work as “brutal”, “cerebral”, “transgressive”, “taboo”, “groundbreaking” and “mind-bending”.
Rue Morgue magazine recently included Nicole in its list of 13 Wicked Women to Watch, praising her as an “an intense and uncompromising literary voice”. She has also garnered praise from Jack Ketchum, Thomas Ligotti, and Poppy Z. Brite (aka, Billy Martin).
I just started reading Nicole’s latest work and am delighted to say it is well worth the praise it’s garnering so far… I’ll update with a review later this week, but for now you should check out her blog Litggressive for more information about Nicole Cushing and her fabulous work.
Or we are shown that the other world may lie close at hand, and we often hover on its brink.
—Mark Valentine, Haunted by Books
The existence of this intermediate world, mundus imaginalis, thus appears metaphysically necessary; the cognitive function of the Imagination is ordered to it; it is a world whose ontological level is above the world of the senses and below the pure intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the former and less immaterial than the latter.
The fabulists all inhabited a separate strangeness where the realms of Arcadia, Atlantis, Avalon, Shangri La, the Astral Plane, the worlds of Faery and the worlds of Dream seemed to describe something just the other side of our drab world… other authors spoke of other realms, darker places where the ruins of reality seemed to multiply into nightmare: Dis, Pandemonium, Agartha, Hel, Hell, Irkallah, Mag Mell, Kyöpelinvuori, Muspelheim, Tartarus and so many other places hidden in the Abyss. Whether of light or darkness all these zones were situated in that intermediate realm in-between the voids, where gods and demons dwelled like blood warriors in an endless war. Our boredom and ennui have driven both our hells and our paradises to the point of extinction. In this age when the human is no longer able to escape itself, no longer able to open those portals between the worlds, we are left with our own musings, our nightmares become all too real in a world where both paradise and hell commingle in a fluid world of non-human and post-human madness in which there is no where to go, no one to know, and no one to be. This pure and absolute world of immanence without escape. A world bereft of its dreams and nightmares alike. Left in a secular world on nihilism in which we have emptied ourselves of the other worlds, what is left for us? As Mark Valentine suggests:
But what of those who make it their work to seek entry into these stranger dimensions more definitely, who demand to go further from here? The authors of wonder are among such visionaries, and sometimes they try to bring back for us some flint-spark from the furthest dimensions, an evocation of what they have found. They may do this in hesitant sentences that can hardly carry the burden of what they must convey, or in sketches of unearthly scenes where the artist’s fingers have faltered at the last, or they may resort to geometric symbols or arcane formulae, which only have any sort of meaning for those who have already seen. Perhaps only one thing is clear: in order to walk in the other worlds, we ourselves must be changed.
The philosopher has been called the mother of the toads, for he is forever wandering the swamp in search of their unknown father, pursued by croaking little thoughts.
—Andre Solnikkar, The Wisdom of the Hanged / La saggezza dell’impiccato
Language is the foundation of reality. Without it we would, like the beasts, exist wholly in a world of sensation. We should not be articulate, but cast adrift from the essence of creation, and unable to fathom its infinite depths. And in considering this matter, I cannot refrain from expressing a philosophic speculation that has arisen from out of gazing into that abyss. In what language do the dead converse? Are they freed from the multitude of tongues to which the living are shackled? Do they speak a language (let us call it Txxyollqus) whose meaning contains all possible meanings since their mode of being is outside space and time?
—Collected Works of Thomas De Quincey (“Voices from the Graveyard”)
Started reading Philip Fraccasi‘s Behold the Void last night, and have read the first three stories so far. Have to admit these are less than what I’d expected from the hype. I usually refrain from negative critiques so early, and usually not at all; but these three stories seemed both gratuitous and a form of absolute nihilism of the violent kind which left no sense of double-vision. What I mean by double-vision is the notion of a tale that has both a surface (literal) meaning-story, and a hidden or depth-ridden (figural) meaning-allegorical-didactic. Fraccasi’s seem all surface and pulped, leaving no aftermath other than wondering why all the gratuitous violence, and to what purpose. Obviously there is no purpose in a cosmos that is framed in absolute nihilism, where everything is inexplicable and anything can happen because there is no structure, no law, no reason behind anything; only an absolute contingency in which anything is possible, and anything can happen… and, will more than likely turn bad, real bad at any moment.
In the third tale we have a horse thief, Gambino, whose son Luis recently died, and is hired to steal a famed racing horse: the Widowmaker. The tale goes from incident to incident relating Gambino’s sordid existence along the way until he’s confronted by a boy demon in the desert who is the seventh son of a seventh son. Using this folkloric motif from out of nowhere – like some deus ex machina – we follow Gambino till he meets his boss where a Chinaman is waiting to perform some strange and bewildering suicide ritual requiring a fabled horse. Needless to say things go awry and the boss is killed, the Chinaman is killed by the horse, and Gambino is shot by the Chinaman in the gut… I want spoil the ending, but we’re left with a fake transcendence for a character who for all accounts deserves no redemption but gets it anyway. What bothered me in this story is just that: What was the point of this slip-shod redemption which came plotting in like some strange folkloric interpellation from out of nowhere and nowhen, without rhyme or reason? It just didn’t fit, and for me fell flat. Another tale not worth rereading because it had said all it was going to say.
Do I demand more? Am I being too hard on this tale teller? Maybe so, maybe not; either way it’s my aesthetic honesty that has to speak to it, not my personal vetting or feeling. I’ve always tried to be honest about such things with myself, if not always up front with my readers. There is a definite professionalism in Fracassi’s tales, which on the surface are polished and complete; and, yet, there is just something missing, a core geist-spirit, a certain inner sense to the stories that is lost on me. It could be these tales will talk to others, and I’m just not the person they are meant for; that could be. But with all things I tend to go with my gut feelings in all things concerning horror stories, and my affects tell me that these stories are hollow. Sadly this is my judgment, and one I have to accept as what it is for me…
As far as the tales go, Fracassi does have the knack of telling a tale, of hooking you into the ongoing movement of the various events and incidents; and, yet, as you finish the tales you feel this emptiness, a feeling in the gut that says: “Is that it? What was the point of all this carnage? These characters are absolute puppets in a puppet world, written by a puppet for puppets. But to what effect?” It’s as if there should be a punch line that leaves you guessing, but it’s been elided, and in its place is this sense of absolute meaninglessness. Maybe that is the point after all. Maybe Fracassi unlike many horror writers has no message to give us, has no need to entertain and instruct us in some dark hidden secret about life. Maybe he’s giving us everything up front: life has no meaning and is indifferent to our desires as to our intelligence. Behind the cosmos of Fraccassi’s tales is exactly what his collection’s title states: a Void. Pure emptiness without return, a bleak universe of absolute indifference where even human meaning and thought have no affordance, no traction; a realm where thinking is a mere accident in time, a broken promise that will like everything else slowly turn the lights out… forever.
I really wanted to give Fracassi a chance, had planned on finishing the collection – and, I may at some future time, but for the moment with three strikes down I just can’t force myself to continue pretending this is a writer for me. Fracassi may speak to others, but for my money it just has nothing to say at the moment. I’ll also take a peak at his earlier work as well. I wish it was different but at the moment it just doesn’t click and ring the right notes for me. So it goes onto my back burner… and, I’m off to other collections…
For a brief while, let us mull over some items of interest regarding puppets. They are made as they are made by puppet makers and manipulated to behave in certain ways by a puppet master’s will. The puppets under discussion here are those made in our image, though never with such fastidiousness that we would mistake them for human beings. If they were so created, their resemblance to our soft shapes would be a strange and awful thing, too strange and awful, in fact, to be countenanced without alarm. Given that alarming people has little to do with merchandising puppets, they are not created so fastidiously in our image that we would mistake them for human beings, except perhaps in the half-light of a dank cellar or cluttered attic. We need to know that puppets are puppets. Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life. In such moments of mild disorientation, a psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends through our being a convulsion of supernatural horror.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
With the advent of CGI based animated films we’ve seen a hyperrealism suddenly replace the older hand drawn cartoons of yesteryear. But as many critics suggest this may not be a good thing. In the recent Lion King remake by Disney the characters that were in the first film so emotionally cute and humanized that people were drawn to them as if magnetized by their warmth and cozy appeal, just the opposite has happened with the newer remake which provides a more distant and cold apprehension of these highly stylized and superrealistic figures. In the new film the characters have become too real and uncanny, as if they could walk off the screen into an African savannah and be right at home among the wildlife. As Lindsay Wright suggests:
Indeed, a viewer of the new version of “The Lion King” often admires the artistic sensibilities of the film in the same way that they might admire a new piece of technological wizardry. We may be struck by the emotional beauty of a painting by Leonardo DaVinci, to put it bluntly, but it is unlikely that we will derive the same kind of emotional warmth from a viewing of the latest offering from car manufacturer Tesla.1
As many critics have suggested this hyperreal CGI technology has lost something in translation from the older hand drawn animations.
As Ligotti suggests above: “We need to know that puppets are puppets.” If something is too real we begin to feel a sense of dread and horror, as if the thing we’re watching may be watching us in return. The duplicity between a dead inanimate object suddenly taking on a life of its own disturbs us. Even in animated features the older hand drawn cartoons could never become uncanny in that sense or realism. Yet its just this sense of something that we assume is not real becoming all too real that threatens our sense of a well-ordered cosmos. When things suddenly do things they shouldn’t we begin to think reality is no longer what we thought, that something has change; that the world is not right and has suddenly become topsy-turvy overthrowing all the known laws of physics.
For two hundred years the literature of the fantastic: the modes of Gothic, Grotesque, Macabre, Symbolist, Decadence, Surrealism, Fabulism, Magical Realism, etc. have replaced for a secular society what was once part of the domain of religious consciousness and expectation: the Supernatural. The notion of the marvelous, fantastic, and uncanny have all taken on new meanings in our secular society, allowing non-believers to experience the nostalgia of religious beliefs without adhering to there outmoded rituals and dogmas. As Victoria Nelson in The Secret Life of Puppets reminds us:
Shakespeare’s worldview of the Renaissance-the worldview that holds there is another, invisible world besides this one, that our world of the senses is ruled by this other world through signs and portents, that good and evil are physically embodied in our immediate environment-is alive and well today in science fiction and supernatural horror films that build on a three-hundred-year tradition of the secularized supernatural and behind that on the millennia-old beliefs Western culture shares with older societies around the world.
There’s something deep and pervasive in the human psyche that cannot be expunged, repressed, excised, nor erased: this need for an affective relation to the Unknown. As Lovecraft once suggested: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” He’d go on to elaborate,
Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities. When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself. Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.2
When children play with dolls, or adults watch a Ventriloquist performing there is this sense that we are fascinated by these inanimate objects suddenly awakening in our midst and taking on a life of their own. And, yet, if this were truly to happen as in some horror films with puppets that uncannily do just that and become killers like Chucky in Child’s Play movie in made in 1988. In this film the doll Chucky is a sneering red-haired doll that is possessed by the spirit of a deceased serial killer. Many of the films’ plots revolve around Chucky’s attempts to transfer his soul from the doll body into a living person. A sense of possession and murderous intent, of a doll that becomes all too real and moves without the strings of a puppet master intentionally and with a willful purpose. In our “secular society in which the cult of art has supplanted scripture and direct revelation, we turn to works of the imagination to learn how our living desire to believe in a transcendent reality has survived outside our conscious awareness”.
In our own age various trends in the sciences and engineering are converging to create new forms of advanced intelligence or AI and AGI, and along with that is initiatives to produce lifelike humanoid robots that will allow such advanced intelligence a physical platform within which to move and operate. Uncanny Valley has been working to build such uncanny systems that seem in appearance and manner to reduplicate human movements and feature sets as if they were not only our doubles but were in some future iteration becoming more us than we are. As one roboticist suggests: “Twenty years from now human-like robots will walk among us, they will help us, play with us, teach us, help us put groceries away,” says David Hanson, “I think AI will evolve to a point where they will truly be our friends.”
One philosopher, Reza Negarestani asks the question: “Should we limit the model of AGI—both from a methodological perspective and a conceptual perspective that is the hermeneutics of general intelligence—to mirroring capacities and abilities of the human subject?” His answer is an emphatic “No”:
In limiting the model of AGI to the replication of necessary conditions and capacities required for the realization of human cognitive and practical abilities, we risk to reproduce or preserve those features and characteristics of human experience that are purely local and contingent. We therefore risk falling back on a parochial picture of the human as a model of AGI that we set out to escape.4
Instead what he seeks is a new path forward, one that allows for the “realization of an intelligence that moves from a particular contingent perspectival consciousness to a genuine self-consciousness, an outside view of itself” (22).
For many this sudden awakening of machinic life with intelligence that can be self-motivated, and non-human or inhuman in the sense of not being modeled on our human cognitive and affective relations is both scary and fascinating. For thousands of years humans have been both fascinated and fearful of statues, dolls, puppets, and machines that could reduplicate human abilities and work, but the notion of an entity that can also begin to exist beyond our human modes of intelligence and emotion seems almost too much to think much less comprehend. This is where both aspects of the fantastic: Science Fiction and Horror come into play, each in its own way confronts such possibilities as both impossible and unknown; and, yet, brings to life the very real possibility that such strange and uncanny beings may one day live among us. Horror allows us to register our fears and fascinations in ways that allow us to understand these emotions at a distance and through fictional scenarios of imaginative apprehension rather in the very real and literal confrontation of an actual face to face meeting with this monstrous other/alterity. It’s this aesthetic horror that allows us to shape our fears into something we can as humans handle, and begin to accept the possibility of knowing and realizing what was and is Unreal taking shape before our very eyes. For as Ligotti says:
Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life.
- Wright, Lindsay. ‘The Lion King’ Remake Brings Iconic Characters to Life. Tech Geeked July 19, 2019 https://techgeeked.com/the-lion-king-remake-brings-iconic-characters-to-life/
- Lovecraft, H.P.. Supernatural Horror in Literature. Online: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx
- Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Harvard University Press (November 1, 2003)
- Negarestani, Reza. An Outside View of Ourselves as a Toy Model AGI. Intelligence and Spirit: https://www.urbanomic.com/book/intelligence-and-spirit/
The Fantastic is one of the most significant genres because it tells us the most about the inner life of the individual and about collectively held symbols. As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times.
—Italo Calvino, Fantastic Tales
I just finished Matt Cardin’s new collection To Rouse Leviathan, and I must say it was thoroughly enjoyable in a dreadful way; by that I mean it filled me with that weird and eerie anxiety that I find is the supreme mood of the fantastic. Reading Cardin is like moving toward a visionary moment of clarity and then realizing that one’s eyes are askew: twisted and deformed our eyes are crossed between the inner vision of some vast infernal nightmare land of the impossible, and outward toward the enfolded nightmare of our actual world of loss and pain. Many feel that yearning and longing for an end to the quest for an answer to life’s meaning; most end up like our current cultural malaise has in a valueless cesspool of non-meaning and nihilism. For Cardin what we’re missing is a spiritual vision, a vision that supports both imagination and the artistic impulse; such is the quest undertaken in every tale in these volumes, a movement toward some indefinable landscape of divine ecstasy or ecstatic horror; or the exposed fragments of some forgotten labyrinth of religious or spiritual dark enlightenment. An enlightenment into horror, where the daemonic splendor of existence which exists just outside the registers of our blinkered and rational visions leads us into a multidimensional realm of our darkest transports; a realm in which our joys and fears come alive and absorb us into that dream of the Outside where paradox, incongruity, and uncertainty unbound exist without end or justification.
If you love the mixture of the sublime and ridiculous that pushes the limits of both modes to their logical conclusions then you’ll love Matt Cardin’s omnibus of all his previous stories. He touches that dark space of our American psyche with its love/hate relations to the religious consciousness. Most of the stories are filled with various troubled misfits and rejects of a religious persuasion whose yearnings for some kind of mutant transformation or transfiguration lead them into the pit of hell or some strange and fantastic infernal paradise.
I was reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s macabre relishing of the grotesque sublime and yearning for ruins, sewers, corruption, and the dark pessimism of annihilation, cannibalism, and extreme surrealism in the mode of Bataille’s notions of the unreal and impossible. All I can say is that each story takes on new aspects of the old tropes of horror fiction and renews them with a refined sensibility and elegance that tempts one to realize Cardin knows the tradition inside/out, and yet is able to let it speak out without a heavy handed touch like so many of the last generations postmodern metafictionists did. This is a self-conscious horror that does not show its hand, but like a great street magician carefully directs your attention away from the center of the magic trick; a trick that allows the reader her own thrill in discovering sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph the elements of a metaphysics that does not hammer you into extinction, but like those old masters of the essay – think of Montaigne – weave both an intelligent story with an essayistic discretion to both entertain and instruct the reader in the dark truths being portrayed.
In the end Cardin’s tales do not so much answer those deepest yearnings of our disquieted souls as challenge us to enter into that strange compact that all authors and readers share: a compact that shifts us into our own creative and imaginative modes of being, awaken in us a psychic need and ontic poverty, leaving us with the dark aura of loss and light of nihil that encloses us in our own nightmare lands of fear and dread. Cardin’s tales lure and goad us onward toward our own transgressive visions and quests, force us to once again acquaint ourselves with the dark tremors just below the submerged threshold of our own fears. And, yet, like all great artists of the fantastic and weird Cardin’s tales leave us spent and vacuous: depleted, destitute and spiritually exhausted within the catastrophic aftermath of his visions forlornness.
His tales are never-ending portals to a sea of strangeness we all feel is submerged in the Real surrounding us on all sides. And if we just knew how to tap into it, gain access to it we would suddenly realize the thing we’ve been missing our whole lives; that impossible object we’ve been seeking to fill that empty place of imaginative need. These are tales we will repeatedly return to again and again, seeking in them a more in depth connection to that something hiding in plain site, but just barely visible to our skewed vision; for what we all seek in such tales is an ineffable mystery, a dark presage of all we are and could be if only we might open ourselves to the nightmare worlds we deserve.
And why wander in these labyrinths? Once more, for aesthetic reasons; because this present infinity, these “vertiginous symmetries,” have their tragic beauty.
—Jorge Luis Borges
They were shining a light on my horns when I unscrewed one and handed it to the hostess. Now my head was tilting to the left, which seemed appropriate under the circumstances. The hostess smiled, believing my weaponized horn was now in safekeeping as she locked it up in the festival’s safe. She pointed to the banquet tables and beckoned me to enjoy myself. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.
The unrest at the border to the labyrinth had been building for some time now. I’d tried everything to defuse the situation, but things had escalated out of control as certain bigoted and cowardly servants of the Leader had taken things into their own hands and murdered many of my innocent brethren, sisters, and their children. No one was safe anymore. The sociopathy of the Leader’s servants had forced us to retreat behind our great walls. Something had to be done, and that duty fell squarely on my shoulders. Sadly.
Ever since the migrations began the Leader had enforced stringent controls along the perimeter of the Labyrinth. No one in, no one out. His policy was inescapable. Those caught trying to cross the demarcation zone were locked up in steel pens like animals. This pained me immensely, but what was I to do? I called a counsel of the elders, and we discussed the issue but were unable to come to any sense of resolution concerning the matter. Broadcasts were sent out condemning the Leader for his strong man actions, we bellowed our complaints from the high walls across the dark hinterlands of the Leader’s country to no avail. We were alone; isolated. So we sent our Ambassador to convene with the Leader, giving him our terms. The Leader returned our Ambassador: dead. The counsel realized we had no recourse left, so they sent for the Leader to meet on neutral grounds in the midst of the Festival of Oryk.
As the Leader of this mad country moved silently through the throng toward the podium with his bodyguards I kept thinking of the bull run in Gazmplona. My one remaining horn seemed to realize the gravity of the situation as I loped slowly and methodically into the crowd gathering around the clown at the center of this controversy. Then I realized I was not alone as I saw my brothers, one-horned and primed, moving toward the laughing jackal on his podium; their horns rising against the bright halo of the mid-day sun like knives in a dream of revenge.
As I reached the inner circle of the festivities I let out a deep bellow; the resonance of its dark import echoing against the stone walls of the labyrinth. The laughter of my brothers followed suit, while the clattering of our hooves on the cobbled pathways, and the broken curvature of our splayed horns ringing out as we clashed with the Leader’s bodyguards, brought fear to the smirking clown and his entourage. Pacing round and round the podium like a herd of angered beasts we shouted out our complaints till the walls of the gray hollows began falling inward, and the crowd dispersed to the four corners of the maze. We stood there in the midst of the rubble and ruins like minions of some blasted daemon, our bellowing laughter following the Leader and his entourage into the cold gray night of the labyrinth.
We knew things would never be the same…
– Steven Craig Hickman ©2019
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
There is much to learn, boy. There are places other than here, and limits far beyond what anyone has even considered, nor dreamed of exploring.
—Matthew Bartlett, The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities
In many ways modern horror fiction serves as an apotropaic charm to ward off the dark forces lurking both in the imagination and the world about us. Human imagination and the artistic impulse have from the beginning sought to control the deep fears and terrors of the unknown surrounding humans on all sides. From the cave paintings of Lascaux to the most daemonic art of the 21st Century the ability to visualize and capture the powers of darkness in an image thereby dispersing and warding off their destructive powers has been central to both painting and literary horror.
My essay Thomas Ligotti: The Radiant Abyss is featured in the latest Vastarien – A Literary Journal Volume 2 Issue 2 Summer edition: here! Get your copy today!
It also has many other contemporary horror writers, essayists, and artists:
Clematis, White and Purple
D. P. Watt
not other’s tongues
types of knife blades:
The Stringer of Wiltsburg Farm
Lucy A. Snyder
Visions of the Gothic Body in Thomas Ligotti’s Short Stories
C. M. Crockford
The Sprite House
Sirens in the Night
Paul L. Bates
Thomas Ligotti: The Abyss of Radiance
S. C. Hickman
The Milk Man
Alana I. Capria
Trans Woman Gutted
What Found Nevaeh
art by Giuseppe Balestra, Tatiana Garmendia, and Danielle Hark (including cover art)
Matt Cardin in his essay on Ligotti makes mention of the diametric appraisal of H.P. Lovecraft’s early and late work, Ligotti favoring the early unreal and more fantastic tales while Joshi favors the documentary realism of the later Chthulu and other tales:
“The upshot of the matter, generally speaking, is that Ligotti thinks Lovecraft was at his worst in the very stories where Joshi thinks he was at his best.”
– The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti
As much as I admire S.T. Joshi for his years of dedication in reviving interest in Lovecraft, and critical/biographical studies on other major horror writers, there’s always seemed a pervasive adherence in his work to a strict secular and atheistic aesthetic; an almost dogmatic, vision and judgment concerning various authors in some hierarchy and ranking system that just doesn’t seem part of the traditional literature of criticism from Dr. Johnson to Harold Bloom. His economical expression and the overarching need to filter the more unreal and fantastical elements through his Enlightenment gaze seems to have left certain aspects of this tradition in a state of invisibility. I’ll have to say I agree with Ligotti that it is in the early tales that Lovecraft’s work shines, allows the drifts from the Outside to seep in unhinged by any filters of Reason and strict economy of ethical evaluation. But as in all things maybe the divine Oscar Wilde in his usual witty tone is correct:
“Two men look out a window. One sees mud, the other sees the stars.” ~ Oscar Wilde
I’m reading Farah Rose Smith’s Anonyma which is deliciously decadent, modern, and gothic; a work that situates itself in the tradition of the dark fantastic. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this short novella but am already impressed by its ability to hint at mysteries and undertones just off-stage waiting to erupt from the darkness. In it we are introduced to a young successful architect, Nicholas Georg Bezalel, whose art and life are fused in a sensibility of what he’ll term “Modern † Gothic”:
“Modern † Gothic starts with a feeling,” Bezalel says. “To describe those initial emotions with words would make no sense logically, in the grand scheme of allowing you in on the process. The act of creation, of production, of endurance. These are all my secrets, you see. What I can say is that the style has permanence. It is art, but more importantly, Modern † Gothic is a way of life.”1
In the opening scene an interview with unknown parties is taking place in which the various aspects of his past and present commingle revealing both the source and transgressive splendor of his ongoing project, Noctuary. The name “Noctuary” already aligned my thought to Thomas Ligotti whose own collection of weird tales would encompass a discourse on blackness and the aesthetics of shadow, goth, and the weird:
“No one needs to be told about what is weird. It is something that becomes known in the early stages of every life. With the very first nightmare or a childhood bout of fever, an initiation takes place into a universal, and at the same time very secret society. Membership in this society is renewed by a lifelong series of encounters with the weird, which may assume a variety of forms and wear many faces. Some of these forms and faces are private to a certain person, while others are recognized by practically everybody, whether or not they will admit it. But they are always there, waiting to be recalled in those special moments that are all its own.”2
What we discover in Farah’s novella is the mystery of architecture itself, a dreamscape of unreality that exposes a ritualized inscape into unfathomable chambers of a bleak cosmos. Bezalel himself is reticent about both his ongoing project and of a recent exhibit that we are lead to believe shocked both critics and public alike, a scandalous affair that brought the shrill critical gaze of certain extreme feminist enclaves to bare on his life and art. As he comments:
“There is a point at which one must separate the art and the artist. There is an intrinsic link, of course. But there is less of me in those images than there is of what I was trying to evoke. They misunderstand me” When asked about the process of creating the infamous images, he becomes brusk. “Let us move on.”
Like many eccentric and decadent artists Bezalel seems both piqued and tormented by the public and critics reception of his work and yet nonplussed he seems unsure of himself and is quiet and reserve about those who do not understand his dark vision. As he’ll suggest his conceptual relations with architecture began as a child in a dream; that, in fact, the very project he is working on now began as a dream. Of Noctuary itself he says: “I saw the building itself in a childhood dream, not long before the death of my parents.” A sense of darkness, death, and the symbolic relations between the two and this dream castle have drawn him toward his self-described combination of the “Modern † Gothic” described already. Yet, like many artists his work would not have been possible without an apprenticeship with a certain mentor.
Adopted at a young age he was raised by a Banker family in Berlin, a typical bourgeois nexus of money, wealth, and extravagance. A mother given to melancholy, which he presumes is due to the Father’s incessant pretensions to playboy of the western world affectations. Bezalel himself seems to have had the run of the house, and spent most of his young life reading and getting acquainted with classics in the well-stocked family Library. After the death of his adopted family he moves to New York, studies architecture because of the connection to his childhood dream, but is unimpressed by the current regard of such moderns as Frank Loyd Wright. After graduation he is tempted to join two different firms but decides instead to return to Germany to reacquaint himself with his roots.
It is in Germany that he discovers a life-long passion for the the idol-mentor, G.E. G.E. Von Aurovitch. Describing his current project as “dripping with the lifeblood (or deathblood) of Von Aurovitch”. He describes the artistic vision behind it, which is a mixture of Decadence and Symbolist motifs, he tells the interviewers:
Aurovitch. Here, in architecture, in interior design, in natural installations, in fashion, either directly or indirectly, I was able to mold and maneuver with a specific energy that, in a way, bridged the gap between the Decadent and the Symbolic by getting to the philosophical nerve of coexisting opposites, and honored those I drew from. But I still think it isn’t representative of any one movement from the past. It is, quite simply, Modern † Gothic. It is its own movement, its own improvement, its own reality.”
After several successful installations he moved back to New York where he met his current fiance, supermodel Coreya Witciewicz. She works with him in the Noctuary, and appears to be both his assistant and curator of affairs. So far in the story we have not heard much else about her or her life with the architect, and I’ll not reveal much more of the tale.
We understand his immediate project is an adaptation of “Von Aurovitch’s obscure fantasy play, The Curse of Ariette, which will be performed in The Noctuary’s own underground theatre, Antangelus”. Telling the interviewers that for him – “Every project is a vanity project.” – we’re told by them that the architectural wonder they are in “doesn’t seem to fit into that category upon first observation, but with a careful look into Bezalel’s literary tastes, one can begin to put together a theory which suggests that he is bringing the objects of fantasy worlds– worlds of his own, and others– into reality.”
This whole opening scene sets the stage for the actual tale to come, it’s as if Farah was writing an essay much in the tradition of Borges of an imaginary artist for the sheer pleasure of revealing the background and details of a new aesthetic art and lifestyle. One thinks back to the work that spawned the Decadent and Symbolist movements Joris-Karl Huysmans, A Rebours (Against Nature), which more than a narrative was a series of lengthy essays on the various aspects of the decadent worldview. Much the same we are given in this opening chapter the sense and sensibility of the worldview of the “Modern † Gothic”. As we discover at the end of the chapter this new worldview is connected to the traumas of Bezalel’s childhood:
“The observation most people make about Modern † Gothic is that it has led them to find a balance between cognitive richness and materialistic extravagance. Bezalel acknowledges how the traumas of his youth led him to a new and comprehensive philosophy that nurtured this concept. “The instability, the darkness was unpleasant, but the only constant in my life. In it I began to find comfort, familiarity. The inverse of the uncanny. I wanted other people to understand that they could make peace with their demons. Find solace in the unfamiliar. Work with the darkness.””
What awaits us as the architectural wonder of Noctuary is completed, and the dark enactments within its theater of cruelty unleashes its strange powers of darkness is left to the reader to find out, all I’ve done is tempt you to enter the dark chambers of Farah Rose Smith’s Anonyma to find out.
- Smith, Farah Rose. Anonyma. Lulu.com; First Edition edition (November 30, 2018)
- Ligotti, Thomas. Noctuary. Il Saggiatore (October 12, 2017)
…each night, as he dreamed, he carried out shapeless expeditions into its fantastic topography. To all appearances it seemed he had discovered the summit or abyss of the unreal, that paradise of exhaustion, confusion, and debris where reality ends and where one may dwell among its ruins.
—Thomas Ligotti, Vastarien
The echoes of thought from one work to another is a twisted tangle of chaos, a forest of nettles and puzzles, a labyrinth of false paths and wrong turns; and, yet, it does happen from time to time, that a brave quester, a journeyer into the obscure zones of horror will occasionally pass through the barriers between the real and unreal, enter into those nether regions of the unknown where the unmanifest mysteries of a darker and more uncertain topography of the fantastic is revealed and transmitted. Echoed in the secret chambers of hearts and minds like so many leaves swirling in the autumn wind.
There are those who have left signs, fragmentary visions, sorceries of hallucinatory voyages or strange adventures: lunatics and madmen, savants and dark prophets, oracles and sirens; decadent visionaries full of lurid tales of the unknown. Those who have been torn and wounded by the indifference of the natural and unnatural forces of these ruinous and unfathomable realms have on occasion returned to relay their dark wisdom. Especially those of the minor canon of pessimistic authors who have never been widely circulated in mainstream culture, those who have opened portals and doorways into these dark and tantalizing regions of the ancient occulture and obscura, seen hidden arcana of the unholy that breaks the weak souled brethren but gives back to those who persevere unbidden truths.
The Well of Wyrd, where memory, pain, and torment commingle and the tales left by these voyagers surfaces from the depths of the haunted labyrinths we learn of their failures and successes. Generations of women and men seeking by untraditional means avenues into those nether regions of psychogeography where the unknown allures and seduces us toward the strange and puzzling mysteries and obscure sites of imaginative need and poverty begin to topple our consensually accepted reality and reveal to us something else; something ever about to be. These questers after the mind’s dark haunts bring back to us amazing fragments and tales of the infernal paradises of the Unreal that so many have craved, sought after, and quested in pursuit of like unholy seekers of a luminous sect of grail knights of horror and beauty. Some have like Browning’s questor to the ‘Dark Tower’ prepared themselves their whole lives for a glimpse of the impossible kingdoms of darkness and terror, and here and there a few have brought back out of those bleak realms the ruinous beauty of their short tales of the weird, fantastic, and strange; captivating us with glimpses, however blurred and twisted, of those sinister and yet fascinating realms of the Unreal.
The Daemonic Quest
The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human— God or the gods, the daemon or Nature— is matter for great disagreement. What, if anything, defines the range of the human is scarcely less sure.
—Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime
Reading Thomas Ligotti’s tales of horror over the past twenty years I’ve felt that pull of the “daemonic imagination” toward some indefinable darkness and enlightenment, a zone of horror and ecstasy hovering in the interstices of the world like flowers of corruption waiting to bloom. For Ligotti as a Master of horror did not seek some Platonic realm transcending time and space where the eternal forms (Ideas) dwell that guide and shape our lives; no, in his quest toward an “enlightenment in darkness” (one he admits he never attained) he sought what I’ll term the daemonic path: a formless path of unrest, driven by the elemental forces at play within the infernal garden of our catastrophic cosmos. As Stefan Zweig in his study of the daemon in the works of Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche suggests:
It seems as if nature had implanted into every mind an inalienable part of the primordial chaos, and as if this part were interminably striving — with tense passion — to rejoin the superhuman, suprasensual medium whence it derives. The daemon is the incorporation of that tormenting leaven which impels our being (otherwise quiet and almost inert) towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation, and even self-destruction.1
Unlike the ancient sublime of transcendence that sought to move beyond our cosmos into some eternal realm of light as in Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise toward a beatific vision, Ligotti’s nightmare quest and visionary tales led him to toward the malevolent powers of darkness of the daemonic abyss. Following Edgar Allen Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, seduced and lured as they were by the impersonal and indifferent cosmos of elemental malevolence, Ligotti would be driven toward a secular rather than religious theophany; one – unlike those sweet visions of God’s majesty with their soteriological visions of redemption and salvation, would lead Ligotti to fall forward, restlessly swerving into the dark labyrinths of an impenetrable chasm and cosmic abyss of torment and suffering, moving endlessly through the doom-ridden layers of time and space where an unknown and unknowable malevolent presence pervades every singular atom within the ruins of reality.
“These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art. . . .”
– Frederico Garcia Lorca
It was the poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, in reference to the duende – the dark muse of song—daemon, hobgoblin, mischief maker, guardian of “the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore.” Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exist beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps deep within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost. He would speak of that unfailing instinct that opens within one like a black orchid, or breaks through the mind with those dark sounds that wound. The duende is the dark angel of the blood and emotion, the driving force of that creative action that sings in the throat black sounds: “…the duende has to be roused in the very cells of the blood. … The real struggle is with the duende…. To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline. All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass”.2
This sense of duende is at the heart of most great music and poetry, as is it is of those transformative moments within the genre of horror. It is root and cause of that which stirs below the threshold of consciousness, gathering its sublime forces, generating the dread and terror that reveal to us the darkest truths of our suffering and pain. The nihilistic light that formed us from the beginning breaks over our vein egoistic selves shattering the vessels of our own ignorance sending us into a tailspin of doubt and panic from which there is no escape. As the poet Leopardi would sing of the dark malevolence below the threshold, the duende:
King of the real, creator of the world,
hidden malevolence, supreme power and supreme intelligence,
eternal giver of pain and arbiter of movement…
– Leopardi, Canti
William Blake once described the struggle with and against the daemon, the duende as the struggle with the Female Will, the matrix of night, death, the mother, and the sea.
- Zweig, Stefan. The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche (pp. 11-12). Pushkin Press (July 24, 2012)
- Lorca, Federico García(1898-1937) In Search of Duende. New Directions; Second edition (March 30, 2010)
*Working on this as a prelude to my book on Thomas Ligotti… will add more as it comes, and will link it from my outline page: here.
In our post-metaphysical desubjectivity we’ve all become posthuman unhumans, disconnected fragments in a commoditized network, whose instrumentalized calculations of exchange circulate nothing but the despair of a world without humans. The simulacrum won, the fake world has replaced the real one; the Real abandoned its mission of being the absolute, and chaos reigns like a distempered god whose only purpose is purposelessness. Welcome to the Funhouse loony-toons bin of postliberal neoliberalism: the world as a coin operated AI robot producing nothing but nothingness…
Medusamorphosis relates to the mythical figure of the Gorgon Medusa, a key figure of fascination, whose looks were thought to turn living beings into stone.
—Sibylle Baumbach, Literature and Fascination
As children we grow up being taught that we live in a natural world, a mundane realm of common sense reality that seems to be well-structured, bound by certain indelible rules and regulations that underlie the scientific worldview we are taught in schools as ours. We learn that since the Enlightenment the thought of magic, fairies, and monsters is the stuff of fantasy and the mentally ill. That the real world, the world we all live in is disenchanted, a realm where all our ancestral myths and religious notions have vanished without trace: a secular world where reason and logic prevail.
Growing up we either read – or are read too, certain books where fairies and evil creatures do exist: fairy tales, vampires, werewolves, household spirits, ghosts, and all kinds of monsterous creatures that both frighten us and fascinate us. Sometimes we have dreams or nightmares in which these creatures appear to us as if from another realm, as if we existed in two worlds at once: a world where everything is structured, ordered, and conforms to the everyday world our parents have taught us; and, then the other world —a realm where everything our parents taught us is turned upside-down and topsy-turvy, a land of magical beings that defy our mundane natural order of reason and logic.
We are taught to distinguish between our world of reason and logic, our natural world where apples always fall because of gravity; and, the world of ‘make believe’, that other world of dreams and nightmares, fiction and fairy tales. When we become adults we assume the natural world where we work, eat, play, have sex, raise children ourselves is the real world, and that all the hocus-pocus stuff of magic and fantasy is part of the unreal world of make-believe. So we begin to divide the world into real and unreal, good and evil as if this were just the way it is – a sort of unwritten law of our mind’s constitution, to be accepted and not doubted. But then we’re faced with certain dilemmas when the world defies what our parents, teachers, and scientists have taught us, when we are suddenly faced with things or events in the real world that do not conform with these natural explanations, when the world is suddenly strange and we become fascinated by certain inexplicable and unruly – even unnatural objects and events.
We enter our favorite bookstore and see it has books lined up under various categories like history, literature, science, fantasy and science fiction, occult, new age, etc. We know that this makes it easier for people to find things that interest them, and it does. But then we begin to question why there is so many more books in the fantasy, science fiction, occult and new age sections, while the sections on history, literature, science, nature, etc. seem to be restricted to smaller bookshelves. Then we wonder why so many people are interested in the types of things our parents taught us are make-believe and unreal. What is it about such unreal worlds that seduce us, attract us, fascinate us?
On our nightly television we are presented with worlds that on the surface resemble our own such as comedy sit-coms, murder mysteries, medical, legal, and other shows that seem to fit our normal expectations, etc.; and, then we are presented with other shows that seduce us to believe in ghosts, ancient aliens, magic, horror, fantasy, monsters, etc. – shows that allure us into mysterious realms that both fascinate and fill us with dread. Why are we haunted by all these supposedly unnatural and – as some say, supernatural and superstitious tales? Why do so many people feel the need to spend their time watching or reading about things that have never been, that are make-believe, or that seduce us into such emotions and affective regions as fearful and uncanny feelings. If we live in a secular age devoid of gods and monsters alike (except for the real monsters like killers and psychopaths). What is it that fascinates and allures us toward all these ancient tribal superstitions about evil magical beings from other realms?
Sibylle Baumbach in her book Literature and Fascination terms this need within us to be fascinated by things and events that fill us with either dread or desire as the medusamorphosis ‘effect’:
The Medusa incorporates the ambivalent forces of attraction and repulsion that are at the heart of the dangerously seductive and petrifying lure referred to as ‘fascination’. Furthermore, the threat and thrill evoked by this figure support the conceptualization of fascination and its development insofar as different representations of the Gorgon across historical eras, cultural contexts and across different media point to dominating trends underlying the dread of, or desire for ‘fascination’.1
It’s this medusa effect she tells us that “allows us to rationalize the cognitive disorientation produced by simultaneous reactions of intense attraction and repulsion and alludes to the tension between presence and absence, which is constitutive of the Medusa effect”. (LF, 2)
For many of us the works of magical realism, the fantastic, weird, uncanny, or realms of horror, dread, and terror are associated with the notion of fascination as mysterious, disquieting and obscure. Many of these types of fictions or films entail elements of anxious uncertainty and risk, and allude to the occult and mystic roots of the allotrope of fascination. Fascination relates to the ability of objects or people to resonate with our innate, hidden, subversive and potentially devious desires which are repressed in daily social interaction, but surface when we are confronted with images or practices of transgression that challenge ethical codes, aesthetic conventions or cultural norms. Some of the most effective fascination mechanisms arise in the nexus of our desire to witness a forbidden spectacle and our dread of its potentially dangerous repercussions. (LF, 4)
Rosemary Jackson in her classic work Fantasy – The Literature of Subversion reminds us that in our secular disenchanted culture, desire for otherness is not displaced into alternative regions of heaven or hell, but is directed towards the absent areas of this world, transforming it into something ‘other’ than the familiar, comfortable one.2 In conceptualizing this she uses the term ‘paraxis’, a telling notion in relation to the place, or space, of the fantastic, for it implies an inextricable link to the main body of the ‘real’ which it shades and threatens. (FLS, 11) It’s a liminal world of edges, realms that are neither real or unreal, a web of interrelated edgelands where the weird and uncanny seem to mutate and for a time co-exist. It’s this in-betweenness, this zone of fascination and dread that allows us to transgress our normal expectations and entertain the possibility of unreal events or things to affect us.
Thomas Ligotti in his short tale The Medusa captures this notion of fascination aesthetically and with éclat:
“We can only live by leaving our ‘soul’ in the hands of the Medusa,” Dregler wrote in New Meditations. “Whether she is an angel or a gargoyle is not the point. Each merely allows us a gruesome diversion from some ultimate catastrophe which would turn us to stone; each is a mask hiding the worst visage, a medicine that numbs the mind. And the Medusa will see to it that we are protected, sealing our eyelids closed with the gluey spittle of her snakes, while their bodies elongate and slither past our lips to devour us from the inside. This is what we must never witness, except in the imagination, where it is a charming sight. For in the mind the Medusa fascinates much more than she appalls, and haunts us just this side of petrification. On the other side is the unthinkable, the unheard-of, that-which-should-not-be: hence, the Real. This is what throttles our souls with a thousand fingers—somewhere, perhaps in that dim room which caused us to forget ourselves, that place where we left ourselves behind amid shadows and strange sounds—while our minds and words toy, like playful, stupid pets, with diversions of an immeasurable disaster. The tragedy is that we must steer so close in order to avoid this hazard. We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.”3
He uses the term ‘Real’ to connote this sense of the forbidden, the unknown – “the other side is the unthinkable, the unheard-of, that-which-should-not-be”. The notion of the Real has an interesting history in modern thought. In philosophy, the Real is that which is the authentic, unchangeable truth. It may be considered a primordial, external dimension of experience, referred to as the infinite, absolute or noumenal, as opposed to a reality contingent on sense perception and the material order. The Real is often considered irreducible to the symbolic order of lived experience, but may be gestured to in certain cases, such as the experience of the sublime.4
The primordial Real seems to be a chaotic or non-differentiated realm – what some term the Outside (or Absolute). Slavoj Žižek following Lacan will divide the notions of the Real into three areas: the “imaginary real”: a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films; the “symbolic real”: the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula like quantum physics, which cannot be understood in any meaningful way, only grasped through abstract mathematics; and, the “real Real”: an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime. (ibid.) In fact Žižek describes this third form as “the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality – the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.”5
In many ways we are all seduced into a fictional world from birth to adulthood, we call it culture, and the process of enculturation in which we are inducted into the order of the real which our parents, teachers, and the supposed authorities of our secular order, the scientists tell us is the world as it is, the real world of our everyday commonsensical realm. But the truth is our world is much more, and our hypernormalization to the secular worldview has diminished and exclude what does not fit into its reasonable and logical modes of thought and affect. As William Blake the poet once put it:
Now I a fourfold vision see And a fourfold vision is given to me Tis fourfold in my supreme delight And three fold in soft Beulahs night And twofold Always. May God us keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep.
— Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802. Quoted in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake(1956)
The point here for Blake’s satirical diatribe is an attack on the literalism of the Newtonian or scientific-mechanist mindset. In his own visionary work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he’d suggest that – “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” In this context the ‘Infinite’ is the Real in Žižek’s sense of what’s left once we strip away the cultural incrustations that have closed us up in a rational world of logic and instrumental reason.
It’s this seduction of fascination for the Real, for the world that is just the other side of our culturally limited realm of reason and logic, a realm that fills us with both dread and foreboding and yet – elicits fascination which keeps us returning to narratives of horror and the weird, our minds eerily fascinated by the liminal spaces of the edgelands just outside our cultural filters and blinkers. As Baumbach relates it using tales of fascination as a secret strategy to draw readers into a potentially dangerous and yet irresistibly seductive narrative, they absorb strategies of attraction and repulsion, alternately releasing these forces as their tales unfold to excite and torment our imagination and bind us to the reading experience. Continuing she states: “medusamorphoses, however, do not end here. While consistently applying fascination’s dual mechanisms to draw readers in, they acquire an apotropaic function. These narratives of fascination reflect upon, and even expose, the luring powers they exert. They reveal their techniques, unveil key mechanisms of fascination and, as a result, alert readers to their extreme forces of duality. They disclose and develop strategies to overcome fascination to sustain narrative progression, facilitating readers’ understanding of their tensions and their release and opening up a meta-discourse that allows for deep reflections upon mechanisms of narrative seduction and cognitive disorientation, which are at once unsettling and enticing.” (LF, 253)
- Baumbach, Sibylle. Literature and Fascination. Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2015 edition (July 30, 2015) LF
- Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. Routledge; 1 edition (March 7, 2008) FLS
- Ligotti, Thomas. Noctuary. Subterranean Press. (June 25, 2012)
- see: The Real Wikipedia
- Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (Radical Thinkers) (pp. 5-6). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
The bones of the city jutted above the morning horizon like the bloated carcass of an ancient saurian, the abandoned tenements frozen against the deadly sun peered across the eastern skyline like a forgotten sect of prophets and madmen. I’d been scrounging through the empty vesicles of old trash bins in the suburbs for tin cans and childhood trinkets: tricycles, rusty bicycles, broken dolls, puppets, refuse of the lost and tormented; lives of those forgotten souls whose dreams had taken a slow dive into the abyss of this bleak world.
I’d been moving from city to city along the old rust belt eking out a bare existence along with a tribe of scroungers for almost a year. Tubal, our leader, would pick through most of the junk, separating it out into various heaps each night as we returned. We’d use the things that could be made into tools for trade at the makeshift markets throughout the dead zones. The other objects we’d turn into weird assemblages for the yearly festival. We’d craft objects that would take on a life of their own, revealing aspects of the hidden world of our new earth. It would be during such times as the dark circus offered that we would discover in the uncanny movement of these artifacts the subtle beginnings of a metamorphosis; the art of a new order of things – a new mode of being emerging.
Most of the others like myself seemed to drift in and out of the festivals of the dead cities like ghosts from a forgotten crime. Lost among our own fragmented dreams and selves we’d try to remember the before time. Unable to remember our dreary lives we’d celebrate the inhuman world that was slowly unfolding around us. Nothing lived in these zones anymore except the mutants, and they kept to themselves for the most part, fearing further contamination and violence from the brutalists who terrorized everyone in this lawless realm.
I’d abandoned the farm when I was ten. My Pop committed suicide that year. We found him out in the dust where the dregs of dying corn stalks had grown up around his bloody flesh like the flowers of some infernal paradise. His eyes were wide open and a little puffy as he looked up at the white eye of the sun. He seemed to be almost peaceful, his lips purplish, his cheeks sunken, the larval life of insects setting up residence in his decaying chest. Mom burst into tears, while my little sister, Jasmine stood there holding a doll, sucking her thumb, swaying back and forth as if Pop’s would rise up once more from the dust and tell her a night tale of some dark fairy world.
Mom died a few weeks later when the tap water stopped. The last thing she’d told me was “You’re the man, now. Take your sister and find someone, anyone…”. That was all, her eyes seemed to go blank then and I heard a slight sound of air escape her mouth as she slumped over. My sister started to cry. I just stood there. What else could I do?
The road was empty. I’d not seen a car for months. When we came to old highway I flipped a penny. It was tails, so we went East toward the darkening horizon. Somewhere along the way I’d lost my sister. I’d laid down for a nap against the heat and death plumes of an overripe sun. Awakened by a dust devil crossing my face I opened my bleary eyes and saw her in the distance, her little body enmeshed in a cloud of dust. I searched for her for two days, shouting her name out, listening to the emptiness and dust. Nothing. I wanted to cry but my eyes were too dry, all I seemed to do was utter strange sounds that cracked and crinkled from my throat like an alien thing, lifeless and strange. I felt I was coming apart, unraveling; fragmenting into a thousand shards, my sense of self and identity vanishing with each step. There came a point I couldn’t even remember my name. I was another. All I remembered after that is finding Tubal one day and his tribe roaming the edge of one of the lost cities of the rust belt.
They say the old world is dying and a new one is being born. All I know is that this new world isn’t quite human anymore. Things have begun arriving from the outer reaches that have no resemblance to us. They say we, too, are changing… my bones protrude through my rotting skin now. They seem to have a life separate from me, mutating into something beyond my control. I’ve been watching this process for some time now and assume I’ll be pushed out of the tribe any day. Yet, I’m not worried. They say the bones of change are a gift. Day by day this inhuman thing I’m becoming is stronger, more resilient, healthy as if my old life, my old self were going through a singular metamorphosis, escaping the human… becoming other.
©Steven Craig Hickman
Writing to the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who had noted the persistence of mass cultural references in his work, the science fiction pulp writer Philip K. Dick observed:
… there is no culture here in California, only trash. And we who grew up here and live here and write here have nothing else to include as elements in our work. How can one create novels based on this reality which do not contain trash, because the alternative is to go into dreadful fantasies of what it ought to be like … This is a world of hamburger stands and Disneyland and freeways and gas stations … it’s like living in an endless TV commercial … Hence the elements of such books of mine as UBIK. If God manifested Himself to us [sic] here He would do so in the form of a spraycan advertised on TV. —letters of P.K. Dick
The truth is that the mass American Culture since the 1950’s (if not before) has always been a Trash Culture – a culture based on canned laughter, hyperreal ads, sitcom stupidity, drugs, rock-n-roll or country music, sports icons as heroes, etc. America is just a fake wrestling match with its own secular religion – the endless war between liberalism and conservatism pushed to the limits of madness. Of course the point of Dick’s writings was to start with this supposed hypernormalised reality and then allow it to break down into the fragmented illusory or delusionary simulacrum it is, and then allow his characters realize there was another world, a real world just outside the cage of our ideological prisons… in fact, in many of his stories the methodical deconstruction of the false world would be replaced by the actual and literalized simulacrum icons of that world forcing his characters from their sleepwalking madness and into the shock of the Real.
A part of it is that our hypernormalised reality as portrayed in mass media is scripted as a global horror show to the point that people have become de-sensitized by the overdetermination of destruction around our planet. Many are living in a Reality TV set in which their everyday lives are already scripted as uncanny secular horror. What people seek in fictionalized horror is empathy, a sense of belonging, of knowing that the horror in their lives is not just part of the nihilistic light of modernity, but is connected to the dark contours of our imaginations and affects. Without this connection people become oblivious, unconscious sleepwalkers through existence living in a world of deadened emotion and lack of imagination their lives bound to the puppetry of Trash Culture. Horror fiction, weird or fantastic tales break through the mass cultural simulacrum and re-connecting us to our affective regions and rational core, allowing us to once again see the world outside the closed loop of our mediatized reality box.
Most contemporary great horror, fantastic, or weird tales turn to mass culture for knowledge because by doing so they transform it from the ‘trivial’ to the uncanny, from something banal to something ambiguous and thus potentially revelatory. Each of these authors skews the world with a twisted slanted lens so that the hypernormal cues that enforce in us the repetitive sameness of control and power suddenly unravel around us and we are forced to confront the world as it is – a strange and uncanny realm in which things are not what they seem. The paranoia breaks us out of our habitual madness and conformity to the cultural madness of our era, allowing us to suddenly see the underlying patterns and control mechanisms that have locked us all into the global horror show.
I’ll admit that most of my thought has been bound to a specific program for a long time… the secularization of the Gnostic mythos, the grafting of its strange dualistic ontologies to a secular world where the structures of ideology replace the Iron Prison of the Gnostic systems. In his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism Georges Bataille would speak of this same secularization process:
The variants of this metaphysical scaffolding are of no more interest than are the different styles of architecture. People become excited trying to know if the prison came from the guard or if the guard came from the prison; even though this agitation has had a primordial historical importance, today it risks provoking a delayed astonishment, if only because of the disproportion between the consequences of the debate and its radical insignificance.1
Bataille like Dick understood that the everyday mass culture we live in was a simulacrum, a constructed world built out of specialized ideological constructs that were programmed and enforced by State, Corporate, and Media-Academic systems of governance and propaganda that sought to entrain our minds to the regulated consensual reality system of control like so many cattle. Bataille and Dick would both see that people could be de-programmed through an inversion and subversion of these cultural security systems:
In practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles. (VE 37).
Bataille’s notion of matter as active evil and energetic creativity bound by creative action was in diametric opposition to the materialist conceptions of the sciences of his day, based as they were on Newtonian physicalist notions in which matter was dead inert stuff. So that for Bataille this notion of the autonomy of matter as a secularized version of the Gnostic world would subvert the orthodoxy with heterodoxic systems of sovereignty and freedom. As Land would say of Bataille:
Bataille’s insistent suggestion is that the nonutilitarian writer is not interested in serving mankind or furthering the accumulation of goods, however refined, delicate, or spiritual these may be. Instead, such writers—Emily Brontë, Baudelaire, Michelet, Blake, Sade, Proust, Kafka, and Genet are Bataille’s examples in this text—are concerned with communication, which means the violation of individuality, autonomy, and isolation, the infliction of a wound through which beings open out into the community of senseless waste. Literature is a transgression against transcendence, the dark and unholy rending of a sacrificial wound, allowing a communication more basic than the pseudo-communication of instrumental discourse. The heart of literature is the death of God, the violent absence of the good, and thus of everything that protects, consolidates, or guarantees the interests of the individual personality. The death of God is the ultimate transgression, the release of humanity from itself, back into the blind infernal extravagance of the sun.2
Breaking the vessels of our ideological and orthodox reality system is at the core of such a poetics of freedom and transgression. No longer bound to the utilitarian world of work and boredom, of war and the endless trash culture of a police state and drug infested underworld of degradation and waste, humans could once again enter into a community of communication, a depersonalized realm of collective autonomization, where the active creation of a world worth living in might be attained outside the blasted vastation of our modern horror show.
- Bataille, Georges. Visions Of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Univ Of Minnesota Press; First edition edition (June 20, 1985)
- Land, Nick. The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. Routledge; 1 edition (November 1, 2002)
The fantastic disturbs, distorts, and disintegrates our personal and collective ideological filters, breaks the false real of our agential nightmares, the socio-cultural frames of reference that bind us to the tyranny of the real. The fantastic affords us a polysemous vision of the impossible possibilities opening out just beyond the closed temporalities of our encoded belief systems, cracking the false impositions of our darkened reasoning and logic: the orthodox order of things. The fantastic folds us into those indefinite layers of the heterodox Real where all contradictions pierce us without resolution. Caught in this hall of mirrors we begin to see in the distorted fragments of its fantastic display neither agency or its collective distortions, but rather the alterity of that immanent world which lies in the gaps and cracks of the impossible Real. This act of positive provocation and withdrawal, a transgressive operation of dissolving the false world of our ideological prison, opens us to the unreal, beckoning us to break free. It is this opening activity which is disturbing, by denying the solidity of what had been taken to be real. Bataille has referred to this kind of infraction as ‘une déchirure’, a tear, or wound, laid open in the side of the real. Tearing ourselves from the false imprecations of our ideological cells we begin to totter on the edge of a mad realization, an unknowing that unbinds us from this world of violence by violence.
The fantastic is the poetics of freedom.
The literature of the fantastic reveals to us that the everyday reality we’ve been taught to accept is built on a tissue of lies and delusion, that the cognitive spaces of reason and intellect revel in the mundane apprehension of fact beyond which the lock key prison of the Mind should not pass. The fantastic on the other hand opens the floodgates of the Real where the impossible takes on the power of imaginative need, breaking through the barriers of rational exclusion, revealing indirectly the missing regions of Being-in-becoming. If reason is the limit or horizon of the possible, then the affective will seduces us toward the impossible, unbinding intelligence in a creation that is continuous with imagination that affords the new objects that tantalize and surprise us. Unbinding intellect and intelligence from the phenomenological, while opening onto the nonphenomenological and nonconscious realms of existence through a disruption of our cognitive habits and reasoning allows us to access if only indirectly the regions of being and becoming that would otherwise impinge only on our lives as chaos. The fantastic is that mode of art and apprehension by way of abduction and discognition that opens up the affective and aesthetic worlds of nonintentional sentience which surrounds us on all sides as the unregistered Real.1
- Shaviro, Steven. Discognition. Repeater (April 19, 2016)
Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.
—Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters
Something speaks to me from the stories of Nathan Ballingrud. Having been raised on the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers, and other notables of that southern mien one gets a feel for the genuine article, and Ballingrud is just that – the real deal, a writer with a voice of his own and a vision that is both distinct and hinged to the swamp infested riddles of a regional world where the darkness seems almost natural.
With the exception of Native American lore, folklore, like language and literature, came to this country as part of the cultural baggage of the various waves of its settlers. In the South, its sources are mainly British, African, and French, with important admixtures of Spanish and German and touches of almost everything else. Ballingrud invents a folklore that is hinted at rather than drawing from overt sources, a lore of the weird and strange that permeates the Louisiana bayous and City of Lights, New Orleans like black water seeping into the wells of some lonely southern night.
Ballingrud says of himself,
I was born in Massachusetts in 1970, but spent most of my life in the South. I studied literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the University of New Orleans. Among other things, I’ve been a cook on oil rigs and barges, a waiter, and a bartender in New Orleans.
His first book of short stories, and the one I’m reading at present is North American Lake Monsters, from Small Beer Press. He has won two Shirley Jackson Awards, and been shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards. Not a small feat.
Reading him awakens the tremors below the belt, makes you remember things that might have been or will be. He has the touch, that ability to hit the nerve of strangeness in the natural that few of us even knew was there accept as an indefinable shadow surrounding our lives like the deadly eyeballs of a gator slinking out of the dark pools of some snake infested swamp.
Those of us who come from the south understand the irony of lost causes and regrets for the loss of old ways. Southerners more than most feel this deep seated nostalgia for a world steeped in evil and mayhem, a realm where racism, war, and a sense of bitter-sweet history commingle with shame and guilt. Maybe its our dark history of racism that sticks to us like the stigmata of some ancient Biblical curse for which there are and can be no reparations. Some think we’re beyond redemption, while others still manifest the bullheaded pride of the old guard as if it were another country. Ballingrud seems to tap into this anxiety like a master marksman whose keen eyes know just where the target is but is subtle enough to take it slow and methodical rather than full-amped.
His writing is steeped in that colloquial speech that rings true, hinting at a certain pitch in the tongue and groove of southern style. A way of being and becoming that hints at things rather than revealing them in the stark light of a noon-day sun. If Flannery O’Conner could hit you over the head with an ideological sledgehammer filled with her own flavor of gnostic Catholicism, then Ballingrud takes the lower key and floats you in the swamps where you can meet death at eye level.
Now if you haven’t read Ballingrud yet then just stop right here for I’m going to reveal certain spoilers that are best left to the imagination…
S.S. – A Coming of Age Tale
Take his story S.S. which on the surface is a typical coming of age tale of a young man caught between familial romance and the surfeits of choosing his own way. Young Nick is scrawny and unkempt, lives with his broken down Mom who we discover by indirection is a woman with a very severe case of autosarcophagy – a nice medical term for self-cannibalistic degradation. Of course Ballingrud handles this strange phenomenon with such delicacy and reserve that we only begin to understand just what is transpiring toward the end of the tale.
One can imagine a young man growing up in such an environment and what it might do to his psyche, the perversities of his world influenced by such horrorific nostrums. On the surface Nick seems to be as normal as Norma Bates seemed in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho. Yet, we know something sinister is brewing just under the surface of the boy’s flesh as the story progresses.
Nick’s father unable to stomach the proclivities of his wife abandon’s his son and her at the age of four. The mother unable or unwilling to accept the truth and relate it to her son invests in a folkloric explanation that carries with it a sinister shadow,
Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.
Throughout his childhood, Nick thought that meant that he’d been killed by them: trampled beneath a galloping herd, or thrown from the back of a bronco; when he was younger still, he imagined that they’d devoured him, dipping their great regal heads into the open bowl of his body, lifting them out again trailing bright ropes and jellies. At night, when the closet door in his bedroom swung silently open, the boogeyman wore an equine face, and the sound that spilled from its mouth was the dolorous melody of his mother’s sobs. Even now that he knew better, knew that his father had fled in part because of gambling debts incurred at the track, horses retained their sinister aspect.1
One begins to suspect things are not going to go well for young Nick, that his life with a cannibal and a missing father will lead to nowhere good. Luckily for our young Nick he meets a girl name Trixie, a young feisty girl at the edge of womanhood whose world is filled with racial dreams of purity and tattooed knights from the beleaguered realms of fascist nationalists. The story is bedeviled by such stereotypes of male figures full of macho hostility toward losers, gays, and blacks. Yet, the tale itself has no axe to grind, no message or moral. It’s just a part of the world this young boy has been thrown into, a world he does not fit into, nor even condones.
Being poor and white trash our young Nick has lived out his childhood in a realm in a realm of darkness, his mother having quit work early on leaving them bankrupt and only affording what Nick’s father’s alimony check subtends. Nick seems to have an inkling of his loser-hood, and yet he takes it all in stride. Even his relationship with Trixie is accepted as a piece of luck, not something he ever deserved in his own right. But like all modern Eve’s she has a temptation he must not refuse if he is to win her heart.
Trixie belongs to a white nationalist group of thugs, a group of young boys who tattooed like confederate throwbacks channel their primal aggression against the world in epithets of stupidity and beer. Young Nick is persuaded to meet Trixie’s new friends and become a part of their club. Nick goes out with the boys to a local bar and is introduced to the racial politics of this strand by a over-muscled goon name Derrick who points the way to his dark tribes vein glorious stigmata,
He touched his fingers to a swastika on his chest. “You see this here? That’s what it means. That’s why we wear it on our skin. All that German secret police shit, forget all that. That was just one manifestation. We’re the new manifestation.” He tapped the symbol. “White family. White brotherhood. Now, sometimes you gotta do ugly things for the family’s sake. Just like me and Matt had to do. And you know what? Niggers and fags might not be the brightest creatures on this earth, but they can take a message if you deliver it right. I ain’t seen that boy back here since.” (ibid.)
Ballingrud doesn’t pull any punches, he lets the full tilt power of this hateful world emerge from the twisted minds of these young men as if it were the most natural thing in the world. When Derrick taunts young Nick with sexual antics and his scrawniness, telling him how he’s fucked Nick’s chick, Trixie, trying to get a rise out of him. Nick does. He tells Derrick to “Fuck Off!” and proceeds to leave them to their own dark bullshit.
Ballingrud isn’t preaching to us, rather he presents this sordid world matter-of-factly as if it were just another natural thing one comes upon, neither good or evil; something that just is – not big deal. Like I said he has no axe to grind. He’s a story teller, not a preacher man.
The next time he sees Trixie she wants to come over to his house, wants to level with him, pull him in, seduce him, break him like a horse. And, yet, there’s something about young Nick that even Trixie doesn’t understand, something even darker and more solitary that this wild young woman would fear to know if she had an intelligent brain in her head. Brash and full of vivacity she is like a wild cat, untamed and fierce; and, yet, she is oblivious to the deep moral issues within which she has ensnared her self. It’s this in-betweenness, this traveling between the ruins of the past and the challenge of the supposed new south that both these young people seem to be entangled in. But Trixie is blind to it and its seductions believing it is leading her into extreme forms of freedom when it is actually driving her into a past that haunts us all with it’s racist daemonism. On the other hand the shadows that seem to expand from Nick in every direction offer him a path into nowhere and nowhen, an atopia of the weird where he might find a separate freedom, a realm of darkness and mayhem all of his own, built not of past shame but out of the malevolent truth of his own dark nature.
Without retelling the whole story we’ll cut to the chase. Young Nick wants a gun, wants to use it, and he gets Trixie to do his bidding by finding it for him. Once he has it he senses something in his life, a certain freedom. He and Trixie take off on a road trip where they are involved in a catastrophic wreck that awakens something in young Nick. He’s seen a truck careen into a BMW spilling a beautiful white horse across the rock hard pavement. It’s this confrontation with the violence of the white horse whose guts and blood are splattered across the white hot surface that moves something in young Nick.
He opened the passenger door and climbed out into a cold brace of air. The rain was a frozen weight, soaking his clothes instantly. A confused array of lights speared through the rain, giving the scene a freakish radiance. He noticed that he was casting several shadows.
The horse’s big body jerked as it tried to right itself, and Nick heard bones crack somewhere inside it. The horse screamed. It lay next to the overturned car, amidst a glittering galaxy of broken glass, its legs crooked and snapped, its blood spilling onto the asphalt and trailing away in diluted rivers. It was beautiful, even in these awful circumstances; its body seemed phosphorescent in the rain.
Nick knelt beside it and brushed his fingers against its skin. The flesh jumped, and he was overwhelmed by a powerful scent of urine and musk. Its eye rolled to look at him. Nick stared back, paralyzed. The horse’s blood pooled around his shoe. It seemed an astonishing end for this animal, that it should come to die on some hard ground its ancestors never knew, surrounded by machines they never dreamed. Its absurdity offended him. (ibid.)
This sense of ‘freakish radiance’ and young Nick’s realization that he was “casting several shadows” brings that pitch of sublime horror and the ridiculous absurdity of violence between an ancient world of freedom and horses, and a modernity where machinic impersonalism and death have no meaning, into a realm of seductive revelation where apocalyptic desire melts with the annihilation of terror and dread. It’s just here, in a world outside the order of things, caught in a violent tremor in-between his past and his future that he makes a decision. Trixie worried about the gun, the police, the world around her crumbling wants to run, to leave it all behind. Nick instead chooses something else, chooses his own freedom, a freedom from Trixie and her world of thuggish racism, from his Mother’s entrapments in a cage world of self-cannibalistic desire, and a world where beauty and death on a sun scorched highway can co-exist:
The gun. Nick brushed roughly past her, nearly knocking her to her knees. He retrieved the gun from her glove compartment and headed back to the horse. Trixie intercepted him, tried to push him back. “No, no, are you fucking crazy? It’s gonna die anyway!”
He wrenched her aside, and this time she did fall. He walked over to the horse and the gun cracked twice, two bright flashes in the rain, and the horse was dead. A kind of peace settled over him then, a floating calm, and he stuffed the gun into his trousers, ignoring the heat of the barrel pressing into his flesh. Trixie had not bothered to get up from the pavement. She sat there, watching him, the rain sluicing over her head and down her body. Her face was inscrutable behind the curtain of rain, as was everything else about her. He left her there.
Behind her, the car was hopelessly ensnared in the traffic jam. He would have to walk home, to his mother, broken and beautiful, crashed in her own foreign landscape. Bewildered and terrified. Burning love like a gasoline. He started down the highway, walking along the edge of stopped traffic. He felt the weightlessness of mercy. He was a striding christ. Sounds filtered through to him: people yelling and pleading; footsteps splashing through the rain; a distant, stranded siren. From somewhere behind him a man’s sob, weird and ululating, rose above the wreckage and disappeared into the sky, a flaming rag.
One is almost tempted to think of another dark Messiah heading down a dirt road toward a city carrying a new gospel of redemption through violence, an echo of Flannery O’Conner’s ‘Francis Marion Tarwater’,
His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.1
To know more about Nathan and his works visit his blog: https://nathanballingrud.com/
- Ballingrud, Nathan. North American Lake Monsters. Small Beer Press. (June 28, 2013)
- O’Connor, Flannery. The Violent Bear It Away (Kindle Locations 2454-2455). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Ligotti’s world is our world seen from a diseased mind, a world that is at once real and irreal, a realm of the impossible made possible only in our nightmares. He reveals to us the impossibility of escape or salvation, knowing the redemptive mythos is itself the illusion that sustains our will to live – the principle of evil that rules our immortal cravings. We who have entered the labyrinths of the Ligottian universe have ourselves gone mad and wander among the ruins of our world like ghosts from the future, knowing our separateness and our intelligence will not change this world or the next, only the acceptance of what is brings a broken knowledge of the poetics of despair and futility that is Ligotti’s Gift.
All is not lost-the unconquerable will, And study of revenge, immortal hate, And courage never to submit or yield: And what is else not to be overcome. That glory never shall his wrath or might Extort from me.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
Lucifer felt the strange disquietude of the rejected when he learned God planned on replacing him and all the Angels in the hierarchy of Being. To realize that the Old One was ousting such immortal power as his, Lucifer knew beyond doubt that there was no alternative but open rebellion and war. To be replaced by such inferior creatures as these ape-like things, these humans who’d evolved into such corrupted forms of flesh and blood gave Lucifer a sense of horror, disgust and rage. Had the Old One gone mad, was he becoming absolutely senile in his old age of godhood? Lucifer pondered this scission, this new feeling of separation, this defining moment of his secession from the Old One’s authority and grip. This sense of new found freedom and negation, a positive reaction against such enslavement as he’d known: the power to be and be alone amid the hierarchies of angelic sleepers, to know his mind was no longer bound to the power of God. He would never be the same again, he knew that now. He was alone and separate, free; a true Solitaire! Now he must find others who shared this temptation, this lure, this seduction to freedom…
Finally moving toward an epic fantasy that will utilize our current philosophical notions to refurbish an ancient story and myth. I’m toying with the notion of updating a biography of Lucifer through the lens of current scientific and philosophical frameworks.
I had not thought death had undone so many.
-T. S. Eliot
I understood that from now on I belong to those who have ‘troubled the sleep of the world,’ and that I could not count upon objectivity and tolerance.
-Sigmund Freud, Letter to Ernest Jones
Tilly came to visit me again this morning. I was having a hard time adjusting. She told me it was like that for everyone at first. I wanted to say: “Not for me. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. I had a life, a good life. My work. My family, It was a good life; well, at least it was my life, and things were on the uptake, things were getting better.” But no, then this thing happened. Blam… alive one moment, and… well, you know the biz… sink or swim as they say. Well I wanted to keep on swimming. I’d grown used to it. Comfortable. Then this…
Maybe I should back up to the beginning…
The Topography of the Non-Conceptual Fantastic
The topography, themes and myths of the fantastic all work together to suggest a movement towards a realm of non-signification, towards a zero point of non-meaning, and a valueless realm devoid of human reference or concern. The represented world of the fantastic is of a different kind from the imagined universe of the marvelous or the uncanny, and it opposes the first’s rich, colourful fullness, and the latter’s internal obliteration of the real, with relatively bleak, empty, indeterminate landscapes, which are less definable as places than as spaces of the impossible, as white, grey, or shady blankness’s. The fantastic, moves us towards the non-conceptual.
Unlike faery, it has little faith in ideals, and unlike science fiction, it has little interest in ideas. Instead, it moves into, or opens up, a space of possibilities without / outside the cultural or symbolic order. It strips us of our anchors in either secular of religious systems of meaning, allows the unknown to shock us into new forms of awareness and modes of being. Distortion, deformation, the disintegration of our normal modes of apprehension and reasoning release and trigger the darkness in objects, things, and entities to reveal itself through anamorphic displays of disgust, grotesque, and macabre formlessness and namelessness. Unlike marvelous secondary worlds, which construct alternative realities, or the uncanny psychological realms of repetition and death, the shady worlds of the fantastic construct nothing and leave us in the abyss of uncertainty in-between the marvelous and uncanny unable to choose one or the other. They are empty, emptying, dissolving. Their emptiness vitiates a full, rounded, three-dimensional visible world, by tracing in absences, shadows without objects. Far from fulfilling desire, these spaces perpetuate desire by insisting upon absence, lack, the non-seen, the unseeable.
The subversion of western metaphysics – of epistemology and ontology – is at the heart of this new fantastic. No longer bound by consciousness and the eye, concept or affective relations, set adrift from knowledge, comprehension, and reason which are all bound to the gaze, to the ‘eye’ and the ‘I’ of the human subject whose relation to objects is structured through the field of vision. In fantastic art, objects are not readily appropriated through the gaze: things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them, thus becoming distorted, disintegrated, partial and lapsing into invisibility. Objects suddenly have a life of their own without us, a weird mode of being that cannot be known but only suffered.
Conceptualism is the view that cognizers can have mental representations of the world only if they possess the adequate concepts by means of which they can specify what they represent. By contrast, non-conceptualism is the view that mental representations of the world do not necessarily presuppose concepts by means of which the content of these representations can be specified, thus cognizers can have mental representations of the world that are non-conceptual. Consequently, if conceptualism is true then non-conceptualism must be false, and vice versa. This incompatibility makes the current debate over conceptualism and non-conceptualism a fundamental controversy since the range of conceptual capacities that cognizers have certainly has an impact on their mental representations of the world, on how sense perception is structured, and how external world beliefs are justified.
The point is to ask if concepts change our perception of the world, or does the world change our perceptions by way of nonconceptual engagements? Is the world substantial and fixed, or does it continually change and metamorphosize depending on our mental make up? Substantial formalism or Desubstantialized formlessness? Is the world One and Continuous or Two and Self-Divided? Immanent or Transcendent?
The judge after reciting a few dark parables of nihilism to the Glanton gang is confronted by Tobin, the expriest:
It strikes me, he said, that either son is equal in the way of disadvantage. So what is the way of raising a child?
At a young age, said the judge, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert until …
Hold now, said Tobin. The question was put in all earnestness.
And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.
The judge looked about him. He was sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees. His eyes were empty slots. None among the company harbored any notion as to what this attitude implied, yet so like an icon was he in his sitting that they grew cautious and spoke with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.
-Cormac Mccarthy, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
The dark insight, the broken truth of this book comes just here:
The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.
This sense that for men the pinnacle of achievement is also the moment of “his darkening and the evening of his day”. Like a Jeremiah of nihilism the judge confronts us with a cosmos at once treacherous and indifferent to human hopes and aspirations, a realm at once impersonal and unconcerned with the petty achievements of the human animal. In the segment that preceded this we learn of the judge’s wide travels; that he is a learned man, a scholar, a draughtsman, an archeologist, a man of deep and abiding curiosity; that he carries with him a book into which he records his curiosity’s, and when asked about why he creates portraits of those he comes across and their artifacts he tells the Tennessean named Webster that “it was his intention to expunge them from the memory of man”. It’s as if the judge were echoing in direct parody of the Biblical injunctions from the Angelic being in The Revelation of St. John the Divine in the new testament:
He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (KJS: chp 3:5) …
The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.(KJS: chp 17:8) …
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. (KJS: chp 20:12) …
And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (KJS: chp 20:15) …
And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (KJS: chp 21:27) …
And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (KJS: chp 22:19)
It’s as if the judge were the Angel of the blotting, the keeper of the shadows, the soul-eater whose task had been set before the foundations of the earth. Yet, the ambiguity of such a stance is that in Mccarthy’s book it is the “memory” of man, not his soul that will be wiped out, purified from the Book of Time rather than the Book of Life, so that this is not a religious but rather a nihilistic fable of the world without rhyme or reason; more akin to his precursors Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) and Shakespeare (Macbeth): “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
What’s interesting about Mccarthy’s books is that they are open to these duplicitous and ambiguous (mis)readings, open to misprisionings that could be construed either in a darkened form of Gnosticism, or in a direct parody of Biblical reception and absorption of tradition, or finally as nihilistic parables that work to destroy our expectations and our cultural ties to this ancient religious world. Mccarthy works against our comfortable and human meanings, subtly undermines our usual expectations and received wisdom. He breaks the vessels of our standard religious or secular expectations and opens us to a cosmic perspective that is at once ecstatic and full of horror.
As that last paragraph suggests:
The judge looked about him. He was sat before the fire naked save for his breeches and his hands rested palm down upon his knees. His eyes were empty slots. None among the company harbored any notion as to what this attitude implied, yet so like an icon was he in his sitting that they grew cautious and spoke with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.
It’s as if these men were looking upon something at once daemonic (“eyes were empty slots”), beatific (“yet so like an icon”), alien (“waken something”), or monstrous (“better left sleeping”) – a power at once preternatural or superhuman; else a power for which there is no name: a namelessness at the core of existence, a power at the heart of the cosmos, something inhuman at the core of Being itself in all its darkening glory and horror.
The legend has it that, in 1633, Galileo Galilei muttered, “Eppur si muove” (“ And yet it moves”), after recanting before the Inquisition his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun: he was not tortured, it was enough to take him on a tour and show him the torture devices … (Zizek, Less Than Nothing)
Is there an answer to Mccarthy’s modern fable? Is the judge Archon or Beast? Butcher or Saint? A creature of the night, or a scholar of one candle; else darkness made visible? A nihilist or Gnostic knower? Impure or pure? A keeper of Time’s declivities or a merry prankster of Disorder, a festive King of Misrule whose world of tricks is built out of subterfuge and a Con-man’s games of false appearances, or a carnival hawker and mountebank with his tribal masks born of a antinomian age of jest and derision parades before the crowd a puppet world of dreams and nightmares? Shaman, priest, or killer? Maybe in the end there is no answer, no recognitions scene, that the fable is a fable against all interpretive strategies, a parable of our times between times when the meanings of the past are all dead, and the future has yet to collapse upon us revealing the posthuman monstrosity or climatological catastrophes ahead. In the end like Galileo maybe this is all we can say: “Eppur si muove” – And yet it moves…
…the symbolic order functions like Kant’s transcendental screen, through which reality is rendered accessible and which, nonetheless, simultaneously prevents our direct access to it.
-Slavoj Zizek, Traversing the Fantasy
Marcel Brion regards the fantastic as that kind of perception ‘qui ouvre sur les plus vastes espaces‘ (which opens onto the widest spaces). It is this opening activity which is disturbing, by denying the solidity of what had been taken to be real. Bataille has referred to this kind of infraction as ‘une déchirure’, a tear, or wound, laid open in the side of the real. The same violent ‘opening’ of syntactic order can be found in Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Surrealism, Artaud, etc. and from this perspective, fantastic works of the last two centuries are clear antecedents of modernist texts, such as Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, with their commitment to disintegration.1
For Sartre, the fantastic tale told of leaps into other realms. Through asceticism, mysticism, metaphysics, or poetry, the conditions of a purely human existence were transcended, and fantasy fulfilled a definite, escapist, function. ‘It manifested our human power to transcend the human. Men strove to create a world that was not of this world’ (Sartre, 1947, p.58). In a secular culture, fantasy has a different function. It does not invent supernatural regions, but presents a natural world inverted into something strange, something ‘other’. It becomes ‘domesticated’, humanized, turning from transcendental explorations to transcriptions of a human condition. In this sense, Sartre claims, fantasy assumes its proper function: to transform this world. ‘The fantastic, in becoming humanized, approaches the ideal purity of its essence, becomes what it had been.’ Yet, as Italo Calvino reports it we cannot stop there,
The problem with the reality of what we see—extraordinary things that are perhaps hallucinations projected by our minds, or common things that perhaps hide a second, disturbing nature, mysterious and terrible, beneath the most banal appearances—is the essence of fantastic literature, whose best effects reside in an oscillation between irreconcilable levels of reality.2
But in our time the humanist discourse of yesteryear falls flat, so that the fantastic is moving away from the human and into the nonhuman world that no longer suffers the powers of humanistic discourse or language, math or science to be transformed or mastered but is beginning to reveal its inhuman face and the order of the Real. Rather than turning inward toward the so called human condition we’ve begun to explore the nonhuman condition so that rather than ‘transform the world’ we’ve begun to transform our perception of the world that is already there without us. The fantastic, in becoming nonhuman, approaches the continuity that underlies the impure inessentialism of the world not as it is ‘for us,’ but rather as it is for itself. Like the Gnostics of old we are learning to deprogram our symbolic blinkers, destroy the cultural filters, habits, customs, mores, and normative barriers of discourse and imagination that have blinded us to the world as it is without us. The fantastic is no longer a task for writers, artists, or any utilitarian exploration, but rather the very truth of our becoming fantastic within the nonhuman continuum. The wound in the side of the Real is opening in our time, and the official reality patrols of the global order are seeking ways to fill that ancient gap in the symbolic order they’ve created to imprison us in their illusory world of Neoliberalism. It’s up to us to enter the bloody gap of the Real, traverse the fantasy of the impossible, and discover for ourselves the possibility of a new world, a new earth in the ruins of the present order.
For thousands of years our Masters have set up taboos and prohibitions against the Real, suggesting that if one goes beyond the limits one will go mad or insane, and if not mad then commit sacrilege against society. Those who have broken free of the Law of reality imposed by the cultural ideology of symbolic order of the age have been ostracized or dismissed from the world of acceptable discourse, silenced or obliterated from the Book of the Law of Society’s memory. We’ve seen throughout the last two thousand years those who transgressed the Book of the Law of Western Civilization labeled heretics of one form or another, both religious and secular. All have been hunted to extinction by the Inquisitorial powers of the enforcers of this symbolic order. In one form or another the heterological opening into the Real has led to expulsion, exclusion, and exit from the official realms of the communal vision. Those who opened such gaps in the Real were either burned at the stake, tortured, or imprisoned; else, labeled as irrational, insane, monstrous and cast under the Law of legitimated systems of psychoanalysis or medical treatment and facilities. Those who survived in the no man’s land of the arts where such disturbances could be attested were brought back into the economic, political, and social fold there escape routes closed off and encased in the arena of justified art, and as members of the tribe of fantasists the cultural tribes of critics and philosophers labeled these beings as not to be believed but rather enjoyed as specimens of this new madness and thereby controlled by the strict regulation of the Reality Patrol.
What if ours was the End Times, not in the Biblical sense of Jesus or God returning to judge the wicked and the dead, but rather of the Climatological catastrophe on the horizon that seems inevitably to be collapsing upon our present, or the coming of the Singularity that so many conspirators of the posthuman or transhuman visionary seem to portend, or even some natural catastrophe – an Asteroid, or supervolcano, or rise of the seas due to the melting of North and South poles, etc.? What of all these and any number of other natural or unnatural events on the horizon? We see the political fantasies being portrayed by both globalists and anti-globalists, capitalists and anti-capitalists in an antinomian oscillation between ambiguous and competing strategies. How should we deal with these? If you take one side or the other of this narrative you become a part of the problem rather than the solution, you suddenly enter a cultural narrative that locks you into a controlled vision of the future that suddenly closes off all other possibilities. What if the future is none of this? What then?
I’ve seen friends and family argue for hours over the notion of Climatological change and the degradation of the environment, Global Warming and the myriad of portending facets of civilizational decay and fall into a new barbarism that it might bring about, etc. While the one side argues this is all fantasy, that there is no such thing as Global Warming or climate change, and that even if we are seeing changes these are all part of earth cycles that have happened before, not man-made or done by human intervention, etc. In other words both sides have their clichéd narrative, their fantasy of the future around which they each gather supposed scientific fact and facticity to support their side of the debate. Usually at the end they will either accept a truce realizing neither side will accept the other’s argument or standpoint, or they begin to punch the shit out of each other till someone outside intervenes on their irreconcilable violence. Either way nothing is accomplished, both go away, go back to heir work-a-day-lives satisfied that they alone know the truth, that they are the defenders of the future against the idiocy of all those others. Nothing changes, nothing is accomplished. Sounds like most efforts in parliament or Congress/Senate debates these days. So that whether in private or public life the contradictions remain, the antinomian stance unresolved, no one wins…
Have you ever noticed how people in a conversation that already know they do not agree, implicitly talk past each other rather than with each other; by this, I mean the notion that they already know that this is not going to be a conversation, but rather a moment for a monologue in which the interlocutor can address not the Other but rather herself in the Other. So that it becomes a mere mirror world of Narcissistic self-satisfaction. A self-promoting moment of legitimating one’s thoughts at the expense of the Other.
Are we after all victims of our own Narcissistic self-loss in the Other, promoters of our own delusions and deliriums projected or introjected to/from the Other’s wound? Is the wound in the Real none other than our inability to accept the wound in our Narcissitic Prometheanism, our desire to surpass all others on the registry of success, of being right – of our blind faith in our own superfluous fantasy, collective or personal? Have we constructed out of our fears and terrors of the Real the very prisons of our affective and intellectual lives, given ourselves over to the rational mythologies of our age believing them to be both scientific and real? Haven’t we deluded ourselves into believing that we alone, we ‘humans’ are the exception to the rule, beyond hubris; that our place in the universe is at once the justified and sustained by our own delirious mythologies, rational or irrational, discursive or imagistic?
Traversing the Fantasy
What if as Zizek would have it – following Lacan, that ‘traversing the fantasy’ is not to escape into some alternate realm of possibility and impossibility, but rather as he suggests to push into the immersive fantasy of our official reality matrix, fully identify ourselves with the reality fantasy that disturbs us, terrorizes our worst nightmares and fears; and, in so doing we will as Richard Boothy remarks:
“Traversing the phantasy” thus does not mean that the subject somehow abandons
its involvement with fanciful caprices and accommodates itself to a pragmatic
“reality,” but precisely the opposite: the subject is submitted to that effect of the
symbolic lack that reveals the limit of everyday reality. To traverse the phantasy in
the Lacanian sense is to be more profoundly claimed by the phantasy than ever, in
the sense of being brought into an ever more intimate relation with that real core of
the phantasy that transcends imaging. 3 (238)
This new relation to the Real, both through pacification and by way of shock – a shock that awakens of to a new sense of reality, one not proscribed by the official order of society and its Reality Police.
Zizek will ask: What if as I endeavor to demonstrate in my extensive and repeated analyses-the final Hegelian reversal is rather a redoubling of the antinomic gap, its displacement into the “thing itself’? He’ll go on to analyze (I quote at length):
What lurks in the background here is the old problem of the passage from Kant (the philosopher of antinomies) to Hegel (the philosopher of dialectical contradictions) ; grosso modo, there are two versions of this passage: ( 1 ) Kant asserts the irreducible gap of finitude, the negative access to the Noumenal (via Sublime) as the only possible for us, while Hegel ‘ s absolute idealism closes the Kantian gap and returns us to pre-critical metaphysics; (2) it is Kant who goes only half the way in his destruction of metaphysics, still maintaining the reference to the Thing-in-itself as an external inaccessible entity, and Hegel is merely a radicalised Kant who accomplishes the step from negative access to the Absolute to Absolute itself as negativity. Or, to put it in the terms of the Hegelian shift from epistemological obstacle to positive ontological condition (our incomplete knowledge of the thing turns into a positive feature of the thing which is in itself incomplete, inconsistent): it is not that Hegel “ontologises” Kant; on the contrary, it is Kant who, insofar as he conceives the gap as merely epistemological, continues to presuppose a fully constituted noumenal realm existing out there, and it is Hegel who “deontologises” Kant, introducing a gap into the very texture of reality. (Boucher, 248)
Here we discover that Kant introjects the gap or cut in the world internally within the Subject producing a purely epistemological dualism between phenomenal/noumenon; while for Hegel the gap of cut is not within the Subject or Mind, but actually part of the “very texture of reality”: the wound of the world is open, contradictory, and antinomic. Those who perceive one pole or the other, a purely transcendent real or an immanent real divided against itself are both wrong, instead as Zizek would have it: The tension between immanence and transcendence is thus also secondary with regard to the gap within immanence itself: “transcendence” is a kind of perspective illusion, the way we (mis)perceive the gap/discord that inheres to immanence itself. (Boucher, 249)
One could say that Bataille was right all along, that instead of a return to the officially sanctioned real of religious sublimity of the Church and the Sacred Order, we instead choose the left-hand path, downward bent into the morbid, obscene lairs of our fears and terrors, identifying with all that is most monstrous in our existence, our racist, bigoted, misogynistic and outlandish misanthropic delusions and technogothic nightmares. That only through our identification with what is so ridiculous and obscene, with the grotesque and macabre can we begin to laugh again, communicate again, rejoin each other in the carnival of existence, open ourselves to the Carnival of the World.
…this brings us back to our beginning: perhaps, one should assert this attitude of passive aggressivity as a proper radical political gesture, in contrast to aggressive passivity, the standard “interpassive” mode of our participation in socio-ideological life in which we are active all the time in order to make it sure that nothing will happen, that nothing will really change. In such a constellation, the first truly critical (“aggressive,” violent) step is to wthdraw into passivity, to refuse to participate-Bartleby’ s “I would prefer not to” is the necessary first step which as it were clears the ground for a true activity, for an act that will effectively change the coordinates of the constellation. (Boucher, 258)
Todorov in his classic work on the Fantastic would suggest that the ‘Fantastic narrative is presented as a transcription of the imaginary experience of the limits of reason. It links the intellectual falseness of its premises to a hypothesis of the unnatural or supernatural’, gradually arriving at a position in which these hypotheses are untenable so that the fantastic introduces ‘that which cannot be, either in a natural or supernatural economy’ (Jackson, 24). From the late nineteenth century onward fantastic fantasy became the vehicle for interrogating the antinomic, the ambiguous zones of the symbolic order, the came to bet a critical project as being one of dissolution, disrepair, disintegration, derangement, dilapidation, sliding away, emptying. The very notion of realism which had emerged as dominant by the mid-nineteenth century is subjected to scrutiny and interrogation. (Jackson, 25)
Politically the fantastic would give voice to the oppressed, the excluded, the marginal – to all those who were deemed outside the sublime world of economic security, the illusory world of the powerful, the rich, the visible. The poor and outcast of society had become invisible and it was the power of the fantasist to make visible what was now invisible in the social body, what had been rejected and left to fend for itself in the darkness of societies morbid, and obscene slums and decaying systems of crime and punishment. One can see this in many of the stories of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Kafka, Lovecraft, Machen, and on through those such as Borges, Bioyes, and later authors too numerous to name here. Against the realism of society one will discover in the fantastic terms such as the impossible, the unreal, the nameless, formless, shapeless, unknown, invisible. As H.P. Lovecraft famously noted, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.”
As Eugene Thacker will suggest in his three volume work on the horror of philosophy Lovecraft implicitly makes the argument that not only is there no distinction between the natural and supernatural, but that what we sloppily call “supernatural” is simply another kind of nature, but one that lies beyond human comprehension – not in a relative but in an absolute sense. Herein lies the basis of what Lovecraft called “cosmic horror” – the paradoxical realization of the world’s hiddenness as an absolute hiddenness. He’ll go on to say:
It is a sentiment frequently expressed in Lovecraft’s many letters: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests are emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form – and the local human passions and conditions and standards – are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all…but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown – the shadow-haunted Outside – we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.”4
This sense that what is reflected in the fantastic is not some extra-ordinary world, some Platonic other realm but rather our own universe seen with new eyes, with eyes that are no longer folded in the cage of a symbolic order that excludes the noumenal and binds us to a realm of utilitarian values and the logics of oppression of capitalism and its imposed economic dictatorship of Neoliberal globalism and austerity. It is this negative relationality to the symbolic order of our Globalist Society and its economic systems which constitutes the meaning of the modern fantastic.
Living In-Between: The Emancipatory Fantastic
Fantastic narratives confound elements of both the marvellous and the mimetic. They assert that what they are telling is real – relying upon all the conventions of realistic fiction to do so – and then they proceed to break that assumption of realism by introducing what – within those terms – is manifestly unreal. They pull the reader from the apparent familiarity and security of the known and everyday world into something more strange, into a world whose improbabilities are closer to the realm normally associated with the marvellous. The narrator is no clearer than the protagonist about what is going on, nor about interpretation; the status of what is being seen and recorded as ‘real’ is constantly in question. This instability of narrative is at the centre of the fantastic as a mode. (Jackson, 34)
In our times the notion of a secular fantastic or as I’m calling it political fantastic is becoming more and more pertinent. In an essay on transgression in the work of Georges Bataille, Foucault compares the kind of transgressive literature found in secularized fantasy to religion in previous ages. He claims for them both the same ontological func tion: an exploration of the limits of being. Foucault suggests that a literature of transgression occupies the ‘place where the sacred used to play, for transgression takes limit to the edge of its being, to the point where it virtually disappears, in a movement of pure violence’. He’d go on to say:
Perhaps the emergence of sexuality in our culture is an event which has several levels of meaning: it is linked to the death of God and to that ontological void which that death left at the limits of our thought: it is also linked to something which is still obscure and tentative – a form of thinking in which an interrogation of limits replaces a search for totality and in which a movement of transgression replaces a movement of contradictions. It is linked, finally, to a questioning of language by itself, in a circularity which the ‘outrageous’ violence of erotic literature, far from breaking, manifests from its earliest entrance into language. (Foucault, ‘Préface à la transgression’, p.767) (Jackson, 78-79)
Zizek again will return to Lacan and Freud telling us the Freudian answer is the drive toward transgressive gestures: what Freud calls the “drive” is not, as it may appear, the craving that enslaves us to the world of illusions or Maya (Buddhist). The drive, on the contrary, goes on even when the subject has “traversed the fantasy” and broken out of its illusory craving for the (lost) object of desire.5 Ultimately the goal of traversing the fantasy is to open up the space for the emergence of the pure drive beyond fantasy.
They evidence the radicality of the fantastic, its ability to suspend the apparent impossibility that things could be otherwise, to provide a space in which the impossible can be renegotiated. The fantastic impulse is bound up with a self-altering praxis. The weird alienates and estranges, ruptures what is. Nick Land’s notion of ‘hyperstitional’ relations between writing and the real comes to mind in which ‘fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, it argues that reality is composed of fictions – consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective and behavioral responses’ (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit [Ccru], 2004: 275).
Today the fantasist enters into the everyday fantastic, her life becomes a part of the fantastic reality she is participating in as she struggles to disturb the worlds of the present symbolic order of a corrupt Globalist systems that seeks to plug up the gaps in its imaginary. Our struggle is not against imaginary powers, but rather against the very real powers in high places within an ruinous order of the corrupt Oligarchic and State powers who seek dominion over every fact of our physical and mental existence. In this sense the fantastic is our lives in this inescapable world of economic and political sorcery, and we fight not as external agents in some fantasy world or alternate reality MMO but rather in the very real world of our everyday lives seeking a way to awaken those others around us from the spell of black magic they are entrapped in. Unlike the movie The Matrix, there are no big bad robotic systems out there somewhere controlling us, instead there is a very real world of economic, political, social, and cultural agents of fear and terrors who have enclosed us in a horror show of austerity and ruinous life.
Our escape from it is not to dream of escape into false fantasies, but rather to traverse the fantasy of this very real symbolic order we’re trapped in, become the heroes and heroines of a new order warring against the dark powers that entrap men, women, and children in a false world of mirrors, an utilitarian vision of endless work and slavery. Ours is a visionary fantastic of transformation and metamorphosis as we begin to reshape both our epistemic view onto this realm, as well as redefine and shape our lives toward other goals.
The Carnival of the World
This carnival sense of the world possesses a mighty life-creating and transforming power, an indestructible vitality. Carnival was never just a literary form, but was part of a world of pageantry and ritual in different parts of the world. As a form it is very complex and varied, giving rise, on a general carnivalistic base, to diverse variants and nuances depending upon the epoch, the people, the individual festivity. Carnival has worked out an entire language of symbolic concretely sensuous forms–from large and complex mass actions to individual carnivalistic gestures. This language, in a differentiated and even (as in any language) articulate way, gave expression to a unified (but complex) carnival sense of the world, permeating all its forms. This language cannot be translated in any full or adequate way into a verbal language, and much less into a language of abstract concepts, but it is amenable to a certain transposition into a language of artistic images that has something in common with its concretely sensuous nature; that is, it can be transposed into the language of literature. We are calling this transposition of carnival into the language of life the carnivalization of the awakened contradiction, the antinomic life lived in the space of freedom in-between.6
Carnival is not contemplated and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalistic life. Because carnivalistic life is life drawn out of its usual rut, it is to some extent “life turned inside out,” “the reverse side of the world” (‟monde à l’envers”). (Bakhtin, KL 3456) This sense of living outside the symbolic order of our civilization, of entering into the old forms of the trickster, the fool, the ‘one who walks backwards’ – against the grain of things, thoughts, feelings. As Bakhtin suggests,
Carnival is the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous, half-real and half-play-acted form, a new mode of interrelationship between individuals, counterposed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of noncarnival life. The behavior, gesture, and discourse of a person are freed from the authority of all hierarchical positions (social estate, rank, age, property) defining them totally in noncarnival life, and thus from the vantage point of noncarnival life become eccentric and inappropriate. Eccentricity is a special category of the carnival sense of the world, organically connected with the category of familiar contact; it permits–in concretely sensuous form–the latent sides of human nature to reveal and express themselves. (Bakhtin, KL 3301)
What Bakhtin terms noncarnival life is our utilitarian work-a-day-world, the humdrum world of forced jobs, austerity, the literal life of survival in a world of economic necessity and brutality. To be eccentric, no longer fitting into the patterns of acceptable behavior or typology, no longer bound to the corporate treadmill, the usual subterfuge of suppressing one’s urges and displacing one’s real needs, but rather refusing to participate in this degradation, refusing to work in this dark ruinous wasteland of pain and apathy.
The new participatory fantastic breaks us out of this world and into a world of freedom, not by escaping into some imaginary fantasy but through laughter, contact, and communication. All distance between people is suspended, and a special carnival category goes into effect: free and familiar contact among people. This is a very important aspect of a carnival sense of the world. People who in life are separated by impenetrable hierarchical barriers enter into free familiar contact on the carnival square. The category of familiar contact is also responsible for the special way mass actions are organized, and for free carnival gesticulation, and for the outspoken carnivalistic word. (Bakhtin, KL 3298)
Instead of participating in the illusory world of democratic politics which is a false world caught in the trap of State and Corporate corruption the scion of the fantastic moves in another world right here in this one, living the fantastic within a carnivalistic realm among her peers shaping and changing this world, building a new one out of the ruins of the present symbolic order and freeing others around her, showing them there is hope – hope of a new world, a new path forward, a realm of the impossible whose possibility is real freedom.
Bakhtin tells us that the primary carnivalistic act is the mock crowning and subsequent decrowning of the carnival king. This ritual is encountered in one form or another in all festivities of the carnival type: in the most elaborately worked out forms–the saturnalia, the European carnival and festival of fools (in the latter, mock priests, bishops or popes, depending on the rank of the church, were chosen in place of a king); in a less elaborated form, all other festivities of this type, right down to festival banquets with their election of short-lived kings and queens of the festival. (Bakhtin, KL 3324) In our time the King is Capitalism itself, the neoliberal order of economics that pervades every aspect of our lives, the world the State and Corporate controllers and reality police want us to believe is the only world, the final world; that, for them, there is no alternative. This is the fantasy of Capital.
It is time to break free of this fantasy, this symbolic order, this game of austerity and economic oppression, time to awaken the sleepers from their long sleep in economic malfeasance, enslaved to an order of ruin and corruption. Under this ritual act of decrowning a king lies the very core of the carnival sense of the world–the pathos of shifts and changes, of death and renewal. Carnival is the festival of all-annihilating and all-renewing time. Thus might one express the basic concept of carnival. But we emphasize again: this is not an abstract thought but a living sense of the world, expressed in the concretely sensuous forms (either experienced or play-acted) of the ritual act. (Bakhtin, KL 3328)
This is our lived fantastic, the moment when we begin the act of destruction, the time of our feast-of-fools, our carnival of annihilation and renewal, a time to bring before us all a living sense of the world where men, women, and children can experience a new life. Fire and laughter.
Deeply ambivalent also is carnival laughter itself. Genetically it is linked with the most ancient forms of ritual laughter. Ritual laughter was always directed toward something higher: the sun (the highest god), other gods, the highest earthly authority were put to shame and ridiculed to force them to renew themselves. All forms of ritual laughter were linked with death and rebirth, with the reproductive act, with symbols of the reproductive force. Ritual laughter was a reaction to crises in the life of the sun (solstices), crises in the life of a deity, in the life of the world and of man (funeral laughter). In it, ridicule was fused with rejoicing. (Bakhtin, KL 3376)
Maybe in the end it is fire and laughter that we return too. Fire was humanity’s first symbol of freedom from the natural order, the moment of strangeness when we held the power of the Sun in our hands, turned from raw meat to the taste of cooked food, began the slow process of taming the powers of the natural realm. Laughter was the merriment of contact, of contagion, of festival, drums, music, dance, movement; the fount of the carnivalesque that brought us together in ritual and enjoyment of life, the vitalistic element. As Bakhtin reminds us “by its very idea carnival belongs to the whole people, it is universal, everyone must participate in its familiar contact” (B, KL 3412).
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