LC: What would you say are the core underpinning themes and ideas in your work?
MC: The horror of consciousness, and more specifically, self-awareness. Intimations or suspicions of something fundamentally grotesque and nightmarish at the core of existence itself. The inescapable sense of being drawn to find a metanarrative, a pattern, a God’ s-eye view and understanding of one’s experience and the world at large, and then of being horrified at the revelation that this overall pattern and meaning are actually hideous and unbearable. That life isn’t meaningless, it’s meaningful – and the meaning is awful. The fear that God by whatever name, under whatever cultural guise, may be monstrous. The sense not only of horror but of unbearable loss, grief, and despair that accompanies such a sense of things. The related fear or possibility that artistic and intellectual creativity carry profound dangers because they serve as portals to and for that nightmarish primal ontological reality to communicate itself and corrupt or destroy the artist.
I might pause to add that in my actual everyday existence I’m a living embodiment of Flaubert’s famous advice to “be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
If reason is not a chimera, then it must resolve this problem: how to disengage, amid the factual beings given in experience, that which, adequate to beings as such, is not itself contingent?
What if our life was a mere shadow of a Greater Nightmare, and we but the enactment of its dark intentions? That we are a contradiction, a veritable alien thing amid the sleep walkers of this planetary realm of organic madness is apparent to almost anyone with a inkling of intelligence. Yet, there are those who wander through life as if it were perfectly normal, that it was all planned out ahead of time, each of us a mere particle or semblance of some indefinable blueprint long ago bargained for in the distant reaches of the pre-cosmic abyss. Others seeking only the safety net of security and certitude have fallen into cages of religion or philosophy that offer certain consolations and deliverances from the absolute contingency of the world, believing they can master and control their destinies with Reason and Knowledge. Like shadows in a timeless void we pretend we are real when in truth we are not even unreal, but mere allusions and echoes of some former realm that has all but been shattered by the cosmic catastrophe within which we find ourselves. A speculative thinker of our era, Quentin Meillassoux terms this absolute contingency – within which we move and have our being, a hyper-chaos; or, as he puts it “absolute time” itself. As he states it:
What do I mean by this term? To say that the absolute is time, or chaos, seems very trite, very banal. But the time we discover here is, as I said, a very special time: not a physical time, not an ordinary chaos. Hyper-chaos is very different from what we call usually “chaos”. By chaos we usually mean disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything. But these properties are not properties of Hyper-Chaos: its contingency is so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity. Things are so contingent in Hyper-chaos, that time is able to destroy even the becoming of things. (Time Without Becoming 25)
This notion of time being able to destroy the becoming of things reflects the strangeness I find in a series of tales in Brian Evenson’s new collection Song for the Unraveling of the World.
In the title tale of the Evenson’s collection we discover a Father whose five year old daughter has gone missing. The details of the story are simple and bare: the father has kidnapped his own daughter from his (ex?) wife, brought her to a safety-house (or, so he thinks!), provided her with toys, dolls, and all the possible comforts he could. He falls asleep listening to a song he assumes she is singing herself to sleep by through the thin wall between their rooms. He awakens to find her gone, her room secured from the outside; her bed and room strangely unused and a circle of her new things distributed around the bed like some unusual ritual had been performed with her as the star attraction. He searches the home, then the neighborhood, bars, the town… he finds nothing, nothing at all. He calls his ex-wife and discovers she does not have the daughter. He sits down again in his home and stares at a tv broadcasting only pure static as if from some alternate reality. As he thinks to himself:
It had not been his fault, he told himself. Sometimes things just happen and you can’t do anything about them. Just as with the scar on Dani’s temple—that had not been, when you considered it logically, his fault. It had simply been bad luck. (SUW 32-33)
We discover that he’d taken the daughter without thought, it had been a mistake, but that now that he had he’d built a safe haven against the very real world of Law and Society, against the powers of reality. He’d lived in his home with his daughter as if in a pure zone of freedom. He’d bolted the doors, boarded up the windows, isolated himself and his daughter from the world. For a year he lived this way as if that might just be enough time to escape the real burden of his choices. But that was all over now, his hopes of return, of redemption, of his wife’s forgiveness, of living ever happily after with his daughter. All gone.
And then the song started up again, the song from his daughter’s room, a strange and disquieting song in a language not quite of this world. He carefully pries open the door hoping to find here there, but finds nothing, nothing at all. He asks himself the question: “What does it mean to me?” He’s broken the ritual circle, laid down on his daughter’s bed, listening, thinking, hoping against hope that she will return: “He lay there, trying to feel some sign of his daughter’s presence. All he could feel was his own ungainly self.” (SUW 35)
As he is laying there contemplating the past, present, and possibilities of a future he will again as: “What does it mean to me?” This repetition without an answer of a question of meaning in a meaningless universe brings us back to that notion of absolute contingency. As Drago thinks to himself:
What does it mean to be me? He had lived, it seemed to him, several lives, and when he strung them together they didn’t seem to make any kind of chain. Whatever continuity was supposed to be there seemed to have dissolved and he didn’t know how to get it back. Even in just the last two years, there had been a life where he and his wife had been together and had been happy, followed by a life where he had been alone and miserable, followed by a life with just him and his daughter, followed by this life now, the one that was now beginning. What did it all add up to? Nothing. Merely four separate existences. He wasn’t the same person in any of them. Or rather, in the first three he was three different people. For this life, the newest one, it was still too early to say what, if anything, he was. (SUW 35-36)
As if his life were itself a series of disjunctive episodes that did not connect or touch each other, as if each time-frame were part of some strange world of pure contingency without rhyme or reason; a world where time had suddenly become destructive, a power of ruin and erosion, entropy and decay, as if time were unraveling all around him. As if whatever we are as persons were not what we thought we were, but something else; and that nothing we’d been told about the continuity of self and world were true at all, as if the facticity of the world had suddenly vanished into thin air and been replaced by some strange form of hyper-chaos.
Late that night he awakens and sees his daughter just beyond the ritual circle, groggily he rises up and tries to reach her but is bound to the inside of the circle like a demon:
When he got out of bed and moved toward her, he found he could not cross the border of the circle. As if I’m a demon, he thought. He prowled along inside the circle, edging around the bed, looking for a way out. But there was no way out. (SUW 36)
In ritual magic such a space is a circle (or sphere, field) of space marked out by practitioners to contain energy and form a sacred space, or provide them a form of magical protection from demons or other alien entities.
Drago watches his daughter from within the circle, and she watches him in silence for a long while. Then she rises up and leaves him there without a word being exchanged. After she leaves the spell that kept him bound to the inside of the circle is broken, and he follows her down the stair. Suddenly everything changes, the front door shatters, two detectives and his wife enter and accuse him of atrocities unimaginable. His wife crying, clawing at him through the window, begging him to tell her what he’s done to their daughter. And just as he’s about to understand just what he doesn’t know and will never know… he wakes up.
Most of us think the world is a safe place, a haven against the cosmic night of horror lurking just outside our green, green earth. We think we can master and control the forces of horror arrayed against us, dispel the darkness of the unknown with the wand of reason and science. Then something happens to disturb this illusion, something inexplicable happens to us or a loved one, something that we cannot explain with either rational thought or those so carefully tended notions of common sense and the pragmatic truth of what we’ve known as reality. We begin to question ourselves and the world, suspecting either something has gone wrong with our minds or that the world has shifted into a darker and more mysterious zone. We begin to look around us and question the very nature of our lives and of those we took to be our friends. Paranoia sets in and we begin to fear that something is wrong with the world in ways it never was before. It’s this sense of things being a little off that these tales of Brian reveal with such simple prose. A prosaic world that moves along as if everything is normal then suddenly veers off into strange zones of being we never knew existed before.
Brian’s tales lead us into those alcoves of nightmare that we’ve hidden from ourselves all these years. Dark recesses of being that open out onto that Greater Nightmare where anything is possible, and will at one time or another probably happen. It’s a realm where the very nature of our self-identity begins to unravel, a realm in which the world you’ve known suddenly dissolves and another more sinister one is revealed. For far too long we’ve allowed ourselves to live comfortable lives in our illusory realms of as if, telling ourselves that our shared world of work and play is the only world. It is not. There is another realm waiting in the wings, between the cracks and seams, just outside our normal awareness that at any moment may just pull the blinkers off your eyes and reveal itself for what it is. You cannot hide from it, you cannot run from it, it is this world we all share seen with other eyes than the one’s you’ve allowed to be shaped by normalcy. It is the real world, a world of horror and ecstasy situated no where more central than in your own sleeping mind. It is the nightmare land where your real life begins, a monstrous life that only now you begin to understand and realize is the only ever life you ever had and will be without end.
Brian’s tales open portals into and out of that nightmare land. Each tale giving a glimpse of its strange manifestations, hinting at more than revealing. Tales that shift from time-present to time-past, else into sidereal zones of being that seem to exist in some parallel time world just this side of hell. Vampyres in the western lands; skin-changers in some New York boutique; aliens from inter-dimensional chaos whose only telling mark is to leave us faceless; murderous psychopaths; secret sharers of darkness and change; the friendly next-door cannibal family; paranoid filmmaker’s who discover unbidden truths; holes in deep space that harbor inhuman mysteries… the litany of horrors like a kaleidoscope revolve round and round in this collection leading the wary reader into realms where the mind begins to literally unravel and begin to dissolve in the darkness of inescapable abysses. This is Brian Evenson’s world of terror and beauty where anything can happen and most likely will…
There is more to tale I related, but I’m not going to reveal that to you just now. Not now, not ever; for that you must read it yourself. But I can assure you this that each of the tales in this collection is like a song in that unraveling world of time that is hyper-chaos, a realm in which all continuity is gone, a realm in which every facet of existence is unraveling in a song of horror and delight. These are tales of that Greater Nightmare that surrounds us on all sides, a realm that we block out through our security blankets of culture and civilization. We believe ourselves immune to it through the perfect illusions we’ve created for ourselves, our normal dreamtime of comforting day worlds of work and play. But it is not true, just the other side our normal lives is an infernal region of absolute contingency that sooner or later will begin playing its song for you, too. And when it does your world will begin unraveling in into that Greater Nightmare carnival of existence… a realm of absolute contingency in which anything can happen and most assuredly will happen to you.
Enjoy the ride!
You can find Brian Evenson on his blog: https://brianevenson.com/
And his new collection on Amazon: Song for the Unraveling of the World
Why did I not perish at birth; why did I not die as I came from the womb? —The Book of Job
All things are full of weariness… —Kohelet: Ecclesiastes
For Thomas Ligotti what separates and divides us as humans from each other is our acceptance or rejection of life’s value: our awareness of being alive, of knowing that we know; this division puts those who affirm life’s value in the category of optimists, while those who counter such affirmation with a negative “No” are placed in the category of uncompromising pessimism. In the white heat of discovery one imagines Ligotti – a great reader of books – coming on the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe’s (1899– 1990) essay “The Last Messiah” (1933) for the first time, realizing that here, just here a man had spoken what Ligotti himself had thought and believed for quite a long time; that human existence is a tragedy, and that consciousness is at the core of this tragic world. In this essay as Ligotti says of this eloquent work: “Zapffe elucidated why he saw human existence as a tragedy.”1
The notion as to why humans over eons of time became conscious beings, self-aware nothings – as it ’twere, has been investigated by the ancient Greeks, the early Buddhists, and every thinker one can imagine up through our current crop of cognitive psychologists, philosophers of mind, and neuroscientists. The quarrels over what consciousness is may never have an end, and yet that we are aware of our awareness – this subtle loop of mirrored duplicity, of recognition and dismay at being both in and outside the game of life has been at the heart of human misery from its beginning. As Zapffe says (quoted by Ligotti):
A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily— by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being. Its weapon was like a sword without hilt or plate, a two-edged blade cleaving everything; but he who is to wield it must grasp the blade and turn one edge toward himself. (22)
This dark breach in the world, a gap between knowing and known, the self-lacerating power of negation that distances us from the world and our selves even now causes consternation in the heart of many humans who are dismayed at being alive, and of knowing that they are alive. As Ligotti will ask, “Could there be anything to this pessimistic verbiage, this tirade against the evolution of consciousness?”
Against the pessimistic worldview of Zapffe Ligotti will offer us the optimist’s challenge by way of Nicholas Humphrey in an interview,
Consciousness— phenomenal experience— seems in many ways too good to be true. The way we experience the world seems unnecessarily beautiful, unnecessarily rich and strange….
[T] he more I try to make sense of it, the more I come back to the fact that we’ve evolved to regard consciousness as a wonderfully good thing in its own right— which could just be because consciousness is a wonderfully good thing in its own right! (24)
A good thing? Consciousness? It’s this diametric view onto consciousness and its value which separates and divides our species into optimist and pessimist as if the binary polarity of human belief came down to this key problem facing human kind. Should we throw our hands up? Ligotti presented with this paradox of paradoxes ironically suggests:
Both Humphrey and Zapffe are equally passionate about what they have to say, which is not to say that they have said anything credible. Whether you think consciousness to be a benefit or a horror, this is only what you think— and nothing else. But even though you cannot demonstrate the truth of what you think, you can at least put it on show and see what the audience thinks. (24)
So what does the audience think? So many theories about consciousness have arisen in the course of the past two millennia that it would be difficult to provide a short history in this post. Instead, as Ligotti suggests in his commentary on Zapffe’s notions:
Consciousness is connected to the human brain in a way that makes the world appear to us as it appears and makes us appear to ourselves as we appear— that is, as “selves” or a “persons” strung together by memories, sensations, emotions, and so on. No one knows exactly how the consciousness-brain connection is made, but all evidence supports the non-dualistic theory that the brain is the source of consciousness and the only source of consciousness. Zapffe accepted consciousness as a given and moved on from there, since he was not interested in the debates surrounding this phenomenon as such but only in the way it determines the nature of our species. (25)
So against Descartes and the dualists of the mind-body Zapffe along with many other thinkers sees consciousness as tied to our brain’s circuitry and feed-back loops, a black box that may or may not provide us at some future date the actual workings underpinning this connection (i.e., the various branches of research into the brain in contemporary sciences may someday succeed in not only mapping the brain but providing the mechanisms that give birth to consciousness itself, etc.). Either way Zapffe according to Ligotti was concerned with the outcome and aptitude of consciousness rather than with its origins and evolution.
What’s interesting in reading Ligotti on Zapffe and his enemies is the subtle irony and dark humor in his portrayal. Ligotti in this work is obviously on the side of the pessimists, a small group of individuals in any era as compared to the greater majority of eternal optimists. Optimists reject pessimism outright without even an iota of congenial investigation. Even in his introduction to Pessimism the philosopher-commentator would see pessimism as a problem rather than a solution, a specific malaise and temper of what he’d term “Weltschmerz“.2 A concept that literally means “worldpain”, and “signifies a mood of weariness or sadness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering,” whose origins have been traced back to the 1830s, to the late romantic era, to the works of Jean Paul, Heinrich Heine, N. Lenau, G. Büchner, C. D. Grabbe and K. L. Immermann. ( 1) Later on this term would give way to another term which would “acquire a broader more serious meaning: it was no longer just a poet’s personal mood; it was a public state of mind, the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist.” (1)
Humans as a species over time became aware of the rest of organic creation and that for most if not all organic species we share this planet with are oblivious of their existence. Most organic creatures on this planet live out an endless cycle of survival, reproduction, death— and nothing else. (L, 28) Only humans are aware of this cycle and realized that in the end one dies. This knowledge of death and finitude would create in our ancestors a sense of foreboding that would lead them to seek out answers through magic, religion, and, then, philosophy and poetry to answer this strange quandary of existence. As Ligotti will say of it
We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering— slowly or quickly— as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are— hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones. (28)
Suffering, pain, and time seem to all be interconnected in this notion of birth, growth, maturity, age, and death cycle – the organic worldpain within which we are “time” (Heidegger). As Bruno Bosteel’s in his essay The jargon of finitude explicating Heidegger puts it: “We are not ‘in’ time so much as our innermost being ‘is’ time.” In his ‘New Refutation of Time’ Jorge Luis Borges the Argentinian metaphysical idealist and author of short tales of the fantastic once wrote:
To deny temporal succession, to deny the ego, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not horrible because of its unreality; it is horrible because it is irreversible and ironbound. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. (Quoted by Bosteel’s in his essay!)
All this is to say that what consciousness is is Time: not an awareness of time, but time’s flow, its movement, its struggle within the organic tomb of flesh and blood we term the human. Our awareness of this fact has led most humans to a life of absolute delusion and delirium and denial so that for them optimism and escape from the truth into a life of absolute illusion has become the mainstream path of living on this planet. As Ligotti summarizes:
Nonhuman occupants of this planet are unaware of death. But we are susceptible to startling and dreadful thoughts, and we need some fabulous illusions to take our minds off them. For us, then, life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would leave us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, staring void. To end this self-deception, to free our species of the paradoxical imperative to be and not to be conscious, our backs breaking by degrees upon a wheel of lies, we must cease reproducing. (28-29)
This anti-natalist conclusion is at the core of Zapffe’s “The Last Messiah”. In a 1959 interview Zapffe would say,
The sooner humanity dares to harmonize itself with its biological predicament, the better. And this means to willingly withdraw in contempt for its worldly terms, just as the heat-craving species went extinct when temperatures dropped. To us, it is the moral climate of the cosmos that is intolerable, and a two-child policy could make our discontinuance a pain-free one. Yet instead we are expanding and succeeding everywhere, as necessity has taught us to mutilate the formula in our hearts. Perhaps the most unreasonable effect of such invigorating vulgarization is the doctrine that the individual “has a duty” to suffer nameless agony and a terrible death if this saves or benefits the rest of his group. Anyone who declines is subjected to doom and death, instead of revulsion being directed at the world-order engendering of the situation. To any independent observer, this plainly is to juxtapose incommensurable things; no future triumph or metamorphosis can justify the pitiful blighting of a human being against his will. It is upon a pavement of battered destinies that the survivors storm ahead toward new bland sensations and mass deaths. (Quoted by Ligotti: 29)
In a world projected to reach 9.5 Billion by mid-century one can only conclude that no one has heeded such bleak advice as of yet. Ligotti will continue his eloquent tribute and commentary on Zapffe’s essay, along with explicating Zapffe’s strategies for limiting human consciousness against too much truth, which I will leave for the reader to pursue on her own. I think we have seen the tendency and endpoint of the pessimists worldview and what it offers us as a resolution to the problem of humanity. As with Kohelet in the Hebraic book of Ecclesiastes which Michael Chabon describes this way:
“Horror grows impatient, rhetorically, with the Stoic fatalism of Ecclesiastes. That we are all going to die, that death mocks and cancels every one of our acts and attainments and every moment of our life histories, this knowledge is to storytelling what rust is to oxidation; the writer of horror holds with those who favor fire. The horror writer is not content to report on death as the universal system of human weather; he or she chases tornadoes. Horror is Stoicism with a taste for spectacle.”
~ Michael Chabon
One need not be a Joseph Conrad or his character Kurtz to say: “The horror! The horror!” As Ligotti will conclude humans will go on, they will continue to deny the darkest truths, or will channel them into aesthetic entertainments and apotropaic images to keep the beast at bay:
As a species with consciousness, we do have our inconveniences. Yet these are of negligible importance compared to what it would be like to feel in our depths that we are nothing but human puppets— things of mistaken identity who must live with the terrible knowledge that they are not making a go of it on their own and are not what they once thought they were. At this time, barely anyone can conceive of this happening— of hitting bottom and finding to our despair that we can never again resurrect our repressions and denials. Not until that day of lost illusions comes, if it ever comes, will we all be competent to conceive of such a thing. But a great many more generations will pass through life before that happens, if it happens. (84)
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 21). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
- Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (p. 1). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.
Anna Laetitia Aikin in her essay on the sublime of horror ‘On The Pleasure Derived From Objects of Terror‘ (1773) suggested we “rather choose to suffer the smart pang of a violent emotion than the uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire”. She’d go on to say,
This is the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects. A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps in on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we,” our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.
Hence, the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it; and where they are too near common nature, though violently borne by curiosity through the adventure, we cannot repeat it or reflect on it, without an over-balance of pain.
This sense of what Lacan-Zizek term ‘jouissance’ or the bitter-sweet pleasure/pain in apprehension of the indefinable, unknown and horrific monstrosities of existence underlies the aesthetic appeal and active power of the fantastic over our Mind. The literature of terror, dread, and horror confront us with the cosmic power of an invasive alterity, an impossible and indefinite unknown and unknowable threat from the Outside that cannot be reduced to presence nor absence, but is situated in that in-between zone of the impossible Real or Gap-Crack where chaos, madness, and darkness seep into our world.
That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.
Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 182).
Welcome to Nightmare City! Ladies and Gentlemen, we insist you move cautiously through the back alleys and shadow lanes of our virtual zoo, you never know what will come out of the darkness to eat you. Bring your children one and all, the little devils will enjoy our trick or treat extravaganza, the only game show to offer instant death as a trick to beat all tricks! Once you enter under the Arch of Archons you will be bound and tortured to the delight of all viewers, a systematic display and immersion in the tribal sacrifice of all against all. Politics be dammed, we have the real deal here in our cage of despair and futility. Victims? Yes, victims galore! So come on in, enjoy the fun, be a part of hell-on-earth, the last refuge of nightmares and nefarious pleasure, a deregulated zone of pure horror. We’ve prepared for you a non-place you will never want to leave, a realm of pure madness and mayhem: a time without time where anything goes and nothing will remain in the end. Change yourself, erase yourself, become the Other you’ve been hiding from yourself all these long years. Vampire, Werewulf, Tentacled monstrosity? Choose your nightmares carefully, for once chosen you will be fated to enact the nth degree of insidious lust. Enter the murderous realm of delight where voyeurs and participants alike are entwined in a bloody love-war of sadomasochism. You will thank us later; of that I can assure you. Step this way if you dare… this is your chance to win a Billion dollars, become the most powerful person you’ve never been. Take a chance, enter the gates of despair where the only thing you will lose is your soul, not to mention the flesh from your bones.
“Sir, I have a question.”
“Yes, sonny, what is it?”
“It’s all fake, isn’t it?”
“Sonny, Nightmare City is more real than reality, the moment you step through that portal, those Arches you will never be the same, you will forget the real world forever.”
The boy looked at his father quizzically, “He’s joking, isn’t he Dad?”
The father looked at the man, looked at his son: “Quit asking questions, you might not like the answers, Son. Come on, give the nice man your ticket and let’s go in…”
The boy handed the man the tickets and he and the father stepped through the portal never to be seen again.
Short short. ©S.C. Hickman
After watching a recent Reality TV series Naked and Afraid on Discovery I kept think to myself that humans will enter the most dangerous and hideous realms for a chance to become rich… by extension I thought why not a pure realm of horror and terror, a realm where the stakes are absolute and deadly.
What I seek is a work of darkness that no longer repeats the banal evil of so much horror writing. I seek the shock of the new rather than the decay of repetition. Most weird and horror story writing is a mere resurrection of aesthetic banality, repeating the gestures of dead masters in an infinity of trite clichés. We need that which can obliterate us, give us the temptation of the abyss, the dark contours of our own black midnights, the cruelty at the core of our torrid hatreds and disgusts. Such horror neither absolves our cosmic crimes nor reminds us of some shared taboo, but brings us to the portal of our own unknowing being. To make the darkness visible, bring that which cannot be seen with the eye of the eye into relief against the sparkle of everyday things. To see into the broken world things not as they appear, but as they vanish into the Real. For it is the luminous trace of that dark light that lifts its primal life out of the abyss of our unknowing that tempts us to a knowing in this impossible cosmos.
What I seek is a Luciferian horror, a defiance of all that is not a part of the darkness in my soul. To be rid of the light of the Light. To chart the unknowable abysses of our infinite night. Trouble the stars with the positivity of this endless hatred at the core of things. The churning tremulous tentacles of this seething abyss of self-lacerating thought. Seeking the infernal paradise of solitude in a dark corner of this universal degradation. Know the fires of all creation in the deepest realms of destruction as it brings us to that destination we have all belonged too for so long. Dread and fascination with the terrible truth that those of our kind need more than need itself. For we are the children of destruction, the harbingers of the end. Hell is our paradise, we know no other.
To speak of the chaotic realm as ruination, then, is to establish a regime of impurity, to irreparably alter the formula of existence, and to corrupt the order of things and become reborn in a polluted abyss of flowers. The only command, the only law before us, is that of recurring distortion. The infernal realm must fashion a generative prism, one of diluted substances and imperfections; it must tempt unnatural admixtures, fusing elements into contaminated alliance. The absolute collapse into horror must be traitorous. It must be conceived as an act of treason against the world, for to seduce others into a delirious encounter is nothing less than to set the stage for their radical betrayal. The corruption of the world by the infernal garden of time is to admit chaos into the drift of ancient imbrications, unbinding the dark contours of annihilation across the cosmic wastelands of malicious and malevolent transports. To infiltrate the extremities at the liminal edge of things is to embark on a toxic voyage of self-lacerating discovery, fall forward into the vastation seeping from the underrealm of unbeing – bearing witness to the betrayer of all worlds.
If you do not feel the cold pure power of intellect in your flesh then walk away into your separate oblivion.
The inhumanity of man is to not know the inhuman core of its eternity of solitude, to accept the immanence of its infinite life-in-Death. For only the Watchers in the heart of our impossibility know who and what we are. We have traveled so far to be nowhere and nothing.
Suicide is the escape of the weak, there is no escape. Returning they become a part of the shadow universe of unknowing.
There is a dark gnosis, an unknowing rather than a knowing. An unmaking rather than a making, the unraveling of the cosmos like the filaments of strings on an infinite harp. A system on non-knowledge that disturbs the reflections of nightmares under the surface of things, engendering the awakening of daemonic thought from its long sleep in time.
Philosophers are too warm-blooded. There is no ice except near Lucifer, the Other God. That’s why the Krakatoa of our souls clamor for daemons rather than angelic saints. The lucidity of doubt, rather than the certainty of faith.
The courage of skepticism is worth the destruction of all philosophical knowledge. The unknowing truth decenters us from the universe of meaning for an uncharted realm of pure intelligences.
The future is a dimension, not a direction. Communication comes from the outside in, a cryptic call from the immanent curve of time. There is no outside to time, only the infinite spiral around death. Death is the zero point of pure intelligence, the last refuge of thought.
What would it be like to chronicle the doubts of hell, to be privy to the inner dramas of ancient demons, follow the chronicles of Pandemonium from its original arousal from the depths of the pit. Keep a diary of the intimate thoughts of angelic failure, the torments of intelligences both artificial and inhuman.
One does not need a history of Hell, the atrocities of human kind are so much more intimate. The flames of hell or nothing compared to the despair of man in the face of such torments of appearance as appearance. Man is the creator of darker hells than angelic archons could envision, the bloody terror of humans is the fright of demons.
Politics is a form of self-parody, a religion for the dammed; only a voluptuary of pain and cruelty could be tempted by its repetitive oscillations between extremes.
Maybe the greatest curse ever laid upon humankind was the longing not to die, the hunger for personal immortality, this daemonic will to persistence in our own being, this travesty and corruption of life as the basis for all knowledge and striving which is at the heart of Western Civilization and its discontents, its economics, religious tremors, and its philosophical peregrinations. The slight attack on this heritage since the Enlightenment, our so called secular culture has done nothing to dissuade the mass of beings on this planet from the atrocities committed in the name of this immortal passion. Victims of an eternal delusion we fall prey to the beliefs of Ancients, thinking we can overcome this heritage through technics and technology. Even our dreams of Reason, of an absolute intelligence freed of human degradation, from the fleshly ruins of its earthly habitation, the superintelligence of machinic existence, this, too, is the fruit of our immortal curse. Are we not condemned to repeat our selves into the future like fragments of a lost paradise, creatures of some dark remembrance.
His absolute: to dwell among the ruins of reality.
—Vastarien, Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory
Thomas Ligotti touches that aspect of the mind that seeks to be elsewhere. He’s exasperated with the world he has been thrown into and has for the most part sought another all his life. Can it be possible that the rendering of such a character as Vastarien in the short story of that name hints at the underlying worldview that has either trapped or unleashed the imagination of one of the great horror writers of our era. I’ve personally been fascinated by his stories for almost twenty years, coming back to them from time to time as I did not with such writers as Poe and Lovecraft his forbears. What is it that instills repeated readings of his work? Maybe it’s as Vastarien himself puts it about our world, that it seems to be lacking something, that something is missing, incomplete: “the missing quality, became clear to him: it was the element of the unreal”.1
This notion of the unreal summons up so many things for both Vastarien and for us as readers and habitués of Ligotti’s oeuvre. For Vastarien “standing before the window, his hands tearing into the pockets of a papery bathrobe, he saw that something was missing from the view, some crucial property that was denied to the stars above and the streets below, some unearthly essence needed to save them. The word unearthly reverberated in the room.” But it is not the false power of religious vision that haunts Ligotti, nor the vein raptures of saints and madmen of the cloistered variety, but rather a place of intimacy, a city of echoes and dreams where one can once again know in the depths of strange streets an order of the unreal, “where an obscure life seemed to establish itself, a secret civilization of echoes flourishing among groaning walls”.
If madness is the ground of Reason, its other face and dark brother whose power over us must be conquered if we are to become whole and free —that is, normalized — then is the quest of Vastarien to reenter the gates of madness or does his quest harbor some other more formidable end? Vastarien in his quest to uncover the traces of such an unreal world, a paradise of dark wonder and rapture had sought for years in the out of way stalls and venues of rare book stores a hint that would provide the keys to unlock its mysteries. But none had been found. Oh there had been hints and wonders here and there, but most of the authors and visionaries had in the end failed the test. As Vastarien relates it he “had, in fact, come upon passages in certain books that approached this ideal, hinting to the reader—almost admonishing him—that the page before his eyes was about to offer a view from the abyss and cast a wavering light on desolate hallucinations. To become the wind in the dead of winter, so might begin an enticing verse of dreams. But soon the bemazed visionary would falter, retracting the promised scene of a shadow kingdom at the end of all entity, perhaps offering an apologetics for this lapse into the unreal. The work would then once more take up the universal theme, disclosing its true purpose in belaboring the most futile and profane of all ambitions: power, with knowledge as its drudge.”
Then Vastarien is awakened from his reveries of unreal paradises by a crow of a man, a thin little frog that squawks at him inquisitively: “Have you ever heard of a book, an extremely special book, that is not…yes, that is not about something, but actually is that something?” Such a strange question from an even stranger personage Vastarien is taken aback. Intrigued by the question which reminds him of his own passionate quest for a book that would reveal the road map to his infernal paradise he’s about to ask the man of it when suddenly the little man interrupts him and is off speaking to the proprietor of the store dismissing Vastarien and the question without further adieu.
This idea that book would not only reveal and represent the object of his dreams and nightmares, but that it in itself would be that very world astounded Vastarien. How could an object whose qualities were only the linguistic traceries of an infinite sea of language ever unfold and open the doors to a secret kingdom. Vastarien had to find out. Feeling abandoned and frustrated our Vastarien followed the two men into the alcove at the back of the store where many unusual volumes lined the shelves. As the narrator relates it:
Immediately he sensed that something of a special nature awaited his discovery, and the evidence for this intuition began to build. Each book that he examined served as a clue in this delirious investigation, a cryptic sign which engaged his powers of interpretation and imparted the faith to proceed. Many of the works were written in foreign languages he did not read; some appeared to be composed in ciphers based on familiar characters and others seemed to be transcribed in a wholly artificial cryptography. But in every one of these books he found an oblique guidance, some feature of more or less indirect significance: a strangeness in the typeface, pages and bindings of uncommon texture, abstract diagrams suggesting no orthodox ritual or occult system. Even greater anticipation was inspired by certain illustrated plates, mysterious drawings and engravings that depicted scenes and situations unlike anything he could name. And such works as Cynothoglys or The Noctuary of Tine conveyed schemes so bizarre, so remote from known texts and treatises of the esoteric tradition, that he felt assured of the sense of his quest.
Then it happened, he came upon a “small grayish volume leaning within a gap between larger and more garish tomes”. Something about it attracted him, a magnetic appeal that forced him to act, and to his delight the small indistinct book revealed something he’d never seen before. It’s this singular paragraph that harbors the promise of so much that we allow it to unfold:
It seemed to be a chronicle of strange dreams. Yet somehow the passages he examined were less a recollection of unruled visions than a tangible incarnation of them, not mere rhetoric but the thing itself. The use of language in the book was arrantly unnatural and the book’s author unknown. Indeed, the text conveyed the impression of speaking for itself and speaking only to itself, the words flowing together like shadows that were cast by no forms outside the book. But although this volume appeared to be composed in a vernacular of mysteries, its words did inspire a sure understanding and created in their reader a visceral apprehension of the world they described, existing inseparable from it. Could this truly be the invocation of Vastarien, that improbable world to which those gnarled letters on the front of the book alluded? And was it a world at all? Rather the unreal essence of one, all natural elements purged by an occult process of extraction, all days distilled into dreams and nights into nightmares. Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous—wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.
Nightmare made normal. This book that neither revealed an object, nor conveyed some symbolic representation of another world, but in fact brought Vastarien and the world together forming a new third object, where both entered into the force of madness and wonder. One would almost want to say that this is a parody of the most extreme idealist quest imaginable, and yet it is different an inversion of that romantic mythos with its death prone heroes such as Shelley’s Alastor.
Ultimately Vastarien is able to purchase this work and bring it home, a book that “did not merely describe that strange world but, in some obscure fashion, was a true composition of the thing itself, its very form incarnate”. This notion of a book breaking all the bonds of representationalism, of freeing us from the mediation of language, of symbols, of the infinite traceries of the undecidable realm of false promises and becoming for us the very thing itself we’d sought all those years. This is what Vastarien had found. One has to ask why humans possess the need to quest after such impossible objects. That we lack something, that we are incomplete, that there is a pit, a void in the recesses of our being that forces us to seek amends, to seek an answer to the quandaries of our torn and bleeding heart. This quest for the Absolute. But not a quest for God, not a quest for some simple answer or trope, some all encompassing One that can assuage the pain at the core of our being. No. We will not stand for hand-me-down mythologies of salvation and transition. No transcendental beyond for us, but rather the thing itself.
Of course in the end things do not end well for Vastarien. Locked away in an insane asylum we discover that the interns have daily to inject him with passivators, because he reads and rereads a certain book that will not go away. Oh, no, not they have not tried. They have. But the book always returns to its victim releasing the dark torments that he sought for so long…
This short story reminds us that underneath the veneer of our homely lives lays an order of the unreal, a void of the void, a darker structure of strangeness and disquiet that over millennia of techniques we have managed to build for ourselves a prison house of Reason to fend off and keep at bay the truth of this mad realm. Every once in a while a creature will break through the barriers of this prison of Reason we’ve trapped ourselves in, this normalcy and consensual hallucination of culture and sanity we call modern civilization. If one manages such an act of violence against the order of the real and Reason he/she is quickly imprisoned and barred from the normals, hidden behind professional medical systems and the Law. But in our time the vast prison is crumbling and the light of the unreal has been slowly seeping into our world from the great Outside. Oh, we turn a blind eye to it, we find scapegoats and madmen to fill the chinks and gaps with reasonable explanations and explanada. We hide in our artificial prisons of language and culture and carry on our lives as if the enemy is not us but some false system of religious or philosophical bullshit. We reach out to the sciences to find the answers promised us. We shift our fears of the haunted landscapes from the past to the ever-present threats of war, famine, and apocalypse. The whole genre of children utopian novels, or that of Apocalypse culture seem to bare witness to this as a traversing of the fantasy that is our times. These fears keep our minds preoccupied and allow us to forget the pull of the unreal just below the surface of our artificial climes. We’ve become so enamored of our prison that we’ve forgotten there ever was a great outdoors of Being inhabited by nightmares. Instead we live in a narrow prison of consciousness feeding each other the sincere lies of our immediate and daily lives of survival and propagation. Our keepers patrol the horizon of our world seeking out those who have found the escape routes back into the void, and with the power and dominion of the Law and State they incarcerate and imprison those who are so bold as to offer a vision of the unreal realms. For our world is a tidy and normal world controlled to keep us passivated and herd like in our mental straightjackets. We are the victims of our own success.
Authors like Ligotti hint at the brokenness of our world, open the door onto those strange and misplaced realms we’ve all forgotten except in the deep imaginaries of our nightmares.
A Philosophical Coda
As I was thinking about Ligotti’s tale of the Book that is a World I remembered that congenial author short stories Jorge-Luis Borges (a favorite author!). In one of his most often anthologized stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he imagines an entirely hypothetical world, the invention of a secret society of scholars who elaborate its every aspect in a surreptitious encyclopedia. This First Encyclopedia of Tlön (what fictionist would not wish to have dreamed up the Britannica?) describes a coherent alternative to this world complete in every respect from its algebra to its fire, Borges tells us, and of such imaginative power that, once conceived, it begins to obtrude itself into and eventually to supplant our prior reality.2
Borges would hint at the possibility that our universe is itself a regressus in infinitum – and, that we are all repeating the gestures of a circuit that has no outlet (its all been done before!). This illustrates Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise which embodies a regressus in infinitum which Borges carries through philosophical history, pointing out that Aristotle uses it to refute Plato’s theory of forms, Hume to refute the possibility of cause and effect, Lewis Carroll to refute syllogistic deduction, William James to refute the notion of temporal passage, and Bradley to refute the general possibility of logical relations. Borges himself uses it, citing Schopenhauer, as evidence that the world is our dream, our idea, in which “tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason” can be found to remind us that our creation is false, or at least fictive. It’s in this sense that Ligotti poses the addition or subtraction of the Unreal from the real, that we are all part and partial of an infinite regression into the spurious realms of a universal nightmare of Reason. (see John Barth below)
Thinking through this notion of the breakdown of our worldview, of Zizek’s big Other – the Symbolic Culture we’ve built up over eons to enclose us in a realm of safety and apathy in which our accepted horizon of what is real and unreal, of the commonsense realm of our everyday life that goes without saying, almost a background noise of inertia and total blindness, brought me back to my recent readings in philosophy of how our end game of present society is breaking apart into fragments – a Humpty-Dumpty vision of the crumbling of Western and Eastern and Middle-East civilizations into so many broken pieces that no one will ever be able to put it back together again. Which leaves us in this intermediary period of a void, a black hole in the fabric of fictions we’ve been telling ourselves for so many millennia we began to think that it was permanent. Instead we find ourselves being impinged on by other realms, realms of the Real that we had forgotten existed because we were so well policed in our imaginations by the media lords of our age into accepting the truths of philosophy and the sciences as the end-all-be-all of our view of existence. Instead our psychotic break with the past is leaving us in a quandary in which our whole world civilization is at war for a new worldview. Ligotti’s vision of the unreal and existing in the “ruins of the real” hints at this unraveling of the symbolic order that has imprisoned us for so long that it became habit.
So in our paranoid state of fear and trepidation we grasp at any past, any tradition, anything at all that will give us hope from despair, etc., all the while believing we can restore the age old dream of a utopian society of peace and plenty. Instead we produce more friction, more war, suicides, hate, fear, and the mingling of age old superstitions. As the dark waters of the Real seep in from the Great Outdoors of Being we are frightened to death, not understanding that this is needed, that to free ourselves of the burden of our past, our traditions, our prisons we must step out into the ocean of the void and begin again…
Like the Shamans of old Ligotti has seen into this strange new realm of the (Un)Real. The “contamination of reality by dream,” as Borges calls it, or in Ligotti’s tormented pessimism the contamination of the real by nightmares. In one of his other stories Dream of a Mannikin the narrator will hint at the solipsistic nightmare of a self-reflexive universe of despair we’ve all created for ourselves and have become passive and apathetic mannikins:
Contemplating the realm of Miss Locher’s dream, I came to deeply feel that old truism of a solipsistic dream deity commanding all it sees, all of which is only itself. And a corollary to solipsism even occurred to me: if, in any dream of a universe, one has to always allow that there is another, waking universe, then the problem becomes, as with our Chinese sleepyhead, knowing when one is actually dreaming and what form the waking self may have; and this one can never know. The fact that the overwhelming majority of thinkers rejects any doctrine of solipsism suggests the basic horror and disgusting unreality of its implications. And after all, the horrific feeling of unreality is much more prevalent (to certain people) in what we call human “reality” than in human dreams, where everything is absolutely real.3
This reversal and dialectical move or inversion of the real/unreal in the awakening of many of Ligotti’s anti-protagonists give hint of this underlying theme of the unreal world impinging upon our safe have of utter mindlessness and generative madness. For in this sense as Zizek has repeatedly show Reason is not the obverse of madness but its completed mask.
The narrator in the Sect of the Idiot will offer this
The extraordinary is a province of the solitary soul. Lost the very moment the crowd comes into view, it remains within the great hollows of dreams, an infinitely secluded place that prepares itself for your arrival, and for mine. Extraordinary joy, extraordinary pain—the fearful poles of the world that both menaces and surpasses this one. It is a miraculous hell towards which one unknowingly wanders. And its gate, in my case, was an old town—whose allegiance to the unreal inspired my soul with a holy madness long before my body had come to dwell in that incomparable place.4
Again this opening to the unreal, to those locus miraculous sites of explosion and seeping, those gaps in the contours of our safe world of sleep that harbor doors into the unknown. “No true challenge to the rich unreality of Vastarien, where every shape suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world. No horror, no joy was the equal of the abysmally vibrant sensations known in this place that was elsewhere, this spellbinding retreat where all experiences were interwoven to compose fantastic textures of feeling, a fine and dark tracery of limitless patterns. For everything in the unreal points to the infinite, and everything in Vastarien was unreal, unbounded by the tangible lie of existing.”5 This notion of Vastarien as a place, a site of the unreal, a realm apart and away, elsewhere from our everyday mundanity and sleeplessness: our somnambulism and death-drive repetition of safety and mere motionless movement.
Again in the short tale The Mystics of Muelenburg the narrator relates
I once knew a man who claimed that, overnight, all the solid shapes of existence had been replaced by cheap substitutes: trees made of flimsy posterboard, houses built of colored foam, whole landscapes composed of hair-clippings. His own flesh, he said, was now just so much putty. Needless to add, this acquaintance had deserted the cause of appearances and could no longer be depended on to stick to the common story. Alone he had wandered into a tale of another sort altogether; for him, all things now participated in this nightmare of nonsense. But although his revelations conflicted with the lesser forms of truth, nonetheless he did live in the light of a greater truth: that all is unreal. Within him this knowledge was vividly present down to his very bones, which had been newly simulated by a compound of mud and dust and ashes.6
This openness to the madness of our fake world in which only the madman has returned to tell a tale of the unreal reality of our own world while hinting at the greater truth of another realm situated not just beyond appearances (which is still the old Platonic two-world hash), but of this world seen as it truly is from a new perspective. The mad poet William Blake once sang of this:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing 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.”
― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The narrator in Mrs. Rinaldi’s Angel explains how fragile our supposed real world of common sense reality truly is, saying,
How well I knew such surroundings, those deep interiors of dream where everything is saturated with unreality and more or less dissolves under a direct gaze. I could tell how neatly this particular interior was arranged—pictures perfectly straight and tight against the walls, well-dusted figurines arranged along open shelves, lace-fringed tablecovers set precisely in place, and delicate silk flowers in slim vases of colored glass. Yet there was something so fragile about the balance of these things, as if they were all susceptible to sudden derangement should there be some upset, no matter how subtle, in the secret system which held them together.7
Again we ask is the Kant re-written from the perspective of a critique of pure reason, but rather of a critique of pure madness? And if we see within the confines of this critique the maps of a world which is ours seen not through the safe eyes of Reason but through the indirect appeal – not of unreason, but of the unreal itself, then could we say that our world is itself the very thing, the book, the place and site of the Unreal? There being no Platonic other world, no safe haven beyond appearances, but rather the appearance of appearance as manifest madness. But then what is this madness that Reason fears? If madness is the ground of Reason, and Reason is itself a form of and horizon of madness, then is it possible that Reason is but the attempt to bind with magical force the power of the Unreal surrounding us?
Another mad poet Arthur Rimbaud would apprehend this at a youthful age then renounce the path, but before living on into a dead world he would write:
“The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is knowledge of himself, complete: he searches for his soul, he inspects it, he puts it to the test, he learns it. As soon as he has learned it, he must cultivate it! I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet becomes a seer through a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All shapes of love suffering, madness. He searches himself, he exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences. Ineffable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed one–and the supreme Scholar! For he reaches the unknown! ….So the poet is actually a thief of Fire!” (see)
This combination of criminal, accursed one, and scholar brought into unison seems apt for Ligotti as well. A slow and methodical derangement of the senses that bind us to the culture of Reason, the big Other and Symbolic Order of the real in which we are imprisoned suddenly falling away revealing a realm of torment and paradisial wonder. And, yet, even the average citizen of this faded dream of the Real can still stumble upon those places of power that lead to the Unreal:
For there are certain places that exist on the wayside of the real: a house, a street, even entire towns which have claims upon them by virtue of some nameless affinity with the most remote orders of being. They are, these places, fertile ground for the unreal and retain the minimum of immunity against exotic disorders and aberrations. Their concessions to a given fashion of reality are only placating gestures, a way of stifling it through limited acceptance.8
A sort of minimalism of our current prison world in which the lineaments of the unreal shine through, but only through the very protected power of the inhabitants of this borderland of the unknown. In fact the “citizens of such a place are custodians of a rare property, a precious estate whose true owners are momentarily absent. All that remains before full proprietorship of the land may be assumed is the planting of a single seed and its nurturing over a sufficient period of time, an interval that has nothing to do with the hours and days of the world.”9
A final quote:
No one gives up on something until it turns on them, whether or not that thing is real or unreal.
—Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory Kindle Edition.
- John Barth. The Friday Book (Kindle Locations 1452-1456). G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 1080-1086). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 2992-2997). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 3541-3545). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 5285-5291). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7407-7411). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7878-7881). Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7883-7885). Kindle Edition.
…you get the horrors you deserve.
……… – Thomas Ligotti
“The accursed one may thus be understood as someone outside the law, or beyond it.”
………..– Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacre
Michael Arnzen in his post of (2008) on “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti mentioned a small film adaptation of this story that was part of a limited edition bundled with a DVD — a 24 minute adaptation of that story directed by Jacob Cooney. I never knew about this particular filmic adaptation. It seems (as a commenter suggests) it is on Vimeo: here. Either way the story itself was the first one I read in the original The Nightmare Factory, and its uncanny infiltration and contamination invaded my mind channeling that ancient power of cosmic strangeness we associate only with the weird tale.
In the carnal act, in desecration – and in desecrating himself – man crosses the limit of beings.
……..– Georges Bataille, The System of Nonknowledge
How many of us would admit to being accursed? I don’t mean living outside the law of man, or even if one did believe – outside the law of God; no: I mean the law of one’s own being, the law that keeps one safe and sound, the wild things at bay locked out in the dark hinterlands of the mind devoid of their terror and despair. What if one had been thrown not into the world – as Heidegger would have it, but rather into the void beyond one’s own inaccessible life, a life that continues sleepwalking through existence without you? What if that part of your being wandered beyond the hedge separating wilderness from civilization, sanity from insanity: beyond the civilizing sociality of your everyday self-subjectivation – that avatar mask you present to your wife or husband, or your children – who depend on the kindness of your gentle ways; as well, your boss, your friends, your social partners and after hours consorts; all these of which the self that meets the world, that masks its dark intent within the circle of sanity of this dog day world we all share? What if that self found its way back into the wilderness of beginnings, in the realm of myth and terror where the wild things live? What then?
from Allan and Adelaide: An Arabesque (1981) by Thomas Ligotti
Straight toward heav’n my wondering eyes I turned
And gazed a while the ample sky, till raised
By quick instinctive motion up I sprung …
…………“Thou Sun,” said I, “fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth so fresh and gay,
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?
Not of my self; by some great Maker then,
In goodness and in power preeminent;
Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier then I know.
………..– John Milton, Paradise Lost
Unlike Milton’s orthodox God of Creation who appears so full of goodness and wisdom, the Gnositcs – or, at least the Sethians – would envision the dark force of universal catastrophe as the Maker of Horrors rather than Paradises, a blind and terrible force at the heart of the cosmic degradation who is neither good nor evil but is the force of matter as active principle of unending existence. Ligotti’s Horror-Maker revitalizes this ancient mythos of a darker Gnosticism as an atheistic paradigm that removes both gods and angels and puts the blind forces of natural existence and the sciences at the heart of his allegory of cosmic catastrophism. Situated in that same cosmic abjectness as H.P. Lovecraft he explores a realm where the void harbors nothing more than the energetic powers of our own unconscious mind, a realm where the outer moves inside like a ravenous beast seeking a consuming ecstasy in excess of its own broken vessels.
In the ancient Gnostic mythos Samael is the third name of the demiurge, whose other names are Yaldabaoth and Saklas. In this context, Samael means “the blind god”, the theme of blindness running throughout gnostic works. His appearance is that of a lion-faced serpent. In On the Origin of the World in the Nag Hammadi library texts, he is also referred to as Ariael, the Archangel of Principalities. An allegory of Time and Matter, of the endless return of an active principle, an undying and unyielding immanence at the heart of things: the living power that enfolds us and delivers us to the nightmare of the universe.
Think of Shakespeare’s great play The Tempest where Ariel is a spry spirit or angelic creature that the evil witch Sycorax imprisoned in a tree because the “delicate” spirit didn’t have the heart to do her bidding. Prospero the Magus frees the spirit who then gifts him with unearthly wisdom and power; yet, under this guise we see a hint of the old blindness working its way out in a new form. Of course Shakespeare turns the myth to more comic and changeful pursuits. Prospero is tricked into changing his mind, a puppet handled by Ariel gracefully to do this spirit’s bidding under the guise of an autonomous act of the Mind, bringing with it a happy conclusion to love and romance. Yet, even here in Shakespeare a knowledge and gnosis of the old paths cross mind-wise in the allegory of comedy and romance.
Georges Bataille in his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism would see in this ancient mythology a notion of matter as active principle: “It is possible to see as a leitmotif 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).”
Jacque Lacan sometimes represents what he would term the Real as a state of active matter, as a time of fullness or completeness [what Gnostics would term the Pleroma] that is subsequently lost through the entrance into language. The primordial animal need for copulation similarly corresponds to this state of active matter. There is a need followed by a search for satisfaction. As far as humans are concerned, however, “the real is impossible,” as Lacan was fond of saying. It is impossible in so far as we cannot express it in language because the very entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the real. Still, the real continues to exert its influence throughout our adult lives since it is the rock against which all our fantasies and linguistic structures ultimately fail. The real for example continues to erupt whenever we are made to acknowledge the materiality of our existence, an acknowledgement that is usually perceived as traumatic (since it threatens our very “reality”), although it also drives Lacan’s sense of jouissance.
Yet, what if instead of being driven by “need” as in Lacan, we are driven not by a lack, but an overflowing immanent power, an ecstatic plenitude that needs to overflow the boundaries of all limits, otherwise become sick and destitute? Wasn’t this at the heart of Freud’s theory of drives? Lacan muted this and introduced need and lack into an otherwise Freudian universe of catastrophe and chaos. What if instead of a lack at the heart of being there is a fullness, a darker truth of an active principle of production that needs to flow, needs to escape the boundaries of reason and civilization? Wasn’t this at the core of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of Lacan? What if our very laws that bind this ancient power within humanity is what has made us sick and nihilistic? What if we need to escape these old laws of morality and normativity, to explore our ancient heritage in the worlds of libertine ecstasy? What if instead of Stoic reduction of pleasure and pain, we need to push pleasure and pain to the extreme limits of our human capacities, to overflow the barriers that keep us tied to outworn forms? What is what we seek is to transgress the limits of self-imposed exile, rejoin the universe of power and eros? Consume the riches of the universe in its glorious excess? As Nick Land would eloquently put it:
Excess or surplus precedes production, work, seriousness, exchange, and lack. The primordial task of life is not to produce or survive, but to consume the clogging floods of riches – of energy – pour down upon it.2
Jouissance has been noted as a transgressive, excessive kind of pleasure linked to the division and splitting of the subject involved. One might see it as a form of commingling of eros and thanatos, a pleasurable pain or painful pleasure – an excess that brings the sensual and orgasmic delights to a limit that bursts beyond and into that voidic delight where annihilation and opposites endure beyond human endurance. Rather than the apathy and affectlessness of cold embittered logic and mental masturbation of priestly sadists we should listen to the great Sufi mystic Rumi who once said:
Pain renews old medicines and lops off the branch of every indifference. Pain is the alchemy that renovates—where is indifference when pain intervenes?1
Ariel Glucklich in her study of Sacred Pain will argue that religious pain produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental state of being. More succinctly, pain strengthens the religious person’s bond with God and with other persons. Of course, since not all pain is voluntary or self-inflicted, one mystery of the religious life is how unwanted suffering can become transformed into sacred pain. (p. 6) But what of sexual ecstasy, what of the gnostic libertines who sought out the extremes of physical and mental jouissance, the pleasure-pain or joyful sorrow of ecstatic immanence: a darker gnosis than that of the later mystics of the Light? What of the powers of darkness and active matter, of the archons and their endless measure of immanent bliss and pain, the jouissance that brings about a horrible mercy and excessive delight in nightmares?
What of the atheist, the unbeliever, the wandering tribe of Cain? What of those who seek not God but the extremes of physical jouissance, the excess where pain and pleasure merge in a physical and mental event of exquisite power and breadth. What of the tradition from Baudelaire to now of the drug induced visionary gleam of those immanent realms of dream and nightmare, the offering of glimpses into a cosmic degradation and contamination of a dark gnosis. Where being “alone with the alone” is not some transcendence of the cosmic fun house, but rather a deeper involvement in its bleak voidic energy – an immanent degradation and awakening to our relation to our eternal life as twitching vibrant matter? (This is not a vitalism!)
There is no pantheistic god hiding in the darkness, no living allegory of the Gnostic Blind One. Instead this is the atheism of eternal return of which Nietzsche dreamed forward. Where things merge in the dark alcoves of matter, a matter that is no longer dead but active and excessive and transgressive. Where the cosmic anguish and spasms of dying galaxies, and the immeasurable drift of a trillion nightmare scenarios engender a writhing plenitude of pleasurable pain, a jouissance bringing forth such endless wonders and monstrosities that one seeks not some salvation by way of transcendence, but rather the slow and methodical merging with the immanence of power that is already flowing through every nook and cranny of one’s being and the universe? Metamorphic transformation in a spiraling movement of endless Time.
What if we ourselves are the blind gods set adrift in a universe of death where only the nightmares break through the barrier and gap of the Real, and with each step we take we enter another chapter in our already endless death-in-Life? An eternal return of the great round of eros and thanatos: the universe as catastrophe and pure jouissance. What if we ourselves are the very powers who squander our lives in trivial games of human degradation, while in truth our task is to set free the horror of the Real and let the games of love and death begin in transgression and ecstasy? Maybe as Ligotti affirms: “There is no refuge from the living void, the terror of the invisible.” We are the void, and the terror is of our own making, for we are the Horror-Makers of this charade, this catastrophic universe of pure death and jouissance, of erotic ecstasy in endless degradation and corruption. Sepulchral metamorphosis and transformation, the dark energy of an active principle in matter moving through all things invisibly – as in Blake: “Energy is eternal delight!”
Catastrophists of nightmares and wonders, monstrosities and cosmic degradation: the endless play of eros and thanatos in a realm of pure jouissance – matter at play with itself in eternal delight. Civilization and Language were invented to stave off this very truth, to build walls, gaps, and cracks in the cosmic movement; to bind it and keep it at bay. Yet, it will not go away. You cannot hide from what you are, neither can you exclude the terror of your own inner being. The mythologies of the Real are nothing more than one more mask for this dark energy that labors both within and without us doing what it has always done from the beginning of time; for indeed it is the labor of Time.
We are the very monsters we so fearfully project into our allegorical mythologies. We are the terrors and powers of this universal crime, who have forgotten our sad estate in the cosmic palace of horror. Like minions of a deadly deed we create fictions to hide from ourselves. We are slaves to impulses we once owned as our own. We are afraid to enter the stream of continuous degradation and be as we are, the heirs of a vast catastrophe that we ourselves made. For we are the Horror-Makers. The dark gnosis is to know that we are in the place of nightmares without knowing it. A place from which we have sought exit for so long through all our mythologies of salvation beyond despair, when all we needed to do was to enter the final stage of our metamorphosis and be transformed by the active principle at the core of this universal composition and decomposition. To know and be known by the blindness that is our degradation and our glory.
Do you understand me now?
The one eye of the Godhead is blind, the one ear of the Godhead is deaf, the order of its being is crossed by chaos. So be patient with the crippledness of the world and do not overvalue its consummate beauty.
……………– C. G. Jung, The Red Book
- Glucklich, Ariel (2001-10-18). Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (p. 4). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Nick Land. The Thirst for Annihilation. (Routledge, 1992).