Interlude 1: Thomas Ligotti, True Detective, and the conspiracy against human race.

11 Apr

1.

I’ve long been a fan of what’s labeled weird fiction for a long time. This includes horror, science fiction and fantasy, but only in so far as the narrative is damaged somehow, askew, bent. My canon for weird fiction is lengthy, a sort of catch-all, including H.P. Lovecraft—who is a touch overrated, despite writing some excellent stories[1]—Robert Howard, Robert Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, E.T.A Hoffman, Philip K. Dick, Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, Michel Houellbecq, Jonathan Carroll (Voice of Our Shadow is excellent), Roberto Bolano, J.K. Huysman, Angela Carter, Victor LaVelle, James Ellroy, as well as the literary pornographers Marquis DeSade, Anais Nin, George Bataille. Obsessives, lunatics, visionaries, perverts, creeps both high and low—I welcome weird writers of all types. I include in the above list the comic book writers Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (and don’t ask me to weigh in on that particular debate; I love them both), Neil Gaiman, to a lesser extent Peter Milligan and Ed Brubaker.

The point: I like the weird, the dark and the bizarre. Always have.

I also thought True Detective was excellent. So I was excited to dig into some new weirdoes on the literary fringe. I dipped into Brian Evenson (intriguing and singular but one note) and Heidi Julavitz (a very fine writer I must return to).

Which brings me to the horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti is a horror writer of some reputation. I haven’t been able to get my hands on his fiction as of yet. But I did pick up his merciless, vicious overview of pessimist philosophy, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I just finished it.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Um, no and kind of boring.

Um, no, and kind of boring.

2.

Ligotti summarizes the pessimists including Nietzche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Cioran, Weineger (a minor character in the excellent The World as I Found It), alongside other angry, dour, despondent dudes. The basic belief is this: consciousness is a curse, an evolutionary mistake, and mankind should quickly and quietly bring itself to extinction by not having any more offspring. A collective eradication of our species.

Ligotti reiterates certain key points to his philosophy, but the big one is the oldest: space is empty and bleak, airless, full of sucking black holes; life exists to gobble up other life; non-life exists to gobble up life; nothing can justify or redeem humanity because humanity is temporary and useless; and humans are merely meat puppets with no agency, free will, and only the illusion of control. Ligotti’s using this tradition of pessimist philosophy to argue for nothing less than the complete extinction of the human race, and as quickly as possible. His version of reality is the ultimate reduction, and therefore very difficult to crack[2].He and his ilk invert the values of most of history by laying all our turmoil at the feet of hope and belief, while arguing that there is succor in nothingness and suicide.

Here’s a taste:

“We know we are alive and we 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.”

No daisies or puppies or rainbows for him.

Fifteen years ago this would have gnawed at my waking hours and plagued my dreams. I would have jotted down notes, read arguments against Ligotti’s summation. I would have fretted, worried, paced. I would have lost sleep, had nightmares, night sweats. I would have suffered.

Now I just shrug. Hundreds of thousands of thinkers, artists, poets, and theologians have grappled with these issues for millennia, so I’m not going to add anything by trying to contradict his claims. I’ll just say that he’s cartoonishly[3] negative. Not content to live in a shitty paradigm of joylessness, he insists that everyone from the dawn of man to the end of time lives in the exact same terror that he does. In a word, he’s wrong.

I defer to Epicure and sunlight and the transcendentalists and the music of Bach and Ray Charles. I would also quote William James on rationality and logic and philosophy:

“There arises a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned . . . . What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”

Put another way: Nothing is logical. Not even the most basic premise. Everything is preconditioned by the flawed human minds that create them[4]. We are our experiences and beliefs.

Eat it, Ligotti.

3.

Much of the book is an oddball sequel of H.P. Lovecraft’s overview of the at the time current weird fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature. (I wouldn’t recommend this either; for fans of weird fiction I would suggest the out of print and magnificent Illustrated History of Fantasy by Franz Rottensteiner). Ligotti is on his surest footing when writing about other writers, adding a few surprises into the mix. He covers Poe and Lovecraft, but also Pirandello and Conrad (he correctly loops in Heart of Darkness in this literary lineage). I almost enjoyed his literary analysis, although his stilted writing style, a kind of faux doctoral thesis psychobabble, never really worked for me.

With all those caveats, there’s something disturbing—and intriguing—in Ligotti’s tone, almost ironic, close to Swift in his famous essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Only Ligotti isn’t joking, satirizing, pretending. He believes his own nonsense, like one of Jim Jones’s acolytes guzzling the kool-aid.

I’ll let him have the last word. You tell me if this wouldn’t work as some type of absurdist high-concept comedy routine (voiced by Adam West, perhaps):

“You would then know the horror and know that you know it: that you are nothing but a human puppet would not be impossible to believe. What now? Answer: Now you go insane. Now our species goes extinct in great epidemics of madness, because now we know that behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. Now we know that we are uncanny paradoxes. We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.”

Gimme a break.

 

[1] I love At the Mountains of Madness.

[2] It’s simplicity should be a huge warning sign to people.

[3] You can hear the nihilists in The Big Lebowski yelling from the pages: “We believe in nozing, Lebowski, nothing!”

[4] And this, too, offers little solace in the final tally.

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11 Responses to “Interlude 1: Thomas Ligotti, True Detective, and the conspiracy against human race.”

  1. Abe Humbles September 22, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Really, Ligotti’s prose that you quoted is remarkably tame compared to Lovecraft. If you find that over the top, you must not read in the genre very often.

    And his image of human life as a Grand Guignol cosmic practical joke is pretty Lovecraftian, too. I don’t mind Ligotti’s implacable pessimism, it’s just that it’s not new. It certainly deserve a book. Remove the spiritualism from Buddhism, and you basically have Ligotti’s metaphysic. Remove the cheerful acceptance of hopelessness from Stoicism and Euhemerism, and you have Ligotti’s metaphysic. And he’s got nothing on Schopenhauer.

    How can you not recommend Lovecraft’s long essay on the ‘Weird in Literature’? It’s a classic, and probably the finest defense of the genre as a whole, for those who are inclined to see it as useless pulp.

    • simoneandthesilversurfer September 22, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

      Hi, Abe.

      I knew someone would respond to this sooner or later; writers like Ligotti, Lovecraft, and so on always have defensive fans. I get it. (I’m defensive about Philip K. Dick, among others.) But, Abe, please, I’ve read horror, fantasy, science fiction for decades. (If you haven’t read Rottensteiner’s overview of fantasy literature, you should, The Fantasy Book. It’s remarkable. Great old book covers, too.) I’ve read everything Lovecraft ever wrote, including his defense of supernatural literature. In fact, I reread At the Mountains of Madness almost every year. It’s one of my favorite novels. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is another book I return to over and over. So too Blood Meridian. I’ve read from Huysman and Beckford and Lewis on down to present-day horror writers. I love horror! I’m always looking for someone to shake my primal being. I like feeling afraid. I get horror. I get the philosophical underpinnings.

      But I’ve (mostly) moved past pulpy books. (I’ve written about it here and here.) I still love Philip K. Dick and Thomas Disch and Stanislaw Lem and yes, H.P. Lovecraft. But I don’t subscribe to his zeroed out materialism. (John Carpenter, who I just love, has a similar belief system.) I admire their work. I dig their integrity. I just don’t agree with them.

      So let’s get into it. But please, let’s be cordial. Let’s fence, not brawl.

      I don’t have much for the pessimist philosophers. Any belief system that operates to the negation of everyone else is, to me, foolish. Why are they right and everyone else is wrong? Every philosopher I’ve ever read—Nietzche, Spinoza, Plato, Rousseu, Kierkegard, Locke, Dewey, Cioran, Camus, Sartre, etcetera (I even know a little of Schopenhauer, but only a little)—they’ve all sounded like the truth while I was reading them. It was only later that I saw the cracks and flaws. William James said somewhere that the most logical, objective thinker, if you peer into their thoughts, has a howling sub-basement of superstition and illogic. This holds true for Ayn Rand’s supposed objectivism, as well as, in a harder to define way, Dewey’s pragmatism. We can’t escape subjectivity. We’re born with it.

      I would argue that Ligott’s deep anti-natal thinking is de-humanizing, and offers an easy line of reasoning to harm other people. Perhaps any strongly held belief results in eventual persecution, even anti-belief. But Cioran and Schopenhauer and Nietzche—their beliefs contributed to a lot of suffering in the 20th century. Ligotti says religion did and does, too. Fine. But atrocity over here doesn’t prove a theorem over there. Arguing that all humanity is worthless, rotting meat—this is no way to accomplish anything. This is no way to build or plan for the future. This is no way to reduce human suffering. This is no way to produce any great work of art. It’s a zeroing out. A great gray miasma.

      And what do I believe? It changes. It shifts. It evolves. It regresses. Some times I believe one thing, other times another. I don’t have to be consistent. My beliefs won’t fix anything. They can’t. My beliefs won’t convince anything of anything. I won’t offer up a solid defense of my own ethical system, save, perhaps: do no harm. There’s one precept I buy into. And, I suppose, I reject a few more of his basic claims. No, I’ll go further: I reject Ligotti outright. Life exists. Consciousness exists. I don’t think life is suffering. I don’t think life is pain. I used to understand life through loneliness (and I might again). Not anymore. was I right then and wrong now? Or the other way around?

      This is, of course, my point. We can believe many things in a life. It doesn’t make them true. It doesn’t make them false.

      Ligotti isn’t making a very strong case. He’s uses emotional arguments. He’s hiding his own enormous—and appealing—terror over the human condition by aggressively attacking anyone who doesn’t agree with his narrowly defined philosophy. (See above.) How is this rigorous thinking? How is this helpful to anyone? Why does he and his handful of brethren—the pessimistic philosophers are, as far as I know, all men—get to dictate the terms of the cosmic dance of time so narrowly?

      And why is Ligotti right—much of his argument is based on a priori assumptions, such as, a. consciousness evolved accidentally, and b. consciousness is basically useless, which are more often than not appeals to intellectual snobbery—when so many other thinkers are wrong? His point of view partly boils down to a sort of I’m smart and I’ve figured it out sort of thing. Does he have the intellectual chops to spar with Erasmus or Spinoza or St. Thomas Aquinas? Or, in another realm, Terence McKenna’s oddball shamanism? Or Demosthenes? Or Epicure? Or Kant? (I haven’t read Hegel or Heidegger.) Isn’t it just a base form of arrogance?) He’s at his worst when he tries to argue against the futurists. He doesn’t know what’s going to come either. He’s out of his league.

      Finally, I don’t think Ligotti is a very strong writer . I’ve grown into a snob, I admit it, but he’s overblown, unsubtle, un-enjoyable, at least as an essayist. He’s not in the ballpark of the essayists I admire. Am I wrong? Prove it to me. I’m all ears.

      • Abe Humbles September 23, 2014 at 12:03 am #

        Hi,
        I appreciate the extensive response, but I fear you will find me a disappointing correspondent since you and I are mostly on the same page. I also read Blood Meridian every year or two out of sheer love.
        I have only read Ligotti’s prose fiction, which is pretty strong relative to the other stuff that is out there in the field. I have only read snippets of his non-fiction. As I intended to state, I don’t object to his obsessive pessimism, I just find it rather juvenile. His position and arguments are warmed over versions of much earlier arguments going back to the Greeks and Indians. Unfortunately, his education appears to be entirely in the field of English literary criticism, so he is mostly blind to the way his positions merely mirror earlier philosophers.
        I’m pretty darn close to being an atheist, but even I regard Ligotti as nothing more than a sourpuss. Schopenhauer made a much more compelling case (and much more well-written) for pessimistic nihilism. As you state, Ligotti makes his case by pretty much dispensing with everything about life that you and I regard as worthwhile: love, music, beauty, intoxication, etc. Even Schopenhauer didn’t have to go that far.
        Anyway, I love Dick and Lem and Lovecraft and Bruno Schulz, among many other true originals in the field of weird fiction. I mainly value Lovecraft for his spirited and extremely articulate and thoughtful defense of the entire genre of weird and supernatural horror fiction. Without Lovecraft’s aggressive defense of horror and his spellbinding oeuvre, there just wouldn’t be much out there. And at this late date, there’s not much else fiction worth reading except weird and supernatural fiction.

      • simoneandthesilversurfer September 23, 2014 at 1:45 am #

        Abe!

        And I thought we were on a collision course.

        I like disagreeing with people—over ideas, over literature, over history, over aesthetics—but yes, we’re not that far apart. (I like Bruno Schulz quite a bit myself.) I’ve been reading through the past sixty-five years of National Book Award winners right here, mostly in order. There have been some surprises, some absurd letdowns, some real weird novels, too. Dick is a hero of mine. I didn’t read him until I graduated college with a degree in english/literature, and I don’t know, there’s something profound about corresponding with his mind. Friends tell me his writing is sloppy, etc. but I don’t see it. It’s weird. I love the arcane and the bizarre. Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel blew me away (if it is perhaps forty pages too long), and Jonathan Carroll’s The Voice of the Shadows is a great horror novel. (He’s a pretty interesting writer.) Any suggestions in the horror field you have for me, please send them along. There are a lot of literary novels that also function as horror/unsettling, including the very fine The Sheltering Sky, which will knock your head back, and, strangely, Rabbit, Run. (The other Rabbit novels not so much, even though Rabbit, Redux has this very strange middle section where a few characters sit around in a sinister all-night conversation.) Tree of Smoke is, in part, an epic horror novel. James Ellroy’s crime novels can just as easily be read as horror, at least The Big Nowhere and The Black Dahlia. And, closer to the genre itself, I still have a soft spot for Carrion Comfort and Summer of Night. I rarely feel like there isn’t a mountain of great books to read. I’m disappointed often, but I give books fifty pages before moving along.

        Ligotti. I don’t know. You sum him up well. The last words Christopher Hitchens wrote, before losing consciousness, were, “Atheists shouldn’t offer solace, either.”

        Anyway, Abe, let’s be people of the book. Shoot me any suggestions.

      • Abe Humbles September 23, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

        You’ll really need to explain how Updike’s Rabbit novels merit mention on a list of supernatural/ horror fiction. I tried to enjoy the Rabbit novels, I really did. I failed.

        I was introduced to Bruno Schulz via the Quay Brothers’ short film ‘The Street of Crocodiles’. I went out and bought his complete works the next day, and was smitten. Totally unlike anything I had read before.

        I’ve seen several mentions of Jonathan Carroll recently. Based on your recommendation, I’ll have to check him out.

        I’ve been trying to get into Laird Barron the last few weeks, but don’t see much that is special there. Maybe if you’ve read his stories you’ll have a different take.

        Philip K. Dick. Where to begin. He’s the most aggravating literary genius I’ve come across. I agree with your friends that his writing is often sloppy, but I have to cut him some slack because he was a full time writer, who had no other means of income. He didn’t have a day job — in fact didn’t have much education at all, in spite of his brilliant mind and auto-didacticism. He pumped out most of his novels in a couple days of non-stop writing at a white heat. In his most fertile period, he would send off two or more stories a week to his publisher, which is a crazy pace to maintain. His brain would fasten on an idea, he would stew it over in the back of his head for a few weeks or months, and then decide to write it. And he would sit down, shut out the world and his family, and write until he was done. Of the novels I’ve read, the most polished (in the sense of having a clear “act” structure, a story trajectory and the like) is “Do Androids Dream..” and Ubik. “Flow My Tears” and “Through a Scanner” were also pretty clean. I’m still slowly making my way through his oeuvre, picking up a novel every month or so among the other things I read, so I can’t speak authoritatively on his work, but he was a master. I actually feel more comfortable in his vertiginous world than in most others like Lovecraft. Lovecraft makes me feel dirty, like I just read something scandalous and pornographic.

        JG Ballard is often touted as the British version of Dick, and he’s probably a better ‘writer’ in the stylistic or technical sense, but his themes and ideas are both less subtle and less wild than Dick.

        The first writer I began reading after coming into contact with Lovecraft as a teenager — based on Lovecraft’s recommendation — was Walter de la Mare, who is all but forgotten. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for him, because the element of the weird or supernatural was always so understated and subtle in his work. His stories and novels are like Henry James’ “A Turn of the Screw” — just as well written, but quite a bit wilder. I still don’t know what to make of many of de la Mare’s most anthologized stories, like ‘From the Deep’ or ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, but I love him all the same.

        Ligotti’s fictions are as good as anything written in the genre these days, and what I like most is his unremitting darkness in addition to his technical chops. I suppose we have to put up with his part-time philosophizing, but I choose to ignore it. I like his thoughts on the art of horror itself, but I’ll take my convictions on life and death and the universe from somewhere else. Fundamentally, life is for living, not thinking about. And it is good. I’d always rather be alive than dead, and that’s enough for me to know Ligotti and I are not on the same wavelengths.

      • simoneandthesilversurfer September 30, 2014 at 12:39 am #

        Hi, Abe.

        If you haven’t read Roberto Bolano’s 2666, or Nazi Literature in the Americas, you have a feast awaiting you. Both are challenging in a way, but also thrilling. 2666 in particular is one of the great books of the last 15 years, and polarizing as hell. There’s 300 pages of murders, all of them real, carefully researched by Bolano. House of Leaves is great. Oops, kids need to be put to bed. More later.

      • Abe Humbles September 30, 2014 at 12:50 am #

        I enjoyed House of Leaves, though it’s been many years now. Bolano is one I’ve never read before, I’ll be sure to investigate. Thanks.

  2. faggot king November 27, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

    maybe your are a faggot.

    • simoneandthesilversurfer November 29, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

      I. Am. Not. A. Cigarette. (But, seriously, if you want to offend me, you’ll have to do a much better job than this.)

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