Glumscribe: His Thoughts and Words

by Arthur B

With the publication of primary non-fiction source material from Thomas Ligotti, Ligotti Studies could well become a Thing.
It’s been a big year or two for Thomas Ligotti and his acolytes. Once upon a time Ligotti was so infamous for his reclusive nature that some believed that he didn’t exist, and that his fiction was written by some other post-Lovecraftian author or committee of authors in a really, really bad mood. Now his existence is increasingly accepted, and his heartfelt objections to that very existence enjoy an increasingly high profile.

Whilst True Detective author Nic Pizzolatto mostly drew on Robert Chambers and his followers when it came to the cosmic horror references in the series to the King In Yellow and Carcosa, these tended to be rather shallow nods; you could have happily replaced them with callouts to any other entity from the Call of Cthulhu core rulebook without materially changing the action or meaning of True Detective. The same is not true of his liftings from Thomas Ligotti; if you removed Ligotti’s hardline anticosmic antinatalism from Rust Cohle, you end up with a radically different character and a radically different character arc over the course of the series. As Ligotti succinctly puts it:
A: There is no grand scheme of things.

B: If there were a grand scheme of things, the fact - the fact - that we are not equipped to perceive it, either by natural or supernatural means, is a nightmarish obscenity.

C: The very notion of a grand scheme of things is a nightmarish obscenity.
From these building blocks, Ligotti has constructed all his fiction, but his unshaking belief in these precepts means that he does not confine this stance to the pages of his stories. In recent years a trickle of nonfictional material has come out of the Ligotti camp, material which makes it simultaneously clear that Ligotti is both deadly serious, and at the same time quite personable to actually talk to.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

A philosophical monologue in book form, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race has Thomas Ligotti setting out the market stall for his particular strand of antinatalist pessimism, as well as highlighting the development of similar pessimistic views in philosophy and literature. Ligotti takes the position that the suffering intrinsic to life is such that there is no justification in forcing people to come into existence, when those who are never born neither suffer the pain they would have endured nor miss the pleasure they would have enjoyed, and that there is no particular purpose to human existence and peaceful, voluntary extinction is the only rational course we can take as a species. As a side order he offers up the concept that conscious self-awareness is a curse, may in fact be unnatural, and would certainly be something we were better off without.

In short, he does not believe that life is worth living. Those who believe it is are optimists; those who agree with him that it isn’t are his pessimists. Ligotti admits that the pessimistic position is a hard sell for those who are not already inclined to agree with it; indeed, he pretty much states that optimism and pessimism come down to whether you take "life is good" or "life is shit" as axiomatic, neither position really being something people adopt due to logical arguments so much as coming down to a gut feeling. As such, The Conspiracy is not really an attempt to persuade people around to the pessimist position so much as it is an explanation of it, partly to allow optimists to understand the pessimist minority and party to allow pessimists the small but not to-be undervalued comfort of knowing they are not alone.

This isn’t to say that Ligotti advocates suicide either - whilst on average life is a losing prospect to him and he would have rather not been born in the first place, at the same time Ligotti points out that the suffering and dread associated with death can be sufficiently great that there may be no particular need to seek it out any earlier than it comes. On the other hand, he wouldn’t be averse to pushing a button that’d take out all of us at once - a lonesome suicide solves nothing, but global human extinction saves countless future generations from the horror of existence.

Whether you regard Ligotti’s viewpoint as being obnoxiously negative or comfortingly familiar, the roots of much of his horror can be discerned in these pages. His use of puppet imagery, for instance, becomes all too horribly clarified here, when he talks about how horrible it is for gross matter to suddenly become conscious and walk around and do stuff, and suggests that the reason people find animate puppets to be a creepy prospect is that they remind us too much of our own dilemma, our consciousness and self-awareness so far as we can make out an emergent property of matter with no cosmic greater significance than a chemical reaction or a nuclear process, our minds and lives ultimately, like the universe itself MALIGNANTLY USELESS (as Ligotti puts it).

Born to Fear

Ligotti’s worldview as expressed both in his fiction and Conspiracy is downright intimidating, but it’s contextualised and humanised to a large extent by the interviews collected in Born to Fear. Although they give occasional (but carefully chosen) glimpses of Ligotti’s day-to-day life, we don’t learn very much about Ligotti the man from them, save for his disarmingly frank discussions of the various mental health issues that have plagued him, and which have played a large part in shaping not just the worldview expressed by his stories and the mode of his writing, but the very frequency of his work, his extended periods of inactivity corresponding to periods when his mental state simply will now allow for him to produce stories.

What the various interviewers over the years have managed to get out of Ligotti - and the full picture of this becomes most apparent when the interviews are all collected together like this - is an extended, in-depth discussion of his worldview, his philosophy of literature, what he seeks to accomplish in his own writing and what he seeks in that of others. To a certain extent, you can see here the ideas which form The Conspiracy Against the Human Race beginning to take form, and in his introduction to the volume editor Matt Cardin suggests that it can be seen as a companion volume to that. I’d even go further and say that this, more even than Conspiracy itself, constitutes a skeleton key to Ligotti’s work.

One thing that particularly stands out is how Ligotti contrasts two different approaches to writing - one in which the author tries to fade away and become a background presence as much as possible, often coinciding with a third person omniscient narrator, and one in which the author is extremely present in their writing, which acts as a means for them to present their worldview to the reader. Ligotti counts himself as being very much in the second school, which he asserts is the school of Poe and Lovecraft, and which he also feels dooms him to commercial irrelevance, since the first school (that of King and Koontz) sells far better.

It’s particularly appropriate that the book that drew Ligotti into the world of weird fiction was Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the basis of The Haunting, which is perhaps the most Ligotti-esque film Hollywood has ever produced. An antisocial misanthrope builds a house to reflect his conception of the world; another antisocial misanthrope is drawn to it and destroyed. Eleanor, our heroine, wants nothing more than for something to happen to her, but in a Ligottian universe there’s nothing to happen to her - at least, nothing pleasant.

At the same time, Ligotti’s unwavering philosophical commitment to fatalistic, deterministic, materialistic pessimism is leavened in these interviews by his thoughts on how people actually live with this. Some comments of his could be read as being ableist, particularly his thoughts on children born so deeply unwell that, by his lights, they may as well have never been born and it is a cruelty to keep them alive - though to a large extent this arises from him being vague where he draws the line on that; we all know that there are extreme medical conditions children can be born with which eliminate any hope of an independent life or survival beyond the extreme short term, where the question of whether we have a right to decide when they should die clashes with the question of whether we have a right to force them to live.

In addition, it is apparent that as well as great depression and misery, Ligotti also has issues with great anger; he readily confesses that My Work Is Not Yet Done was in fact partly inspired by a time in his life when he genuinely considered murdering some of his work colleagues, only to talk himself out of it when he realised that there was no way to do it whilst keeping the work colleagues he did like out of danger, and that people would both suffer needlessly as a result of his actions and misinterpret his actions after the fact. (Indeed, had he gone through with this it would be easy to see The Conspiracy Against the Human Race not as a studied contemplation of antinatalist pessimism, but a manifesto to sit alongside The Unabomber Manifesto and Elliot Rodger’s My Twisted World.) This is not an attractive feature of Ligotti’s character, though his ability to suppress and save himself from these dire actions is admirable in its own way, as is his honesty in admitting what he had been contemplating.

For the most part, though, there is an unexpected compassion to be found in Ligotti - as miserable as he so often clearly is, he also seems to have a keen ability to imagine and sympathise with the misery of others, and he regards the reduction of human suffering to be the best work for humanity. On the other hand, his identification of the ultimate source of suffering as being consciousness itself means that some of the more fantastic solutions he imagines for suffering may be unacceptable to the mass of humanity. It is clearly a lonely and difficult thing to be, as Ligotti describes himself, "Born to Fear", but it is lucky for us that he is able to explain how it is to exist that way in such precise and evocative terms.

The Last Word

For those not yet aboard the Ligotti train, these two volumes represent a final chance to catch up before Penguin Classics' threatened republication of his first two fiction collections Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works. I cannot promise there will be any future opportunities after this, or for that matter any future. The idea of Ligotti gaining as prominent and widespread a platform as Penguin are giving him is a nonsensical absurdity of a scale that rivals any in his fiction and I can't 100% rule out the idea of a mass adoption of antinatalism and voluntary human extinction as a result of this turn of events.

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Comments (go to latest)
What about animals? If they're capable of suffering, should they also go extinct?
Arthur B at 17:56 on 2015-06-01
One of the axiomatic points of Conspiracy is that animals are not conscious entities in the same way human beings are, and specifically that they have no philosophical consciousness. As such they are able to accept the essential meaninglessness of existence in a way human beings can't - or rather, they don't need to consciously accept anything because they just take things as they come and they don't have this persistent need human beings have to try and make sense of it all.

If you can't accept this for more advanced animals (I'm personally willing to buy the idea of, say, ants as nothing more than biological robots but wouldn't say the same thing about, say, our closer relatives in apeland, or for that matter cats and dogs I have known), then I suspect Ligotti might also argue that most animals exist in a state of "ego-death", and that the ego and the illusion of personhood is a side effect partially of our excessively developed brain and partially a matter of cultural indoctrination with the idea that you are a person.

Either way, the question is hypothetical unless and until an animal can communicate to us whether it believes that, on balance, life is worth living or not. If you could get an animal to do that, it wouldn't be especially fatal to Ligotti's argument since all you'd have done is broaden the categories of entities that can be defined as optimists or pessimists without really changing either the optimistic or the pessimistic position.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 16:31 on 2015-06-06
Ligotti's and other pessimist's worldview is an interesting thing. On the face of it, one might react very negatively toward it, with accusations of nihilism and what not, but I find it very endearing , in a way. And really, it does offer a blueprint of ethics, that could be quite successful in avoiding some meta-ethical pitfalls.

I might see it that way because to me, it shares some interesting points and is influenced in some ways by buddhism, which for me has always held a certain fascination in how it sees the world and humans. Or rather, Schopenhauer, a founding father of sorts for modern philosophical pessimism was strongly influenced by buddhism, or rather what ever version of buddhism was available for an educated German in the early and mid 19th century Europe. Although Ligotti sees Schopenhauer as someone who did not go all the way and I suppose he would see Nietzsche as someone constructing constructing an ethical system based on some vitality or will, which is as illusory as the things both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer considered wihout foundation in reality.Both buddhism and philosophical pessimism deny that there is a purpose or some reality of personhood, which is eternal or special, but they handle this realization very differently.

Buddhism is a positive belief system, in that it tries to find some solution to this realization of emptiness and lack of purpose. Through enlightenment and acceptance of things as they are. And of course helping others to handle this realization. And of course, for buddhism, this realization is a part of the cure for human condition, which sucks to begin with, without a person really knowing why. Anti-natalism, although it is not really a point, is kind of the consequence, if a person becomes a bhikkhu(ni).

In philosophical pessimism it too recognizes that most things in human life and society are in fact constructions of the mind and lack a real basis in reality, but the truth of this lack of meaning is more horrible and even monstrous for Ligotti as it was for Lovecraft. There is really no imaginable solution to this for them, through acceptance or anything, but I think there is a similar sympathy towards other humans or sentient beings and there is a sort of ethics behind it. If all is pointless and pleasure does not really help or even lead to anything better, it's all showbiz nonsense, then there is no real point in doing bad things to others for self-interest, since the self-interest in question is based on similar illusions as all human endeavours and as conditional on irrational emotions as anything else. But sympathy for others in the same situation might not be enough to base a duty on being nice and helping others, at least gives a reason to do so, if for nothing else than a recognition that everybody exists in a similar situation. So why not try and make things tolerable for everybody as far as that is possible. At least I would reason that way.

On the whole I think the buddhist approach is a bit more constructive, in that acceptance of the reality of the world can give a person some comfort, I would imagine, even if enlightenment is not really achievable.

In pessimism there is this curious disappointment about things and the horror. As if the illusions about the world offered by society and our mind somehow constitute a betrayal of some promise, when in fact there was no promise and the world is as it is. This I think is present in this idea that consciousness is a mistake or a tragedy, which I think he got from Zapffe. But considering that the world is as it is and lacks a purpose, it can't really be a mistake or a tragedy, these are meanings constructed upon reality by the pessimist. So tying into how a person is an optimist or a pessimist is really just subjective stance, acceptance of things as they are(by which I mean the phenomenon of the universe, not the political system or inequality or such things) and refusal of making such a judgment might offer at least a psychological escape from either position, as they would both be in error.

Mention of Ligotti's problems with mental health are interesting, as Emil Cioran, one of Ligotti's influences suffered from chronic sleep deprivation when he was writing his magnum opus, A Short History of Decay. And prolonged sleep deprivation causes depression, which in my experience, having suffered from both, is not really different from depression as such(if such a separation is meaningful in the first place). Don't know 'bout Zapffe though. There's no mention of it in his wikipage, where even the norwegian one is pretty brief and the sources aren't partuicularly helpful either. I wouldn't think that depression is really necessary in the end.

Of course I'm not an anti-natalist, or then a very bad one, so I guess I fall on the optimist side of things in the end. However, the pessimist point of view is an important view to ponder, if one likes philosophy. Especially if a person is a bit too much taken with scientific positivism.

Ligotti's style of existential horror is very effective though. It somehow recognizes that the truly horrifying thing in the world is not necessarily violence or monsters, it is the uncaring nature of reality itself. This would be a handy thing for other authors to recognize.
Robinson L at 18:02 on 2015-08-01
It's certainly an interesting discussion. I'm so far away from philosophical pessimism and anti-natalism that it's really difficult to wrap my mind around them, but I like playing with concepts which appear utterly alien to me; and it sounds like Ligotti's views aren't necessarily ethically dodgy, which is more than I can say for some philosophical schools of thought which have caught my attention.

Thanks also for the commentary, Janne, you bring up some really fascinating points, especially this one:

But considering that the world is as it is and lacks a purpose, it can't really be a mistake or a tragedy, these are meanings constructed upon reality by the pessimist.

In regards to the Buddhism comparison, I seem to remember mention in Arthur's first Ligotti review a couple of years ago about a story which riffs on Buddhist philosophy; I'd be interested to hear Arthur's thoughts, as he's the one who's actually read the story.

I guess from what I gather of philosophical pessimism and Buddhism from this discussion, I diverge from both on at least two major points. First, I don't actually believe the essence of the human condition is suffering. I think that's certainly an aspect to it, even an integral one, but with some unfortunate exceptions, I don't believe it's more central to human existence than joy, pleasure, or, really, any other intense experience we as a species are prone to. (Indeed, it's my suspicion that the natural baseline for human existence is to be happy, and much of the misery we experience is due to something having gone tragically wrong in our social development somewhere in the last 5-12,000 years. Basically, I'm inclined to agree with Rousseau that "it is not without great effort that we have succeeded in making ourselves unhappy.") I can't prove this of course, but I find it no less evidence-based than the proposition that the root of human existence is suffering (or, for that matter, "sinfulness").

Second, while I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a supreme being, no cosmic entity or entities at the controls, no all-powerful mind(s) which crafted the universe to be this way*, I'm still on the fence as to whether there is any sort meaning to the universe outside of what we human beings impose on it. Perhaps there is not, but then again, perhaps there is, and it's only our tiny simian brains which can't fathom what that might be, (i.e. the only way we can even imagine it is as a sort of human consciousness scaled up to the size of the universe). As far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out.

*A belief which, I should add, is also based purely upon my own perceptions rather than rational arguments or scientific data.

For some reason, this is all reminding of a discussion I was party to a few months ago with a bunch of local academic philosophers about whether or not there's such a thing as Truth. Interestingly, it was a discussion which revolved largely around ethics. My old feminist studies teacher was there, saying that she does not believe in "Truth," but she does believe in social justice. One of the prevailing arguments against the existence of Truth was that it is dependent upon absolutism, which was pretty much unanimously rejected on ethical grounds. But the other extreme, relativism, isn't too savory, either, as it would mean the truth of a colonized person fighting for independence is no more legitimate than that of a colonizer fighting to keep them in a subordinate position. It seems clear that something in between the two, or maybe orthogonal to them, is called for, but I don't think we came even close to a possible solution.

... Okay, so that was pretty tangential. Yeah.
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