07 October 2007

A Conversation with Thomas Ligotti

by Geoffrey H. Goodwin

(Geoffrey Goodwin is going to be popping in here at The Mumpsimus now and then with interviews with a variety of writers. I'm thrilled that the first he has provided for us is an interview with a writer as unique and fascinating as Thomas Ligotti.)

Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti are a reasonable list of the three best writers of horror short stories. In the tradition of gnarled minds that scare more with their thinking than with simple shocks, they're almost certainly the ones who matter most.

Ligotti is a genius at exploring emptiness and nothingness. He has committed his life to rejecting life. It's harder than it sounds. His stories take place in a "world forever reverberant with the horror of all who ever have lived and suffered" (a phrase taken from "We Can Hide from Horror Only in the Heart of Horro: Notes and Aphorisms", excerpts from his notebooks from circa 1976-1982). His many books, including recent works like The Shadow at The Bottom of The World, Teatro Grottesco, and Death Poems, are often released as limited editions that become totemic objects for his readers.

Ligotti's is an important and vital voice, though one that speaks most loudly to a certain and rarified sense of darkness. He has been included in numerous anthologies and been a nominee for and winner of multiple awards, but his focus on the horror of pain, suffering, and death have kept him from coming anywhere close to the mainstream. His long essay The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (still awaiting publication) will shatter those who embrace it fully.

What led to your writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race?

I could recite a litany of reasons for my writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but the most immediate cause was my reading an essay written in 1933 called “The Last Messiah” by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. Down the ages, pessimistic writers and thinkers have wailed that our lives are predominantly characterized by meaningless suffering and therefore everyone would be better off not to have been born. This is sometimes referred to as a hedonist view of existence, and for one reason or another practically no one is persuaded that there’s anything to it. Even if someone grants that life is mostly, or even entirely, a trail of tears with nothing but death at the end, they still don’t feel that being alive is not worth it. They’ll carry on till the end and pass on this legacy to another generation, perhaps thinking that somehow things will get better.

My own long-held view was that even if suffering as we ordinarily conceive it could be wholly eliminated, there would still be a differential among the pleasures in our lives. The consequence of this would be that some pleasures would be greater than others, and the lesser pleasures would then come to be felt as suffering. You could also turn this around and say that in a world of all-pervasive but variegated suffering, some ways of suffering would be felt to be worse than others, making the lesser sufferings perceptible as pleasures. One solution to this state of affairs seemed to be the achievement of a steady state of non-suffering. Of course, the problem is that to attain a tolerable middle ground between pleasure and suffering isn’t possible without the experience of pleasure on the one side and suffering on the other. This is assuming that we could live under laboratory conditions in which pleasure and suffering, or degrees of pleasure and suffering, could be controlled by some means presently unknown, unworkable, or underdeveloped. That would be a fantastical scenario, of course.

Other solutions that occurred to me were also more or less fantastic or futuristic. Among them was a psychophysical apparatus that could be implanted in us so that we could live much as we do now, except that whenever a certain level of suffering was reached, a combination of mood elevators and, if necessary, painkilling drugs would be released into our system in proportion to our suffering. These agents could also be regulated to work disproportionately as we approached death, thus assuring us that we would leave this world in a state of ecstasy. No one would ever have to witness the agony of a loved one dying from natural causes or imagine the horror of someone close to them who has died from gruesome accidental causes, since they would comforted by the knowledge of an anti-suffering apparatus functioning in the moribund or traumatized individual as well as having their anxiety assuaged by their own anti-suffering mechanisms. Now, the methods outlined here are just extensions of present-day strategies for bettering our lives, and those of future generations, and operate on the premise that suffering has negligible value or none at all. They’re also based on the same hedonist philosophy that, taken to sufficient lengths, is the basis for pessimism.

But hedonism as a life-philosophy isn’t limited to pessimists. All spiritual beliefs and practices originate in hedonist values and they’re not condemned as pessimistic. What could be more hedonistic than to be addicted to the idea of heaven or Nirvana? Belief in an afterlife is a great Plan B if things don’t work out so well for you in this one. And why even believe in a blissful afterlife, or in the salvation of total oblivion if you happen to be a Buddhist, unless you’re already committed to the view that this life is pretty lousy? Nevertheless, this isn’t how religionists consciously look upon human existence, at least most of the time. As far as atheists are concerned, they just have to hope for the best for themselves and for those who mean anything to them. This is the substance of what I would call "functional optimism" -- the idea that on the whole things aren’t so bad and won’t ever become so bad that everyone would be better off not having been born. And it’s impossible to effectively oppose that way of thinking. It really doesn’t work to tell someone who’s already alive that it’s better not to have been born. They’ve already been born. It’s too late for them. So they make the best of things. They try to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Even pessimists for the most part follow this course. It would be suicide not to, and committing suicide is really hard to pull off in cold blood. Almost no one kills themselves because they think nonexistence is preferable to existence, or because they want to avoid any extraordinary psychological or physical suffering that may be awaiting them. Suicides wait until things are so awful that they can’t stand being alive anymore. Sometimes they’ll kill themselves when it looks like things are going to become really awful in the near future, but there are a lot of pressures against being a proactive suicide. And when it comes around to facing the facts, almost everyone is afraid of death, so they do what they can to hang on as long as they can. They choose the path that they perceive to lead to the lesser of two horrors and keep following it until they keel over dead. And no hedonistic philosophy is going to convince them or anyone else that this isn’t the way to go.

Zapffe was the first pessimistic philosopher to my knowledge who actually came up with a non-hedonist reason for why it would be better not to have been born and not to give birth to others. His observation was that human consciousness, an evolved trait of our species, turned our existence into an untenable paradox. According to Zapffe, it’s one thing to experience suffering and then die. But it’s quite another thing to be acutely conscious that this is our life -- to be aware that we suffer for no good reason and have only a decline into death, or death by trauma, to look forward to. In order to cope with our consciousness of these realities, then, we must smother our consciousness as best we can by using various tactics. The result is a whole species of beings that have to lie unceasingly to themselves, not always successfully, about what they are and what their lives are really like. If we didn’t so this, the rug would be pulled out from under us and we’d have to face up to the fact that we’re a race that can’t come to terms with its existence. Thus we devise ways to mute, distract, and otherwise obfuscate our consciousness so that it doesn’t overwhelm us with what we’re up against in being alive. This line of thought goes beyond hedonism by exposing us as creatures who bullshit themselves a mile a minute in order to keep going. This bullshit takes various forms. Primary among them are simply ignoring that there is anything problematic about our existence, indulging in pleasurable distractions, creating bogus structures of meaning such as a pleasant afterlife in which the books will be balanced for the suffering we endure in this life, and transmuting our suffering into works of art and philosophy wherein we distance ourselves from what real suffering is and in the process reform it into a source of amusement. Even pessimists who believe they have gone the distance of realizing that we lead lives of meaningless suffering are caught up in this game and must brutalize their consciousness into submission or feel the full force of the reality that all our so-called pleasures are based on lies. The only solution to this conundrum, as Zapffe saw it, would be to bring an end to this festival of falsehoods by ceasing to reproduce.

Now, every reading of human life is subject to alternate or contrary readings, and so is Zapffe’s. But his reading captivated me, because I was already predisposed to believe that life was at best worthless and at worst an intolerable nightmare. In essence, Zapffe’s philosophy became another source of bullshit that kept me going so that I could articulate the many aspects of my own grievances against being alive and, I hope, extend or give a greater rhetorical force to what Zapffe had written in "The Last Messiah." I might add that the title character of this essay appears at the end, tells everyone to stop being fruitful and multiplying, and then is murdered for his trouble. Given Zapffe’s reading of the way we are, no other conclusion except utter hopelessness that we will ever change our ways is possible. We’re positively doomed to live and wallow in our own bullshit until we become extinct as a species by one of the many means that have led to the extinction of almost every other species on this planet.

When did you first read Peter Wessel Zappfe's essay, "The Last Messiah?"

I read it not long after it was published in the March/April 2004 issue of the British journal Philosophy Now. Later that year I began work on The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Does this mean that Zappfe's work was a confirmation of things that you already knew or were aware of?

I hadn’t conceived of the paradox that Zapffe explained had been incited by the development of consciousness in the human species. Nevertheless, I did feel that being conscious was not a good thing. In my story "Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech," there’s a dummy who suffers for having been awakened into awareness. I just thought of consciousness as a source of suffering rather than as a faculty that made all human existence into a tissue of lies, which was Zapffe’s idea. While it’s not invulnerable to argument -- as is no concept in philosophy -- this idea provided me with a basis for my generic pessimism, which, as I’ve already said, is not conceptually defensible. I could rant on a daily basis that, as Lovecraft wrote in one of his stories, "life is a hideous thing." But anyone could come along and say, "What are you talking about? Everything is beautiful. I’m having the time of my life being alive." There’s no reply to that. You can just say, "Well, if everything is beautiful, even on every other day, then you’re just not paying attention." But Zapffe’s reply was that not only is everything not beautiful, no one actually believes it’s beautiful even if they say they do. All of our actions bear witness to this observation. In a single essay, which was later expanded as a treatise titled On the Tragic, Zapffe beat the stuffing out of the theory on which Arthur Schopenhauer expatiated for thousands of pages -- that everything in the universe is activated by a "Will-to-live," a transcendental force that works the world like a cosmic puppet show. Schopenhauer’s Will does have its appeal, because if you accept it, then everything that once seemed mysterious makes perfect sense. If you ever wondered why things are the way they are or why people do the things the things they do, it all goes back to the Will, which is pulling all the strings. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s very satisfying. The problem is that Schopenhauer’s system only works on paper and can’t be detected as being part of existence any more than a creator-God.

Zapffe’s thought is very down to earth. You can experience how being conscious ruins human life by taking it out of nature, where the imperative of every living thing is simply to survive and reproduce. Human beings, on the other hand, can ask themselves what they are, why they’re alive, what happens after death, and so on. Since there aren’t any credible answers to these questions, we make up answers for the purpose of shutting down our consciousness as much as possible. At the same time, we busy ourselves with all sorts of projects and playthings just to wile away our time, also for the purpose of repressing our consciousness as creatures who know they’re alive and know they’re going to die. At any rate, the whole endeavor of being human is reduced to trying not to be human, which is very messed up. This allows Zapffe to go all the way and make the pessimist’s signature pronouncement -- that instead of continuing to carry on, we should be getting down to giving up on life. Naturally, this line of thought will not sway anyone who thinks that everything is beautiful, or that anything is beautiful, but it does takes pessimism another step forward, which is admittedly something that concerns only other pessimists.

Before reading Zapffe, I too was aware of my life as a series of distractions and denials that staved off thoughts of the terrible things that could happen to me and of my impending death. I was also sensitive, probably overly so, that these terrible things could happen and in fact were happening everywhere in the world. They had always been happening and, barring some radical change in material existence, would continue to happen until doomsday. I knew that I needed something to take my mind off these things and discover some immediate pretext for being alive. I also knew that I was just biding my time until something terrible came along and I snuffed it, something that would probably happen only after I had to watch those to whom I had become attached in one way or another had snuffed it. One of those terrible things, among others, that actually did come along in my life was major depression. This is sometimes called the common cold of mental diseases, but that’s not how it feels to those who suffer from it. Aside from its other effects, depression has a philosophical effect to it that other kinds of pain do not, and its implications very much changed my sense of what it was like to be alive in the world. In depression, everything is just what it seems to be: a tree is just a tree and not something that arouses symbolic meanings or affective associations. Life itself becomes very transparent in all its aspects to a depressive. There aren’t any mysteries left, since all mysteries come from within us. We’re mystery-making machines, and we project a sense of mystery onto a world that has no such thing behind or within it. Certain questions remain that may one day be answered or may not be answered. Either way it doesn’t matter to a depressive.

Recent movements such as transhumanism and abolitionism project a future in which suffering will be transcended with drugs and technology. There’s a guy named David Pearce who runs a Web site called The Hedonistic Imperative, and he very articulately insists that the only worthy goal in human life is that of feeling good all the time. Of course, this is the goal that everyone is concerned with in their lives, but Pearce argues that this could be more effectively and speedily attained by entirely artificial means. The fact that these people are obsessed with making a serious attempt to abolish human suffering, and to establish this aim as the central project of their lives, is nice to see. Thus far in human history, people have put their effort into curing diseases that make us dysfunctional and unproductive or that are obstacles to increasing our longevity. There hasn’t been much interest in confronting human suffering as such. Paradoxically, should the efforts of those who want to annihilate suffering succeed, it could be the end of us as a species. We would be returned to paradise. And reproduction would be irrelevant in a paradisal landscape where all dreams have been satisfied and all fears quashed.

You're best known for writing horror stories and poems. Did The Conspiracy Against the Human Race feel like a different endeavor, even though it was an obvious continuation of certain themes in your work?

Writing Conspiracy was different from writing horror stories in the following way. For me, a story usually has its inception in something irrational -- a dream, an image, a phrase that doesn’t make any sense. This irrational germ for a story will be something that I feel is dense with meaning and possibilities, even if I know it’s going to end up as a horror story. Then some element of the story pokes its head out -- a character, a setting, a particular scene in the narrative -- and everything comes together very quickly. I’m definitely a didactic writer in that my stories can be reduced to some point that I’m trying to get across, something that emerges in the course of elaborating its narrative elements. I may start a story in the irrational, but unlike a lot of writers I’m not content to let a story be its own meaning. I have to move from the irrational to the rational. With Conspiracy, I started in the rational and stayed there. It was kind of like working in two dimensions instead of three. All the force of Conspiracy had to come from concepts and rhetoric, both of which are prominent in my stories. But the imaginative landscape was missing. There wasn’t a sense of being in a world inside of my head as I wrote. It was more like writing a poem, which for me is an elaboration of an idea. I may start a poem with a single line that fits somewhere into the poem, but that line will make sense conceptually. So writing Conspiracy was like writing a very long poem.

What do you think readers will make of it?

I can only say with any degree of confidence what one faction of readers will make of it. Those are people who have read my horror stories and enjoyed them not in spite of their bleak quality but because of it. An analogy could be drawn with fans of Lovecraft’s stories, who read them for their charming regionalism, their mythology of monsters, or for their unusually literate nature -- something prized by readers who are generally well read yet still have a weakness for the horror genre -- or some combination of these and other characteristics of his work. But they don’t read them as expressions of Lovecraft’s vision of human beings as bits of inconsequential organic material quivering in a black infinity that occasionally throws some phenomenon our way that is completely alien to the settled structures of our existence, as if to say: "You can just forget everything you thought you knew about yourselves and everything else in the universe. You know nothing. You are nothing. And the choices you have for dealing with this reality are to go insane or kill yourselves. How about them apples?" This can be a rather consoling vision to those readers who already think as much and are grateful that someone else out there felt the same and had the nerve to make it the basis of his art. I was one of those readers. It was a great relief to discover the writings of someone who didn’t go for the same consolations as most of the rest of the world, even if the consolations they did go for were no less questionable. I think that some of my readers look at my stories similarly. And those are the ones who will appreciate Conspiracy. As for anyone else, I couldn’t say. The book could very well be judged as badly done on its own terms. It would also be easy for anyone to dismiss it by saying that its author is just a nutjob and has always been a nutjob who should be pitied or justly derogated or simply ignored. I would be in no position to argue with such an assessment, since the general estimation of the reading public about themselves and their existence is so different from mine. I myself don’t believe that my experience itself is so different from that of most people, but the conclusions I’ve drawn from my experience are indeed quite different. Furthermore, the whole point of Conspiracy is that pessimism as a resolute life-stance is not welcome to the minds very many people, even when it’s laid out as entertainingly as possible, which I’ve tried to do. But pessimistic works have never been well received as a rule. And I’m not naïve enough to think that it could ever be any other way.

2 comments:

  1. Impressive questions and responses. Ligotti is a master difficult to dispute. I also have to believe Poe---> Lovecraft----> Ligotti will be more than just personal preference one day. He cement his place as a clear successor in weaving legendary and innovative tales of horror, given sufficient time and attention. Thanks for posting this!

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  2. Casual, but eloquent, not unlike his writing. I like this very much.

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