Saturday, December 18, 2010
Thomas Ligotti - the Conspiracy against the Human Race
The Conspiracy against the Human Race is the first nonfiction work of horror author Thomas Ligotti. If you’ve been following Ligotti, the views expressed will not come as a surprise. This book has all the markings of a magnum opus. Here, Ligotti takes the ideas that he’s been advancing for his whole career and strips them of their fictional trappings, explores their raw realities and their naked implications.
This is not a dry read. Though there is no story or characters, this is still a deeply engaging work. The tone is set by the brief fable of humanity’s “Loss of Innocence” (so titled in the Notes section), which is one of the many times that Ligotti uses his virtuosity as a fiction author to get across dense abstractions.
Reading Ligotti’s stories is being immersed in a strange, inimical atmosphere, and Ligotti proves just as capable of getting across moods and feelings (alienation, fright, or whatever it is that he wishes to evoke) with only a few phrases, conjuring powerful images with apparent ease: Life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would have us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, starring void. (p. 29)
In addition to the terror that he can so easily create, Ligotti’s prose can also, at times, have a lightness to it. His writings are always elegant, beautiful as they tear into your beliefs. The moments of black comedy (and it is a black so dark that fulign barely begins to describe it) do nothing to damage the import of the ideas all around them, but rather succeed in drawing us closer and enmeshing us further still.
But to review a work of philosophy and talk about prose and imagery, and then to leave it at that, is to miss the point entirely. How does one review a work of ideas without either shallow dismissals or equally worthless panegyrics? I’m not sure. I don’t think that there’s a way to read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and not be affected by its ideas, and, by the same token, I don’t think it’s possible to do a worthwhile review of the work without, at least partially, allowing objectivity to fall by the wayside and interacting with those ideas.
The rest of this article will be a combination of review and response, going through the first two sections of the book and both looking at Ligotti’s arguments and my own feelings about his conclusions. If you would prefer to draw your own conclusions about Ligotti’s ideas, feel free to bow out until you’ve tracked down a copy.
THE NIGHTMARE OF BEING
This section deals with a broad array of pessimistic, nihilistic, and antinatalistic philosophies. I have a minor quibble with Ligotti’s terminology (I think it’s one step too far to say that, in order to be a pessimist, one must also be an antinatalist), but I’ll bow down and use Ligotti’s definitions for this article.
We are first exposed to Peter Wessel Zapffe’s essay The Last Messiah, which is the cornerstone of Ligotti’s argument and likely the most discussed work in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Zapffe believed consciousness to be an evolutionary accident and held that, in a universe governed by uncaring natural law, the realization of our predicament (which consciousness would bring about) would cause the end of our race. As a result, the entirety of human endeavor can essentially be summed up as an attempt to minimize consciousness.
In order to accomplish those aims, Zapffe provides four means of repression: Isolation, Anchoring, Distraction, and Sublimation. These ideas are not left as abstracts. By the end of the section, almost every one of our accomplishments or emotional outputs is explained in the darkest possible light. The final of the four means of repression, Sublimation, accounts for the entirety of human art, and our enjoyment of that art is nothing but an attempt to distract ourselves from our predicament:
(4) SUBLIMATION. That we might annul a paralyzing stage fright at what may happen to even the soundest bodies and minds, we sublimate our fears by making an open display of them. In the Zapffean sense, sublimation is the rarest technique utilized for conspiring against the human race. Putting into play both deviousness and skill, this is what thinkers and artistic types do when they recycle the most demoralizing and unnerving aspects of life as works in which the worst fortunes of humanity are presented in a stylized and removed manner as entertainment. In so many words, these thinkers and artistic types confect products that provide an escape from our suffering by a bogus simulation of it – a tragic drama or philosophical woolgathering, for instance […] just as King Lear’s weeping for his dead daughter Cordellia cannot rend its audience with the throes of the real thing. (p. 31-32)
After Zapffe, we explore Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will to Live, a blind and uncaring force that drives us ever onward to procreation and thoughtless expansion, as well as a whole host of other pessimistic philosopher’s, a list that includes, by the book’s end, Fredrik Nietzsche, Philipp Mainländer, Carlo Michelsteadter, Karl Popper, David Benatar, and others. The synthesis of these ideas is remarkably smooth, and one often finds ideas here represented in the abstract that have been featured prominently in Ligotti’s fiction, such as the idea of the puppet universe:
To Michelsteadter, nothing in this world can be anything but a puppet. And a puppet is only a plaything, a thing of parts brought together as a simulacrum of real presence. It is nothing in itself. It is not whole and individual but exists only relative to other playthings, some of them human playthings that support one another’s illusion of being real. However, by suppressing thoughts of suffering and death they give themselves away as beings of paradox – prevaricators who must hide from themselves the flagrantly joyless possibilities of their lives if they are to go on living. (p. 32-33)
And yet, Ligotti never argues for any of the concepts put forward. The philosophies are exposed and either favored or criticized based on Ligotti’s overall ideas, but this section is strictly informational, not persuasive. The reader is, it seems, either assumed to be an antinatalist already, therefore in little need of convincing, or, if they don’t happen to already be sufficiently pessimistic, impossible to convince:
People are either pessimists or optimists. They forcefully “lean” one way or the other, and there is no common ground between them. For pessimists, life is something that should not be, which means that what they believe should be is the absence of life, nothing, non-being, the emptiness of the uncreated. Anyone who speaks up for life as something that irrefutably should be – that we would not be better off unborn, extinct, or forever lazing in nonexistence – is an optimist. It is all or nothing; one is in or out, abstractly speaking. Practically speaking, we have been a race of optimists since the nascency of human consciousness and lean like mad toward the favorable pole. (p. 47)
Since there are so many ideas proposed, it’s inevitable that some are more persuasive than others and that some contradict one another. The ideas of Philipp Mainländer – the Will to Die, to follow Schopenhauer’s Will to Live – are fascinating but, ultimately, feel as sentimental, although admittedly negatively so, as any of the major religions.
Mainländer theorized that the ultimate goal of everything in the universe is, essentially, entropy, and that life and existence ultimately amounts to nothing but the pursuit of death. He gives us the idea of a suicidal god, who made existence only so that, when existence ended, it could enjoy nothing afterwards. But the idea of a suicidal god, while an interesting one, is no more practical than that of a benevolent god, and both thoughts depend equally on the unsubstantiated existence of a deity, whether it be a negative or positive figure. Antinatalism in general is seen as the disregarding of all conventional notions (to use Ligotti’s phrasing, it is to say that life is NOT alright), but Mainländer is more inversion than negation, more akin to theistic Satanism than atheism.
Mainländer’s inverted spiritualism leads us in its way to the book’s title. The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a fittingly evocative phrase, as are all of Ligotti’s titles, but I’ll admit to being perplexed when I first considered it. Isn’t the crux of Ligotti’s argument that there’s not only no conspiracy but that there’s nothing aware enough to even dream of such a conspiracy? Upon the course of reading, however, the meaning becomes clearer. Ligotti uses the word ‘conspiracy’ as something perpetuated by optimists; the conspiracy against the human race is our own collective refusal to deal with reality. The emergence of our consciousness was not something that we could have stopped. The perpetuation of the suffering that can only be brought about by existence, however, is something that we have no one to blame for but ourselves.
To go back to the arguments presented in The Nightmare of Being, several rely on either an overuse of absolutes or for the listener to have already adopted the central tenants of the philosophy. David Benatar says that there is a chance that a baby will experience happiness, but a certainty that it will experience suffering. Up to this point, I think that most will agree. He then goes on to say that, since happiness is a possibility and suffering a guarantee, the only moral act is to curtail the suffering and cease reproduction.
But this idea only works under the (frankly bizarre) supposition that all suffering and happiness are equal. While there are some lives, I’ll admit, that contain absolutely no happiness (death soon after birth, say), the majority will experience some kind of joy in their lives, and a good many of them will say that the pleasure in their lives outweighs the pain. So while more may, numerically, experience pain than pleasure, it is illogical to say that pain overweighs pleasure overall, rendering the conclusion that, in order to benefit the majority we must end birth, unattainable.
Which brings us to the key problem that I have with antinatalist arguments. I agree with the nihilism of, say, Lovecraft (though there we’d likely be better off with the term Cosmicism). I see no possibility of a benevolent deity, and I believe that the world is without objective purpose. But does that mean it is without personal purpose, also?
A key tenant of antinatalism is that the majority, as per Zapffe’s minimization of consciousness, suppress all knowledge of their ultimate position in the universe and go on to live their lives in a happy fiction. That the majority is, to some extent, happy is almost undeniable, and the pessimists make no attempt to refute it; the majority of the population is (at least under the strict optimist/pessimist definition put forth by Ligotti) optimistic.
So if most people are, in the end, happy, why is the sum value of existence a negative? It’s one thing to argue that the ways in which they make themselves happy are, ultimately, false, but it’s far from certain that that invalidates the resulting joy. Regardless of the ultimate meaning of existence (and on that question I am in agreement with the Ligottis and Schopenhauers of the world), if the majority of people are existing in a fashion that they consider better than not existing, if they would answer that Life is Alright, how can it be stated that Life is Not Alright for the entirety of the human race?
WHO GOES THERE?
The second section of The Conspiracy against the Human Race concerns itself with humanity. Who are we? Why are we the way that we are? Do we control ourselves? Do we understand ourselves? As before, anyone with a familiarity of Ligotti’s thoughts as expressed through stories and interviews will likely not be surprised by the conclusions that he draws, but the depth that he goes into and the frank insidiousness of his arguments is almost like a physical blow at times.
Like endlessly probing a cut, human thought circles around those areas that make it uncomfortable. But why does the uncanny make us so uncomfortable? In his essay On the Psychology of the Uncanny, Jentsch says:
But if this relative physical harmony happens markedly to be disturbed in the spectator, and if the situation does not seem trivial or comic, the consequence of an unimportant incident, or if it is not quite familiar (like an alcohol intoxication, for example), then the dark knowledge dawns on the unschooled observer that mechanical processers are taking place in that which he was previously used to regarding as a unified psyche. (p. 88)
This discomfort with the realities of our bodies, and our attempts to distance ourselves from those realities, show our acute discomfort with who we really are. This is, Ligotti concludes, one of the key ways in which supernatural horror can make us afraid: by showing us our bodies stripped of the romanticization of consciousness, with the added benefit that – unlike, say, a medical drama – no training can desensitize you to the uncanny of the supernatural.
This is one of several passages in The Conspiracy against the Human Race that deals with the casues, so to speak, of supernatural horror. Like the others, the symbolism makes sense, but there’s the fact that Ligotti is only ever describing the upper echelons of horror. While it is effective in explaining why movies like The Thing and The Bodysnatchers are so affecting – and while such creatures as Shelly’s Frankenstein, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and Ligotti’s own unnamed (at least in the works I’ve read) beings are powerful symbols – I think that your average zombie picture is far more concerned with decapitations than symbolism, fake blood being held in much higher esteem than any sort of stripped bare analogy. Or perhaps my skepticism just relays my total lack of faith in every aspect of your average horror products, from the writer to the audience.
Jentsch and the discussion that followed are interesting, but it’s Ligotti’s analysis of free will that makes this section so powerful. Consider: you have the ability to act in the manner that best suits your desires. Hence, you have free will. Correct? But wait: how did you come by those desires? Did you chose them? Could you chose them?
Within the structures of commonsense reality and personal ability, we can choose to do anything we like in this world…with one exception. We cannot choose what any of our choices will be. To do that, we would have to be capable of making ourselves into self-made individuals, as opposed to individuals who simply make choices. For instance, we may want to become bodybuilders and choose to do so. But if we do not want to become bodybuilders we cannot make ourselves into someone who does want to be a bodybuilder. For that to happen, there would have to be another self inside us who made us choose to want to become bodybuilders. And inside that self, there would have to be still another self who made that self want to choose to choose to make us want to become bodybuilders. This sequence of choosing, being interminable, would result in the paradox of an infinite number of selves beyond which there is a self making all the choices. (p. 94)
Of course, the interesting thing about Determinism is that it’s impossible to believe in while still remaining anything even approaching human (or, as Metzinger put it: Can one really believe in determinism without going insane? (p. 110)). After all, you feel responsible for your actions, do you not? To imagine that you are not the cause of your actions is to wholly leave behind any societal framework.
But that feeling of responsibility isn’t something that can be trusted, because we all feel responsible for a whole variety of actions that we are, in no way, responsible for. Ligotti discusses the idea of inviting your friend over to your house to move a couch. On the way there, they are hit by a car. You feel as responsible as if you’d killed them, but that feeling is, by any objective measure, false. So how can you trust your feelings in other matters, if examples of how they can mislead you are so easy to conceive?
Taking the discussion of feelings and emotional further still, Ligotti brings up the idea of an emotionless state, a frame of mind that’s wholly rational. The pathway to the state is depression, or, at its extreme, anhedonia. In this state of mind, as close to enlightenment as it is, perhaps, possible for us to come, we would realize that our endeavors are wholly fruitless:
In […] depression, your information-gathering system collates its intelligence and reports to you these facts: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know. Without meaning-charged emotions keeping your brain on the straight and narrow, you would lose your balance and fall into an abyss of lucidity. And for a conscious being, lucidity is a cocktail without ingredients, a crystal clear concoction that will leave you hung over with reality. In perfect knowledge there is only perfect nothingness, which is perfectly painful if what you want is meaning in your life.
The image of a cloud-crossed moon is dreadful not in itself a purveyor of anything mysterious or mystical; it is only an ensemble of objects represented to us by our optical apparatus and perhaps processed as memory. This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. (p. 116)
Of course, it could be argued that esteem for depression (or, later, for the ego-dead) is no different than any other religion’s reverence for their holy men, with just the robes and means of enlightenment altered. Ligotti does admit that the sick self is no more “the real you” than your hale self, but I’m curious about the significance he lends rationality. While anhedonia is no doubt an effective tool for showing the ultimate emptiness of our world, I’m unconvinced it’s a good tool to defeat consciousness with. After all, if our foe is not life but consciousness, why is the depressive the one who has achieved enlightenment? Rather than believe that the man who has eliminated emotion and lives with only rational thought (a product of our consciousness), wouldn’t it make more sense to revere the man wholly given into his emotions, or his baser nature?
The Conspiracy against the Human Race is an incredibly affecting work of poignant imagery, masterful prose, and powerful arguments. I’m aware that my review has consisted of far more dissension than adoration, and that’s not something incidental. First, it would have been pointless for me to simply summarize every one of Ligotti’s arguments and merely nod my head.
More importantly, however, I want to get across that I am not recommending this book because I agree with everything that Ligotti says. I do not, but I don’t think that that was Ligotti’s intention. This is a work that makes you think; the reader who proceeds with an unconsidered affirmation of every pessimistic sentence and nihilistic turn of phrase has, I think, missed Ligotti’s point as thoroughly as the reader who just throws the book in a fire after the first few pages.
We end with a man dying. As we experience the last moments of his life, we’re put through, once again, the wringer of all of Ligotti’s arguments. Reading and finishing this book is apt to leave you shaken, with a black cloud hanging over your head that filters out all light, and with the sensation of everything you know and love having been insulted. I think that means that Ligotti succeeded, don’t you?