November 7th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Epicure of Pessimism: The Horror of Thomas Ligotti - Part II

"We are only passers by in this jungle of mutations and mistakes. The natural world existed when we did not, and it will continue to exist long after we are gone. The supernatural crept into life only when the door of consciousness was opened in our heads: the moment we stepped through that door, we walked out on nature."
      - Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

Matt Cardin in his recent essay, The Master's Eyes Shining with Secrets, measuring the influence of H.P. Lovecraft's life and writings upon Thomas Ligotti shows forth a distinct, if not core, leitmotif that has circulated in and out his horror fiction, interviews, and philosophical musings:

"I aspired toward nothing less than a pure style without style, a style having nothing whatsoever to do with the normal or abnormal, a style magic, timeless, and profound . . . and one of great horror, the horror of a god" (SOADD, p. 112). In other words, he was trying to burst the bonds of the written word... by writing a horror story that presented pure horror, the pristine experience in and of itself, on a veritably cosmic-divine level, and that would therefore be able to invade the reader's experience and become, instead of just a story on a page, his or her existential reality. The attempt failed, of course, because it was necessarily founded upon the very unreality (of the world of fiction) that it was attempting to overcome. That is, the whole idea was a categorical impossibility. But the passion behind it was and is real in the minds of both the narrator and Ligotti himself..."

Count Leo Tolstoy in , What is Art?, once stated "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them."

This idea of passing on through artistic excellence the pure feelings of an experiential mode of being, of replacing words, images, or sounds with the 'experience' itself of cosmic horror is both root and tree of Thomas Ligotti's project. If he is doomed to failure is not a problem for him, it is the problem all artists face in using the medium of human based systems of art itself. Yet, this does not disqualify the project itself, instead it behooves the artist to strive toward an ever greater alignment of that Great Work which is at the heart of all artistic endeavors. One is reminded of Harold Bloom's central thesis in The Anxiety of Influence that artists are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor artists. (emphasis mine)

Bloom attributes six revisionary ratios (taken from his study of Freudian literary models) that effect any artists agon against all precursors. A central tenet of Bloom's agonistic revisionism is that "Poetic Influence--when it involves two strong, authentic poets--always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist." This is true of any artist great or small. In the Freudian mythos the quest for for a mythical and "true" father becomes central paradigm in modern fiction.

John Hollander asks the central question "But suppose that we were to see the filial relation as novelists and Freudian psychologists do. Freud described as "the family romance" that web of loves, jealousies and fantasies, which leads to a young man's conviction that the coarse, insensitive rival for his mother's love could not possibly be his "true" father, even if truly his biological one." I will not explicate the revisionary ratios or the stance within which Bloom interprets them but will mention only the last, Apophrades: "or the return of the dead." Taken from "the word from which the Athenian dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead returned to re-inhabit the houses in which they had lived." The later poet is burdened by his own achieved solipsism, and so he makes the conscious effort of holding his own poem open to that of the precursor. But the fact that the later strong poet consciously engages the work of the precursor, rather than is helplessly influenced by it, shows the strength of the later poet, and even creates the "uncanny effect" that later poet seemed to have written the precursor's work, rather than vice versa. We now (in the rare cases that the later poet has overpowered the precursor) see the precursor's work in terms of the later poet.

This to me seems to enlighten us in the influence HPL's work has had on Thomas Ligotti. As a strong ephebe Ligotti has at times in many works given me the uncanny feeling that he had written the stories for H.P. Lovecraft, and that it was HPL who was the one influenced by Ligotti's uncanny oeuvre rather than the other way round. It was Lovecraft who said of the author's main task of an author was to "find those other lives, other worlds, and other dreamlands... That is what literature is; and if any piece of writing is motivated by anything apart from this mystic and never-finished quest, it is base and unjustified imitation." As Matt Cardin reiterates in his essay that it was the full gamut of HPL's ouevre that shaped Ligotti's defining vision of life and art, and that "his life was made bearable solely by virtue of those transcendent intimations of a supernal beauty." (read more)

It is this longing which Henry Corbin defines as himma “the act of meditating, conceiving, imagining, projecting, ardently desiring…. It is the force of an intention so powerful as to project and realise a being external to the being who conceives the intention”.  But, instead of the supernal beauty of an Angelic presence described by Corbin, the longing that is portrayed in the nightmare visions of Thomas Ligotti is more in tune with what Matt Cardin in his short story, Teeth, describes as that abyss which stares back at us from the voids of nightmare: "My whole life, my very conception and progress through the stages of human existence, had been preordained to lead me to this dreadful moment. I felt the attention of a massive and malevolent intelligence turned upon me, and as I began to pitch forward into the pit, and as the first of trillions of teeth began to sink into my mind, I knew with absolute, horrified certainty that this nightmare abyss was also staring into me."

Maybe in that one dark spark is the defining gnosis of horror, for as Bloom iterates "Gnosis is not believing that, a trusting in, or a submission. Rather, it is a mutual knowing, and simultaneous being known, of and by God." But Ligotti being an epicurean pessimist would leave out the term "God" and would replace it with that deep nihilistic "Void" that surrounds all our dark imaginings. For as the stand in interlocutor of The Last Feast of Harlequin says: "At certain times I could almost dissolve entirely into this inner realm of awful purity and emptiness(p. 228, The Nightmare Factory 1996)." 

For the final hope and longing toward which Ligotti has always seemed to be moving is best typified by the words of the mad apprentice, Victor Kierion - in the short story Vastarion, where the object of his final quest was to enter that terrible and awesome realm where "he was now far from his own words, buried deep within the dreams of a place where everything was transfixed in the order of the unreal; and whence, it truly seemed, he would never return(p. 191, ibid.)."

Read part three: click here.