Thomas Ligotti is best known as a horror writer. Though I have not read his fiction, a perusal of book descriptions and reviews make me suspect that his short stories and novels are both literary and offbeat. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, Ligotti tries his hand at philosophy. I find his thinking and writing to be bold, at times brilliant, though also deeply flawed. The worldview advocated by Ligotti is simply the most pessimistic that I have ever encountered. The “Conspiracy” of the title refers to what the author contends to be a universal fiction, that “Being alive is all right.” Ligotti believes that human consciousness is a terrible accident, a tragedy and the ultimate horror of horrors, and that life is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (Ligotti’s capitalization). He goes on for pages and pages explaining why he uses both of those words.
Though the book is not organized as such, Ligotti seems to focus upon three reasons for his conclusions. The first is that death, in a universe with no God or afterlife, is unendurable to the human psyche.
“Undeniably, one of the great disadvantages of consciousness— that is, consciousness considered as the parent of all horrors— is that it exacerbates necessary sufferings and creates unnecessary ones, such as the fear of death.“
Second, the considerable amount of suffering built into the lives of conscious beings can never be compensated by pleasure. He describes the pleasure that one experiences in life as,
“a few crumbs left by chaos at feast”
Third, humans are not really independent selves, as we like to think. Instead, we are an amalgamation of chemical and physical processes; we are literally survival and reproduction puppets. Everything that we believe to be meaningful, such as love, loyalty, honor, patriotism, the wonder of nature, etc., are just the result of neurons firing in the brain and are ultimately vacuous.
Ligotti further contends that consciousness, which he labels an accident of evolution, should bring us face to face with the above horrors and we should thus all be insane. However, everyone who is supposedly sane is instead in a perpetual state of denial based upon illusions aided by certain mental repression mechanisms. He goes further and ascribes many types of mental illness to the failure of these safeguards. Thus, many neuroses and psychoses are simply the results of people perceiving the universe and themselves as they really are, without the normal set of protective delusions.
“Once the facts that repressional mechanisms hide are accessed, they must be excised from our memory— or new repressional mechanisms must replace the old— so that we may continue to be protected by our cocoon of lies. If this is not done, we will be whimpering misereres morning, noon, and night”
In order to end what he views as the abomination of consciousness, Ligotti advocates for the voluntary extinction of the human race through attrition. That is, by people deciding to stop having children.
Finally, Ligotti conducts a literary and psychological analysis of supernatural and horror literature. He contends that much of it, particularly the works of Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allen Poe and, most of all, H. P. Lovecraft are attempts to illustrate the underlying malevolence of existence.
Ligotti mines copious amounts of Western and Eastern culture while drawing his conclusions. He devotes numerous pages to ruminating about the writings of various authors and philosophers. He is particularly enamored with the viewpoints of Arthur Schopenhauer, Ernest Becker and Peter Zapffe. He makes references to both Western and Eastern religion and scripture, including Gnostic thought. The Gnostic idea that something is very wrong with the universe resounds throughout this work. He delves into scientific discoveries and research, particularly in the area of human consciousness. At times, the book - really a series of connected essays - seems disorganized, repetitive and is peppered with unsupported contentions. At other times, the writing seems thoughtful, extremely insightful and goes to great lengths to support the author’s views.
For the most part, I reject Ligotti’s ultimate conclusions. Yet, his reasoning is of particular fascination for me. First, in regard to the bedrock understanding of the facts and construction of the universe, Ligotti’s beliefs are very much in line with mine. That is, we live in a universe without a creator or God, and that all that we experience and observe, including human consciousness, can be broken down into physical laws and explainable processes. Finally, at least to a degree, humans go through life with all kinds of illusions in their heads about themselves as well as about humankind in general. Thus, a thinker who shares such an underlying view of the facts of existence with myself is going to garner my attention.
The second reason that I am drawn to Ligotti’s reasoning is that I believe he expresses something that is an important piece to the puzzle of life. There is darkness inherent to existence. However, what I believe are vital pieces, Ligotti argues is the entire puzzle.
I have many arguments against Ligotti’s all encompassing final conclusions. Two in particular seem to me most important. First, I believe that there is a gaping hole in Ligotti’s logic. One of the author’s main points is that when everything that people value as the basis of human lives, such as love, family, honor, morals, etc., is deconstructed into physical processes, it becomes apparent that theses things are essentially neurons firing and chemical reactions that arise out of survival and reproduction strategies (he seems not to mention, and therefore disregards, the concept of Memes, or any idea of independent, self-perpetuating human ideas). I believe that there is some truth behind Ligotti’s contention (though I think that there is something independent going on relating to human culture and ideas).
However, Ligotti goes much further. He argues that the nuts and bolts scientifically explainable origins of these values and concepts render these values and concepts utterly meaningless. Such meaninglessness renders life a horrible abomination.
The problem here is that by this same logic, the concepts of meaninglessness, horror, undesirability of life, etc. are themselves the result of “neurons firing” and have no real meaning either. In a universe where these concepts are unreal, the horror that Ligotti obsesses over is also unreal. The dreadfulness that the author imagines is also an illusion.
Ligotti sees this differently and seems to give “horror” a special place.
“And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.“
The argument that “horror” occupies such a privileged position is, to me, unsupported and unconvincing. One could substitute many words for “horror” in the above passage and it would have the same meaning.
Another problem that I have with Ligotti’s views is that he equates deep understanding of the human mind and consciousness with the belief that human values and principles are meaningless. Once again, this nihilistic way of viewing things can be interesting and perhaps even at times useful in gaining understanding, but it is not the entire story.
Perhaps all those Carl Sagan books have deluded me. I strongly believe that the incredibly complex mechanisms that go into the human mind, thought, consciousness and ultimately into human values, in no way diminish people or these value systems. In fact I would argue that the natural processes that gave rise to such wonders as life, the human mind, human principles, etc., enhance and give weight to humans and to these values. It is apparent that Ligotti has no sense of wonder or awe at the natural processes, human ideas and culture that that have arisen in our Cosmos.
In fact he writes,
“One cringes to hear scientists cooing over the universe or any part thereof like schoolgirls over-heated by their first crush. From the studies of Krafft-Ebbing onward, we know that it is possible to become excited about anything— from shins to shoehorns. But it would be nice if just one of these gushing eggheads would step back and, as a concession to objectivity, speak the truth: THERE IS NOTHING INNATELY IMPRESSIVE ABOUT THE UNIVERSE OR ANYTHING IN IT.” (Ligotti’s Capitalization).
The above is very different from how I view the world. Though I am not a scientist, I am very much with the “Gushing Eggheads.” Scientists like Carl Sagan are expressing opinions when they ponder the wonder of the natural world, there is no requirement that everything that they write in this context be scientifically objective, just as there is no requirement that Ligotti be scientifically objective when expressing his opinions.
The above is also an example of Ligotti’s unfortunate tendency to name call and exhibit intolerance that borders on hysteria towards beliefs that he does not agree with.
I have many other qualms with Ligotti’s conclusions. Yet, I believe this to be a valuable work. At times, Ligotti’s reasoning is elegant, and he ties intriguing cultural, literary, philosophical and scientific threads together. Furthermore, I think that Ligotti is on to something. There are terribly dark, horrifying aspects to life and existence. Ligotti brilliantly zeros in upon and explores these aspects of reality.
This darkness is all that Ligotti sees, however. For the most part, it is not in the facts that I disagree with in terms of his worldview. Thus, to some degree, it can be argued that this viewpoint is just one way of looking at life, no more or less valid than another viewpoint based upon the same facts (I understand that not everyone agrees that these are the facts and that there is plenty of room for honest disagreement on this). I contend, however, that there are other equally important ways of looking at the Universe.
Those interested in modern, extremely pessimistic worldviews may also want to read Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar. My commentary on that book is here. Ligotti makes several references to Benatar’s work in this book.