I recall a few choice moments in my life when I began to realize my own cosmic insignificance.
I distinctly recall the moment that the idea that space goes on forever actually registered with me. I recall finding a litter of puppies once and learning what “the runt of the litter” meant. The unfairness and cruelty of nature struck me, but also I got a vague sense that we’re here by chance, that no one is meant to be born.
Around the time I started college I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in God, and never had. I think as a child I wanted to believe, primarily out of fear. But eventually I had to admit to myself that none of it made any sense. It was never a matter of not wanting to believe, but never being able.
I like weird fiction and cosmic horror because it puts humans in their true place in the universe: insignificance. But when I read the works of Thomas Ligotti my worldview really gained a cohesion. I’ve never been so affected by a single writer. Ligotti infuses his work with a sense of the horror at existence itself, expressed creatively through deeply philosophical weird fiction.
For Ligotti, no one is anyone, we’re just gene-replicating bio-robots engineered by evolution with over-developed brains which give us the illusion of an independent self. Life is a force which has “infected” matter, endowing it with animation, turning the world into a giant meat grinder which rips, tears and consumes itself over and over forever, without purpose. Nothing is good or bad, there’s just matter moving around and getting recycled. And it’s horrifying.
Perhaps he states this philosophy with the most impact in his short story “The Tsalal”:
“transformation as the only truth […] There is no nature to things […] ‘There are no faces except masks held tight against the pitching chaos behind them.’ […] there is not true growth or evolution in the life of this world but only transformations of appearance, an incessant melting and molding of surfaces without underlying essence. Above all […] there is no salvation of any being because no beings exist as such, nothing exists to be saved – everything, everyone exists only to be drawn into the slow and endless swirling of mutations that we may see every second of our lives.”
The universe is not geared for life, animate matter (“life”) is a mistake, a fluke of the existence of matter given the right conditions and enough time. Conscious life is even more rare. This is not something that was supposed to occur, it is chemistry gone awry.
Ligotti speaks of the animating force in terms of “the shadow,” a sort of universal, Schopenhauerian Will which effectively *infects* matter.
In his short story “The Shadow, The Darkness”:
“Our bodies are but one manifestation of the energy, the activating force that sets in motion all the objects, all the bodies of this world and enables them to exist as they do. This activating force is something like a shadow that is not on the outside of all the bodies of this world but is inside of everything and thoroughly pervades everything—an all-moving darkness that has no substance in itself but that moves all the objects of this world, including those objects which we call our bodies.” (The Shadow, The Darkness).
Ligotti explored this in depth in his story “The Voice of the Bones” where we witness a poetic “losing” of one’s “shadow” back into the black chaos: “And he cried out as the shadow sought his bones and as he felt his bones reaching into the blackness. Yet it was no longer his own voice that sounded in the tower, but the echoing clamor of strange shrieking multitudes.”
Two examples I will quote from Ligotti’s excellent collection “My Work Is Not Yet Done” wherein Ligotti gives the life force the name of the Great Black Swine:
“…there was nothing especially ‘roachy’ inside the roach any more than there was anything of a distinct ‘person’ inside of Lillian – once the dark interior of each had been penetrated, there was only that buzz of swinish agitation and turbulent blackness. The Great Black Swine was thrashing about inside the cockroach just as it had within Lillian Hayes, the only difference being that any sense of delusion about being some kind of thing-in-the-world was missing from the insect…”
“…that Great Black Swine, that thrashing and vicious blackness which flowed like a river through every living thing […] that moved and manipulated all the created life of this world […] the shadow within all life, the thing that would live on and on as each one of us died our deaths alone. Because whatever life we had was only its life, and when our bodies, our cockroach bodies, became too damaged to accommodate it . . . this blackness flowed away, leaving behind it a dead vine, a bug’s crushed carapace, or a human corpse – things that had no life of their own, nothing real at all about them.”
What we think of as our soul, or some sort of independent life force is merely a tendril in the swirling chaos. On death our force is reabsorbed, all individuality is lost.
Another favorite image of Ligotti is that of the puppet. He discusses this in his anti-natalist tour de force The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (TCATHR):
“A sibling term of supernatural horror is the “uncanny.” […] And a puppet possessed of life would exemplify just such a horror, because it would negate all conceptions of a natural physicalism and affirm a metaphysics of chaos and nightmare. It would still be a puppet, but it would be a puppet with a mind and a will, a human puppet—a paradox more disruptive of sanity than the undead. But that is not how they would see it. Human puppets could not conceive of themselves as being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakable sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation. Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own—that you are making moves and thinking thoughts which seem to have originated within you—it is not possible for you to believe you are anything but your own master.”
Ligotti makes much of this image of the puppet in his work, going all the way back to his very first short story collection “Songs of a Dead Dreamer.”
These are dark, nocturnal thoughts. But if I am going to be snatched out of non-existence and thrown into this sentient piece of meat, I would like to know what is going on, without illusions. The LEAST I can do is know the truth regardless how bleak, or how many illusions that view might shatter. For me, Ligotti does this.
Ligotti discusses historical examples of anti-natalist philosophy, this quote on the German philospher Julius Bahnsen struck me in particular, someone with a view similar to that of Schopenhauer:
“For Bahnsen, a purposeless force breathes a black life into everything and feasts upon it part by part, regurgitating itself into itself, ever-renewing the throbbing forms of its repast. For all others who suspect that something is amiss in the lifeblood of being, something they cannot verbalize, there are the malformed shades of suffering and death that chase them into the false light of contenting lies.”
It is bad enough to become an animate form, but to be cursed with consciousness as humans are is far worse. Ligotti quotes Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in TCATHR who believes we have developed an overabundance of consciousness, and we try to minimize it by distractions, religion, ignorance. To him this is a tragedy. We have evolved the ability to see ourselves as an independent self, separate from the world, and we are conscious of our impending death.
Ligotti sums up the implications of this philosophy in TCATHR, and in his short stories by reaching this conclusion: There is nothing to do, there is nowhere to go, there is nothing to be and there is no one to know.
My worldview is not quite as bleak as Ligotti’s. I think there’s some poetic truth in Julian Huxley’s idea that we are the “universe becoming conscious of itself.” Even if it goes badly, was it not better to have experienced it, even if it is painful and all amounts to the dust of death in the end? Bill Hick’s described life as “just a ride” and the pessimist philosopher E. M. Cioran said, “I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?”
As a gay man I feel comfort knowing that I won’t bring someone into this grinder. I feel I am doing someone a favor who doesn’t exist, contradictory as that sounds.
On the other hand I don’t consider myself a passionate anti-natalist. If someone wants to have ten children I won’t be suffering for them. And besides, these ideas are not something most people are open to either listening to or accepting except as mere philosophical speculation. This is something Ligotti emphasizes in his book several times, as contrary as it may sound. He knows he’s only speaking to sympathetic minds.
Dark as all this may seem, accepting the implications has helped me to let go of many frustrations and things that do not matter. I don’t get as angry about things I can’t change, whether it’s politics or general ignorance. And why get angry at people, when they aren’t in control of themselves? Do you get angry when a machine does what it was programmed to do?
I think if life is valuable, one should try to enjoy it and not worry about what one cannot change. Avoid fruitless strife. “Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.” Everything looks like busy work to me, but I might as well find the busy work pleasurable.
“You do not own your head. There are so many heads in the world, wherever you go there are heads, every day there are more of them sprouting up in the blackness. At one time there was nothing at all, only blackness; and then, within the infinite space of that blackness things started to develop. But as soon as those heads came along nothing much has happened -or nothing worthy of note: the whole world reached its peak and turned into an enormous heads factory. Everyday there are more and more of them sprouting up in the blackness -which was there at the beginning -the blackness that, perhaps by chance, began to produce all these heads, and continues to produce them, always calling out for more heads to carry out the business it wants done, its black voice roaring across the infinite black spaces of its heads factory. But none of the heads has any ideas about the blackness that surrounds them, or the blackness that hides itself inside each one of them.”