Thomas Ligotti: The Abyss of Radiance
by Steven Craig Hickman
At this point it may seem that the consolations of horror are not what we thought they were, that all this time we’ve been keeping company with illusions. Well, we have. And we’ll continue to do so, continue to seek the appalling scene which short-circuits our brain, continue to sit in our numb coziness with a book of terror on our laps like a cataleptic predator, and continue to draw smug solace, if only for the space of a story, from a world made snug and simple by absolute hopelessness and doom.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory
I am no book thief. But I could not bear to part with your words…
—Poppy Z. Brite, On Thomas Ligotti
Why do we read such works as these? A darkness unbearable, a world where nothing good ever happens, a realm of pure and unadulterated hopelessness and doom? Why? Even the notion that one could be consoled by such intemperate melodies of utter death and destruction, madness and delirium seem to send one back to that strange place of emptiness, that weird space of story where the thing we’ve been chasing, the object of horror that we’ve sought even against our own will (do we have a will?) suddenly stands revealed – not as a visible thing that we can observe, nor as a shaded emptiness that we can absolve into the particles of our mindless aberrant fetish, obsess over, ponder as if it were the ultimate answer to our deepest longings; no, such are the illusory tricks of stagecraft magicians, no – what we seek is as in Walter Pater’s aesthetic,
“A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing, a weather-vane, a windmill, a winnowing flail, the dust in the barn door; a moment – and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect; but it leaves a relish behind it, a longing that the accident may happen again.” - Walter Pater
It’s this secret moment, this pure effect: a moment that cannot be shared, no testimony brought forth or enveloped with the reasoning powers of intellect; no, rather such moments that suddenly present their absolute aura – a profane light, a flame from the darkness that attests not so much to our fear as to our exhilaration in the face of the unknown. Such moments leave us desperate, longing for the return, for the return of such infinitesimal mysteries, glints from elsewhere that awaken in us neither nostalgia nor some futurial glance into the mists of time forward; but, rather, give us hint of that seed that lies in the depths of our own mind as the outer form of some object breaks over us releasing powers we had as yet to register or distill from the voids surrounding us. For that is the key, we seek what cannot be locked down in the daylight of reason, a hint of that terror at the heart of the world which holds us in its desperate flight, if only momentarily a glance into the Real.
A host of strangers come together at the intersection of time and space in a world between worlds. Their eyes “fixed with an insomniac’s stare, the stigma of both monumental fatigue and painful attentiveness to everything in sight”.1 We are not given a reason, only that this gray host has returned to a place from which they were excluded. To what purpose if any have they returned. And, more to the point, why did they leave, abandon this place to begin with? A crime, an unimaginable collective massacre, some dark and unfathomable secret or burden to which staying meant certain madness and eventual death; or, was it just inexplicable, no reason at all, or one that they have long forgotten in their collective misery and spiritual ennui. A clue: “Only one had not gone with them. He had stayed in the skeleton town…”
But why? Why would he stay and all the others leave, abandon their homes (were they residents?) and depart to unknown lands or cities. Was there a natural or unnatural disaster? Something like those cities abandoned in Russia or American because of ecological and technological meltdown? A collective amnesia: “They were sure they had seen something they should not remember.” A murder, a sacrifice, a collective ritual of such magnitude and horror that they were all brought to that point of mental breakdown whose catastrophic consequence was some form of memory sickness and dementia: “A paralysis had seized them, that state of soul known to those who dwell on the highest plane of madness, aristocrats of insanity whose nightmares confront them on either side of sleep.” There is a sense of solidarity in madness, a hysterical craving after the truth of which they are both enamored and yet absolved to never discover again. And, yet, like one of Beckett’s creatures in the hell of modernity: “I’ll go on. I can’t go on.” This sense of being in-between, caught in the active and passive passage into the vastation on some banal nihil.
We know that for Thomas Ligotti there is a deeper truth unfolded in those darker thought of such men as Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann, Philipp Mainländer, Julius Bahnsen, Ernst Lindner, Lazar Hellenbach, Paul Deußen, Agnes Talbert, Olga Plümacher and, last but not least, the young Nietzsche. Something of the flavor of that spiritual anomie which gathers itself under the icon of pessimism. Those German Romantics, melancholy and suicidal – poet manqués who would define it as ‘weltschmerze’ (“worldpain”) hinting at the dark moodiness of things whose aura was surrounded by sadness and weariness weighing down the soul with an acute sense of evil and suffering at the heart of existence. As Fredrick C. Beiser will attest “Its origins have been traced back to the 1830s, to the late romantic era, to the works of Jean Paul, Heinrich Heine…” and others.2
Yet, it was the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899– 1990), even more than the better known Schopenhauer who would awaken in Ligotti the sense of utter futility and the dark contours of pessimism concerning the human condition and predicament:
Nonhuman occupants of this planet are unaware of death. But we are susceptible to startling and dreadful thoughts, and we need some fabulous illusions to take our minds off them. For us, then, life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would leave us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, staring void. To end this self-deception, to free our species of the paradoxical imperative to be and not to be conscious, our backs breaking by degrees upon a wheel of lies, we must cease reproducing.3
This notion of cessation, this withdrawal from the contract of organic Will-to-live in Schopenhauer’s terms is the central motif of Zapffe’s pessimism. Ligotti’s, too.
Yet, even in this strangest of tales, the stubborn refusal to die continues as if death were itself the very core of existence, a subtle circulation around a hollow abyss that could never find the flame that would end it all: “Blessed is the seed that is planted forever in darkness.” a woman says. When asked what she meant by the invocation she is merely as confused as the interlocutor. Maybe that is how the outside circulates into our world, seeps into the daylight with its dark jets of inky delirium.
The Man Who Stayed Behind
Andrew Maness like many of Ligotti’s officiators is a loner, a scholar or bookworm, and a misfit renegade from reality. As he stands in the room atop a mansion that once housed many of his predecessors he watches these gray citizens wander the streets below him, each following some prerecorded script that even they do not understand but know they are powerless to abandon. In the room is a book that seems to hold both a secret and a mystery, one that Maness himself has sought to decipher for as long as he can remember: “You know what made them come home, but I can only guess. So many things you have devoutly embellished, yet you offer nothing on this point.” As if the book had a personality, as if it knew more than a book should know, a book that not only exceeded the limits of its covers but seemed to grow as the seed in the darkness grows. A book whose title would serve a greater mystery: TSALAL.
Many of Ligotti’s tales speak of secret books whose forbidden knowledge reveals to its antagonists certain hellish paradises, utopian realms of utter bittersweet jouissance: a jouissance which compels the subject to constantly attempt to transgress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment, to go beyond the pleasure principle (a la Lacan!). What Georges Bataille would speak of as “the recoil imposed on everyone, in so far as it involves terrible promises…”.4 Ligotti as if in agreement has always attributed to the (un)natural objects of his world, the mundane homes and streets of a village or city this aura of terrible promise:
Surrounding this area were clusters of houses that in the usual manner collect about the periphery of skeleton towns. These were structures of serene desolation that had settled into the orbit of a dead star. They were simple pinewood coffins, full of stillness, leaning upright against a silent sky. Yet it was this silence that allowed sounds from a fantastic distance to be carried into it. And the stillness of these houses and their narrow streets led the eye to places astonishingly remote. There were even moments when the entire veil of desolate serenity began to tremble with the tumbling colors of chaos. (ibid., Tsalal)
As if this unbinding, an unraveling of things mundane as holding within themselves the keys to remote mysteries about to be unveiled. Most of Ligotti’s most memorable passages are of nightwalks along the strange alleys, streets, and thoroughfares of certain villages and cities where the imponderable strangeness of things seems to crawl down out of remote regions to merge and take up residence. This atmospheric prose-poetry is what unveils Ligotti’s greatest strength rather than the narrative of the tales themselves. It’s as if in such places there is a sense that the “magical desolation of narrow streets and coffin-shaped houses comes to settle and distill like an essence of the old alchemists”. In one of his better known essays Walter Benjamin would speak of this as an aura:
Historically, works of art had an ‘aura’ – an appearance of magical or supernatural force arising from their uniqueness (similar to mana). The aura includes a sensory experience of distance between the reader and the work of art. … The aura has disappeared in the modern age because art has become reproducible.5
Maybe it’s this sense of loss that pervades most of the stories in Ligotti’s oeuvre. We sense this endless circling round the aura of an object that cannot be revealed without terrible consequence for both reader and author. To name it is to destroy it, so it remains outside in the dark, unnamed and full of that aura that against the modernists remain unreproducible. It cannot be profaned except on pain of death and annihilation.
Even as Andrew closes the book the metamorphoses begins, a changing of shadow to shadow, an unfolding to an infernal paradise whose dark transports offer the reader neither comfort nor escape, consolation or reprieve. Andrew’s father, a defender of day and light, a priest, whose dogma’s seem out of another more medieval age reprimands his reprobate son: “There is nothing more awful and nothing more sinful than such changes in things. Nothing is more grotesque than these changes. All changes in things are grotesque. The very possibility of changes in things is grotesque. And the beast is the author of all changes. You must never again consort with the beast!”
This sense that the orthodox seek an unchanging world, a realm where time stands still and all things stave off the inevitable evil of change and movement. Andrew feels the burden of change growing in him, the “seed in the dark” growing. It allures him and terrorizes him, and yet he knows it is his destiny. Like Adam in the garden, Andrew has been forced to renounce the temptation of his own fallen trees: books, forbidden books, the forbidden knowledge of those infernal regions that offer and allure him toward the remote darknesses. As his father says of these books: “I keep them,” he said, “so that you may learn by your own will to renounce what is forbidden in whatever shape it may appear.”
Returning to that chapter in the Bible where the forbidden fruit of knowledge first offered its allurements we find a serpent whispering in the woman’s ear. The serpent is simply there, the tempter already in place, an unexplained occupant of the Garden—and of the human mind. The serpent appears to be the concentrated and symbolic remnant of an earlier religious age, before the Jews passed through the tumultuous shift from polytheism to monotheism. Nothing yet links the serpent to Satan or to the Devil. It is calmly insubordinate and categorically denies God’s verdict of death for eating the forbidden tree. “Thou shalt not surely die” (3:4). The serpent tells the woman that, rather, the act will open their eyes and make them as gods. The woman eats and gives of the fruit to her husband. Everything goes by halves now. Adam and Eve start out innocent and immortal. The serpent claims that by eating the forbidden fruit, they will achieve divinity without losing immortality. He is half-right—that is, they attain insight into good and evil and at the same time they lose immortality. “And the Lord God said, Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever … the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:22). Because they have become mortal, Adam and Eve must now be kept away from the Tree of Life. Prohibition did not work for the first tree. Banishment is the logical answer.
This sense of prohibition and banishment or exclusion as the fruit of a temptation pervades many of Ligotti’s stories. Breaking the prohibition leads in many cases to utter madness and a break with the sane everyday world of humanity, where the codes of sleep and blindness encode most humans in a dubious form of wakefulness. Yet, it is this very prohibition that awakens Andrew’s desire: “But how wonderful he found those books that were forbidden to him.” Or, again,
He somehow knew these books were forbidden to him, even before the reverend had made this fact explicit to his son and caused the boy to feel ashamed of his desire to hold these books and to know their matter. He became bound to the worlds he imagined were revealed in the books, obsessed with what he conceived to be a cosmology of nightmares. (ibid.)
Andrew would spend hours within this forbidden paradise of books and knowledge, mapping the underbelly of a universe that only he could see in his mind’s eye. He imagined the stars in this private infernal universe: “They had changed in the strangest way, changed because everything in the universe was changing and could no longer be protected from the changes being worked upon them by something that had been awakened in the blackness, something that desired to remold everything it could see…and had the power to see all things.” This sense of a dark presence, a power of creativity and surprise that could suddenly remake the universe at will, an agent of change and metamorphosis such that in “those nights of dreaming, all things were subject to forces that knew nothing of law or reason, and nothing possessed its own nature or essence but was only a mask upon the face of absolute darkness, a blackness no one had ever seen.”
Ultimately even these forbidden books offered little consolation to Andrew, what he sought was another book, access to a forbidden knowledge that seemed to offer a counter-creation:
It was another creation he pursued, a counter-creation, and the books on the shelves of his father’s library could not reveal to him what he desired to know of this other genesis. While denying it to his father, and often to himself, he dreamed of reading the book that was truly forbidden, the scripture of a deadly creation, one that would tell the tale of the universe in its purest sense.
Remonstrating with his father over the hideousness of these prohibitory measures, that all they did was cause the very thing his father sought to end – the desire for a forbidden knowledge of things that no book held or could hold but the one book whose very temptation was bound to the darkness of his own mind and nightmares:
You preached to me that all change is grotesque, that the very possibility of change is evil. Yet in the book you declare ‘transformation as the only truth’—the only truth of the Tsalal, that one who is without law or reason. ‘There is no nature to things,’ you wrote in the book. ‘There are no faces except masks held tight against the pitching chaos behind them.’ You wrote that 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 you pronounced that 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 if we simply gaze through the eyes of the Tsalal.
I will not spoil the ending for those who have yet to read Ligotti’s works. It’s this sense of a counter-world, not a mirror world but a realm that is counter-factual and disturbs, even intrudes our own world; a world that is already seeping into ours from remote dimensions out of mind that is at the heart of Ligotti’s works. As if all along this very realm we are in is that eternally metamorphosing infernal region of change, but that through the secret wizardry of those dark agents of time – the time of change was stopped, and that we’ve all been imprisoned in a lifeless universe of the death-drive, pursuing a circular and repetitive course of unchanging repetition. Isn’t this the dream of those oligarchs of thought surrounding us with a world of capitalistic desire, a realm in which the only circulation is that of immaterial goods and money, a realm where nothing changes so much as the static representation of change. A change that is itself a repetition of death?
Maybe in the end we – all of us are Andrew awakening to the truth, a truth he comes to see as the horror of his and our unchanging society. As he shouts it to his father:
“You knew this was the wrong place when you brought me here as a child. And I knew that this was the wrong place when I came home to this town and stayed here until everyone knew that I had stayed too long in this place.”
We all know this is the truth, that we’ve allowed this world to continue down its unnatural course, allowed leaders to lead us nowhere and nowhen – a circular void of capitalist desire in a vacuum of consuming consummation. A realm where time and space have accelerated into a virtual hellhole of circulating capital to which we are all bound like servants in a vast machinic system. Knowing what we know we still desire it: and, that is our burden and our downfall. And, yet, we all have known for a long while that the forbidden knowledge that would free us of this trap has been in plain sight all along, our eyes glued to its strange temptations: the eyes of the Tsalal. Shall we open those eyes, now, and begin to change, metamorphosize beyond this seeming world of stasis and repetition? As we open our eyes the infernal seeps in… the dark seed sprouts…
In the ancient Gnostic Gospels of Valentinus there is this play between the Pleroma (“Place of Fullness”) and the Abyss (“Place of Emptiness”), in which a dialectical interplay transpires between the powers of fullness and absence, an oscillation and hesitation between the visible darkness and the darkness made visible, a seeming that stages a cosmic battle and forces that which cannot be named to give birth to the dark seed: the parental abyss, at once foremother and forefather, from which the babe rushes forth into our emptiness. And, we, like the cannibalistic village must consume the fleshy remains of such corruption, become one with its energetic will, let the white bones sink into black earth where in the darkness a light will begin to shine: a nihilistic light, glimmers of strange wonders filtering up from the radiant Abyss.
Ligotti, a subtle master of the unsaid, never exposes the reality below the surface edge of his prose-poetry, rather he hints at it, allows the reader to intermingle in the shifting sands of his dark waters where either the seed will awaken in her the mystery from elsewhere; or, close the door forever in a momentary gleam from the impossible enchantments that trap us in our own allurements.
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