The following is excerpted and adapted from the introduction to A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things, edited by Jason V Brock for Cycatrix Press. Jason’s full introduction is titled “An Abiding Darkness, A Phantastique Light.” The book also features a foreword by Ray Bradbury in the form of a previously unpublished 1951 essay titled “The Beginnings of Imagination.”
Why do we, as a species, create things? What is it to “create”? What is the purpose of such activity?
These are fascinating questions, and likely no one has a complete answer to them. However, from my vantage point, in its most essential form, creativity is making the divine out of the mundane. It is taking the fundamental life force of the human spirit and resolving that unfocused energy into something akin to the spiritual. (Sexuality is another example of this process, and is tied to creativity.)
Shamans were often catalysts of this in pre-religious contexts. In more organized societies, religion has attempted to channel energy of this nature with decidedly mixed results, often heaping upon the creative impulse the added burdens of castigation and humiliation, lest the individual attempt to take their (rightful) place amongst the gods. Just as one need not believe in a godhead to live a moral and righteous life, one can be a creative without the insufferable tyranny of an organized gathering of impotents taking umbrage at every word written, every stroke painted, every dish prepared, every frame captured. We are the authors of our lives and the masters of the final outcome, not the politicians or religious leaders of the moment.
Who are these individuals to dictate to us? How are they more able to advise us than any other person in the world, including ourselves? Certainly none of us needs a pope, a president, a lama, or a god to assist us in navigating any moral conviction; it is an innate function of socialization and reasoning. We have imbued such people with this ability; they are not actually illuming our existence. To understand this takes courage, passion, skill, talent, and inspiration. Otherwise we are all doomed, in the words of Thoreau, to lead “lives of quiet desperation.” And then the grave, followed by the unknown. Why not take one’s life and steer it, rather than listen to the protestations of less valiant persons hiding from the possible?
Other questions of interest to humanity — and to creators, especially in our science-driven, technologically dependent age — present themselves upon analysis: What is the fundamental nature of reality? Why are we alive? Are we alone in the universe? When does consciousness become non-artificial? If a humanoid (or non-human animal for that matter) has enough experience and wisdom to have insight, that means the threshold of insight has been crossed, which means the “artificial” aspects of Artificial Intelligence (simply programming data points or relying on input/output mechanisms) will have been breached. It isn’t artificial at that point. It just “is.”
“What is the fundamental nature of reality? Why are we alive? Are we alone in the universe? When does consciousness become non-artificial?”
Using that as an illustration, we realize that we are at an intriguing juncture as a world-changing species. When the first non-living organism begins to manifest actual sentience (as opposed to simple self-awareness), true emotions (not just programmed reactions), and is able, for example, to produce a profound work of art — a masterpiece of literature, painting, music, cinema, or the equivalent — then there will be no fundamental difference between “AI” and just plain garden-variety “I.” Once that happens, we will really have to examine the ethics of how we treat things that are neither born nor cultivated, but built for a purpose — something humanity struggles with now as it is related to non-human creatures and even to other humans based on sexuality, gender, and race, all of which are natural manifestations of DNA expression on Earth.
And indeed, what purpose is there to creating such a being? If we limit their life course to what “we decide” versus their own free will, isn’t that slavery? What if they are psychopathic and intentionally shut off the electrical grid to a hospital, for example, or commit an act of terrorism? Would that be a crime? I think it means we would need to reconsider many aspects of jurisprudence and mental health, for a start. Additionally, it is said that one learns more from failure than success, so does that mean that for higher levels of consciousness to be attained, AI must first have input from extremely negative learning experiences in order to garner enough data for such things as insight or empathy to manifest? Where does that lead? Uploading all the misery of the Holocaust? The horror of a cancer diagnosis? Deprivation due to the inability to see, hear, or speak, like Helen Keller?
And who are we to decide that these beings are mortals? (They could, technically, be immortals with the current technologies.) Are these prerequisites for such phenomena as the creation of emotionally moving artworks or philosophy, including knowledge of one’s own eventual death? Is immortality a good thing for humanity, either organic or manufactured?
I will address these concerns in Part 2, to be published soon.
Yes, of course, this is a topic that I have broached many times before. But this recent — and fantastically brilliant — video from The Onion brought it roaring back to the forefront of my thoughts. (Hat tip to J. F. Martel for alerting me to it.)
And of course that reminded me of — and may well have been partly inspired by — this, which remains one of the quintessential moments in my religious education and one of the most astonishing moments of divine truth ever to erupt into cinema:
Then there’s the essay by Barbara Ehrenreich about this very thing that I just stumbled across today at The Baffler. Like so many other people, I was surprised and fascinated last year by the revelations about Ms. Ehrenreich’s spontaneous mystical experiences and the accompanying shift in her general worldview and philosophical thinking. Now I find that she is actually deeply read in the science fiction and horror literature devoted to speculating about the horror of a monstrous God or gods, as evidenced by an essay in which she takes Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as a springboard to talk about the works of Philip Pullman, H. P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, along with the ideas of the New Atheists and various prominent works of sociology and religious history. Says Ms. Ehrenreich,
[What Prometheus presents] is not atheism. It is a strand of religious dissidence that usually flies well under the radar of both philosophers and cultural critics. . . . Barred from more respectable realms of speculation, the idea of an un-good God has been pretty much left to propagate in the fertile wetlands of science fiction. One of the early sci-fi classics of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 At the Mountains of Madness, offers a plotline that eerily prefigures Prometheus. . . . The idea of an un-good God, whether indifferent or actively sadistic, flies in the face of at least two thousand years of pro-God PR, much of it irrational and coming from professed “people of faith.”
. . . If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.” Human conceptions of morality almost all derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: our young require years of caretaking, and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on each other’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that have had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But these virtues, if not unique to us, are far from universal in the animal world (or, of course, the human one). Why should a Being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates?
. . . [Philip K.] Dick may have been optimistic in suggesting that what the deity hungers for is “interspecies symbiosis.” Symbiosis is not the only possible long-term relationship between different species. Parasitism, as hideously displayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien series, must also be considered, along with its quicker-acting version, predation. In fact, if anything undermines the notion of a benevolent deity, it has to be the ubiquity of predation in the human and non-human animal worlds. Who would a “good” God favor—the antelope or the lion with hungry cubs waiting in its den, the hunter or the fawn? For Charles Darwin, the deal-breaker was the Ichneumon wasp, which stings its prey in order to paralyze them so that they may be eaten alive by the wasp’s larvae. “I cannot persuade myself,” wrote Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Or, as we may ask more generally: What is kindness or love in a biological world shaped by interspecies predation? “Morality is of the highest importance,” Albert Einstein once said, “but for us, not for God.”
. . . [C]ontra so many of the critics, we have learned an important lesson from the magnificent muddle of Prometheus: if you see something that looks like a god — say, something descending from the sky in a flaming chariot, accompanied by celestial choir sounds and trailing great clouds of star dust — do not assume that it is either a friend or a savior. Keep a wary eye on the intruder. By all means, do not fall down on your knees.
MORE: “The Missionary Position” by Barbara Ehrenreich
With my personal religious/spiritual status as a kind of nondual Protestant Christian influenced by equal amounts of Zen, Vedanta, Jungian psychology, Fortean trickster ontology, Robert Anton Wilsonian reality tunnel skepticism, and a few additional factors, all of them infused with and underlaid by intimations of deepest gloom emanating from the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti, I can honestly say that my immediate and heartfelt response to Ehrenreich’s words can be summed up in a single word: amen.
During a week when mummies are on everybody’s mind because of that widely circulated news story about the mummified Buddhist monk found in a Buddha statue, it’s nice to see that Library Journal has posted a review of my recently published Mummies around the World, which contains a long entry titled “Buddhist self-mummification” that’s written by Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue, the scientists and mummy experts who used to host National Geographic’s Mummy Road Show.
LJ’s verdict, I’m pleased to say, is positive:
This truly rollicking blend of scientific and pop culture offers facts ranging from actual methods of mummification to an entry on the 1955 movie Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and includes trivia-fact boxes. VERDICT: An educational and entertaining compendium that is recommended for all “mummymaniacs” everywhere.
MORE: Review of Mummies around the World (scroll to the bottom of the page)
Here’s something special for the Ligotti fans among us (and I know there are a lot of you reading this): Sławomir Wielhorski’s interview with Tom is now reprinted here at The Teeming Brain and available for your free reading and enjoyment. The interview was first published in Poland. Then the English version made its initial appearance last year in Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti, which, as many of you are already aware, I edited for Subterranean Press. This is actually the interview that gave the book its title, drawn from Tom’s response to the first question, so I’m very pleased to present it to you.
I’m also pleased to announce that the version published here includes “bonus material” in the form of a question and answer that were edited out of the interview’s original published appearances, and that are made available here for the first time.
Here’s a sample:
Sławomir Wielhorski: Could you tell us what triggered your interest in the horror genre and what influence it had on your life and literary output?
Thomas Ligotti: I was born to fear. It’s as plain as that. As the narrator of my short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done writes, “I have always been afraid.” If I ever wrote an autobiography, I would begin with the same sentence. In my opinion, everyone is some kind of fluke, an accident of biology and environment. We are randomly generated, arbitrarily conditioned flukes. And the kind of fluke I am is one that is born to fear. I don’t know how much of my fear is derived from genetics and how much from life experience. But the upshot is that I was born to fear, that is, by all laws of cause and effect, if you believe these have any purchase upon who we are — as do many psychologists — that was my destiny. Naturally, then, I was attracted to things that instilled fear in me, a paradoxical means of handling my fear but one that is not uncommonly employed by those who have been born to fear. Can anyone doubt that Poe was born to fear, or that Lovecraft was born to fear? They may also have been born to other things, but primarily they were born to fear. Almost everyone who writes or reads horror stories was born to fear. It only makes sense that this is the case.
Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.
Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:
MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?
J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.
MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?
JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.
FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice“
I watched. I listened. I laughed (out loud). And I was strangely mesmerized, as I suspect you may be, too. This parodix remix and transformation of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s McConaughified commercial for the Lincoln MKZ, courtesy of Auralnauts, amplifies the ad campaign’s channeling of McConaughey’s True Detective-inspired chain of dark, stream-of-consciousness ramblings to surreal proportions. And it’s pretty perfect.
How did I get here? Why did I order this water? There’s perfectly good water falling from the sky. What if this is the End of Days? I bet I can move this glass with my mind.
In case you missed this when it basically took over the Internet for a couple of weeks last fall (late October to early November 2014), I give you Too Many Cooks, which I think has been described most ably by Simon Pegg: “Too Many Cooks is so deftly engineered to unnerve stoned people in their mid 30s, it might actually have been created by the US government.” Imagine a 1980s/early 1990s American sitcom gone terribly, horribly, cosmically wrong. Then you’ll have the barest inkling of what’s in store.
Too Many Cooks originally played during the wee hours of the morning on Adult Swim’s “Infomercials” programming block, showing up with no warning or fanfare and simultaneously amusing and traumatizing viewers everywhere. I warn you that it’s definitely not for the squeamish, nor for the easily offended. People who enjoy having their reality hacked, however, are advised to watch. And although I basically agree with The Atlantic when it cautions that the less you know about this thing in advance, the better, I’ll issue this one additional piece of advice: that you refuse to give in to the temptation that may arise to stop watching after a few minutes because you think you’ve already gotten the joke and it’s getting boring. Just push on through that feeling if it arises, because after several minutes of a hilarious but increasingly annoying (because apparently endless) parody of sitcom opening credit sequences, the universe itself basically goes off the rails.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Too Many Cooks for days after I watched it. And since you’re somebody who is attracted by invocations of the names of Ligotti, Lynch, and Dick, I suspect the same may prove to be true of you.
“The Madhouse” by Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So brilliant: an implicitly ironic but outwardly straight-faced reading of the DSM-5 as a dystopian horror novel, complete with a quasi-Ligottian assessment of the book’s narrative voice and view of humanity.
Great dystopia isn’t so much fantasy as a kind of estrangement or dislocation from the present; the ability to stand outside time and see the situation in its full hideousness. The dystopian novel doesn’t necessarily have to be a novel. . . . Something has gone terribly wrong in the world; we are living the wrong life, a life without any real fulfillment. The newly published DSM-5 is a classic dystopian novel in this mold.
Here, we have an entire book, something that purports to be a kind of encyclopedia of madness, a Library of Babel for the mind, containing everything that can possibly be wrong with a human being. . . . DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. . . . The idea emerges that every person’s illness is somehow their own fault, that it comes from nowhere but themselves: their genes, their addictions, and their inherent human insufficiency. We enter a strange shadow-world where for someone to engage in prostitution isn’t the result of intersecting environmental factors (gender relations, economic class, family and social relationships) but a symptom of “conduct disorder,” along with “lying, truancy, [and] running away.” A mad person is like a faulty machine. The pseudo-objective gaze only sees what they do, rather than what they think or how they feel. A person who shits on the kitchen floor because it gives them erotic pleasure and a person who shits on the kitchen floor to ward off the demons living in the cupboard are both shunted into the diagnostic category of encopresis. It’s not just that their thought-processes don’t matter, it’s as if they don’t exist. The human being is a web of flesh spun over a void.
. . . The word “disorder” occurs so many times that it almost detaches itself from any real signification, so that the implied existence of an ordered state against which a disorder can be measured nearly vanishes is almost forgotten. Throughout the novel, this ordered normality never appears except as an inference; it is the object of a subdued, hopeless yearning. With normality as a negatively defined and nebulously perfect ideal, anything and everything can then be condemned as a deviation from it. . . . If there is a normality here, it’s a state of near-catatonia. DSM-5 seems to have no definition of happiness other than the absence of suffering. The normal individual in this book is tranquilized and bovine-eyed, mutely accepting everything in a sometimes painful world without ever feeling much in the way of anything about it. The vast absurd excesses of passion that form the raw matter of art, literature, love, and humanity are too distressing; it’s easier to stop being human altogether, to simply plod on as a heaped collection of diagnoses with a body vaguely attached.
. . . For all the subtlety of its characterization, the book doesn’t just provide a chilling psychological portrait, it conjures up an entire world. The clue is in the name: On some level we’re to imagine that the American Psychiatric Association is a body with real powers, that the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” is something that might actually be used, and that its caricature of our inner lives could have serious consequences. Sections like those on the personality disorders offer a terrifying glimpse of a futuristic system of repression, one in which deviance isn’t furiously stamped out like it is in Orwell’s unsubtle Oceania, but pathologized instead. Here there’s no need for any rats, and the diagnostician can honestly believe she’s doing the right thing; it’s all in the name of restoring the sick to health. DSM-5 describes a nightmare society in which human beings are individuated, sick, and alone. For much of the novel, what the narrator of this story is describing is its own solitude, its own inability to appreciate other people, and its own overpowering desire for death — but the real horror lies in the world that could produce such a voice.
MORE: “Book of Lamentations“
For more on the DSM-V and the controversy it has elicited, see this.
Jill Tracy’s Diabolical Streak has been a favorite album of mine for the past decade — see the video above for one of the many reasons why — and in this 2009 interview for Tor.com, the always-mesmerizing Ms. Tracy explains some of the philosophical-aesthetic worldview that informs her lush world of musical darkness:
We all want to believe in magic. It keeps hope alive. Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters. I think that’s why my music resonates with people on such a deep level.
I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. And I’d read about toads and frogs and blood raining from the sky. Or Count Saint Germain, who was recorded to have lived for hundreds of years. He said his secret to immortality was to eat oatmeal and wear velvet encrusted with gemstones. To this day, no one knows exactly who he was, where he came from and if indeed he was immortal.
Unfortunately, these days of internet and technology have murdered “the legend.” That breaks my heart. Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend — these are the things that make us feel most alive. The most wonderful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers. One of my favorite quotes is, “In the end, it is the mystery that prevails, never the explanation.” Sadly, the world has gotten to a point where everybody’s demanding an explanation. But after the info, they’re still bored and unfulfilled.
I think it’s my purpose to perpetuate the long-lost magic, allow people to slip into the cracks, to pry up the floorboards and search deeply. Believe. Imagine. It’s so important to hold on to that childlike sense of marvel.
In line with these sentiments, also see Ms. Tracy’s appearance as an interviewee in a recent, and excellent, in-depth article about Ouija boards and other spirit-communication devices, where she offers some perceptive observations about Victorian Spiritualism:
Jill Tracy — a San Francisco singer and composer who, with violinist Paul Mercer, performs a touring improvisational-music show called “The Musical Séance” — says that Victorians were more open about loss of life and honoring the dead than we are now. At The Musical Séance, she and Mercer will spontaneously compose pieces based on sentimental objects the audience brings in — from antlers and dentures to haunted paintings and cremated cats to swords and a lock of hair from a drowned boy — not to call in spirits so much as memorialize the audience’s loved ones.
Tracy says even as a parlor pastime, Victorians had a sweet, romantic side to them. “A séance brought people together,” she says. “It enabled them to face their fears because it was being pitched to them as a form of group amusement, instead of a frightening experience where one sits in their house alone and tries to talk to a spirit. A séance was also sensually charged, the true definition of arousing the senses. Men and women would sit in the dark in close contact, often holding hands or touching, and they would have no idea what was going to happen. For Victorians, it was almost an acceptable moment of abandon.”
Here are some powerful, moving, and beautiful words from Ursula K. Le Guin at the recent National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and used the opportunity to talk about the value of visionary literature and the ugliness and danger of treating books as pure commodities:
I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction — writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want — and should demand — our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
Lest we forget, Ms. Le Guin spoke about this same “realism of a larger reality” back in 1973 at the very same venue, when she was accepting the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore:
Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in his laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. The fantasist, whether he uses the ancient archetype of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist — and a great deal more directly — about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived.
For even more, see this recent (August 2014) interview with Le Guin in which she expounds on the same theme:
“The genres” were ignored altogether [from the 1940s to the turn of the century] and realistic fiction alone was left as literature, in the minds of the men who controlled criticism and teaching. Realism is of course a tremendous and wonderfully capacious literary genre, and it has dominated fiction since 1800 or before. But dominance isn’t the same thing as superiority. Fantasy is at least as immense as realism and much older — essentially coeval with literature itself. Yet fantasy was relegated for fifty years or sixty years to the nursery.
. . . . The thing to remember, however exotic or futuristic or alien the mirror [of a given type of literature] seems, is that you are in fact looking at your world and yourself. Serious science fiction is just as much about the real world and human beings as realistic novels are. (Sometimes more so, I think when faced with yet another dreary story about a dysfunctional upper middle class East Coast urban family.) After all, the imagination can only take apart reality and recombine it. We aren’t God, our word isn’t the world. But our minds can learn a lot about the world by playing with it, and the imagination finds an infinite playing field in fiction.
Finally, and perhaps in slight correction to Ms. Le Guin’s last two sentences above, here’s a key quote from Terence McKenna that rests and resonates well with the mix of ideas presented here:
The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish