In the latest entry in “By Heart,” an article series from The Atlantic “in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature,” novelist Benjamin Percy, author of the just-released werewolf novel Red Moon, talks about the deep and permanent emotional impact that he experienced from reading a certain passage in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
He also branches out into a discussion of the impacts and effects of horror fiction in general, and bases his analysis on the literary technique of the suspenseful slow reveal in which a final, awful revelation gives the reader a shock of horror. “It’s the same reason we climb onto a roller coaster,” he writes. “It’s the same reason we climb a cliff and put our foot out over the open air and pull back. We’re daring the nightmare. You never feel more alive than in that moment. It’s a reminder of our mortality. If you look at the horror novel, or the horror movie, it’s a way of safely dealing with that spike of adrenaline.”
Now, I reject this general conclusion as inadequate, since I find much more truth and depth in Tom Ligotti’s contention, outlined in his essay “The Consolations of Horror” (found in The Nightmare Factory), that the familiar “roller coaster” and “face your fear” explanations of artistic horror’s appeal fall flat before the sole authentic “consolation” the genre has to offer, which is “simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.” (Of course, this could just as well be offered as the final appeal and consolation of any kind of art. But its specific application to horror is especially moving.)
That doesn’t mean, however, Percy has nothing valuable to say. His final paragraphs in particular are buzzingly interesting and worthwhile, since he effectively tackles, and tackles quite nicely — in a scant 400 words — the problem with gratuitous gore, the question of the horror writer’s deep motivation, and the death and resurrection of his own ability to respond deeply to horrifying fiction, specifically on the level of story, after years of immersion in literary craft had effectively numbed him:
I feel that violence needs to be earned somehow — or it needs to earn out. You need to pipe the oxygen in before lighting the flame — or, in the wake of some violent act, there needs to be repercussions: a period in which the characters suffer and soak up what has occurred. Making it part of the causal structure and making it emotionally resonant, too. I would hope that any narrative that wrestles with this sort of thing is meant to horrify, and not excite. To discourage, instead of encourage, violence. And that’s the problem with movies like Saw and Hostel: They make a bloodbath into a kind of joyous exercise.
I’ve been practicing for these kind of scares my whole life. I grew up on genre: Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy novels, mysteries and spy thrillers — but especially on horror. Horror’s always gripped me in its bony fist. So I read everything by Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rice, and Stephen King, and Peter Straub and Robert Aikman [sic], John Saul, and Dean Koontz, and H. P. Lovecraft, and Poe. There’s something about me that’s drawn to darkness and to the theater of fear. I can’t quite put a finger on why that is — it’s the same reason some people like romance stories while others like action movies. But my greatest pleasure growing up was terrifying my sister by leaping out of closets with my hands made into claws, or scratching at her bedroom window. She slept with the light on until she was 27. I guess that was training ground for the novelist I’ve become.
I’ve become so attuned to craft that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get lost in a story. When I grew up reading, the only thing that concerned me was the question of what happens next — and the pages turned so fast they made a breeze across my face. The Road, for the first time in a very long time, owned me emotionally in that same fashion. I was able to turn off my craft radar and be swept away. I felt true terror. The kind of terror that used it [sic] make me, when I was a kid, wrap the sheets around my face and breathe through a little blowhole in fear of the shadow that seemed at the edges of my room. Cormac McCarthy, that dark sorcerer, makes me feel that way again.
More: “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road May Have the Scariest Passage in All of Literature,” The Atlantic, May 14, 2013
Click through to the article for the full text of the McCarthy passage in question, along with Percy’s detailed discussion of it.
Also note that for a darkly beautiful exploration and amplification of the Ligottian idea of horror art’s consolations, see Richard Gavin’s Teeming Brain column from last November, “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror.”
In his interesting book-length meditation, Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King posited the following theory regarding the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror:
Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?
The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.
Quite appropriately for somebody with a such royal name, in that passage King effectively gave us the One Theory to Rule Them All, the one idea that would become the ready response to questions about the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror. Countless creators and consumers of such entertainment have regurgitated King’s logic over the past three decades, to the point where it has become a convenient catchall that any Horror fan can brandish whenever his or her morbid predilections are called into question. Why Horror art? Because our souls need boot-camp training to toughen us up for when real life comes a-calling, of course!
Simple? Yes. Memorable? Certainly. Useful? Absolutely. But is it accurate?
Although I am an admirer of many of Stephen King’s works, I confess to finding his logic here deeply suspect. The underlying implication of this theory is that Horror is a healthy, even a socially responsible, pastime: no need to worry if your great-aunt Tilly furrows her brow at your movie night selection. Just inform her that the cannibal frenzy she’ll be enduring in lurid, extreme close-ups for the next ninety minutes is for her own good, because it’s steeling her nerves for tomorrow’s lineup at the DMV.
The mind reels at such an absurd imagining. So violently, in fact, that the experience of it raises a fundamental question about the theory at hand, to wit: Does Horror art in any medium truly help us cope with life? And more importantly, must it? Does it require a purpose beyond serving us a delicious tide of frisson and grue? Surely even the genre’s most sophisticated examples cannot honestly be considered life lessons. Or then again, can they? Read the rest of this entry
What’s this? A discussion of current horror cinema that contrasts H. P. Lovecraft’s worldview of cosmic horror, pessimism, and despair with Arthur Machen’s worldview of redemptive sacred terror? And it’s published by — wait for it — Christianity Today magazine? The stars, it seems, are aligning.
One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two [authors] results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.
… Modern horror films have drunk deep from Lovecraft’s well, repeatedly depicting a dreary cycle of trying to escape the despair … Lovecraft, [Joss] Whedon [in Cabin in the Woods], and [Ridley] Scott [in Prometheus] fall into a deeper current of attempting to find meaning through horror. Whedon and Scott at least take it to the next level by asking deeper questions about how human beings find hope, but they fail because there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules. A different playbook is needed, one written by Arthur Machen. Most modern horror filmmakers have long forgotten Machen, an under-appreciated legend.
… While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God. Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God — or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.”
Some years ago as I was searching for a way to introduce poetry to the high school writing and literature classes that I was then teaching — not just certain, selected poets and poems but the entire idea and import of poetry itself — I started telling my students that language can have an alchemical power. There is, I told them, a positively magical potency to language, particularly of the poetic sort, since language enables a person to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is especially true of lyric poetry, because this form is specifically meant to capture and express an author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of the poem’s formal content but an actual shared feeling with the author. When this magic works, it actually recreates the poet’s inner state in the reader (or hearer), so that poet and reader vibrate in sympathy, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual mental-emotional experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. The poet, sometimes speaking across centuries or millennia, acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else. And this same phenomenon is active to some degree not just in poetry but in all uses of language.
That, in combination with the reading of several short poems to serve as examples, was how I went about trying to “prime” American teens to understand the nature and significance of poetry. It has often been said that a person teaches best what he or she most wants and needs to know, and in this case that little homily was definitely true, because the issue of language’s magical/alchemical potency was something that I was only then beginning to appropriate consciously after years of grasping it intuitively and even using it in my own writings. And it’s something that has only become of more pressing interest in the years since then.
When we consider the ability of language, particularly in its poetical or otherwise artistically deployed form, to alter, shape, shade, and create states of mind and affect, what we’re really considering is a convergence of art and — for lack of a better word to encompass a vibrantly varied set of studies, experiences, practices, and disciplines — spirituality. We’re also highlighting a key distinction in the way language can affect us in both arenas. This distinction is between the transmission of visions, plural, and the transmission of vision. By the former I mean thoughts, concepts, stories, images — all of the actual content that can be communicated by language. By the latter I refer to the much deeper impact that language can have by working a change not just on what we think or “see” with our mind’s eye but on how we think and see. In art and spirituality, the most profound effects come from the alteration of a person’s basic outlook and worldview, his or her fundamental cognitive, emotional, and perceptual “stance” toward self and world. This is the level at which visions become vision, and an entirely new way not just of seeing but of being opens out from one’s first-personhood.
It’s still August 20 in my time zone as I type these words, so it’s not too late for me to send out this year’s Lovecraftian birthday acknowledgment into the cyber-ether.
Thus: Happy Birthday, Howard, wherever you are or are not. If it’s the former, if you really are somewhere, then I know you’re eternally astounded at this refutation of your atheism and mechanistic materialism. If you’ve truly survived in some meaningful form, then I’ll hope that maybe, just maybe, you’ll achieve an actual, final fulfillment of the epic sense of sehnsucht that led you to see achingly beautiful, ineffable, and unattainable beauties and joys peering through cloudscapes and sunsets and assemblages of sloping roofs.
As for Tom Ligotti, we can regard this same occasion as his un-birthday, since it was in August of 1970, eighty years after the birth of Lovecraft, that Tom at age 17 experienced a horrifying vision of the universe, and of reality itself, that permanently altered his worldview in a direction that was, although he could not know it at the time, proto-Lovecraftian. He was overcome by a direct experience of the universe as a “meaningless and menacing” place in which “human notions of value and meaning, even sense itself, are utterly fictitious.” (The quotes are from one of his many interviews.) It’s difficult to say whether this represents more of a spiritual death or an artistic birth. Or if it’s both, then it’s difficult to say which carries more existential weight and final significance for the overall inner life the man has led. That’s why I think the designation “un-birthday” feels appropriate, especially given the overweening focus on antinatalism that has emerged as the master theme of Tom’s oeuvre in recent years. (See my essay about his and Lovecraft’s literary-spiritual kinship for more details about their respective work.)
In any event, the net result is that each August we can celebrate — although at Tom’s ultimate expense, I fear, since his subjective life has been a grim one — the birth into the world of two towering masters of cosmic horror fiction whose work exercises a truly transformative influence upon its readers. Lovecraft was emotionally and intellectually focused on the horror of “cosmic outsideness,” of vast outer spaces and the mind-shattering powers and principles that may hold sway there, and that may occasionally impinge upon human reality and reveal its pathetic fragility. Tom is focused more upon the horror of deep insideness, of the dark, twisted, transcendent truths and mysteries that reside within consciousness itself and find their outward expression in scenes and situations of warped perceptions and diseased metaphysics. Paired, they represent opposite poles on the same artistic-philosophical-emotional continuum, with Lovecraft’s outer, transcendent, cosmic focus and Ligotti’s inner, immanent, personal focus finding their mutual confirmation and fulfillment in each other.
The world is richer for having both of them.
So have you heard of zombie walks, ladies and gentlemen? I’m talking about those increasingly ubiquitous events where groups of respectable everyday folk get in touch with their inner zombie by dressing up in costumes and makeup as the named monster in its modern mass entertainment incarnation — that is, as reanimated, flesh-eating corpses who shamble, moan, and sometimes shout “Brains!” — and shuffle en masse through public places either for fun or to raise money for a charity.
I had personally heard of these events somewhere — they got their start circa 2000, so there’s a history to them — and stored the memory in the back of my head, but hadn’t thought much about them until a friend and fellow zombie enthusiast (Paul Salvaggio of Backbone Media) sent me a link to the following video of a recent zombie walk in Moncton, Canada, that raised money for the local SPCA:
I watched in awe as a group — horde? — of not just adults but young children stumbled down the city streets in full zombie regalia, complete with blood stains on their mouths and clothing. And my thoughts rapidly ramped up to warp speed. In no particular order:
- Parents are having their children do this? They’re dressing up little Johnny and Jenny as flesh-eating, blood-spattered ghouls that have risen from the grave to shuffle around in search of human flesh to eat? Glory be! Lawdy! Holy crap! Or some other appropriate exclamation. The societal, familial, and general cultural implications are staggering.
- The transformation of everyday life in contemporary first-world countries by the all-pervasiveness of mass entertainment has never been more blatant in a slap-you-upside-the-head sort of way. The idea of zombies as these cannibalistic flesh-eating machines was invented by George Romero in 1968. He launched it with Night of the Living Dead, thereby eclipsing the former and more historically derived image of the zombie as a sad worker drone controlled by rich and evil plantation owners. A drive-in horror movie — one with profound value and meaning beyond such a schlocky pedigree, to be sure — so revolutionized mass culture over a mere four decades via its various tangents of influence that it gave rise to a mass imitative behavioral phenomenon. It caused, or was part of, a mass stirring in the collective subconscious that mysteriously gave rise to an inexplicable but undeniable motivation to do what these zombie walkers are doing. Ye gods.
- Romero’s zombie movies were full of social and cultural criticism. Dawn, for instance, was and is an explicit satire on the American-style uber-consumerism that was newly minted when Romero wrote and directed the movie in the 1970s. The zombies in that film congregated at a shopping mall because that place “was important to them” in life. In their sad afterlives they wandered forlornly around that consumerist paradise in a kind of Dante-esque scenario of ironic punishment, stuck in a limbo where they could vaguely remember their past pleasures but were barred from enjoying them. Now, in today’s zombie walks, people are gleefully identifying with this monster. You can tell they’re Romero’s zombies, at least in the Moncton zombie walk, because they shuffle and moan like his zombies do, instead of running and snarling like the swift, feral zombies in 2004′s Dawn remake, or 1985′s Return of the Living Dead, or 2002′s 28 Days Later, or 2009′s Zombieland.
- The zombie walkers are partaking of a generalized zombie mythos, as evidenced by the fact that even though they’re Romero-esque zombies, they sometimes shout “Brains!” — an act that comes directly from the alternate zombie universe of the Return of the Living Dead franchise. And thanks to the pervasive mass entertainment culture, they can count on the fact that many or most observers will know exactly what they’re getting at.
- The zombie walkers are perhaps engaging in an awesomely delicious display of existential self-parody. America’s national capitulation to consumer capitalism as its guiding ethos, and its exporting of this ethos to the rest of the globe, has confirmed and fulfilled the worst cultural and societal fears expressed in Romero’s zombie movies. Dressing up to play zombie in our fully zombified economic, political, and social order is akin to letting the cat out of the bag. It’s like being the kid in the story who shouts that the emperor is wearing no clothes — except the kid doesn’t notice that he’s naked himself. These people are gaily identifying with the symbol of our national spiritual demise, and the tenor of the times just makes it natural, what with the zombie meme having gone not just viral but universal.
- On a slightly different note, in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, published just this month, Thomas Ligotti discusses the idea that human beings are self-conscious nothings, avatars of a blind and rapacious force that governs reality and, in the case of our unfortunate species, has produced organisms that are endowed with self-awareness, thus placing us in a horrific existential plight because we’re conscious of our situation in a way that no other organism is. If the modern-day zombie, as theorized by Richard Liberty’s “Frankenstein” character in 1985′s Day of the Dead, is nothing but a human being operating at its most primal level, with all of the higher faculties deadened and nothing but blind appetite remaining operational, then being one of these things might not be so bad after all, since zombie-hood is by definition life without self-consciousness, continued existence without the burden of selfhood. A zombie is a former self-conscious nothing that’s now just a nothing, but it’s still animate. Bliss, perhaps?
I doubt any of the zombie walkers are thinking about these things. But then, they don’t have to, because they’re too busy having fun in the grip of that astonishing uprush from the basement of the collective mind.
Photos courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeleroyer/
My readers know it’s no secret that I’m compulsively fascinated by the work of literary horror master Thomas Ligotti. As I’ve explained here in the past, I’m also compulsively fascinated by horrorific musical icon and now horror cinema auteur Rob Zombie, for reasons that are more obscure to me. The two fascinations would seem to have little in common, other than the almost accidental crossover value of their both being centered on practitioners in the horror genre. Ligotti’s ultra-luscious prose and uber-philosophical approach to the writing of literary horror fiction is, on its surface, light years from the ultra-grunge and uber-gore of Zombie’s musical and cinematic universe.
And yet I’ve long suspected that maybe there is indeed more than just an accidental connection between these dual interests. Sometimes Ligotti’s stories deliberately invoke a sense of stylistic and spiritual grunge that resonates with typical Zombian themes, and sometimes Zombie appears to aspire to, and occasionally attain, something more profound than, or maybe more profound within, the delirious creepshow carnival he creates with his sounds and pictures.
So when I stumbled across a highly literate and balanced review of Zombie’s almost universally reviled Halloween II, in which the author makes a compelling case for the idea that Zombie, despite some serious weaknesses in execution, really does possess a dose of real filmmaking talent and really is pursuing his own distinctive filmmaking aesthetic, and then found the author drawing an extended comparison to Ligotti’s work — well, color me interested.
The review is titled “You, the Horror: Halloween II (2009).” The author is Jaime N. Christley. The Website is The House Next Door. The relevant excerpt is as follows:
Like the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who put the image of “gas station carnivals” into our minds, Zombie’s rot and degradation feels continuously, stubbornly vital—if “alive” isn’t quite the word we’re looking for here. Ligotti, a Michigan-born writer unknown even to most fans of horror fiction, doesn’t share much with Zombie in terms of agenda or style. His protagonists, luckless as they often are, are frequently the dregs of urban and/or academic spheres, educated but wearing second-hand coats, obsessing over myths or disreputable objects. (He would not feel at home valorizing a redneck band of outlaw cannibals.) The back-alley pharmacist’s assistant in “The Clown Puppet” cannot get over himself and his unique lot in an incessantly phantasmagorical life even when he intuits correctly that he’s just a bystander in someone else’s nightmare. Yet, connecting strands abound.
Zombie’s version of Loomis shares with Ligotti’s author character, Alice (“Alice’s Last Adventure”), a deep sense of entitled, bourgeois discontent, as they are both impatient with the scaffolding required to keep the gears of their financial liquidity in motion, drawn perhaps not unwillingly back into the abyss to which they truly owe the debt of their success. Most horror writers and aficionados are familiar with the concept that fear isn’t fear, and horror isn’t horror, unless the attraction is as strong as the repulsion. In terms of setting, physical and spiritual, the careworn shop at which Laurie Strode is employed is precisely the kind of “not quite a coffee shop, not quite a vintage bookstore” setting we might expect to find in Ligotti’s “Teatro Grottesco,” “Gas Station Carnivals,” or “The Bungalow House.” And there’s the small matter of her nightmares pursuing her into daytime.
Zombie’s elevation of the Myers killer into the supernatural is prime Ligotti. The vehicle of Laurie Myers-Strode’s fate appears in one Ligotti story after another, as device, conclusion, casual offing, or theme: not merely to be haunted by familial blood but to be subsumed utterly by it.
I urge fans of literate film criticism to click through and read the review in its entirety, because it really does an excellent and elegant job of finding the gold within Zombie’s grime. It was only three months ago that I finally watched the first of Zombie’s Halloween movies, and after the long buildup of negative reviews and anecdotes from disappointed viewers, I was quite pleasantly surprised with the thing. It was flawed, yes, with the first half being manifestly better than the second, during which Scout Taylor-Compton’s staggeringly annoying performance as Laurie proved an almost insurmountable obstacle to enjoying whatever charms the film had to offer. But overall the movie was dark and disturbing and extremely effective at inducing cringes (the right kind) and holding my attention. Now Christley’s review leads me to think there’s more of the same in store in the sequel. It also launches my thoughts in some interesting directions that spin out equally into Ligottian and Zombian territories.
Many thanks to Christley for the intellectual and affective stimulation. Now I just need to rent a copy of Halloween II.
[NOTE: For another post about Nietzsche and horror, see "Nietzsche: Loving existence even though it's horrifying and absurd."]
Every lover of books can narrate a personal history of his or her encounters with books and authors whose influence proved to be life-changing. For me, the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those authors. His influence interfaces with the whole nexus of passions and interests that defines my life as a reader, writer, scholar, and generalized devotee of philosophical-spiritual darkness and dark philosophies and spiritualities.
My acquaintance with Nietzsche began, appropriately enough, with his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. I was first introduced to it in the spring of 1989 during the second semester of my freshman year of college, and today I credit this fortuitous happenstance in part with inflaming those emotional and conceptual nodes within me that would later respond so powerfully to the work of modern-day literary horror maestro Thomas Ligotti. The Birth of Tragedy is one of those books that reveals a greater depth each time you revisit it, an effect that is due both to the author’s awesomely comprehensive knowledge of the philosophical and artistic currents that flowed into his contemporary 19th century European culture and to his profoundly deep combination of insight mingled with inflamed emotional passion.
You can always sense when an author has latched onto a golden thread of flaming inspiration and is following it in half-agonized, half-exhilarated fashion to its shining conclusion. The Birth of Tragedy veritably glows with this kind of heat, and its warmth is only gradually unlocked and received by philistines like myself whose intellectual and readerly capabilities are runtish compared to the standard elevated level obtained by most literate people in Nietzsche’s day. I’ve found that as the scope of my knowledge of literary and intellectual history grows by slow osmosis, there’s always more to be gleaned from, and more significance to be found in, The Birth of Tragedy (as is the case with any truly great book).
That heat in Nietzsche’s book happened to coincide with my own personal orientation when I was first introduced to it, and this effect only increased when I returned to the book in the first three and four years after I graduated from college and found my appreciation and understanding of it greatly enhanced by the fact of further living and reading. Every fan of Ligotti’s work is familiar with his cosmic disgust at the spectacle of a disgusting cosmos which deserves to have a Special Plan wreaked upon it. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche touches more than once upon a theme and an emotional trope that twines around the Ligottian sense of cosmic and ontological horror like a snake around a staff. This horror and, importantly, its attendant world-weariness were already weighing heavily upon my tender post-university self, and Nietzsche’s book spoke to such things and articulated them with exquisite feeling and clarity.
The single passage that always leaps to mind when I think of the book is the following one, which appears in the first third of the text and stands as a kind of culmination of an idea Nietzsche has been pursuing up until then. When I read and reread it during the early 1990s, it spoke so powerfully to my inward turning at the time that I found myself falling into complete inertia at the galling weight of existence itself and my consciousness of it, and the painful, disillusioning recognition of redemptive art’s ultimate emptiness (the latter effect standing in rather ironic contrast to Nietzsche’s intention). In other words, Nietzsche’s very articulation of that state of soul and spirit was enough to evoke it within me, and to lead me to attempt my own fictional evocations of similar states in, for example, my short story “Teeth” (published in 2002 in the Del Rey horror anthology The Children of Cthulhu). Nowadays when I reread the same passage, I can’t help flashing on Tom ligotti’s statement of first principles in, for example, his exquisite short story “The Bungalow House,” which inspires similar transports of icy bleakness and a perceived inability to tolerate life itself. Nietzsche is one of the few authors I’ve found who truly feels like a personal possession to me, as if he’s speaking directly to my soul. As with Tom’s effect upon readers, I think that’s a chief reason why Nietzsche has been the object of such passionate devotion by his fans.
Here’s the passage, which I offer with all appropriate warnings about its potency for inducing hopeless and despairing states of mind and spirit:
The ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its destruction of the customary manacles and boundaries of existence, contains, of course, for as long as it lasts a lethargic element, in which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. Because of this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the world of Dionysian reality separate from each other. But as soon as that daily reality comes back again into consciousness, one feels it as something disgusting. The fruit of that state is an ascetic condition, in which one denies the power of the will. In this sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet: both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that they are expected to set right a world which is out of joint. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion — that is what Hamlet has to teach us, not that really venal wisdom about John-a- Dreams, who cannot move himself to act because of too much reflection, because of an excess of possibilities, so to speak. It’s not a case of reflection. No! — the true knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes every driving motive to act, both in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man. Now no consolation has any effect any more. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, toward death. Existence is denied, together with its blazing reflection in the gods or in an immortal afterlife. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, the man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being; now he understands the symbolism in the fate of Ophelia; now he recognizes the wisdom of the forest god Silenus. It disgusts him.
Here, when the will is in the highest danger, art approaches, as a saving, healing magician. Art alone can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs which permit living to continue.
It’s no news to my readers — whether they know me from The Teeming Brain, my literary critical work, my published stories, or some combination thereof — that I’m a huge fan of contemporary horror writer Thomas Ligotti, whom I honestly consider to be one of the greatest living writers in the English language (an opinion in which I am not alone).
That’s why it’s gratifying to have been included in a recent series of interviews that’s being conducted at Thomas Ligotti Online by a fine fellow named Jimmy de Witt. I was one of the original members of the community that sprang up around TLO when it was first launched in 1998. The site has since become a largely member-driven enterprise that has attracted quite a literate and intelligent crowd — owing, of course, to the demographic that Tom’s work appeals to. A few weeks ago Jimmy conceived the interesting idea of conducting interviews with prominent site members. One of his invitations came to yours truly.
So here’s the result, published just a few days ago: INTERVIEW WITH MATT CARDIN
Topics include my experience of Tom’s work (of course); thoughts on horror fiction, film, and television; philosophy and religion; my work as a horror writer, musician, and composer; and more.
It’s an interesting “full circle” type situation, isn’t it? I have written extensively about Tom and his work. I interviewed him in 2006. Now I have been interviewed myself — at his Website.
Recently I was involved in a group conversation about religion that ended up centering on the issue of the “pick and choose” approach, in which a person explicitly chooses which tenets, doctrines, etc., to adopt and which to reject among a given religion or group of them. A number of participants criticized this approach on the grounds that it represents human hubris, that it is “man’s attempt to play God” and all that, and advocated by contrast the approach of surrendering one’s autonomy to an authority higher than oneself, such as the Bible (conceived as inerrant and supernaturally authoritative), or Jesus, or God.
Now, I myself am certainly no dogmatic supporter of the modern-day cafeteria-style approach to religion, although I have fiercely cherished my own personal freedom in this domain. There really is something vitally important in the recognition of a force or truth or principle or reality that transcends, dwarfs, and encompasses your personal, individual selfhood, however you may conceive that ultimate whatever-it-is.
And yet . . . and yet . . . I grew up with the evangelical Christian version of the “surrender your self and your autonomy” message being proclaimed all around me, and I still hear it being proclaimed today by a great many Christians of various stripes (and also by adherents of other faith traditions). And I can’t help taking serious exception to it, or at least to the version that’s almost always put forth.
Because in point of fact, nobody can actually achieve the epistemological-metaphysical feat advocated by the surrender-yourself camp. Nobody can really submit ultimately to a supposed ultimate authority, because the very recognition of such an authority is an a priori impossibility based on the brute fact of human self-consciousness and the human epistemological position.
This objection, not incidentally, goes much deeper than the positions expressed by the participants in the conversation that originally got me to thinking about all this. It goes deeper than the assertion that it’s right or wrong to pick and choose cafeteria-style between various religious texts, beliefs, doctrines, worldviews, etc.; deeper than the standard argument that develops when one side claims to choose from various possibilities and the other claims to forego this in favor of surrendering to an external authority.
The depth of what I’m talking about is expressed with exquisite clarity, and in terms that are universally applicable, by Richard Tarnas in his masterful intellectual history, The Passion of the Western Mind. In the section of his book devoted to explaining the post-modern viewpoint, Tarnas writes, “The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions of the ultimate nature of reality . . . . Evidence can be adduced and interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of worldviews . . . . Because the human understanding is not unequivocally compelled by the evidence to adopt one metaphysical position over another, an irreducible element of human choice supervenes.”
An irreducible element of human choice. Aye, there’s the rub, and also the hub. Applying Tarnas’s statement — whose fundamental truth is self-evident — it’s obvious that the very decision to surrender one’s authority in matters of ultimate belief is actually an act of assertion and interpretation. Because to claim that you’re surrendering to a metaphysical or moral authority outside of yourself is merely to say that you are choosing, under your own sole sovereignty, to elevate that belief, doctrine, church, ideology, principle — whatever it may be — to the normative status of your highest ruling principle. The belief-doctrine-worldview-etc. doesn’t come with such authority pre-stamped, as it were, onto its invisible ideological visage, which you have somehow mystically managed to recognize, and which many millions of people who believe otherwise have somehow managed to miss.
In point of fact, the act of surrendering to religious authority — say, for example, by espousing a belief in the supernatural inspiration and absolute inerrancy of the Protestant Bible, or at least the original autograph manuscripts (which are conveniently lost to history [!]) — is just another case of the same ideological sleight-of-hand that has always been involved throughout history in the political arena in the “divine right of kings” shtick. It’s blatantly obvious to pretty much all of us that such a maneuver was and is a mere gimmick by which entire populations have invested certain people and social structures with authority over them, but have then chosen to believe that the authority is simply “natural” and “God-given.” But amazingly, the same principle at work in contemporary religion somehow slips under the radar of a great many moderns. Who knows, maybe an unconscious recognition of it accounts for the fact that a goodly part of the modern post-1970s evangelical explosion has been devoted to perpetuating outmoded monarchical images and stereotypes for describing the deity.
This is seen especially in contemporary evangelical music with its fetishizing of the kingly image of Jesus. Consider the titles of many popular praise choruses: “All Hail, King Jesus,” “Worship His Majesty,” “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” and so on. I think this phenomenon is due to more than just the simple fact that such titles inarguably represent valid New Testament-type language (although it’s significant that in the four canonical gospels Jesus frequently and vociferously refuses kingly labels). It’s likely that the monarchical thrust of so much modern evangelicalism comes from the sense of dislocation and the loss of the “sacred canopy” (as sociologist Peter Berger famously called it) of shared cultural religious meaning that has so afflicted the modern world at least since the 19th century, when Nietzsche correctly pinpointed nihilism as the spiritual virus that would come to define the 20th century. Today’s evangelicals fight that sense of dislocation and meaninglessness by simply trying to assert divine authority, according to their own interpretation of the matter, back into existence. And you can witness this very thing at work not only in their music but in the mountains of theological and apologetic writing they have produced, and continue to produce, in defense of the indefensible.
(At this point I’m ineluctably led to quote Tom Ligotti, from his wonderful, brilliant short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done, from the portion where the narrator lays out the three-point view of reality and the “grand scheme of things” that has come to define his outlook:
A: There is no grand scheme of things.
B. If there were a grand scheme of things, the fact — the fact – that we are not equipped to perceive it, either by natural or supernatural means, is a nightmarish obscenity.
C: The very notion of a grand scheme of things is a nightmarish obscenity.
It was this passage, with its arch-Ligottian twist on an idea that’s more familiar from post-modern philosophy, existentialism, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and elsewhere, that I turned to when I was searching for an appropriate title for my currently unpublished private journal, There Is No Grand Scheme. And for a detailed explication of my interpretation of the quote itself, you can check out a post I made to Thomas Ligotti Online early last year.)
(I suppose my attitude is also related to the classic statement about religious authority that is an oft-quoted part of the Buddhist scriptures, and that is supposed to have come from the mouth of the historical Siddhartha Gautama [i.e., the Buddha] himself:
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense . . . . Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in many places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”
This has always resonated strongly with me, which probably explains, or at least illuminates, my antagonistic feelings toward the more authoritarian religious traditions.)
So that, in a very large nutshell, is my problem with the surrender-yourself attitude. But as I said at the beginning of this screed, I also accept that the recognition of a transcendent reality that encompasses and supersedes one’s individual selfhood is quite valuable. So how do I reconcile these attitudes?
In part, or maybe in whole, I do so in quasi-Zen terms, in the language and from the viewpoint of nondualism as articulated, for example, by Douglas Harding in his philosophy of headlessness, which seeks to awaken people to the paradox of their simultaneous first-person and third-person modes of existence, the former of which is the center and essence of conscious personal identity (and from which viewpoint one manifestly, in actual present experience, does not exist, but is instead a spacious absence). This recognition and/or approach runs all through the mystical literature of the world, finding exquisite expression in the West in, for example, the many writings of Meister Eckhart and Plotinus, and more recently in the writings of Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber, and others. It’s how I’m literally forced to understand things now, based on my own personal experiences, insights, and understandings. But of course that’s the type of statement that would lead a surrender-yourself evangelical or fundamentalist to criticize me for relying on my own judgment. As if I have any other choice.
In a related but distinct vein, I also reconcile these aspects of my understanding by making recourse to the daimonic theory of personal selfhood and ultimate identity. But that opens up another can of daimons altogether.