Books

'The Conspiracy Against the Human Race' Is a Therapuetic Work of Hardcore Literary Pessimism

This reissue of Thomas Ligotti's most frightening work about the ultimate terror, human existence, might be just what you need in these times.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
Thomas Ligotti

Viking

Oct 2018

Other

Horror, for Thomas Ligotti, not only resides in the precisely crafted supernatural tales he's been writing for decades. Horror grows at the very heart of our existence, an existence marked by suffering and, with it, the awareness of death.

If the ruminations of Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle on season 1 of True Detective concerning human consciousness being a tragic mistake made you wince, Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race will challenge you. Perhaps, it's exactly the book for you. Some critics may have thought Cohle sprinkled the hit show with observations reminiscent of a sophomore philosophy major smoking a bowl. In fact, as author Nic Pizzolatto acknowledged in interviews before the series premier of the adaptation of his work, he borrowed his ideas from Ligotti. It's a sign of Ligotti's cult following that True Detective's creator found himself accused of plagiarizing the master.

The enthusiasm of Ligotti's devotees is thoroughly understandable. The often intentionally mysterious and reclusive writer first began to publish his hallucinogenic prose in 1986, during a period particularly unsuited for serious literary horror. Other than the works of Peter Straub and Stephen King, true crime and the unabated re-telling of serial killer tales took up much of the cultural landscape. Ligotti's Songs of the Dead Dreamer (1989) his first book, appeared in a print run of 300 copies; now all highly prized by collectors. When his second collection, Grimscribe appeared in 1991, only the most dedicated aficionados knew of it.

The spread of interest in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, a vital influence on Ligotti, has brought him much deserved attention and a release of many of his best tales in a 2015 Penguin collection. Penguin's release of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race comes as an even more pleasant surprise, if it's possible to use that phrase for such a book. His non-fiction work acts as a Zen master of despair, rapping its readers across the knuckles every time we think we have followed Ligotti down the darkest of hallways, traced his pessimism about human experience as far as we can go.

The book represents the strangest of alchemies. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, we have a horror writer of immense skill, bringing all his gifts to bear in exploring the idea that the self we imagine, the person we believe looks out at the world through our eyes, amounts to nothing more than a series of flickering impressions of a biomechanism radically exposed to a world of suffering.

The result makes reading Schopenhauer feel like recess all day and ice cream for everybody. Much like Ligotti's fiction, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race leaves you not shuddering at what might be under the bed, but asking whether or not it even matters since, as he puts it, "everything in existence is malignantly useless."

Lovers of skeptical, rather bitter, ruminations about the world should be warned. Ligotti's not engaging in a Menken-esque rant about the world as it is. He's suggesting we are puppets who can never understand that world, empty husks moved by evolutionary drives that make even our skepticism an incongruity, a paradox of nature that should not have been.

This is really the top shelf, hard stuff when it comes to the literature of pessimism.

If you're used to the guruism of optimistic thinking, positive thinking's much talked about power, this book may be your cure. Ligotti reminds us that, like Laura Berlant's conception of "cruel optimism", our relentless pursuit of success confuses us with conceptions of unattainable happiness. Unlike, Berlant, however, Ligotti believes this may have more to do with the deepest primal needs of the human species rather than being a particular malady of neo-liberalism. Optimism emerged from the demands of evolutionary biology, a sensibility, he writes, "that grew out of our animal instincts to survive and reproduce."

He not only disassembles the bromides hawked by various religious and secular entrepreneurs who are aware, in his words, that human beings "will trust in anything that authenticates their purpose as persons, tribes, societies, and particularly as a species." Perhaps more frighteningly, he smokes out the false pessimist, the person willing to brood over the horrors of existence and come away proclaiming it a kind of beautiful tragedy. Not even Nietzsche escapes his scalpel. Ligotti argues that the poet of life's cruelty ultimately created a kind of mystical escape hatch for his readers. Nietzsche maintains, Ligotti writes, his "popularity with atheistic amoralists in his materialist mysticism, a sleight of hand that makes the world's meaninglessness into something meaningful."

Readers will find themselves astonished at the extraordinary range of this book. Beginning by resurrecting an obscure Scandinavian philosopher, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Ligotti takes us on a tour of both philosophy and literature that manages to include Schopenhauer, Anne Radcliffe, Thomas De Quincy, H.P. Lovecraft, and Poe. This is no simple ornamental display of learning and range; Ligotti has insights into each of these figures that cut like a razor. He is absolutely unrelenting in his effort to push ideas to their logical conclusions.

But there's an important response to Ligotti's claims. He fails to fully engage with the problem of political, as opposed to personal, nihilism. The great majority of humanity has, Ligotti points out, simply decided that "being alive is all right", despite manifest evidence to the contrary. Our political struggles, this would seem to suggest, are manifestations of our unwillingness to recognize the "malignancy" of life. In this, free market libertarians, neo-conservatives, fascists, and socialists could be said to share a common taste for an eschaton, a way out of the morass.

But I don't buy it. This idea has a rather common sense answer, one perhaps best summed up in one of Orwell's most appealing defenses of socialism, an essay cheekily entitled " Can Socialists be Happy?" No workers paradise, Orwell insisted, would end human suffering or, indeed, human capacity for evil and cruelty. But, it's an act of bad faith to reason from this that a politics that decreases human suffering is not preferable to one that increases it.

Such commitments might well be an example of what Ligotti describes as Peter Wessel Zappfe's concept of "anchoring", the attempt to "stabilize our lives in the tempestuous waters of chaos." Maybe so, but isn't bird watching a preferable sort of anchoring in comparison to fascism? Isn't struggling against fascism even better? (Zappfe is quoted at length, here. His work, "The Last Messiah", can be read in English translation here on Philosophy Now.)

If you're used to the guruism of optimistic thinking, positive thinking's much talked about power, this book may be your cure. Ligotti reminds us that, like Laura Berlant's conception of "cruel optimism", our relentless pursuit of success confuses us with conceptions of unattainable happiness. Unlike, Berlant, however, Ligotti believes this may have more to do with the deepest primal needs of the human species rather than being a particular malady of neo-liberalism. Optimism emerged from the demands of evolutionary biology, a sensibility, he writes, "that grew out of our animal instincts to survive and reproduce."

He not only disassembles the bromides hawked by various religious and secular entrepreneurs who are aware, in his words, that human beings "will trust in anything that authenticates their purpose as persons, tribes, societies, and particularly as a species." Perhaps more frighteningly, he smokes out the false pessimist, the person willing to brood over the horrors of existence and come away proclaiming it a kind of beautiful tragedy. Not even Nietzsche escapes his scalpel. Ligotti argues that the poet of life's cruelty ultimately created a kind of mystical escape hatch for his readers. Nietzsche maintains, Ligotti writes, his "popularity with atheistic amoralists in his materialist mysticism, a sleight of hand that makes the world's meaninglessness into something meaningful."

Readers will find themselves astonished at the extraordinary range of this book. Beginning by resurrecting an obscure Scandinavian philosopher, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Ligotti takes us on a tour of both philosophy and literature that manages to include Schopenhauer, Anne Radcliffe, Thomas De Quincy, H.P. Lovecraft, and Poe. This is no simple ornamental display of learning and range; Ligotti has insights into each of these figures that cut like a razor. He is absolutely unrelenting in his effort to push ideas to their logical conclusions.

But there's an important response to Ligotti's claims. He fails to fully engage with the problem of political, as opposed to personal, nihilism. The great majority of humanity has, Ligotti points out, simply decided that "being alive is all right", despite manifest evidence to the contrary. Our political struggles, this would seem to suggest, are manifestations of our unwillingness to recognize the "malignancy" of life. In this, free market libertarians, neo-conservatives, fascists, and socialists could be said to share a common taste for an eschaton, a way out of the morass.

But I don't buy it. This idea has a rather common sense answer, one perhaps best summed up in one of Orwell's most appealing defenses of socialism, an essay cheekily entitled " Can Socialists be Happy?" No workers paradise, Orwell insisted, would end human suffering or, indeed, human capacity for evil and cruelty. But, it's an act of bad faith to reason from this that a politics that decreases human suffering is not preferable to one that increases it.

Such commitments might well be an example of what Ligotti describes as Peter Wessel Zappfe's concept of "anchoring", the attempt to "stabilize our lives in the tempestuous waters of chaos." Maybe so, but isn't bird watching a preferable sort of anchoring in comparison to fascism? Isn't struggling against fascism even better? (Zappfe is quoted at length, here. His work, "The Last Messiah", can be read in English translation here on Philosophy Now.)

This doesn't mean he's ultimately wrong about his thoroughly depressing conception of what existence means. Indeed, The book should be read, and here some will vociferously disagree, as a kind of self-help book, perhaps an anti-self help book given its theme. If you, like me, have suffered from clinical depression, you may think a work of philosophical pessimism precisely the book you should not read. Isn't the world, and certain chemical combinations in our own brains, fairly constantly telling us we don't matter that much anyway? Given the outcry over simple, empathetic stories like the TV show, 13 Reasons Why, it's hard to imagine what suicide prevention culture would think of Ligotti's black ruminations.

From another perspective, however, it's a wonderfully liberating book. Ligotti leaves the reader with no answers. He's obviously an anti-natalist but doesn't really think that human beings will get around to making this rather rational choice. He doesn't advocate suicide and I refuse to believe that anyone not already ready to take that leap into the dark would do it because they read this dour book. Indeed, it helps prove the author's point if the illusory goodness of life, the smiling mask, can be ripped away by a book, a song, a movie, or a TV series

This may be the best book to hand a person suffering from depression. It certainly was good for me to re-read it after a number of years. We are having an important public discussion about removing the shame and silence surrounding depression and mental health issues more generally. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race deserves some place in this conversation. Depressed? You have reason to be and yet neither you nor your depression matters that much to a cold cosmos. You don't have to smile, you don't have to cheer up. You are not the one pretending. You just find yourself, Ligotti writes, "in an abyss of lucidity."

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