Thomas Ligotti and Xavier Aldana Reyes (June 2019)
NB. The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies would like to thank Dejan Ognjanovic for facilitating this interview.
Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies (MCGS). Here at the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies we are celebrating the Penguin reissue of your treatise The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Has anything changed or developed in your thinking since its publication nearly a decade ago?
Thomas Ligotti (TL). For my thinking to have changed or developed from that expressed in Conspiracy would be tantamount to a conversion from an enthusiastic atheist to a rabid theist. The odd thing is that would not in any way be inconceivable. It happens all the time, as does the reverse. That human beings can attribute any kind of consistency to what we call our lives or our character is one of the most deranged jokes of all time. In Conspiracy there’s a phrase I repeat a number of times: “a thing of parts.” If it isn’t clear by the end of the book, what I mean by a thing of parts is something that is not whole. That we are whole in our being is one of the most egregious lies of our lives. By the word “whole” I intend the usual meaning of integrated, consistent, and unchanging—something that is real at its core by virtue of its unity of nature and not something that has no more than the appearance of reality. It’s a commonplace that we change throughout our lives, and a pessimist who becomes a devout worshiper of some deity would be nothing special. This is because we are merely things of parts, pieces of a puzzle. Sometimes there are missing pieces, or what we consider missing pieces. A person may lack a quality that we mistakenly take for granted when we use the words “human being.” A psychopath or some other thing that we call human lacks remorse, a trait we assume defines our kind, like humour or empathy. Such is the lack of wholeness in psychopaths, the factor that makes them radically different from the person sitting next to them on a train or in an automobile. But nothing of the kind defines us except our lack of wholeness, which is very much a desideratum that some of us seek, at least as an illusion throughout what some of us believe is the narrative of our existence. Really, though, none of us live anything like a narrative, those made up stories that cast some characters as types and others as developing entities. In fiction, writers are praised for convincingly following a character as he or she develops, usually from an unlikeable or defective sort of individual into to one that is welcomed as happily transfigured—for instance a revolting Scrooge who is magically turned into a kind and loving man overnight, a thing of parts that is rearranged to our liking. The opposite of this turning is less frequent in literature, which would be more honestly called the art of approved deception. In addition to being arranged differently from others, we become rearranged in ourselves. One day we are glad to be alive. But once we become ill or suffer some lingering disorder of the mind or emotions, then we aren’t who we once were. At least that’s how we think of such transformations. But the truth is that we were never anything whole to begin with, anything real. The more extensive version of this phenomenon is evolution among organic forms of life. Most people aren’t troubled by the idea of evolving species that mutate physically and cognitively. The greatest part of our race thinks of evolution as marvellous as it is true. However, those who contemplate it intensely may find themselves appalled by this concept. Occasionally we say that humans were once single-celled organisms, which themselves aren’t even whole, being things of atomic parts like anything else. In reality, so to speak, nature didn’t make these units whole. It used parts, then altered them, rearranged them to create others things that no longer resemble what they once were, just as we are rearranged all the time. I must apologize for belabouring this point. Let me end this discourse by confessing that while writing Conspiracy I was in fact rather happily distracted, that is to say, I was euthymic and motivated as I attempted to outline some of the more distressing aspects of our existence, or perhaps I should say my peculiar existence. Since then I have to admit that I’m not as I was then. I have lost something I once valued. Furthermore, I’ve lost the sense of value I once placed on it. Naturally, that may change, maybe for the better, as we like to say, and maybe for the worse. It’s hard to tell what such changes are worth. All we can know is that only in the end will we be rendered from a thing of parts into something that is real in its wholly uniform nothingness.
MCGS. Conspiracy’s antinatalist message is one of its most controversial aspects, if perhaps its most crucial. How do you see your book sitting alongside the work of other antinatalists?
TL. I guess the biggest difference between me and most other antinatalists, to name just one part of me as the whole, is that I’m not moved to this way of thinking by compassion. I don’t know how one can be compassionate toward a counterfactual being, an unborn someone who doesn’t exist. Another thing is that in principle I’m a pro-mortalist rather than an antinatalist. The absence of already existing persons seems as desirable to me as the prevention of entities that don’t exist and can’t be imagined as potentially being alive in any particular way. Pro-mortalism is a more practical position than antinatalism, which is quite impossible to believe will ever come to pass as an aim for our species, or any species that’s driven to reproduce by hook or by crook. Nevertheless, while I deeply feel a pro-mortalist drive, I can’t say it’s the choice I would actually make. It’s more a hypothetical stance I hold in order to assert a principle and how much I would like to be able to act according to that principle if I had the socially sanctioned right to do so in the country where I happen to live. At one time I wasn’t as firm in voicing this principle, and even now I remain somewhat ambivalent concerning this matter. Like nearly everyone who isn’t urged to suicide by intolerable physical or emotional pain, I cannot avoid taking into consideration those whom my voluntary death would damage in some way and to some degree. If there were no such persons, it might be another situation altogether, though probably not. My purpose in articulating the pro-mortal stand is simply to promote the attitude among the general population that it is as at least as devastating to pressure an individual to remain alive, which is effectively the universal practice, as it is devastating to force those “left behind” to suffer our choice, even though I regard free will as a delusion. Of course, a pro-mortalist would be keener on euthanasia than suicide, if suicide is even considered an option for a self-styled pro-mortalist. Euthanasia is far more conceivable as rational than suicide, given that everyone can expect more suffering than content acceptance of their fate down the road from which no one returns. Mitchel Heisman wrote a two-thousand page suicide note, aptly titled Suicide Note, to make a case for rational suicide. While Heisman did blow his brains out soon after sending out his treatise on rational suicide, I find it difficult to believe this was strictly the motive of his voluntary death. To invert an expression invariably proposed against suicide, it really is a permanent solution to a permanent problem—that problem being the high probability of encountering pain and ending horrible than otherwise. Personally, I’ve never seen or been acquainted with anyone who concluded life in any other way. But that’s just my experience, and the one that most justifies to my mind the queer fondness I have for the offer of euthanasia. Also, I’m a coward as well as someone who thinks that life is inherently a disvalue and not terribly precious. Ironically, I can’t help believing that if euthanasia found universal approval within the human community, more of us would decide to live on than select to burn out, except in the most lamentably miserable situations we may face. It’s the latter condition, of course, that most disposes one to suicide because of how it arranges our thought, which does not mean that course of action is by its nature wrongheaded. To my way of thinking, it’s a decision like any other—such as whether to order the trout or salmon for dinner in a restaurant. Also, it might give us extra points for continuing to exist as supporting members of society. I suggest that those who choose to live in a state of ill-being at least receive a consequential tax break.
MCGS. Another key, and related issue, to stem from your book is ‘ecocide’, presented as a thought experiment. What do you see as the value of imagining the end of the human race?
TL. In that section of Conspiracy, it’s not so much the end of the human race that I imagine but the end of nature as our taskmaster, the force that drives us to endure the less than ideal circumstances into which we have been thrown. This is another expression of my personal temper rather than something for which I think one could mount a convincing argument. Like Charles Baudelaire, I have a prejudice for the artificial over the natural. My idea of nature in its most pleasing form is a well-manicured golf course. And I’d much prefer to live in a shopping mall than roughing it in a natural habitat. Between one landscape and another in which to live out one’s life on this earth, I’d don’t think there’s much to choose. Like the judgements and sentiments I’ve so far expressed to your questions, nature seems more hostile than indifferent to our comfort. I know how absurdly anthropomorphic that sounds, but how many of us feel that nature wreaks havoc at purposely inopportune times and in the most defenceless places? And how many hold the mistaken impression that it always rains on their birthday?
MCGS. One of the critiques traditionally levelled at pessimism is its potential apolitical stance. Yet you have been open in interviews about being a socialist. Is apathy a natural endpoint of pessimism?
TL. I really haven’t heard much about pessimists being apolitical. Like any other quality of temper, I think this depends on the person and doesn’t have anything to do with pessimism. While I’m what is called a moral anti-realist, it seems obvious to me that some forms of social circumstances are innately better than others. Much of this has to do with those in power at any given time, but I do hold that a society that leans toward socialism is superior to one that favours capitalism. Of course, much of my feeling is a function of the intensity with which a certain form of socio-political life coheres. Paleo libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and practically every type of conservativism appear conspicuously abhorrent to me, and I can’t understand the mentality of people who adhere to these types of social organization. I think that there should be an added tax on anyone who by pure accident is more talented and industrious than those less gifted and easy-going. That goes double for those who inherit their wealth. It’s not so much that I think socialism is brilliant. For socialism to thrive requires an inordinately high percentage of a given citizenry to be decent of heart and rational of mind. This state of affairs has obviously never been in effect, and how it might come to be is impossible to imagine for those realistic of mind. The concept of “the tragedy of the commons” seems entirely sound to me, and it negates the ultimate success of socialism. I believe it was Simone de Beauvoir who said that socialism is always the horizon. It’s a beautiful idea and one that can put a hold on the worst abuses of capitalism. But you can’t fully put your faith in it. You can only dream of it. The German philosopher Philip Mainlander was such a dreamer, and one of the most eminent pessimists who ever lived. Schopenhauer on the other hand, who inherited enough money to live comfortably without working at a proper job, was not loving of the downtrodden. His belief in the moral rectitude of the predominantly Eastern philosophy of “Thou art That” didn’t seem to affect his attitude toward resistance to the ruling order. In brief, I don’t think that political apathy is the natural endpoint of any kind of serious or even capricious thought.
MCGS. Many labels have been used to define you and your work (‘nihilist’, ‘pessimist’, ‘misanthropic’). How do you feel towards them, and is there a better one to encapsulate your worldview?
TL. I feel fine about being referred to as a pessimist in a philosophically unsophisticated sense. My pessimism doesn’t have a metaphysical basis like Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Live, which I never understood as a reading of the universe that would necessarily lead one to a grim view of life. To me, it seems closely related to Bergson’s elan vital. At the same time, I’ve used the idea of anima mundi in a few stories to represent the same kind of driving force as the Will-to-Live, with the difference that it’s a personal evil not an indifferent type of energy that makes the world move as it does. Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Live is as difficult to swallow as any other monist explanation for everything. Another concept of this sort is pansychicism, which posits consciousness as a universal, all-pervading phenomenon that is the underlying reality of everything we know or can know, though it’s perceived by only a few individuals who are somehow tuned to its existence, a gift or curse they attained either accidentally—as in the case of U. G. Krishnamurti and Suzanne Segal—or by self-training through meditation, psychoactive drugs, lucid dreaming, and other ways of manipulating one’s brain. Such persons are rewarded with insight into a metaphysical reality that supersedes all others. Even philosophers of mind such as Galen Strawson and David Chalmers have entertained panpsychism as a viable metaphysical explanation of human consciousness, if only because it can resolve what Chalmers calls the so-called “hard problem” of explaining the gap between physical materialism and immaterial consciousness. I couldn’t care less about metaphysical matters that are so monumentally inevident. Then again, most of us would say the same about philosophical pessimism, whose sole contention is that the suffering of sentient beings absolutely negates the value of life. One can only agree or disagree with this philosophy. The foundation of pessimism is not a matter of logic or truth except when it ventures into matters of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, morality, or any of the other areas of interest that philosophers see as their remit and purpose. And most pessimists do venture into these matters, if only to provide an answer to why life is as awful as they judge it to be. But they can never succeed in their task by taking these routes. In fact, very few philosophers achieve a position of authority that is widely recognized as solid or robust in convincing others in their field of study. This is very much the case with nihilists. Their concern is with meaning and values, that is, the absence, endangerment, or disappearance of these components of human life. If suffering were to be eliminated, then meaning and values would not be needed in our lives. Hedonism is enough to keep us going, and the pleasures of this world have been judged sufficient, if only as something to seek. However, as the Romanian-French writer E. M. Cioran wrote, pleasure simply prepares pain. It doesn’t justify it, nor does it give it meaning or value. Should you find yourself suffering badly enough, no meaning or value can help you. But if you’re in a state of physical and emotional well-being, meaning and value are unnecessary outside of providing ideas that consolidate individuals or societies in their self-image, particularly in relation to the self-images of other individuals and societies. Accordingly, we can proceed with what really makes life engaging—conflict, from petty disagreements to maximum carnage. This is also the core interest of all the great works of fiction, aside from what aesthetic interest they may have. Perhaps the only element that overrides our hunger for conflict is our preoccupation with continued individual and collective existence. In the end, this could prove to be as unpromising a project as antinatalism, considering the many ways we’ve invented to end ourselves either on purpose or by accident. Of course, all this is only my opinion of how things are with us. Such an opinion might have led me into misanthropy, but it didn’t. I may have said once or twice that I’d like to unmake or destroy the universe. But I don’t see how that casts me as a misanthrope. It’s just the grandiose aspiration of an ordinary pessimist.
MCGS. On a practical level, is there a gendered angle to pessimism? Which do you think make better pessimists, men or women? Also, can you still be a pessimist if you have already had a child?
TL. Few women have distinguished themselves by publishing works of philosophical pessimism. A notable exception that occurs to me is Every Cradle Is a Grave by Sarah Perry. However, I don’t think one’s gender should necessarily have anything to do with having a pessimistic view of life. With the publication of David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence in 2006, antinatalism became a trend among a small group of thoughtful persons. Many of them are women. And Jim Crawford, the author of Confessions of an Antinatalist, is the father of two children. Given the title of this book, my guess is that he wouldn’t have reproduced if he had embraced pessimism earlier in his life. People do change their minds about some of the greatest issues in life. Integrity isn’t one of the major traits of human beings. We are not whole.
MCGS. Is there anything that weird or supernatural fiction can do that realist fiction cannot?
TL. Like many interview questions, this one is an invitation to pontificate, and I’ll try to answer it without wandering too far into the ludicrous. Any distinction between supernatural fiction in its various sub-types and realist fiction is non-existent except in the trivial sense of differentiating among literary genres and the perceived quality of works belonging to one or the other in terms of aesthetics, intelligence, subject matter, and so on. The question itself is certainly the exclusive concern of readers and critics of supernatural fiction with an inferiority complex regarding the value of writings for which they have an inexplicable sensitivity and appreciation. The more important division is between what we consider the supernatural as opposed to the real. In philosophy, this division can be seen in argumentation between thinkers who, as an instance, defend idealism against materialism. Most broadly, the conflict is between the supernatural and the natural. In an interview with Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer was asked about how much the depictions of fantastic worlds in his fiction reflected his own beliefs. His answer was this: “We don’t know if the universe belongs to a realist genre or a fantastic one.” My interpretation of Borges’ response is not whether the universe is real or fantastic, but whether our consciousness of the universe perceives the universe as real—that is, material and dualistic—or supernatural, meaning fantastic in a probably nondual sense of this term. While my view is that human beings are things of parts like everything else, I also think that consciousness of ourselves gives us a supernatural quality not possessed by anything else. In effect, we are at odds with the natural, and even antagonist toward what we call nature. I don’t think we need argue too vigorously that this is the perception we have had of ourselves throughout most of human history. Only in the mid-twentieth century or so have some of us become wittingly on the side of nature, or at least tried to be, in the guise of caring more about our environment than ourselves. This attitude harkens back to the pagan phase of human life. I don’t know how sincere environmentalists are in their pro-nature agenda, which sometimes takes the form of advocating human extinction for the sake of nature’s survival. There is of course a rational and practical aspect to this viewpoint, but I can’t help feeling that it’s not somehow disingenuous. Let me be clear: I’m not siding with idiots who believe climate change is a hoax. And if you weed out those who are motivated by pure greed to deride climate change, the group that’s left are characterized by their feeling or socially engendered opinion that the supernatural takes precedence over the natural as a fact of our existence. Ultimately, then, I agree with Borges, along with philosophers and meditation gurus who entertain the idea of panpsychism, that we don’t know if the universe belongs to a realist genre or a fantastic one. Even though I previously said that there isn’t an important difference between supernatural and realist fiction, at least within the confines of literature, this conclusion may have answered the question otherwise.
MCGS. More generally, what would you say are the aims of your fiction? Your career goes back to the 1980s, so we wonder if your relationship towards the craft has changed over time.
TL. Among the major schools of literature from Romanticism to the present, I most identify with Expressionism. All of my stories have had their origins in a mood or attitude that I wanted to convey to the reader. When I first began writing, I realized that my subject matter would necessarily derive from my own life. I’ve never been a worldly person. Thus, I never had at my command either much in the way of practical knowledge or a wide range of lived experiences. This has mostly been due to the psychological disorders from which I’ve suffered nearly all my life. More specifically, from the age of seventeen to the present I’ve been subject to clinical mood disorders. I can understand why someone would dismiss everything I’ve written as being nothing more than a symptom of my diagnoses relating to anxiety and depression, thereby making my literary output all but worthless. From my side, I can’t take seriously literary works that haven’t in some distinctive way emerged from what purportedly normal people would call an unhealthy affect. Major and minor works of literature have been produced by authors at both poles or along the continuum of emotional wellness or sickness. To quote from my Conspiracy against the Human Race, “Beauty is in the neurotransmitters of the beholder.” So is everything else. It’s not possible to appreciate what doesn’t jibe with who you are by genetics, nurturing, and everything else that happens throughout your life. In my opinion, it’s tragic that we can’t fully appreciate one another as artists as well as persons. This is simply one of the sorry facts of life. As for my relationship to what I’ve written, I can’t say that this has changed in any way since my earliest attempts as a writer. Certainly my writings haven’t changed in their emotional or intellectual aspects. For instance, the first story I wrote that didn’t find its way to a wastebasket is about an anthropology professor who suffers from depression during the darker months of the year. As an academic project, and as a diversion from his personal darkness around the time of the winter solstice, he travels to a small town to investigate a supernatural cult whose mythos is based on the antinatalist beliefs of the early Christian Gnostics. Naturally, things don’t end well for the professor. Forty years later, antinatalism was a prominent theme in my nonfiction book Conspiracy against the Human Race and a later pro-mortalist story titled “Metaphysica Morum.”
MCGS. If we were to press you for a one story of yours that best defines you as a writer, which one would it be and why?
TL. To this question, I usually say “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” both for its prose style and its plot of a rural locale that harbours a malignantly anti-human force or fundamental that is alien and menacing with respect to human values.
MCGS. We know that you do not engage with contemporary horror a lot, but we still wanted to ask you for your thoughts on the state of the genre today. Have you got any recommendations you would like to pass on? Also, what do you think its future might be?
TL. For a long time I thought there was something inherent in the supernatural genre that resonated with my personal feelings and most private thoughts about existence. This was probably because of the morbid subject matter in which horror stories trafficked. However, after reading widely in this genre, I concluded that I had no special interest in supernatural authors but only in a few who emerged from their ranks such as Poe and Lovecraft. Otherwise, the writers I most admired and studied have had only a tangential relation to literary supernaturalism, though many of them did share the concerns and wrote in the exotic prose styles of my favourites in the supernatural genre. A few outstanding examples of such figures are Vladimir Nabokov, William Burroughs, and Bruno Schulz. I identified with these writers because I perceived them as obsessed with mentally and emotionally unwholesome characters that are estranged from the ordinary social masses and for the most part narrate their own life stories in elaborately oneiric and poetic language. In these writers and many others like them I found the company I wanted to keep as well as the eccentric standards and practices I aspired to emulate in my own work.
© 2019 by Thomas Ligotti