"There is a signature motif discernible in both works of philosophical pessimism and supernatural horror. It may be stated thus: Behind the scenes of life lurks something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world."
His fiction is known to be some of the most terrifying in the genre of supernatural horror, but Thomas Ligotti's first nonfiction book may be even scarier. Drawing on philosophy, literature, neuroscience, and other fields of study, Ligotti takes the penetrating lens of his imagination and turns it on his audience, causing them to grapple with the brutal reality that they are living a meaningless nightmare, and anyone who feels otherwise is simply acting out an optimistic fallacy. At once a guidebook to pessimistic thought and a relentless critique of humanity's employment of self-deception to cope with the pervasive suffering of their existence, The Conspiracy against the Human Race may just convince readers that there is more than a measure of truth in the despairing yet unexpectedly liberating negativity that is widely considered a hallmark of Ligotti's work.
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The Nightmare of Being
For ages they had been without lives of their own. The whole of their being was open to the world and nothing divided them from the rest of creation. How long they had thus flourished none of them knew. Then something began to change. It happened over unremembered generations. The signs of a revision without forewarning were being writ ever more deeply into them. As their species moved forward, they began crossing boundaries whose very existence they never imagined. After nightfall, they looked up at a sky filled with stars and felt themselves small and fragile in the vastness. Soon they began to see everything in a way they never had in older times. When they found one of their own lying still and stiff, they now stood around the body as if there were something they should do that they had never done before. It was then they began to take bodies that were still and stiff to distant places so they could not find their way back to them. But even after they had done this, some within their group did see those bodies again, often standing silent in the moonlight or loitering sad-faced just beyond the glow of a fire. Everything changed once they had lives of their own and knew they had lives of their own. It even became impossible for them to believe things had ever been any other way. They were masters of their movements now, as it seemed, and never had there been anything like them. The epoch had passed when the whole of their being was open to the world and nothing divided them from the rest of creation. Something had happened. They did not know what it was, but they did know it as that which should not be. And something needed to be done if they were to flourish as they once had, if the very ground beneath their feet were not to fall out from under them. For ages they had been without lives of their own. Now that they had such lives there was no turning back. The whole of their being was closed to the world, and they had been divided from the rest of creation. Nothing could be done about that, having as they did lives of their own. But something would have to be done if they were to live with that which should not be. And over time they discovered what could be done-what would have to be done-so that they could live the lives that were now theirs to live. This would not revive among them the way things had once been done in older times; it would only be the best they could do.
For thousands of years a debate has been going on in the shadowy background of human affairs. The issue to be resolved: "What should we say about being alive?" Overwhelmingly, people have said, "Being alive is all right." More thoughtful persons have added, "Especially when you consider the alternative," disclosing a jocularity as puzzling as it is macabre, since the alternative is here implied to be both disagreeable and, upon consideration, capable of making being alive seem more agreeable than it alternatively would, as if the alternative were only a possibility that may or may not come to pass, like getting the flu, rather than a looming inevitability. And yet this covertly portentous remark is perfectly well tolerated by anyone who says that being alive is all right. These individuals stand on one side of the debate. On the other side is an imperceptible minority of disputants. Their response to the question of what we should say about being alive will be neither positive nor equivocal. They may even fulminate about how objectionable it is to be alive, or spout off that to be alive is to inhabit a nightmare without hope of awakening to a natural world, to have our bodies embedded neck-deep in a quagmire of dread, to live as shut-ins in a house of horrors from which nobody gets out alive, and so on. Now, there are really no incisive answers as to why anyone thinks or feels one way and not another. The most we can say is that the first group of people is composed of optimists, though they may not think of themselves as such, while the contending group, that imperceptible minority, is composed of pessimists. The latter know who they are. But which group is in the right-the existentially harrowed pessimists or the life-embracing optimists-will never be resolved.
If the most contemplative individuals are sometimes dubious about the value of existence, they do not often publicize their doubts but align themselves with the optimist in the street, tacitly declaiming, in more erudite terms, "Being alive is all right." The butcher, the baker, and the crushing majority of philosophers all agree on one thing: Human life is a good thing, and we should keep our species going for as long as we can. To tout the rival side of the issue is asking for grief. But some people seem born to bellyache that being alive is not all right. Should they vent this posture in philosophical or literary works, they may do so without anxiety that their efforts will have an excess of admirers. Notable among such efforts is "The Last Messiah" (1933), an essay written by the Norwegian philosopher and man of letters Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990). In this work, which to date has been twice translated into English, Zapffe elucidated why he saw human existence as a tragedy.
Before discussing ZapffeÕs elucidation of human existence as a tragedy, however, it may be useful to muse upon a few facts whose relevance will become manifest down the line. As some may know, there exist readers who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence, hyperbolically speaking. Contrary by temperament, these persons are sorely aware that nothing indispensable to their existence, hyperbolically or literally speaking, must make its way into their lives, as if by natural birthright. They do not think anything indispensable to anyoneÕs existence may be claimed as a natural birthright, since the birthrights we toss about are all lies fabricated to a purpose, as any student of humanity can verify. For those who have given thought to this matter, the only rights we may exercise are these: to seek the survival of our individual bodies, to create more bodies like our own, and to perish from corruption or mortal trauma. Of course, possession of these rights presumes that one has been brought to term and made it to the age of being reproductively ready, neither being a natural birthright. Stringently considered, then, our only natural birthright is a right to die. No other right has ever been allocated to anyone except as a fabrication, whether in modern times or days past. The divine right of kings may now be acknowledged as a fabrication, a falsified permit for prideful dementia and impulsive mayhem. The inalienable rights of certain people, on the other hand, seemingly remain current: somehow we believe they are not fabrications because hallowed documents declare they are real. Miserly or munificent as a given right may appear, it denotes no more than the right of way warranted by a traffic light, which does not mean you have the right to drive free of vehicular misadventures. Ask any paramedic as your dead body is taken away to the nearest hospital.
Our want of any natural birthright-except to die, in most cases without assistance-is not a matter of tragedy, but only one of truth. Coming at last to the pith of Zapffe's thought as it is contained in "The Last Messiah," what the Norwegian philosopher saw as the tragedy of human existence had its beginnings when at some stage in our evolution we acquired "a damning surplus of consciousness." (Indulgence is begged in advance for the present work's profuse entreaties for assent, or at least suspension of disbelief, in this matter.) Naturally, it must be owned that there are quarrels among cognitive psychologists, philosophers of mind, and neuroscientists about what consciousness is. The fact that this question has been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and early Buddhists suggests there is an assumption of consciousness in the human species and that consciousness has had an effect on the way we exist. For Zapffe, the effect was
A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily-by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being. Its weapon was like a sword without hilt or plate, a two-edged blade cleaving everything; but he who is to wield it must grasp the blade and turn one edge toward himself.
Despite his new eyes, man was still rooted in matter, his soul spun into it and subordinated to its blind laws. And yet he could see matter as a stranger, compare himself to all phenomena, see through and locate his vital processes. He comes to nature as an unbidden guest, in vain extending his arms to beg conciliation with his maker: Nature answers no more; it performed a miracle with man, but later did not know him. He has lost his right of residence in the universe, has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and been expelled from Paradise. He is mighty in the near world, but curses his might as purchased with his harmony of soul, his innocence, his inner peace in life's embrace.
Could there be anything to this pessimistic verbiage, this tirade against the evolution of consciousness? Millennia had passed without much discussion one way or the other on the subject, at least in polite society, and then suddenly comes this barrage from an obscure Norwegian philosopher. What is one to say? For contrast, here are some excerpts from an online interview with the eminent British multidisciplinary thinker Nicholas Humphrey ("A Self Worth Having: A Talk with Nicolas Humphrey," 2003):
Consciousness-phenomenal experience-seems in many ways too good to be true. The way we experience the world seems unnecessarily beautiful, unnecessarily rich and strange. . . .
Phenomenal experience, surely, can and does provide the basis for creating a self worth having. And just see what becomes possible-even natural-once this new self is in place! As subjects of something so mysterious and strange, we humans gain new confidence and interest in our own survival, a new interest in other people too. We begin to be interested in the future, in immortality, and in all sorts of issues to do with . . . how far consciousness extends around us. . . .
[T]he more I try to make sense of it, the more I come back to the fact that we've evolved to regard consciousness as a wonderfully good thing in its own right-which could just be because consciousness is a wonderfully good thing in its own right!
Could there be anything to this optimistic verbiage in which consciousness is not a "breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature" but something that is "unnecessarily beautiful, unnecessarily rich and strange" and "a wonderfully good thing in its own right," something that makes human existence an unbelievably desirable adventure? Think about it-a British thinker thinks so well of the evolution of consciousness that he cannot contain his gratitude for this turn of events. What is one to say? Both Humphrey and Zapffe are equally passionate about what they have to say, which is not to say that they have said anything credible. Whether you think consciousness to be a benefit or a horror, this is only what you think-and nothing else. But even though you cannot demonstrate the truth of what you think, you can at least put it on show and see what the audience thinks.
Over the centuries, assorted theories about the nature and workings of consciousness have been put forth. The theory Zapffe implicitly accepted is this: Consciousness is connected to the human brain in a way that makes the world appear to us as it appears and makes us appear to ourselves as we appear-that is, as "selves" or as "persons" strung together by memories, sensations, emotions, and so on. This view of a materialistic basis of consciousness with an evolutionary origin may be right or wrong. No one knows exactly what consciousness is, or even if it is, all speculation on the matter being debatable to the point of chaos. Nevertheless, most thinkers in this area agree that consciousness is a fact in some way.
Accepting consciousness as a given for a sufficiently evolved brain, Zapffe moved on from there, since he was not interested in the debates surrounding this phenomenon as such but only in the way it quite apparently functions to determine the nature of our species. This was enough for his purposes, which were wholly existential and careless of seeking the technical verities of consciousness. How consciousness "happened," since it was not always present in our species, remains as much a mystery in our time as it was in Zapffe's, just as what was going on, if anything was going on, before the universe came into being remains a mystery. The same applies to the origins of living forms, however such things may be defined. First there was no life, and then there was life-nature, as it came to be called. As nature proliferated into more complex and various shapes, human organisms eventually entered the world as part of this process. After a time, consciousness happened for these organisms (along with others at much lower amplitudes). And it kept on gaining steam as we evolved. On this nearly all theorists of consciousness agree. Billions of years after earth made a jump from being lifeless to having life, human beings made a jump from not being conscious, or very much conscious, to being conscious enough to esteem or condemn this phenomenon. No one knows either how the jump was made or how long it took, although there are theories about both, as there are theories about all mutations from one state to another.
"The mutations must be considered blind," Zapffe wrote. "They work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment." As mentioned, how the mutation of consciousness originated was of no concern to Zapffe, who focused entirely on demonstrating the tragic effect of this aptitude. Such projects are typical among pessimistic philosophers. Non-pessimistic philosophers either have an impartial attitude about consciousness or, like Nicholas Humphrey, think of it as a marvelous endowment. When non-pessimistic philosophers even notice the pessimist's attitude, they reject it. With the world on their side in the conviction that being alive is all right, non-pessimists are not disposed to musing that human existence is a wholesale tragedy. They only argue the fine points of whatever it is about human existence that grabs their attention, which may include the tragic but not so much that they lose their commitment to the proposition that being alive is all right. And they can do this until the day they die, which is all right by them.