…and while I enjoyed reading it, I can’t really say I was able to take its philosophy all that seriously.
This book is the first nonfiction piece from underground horror icon Thomas Ligotti, published by Viking Press in 2010. This book is meant to highlight the philosophy that lies behind Ligotti’s fiction, and boy, is it ever bleak. I think the man himself summarizes this book’s thesis best in the “Blundering” section of the first essay:
Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees- a blunder of blind nature, according to [Peter Wessel] Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not who we are- contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, essentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion?Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
The titular “conspiracy” Ligotti is talking about is perpetrated by those who believe that “being alive is all right” and that human consciousness is not inherently “MALIGNANTLY USELESS.” Since we are the only beings in this universe (that we know of) that have consciousness, it is only fair to assume that our consciousness was a mistake and that the best way to correct this is to essentially self-terminate. Sure, anyone who wants to can have children, but only as long as the human population keeps on a downward trend.
Seems simple enough, right? Well, apparently not, because Ligotti seems to feel the need to repeat these messages over and over again throughout the book. While the repetition didn’t annoy me as much as it did some other reviewers I read on Amazon and Goodreads, I admit it was kind of off-putting.
As for the actual philosophy, I’m not sure if I’m all that qualified to critique it, as I’m no expert on the subject. I can only offer my own reactions to Ligotti’s philosophy based on my own personal outlook on life- and boy, do they clash!
For example, Ligotti’s claim that consciousness is a uniquely human trait is not actually supported by science. Granted, animals can’t communicate with words, so we can’t be certain of this. However, several animals can recognize themselves in mirrors, including elephants, bottlenose dolphins, magpies, chimpanzees, and possibly even cleaner wrasses.
Ligotti claims that all animals except us are only responsive to the four F’s; fleeing, fighting, feeding, and… mating. Yet elephants have been observed mourning their dead and have been observed to hold grudges. African gray parrots have shown the ability to learn as many as 950 different human words and use them creatively. None of this is to say that any of these animals are capable of contemplating their place in the universe like we are, but it does puncture several holes in Ligotti’s “consciousness as a fluke” narrative.
Also hurting this book is just the sheer overwhelming nature of Ligotti’s cynicism. Yes, I know that Ligotti suffers from anhedonia, which means he literally can’t experience pleasure, but that doesn’t mean his depressive state automatically makes his opinions more mature and realistic; it just makes him look like he’s got a giant stick up his ass.
Maybe I’m biased as well because I consider myself a believer in the afterlife. However, I also tend to believe, as a libertarian socialist, that the reason life seems like an endless train of misery is not because of some inherent flaw in human nature. It’s because capitalism puts the most selfish and irresponsible dregs of humanity in charge of the rest of us and makes life suck for most decent human beings on this planet. Needless to say, I can’t entirely agree with Ligotti’s assessment that “both the inhumane and humane movements of our species are without relevance. None of us are at the helm of either of these movements. We believe ourselves to be the masters of our own behavior- that is the blunder.”
Although apparently, even Thomas Ligotti seems to disagree with this statement. In a 2011 interview with the blog “The Damned Interviews,” he claims to support socialism because he thinks that would be the best way to ensure everyone’s comfort as they wait to die in his anti-natalist utopia. Granted, he clarifies that he thinks too many people in this world are “unadulterated savages” and will never let go of capitalism. But he does seem to hint that he thinks a socialist society is at least possible, which really doesn’t seem to gel with the hard determinist perspective he takes in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
In the end, I think this book is valuable as a way of understanding the kind of mind that could create the Lovecraftian horror stories that Ligotti is so well known for. Pretty much every other review I read online also praised the book’s final essay, which is Ligotti giving a mini-history of horror literature through his own unique perspective. However, his philosophy definitely leaves something to be desired. His arguments that human life is so inherently meaningless that it is not even worth preserving are far too melodramatic to be taken seriously. Indeed, the whole time I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of this speech by online film reviewer Kyle Kallgren, who reviewed the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia as part of his Brows Held High series (specifically calling out Von Trier for romanticizing depression):
Depression is a disease, make no mistake. Von Trier can romanticize it all he wants, but depression is a stasis; it’s a dead end. Succumbing to it is to surrender to death. And he can go on and on about how hollow our culture is and how shallow life is, but what of it? I’m alive. And I can experience the new and share it. Here, now, I’m alive. And what happier thing can be said? And we should all keep creating and sharing. Because, in the words of a better filmmaker [Orson Welles in “F for Fake”]: “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Keep on singing.”Kyle Kallgren, Brows Held High: Melancholia
Ligotti may be comfortable with surrendering to death, but I’m definitely on Kyle’s side here. And I’m giving this book a 5/10 (it’s closer to a six than a four). Also, check out my list of my top ten favorite short stories written by Thomas Ligotti, which is coming out very, very soon. Thank you! Bu-bye!