Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race Reviewed

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Several years ago, word first began to circulate about Thomas Ligotti working on a philosophical treatise. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which takes its name from a fictional book by a character in his story "The Shadow, the Darkness," then remained mysteriously out of reach, save for an early draft published at Thomas Ligotti Online. In the meantime, it underwent an unknowable battery of revisions, additions, and alterations of all sorts. Finally, the titular work is undergoing the final stages of preparation by Hippocampus Press for a release in April, 2010.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror is many things, but it is definitely well worth the wait. It emanates a black power longtime readers of Ligotti's fiction will recognize, yet it is not an old comforting horror story. Instead, the book is a history, a philosophy, and a V.I.P. pass to the backstage of Ligotti's many talented puppet shows. On the way to get behind the curtain, though, you find yourself trapped in a dimly lit elevator. Rather than the fireside chat with Thomas Ligotti you expected, you end up listening to his dark observations about this universe and about your existence--many of which make you want to scream and cry and laugh at once--as they pour in over a piercing intercom.

In Conspiracy, Thomas Ligotti successfully balances the multiple authorial roles integral to the book. There is Ligotti, the literary historian and tour guide, who provides a competent overview of pessimistic philosophers many readers without a formal philosophy education will not have heard of. Obscure figures like Zapffe, Michelstaedter, and Mainlander, to name a few, have their bleak and unusual ideas presented in clear terms almost anyone can understand, alongside the equally heady thoughts of more recognizable actors like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Each of these thinkers has relevant information extracted and pruned for supporting evidence in Ligotti's case against life. Ligotti, the argumentative pessimist, does not relent from his overall belief that everything, particularly human existence, is MALIGNANTLY USELESS. But his attacks are not constantly overwhelming, they die down enough, when appropriate, to allow the pessimistic historian his say, as well as the cultural critic. Ligotti as analyst effectively incorporates a selection of grim movies and literary works into his narrative. Familiar horror media is particularly drawn on to underscore the terrible condition he believes we find ourselves in. Then, not surprisingly, there is Ligotti the storyteller. While there is nothing that blossoms into a full blown original vignette, the creative flourishes this Ligotti utilizes keep the pages turning, and impress the text with his inimitable stamp. Conspiracy offers a gigantic portion of what may be Thomas Ligotti's special plan for this world, but it comes with cherished side dishes his admirers have tasted before in Death Poems, Clown Puppet nonsense, and the lectures of Professor Nobody.

The existential conspiracy of the book's title is easy to understand. Ligotti's main divergence from most other writers, thinkers, and people is his disagreement with the idea that "being alive is alright." To rip apart this concept, one held sacrosanct by most individuals and civilizations, he uses the framework established by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in his essay, "The Last Messiah." Zapffe believed humanity's existence is a terrible mistake, an error mitigated and hidden by a bag of tricks employed to get by in daily life, but made all the worse by human reproduction. The exceedingly complicated mental hoops jumped through to convince ourselves that existence is not so bad, and will be even better for our children, is the grand conspiracy. To Ligotti, it is an insufferable situation, especially since humanity itself is the chief conspirator.

More intellectually challenging are the ideas he presents to blast the good (or at least tolerable) life espoused by his optimist foes (generally, those who believe "being alive is alright"). The horror of conscious existence, an evolutionary oops of nightmare proportions, is the most convincing evidence Ligotti deploys. Consciousness is a curse, and the conspiracy's sustenance. To Ligotti, conscious awareness results in an illusion of selfhood, a really wild suggestion, until one considers the bizarre theories of Thomas Metzinger and neuroscience highlighted by the author.

"Nobody is Anybody," Ligotti once said on a musical CD called The Unholy City, and he just might be right. His assertion and its support is convincing, fascinating, and frightening. However, if it is true, then the illusion is brutally potent--as readers will see when they react to this news with enthusiastic agreement or sickened dismay, responses pre-scripted by their personalities. With the exception of a few ego-dead savants discussed by Ligotti, the web of persona is almost ironclad, as the author himself notes, perhaps to his own horror and frustration.

The deterministic conundrum of biology and mental self-trickery is not the only monstrous entrapment to be found in Conspiracy. Even if Ligotti fails to change anyone's mind about the human condition, part of his adeptness is in his ability to force a reader into deciding which side of the optimist-pessimist divide they are on while reading. A minefield of observations about life lurks within each chapter, intellectual explosives that will gradually hurl readers into pessimism or away from it, or at least leave them dazed on the battlefield. For instance, Ligotti points out the tremendously important role of pleasure as a driver of human activity, contrasting its limited rewards with the bountiful suffering available to all. Sexual activity and feasting are playfully scorned in ways that oscillate between intensely amusing and freakishly disturbing.

Then there are the times when Ligotti confronts the mammoth in the room: Death. His commentary on the subject is sharp, secretly didactic, and purposeful. As a horror writer, Ligotti already knows how painful it is to be stalked through life by the shadow of death. But his aim is to get us to feel the distant chill of our deaths, even if it is only while thumbing through his book's pages. His crystallizing focus, in fact, mirrors death's advance in many ways, until its whole bulk is pressing down on readers at the nauseating end (where else?) of Conspiracy.

A less abrasive but no less important segment of Ligotti's dark tome explores an entertaining byproduct of consciousness familiar to those likely to pick up this book: the development of the supernatural. A treasury of insight and knowledge about the macabre that only an accomplished horror writer could access is tapped. Ligotti produces original and intelligent observations about the evolution of supernatural atmosphere in literature. He expertly examines weird fiction writers and more "mainstream" literary figures schooled in darkness and demons of one sort or another. In some ways, the book starts to resemble an embryonic draft for an updated, modernized version of H.P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, but Ligotti wisely reigns this in before it veers away too far. He does not allow readers to forget why supernatural fiction and media exists in the first place: it is a reflection and an outgrowth of the sad state our race is condemned to by existing as conscious creatures, things which are practically supernatural by nature's standards.

Outside a lengthier discussion of the supernatural, Ligotti seasons the entire book with relevant quotations from and observations on all types of horrific media. John Carpenter's eerie films, Lovecraft's dark entities, and the violent machinations in Sweeney Todd are just a few of the diverse examples Ligotti illuminates as supplemental sideshows to the main attraction. All together, these works provide some context for attacking the entrenched fortresses Ligotti seeks to bruise. Where else can existence be seen as pure nightmare, or selfhood as eggshell frail, but in horror?

Although it is non-fiction, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race bristles with Ligotti's sardonic and sometimes hilarious tone, and his well received command of language. The dark comedy, fearful scenarios, and engaging paradoxes on display constitute a sweetener in an otherwise bitter medicine. Just enough to make the book sufficiently readable and even enjoyable for staunch optimists who will not be swayed by Ligotti's tirade against existence. Since this is a work by Ligotti, it would almost be a let down not to see puppets. Luckily, puppet imagery is abundant here, rolled out in eerie and believable comparisons that go beyond their traditional Ligottian roles as harbingers of darkly surreal atmosphere. But the ultimate deterministic puppets, in the author's estimation, may be something all too familiar--and what it is becomes strikingly clear in the frequent, colorful mockery and probing of human existence.

As if the dour argument of Conspiracy were not controversial enough, Ligotti goes one step further by boldly taking optimistic ideas to task. Readers feel the presence of a merciless gardener, who rummages through the soil of humanity's collective beliefs and tears apart anything not conducive to his pessimistic crop. All major religions, except perhaps Buddhism, are sliced, scorched, and tossed aside as delusion making weeds. The same fate awaits transhumanism, a utopian current without any relevance for Ligotti, except its potential to produce a superman one day that might recognize existential futility. Nature-worshiping environmentalism does not escape either. It seems that "Mother Nature" is a sort of demon to Ligotti, a blind and clumsy force responsible for humanity's highbrow suffering as well as the idiotic pain of lesser beings. In short, nothing that celebrates life, tries to make living worthwhile, or mitigates death's horror receives a pardon from Judge Thomas Ligotti.

This includes his vision of a better world where man has concluded that being alive is not alright. It is an unlikely portrait of something approaching a Ligottian utopia for humanity, a planet with a diminishing population as more and more people opt not to reproduce. Yet, it is an idea that crashes on the runway under the heavy weight of impracticality, at least in our own era and any in the near future, as Ligotti himself acknowledges. His frustration bleeds out the pages when he parodies the maniacal attitude of the world at large to the pessimist minority. Ligotti's paradox is our own as an agonized species moving through a world with no exit, or none accessible to readers at this moment in the early twenty first century. What, then, is mankind to do in the face of a conspiracy identified, but unthwarted? What is the role of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race when its anti-natal solution appears too distant today?

Like every notable work before it, the real fate of this volume and its ideas will be determined in due time by a large jury of readers and critics. However, Conspiracy is so rich, so strange, and so thoughtful that each main component of its inner-workings deserves a full evaluation. It is a hyper-effective philosophical tract that demands answers from readers to a few questions, not the lazy consideration of many questions raised by most other philosophic material. It is literary and artistic criticism with an agenda, focusing on its chosen works with a laser beam precision that is rare, and rarer still when it comes from a weird fiction writer. Its engaging prose is solid enough to drive readers of all mindsets onward, from cover to cover, almost making it feel like "being alive is alright" while the book is in one's hands. Almost.

The writing is also proof that Ligotti has lost none of his literary muscle tone, and may have gained some new forcefulness by venturing into non-fiction. Certain words, phrases, and metaphors are familiar, but they have never been this serious before. Moreover, Conspiracy may have one final use its author never intended: a primary resource for scholars studying his fiction. As a clear, vibrant expression of the ideas in his oeuvre swirling around beneath their storytelling framework, the book brushes on an additional layer of black gloss to every Ligotti tale. Any confusion about where Ligotti stands on existence is forever dispelled. This may blow open new mineshafts in his stories, allowing longtime devotees to dig deeper and extract new, strange, and precious intellectual gemstones.

So, perhaps the overarching worth of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is in its function as a sort of literary Silver Key. It promises to unlock doors unique to whoever picks it up. Unsuspecting newcomers may step through an entrance to a library that holds black truths about their lives they never suspected. Faithful Ligotti readers may find themselves lost in a meta-fictional reverie always dead with darkness to outsiders, but always alive with literary lights for them. And everyone, everyone, will have to answer to a Supreme Court of pessimist philosophers regarding their role as co-conspirators. The shadowy faces of Zapffe, Lovecraft, Schopenhauer, and Ligotti might be indistinct as they glare down from the bench, but the crime itself is not. In the end, everyone will know the self-inflicted conspiracy as fact, not mere theory, and as Pandora's Box rather than Jack-in-the-Box.

-Grim Blogger

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