Filed under: Fiction and Vignettes, Philosophy, religion, Spirituality | Tagged: archetypes, Eric G. Wilson, George P. Hansen, imaginal, mythology, Patrick Harpur, religion, story, Victoria Nelson | Leave a Comment »
I’ve had many ideas rolling around in my head this past week or so. I’ve at least mentioned most of them in my recent blogs, but there are still some I’ve been meaning to get around to.
Even though I’ve mentioned Ligotti, I haven’t ever written about the one nonfiction work (besides textbooks) that I’m aware of him writing. Only an excerpt of it has been published so far and its in a recent volume of Collapse journal which also included some nonfiction by the well known fantasy writer China Mievelle. Anyways, he writes about the philosophy known as Pessimism in relationship to suffering.
He uses as one of his primary inspirations the ‘The Last Messiah’ by Peter Wessel Zapffe. Zapffe called his type of thinking biosophy and its my understanding that he had major influence on the deep ecology movement. The basic idea is that humans have certain over-developed functions, specifically consciousness, which cause humans to not easily fit into their environment. More importantly, for my purposes, are the problems it causes with a hyper-sensitivity to suffering, and hence the necessity to counter it with various methods that Zapffe puts into 4 categories: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation. Zapffe was actually a rather life-embracing guy who liked to climb mountains (for the very reason that it was pointless) and wrote humorous stories, but Ligotti takes his ideas in a much more cynical direction.
I get the sense that Ligotti is a failed idealist. My idealism has likewise failed in many ways but not entirely (and maybe correspondingly my faith has increased in certain ways). I think I’ll always have some of the hopeless idealist in me. Its hard to tell what Ligotti’s personal experiences or views are as he keeps his philosophizing mostly on the level of the abstract. He claims this is intentional because his arguments aren’t based on his moods, but he does admit that the experience of horror is something most people will never understand. He seems to accept that he is in the minority and that his writing will probably never be widely read (despite the fact that he is one of the better writers alive today and is highly respected by other writers).
I can agree with Ligotti in many ways. Humans are naturally optimistic and we avoid the experience of suffering as if our lives depended on it… because our lives probably do. I imagine that most people would go insane or kill themselves if they ever felt suffering fully. In all actuality, I doubt humans are capable of experiencing suffering without various psychological filters and buffers limiting our consciousness. Its the double-bind of being human… the inability to either fully avoid or fully face suffering.
The problem is that Ligotti seems to leave this Existentialist insight on the level of biological horror. I don’t know that he has never had any experiences that he’d deem “spiritual”, but if he has he leaves them out of the equation. I’ve had experiences that went so far beyond (or within?) suffering that my experience was transformed… or, if not exactly transformed, I did touch upon something that felt entirely Other.
Because of this, I prefer to go the route of something like Gnosticism. So, in this way, I can accept that the world is filled with suffering and yet not simply resign myself to it. Gnosticism is also a way I can give meaning to why the deep experience of suffering is so rare. Some have criticized Gnosticism as elitist, but I think that Gnosticism was simply observing the rarity of true gnosis (maybe similar to some early forms of Protestantism).
Its not an attitude of judgment because I wouldn’t claim true gnosis for myself as I’m way too confused for all that. But I will say that I feel there is much superficiality and falseness in most claims of spirituality… and I can sense this even in myself whenever I try to speak of spirituality. I don’t believe gnosis is about being saved and so its not that the unworthy are left behind. Gnosis is just an insight and that is all and serves no greater purpose beyond that. Unlike the Gnostics, I have severe doubts about the notion of escaping suffering and prefer something more akin to Buddhism. Suffering, when felt deeply enough, can open one to understanding and potentially compassion.
As far as pure rationality goes, I consider Pessimism to be one of the most objectively accurate assessments of human experience that we are capable of coming up with. For sure, its at least as reasonable as any other philosophical or theological position, not that reasonableness is the primary standard by which people choose their beliefs.
In light of Pessimism, there are the criticisms towards mainstream notions of freewill which interests me very much. Its without a doubt, in my mind, that the lack of freewill is the more scientific hypothesis given the scientific standard of parsimony. Rationality is important because all discussion (ie shared understanding) is of almost no use or merit without it, but when it comes to personal experience I don’t limit my understandings to mere rationality. Even someone like Ligotti with his very rational arguments is fully aware of the extreme limits of the human intellect.
I may have lost most of my audience by now with this dreary philosophizing during this time of “holiday cheer”, but I shall continue with another set of ideas.
When I think of Gnosticism, it automatically brings to my mind Jung… probably from whose writings I first learned about Gnostic-type of ideas. Also related to Jung are theories such as Myers-Briggs typology and Campbell’s Monomyth, but most Jungians dislike it when Jung’s ideas are systematized. The type of books that often reference Jung usually won’t reference the MBTI or the Hero’s Journey. This is the case with the books of Victoria Nelson and Eric G. Wilson.
I, of course, consider all of these to be related. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the Monomyth in how Jesus fits the typical Hero’s Journey and thus the corelation to the Gnostic interpretation of the Christ figure.
Even with the vastness of the internet, its still hard to find much writing about these connections. The best source I always seem to come back to is Tim Boucher in his extensive blogging. He has lots of interesting thoughts, but here are just a few quotes from his site that I found relevant:
The Hero With A Thousand Faces
the hero is basically synonymous with the ego. the ego is sort of the main part of the mind that we identify with as a culture. the “hero’s journey” to me seems like a story about what happens when the ego encounters parts of the mind besides itself. looking at how various cultures portray the archetypal “hero” can shed a lot of light on how their minds work, and the values they cherish. alternatively, i think that looking at the types of heroes and stories that you personally are drawn to can shed a lot of light on what’s important to you, what you’re struggling with, and possible symbolically encoded outcomes that could be achieved.
Demiurge and Ego
The Jungian concept of ego/Self dovetails nicely with gnostic theology as well. In it, the Demiurge is a false god who brashly and wrongly believes that he is the creator and most powerful being in the universe. Usually associated with the Judeo-Christian Yahweh, he is a jealous, egotistical god who is violent, capricious and authoritarian. Consider the first of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other god before me.”
The Joseph Campbell of Conspiracy Theory
I’ve wondered before why Campbell didn’t talk more about “pop culture as mythology”. I mean, he did, but it wasn’t the focus of his work. I only realized very recently the sleight of hand that he really pulled. What he did was use pop culture as a vehicle. I think he realized that traditional religions were essentially dead in the water, or if not dead then at least declining in people’s lives. Certainly they still play a role, but nowadays the real grunt-work is done by pop culture. It provides us with a story-system which binds us as a culture, and which acts as a vehicle or vessel for the symbolic contents of our subconscious minds.
I think he realized this, but he also realized that there was a danger here. Namely, that our archetypes were being clothed in pop culture, and we didn’t even know it. Since it was happening mostly outside the context of organized religion, with traditions of ritual and symbolism, most people were missing out on the important lessons learned in those traditions. So what he did, the real genius of his work, was to strip out the symbolic messages out of all world religions, and inject them directly into the bloodstream of the new religion, pop culture. And he essentially trusted that through the chaos of the mediasphere, these messages would ultimately find their place on their own and go right to where they were needed.
His speaking about pop culture returns me to the genres. Ever since Star Wars, the Monomyth has become a standard model for making movies in Hollywood… a model that even mainstream religion has had to come to terms with, however reluctantly. Parallel to the Monomyth, Neo-noir has brought Gnosticism into the public view. These two strains have come together in many movies such as The Matrix. So, I’m back in the territory of Philip K. Dick and the cultural analyses of Victoria Nelson and Eric G. Wilson.
What I was thinking about is the narrative structure of Gnostic films. They often end with the door in the sky. The narrative must end there because that is where rationality ends. Is there something beyond that door? What might it be? Any answer given won’t satisfy. We’d be disappointed if we followed Truman to the world beyond the Demiurge’s false reality.
This makes me wonder. The Monomyth is circular without any apparent escape. The traditional hero leaves just to return, but the Gnostic hero leaves without returning… or, if you prefer, his leaving is his returning to the real world… or in Jungian terms to his real Self. His boon is self-transformation (or else ananmesis) which is rather intangible.
This is where my personal sufferings and doubts come in. I recognize the limits of rationality. At its best, fiction can (potentially) at least point beyond itself in a way that philosophy doesn’t seem as capable of doing.
Nonetheless, the narrative ends with the Gnostic hero’s accomplishment and yet we the audience are stuck in this endless loop of Monomyth’s repetition. Stories can be just as much distracting entertainment as mode of insight. The Monomyth is a circle, but traditional religion offers us the hope of either escape from the enclosing periphery or otherwise to bring us deeper to the center around which it all revolves.
Can we only worship the hero as most Christians do or like Gnostics can we become the hero? Or is identifying with the hero part of the ego’s trap of endless misery? How does the story truly end? Does the story ever end? Will people still be telling ever new versions of the Monomyth far into the distant future (assuming we’re still around)?
The whole finger pointing at the moon comes to mind. What is the point of studying stories? What is the point of worshipping the Monomyth hero even if you believe him to be the Son of God? Does turning to religion offer us any further insight or guidance?
I don’t know the answer to all of that. My questioning here is partially in response to similar thoughts that Eric G. Wilson writes about which I might go into more detail about sometime. For now, I’ll just end with my wondering about all things archetypal.
What are the archetypes? Mere biological mechanisms of Darwinian evolution? A good case can be made for that, but it doesn’t satisfy me personally. I’d like to believe that archetypes, if not the moon the finger is pointing at, may at least be the trajectory of the finger pointing. If I follow the archetypes in contemplation, where shall they lead me?
To use the sea as a metaphor for the vastness of suffering, is there any reason to leave the shore?
Filed under: Gnosticism, Philosophy, Psychology, religion, Spirituality | Tagged: Carl Jung, Eric G. Wilson, Gnosticism, monomyth, pessimism, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Thomas Ligotti, Tim Boucher, Victoria Nelson | Leave a Comment »
by Victoria Nelson
At the same time, however, this demonology is the only avenue open to the transcendental. “You can raise issues in the horror genre that you can’t raise so easily in other types of films,” a Hollywood screenwriter once ingenuously explained, adding, “Characters can talk about the existence of God in a horror movie, whereas in other films that would be incredibly pretentious.” Ironically, beacuse of the old Reformation link between Catholicism and the supernatural, the only means for defending oneself against the Devil in these narratives is always represented as a potpourri of faux rituals rendered in Latin or Greek and always erroneously attributed to the Catholic Church, to the unendng aggravation of that church’s worthies, who might be less upset if only they reflected on the unavoidable implication—that the Protestant mainstream unconsciously perceives its own rituals as utterly inadequate for warding off demons.
Lacking an allowable connection with the transcendent, we have substituted an obsessive, unconscious focus on the negative dimension of the denied experience. In popular Western entertainments through the end of the twentieth century, the supernatural translated mostly as terror and monsters enjoyably consumed. But as Paul Tillich profoundly remarked, “Wherever the demonic appears, there the question of its correlate, the divine, will also be raised.”
Far from being mutually exclusive, nous and logos share this common denominator of human consciousness, a field that remained constant while its content and focus have swung like a pendulum between the two modes. For the gnosis-oriented authors of the Corpus Hermeticum tractates, consciousness was not only humanity’s distinguishing charactistic but the special feature that connected us with the divine. This position was counterbalanced by the materialist views of their contemporaries the Stoics and Skeptics; indeed, many Greeks and Romans of the time openly mocked graven images. And, as Susanna Elm argues, far from being a “decline into belief” as is usually supposed, the radical iconoclasm of Judeo-Christianity, learnedly argued first by the rabbis and then by the early Christian fathers, represented a scientific revolution of rational discourse that supplanted the gnosis-dominated cults and religions of Late Antiquity analagous to the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, which performed a similar function in relation to the Catholic Chruch a millennium later.
Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film
by Eric G. Wilson
Filed under: Fiction and Vignettes, Gnosticism, Philosophy, religion, Sociopolitical, Spirituality | Tagged: culture, Eric G. Wilson, film, Gnostic, gothic, Horror, rationality, supernatural, Victoria Nelson | Leave a Comment »
I don’t see them as fundamentally in conflict. My favorite writers are those that combine fiction and nonfiction. This is my interest in William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, but its also the reason for my more recent interest in “horror” writers such as Thomas Ligotti and Quentin S. Crisp.
There are various aspects in common. As I said, they all combined fiction and nonfiction, but they also wrote them separately. Besides all of this, the most obvious similaity is the Gothic. The Gothic definitely applies to the horror writers, but the Gothic isn’t limited to the horror genre. The other connection is Gnosticism. PKD helped to popularize Gnosticism only to maybe a slightly lesser degree than Jung had. Gnostic themes and references are found throughout the works of WSB, TL and QSP.
What has brought all of this together in my mind are several nonfiction books that have been occupying my mind particularly past year or so. One book is The Secret Lives of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, and two books by Eric G. Wilson (The Melancholy Android, and Secret Cinema). Wilson was influenced by Nelson and I always think of these authors together. Both of these authors write about PKD, and Nelson mentions WSB a couple of times. Both focus on the the fantastical and horrific in fiction. Both write about Gnosticism and Wilson goes into great detail about the connection between Gnosticism, the Gothic and the genres.
I won’t go in more detail right now. I just wanted to set down where my thoughts are at the moment. This is a very personal nexus of my understanding of life. Thinking about these authors is my way of contempating my place amidst a world of tremendous suffering. I plan on blogging more about this soon as I clarify my ideas.
Filed under: Entertainment, Philosophy | Tagged: Eric G. Wilson, fiction, Gnosticism, gothic, Philip K. Dick, Quentin S. Crisp, Thomas Ligotti, Victoria Nelson, William S. Burroughs | Leave a Comment »
I actually had to develop a love of the disordered & puzzling, viewing reality as a vast riddle to be joyfully tackled, not in fear but with tireless fascination. What has been most needed is reality testing, & a willingness to face the possibility of self-negating experiences: i.e., real contradicitons, with something being both true & not true.
The enigma is alive, aware of us, & changing. It is partly created by our own minds: we alter it by perceiving it, since we are not outside it. As our views shift, it shifts in a sense it is not there at all (acosmism). In another sense it is a vast intelligence; in another sense it is total harmonia and structure (how logically can it be all three? Well, it is).
Page 91 (1979)
In Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis
by Philip K. Dick, edited by Lawrence Sutin
This deeply touches upon my experience. I also had to develop a love of the disorderd & puzzling… for I never felt capable of denying these or distracting myself from their effect upon me. If I didn’t learn to love the puzzles that thwarted my understanding, then seemingly the only other choice would be to fear them.
I was just thinking about the several years after my highschool graduation. For most people, this time of life is filled with a sense of bright opportunity and youthful fun. But, for me, it was the darkest time of my life. I felt utterly lost with no good choice available to me. I questioned deeply because my life was on the line… quite literally… because it was during these years that I attempted suicide.
I don’t remember exactly when I discovered PKD, but it was around that period of my life. PKD’s questioning mind resonated with my experience. The questions I asked only exacerbated my depression, but I did not know how to stop asking them. So, to read someone who had learned to love the unanswerable questions was refreshing. Plus, I was inspired by the infinite playfulness of his imagination.
Imagination was what I sorely needed during that time of feeling stuck in harsh reality. To imagine ‘what if’ was a way of surviving day by day, and the play of possibilities brought a kind of light into my personal darkness. I won’t say that PKD saved my life, but he did help me to see something good in it all.
Then, I became interested in other writers for quite a while. I had even given away most of my PKD books. I’d forgotten why I had liked him so much until A Scanner Darkly came out. I watched it twice in the theater and was very happy to be reacquainted with PKD. That movie really captured his writing like none other.
Those years spent away from PKD’s work, I had been seeking out various answers(such as those provided by the great Ken Wilber). But now I feel like I’m in a mood again to simply enjoy the questions.
I’ve been taking notes on another book and came across some lines that resonate with my sense of what PKD was about:
“Mercury is the trickster, happiest when he is at play. Playing he is able to achieve the double consciousness of the comic mode: the world is serious and not serious at the same time, a meaningful pattern of etenrity and a filmy veil blocking the beyond.”
The Melancholy Android: On the Psychology of Sacred Machines
Eric G. Wilson
Filed under: Philosophy | Tagged: acosmism, answers, cognitive dissonance, comic mode, contradictions, depression, enigma, Eric G. Wilson, Exegesis, fascination, fear, happiness, harmonia, In Pursuit of Valis, intelligence, Lawrence Sutin, love, Mercury, mystery, paradox, Phil Dick, Philip K. Dick, PKD, play, puzzles, questions, reality, riddles, The Melancholy Android, trickster, wonder | 1 Comment »
What does it mean to be real, to be alive, to be human?
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by
side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does
it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that
happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just
to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When
you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It
takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved
off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are
Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
This resonates with what I was saying in my comments in my blog post Personal Public Problems. I was speaking about Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly. Philip K. Dick was interested in what is reality, but this relates to what it means to be real. Maybe Arctor is like the Velveteen Rabbit. Isn’t there a hope in suffering? Isn’t that what the Christian tradition teaches? To be real is in some sense to be saved. What we’re saved from isn’t suffering per se, but the illusions and lies that keep us from seeing suffering clearly. Our suffering can’t be avoided… it must be faced. We must let ourselves be transformed by fire.
“I am the nursery magic Fairy,” she said. “I take care of all the
playthings that the children have loved. When they are old and worn
out and the children don’t need them any more, then I come and take
them away with me and turn them into Real.”
“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.
“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now
you shall be Real to every one.”
Human love may be where it starts, but that only awakens in us the awareness of a greater possibility, a greater Love. To be Real in the deepest sense is to find that sense of Realness within ourselves… not dependent on specific relationships. And this brings up the question of what does it mean to be autonomous, to be free? The Velveteen Rabbit is saved by the fairy and goes to live with the wild rabbits. He is no longer dependent on the boy. What the rabbit does now is up to him. His Real life is only beginning.
Filed under: Entertainment, Humanity, Personal, Philosophy, Spirituality | Tagged: A Scanner Darkly, Eric G. Wilson, freedom, Philip K. Dick, real, reality, suffering, The Melancholy Android, The Secret Life of Puppets, Velveteen Rabbit, Victoria Nelson | Leave a Comment »
I was just having a discussion with my friend. We were talking about horror writing and what defines it.
Neither of us enjoys slasher horror which I equate to violence porn, and for the most part violent movies tend not to be very scary to me. Most violent horror flicks seem superficial and predictable. There are many other types of horror writing besides. There is your traditional supernatural story where a normal person encounters some strange phenomena often in some place that is old and dark. That kind of horror has been done well by some authors, but its failing is that it externalizes horror.
The real horror is the experience of horror itself, the horror that can’t be easily categorized. The extreme version of this has been called metaphysical horror or atmospheric horror. It goes beyond mere psychological horror. This horror is neither internal nor external. What makes it deeply horrifying is that the lines are blurred. The most famous representative of metaphysical/atmospheric horror is Lovecraft.
This type of horror relates to a blog I wrote previously: Zen Great Doubt, Existentialist Angst, and Gnostic Longing. I was responding to a comment in a thread about spirituality. The commenter goes by the name Jim and this is what he said:
In Victor Hori’s book on the Rinazi Koans, Victor interprets the Great Doubt (the death of meaning?) as a kind of “samadhi,” and what follows it (in which meaning is reconstituted?) as kensho or satori . . . . I’ve heard “Great Doubt” likened to Jaspers’ notion of the “Grenzsituation” or “boundary situation,” a condition or situation through which a person can neither escape nor transcend. Jaspers describes it as a cul-de-sac where the person can neither go forward nor backward forcing the person back on her own resources so that she experiences existential “Existenz.”
Hakuin (1689 – 1769), said of his own “Great Doubt” that “It was as though I were frozen solid in the midst of an ice sheet extending tens of thousands of miles. I could neither go forward nor retreat.“
Hakuin says that great doubt is like hanging over an abyss: “we have no where to go (really) but down – eventually we must all let go and jump – it is supposedly that act which propels us to the next level – to enlightenment. What would bring us to this point – where we are willing to give up the self? Does the fall into the abyss always result in enlightenment? How would we know? What do we have to give up or suspend to make such a leap?”
I responded with this…
The following is a quote of Eric G. Wilson from his book The Melancholy Android. Wilson, in speaking about Hans Jonas’ book The Gnostic Religion, has this to say(p. 68):
The greatest task of the fallen anthropos is not to work through his anxiety, alenation, and confusion. It is to keep his melancholia acute. His sadness corresponds to his readiness for gnosis. But the world conspires against his dejection, offering him either the brief comforts of matter or the more lasting solaces of soul. Hedonism seduces in the first case; orthodox religion in the second. The Gnostic must defend against the wretched contentment of these modes and hold open his wounds of the spirit. Malcontented with outward forms, he turns inward to his hidden spark. The spark, trapped and stifled, faintly flares, repeating in each flicker the homeward call.
And, in speaking about Martin Heidegger’s(Hans Jonas’ teacher) book Being and Time, writes:
For Heidegger. the only hope for authenticity — a secular, psychological equivalent of gnosis — is anxiety. Heideggerean angst, like Gnostic longing, performs a double function. On the one hand, it constitutes the basic mood through which one comes to understand one’s own authenticity; on the other, it forms the aggravating condition from which one flees to the collective. Heideggerean anxiety is directed toward the “nothing” of being in the world without the help of the mass. This condition descends when all familiar ideas fall away and one feels as if one hovers in an unfamiliar abyss. This unfocused floating can push the sufferer in one of two ways — either cravenly back to the lotus doses of the mass or courageously into possibilities for being. If one chooses the former path, one can never return to the ignorant bliss of the collective but spends long days neurotically attempting to repress the unsettling sense that existence is a sham. However, if one embraces the latter way, one undergoes an uncanny experience: insight into the relaionship between individual being and the Being of all beings.
Once one commits to understanding one’s connection to Being, one never rests but realizes that the profoundities of this origin are beyond comprehension. However, one also knows that this perpetual insecurity will lead to deeper intimacy with the abyss and a greater care for individual being and other beings. As we have seen, Heidegger in “What Is Metaphysis?” likens this chronic melancholia to a “bewildered sort of calm… a cheerfulness and gentleness of creative longing.”
That last section would seem to contradict the experience of horror. There is an odd kind of optimism offered by this existentialist vision. Thomas Ligotti, however, has a different take on this which offers no such optimism, but I’ll have to go into more detail about that in another blog. I do have a possible explanation from another writer about what leads to horror. In the Collapse journal in which Ligotti’s ideas can be found, there is an essay by George J. Sieg. He argues that horror writing is the most self-referential, the most self-conscious of all the genres. Whereas the typical spiritual aspirant is seeking to escape the self in one way or another, the experience of horror is a descent into the claustrophobia of the self.
It isn’t accidental that horror stories often have a protagonist trying to understand or feeling compelled by curiosity. Such a person feels unable or unwilling to simply accept the mystery. There is some urge within that isn’t content with idling in the sunlight. Let me give one element of Ligotti’s thought. He writes of the spiritual and comes to a conclusion of the self that isn’t dissimilar to Eastern perspectives, but even so this offers no solace for him. The average spiritual person embraces the mystery because they assume its somehow trustworthy. It’s not that the vision of horror denies all goodness in any direct fashion. Rather, the vision of horror simply offers no certainties at all… at its best it doesn’t even offer the certainty of evil in its orthodox meaning.
I should add that I’m not a big fan of horror as a general category. However, I love anything with imagination which often includes horror and its cousin dark fantasy. I’m somewhat of a fan of supernatural stories, whether the supernatural is overt or implied. To me, I’m drawn to anything that touches me deeply and some horror writing is capable of this. This element is hard to pin down. I’ve read some Poe. I enjoy his work, but I can’t say that it has a profound impact on me. The best horror causes a mood that lingers for days or even weeks, and I’m not entirely sure why some fiction has this impact on me and other fiction doesn’t. Along with Poe, my assessment might be similar for Thomas Ligotti. Both are awesome writers, but somehow they don’t quite fully touch upon my emotional core. However, my readings of both are limited and so my assessment could change with further reading. Quentin S. Crisp may be more of my kind of writer, but I’d have to read more of him as well.
These writers (Poe, Ligotti, and Crisp) are mostly short story writers. For whatever reason, short stories tend not to impact me in the way as a novel can. The short story writer that gives me the clearest sense of profound horror is Kafka. My friend is more of a reader of short stories and they seem to have more of an impact for him. The three writers I’ve mentioned are some of his favorites. It is important to note that many of the best horror writers tend towards short stories. This is particularly true of metaphysical horror because it’s hard to sustain over a long narrative. A key element of much metaphysical horror fiction is that it doesn’t confine itself to typical narrative structures. Ligotti mentions that he is most interested in conveying the horror itself which transcends normal human experience, but he realized that a story needed a human protagonist to register that horror. This attempt to get as close as possible to the experience of horror doesn’t lend itself to long involved narratives. Partly, it would be difficult to accomplish. But more importantly it would be too psychologically taxing on the average reader. Metaphysical horror gains its potency by being imbibed in small doses.
As for novels, those that have formed my sense of horror are the following: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly… and I might add Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolffor its dark existentialism. None of these novels are normally considered horror, but they resonate with some dread insight about reality and human nature. The only one of them that has any overt supernaturalism is The Last Temptation of Christ. I like metaphysical horror, but maybe I seek more emphasis on the subjective experience than someone like Ligotti. I need not only a protagonist to register the horror but I further need a protagonist that I identify with to such an extent that I lose myself in that character’s world. Of these novels, the two that have haunted my psyche the most are Jude the Obscure and A Scanner Darkly. A highschool English teacher had me read the former and I have never recovered since. As for the latter, even though I’ve been familiar with the PKD’s work for many years, I only read A Scanner Darkly after having seen the movie version. PKD is an uneven writer, but his psychological and metaphysical insight is second to none. In this book, he convinces me of the reality of his character in a way few other books have done.
A Scanner Darkly doesn’t end with an entirely tragic vision, but the descent into the dark is what makes it horrific. It doesn’t matter whether or not a character loses himself entirely in madness. The horror is the loss of all sense of safety and certainty, the realization that nothing will ever be the same again. There is some kind of hope in A Scanner Darkly and that is very important. Horror necessitates a tension. Without hope, there can be no despair. The horror isn’t the despair. The horror is the descent from hope into despair. I should explain hope because I’m using it in a broad sense. I simply mean that the character is seeking some positive end. In horror, this can be a desire to understand the supernatural or a desire for wealth or even a desire to maintain comforting normalcy. In slasher horror, the tension is often between pleasure and pain. The stereotypical slasher flick has teenagers partying and having sex right before they’re attacked, tortured and murdered.
Some writers want to get to the horror as quickly as possible. They want to begin the story long after the character has already walked through the door. However, the power of a novel is that it allows a sense of normalcy to be portrayed first. This acts as the backdrop for the descent. Without this backdrop, the descent often doesn’t have as much impact. For example, Jude the Obscureis a very slow descent. The story begins with Jude’s dreams as he sets off for the big city, and then over a very long book those dreams are dashed again and again and again… and again. The descent is so slow that its almost tedious. Interestingly, the character’s lack of self-awareness is what is so mesmerizing. Jude just keeps mindlessly trudging on no matter what new obstacle presents itself. So, how does this fit into Sieg’s theory of horror? I’d say that Hardy still manages to create a claustrophobic sense of self by focusing so intensely on this one character. Hardy isn’t trying to write horror, but his existentialism is so dark and dreary that it creates a horrific vision of life.
I’ll finish with one last point. I’m a very spiritual person which might seem odd considering how cynical I can be. I share much of Ligotti’s vision of life, but I get the sense that I may be more spiritual than he is in certain ways. I may misunderstand Ligotti, but I get a sense that he is somehow content in his tragic vision. I sense that he doesn’t feel there is anything to do about our predicament. We’re just fucked.
I want to believe in something and this is core to my very sense of being. Ligotti seems to dismiss this need to believe. PKD, on the other hand, is more in line with my deeper sense of truth. What makes A Scanner Darklyso tragic is that the protagonist is so inherently good in his intentions and so sincere in his desire to understand. He is a light in a dark world and refuses to play by the rules of this world he finds himself thrown into. So many horror stories are about loners, but PKD is as much interested in relationships. Rather than nihilism or even idealistic existentialism, PKD portrays a gnostic vision. We are trapped in a dark world, but maybe just maybe genuine truth can still be found. This hope simultaneously acts as a light amidst the darkness and in contrast makes the dark appear even darker.
In case I mistakenly led anyone to think that I was saying Ligotti lacked deeper insight, I’ll leave you with a quote from his story “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing”:
“’We should give thanks,’ the voice said to me, ‘that a poverty of knowledge has so narrowed our vision of things as to allow the possibility of feeling something about them. How could we find a pretext to react to anything if we understood… everything? None but an absent mind was ever victimized by the adventure of intense emotional feeling. And without the suspense that is generated by our benighted state–our status as beings possessed by our own bodies and the madness that goes along with them–who could take enough interest in the universal spectacle to bring forth even the feeblest yawn, let alone exhibit the more dramatic manifestations which lend such unwonted color to a world that is essentially composed of shades of gray upon a background of blackness. Hope and horror, to repeat merely two of the innumerable conditions dependent on a faulty insight, would be much the worse for an ultimate revelation that would expose their lack of necessity. At the other extreme, both our most dire and most exalted emotions are well served every time we take some ray of knowledge, isolate it from the spectrum of illumination, and then forget it completely. All our ecstasies, whether sacred or from the slime, depend on our refusal to be schooled in even the most superficial truths and our maddening will to follow the path of forgetfulness.’”