Who Is Number One? by R.M. Price

A writer I often enjoy is Robert M. Price.  I discovered him by way of studying Christianity as he is a biblical scholar, but his interests are greater than just Christianity.  I also learned he is a major fan of Lovecraft and the horror genre.  He is a very learned guy with a fairly wide grasp of many subjects from comic book superheroes to philosophy. 

I can’t say I agree with all of his political positions, but I always pay attention to what he has to say.  For this reason, I have his monthly essay column on e-mail notification: Zarathustra Speaks.

This month’s article is “Who Is Number One?”  He eventually posts his articles to his website, but since it’s not posted yet I’ll share it here because it is a truly great piece.

Let me just point out some quick commentary.  Price mentions Ligotti who is a fiction writer, but I’m not sure if Price is aware of Ligotti’s own non-fiction writing that touches upon the same issues in this article. 

Ligotti points out how some Existentialists try to make the seeming pointlessness of life in to a heroic endeavor such as with the story of Sisyphus.  I don’t remember Ligotti’s full argument offhand, but he basically sees this ploy of heroism as a way of not facing up to one’s true situation.  Blaming the gods can simply distract us from the rock that is before us.  However, it seems that Price is aware of this in his using The Prisoner as the larger context of his argument.  Number 6 discovers he is number 1.

Ligotti would take it a step further.  We can’t blame anyone else, but if we turn to ourselves we only discover there is nothing substantial there.  I suspect Price might have a similar view or at least would understand such a view.  The main difference between these two thinkers is that Price is more focused on the social and political.

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Who Is Number One?

Robert M. Price

I’ve just finished watching the new version of The Prisoner. I loved the original masterpiece of Patrick McGoohan, which aired first in 1966, with a mere 17 episodes. Co-creator McGoohan had wanted the series to last only seven weeks, but he knew he could not sell a package with so few episodes. The new Prisoner, by contrast, did have just six episodes, but for some reason they decided to broadcast two at a time, back to back, and on three nights straight. The individual episodes seemed to me to suffer slightly by being cobbled into what the viewer expected to be coherent two-hour episodes. In other words, there appeared to be drastic theme-shifts right in the middle of each two-hour program. But this did not prevent the new Prisoner from being complex and properly mysterious, albeit a bit tedious at times.

The original Prisoner was a major influence on me when I saw it back in 1967 (the first showing in America), and again the very next year, and then several times after that. There were Prisoner fan associations, but I could not join them because The Prisoner itself had taught me to make a fetish of individualism. Thus I would not, could not, join a group that would want someone like me as a member! Remember, too, what Kierkegaard imagined: the paradox, the absurdity, of a preacher against discipleship—who attracted disciples every time he spoke! But really there was no contradiction. I learned from The Prisoner that I had to march to the beat of my own drum, however amateurishly played, rather than memorizing the lines that were fed me by the catechists of church, society, peer group, or state.

The Prisoner originated as an allegory of reading: McGoohan was sick of playing British secret agent John Drake on Danger Man (Secret Agent in US circulation) and so he resigned, refused to do any more seasons, much to the dismay of his producers. But one of them, George Markstein, approached him with the plot for a new series, The Prisoner, which was so intriguing to him that it lured him back to television. In fact, in the opening sequence, when the hero arrives in his bald, bespectacled superior’s office and slams his fist down on a note with “I resign” scribbled across the envelope, the man was none other than George Markstein. Art imitated life. McGoohan had resigned abruptly from Markstein’s TV show but got “hijacked” into “The Village” (=t he new TV show). John Drake had stormed out of British Intelligence, so they spirited him away to a resort hotel of a maximum security prison. Patrick McGoohan had angrily quit his TV series, so the producers transferred him to another one!

Creator McGoohan’s own experience of free choice made less than free by both temptations and preferences reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods in Hades to shoulder a huge boulder up to a mountain peak, from whence it must always fall right back down. Then he had to descend the mountain carefully to retrieve the great rock and begin again. It was a doomed effort, but Albert Camus saw in it the invulnerable stolidity and even the triumph of Sisyphus who performed his hard labor (impossible to shirk) with the transcendence of inner distance and triumph. He refused to make it easier for himself by imagining there was after all some hidden purpose, that the gods must know best. He did not succumb to what we call the Stockholm Syndrome, coming to side with one’s oppressor rather than oneself: “I must have deserved it, I guess!” Sisyphus was a true man, a free man, because he did not kid himself that he deserved it, that a guy could get used to such stony crucifixion. He would betray himself if he became inured to the pain, if he accepted the justice of it. Think also of Ivan Karamazov who could never rejoin the Christian church as long as doing so would require him to acquiesce in the unexplained, unjustified culpability of a God who could and had allowed the suffering of innocent children. If I join up with him, I have to become a spin-doctor for a deity whose misdeeds I dare not recognize as such anymore.

McGoohan’s parable faithfully reflects the doomed irony of the human lot in that it realizes that, as in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (how I hate that title!), or the guests of the Hotel California, “we are all just prisoners here of our own device.” That is, we devised our own captivity (I think some listeners never understand the idiom). What we have here is an existential dilemma well posed in the implicit debate between two postmodern voices. Neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan wrote of the Law of the Father, by which every person becomes an individual subject (i.e., with thoughts, subjectivity, a viewpoint of his own), paradoxically, by being subjected to society’s norms and beliefs and values. You’re your own distinctive mix of the elements, but you do not start out like God, the Autogenes, self-begotten without origins or influences. Did you choose your genes? Did you choose your family environment? The period of history in which you live? The customs you must observe else be branded with the label “deviant”? One first becomes an individual, Lacan says, in the Mirror Stage in which one recognizes his or her own image among the legion of other humans surrounding oneself: “Oh! I get it! I am one of them! What they do, I can/will do!”   

What an odd and striking thing! Being a “prisoner” of defining rules is the precondition for becoming an individual insofar as one transcends them. And this is where the opposing voice of a pair of neo-Nietzcheans, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, comes in. They are keenly aware of the danger of inauthenticity, allowing (as Heidegger would say) das Mann (John Q. Public) to define one’s existence, prescribing one’s attitudes and behaviors as if one were a robot to be programmed. One must take responsibility for one’s own destiny, one’s own beliefs. And this means repudiating the stable and safe self society has provided in what Rush calls “the mass production zone” where “opinions are provided, the future predecided.” Rush again: “Everybody gotta elevate from the norm.” Amen, say Deleuze and Guattari, urging a Dionysian policy of ecstasy, of insanity as measured against the hobgoblin consistency of the Borg hive-mind.  

The schizo “produces himself as a free man, irresponsible, solitary, and joyous, finally able to do and say something simple in his own name, without asking permission; a desire lacking nothing, a flux that overcomes barriers and codes, a name that no longer designates any ego whatever. He has simply ceased being afraid of becoming mad” (Deleuze and Guattari quoted by Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, pp. 96-97)

Think of the policy of the old USSR, sending political dissidents to insane asylums since they must be crazy if they denied “reality” as defined by the State. (“That’s All-State’s stand, tovarish!”) Massimo Pigliucci publicly once called me insane because of my political preferences. It seemed transparently clear to him that our country must obey the dictates of the United Nations because it’s the closest thing we have to a Star Trek style world government. Maybe the patients are running the asylum. But Deleuze and Guatarri contend that all psychoanalysis is coercive insofar as it seeks to reimpose the Law of the Father upon an inchoate psyche where it did not at first “take.” Psychoanalysis wants to write a script for the self and see to it that the patient sticks to it.

The major book of Deleuze and Guattari is Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In it they argue for a new persona, that of the “schizo,” defined (or rather undefined) as we have just seen. Schizoid man will dare, as Paul Feyerabend (Farewell to Reason and Against Method) said, to pursue all manner of trajectories whether their mutual consistency yet appears on the horizon or not. He will rejoice and desire at a pre-symbolic level, like children and primitives, heedless of the narratives others would use to define him, the rules they would use to confine him. Real selfhood can and must reject the imposition of the coin-value-stamp as assigned by society: those who behave and obey are good, those eccentrics are bad (and here we mean heretics, not criminals, only thought criminals, not those who harm and despoil others). If I read my friend and colleague Tom Flynn right, he would side with Deleuze and Guattari here, which is why he rejects all catechism, all elevations of anything as “sacred,” and all rites of passage where society, again, stamps its likeness on the new-minted coin.

Don Cupitt sums up the dilemma:  

the conservative will say with Freud and Lacan: ‘There has to be culture, and it has to be the one we’ve got; for without culture desire is formless and chaotic.’ At the far opposite extreme, thoroughgoing utopians like Deleuze and Guattari will say: ‘There does not have to be a culture at all. Culture is fascistic! Flee from it, be a nomad and let your body be de-territorialized, a body without organs; for the differentiation, scaling and hierarchizing of the body is always carried out for the purpose of binding it.’ [See 1 Corinthians 12:14-26] (Don Cupitt, The Long-Legged Fly: A Theology of Language and Desire, p. 115)

It ought to be clear that, no matter how long and deeply entrenched, our socio-moral order is a construction of the imagination maintained by universal acquiescence, sharing of the beliefs upon which it is based. Here I must recommend, for the millionth time, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas V. Luckmann, as well as a subsequent salute/sequel to that book by John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality. Also Thomas Ligotti’s great story “The Mystics of Muhlenberg,” which I had the honor to be the first to publish, in Crypt of Cthulhu, # 51). The new Prisoner brings this theme into prominence by introducing the element that the seeming reality of the Village is “only” a shared dream (much as in The Matrix), generated and sustained by “dreamers,” foremost among them the comatose wife of the reigning Number Two. When and if she awakens, the fabric of reality in the Village begins to unravel, sink holes opening in the ground and opening only on an Abyss. She is like Lord Dunsany’s sleeping god Mana Yood Sushai. As long as he remains asnooze, the dream of our world continues on. God forbid he should one day awake! But really we are the dreamers, the hypnotized and self-hypnotized, since it is our tacit consent that keeps the “lusion” going. That’s why the Soviet Union fell: one day everyone, both citizens and soldiers, simply stopped taking it seriously. That, I think is what John and Yoko had in mind when their billboards proclaimed: “War is over if you want it.” And yet it is not quite so simple. Those who believe in war will savage those who do not (a fact the present US administration seems unable to grasp). So, instead of discarding it, we must learn to see what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the relevance of an impossible ideal.” Again, listen to Cupitt: 

Deleuzian nomadism is in danger of being a flight into daydreams. Against it, we have decided that culture is necessary to bring the self into being, and to give desire form. There has to be culture to give us embodiment, but the precise terms of the concordant between desire and culture are not immutable. They can be changed, and culture could be made much less oppressive than it is. [Cupitt, p. 126] 

Gay marriage would be one obvious way of loosening things up: still a species of social order, not license, but more open. The principle requires much more thought and application, the balance ever liable to shift (as Aristotle already saw).

We catch an important echo (whether studied or spontaneous) with Deleuze and Guattari; their “schizo” ideal echoes in two Prisoner episode titles: “The Schizoid Man” in the original series, “Schizoid” in the new one. But Patrick McGoohan was nowhere near as optimistic as Don Cupitt. And the new Prisoner follows McGoohan here. We can never escape or authentically accept the restriction of our freedom at the hands of—ourselves! Remember: when the prisoner unmasks Number One in the final episode, he stares into his own cynically cackling visage! He flees the Village, believing he has set in motion its destruction, only to arrive back home where it instantly becomes clear that he has always lived in the Village. The Village is as wide as the world, the social world as defined by human beings. It is impossible to be a self apart from that programming–and that is the tragedy! A bad thing, not a good one. Our inborn thirst for freedom can never be satisfied, and thus it should be no surprise that the “angry young man” eventually accepts the position as Grand Inquisitor when the old one retires. As in the new version of The Prisoner, Six must eventually become Two. But as the original version tells us, this is only because he has always been One. 

So says Zarathustra.

Thoughts about Horror

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.’”