A Collage of Ruminations and Quotations Pertaining to The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti

By Max Finkel*

“Hell, purgatory, and heaven are not for us, except insofar as all three are here and now, on this earth. The great tragic poets knew all three, and their visions can illuminate our hell.” (Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy And Philosophy)

If there is a conspiracy against the human race then who are the conspirators? For Thomas Ligotti, there is not a localized origin point that serves as the locus of propagation. Rather, the conspiracy emanates amorphously, spilling itself through time and eerily entwining itself between beings in a clandestine treaty with optimism the stain of its treatise. The conspiracy remains concealed for many reasons – among them repression, denial, and the bare verity that the human psyche bears an unconscious feature which is the storehouse of pre-cognitive activity, lifelong traumas, unspeakable ideas and unspecified strangeness. Etymologically, the word conspiracy is derived from the Latin conspirare, which means “to agree” or “to plot.” A further breakdown could be made ~ con = “together with” + spirare = “breathe.” What clues remain hidden in this term which was carefully placed within the title of Ligotti’s book—an “agreement,” a “plot,” “together with,” “breathe.” If there is a foundation to human existence and to the living in general, it is the activity of breathing. If there is a foundation that connects the varieties of human cultures, it is the evolutionary impulse to continue, to multiply, to persist…to live on.

“It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable)

In Ligotti’s view, part and parcel with human existence as we know it is an idea that is the lifeblood of a common style towards life, so prevalent that is has become a norm. And a norm for so long that it has become an unquestioned, or unconscious axiom, from which our thoughts, ideas, and responses to existence issue from. Simply stated, this given is the belief that “life is all right.”  Through a resuscitation of a rich variety of pessimisms, Ligotti provides a contestation against this affirmative valuation and offers a liturgical contemplation of horror, death, and the misplaced meaning of it all still yet to be found. To any who have tasted alienation, estrangement, or any variation of feeling deeply that things as they are are out of joint, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race provides a peculiar form of deliverance through an invitation to not shoo one’s ontological angst away but welcome one’s queasiness as clarity’s signature. Making the conspiracy conscious involves a thorough uncoupling of Life and Happiness. Many systems of thought equate these two and set up an equation along the lines of – the more the human knows life’s inner machinery, the happier they will become.  For Ligotti, following Peter Wessell Zappfe, knowing Life more clearly is knowing the horror more clearly, the interminable givens of our predicament – sickness, old age, death, loss, heartbreak, etc. Is Ligotti’s book simply the outpouring of a distressed human convinced that this, just this, should not be? Or is there something more at work beneath the surface, an ethics perhaps and maybe even a moral stance? Is this a something more that is rarely unearthed because the eyes of the conspiracy enact a supreme phobia of anything that does not have a happy ending or a grand transformation waiting in the wings? For Ligotti, pessimism begins from the ground and the human misfortune of being a “hunk of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.” This is the most honest starting point for thought according to Ligotti. We don’t have to begin here, we can begin our thinking elsewhere, with an assumed transcendent awareness who we actually are or from a hidden utopia which is always already – puppets held in the left hand of the puppet master, along for the ride ~ in the puppet master we will forever abide. There are countless places to begin our thinking, Ligotti, encourages the reader to begin in the flesh and in the unspoken, that which is absent from common visions and ideas about life. He is interested in a mundane silence that is the tacit terrain we try so hard to keep hidden from the world and even from our self. Ligotti is an existentialist of sorts, holding tightly to death as the most formative feature of existence. Death is not something to get over, nor can we. Death can be obscured through a variety of strategies – including isolation, anchoring, distraction and sublimation – but it forever maintains its station as that which is just over the horizon and just under the surface, the more one digs the more it recedes and the faster one runs the quicker it vanishes. To hide ourselves from the reality of finitude, human life becomes an ongoing activity of minimizing our consciousness and an ongoing repression of this “biological paradox” that we are. “This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are…” Is the activity of meditation a methodology of minimizing or maximizing consciousness? I leave that for you to decide.

“No doubt, critics will try to indict Ligotti of bad faith by claiming that the writing of this book is driven by the imperatives of the life that he seeks to excoriate. But the charge is trumped-up, since Ligotti explicitly avows the impossibility for the living to successfully evade life’s grip. This admission leaves the cogency of his diagnosis intact, for as Ligotti knows full well, if living is lying, then even telling the truth about life’s life will be a sublimated lie.” (Ray Brassier, Foreword to The Conspiracy Against the Human Race)

It is becoming more common to speak of the human as always already a mere mouthpiece of a culturally constructed worldview or ideology. To become a stooge of this sort is to enter into a level of automaticity in which the thinking faculty mutates into a mimic like faculty that merely reflects the positions of those segments of breathing earth we have deemed as on the right track in life. I write as one of these stooges. Most are stooges or “puppets” and I say this without an ounce of animosity or derogatory flare. Ligotti is up to something different in his text than simply naming customary ways of subject formation and diagnosing kinds of subjects through kinds of language. Ligotti is concerned not with what is said, but with what is not said. Faithful to the term conspiracy, he brings to light that which cannot be said without condemning the speaker to an everlasting stranger. A mute covenant that “life is all right” forms the very milieu of human life. Ligotti’s basic definition of an optimistic posture is holding to the idea that life should be as opposed to not be. A pessimism is that which begins from a different starting point, not from the idea that life should be but from the clear comprehension of the “’brotherhood of suffering between everything alive.” He aptly names the prevalent and highly conditioned attitude of optimism in all of its pretty guises and the way in which the optimistic trait is capable of copulating with almost any vision of life – a rebirth, an awakening, a release can always be inserted after any period of disdain, disgust, or disenchantment. Ligotti’s book advocates for a suspension of tragedy as birth canal to some more authentic and fulfilling life and invites the reader to remain with that which we are ever so quick, if we look at all, to pass over in silence.

“As a fact, we cannot give suffering precedence in either our individual or collective lives. We have to get on with things, and those who give precedence to suffering will be left behind. They fetter us with their sniveling. We have someplace to go and must believe we can get there, wherever that may be. And to conceive that there is a ‘brotherhood of suffering between everything alive’ would disable us from getting anywhere. We are preoccupied with the good life, and step by step are working toward a better life. What we do, as a conscious species, is set markers for ourselves. Once we reach one marker, we advance to the next — as if we were playing a board game we think will never end, despite the fact that it will, like it or not. And if you are too conscious of not liking it, then you may conceive of yourself as a biological paradox that cannot live with its consciousness and cannot live without it. And in so living and not living, you take your place with the undead and the human puppet.”

One stark contradiction that Ligotti focuses on is the peculiarity of a very common double commitment ~ an allegiance to life as that which should be in a twosome with the fidelity to minimize/eliminate the anguish of earthlings. This vow to participate in sufferings cessation should sound familiar to any who have come across Buddhist thought and for this reason Ligotti dedicates a couple of sections to hashing out the possibility that Buddhism is a form of pessimism. The shared bond that establishes the connection between Buddhism and pessimism is their discipline to keep the attempt to understand the intricacies of distress at the forefront of why they partake in life at all. Just as there are myriad kinds of Buddhism’s, there are myriad kinds of pessimisms and Ligotti seeks to resurrect many thinkers in this lineage who have been shorn from the tree of mainstream Philosophy and common knowledge. As the tree of common knowledge and most of what we are force fed in our pedagogical upbringing is rooted in the unquestioned truism- the womb of most ideologies – that life is all right and should be. For Ligotti – in textual dialogue with Karl Popper’s “negative utilitarianism” – to remain faithful to the vow of eliminating suffering will eventually lead one into the terrain of antinatalism, an approach to human suffering which claims that if ending suffering is our aim than minimizing reproduction is the most efficient and effective means to fulfill this aspiration.

“And similarly, they should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle — the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.” (Karl Popper, Conjecture and Refutations)

This writing is not an argument for antinatalism, but an appreciation of the trickiness of a fundamental trait of Buddhist thought. Anointing human suffering and its cessation as the centerpiece of our raison d’être is what brought me to Gautama’s ideas and what keeps me coming back no matter how valid the critiques I am exposed to.  The compass is pointed in the right direction in my mind. Like Greek Tragedy, like pessimism, like Buddhism, and any tradition of thought that attempts to remain true to the heartbreaking and paradoxical condition of all in existence, staying with the trouble and staying with that which is dislocated is valiant and worthwhile even after one discovers that everything is inherently without meaning or in Ligotti’s lexicon, “MALIGNANTLY USELESS”. This orientation would situate me within what Ligotti refers to as a “heroic pessimist”, an individual who turns toward and tarries with that “something pernicious” which “lurks” behind the scenes of life and “makes a nightmare of our world”, admits that this “pernicious something” can only be modestly minimized (never cessated), and despite this realization is willing to participate in the collective endeavor of making a better world.

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho)

The heroic pessimist is not better than the pessimist, nor is the optimist better than the antinatalist. To read this as argument for one or the other is not in accord with my intention. The aim is to complexify a fundamental and, in my opinion, righteous feature of Buddhist thought and the Bodhisattvic aspiration which deals with the unruly commitment to extinguish the suffering of all sentient beings – be this through spiritual, psychic, political or social change. To remain faithful to this aim brings one closer to the conspiracy that lurks beneath the covers – loyalty to extinguishing suffering (necessary and unnecessary) may be synonymous with fidelity to thwarting offspring production. As long as life is all right (pre- or post- awakening), does one remain heretical to the Buddhist commitment to end suffering? (enter commentaries that bring nuance to the difference between pain and suffering / ego death, identity transmutation, and the possibility that the self that is suffering is pure phantasmagoria). Ligotti’s pessimism begins in tragedy and ends in tragedy. For Buddhism to not comply with the conspiracy that Ligotti is naming, it will have to remain faithful to Dukkha and maximum fidelity to the first noble truth may result in a self-unraveling and produce something entirely novel. There is Dukkha’s Buddhism, Nibbana’s Buddhism and a human choice to make; and in that choice the conspiracy will be felt and tasted. For in that choice, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is confronted and it may be this conspiracy that keeps Buddhism, as we know it in the West, in tact. And in truth, this conspiracy is one that I am currently unwilling to fully part with, as I am not disposed to admit that life is all wrong and should not be either. Condemned to be in between and in the middle, impossible vows issue forth in adherence to impossible demands and I remain in utter respect for those who attempt the impossible, to cease suffering without ceasing the species.

“We know what verdict is reserved for those foolhardily enough to dissent from the common conviction according to which “being alive is all right,” to borrow an insistent phrase from the volume at hand. Disputants of the normative buoyancy of our race can expect to be chastised for their ingratitude, upbraided for their cowardice, patronized for their shallowness. Where self-love provides the indubitable index of psychic health, its default can only be seen as a symptom of psychic debility.” (Ray Brassier, Foreword to The Conspiracy Against the Human Race)

Ligotti withholds from making the connection between a heightened consciousness of the tragedy of human life and the subsequent realization that this knowledge will lead an individual to an intensification of the grandeur of the possibility of being alive at all. This idea is uncommon in many of the circles that I have been amongst. A more common view is that a heightened awareness of the tragedy of life leads one into an increased experience of the preciousness of life and in turn, the opportunity to be at all becomes the supreme value and gift. Tied into this progression is an idea about how to nudge a human being to increase their level of care for their communities and the earth community in its entirety. I kept waiting for this move to happen but Ligotti is militant to not go down this road.  With every turn of the page, the reader will likely pose the question, what is the point of this kind of exposure? Is it a total waste of time to entertain a vision of life whose fundamental aim is not to increase the voltage of how amped we should feel about being alive? Many texts of this sort do well in their ability to name the “pernicious something” that haunts our everyday. But in most others, bringing the ineffable horror closer is secretly a means to a more fulfilling life and serves as that which provides the bandwidth to download and actualize a revolutionary authenticity that hovers each person in potentia.  

“We put our faith in pluralism, not in censorship. We study not one scripture, one philosopher, or a single poet, but expose ourselves to many. There is no better way to liberate men from the narrowness of their moral and intellectual imagination, to develop an awareness of alternatives, and to show how other human beings feel and think.” (Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy And Philosophy)

Ligotti successfully challenges the stereotype of the pessimist through this radically honest piece of writing. After reading it, one may be struck not necessarily with how much one agrees with Ligotti’s position, but with the conviction that the pessimist is not the failed optimist nor they have not gone deep enough or trained hard enough. Instead, pessimism is a legitimate response to Being and it is the conspiracy that keeps a text like this better left unread. The pessimist is an endangered species that ought to be preserved. We need a pluralism in which those who challenge the inherent goodness of life are not conspired against.  Fostering sincere dialogue between contradictory positions is critical and for this kind of encounter to occur, one’s absolutes will have to be adjourned to pave the way for “hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones” to meet and tell tales about their shared paradoxical predicament of having to incite alternatives with no panacea-like insight in sight.

*See Max Finkel’s bio hereAll unattributed quotations are from Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010).

Image; The Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave.

19 Comment on “Materials Toward A Buddhohorror

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