ARTICLE: “Past and Future: Esoteric and Exoteric Philosophy in Weird Fiction”
As with everything else, the philosophy behind dark, weird, and horrific fiction has evolved over time. This philosophical evolution of horror fiction arguably began in earnest with Edgar Allan Poe—though Poe also nurtured a sense of romantic love, which conquers, as well as defeats, his harshest poetry, e.g. “Alone.” Bleaker still, and more callous in his disregard of the human race, is H.P. Lovecraft, grandfather of the grim, who described his philosophical position as the following: “…by nature a skeptic and analyst … [I] settled early into my present general attitude of cynical materialism.”[i]
Following this line of thinking, the horror and weird fiction genres evolved from the state of Poe to a state of Lovecraftian philosophical thinking. But if we turn our attention to the postmodern, a new speciation occurs in the writings of Thomas Ligotti, representing a philosophy so hopeless, malicious, and unorthodox that it gives readers pause, unintentionally flipping mental levers and bringing about unwelcome psychological changes.
We will compare the philosophical dispositions of Lovecraft and Ligotti to determine whether the latter should be rightfully accepted as the prevailing leader-of-the-moment, to rule over the kingdoms of horror and supernatural fiction as the new dominant species.
Two of the best available sources to assist us in this investigation are Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race and S.T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West. I enjoin the reader to purchase both these fascinating books and to study them carefully when coming to their own conclusions. Additionally, a similar study has been attempted in the excellent essay “The Masters’ Eyes Shining with Secrets: H.P. Lovecraft and His Influence on Thomas Ligotti” by Matt Cardin, originally published in the first issue of Joshi’s journal Lovecraft Annual in 2007.
It is crucial to note that while Lovecraft began his career as a Victorian he later, toward the end of his life, slipped closer toward modernism and relativity[ii], helping make the transition into what would become of the weird fiction genre. By the same measure, Ligotti’s postmodern (or post-postmodern, meta-modern?) literature seems to point the way to what will next become of the genre. Ligotti’s method is what I would call esoteric, while Lovecraft’s ideas embody a more exoteric philosophical worldview. Hence Ligotti will be treated as the esotericist, Lovecraft as the exotericist[iii].
As I see it, the main difference between the philosophies of Ligotti and Lovecraft is somewhat ineffable, untenable, yet perfectly apprehensible to any discerning weird fiction enthusiast. That which Lovecraft houses in conventional and classical forms is dismantled and deconstructed by Ligotti, molded into an unrecognizable body of concepts that are, being postmodern, not so much rooted in anything external despite Ligotti’s efforts to cite and analyze “academic” sources.[iv] His view is, rather, entirely his own—i.e., that the reality human beings inhabit is actually an illusion of unconscious denial and medical materialism; therefore, humanity would do well to wipe itself out by voluntary means, by avowing never to have any more children.
Ligotti’s philosophy is so dark and bizarre that it could easily be mistaken for an editorial out of The Onion, or least something deliberately satirical, which is due to the unconventional nature of his position, as well as his utter dismissal of the physical world. “Naked apes or incarnate angels we may believe ourselves to be, but not human puppets,” he writes, revealing his concentration on deconstruction, arriving past conventional philosophical and ontological notions, ultimately coming to something inner, or at the very least something that moves beyond constructed Self—in this case, that we are not Selves, and that that which we identify with as our Self is actually a puppet constructed of a largely illusory existence; only the horrors have any reality.
Lovecraft on the other hand, the “cynical materialist,” would put his stake in Darwin’s evolution. In his patchwork regalia, the staunch Victorian adherent Lovecraft might balk at any attempt to self-referentialize the world. Only toward the end of his life did he make any minor concessions in this regard. Rather, he found contentment in preserving Anglo-Saxon architecture—better yet, resurrecting the Greek—holding fast to Enlightenment ideals, scientific progress, and civilizing the uncivilized (politically speaking). By this view, H.P. is certainly not interested in arriving at somewhere inner, but instead focused on the external.
Ligotti dismisses Augustine while simultaneously undermining Darwin, presenting the concept of humans as puppets, a concept that could find congruence with illusion or false-self, as taught in Buddhism and/or Brahmanism. But Ligotti goes further, stressing the utter enormity of human existence, the foulness and unfortunateness of being incarnated. Further still, that humans who are alive have been consigned to a cosmic meat grinder of matter which will ultimately pulverize them with suffering. Darker than Lovecraft’s pseudo-rational view, and yet such a description of the universe is not unlike the Wheel of Karma and demon Mara in the Buddhist doctrines, hence necessitating the need for enlightenment and escape from rebirth. Ligotti, however, does not take it in a religious direction, much less a promissory one, though he does reference some spiritual or religious works, including Buddhism’s The Dhammapada:
Look at your body—
A painted puppet, a poor toy
Of jointed parts ready to collapse,
A diseased and suffering thing
With a head full of false imaginings.
In Joshi’s unmatched work H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, the author traces the line of Lovecraft’s philosophical development, drawing heavily on a singular document: “A Confession of Unfaith,” published in 1922 in The Liberal. According to Joshi Lovecraft, following his Biblical upbringing, became influenced by the Greek Atomists and Epicureans, and later went on to read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, eventually finding his way to Ernst Haeckel and Thomas Henry Huxley, the two main philosophers who would influence his philosophical development.
One of the concepts Huxley advanced, in addition to evolution, was the idea of consciousness as epiphenomenon—meaning that one’s mind, or what one normally thinks of as one’s personality, is not interdependent of or prior to the physical brain, but is rather a byproduct of it. Physical events in the brain are seen as the cause of mental events, therefore thinking can have no effect on physical events. In other words, consciousness has no reality divorced of the brain.
This idea may resemble Ligotti when he lapses into his medical materialism—i.e., consciousness as accident of evolution, product of neurons, chemical reactions, and synapses firing in the brain, that mental illness occurs when someone consciously faces this fact—however there is a curious spin on Ligotti’s writings which renders everything—all the neurons too—an illusion.
The Huxley affinity is significant in identifying Lovecraft as the exoteric because it sheds more light on what that it means; namely, that for Lovecraft whatever was permanent or real existed outside of the human being and revealed itself in the external world, impressing itself on the individual, so the thought of possessing a soul or some inner divinity would seem contradictory. Ligotti’s refutation of something like a soul (if the idea of it could be considered as not being an illusion in and of itself) arises from his inner experience, his inner reckoning, not just a scientific rational fact, but his response to having been incarnated.
Joshi argues that Lovecraft was anything but a philosopher by trade, and likely misread much of the philosophy he did read. The altar at which he prayed (by Joshi’s measure, and I would agree) is ultimately the one of science, what might be called Victorian scientism, although he suggests Lovecraft did finally move closer to embracing modernism. In other words, although Lovecraft labeled himself a “cynical materialist,” the ethical modifier is unfounded. Later his avowed pessimism revealed itself as what is true to scientism: indifference.
For Lovecraft the objective world is indifferent to us, uncaring, unconcerned, and adhering to its own objective laws and principles without taking account of human beings, much like the cosmic nightmares in his fiction.[v] For him, this outer world is the more real, with human beings and their subjective beliefs as secondary, even insignificant. And yet while never letting go of materialism, determinism, and his scientific atheism, Lovecraft did, according to Joshi, develop “to a position roughly akin to Russellian humanism.”[vi] However largely he promoted and identified with what I would label as Victorian scientism, and I would go so far as to argue that scientism is Lovecraft’s overarching stance. Admittedly, reducing a complex thinker like Lovecraft to the generality of scientism may seem hasty, but it is a necessary step in comparing him to Ligotti.
Returning to Ligotti, what can a reader make of his strange body of weird fiction and even stranger philosophical book The Conspiracy against the Human Race? His stories are not the same in style or content as Lovecraft, though a definite parallel can be drawn. But when one endeavors to diagnose the difference between the two, the result is that an abyss opens, and the investigator plunges to a world devoid of foundation, where anything is possible (metaphysically speaking). This is due to Ligotti’s twisted and enigmatic worldview, and his nonfiction book is a prime example in that it communicates something inner and hidden—which is why he is our esotericist.
In 1854, American Transcendental philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote “most men lead quiet lives of desperation” in his masterwork of isolation Walden. Though Ligotti’s philosophical concepts are esoteric, this is as good a quote as any to attach to them: a) it signifies that Ligotti’s views relate to that inner part of (wo)man, rather than outer reality or natural existence, and b) it reveals the quality of that inner life, namely one of desperation; further, of dread. In a 2006 interview between Matt Cardin and Thomas Ligotti[vii], Cardin stated:
“You have also told me that at least one acquaintance of yours who read an early draft of The Conspiracy against the Human Race simply couldn’t get a handle on the fact that in its dark and despairing diagnosis of life, you’re talking about the way the world seems, and has to seem, to you as a specific individual, as opposed to advancing its outlook as objective truth.”
This anecdotal revelation is significant because here Ligotti himself is concerned with the personal, in sharp contrast to Lovecraft’s heady Victorian scientism. Ligotti responds in the interview by saying this:
“I couldn’t possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists.… The essay [The Conspiracy against the Human Race] is essentially about how humans can’t handle unpleasant realities and what those realities are. But we’re predisposed not to think about those things in a way that will affect how we live, or to think about them at all in most cases. I know that’s exactly how I am myself. If I weren’t, I would be in worse shape than I already am.”
Even Ligotti, then, leads a quiet life of desperation—as do so many others—desperation arising from within and from an aversion to that which is without—science and nature, humans, human progress, Anglo-Saxon architecture, animals, everything else—which is one of the main threads of Ligotti’s philosophical stance: that while the real horrors arise from within us, in response to the outer world, that outer world is essentially unreal, and even if it is real we can never truly know it, and so the only response (or at least Ligotti’s own personal response) is to eradicate and obliterate the self and all future selves which are causing the desperation.
Take this line of reasoning a step in the religious direction, particularly toward Buddhism, and eradicating the self becomes a means of escaping from this illusory world of suffering, and a transmigration into something more real—even if that more realness is nothingness.
Ligotti’s mental condition, anhedonia, a condition that makes it impossible to enjoy anything, becomes clearly associated with the futileness (even downright vileness) of the external world, which is composed of nothing but suffering and dissatisfaction. And yet, for Ligotti, there is the universal falsity ever propagated that “being alive is all right.” Clearly for Ligotti being alive is not all right; what’s more, the outer world which proclaims itself to be all right—and not only all right, but striving toward scientific and intellectual perfection—is nothing but a great and terrific lie.
So by labeling Ligotti as the esotericist, I do not mean to suggest that he thinks subjective inner consciousness is a good thing. In his own words, such consciousness is “malignantly useless.” I wish only to point out that Ligotti focuses on it, whereas Lovecraft focused on the external and the results of scientific inquiry into the physical world. For I argue that the esotericist—Ligotti in this case—is presently more fitted to rule over the school of weird fiction and its adherents. That may be why Ligotti has had such an impact on the community.
In 1952, theologian Paul Tillich described the Age of Anxiety in his book The Courage to Be as an age of meaninglessness. This term has been popularized to characterize the times in which we currently live. The anxiety refers to all areas of human society and life, including the debunking of religion by science, the loss of meaning via modernity, and the eruption of subconscious emotions and fears as a result depth psychology. Nearly the entire world has been affected by the anxious age, which is why Ligotti could become the perfect spokesperson for it, particularly within the genres of weird and supernatural fiction.
After all, is not Ligotti a clear example of the conditions that arise from exposure to this anxious age? Is not Ligotti dealing with these conditions in an esoteric, inner manner, while proposing a possible solution—eradication of Self, of all Selves. His short stories and nonfictional book offer a mental resonance for modern-day readers, a disturbing resonance which closely aligns with our present age, whereas Lovecraft’s science-based fear mongering could be outmoded.
But I’m not making the case here, only offering the idea for consideration that the philosophical evolution of horror fiction spans from the Romanticism of Poe, the exoteric Victorian scientism of Lovecraft, the esoteric postmodern deconstruction of Self in Ligotti, to… what? What will the future of weird fiction look like? Undoubtedly, it will mirror the state of consciousness in which it is developed, perhaps a strange meta-balance of both the eso- and exoteric. But it is interesting to wonder after what bizarre forms these horrors might take for succeeding generations
[i] Joshi, H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, p. 1.
[ii] Joshi, H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, p. 5.
[iii] Esoteric: from the Greek esōterikos, meaning into or further in. Exoteric: from the Greek exōterikos, literally meaning external or on the outside.
[iv] In The Conspiracy against the Human Race, Ligotti draws from German philosopher Julius Bahnse (),
[v] See Part 1, Chapter 1, of H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West
[vi] Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, social critic and political activist whose metaphysical and ethical views were largely skeptical and materialistic, though he was more an agnostic than an atheist. For quote see: Joshi, H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, p. 5
[vii] From The New York Review of Science Fiction Issue 218, Vol. 19, No. 2 (October 2006). See: http://www.teemingbrain.com/interview-with-thomas-ligotti/