Interview with Thomas Ligotti
The version of The Conspiracy against the Human Race that was published at Thomas Ligotti Online in 2006 is going to be published in 2010 in a greatly expanded version. What prompted this expansion and revision of the original text?
The more I contemplated The Conspiracy against the Human Race, the more potential it seemed to have beyond what began as more or less a series of disconnected meditations. Now it’s an integrated work that requires the reader to read from beginning to end in order to get the overarching point of the book as a vehicle for both discussing horror in life and literature and to a degree instilling a sense of horror. Hence the subtitle: “A Contrivance of Horror.”
The term “conspiracy” seems to imply that there is something/somebody that conspires (something that is also hinted at in your story “The Shadow, the Darkness,” in which we hear for the first time about “the unpublished philosophical treatise An Investigation into the Conspiracy against the Human race). T.E.D. Klein’s collection Dark Gods was translated into German as Verschwörung der Götter (“Conspiracy of the Gods”). I think this title makes the “gods” much more rational than the original one. What made you choose the term “conspiracy”?
I used the word “conspiracy” in the usual sense and for the usual reasons—to designate manipulative activities unknown to those whom they manipulate. The perpetrator of the conspiracy in “The Shadow, the Darkness” is the title entity which the character Grossvogel discovers to be the essence of reality. After a period of physical and psychic alterations to his being, he awakes to what the world is all about—not the art he had been practicing in order to make a name for himself but simply the functioning of his body as an organism without an illusory identity. This is a common account among mystics who have “realized” that they and the rest of the world are unreal, the only reality being a physical force that drives human beings to continue to exist. Anything beyond pure existence is a sham, a deception to satisfy our sense for a greater meaning to our lives than they actually have. This is also the general basis of Conspiracy against the Human Race, although in it’s taken much farther and explicated in more detail as to its workings, purpose, and effects.
In 1983 the German scholar Ulrich Horstmann published the philosophical text Das Untier (meaning “beast,” but also “non-animal” and referring to mankind). In that work he postulated that because of the accumulation of nuclear weapons it had finally become possible to get rid of the “Untier” and that ruins without people would be the real Garden of Eden. I’m not quite sure if there’s an English translation. It caused quite some controversy when it came out. Are you familiar with this work and do you think The Conspiracy against the Human Race will also be met by hostile reactions?
No, I’m not familiar with Ulrich Horstmann or Das Untier. But his idea that the planet earth would be a better place for itself is familiar nowadays. I cite the obscure group the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which advocates the demise of our species by conscious attrition for the purpose of keeping this planet in operation as an organic hothouse. I have no interest in the motives of this movement, although any group that advocates that human beings cease reproducing has my moral support. My interest in the discontinuance of our race is extinction for humanity’s sake, a putting an end to human suffering as soon as possible. This can be accomplished only be putting an end to our species as soon as possible.
NOTE: Since completing this interview sometime last month, I came to find that Ulrich Horstmann edited and introduced a selection of works by Philipp Mainländer, a philosopher I discuss in Conspiracy. I have a copy of the book, but since it’s written in German I barely read the introduction and cannot deal at all with Mainländer’s nineteenth-century poetry-philosophy. Fortunately, there is enough secondary literature on Mainländer, which I cite in Conspiracy, to enable a useful telling of his ideas for my purposes. The only thing I’ve been able to find by Horstmann in English is an essay on aphorisms published in a collection of literary criticism.
I don’t know if you’ve read the poet Robinson Jeffers. I thought his idea of inhumanism, i.e., removing humanity from the centre of creation, might appeal to you a bit whereas I’m not quite sure that the pantheistic elements in his poetry (”the transhuman magnificience“ of mountains, etc.) is of any interest for you. Are you familiar with him?
Yes, I’m familiar with Jeffers. Like the members of VHEM, he has a sentimental, romanticized feeling for this planet and its life forms. People like Jeffers believe that there is something innately wonderful about the earth. There isn’t. There’s only the belief in some or most people’s minds and the feeling in some or most people’s bodies that there is something innately wonderful about the earth. Plenty of people for various reasons do not share this belief and this feeling. Depressives, for instance. In his “Dejection: An Ode,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes about some flowers or something: “I see, not feel, how beautiful they are.” By this symptom alone, Coleridge could be declared as clinically depressed, and perhaps anhedonic, even if by the end of “Dejection” he starts feeling how beautiful things are. (How else could he have written the poem in the first place if he hadn’t already recovered from the effects that inspired it?) The beauty he saw before was all in his head. It’s not in the interest of people in general to relegate the beauty that they see in the world, or the ugliness for that matter, to something outside themselves. This would signify that we’re all trapped in a world of our own psycho-physical making. Next we would begin wondering if we’re the way we think we are or if what we think we are is all in our imagination. That would demoralize or terrify most people.
Jeffers also wrote in a poem his “Hurt Hawks,” “I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” whereas you once stated in an interview when asked about the difference between cats and people: “It's always a sad occasion when a cat dies.” Do you see parallels?
Not really. Depending on the person or the cat and your perspective on them, it may or may not be sad when one of them dies or both of them die. Or you may be so depressed that you don’t care if one or the other or both die. As I said above, Jeffers sentimentalized nature. He was also intensely misanthropic. That’s the way he was made and probably the way he would make everyone else. All writing is pedantic to some extent. In any case, it’s not as if he could choose to be some other way.
In “The Shadow, the Darkness” the stomach problems of Grossvogel seem to give him a deeper insight, a greater awareness of the nature of the world. Have you ever felt something similar?
Indeed I have. Suffering imparts more lessons about life than joy. And there is no greater love than to give up your own dope to your brother. Just thought I’d throw that one in.
I found that your tales of “corporate horror” are unique in illustrating the horrors of the workplace within the genre of the weird tale. Would you say that they are some of your best works? Would you say that the results can compensate you for what originally caused the writing of these stories?
I definitely don’t think that My Work Is Not Yet Done is one of my best books. In an interview in Publishers Weekly I said that I wish I hadn’t been moved to write it, or something to that effect. Even though most of my stories are autobiographical in some way, I would have preferred not to bring my work life into my writing. Actually, the story began as a film script, which largely accounts for it’s being unlike most of my writing. And ultimately, I would have to say that the stories did compensate me for what originally caused their writing. Two of them appeared in print before they were collected in My Work Is Not Yet Done. At least one of them must have gotten passed around the department in which I worked because my boss called me into his office and had a talk with me. Apparently, some of my co-workers had worries about my potential for violence. And I didn’t mind having these particular co-workers filled with such worries.
Maybe one of my favourite of your stories is “Gas Station Carnivals”. The way how the fragile layers of “reality” crumble (something that can be found throughout your work) is amazing. Was there anything particular that inspired it?
One day I woke up and said aloud “Gas Station Carnivals.” I thought was a good title for a story, so I wrote a story to go with the title. I’ve done that a number of times.
You mentioned that you wished you had more time and energy to do musical things. Have you ever thought of pursuing that path further and record a follow-up to the mini-CD The Unholy City (by the way, was that an allusion to the text by Charles G. Finney?) that accompanied the screenplay “Crampton”?
The Unholy City was just a negative version of what are commonly called “Holy Cities.” And, no, I don’t plan any projects in the future.
Your attitude towards the belief in God(s) is rather clear. Do you have any sympathy for campaigns by atheists (there were a lot of discussions in England and Germany about rather harmless statements on buses) or do you feel they are rather preaching to the converted?
All four of the big names—Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett—were absolutely preaching to the converted. No atheist can do anything else. I found that Hitchens and Harris’s debates with the opposition more entertaining that those of Dawkins and Dennett because the latter two tried to provide scientific reason for theist belief, which was boring, and the former were ferociously political. I don’t have the least sympathy for atheists who write books that sell incredibly well, but I do sympathize with their cause, futile as it is. In all, they probably made more converts to theism and atheism.
During the last couple of years some of your work has been reprinted by bigger publishing houses again. In an earlier interview you stated that you felt that you had greater control over your work with small presses. How are/were your experiences with Virgin Books?
Virgin pretty much published the original books after giving them a proofreading. They did provide more promotion for the paperbacks they published than the original hardbacks receive, which was practically nil. Recently, though, they seem to have violated their contract with me by publishing an electronic edition of Teatro Grottesco.
You’ve called people like Poe or Lovecraft “mutants” who might not have been able to produce such great works if they had been that what society considers being “normal.” Do you think nowadays people like these are missing?
They’ve always been in short supply, but since the nineteenth century more and more have been allowed by the world to appear in greater numbers. At the moment I can’t think of anyone who qualifies as a mutant making an appearance since the death of E. M. Cioran, or at least anyone has written in English or been translated into English. But my standards for this sort of thing are pretty high.
After his death, Thomas Bernhard, whose attack on and conflicts with the Austrian state are infamous, has been embraced by the official sides, and he has become a kind of national writer. Would you say that is some sad kind of irony?
The same thing happens to all great writers who are infamous during their lifetimes. No writer’s work can retain a permanently anti-social status. Society domesticates them, and thereby neutralizes them.
For me the best description how one feels when being gripped by the fear of death can be found in Philip Larkin’s (maybe last great) poem “Aubade,” in which the speaker wakes “to soundless dark” and can never escape the knowledge that he is going to die one day (“Most things may never happen: This one will”). This thought always remains “a standing chill/That slows each impulse down to indecision.” Is the notion that is expressed in that poem familiar to you?
Of course it is. I’m not an insentient idiot. Personally, though, I like Larkin’s clinically morbid “The Building” as an expression of death anxiety.
Would you say that in the past literary figures like Lovecraft or Bruno Schulz were more important to you whereas in the last couple of years philosophers (e.g. Zapffe) have taken their place and that they’ve influenced your writing as well?
Yes. As I’ve said before, literature is entertainment or it is nothing. Before I die I’d like to find something more than entertainment, although I doubt I will. Lately I’ve been thinking about television as a “way” to deliverance. Not long ago I read that television produces alpha waves in the human brain, something that meditation also does. Who knows, I could become liberated from suffering by watching cop shows and reruns of Seinfeld.
This is closely connected to the preceding question: It seems that in recent years you have focused mainly on The Conspiracy against the Human Race. There are also rumours that you stopped writing fiction and that you are selling a great deal of your library. At the end of “Sideshow, and Other Stories,” the narrator writes that he “had triumphed over [his] literary crisis and wanted nothing more than to get back to [his] desk, [his] brain practically vibrating with an unwonted energy.” Do you think this will ever happen to you again?
It could. Anything could. Anyone who has really paid attention to what I’ve written, and I’m not saying that anyone should, would notice that as far back as “The Spectacles in the Drawer” and “The Order of Illusion” I was writing about characters who become fatally disillusioned with their former enthusiasms. That continued with “The Shadow, the Darkness.” My life really (really really) has been a journey of disillusionment, one after another. And that’s not just my persona talking.
Is there anything else that you would have liked to have been asked?