Varieties of Nihilism

Posted on January 9, 2014 by

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There’s a secret warrant to horror writer Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Ligotti’s condition, anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, is well known, at least to Ligotti fans — many of them attribute the dark quality of Ligotti’s fiction to it. What makes the warrant a secret is that, as far as I can tell (I have read the book three times now. This is not an activity I would recommend.1), in no part of the book does Ligotti talk about himself, and not at all about his relation to his emotions. So, as far as the book goes, Ligotti’s condition is an enthymeme: the thing that is known but unsaid. It grounds the book without being in the book.

I say that “everyone” who reads this book knows about Ligotti’s anhedonia since pretty much no one would voluntarily read this book who wasn’t a Ligotti fan. A book that argues, humorlessly, that everything is pointless including (maybe especially) the writing and reading of books is not going to have general appeal. In a sense, Conspiracy is the most meta- of horror novels: it says, “Oh, stories, whatever. The real horror is that you have to pass time until you die.” (Thus two enthymemes: anhedonia in the book and the Thing We All Know but Refuse to Acknowledge that the book directs us toward.)

Maybe we’ll get back to that. But I want to talk about the warrant: Ligotti’s anhedonia provides Conspiracy with an authority that a similar discussion, say, late at night in a college dorm among philosophy students (I knew those guys), wouldn’t have. The secret argument of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is that, unlike the rest of us, Ligotti is undeluded by happiness, and is, therefore, able to more clearly see the Thing we won’t. Happiness is a trick (part of the conspiracy) of existence to give us a reason to keep going on. As long as we feel good, or even hope or desire to feel good — “being alive is all right,” as Ligotti describes it (“beats the alternative,” my father-in-law says) — we aren’t likely to look for the strings that control our puppety movement.

So, in most ways, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is the opposite of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. First of all, at the outset of her book, Rubin is happy. Pretty happy. But she could be happier, and being as happy as you can, she argues, is the point of life.

Rubin is sophisticated about this. She recognizes she is pretty privileged overall: wealthy, happily married, healthy. For the most part, I think (it’s actually a little complicated once you get into it), she wants to more appreciate what she has, not chase what she wants. So, over the course of a year, she works on a variety of resolutions large and small as a way to get happy: clean up the clutter; act more energetic (so you will be more energetic); cease nagging; love more openly; blog; enjoy what you are doing now, rather than anticipate enjoying the results; be better with the kids; sing; and so on. The goal is not to provide a template for happiness, but to inspire readers to begin their own happiness projects, wherever that might lead them. As an aficionado of self-help books,2 I can say The Happiness Project is a good one.

I mean, if you go for this sort of thing. On the other hand — and I’m not even going to get into what Ligotti might say about it — Rubin’s theory of, what shall we call it?, why-we-do-stuff is a little thin. For Rubin, we do what we do because we think it will, at least in the long term, make us happier. It’s one of those mind numbing theories of human motivation — like social exchange theory (where enriching yourself governs everything) — that is simultaneously self-proving (anything you do that results in satisfaction can be attributed to getting satisfaction; anything that doesn’t can be attributed to trying to get satisfaction) and, well, dumb. Rubin’s understanding of why you choose to do the things you do makes any choice you make ultimately arbitrary: there’s no reason (past getting happier) to do one thing rather than another. You’re just passing time in the most pleasant way possible.

Which is exactly what Ligotti says. For anti-happy Ligotti, happiness is what keeps you from seeing the real mechanism of the world — stupid DNA stupidly reproducing itself by duping stupid you, and Rubin is simply interested in doing that better. The idea that life might be about something, or, at the minimum, that there might be something about the world that goes beyond keeping yourself amused, simply isn’t part of the picture.

Which, of course, is the fundamental ethos of our present narcissistic moment. At least in the first world, we have, in the main, lost the sense that there’s a greater purpose to life — even those folks who proclaim their fundamentalisms so loudly sound increasingly desperate and brittle. Instead of meaning for our lives, we have “choices” which we know don’t particularly mean.

1 To be clear, I wouldn’t recommend reading this book at all. (back)

2 Me and David Foster Wallace. Also footnotes. (back)

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