Thomas Ligotti, Philosophy and Antinatalism

Thomas Ligotti is often cited as one of the best, if not the very best, contemporary writers of horror fiction.  Most people have never heard of him.   Part of the reason for this is that Ligotti writes almost exclusively short stories, with one novella, My Work Is Not Yet Done, to his credit.  Another reason is that he is famously reclusive and not much interested in self-promotion.  Probably the most important reason is that Ligotti’s work is so outside the mainstream and philosophically daring as to have almost no mass appeal outside of the niche audience of horror fiction enthusiasts.

Compare Ligotti to  Stephen King, the hugely selling pop culture phenomenon.  King often writes 700-1,000 page novels that are as much fantasy fiction with dense mythologies as they are horror novels.  Ligotti writes piercingly intimate and  evocative short works that owe as much to Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Arthur Schopenhauer, as they do to early horror fiction writers like Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen.   King pens stories that show a sense of normalcy interrupted by malignant forces and normalcy usually reestablished by the end.  Ligotti pens stories about how “reality”, as imagined by humans, is really a delusion that could slip away at any moment and plunge a person into madness.  If King’s formula is built for pop culture success, Ligotti seems to reject this formula at every turn.

Mainstream audiences got a taste of Ligotti through the show True Detective in which Ligotti served as inspiration, some would say was plagiarized, in order to articulate a bleak philosophy of pessimism.  Much of this is articulated in Ligotti’s book Conspiracy Against The Human Race.  The views argued in that book are simplified as follows, that human consciousness is an evolutionary mistake, that humans use self-delusion in order to make their lives tolerable, or to at least seem so, and that procreation should be avoided,

The first point Ligotti makes relies heavily on a materialist and atheistic worldview, as well as neuroscience but Ligotti also uses the views of Buddhist philosophy to make his point.  Buddhism is built around the goal of the elimination of the ego and the ending of the cycle of human suffering through reincarnation.  Ligotti looks at the views expressed in contemporary neuroscience and contrasts them with this spiritual worldview and finds them completely compatible.  Human consciousness is an illusion caused by the appearance of a series of mental processes as a consistent “self” and this is the cause of all human suffering.

This viewpoint is not without some controversy.  Ligotti mentions Nietzsche in his book as somebody who would reject such a view of the self, but Ligotti sees any philosophy that rejects this as merely being a rationalization.  Moving onto his second point, Ligotti argues that existence itself is the source of all suffering and that nonexistence is better.

How one would argue against this seems daunting at first.  It seems unquestionably true that one has to exist I order to suffer.  To Ligotti, there may be moments of pure ecstasy that beings may experience but such states only serve to forget the suffering of one’s existence that is a near constant state of being.  Ligotti focuses much on the idea of the anxiety of death and the slow decay of the body as one ages in order to make this point.

One of the more interesting arguments that Ligotti makes is about depression and specifically melancholic depression.  There is already a “controversial”  view that depressed individuals see the world more realistically than non-depressed individuals.   Ligotti seems to embrace this view whole heatedly and having experienced melancholic depression myself, I can say that it feels much the way that it describes.  It is also very hard to shake because there is a very distinct feeling that one has been given a glimpse of reality “as it really is.”

All of this is great for Ligotti as a horror writer, but there are arguments against it.  Many of them are the same as those leveled at some of the claims of neuroscience.  To many, the idea of consciousness being an illusion is contradictory because consciousness is needed to perceive an illusion.  In other words, to a lot of people the idea of the self not existing is a refutation of the one of the most obvious a priori concepts simply because it cannot fit a materialistic reductionist view of how the mind works.  Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett fire back that though the sentence “consciousness is an illusion” seems contradictory it is in fact accurate because consciousness is “not what you think it is.”

To me this argument is between a conception of the objective and the subjective.  Ligotti’s view waffles because he denies the legitimacy of subjective experiences because it is these themselves that are inherent in consciousness.  However, when it comes to his arguments about depression, he argues that it is the absence of emotions that reveal reality as it really is.  What is implicit in this view is that a lack of emotions leads to a state of objectivity, but since Ligotti has already made the case that human consciousness is not a real property, it is puzzling that he still relies on an enlightenment view of rationality, where his mind is able to perceive an objective reality once emotions are removed from the equation.

This comes up again when Ligotti discusses the idea that if somebody holds a view like his own they should just kill themselves.  Ligotti seems to think this objection is so absurd as to be able to dismissed on its face but he then goes onto argue against it.  He argues that fear of death, emotional attachment and self-delusion are the reasons people do not kill themselves and implies that a perfectly rational person would prefer to die.

The “objective vs. subjective” tangle never gets properly addressed in his book.  He uses the term “malignantly useless” to describe human existence but useless is really a neutral term if we replace it with a term Ligotti uses much more often, “meaningless.”  Ligotti’s whole thesis is that a meaningless existence is inherently bad, but where he gets a negative from a neutral state is not expanded upon.  That brings us to the subject of antinatalism.

Antinatalism can be argued on different grounds than those of Ligotti.  Though he is cited as an influence, philosopher David Benatar takes a less absolutist tact than Ligotti does in his book, Better Never To Have Been.  There are also religious antinatalists who do not rely on Ligotti’s foundation of atheistic materialism.   Ligotti argues that having children is inherently wrong, and that is not because human lives contain more aggregate suffering than pleasure, as Benatar argues, but because bringing beings into existence inflicts suffering and that can never be justified.

The standard argument against antinatalism goes as follows.  In order to compare two states to one another a being must exist, i.e. a state of pleasure is better than a state of suffering.  Since nonexistence is not a state then it can never be said that nonexistence can be better than existence.

I reject this argument as obviously flawed and it resembles Kant’s famous argument against suicide.  Kant argued that to kill oneself in order to avoid suffering violated the categorical imperative.  If one were to kill oneself there would be no self to benefit from the lack of suffering, therefore the maxim was contradictory.   Imagine an elderly person facing imminent death who is in great pain.  They might live for months but suffer horrendous pain for those months.  If they chose to die instead, it would seem absurd to argue that is not a rational choice, and Ligotti uses an example very similar from a real life case.  This is also not a hypothetical for me.  My grandmother faced this same decision in April of this year and chose to die rather than suffer.

Ligotti argues that antinatalism is justified by any moral theory one could apply, but since he argues that the opinion of the subject is irrelevant and denies the validity of subjective experience that simply isn’t true.  His version cannot even be justified by traditional utilitarianism, the way that David Benatar does, and relies on a “negative utilitarianism.”  Ligotti even makes this argument explicitly after saying that “any moral theory” justifies his views.  Negative utilitarianism states that any infliction of suffering is wrong, and therefore having children would be wrong because it is inevitable that any being brought into existence would suffer.

The debate around antinatalism is an interesting one to me because not only do antinatalists argue that having children is an inherent bad, most of the rest of society argues the dubious claim that it is an inherent good.  Many a parent has told their child that they should be grateful to them for “bringing them into this world,” and people who may not be antinatalists, but choose not to have children because of personal preferences are attacked as selfish and immoral even though their decision effects the world in no negative way that could be anticipated.  Perhaps they would have given birth to the next Einstein but that is far less likely than the alternative.

My own view is that the conversation is much more complicated than is usually given credit for.   Like most viewpoints, no matter what version you examine, antinatalism relies on at least a few core assumptions and one’s that it is unlikely that everybody can be convinced by.  Ligotti doesn’t really care, at the end of the day, what people do, but his worldview is “useful” in allowing him to create the kind of horror that he does so well.

Adapting Philip K. Dick

Watching Blade Runner 2049 was a weird experience for me.   I was interested in seeing it, not because I thought a sequel was a great idea, but because I was interested in seeing whether it went back to ideas from the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  As a concept, a sequel to Blade Runner seems redundant.  The original has been copied so much in the past 35 years that its novelty has been drained away, which wasn’t enough to make the original a hit in 1983 when there was literally nothing else like it.  I thought the sequel was very good, which was surprising, but I also thought it was thematically more similar to the works of Philip K. Dick than the film it was a sequel to, which was even more surprising.

The original Blade Runner is probably how more people know the name Philip K. Dick than any other source.  As a novelist, he was cranking out pulp sci-fi to make a living at an alarming rate, and also had a number of literary novels that were published posthumously after his death.  I have read most of them at this point, as well as a good chunk of Dick’s short stories, which he wrote 121 total.  Since Blade Runner, Dick has been adapted a number of times and he is somewhat on an upswing lately, with the Blade Runner sequel and the television series The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming series Electric Dreams.  (It already aired in the UK.)  The funny thing about this is that most of the adaptations of his work are so alien to the concerns and obsessions of the author as to be barely recognizable.

Dick’s science fiction  has been dubbed “epistemological science fiction” by many.  You can understand a Philip K. Dick novel once you know he operates under one key premise.   That premise is that every single person inhabits a reality all their own, which may contain some elements of “actual reality” but is distinct just that same.  To Dick,  “objective reality” is inaccessible to any individual human being and all human interactions are clashes of reality.  Without being able to know reality, but needing a collective reality, humans construct realties and try to enforce them on others as the “true objective reality.”  Several Philip K. Dick novels deal with totalitarian governments who create a false reality in order to control the population.

While not present in every Dick novel, it is important to note that Dick was a Christian, and a lot of his work explores theological concepts.  Dick was influenced by Gnosticism, so in much of his work there is a conflict between evil and good forces, represented by a malevolent creator God and a benevolent savior God.  In his later years Dick claimed to experience religious visions, and his works Radio Free Albemuth, Valis,  The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and his unfinished The Owl in Daylight are all works that address these religious visions. In other words, Philip K. Dick was a really strange dude.

When adapting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, original screenwriter Hampton Fancher made a number of changes, as did later writer David Peoples under the supervision of director Ridely Scott.  In the original novel Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who agrees to hunt down seven androids because he wants to buy a real live animal, which are rare due to nuclear war.  All Deckard has is an electric sheep.   Androids can be detected through an empathy test, because they do not have memories that are developed as humans.  In order to separate androids from humans, empathy has replaced reason, which used to separate humans from animals.   Deckard’s society fetishizes empathy because it can be used as a distinction from androids.  There is a religion called Mercerism, in which worshipers watch their messiah be stoned to death in order to feel empathy for him.  The irony is Deckard doesn’t seem very empathetic throughout the novel, and in fact seems outright cold and inhuman.

The film version of Blade Runner makes a number of changes.  In order to simplify things Deckard is hunting four, not seven “replicants”, who are no longer androids but artificial persons made through bioengineering.  Deckard is married in the book, but not in the movie.  Several scenes are cut, including Deckard fighting his way out of a police station taken over by androids and Deckard running into a second bounty hunter who turns out to be an android.  The theme of animals being rare is pushed to the background and Mercerism is removed, even though the empathy tests remain. A foil character to Deckard, John Isidore, a man with “too much empathy” is still in the movie but is renamed “H. R. Sebastian” and most of his parts are cut, keeping only scenes that are necessary for the plot.  In the book, Deckard sleeps with the character of Rachel but discards her because she is an android, but in the film he becomes infatuated with her.

Blade Runner, despite being disliked by most critics and a box office bomb has become a classic in the years since, mostly due to Ridley Scott’s restored director’s cut and later final cut.  When the book and film are compared at all, it is usually to say that Scott took a slight sci-fi pulp novel and turned it into a great film.  That has not only been baffling to me since comparing the two, but I see Blade Runner as a visually stunning mangling of Dick’s work, with a great Rutger Hauer performance and art direction, but a complete misunderstanding of what it’s actually about.

When people think Blade Runner is “deep” this is usually because of the left over snippets of theme that still remain from Dick’s novel. How much Ridley Scott misunderstands his own movie is evident in his insistence that Deckard is a replicant.   In the novel, Dick toys with the idea that Deckard might be an android in the first half, but he reveals unambiguously that he is a human when he encounters another bounty hunter and they both suspect the other of being androids.  The android begs for his life and talks about how he has memories and feelings but this means nothing to Deckard.  He kills him without a second thought. The point is that Deckard is unfeeling, and the distinction between humans and androids is arbitrary and constructed.  By making Deckard a replicant in the movie, Ridely Scott destroys the main theme of the work and makes his film completely meaningless.

The sequel has a tricky job because there are a lot of people who feel the way I do, are fans of Ridley Scott’s interpretation, or feel that it is best left as ambiguous. These three groups of viewers can not all be satisfied at the same time so the writers go the least upsetting third option, and the sequel has a story where the question can again be read both ways, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.   I was amazed that they were able to do this, while I would have preferred the movie reveal Deckard was not a replicant, I have no complaints about how this plot point was handled.

Hampton Fancher, the first movie’s screenwriter is back as co-writer on this one.  He famously was not a fan of the Dick novel and his changes to the source material make this very clear.  The sequel stripes even the remains of the idea of animals as status symbols and the theme of empathy away.  However, while this hurt the first film in making its case that the difference between replicants and “normal” humans is arbitrary, this becomes a much more realized theme in the sequel.    Oddly, the writers do this through a messiah story, something that Dick as a Christian likely would have approved.  In addition the themes of real and fake, that had obsessed Dick in all his work, are explored in different ways in this one, delving into the idea of false memories and holographic companions.

Capturing the unique weirdness that is Philip K. Dick on the screen has had a checkered past.  Most of the time Hollywood tries to turn Dick’s work into an action movie or thriller and the results can be horrible, like Screamers or Paycheck, or entertaining like Total Recall and Minority Report, but they always stray from Dick’s vision to create something more palatable for a mass audience.  The only film that has gotten Dick right for the screen is Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which stays reasonably faithful to Dick’s novel while using rotoscope animation to create a bizarre look and feel.  Michel Gondry has been developing an adaptation of Dick’s novel Ubik for years, and if it ever gets made this might be a second example, with Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind already having themes and a feel right out of a Dick novel.

Even television has not been able to get Dick right.  The Man In The High Castle tossed most of Dick’s philosophical questions aside early in order to explore the premise in as literal a way possible.   In the book, Nazis never appear and are barely mentioned.  The characters live in Japanese occupied San Francisco and Dick is more interested in questions about what shapes the tide of history and reality under a fascistic regime. Perhaps Electric Dreams will finally give us a more accurate adaptation of Dick’s work for the serialized medium.

The Meaning Of Murder

I don’t read memoirs very often.  When I do it is usually one written by a public person who lives a public life and therefore their memoir can’t stray too far from what is already available out there.  Politicians are a good example of this.  I even more rarely read celebrity memoirs because, quite frankly, I don’t care much for what most celebrities have to say about almost anything.  When it comes to memoirs by non-public people I find that the line between memoir and autobiographical fiction to be so thin that there isn’t really a difference. With most people who read autobiographical fiction it seems they read it as a veiled memoir anyway, see most of the works of Philip Roth for examples of this.  For me when I read a memoir I can’t help but see the things that the writer probably embellished or altered in order to improve the storytelling.

Another literary genre I read even less of is “true crime.”  I went through a phase in my teenage years when I read true crime books, as well as horror and chiefly suspense novels.   Gradually I returned to my childhood interest in science fiction and fantasy, reading Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury while still very young, and also developed my tastes in a different direction. I still read crime and horror novels from time to time but true crime is a genre that I have rarely returned to.  It was something that I associate with my teenage obsession with all things morbid, and it hasn’t much interested me since.

That is why it was surprising to some people I know that I have been gushing about Claudia Rowe’s The Spider And The Fly, one of the best books I have read this year  and a weird combination of two genres I am not known for reading.  I first became aware of the book after Rowe did an interview I read.  She is a writer for the Seattle Times, the newspaper of my adopted hometown and I found her discussion of what led her to write this book to be fascinating.  I put it on my to read list but didn’t get to it until  months later.  How much I was engaged with it is shocking enough but I am also amazed that the readership of the true crime genre has been less enthusiastic.

Rowe’s book is a memoir of her correspondence with serial killer Kendall Francois, who murdered at least eight women over a two year period between 1996 and 1998.  Rowe had been working as a “stringer” for the New York Times while living in Poughkeepsie, New York and she became fascinated with the case of Francois.  Though it was something that she would be expected to cover for the paper, she went beyond that, writing a letter to Francois and gradually beginning a “friendship” with him that began to take a disturbing direction.

What would attract true crime aficionados to this story is obvious.  Francois is atypical of a serial killer in a number of ways,  the most discussed issue that he was black while all his known victims were white.  His victims were all prostitutes, who Francois  was obsessed with “saving” and then when they did not respond to him the way he liked he killed them out of rage.  He hid the bodies in his parents’ house with both his parents and younger sister never discovering the bodies despite some complaints about the smell.

The specifics of the case promise the kind of lurid and shocking details that fans of such books crave.  Also, the “set-up” makes some readers think they will read a real life Silence of the Lambs, where a woman will be pitted in a battle of minds with a clever killer, trying to get the information she needs from him while he attempts to burrow into her psyche.  The fact that the book does not deliver on either count is what most online reviews that lean toward the negative complain about.  Rowe does include some of those details, but only to get at the family dynamic that could create such an environment in that house.  As for the second complaint, if people really expect serial killers to be devious masterminds who engage in cat and mouse games maybe they deserve to have their puerile fantasies encounter reality once in a while.

This is mostly what Rowe is trying to do with her book and she succeeds at it wonderfully, even as if alienates a large chunk of her the readership.  Rowe is interested how somebody like Kendall Francois, the boy and teenager that teachers and acquaintances describe as smart and kind, could become the brutal killer of eight women we now know he was.   Questions of nature and nurture are brought up in a variety of ways with no easy answers.  Rowe herself is initially conflicted with her sympathy toward Francois as a human being and her repulsion at his crimes and how he manipulated his victims.  Since most of his victims were prostitutes it is tempting to look at the conditions that led them on a collision course with Francois whose views toward women, like most serial killers, is objectifying.

Another theme in the book is about what attracts people like Rowe to somebody like Kendall Francois in the first place.  Rowe considers that she is interested in whether evil is born or made, but she also considers there is a certain attraction to morbidity.  She mentions the 90s obsession with serial killers that permeated the pop culture, and also her teenage obsession with Nazis, something she finds hard to admit because she is ethnically Jewish. Its this introspection by Rowe that seems to turn many readers off, either accusing her of making the book all about her, or of being callous toward Francois’s victims.  This review from NPR is a pretty harsh example.

An NPR review might be forgiven for this kind of harshness because perhaps the reviewer was assigned this review and true crime is not something they are a regular reader of, though I assume that NPR assigns book reviews based on some level of genre familiarity.  What is kind of odd though is this sentiment is echoed through a number of online reviews, where Rowe is attacked for basically writing a book that examined her own motives for wanting to start a correspondence with Francois.  Some reviewers outright complain that the book is more interested in psychological examination than heaping gory details, but not a one of them stops and think that the impulses that Rowe is examining are the same ones that led them to pick up this book in the first place and that such impulses are worth examining.

I’ve noticed this with horror fiction and films as well.  As a genre, horror is polarizing to begin with, and its probably the genre that has the most loyal fan base while at the same time a large number of people will avoid it outright.  Sometimes a horror writer will decide to morally challenge their audience.  This usually means using a Hitchcockian technique, make your audience want something and then punish them for wanting it.  What Rowe does gets a similar reaction because many readers of crime fiction do not want to self-examine in what attracts them to such things in the first place.  Imagine if an Agatha Christie novel called out its audience for the fact that they enjoy stories that treat murder like a fun puzzle to be solved.  I don’t think most people who love British “cozy” mysteries would like that, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t value in such self-reflection.

As Rowe develops a relationship with Francois two things become apparent.  The first is that her relationship with him as a reporter is inherently exploitive in some ways.  Rowe is not letting herself off the hook for that.  In fact, I would say her book is all about explicitly examining that issue.   The second thing is that Francois is starting to develop a fixation on her similar to the fixations he had on the women he killed.  Rowe  repeatedly throughout the book documents times when law enforcement and prison personnel point out her physical resemblance to Kendall Francois’s victims.   This starts to get uncomfortable.

There are two other criticisms of Rowe’s book lobbed by the NPR review that I would like to address.  The first is Rowe spends no time on the victims.  This is just simply false, though the time she spends with herself and her own motives could be said to take away time the book could spend on other things, the victims are as much a part of the narrative as most true crime books.  Rowe researchers the victims and talks to their loved ones about them, and it is through their stories that she starts to hate François for what he had done.

The second criticism is on the subject of race.  Its true that some of the comments made about race in the book can come off like patronizing white guilt out of context but within the context of the book they make perfect sense.  Kendall Francois was a rare serial killer who killed people outside of his own race exclusively and this is explored a lot in the book.  While Rowe doesn’t beat your head over it, some self-hatred toward African Americans might have been part of Francois’s motivation.  There is still one missing victim, who was black, that the police were certain that Francois killed but they never got him to confess, even when he confessed to all the other murders.  Why he might have done this is part of the discussion.

There are not a lot of answers in Claudia Rowe’s account of what happened with Kendall Francois but really a series of complex questions.  I think this is typical of a lot of true crime books, but what makes this book fascinating and ultimately great, is that Rowe asks the kinds of questions that are not normally asked and blurs the line between writer in subject in a way that implicates the reader.