Saturday, 7 December 2019

The Horror of Philosophy - Eugene Thacker


philosophy
/fɪˈlɒsəfi/
noun

1.    the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.

2.     a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.



horror
/ˈhɒrə/
noun

1.     an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.


      • a literary or film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.
      • intense dismay.

The world is becoming an increasingly strange place. People take things and each for granted. We live in a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having. Since when did the horror of living in the modern world overtake the horrors of the fictional world?

Back in November 2015, I travelled to Newcastle Comic Con to see Tom Burke. A couple of weeks earlier I had stumbled across a couple of books called “Tom Burke of Ours” (to this day Tom has still read more of those two books than I have.) At the beginning of the book is a letter written by the character Tom Burke…I thought it’d be fun to get Tom to sign that page as though he had written the letter. Strange request I know, but a kind of ice breaker into conversation, because for those of you who haven’t been to a Comic Con, it’s not really a conducive atmosphere to try to chat to someone. When I’m with friends we’re sitting having a drink chilling and chatting, or we’re out walking, and walking and talking go hand in hand. What doesn’t feel right is standing in front of a table, whilst the person you’re talking to is sat behind it. It’s reminiscent of being back in the headmaster’s office, and we all know when we are in there it’s generally best being quiet and trying to look humble! So, whilst I admire Tom’s work as an actor, I always feel incredibly insincere just saying “hello I love you and your work.” It’s not me. I'd prefer to leave a chat feeling like I've learnt something interesting or at least exchanged something of value, otherwise what’s the point?


Books have always formed a huge part of my life so, the “Tom Burke of Ours” was a conversation starter. I asked Tom if he’d read any good books that maybe he could recommend (nothing wrong with expanding your reading genre.) He looked at me and asked if I ever went to dark places. Now I grew up living in a dark place. My bedroom was painted various shades of battleship grey, and the walls were marked out like an old castle. There was even ivy and moss painted on the brickwork…my dad was thrilled when he came home and saw the handiwork of his 13-year-old daughter! My brother listened to bands like The Cult, The Sister’s of Mercy and he showed me how to read Tarot cards. Oh yes, I eagerly nodded to Tom, I go to dark places…but then in that split nano second, I remembered the circle of people I was with. They had their own opinions about “the dark side” and they weren’t positive. I’m basically going to hell because I’ve used Tarot cards…I accidentally left my old deck in the outbuilding of Spa Road when I moved to new student lodgings as my flat mates wouldn’t let me have them in the house. The bizarre thing was, they were happy to play with “normal” cards…I mean, where did they think their playing cards originated from?!

Anyway, you might sense my immediate panic as all those thoughts raced through my brain and I quickly started stuttering, “well, you know, just as much as most people do”…I mean what if Tom thought I was some suicidal maniac in a deep dark depression? As it happened he recommended two books, one being The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti. It was an interesting book, although it made my head hurt and I needed to keep referring to the internet for further explanation. At some point, I’ll read it again, but on the back of that one book, I bought a trilogy of books by Eugene Thacker, of which Ligotti wrote:

“Thacker’s discourse on the intersection of horror and philosophy is utterly original and utterly captivating…In the Dust of This Planet is an encyclopaedic grimoire instructing us in the varieties of esoteric thought and infernal diversions that exist for the reader’s further investigation, treating to a delightful stroll down a midway of accursed attractions that alone are worth the ticket of this volume.”

The trilogy has sat on my bookshelf for a while, but this summer felt the right time to tackle them. Rather than trying to psychoanalyse the people around me, why not analyse the actual world of horror those thoughts and stories have been created from something…right?

In the Dust of This Planet – Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1 by Eugene Thacker.

“The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, and the looming threat of extinction. In this book, Eugene Thacker suggests that we look to the genre of supernatural horror as offering a way of thinking about the unthinkable world. To confront this idea is to confront the absolute limit of our ability to understand the world in which we live – a central motif of the horror genre.”

Scary stuff indeed, or is it? In this first book, Thacker uses philosophical arguments to explore our increasingly destructive world by introducing various themes such as occultism, demonology and mysticism and seeing how they manifest themselves in fiction, comic books and film. Care is taken to show the arguments are not about the philosophy of horror, but the horror of philosophy; in which he reveals the constraints and limitations in the field. He argues that one of the biggest problems we face today is trying to comprehend a world in which we live both a human and non-human existence.

Essentially, in this first tome, we human beings are the “dust of this planet.” We place a great deal of importance on ourselves, but Thacker asks us to consider the notion of existence. What does existence mean? Is existence just for our use, and if not, how about existence being independent of us, or finally, whether existence is completely indifferent of us…can existence carry on without us…will it carry on better without us…the excess dust that impairs existence? How, as humans, are we able to explain and understand existence? Existence is a strange term that is difficult to understand, and the only thing that we really know about it, is that it refuses to reveal itself in its entirety. Humans follow the path of existence to reach what? Can existence to carry on without us?

There is a fear of death because it is unknown to us…what happens when we die? A few weeks ago at work, a feral cat decided to spend the night asleep in a bin lorry. In the morning, when the engine was turned on, the cat ended up in a multitude of pieces. (Horrific I know.) My colleague had to write out a job card for the poor mechanic who had the unenviable task of removing bits of cat out of the engine. This event prompted a debate about death. I asked her how she felt before she was born. She had no idea…she didn’t exist then. So I asked, why worry about death…you will cease to exist then, you’ll go back to the state you were before you began to exist. Now, I’m not saying people who believe in an afterlife are wrong, I’m just saying that a lot of emphasis is put on existence and the need to carry on existing…the question is why we worry about it so much. We’re only “specks of dust” and the planet could continue just fine without us.

As humans, this is a difficult notion for us to comprehend, we are unable to cast an argument without being subjective. This is a world we created, so the thought of it being able to continue without us is a horrifying one, but more horrific is the notion that we don’t fully understand it, or ourselves. We only look at things from our perspective, so the truth of our existence is based on our interpretation of the truth, so the planet only exists as we wish to see it. Humans are control freaks, trying to control a planet which can exist without us, in fact it would probably exist better without us, which is why we are the dust that can be blown away.

Ligotti’s book was a challenging read, and this fast-paced book is perhaps more challenging because of how quickly it switches from one topic to the next, but it is very interesting and absorbing if you are interested in looking at the planet without rose-tinted spectacles.

This fist volume makes you start to question what society is really about…reality can often be more disturbing than fiction if you’re prepared to open your mind and think about it.

Starry Speculative Corpse – Horror of Philosophy Vol. 2 by Eugene Thacker

Thacker continues his journey into nihilism and pessimism in this second volume by introducing us to the ideas of Philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche and Descartes.

“Let him deceive me as much as he wishes, he will never bring it about that I am nothing as long as I think I am something. Thus, having weighed up everything adequately, it must finally be state that this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind.” Descartes

This book is more focused than the first, but because it concentrates more on philosophy it is hard, slow going to someone who hasn’t studied philosophy before! Unsurprisingly, the chapter relating to darkness resonated with me a lot. Who is afraid of the dark? Why are you afraid of the dark? What is the dark? If the dark is an absence of something (light) then it is nothing…so how can you be scared of nothing? Why as children, do we learn to fear the dark, requiring night lights and other talismans to protect us from harm during the night from what H P Lovecraft called the “whisperer in the darkness?”

A good gothic horror will be filled with darkness…dark houses, things lurking in the shadows of candlelit rooms…what is it that dwells in the darkness and why do we scare ourselves silly over it? (Yup you guessed it, I love wandering around a good graveyard when it goes twilight and the only thing that scares me is not the bodies in the ground, but the real life horror of bumping into living breathing humans who might be axe wielding maniacs. I’m far more worried by the living than the dead.)

The reason cited for being scared of the dark is a mystical one…the confrontation of god versus evil, light versus dark and Thacker takes us on a tour of various thinkers, starting off with Georges Bataille and working backwards taking in the arguments of Goethe and Schopenhauer, through to the idea of black being both a colour and non-colour. “Black is the colour of ink, oil, crows, mourning, and outer space. Black is not just one colour among others, and neither is it one element or material among others. Black bathes all things in an absence, makes apparent an opacity, evaporates all the nuances of shadow and light.”


“Above all, black says this: I don’t bother you – don’t bother me.” Yamamoto

If we go back to my cat story, Thacker confirms my argument that we begin in nothing and end in nothing, which therefore means the only reality is nothing. But just as darkness is an absence of light; nothing is an absence of something, therefore, for there to be nothing, there has to be something…which is a bit of a contradiction. Confused? Yes…my head hurt a bit too reading all this. But then I am of the open mind…I might not understand, but I’m willing to try to understand, and even if I disagree at the end of it all, at least I have given some real thought into the arguments put forth.

So in Thacker’s arguments, what takes priority…the something or the nothing…or is there a duality which means one cannot exist without the other? The duality however, is just something created by humans to explain that period between the two forms of nothing…our existence has to be something, otherwise our life, if it is nothing, is just an illusion based on our perceptions. So, whilst we try to get our heads around that…we can move onto the third and final instalment.

Tentacles Longer than Night – Horror of Philosophy Vol.3 by Eugene Thacker.

I thought that this was the most enjoyable of the three books, but probably because it had moved more towards gothic fiction, whereas the earlier books were enshrined in the ideas of philosophy. Just like the other two books, this did require some effort on my part, and again Google and a dictionary were my best friends as I waded through the pages. Whilst that might sound like a chore, the reward for getting through the series was one of great satisfaction and encouraged me to look at some of the authors that Thacker discussed, and to finally dust off my copy of Necronomicon by H P Lovecraft which I had treated myself to on a visit to Bath to watch a play, While the Sun Shines by Terence Rattigan. (About as far removed from gothic horror as you can get!)

Humans employ the notion of understanding by the use of common sense and logic, but what if logic and common sense doesn’t hold all the answers. We box ourselves in our quest for understanding by using a predetermined set of rules, so what happens when we throw away the rules and start looking at things from a different perspective? If we open our minds to different possibilities, we can see things as we haven’t seen them before. If you look at contemporary horror stories, they are full of despair, there is little hope in them, people lose their faith and there is no salvation. If we look to the real world it is full of despair, there is little hope in our governments and global corporations, people have lost faith in our political system, our judicial system, our health system and can we honestly say there is salvation for those people in war zones or those creatures facing extinction?

As humans we demand meaning and that includes a meaning to existence. The opening paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Black Cat” is unparalleled, because even before the story starts, Poe has prepared us to expect the unthinkable…the incredible. We don’t know what the narrator has experienced, but we do know that it defies all logic. The narrator even tries to offer an explanation, perhaps he is hallucinating, perhaps he has gone insane. Whilst we may scoff and say it is only a horror story, the biggest tale we tell ourselves that defies logic is the resurrection of Christ. Not only do we believe that a man rises from the dead, but we believe in holy relics, images on walls or cloths, bleeding hosts…so perhaps these tales of supernatural horror are modern versions of secular tales. The only difference is that to believe in supernatural horror, you need empirical proof to believe it.

Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race was an enthralling introduction into the horror of philosophy, and these three books take that narrative a bit further. It was interesting to see how the works of some of my favourite authors fed into the question of existence and the horror of philosophy (Poe, Lovecraft.) The books may not be the easiest of reads, but they are an intriguing look into our strange existence as humans trying to make sense of our time on this planet. More interestingly is the fact that there are some authors mentioned that I have meant to read but then forgotten about (Camus, Baudelaire) but since reading these books I’ve taken the time and trouble to do so. There are plenty of interesting tomes mentioned throughout the third book that I want to read…but time is finite, and you can’t read everything.

“The idea that a person might be driven mad by a book is fantastical, even absurd – especially today, as books themselves seem to be vanishing into an ether of oblique references. We are so used to the idea of consuming books for the information they contain that we rarely consider the possibility that the books might in turn consume us.”

Well…I suppose there’s only one way to find out!

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