tom moody

anti-natalism (Ligotti vs HBO)

HBO's True Detective, Season 1, famously featured some dour anti-natalist philosophy spoken by detective Rustin Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey:

I'd consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist... I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself - we are creatures that should not exist by natural law... We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody's nobody... I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction - one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

McConaughey's portrayal of Cohle as a humorless, self-pitying character makes the above lines sound even more bleak than they read.

Several commentators picked up on the connections of this spiel to horror author Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy against the Human Race (in fact, it could be said that HBO put Ligotti "on the map").

What's missing is the sly humor of Ligotti's writing, a kind of eye-twinkle as he dishes out an escalating series of unsayable propositions. For example, this excerpt from Conspiracy:

Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees -- a blunder of blind nature, according to [Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel] Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are -- contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox.* To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, existentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion? At the very least, we might give some regard to this theory of the blunder as a "thought-experiment." All civilizations become defunct. All species die out. There is even an expiration date on the universe itself. Human beings would certainly not be the first phenomenon to go belly up. But we could be the first to precipitate our own passing, abbreviating it before the bodies really started to stack up. Could we know to their most fine-grained details the lives of all who came before us, would we bless them for the care they took to keep the race blundering along? Could we exhume them alive, would we shake their bony, undead hands and promise to pass on the favor of living to future generations? Surely that is what they would want to hear, or at least that is what we want to think they would want to hear. And just as surely that is what we would want to hear from our descendents living in far posterity, strangers though they would be as they shook our bony, undead hands.

The darkly comic image of the bony undead handshake (twice repeated) makes the unsayable more hearable. True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto softens the message by giving laugh lines to Cohle's cop partner, Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson. As Cohle expounds his grim philosophy in the front seat of their police car, Hart answers with "Hmm, that sounds God-fucking-awful, Rust" (IMDb) and "Let's make the car a place of silent reflection from now on." (IMDb)

Another example: here's Cohle talking about his own experience of fatherhood. The daughter he speaks of was killed by a hit and run driver while she was still a toddler:

Think of the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this... meat, to force a life into this... thresher. That's...
So my daughter, she spared me the sin of being a father.

Bu-u-u-mmer. Again, this does no service to Ligotti, who has wit. Discussing the same undiscussable notion Cohle throws down, Ligotti notes, in Conspiracy:

Almost nobody declares that an ancestral curse contaminates us in utero and pollutes our existence. Doctors do not weep in the delivery room, or not often. They do not lower their heads and say, "The stopwatch has started."

As previously noted, The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a weirdly inspirational book. It is liberating to consider the idea that suffering, guilt, and egomaniac striving -- the "tragedy of human existence" -- began because at some stage in our evolution we acquired “a damning surplus of consciousness" and "life....overshot its target, blowing itself apart" (the latter phrases are Zapffe's). Unlike Cohle (and Pizzolatto), Ligotti readily acknowledges that his own theories may be a perverse symptom of this evolutionary mistake. By writing a book on anti-natalism, he is engaging in artistic sublimation, which is one of the means by which humans "smother consciousness" and its attendant paradoxes,* according to Zapffe. This sublimation may be useful to readers or it may just be another story we tell ourselves. From endnote 3 of Conspiracy:

Under the collective designation of “constructivists,” philosophers, sociologists, and other authorities working in a range of fields have variously deliberated on the fabricated nature of our lives. Examples: P. L. Berger and T. Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, 1966; Paul Watzlawick, ed., Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?, 1984; Ernst von Glasefeld, Radical Contructivism: A Way of Learning, 1996. For book-reading intellectuals, this idea is just one of many that fill their days. Its import, however, is not often shared with the masses. But sometimes it is. An instance in cinema where fabrication is hypothesized to be the cornerstone of our lives occurs at the end of Hero (1992), when the character referred to in the title, Bernard LePlant [played by Dustin Hoffman -TM], passes on some words of wisdom to his previously estranged son. “You remember where I said I was going to explain about life, buddy?” he says. “Well, the thing about life is, it gets weird. People are always talking to you about truth, everybody always knows what the truth is, like it was toilet paper or something and they got a supply in the closet. But what you learn as you get older is, there ain’t no truth. All there is, is bullshit. Pardon my vulgarity here. Layers of it. One layer of bullshit on top of another. And what you do in life, like when you get older, is -- you pick the layer of bullshit you prefer, and that’s your bullshit, so to speak. You got that?” Despite the cynicism of LePlant’s words, the object of his fatherly lesson is to create a bond between him and his son. (Hollywood is heavily invested in plotlines in which a broken family is “healed.”) This bond is reliant on the exposure of life as bullshit and is itself bullshit -- since one can have no basis for preferring one layer of bullshit over another without already being full of bullshit -- which makes LePlant’s case that “All there is, is bullshit” without his being aware of it, which is how bullshit works. This is not the message the moviegoer is meant to take away from the mass-audience philosophizing of Hero, but there it is anyway.

*The "paradox" (one of many) Ligotti refers to: "We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering -- slowly or quickly -- as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are -- hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones."

- tom moody

September 4th, 2017 at 1:47 pm

Posted in books, films