Horror and Nihilism
If horror must be defined, it is not by its theme, by its subject, by its narrative, but by its action. Its figures, monsters, transformations, curses and ghosts, form an infinite and incoherent bestiary, but above all entirely reversible: what is marvelous in one case, a touching tale of encounter with the dead, becomes a source of melancholy elsewhere, and of fright elsewhere again. What is the support here of an exciting sublime, serves elsewhere to trigger a sacred terror.
One would thus be mistaken to assign it a particular object (the fantastic, for example), an atmosphere, a repertoire, a place. It does not have to do in an essential way with the elsewhere, the strange, the unreal; these can just as well be taken in charge otherwise, in the tale, the science fiction, the magic realism. Above all, horror overflows all these registers, arising just as much in the familiar, the close, the ordinary violence, in the very banality.
The horror can appear everywhere, it is what makes it threatening, not to obey our intentions: any configuration contains the potentiality of it, that the fear comes to deploy. It is elementary, primordial, ruthlessly simple in the end. What is terrifying, in the last instance, is of an unfathomable poverty, and it is perhaps what is the most unbearable in this.
Let us consider these few desperately trivial statements: we are born without reason, in an immense randomness devoid of any real harmony. We lead a sordid, brutal, and short life. It always ends too soon, and the emptiness from which we are drawn, we always come back to. The time for a few lies and a few pirouettes, painfully and ungracefully shaking the envelopes that direct us more than we manipulate them, and we are back there.
There is something rather heavy, boring, in this stringing of nihilistic pearls passing for the summit of wisdom (and one quickly tires of the pessimistic masters and their aphorisms, whose bitterness always gives the feeling of being played, of constructing a haughty character who has come back from everything). After the small pleasure of the vertigo of the darkness, one gets over it quite easily, in the end.
Rilke, in Notes on the Melody of Things, a meditative text that leads us to recognize that we are nothing but puppets dancing on strings, animated by a powerfully inhuman movement, offers us in passing a rather disenchanted parable, worthy of the cruellest moralists:
“This is what happens. They try to reach each other with words and gestures. It is just if they do not dislocate their arms, so much their gestures are short. They make infinite efforts to throw syllables at each other, and in this game they are still frankly bad ball players, who cannot catch. So they spend their time bending over and searching — and so it is with life.
And art has done nothing but show us the trouble we are in most of the time. It has worried us, instead of making us quiet and calm. It has proved that we each live on our own island; only islands that are not far enough apart to live in solitude and peace. One may disturb the other, or frighten him, or chase him with a javelin — help alone, from none to none, comes.”
All this, however powerfully said, are things we know, and which bore us by dint of knowing it: vanity of vanities, all is vanity, Ecclesiastes already said.
So it is from this lack, from this poverty, from having nothing to say, that we must begin, it seems to me. From the fact that we cease to be touched by what, if we felt it even imperfectly, could lead us directly to madness or to sobbing.
We can get used to anything; this is perhaps the most incredible and horrible thing about it.
There is a story I like, a little anecdote contained in The Maltese Falcon by D. Hammett: a detective investigates a man who disappeared one day without leaving any news. He ends up finding him, in another city, the same kind of city; he has the same job, a new family, more or less the same as the one he left. What happened to him?
Nothing very simple: one day, on his way to work, a defective scaffolding caused a large weight to fall two steps away from him. Having just escaped death, this tidy man suddenly realizes that our lives are hanging by a thread, and resolves to take to heart the lesson that has just been delivered to him: he leaves everything behind, sets out on the road, and lives from day to day. But little by little, habit takes over, and, after a long wandering, he finds civilization, finds an occupation, And settles into a life that resembles, trait for trait, The one he has left.
He had tried to live in a world of pure contingency, where cinder blocks could fall at any moment; but he had to get used to the idea that this world was not so far from ours, where they do not fall. Having made the absurdity of the world his own, he had to get used to a world where the absurd is not dramatic, not present, just latent.
It is a story without a clear lesson, a bit disappointing.
Let’s try, though: it only takes one day for everything to be transformed, but it takes a lifetime for the exception to be covered by the norm, its memory dulled by the repetition of the same. What makes the accident truly threatening is precisely that we cannot trust it, because it arrives at its own time, without warning, without responding to our dramatic intentions. As long as it is not there, it is possible for us to live without it, as if there were no such thing.
It is in the hollow of the night, in a moment of weakness or inattention, when your mind is heavy with fatigue, when your body momentarily ceases to fulfill its protective offices, it is in such slacknesses, that one or the other of the truisms of the precariousness of things takes advantage to resurface, odious as in the first day. It doesn’t take much, you know, a sideways glance at the life you’ve learned to bear and sometimes even to love, for it all to come back to hit you with a sharp blow, with a force impossible to bear. A bit of bad luck, a simple lack of preparation, and here you are on the ground.
Horror is not then the experience of something inconceivable, unimaginable, violent or disproportionate, not essentially at least; it is simply the experience of being without recourse, of powerlessness and defeat, in all their ugliness and injustice. This is why it lurks everywhere, and can appear in all things: the slightest flick of the wrist, as soon as it strikes us down, is enough to invoke it.
Horror is then the confrontation with everything in front of which there is nothing to do; it is the abolition of the will, it is the deprivation of what should be ours, that we would like to keep. Horror is everything that defeats us, the unreasoned catalog of what we find ourselves facing, one day or another, to give in.
It is in this that horror, from being very singular and accidental, is always universal and general, because in each instance of crushing is contained the confirmation of the vulnerability to which everything is subjected, which finds its symbolic figuration in the account of extinction on a cosmic scale. Take this memorable fragment from Nietzsche:
“At the turn of some corner of the universe flooded with the fires of countless solar systems, there was once a planet on which intelligent animals invented knowledge. It was the proudest and most deceitful minute in ‘universal history’, but it was only a minute. After a few sighs of nature, the planet froze and the intelligent animals had only to die. Such is the fable that could be invented, without succeeding in sufficiently highlighting the lamentable, fuzzy and fleeting aspect, the vain and arbitrary aspect of this exception that constitutes the human intellect within nature. Eons have passed from which it was absent; and if it disappears again, nothing will have happened”. (“Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense,” in Posthumous Writings 1870–73, quoted by RB, The Unchained Nothingness, chapter 7).
As there was a beginning, there will be an end.
To the latter, nothing escapes.
Faced with this kind of impossibility, of which the vulnerability of living bodies is only the most obvious (and one could decline it in all its variants: to have been engendered without having asked for anything, from parents one never wanted, in an absurdly random social world and history), one can certainly storm, agitate, oppose as much as one wants; one will not be able to erase anything from these facts, which leave their mark in us. All the fortresses that we build to protect ourselves from them (of which the infinite sophistication of all the devices that surround us testifies in a striking way), will only be able at best to ward off, to delay the coming, or more commonly to numb the knowledge of the impossibility of modifying these truths, infinitely odious, infinitely boring, infinitely inaccessible.
Our intentions, projects, efforts; our strength, our virtue, the very beauty that sometimes shines through between us, all this glory that is ours and in which we like to find not only joy but a little satisfaction, all this can at best only caress like a breath all the crudeness of the universal failure to make anything mean the slightest thing. No roll of the dice abolishes chance, no poem composed on a ship’s deck can overcome the storm that engulfs it. One can hardly sigh, heal, beckon, hoping in vain that one’s efforts will feed others, as futile as the previous ones.
Horror is stupid and raw, obtuse, even when it pretends to be profound. This is what made the horror of evil according to Arendt, which is often misunderstood: evil is inaccessible to thought, because it does not think, because it is a surface on which nothing worthwhile reacts, a wall deaf to our complaints, which sends them back without wanting to understand anything.
There are far fewer things, Horace, in Heaven and on Earth, than all your philosophies can dream of, could be our motto.
Think, build, imagine, as you wish. Good for you, or not.
Pascal, too, thought. He believed, as a good Jansenist, that is to say as a good despairer, that he could bring men to conversion (in the absence of grace, but we shouldn’t ask too much of ourselves), by showing them the misery in which they would live if God were absent from their lives. He thought he could use the dizzying horror of infinite silences, of the cosmic at its most excessive, to push us to turn to a hidden and capricious God. In the end, it was the horror that used him, that retained from his theological virtuosity only the abandonment in which his inhuman God left us.
With God, we are lost; without God, everything is in vain. Such is the choice we are left with. It is difficult to imagine ourselves as heroic gamblers in these conditions.
The horror is the insurmountable. It is the moment when the will proves incapable, when efforts and games are defeated, not by accident, but by blind fatality: because they must, because it cannot be otherwise.
Then we look back at the world that gave us birth, at the origin of all things, and we can see nothing but a destiny from which no one can escape.
It is the look in the mirror of Lovecraft’s character, who realizes that he has always been, deep down, the monstrous one, because we all are. The quest for origins, this insane search for explanation, for clarity, comes to a halt with an unbearable revelation: this was not what we wanted, what we were pursuing, or at least, this is not what we thought we wanted.
There is a convoluted expression that philosophers like, because it suits them well enough: always-already. We are invincibly subjected to the weight of a reality that crushes us, and that has never stopped being there. The only thing that has changed, that has happened to us, is to realize it.
Horror permanently plays with the inhuman: unfathomable gods, buried monsters, uncontrolled metamorphoses of the flesh, ghosts that return against all reason.
It comes to represent a kind of absolute antihumanism, the idea according to which we never knew what we were doing, nor why, nor in view of what. That we do not even exist, or hardly, pure fictions, malignant spirits.
It is thus related to all the forms of pessimism and nihilism, of which Thomas Ligotti has brilliantly made an inventory. Philosophers only play at being afraid, only express with a vague weariness an aestheticized version of the real fear that seizes the spirit when it finally understands its emptiness. All philosophy, ordinary, is built on the fear of death, on its negation; in other words, as Rosenzweig underlines it with an unfeigned irony, at the opening of the Star of the Redemption, death, in all that it has of absurd, irrational, and indigestible by the self-sufficient knowledge, is what thought cannot make sense of, with its only means; what it can only render unreal, at the price of its own derealization.
To meet the real horror, it is to accept its destruction; it is to return to the thought its precariousness, to make him lose any pretension to the eternity or to the beauty. In order to abandon otherworldly dreams, it is necessary not to learn to die, but to die for good, that is to say to abolish in oneself all that keeps us on the side of illusion: above all, that of a meaning that would come to sanction our existence. Everything has to be stripped away, if we want to stop being a corpse dreaming our life.
“Outside the finite experience of the subjects, there is nothing, nothing, nothing but nothing”, said an Englishman a century and a bit ago. Here we are, that’s where we have to settle. This world is false, is a lie. This is the dream of the Gnostics, that eternal sect that affirms that we are not of this Earth, because it does not belong to us, and that we are here as a mistake. The life we live is the false one, but there is no true one; there is no lost paradise, only a universal abandonment, from which no miracle will recover us. The real life is elsewhere, that is to say that it is absent.
Perhaps this is the only wisdom, the knowledge of the last ends: that by ceasing to hope, by ceasing to believe in the stories to which we cling, something happens, something comes out. From the disappearance of all personality, of all certainty, of all will, of all freedom, there remains a free, senseless movement, and thus, a little bit free.