The last time I posted about contemporary weird scribe Thomas Ligotti, some deranged dipshit who claims on Twitter to be “doing the Buddha’s work” came by and spewed inane comments because, well, he’s another New Age nutjob with nothing better to do but harass people on social networks. The fact that this person knows not one whit about Buddhism matters little to me, but I still publicly humiliated him simply because it felt right to do so. I’ll take whatever karmic licks are coming. It won’t be the first (or last) time.
Thomas Ligotti is my favorite contemporary writer of fiction, and the only fiction author I read besides French existential nihilist Michel Houellebecq. I’m sure I’m missing out on some great books, but I prefer to read policy mags, history or physics tomes translated for laymen.
Ligotti is possibly the most gifted craftsman of pessimistic prose I’ve ever come across. Though his work owes something to Franz Kafka and even more to HP Lovecraft, his articulation of the meaninglessness of existence and the cosmic terror that accompanies the apprehension of humanity’s insignificance is truly singular. In Ligotti’s world, mankind’s numbing exertions are punctuated only by the occasional flash of diabolical insight that there is a force, ancient and idiotic, that laid down the grim law well before the first single-cell organism emerged from the primordial oceanic ichor.
Though Ligotti is a deity to a select few, his work has never been appreciated by a broad audience, and will likely never be. Part of the reason is his preference for short form storytelling; the modern fiction marketplace seems to reward only novel-length works (that is, if rewards anyone but Dan Brown). The other reason is that Ligotti’s writing is so spectacularly composed and cruelly distant that it feels out of step with the self-confessional prose du jour beloved by the Oprah Book Club set. A latticework of cadaverous verbiage, the Ligotti canon is masterfully malignant and to be relished only by those of a certain disposition.
I recently came across a post at the SF Gospel blog (a cool site that examines the religious/philosophic underpinnings of science fiction) about Ligotti’s “Dark Buddhism.” Anything I do here will be feeble paraphrasing, so I encourage you to read the original post. Here’s an excerpt about Ligotti’s most “accessible” tale, the novella My Work Here is Not Yet Done:
“My Work is Not Yet Done” is the story of Frank Dominio, a mid-management drone in a company that does… well, we’re never quite sure, and it doesn’t much matter. Dominio becomes convinced that his co-workers, who he calls the Seven Dwarfs, the Seven Swine, or just the Seven, are conspiring against him. At first it seems like simple paranoia, but events soon begin to prove him right, leading him on a bizarre path of revenge that takes more than a few unexpected turns. More importantly, though, Dominio’s understanding of the conspiracy against him grows. He begins to understand that it’s not simply the Seven who hope to destroy him, it is the system that they represent — their company, and, on a greater level, the entire corporate system. In a particularly powerful passage, Dominio decries the aims of his company and others like it:
The company that employed me strived only to serve up the cheapest fare that its customers would tolerate, churn it out as fast as possible, and charge as much as they could get away with. If it were possible to do so, the company would sell what all businesses of its kind dream about selling, creating that which all our efforts were tacitly supposed to achieve: the ultimate product — Nothing. And for this product, they would command the ultimate price — Everything.
This market strategy would then go on until one day among the world-wide ruins of derelict factories and warehouses and office buildings, there stood only a single, shining, windowless structure with no entrance and no exit. Inside would be — will be — only a dense network of computers calculating profits. Outside will be tribes of savage vagrants with no comprehension of the nature or purpose of the shining, windowless structure. Perhaps they will worship it as a god. Perhaps they will try to destroy it…
But what does any of this have to do with Buddhism, which is actually the opposite of nihilism, despite it’s core contention that all things are impermanent and lack singular inherent characteristics (ie, are not self-arising but rather transitory and interdependent)? Here’s a hint:
. . .where the Buddhist response to this understanding of existence is to seek to liberate all beings from the cycle of suffering, Dominio’s reaction is much darker: he concludes that all existence must be destroyed, or, failing that, he must destroy himself. He must do “all the damage he is allowed to do”— and, by the novel’s conclusion, he seems to have gained enough eldritch power to do a great deal of damage indeed. That desire for destruction is the result of the enormous difference between Ligotti’s worldview and Buddhism. To Western eyes, Buddhism can appear pessimistic, or even nihilistic: all that talk about existence being suffering, and the ultimate goal being “cessation” from existence as we know it. But in fact Buddhism sees a potential, if not a necessity, for a positive end to the universe in which all created beings cease suffering. Dominio does not see that possibility: he sees only the conspiracy, and not the solution to it.
Ligotti himself recognizes the similarities in his own aesthetic philosophies and the timeless Eastern “religion”:
In an interview with the New York Review of Science Fiction, Ligotti acknowledges the similarity, stating that “Buddhism isn’t my point of departure, but I’m in a similar place.”
Here’s a bit more from My Work is Not Yet Done:
We were brought into this world out of nothing. . . We were kept alive in some form, any form, as long as we were viciously thrashing about, acting out our most intensely vital impulses. . . We would be pulled back into the flowing blackness only when we had done all the damage we were allowed to do, only when our work was done. The work of you against me. . . and me against you.
For more insight, I encourage you to a) pick up Ligotti wherever you can and b), read the original SF Gospel post. You might also want to check out Thomas Ligotti Online — the nearly official internet home for all things TL.