Thomas Ligotti and Tantric Horror

‘Consciousness has forced into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are-hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.’ ~Thomas Ligotti

‘The awesome, horrifying renunciation of the aghori sadhu seems to defy the norms of civilized life. He will live only in the cremation ground, cook his food on the fires of the funeral pyre, eat and drink from a hollow skull that he uses as the sadhu’s bowl.’ ~Rajesh Bedi, ‘Sadhus’

I have been a Thomas Ligotti fan for almost a decade now. While not my top favorite author for exploring the macro-tale of humanity, he is always an author I return to, again and again. I do not share his relentless pessimism, but I do share his scorn for optimism. And in his endlessly dour world view I find something intensely useful to meditate on. For indifferentists and ‘true neutrals’ like myself do share a very common world view with the Ligotti’s and Cioran’s of the world, we simply respond differently.

For Ligotti, a previously underground horror writer who writes mostly short fiction and whose fame increased greatly after it was realized by the public that he was a big inspiration of the first season of True Detective, the cut of his work is to write philosophical fiction with a dose of cosmic horror. His style is like that of an early Twentieth Century absurdist mixed with the gothic elements of Poe and the themes of a very modern alienation that come with certain trends in postwar fiction. He tends to ruminate on ruins, dying and diseased towns and cities, and the innate intrinsic horror of existence. Obviously of a depressive character, he, like the philosopher Emil Cioran with whom he is often compared, has a wry and quite funny sense of humor wrapped up among this bleakness. Not everyone sees it…though I do.

I have also seen much ink spilled about the intellectual traditions of pessimism that such figures belong to in the western tradition. But I think they are a far closer approximation to the school of thought I have become most interested in these past couple years, Tantra. I have shared my thoughts on Tantra before in its own right. How a school of thought began as rebellion from Brahmanical pieties and embraced a kind of material baseness as a method to investigate the inter-connectedness of things. While I disagree with the monist trends in most modern practices, I find the exploration of the self and the world through challenging oneself by confronting-by-embracing the darkness of both self and the world to be a remarkably interesting and novel approach, specifically for those who find little use in our present self-censoring eggshell-treading age.

In Tantra, one confronts the fear of death by meditating on a corpse. The fear of lust by engaging in sex to attain full control. The fear of the forbidden by eating what society proscribes. Deities of compassion and wisdom are depicted as terrifying relentless monsters for only such could cut through illusions and shock you into the ruthless nature of reality. Once shocked into reality one is less likely to be shocked by it again. One lives with reality as it is, without fear. Tantra is the opposite of a trigger warning. It challenges you to define your greatest fears and then plunge into them. You are going to think about them after all, so why not face them directly?

Ligotti’s fiction (and his one non-fiction work, ‘Conspiracy Against the Human Race’) does exactly this but in a modern post-industrial context. The charnel ground is no longer representative of our fears of the future, but the dying blighted town or the crumbling ruin is. It is on such subjects that Ligotti likes to focus on. ‘The Red Tower’ is a rumination on a ruined factory and the connections it made throughout the community when it manufactured whatever it was that it made in a pointless process of self-replication. ‘This Degenerate Little Town’ (spoken by the author himself in this clip no less) sees the entropy of the universe reflected in the image of a horrific miserable small town that lies symbolically at the center of everything. Having once visited one of ‘the most dismal towns in Britain’ specifically because it was near a ferry I had to catch and the town was described as such in a guidebook, I have the specific image of the small and suitably named community of John O’ Groats in mind whenever I hear this prose poem. Perhaps the greatest Tantra-adjacent work of Ligotti’s, however, is ‘The Shadow, The Darkness.’ A longer story bordering on novella about a hack artist who suddenly becomes filled with talent and drive after a near death experience forces him to confront his lack of self, humanity, and practically anything save the terrifying Schopenhauerian ‘will’ that drives his body to simply perpetuate its own existence. But even this is not enough for both the artist, and his social clique, and they respond in various ways depending on their psychological disposition.

While Tantra’s end goal is liberation from fear, weakness, and myopia, Ligotti promises no liberation. Even death is not an end of the horror for reasons best summed up in a Cioran quote, ‘It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.’ Of course, I see the humor in that quote. I would also say that there is a form of liberation-through-darkness that lurks implicitly in the background of Ligotti’s works. This is most apparent in his one novel, ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done.’ This novel is often not talked about by Ligotti fans, the consensus seeming to be it is more a send up of insufferable co-workers and office culture than part of his serious canon. I could not disagree more.

While ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done’ is a workplace revenge fantasy involving making a dark pact with a cosmic being in order to torment ones workplace foes to death or fates worse than death, it is in some ways the ultimate modern Tantric novel and thus has as much philosophical value as Ligotti’s other works, if with a different tone. Like the works of contemporary horror author Richard Gavin, himself a Tantra-adjacent author in my view, its a story that speaks to people who walk a different path from the sunshine lollipops and rainbows of most of society while also avoiding the mopey ennui of those kinds of manic depressives who, by their aspect, let tell that they are really dejected and scorned optimists at heart. ‘My Work’ shows us that an immense amount of capability can be bestowed on one willing to plunge the depths of horror. The reward is still basically to die, but to die honestly with no illusions about what oneself is and what the world at large is as well. Ligotti’s (and Gavin’s) works are for those who walk a different path and are not enlightened nor empowered by the things we are taught are supposed to bring joy to our lives. The band Garbage had a catchier way of putting it, I suppose.

The Tantric approach is an attitude, one befitting those of trickster like disposition I might even say. It need not be followed like the counter-establishment religion of a very specific time and place that gave rise to it to be worthy to us today. Our cremation grounds are rotting towns and cities and our holy men are horror authors. Our world can be thoroughly material and yet still one of immense and awesome horrors. But rather than the Lovecraft protagonist who shrinks from exposure a world where humans are not at the top of the food chain, we embrace the shattering of our illusions because, as Ligotti himself says, ‘We can hide from horror only in the heart of horror.’

Indeed, the Cult of Dionysius back in the classical era arrived to similar conclusions on its own. As Professor E. R. Dobbs wrote about Euripedes’s play ‘The Bacchae’: ‘The moral of The Bacchae is that we ignore at our peril the demand of the human spirit for Dionysiac experience. For those who do not close their minds against it, such experience can be a source of spiritual power and eudaimonia. But those who repress the demand in themselves or refuse its satisfaction to others transform it by their act into a power of disintegration and destruction.’

A Speculative Realist Review of ‘History of the Tantric Religion’


Those who have followed this blog since its inception in late 2015/early 2016 know that while it is mostly an international relations, politics, and history blog it has also gradually become a place to explore my journey into the new philosophical school of speculative realism. I have been gradually working my way through constructing a geopolitical take on speculative realism. In so doing I have also been inspired to engage with philosophical positions that come from South and East Asia as I have seen some obvious parallels between some of those schools of thoughts and the rebirth of metaphysical materialism in some sectors of ‘western’ philosophy. Above all, the worldviews with a Tantric side seem to offer the most interesting overlap.

Tantra is not in fact what most westerners who hear the term believe it to be. According to the school of Californian Buddtology, Tantra is feeling all mystical about having sex in weird postures. While it is certainly true that contemporary Tantra has some optional sex practices as part of its ritual culture, I have a feeling your average Cilantro-Botoxian from the Hollywood Hills would find little in common with the philosophy behind the movement if they ever actually bothered to read about it.

As an atheist and hard materialist myself, I naturally wanted to read about Tantra from as secular and scholarly a source as I could find. Fortunately, I was able to locate the second revised edition of N.N. Bhattacharyya’s ‘History of the Tantric Religion.’ I am not interesting in converting, after all, but rather understanding more fully this school of thought that presaged speculative realism by thousands of years. And this book delivered.

It is both a history of the thought trend and also an exploration into its themes. Many of these themes have been diluted or merged with more mainstream thought over time, leading Tantra today to have the reputation of something that is more about technique rather than a distinct world view on its own.

In its beginning, Bhattacharyya shows us that Tantra was an anti-establishment impulse that came from women and the lower castes of society. In direct opposition to Brahmannical divorce from the real world to follow abstract ideology (insert joke about woke neoliberal overlords here) an organic take on Hinduism and Buddhism arose which centered not the abstract goals of a priestly caste but rather the physical, real, and material. This was most evident in the relationship between physical objects-especially that of the human body, the natural world, and substances both foul and delightful- what could be consumed (meat, alcohol, bodily fluids, etc). Many Tantra-aligned schools of thought dabbled in atheism, skepticism, and controlled ritualistic hedonism. The violation of preexisting social taboos was important to challenge complacent thinking and transcend the rote wisdom we are saddled with that stops us from seeing the flow of nature as it really is. All of these schools were interested in the natural world and how the human body and the gods reflected this material existence. When gods were used they were explicitly stated to be symbols of natural forces to which we are only separated from by the illusion of human difference.

Sadly, over time most of these traditions would end up weakening and merging with the greater normie culture of medieval and early modern India. Others, such as Vajrayana Buddhism (who longtime followers of this blog know I have an obsession with the aesthetic of) effectively came to rule entire regions in the Himalayas. But having become the establishment those too largely lost the contrarian and material nature of the original school of thought as they degenerated into Llamaist theocracy.

Still, several core elements of this rebellious and wonderfully base philosophy still survive in many various deity cults and practices in South and Himalayan Asia today. These could be summed up (my own take here, be warned) as ‘the only way out is through.’ In other words, the way for a human to recognize their place as part of an unfolding natural process is to de-emphasize socially constructed protocol (caste, class, moralism, absolute idealism) for confronting the base nature of everything head on. Afraid of death? Spend time meditating upon the charnel grounds. Afraid of becoming a slave to the passions? Indulge in all of the passions in a disciplined manner so that you eventually grow tired of excess and regulate them in a rational manner. Afraid of violence and strife? Adopt the iconography and terms of war and slaughter in the form of wrathful deities, whose fearsome aspect is then turned from something shocking potentially directed against you into something powerful that is now on your own side. The practice of focusing on ones personal selection of deities is often a major part of this, as the gods most associated with Tantric practice (such as Chinnamasta, pictured above) are often grotesque, their power overflowing in fountains of gore, limbs, bones worn as decorations, and yet dancing through it all. They show that the most terrifying things can be internalized into something powerful and helpful, and turning fear from something to avoid into something to co-opt into bravery and critical thinking.

When I think of people around the speculative realist movement who do this Graham Harman and Ray Brassier come to mind, if in different ways. Harman wants to rub the fact that you are an object, and therefore that ‘objectification’ is not only not a bad thing but an honest and true claim, in your face. Brassier wants to bring philosophical nihilism out from the edgy teenager/depressive persons territory and claim it as simply objective truth to be confronted directly as fact before moving on to anything else.

In a way we all do this to some level without realizing it. People enjoy horror movies for cathartic or thrill seeking reasons even if (and sometimes especially if) they are the kinds of people who shrink from conflict and danger. I professionally advocate for tearing down the perpetual war state for strategic reasons but love military history and war movies. I can also speak from personal experience that the most effective means I ever came across for confronting and managing my situational depression when it flares up was to indulge it critically. This meant  treating it more like an annoying acquaintance than an enemy, indulging it just enough to integrate myself with the experience before realizing it didn’t really matter because it was just systems responding irrationally. Interestingly, the most effective way of speeding up this process is very Tantric…I watch as many depressing movies and read as many depressing books as possible. Eventually, by charging directly through you end up punching right past being stuck. It becomes a challenge of a sorts, ‘oh you think that is bad? I’ll show you worse!’ By the end of it you sort of win the game or you get sick of playing. Either way, crisis averted because now you are thinking entirely differently from when you started. In the process you learn self-discipline so the potential for even gaining knowledge is there too.

In an era where shrinking violets control the discourse and seek to avoid uncomfortable topics is a moralizing version of anti-intellectualism, I can think of no better way of thought to counteract this Tipper Gore-ish trend than that of subversive Tantric methods of thinking.

Guess that explains my love of black metal. If there is one genre of music that could fit this topic, its surely that.