Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Lago di Braies,” and is by Italian photographer Mirko Ardori (Flickr | Facebook). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Today’s photo of the day is untitled, and is by Irish photographer Fabrizio Ara FAHC (Flickr | Facebook | website). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “late night walk,” and is by British photographer Edo Zollo (Flickr | Instagram | Facebook). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Con las primas,” and is by Basque photographer Egoitz Moreno (Flickr | website). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Regular readers will remember that I recently read the new In the Mountains of Madness by W. Scott Poole, which is not just a biography of horror writer HP Lovecraft but also an examination of the “Lovecraftian” culture that has built up around his work since his death; and that got me interested not only in reading the entire oeuvre of Lovecraft for the first time (a process I’m in the middle of right now), but also checking out some of the contemporary authors who write in Lovecraft’s vein, and who are helping to carry and extend the “Cthulhu Mythos” into the 21st century. So for advice with that I turned to an acquaintance of mine, Chicago horror author Richard Thomas; and among the other contemporary writers he encouraged me to sample was Thomas Ligotti, who I had already vaguely heard of as, alternatively, “The best horror writer you’ve never heard of” and “the horror writer all the other horror writers wished they were.”
Several of his fictional works struck my fancy when first looking through his bibliography; but what stuck out much more in my mind when coming across it, and what I ended up taking on first, was actually a nonfiction book he wrote back in 2011 with the intriguing title The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. It’s essentially a Philosophy 101 survey of all the various deep thinkers throughout history who have espoused what Ligotti calls a “philosophy of pessimism,” which he then examines and weaves together to present a sort of unified narrative story about what all these philosophers had in common, and the 3,000-year-old lesson they’ve been trying to teach us the whole time. It essentially starts with the idea that no living creatures in the universe were ever meant to have self-sentient consciousness, and that the fact that humans do is actually an aberration and a curse, not some sort of gift from a benevolent god; because with this self-sentient consciousness, we’re then compelled to spend our lives searching for a meaning to our existence, but are saddled with the knowledge that there is no meaning to existence, that the universe is quite simply an infinitely large void of constant chaos and random violence, bereft of any human-invented quality like “equality” or “fairness,” and that each of our lives are nothing but insignificant specks in the cosmic scale, in which we change not a single thing about the universe in our lifetimes and then are promptly forgotten by the human race a mere generation or two after our deaths.
That’s the “conspiracy” of the book’s title, the idea that someone is perpetrating a grand cruel joke on humanity at all our expenses; for anyone who looks too closely at this unvarnished truth about the universe, one that we were born with the ability to easily see, ends up going violently insane (or in other words, suicide victims and serial killers are simply the people who see the universe as it really is), which means that to stay sane, productive members of society, we must literally spend our entire lives making up pretty little lies about existence (that there is a cosmic order to it, that there is an inherent sense of justice, that we were purposely born on this planet for a specific reason), and then spend every ounce of our energy brainwashing ourselves into believing these lies, despite the fact that we can quite easily see with our rational minds just how much we’re deluding ourselves when we tell ourselves these things. That’s essentially the basis behind every horror story ever written, Ligotti argues, the schism between the lies we tell ourselves about an orderly, fair universe and the unending parade of chaos and violence that we glimpse when we stop telling ourselves these lies; and he then spends the length of his book hopping from one famous thinker to another over the course of written history, showing how there have always been select philosophers and authors around, from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance to the Victorian Age to now, who have used this same basic set of principles as the basis behind every treatise and manifesto they ever wrote.
Yeah, pretty dark and heady stuff, making it no surprise that True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has admitted in interviews that he based Matthew McConaughey’s season 1 antihero Rust Cohle directly on the theories being discussed in this book; and it also goes a long way towards explaining why a genre writer like Ligotti cites as some of his favorite authors such surprising non-horror people as Arthur Schopenhauer, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett. So after this, then, I jumped right into the only book-length fictional piece Ligotti has ever written, 2002’s My Work Is Not Yet Done, republished in 2009 for a larger audience by hipster British press Virgin Books (all the rest of his books are short-story collections), which unsurprisingly reads like a fictional version of all the nonfiction theories being banded about in Conspiracy. It’s essentially the tale of an intellectual malcontent and mentally imbalanced loner working a faceless middle-management job at a blandly nondescript corporation; when he’s railroaded by scheming co-workers into getting unfairly fired, he makes plans to launch into the violent act of retribution you would expect from such a person, but then a sudden dark cloud that envelops the city that night imbues him with a malevolent supernatural spirit that suddenly makes the story go in a much different and weirder direction.
I’ll let the rest of this delightfully crackpot story remain a surprise, although I will mention that the scope of the narrative gets a lot bigger and grander than you would expect by the time the story is over, and that it’s also obvious in this book why so many people call Ligotti the natural heir to Lovecraft and his obsession for all-powerful creatures who regard humans as little more than gnats to be flicked at in annoyance. What may be the most clever thing of all about about My Work, however, is that it’s also an astute examination of the former industrial powerhouses of the American Midwest, and the ignoble corrosion they have faced in the post-Industrial age (Ligotti was born and raised in Detroit, and the unnamed city where My Work takes place feels an awful lot like it, although you could also substitute in such cities as Cleveland, Indianapolis or St. Louis), as well as a gleefully cynical takedown of the misguided attempts to transform these cities in the 21st century into shining creative-class destinations full of coffeehouses, bike paths and loft condos. (In fact, in a way you can see the main theme in My Work manifested as the question, “What if literal demons were behind the urban gentrification movement?”)It's obvious in his work why so many people call #Ligotti the natural heir to #Lovecraft Click To Tweet
It’s been a darkly exhilarating experience for the last few weeks, being stuck so deep in Ligotti’s unrelentingly nihilistic universe, a writer who after thirty years of professional publishing just now seems to be starting to come into his own as a popular public figure. (He’s one of only ten living writers on the planet who’s been republished by Penguin Classics, a feat which only happened a year and a half ago, at which point the Washington Post called him “the best-kept secret in contemporary horror fiction.”) If you yourself are looking for a refreshingly chilling alternative to the played-out “ghosts in the suburbs” trope of Stephen King and other Postmodernist horror authors, I suggest you give Ligotti a whirl yourself.
I’ve long had a fascination for Esperanto, the “global second language” that got invented in the late Victorian Age, flourished among the far-left political parties of Early Modernism’s Communist era, and had its last big hurrah among the hippies of the countercultural age. (For those who don’t know, Esperanto was deliberately designed to be the easiest language to learn in the entire history of the subject, with the goal being that everyone on the planet would eventually know it as a second language to their local primary first language, as a way of bringing about true global communication without everyone on the planet having to learn every 25 years the latest “language du jour” of whatever hegemony just happened to be dominating the rest of the world during any particular generation.) And so I had an immediate interest when recently coming across Esther Schor’s new examination of the subject, Bridge of Words, which is an engaging hybrid of a book — every odd-numbered chapter examines a piece of Esperanto’s fascinatingly checkered history, while every even-numbered chapter looks at Esperanto as it exists as a still popular and functioning language in the 21st century, taking on everything from the people who choose to learn it and why, to a detailed analysis of the language itself and how exactly it works.
And indeed, this book is chock-full of interesting stuff I never knew before about Esperanto, not least of which was that it was invented in the first place by an Eastern European pre-Nazi Jew who had briefly been a part of the “Zionist” movement that eventually led to the formation of modern Israel; and that the language itself has complicated ties to the 20th-century struggles of Jewish identity, reforming the Yiddish language, and the Utopian Socialism dreams that went so hand-in-hand with such people back in those years. And this is not to mention the life that the language took on for itself away from these subjects as well, including its embrace by the ’60s counterculture mentioned before, as well as it being seen as a way in the ’50s to counter the xenophobia of Eugene McCarthy’s “red scare” Communist witch hunts. So it’s a shame, then, that Schor’s own writing style often gets in the way of this book being more enjoyable than it currently is; an Ivy League academe and full-time poet, she often gets too high-falutin’ in her examination of Esperanto in all its myriad forms, having the tendency in a lot of places of writing in a nearly incomprehensibly academic way that will go over the heads of most general readers (yours truly included). Still very much worth your time, Bridge of Words is nonetheless unfortunately not as good as it could’ve been, which is why it’s getting a score today that doesn’t quite reflect the interest that just the subject itself naturally generates on its own.
Out of 10: 8.5
It wasn’t until publishing Kevin Haworth’s 2012 essay collection Famous Drownings in Literary History that I learned for the first time about the Jewish institution known as the kibbutz, a concept that is part practical and part political; in reality not much more than a collectively owned farm in the style of ’60s hippie communes, the part that’s important to Judaism is that they were founded by the very first “Zionists” who in the 1910s moved to the region now known as Israel, explicitly to establish a nation for Jewish people where none had existed for thousands of years, and it was these mostly Eastern European radical socialists who believed that the key to a “Jewish state” was the embrace of these communist-style cooperatives, even going so far to believe that such collective farms would transform the deserts of the Middle East and eventually bring peace between Jews and Muslims.
As American non-Jew David Leach points out in his fascinating new personal-essay collection, Chasing Utopia, although it’s considered a duty by every Jewish person worldwide to regularly spend volunteer time at a Israeli kibbutz, these organizations also accept volunteers from all walks of life, Jewish or not; and back in the ’70s and ’80s when Leach was a youth, such kibbutzes were considered by many young people to be “the place where backpacking college students went on holiday when they didn’t have any money” (or so once said Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, merely one of thousands of such ’70s youths to spend a summer on one of these farms, helped immensely by kibbutzes’ reputations as places where the liquor flowed freely and sexual opportunities were easy). That’s what led Leach to spend a summer at a kibbutz himself, an experience he would fondly remember with hazy nostalgia well into his middle-aged years as a Catholic Canadian journalist; but one day thirty years later, he happened to catch an item on the news about one of these kibbutzes recently filing an initial public stock offering (IPO) for their brand-new high-tech startup, which made him realize that the very nature of these organizations had gone through a radical transformation during the last half of the Postmodernist Era.
That’s what Chasing Utopia basically is, a record of Leach’s revisit to Israel for the first time in decades to learn what’s happened to the collective farms he so warmly remembered from his youth, a trip that took him on a circular tour of the entire country and that entailed dozens of probing interviews with the remaining communards, government officials, NGO personnel, and fellow journalists. And the results are gripping: profoundly scaled back in number from hundreds to now dozens, the kibbutzes still remaining in Israel have largely been forced through economic circumstances to abandon their old collective roots, transforming themselves into traditionally capitalist, publicly held corporations, ones that have largely given up on agriculture to specialize instead in such 21st-century items as transistors, high-quality mirrors for medical equipment, and even cutting-edge women’s razors. And in the meanwhile, as the politics of the region have continued to get even more fractured and complex with every passing year, instead of less like the originally Zionist founders of modern Israel envisioned, this too has had an effect on the kibbutzes, propagandized as a source of nationalist pride by conservatives (with the resulting terrorist attacks by Palestinians you would expect), while being held up as a bold experiment for inter-faith peace by liberals.
The lovely thing about a book like this being written by a non-Jew like Leach is that you don’t have to be Jewish yourself to follow along with the issues; Leach approaches these subjects exactly like the disinterested outsider he is, and in many ways this is a great exercise in traditional journalism that helps explain these complicated issues in a clear and balanced way. But what makes the book even more interesting is Leach’s personal connection to it all, which is why the sum of this book’s chapters is a bigger whole than simply an addition of its parts, and why you couldn’t just run these chapters as individual articles in a place like The Huffington Post; for in the spirit of 21st-century personal essay, Leach delicately weaves his personal story into these traditional journalism pieces, not afraid to express his own opinions about the things he’s seeing and the people he’s talking to. It makes for a fascinating book when all is said and done, my favorite type of nonfiction and the kind of book I would’ve published if it had been submitted to CCLaP; and it comes strongly recommended to one and all today, a book inherently interesting to those already familiar with the subjects at hand, and a book that will likely make you interested if you never have been before.
Out of 10: 9.6