“It is a book of great truths,” I said.
“Yes, he replied, “of ‘truths’ which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don’t care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It’s a crime to have written it, and I for one shall never open its pages.”
— The Repairer of Reputations, Robert W. Chambers
True Detective is widely considered to be one of the best TV series ever broadcast. The Neoreactionary philosopher, Nick Land, has called it, “the most intelligent series in TV history.” The reason for such high praise is often attributed to one of the lead characters, Rustin Cohle, who early on in the series identifies himself as a philosopher of pessimism:
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 everbody’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. (TD 1)
Very quickly it became apparent that Cohle’s philosophical musings bore an uncanny resemblance to certain passages in Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. In fact, HBO actually found it necessary to issue a statement specifically denying accusations of plagiarism. In all fairness, True Detective’s writer, Nic Pizzolatto, could no more be said to be guilty of plagiarizing Ligotti’s work than could Christopher Nolan be said to have plagiarized Nietzsche when he had The Joker say, “whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you stranger.” Philosophical ideas are common currency and can be freely appropriated by writers for whatever purpose they wish. But it is clear nonetheless that Ligotti’s book was a significant influence on the writing of True Detective. This essay will look at the philosophy of pessimism as expressed in both Ligotti’s book and in True Detective.
In Conspiracy Against the Human Race Ligotti draws heavily on an essay by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. In The Last Messiah (1933), Zapffe argues that evolution has granted to humanity an excess of consciousness that has come to weigh it down with knowledge of tragedy and death. The growth of consciousness in man was, “a breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart.” Whereas previously man was an animal like all others, now he had developed a capacity for self-reflection that allowed him to understand the suffering of all other living creatures and also to anticipate his own inevitable death. This knowledge makes man a tragic creature who is fatally undone by his greatest asset. Consciousness produces a “feeling of cosmic panic” as man comes to understand himself as an evolved individual whose entire sense of self is coexistent with the biological organism, and whose final ending will be enacted with the imminent destruction of that organism. Zapffe compares man’s hypertrophied consciousness to another evolutionary misstep:
The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by overevolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment. In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
Zapffe concludes that humanity will continue to long for salvation from this tragic paradox until the final messiah arrives to deliver the ultimate solution: “be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye.” Only when humanity collectively decides to abstain from reproduction and commit voluntary genocide will we be freed from the tragedy of consciousness. This is the anti-natalist solution to the problem of philosophical pessimism.
As far as Ligotti is concerned, the thing that prevents people from coming to the same conclusions as Zapffe is the human urge toward illusion. Rather than follow Zapffe’s argument and attempt to refute it point by point, most people simply do not care about such things and, in fact, are actively hostile to such thinking. This is certainly true and it was perfectly illustrated in True Detective with Marty’s response to Rust’s declaration of philosophical pessimism: “I wouldn’t go around spouting that shit if I was you. People around here don’t think that way. I don’t think that way.” This need to dismiss pessimist thinking out of hand is entirely normal and, for Zapffe and Ligotti, is a consequence of the tension created by our enlarged consciousness, simultaneously reflecting on the imminence of our certain extinction and averting its gaze from the realization. Ligotti regards all sorts of human endeavors and beliefs as being little more than an anxious effort to distract ourselves from the knowledge of our mortality.
Further still, he contends that the self is an entirely fictional construct and that we flatter ourselves if we think that we exist at all with any degree of autonomy. We are simply evolved manifestations of genetic struggle, battlegrounds for competing genetic interests of which we know nothing at all. The great insight offered by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene was that evolution takes place not at the level of the individual or the species but at the level of the gene. Human beings, for Dawkins, are gene machines rather than autonomous agents, although interestingly, and just as Ligotti would predict, in all of his comments about religion and morality Dawkins pulls back from the horrific full implication of this view. Rust’s take on this matter is to observe that humans are “sentient meat.”
All of this is fascinating for the insight it gives into Ligotti’s own distinctive brand of weird horror. What becomes apparent is that in all of Ligotti’s fiction he has been expressing a complete and coherent worldview and that the horror genre is simply the closest means he has discovered to articulating his view of reality as realistically as possible. In Conspiracy he says that we endlessly distract ourselves to avoid dispelling the illusion of the self. If we were ever to see through the illusion,
it would be like looking into a mirror and for a moment seeing the skull inside our skin looking back at us with its sardonic smile. And beneath the skull – only blackness, nothing. Someone is there, so we feel, and yet no one is there – the uncanny paradox, all the horror in a glimpse. A little piece of our world has been peeled back, and underneath is creaking desolation – a carnival where all the rides are moving but no patrons occupy the seats.
Conspiracy is filled with such grimly taut prose.
The final chapter, “Autopsy on a Puppet: An Anatomy of the Supernatural,” is best of all. Here, Ligotti discusses some of the classic works of horror literature and develops a thesis that the uncanny, the double, the specter that haunts such literature is a ghostly revenant of our own knowledge that the self is itself already a phantom. We feel a reflective shudder when we encounter such supernatural ideas not so much because we are scared that such things might actually exist in reality but because we are scared that we are as unreal as they are. Lovecraft’s Old Ones are the epitome of this dark knowledge because their being suggests that our own is utterly contingent and fragile; they kill us for sport. All such beings of the supernatural are part of the human, rather than the natural, world. They are inventions of human consciousness just as we are. But the void, the eternal nothingness after death that they stand in for, is real. This is the ultimate realization: “Horror is more real than we are.”
The book concludes with a quasi-short story asking you to imagine your death as a result of a car accident. It is filled with a heavy and morbid sense of horror:
All of a sudden something was set in motion that changed everything. Something descended upon you that had been circling above your life from the day you were born. And for the first time you feel that which you have never felt before – the imminence of your own death. There is no possibility for self-deception now. The paradox that came with consciousness is done with. Only horror is left. This is what is real. This is the only thing that was ever real, however unreal it may have seemed.
So, beyond all illusion and distraction we are faced with the horror of our certain, imminent, and permanent annihilation. And this is why Ligotti’s book will not be to everyone’s taste. If, like me, you have already crossed a particular threshold of existential miserablism you will find that Conspiracy is a dark confirmation of all that you had feared. If, however, you are of a more sanguine disposition this could be a very dangerous book indeed, rather like The King in Yellow referred to in the quote at the beginning of this essay.
True Detective is unique in offering a platform for such ideas in a television program, but the logic of the series as a whole betrays the fact that it is in opposition to such philosophy. This opposition to pessimist philosophy can be seen both in the characterization of Rustin Cohle and in the depiction of American society at a structural level. So True Detective ends up disavowing the philosophy of pessimism in both the individual and social spheres.
Rust’s trajectory in True Detective is slightly complicated by the fact that his story is told in three timelines and that he refers back to events that happened earlier than the first timeline, but we can certainly infer that his initial engagement with pessimist philosophy occurred as a response to the death of his two year old daughter, Sophia. In fact, and against the ethos of pessimist philosophy, he seems to have turned to this way of thinking as a consoling mechanism. In the second episode he describes how the death of his daughter can be seen as a blessing:
I think about my daughter now, and what she was spared. Sometimes I feel grateful. The doctor said she didn’t feel a thing, went straight into a coma. Then, somewhere in that blackness, she slipped off into another deeper kind. Isn’t that a beautiful way to go out, painlessly as a happy child? Trouble with dying later is you’ve already grown up. The damage is done. It’s too late.
Here, the certainty of death has become a comfort because it allows for a reprieve from the horror of the world. This is itself a paradoxical position to hold to because the horror of the world derives in large part from the foreknowledge of death that humanity has acquired due to its hypertrophied consciousness. It would seem that Rust has failed to grasp the full import of pessimist philosophy and is still looking for some sort of redemption.
Redemption comes in the final episode when Rust is stabbed by Errol Childress and enters a coma. Christ-like, he returns from the realm of the dead where he felt the presence of his dead daughter and father. He even brings the good news of man’s salvation in his homily on the stars: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.” This redemptive conclusion to Rust’s story indicates that the role he performs in the series is someone who preaches pessimist philosophy rather than actually embodying it. Certainly, when judged against the relentless bleakness of Ligotti’s prose Rust comes across as someone who is suffering from bereavement and searching for meaning as a palliative. Turning against the iniquity of the world and acting in a misanthropic way are both means for lightening the burden of death. In this he appears somewhat like the Schopenhauer of Nietzsche’s critique, yearning for an undifferentiated world of unity beyond the clamor and discord of this one.
Despite the presence of Rust’s remarkable pronouncements, True Detective is a surprisingly formulaic crime series in many respects. A very good one to be sure, but not as novel as a first viewing would suggest. In terms of its orientation within a societal framework the series supports the conservative notion that crime is a temporary rupture within an essentially ordered structure. Now, this might seem a strange interpretation given that the plot centers on the entanglement of a murderous cult with law enforcement and other social institutions. It might be imagined at first blush that the plot of True Detective is an attempt to implicate power structures and to expose the ubiquity of corruption. But a second look will reveal the deeper and more conventional attitudes that are embedded in its narrative.
The primary expositional tool is the interrogation of Rust and Marty by two black detectives in the 2012 timeline. Due to Rust and Marty’s position as retired detectives who are now under surreptitious suspicion, there is always a suggestion that there is some resentment at their situation. The racially binary nature of the interrogation gives an anticipation that there will be some sort of charged confrontation that will reveal ethnic antagonism but this never comes. It almost comes at one point when Marty makes a reference to a “coon’ only to clarify that he is talking about a raccoon. Instead, the main characters appear to be a perfect embodiment of Obama’s “post-racial” America. This is encapsulated by Marty’s joke, “What do you call a black man who flies an airplane? A pilot, you racist bastard!”
The reason for this is that True Detective locates evil in the originary past of America. The criminal network is practically synonymous with white America. Having said that, it’s important to recognize that the cult of the Yellow King is actually a syncretic amalgam of semi-pagan European traditions, Santeria, and local folklore. This mingling of traditions is important because it denotes that the past is actually a mixed heritage, as per contemporary dogma. But when it comes to the question of the cult’s malign agency it is notable that all of the perpetrators are white and all of the blacks are victims. And this is not a casual or thoughtless coincidence.
The notion of the Yellow King comes from Robert Chambers’ short stories where it seems to be connected with the idea of a hidden American aristocracy. This is, in fact, exactly the way that the cult of the Yellow King operates in True Detective. The cult is revealed to be closely associated with the Tuttle family who are effectively part of Louisiana’s fading aristocracy. The Tuttles are heads of local law enforcement and of the church and they are responsible for a number of local school programs. They are clearly signaled to be an important family of old stock. When the detectives question an elderly black lady who used to be in service to Sam Tuttle they learn about his bastard offspring. It turns out that one of those offspring, Errol Childress, the prime killer of the present generation, is having an incestuous relationship with his sister whilst he talks to his father’s corpse. This is straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Errol Childress as the bastard monster at the center of the Carcosa labyrinth is presented as the logical outcome of generations of white American endogamy.
When we first see Childress in his home he speaks to his sister by turns in English and Irish accents, as though to emphasize his tainted connection to the sinister European stock. Even though he is a menial worker and living in squalor he is still at the center of the high-level criminality associated with the cult. Reggie Ledoux of the “Aryan” Iron Crusaders biker gang also seems to have occupied an important position in the cult earlier. With his tattoos of swastikas and “666” we can see exactly what a European heritage is intended to signify. The important message in all of this is that even white trash are complicit with the crimes of the power elites, and they too secretly enjoy a perverted form of white privilege.
Although the implication at the end of True Detective is that not all of the guilty have been punished, and that a sinister network is probably still in place, the clear movement of the series is from a bad, white past to a good, multi-racial future. These politics are perhaps unsurprising, but given the series’ flirtation with the philosophy of pessimism it is a disappointingly mainstream position to occupy. It is also a rather shallow view of social progression. One thing that Ligotti berates in Conspiracy is the illusory belief that the world is alright. In True Detective, the past was not alright but the future is set to be.
In both pessimistic philosophy and True Detective there is a paradoxical relationship to the idea of personal identity. On the one hand, we are overburdened with the weight of individual consciousness which makes us constantly worry about the imminence of death and the annihilation of the self. On the other, there is the horror of the self not being real, of our being puppets animated by ancient imperatives passed down through genetic heredity. The paradox is that the self is not real and yet it is the only thing we have that seems real.
In True Detective this paradox plays out in the contrasting personalities of Rust and Marty. Rust seems to carry no personal baggage and doesn’t like talking about himself. He is able to elicit confessions from suspects through an almost supernatural ability to empathize with them, a skill that comes from the erasure of his personal identity. He realizes the fictional nature of the self.
Marty on the other hand identifies himself as a family man, even as his libidinous appetites drag him drooling after various extramarital encounters. His emotionalism comes from his strong attachment to his sense of self and the vulnerability this creates for the ego. Rust seems to see beneath the surface precisely because he recognizes that there is nothing beneath the surface. Marty simply can’t understand the terms of the discussion.
This is all brought to the fore when Rust decides to go back undercover as a member of the Iron Crusaders. After Rust has gone in to the bikers’ bar, Marty becomes concerned about him and goes inside to look for him. He sticks out like a sore thumb. It is clear that Marty is too wedded to his own sense of self to ever be able to play an undercover role successfully. But sometime prior to the 1995 timeline, Rust spent four years in undercover narcotics. Rust’s ability to see beneath the surface trappings of the self (to see in fact that there is nothing but these surface trappings) enables him to shapeshift through various roles, whilst Marty is utterly trapped inside a single biography.
The real trouble with the philosophy of pessimism is that it sees all forms of identity as being equally illusory. The fact that our actions are expressions of prior genetic impulses is seen as proof of our unreality. Our sense of belonging to family and tribe are seen as abstract consolations for the reality of our own individual death. But surely it is only through an individual understanding himself to be a nexus between a vast genetic inheritance and an unwritten (if pre-programmed) future that he can escape the prison of discrete individual identity. And this understanding does not seem to me to be just as illusory as all others; in fact it seems to be a simple denial of abstract illusion. For, by our living in simple accord with our genetic programming, by forming families and having children, and by our necessarily favoring those closest to us, we are simultaneously embracing our animalistic hearts and our spiritual minds. Despite True Detective’s false dichotomy between the cool misanthropy of Rust and the confused man-child simplicity of Marty, it remains the case that having children is not a mark of moral failure, it is what makes us human. Our entire genetic and phenotypic way of being is predicated on this mysterious puppet show. Anti-natalism is an abstract ideology divorced from a clear understanding of our genetic burden/blessing. The ultimate purpose of all this might well be unknowable (because there is no transcendent purpose) but it seems reasonably clear that we are not here to abandon the struggle, because the struggle is what we are.
1. Nick Land, book blurb for Edia Connole et al., eds., True Detection (Schism Press, 2014).
2. True Detective, Season 1 Episode 1: The Long Bright Dark.
3. Peter Wessel Zapffe, “The Last Messiah,” Philosophy Now 45 (2004).
5. True Detective, Season 1 Episode 8: Form and Void.
6. Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010), 42.
7. Ibid., 182.
8. Ibid., 220.
9. True Detective, Season 1 Episode 2: Seeing Things.
10. True Detective, Season 1 Episode 8.