Thursday, September 25, 2014


Jean Améry was tortured by the SS as an anti-Nazi resistance fighter, and survived internment in the concentration camps. He committed suicide in 1978. He described his torture in his book At the Mind's Limits.

The first blow changes everything, he says - while the physical pain is surprisingly bearable, the dark realization that the torturer is allowed to do this changes one forever. Help is not coming; there is no help.

"Help" or "support" in this sense is not a function of present material circumstances, but of the community from whom the tortured person is presently cut off. It is a function of their standards, what they will and won't stand for. The idea of "help" in the tortured person's mind is also a function of the community's agency, its ability to miss him and to organize its forces to aid him. It is the community that supports the notion of "help" in his mind, through its sacredness and its actions, and the notion of "help" in his mind fundamentally changes the subjective experience of victimization.

This "help" is justice. It has a component of sacred law - the community's standard for the permissible ways to treat a human being. It has an element of the material, in the sense that the community must gather material force in order to do its duty for its member. It is an idea in each community member's mind, and it being held in common with other community members facilitates the coordination necessary to render material aid. Its sacredness allows it to transcend time, punishing the torturer long after the act of torture occurred, in order to enforce its standards.

The opposite of justice, in this sense of society's "help" existing materially as well as psychologically in victim's minds, transforming their experiences, is Rotherham, UK, police arresting an eleven-year-old girl for being drunk and allowing her rapists to go free.

No person by himself, estranged from a community, can experience justice. Justice is a function of the community, and the community does its duty both psychologically (by having sacred standards) and materially (by coordinating to enforce its sacred standards).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Something Equivocal

Nic Pizzolatto, writer of the television show True Detective, has said that he found Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race to be "incredibly powerful writing," a major influence for the show. In this book, Ligotti advises that if you hope for any audience at all, then you had better say something positive about humanity; and if you don't have anything nice to say, then at least say something equivocal.

The final moments of the show are a careful implementation of this advice. The very last two sentences of the finale, if interpreted according to the ordinary cultural connotations for "light" and "darkness," provide a note of hope at the end of a grisly but heroic adventure. The darkness seems to occupy a lot of territory, yes, but once the whole universe was all darkness and no light - and now the light seems to be winning!

However, relating his near-death experience just seconds earlier, Rust Cohle offers a different - and entirely reversed - set of meanings for "light" and "darkness." Darkness - a deeper, darker, warmer darkness than mere unconsciousness - seemed to enfold him peacefully, and he felt surrounded by the love of his deceased small daughter. He "let go," hoping to stay in this darkness, but then he woke up. Back to the light.

This speech and its proximity to the final sentences indicate a smart equivocation - with one voice, "light" and "darkness" have their everyday connotations; with another, they are flipped. The latter voice, consonant with Rust Cohle's earlier presentation of his philosophy, also seems consonant with having just visited the worst basement in literature since Cormac McCarthy's The Road, from which basement, like McCarthy's, no one was rescued.

(Originally published by me at

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