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On Thomas Ligotti's "The Town Manager"

William Dempsey

Lovecraft being generally painted as a fundamentally epistemological writer—consider: protagonists as academics, the implicit objective being comprehension or understanding, lured into perspectivally conditioned encounters with cyclopean alien entities—(from the explorer-academic’s perspective, major, world-erupting/irrupting/corrupting; from that of the ‘monster’ or monstrous being, minor, insignificant, think the classic we-are-to-them-as-ants-are-to-us trope that has been probably juiced a little too aggressively, if you ask some)—that failurelessly bear no (positive) cognitive or conceptual fruit, but rather a twisting mess of perceptual data that cannot be neatened and structured, madness, loss of doxastic direction, loss of objective value, loss of faith in religion, science, etc. Nietzsche’s madman:

Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

(note the cosmic diction.) In Lovecraft, it is important that the protagonists are academics, and it is just so important that they always fail. Pessimism about our ability to cognize the world (perhaps an implicit Kantianism here).

Ligotti, whose disciples will be the first to characterize him as a pessimist, and who is also, at least to some, considered the foremost of Lovecraft’s sons (perhaps grandsons, at this point?) is, it seems to me, often doing something quite different with his pessimism; where Lovecraft is a fundamentally epistemological writer, Ligotti is something more like a fundamentally ontological writer. The inherent downfall not in what we are unable to know or understand, but in what we are unable to change—the state of affairs; the facts of the matter. Knowledge, for Ligotti, is at times an afterthought: we can recognize—disgustedly—the failure at the center of things, the entropy that does not hang on the world, but on which the world hangs, or from which the world metastasizes (cf. his beautiful title “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World”, which reads through deliberate prepositions like a staircase into abyss). The denoument, it may be argued, of “The Town Manager” occurs when the narrator comes to realize “the aforementioned facts of [their] existence” (emphasis mine)—those aforementioned facts being that there is (‘is’ as the foundational ontological term, as opposed to ‘knows’ (or perhaps ‘believes’) as the epistemological equivalent) no place “founded upon different principles and operating under a different order.” “Different” as in less “degenerate,” to throw in another word from the same passage. And this is the first time the narrator states to us the necessary entailment of such facts, pre-echoing the story’s final ending a page later, “the only course of action left to me was to make an end of it.” The ambiguity of this expression thick.

Facts as primordial reality-structuring. But Ligotti’s degenerate town here is, at base level, entropic, that is, changing. But changing toward—the vector character of entropy. A foundational structuring: “Things had always been moving in that direction […] Nothing remained the same for very long. Change was the very essence of our lives.” Each subsequent Town Manager attempts to change the town for the better, to revive or vitalize or strengthen or otherwise ward off the deterioration of the place, but none of these attempts are sufficiently powerful to halt or reverse the fundamental entropic flow. The narrator’s impassive despair over the realization that even the new, monstrous Town Manager (but can we be certain that this is not to some degree what every Town Manager has been like?), despite the illusion of inaugurating a novel primordial structure—see the furnacelike descriptions of its personal territory, wood and charcoal, its infantile attempts at speech, the memorable, simple, absurd instruction-locutions of “DUSTROY TROLY”; “HAVE A FUN TIME IN FUNNY TOWN”, the very notion of monsters as preconceptual, preschematized, predelineated, preconditioned (cf. Cohen, Monster Theory)—is just as degenerate, self-serving, as everyone else, which is to say, just as conditioned by the fundamental entropic structuring, becoming rapidly despotic, generating a legion of armed enforcers to perpetuate its carnivalesque regime. (There is an element of criticism, perhaps, of the hollowing that occurs when a location becomes a destination, in the touristic sense, for that is ultimately, shedding weirdness, the new Town Manager’s strategy, isn’t it?). Consider that the new Town Manager merely replaces old signs, modifying representation rather than reality:

It was not unprecedented for a new town manager to obliterate some structure or symbol that marked the administration of the one who had come before him, so that the way might be cleared for him to erect a defining structure or symbol of his own, or simply to efface any prominent sign of the previous order and thereby display the presence of a new one.

The only changes being the semantical ones. “[S]tructure” in the above as physical structure, constituting a sign; “previous order” as an ironic trace of optimism, soon to be ground away.

This (the aggregate of those above) pessimistic realization in turn contributing the facticity that pushes Narrator to “make an end of it.” An end of it. An end of what? Life—via suicide—is perhaps a misdirect. The alternative: an end to optimism; an end to agency and the dream of the unconditioned self. Hardheaded Moorean realists denying Kant his noumenal freedom, Ligotti latching onto the absolutely depressing nature of this sort of move, even if it seems to be the unquestionably rational, inescapable one to make. An end to enlightenment thinking, as exemplified by Narrator’s acknowledgement that all the townsfolk’s ideations of “entering a new and more enlightened era” eventually “[dissolve] into the grayness.”

The Ligottian protagonist—unlike the Lovecraftian academic, fumbling with huge shapes in the dark—is aware, and unable and unwilling to change circumstance, because within Ligotti’s deterministic entropy, these are one and the same. Passages that seem to point at a Lovecraftian epistemic barrier—the descriptions of the changes made to the Town, the (by the way, brilliant) constructions of the maze of afunctional lavatories, “Comfort Castle”, “Baby Town”, alleyways no longer sectioned off from living rooms and kitchens, and so on seem to indicate a fundamentally incomprehensible motive on the part of the monstrous Town Manager—classic Lovecraft—but then the explanation is offered, clear and distinct: almost insultingly usual greed, only and merely garbed in fabulist terminology. And keep in mind at last that all of this is space-oriented; we are talking about a town, and locations within—only negligible exploration of character is offered, and all characterizations are relative to occupations, those jobs only characterizable relative to the Town itself, an object, or perhaps a coordination of space. We are back to onta, minds and knowers all but left behind.