Horror Studies has in the past few decades become increasingly interested in philosophy. The objects of fear that horror produced were not merely a low brow mode of aesthetic expression but a means of understanding the darker sides of thought in a particular socio-cultural or historical moment. Texts like Dracula (1898) were not merely about a supernatural creature but a way of exploring the fear of what lay over the hill that still lingered in the modern psyche. Since the rise of existentialism and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness certain philosophers have increasingly moved from exploring the physical world to trying to understand the very limit of thought. More recently the philosophers of horror have become increasingly fascinated by the idea of nothingness. Writers such as H.P Lovecraft, China Miéville and Thomas Ligotti have assumed fresh significance – not just for their weird fictions but increasingly for their weird philosophy that can be drawn from their texts. Where once the limit of the thinkable was that which was over the hill, the danger that lurked out of sight it seems that the concern today is with the void. Where once the question was, “what if there is something out there?” today the fear is “what if there isn’t?” What if the darkness of the universe doesn’t hide some great unstoppable monster, but is simply nothing at all – an endless, formless void, that will one day obliterate all consciousness. From writers
Thinkers such as Graham Harman (Weird Realism 2012), Eugene Thacker (Horror of Philosophy 2012-14), Ben Woodward (Slime Dynamics 2012) and Dylan Trigg (The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror, 2014) have all taken up the philosophical challenge of nothingness attempting to use non-realist and supernatural fiction as a means of continuing the philosophical tradition started by the existentialists. Thinking through nothingness not only challenges the idea of a philosophical coherent subject but also poses a radical challenge to how we see consciousness in the universe. These philosophers of nothingness seek to understand what happens when thought meets its limit, and what, if anything, resides beyond it. However, From a theological point of view it’s quite possible to see the philosophical interest in nothingness as coming a little late to the game. The tradition of mystical theology has been wrestling with the void for centuries, finding it a source of seemingly endless inspiration. Darkness or nothingness has been for a certain kind of theology not something to fear, but something to lose oneself within.
Beginning with Dionysius the Areopagite the tradition of mystical theology puts forward a vision of darkness that is so different from the nothingness, the void that seems to concern much of contemporary philosophy:
“By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine darkness which is above everything that is.”[i]
For the theologian, the darkness is not absence, or void but rather a brilliant ray of divine darkness, loaded with duplicity and from there in his Biblical exegesis on Moses’s ascent up Sinai, the mystical theologian goes into a darkness that is ‘an anti-empirical one (in that moves away from what is seen and sensed) and then an anti-idealist one (in that one moves away from what can be conceptualized and thought’[ii] before arriving at the ‘truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.’[iii]
Darkness then, is for the philosopher a void – a limit of thought beyond which potentially lies oblivion. The darkness of mystical theology also involves a kind of limit too, but where the philosopher fears the potential for annihilation or negation the challenge of the mystical tradition in theology is the choice to ‘choose for my love the thing that I cannot think.’[iv] Perhaps then the true fear resides not in the nothingness that lies beyond what we know, but that in that darkness what we might find or be forced to confront.
[i] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, in The Complete Works, trans. Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist, 1988) pg. 135
[ii] Eugene Thacker, Starry Speculative Corpses: Horror of Philosophy Volume Two, (London, Zero Books, 2013) pg. 23
[iii] Pseudo-Dionysius, pg. 135
[iv] John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Book One, Chapter Eight