The 12+12 Books of Christmas #8

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It is a shame that Silmät ilman kasvoja: Kauhu filosofiana (“Eyes Without a Face: Horror as Philosophy”) by Tapani Kilpeläinen is not yet available in English. Anyone who has enjoyed the utter darkness and bleakness of Thomas Ligotti’s prose will enjoy Kilpeläinen’s musing on the impenetrability of the essence of horror. After a book on suicide, he has chosen a slightly (but only slightly) more cheerful subject. The exciting thing about his new book is that it is also a deep thought experiment on what can be accomplished by literary theory and criticism.

At times Kilpeläinen sounds almost condescending: “There are limits to argumentation. If the reader clings to the idea that human beings possess free will and are thus absolute masters of their own fate, I cannot help you.” At other times he faces impasses in thought stoically and without bullshitting the reader into thinking a new philosophical door is opened for every one that is closed: “The fundamental absurdity of existence merely is.” The effect is aesthetically pleasing, but one begins to question the point of the exercise, especially when the author cannot help but mention its pointlessness on every other page.

For Kilpeläinen, theories are constructions designed to reflect their own structure in whatever materials they happen to study. This may sound cynical to those not involved in literary theory, but it’s actually a fairly common idea in this particularly cynical field. Is it the case that his work–a desperate grasping for straws in a meaningless abstract space of empty ideas–also echoes the interplay between literary theory and literature? Because there is no point in resorting to a puerile tu quoque, I’ll just say: maybe. The inability to preserve the experience of horror in concepts and words is real–conceptualization destroys the thing it conceptualizes. Accusations of hypocrisy are avoided by being upfront about the theoretical basis of the work. Anyone trying to swing a punch will hit empty air. Kilpeläinen is a ghost.

I’m writing this in my office after the final session of my Eng lit course on nihilism and modernity. I have thought about ghosts and nothingness a lot in the past few months. Sometimes I have found myself in an odd state of not caring whether I am or not, perhaps like a ghost. To make it clear, this is not what depressed or suicidal people feel when they do not care whether they live or die. This is something completely different. If those are the times when you look into the abyss and the abyss looks back at you, sign me up for more. If this is the result of reading literature and literary theory around the subject, I want more books for Christmas.

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