Chapter no 5

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

Bleakness I

To salve the pains of consciousness, some people anesthetize themselves with sunny thoughts. But not everyone can follow their lead, above all not those who sneer at the sun and everything upon which it beats down. Their only respite is in the balm of bleakness. Disdainful of the solicitations of hope, they look for sanctuary in desolate places—a scattering of ruins in a barren locale or a rubble of words in a book where someone whispers in a dry voice, “I, too, am here.” However, downcast readers must be on their guard. Phony retreats have lured many who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. Too often they have settled into a book that begins as an oration on bleak experience but wraps up with the author slipping out the back door and making his way down a shining path, leaving downcast readers more rankled than they were before entering what turned out to be only a façade of ruins, a trompe l’oeil of bleakness. A Confession (1882) by Leo Tolstoy is the archetype of such a book.

Having basked in his status as the author of War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77), not to forget his station as a wealthy landowner, Tolstoy was ripe for a devastating reversal of some kind. This came in the form of a crisis of consciousness during which he became mightily disenchanted with human life. Naturally, he began casting about for something to ease his discomfiture. After turning to science for answers to the big questions that had lately begun to eat at him, he came up with this: “In general, the relation of the experimental sciences to life’s questions may be expressed thus: Question: ‘Why do I live?’ Answer: ‘In infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small particles change their forms in infinite complexity, and when you have understood the laws of those mutations of form you will understand why you live on the earth.’”

Post-nineteenth-century discoveries and speculations aside (quantum mechanics, multiverses, panpsychism, simulated realities), those still inclined to query the various sciences will come upon much the same answer. It is a useless answer to a useless question. But Tolstoy did not think the question useless, only the answer, so he kept on digging until he read Schopenhauer, who only exasperated the Russian’s crisis by answering, “Life is that which should not be—an evil; and the passage into Nothingness is the only good in life.” Tolstoy was impressed with Schopenhauer as a thinker and tried to hold the plow steady as he made his way through the philosopher’s daunting works.

At length, Tolstoy narrowed down the options that people like himself had available to them depending on whether they wanted to keep believing that being alive was all right or were ready to consider the alternative. (Please pardon the length of this quotation, but Tolstoy’s four principal strategies by which his high-class circle managed the predicament of conscious existence deserve as much of a hearing as Zapffe’s four principal strategies by which everyone manages the same predicament.)


I found that for people of my circle there were four ways out of the terrible position in which we are all placed.

The first was that of ignorance. It consists in not knowing, not understanding, that life is an evil and an absurdity. People of this sort . . . have not yet understood that question of life. . . .

They see neither the dragon that awaits them nor the mice gnawing the shrub by which they are hanging, and they lick the drops of honey. But they lick those drops of honey only for a while: Something will turn their attention to the dragon and the mice, and there will be an end to their licking. From them I had nothing to learn—one cannot cease to know what one does know.

The second way out is Epicureanism. It consists, while knowing the hopelessness of life, in making use meanwhile of the advantages one has, disregarding the dragon and the mice, and licking the honey in the best way, especially if there is much of it within reach. Solomon expresses this way out thus: “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: and that this

should accompany him in his labor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. Therefore eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart. Live joyfully with

the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity for this is thy portion in life and in thy labors which

thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to

do, do it with thy might, for there is not work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle make life possible for themselves. Their circumstances furnish them with more of welfare than of hardship, and their moral dullness makes it possible for them to forget that the advantage of their position is accidental, and that not everyone can have a thousand wives and palaces like Solomon, that for everyone who has a thousand wives there are a thousand without a wife, and that for each palace there are a thousand people who have to build it in the sweat of their brows; and that the accident that has today made me a Solomon may tomorrow make me a Solomon’s slave. The dullness of these people’s imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace— the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.

So think and feel the majority of people of our day and our manner of life. The fact that some of these people declare the dullness of their thoughts and imaginations to be a philosophy, which they call Positive, does not remove them, in my opinion, from the ranks of those who, to avoid seeing the question, lick the honey. I could not imitate these people; not having their dullness of imagination I could not artificially produce it in myself. I could not tear my eyes from the mice and the dragon, as no vital man can after he has once seen them.

The third escape is that of strength and energy. It consists in destroying life, when one has understood that it is an evil and an absurdity. A few exceptionally strong and consistent people act so. Having understood the stupidity of the joke that has been played on them, and having understood that it is better to be dead than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist, they act accordingly and promptly end this stupid joke, since there

are means: a rope round one’s neck, water, a knife to stick into one’s heart, or the trains on the railways; and the number of those of our circle who act in this way becomes greater and greater, and for the most part they act so at the best time of their life, when the strength of their mind is in full bloom and few habits degrading to the mind have as yet been acquired.

I saw that this was the worthiest way of escape and I wished to adopt it.

The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it. People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally—to end the deception quickly and kill themselves— they seem to wait for something. This is the escape of weakness, for if I know what is best and it is within my power, why not yield to what is best? . . . I found myself in that category.

So people of my class evade the terrible contradiction in four ways. Strain my attention as I would, I saw no way except those four 1 (Translation by Aylmer Maude)


Earlier in his life, Tolstoy had fought intrepidly in the Crimean War, and in War and Peace he used this experience for his rendition of Russian life during the reign of Napoleon. Courageous in battle, the literary master also flourished his fortitude in writing the words in the above quotation. Few men of such wealth and accomplishment have had the mettle to express sentiments of this nature within earshot of their peers and the general public. Naturally, Tolstoy expressed these sentiments only after he had moved to safer ground, which turned his “confession” into a handbook for survival, a trip guide with directions for skating around the pitfalls of consciousness that Zapffe would later outline in “The Last Messiah.”

Tolstoy’s salvation came about when he hit upon a way to disown coherence and sidle up to religion, even though it was not religion of the common sort and led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church. A titan of conceptual prestidigitation, he had rationalized his way into irrationality. Spending time with his serfs helped him to befuddle his consciousness. Like them—more nicely, like his perception of them—he began living not by his brain but by his

“gut.” Then he started reasoning with his gut, which showed him the way to recovery and spared him the ordeal of becoming a suicide. Later, though, his mind went to work again, and he was once more in crisis. He remained preoccupied with life and death and meaning for the rest of his days and as an author preached a brand of positive thought—as in the bathetic “Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886)—in an ongoing crusade against the bleakness that dogged him.


Bleakness II

Having been betrayed by such works as Tolstoy’s Confession, connoisseurs of bleakness may become shrewd readers. If they are mistrustful of a book, leery that the promise of its inaugural pages will be broken by its conclusion, they turn first to the ending. Many books promoted as vehicles of a “dark vision” finish up by lounging in a warm bath of affirmation, often doing a traitorous turnabout in their closing pages or paragraphs.2 As every author, publisher, and carnival owner knows, lurid billing gets a patron in the door. And so we have innumerable books and magazine articles with such inquiring titles as The Misadventure of Consciousness: Are Human Beings a Mistake of Evolution? or “Should We Stop Having Children?” The answer is almost always “no,” sometimes resounding in its declamation but more often qualified, which is even more vile. Searchers after bleakness would do well, then, to begin at the ending of books and magazine articles with doomful titles or angst-fraught openings if they are not to be chiseled by a bait-and-switch maneuver.

One of the finest curtain closers in fiction is that of Horace McCoy’s short novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The protagonist of this story is a young woman named Gloria Beatty. Hoping to walk away with a sum of much-needed cash, and for lack of anything better to do, Gloria becomes an entrant in a grueling dance marathon during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A disconsolate loser from the start of the book, she begins the dance with an insight not habitually stressed in popular fiction. “It’s peculiar to me,” Gloria says to her partner in the marathon, “that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying.

Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to

prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me—who want to die but haven’t got the guts.”

After the dance marathon has taken its toll on Gloria and the other contestants, her once happy-go-lucky partner goes over to her side, and with more nobility than any high-powered scientist and more mercy than any god born of human imagination, he helps her to end it all. This liberation is effectuated in one of the most common and untidy ways the suicidal have been forced to use for so long—a bullet to the brain. The ending of McCoy’s novel is what the average mortal would call bleak.

Naturally, bleak-minded readers of They Shoot Horses swoon with relief when the gunshot has done its work. Yet even the consolations of bleakness have their limits for those who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. And should bleakness itself fail them, they have been failed indeed.



They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was first published in 1935. Since that time, scientists have continued screwing around to draw out our days of pain and have done almost nothing on the other front. It is as if they have taken Victor Frankenstein as a role model and emulate him as they can.

In his 1994 bestseller How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, surgeon Sherwin B. Nuland recounts how he coaxed a ninety-two-year-old woman into having an operation that would wring from her a few more months or years of life. While she initially declined, content to die at what was already an advanced age, Dr. Nuland wore her down and got her into the operating room, figuring, as he states, that his patient was “one of those people to whom survival was not worth the cost.” He admits that he withheld from her the exact nature of that cost as it would be extracted in the form of postoperative agonies should she survive the surgery. She did survive long enough to suffer those agonies and to let Nuland know what a villain she considered him to be.

Subsequent to some perfunctory hand-wrenching about his dishonorable ministration, the doctor tries to vindicate himself by confiding that, had he not performed this operation, he would be chastised by his peer group at the hospital’s weekly surgical conference

for not following standard operating procedure. Nuland’s fellow surgeons, so he informs us, would have viewed his compliance with a patient’s request to let her body die without further tampering as an ethical call. But that was not his call to make. He was not a moral philosopher. He was a technician entrusted to keep bodies beating with life. All his decisions, then, must comply with this trust or he would have to answer for why they did not. And to answer that his patient chose not to go under the knife would be unacceptable, since doctors should be the only ones to decide such things.3

In their actions, Nuland and his colleagues played out a mainstay of the horror genre: that of an experiment gone wrong. This convention became proverbial following the publication in 1818 of a novel that immortalized Mary Shelley. It is as if Nuland and his fellow mad doctors took the botched surgery in that book as their guiding light. “What protocol would Frankenstein follow?” they might have asked themselves. He was their mentor—the one for whom Life was the greatest show on earth. To boot, Nuland had already sized up the old woman as “one of those people.”

Not as philosophically ahead of her years as McCoy’s Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Nuland’s patient did know when the time had come for her to bow out gracefully. She thought she might be allotted that much control over her life. What she did not know was that she was strapped down in Frankenstein’s world, and by damn she would live and die by Frankenstein’s Oath: “We, as licensed protectors of the species and members in good standing of the master-class of the race, by the power invested in us by those who wish to survive and reproduce, vow to enforce the fiction that life is worth having and worth living come hell or irreparable brain damage.” How could an old woman who had been stigmatized as “one of those people” go up against such a juggernaut of chicanery?

Eventually euthanasia will be an elective procedure for the terminally ill, and perhaps for anyone who so chooses this sure cure. At this stage of social progress, however, those who reject Frankenstein and affirm McCoy’s Gloria must take care of themselves . . . if they can work up the

guts or get a little help. But standing in the way of their making the right move are some formidable obstacles. One of them is the conscience (archaic for “consciousness”) that Shakespeare’s Hamlet avowed “makes cowards of us all.” Another is the peer pressure that Dr. Nuland felt might squeeze him out of a job. There may also be a crew of friends and relatives whose lives are interwoven with those of suicides and who die with them though they live on after the “crime” of voluntary death has been committed.

If nature made a blunder by retching up creatures in which consciousness grew like a fungus, she still knew enough to implant in them an instinct that serves the species and spurs on its members to chew off a leg to escape capture and killing, whose dominant drives are survival and the spreading of themselves far and wide. Should any philosopher ever establish that life is not worth having and not worth living, the average mortal, as well as the average surgeon, would somehow preserve the fiction of its value, however meager that might be.



A philosophical bromide of the post-nihilistic era asserts that being alive has no value except within a limited framework. In the history of cinema, a well-worn storyline is that of a law-enforcement official who moves from a big city to a small town because in the big city his efforts to better his environment were ineffective or unnoticeable while those in a small town, he expects, will “make a difference.” The plan here is to change frameworks in hopes of creating the illusion that one’s life has value in itself. It is an atheistic plan, if not overtly so. Theists do not need limited frameworks to snatch some meaning for their lives because they believe they have an absolute framework in a Higher Power, even though they really do not. The veritable exclusion of a deity from both high and low cultural products testifies that theism is a rather weak framework of meaning for the majority of mortals, or at least for those who consume high and low cultural products. If this were not so, then movies and other types of entertainment in which meaning is found within the frameworks of romantic love, action in the world, and so on would be unnecessary, as they prove to be among certain Amish and Mennonite sects.

Outside of the movies, the plan of exchanging one framework for another is more difficult to pull off. And since these frameworks are made up by our minds, and not by a filmmaker, they may break up at any moment. Although one may believe in an ultimate frame in which our lives are lived out, the persistence of this belief is uncertain and not reliably consolatory. Faith in some absolute—or, alternatively, faith in some nontheistic framework of meaning—may go limp without advance notice. Once the frame falls in upon itself, we must fall back on our own resources and seek out another frame. None of these frames is constant in preserving our comfort of mind and assisting us in making sense out of our lives. Moving from frame to frame may afford us some comfort and sense for a good while, yet there still remains that final frame from which we will never break loose because it is a holding place waiting to be filled by pain and then, in some form, by death. This is not a frame one wants to explore for very long. All things considered, the happiest epitaph to have etched on one’s headstone is this: “He never knew what hit him.” On second thought, though, would dying without so much as a heads-up and in the blink of an eye really be the best way for us to go?

In his “Letter on Happiness” addressed to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote: “Foolish . . . is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect.” This statement seems to affirm that there is nothing foolish about fearing the pain of death “when it comes.” But when Epicurus himself was dying, he wrote a note to his friend Idomeneus, “On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury [due to kidney stones] and dysentery are so great that nothing could increase them; but I set above them all the gladness of mind at the memory of our past conversations.” So Epicurus had all a mortal could want: to be fearless of dying, to be happy while dying, and to be unafraid of death.

Unflustered as he was by the process of dying, the founder of Epicureanism offered no logic for why others should not be terrorized by it. His only logical formula was for the relieving oneself of the fear of death: “Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and,

when death is come, we are not.” Some persons may believe in Epicurus’s logic and by it not suffer the “groundless pain in the expectation” of death. But how many can say the same about death’s pain before it comes or “when it comes”? This question brings us back to our second thoughts on what would be the happiest epitaph to have etched on one’s headstone.

Suppose that the pain of dying were taken out of our lives? Suppose that we all died without so much as a heads-up and in the blink of an eye, because if our deaths did not happen in this manner then dying would necessarily be painful. How else would you know you were dying without the presence of pain, the fear of which even Epicurus did not think was foolish? One second we are alive, and the next we are dead.

Then all of us would never know what hit us, a gift that is now reserved only for a happy few. Ideally democratic, this system of mortality would equalize our ruination as one by one, or thousands in a stroke, we departed from this life without so much as a heads-up and in the blink of an eye. Every time we sat down in a chair, we could not be sure we would rise again before the reaper impalpably took our hand. We could bypass every pain that would lead to our death, which is not to say we would bypass pains that would not lead to our death. Being in pain would then mean that one was not dying. Everything would be as it is now except that we would succumb without so much as a heads-up and in the blink of an eye. We would never have to think about How we would die, only When. And when the When came, we would not even know we had died. Each breath could be our last. Under such an arrangement, we would either have to become Epicureans and not fear death or, more likely, we would divert from our consciousness the thought that we could die without so much as a heads-up and in the blink of an eye. The latter is more likely because this is our present approach to the inevitability of our death, only we would never have to fear the all but inevitable pain of dying. Some morbid citizens among us might become cataleptic with anxiety because their next breath may be their last, but most of us would not be wrecked by such unremitting worry. As a further bonus, we would have no grisly images about the How, since the How would be the same for all. So even on second thought, the happiest epitaph to have etched on one’s headstone would be: “He never knew what hit him.” We would still have to live our lives in shaky frameworks, but death would be nothing to us because dying would be

nothing to us, or most of us, since some of us might be cataleptic with the morbid fear that our next breath may be our last. But at least most of us would have it all, as did Epicurus, and would not be the least bit pained about dying, as the Greek philosopher was not. Who among us would be so unrepentantly wayward as to want a painful heads-up that we are dying or to die in anything more than the blink of an eye? And only our most morbid citizens would feel anxious about death.

Be that as it may, there is a school of psychology that has us all figured as morbid citizens. Known as Terror Management Theory (TMT), its principles were inspired by the writings of the Canadian cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who was one with Zapffe in wondering why a “damning surplus of consciousness” had not caused humanity to go “extinct during great epidemics of madness.” In his best-known work, The Denial of Death (1973), Becker wrote: “I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.” Zapffe concluded that we kept our heads by “artificially limiting the content of consciousness.” Becker stated his identical conclusion as follows: “[Man] literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness, but madness all the same.” Outlawed truisms. Taboo commonplaces.

Synthesizing and expanding Becker’s core ideas, three psychology professors—Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski— presented the concepts of TMT to the psychological community in the mid-1980s. In its clinical studies and research, TMT indicates that the mainspring of human behavior is thanatophobia, and that this fear determines the entire landscape of our lives. To subdue our death anxiety, we have trumped up a world to deceive ourselves into believing that we will persist—if only symbolically—beyond the breakdown of our bodies. We know this fabricated world because we see it around us every day, and to perpetuate our sanity we apotheosize it as the best world in the world. Housing the most cyclopean fabrications are houses of worship where some people go to get a whiff of meaning, which to such people means only one thing—immortality. In heaven or hell or reincarnated life forms, we must go on and on—us without end. Travesties of immortality

are effected day and night in obstetrics wards, factories of our future that turn out a product made in its makers’ image, a miracle granted by entering into a devil’s bargain with God, who is glorified with all the credit for giving us a chance to have our names and genetics projected into a time we will not live to see.4

However, as TMT analyzes this scheme, getting the better of our death anxiety is not as simple as it might appear. If we are to be at peace with our mortality, we need to know that what we leave behind us when we die will survive just as we left it. Those churches cannot be just any churches—they must be our churches, whoever we may be. The same holds true of progeny and its stand-ins. In lieu of personal immortality, we are willing to accept the survival of persons and institutions that we regard as extensions of us—our families, our heroes, our religions, our countries.5 And anyone who presents a threat to our continuance as a branded society of selves, anyone who does not look and live as we do, should think twice before treading on our turf, because from here to eternity it is every self for itself and all its facsimiles. In such a world, one might extrapolate that the only honest persons—from the angle of self-delusion, naturally—are those who brazenly implement genocide against outsiders who impinge upon them and their world. With that riff-raff out of the way, there will be more room on earth and in eternity for the right sort of people and their fabrications.

That said, promulgators of TMT believe that a universal dispersion of their ideas will make people more tolerant of the alien worldviews of others and not kill them because those worldviews remind them of how ephemeral or unfounded their own may be. The paradox of this belief is that it requires everyone to abandon the very techniques of terror management by which TMT claims we so far have managed our terror, or some of it. As usual, though, there is an upbeat way out for terror management theorists in that they argue “that the best worldviews are ones that value tolerance of different others, that are flexible and open to modifications, and that offer paths to self-esteem minimally likely to encourage hurting others” (Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, ed. Jeff Greenberg et al.). Of course, this is just another worldview that brandishes itself as the best worldview in the world, meaning that it would agitate others with a sense of how ephemeral or unfounded their own may be and cause them to retaliate. But terror management theorists also have a backup plan, which is that in the future

we will not need terror management and instead will discover that “serious confrontations with mortality can have positive, liberating effects, facilitating real growth and life satisfaction.” There is no arguing that humanity may someday reap the benefits of a serious confrontation with mortality. While waiting for that day, we still have genocide as the ultimate insurance of our worldviews.

In categorical opposition to genocide on an as-needed basis are such individuals as Gloria Beatty. Without making too much of a mess, they quietly shut the door on a single life, caring not that they leave behind people who are not like them. Most of these antisocial types are only following the logic of pain to its conclusion. Some plan their last bow to serve the double duty of both delivering them from life and avenging themselves for some wrong, real or imagined, against them. Also worthy of mention is a clique among the suicidal for whom the meaning of their act is a darker thing. Frustrated as perpetrators of an all-inclusive extermination, they would kill themselves only because killing it all is closed off to them. They hate having been delivered into a world only to be told, by and by, “This way to the abattoir, ladies and gentlemen.” They despise the conspiracy of Lies for Life almost as much as they despise themselves for being a party to it. If they could unmake the world by pushing a button, they would do so without a second thought.

There is no satisfaction in a lonesome suicide. The phenomenon of “suicide euphoria” aside, there is only fear, bitterness, or depression beforehand, then the troublesomeness of the method, and nothingness afterward. But to push that button, to depopulate this earth and arrest its rotation as well—what satisfaction, as of a job prettily done. This would be for the good of all, because even those who know nothing about the conspiracy against the human race are among its injured parties.6



As we are all well aware, people often have seriously discrepant interests and desires. If this were not so, we would all be getting along with one another, which has never been and never will be the rule. Nothing in our history or our nature even hints that we will ever liquidate our differences, which can be anything from a good-natured divergence of opinion to a war-making contentiousness over property rights. Some people would like to have a little peace rather than the ever-sounding

disharmony of bloodletting. But for that to happen, our myriad voices would have to dissolve into a single pitch—a unison that would bore to tears anyone who is not a saint or ego-dead.

Our common preference as a species is for difference rather than unity. (Vive la différence. Vive la guerre.) Nobody designed us to be this way—it just happens to be how we blundered into the nightmare of being. Life preys on life, per Schopenhauer and natural history. One organism’s body is another organism’s meal. As the title character of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (1979) sings to his partner in manslaughter, one Mrs. Lovett: “For what’s the sound of the world out there? It’s man devouring man, my dear.” To claim otherwise is a lie.

Differences make all the difference to us. What we want is variety in our lives—a multitude of distractions to keep consciousness in its cage.

What we want is the unheard-of, the nothing-like. And there is nothing like the screech of Sweeney’s blade that we hear at the opening to Sondheim’s musical tragedy about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

To entertain ourselves for a spell, let us proclaim that were it not for tragedy the human race would have gone extinct long ago. It keeps us on our toes and pushes us toward the future in a paradoxical search to purge the tragic from our lives. As the wise puppet said, “Better we should be inundated by tragedy than to have nothing meaningful to work toward.” No one knows this better than the entertainers among us, those sublimating masters of artifice who could not forge their “great works” without the screams and sobs arising out of the pit where tremulous shadows run from themselves.

As decreed by its author, each action and consequence in Sweeney Todd flows out of and feeds into the tragic, artificially speaking. It is the pedal tone over which all other propellants of the drama—for instance, beauty and love—serve as passing grace notes that seem to suggest something other than the tragic, yet are actually as much a part of the piece as the unhomely horrors that stalk the stage. While Sondheim’s musical inspires the pity and fear that Aristotle believed should be the affects induced by tragic drama, no Aristotelian purgation of emotion or catharsis is infused in us at the end. From the opening to the finale of Sondheim’s tragedy there is only a perpetual agon among casualties of the human condition.

So Sweeney begins his tragic tale: “There was a barber and his wife.” In the style of many a horror that has wormed its way from the

muck of organic existence, Sweeney Todd has as its backstory a happy marriage and the propagation of a new life, in this case that of the child Johanna. (“Wake up, Johanna, it’s another bright red day,” sings Pater Todd.) And new life only rehashes old life in its pain when one offspring meets another. “I feel you, Johanna / I’ll steal you, Johanna,” croons Anthony to his beloved, who together compose a romantic pairing for the purpose of casting a ray of false hope onto the sooty stage set of the drama.

However, to anyone who has not fallen asleep during the performance, this new Adam and Eve are only being readied for the meat grinder of existence, just as were a barber named Benjamin Barker and his wife Lucy, all because Judge Turpin lusted after Benjamin’s spouse and got him out of the way by unjustly sentencing the haircutter to a long prison term in Australia. Deranged by her rape at a soirée presided over by the judge, Lucy kills herself, or tries to, by drinking poison, leaving her infant daughter in the hands of the dirty old jurist, who raises her as his ward and, despite his best efforts, drools to have her in his bed following a May-December marriage. When Benjamin returns after his escape from prison some decades later, all he wants is to be reunited with his wife and child. Alas, this is not to be, which is how Sweeney Todd, mad to avenge the wrongs against him and his wife, not to mention the abduction of his child, comes to be born. In league with Mrs. Lovett, an unscrupulous maker of meat pies, the tragedy begins in earnest as Sweeney begins slicing throats and his consort grinds his victims into tasty edibles to be sold at her shop.

As husband and wife raising a girl-child, Benjamin and Lucy would have been galloping bores. It is only when they have been driven in chains through the inferno of their lives that they are fit to slake our thirst for tragedy, motivator of both the masses and above-average mortals.

They are positioned within the innermost circle of hell, while Mrs. Lovett, Judge Turpin, Tobias Ragg, and others radiate concentrically about them with their own fateful cravings (for beauty, love, and such like), edging them ever closer to the barber’s blade and the fire-belching oven.

Ready or not, we all end up as filling for one of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. In the reported last words of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic poet called himself “food for what I am good for—worms.” Even though worms do not dine on many of us in modernized nations, the point still

resonates that our lives are fundamentally inglorious. It is as a counterweight to the blithering fatuousness of human life that tragedy as entertainment performs a crucial function—that of coating the spattered nothingness of our lives with a veneer of grandeur and style, qualities of the theatrical world and not the everyday one. This is why we are thrilled with the horror of Sweeney Todd and envy the qualities that he possesses and we lack. He is as edifying as any sage when he sings “We all deserve to die,” given that none of us can unmake our making. He has a sense of mission that few who are made of flesh and blood rather than of music and poetry will ever know (“But the work waits / I’m alive at last / And I’m full of joy”). Most of all, he has the courage and bravado to do that which he knows needs to be done. “To seek revenge may lead to hell,” he cautions, to which Mrs. Lovett answers, “But everyone does it and seldom as well . . . as Sweeney.”

Nature is limited to Grand Guignol, spectacles of bloodlust and fests of slaughter. But we humans can reach for things more heady than the corpse. After murder and cannibalism have been played out in Sweeney Todd, the dead rise up for an encore, one of many they will make in a world where nature is not in charge—a world that spins in the supernatural, our world. Collectively, we are the undead, and for us the work will always be waiting, the devouring will never be done until someone or something performs the service of killing our rat race or we kill off ourselves. As in the beginning, so at the end, the dangling puppets sing: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” a story that makes for a wonderfully tragic evening at the theater.

Whatever else we may be as creatures that go to and fro on the earth and walk up and down upon it, we are meat. A cannibalistic tribe that once flourished had a word to describe what they ate. That word translates as “the food that talks.” Most of the food that we have eaten over the course of human history has not talked. But it does make other noises, terrible sounds as it is converted from living meat to dead meat on the slaughterhouse floor. If we could hear these sounds every time we sat down to a hearty meal, would we still be the wanton gobblers of flesh that most of us are now? This is hard to say. But as Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) says in the movie Motel Hell (1980): “Meat’s meat and a

man’s gotta eat.” And it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.

Beef, pork, sometimes goat—they go into us and come out of us.

This is part of the regimen of nonsense that nature forced upon us. But it is not all the nonsense we must endure as we go to and fro on the earth and walk up and down upon it. The nature nonsense, the God nonsense. How much nonsense can we take in our lives? And is there any way we can escape it? No, there is not. We are doomed to all kinds of nonsense: the pain nonsense, the nightmare nonsense, the sweat and slave nonsense, and many other shapes and sizes of insufferable nonsense. It is brought to us on a plate, and we must eat it up or face the death nonsense.7

But perhaps by lustfully consuming the worst nonsense of our lives, including the death nonsense, we may eat our way out of our all-consuming tragedy as a conscious species. Professor Nobody has something to say about this tactic in his lecture “Sardonic Harmony.” Here he builds to a tone of undisguised acrimony unusual for the coolly didactic, self-styled savant. But that is no reason we should not listen to his nonsense once more.


Compassion for human hurt, a humble sense of our impermanence, an absolute valuation of justice—all our so-called virtues only trouble us and serve to bolster, not assuage, horror. In addition, they are the least vital of our attributes, the least in line with life. More often than not, they stand in the way of one’s rise in the welter of this world, which found its pace long ago and has not deviated from it since. The putative affirmations of life—each of them based on the propaganda of Tomorrow: reproduction, revolution in its most wide-ranging sense, piety in any form you can name—are only affirmations of our desires. And, in fact, these affirmations affirm nothing but our propensity for self-torment, our mania to preserve a demented innocence in the face of gruesome facts.

By means of supernatural horror we may evade, if momentarily, the horrific reprisals of affirmation. Every one of us, having been stolen from nonexistence, opens his eyes on the world and looks down the road at a few convulsions and a final obliteration. What a weird scenario. So why affirm anything,

why make a pathetic virtue of a terrible necessity? We are destined to a fool’s fate that deserves to be mocked. And since there is no one else around to do the mocking, we will take on the job. Bent on a perverse self-gratification, let us indulge in cruel pleasures against ourselves and our pretensions, let us delight in the Cosmic Macabre. At least we may send up a few bitter laughs into the cobwebbed corners of this crusty old universe.

Supernatural horror, in all its eerie constructions, enables a reader to taste treats inconsistent with his personal welfare.

Admittedly, this is not a practice likely to find universal favor. True macabrists are as rare as poets and form a secret society by the bad-standing of their memberships elsewhere, most being debarred at birth from the festivities of the social masque. But those who have gotten a good whiff of other worlds and sampled a cuisine marginal to stable existence will not be able to stay themselves from the uncanny feast of horrors that has been laid out for them. They will loiter in moonlight, eyeing the entranceways to cemeteries, waiting for some propitious moment to crash the gates and see what is inside.

Once and for all, let us speak the paradox aloud: “We have been force-fed for so long the shudders of a thousand graveyards that at last, seeking a macabre redemption, a salvation by horror, we willingly consume the terrors of the tomb . . . and find them to our liking.”

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