Bright Lights Film Journal

Monster at the End: Pessimism’s Locked Rooms and Impossible Crimes (on True Detective)

“The end has already happened, and all Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart can do is arrange the bodies in a pattern that makes them look less like bodies, more like things that might have existed in bodies, if those bodies hadn’t been born human.”


Anything can possess novelty for a short time, even the man who arrives to tell you there is none; but the trick is to stay when the novelty has worn out, or to never see it in the first place; the trick is to be in the locked room without being there, to be both alive and dead, to wonder how you got there while knowing there’s nowhere else, that the locked room is the human world, and that any solution to your predicament can only disappoint: “Faced with the insoluble, I breathe at last.”1 At the adverse point of no return, there is only an empty detection: logic thrown into the abyss and spewed up intact, the mind broken up inside the impossible. If lassitude is allowed to prevail, it soon becomes its own motivation, and there is no longer anything outside it, and the locks are an irrelevance, for the occupant is now too weary to reach the door.

The pessimist knows how every life is acted, knows the erased space behind their lives. He has acted to return, to forget he’s acting, to disappear. And he disappears in a room: where he’s the murderer and the murderee, where his status, though inexplicable from without, is morbidly certain from within. Possible solutions to any locked-room mystery come under ten general headings,2 all at work in True Detective, and all of them are self-defeating and ultimately defy the power of detection to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. The end has already happened, and all Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart can do is arrange the bodies in a pattern that makes them look less like bodies, more like things that might have existed in bodies, if those bodies hadn’t been born human.

1. Accident

Certain coincidences (orchestrated or otherwise) accumulate to induce a death that appears to imply a second agency in the room: Detection relies on there being cogent human reasons behind a crime. Pessimism spurns this methodology.

The pessimist’s arguments (or rather, his declarations, or rather, his suspirations) are regurgitations of sensation, and as such they are always imperfect replicas: they are the detective’s hunch that always refuses to become mere words. Like the anxiety detection seeks to overcome, each of its disenchanted murmurs “tries to find a justification for itself, and in order to do so seizes upon anything, the vilest pretexts, to which it clings once it has invented them.”3 The accident cannot be allowed to exist: an unarticulated mantra underpinning the human world we made but cannot solve, to which pessimism is the solution, the solution to the accident, by its simply letting it be.

Pessimism, like depression, attends to the details, an attention grown so assiduous that it becomes itself a variety of pain. And again and again Hart remarks on Cohle’s myopia, his blinders, his tunnel vision, but this ridiculed focus is Cohle’s only retreat from the whole that would otherwise consume him. Without the blinders on he wouldn’t move. He talks the grand non-scheme but needs to exist in the minutiae, in the possibility of a solution, even while accepting that the entire edifice of argumentation is little more than a comfort blanket, a groundless distraction. And he does this because suffering only comes from outside the focus, and he can’t make it mean anything outside of itself, so he must remain inside it, in the locked room, but looking in as if from outside.

It is no coincidence, then, that Cohle and Hart’s investigations mirror the chorology of the bayou, leading them back to the shallow, slow-moving, boggy, ill-defined morass from where they started, to a place where it is hard to discern where the bodies of water start and end, the shoreline always penumbral, always contingent, always shifting. Although it’s not until the last episode that Cohle acknowledges the sunless and corrosive drag of the fact of things just happening: “I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there’s another kind, and it was deeper, warm, like a substance.”

Only a deeply shameful and ugly world would demand such intense levels of blindness of its inhabitants, would have clarity seek a cure, and would have that cure itself look like a process of clarification, while taking us further away from the initial revelation – only such a world would bother to guard itself so complexly. And Hart warns Cohle early on about what he sees as Cohle’s tendency to bend narrative to support evidence, and how he prejudices himself this way. We’re told how Cohle was nicknamed “The Taxman”4 on account of his ledger, and taxmen make things add up, but it is Hart and not Cohle who realizes it’s important to allow for the possibility that maybe it’s just an aggregation of numbers, and that the design you seek is taking you away from the only thing worth seeing, the only thing praying naked that you see it, or naked enough to be seen. (And maybe this exercise in extrapolation you are reading is itself a contortion of narrative, leading me away from the unashamed and deliberate banality that is True Detective.)

When Hart is reunited with Beth, the underaged prostitute he advised to seek a new life years earlier, she tells him that “the universe forgives all.” And they both laugh, not because they don’t believe it, but because they feel themselves coming apart under its gaze, feel their own lightness once the grime of their existence has been expunged. Forgiveness accepts the sin and redeems the agent behind it, separating the two, pulling them apart. The forgiver performs an illusion, a trick: for in annihilating the sin it leaves nothing behind, the nothing we’ve chosen to inhabit. There is no such thing as forgiveness, there is only destruction and the illusion that, because it is nothing, remains intact. Analyzing the sigh just takes you further away from the contingency of it, not the contingency of the sigh itself, for it is integral to human life, but the contingency of the being from which it issues, the accident that you forget to become.

2. Suicide

What looks like murder is actually suicide: The agent of death is at all times within the room, the outside ineffectual. However, pessimism often distorts this solution by formulating an impossible crime not from the event of suicide, but from a suicide’s nonoccurrence. The murder weapon flies up the chimney. The icicle melts. But these things happen before they are ever used. The dead keep themselves alive while seemingly lacking the means to do so.

“Dying is a superiority few seek out,”5 so although Cohle advocates us “denying our programming” and “opting out of a raw deal,” it comes with the defeatist caveat that he is not in a position to act on this judgment: “I lack the constitution for suicide.” This blatantly cognitivist and externalist6 appraisal of his own ethical motivation makes his approbation for the escape of suicide every bit de dicto, and with it “fetishistic,”7 attracted as it is by the reasons and not the thing itself. That he fails to act on these judgments allows the world outside the room back in, as he passively submits to its contingency. The problem, as we know, with externalist accounts of motivation, is the doubt they inevitably throw on the attendant judgments that remain impotent; and so we are forced to question the legitimacy of Cohle’s judgments regarding suicide (and purveyors of pessimism that endure in general), judgments that look increasingly hollow as he throws himself into life off the back of them. The pessimist would seem to presage his own certain death-by-suicide, and yet he often, like Cohle, continues to live. His, then, is not the impossible murder, but the improbable circumvention of committing murder on himself. The incredulity lies not in how he was killed in a hermetically sealed chamber, but how he continues to survive in there, how the world gets in, for he does so by allowing the outside to dictate the potency of his beliefs. “Then why [ … ] denigrate? Because to exist is to evaluate, to emit judgments, and because abstention, when it is not the effect of apathy or cowardice, requires an effort no one manages to make.”8 If the room could act it would have the pessimist kill himself, putting all external motivations at the mercy of its foul-flavoured interior.

But what does it mean to be a pessimist who persists? Cohle obviously views it not as reflecting some inner strength or nobility of character, but rather some inescapable weakness, a flaw in his makeup. However, it is problematical how this fits with the pessimist’s account of life as an endurance test, especially the life of the pessimist, who must without the armour of his illusions feel every blow. It is weakness because though he claims to know death when he can’t, his fear of this known yet unknown end outweighs the painful drudgery of staying where he is, and so he fears a “death, which is more feared than any suffering.”9 He’s been institutionalized by life, attached to the person he’s become, a person who despite the fact that such abstractions are impervious to destruction he still fears nature would eradicate in death: “In any case, the “denial’ of death is given in the original complex, not only as it relates to the horror of annihilation, but insofar as it restores us to the power of nature, of which the universal ferment of life is the repulsive sign.”10 In the Robert William Chambers story “The Repairer of Reputations,” suicide has recently been legalized and “lethal chambers” have been installed in the streets of the city and elsewhere for the relief of those who wish to end their lives. But we are told that suicide rates do not increase as a result and that those sealed chambers remain largely unvisited, pedestrians looking on them as they do on death itself: the outsides of a void they do not imagine themselves seeing.

When Cohle interviews Charmaine, a woman suspected of having murdered her infant children, he debunks the notion that the deaths were some aspect of their internal programming (the result of SIDS), and proceeds to elicit a full confession from the mother, the outside agency of her children’s deaths. Munchausen’s by proxy is the name of the condition he consoles her with, the affliction that allows him to assimilate some kind of motivational empathy with her. With the interview over, he warns her that her life in prison is likely to be one of unabated torment, ending with the words: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.” Here Cohle is talking to himself, and it’s he that wants her as his suicide by proxy. Although suicide on such a small scale could never achieve what a true pessimist suicide would seem to want to effect, as for “the suicide, to be effectual, [it] must be that of the cosmos.”11

3. Remote Control

An automatic killing-device is hidden inside the room: the need for further outside agency is removed. The grander scheme of the murder investigation is forgotten – the whole outside the room is guilt and darkness – God and meaning are dispensed with, and all that is left is us living out our automated existence, each of us a mechanical device winding its way down to an un-owned death.

Without God (or some proximal mystery) we cannot look at ourselves, and before long there is nothing to look and nothing to find – just an empty room with us still inside it: “Unmaking, decreating, is the only task man may take upon himself, if he aspires, as everything suggests, to distinguish himself from the Creator.”12 It is Cohle and Hart’s task to unmake the mystery of a series of murders and disappearances, to actualize certain methods of detection that will then disassemble the case’s alterity, its existence-outside-thought, and through this slow dismantling discredit its claim to an independent logic, a claim made off the back of a stylized inexplicability. The problem with pessimism, the challenge it sets itself, is that it can’t unmake without taking itself seriously, that same seriousness that rests at the core of the very anthropocentric structures it seeks to take apart, apart in such a way that they can never be reassembled. And while metaphysical and moral pessimism may appear to point to a wider, “cosmic” pessimism, (as Eugene Thacker suggests), the disharmony of these two perspectives belie such a pacific segue; for the former tells us that life is futile and loaded with suffering, that the self or the person is a lie, that morality is mere convenience, and that there is no way out, whereas the latter, “a pessimism of the world-without-us” demands a much humbler rigor: “the unhuman orientation of deep space and deep time, and all of this shadowed by [ … ] the impossibility of ever adequately accounting for one’s relationship to thought.”13 One tells us the work is done and we are doomed, and the Other, by its very retention of its otherness, tells us that the work can never be done. And while that same doom would seem to be implied in the futile struggle to understand what cannot be understood, this very impossibility smacks of the salvific, of the mysticism that the pessimist’s weariness and defeatism debar. One appears to dismantle the otherness of everything except the self, while the Other retains the otherness of everything but – which is not to say that the cosmic pessimist is an advocate of the existence of persons, but just that his own ghost is not presumed to be congruent to the ghost of the universe.

This fortification of the cosmos’s otherness, of its impossibility for us, is itself a form of possibility, and serves to elevate our suffering from the mundanity of known possibilities: its attendant “anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.”14 And it is no hindrance that this “possibility of possibility” is impossible to know. The distinction is savoured often by Pessoa: “Let us always search for the impossible, since that is our destiny, and let us search for it by way of the useless, since no path goes by any other way, but let us rise to the consciousness that nothing we search for can be found, and that nothing along the way deserves a fond kiss or memory.”15 Cosmic pessimism, then, far from being the pessimist’s concluding abrogation, is instead his version of God, in whose presence he often falters and falls back on the useless, on the human life he knows to be vain, on the world he feels he has already conquered, even if that conquering was at his own expense.

When Cohle claims “meaning is historical” (in Episode 2), he’s enmeshed in the first of these types of pessimism (his personhood shunned, eradicated, and via it the world) from which he sees no way out; but later (in Episode 5), he wearies of this affliction of knowing: “I don’t wanna know anything anymore. Why should I live in history, eh?” concluding that ours “is a world where nothing is solved.” And his “anxiety has here the same meaning as melancholy at a much later point, when freedom, having passed through the imperfect forms of its history, in the profoundest sense will come to itself.”16 This coming to itself of freedom is the acceptance of the debt of the eternity it cannot know, and through this Cohle undergoes something of a Kierkegaardian recognition of that which though outside the influence of self is itself the constitutor of self. In fact, Hart had already alluded to this process (in Episode 4), with his recounting of the “detective’s curse”: “The solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues.” The solution was in the room from the start, and the problem was not the otherness of the outside, but the attempt to bring it inside, when you should have left it where it was.

Cosmic pessimism is the refuge of the pessimist who still finds himself alive, the refuge of a futility he has not made his, the refuge of the mystery of his not knowing and the vanity of trying, and he finds claiming this impossibility, the externally codified nature of his predicament, to be less taxing than any weariness of knowing. For to remain is not to make the world and its secrets yours via the self you have first established as other, but rather to make the self the potential agent of its own redemptive ignorance via the otherness of what’s outside it. Hart diagnoses this condition in Cohle, tells him his denial lies in being “incapable of admitting doubt,” and so articulates how salvation lies not in the flimsy panoply of faith but in acknowledgment of what is not known, for Hart like Cioran knows that “doubt is less intense, less consuming, than despair.”17 And while, as Eugene Thacker explains, horror and our philosophical interest in the world around us may well be intertwined, both being concerned with “the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable, in so far as it deals with this limit of thought, [ … and] in so far as it evokes the world-without-us as a limit,”18 pessimism somewhat counter-intuitively becomes the antidote to this horror, and cosmic pessimism the antidote to Lovecraftian/Thackerian cosmic horror:19 in the case of the pessimist the horror of unthinkability is transformed into a salve, a place of solace for thinking that cannot escape itself, a perspective smeared with the excrement of that which being must always become.

“We weary of thinking to arrive at a conclusion, because the more we think and analyze and discern, the less we arrive at a conclusion.”20 The pessimist, then, is weary not only of his conclusions, but the thinking that got him there, and which could never get him anyplace else. And like the theologian whose thinking always leads him to God, the pessimist’s thinking drags him always to nothing and no one, so that maybe it is True Detective‘s evangelist preacher, Joel Theriot, who best encapsulates both their endgames: “All my life I wanted to be near to God. The only nearness: silence.”

4. Impersonation or Illusion

A person, though already dead inside the room, is impersonated by someone outside it and so thought to be alive: Human life has become the impersonation of persons, extending into situations where the dead victim can itself be seen as the impersonation of the mind of the killer.

The person, like any kind of illusion, forms like a hernia, so that what is inside comes to be seen as outside, and all this as the result of a weakness in the walls of the room, thereby allowing illusions to take on independent life outside their rightful jurisdiction. And in the same way that J. G. Ballard thought that fiction and reality had become reversed, it is through this breach that the world outside the room becomes the illusion, and reality only that which remains inside. While discussing Chuang-Tzu, John Gray expresses his concurrence: “There is no self and no awakening from the dream of self. [ … ] We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition.”21 And as our natural condition we take exception to explanations that serve to rid us of those to which we’ve become (quite literally) attached, even when “this self is fiction and confusion, anguish and the grave.”22 But the illusion, as we see it, is at least something worth creating, something elaborate and mysterious, even if suffering is its price, even if what we come to resemble is less like this and more like those inside-out cats some nobody nails to the front door of a church in the middle of the night.

In the locked-room lecture, an artful build-up to the ultimate dénouement in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, Dr. Fell asks why it is we are “dubious when we hear the explanation of the locked room” and answers thus: “Not in the least because we are incredulous, but simply because we are disappointed. And from that feeling it is only natural to take an unfair step farther and call the whole business incredible or impossible or flatly ridiculous.”23 Whether the illusion is performed in a detective story or in real life by an illusionist, “we merely call the explanations disappointing. And the secret of both disappointments is the same – we expect too much.”24 And as for who we are, we balk at being told of the underlying mechanisms that account for something we’d previously marveled at, as with the eliminative materialism of Thomas Metzinger, as he tries to explain how it is that phenomenal personhood can be experienced in a world in which there are no persons, and this is simply because “the effect is so magical that we somehow expect the cause to be magical also. When we see that it isn’t wizardry, we call it tomfoolery.”25

Although we sometimes hear of how dreams can reveal themselves as inexplicable reservoirs of truth and clear sight, as in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” Cohle’s recognition of dreams is rather more ambiguous than this seemingly uncomplicated reversal. For while there’s the sense that within the dream of his life, recognized as such, there’s some semblance of accuracy not afforded to others, dreams are also regarded as the source of our befuddlement; and so amidst his “I don’t sleep, I just dream,” lies a belief inside that dream that he can somehow usurp the illusory: “I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.” This not only evokes the Pessoan notion of “dreams without illusions,”26 whereby “only the eyes we use for dreaming truly see,”27 but also the conceptual possibility of comprehending one’s inherent incomprehension: “To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate all your memory all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream. A dream that you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person . . . And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.” And there is a monster, but as Cohle has stipulated, it will come at the end. So while, as in the Lovecraft story, dream states are regarded as possible conduits of revelation, they are also responsible for the Barmecidal conditions of human life in general, the former becoming like Metzinger’s incorporation of lucid dreaming into his materialist account of consciousness, wherein he allows for the possibility of us waking within the dream, so that maybe what we are is the point at which we wake up, and that we never truly wake is unimportant.

John Gray, like numerous other Animalists, tells us that personhood has no legitimate place in the essential constitution of human beings, and that what we’ve tended to call persons “are only humans who have donned the mask that has been handed down in Europe over the past few generations, and taken it for their face.”28 But the actuality is more complex and interesting than this picture suggests, and makes considerably more sense of the matrix of beliefs that go toward accounting for our identities. For what happened is that the mask became our face, like the Hannya mask that cannot be removed in the film Onibaba, consuming the insides through the farce of an outward presence. When in the film the mask is eventually broken and removed, the old woman’s face is every bit as hideous as the mask. Impersonation leaves its mark, and to believe that the mask can remain no more than a mask indefinitely is no less naïve than taking it for a face to begin with. Cohle claims “You can just let go,” and so somehow turn your back on this “jerry rig of presumptions and dumb will.” But isn’t this just yet another instance of Cohle’s proclivity for wishful thinking? Albeit one shared by Metzinger who likewise hints at just such an escape toward the end of Being No One, when he talks of possibly waking from the “biological history” that imprisons us, and that while there may be “no one whose illusion the conscious self could be, no one who is confusing herself with anything,”29 there nevertheless remains the theoretical possibility of “a new dimension” opening up of what it is selfhood could be, albeit a selfhood of the same nobody as before. But any talk of explanatory newness is ultimately void of consolation in virtue of its merely documenting the fog of oneiric myth in which we rely on hiding: “It was shocking to have the foulest nightmares of secret myth cleared up in concrete terms whose stark, morbid hatefulness exceeded the boldest hints of ancient arid mediaeval mystics.”30 And there is no clearer indication of this than the victims of the serial killer, who end their days as points of ingress to their killers’ recesses, who have through their murderous offerings turned themselves inside out.

“A desperate sense of entitlement isn’t it? Surely this is all for me. [ … ] I’m so fucking important, right?”, and so goes Cohle’s line of questioning; but while pessimism says that this is not all for me, and is rather something to which I find myself comprehensively unsuited, all the fretting31 and the disillusion smacks of disappointment, a disappointment grounded always in the error of expecting too much.32

5. Outside Looks Like Inside

Although the murder is committed outside the room, it appears to have been committed inside: The world comes to reflect the consciousness of the pessimist, the world emptied of meaning and substance. The serial killer looks outward to find his inside. Consciousness can never escape the outside, the outside in it from the start.

“I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.”33 The horror that we’ve come to accept as typically Lovecraftian is marked with a standardized construction: that of coming to know the unknown, of the outside coming in (replete with a taxonomy of gruesomely put together creatures and their alien modes of existence), where there should instead be ignorance, nothing, the void that cannot know us (or is otherwise ostensibly indifferent) and that we in turn cannot know. Lovecraft’s pessimism results from his characters’ dismantling of the Other, which is nothing less than the refuge of the unknown and the unknowable. Elsewhere is not a place but a thing, a thing that isn’t me – and all the better for it. If we look at Heidegger’s observation that Dasein’s Being is essentially Being-with-others, that “The Other can be missing only in and for a Being-with,”34 from an extraterrestrial perspective, then we see that our aloneness on the cosmic scale is the not the same deficiency as it appears to be on the terrestrial level, and that in fact it becomes prerequisite to our sanity; and so, pace Cohle, it is not the case that we “might as well be living on the fucking moon” unless our concerns are good travelers, and they are not. Pessimism on earth is a rejection of the distractions that embody our humanness, a rejection that cannot escape its own concern; while on the moon it’s you that’s rejected and the concern that’s absent, and there’s not even any air left to make your pessimist’s sigh. Just when you thought you’d undone all God’s good work, he gives you something you cannot touch, much less dismantle. And he does this to save you from yourself, or so the story might go. Or as Tellenbach (as recounted by Feld) would have it: “The melancholic needs to transcend himself, thus effecting a restructuration of personality that would help the self ascend out of Hell and regain the freedom of being.”35

We see the same hubris played out in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” in Albert N. Wilmarth’s initial zeal at the prospect of visiting his remarkable correspondent, Akeley: “To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural law – to be linked with the vast outside – to come close to the knighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and the ultimate – surely such a thing was worth the risk of one’s life, soul, and sanity.”36 But he soon finds out that his life, his soul, and his sanity mean more to him than he thought, that what he experiences of the Other is very quickly too much. Similarly, when Cohle shows Hart the ritualistic snuff film in the storage unit, their mutual disgust and anxiety at having seen it is a palpitant despair, as there was something in the sickening possibilities that had left room for doubt, a way out, that now having witnessed they have irrevocably sealed shut.37

However much we work on making the chambers of our consciousness impermeable, filling any cracks we find with an ever-multiplying debris of words and ideas, the outside is always immanent and continuing to seep in. Hart eats out his girlfriend’s arse and we cut to Cohle swilling mouthwash, for the pessimist’s curse is having to always carry the burden for those, and there are many, who remain unaware, to protect himself against the shit of life at large that the rest don’t even seem to taste.

6. Animals

The murder is perpetrated by an animal: Persons are clever animals cursed with an overdeveloped self-awareness. The animal escapes the locked room, but the lie of the person does not, and we are the lie. The scope of fabrication is limitless, and from these possibilities comes anxiety, which is not yet despair.

In Section 4, the victim remained inside the room, while a visible manifestation of him walked about and was seen outside its walls. Once again we have the assumption of personhood where, as pessimism tells us, there is none. There was only ever the animal, an animal who escapes detection through leaving the room in a way human persons could not: the snake in “The Speckled Band,” the orangutan in “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” True Detective has its green-eared spaghetti monster, its Cthulhu in human form. The first victim Hart and Cohle encounter is herself made animal, a trophy in the most obvious way, the antlers, like the deer heads on the sheriff’s wall, and posed as if in prayer, the crown of thorns, “some Halloween shit,” the killer showing himself through his kills, and what he shows is the animal that thinks, that is aware of itself to the point of having to become something else: the animal that suffers.

7. Wounded or Killed Outside, Died Inside

No crime is committed inside the room, because the victim enters the room dead or dying: The lie that circumstances outside just being human must be the cause of the living death of the pessimist inside the locked room: the death of Cohle’s daughter.

It seems there has to be the earlier death of Cohle’s daughter to explain away his pessimism, as if it couldn’t happen in a life lived without significant trauma, as if it were some increasingly rampant disease of grief, as if life itself weren’t trauma enough, as if Pessoa’s head cold of the soul could actually be cured instead of masked or force fed with illusions. And that the underlying cause is a child is apt, for it’s the same sublimation that’s at work when parents compulsively want more happiness for their children than it is reasonable to expect, why they are so concerned that they enjoy living while they are young enough, as if it was to serve as counterbalance to the misery to come, which of course it must. It’s why children are often seen as never being as happy as they could be, because the weight needed is so great and we cannot rightly approximate this abstract antipode.

In a moment of maximal candour, Cohle makes the following admission: “I think of my daughter now and what she was spared. Sometimes I feel grateful.” But the source of this gratitude is a much deeper form of blackness than the grief he escapes through it. For in order to distract from the pain of his loss he doesn’t, as we might expect, choose a series of lesser pains but a single much greater one. “Spared [ … ] the sin of being a father,” Cohle adopts the demon of acedia-melancholy, receiving his poison from outside, taking on the unbearable physical weight of existence as supplement to his daughter’s weightlessness, her irretrievable absence: “The symbol of defilement is the most archaic of the symbols of evil and posits the evil of contagion and contamination, in other words, the evil of substance. It is the body that suffers evil from the outside. It is the most physical and objectified form of evil, one that is seen in its positivity and realism as an infectious power, literally a disease, and the external evil agency can extend to include demonology.”38

8. Presumed Dead but Killed Later

The victim is murdered by the first person to enter the room: The death of the world enters the previously sealed space, the eternity before birth. The murderer entering the same room over and over to perpetrate his crime, the imposition of the death of living on something that had before been spared its necessity. The crime of making actual what was only speculation.

Cohle’s somewhat discordant evocation of (ardent anti-pessimist) Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return begins to make more sense once we take account of the necessities engendered by his still being alive. “You’ll do this again,” he says. “Time is a flat circle,” he says, “an eternity where there is no time: [where] nothing can grow, nothing can become, nothing changes.” And he can live and face this future by having already done it, living “like the future’s behind you, like it’s always been behind you.” And so the machismo of his pessimism has some reward, as he rids himself of the architecture of fear, of dread, of possibility and its attendant anxieties, and so cauterizes everything that might never have happened with the fact, the irreversible injustice, of his being born. “I know who I am,” he says “after all these years, there’s a … there’s a victory in that,” but it’s a victory indistinguishable from defeat: it’s the Nietzschean yes-sayer, the man who when forced to eat his own shit chooses to deceive himself that it tastes good. Having been made a victim in this way, and realizing his own powerlessness to alter it, what better solution than to imagine it had happened before, and will happen again, and that once born either amounts to the same thing. For what else is he to do with this life that is also death? “with this day which never manages to end? When will the light stop shedding its beams, deadly to the memory of a night world anterior to all that was? How far away chaos, restful and calm, the chaos dating from before the terrible Creation, or sweeter still, the chaos of mental nothingness.”39

9. Doors and Windows

The room has been sealed from the outside, but made to look like it was sealed from the inside: The case is always what the detectives see from outside it, not how it was from within. Pessimism has been perpetrated from outside, as a form of illness, a condition that was not chosen, as something internal that only the outside can unlock.

To briefly expand on certain themes regarding metaphors of illness touched on in Section 7: The world, existence, human life, yourself, all should seem utterly inexplicable, unnecessary, absurd, burdensome, a solecism moulded from fecal matter, and where there is no breaking from the world and your being of it we find only suffering and breathing, only the immanent cruelty of existence. “We can live the way the others do and yet conceal a “no” greater than the world: that is melancholy’s infinity … ”40 This afflicted sensing of the world is directly comparable both to Cohle’s synaesthesia, which despite being an inbuilt inversion and rebuke of what are otherwise standardized human mechanisms for experiencing the world is also utterly ineffectual – a fundamental difference reduced to a banal sameness. Cohle can taste colours, see sounds, hear shapes, “smell a psychosphere,” but that they remain senses keeps him outside and distanced from his own experiences, looking on from without, though seemingly within.

10. Perpetrator Still in Room

The murderer never left the room, but leaves secretly later, after the door has been opened. The causing of death is not the end of the perpetrator’s subterfuge: Similarly, death is not the end of the inherently illusory nature of human existence, for only if it continues, if the room is truly locked, can we bear the full weight of the pessimist’s curse.

“Death is not the end,” repeated over and over by Sam Tuttle’s former maid, echoing like a warning, an alarm. Cohle’s response is to say how the “old lady was wrong … about death not being an end to it,” and so we see him leaving pessimism behind, indulging in the (albeit tainted) sanguinity he abhors but cannot seem to resist. In Episode 3, before the narrative has initiated its consumption of Cohle’s pessimism, he’d claimed that “nothing is ever over,” and this is the response you’d expect from a true pessimist, because the pessimist does not expect things to get better, doesn’t believe there’s a way out of the room, so eternal life is not for him the gift it is for others, it is rather the icing on the curse, the crested seal on the horror of all horrors. “Death is not the end” is just too much weight to bear. When Dr. Fell speculates on the locked room occupant’s final moments, he imagines this: “He tried to scream out, and he could not, for the blood was welling in his throat. And at that moment Charles Grimaud suddenly knew what he would never have believed possible, the breaking of the last and most shattering mirror-illusion in his bitter life … [ … ] He knew he was dying [ … ] And stranger than any of his dreams, he was glad.”41 That we end with our deaths is a realist’s optimism, a form of salvation for anyone who’s unpicked all the positive trappings of existence, so in the same place we find horror we also find reclamation, God, ourselves – and there’s a reason it’s the (substratal) dream of Buddha. In the words of St. Paul: “I am persuaded that neither death … nor any affliction can separate me from what I find within me.”42 This is the pessimist’s nightmare, and one enacted unflinchingly by Julius Bahnsen, a student of Schopenhauer who denuded his theories of the succour of ever dying out of this. Once again, the machismo of pessimism outreaches itself: a hard stance to maintain, the toughest way to live, and even he must have his rest someday, and that rest can only come when the pessimist is no longer there to witness it.

Without death there is no escape from the illusion, and the long con of consciousness has us forever, as in Leonid Andreyev’s short story “The Lie,” in which a lovelorn narrator waxes on the trials of eternity: “a panther did I become in my stone cage. I walked and thought. I walked in one line right across my cage from corner to corner, and along one short line travelled my thoughts, so heavy that it seemed that my shoulders carried not a head, but a whole world. But it consisted of but one word [ … ] / ‘Lie!’ that was the word.”43 But perhaps the best example of what it means to face the eternal fabrication of consciousness takes place in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in which an enigmatic space traveller (the eponymous anti-hero), long presumed dead, returns (physically at least) with a drug, by the name of Chew-Z, offering its users immortality. As it transpires, Chew-Z-users enter an entirely different universe, one of Eldritch’s creation, and one from which there appears to be no escape, at least not one you can ever be entirely sure of, such is the utter convincingness of this ersatz cosmos. Although Dick eventually offers his characters a likely reprieve, the way in which he does so is particularly revealing: first claiming that even if Eldritch is God, albeit a hostile one, then he could well be a lesser and inverted version of a greater, loving God, and secondly that the real unclosed world of dull actualities and unfathomed potentials still exists as a possibility, and so the hope of an outside remains. What is so nightmarish about this novel is that should Eldritch’s plan prove successful, his control would be complete, there would be no room for salvation, no Other, even in death. The reader’s imaginative project would be at an end, the knots would be tied, and Dick would have left his characters in hell, whether or not they ever come to realize it. On the penultimate page, Leo Bulero reflects on the predicament in which he finds himself:

It’s nothing more than faith in powers implanted in me from the start which I can – in the end – draw on and beat him with. So in a sense it isn’t me; it’s something in me that even that thing Palmer Eldritch can’t reach and consume because since it’s not me it’s not mine to lose. I feel it growing. Withstanding the external, nonessential alterations, the arm, the eyes, the teeth – it’s not touched by any of these three, the evil, negative trinity of alienation, blurred reality, and despair that Eldritch brought back with him from Proxima.44

And the “something in” him that not even Palmer Eldritch can reach, that something that grows inside him but is not him or his to lose, is the gap in what appeared to be a closed system. Bulero might see that void as the Christian God working through him, or as some positive attribute of his self, but having been gifted the possibility of a flaw in his seemingly exhaustive state of despair, a chink in the hermetically sealed and labyrinthine universe in which he believed himself captive for an eternity, that condition of absence is enough, and no more should or can be said.

11. Secret Passages

The secret passage is, as Dr. Fell tells us in his lecture, a “low trick” and an “outrage.” A hermetically sealed room that has built into it a secret exit is a flagrant inconsistency: The conclusion of True Detective appears to perpetrate this very offence.

“The will-o’-the-wisps generated by our rotting lives are at least a light in our darkness.”45 The allure of some apparitional light, a light from something not there, the stars of the light that Cohle tells us is winning, arrives as nothing more than due recognition of weakness. Having been reduced to “a vague awareness in the dark,” Cohle exits not to the black stars, for that time has passed, in “Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens,”46 but to the fake light of what should not be there, a solution that time has disgraced. And so the conclusion of True Detective tells us that contrary to rational expectations, Cohle lives and that that living too must be contrary to rational thought, his continuance necessitating illusion. Cohle had once been turned to stone like Genevieve in Chambers’ story “The Mask,” and like her he too returns to flesh, to feeling, to the abstractions of love, of the figment of the need of something finding itself forever dying in the dark.

What’s obvious is empty, the solution of the secret passageway tells us this, so we can, if we choose, flatter the end of True Detective with knowingly exemplifying the more than human weight of pessimism, with how it necessarily debilitates our stories, but then after all maybe even the mention of flattery is unfair, and the realism is exemplary and baleful and perfectly intact: “Life is like a story that is spoiled by an unsatisfactory resolution of preceding events.”47


Particles decay, molecules disintegrate, cells die, organisms perish, species become extinct, planets are destroyed and stars burn-out, galaxies explode … until the unfathomable thirst of the entire universe collapses into darkness and ruin. Death, glorious and harsh, sprawls vast beyond all suns, sheltered by the sharp flickerlip of flame and silence, cold mother of all gods, hers is the deep surrender. If we are to resent nothing – not even nothing – it is necessary that all resistance to death cease. We are made sick by our avidity to survive, and in our sickness is the thread that leads back and nowhere, because we belong to the end of the universe. The convulsion of dying stars is our syphilitic inheritance.48

We were warned that there would be a monster at the end, and the monster came and the monster was Hope. And as a monster it remains true to the definition: being at any one time “categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless.”49 When asked if he still sees things (things he shouldn’t see), Cohle replies: “It never stops, not really – What happened in my head is not something that gets better.” But was he really so immedicable? After all, don’t we see him recover in those final minutes? Don’t we get to see under the mask that Childress tells him to remove? So although Cohle undoubtedly undergoes some kind of heathenized kenosis, the realism remains intact, even intensifying, amounting to a meta-position, a pessimism about pessimism. For as Cioran tells us, “However disabused one may be, it is impossible to live without any hope at all. We always keep one, unwittingly, and this unconscious hope makes up for all the explicit others we have rejected, exhausted.”50 And however much “we dread readapting ourselves to Hope … betraying our disaster, betraying ourselves …”51 we enact that perturbable orientation just in virtue of staying alive (or in being born, if Bahnsen is correct and death is not the extremity we were promised).

For all the posturing of the subjugator that’s gone before, we remain inchoate little grubs, weaklings shivering in blackened rooms, deranged dogs slavering for the tiniest mote of light, in which we imagine some state of ataraxy lurks and waits for us, some end to being anything at all.

Note: This essay will appear in the anthology True Detection (forthcoming).

  1. E. M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born, trans. Richard Howard (Arcade Publishing, 1998), 85. []
  2. Though John Dickson Carr lists seven, with five sub-categories, in The Three Coffins (Charter Books, 1935), 160-73, and Robert Adey lists a full twenty in Locked-Room Murders (Crossover Press, 1991), 275, the ten I have chosen cover all possible solutions, if with less specificity in places. []
  3. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born, 84. []
  4. In Robert W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” (the first of four stories to deal with the greater or lesser side effects of the mysteriously deranging play “The King in Yellow”), Mr. Wilde also keeps a ledger, containing the names and debts of those whose reputations he has salvaged. In it the debts of ruined men and women are tallied and their repayments listed, and those reparations bring huge profits to Wilde, but ultimately they are profits that never get spent, because the order he reinstates is contrived outside his own workings and he is left with nothing. []
  5. E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered, trans. Richard Howard (Arcade Publishing, 2012), 115. []
  6. Schopenhauer, by way of contrast, believed that if something is truly willed it is necessarily done. []
  7. See Michael Smith’s The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell). []
  8. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born, 51. []
  9. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Volume 2 (Dover Publications, 1969), 636. []
  10. Georges Bataille, The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Botting & Scott Wilson (Wiley-Blackwell, 1997), 242. []
  11. Edgar Saltus, The Philosophical Writings of Edgar Saltus: The Philosophy of Disenchantment & The Anatomy of Negation (Underworld Amusements, 2014), 172. []
  12. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born, 6. []
  13. Eugene Thacker, “Cosmic Pessimism” (continent. 2.2 (2012): 66–75), 68. []
  14. SørenKierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, eds. & trans. Reidar Thomte & Albert B. Anderson (Princeton University Press, 1980), 42. []
  15. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith (Penguin Classics, 2002), 206. []
  16. Kierkegaard, Concept of Anxiety, 42-3. []
  17. E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 37. []
  18. Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1 (Zero Books, 2011), 9. []
  19. “I would propose that horror be understood not as dealing with human fear in a human world (the world-for-us), but that horror be understood as being about the limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world-without-us).” Eugene Thacker, After Life (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 268. []
  20. Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 206. []
  21. John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Granta Books, 2002), 81. []
  22. Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 129. []
  23. John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins (Charter Books, 1935), 162. []
  24. Ibid., 162. []
  25. Ibid., 162. []
  26. Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 61. []
  27. Ibid., 111. []
  28. John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, 58-59. []
  29. Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (MIT Press, 2003), 634. []
  30. H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” in Necronomicon (Gollancz, 2008), 337. []
  31. Hart to Cohle:”For a guy who sees no point in existence you sure fret about it an awful lot.” []
  32. The very reason Schopenhauer was disinclined to favour suicide. []
  33. H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu” in Necronomicon (Gollancz, 2008), 225. []
  34. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Blackwell, 1997), 157. []
  35. Alina N. Feld, Melancholy and the Otherness of God: A Study of the Hermeneutics of Depression (Lexington Books, 2013), 185. []
  36. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness,” 326-7. []
  37. Which was, of course, Cohle’s intention. []
  38. Feld, Melancholy and the Otherness of God, 36-7. []
  39. E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay, trans. Richard Howard (Penguin Books, 2010), 93. []
  40. Ibid., 63. []
  41. Carr, The Three Coffins, 220. []
  42. Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation, trans. Raymond B. Blakney (Harper Collins, 1942), 101. []
  43. Leonid Andreyev, “The Lie” in The Little Angel (Dedalus, 1989), 80. []
  44. Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Grafton, 1978), 203. []
  45. Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 61. []
  46. Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow Sign and Other Stories (Chaosium, 2004), 9. []
  47. Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2010), 113. []
  48. Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation (Routledge, 1992), 146. []
  49. Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990), 32. []
  50. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born, 54. []
  51. Cioran, A Short History of Decay, 69. []