Rehabilitating Nihilism

Nihilism is one of those terms that has lost its niche, a word whose associative network of concepts and symbolisms has gone adrift and failed to find a new mooring. In the popular imagination it used to be tightly aligned with anarchy, with revolutionary fervor, with a rejection of the entire established order of things, and its utterance brought to mind scary-sounding and foreign names like “Bakunin”, in turn followed by a wild-eyed visage framed with flowing and unkempt hair pressing in on one’s mind. Call the authorities! Give me security! Keep me safe from these ruffians! (Photos of the man actually show a very calm and kind face, but he did have a great head of hair.) Yet then nihilism slipped and stumbled, anarchy moved on and discovered it never needed nihilism, from the start the two didn’t actually fit. Anarchy had its transcendence, its telos, but nihilism? It had so much of nothing that it didn’t even know what it had. And who needs nothing? Who fights for an abyss? Who champions a zero? Nihilism for a time was forgotten; anyway there was far too much else to do.

The existentialists, some phenomenologists, and a certain set of German theologians then re-discovered it, dusted it off and turned it over, working out its hidden nuances and potentialities. This meaninglessness could mean something, they thought, this idea might have some worth, some merit, some saving grace. It might even be a saving grace. No one could have foreseen that. (Except of course Nietzsche; possibly – probably – Kierkegaard.) Nihilism was something to go through, a kind of obstacle course for the spirit from which one emerged, if one emerged at all, expressly stronger and more capable, more fully oneself and much less a product of the time and place you screamed your way into at birth. (A tangent: How appropriate is the fact that we greet life by coming into it with a wail?)

Among artists we writers must be the most anti-social lot, the most inwardly gazing, the most internally obsessed. Locked up in our heads and keeping likely far too much to ourselves we observe – creepily, stalkingly; menacingly? – the world around us and then put something onto paper for reasons that even if known cannot really be fathomed in any kind of rational sense. (Leaving out writing purely for pay, naturally. Bread on the table makes a lot of rational sense.) In the end life can seem merely a passing of the time, especially if one considers each of us separately and takes individual pursuits as non-contributory. There might be much more at work though, and all of our little nonsenses may in fact be building towards something larger, something emergent. That isn’t a conclusion you can just be handed however, it needs to be felt to really be embraced, and the viewpoint behind it needs a nudge to get it going. That nudge is nihilism.

We write about lives, we craft stories wherein this happens to that person and they react with such and such. Or we pen essays and arguments that explore the human condition, but it all still boils down to this happening to that person and the reaction of such and such. Human beings, really every living creature and the entire interlocked and unfolding cosmos, are exemplars of repetition par excellence. Keeping one’s eyes locked on one’s own life and its winding trajectory quickly engenders a deadening pointlessness, and it’s no wonder the answer to this has so often been a pining for a better world elsewhere, either postmortem or post-revolution or post-fill-in-the-blank. We’ve got to get there! But then nihilism grabs you by the shoulders and your mind snaps back to – what?

Perspective, a shifted world, a climb up the ladder, a stepping out of the well and into the light. Or the reverse; darkness can after all be its own luminosity. Real writing needs hard thinking, and that is often neither easy nor pleasant. The experience of and the wrestling with nihilism offers a tour de force down this path, but it certainly isn’t for everyone. Of any group of people though, I’d wager that writers stand to benefit the most from it. We are reflective by nature and therefore suited to the battle ahead, pre-oriented to find our way. What might appear on the other side is admittedly unpredictable, and we could well ruin ourselves and/or our art in the process, but transformation requires risk, and there is no resurrection without first hanging oneself Odin-like on the tree. The story goes that after nine days he looked down and found the runes – can we?


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