Nihilism does nothing. It always has. Since Socrates’ proclamation that he knew nothing, since the Platonic hierarchy collapsed, under its own weight and emptiness, in the face of the enlightened and romantic, since Nietzsche broke into his Dionysian dance at the death of God and Truth, since the phenomenological reduction of Descartes’ thinking thing to the existential nothingness of consciousness, and since the postmodern break into playful celebration at its coming of age, it’s always been there, waiting, doing nothing. It seems silly to accuse it of things. Yet, we condemn it, bandy it about, loosely, as if its mere association could render an assertion somehow meaningless. But Nihilism does nothing. It doesn’t seek to undermine traditions, dogmas, or assumptions. They passively collapse on it. And when we embrace it, we pin it to our chests, or to that of another, like some badge of honor. But who, truly, can be said to be a nihilist. It doesn’t seek to explain or justify itself; and any utterance or assertion is to do something and, thereby, miss the point. Nietzsche certainly couldn’t pull it off. He said too much, made too many assertions. Nor can any ideology or method be said to synonymous with it. But it was always there doing nothing while we were doing everything. Skepticism was a method by which we worked towards it. Anarchism was a political expression not of it, but us in the face of it. Existentialism? Nihilism with an excuse, thereby, not nihilism. And postmodernism? Once again, a mere celebration, a ticker tape parade and welcome party for what was always home.
In fact, I would argue that the word, itself, is an oxymoron since an “ism” is always doing something. To cop off Wittgenstein, one of the most anti-nihilist of all (but perhaps not as we will explore later): it is a “that” of which we should not speak. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the nihilistic or the nihilistic perspective, of a kind of passing experience or sensation (epiphany perhaps?) that cannot be held or kept or seen strait on, a mere stillness that, like a phantom, can glance the corner of the eye. Yet, it is always before, around, and behind us. Why wouldn’t it be ahead, since it is the foundation, the absurdity, of our here and now? We look back and watch all chains of cause and effect trail away, converge, and dissolve into nothing. It’s amazing we can even move forward, thrashing as we do in this mass-less sea. Yet we do, or seem to do. Propelling in a kind of forward flight, we project out of nothing. We strain, stretch our finger toward something, and, never truly touching it, plunge, at last, back into nothing.
Could this be the upswing? The joy and meaning? The glass half full as differentiated from the glass half empty? I approached this page, the emptiness, a nothing, and made something. Not knowing how it would happen, the words took form, propelling it seemed, out of nothing and gathered this peculiar way out of infinite others. It was as if there were all these bits and pieces looking for a place, any place, a shelter from the nothing. Yet here it is: a testimony to that from which it came. The only potential of nothing is no potential, no fixed direction. This is why we cannot say that the nihilistic obliges us to make no assertions. In fact, it may be a cause to do so, the meaning derived, the fear that compels our flight. In fact, maybe it’s why we dream. We slip away, from alpha to beta, and into theta, and it may be through the noetic images produced in this state that we dip our toe into the nothingness of a deep delta wave sleep. We lay in bed, our thoughts flowing regularly and with meaningful intent. In time, they begin to digress, form sensations until sensations take form, and one those forms darts your way. You jolt awake. What were you afraid of? Or maybe it wasn’t you, but consciousness afraid of its own dissipation, the loss of intentionality? Consciousness is always consciousness of something and in order for a thing to exist, it must, at bottom, perceive that it exists. What would a conscious be that suddenly became conscious of nothing? “I hate sleeping”, the old man says in the movie Moonstruck,” it’s too much like death.” It’s no wonder we flee like we do. It’s in our blood, our history. Greece, at the beginning of civilization (and having just crawled out of the muck) considered nature bad and civilization good and, consequently, its mental constructs, if constructed by the more advanced and civilized, equally good. It’s no wonder Plato would ban the poets from his republic. Passion is for primates, that stage of man that stood between Greece and the nothingness from which it came. Nor is it any wonder, after numerous political and religious tyrannies and atrocities, that these ideal forms would collapse on their own ethereal emptiness, and that the romantics would seek a return to that primal state. But there was a divide, a splitting up into 2 distinct trajectories. The enlightened clung to the ideal forms of reason. And we do it still. We do as Wittgenstein: prescribe a method and pretend it gives us absolutes and certainty. But all we are doing is fleeing, denying, and shutting out the nothing. We cling to the symbolic order and watch the psychotics and junkies slip away into their own little bubbles with their own little systems of meaning. We watch as others, having no solid criteria by which to work, turn to the praxis of power: I have power because I am right, therefore, I am right because I have power. They forget the underlying nothingness of all human constructs and turn smug. Cut-throat capitalists gather, and gather more, as if to fill the void. They’re never satisfied. Players crush hearts as if seeking the underlying emptiness. And serial killers kill as if to reacquaint us with nothing. We think we fear them. But perhaps we fear the nothing. Clearly, the certainty of something, the metaphysic of Presence, could not hold them close. We have to ask why. We have to ask if they sensed the underlying nothingness, the nihilistic, and refusing to deny it, to flee, as most of us “normal” people do, fell into a trap.
So much for the upswing. What went wrong? And why all this rather than nothing? Why did I write? I could have left this blank. But I didn’t. Why? One could say it was to let there be something. But it makes no sense. It’s absurd, clearly a flight from silence, the empty page, the nothingness. What else could it be with so much contradiction? I attempt to explain the nihilistic when the more I write, the further away I get. This wasn’t the piece I expected. This wasn’t the life I expected. Yet here it is. Still, maybe I should have written a poem, or created an image. I shouldn’t have tried to mean, but be. Perhaps I should have done nothing.
Humble yourself or the world will do it for you -it was either Russell or Whitehead. I can't remember which.
When I was young, I use to think the world was a messed up place so i was pissed off a lot. But now that I'm older, I know it is. So I just don't worry about it. -John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten).
Anarchy through Capitalism -on a flyer thrown out during a Kottonmouth Kings concert.
First we read, then we write. -Emerson.
All poets are damned. But they are not blind. They see with the eyes of angels. -William Carlos Williams: in the introduction to Ginsberg's Howl.