Nihilism

A second excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time on nihilism and the universal experience of nothingness:

When he was asked, What is nihilism? the answer Nietzsche gave was my neighbor’s: “The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.” Later he approached the definition another way: “Something is to be achieved through the process—and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing.”

In our age and in our kind of society—mobile, fast, free—the experience of “nihilism” is common even among fourteen-year-old “valley girls.” Boredom today is the first taste of nothingness. “Waddya want to do tonight, Beth?” Beth, chewing gum: “I dunno, what do you wanna do?” Nowadays, one of them is likely to have a cell phone to her ear. The interest of the other runs to shopping malls, movie theaters, boys in cars….

The experience of nothingness is, therefore, practically universal. Yet some in the two groups mentioned earlier seem blessedly to have been spared it. Trying to understand it, however, I prefer to speak of this experience without the -ism, prior to any ideology about it, as “the experience of nothingness.” How we are to understand that experience, in Nietzsche’s way or in any other, is a different matter.

It is an experience I well know in my own life. Everybody does.

Without being tedious, but to make certain that the point is as clear as examples can make it, let me mention Joan, who married for the first and only time when she was forty-three. Not immediately but some three years later and much to her surprise and joy, Joan conceived a child. Months of happy expectation followed. On the day after the child’s exhilarating birth, however, she learned that the dear little boy was afflicted with a rare disease that meant her son would probably live only until nine or ten, and would for all the years until then need extraordinary care. The question “Why?” arose inside her with much anguish.

A couple I know of had a handsome, athletic, extremely smart, and warmly popular son who excelled in almost everything in high school. It was only at the end of his first year in college that his health faltered, and then slowly it became apparent that he was afflicted with an incapacitating case of schizophrenia and would have to be hospitalized. His adoring parents were crushed. He was an only child. Their world fell apart.

A student I once had in class had been acing all her classes at Stanford, a perky and happy and optimistic young woman determined to get into medical school, in the tradition of her family. She had not a doubt in her mind. Her sailing was exceptionally clear. Until one day. One day it suddenly hit her very hard that she did not really want to become a doctor. Her grandmother had years ago, seeing the child care for a wounded robin, been the first to say that Janette would make a great doctor. Janette’s life dream had been implanted in her imagination from that day on.

Now suddenly, as a sophomore, some inner tunnel collapsed and all her dreams came tumbling down. The irrepressible thought had overpowered her: that she had been thrown into this project, it was not her project, she had never given it any real thought. She was just so darn good at it, and her record had gotten her into the university of her dreams, and everything looked far too rosy to endure. And it didn’t. She began to show the symptoms of the experience of nothingness that many sophomores come down with: She began to sleep a lot.

She could hardly get out of bed. She could no longer see any point to it. With her friends she was, as never before, short and cynical. They knew she wasn’t well. But she wasn’t sick, either, except with the disease of autonomy and inner freedom.

Granted that I am overcome with the experience of nothingness, how should I live? The alternatives come down to two: some form of suicide (drugs, drink, fast living, killing time will do) such as Albert Camus contemplated in the Myth of Sisyphus. Or this: creatio ex nihilo, reaching down into nothingness to create a new being. But by what light? Following which stars?

Woody Allen found his: “The heart wants what it wants.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned the Constitution to dabble in its own philosophy of life in Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” This is not the American legal and moral tradition, but contemporary postmodernism. …

Nothingness Inside Out

I went back to reflecting on illusions and realities in later months. Something told me that Nietzsche’s mad nihilism is not the only, nor the best, theory for explaining life-crushing experiences of the sort he adverted to. I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their backsides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap? If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don’t do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books—the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of “the good” is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est diffusivum sui—the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account—or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one’s bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can’t stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. “Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?”

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom—or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that “hell is other people,” faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one’s own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community, courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

If you haven’t read Michael Novak’s 1994 Templeton Address, “Awakening from Nihilism,” at Westminster Abbey, do so. All of these themes are more exhaustively and better elaborated upon in that speech.

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