During my own workout routines I listen to podcasts as I lift. It engages my brain as I work out my body. Monday morning I was listening to NPRs On The Media. They were talking about the philosophy of Existentialism and Nihilism. It got me thinking how this relates to things in my life. As a gymnastics coach, writer and comic it is difficult to believe in FATE or that things happen for a reason. Whether I am preparing for a gymnastics competition or a stand up set- sometimes things just SUCK.
I think I have lived a fairly virtuous life and although there are a great many things in my life I am thankful for. There are some pretty shitty things that have happened in the last few years. I am a pretty optimistic guy so I am not going to focus on those. I do not believe I am owed anything in this life or that my actions whether good or bad affect the outcome. Their are some pretty terrible people who have had great success and power. There are some pretty wonderful people who just can’t catch a break.
Eugene Thacker is an American philosopher and author. His work is often associated with the philosophy of nihilism and includes the book In The Dust Of This Planet. At a certain moment, a culture discovers that its most esteemed values are for nothing. Nihilism is that moment where the rug’s pulled out from under you and nothing takes its place.
Friedrich Nietzsche, anticipating the coming crisis of faith in the mid-19th century, rocked by Darwin, scientific breakthroughs and the Industrial Revolution, famously declared…
*2:16 God is dead and God remains dead because we have killed him….how shall we the murderers of all murderers comfort ourselves?
But in fact, he embraced the void and urged us to reinvent reality for ourselves.
‘Only now are you going your way to greatness. Peak and abyss, they are now joined together, for all things are baptized in a well of eternity, and lie beyond good and evil.”
Nietzsche would want us to embrace this nothingness and breathe out something new and flowery and beautiful. This is what he hoped. And there’s a sort of alarming vigor and enthusiasm in his late writing. But Nietzsche, of course, had a mental breakdown and was …mute the last 10 years of his life.
The pop nihilism of today is using the fact that “i don’t believe in anything” as a smokescreen for completely selfish activity and being an asshole. That is NOT what I am about.
To me- I think it means- look at me, I’m staring down the abyss, I am so above the common man who’s scared of death —
— I am brave —
When you look at today’s political state it is very easy to be a pessimist. Beheadings, ebola, dysfunctional governments here and abroad.
But I am Brave.
There is a lot more media out there that can fuel the pessimism. We know a lot more about what’s going on in the world. So you can draw conclusions from that. When I take this bottle and go recycle it I know now that it probably just goes into the trash or a big floating island of plastic in the ocean somewhere that’s never gonna decompose. Does that change the way i behave? I mean that’s sort of a thing that each individual person deals with. So in that case why do you bother?
… why do we bother.….
I’m reminded of the opening of Boccaccio’s Decameron there’s a group of people beset by the black plague, and what you see down the line in plague literature is two responses to the plague which basically meant the black death meant the end of the world – you either had people that would hole up in churches and hold vigils and pray, or you had people getting drunk in the streets and just partying and going crazy. Post 9/11 do we not have that kind of situation now of like religious fanaticism and this badass in front of the apocalypse kind of thing?
ISIL. Ebola. Mayhem. And a recent UN Commission tells us to prepare for global warming, it’s too late to stop it. Meanwhile Hollywood gushes extinction tropes.
Why is the Walking Dead the most popular TV drama for the cherished 18 to 49 demographic? Perhaps because zombies are the ultimate nihilists? They are, after all, the apotheosis of pointlessness, shambling aimlessly in…shall I say it?…in the dust of this planet, eating the brains and sucking the souls of the living, reduced, like the zombies, to wandering and foraging. There are some horrible people surviving and some great people torn apart by zombies (Spoiler alert- RIP Noah)
A quick taxonomy of Nihilism.
- Existential nihilism: the belief that life is meaningless.
- Political nihilism – the belief that political systems are pointless and should be overthrown.
- Ethical and moral nihilism (you probably worked that one out)
- Epistemological nihilism: the belief that you can know nothing.
- Ontological nihilism: the belief that nothing is real so there’s nothing to know.
In the Matrix, Agent Smith embodies them all.
In the 1980’s The moral nihilist finds its fullest expression in Rorschack, a killer of killers in the comic book series Watchmen. This installment of his story is called The Abyss Gazes Also, a nod to Nietzsche’s warning to beware, that “when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
That was in the 80s. The 70s — what with the Vietnam War, Watergate, a listless economy, rampant crime and streets steeped in the sour funk left by the spoiled ardor of the 60s– was a prime decade for Nihilism. And punk was its medium. Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious, Jonny Rotten, Richard Hell and the Voidoids…”I belong to the blank generation”
It was a far cry from the ecstatic Nihilism of the late 50s and early 60s, a rebuke to the stifling conformity of the Eisenhower era, and a finger flung at the likely prospect of nuclear annihilation. In 1959, Alan Ginsberg said that “America was having a nervous breakdown” inciting exaltation, despair, prophecy, strain, suicide, and public gaiety among the poets. He published Howl in 1956.
From Howl: Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!
My philosophy on life most reflects the post-war era, existentialism, which is pretty much existentialism nihilism. The word was coined in France, but the idea begins with early 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who argued that each individual is responsible for giving his or her life meaning.
Have you ever gone through a period when you didn’t think anything was real? I think at some point any intelligent person questions the truth of everything that’s around them.
The cultural argument that I would make is that there’s a now-ness to this particular flavor of it because if you just turn on the news you will see an endless stream of misery that is not just depressing, which it is, it’s impossible to make sense of. Sometimes you feel like there is no sense to make of it. And so the fact that you can discard all that and commit so deeply, mind body and soul to something, against that feels greater than anything I’ve ever experienced in my childhood.
The cycle that we’re in now, it doesn’t feel positive in a way.
Camus said that accepting the absurdity of everything around us is just one step: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.
The ten or fifteen minutes you spent reading this is drawing to its inevitable end, as are we all, so I’ll rush back to the Greeks. Epicurus really fits my premise. He lived in a chaotic time, right after the death of Alexander the Great and during the subsequent collapse of Hellenism. Epicurans sought to reach a state of being called ataraxia, that is, utterly free of care. The world was created by chance, the gods if they exist don’t care about us, love and politics are not worth the trouble. As for death, he said, “Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality.” In other words, fuggedaboutit.
“Go ahead. Eat your food and be happy. Drink your wine and be cheerful. It’s alright with God. Always look happy and cheerful. Enjoy life with the one you love, as long as you live the useless life that God has given you in this world. Enjoy every useless day of it, because that is all you will get for all your trouble.”
Nihilism in a place you wouldn’t’ve expected!