Brooke follows up on her conversation with Radiolab, and explores our longstanding fascination with nihilism: why it's popular today, and whether that's always been the case.
And I’m Brooke Gladstone. and we’ll be spending this next segment staring into the abyss, and pondering why Nihilism is so trendy, and whether that’s a recent phenomenon.
All this came up when Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab (he works down the hall) told me about what happened to his brother-in-law, Eugene Thacker. He’s an author and professor of philosophy, who recently explored Nihilism in the genres of horror, and black metal music.
EUGENE: In fact probably more people have worn my book than have read it, actually.
That’s Eugene. Here’s Jad.
JAD: Eugene writes a book gives it an evocative title, suddenly the book becomes a painting, suddenly that painting becomes a t shirt, and suddenly ½ of the highest grossing tour of all time is wearing it on his back.
The cover of Eugene’s book, “In the Dust of this Planet” was emblazoned on Jay-Z’s jacket in the trailer for his and Beyoncé’s recent tour. Yup, Eugene’s apocalyptic title was accessorized.
JAD: And I was like okay, let me actually think about this in a deep way. The joke in my family is that Eugene writes books for no one. Suddenly, is he now not just writing books for no one anymore, but he has somehow become a conduit... he's channeling something that we’re all - in kind of like underground, subterranean way that way that pop culture operates - that we’re all feeling, that this represents something beyond something simple mere appropriation. To which you would say what?
BROOKE: I would say yes.
JAD: You would say yes!
BROOKE: What I would argue with is the part that you haven’t asked
JAD: Which is ...
BROOKE: ..is this unique to this moment.
BROOKE: To that I would say no.
THACKER: 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.”
JAD: So he would say embrace this nothingness and breathe out something new and flowery and beautiful?
EUGENE: 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.
BROOKE: Why did you name your book In the Dust of the Planet?
EUGENE: To be honest, i had just done a body of work that was very much straight up philosophy and that world is a very different world and wanted to have a title that was just more evocative.
EUGENE: That was just more evocative
BROOKE: And it IS - it’s just stylish, man.
EUGENE: Well uh i don’t know, Jad really had to convince me, I’m still not convinced. We live in a culture of pervasive pandemic decontextualization. It just looks like a cool phrase to go on a t-shirt to put on a Goth girl in some photo shoot.
BROOKE: And why is it cool?...
EUGENE: It’s cool because some publicist --
BROOKE/JAD: No no no
EUGENE: The idea that works is this pop nihilism but that’s not what’s in the book.
BROOKE: And what’s that pop nihilism again?
EUGENE: The pop nihilism is using the fact that i don’t believe in anything as a smokescreen for completely selfish activity. And the philosophies I’m talking about are talking about the exact opposite of that.
BROOKE: 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 --
JAD: -- I am brave --
BROOKE: -- that I can wear it on a t shirt.
EUGENE: Yeah, I would go with that. ...I think that that is nothing more than a posture…. and that’s why it’s in pop culture because that’s what pop culture is.
JAD; Do you think in the culture at large we might all be having more and more days of true pessimism? And maybe even enjoying our own limits?
EUGENE: Definitely a lot more media out there and 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
BROOKE: So in that case why do you bother?
EUGENE: ... 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?
BROOKE: Jad went off to explore the present to learn whether this is, in fact, a uniquely nihilistic moment (we’ll link to that Radiolab piece) and we went back to the past for an answer that same question.. So let’s start in the present, the current drumbeat of bad news. Here’s Jad’s montage.
Video, showing the beheading of a second American journalists has now been verified [male announcer]
Disease experts say this is turning into one of the longest, deadliest outbreaks ever. [female announcer]
The girls were gang-raped and strangled. [male announcer]
Once again it is mostly children we're seeing brought into this hospital. [male announcer]
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.
Clip from Walking Dead
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. Season five debuts October 12th . Cable channel AMC is creating a spin-off.
sound of bloody splat
This seems as good a time as any for a quick taxonomy of Nihilism. There’s Existential nihilism: the belief that life is meaningless. Political nihilism - the belief that political systems are pointless and should be overthrown. Then there’s ethical and moral nihilism (you probably worked that one out) and epistemological nihilism: the belief that you can know nothing. And finally, Ontological nihilism: the belief that nothing is real so there’s nothing to know. In the Matrix, Agent Smith embodies them all.
Do you believe you're fighting... for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose.
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.”
Streets stank of fire.The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach? Does that answer your Questions, Doctor?”
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… Take it or leave it each time
BROOKE: 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!
BROOKE: Moving back into the post-war era, existentialism, which is pretty much existentialism nihilism, flowers. flowers. 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. The French variant was advanced by Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, amid the disgrace of the intellectual establishment. The climate of cynicism and despair also gave rise to the theater of the absurd. Sartre wasn’t an absurdist, but he did write fiction, like Nausea.
Excerpt from Nausea: “Here we all are, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence, and there’s nothing. Nothing. Absolutely no reason for existing.”
BROOKE: But for me, the Nihilist movement nonpareil was that which sprang to life in a Zurich Nightclub called Cafe Voltaire, after the first world war, which makes sense because of the unmatched enormity and pointlessness of that war. Nihilism thrived in every sphere, and spawned a kind of performance art philosophy called Dada. One of its founders, Tristan Tzara recommended cutting up newspaper articles into words and phrases, throwing them into a bag and then randomly reassembling them into poetry. He said Dada did not signify an art, but a disgust with the “magnificence of philosophers”. What good did their theories do us, he asked. We are. We argue, we dispute we get excited. All the rest is sauce.
JAD: You don’t think this says anything about now?
BROOKE: Now Jad was really resistant to the idea that today’s tendency toward nihilism is pretty much the same as all the others, at least in its general contours. If that. I mean, these days a movement is co-opted before it even gets off the ground. But I argued that if, as some suggest, faith its part of our wiring, so is nihilism. Actually, maybe I was a little over-emphatic.
BROOKE: Didn't you go through a period when you didn't think anything was real? When I was 8, I would look at everything around me and think it was just a backdrop. I would take my hand sometimes and I would drag it along the sidewalk til I made it bleed.
BROOKE: To see if it felt more real.
BROOKE: I think at some point any intelligent person questions the truth of everything that's around them.
JAD: Mhmmm mhmm. 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.
BROOKE: I want to pull up here on the computer something that occurred after a time of enormous disorder, after World War I. The manifesto of Tristan Tzara, one of the creators of the movement of DADA. And he says, "Everything one looks at is false. If I shout ideal ideal ideal knowledge knowledge knowledge boom boom boom boom boom boom boom, I have given a pretty faithful version of progress law morality and all the other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books. Only to conclude that after all, everyone dances to his own personal boom boom. And that the writer's entitled to his boom boom."
[22:17] JAD: This is SO great!
BROOKE: “DADA: abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create. DADA: abolition of memory. DADA: abolition of archaeology. DADA: abolition of prophets. DADA: abolition of the future.”
JAD: That is incredible! It's so full of spirit and vigor, that it almost contradicts its negation.
BROOKE: It is dropping the heavy blood-soaked mantle of the war and the lies that were told to all the people who were sent in to fight that pointless war. All of the pictures of trench warfare were suppressed until after and hence you had what was called the lost generation. The lost generation is ripe for nihilism, an active and positive embrace of what seems to be the only kind of truth: which is that there isn't one.
JAD: The cycle that we're in now, it doesn't feel positive in a way.
BROOKE: I get that. But 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. Did you know Nietzche wrote music? He wrote this. Apparently, the first time his good friend Richard Wagner heard one of his compositions, he ran out of the room screaming with laughter. Brutal. So, so where were we? We touched on Nietzsche, mentioned Kierkegaard. I’m going to skip over other really important people, like Heidegger and Schopenhauer. The Russian Anarchist Bakunin. The Russian novelist Turgenev, who popularized the word in his novel Fathers and Children. Now I’m looking for household names. Some say Hamlet was a Nihilist, because he called man a quintessence of dust. I think he was just depressed. But Shakespeare knew how to build a existential Nihilist when he wanted to.
TAPE” Hamlet: Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The hour, this meaningless hour, 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. He was, in a sense, the ur Alfred E. Newman. 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.
But if Dada is my favorite expression of Nihilism, this last one is definitely runner up. And so I’m gonna bring back Jad, and share.
Tape: 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.
Jad: Who is that?
Brooke: That’s Ecclesiastes.
Jad: That's Nihilism in a place I wouldn't've expected.
BROOKE: I submit that as my Quad Erem Demonstrandum.
Jad: Oh, is it your contention that nihilism is sort of a thrum that goes through all times and not anything specific to this time?
BROOKE: We can't escape the fact of our own death.
JAD: Am I supposed to say something now? Am I supposed to argue with you? I suddenly am persuaded. Whoever is talking, I just agree. Should I argue with you?
JAD: It seems to me that we're all having those thoughts a little bit more and our responses to those thoughts are different now than they ever have been. You can do any number of responses, you can decide to live a great life and have yoga and grow zucchini. Or you can decided to become a hedonist. But we're all just responding in a way that's just kind of a shrug that's like...eh...forget it. It seems to me, when I think about the ways in which people are thinking about climate change. It doesn't seem...maybe I'm just depressed Brooke is that what I'm just saying to you?
BROOKE: (Laughs) You have two small kids, I just don't think you get enough sleep. I think a real nihilist has to have a lot of energy. As I went through my exploration of it -- you had Camus who says that the best response is to rebel. Rebel against death, create life on your own terms. Build it for yourself. And one way or another we do. Sometimes we don't live a very conscious life. But we're living life. I just think that, this time if anything, we have just grown vaguely uncomfortable in this life that seems so chaotic. But in our lives barely touches us. Essentially, we're taking in the world through the media. So it may feel more deadening, but it's less intense. If you had to confront it because the conditions of your life have just crumbled to dust and your beliefs can no longer be sustained, I bet you'd have more energy for it.
JAD: That's interesting. I'm with you on that one. There's a sort of a seduction to the idea of nihilism because in one version it can mean energetic, strong. It's like a revolution, it's saying 'NO' to something. There's something very powerful, intoxicating about that. But then there's different kind of nihilism that just goes: 'eh...' It's a sigh nihilism, versus a "ARRRH" nihilism. I guest that in an ambient sense is the nihilism I smell in the air.
BROOKE: I wonder if that's what you'd call it though. I think what you're sensing is actually apathy.
JAD: Yeah, that's another word for it.
BROOKE: Well that's cheerful
JAD: Wanna get a beer?
[Jad and Brooke laugh while gazing upon a yawning abyss]