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.
BROOKE: This seems to be 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 can probably work that one out; and epistemological nihilism: the belief that you can know nothing; and finally, ontological nihilism: the believe that nothing is real, so there's nothing to know. In the Matrix, Agent Smith embodies them all.
Agent Smith: 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.
BROOKE: The moral nihilist finds its fullest expression in Rorschach, a killer of killers in the comic book series "Watchmen." This installment of his story is called The Abyss Gazes Also, that's 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.”
Rorschach: 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?”
BROOKE 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…
Richard Hell (song):...I belong to the blank generation… Take it or leave it each time
BROOKE: Now, that was a far cry from the ecstatic Nihilism of the late 50s and early 60s, which was 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 further back into the post-war era, existentialism, which is pretty much existential nihilism, 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 the one that 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 a newspaper article 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. 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 like 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 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. 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."
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. Hey, 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. OK, 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 and the Russian novelist Turgenev, who popularized the word nihilism 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 really knew how to build an existential Nihilist when he wanted to.
Hamlet Tape: 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.
BROOKE: 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. Epicureans 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: Ohhhh, really? That's Nihilism in a place I wouldn't've expected. (Laughter)
BROOKE: So, I submit that as my Quad Erem Demonstrandum.
Jad: Oh, is it your contention that this means that nihilism is sort of a hum that goes through all times and not anything specific to this time?
BROOKE: Right. 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--I--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-- "F it" and 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, I think about...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 true nihilist has to have a lot of energy.
JAD: Yeah, that's true.
BROOKE: As I went through my exploration of it -- you know, you have 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 a life. I just think that, this time, if anything, we have just grown vaguely uncomfortable in this world 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 ever 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. Now I think 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 be an 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?
Song: "Pretty Vacant" by the Sex Pistols
BROOKE: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Kasia Mihaylovic ,Andrew Chugg, and Julia Shu. We had more help from Jesse Brenneman. And our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was David Grinbaum.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. And--hey, we have yet another new podcast for you: On House of Cards, a recap show. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.