It always has, and always will, confuse me as to why Nihilists get such a bad rap. Obviously there isn’t one thing that you, or I do, on a daily basis that has any meaning at all. Our lives mean nothing. Yet we all strut around, getting drunk, fucking, and freaking out about what kind of car we drive, how much money we have, or how cool our phones are.
Quite pathetic really. Nihilism is where it is at. I spoke to John Marmysz, author and professor of Philosophy at College of Marin, about how there is no point to your existence, none at all.
It seems to me that it’s rather obvious that our lives have no real meaning or value. We all die and what we do here on Earth means nothing. Why do you think that bugs people out so much?
I think you’ve put your finger on one of the central issues of concern to nihilists: human finitude. If, as Nietzsche proclaimed, “God is dead,” then our life on this planet is all that there is. And if our life on this planet is all that there is, then there is no heavenly reward, nor is there any hellish punishment, when you die. And we all die. So what is the point of it all?
If you think of meaning or value as something that exists objectively, “out there” in the world independent of human thought, the nihilist claims that you are out of luck. Objective truth, meaning and value are illusions; mental projections that we reify and then imagine to be separate and independent of us. Thus, according to the nihilist, values, meaning, morality, and truth itself are all tied to the human perspective; and if they are tied to the human perspective, then like humans they are impermanent and fleeting. When we die, they die with us.
However, for most people, “real” things can’t be fleeting, impermanent or transitory. They have to be stable, permanent, and unchanging. Think about how people talk about “true” love, for instance. A “true” love is one that doesn’t change from day to day. It is one that lasts forever. So when nihilists reject the objective existence of absolutes, they are undermining the very ground upon which many people base their lives, loves, and hopes about the world. To claim that values and meaning are human created projections endangers confidence in the highest, most holy ideals and, so the critics claim, puts us on a dangerous road to relativism, which in turn can lead to atrocity, immorality, and emptiness. This, I think, is what really bugs people out. They worry, as Dostoevsky suggests, that if God is dead, then anything is permitted.
I have to say, it was hard for me to find a Nihilist to interview for this piece. Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved in this philosophy?
It doesn’t surprise me that you’ve had difficultly finding a self-proclaimed nihilist to interview. The term “nihilism,” which literally means “a doctrine of nothingness,” traditionally has been used as a term of criticism or even derision. It’s usually intended as an insult rather than as a badge of pride. This unfavorable usage originated with attacks against Kantian philosophy in the 18th Century. Because Kant denied the possibility of anything but subjective knowledge of reality, his critics complained that he had reduced the objective world to nothing. Thus, he was a nihilist; and that was not supposed to be a good thing! The negative connotations of the term were only amplified when Russian revolutionaries in the 19th Century adopted it as a name for their own movement, which actively pursued political violence through bombings, assassinations, and general mayhem. Today, the term is probably most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher who also is viewed in a negative light by many folks because of his unwitting influence on the Nazis.
I have to admit that all of this negative press is partially responsible for my interest in nihilism. It was when I was a teenager that I first heard the word, and the very sound of it resonated with a kind of mysterious danger that I found alluring. Couple this with the fact that the music I listened to and the books and movies I consumed were often condemned by mainstream media critics for peddling “nihilistic” messages and it was perhaps inevitable that I was drawn to explore this dark area of philosophy. I guess my thinking was that if the art I like truly is nihilistic (as the critics claimed), then there must be something nihilistic about me.
In high school, I read Stanley Rosen’s Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay and understood almost none of it! However, one thing that the book did teach me is that nihilism is a much more complicated issue than most critics make it out to be. It is a world-view that cannot easily be dismissed with an arrogant and condescending wave of the hand. As I explored the philosophy further, I progressively became more and more clear about how correctly it describes my own experiences in the world.
Through my late teens and twenties, I continued to develop my understanding of nihilism while singing in a punk rock band, participating in underground publishing, serving in the Army, and studying philosophy. Eventually, I earned my Ph.D. and wrote a dissertation on the topic that was published as Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism. In a sense I guess you could say that my entire life so far has been an attempt to articulate what nihilism is and why I am proud to call myself a nihilist.
This might be a tad simplistic, but why do you think people care about things that mean absolutely nothing all the time? Why do you think people allow Gods, jobs, leaders, and politicians to have so much power?
I think that traditional values, religion and the conventions of society comprise a kind of herd ideology that is very attractive for those who have no desire or inclination to get drawn into the endlessly deep pit of individual philosophical thought. Most people are probably more concerned with being happy than they are with confronting difficult truths, and so in order to reduce the amount of friction in their lives they buy into the ready-made systems that are a part of mainstream culture. By worshiping the right God, working hard at the right job, supporting the right politicians, wearing the right clothes, driving the right kind of car and watching the right kinds of TV shows, people come to feel that they have a role to play in the system and that the world has a purpose. Everything makes sense. Everything is in its place. It is clear what is right and what is wrong. And this makes people comfortable and happy.
But ready-made herd ideologies don’t come from nowhere. They have to be developed and built up over time by concrete human beings who, bit by bit, collect together and consolidate their beliefs into systems of values, norms and expectations. These systems eventually become solidified into the sorts of cultural and societal “truths” that are taught in schools, preached in the pulpit, and voted into law. People eventually forget that none of these “truths” are actually inscribed in nature, and so when someone like a pesky nihilist comes along and questions the value of the “system,” or starts to demand some sort of justification for religious belief, or starts to propose alternative views on reality, people feel threatened, and in consequence the herd they are a part of becomes defensive.
The defensiveness of the herd often results in the persecution – and sometimes in the execution – of free-thinking, individual philosophers. Its been going on for thousands of years, from Socrates to Snowden. Most people, no matter what the time period, prefer comfortable illusions to difficult realities since such illusions offer a stable bulwark against the world’s chaos and absurdity.
Most people think that Nihilists are out to destroy, and don’t care about life, that to be a Nihilist means that one is angry in a certain sense. Personally the fact that I believe in nothing makes me feel at peace with things and makes me calm. Can you shed some light on that thought process?
In my view, it is the people who believe in objective absolutes that have done the most damage to the world. They are the ones who have the arrogance to believe that the imperfect nature of our world can somehow be repaired, and that they are wise enough to know exactly how to do so. Historically, they are the ones who have been the most willing to kill, maim and torture in the name of ideals that they think are universal and absolute.
While there is nothing in nihilism that prevents apathy or destruction or anger, neither is there anything in it that necessitates these things. Nietzsche makes a distinction between active and passive forms of nihilism. The active nihilist is one who strikes out at the void, rebelling against the meaningless of the universe. This can sometimes culminate in angry violence and destruction. The passive nihilist, on the other hand, withdraws from the world, seeing action as pointless, useless. This can sometimes culminate in apathy or despair. However, active nihilism can also result in bursts of artistic creativity, acts of charity, or pure adventure. If one feels released from the bonds of absolutes – if anything is permitted – liberation and a sense of freedom might be the result. Indeed, even passive nihilism may have a positive side, as it can result in the promotion of modesty and the dismantling of human arrogance. By highlighting our finitude, it can remind us that in the grand scheme of things we are not that important, thus encouraging us not to overestimate our place in the universe.
I agree with the philosopher Martin Heidegger who stated that in its essence, there is nothing negative about nihilism. It is a perspective that can potentially lead to all sorts of consequences – both positive and negative – just like any other philosophy.
You just wrote a book called The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel. Can you tell us a little about that?
The Nihilist is my first novel. It deals with all of the themes we’ve been discussing in this interview, representing my attempt to convey the lived experience of nihilism through dramatic narrative rather than through straight-forward philosophical argument. In a way, my intention in writing it was to create something like a modern, nihilistic myth.
The story focuses on a philosophy professor who, after the death of his mother, finds himself becoming obsessed with the issue of human finitude and the futility of existence. His desperate, mental reflections juxtapose his adult experiences as a professor, who is a part of the “system,” with his youthful experiences as a punk rocker, who was a rebellious enemy of the “system.” Over the course of the story, his closest friends succumb to increasingly bizarre diseases until he himself is afflicted with a mysterious condition that symbolizes the absurd nature of his life and thought.
I constructed the novel so that it begins in a mood of desperate realism and then eventually builds to a crescendo of surreal absurdity. Philosophically, the whole book is an exercise in the depiction of nihilism, while aesthetically it draws inspiration from sources as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, and Virginie Despentes’ Baise Moi.
Hopefully it doesn’t suck!
Buy The Nihilist here.
Brian Whitney Wrote Raping the Gods