Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Crisis of Nihilism

The events of last week have me thinking again about our current situation and how it relates to and was foretold by people in the past. I'll begin with an aside that really isn't an aside and actually gets to the heart of the matter. Of all the gazillions of words written about the terrorist attacks in Belgium last week, no one seems to have considered the fact that they occurred in the week leading up to the holiest day in the Christian calendar. On Thursday--Holy Thursday--a Muslim man in Scotland was murdered by another Muslim man for wishing his Christian friends a Happy Easter. And on Friday--Good Friday--people from ISIS crucified a Catholic priest in Yemen. It's a strange world we live in when only Muslims know what Easter is or attach any significance to it.

* * *

The artist is of course a canary in the coal mine of human society. He or she foresees and foretells. It may not be entirely accurate to call the artist's foretelling "prediction." Nonetheless, we can extract predictions from the artist's work. As Peter Viereck in his book Conservatism (1956) pointed out, even the extreme conservative--the reactionary--"may become in his art the most profound psychologist, the most sensitive moralist." (p. 17) Contrast this with the leftist or progressive who, with his grand, abstruse, and Utopian theorizing about the world, is blind to human nature and consequently very poor at making predictions.

So what does all that have to do with the terrorist attacks in Belgium and the larger European problem of today? Just follow the trail of the artist.

* * *

I have been going to a discussion group about weird fiction, and in our second meeting, we talked about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Among the works we discussed is the poem "The Conqueror Worm," from 1843:

The Conqueror Worm
by Edgar Allan Poe

Lo! 't is a gala night
   Within the lonesome latter years!   
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
   In veils, and drowned in tears,   
Sit in a theatre, to see
   A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully   
   The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,   
   Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly--
   Mere puppets they, who come and go   
At bidding of vast formless things
   That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
   Invisible Wo!

That motley drama--oh, be sure   
   It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore   
   By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in   
   To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,   
   And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
   A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out   
   The scenic solitude!
It writhes!--it writhes!--with mortal pangs   
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
   In human gore imbued.

Out--out are the lights--out all!   
   And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
   Comes down with the rush of a storm,   
While the angels, all pallid and wan,   
   Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"  
   And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

The metaphor of human existence as an absurd drama or performance made me think of a similar poem from a century later:

The End of the World
by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing--nothing at all. (1)

That same idea leads back to Shakespeare (1564-1616):

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 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.

from Macbeth (1611)

Note the recurring words and imagery, for example, "Out--out are the lights--out all!" from Poe and "Out, out, brief candle!" from Shakespeare. (2) More to the point: "There in the sudden blackness the black pall/Of nothing, nothing, nothing--nothing at all" from MacLeish and "It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing" from Shakespeare. Hold on to that word, nothing.

* * *

I don't see predictions in these works so much as descriptions or views of the human condition or predicament. Here are a couple of quotes (both from conservatives, by the way) that, taken together, get at the same ideas as in the preceding works:

"Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament."
George Santayana (1863-1952)

"Life is a predicament which precedes death."
Henry James (1843-1916)

Note that these two men describe life as a predicament rather than an absurdity or that it means nothing at all, suggesting that there is still some cause for hope.

* * *

So if Poe, MacLeish, and Shakespeare weren't exactly making predictions, can we find an artist who did? Yes, easily enough. Dostoevsky was one of course, but I came here to talk about Nietzsche (1844-1900), who predicted not only the catastrophes of the twentieth century, but also the crisis in which we now find ourselves. And not only did he predict it, he accurately foresaw it for our time.

I am not a philosopher and have barely studied philosophy. Although I have read some philosophical works, I haven't read deeply into the thought of any particular philosopher. (3) And it has been only within the past week that I have encountered Nietzsche's prediction of what is called a crisis of nihilism. But if we aren't currently in such a crisis, I don't know how better to describe our situation.

* * *

This morning, as I began writing, I also began playing music by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), who was born into the old Europe and died in a new one. He witnessed firsthand the catastrophe of the Great War (and wrote Le tombeau de Couperin in remembrance of some of the men killed). Neither he nor any of the men or women of his generation could easily have foreseen what would become of Europe, a place that is now pretty thoroughly demoralized, de-Christianized, and completely lacking in self-confidence and vigor. Filled instead with ennui and self-loathing, Europeans have ceased reproducing themselves or defending themselves against outside threats. They are essentially atheists, socialists, materialists, and hedonists, but without any great passion or conviction. When they are attacked by people who are not lacking in passion or conviction, they respond with candles, flowers, and songs rather than resolve or righteous vengeance. They speak of the "tragedy" of their countrymen's deaths, as if an accident has occurred or a natural disaster has struck. They stand in so-called "solidarity" with the dead, as if such a thing were a possibility rather than an absurdity. They fail to name the enemy. Worse yet, they excuse the enemy, essentially saying that Western civilization deserves what it gets from the terrorists. Another thing they do is play or sing the song "Imagine" by John Lennon (1940-1980). Here are the lyrics:

Imagine
by John Lennon
(1971)

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today . . .

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace . . .

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world . . .

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Europe is living the lyrics of "Imagine," which are of course Utopian (and because they are Utopian, they are also necessarily Dystopian). In Europe today, "there's no heaven" because its people have given up on belief in God. There are also "no countries" because they have given up on the ideas of nationhood, national sovereignty, national identity, and national borders. Additionally, Europeans live only "for today" because, being leftists, they have severed themselves from the past, while at the same time severing themselves from the future by throwing away family and the bearing and rearing of children. (4) And--although there are still possessions--private property, personal striving and attainment, and personal freedoms are diminished because of the European embrace of socialism. (Prudhon, one of the heroes of European intellectualism, proclaimed after all, "Property is theft!") In his lyrics, though, John Lennon used a word we have seen before, i.e., nothing:

"Nothing to kill or die for"

That makes me wonder: Is that a commutative expression? Does "nothing to kill or die for" equal "to kill or die"--and by implication, also to live--"for nothing"? It seems to me that Europeans have lost their will to live. They seem to have given up on the idea of there being any significance or meaning in life. In other words, they are deep into a crisis of nihilism, as Nietzsche so accurately predicted. And not only have they lost the will to live, they have lost their instinct for survival. Like Colette de Montpellier in The Day of the Jackal, they have welcomed into their homes the people who will do what they seemingly hope to be done. Proper nihilists that they are, they have invited in their own murderers.

Notes
(1) I haven't been able to find the date of publication of "The End of the World." By the way, MacLeish was not a conservative, although I doubt that he would find much in common with what are today called liberals or progressives.
(2) I sensed in our discussion group how much of Shakespeare there is in Poe. That would make a worthwhile research project.
(3) I have read Camus more than any other. In "The Myth of Sisyphus," Camus asked the question, Is life worth living? His answer was yes. I suppose the nihilist would struggle over that question and likely answer no.
(4) Angela Merkel, for instance, does not have any children and thus has nothing personal at stake in the future of her country. What does she care if it is overrun by non-Europeans? Those weren't her daughters being raped in Cologne at the start of the New Year.

"The Triumph of Death" by  Pieter Breughel the Elder (b. 1526 to 1530; d. 1569).

"The End of the World" José Gutiérrez Solana (1886-1945).

Copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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