Monday, October 24, 2011

A Null Dust

What is [nihilism]? We have our choice of a variety of definitions. For Nietzsche, nihilism signifies the abolition of all hitherto accepted measures and fundamental values. But that may be too broad to be useful. More to the point is the assertion that nihilism denies the existence of any distinct substantial self. This lack of self-substance makes all persons nugatory or insignificant. If we are insignificant, what does it matter what becomes of us? Still, those who are killed need not accept their definition from their killers or have their humanity taken from them as well as their lives. The burden of valuation is on the killer whose ground is nihilistic.

Let the country that committed the crimes bear the blame for them. The slain were not invited into Nothingness, they had it thrust upon them. We are free to withdraw (to withdraw our minds where we cannot withdraw our bodies) from situations in which our humanity or lack of it is defined for us. It was the judgment of the slayers that slaughter was permitted, that the slain had at best a trivial claim to existence based on an untenable fiction of inviolate selfhood. Theorists of euthanasia had long ago consented to the destruction of the unfit. Even mild vegetarian Fabians like G.B. Shaw (there were others) agreed that measures should be taken by a progressive society to rid itself of defective types. These socially and historically “progressive” reforms were applied in Central Europe by the Nazis with programmatic rigidity and also a kind of purgatorial irony to the Jews and other peoples judged superfluous. This is what causes me to speak of nihilism.

It would be a mistake on modern grounds to set aside as unimportant the age-long inclination of connecting the spiritual order in the universe with our own lives. In our pragmatic attitude toward the social order we leave no room for the influence of general beliefs on our own particular views of morality. In his recent short book Death of the Soul, the philosopher William Barrett offers a useful discussion of the consequences of the disappearance (the destruction, in fact) of the self. He examines critically Heidegger’s treatment of the human being. How, in Heidegger’s view, are we in the world? We ask of Heidegger, “Who is the being who is undergoing all these various modes of being? (Or, in more traditional language: Who is the subject, the I, that underlies or persists through all these various modes of our being?) And here Heidegger evades us.” “We are nothing,” he says, “but an aggregate of modes of being, and any organizing or unifying center we profess to find there is something we ourselves have forged or contrived.”
Thus there is a gaping hole at the center of our human being—at least as Heidegger describes this being. Consequently, we have in the end to acknowledge a certain desolate and empty quality about his thought, however we may admire the originality and novelty of its construction.
And Barrett asks, “How could a being without a center be really ethical?” He concludes:

[Heidegger] cannot be dismissed: that desolate and empty picture of being he gives us may be just the sense of being that is at work in our whole culture, and we are in his debt for having brought it to the surface. To get beyond him we shall have to live through that sense of being in order to reach the other side.
To this I should like to add that questions that can be closed by philosophic argument often remain open for art, and it is therefore a mistake for writers to accept the preeminence of the philosophers, and write poems, novels, and plays to illustrate, to confirm, to work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers. (Cartesians, Kantians, Hegelians, Bergsonians, Marxians, Freudians, Existentialists, Heideggerians, etc.) Neither the philosopher nor the scientist can tell the artist conclusively, definitively, what it is to be human.

* * *

For writers in the West and particularly in the US, it is almost too late to resolve the difficulties described above. Hardly anyone now is conscious of them. Writers seldom give any sign that they are aware of the degree of freedom they enjoy here. Their privilege is to be unrestrained in their destructiveness. They show by this that our giant America does not own them. They are very prickly about not being owned. But then nobody takes them very seriously either. To state the matter more clearly, they are not held to account for their opinions. These opinions are a null dust—weightless
What does this mean? Can it be said that in our dizziness we are annihilating even nihilism?

-- Saul Bellow, in The New York Review of Books

Pictured: A dust storm

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