This is the third of five posts which inquire into the metaphysical roots of our contemporary sickness: nihilism. My objective has been to unearth and map out, in outline at least, the hidden world assumed by words such as “identity,” “validation,” “happiness,” “terrorist,” “scientific,” “humanitarianism.” Whether I have succeeded even in part, I leave it for the reader to decide.
Together, the posts should be considered a running meditation on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. While the work is cited once – in the context of the scientific, “geometric point” perspective – it has leavened virtually every word in these reflections. I also owe a debt to George Weigel’s short piece, “Reality and Public Policy,” which drew my attention to the new Gnosticism and its implications.
From a detached perspective, our stance toward identity appears to be a march towards pure will. Our demand for uniqueness looks like a repudiation of history and its present consequences. Our call for separation and discontinuity from all who are not-us is a declaration of independence from reality, at least of the human kind. In the condition of pure will, we imagine ourselves rising above cause and effect. With the achievement of our star-like identities, we believe we have gained access to hidden knowledge – gnosis – that is more powerful than history or the natural world.
The Gnostics maintained that the world was false and corrupt, and the only truth was spirit. Not only did men not live from bread alone, but the needs of the body, our gross materiality, could and should be wholly subservient to the soul. For our part, we have come to think that the human world is false and corrupt, and the only possible reality lies within us. We are the good and the true, we are the kingdom and the power, and the tainted relations of the social order can and must dance to the tune of our will. That is our heresy. That is the background story to the revolt against the world.
When the demand for validation is met with silence, therefore, we never think to question our assumptions about the world. When our cry for happiness goes unheard, the experience has no effect on our metaphysical stance or our behavior. We do not doubt or question either the world or ourselves, because we already know. We have access to gnosis: and it tells us that the world is controlled by pure will. That is the nature of reality. If our willed identities, despite their unique refulgence, fail to produce happiness, it must be because other wills, not-us, corrupt and greedy and self-seeking, have taken possession of the social order and wield power to obscure truth and punish the good.
The world is a theater of degradation. We, though good and true, are the players on that wretched stage. Our eyes now open, we behold a system of human relations with which we can have no truck or compromise, if we wish to endure as vessels of subjective life. The world we gaze on in fear and loathing stares back with Gorgon’s eyes, petrifying will and identity into dead objects. Between such a world and us, we finally realize, there must be a state of total and remorseless war.
The humanitarian ideal only fuels the ferocity of our repudiation. We consider ourselves, in all humility, the embodiment of the ideal: the good and the true. We subscribe to all the right doctrines, and are liberated from spurious prejudices. Yet we have been thrust into a social order that degrades and objectifies when, in our expectation, it should applaud and personalize. Despite our merit, which we estimate to be very great, we are denied validation and happiness. The humanitarian impulse orbits around the identification of victims – and, by our reckoning, none have been more severely victimized than us. Humanitarianism in this way gets swallowed by identity. We feel powerful waves of pity and sympathy toward the most deserving of victims, ourselves, and commensurate spasms of rage aimed against the victimizer – the system, society, reality.
The political order responds with programmed benevolence and numerical notions of welfare. That we dismiss, angrily though not unjustly, as an attempt to buy us off on the cheap.
The stance we have taken toward personal identity has collided – must collide – with the stance we have taken toward nature and society, and we are hurled down from the mountain-top, shattered in spirit. The world around us is false and dead. The social order bends to the will of faceless and heartless phantoms. Everyday life is a process of absorption and participation in a repulsive lie. Nothing is as we imagined. Nothing remains of our great expectations.
What is to be done?
When being in the world is intolerable, the logical way out is not-being: the destruction of ourselves or of the world. A growing number have chosen self-destruction. Few questions illustrate more starkly our inability to speak about the inner life than this dismal trend in suicides. The experts, abstracted to a geometric point, use words that denote vague impersonal categories, like “depression,” “substance abuse,” “personality disorder,” “traumatic experience.” Such verbiage leads nowhere. The experts are unable to explain why ever more people are willing to abort their lives.
Suicide is the ultimate crisis of identity. When we contemplate obliteration, we are not thinking in medical or sociological terms: we are in the grip of an overmastering feeling. We are experiencing a rupture, like a horrific wound, between our inner life and the demands of a false and alien world. Placing blame is beside the point. Self-loathing is just the flip side of the vast stores of admiration and pity we hold for the ruined glories of our inner selves. “I think I simply love people too much,” wrote Kurt Cobain in his suicide note. The horror is less that we have failed the world, but that the world has failed us. We loved too much. We aimed too high. If, as is likely to happen, we have detached ourselves from history, convention, religion, and all who are not-us, then we will come to the moment of crisis in a darkened theater, in absolute silence, alone.
We have wandered too far into the wilderness for God or humanity to make sense of us – to redeem us. We have only pure will. The assertion of will against the world, conducted in silence and solitude, ourselves within ourselves, must end, irredeemably, with our ending.
Most of us choose to live on. The great majority abides by the logic of our present predicament, externalizing the impulse to violence. We hate the world. We feel at war with the social order, and exult in the dream of its destruction. That overturning we envision in the manner of an exorcism, a casting out of demons and phantoms. We add nothing to the mix. No new philosophy or organizing principle need be put in place of what is destroyed. We share a simple faith that it would be the highest form of progress if history committed suicide.
Our personal orientation is still toward identity. We scatter to our private islands of being, and there absorb the hidden knowledge of things, that the world is false, and reality is willed. But we no longer expect validation or happiness. Other wills, not-us, stand in the way. Other wills compel our will, and if the world is degradation, it is also true that the world is us. We long for purification: for a blank slate, a nothingness. Our moral orientation is toward nihilism.
In a certain sense, we are all nihilists now. Among many the condition is latent. We move uneasily through the world, in full remission, undiscovered, until some toxic corner of the environment eats away the mask and unleashes the hurt and the hate. Then repudiation flows outward, from the core of our being, like a cleansing fire – against government tyranny, against the rich who control government, against Christian bigots, against anti-religious social warriors, against patriarchy and against political correctness, against racists and racial panderers, against the politicians, the media, the financial system, the universities, the know-nothings, the people and the institutions that have flung us down from the mountain-top, and objectified us, and diminished us. Nothing standing is left untouched.
We are the children of negation. Like the “anti-matter” of particle physics, we exist to nullify. We are, in a partial list, anti-institution, anti-ideology, anti-history, anti-not-us. We wish to wipe the world clean of these base things, and start again from nothing. To do so would erase most of the elements that composed us, we are vaguely aware of that, but on the occasion we recall that the world has failed its promise, and that we have loved too much, and we remain captivated by the dream of destruction. Negation takes the place of happiness. It takes the place of righteousness – the compass by which we orient ourselves toward the good.
It is also the last unifying principle. Some time ago we abandoned the old conventional meeting-places: nation-state, government, market, church, even family. Now we gather only to protest. We find common ground only in the generalized impulse to smash at the standing structures of the world. What we are for is uncertain. Whatever we claim to advocate will be a source of mutual distrust and dispute. But we are pulled together, tightly, fervently, against. The enemy is always present: the world that refuses to validate our existence, and a social order that has relegated us to nullity.
We have witnessed “opinion cascades” – virtual Niagaras of negation – that propelled hundreds of thousands, even millions, to revolt against the social and political order. Tremendous energies are released by these in-gathering moments. Each resembles a tsunami that sweeps over the human landscape, twisting and breaking everything in sight. Whole nations have perished in the nihilistic frenzy of the Levant. Humanitarianism is no longer even a platitude there, identity is the cause of wars of extermination, and the cascade, first an aggregation of will, is now a torrent of blood and death.
In the circle of democratic societies, the same forces have toppled elected governments, pulled political parties apart, and raised exotic, coarse-spirited figures to power. The turmoil reflects a fundamental contradiction between our stance toward identity and the principle of representative democracy. We imagine ourselves to be transcendentally unique creatures: solitary stars in the firmament of being. But uniqueness cannot be transferred or alienated. We are, in our essence, unrepresentable. The metaphysical premises of the electorate collide with the requirements of democracy as actually practiced in large nation-states. This is not viable, even for the short term. We stand, with regard to democracy, on the edge of a precipice, lured forward by Gnostic illusions.
Whatever the outcome, we will be dissatisfied. We remain trapped in the claustrophobic spaces between us and not-us, for an obvious reason. Negation is not, and can never be, liberation. Destruction makes an emptiness rather than a way forward. Once the spasm of repudiation is spent, we are still stuck in the muck. We lack a shared project of life. We lack direction: a way of becoming.
In the depths of the frozen river of pure will, we dream of power and destruction, of gnosis and happiness – “till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
Some – a chosen few – leap into the void of true nihilism. These exalted spirits perpetrate famous crimes in every corner of the globe. Their bloody deeds are constantly before our eyes. The Islamist who self-detonates in a pizza parlor, the shooter of children at an elementary school – such horrors appear equally impossible to explain and to escape. To commit them demands the obliteration of every social bond and fellow-feeling that entangles us with not-us. The true nihilist has no place in the world. He stands outside humanity. He lives for death.
What is he, then?
An earlier age would not have hesitated to call him barbarian. We prefer political terms like “terrorist,” or psychological labels like “sociopath.” But we should consider the nihilist a premonition. A theorist of revolutions, a Lenin, would discern in his type the vanguard of a terrible future.
The nihilist is the logical conclusion of the process of negation. He has reached the spot toward which so many of us are headed. He, too, is in the grip of an overmastering feeling, like his self-destructive brethren, whom he typically joins. The feeling that agitates him is a powerful sense of his superiority to the world and other people. He dwells in a Gnostic universe, in which he is pure of spirit, and all things not-him are foul.
The rub of the world on his flesh therefore torments him. The selfishness of humanity nauseates him. The gathering darkness, inside and out, leave him no choice but to embark on a final solution – an act of personal deliverance and world-historical retribution. He must kill, and he must die.
The certainty of being compelled – “triggered,” as one prolific killer phrased it – protects the nihilist from any sense of responsibility. In the midst of death and carnage, he feels as innocent as a lamb. Guilt for his crimes must fall on the social order: he is merely the instrument of justice. Osama bin Laden, a precursor of the type, chortled and giggled without restraint, as he told the story of how he had learned that the blood of thousands was on his hands.
The true nihilist today is more earnest. He disgorges judgments by the ton. These are mawkish and abstract, a rhetoric disconnected in tone, logic, and sense of proportion from the violence, yet bearing an uncanny resemblance to our own negations. In the nihilist’s bloodstained vision of the world we discern a familiar landscape. His clamors de profundis recall our everyday repudiations. We, too, believe that the world has failed, and the social order must be smashed. We, too, exist in an airless coffin of pure will, and with every shudder dream of destruction. The nihilist, that twitching marionette, is a flawless image of us, in a more advanced stage of moral decomposition.
The blind impulse to destroy has already risen to power in certain places of the Middle East. Men who “love death” have conquered a howling chaos, and translated the social contract into mass murder. It seems impossible that such a catastrophe will overtake the enlightened nations where we live, because we love life too much, and are such devout humanitarians. But we have exhausted our spiritual force on identity: we can really only love ourselves. Life that is not-us we treat instrumentally, indifferently, as props in the drama of personal happiness.
And the nihilist, with his cult of death, considers himself to be the greatest and most sincere of humanitarians. All his crimes are perfect justice. He looks on the world, abode of lies, and by some dark inversion is able to say, “It’s your fault I killed.”