living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Radiolab, “In the Dust of this Planet,” and Glenn Beck: Nihilism to Love

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True to style, Radiolab recently produced an especially stellar episode on the obscure topic of nihilism (the view that life has no meaning or purpose). And apparently, they did such a good job with it that Glenn Beck picked it up and did an episode of his own on the matter. Beck thinks that Radiolab is endorsing nihilism (and also that they are a part of a progressive movement to seed the public mind, apparently). In thinking this, Beck entirely misses the real thrust of Radiolab’s episode, which is a shame because he could likely benefit from a bit more “nihilism.” Allow me to explain.

The Paradox of Serious Nihilistic Denial

My own work centers on the classical insight that the fulfillment of life comes only after a certain kind of death (e.g. Mt. 16:25, Mk. 10:42-45). This entire blog, is one long meditation on this single monumental truth. So when I heard this episode by Radiolab, I could hardly stay in my seat. “They’re on to it!”, I shouted to my somewhat startled wife as we were cruising down the interstate. “On to what?”, she asked. “This is what I’m writing my dissertation on!”

Here I must clarify. I’m not writing my dissertation on nihilism. But then again, Radiolab’s episode was not really on nihilism either. Their episode was on the draw of nihilism, and that ends up pointing to something much larger. They noticed a trend in popular culture to valorize nihilism. Specifically, they noticed how the cover of Eugene Thacker’s philosophy text In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 had made its way into popular culture (appearing on tee-shirts and even inspiring a character on the program True Detective). The question (because Radiolab is always about the question) was: why?

RadioBeck

In seeking to answer this Simon Critchley suggested that nihilism is as old as human history itself. Jad went on to explain that you’ll see it crop up whenever social structures begin to come undone, either by cultural decay, natural disasters, or war. He points to Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons” as the moment the term nihilism was coined. In that novel the son turns to the father and says “We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful thing we can do is repudiate. And so we repudiate everything.” The father says, “Everything?” “Everything… with indescribable composure.” In our time, all we need to do is turn on the news and we are bombarded with what seems to be a nameless evil that continues to emerge from both without and from within our own culture. It makes sense, then, that this urge to repudiate should manifest yet again. But when asked if there was something more potent about it in our own time, Critchley said, without hesitation, “yes.”

Recounting a class he taught with Eugene Thacker on mysticism, he tells of how in the fourth century AD, there was a movement in which people began to leave the great city of Alexandria for the desert. Influenced by a Neo-Platonic philosophy (and its suspicion of material reality) and a desire to encounter the pure love of Christ, these people fled the seat of all culture and learning of their day for the desolation of the Egyptian desert where they engaged in ascetic activities of self-renunciation and prayer. They wanted a love that was pure, and so they left what they deemed was evil in the world and sought to purge the evil within themselves in the solitude of the desert. What struck Critchley was that the students were deeply captivated by this image in a way that undergraduates are not typically prone to be captivated. Something in these strange mystics and their practices of solitude and bodily mortification in an attempt to free their capacity for love was hitting them in a very deep place.

Notice this: We are not talking about nihilism anymore. We are talking about forms of denial and about forms of criticism, but this is not nihilistic denial. Nihilistic denial must deny even the seriousness of its own denial, but these mystics denied and criticized the world and themselves out of a yearning for a goodness and truth the surpassed the world’s (or their own) ability to fathom. They recognized that even the very best human goods are ambiguous. As Thomas Merton said, “The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.” Thus, even the very best in human culture is open to criticism.

Negative Theology: Denial and the Transcendent Good

Again, this is not nihilism. This is what theology calls apophatic, or “negative” theology. Negative theology speaks of God, the ultimate good (Goodness itself), by way of negating the elements of creaturely goods that fail to rise to the level of the ultimate good. For example, we know that justice is good. But we do not know what perfect justice looks like. We only know what human justice looks like. Thus by way of the apophatic method we would seek to get closer to speaking of perfect justice by negating all the ways human justice fails to rise to the level of perfect justice. This way of thinking is thus critical of all human attempts to say positively what perfect justice is, but it is not nihilism. It is the denial that any human (ourselves included) have a positive and adequate concept for our longings for perfect truth, goodness, and fulfillment. There is a pull within us that we can hear calling our name, but though we have names for it (fulfillment, justice, salvation, etc), we do not know its essence (a classic source for this style of theology is Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced almost all Western theology. Check out a marvelous passage of his here).

Rationalized Consciousness Sees the Apophtic as Nihilistic

Now, to the one who is convinced that they do have a positive and adequate concept for this deep goodness, apophatic criticism cannot be distinguished from nihilism. To their minds, their own concept is not open to criticism. They are convinced that they have the answer, thus any criticism is deemed not faithfulness to a transcendent good, but instead a merely corrosive attack. Beck seems rather obviously in this place. At the end of his episode he says “As this world devolves into chaos and depravity, people are searching for meaning. We have to provide them with truth on every platform possible.”

For him the matter is straightforward. “We” (as opposed to “the progressives”) have the truth and what is needed is simply to distribute it.

The Paradox Beyond the Alternatives

The desert mystics would see such truth, in spite of its divine claim, as being all too human. It is too bound up in the city and the world that they had abandoned. It represents the prison bars behind which eternal love lives, longing to be freed. This is why Christ was such a powerful figure for them. Not because, as Beck thinks, he came to impart an adequate concept of goodness, but because Christ, in a single move, exposed the evil of the world and a love beyond understanding by completely giving himself away. In this act, the ultimate nihilism and the ultimate meaning are one.

UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been pressed on they way (in a previous draft) I affirmed Simon Critchley’s suggestion that nihilism goes all the way back. “Nihilism is a modern problem,” said my critic. I think that’s probably right. The examples the Critchley sites as nihilism prior to the modern era are in fact being conflated with other forms of criticism, including the apophatic criticism that I discussed in this paper. Thanks for the push-back, unnamed interlocutor.

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