living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Radiolab

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?


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.

Ultramarathon Running as Spiritual Practice

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tony-anton-krupicka-twin-peaksThere is a nearly naked man who runs up mountains. He does it for a living. Those who meet him in the high country often remark that encountering him was much like meeting Jesus. A nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, mountain running, fast, Jesus. His name is Anton Krupicka. He’s a self-trained, top-tier, ultra-marathon athlete, who lives in Boulder Colorado (as such people tend to do). Not too long ago I heard him comment on the idea of human limitation. As one who does a lot of thinking about limits, runs on a much more modest scale, and who also enjoys mountain based adventure, I’ve found myself coming back to his words often. You can hear it from his own mouth here, but what he said was this:

I’m not sure if anything is possible in life or in running, but I think that… I actually think that there are limits. But I don’t think that nearly anyone actually reaches their personal limit, be it physically or mentally, when it comes to endurance sport in the mountains. It’s mentally, that’s how we push ourselves is through our mind, and our bodies are so much stronger than we ever give ourselves credit for.*

It’s from words like this that we can understand the way that endurance running becomes “spiritual” for so many. If spirituality is thought of as essentially self-transcendence, then what Anton is on about here is an example of just that; the “self” that is transcended is the self-limited-self. (Doing this in the mountains doesn’t hurt much either, I’d add). As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve had Krupicka in conversation with Benedictine monk, Sebastian Moore. Moore extends and amplifies Krupicka’s thoughts on limits beyond physical endurance, but the same dynamics are in play. He also gives a provocative answer to the question of why, as Anton suggests, we never reach our personal limit. He says,

…we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.… We stay very near the known and the familiar. Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let This Mind Be in You, 127.)

Moore’s modest suggestion is that we never reach the limits of life because the limit is not simply “as fast or as far as one can physically run,” nor is it “the happiest we can possibly be,” or “the maximum pain threshold.” His insight is simple and radically reframing. The reason we never reach our limit is that our limit is death. One’s personal limit is therefore “running one’s self to death.” Understandably, then, we construct a “safer” world in which to live. We create our own self-limited-self.

Not only do most of us not run ultra-marathons, most of us don’t venture into the mountains at all… there’s bears and such out there, you know. And for that same reason most of us never experience the truly religious quality of 3,000 feet of open air between us and a turquoise alpine lake below (not to mention having a grizzly roar at you on its hind legs from 25 yards). But forget mountains for a moment. The same is true for life in general. As Ernest Becker so wonderfully made clear, society itself is, in part, the corporate construction of the self-limited-self. It gives us a limited set of roles to play, and a basic monitory system with which (if we work hard, etc) we can purchase security and leisure (Insurance policies, cars with air-bags, security systems, vacations, weekends, health-club memberships, and so on). Our fear of death, our terror of our own limits, creates an ego-organized-self and a communal system. In contrast to these self-protective dynamics we have these crazy people like Krupicka who radically chase after their own limits by embracing the risk of the chase.

I think also of Daniel Suelo who, as Mark Sundeen recounts in his biography, renounced the use of money after realizing that “Money perpetuated the fantasy of immortal earthly life, the illusion that we could determine the future.” (The Man Who Quit Money, 224.) These figures really are “crazy” in a sense. In their own way, they reject the “normal” self-limiting scheme that society creates for us. Their insanity reminds us that earthly safety is an illusion, and that the ‘happiness’ realized in the quest for it is a lie. In doing so, they reject the fear that drives the system by embracing the object of fear: the limits of life. Freed of its horror, the limits of life become something to be played with rather than attacked or repressed. That’s the radical paradox of all this. By embracing that from which our “normal” quest for happiness flees, the fullness of life is allowed to emerge. Just as Moore said, “To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit–which is death.”

This was a new insight for me… that the fullness of life might be thought of as a life freed to live all the way to the limit of life, death. It can be said another way: the fullness of life is possible only in freedom from all the infinite number of ways that we fear death. Sit for a moment and reflect on the innumerable ways that your own life is shaped by an attempt to stave off death. Really think about it; ponder the ways that each of those decisions limits you and separates you from “the dream of yourself” and from others. Now, picture nearly naked, funny-sunglasses-wearing, Jesus running amongst the peaks. He’s not someone else. He is you.

P.S. Don’t miss this recent mountain running film featuring Anton and produced by Joel Wolpert. *Incidentally, Radiolab recently had a delightful (as always) short on the relation of our minds to pain in runners.