Nihilism is a declaration of meaninglessness, a sense of indifference, directionlessness or, at its worst, despair that can flood into all areas of life. For some this is the defining experience of youth – witness the deaths of numerous young romantics, whether Keats, Shelley, Sid Vicious or Kurt Cobain; and their numbers continue to multiply – for others it lasts a whole lifetime.
“Nihilist” was originally a term of abuse. Dictionaries from the early 19th century, when the word first came into use, define a nihilist as “one who is politically impartial” and “good-for-nothing,” while Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s dictionary of neologisms, published in 1801, states: “Nihilist or nothingist (riennist): one who doesn’t believe in anything.”
“Nihilist” became a catchall term for young, disillusioned intellectuals whose thoughts and actions were generally regarded as worthless. Their impact on the world around them was, in effect, nothing.
Over time, as nihilist sentiment began to develop and expand, people came to accept nihilism as a real and unavoidable phenomenon. The contempt with which it was once treated gradually gave way to an earnest recognition as people began to realize they were not dealing with nothing, but the far more troubling concept of nothingness. No longer attempting to ignore or combat it, people sought to conquer and transcend nihilism. The movement became not against but beyond nihilism, and the impetus began with Nietzsche.
Commonly misidentified as a nihilist himself, Nietzsche was the first to treat the subject as a serious philosophical matter. He recognized the fires of nihilism burning across swaths of Europe as the result of collapsing traditional morals and values. God – long regarded the source of absolutes – was dead, concluded Nietzsche. Dead in the sense that traditional religion no longer held sway over modern culture. In the absence of absolute values, a vacuum had been created and, for a time, it would seem that nothing existed … nothing was real.
For Nietzsche, though, this nothingness was temporary – a momentary void out of which history was meant to give birth to something entirely new. He saw the collapse of absolute values as the opportunity to reexamine our fundamental truths, to retool our systems to better fit our world.
Around the same time, Russians were embracing the term “nihilist” differently than their European counterparts. The word began to shed its pejorative overtones in the 1860s, following the publication of Tugenev’s Fathers and Sons. Bazarov, the novel’s hero, was long seen as the prototype of “the nihilist.” Turgenev’s definition, voiced through his protagonist, has become a classic: “A nihilist is someone who bows to no authority, who accepts no principle at face value, no matter in how much respect that principle may be held.” The definition is offered proudly. “Nihilist” is not a term of abuse for Bazarov, but one of honor: “Few,” he says, are chosen for the “bitter, hard life.” When an opponent asks him, “You deny everything?” He replies emphatically, “Everything.” “And that is called nihilism?” “And that is called nihilism.”
Adapted from Nihilism and Culture by Johan Goudsblom
FEMME DANS UN FAUTEUIL. BUSTE, 1962
The unprecedented slaughter of more than 15 million soldiers during the First World War ushered in a nihlistic moment in Western society. It also provoked the anti-art movement known as Dada, whose members believed that modernization and mechanization had made the war’s high death toll possible. Their response was to create an anti-rational, anti-bourgeois, anti-technological form of art, one that embraced absurdity, intuition, paradox and play. Dadaists produced actions, performances, nonsense texts and installations composed of found objects, which all challenged accepted notions of art. All expressed a nihilistic philosophy.
Marcel Duchamp was the most influential of the Dadaists. A groundbreaker in kinetic, found and conceptual art, Duchamp made his last painting on canvas, Tu m’, in 1918. In 1923, he finished what looked like his last mixed-media art work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Exemplifying the nihilistic hopelessness of art production, he gave himself over to chess, becoming a chess grand master, a chess journalist and a composer of endgame problems and strategies. “Chess,” he said, “is much purer than art.”
The horrors of the Second World War, especially the Jewish Holocaust and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompted another existential crisis among artists. It seemed impossible that “civilized” society was capable of committing the vast atrocities that were revealed when the Nazi death camps were opened at the end of the war. It was equally incomprehensible that humankind could possess a technology capable of destroying all life on earth. In the postwar years, artists often expressed horrified anxiety at the prospect of nuclear Armageddon.
As happened after WWI, artists rejected the mechanistic, the rational and the geometric, although it would take a while before neo-Dadaist absurdity and anti-art strategies reasserted themselves. Abstract expressionist painters adopted a form of mark making that was intuitive, impulsive and organic. Designers embraced organic or biomorphic forms, aligning themselves with the natural world rather than with the more problematic realm of the machine. Photographers published images of atomic explosions, and the mushroom cloud became the signature motif of the age.
WEIMAR, GERMANY, APRIL 24, 1945
US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Recognized as Marcel Duchamp’s creative heir, Andy Warhol revealed the moral and intellectual void at the heart of American culture. His art’s repetitive imagery reflected the spirit-numbing effects of advertising and consumerism, as well as the image bombardment of mass media. He used the same repetitive and uninflected techniques to depict Campbell’s soup cans, electric chairs, movie stars, race riots, dollar signs and the face of Chairman Mao, demonstrating that everything can be reproduced and commodified. At the same time he cultivated a null media persona – emptied of any moral or emotional tone.
Warhol’s nihilistic register of overconsumption, mass marketing, image bombardment, greed and celebrity worship set the tone for the postmodern art of our age. Although some contemporary artists condemn the conditions that have brought us to the brink of another apocalypse – global environmental collapse – others, like Warhol, adopt their glossy, glitzy, consumerist strategies.
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Liaison
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Until now nihilism has been a theory, an abstraction ... the dark muse of poetry, philosophy and art. But now we are confronted with a nihilistic moment that neither Turgenev nor Nietzsche could have prophesied: a global meltdown wrought by wars – on terror, on planet, on self. We are confronted with the moment when this experiment of ours on Planet Earth meets its spectacular and terrifying end, when civilization reaches its summit and begins to tumble into permanent decline. This new breed of nihilism – call it eco-nihilism, psycho-nihilism, apocalypto-nihilism – falls far beyond the bounds of the deeply personal loss of meaning Nietzsche warned of. This new kind of nihilism degrades our very cosmic fiber, consuming not only our psyche, but the planet itself. And for this new, collective brand of nihilism, no philosophy has ever been written, no remedy ever prescribed.
Is it too late now to write the philosophy and find the remedy?84Article