The Politics of Cultural Despair

Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair is a study that attempts to understand Nazism as a product of Germany’s unique cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the decades before the rise of Hitler. It was originally written as a doctoral dissertation (later to be published as a book in 1961), and focuses on three key intellectual figures who influenced the development of Germanic ideology: Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These three figures were social critics, diagnosing the decline of culture and presenting themselves as prophets of a new German spiritual rebirth.   In the Introduction, Stern describes his book as “a study in the pathology of cultural criticism” (p. 1), suggesting that these prophets of doom were simultaneously symptoms of their times as well as dangerous, pathological causes of Germany’s ill-fated drift toward Nazism.

Stern’s book is an engrossing analysis of the lives and works of a group of rather obscure thinkers whose ideas, in less odious form, also appear in the writings of other more well respected German authors; writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. But whereas Nietzsche saw the advent of cultural nihilism as something that each individual human being must live through and learn from, and whereas Spengler foresaw the decline of Western culture as an irreversible inevitability, Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller sought to offer a means of collective rescue; a strategy by which they could recover the spiritual heritage of their nation and thus reinvigorate German mass culture. In this way, they were, despite their shared prophesies of doom, optimists about the possibility of cultural renewal.

Stern uses the phrase “conservative revolution” to characterize the utopian strategies of these three figures. On the face of it, this might sound oxymoronic. After all, a conservative seeks, by definition, to “conserve” rather than to “revolt” against the status-quo. But in the case of Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller, their conservatism had nothing to do with defending the existing state of affairs, but with the defense of an idealized past, an “ancient tradition” (p. 1) before the dawn of modernity. In this ancient past, the German people were united by a religious bond of blood under a strong national leader. It was a time before the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the death of God. It was, however, a time that never really existed at all. These “conservative revolutionaries” were antiquarians, and their goal was to reestablish an imaginary past as a concrete reality in the present.

For Paul de Lagarde, this was to be accomplished with the founding of a new Germanic religion. This new faith was to be based on an interpretation of Christianity stripped of its supposed false dogmas while reasserting its true, original inspiration. Lagarde attacked and criticized the Jewish, Greek and Roman influences on Christianity, advocating the “liberation” of the Gospels from this background, which he claimed glorified Jesus’ death rather than his life. Instead, the true, original spirit of Jesus needed to be resuscitated. According to Lagarde, Jesus was primarily a rebel against the traditions and doctrines of Judaism, not the messiah foretold in the Old Testament or the supernatural “son of God” described by Paul. In line with this, a new Christianity should be focused on this world, becoming fused with the concrete characteristics and needs of the German people, thus creating a faith that would give meaning and purpose to the German state. It would “become the spiritual basis for a new state, for a new hierarchical community that would accept the teleological belief that God had placed men at different stations in life for different purposes” (p. 80).

For Julius Langbehn, the solution to Germany’s spiritual crisis was to be found not in religion (although at the end of his life he did convert to Catholicism), but in art. In his most well known and influential book, Rembrandt as Educator, he offers Rembrandt as “the personification of a cultural ideal” (p. 154) that could rescue Germany from its cultural decline. In the figure of this artist, Langbehn found the antithesis of the modern German. According to him, Rembrandt embodied all of the qualities needed in order for Germany to heal its wounds and rediscover its spiritual strength: sensitivity to the mysteries of Being, an awareness of the contradictions inherent in human life, fierce individualism, spontaneity, willfulness, and Volksthümlichkeit, the characteristic of “belonging to, expressing, yet transcending his people and its traditions” (p. 158). His overall solution to Germany’s cultural crisis was to rebel against the Modern drift toward reason and to return to a primal, tribal form of community using the artist as a spiritual guide.

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, like Langbehn, was an esthete who also looked to the artist as his hero. According to Moeller, Germany’s crisis was due to a forgetfulness of its primal spirit, and he believed this condition could be corrected by the propagation of a new breed of great, artistic men who would lead the nation toward a utopian future. As an admirer of Dostoyevski, he hoped to revivify the German spirit in the same way that he thought the Russian author had revivified his own country’s spirit. The rescue of Germany required the recognition that the Germans were in their essence, like the Russians, a “young” people, opposed to the “old” people of Britain and the US, and thus that the future belonged to them. Fate, therefore, dictated that Germany must expand its territory and accomplish the “domination of Europe” (p 253). In 1922, he published his most well known book, The Third Reich, which marked “the culmination of Moeller’s thought” as well as “the culmination of the Germanic ideology” (p. 311). In this book, he pronounced the need for a revolution that turned against the previous generation’s embrace of liberalism and modernity. German unity was to be reestablished in a nationalist form of socialism that would eliminate class struggle and reintegrate the workers with the goals of the nation as a whole in an organic, corporatist, hierarchical society.

Though not themselves Nazis, the dark sentiments and the proposed solutions advocated by these three authors were later integrated into the National Socialist platform. Their ideas proved popular because, like many Germans, they felt alienated from the world they inhabited, seeing it as a place where the old values and ways of life were withering away, producing an atmosphere of nihilism, anxiety, and increasing secularism. Populations caught in the grips of these kinds of feelings are prone to looking for saviors who promise a rescue; someone who understands the mood of alienation and who points the way back home. Stern observes that Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller were all “simultaneously proud and resentful of their alienation” (p. 327). On the one hand they proudly trumpeted their own uniqueness as “outsiders,” while on the other they aspired to transform the sick, decaying society around them into a place where they would no longer be outsiders. In so doing, they successfully channeled the mindset of a significant portion of the pre-World War II German population.  Yet the utopia imagined by these “prophets” never did, and never really could, exist. Writing in 1961, Stern points out that these men comprise a “cultural type” that has made an “appearance in all Western countries” (p. 328). In fact, they never go away because the problems they see in the world never go away. Reading about them now, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States during the 21st Century, it is clear their type still exists here, in our own land, and that they are still, tediously, proposing the sorts of “solutions” that they always have.

I think the most fundamental problem with this type of intellectual (both then and now) rests not in their pessimism or their prophesies of doom, but rather in their optimistic and arrogant conviction that they know best how to fix the world once and for all. Doom, of a sort, is inevitable (as Spengler suggests) precisely because the world changes. The old ways of life are under constant attack from the new, and for those who feel as if their own values have been pushed aside and undermined by newly emerging cultural forces, it can feel as if everything is coming to an end. And in a way, it is. Nothing stays the same, we can’t stop the forward motion of time, and we all are going to die. These are painful facts that are difficult to come to terms with, and I sympathize with those who are troubled by them.

But I don’t sympathize with arrogance. Socrates taught us that the highest wisdom consists in knowing that you don’t know everything, and this is a lesson that “conservative revolutionaries” (and utopians of all types, both on the right and the left) either never learned or have forgotten. In their conceit, this type never seems satisfied with just expressing their fear, sadness and mournfulness for a lost past. Instead, they optimistically try to put their ideas into action, making “the leap from cultural criticism to politics” (p. 327). In this, they hope to change the world for the better, but ironically, again and again, they seem to end up making the world worse than it was before.

I once told my wife that the shoddiest kinds of politicians are also artists. Artists are used to molding various raw materials, according to their own will, into a unique vision of aesthetic perfection. When this mentality is translated into political action, it easily becomes oppressive, totalitarian and unhinged from reality. Contrary to Langbehn and Moeller, I think artists are very poor models for political leaders.

Business people are probably even worse.

 

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The Affirmation of Life

Bernard Reginster’s book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism is an ambitious and thorough work. It proposes an interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy that emphasizes its orderly and logical structure, portryaing it as a consistent and coherent system offering a solution to the problem of nihilism and a strategy for the affirmation of life. Both in its purpose and tone, Reginster’s book reminds me of other works that approach continental thinkers and themes from a self-consciously analytic perspective; books such as David E. Cooper’s Existentialism, Antoine Panaïoti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy, and James Tartaglia’s Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. The Affirmation of Life sits alongside these other efforts as a well-argued attempt to bring some order to what can sometimes seem like a very disorderly and unruly topic.

Reginster points out in the introduction to The Affirmation of Life that interpreters of Nietzsche generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are those who approach his writings piecemeal, taking his aphoristic style as evidence that Nietzsche never meant readers to think systematically about his work, but rather to read his books as a kind of poetry that plays with recurring themes, observations and insights. Like the musings of a insightful but scattered mind, this approach treats Nietzsche’s books as compendiums of ideas and thoughts lacking system or method. Nietzsche does encourage this sort of reading at times; for instance in Twilight of the Idols writing, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (I 26)

On the other hand, there are those who approach Nietzsche more “globally,” focusing on a theme or doctrine that is taken as playing a unifying role in his overarching philosophical system. In this approach, the variety of ideas appearing throughout Nietzsche’s books are taken as logically connected parts that hang together with regularity and order. In these sorts of interpretations, one particular doctrine is generally thought to be the key to unlocking the real meaning of Nietzschean philosophy; whether it be the revaluation of values, the Superman, the eternal return, or the will to power. For these kinds of interpreters, Nietzsche’s writing style and his periodic denunciations of systematic thinking are distractions from the actual, underlying structure of his thinking process, which can be reconstructed by looking at the overall trajectory of his life work. If you do this, so it is claimed, one will discover that Nietzsche was concerned with thinking through some particular sort of problem in an orderly and deliberate manner.

Reginster’s reading of Nietzsche is aligned with the latter approach. However, unlike past interpreters he tells us that it is not a particular doctrine that lies at the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but a “particular problem or crisis.” (p. 4) This problem is the “crisis of nihilism,” which, in its most general sense, is “the belief that existence is meaningless.” (p. 21) Nihilism is marked by the distressing loss of confidence in goals and ideals that once gave human life meaning and purpose. Nietzsche’s writings are mostly concerned with nihilism as a European crisis; a problem that emerges in modern times with the increasing erosion of Judeo-Christian beliefs. This devaluation of traditional beliefs is a problem since, as of yet, nothing has emerged to take their place, and thus meaninglessness and lack of purpose threaten to infect European culture. According to Reginster, Nietzsche’s entire philosophical project is an attempt to address this threat and to offer a replacement for these lost values.

Reginster identifies two variants of nihilism. The first variant emerges from the devaluation of goals that at one time actually did give life meaning and purpose. The second variant is rooted in the conviction that any goals that could give life meaning and purpose are in fact unrealizable. In the first instance, nihilism emerges along with the realization that the things we once valued – our highest aspirations – are now things that have lost their value for us. So, for instance, a person might at one point in time value the aspiration toward being rich, but then at some later point in life come to the realization that money-making is not really all that important, and thus that the life he or she currently lives has become meaningless. The second kind of nihilism has less to do with the content of particular goals themselves, but with their realizability or attainability. So, for instance, a person might continue to aspire toward, and value, becoming rich, but come to realize that it is, in fact, impossible to actually achieve riches. The goal is not realizable even though it continues to be desired, and so, once again, life becomes meaningless.

Reginster argues that for Nietzsche, in order for life to be meaningful, our goals must both be valuable and realizable. To avoid nihilism, then, the purposes and projects we embrace must have the possibility of actually being accomplished. Otherwise, we will either become disoriented or fall into despair. Nihilistic disorientation is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are no longer valuable, while nihilistic despair is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are  unobtainable because they are not objectively real, but rather illusory projections of the human mind.

Nietzsche’s own conception of nihilism, Reginster claims, is ambiguous in the sense that his writings equivocate between addressing nihilism as disorientation and addressing nihilism as despair. The problem is that these two senses of nihilism actually seem to conflict with one another, since if one no longer values a goal, then its unattainability would not be a source of distress, and, on the other hand, if a goal can’t be realized, then by its very nature it becomes drained of value. In other words, if one is a disoriented nihilist, then there is no reason for one to also be a despairing nihilist, and vice versa. If you don’t value riches, for instance, then you won’t even care that they can’t be achieved. And, if you know that you can’t be rich, then the desirability of aspiring toward riches will vanish. Reginster argues that most interpreters underemphasize the ambiguity in Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism, but that nonetheless it is key to understanding his strategy for affirming life and overcoming both despair and disorientation.

The crux of Nietzsche’s strategy is, first, to reveal the groundlessness of traditional values and, second, to introduce a new highest standard of attainable values based on the will to power. So, the overcoming of nihilism proceeds in stages. The first stage involves revealing that the highest values currently driving western culture to nihilistic despair  – Judeo-Christian values –  lack objective standing. Since they are not objectively “real,” Judeo-Christian values are illusions that are “life-negating” in the sense that they encourage us to pursue goals that are unattainable (such as everlasting life in heaven). Revealing the inherent unrealizability of the values implied by this belief system undermines their value, and so this first stage of Nietzsche’s strategy liberates us from Juedo-Christian nihilism as despair. By revealing the illusory, and thus unattainable, nature of things like God and heaven, their desirability as aspirational goals vanishes. However, the elimination of these traditional values in turn provokes nihilistic disorientation. With the death of God, a void is left in place of the highest (unattainable) values, and the entire moral order that was implied by God’s existence collapses. We are robbed of our highest (unattainable) goals and aspirations, and life becomes, once again, meaningless insofar as there is no organizing center, no ultimate guiding purpose to life. Nihilism as disorientation is thus introduced.

The second stage in Nietzsche’s strategy is to offer a revaluation, showing that “life-negating values are not the highest values.” (p. 50) He does this, according to Reginster, by proposing the will to power as a replacement for the highest “principle” or ethical “standard” (p. 148). What this accomplishes is to introduce a this-worldly, attainable standard of value, as opposed to the other-worldly, unattainable standard advocated in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The main barrier in the way of advocating this new standard, however, is “the problem of suffering” (p. 159). Influenced by his reading of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche regards this problem as the issue uniting all western (and some non-western) moral systems. Whether it is Christianity, Buddhism, Utilitarianism, or Eudaimonism, the condemnation of suffering seems universal. But if, as all of these systems claim, suffering is an evil that to some degree will always remains a part of our life in this world, then the goal of eliminating suffering is itself nihilistic, since it involves the pursuit of something that can never be actually and fully realized in the here-and-now. All of those moral systems advocating the end of suffering are, thus, life-negating insofar as they promote the nihilism of despair.

The conclusion Nietzsche thus reaches is that any non-nihilisitic value system must embrace the inevitability of suffering, and he advocates the will to power as his solution. The doctrine of the will to power holds that the highest good is power itself, and power just is the “overcoming of resistance” (p. 177). Power is only manifested (as Schopenhauer had already suggested) in the course of its practical, concrete exercise. It is not a “thing,” but rather a process or “activity” (p. 196) that occurs when two forces encounter one another and clash. There is, in this sense, no such thing as potential, unexpressed power; only power actually manifested in the course of active expression. Power becomes manifest only when there is some obstacle to be overcome. Furthermore, any obstacle we encounter must offer some degree of opposition to our efforts. But opposition to our will is also what makes for difficulty, struggle and suffering in life.  With resistance, thus, there is always pain and suffering, but without it, there is no possibility for the exercise of will power and the sort of overcoming that makes us feel happy and joyful in our accomplishments. It follows, then, that if we are to value power as our highest value, then we must also value suffering.

By elevating the will to power to the highest of all values, Nietzsche accomplishes a revaluation that he believes satisfies both of the conditions for a meaningful life. First, since power just is the overcoming of obstacles, and since all humans value this sort of overcoming (regardless of the nature of the particular obstacle that they overcome), the will to power represents a goal that is intrinsically valuable. Thus it overcomes nihilism as disorientation. Second, since power is always concretely expressed in this world, it is, by its very nature, something attainable (in varying degrees) in the here-and-now. It is not an illusory, unrealizable goal. This overcomes nihilism as despair.

The last two chapters of Reginster’s book address Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence and his advocacy of Dionysian wisdom, suggesting that both are integral to the preceding interpretation. Just as the will to power offers an alternative to the belief in God, the eternal recurrence offers an alternative to the Christian ideal of eternal life in heaven. It is an attempt to conceptualize life as active, never ending becoming rather than as a static state of passive being. In this way it encourages us to embrace impermanence, which is at the very heart of the idea of will to power as a process. Finally, with the mythic figure of Dionysus, we find another alternative to Christian ideals. In Christianity, it is the beaten and battered Christ, and his condemnation of suffering, that inspires admiration, while the god Dionysus, on the other hand, represents the life-affirming celebration of destruction, suffering, and change as parts of the creative cycle of nature itself. In these ways, Reginster suggests, both Dionysus and the eternal recurrence are something like Nietzschean myths, offered as alternatives to the traditional Christian myths of God, Christ and heaven. For readers who embrace his revaluation in terms of the will to power, they represent life-affirming, non-nihilistic guidelines for how to live life in the here and now.

There is much more argumentative detail in The Affirmation of Life than I have summarized here. Reginster goes to meticulous lengths in building his own position, remaining very diligent in his reconstruction of competing interpretations of the material, and providing plausible counterarguments for why his own reading of Nietzsche is especially consistent and complete. It was a pleasure to follow along with the author’s thinking process, which exhibits an unusual amount of analytic skill and care for the material. My only criticisms of the book have to do with the lack of a concluding chapter and Reginster’s omission of any serious engagement with Heidegger’s major work on Nietzsche.

Given that the arguments in The Affirmation of Life are so intensely detailed and interlocking, it would have been nice if there was final summation of the book’s overall argumentative trajectory. As it is, the book ends rather abruptly, with a short but incomplete two page conclusion tacked on to the last chapter on Dionysian wisdom. I did a lot of underlining as I read through the book for a second time, and once I got to the end of its 268 pages, I had to go back through and reconstruct the overall argument for myself. I hope I got it all right. In any case, it would be helpful if, upon reaching the end of the work the author’s own summation was provided so that a reader like myself could be reassured that he got all of the pieces in the proper order.

The omission of Heidegger is a complaint only because it struck me, once I had finished the book, that there are aspects of his four volume work on Nietzsche that are directly relevant to Reginster’s interpretation. Heidegger, like Reginster, attempts to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s various doctrines – the will to power, the eternal recurrence, and nihilism – all play integral roles in a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. He also claims that the will to power is central to the revaluation of values and that the eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s way of attempting to think Being as a process of becoming. One of the major – and I think very interesting – differences is Heidegger’s claim that nihilism is not something that can legitimately be “overcome,” since instead of a problem or crisis, nihilism is actually an aspect of Being itself. I am curious as to how Reginster would respond to this Heideggerian reading of Nietzsche.

In any case, I highly recommend Bernard Reginster’s The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism to those readers who have a serious interest in Nietzsche, nihilism and who appreciate detailed, scholarly and meticulous argumentation. This is not a book that can be read through quickly or superficially. It is one that requires patience, time and focused attention. It is a difficult book in these ways, but as Reginster himself suggests, difficulty goes along with the overcoming of obstacles, which in turn makes us happy in the expression of our will to power!

 

Cinematic Nihilism Presentation at College of Marin

On October 26th I delivered a presentation on my new book, Cinematic Nihilism, at the College of Marin. This video of the presentation is about 56 minutes long and includes a group discussion at the end. Thanks to David Patterson, who both organized and filmed the event, as well as to everyone who attended!

Porno

I have gained a great deal of mischievous glee from telling people that lately I have spent a lot of time reading Porno. Responses to my confession have ranged from amused laugher to uncomfortable embarrassment. Upon telling this to my sister-in-law, she awkwardly wondered if I meant that I had been studying scholarly commentary on pornography. “No,” I answered. “I’ve just been looking at page after page of Porno.”

Everyone seems relieved when I go on to explain that Porno is the title of Irvine Welsh’s nearly 500 page sequel to his book Trainspotting. This, apparently, makes things more respectable, though if they were familiar with the book’s content, they might still be prone to blush. Porno is filled with explicit scenes of drug use, violence and descriptions of just about every kind of sex act that you could imagine. If books required ratings, it would earn an NC-17.

Porno is the source material for the recently released movie T2: Trainspotting, although the actual similarities between book and film are very slim. Both pick up the story of Renton, Sick-Boy, Spud and Begbie after the events of Trainspotting, but whereas the film rejoins the characters about 20 years later, the book takes place about 10 years after Renton has ripped off his buddies. The film highlights Renton, the most likable of the characters, while the book focuses more attention on Sick-Boy, perhaps the least likeable of the crew, who now prefers to be called by his given name, Simon. And while in the book the plot is driven by Simon’s plan to make and market a porno movie, in the film it is his plan to open a brothel that is central. Overall, the film and book are more different than they are similar, with the film, I think, being the superior piece of work.

The main failing of Welsh’s novel lies in how scattered and disjointed its episodes are. It is not that the book is uninteresting or boring, but rather that there are too many threads that never get tied together or fully resolved. While in the film all of the various stories have a purpose and place in the overall plot, in the book many of these same story lines are initiated, but then go nowhere, getting dropped as if they were unimportant. And this is disappointing; particularly in the case of Spud, whose failed effort to write and publish a history of Leith is transformed in the film into a really fascinating subplot that reveals important aspects of Spud’s personality, Begbie’s personality, and even, perhaps, the personality of Irvine Welsh himself. In the film, Spud’s writing project is not a history of Leith at all, but appears to be the beginning of what will eventually become the book Trainspotting. In this it is suggested that it is Spud (and not Renton) who is Welsh’s real alter ego. In Porno, nothing comes of Spud’s writing, and this intriguing subplot just fizzles, as does the subplot having to do with Renton’s troubled relationship with his Dutch girlfriend, Begbie’s inner struggles with his masculinity, and Dianne’s struggle to complete her dissertation. The film does a better job of tying up the various story threads by eliminating the superfluous ones and more deeply developing and tying together the really interesting ones.

I do love the fact that Porno begins with a quote from Nietzsche: “Without cruelty there is no festival…” This gives us an initial philosophical articulation of Welsh’s literary strategy, which is to explore and celebrate his characters by following them through the gutter, taking cruel joy in describing their participation in acts of debased sex, substance abuse and senseless violence. It is all of these things that I want in a novel about my favorite Scottish hooligans. But now that they are in their 30’s, there is a danger that they might start to grow out of their old ways. Awareness of growing old is one of the major themes in Porno, but we soon find that despite the characters’ recognition that they are no longer kids, their general patterns of behavior have not really changed. Sick Boy is still a schemer, a drug addict and an exploiter of women. The only difference is that now he fancies himself an artist, who uses his charms to make “erotic” adult entertainment. Begbie, who has just been released from prison for manslaughter, is still a thug who thinks himself superior to heroin junkies, even though his addiction to violence is perhaps even more destructive than his friends’ substance abuse. Spud now has a son, but he still cannot break his drug habit, even though it is ruining everything. All of these characters have, in a sense, started to experience the challenges of adulthood (career, prison, fatherhood), but they seem not to have learned anything, and so they endlessly repeat their past mistakes in ways that are at once revolting and hilarious. And this is precisely why I feel personally drawn to their stories. I take perverse pleasure in laughing at them, while also sympathizing with their struggles and rooting for them to overcome their defects, even though I know that they won’t.

Renton is the most sympathetic of the group, and in both the book and the film he seems to be the only one who has matured to any degree at all. He has moved away from the UK, starting a career overseas, kicking heroin, embarking on a program of physical exercise and developing a concern for his health. It soon becomes clear, however, that even in his case, he can’t resist the temptation of being drawn back into the seedy world that he fled from. He once again becomes entangled in the schemes of Sick Boy, he can’t turn his back on the self-destructive Spud, and ultimately he can’t resist the urge once again to scam his pals out of money. All the while, he anxiously tries to avoid running into Begbie, who wants to murder him.

It is the absurdity of it all that is both so funny and disturbing. I, for one, sympathize with many of the anti-establishment sentiments of the central protagonists, and in reading Welsh’s book, I find a bit of myself reflected in the histrionics, the dramas, as well as in the proclamations and smug decrees made by the book’s characters. At the same time that I see hypocrisy in each of them, I’m reminded of the same hypocrisy in myself as well. For instance, Sick-Boy’s closing monologue, as he sits next to Begbie’s hospital bed, sent a shiver of self-recognition through me:

I believe in the class war. I believe in the battle of the sexes. I believe in my tribe. I believe in the righteous, intelligent clued-up section of the working classes against the brain-dead moronic masses as well as the mediocre, soulless bourgeoisie. I believe in punk rock. In Northern Soul. In acid house. In mod. In rock n roll. I also believe in pre-commercial righteous, rap and hip hop. That’s been my manifesto. (p. 483)

In reading this I tremble in self-serious accord; and then I am reminded that not only are the characters laughable, but so am I.

There are some of us who criticize the pointlessness of capitalism and of consumer culture while still participating in patterns of behavior that reinforce empty and meaningless excess, indulgence and consumption. “Cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, speed, poverty and media mind-fucking: capitalism’s weapons of destruction are more subtle and effective than Nazism’s and he’s powerless against them,” (p. 384) Renton says of Spud at one point. But he is really talking about himself and all of the rest of us who express antiestablishment sentiments while still participating in ways of life that are no less absurd than anyone else’s.

People are trapped, as Renton says, “consuming shite that does them no good at all, often just because they can.” (p. 408) The “shite” he is referring to could be drugs, porn, consumer products, poetry, literature, violence, movies, fame, power, a career, or a family. The absurd tragedy of it all is that even though nothing is all that important, you have to do something to fill up the time that you are alive. Heroin or fine wine? Porn or fine art? Punk rock or symphony orchestras? Anarchy or totalitarianism? Communism or Capitalism? The freedom to choose is endless.

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? (Trainspotting, 1996)

The Eternal Return

The Nihilist’s Notebook is a collection of essays, stories and comics that I published in 1996. It is currently out of print, and so I have been asked if I would scan and post it online. I am going to try and do so in the near future, but in the meantime here is a comic to whet your appetites:

The Existential Files

The Existential Files is a fun and lively podcast hosted by doctors Louie Savva and Matthew Smith, two psychologists from the UK who conduct interviews and discuss issues ranging from positive psychology to the existence of God.

Episodes #43 and #44 feature an interview with yours truly, John Marmysz, addressing issues in nihilism.

The podcasts can be found on iTunes, Sticher, Youtube, Cast Crunch or on The Existential Files website.

For a dose of refreshing despair and futility, you should also check out Louie Savva’s blog, Everything is Pointless.

Mathew Smith’s blog also features lots of interesting tidbits.

Existentialism

existentialismIt is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.

British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]

The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.

Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10)  By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.

The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.

This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project.  Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and  thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.

9780806501956The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.

This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.

The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda.  In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.

Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through  treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.

Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition –  as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.

My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation?  If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.

20120617-154833A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.

As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.