^ – not a typo.
When I first read this snippet by David Foster Wallace, reviewing Joseph Frank’s lauded biography of author Fyodor Dostoevsky, I went through the 5-10 second range of emotions that is typical for me when my constructed reality loses a beam:
To inquire of ourselves why we – under our own nihilistic spell – seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or juxtaposition, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarization-of-the-reading-experience flourish.
* Pause for “huh… yeah… wait a minute, that is right… *
Aside from the holy shit truth that DFW spews throughout that review, I want to address this word “nihilistic.” Upon reading this man, one who possessed what I have long deemed to be a solid outlook on reality, bashing something that I, by default and through misunderstanding, had always deemed to be a close-to-the-mark depiction on what we might as well do, I spent a few seconds wondering what was wrong with me before determining that I must either wholly misunderstand Wallace or nihilism itself. Thankfully, it turned out to be the latter.
Since The Big Lebowski introduced the concept of nihilism to my generation of high schoolers a decade-and-a-half ago, I’d considered the belief in nothing a learned, mature, comedic, realistic-though-jaded rejection of religiosity, ideology, exclusion, fraudulent concern and self-importance. Since I don’t believe in a bearded man surveying the ever-decaying ecosystems beneath him, because, you know, fuck Sauron, I figured this nihilism thing was closer to being “right” than religious dogma. Similarly, ideologies themselves tended to pervert into dogmas, which are nothing if not terrible arguments. I don’t want to be a terrible arguer; I went to law school. (*Thumbs up, smiley face.*)
The disdain for fraudulent concern and self-importance is, aside from the blatant opposition to human rights that the grandiose tax shelters have aligned themselves with, the single greatest catalyst in what has been our culture’s movement to nihilism. (That we have moved there would be something I used to dispute, but the more I look at it, the more undeniable our nihilistic anti-ethos has become. Except, we’re doing it wrong. More on that later. ) I’ve come across a great many people that I consider to be smart, well-rounded, funny people that see these progressively dark and stupid times as irreversible, and therefore, not worth the trouble. If the multi-national corporations are throwing together commercials about making the world a better place while simultaneously chucking even more money at anonymously fighting the conservation of all living things, then why should we who know how to read fall for it?
I get it. I’m largely still there, to tell the truth. But our rejection of humanity and descent into aspirations of unified distrust are not at all the enlightened, reasoned conclusions that we so evidently believe them to be. Getting burned is part of everyone’s maturation process. Those who continually get burned through their own failure to think critically or make decisions in their own interests are naive. Since we don’t want to be naive, the tendency is to trust no one. That way, we can avoid the self-hatred-inspired round of reprisals that are sure to come when it becomes clear that we got duped. This lone wolf mentality is especially infectious because so many people have made an effort to adopt it. Someone should call Alanis Morissette. The culture has bought into the idea that to appear smart one must layer irony and detachment, lest the illness of looking stupid, borne on colorless, unforeseeable gusts, navigate our defenses. What empowers this mentality? Other people of like mind, of course. How brave we are. How utterly unique.
I read an article on Medium about our obsession with the show Breaking Bad and what the author, Dr. Nolen Gertz, calls “nihilism porn.” As a fan of the show, I’m the last person that wants to skewer it. And I won’t – neither did Gertz. Rather, I want to point out how sick it is that we watch Walter White with awe rather than revulsion. We hail his ability to lead a double life for a while. We apologize for his murders with the line about doing it for his family. And after all, little Brock didn’t die, did he? What we want to ignore is that Walt’s life is in shambles. He put his wife through hell, got some very good men close to him killed, caused his son to hate his guts, and was at least the ultimate cause of Jesse losing the only two women he loved during the two-year setting of the show. What would Heisenberg do? Um, probably not anything you’d want to do. Sure, he earned an episode titled “Ozymandias,” but he ended up the last-resort stray dog. The actors and creator get that, as Bryan Cranston expressed in one of those Apple meet-the-people-involved stage talks: “I don’t think anybody would trade places with Walter White… This guy’s going to hell.” Sadly, what seems to be the retaliatory response is, “Yeah, well, hell isn’t real, so maybe I would trade places with him,” which misses the point and is a horrifically dangerous, adolescent way to think.
Gertz’s editorial notes that nearly all of his students claimed to be distrustful before realizing all of the familiarized acts of trust in which they had engaged just in the previous five minutes. Then, when presented with a Chomsky vs. U.S. Government hypothetical, they either sided with the last argument they heard or decided not to decide – “This was why they didn’t watch the news.” Those who didn’t jump ship to the latest and greatest argument resolved to trust no one.
Of course, this is exactly what would happen when critical thinking skills are abolished from the classroom of the world. Siding with the team to shoot last reeks of gullibility. Blowing the whole thing up so as to avoid picking incorrectly is the darkest shade of jade. But neither are right. What is “right” is up for its own debate, but I can say with confidence that none of Gertz’s students spoke up with the “right” of it. And how could they? It takes critical thinking skills to tame emotion enough to consider what is being argued, to weigh the pros and cons of each choice, and here’s the kicker, to have enough confidence in the process used to decide to choose and move on. Confidence is its own topic worthy of a long form deconstruction, as the word has been perverted to confuse people and prevent them from truly possessing it, lest the ruling class come up with a more costly way to turn a profit than pushing french fries and ending over mending.
A snarky, falsely authoritative evisceration of “confidence” aside, the inability to trust one’s own judgment enough to pick a side naturally leads to aspirations of nihilism. I say aspirations because, as Gertz pointed out, we disillusioned folks don’t actually distrust everyone, we just want to. Distrust is up, there’s no doubt about that, but claimed distrust far outscores real distrust, I think. Feeling lied to by “everyone” would naturally cause a person without years of practice to be unwilling to believe anyone. (See: “The man on my left says 2+2=4. The man on my right says 2+2=5. Who is right? We cannot know, but the answer is probably somewhere around four-and-a-half.” A.k.a. cable “news,” which has meteorically risen just as critical thinking skills have petered out.)
This worldview seems to be centered on the ideas of addition and subtraction, where the valiant goal is to end the meaningless existence as close to zero as possible. Our new nihilism is risk averse, yet unable to curb the urge to *carefully* respond to that text while driving. It is petrified of the prospect of loss, unable to see both that loss implies possession, and that very few of our fears have merit. It cites Icarus, not realizing that it is a deception. It sees debits and credits, addition and subtraction, rather than the division left by horrible acts and the multiplicative power of connection. It is truly a fear-based way to live a life. If it even allows for that.
Part of the issue may be a failure to take comedy all the way (I’m sure someone scholarly on the subject could set me straight here). Most of my favorite, and as far as I can tell most successful, comedians are those who are intellectually honest and demand the same from everyone else. They get fans because, get this, there are a lot of smart people in the world. There’s nothing quite so nourishing to the souls of folks like me as dead-on, holy-shit-drop-the-mic eviscerations of intellectual dishonesty and the fabricating dishonorables who spout it. As social media continues to sort out the morons from the rest, some talents in the world of comedy have been brave enough to take on nonsense and tell the truth. Twitter has allowed for more comedy writers and stand-ups to gain a following that they probably could not have built even ten years ago, at least not all of them, but they’ve done so in a way that mimics what the best of all-time probably would have done given the technology.
The only problem with smart comedy as a force for cultural progress is that it is built on prerequisite knowledge that is not always possessed by the audience at-large. The problem with going all the way, connecting all the dots as it were, in comedy is that what makes something funny is leaving something out. Nobody spoils a joke quite like that numb nuts who pieces it together out loud and then has to tell you why something is so funny. Because, you know, you got it the first time.
Another key as to why smart comedy requires at least some awareness of how the world works is the tactic of reversal. Acting like life is pointless and nobody is important is so funny and connective precisely because it is so opposite of our default settings. We all slip into micro-level analysis every day – probably most waking (and certainly sleeping) minutes of each day. Our lives are über-important. Our daydreams aren’t about leaving zero marks on those around us. So it feels nice to be reminded that, oh yeah, this too shall pass and we are only one of over seven billion people in the world and shit, we will eventually die too. Remember that we have to be reminded of these facts. It feels good to do so en masse.
The unfortunate next stopping point for a lot of us seems to be, “Well fuck it then, none of this matters.” Without wanting to get derailed on this ever-so-concise journey that we’ve been on so far with pontifications on the appropriate definitions of the terms “none,” “this” and especially “matters,” I just want to point out how forced this worldview is. Not only is it irreconcilable with those mantras from which it appears to have spawned (at least for some people), but it is decidedly unnatural. I don’t mean that in a judgy, “dudes shouldn’t be kissing dudes” kind of way, of course, but I mean it in a “you have to actually go against your nature to even claim to believe in nothing and nothingness and life’s total absence of meaning, purpose and intrinsic value” kind of way. Sometimes going against one’s own nature can be a good thing – it is often quite necessary to change diets for the better, to get off the couch and move five feet to do some pushups, to stop defaulting to anger, to opt for responses other than fight or flight, etc.
But when it comes to a worldview, I think the current culture of western civilization not only drives a wedge between one’s true nature and developed default settings, but logically manifests itself into aspirations of the false refuge of nihilism. Consumerism naturally tips the plane vertically, spilling an ever-increasing percentage of the population into the group of the have-nots. This leads those in the bottom 95 (or is it higher?) percent to wonder why they are where they are, never coming across those who would teach them of the ever-verticalizing plane of consumerism. In fact, most people are trained by the church of consumerism to implement alarm bells that go off any time a person even uses words like “consumerism.” If I cannot understand why I am where I am, my ignorance would logically manifest itself into anger and distrust. But even if I can understand, there is the danger that the explanation involves a macro-level understanding of economics, which does nothing so well as tossing the importance of the individual into the proverbial recycling bin. Like I said earlier, this nihilistic spell we’ve put on ourselves isn’t solely caused by or held strong by stupid people. Many of us tend toward the refuge of it. It makes sense to downgrade your own importance when you figure out how the sausage is made.
I think our move toward nihilism is a reaction to The Death of God, an outflow from the dissatisfaction of the victory of oligarchy, and for me above all, the exact response in the smarter half that the ruling class would desire. Keep those without critical thinking skills happily funneling their money where it “belongs,” and cause enough of the pestering would-be do-gooders to become disillusioned and passively accept this idea that they have no power, that nothing matters, that life sucks and then you die. It is in the plutocrats’ interest to desensitize as many people as possible to injustice, to beat back dreams of making a difference, to alter and craft meaning if it cannot be abolished, to make people tap out.
And that’s what nihilism is, really. It’s an active tapping on the mat to the idea of the threat of future pain. It’s a false opposite to theism or self-importance, both of which are to some degree to be avoided, or at least tempered. It’s fear-based and it’s not even what it claims to be. Because our new nihilistic spell isn’t the absence of a belief in anything – just ask a few questions of anyone who seems to be enchanted. “What do you mean by that?” tends to get you where you want to go. No, our own nihilistic spell is both pervasive and against-the-grain. It takes an active decision to try to believe in nothing. You knew I’d eventually get to that title that might have otherwise looked like a typo! And of course, nihilistic distrust itself is false, as evidenced by the many trusts that Gertz’s students displayed without even recognizing that they had. It’s a response to not knowing, and to the anger that there are so many illogical phalluses using logical fallacies to justify why they claim to “know.” It’s a detached fear of looking so naive as to care. It’s the Inception of irony, since the whole point is to try hard to make sure others think that you don’t trust anyone or believe in anything. You know, so some of those others will like you and you can build mutual trust. It’s bothering to craft an image of one who can’t be bothered.
The saddest part of the religion side of our nihilistic spell is that whether you believe in hanging out in a wallless room where nothing ever happens nor can ever happen because time does not exist, and that is brighter than any friend’s couch next to a window with no curtains on the morning of a hangover, or you believe in an unceasing dreamless sleep, the fact is that this is your life, and it will one day come to an end. That what you do matters ought to be self-evident.
It is time to start questioning this nihilism in ourselves and our friends. It is time to start bothering and being bothered. Don’t worry, not being able to be bothered by something so inconsequential as life can still be used as a reversal tactic. It’s still funny. But remember, it is really supposed to be satire. We can still tell the difference between satire and earnestness, can’t we?
Wallace concludes his review of Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky accurately and with a layer of suggestion:
Part of the answer to questions about our own art’s thematic poverty obviously involves our own era’s postindustrial condition and postmodern culture. The Modernists, among other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of metaphysics, and ‘Great Novels’ since Joyce tend to be judged largely on their formal ingenuity; we presume as a matter of course that serious literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism, and it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be ‘serious.’
But it’s just as fair to observe that Dostoevsky operated under some serious cultural constraints of his own: a repressive government, state censorship, and above all the popularity of post-Enlightenment European thought, much of which went directly against beliefs he held dear and wanted to write about. The thing is that Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius – he was, finally, brave. … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t – could not – laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that – how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulae or guarantees. But there are models. Frank’s books present a hologram of one of them.”
How unfortunate it is that we’re in a period where open contemplation of unanswered questions is deemed not serious enough for public consumption. How unfortunate that to just examine the human condition is “brave.”