I once made an acquaintance who claimed to be what he called a “relieved nihilist.” This he opposed to “romantic nihilism.” Both share a tendency to see all human activity, and perhaps all cosmic happening in general, as ultimately meaningless. But the relieved nihilist considers this very fact to be meaningless as well. He does not make a romantic tragedy out of life’s many disappointing aspects, nor does he undergo the absence of sense and purpose as a loss, nor as lamentable. It is simply a consequence of nothingness and need not set off a stressful production; it prompts neither the threat of succumbing to hopelessness, nor the prospect of overcoming it in freedom.
He thus willingly professed his own lack of passion for anything whatsoever. Perhaps he even took it as a point of pride to laugh at the seriousness of any drama, cosmic or personal. Contempt for the world secured the first step, and a negativity prevailing in the soul ensured the rest. This character, however, maintained another view which seemed, upon reflection, to perhaps be an offshoot of this nihilistic “relief,” namely: he was a total pragmatist when it came to human dealings. If he was going to put in the effort, he had better get something out of it, a result, and this included relations with women.
I respected the boldness and honesty with which he espoused his views and listened to mine, but in the end it was troubling to realize that many other people, though lacking the philosophical grounding he had, probably share such a mixed outlook. Too accustomed to the pointlessness of things to despair of it, an indifferent utilitarianism takes over. Because of the thesis on nothingness, all consideration of the “large” consequences of our actions is suspended, since it is assumed that in the end there can be none, all will be erased. Every strong conviction is proscribed, for a relieved nihilism lets one aim only at little gains that can be anticipated in advance, or calculated according to a cost-benefit analysis. Most often, probably, a verdict of “it’s not really worth it” prevails, since the operative axiom here is that all value is swallowed constantly in emptiness. Even projects undertaken with enthusiasm succumb to this pull that saps faith. Nowhere a risk to be taken, no room for outcomes unknown. Nowhere any point to provoke, invent, or transform. Sad as it appears to me, I can also see how great a relief it might be; this would not prevent it from being, on its reverse side, the epitome of capitulation.
I tried to argue to him that, though I could share his contempt for the world, I nonetheless felt is was possible for humans to find others and to form intimate, unexpected connections “underneath” or in spite of that world. I was interpreted to mean that the world remained for me a place in which I could realize my personal goals. How often the convictions of others we only understand through the prejudices of our own! So perhaps I too misunderstood him.
He wanted to know why I spoke against suicide, why I upheld hope, why I felt life was worth living, despite all the evidence of its futility; and if positivity outweighed negativity in my soul. I told him all I could about that — all too briefly, as conversation must be, filtered as it is through hundreds of translations of language, tradition, background and context, not to mention the pressing constraints of time. Whether it was futile to express myself and my “convictions” as I did — to try to persuade him to see another potential attitude — is not up to me, and is thus not a question I choose to entertain.
(See Evil Compassion for another perspective on nihilism, in a different tone.)
Nancy writes that philosophy moves between the parameters of myth and nihilism and describes the human condition as a struggle for world. In addition, he proposes that world be understood as sense. His writing offers an account of sense that requires it not be thought of as a thing. The closest I’ve been able to come to a comparison for his view of sense is to think of it as faith. I can’t help wondering if he now has been giving an account of religion in order to ensure that he not be understood as promoting religion. My faith is that there are good reasons why we are struggling for world, but we have yet to discover what those reasons are.
OLGA: […] How cheerfully and jauntily that band’s playing — really I feel as if I wanted to live! Merciful God! The years will pass, and we shall all be gone for good and quite forgotten… Our faces and our voices will be forgotten and people won’t even know that there were once three of us here…. But our sufferings may mean happiness for the people who come after us… There’ll be a time when peace and happiness reign in the world, and then we shall be remembered kindly and blessed. No, my dear sisters, life isn’t finished for us yet! We’re going to live! The band is playing so cheerfully and joyfully — maybe, if we wait a little longer, we shall find out why we live, why we suffer…. Oh, if we only knew, if only we knew!…
CHEBUTYKIN [sings quietly to himself ]: Tarara-boom-di-ay…. I’m sitting on a tomb-di-ay…. [Reads the paper. ]… What does it matter? Nothing matters!
OLGA: If only we knew, if only we knew!…
—Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters, in Plays, trans. Elisaveta Fen (Baltimore: Pen¬guin Books, 1954), 329-30. quoted in Jean-Luc Nancy, THE SENSE OF THE WORLD.
Fragment: pleasure and pain in which being enjoys and suffers under existence. It is in this sense that art is a fragment: it is not the presentation of being, and thus it is not related to truth in the sense that philosophy would have liked. Whatever its various philosophical determinations may have been (mimesis, splendor, representation, unveiling, putting-to-work, poietization, and all of these at once), they have all left the following unperceived (which art doubtless cannot expose except in exposing itself all the way to the end): that being, before or beyond its truth, enjoys and suffers under existence. This enjoyment-and-suffering is the arrival into presence, presentation without presentness: this presentation does not possess a truth as does (the subject of) being. Rather, presentation itself is truth. But not truth on “the subject of”: it is truth that is — or exists — as act. If art is the presentation of presentation and not of being, it is in this sense that it has a relation to truth: as truth’s sense in action. As truth touches and cannot but touch.
–Jean-Luc Nancy, “Art, a Fragment” in THE SENSE OF THE WORLD, pp137-38