Nihilism and the Absolute

Both enchanted Nature and the immanent Divinities are lost once the Absolute comes close and wants to be near us, bei uns. What is left in its proximity is the disenchanted World, without any ‘outside’, any ‘sacred’—except perhaps where the Absolute is touched and traced. This is, or would be, true life: incarnate, embody, incorporate, in sum, mediate the Absolute in the World, in the absence of any other intermediaries; instantiate the ‘touch’ of the Absolute at the limit between somewhere and ‘nowhere’.

In this arrangment, Nihilism represents awareness of the loss of intermediary steps, of gradations, of mediation. Both real and apparent World, empirical and ideal, show their artificiality, constructibility, and contingency. This applies especially to any world or worldview that is bought or sold, marketed or packaged to any degree, which tries to persuade us it holds the key, that it could successfully mediate. Eventually, however, all are shown up as dust, corruptible, lossy, not absolute—at best, ladders to be discarded after climbing to a vantage point where one can survey it and see its nonsense. Every opinion, belief, worldview, can fall to such criticism, for all are by definition ‘less than’ the Absolute, which once known by touch is not easily mistaken to be where it’s not. Nihilism is a radical skepticism guarding against such a mistake, a criticism of anything ‘less’. It is always at risk of despairing before this fact, given the lack of intermediaries and, on closest scrutiny, the absence of God. Its tendency is to deny, given its artificiality, any meaning in the World, to accept such a state as ‘absolute’. (This is where nihilism proves incomplete: when it deduces from the Absolute’s ‘inexistence’ its outright impossibility.)

What is exacerbated by this criticism is the apparent ‘fact’ that there is no escape from ‘finitude’, the circulation of goods, spectacles, bodies, languages, views, opinions, etc.—except perhaps through some procedure of keeping in ‘touch’ with the Absolute, an open possibility I must leave unclarified. For such a procedure could involve many things, liturgy, art, romance, science, service; indeed it could never be reduced to any one intelligible activity. Such pressing issues burn from within, call upon all our powers of invention and imagination, as well as our courage and perseverence in the process. At stake here is what Lacoste calls the subversion of the topological, the transgression of World-space and -priority, though this is no leave-taking of the World either. The point to stress is that, inside, one recognizes the difference between the Absolute and its substitutes, enough to decide between them. In Kierkegaard’s parlance, the difference lies between the sickness unto death (endless circulation in the market of finite possibilities) and willing to be oneself (willing one’s potentiality in the infinite). Roughly, this corresponds to Nietzsche’s own distinction between passive and active nihilism. Conscience informs when the contact is true or not, when something ‘eternal’ is near or at play. It guards against being deceived about that contact or nearness, it being unable to accept any substitute for the Absolute, just as nihilism intuits.

By the same token, since there is no substitute for it in the World, the Absolute can never be said to be ‘here’ like a given element, just waiting to be found. The Absolute is never ‘there’, but emerges, arises, opens, like a surprise, a breakaway, an ‘event’. Such words only signify its otherness to what exists, its happening quality: as a suspension or swerve from the known, determined World (though this does not transpire in some other realm or hinterworld either). In point of fact, although the difference between the Absolute and whatever is ‘less’ can be recognized, no rule is at hand. Nor any criteria for reaching it, nor any Way. Why? Because Way is World, its components World; whereas the Absolute is not component, not destination, not ‘something’, not container or circumference of what exists. The Absolute is not a cheap trick, revealing itself at a magic word. Nor is it the object of an aim per se, but more like what is constitutively missing, no matter desire’s action.

The best we can say, without overdetermining it, is that the Absolute is an intensity, an intensiveness which can charge any human activity but never becomes identical or exchangeable with anything extended (Earth and World). As such, however, it also prescribes the intensity of a possible dissatisfaction and restlessness, since ‘evidence’ for the Absolute in the World is perennially lacking and its intensities notoriously hard to grasp. What’s more, supposing such an intensity did manifest itself, was ‘reached’, it is all too easy to later doubt that very experience or forget it happened, so much so that one disbelieves its reality in one’s memory and excludes that anything like it could happen again. The intensity of the Absolute bears upon both extremes, missing and touch, makes both intense from the same longing, its same inexistence.

To formulate things this way is to take the negative road and emphasize the radical incongruity or ‘difference’ between the Absolute as intensiveness and the World as extendedness: the gap between infinite and finite. Yet there is no idea or thing to ‘absolutize’ here. Nor is there any room for belief in an Absolute, which would imply knowing what it is, that it is, where it is, how to attain it. Moreover, it would imply a language and categories to handle it, whereas the Absolute is by definition not known according to an already-existing logos. Epistemology, our access to the knowable, loses its status as intermediary, its status is ‘lowered’, largely due to the restlessness we feel in pursuit of the unknown, of what might satisfy our aptitude for truth.

This is very likely why the closeness of the Absolute—minimally: the enticement to true life—corresponds to the total disenchantment of the World (and, historically speaking, to the explosion of scientific knowledge about it). The subjective ‘mood’ of disenchantment, bereft of absolutes, is one of abandonment, a lack of divine assistance. Orientation to the Absolute here is ‘atheist’ in that sense: nothing in the world gives a foundation for it, no ‘sign’ can claim unequivocal reference to it. Faced with evil, no one can claim the World is its ‘expression’. On the contrary, it would appear that it lacks all expression of it, leading to the conclusion that there is no such thing and never was. Hence nihilism: the absence of any ‘answer’ regarding the Absolute, loss of any sure guarantee that there is anything other than World and information.

Yet ours could not be experienced as a ‘fallen’ World if there were not some memory or trace of what we’d fallen from, meaning, we retain some capacity to recognize what may be Absolute, even if at any given moment nothing fits the bill. Nihilism is a highly positive development in this critical sense: it functions as a very refined bullshit detector, forcing you, even against your will, to test the truth of everything against the stalwart powers of negation. However ostentatious, combative, and annoying the nihilist may be, a good one challenges unchallenged beliefs and forces examinations of conscience that eliminate hasty conclusions, ideological pipedreams, doctrinal commonplaces, and so on. For the worst offense to the Absolute would be an unacknowledged false belief, or false designation: that one had touched it when one hadn’t, that in lieu of genuine contact one had faked it, that one had spun a web of deceptions just to give an impression of absoluteness. But as the old saying goes, “God is not mocked.” Nihilism is coterminus with the phenomenon of never settling for less than the most truth-filled life, refusing to make a mockery of what could be true, or to compromise with the sloppy, simplicistic, uncritical, or rosy-eyed. Voraciously it devours whatever is deemed second best, even if no first best, technically speaking, can be found. If one ignores its prompt, either one lives in a bubble of happy deception, or eventually (thank God!) bitter consequences befall one, until a new choice is made and the bullshit left behind—even if this means staring into the horror of the void, answerless.

For once World and Absolute reveal such closeness, such that there’s no intermediary between them—which at the same time has made us aware of the infinite difference between them and sharpened our power of recognizing that difference—it is not obvious how to stay in touch with the Absolute, or indeed what such a phrase even points to concretely. At this point, relativism tries to step in and assuage restlessness prematurely, telling us that there is no Absolute, no Truth. As no evidence of it can be found in all the diversity of the world, best to give up on such illusions. But the nihilist’s discontent, making it difficult for to affirm anything whatsoever about the World, points in another direction, away from the good conscience of the relativists.

Whoever stares into the abyss knows that nothing ‘relatively true’ will ever satisfy our aptitude for the ultimate. If something cannot be recognized as participating in the Absolute, we know it. This knowledge haunts and hurts us. It raises within us, necessarily, the urgency of ultimate ends. It is here that many questions proliferate, many personal and profound journeys after that ‘touch’, that ‘end’, seemingly so vague and paradoxical: what activities sustain it, what keeps the lines open, such that it is not a ‘belief’, not just empty verbiage, to say, “I abide in the Mediator, the true life”?

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