I’ve noticed a trend. I read sad books. I don’t intentionally seek out stories of despair or depression. I just sort of gravitate to them. While a friend was exploring my considerable book collection, he kept asking what I thought of particular titles. I didn’t realize that I kept answering his questions with a version of the following brief review:
“It’s really good, but so sad.”
Things Fall Apart: It doesn’t end well for anyone.
The Old Man and the Sea: You know Hemingway. He has the whole “shoot-yourself-in-the-head” vibe.
The Lovely Bones: Well, the protagonist is a murdered 12-year-old…
Sophie’s Choice: No. Just no.
This also happened when I was looking through my audiobook collection for titles to loan my sister.
The Passage: Post apocalyptic vampires in a dystopian world.
Horns: Guy falsely accused of his girlfriend’s murder wakes up one morning with devil horns.
She’s Come Undone: Overweight, ostracized girl loses her mother and goes off the deep end.
And the very worst, very tragic, poke-your-eyes-out-to-avoid it… Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s not the story here that is so depressing. It’s that someone made so much money with such terrible writing.
My love of depressing literature got me thinking: Am I a nihilist?
The philosophy of nihilism starts with the basic idea that life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Morality does not inherently exist. Knowledge is not possible. Reality is an illusion.
Let’s give that a moment to sink in.
Does my taste in books make me a nihilist? Maybe not by itself. But the thing that really got me thinking about my nihilistic leanings was True Detective.
I binge-watched this HBO drama with hardly a bathroom break. I was pulled in, completely absorbed. And that is a little bit troubling. For those who don’t know, True Detective is a crime drama series in which two homicide detectives in Louisiana track down a serial killer. Think Silence of the Lambs meets Soren Kierkegaard.
Aside—As phenomenal as this series is, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone. And it is phenomenal. The writing is brilliant and tight, the directing is inventive and adds so much depth to the story. Even the soundtrack is perfect. But it is incredibly dark and hard to watch. You’ve been warned.
Anyway, one of the things that really drew me into this series was the wisdom of Matthew McConaughey‘s Detective Rust Cohle. (Put all your money on him winning the Golden Globe.) He embodies this incredible mix of pathos, raw nerves, and intelligence. But it is his philosophy that I found so magnetic:
“Love is just a human construct, designed to distract us from the fact that existence is ultimately meaningless.”
“Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain. Dulls critical thinking.”
“Linear time is an illusion. I’ve walked by before and I’ll walk by again. Time is a flat circle. “
And that last one is lifted right out of Nietzsche. My favorite philosopher. Nietzsche's nihilism is a state of tension caused by the disparity between what we want and the reality of living in the world. That knowledge creates in us an existential crisis.
Nietzsche's believed in our eternal return, trapping us in an infinite circle of time. "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.” That idea is both terrifying and beautiful to me. It sounds a little like the Big Bang Theory, doesn't it? The universe is forever expanding, collapsing on itself, and expanding again.
So, there’s all that in the Nihilist column. What else lands in that column for me?
How about my love of the Dadaism art movement and Marcel Duchamp? The Dadaists claimed that Dada was not an art movement, but an anti-art movement. The origin of their art pieces often started with existing art or found objects. I would compare it to the way a hip hop artist or DJ pulls existing music into the layers of an entirely new piece. Dadaists tended to devalue art, which is what led many art scholars to equate Dadaism with nihilism. Mark it down.
What about my favorite villains? Batman's Bane. Or The Joker who says "The real joke is your stubborn, bone deep conviction that somehow, somewhere, all of this makes sense!" Or General Grevious. (That dude has four light sabers! Four!) Or that insane villain--with my haircut from second grade--in No Country for Old Men. Nihilists all.
Then there is the whole punk rock movement. I missed as it was happening because I was too young. But I gravitated to the music as I discovered it while working in the record store during college. The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, Black Flag. Actually, I think the Black Flag thing might have more to do with Henry Rollins.
Then there was the heavy metal music of Black Sabbath and Metallica. The alternative metal of Tool, Ministry, Alice in Chains, Nine Inch Nails. Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar also draws from my good friend Nietzsche. I still have all these bands on my iPod.
Check, check, check.
And the movies! The glorious movies! Nihilism is an important building block of The Matrix, Full Metal Jacket, Taxi Driver, There Will Be Blood, and Fight Club. Oh how I love ye, Fight Club.
Check, check, check, check.
When most people think of nihilism in movies, the first thing that springs to mind is The Big Lebowski. OK, maybe not most people. But most of my friends do. After all, the bad guys are flat out called nihilists. Walter Sobchak has what may be my favorite line in the movie:
"Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."
So when I tally all the marks in the nihilism column, does it add up to being a nihilist? Do I have an ethos? Can I find any meaning in all of it?
You know what? It doesn’t really matter.