In this recent book, Simon Critchley discusses various responses to nihilism. Responses include those who: a) refuse to see the problem, like the religious fundamentalist who doesn’t understand modernity; b) are indifferent to the problem, which they see as the concern of bourgeoisie intellectuals; c) passively accept nihilism, knowing that nothing they do matters; d) actively revolt against nihilism in the hope that they might mitigate the condition.[i]He rejects all views that try to overcome nihilism—enterprises that find redemption in philosophy, religion, politics or art—in favor of a response that embraces or affirms nihilism. For Critchley the question of meaning is one of finding meaning in human finitude, since all answers to the contrary are empty. This leads him to the surprising idea that “the ultimate meaning of human finitude is that we cannot find meaningful fulfillment for the finite.”[ii]But if one cannot find meaning in finitude, why not just passively accept nihilism?
Critchley replies that we should do more than merely accept nihilism; we must affirm “meaninglessness as an achievement, as a task or quest … as the achievement of the ordinary or everyday without the rose-tinted spectacles of any narrative of redemption.”[iii]In this way we don’t evade the problem of nihilism but truly confront it. As Critchley puts it:
“The world is all too easily stuffed with meaning and we risk suffocating under the combined weight of competing narratives of redemption—whether religious, socio-economic, scientific, technological, political, aesthetic or philosophical—and hence miss the problem of nihilism in our manic desire to overcome it.”[iv]
For models of what he means Critchley turns to playwright Samuel Beckett whose work gives us “a radical de-creation of these salvific narratives, an approach to meaninglessness as the achievement of the ordinary, a redemption from redemption.”[v] Salvation narratives are empty talk which cause trouble; better to be silent as Pascal suggested: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” What then is left after we are saved from the fables of salvation? As his title suggests; very little … almost nothing. But all is not lost; we can know the happiness derived from ordinary things.
Critchley finds a similar insight in what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the plain sense of things.”[vi] In Stevens’ famous poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” the setting is a funeral service. In one room we find merriment and ice cream, in another a corpse. The ice cream represents the appetites, the powerful desire for physical things; the corpse represents death. The former is better than the latter, and that this is all we can say about life and death. The animal life is the best there is and better than death—the ordinary is the most extraordinary.
For another example Critchley considers Thornton Wilder’s famous play “Our Town” which exalts the living and dying of ordinary people, as well as the wonder of ordinary things. In the play young Emily Gibbs has died in childbirth and is in an afterlife, where she is granted her wish to go back to the world for a day. But when she goes back she cannot stand it; people on earth live unconscious of the beauty which surrounds them. As she leaves she says goodbye to all the ordinary things of the world: “to clocks ticking, to food and coffee, new ironed dresses and hot baths, and to sleeping and waking up.”[vii] It is tragic that while living we miss the beauty of ordinary things. Emily is dismayed but we are enlightened—we ought to appreciate and affirm the extraordinary ordinary. Perhaps that is the best response to nihilism—to be edified by it, to find meaning in meaninglessness, to realize we can find happiness in spite of nihilism.
[i] Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12-13.
[ii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 31.
[iii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[iv] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[v] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[vi] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 118.
[vii] Thornton Wilder, Our Town (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1938), 82.