Two films that my wife and I have recently watched have led me to reflect on the notion of Nihilism (you know, "these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of.") A few weeks ago, we watched Francois Truffaut's four Antoine Doinel films (The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run), and last night we watched Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. (If you know Whit Stilman's work, Stolen Kisses is the film that the Cathar character--another nihilist--makes his girlfriend watch in Damsels in Distress. I think it's well worth watching, but I'm not going to talk about that film here.)
As one does, I mull over the much-vaunted eclipse of meaning in the modern world now and again. At times, I am overwhelmed with the apparent meaninglessness and valuelessness of the world; at times, I am struck by the deep and abiding significance and value of things. I've learned to take both experiences seriously. Both of them say to me, like they said to Walker Percy, "something is up!" But one must learn to take them seriously in different ways. It would not do to build a whole philosophy, an entire worldview equally on both. One must learn to prefer the latter sort of experience, and understand the former in terms of the latter.
Love on the Run opens with the anti-hero Antoine Doinel, sometime juvenile delinquent, debauchee, petty thief, and pathological liar, in the midst of an affair while obtaining a divorce from his wife, by mutual agreement. In Bed and Board, they had come through many trials, mostly of his own making stemming from a pointless affair, and seemed to have reached a stability in their marriage, a stability marked by a constant battle of the sexes--but that is part of the joy of the love of man and woman, is it not? (Indeed, surely that is just part of what it is to be a man and a woman, as such!) But now, as Love on the Run opens, all of that is seen to be for nothing. Much of the film is taken up with flashbacks to the other films. There is a sort of regret, but it comes to little. Antoine claims to be in love with his new mistress, Sabine, but it is hard to tell which of his claims about himself are true--even for him, it seems. Despite claiming that he needs certainty in a relationship, he and Sabine decide to imagine that they are certain that their relationship with last forever (knowing full well, it would seem, that it will not), and in that state of cheerfully willed self-deception, the film ends.
When one thinks of nihilism, one might be tempted to think of the bleak and forlorn nihilists in The Idiot, or of a group of angry convention-defying anarchists or futurists (or the pathetic, violent, self-pitying nihilists of The Big Lebowski). (If you're an analytic philosopher, you might have thought of the view that there are only fundamental particles or simples; more on that anon.) But that's not the sort of nihilism depicted at the end of Love on the Run. This sort of nihilist is on the search for meaning, or at least believes himself on the search for meaning, but has both been lying so long that he lies even to himself. He no longer knows what is meaningful or not. He is willing to pretend, to deceive himself, for the chance at the feeling of meaning, even if he knows the whole time that this is not genuine meaning. To think oneself in love is better than genuine nothingness, which is unbearable. This is, indeed, a cheerful nihilism. It is not a love of nothingness. It is not really even an expression of the will to power, that will to dominate and create values that would clothe the nothingness of reality with significance of one's own making. At least, it is not a conscious will to power. It is a will to be deceived by the other, while willing to deceive oneself and the other, and while knowing that the other is deceiving herself (and knows she is doing so). It is a pleasant game. And since the deception of self and other is shared, it hardly amounts to a deception at all. It is, indeed, I would think, the possible basis of a genuine love, a gift of self to the other, made and received almost despite oneself, yet willingly for all that, and all the while quite happily.
The Purple Rose of Cairo depicts a young wife of an abusive husband during the Great Depression, whose only solace is in the movies. She spends an entire day watching showing after showing of a film, The Purple Rose of Cario, when in the midst of the fifth showing, one of the characters on screen comes off the screen and declares his love for her. He acts in a way entirely consonant with his character: earnest and sincere, truly loving, naive about life off the screen, with a genuine and charming innocence, able to make her fall in love with him. When the actor who plays this character arrives in town to try to make the character return to the film where he belongs, the actor succeeds in making the woman fall in love with her. When forced to choose between the fictional lover and the real one, she chooses reality. Yet the love of the fictional lover is real love, while the love of the real lover is an act, a manipulation. The real actor abandons her, and the film closes with her again taking solace in the fictional depiction of love on screen, real love lost to her forever.
Woody Allen's films nearly all exude a cheerful nihilism, but it is not the same as Truffaut's nihilism. Allen's films depict the world as genuinely meaningless; Truffaut's characters are at least on the search for meaning. Yet in both love is a sort of solace--though no love truly seems to last. Neither, however, teaches us to impose our own meaning on the world. And both teach us something that is, I think, really true. It is lesson that is taught to us, for example, by Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism: that genuine human meaning is "on the surface" of life. What is truly meaningful are values like the value of falling in love, of family, of one's nation, of one's home. These things cannot be explained away in terms of something "deeper", as, for example, Freudian or evolutionary psychology, or Marxism, or Foucaultian genealogy, or the ethics of suspicion, try to do. The reality of these things is in their appearance, at least as they appear to the one who is genuinely and artlessly open to them--yet they are also fragile, threatened by those "deeper" forces, needing to be defended. Meaning is given, but it is not cheap. The mistake of Allen and Truffaut's nihilism is thinking that everyday life must be explained away, that what appears cannot be real, and so must be suspected, albeit cheerfully. Allen holds that there is no God or immortality, yet he feels deeply
(more deeply than any director I have seen) the value of place, and he
also knows (however twistedly) the joy of love. Truffaut is suspicious
of lasting love, yet he also longs for it, and is on the search for
it--for that reason, despite his nihilist self-deception, it is perhaps
not fair to call him a nihilist at all.
A Christian may love these cheerful nihilisms, and must even find a way to include the threat of meaninglessness (without embracing it fully) that they express so well into his religion. There is something truly human about them, a real longing for something worthwhile, however strained.
These cheerful nihilisms are greatly to be preferred to other sorts that leer at me invitingly from time to time. These forms know what they are about; they are not self-deceived; they are not on the search for given meanings.
First, there is the nihilism that thinks the world is meaningless, but seeks to impose meaning on it by the will to power (for despite all his protestations, Nietzsche too is probably a nihilist, as is anyone without God). But this nihilism at least recognizes the value of meaning and power, and so perhaps finds itself in the grips of some given value--the very value inherent in the will to power. For that is the escape from nihilism, as perhaps Dietrich Von Hildebrand saw better than anyone else: to allow oneself to be moved by a value given from without, to allow oneself to have given to one the beauty or the holiness or the purity (or the ugliness or the profanity, so long as it is objective and given) of things in the world. Realism is not enough; realism about values is needed, where one is moved by what is given, by these surface realities, and where what is given lifts one up to ever-more-transcendent heights. Theism is not enough, for there is a theism (that, for example, of John Milbank or of the occasionalists) that drains the world of meaning, and reduces all meaning to God. The only solution to nihilism is to see the world in a blaze of meaning and value (though not without losing the awareness of our fallen temptation to meaninglessness, and not without falling into a facile ascription of meaning to things).
In this same vein, there are those like Jean-Paul Sartre who are horrified, nay nauseated, at the meaninglessness of the world. But this is not, as Emmanuel Levinas recognized, not really nihilism either, but a spur to receive meaning from what comes from outside the meaningless world of physical processes and self-imposed meanings--that is, from the transcendent, from other persons and from God. There is still the opening to cheer here.
Second, there is the nihilism that says that there is nothing but physical processes or, as the analytic metaphysicans say, simples, that is, fundamental particles. This is a more horrific nihilism, but those who hold are not normally nihilists in the sense of experiencing the meaninglessness of their world. We should be glad for this, that the nihilists do not realize their own nihilism, but instead clothe the particles with meanings generated by "society" or "reason" or I know not what. Those who think that there really are only fundamental particles, by and large still act as though they also believed (or recognized the need to pretend that they believe, for their own safety if nothing else) that there are rights, or autonomy, or something like that. But this is really a deception. If nihilism in this sense is true, then there are no such things, and only our fragile social contract (which also does not exist) keeps up the pretense. If one really holds this form of nihilism, then there are really only two options: the option of suicide, or the option of the Marquis de Sade, who is the philosopher of the modern world, for whom only sensation matters--or, indeed, for whom there is only sensation ("mattering" being not a thing this philosophy can speak of). If this nihilism is true, then there is no reason not to procure sensation by any means: no violence or cruelty or sexual perversion is to be set aside, for all are equally sensations. Consent is of no moment, autonomy an illusion, rights a boring fiction. This nihilism entails sadism (not our pathetic contemporary sanitized 50 Shades of Gray sadism, but the real deal.) There is no cheer in this nihilism. It is not the un-self-aware will to pleasure of the man of the flesh, nor yet the nihilism of the aesthete. It is a nihilism that has drained all the glory from the world, that leaves nothing but sensation, in ever increasingly terrible forms. I know of no depiction of it that I can morally recommend better than Edgar Degas' painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages. I know how to get out of the first nihilism. I do not know how to get out of this one. It is hell itself, though not yet the lower circles.
But this is not the worst nihilism, not the nihilism against which we must strive with all our might, which is the will to meaninglessness. This is the nihilism that sees the meaning and value in the world in all its splendor and hates it, that would blot it all out. This is not the pride that seeks to subordinate all things to oneself--that is not nihilism at all, or at worst it is the first sort, for it sees and loves the value of oneself (or at least the value one gives to oneself by one's will to power). This is the hatred of even one's own value. This is the longing only to destroy, that there may be literally nothing. As a good Aristotelian, believing that all things are done for the sake of some good, I hardly know if I can speak of such things. But as a good phenomenologist, I must speak of such things, for they do appear, or at least the temptation to them appears. This is the deepest of horrors, the bottom-most circle of hell, the infinite depths of the abyss.
This is, I say, nothing like the cheerful nihilism of Allen and Truffaut's charming films. But I also say that this is one place that charming nihilism can lead. I have not read Cardinal Sarah's recent book God or Nothing. But that does seem the choice posed to us. To affirm God (in a non-nihilistic way) is also to affirm the value of each being in itself (and not merely or maybe not at all, as Heidegger thought, the value of "Being"), the beauty and meaning that calls us higher, to render the world good and pure and great-souled. To shy away from this is to be on the road to sucking all the meaning out of things, to be left only with hatred for the fact that one must be, without being able to ever cease to be.