In two preceding sets of blogs about positivism and fundamentalism, I have tried to identify a strong element of nihilism built into those two towers of belief in the modern age. The nihilism is selective, despising every kind of knowledge, every interpretation of GSOT, that differs from and offers contrast to the starting point that “our side” assumes.
Nihilism, even when selective, makes for weak construction. The towers are crumbling. At least that’s what I have tried to say.
But it’s hard to make a coherent charge of nihilism. The accusation declares the worthlessness of the thinking and judgment of my opponents. Am I not, then, acting as a selective nihilist myself – a prophet whose message foretells chaotic loss of value for the other camp?
Thinking in this way, we could say that everyone who expresses their viewpoint with strength and conviction necessarily negates the opinions of others. Everyone who has something to say must attempt to seize the audio space, the attention of listeners, to the exclusion of competing voices. Space is limited. Attention is finite. In a very natural way the booming importance of our own message leaves us deaf to all else.
Thus it makes no sense to accuse others of selective nihilism, when the same process of argument exposes our own tendencies to disregard and degrade the position of our opponents. Then we sink back to the same starting point the fundamentalists declared: Everyone has presuppositions. Mine are valid. Yours are not. Isn’t that the way it is?
Is there a way to escape the arbitrariness of point and counterpoint – the meaninglessness of verbal battles where missiles never hit their mark because the foes are not even looking at each other?
There is an answer, I believe. Let’s define nihilism more carefully as a philosophical disposition that negates the value of everyday human life.
Everyday life! What does that mean?
Is it dragging myself out of bed each morning, fixing the same stale breakfast, fighting the traffic, going through the well-worn motions of a thankless job, facing the same misconceptions of irritated people endlessly, and in the evening collapsing on the couch to watch the cops and robbers show with its predictable outcome, and going to bed for the relief of unconsciousness, so that this routine can be repeated joyously tomorrow?
Yes! But let’s include in the concept of everyday life some times of novelty, of growth, and even of graciously accepted decline and decay.
Let’s include the first remembered moments of the discovery of self and others.
When I was 4 or 5 years old, I heard about robots, or perhaps saw robots on television. Some of them looked a lot like real people.
At the same time, the contrast between – how can I put it? – the immanence of my inner life and my position in the world versus my lack of appreciation of what others could see, hear, think, and do was lingering in my consciousness as a kind of echo of the shock when my eyes first opened and Mama spoke to me and the world began.
How is it possible to remember something like that? Because of the robots. At age 4 or 5, I entertained the hypothesis – though I didn’t know to call it a hypothesis then – that everyone other than myself might be a robot. I never really believed it, never acted upon it. It was just an unsettling daydream. Ever since then, once in a while I have felt the need to test the hypothesis, and each time I am grateful for the people around me who disprove it.
Let’s include the first kiss ever, the first with my future wife Susan Storm, the kiss as I leave for work each morning, the kiss on coming home each evening, and also the fulsome kiss.
Let’s include the Aha! moment when a mathematical concept suddenly makes sense, and the mystery lifts and the power of comprehension becomes real. The first paycheck and the most recent one and the next one. The opportunity to hold a baby and feel its gaze upon your face and whisper stories about coming days of childhood, love, and growth.
Let’s think about the courage Eloise shows when the voices scream in her head and she defies them, taking her medicine and living in a group home and going faithfully to work and enjoying a weekly restaurant meal with her parents.
Let’s acclaim the resilience Ruth and Arthur discover in their last years of failing health, finding enough in small projects and pleasures to sustain them, as love surpasses all previous limits in meeting each other’s needs.
We ourselves define or create the meaning of our daily lives, according to Albert Camus and other existentialist philosophers who bucked the trends of positivism and fundamentalism in the 20th century.
The archetypal hero for Camus was Sisyphus, a Greek leader of Corinth who, after defying the gods, died and was condemned in afterlife to roll a large rock toward the top of a mountain, only to have the rock slip from his grasp at the top and fall back to the valley, and to repeat the cycle endlessly. Camus imagined Sisyphus to be happy. “His rock is his thing,” wrote Camus in 1940. We can reasonably suspect that was the origin of the oft-repeated “Do your own thing” of popular culture in the 60s and 70s.
In 1940 Europe had plunged into the madness of World War II. In a preface Camus described the purpose of his Myth of Sisyphus as follows:
Written…amid the French and European disaster, this book declares that even within the limits of nihilism, it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism.
Everyday life may feel like the equivalent of rolling Sisyphus’ rock. That’s okay. Do your own thing, and find happiness in it.
Is it possible that things of everyday life outweigh heaven and hell, outweigh the discovery of nature’s secrets?
No, say the fundamentalists. No, say the positivists.
I would like to go back to the Texas Hill Country and climb Enchanted Rock, maybe try rolling a stone, or just sit up there and not come down until I have a satisfactory answer to that question.
But this blog series must move on. The next blog will present Rule #1 in our search for GSOT.
Next post: Rule #1. Every Sentence is First Person
Previous post: Fundamentalism IV. Favor and Doom
Searching for GSOT outline: Home
Photo: DVD cover of 1951 film.
 Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Transl. by Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books, New York, 1955, from the Preface. Originally published as Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Librairie Gallimard, 1942.