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A Brief History of Nothing (Part II): Something for Nothing

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“We presumed to be no longer worshipping anything, but were we not actually worshipping Nothing?”

“Then many more shrieks, rapid and piercing, like the yells of some exasperated and ruthless creature, rent the air. Progress was calling…”

“An Outpost of Progress” by Joseph Conrad

Revolutionaries always have their reasons. The French Revolution itself was dedicated to the Goddess Reason. Les philosophes had their reasons; the Girondists had theirs, and the Jacobins theirs. And the mob, too, had its reasons. Indeed, the Reign of Terror was a “Festival of Reason”—summary judgments, old grudges settled, bodies mutilated, and heads severed. And it was all in the name of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The French Revolution became a veritable frenzy of reason; the daily executions became “the Red Mass,” and the guillotine its alter. 

History is often written as the history of events, as well as the history of ideas. However, history can also be understood as the play of forces, and what we call events and ideas are more or less conditioned by our expressions of these forces. We often presume that human ideas determine the forces of history, but when and how do the forces of history determine human ideas?

Nothing Lives

Friedrich Nietzsche uses the term nihilism to describe both a state of mind and a historical force. Following Nietzsche’s thinking, I want to emphasize the dynamic aspect of nihilism by arguing that Nothing is a living power not unlike what we once called gods, or even God. Nothing is not merely an absence but an actual presence of a power or force we can and do experience. We can “believe” Nothing, but we can also be moved or inspired by its entropic powers, whether we acknowledge it or not. Nothing can destroy us, or it can guide us; we can even make use of and align ourselves with its powers. And perhaps above all, Nothing can possess us. 

The powers of Nothing erode traditions, destroy cultures, disrupt nature, and fragment human minds. Nothing is a destructive power, but it is simultaneously a liberating power. The more perfectly we acknowledge and identify with the random and dissoluting powers of Nothing, the more we feel emancipated as individuals or, in Max Stirner’s terms, the more we think of ourselves as liberated Egos. “Nihilism is…not only the belief that everything deserves to perish,” writes Nietzsche, “but one actually puts one shoulder to the plough; one destroys.” How do we create out of destruction? How do we make use of the entropic powers of Nothing?

With the Death of God, questions of origins, identity, and destiny require new answers. With the decline of an experience of a unified transcendent reality, our consciousness begins to shift, and it adapts to the new reality that envelops it. As reality appears to fragment, our consciousness fragments. Skepticism displaces belief as a way to orient ourselves to reality. Thus begins what Roberto Calasso  calls “a coup d’état of the brain,” a protracted shift in consciousness whereby we lose a sense of the whole but where we become hypersensitized to the pieces.

In the absence of any transcendent or unifying sense of knowledge, modern science, with its fantastical powers of breaking the world into pieces, implicitly identifies and aligns itself with the powers of Nothing. 

As the powers of Nothing are unleashed in the modern world, what we consider knowledge radically alters. Knowledge is no longer a revelation of some unity of conflicting forces nor the revelation of some transcendent power. Knowledge tends to become analytical, rational—we know reality by breaking it into, what E.O. Wilson calls, its “constituent elements.” We do not know reality through acts of imagination that apprehend and generate wholes. We do not know it by synthesis; we know it by analysis. We know reality not by analogy but by facts, information, or what would come to be called data. Our skepticism and analysis become activated and ritualized into a set of procedures for revealing reality. Thus, modern science becomes knowledge.

Science itself is defined by its methodologies, and early incarnations of science had no problem acknowledging powers greater than itself. But with the erosion of faith in greater powers and in the absence of a presumption of unity, science—if only by default—ultimately acknowledges Nothing. In the absence of any transcendent or unifying sense of knowledge, modern science, with its fantastical powers of breaking the world into pieces, implicitly identifies and aligns itself with the powers of Nothing. 

We may be denied knowledge of the whole, but we now have knowledge of the pieces. Nature becomes an object outside of ourselves to do with as we please. We trade meaning for power, which is just another way of describing the dynamic of Nothing and Ego. Science puts its “shoulder to the plough,” and reality is broken up and made useful for the ever-emancipated Ego.

Treating the world as an object generates unprecedented wealth, power, and a sense of individual liberation but also tremendous disruption and alienation. The problem appears to be not simply the generation of wealth but, also, the distribution of wealth. What we call ideologies of the “Left” emerge as ways of countering or correcting for ideologies of the “Right.” Where science turns nature into an object to do with as we please, modern ideologies turn society also into an object to do with as we please. Ideologies are human egoistic “theories” of how society should form itself. 

With the collapse of the Christian universe, we find ourselves in a materialistic universe with no apparent purpose. If we were not made in God’s image, where then did we come from? If reality consists of the play of random meaningless forces, then how can order, form, and life itself arise? 

What has come to be called Darwinism is an explanation of how incredibly complex and beautiful biological forms have arisen from blind, random forces. Order appears out of disorder. Forms in nature, so the argument goes, were not created ex nihilo by a great Creator. Just the same, they are not manifestations of the play of the contrary forces of order and disorder. Rather, they are the result of the blind disorderly forces alone. In the modern “atheistic” Darwinist, we can see the seductive powers of Nothing in a sophisticated form. What more perfect acknowledgment of the transcendent powers of Nothing than to affirm that humanity itself merely represents an accumulation of mindless accidents? Apparently, Nothing is capable of creating everything.

Charles Darwin himself resisted the powers of Nothing; he observed a unified paradoxical reality which simultaneously manifested “design” and “chance.” But Darwin lacked the poetic sensibility to reconcile seeming contrary forces, and he remained in a self-described “muddle.” Ultimately, Charles Darwin, the nineteenth century’s greatest scientist—like Nietzsche, its greatest philosopher—would be contorted and canonized as a great disciple of Nothing. 

Among those most radically sensitized to (and challenged by) the emergent dominance of Nothing and Ego are artists and poets. The historic role of art and poetry is to generate metaphors and images of a unified reality. Artists generate knowledge of how the world works and who we are in the universe. The human imagination is the origin of culture and civilization. Artists and poets are “emblematic of man” insofar as they epitomize our human capacity to confront and transform conflicting powers into meaningful wholes. But in an entropic universe, the very nature of art is called into question. In a fragmenting universe, what is the point of art? With the rise of reason and science, the human imagination begins to lose its knowledge function. 

Modern artists find themselves on a perilous path—to tell the whole truth unfolding before them but also to avoid being devoured by the greater deconstructive processes and seduced by the charms of their own liberation. As the powers of Nothing dissolve meaning, one convention after another is rendered irrelevant. Artists adapt; they turn inward. Art becomes aesthetics, self-expression, or even provocation. Art becomes fixated on the individual artist and his own processes. Many artists succumb; they are enfolded into the logic and language of emancipated Egos. They become “rebels,” “iconoclasts,” even “geniuses.” Under the spell of the emergent Capitalist order, they are praised for their “innovation” and “originality.” They embrace their newfound liberation and even exalt l’ art pour l’ art (art for art’s sake). Art survives by becoming a thing in itself, and, for many, the story of art is nothing less than the story of the emancipation of the individual imagination from all restraint.

Only the most powerful of creative minds could fully resist the powers of Nothing and Ego. As the world around them dissolves, great poetic minds seek to retain a capacity for unity and wholeness. Nietzsche denounces “art for art’s sake” artists as akin to the “croaking of shivering frogs, despairing in their swamp.” Nietzsche understands that the marginalization of art portends the marginalization of man. The Death of God is the death of meaning, the death of our capacity to connect with forces greater than ourselves. When the human imagination is neutered, we lose our place in the universe; gods weaken, and gods die. 

A religion is a precipitate of the human imagination, which is why Nietzsche understood “homines religiosi” to be artists of the “highest rank.” Both art and religion are concerned with meaning, apprehending the whole of reality, and harmonizing the destructive and creative aspects. Like art, religion loses its gnoseological function when it falls under the spell of Nothing and Ego. Religion becomes, in William James’ words, “varieties of religious experience,” valued, if at all, for its individual psychological function or its homeostatic social function. 

The more adept we become at fragmenting nature and controlling the pieces the more we are blinded to the workings of the whole. With the human imagination and traditional religions ghettoized, a new kind of vision was emerging. We had killed god, but “[i]sn’t the greatness of this deed too great for us?” The madman wonders, “Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?” We presumed to be no longer worshipping anything, but were we not actually worshipping Nothing?

God does not simply die one day, and we do not outright kill him. God shrinks, recedes, and is—more or less—forgotten.

Divine Naïveté

By the 19th century, our focus shifts from the transcendent to the immediate, from metaphysical explanations to the practical problems of understanding and controlling nature. We become utilitarians. So-called metaphysical questions are ignored, dismissed, even forgotten; many even declare the end of metaphysics. But the end of metaphysics is still metaphysics. A metaphysics of no metaphysics is a day without weather. 

For millennia, human beings were guided by revelations of connectedness, whereby we experienced ourselves as participants in a greater whole. In contrast, modern man is, in effect, guided by a revelation of disconnectedness. Presuming a fragmented and disconnected reality, everything adapts, and a new kind of civilization with a new kind of values arises. God does not simply die one day, and we do not outright kill him. God shrinks, recedes, and is—more or less—forgotten. The absence of God turns out to be the presence of Nothing. 

Nietzsche himself was quite sensitive to this paradoxical process. “[M]odern man,” Nietzsche observes, “is educated for disbelief,” and this is our own kind of “divine naïveté.” Disbelief is then just another form of belief. Despite the collapse of Christianity, Nietzsche notes that “the religious instinct is indeed in the process of growing powerfully—but the theistic satisfaction it refuses with deep suspicion.” The atheist, precisely like the theist, is one more kind of human-animal guided by all kinds of presumptions about the nature of reality. “[M]an”, writes Nietzsche in the final sentence in On the Genealogy of Morals, “would rather will nothingness than not will.” One way or another, we affirm something, even if that something is Nothing.

We think we are protected from the irrationalities of religion by prophylaxis of skepticism, but everything is merely inverted. In the disconnected universe, an orthodoxy of doubt displaces an orthodoxy of belief. Again, we begin to reproduce our own dogmas, superstitions, and priest classes. Nietzsche is widely characterized as the great prophet of the death of God and the emergent modern world; however, almost uniformly throughout his writings, Nietzsche ridicules “modern ideas.” For Nietzsche, modern man, and especially modern “educated” man, has convinced himself that he has gotten over the naiveté of belief, but in fact, he remains blind to his own naiveté. Nietzsche writes

“…in this belief of the scholar in his superiority, in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the unsuspecting, simple certainty with which his instinct treats the religious man as a lower and less valuable type, beyond before, and above which he himself has developed—he, the little arrogant dwarf and mob-man, the sedulously alert, head-and-hand drudge of ‘ideas,’ of ‘modern ideas’!'”

We might take it as instructive that among the very few contemporaries Nietzsche admired were the Russian Orthodox Christian Fyodor Dostoevsky and the American prophet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Nietzsche’s movement of nihilism is a historical process that accelerates in the 19th century, as a metaphysics of connectedness is displaced by a metaphysics of disconnectedness. As reality fragments, our consciousness fragments; the more precisely we control and manipulate nature, the more blind we become to the whole. Bound and provoked by Nothing, our Egos are inflamed; we begin to dream of unlimited power and total liberation. We seem to be in the grip of some inexorable power. We call this power Progress.

The Wrath of Nothing

By the late 19th century, Europe was experiencing La Belle Époque, a period of unprecedented wealth, creativity, individual liberation, technological innovation, and imperial power. As another great progressive would proclaim a half-century later, we were “giddy with success.” But these great expansions were built upon the conventions, moralities, and social structures from the past. What made us think that all our traditional systems and values were also not subject to the dissolving powers of Nothing?

Ultimately a world ruled by Nothing could not be built upon any pre-existing foundation. Nothing is an acid which dissolves all vessels. We yet suffered Stirner’s “curse of halfness” and remained caught—largely unaware—in ourspiderwebs of hypocrisy.” Our recognition, or more precisely, our faith in Nothing was imperfect; we wanted it both ways: We wanted all the benefits of liberated “rational” Egos, and, at the same time, we thought we could simply retain the conventions, institutions, and moralities built up over centuries from a world of a living God. We wanted unlimited power and thought we could retain meaning. Had we not already traded our souls for the liberation of our Egos? Had we forgotten our Faustian bargain? Everything deserves to perish. 

Nietzsche first published the parable the madman and his pronouncement of the death of God in 1882 in his book The Gay Science. Towards the end of the parable, the madman realizes no one understands the implications of what he is saying. “‘I have come too early,’ says the madman, ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.'” The death of God signifies the birth of Nothing; the powers of Nothing had been set in motion, but their full impact would be decades away. 

It turns out that La Belle Époque was simultaneously Fin de siècle Europe. Europe was at the pinnacle of its powers, yet, at the same time, a great sense of foreboding was in the air. Our great Enlightenment project was apparently casting long shadows. Sigmund Freud was discovering that every liberated Ego was moved by a dark id, and Joseph Conrad saw that all modern dreams of empire beat with a heart of darkness. 

What interests the Professor, what only interests the Professor, is complete annihilation, a return to zero.

In 1907, Conrad published his ominous political novel The Secret Agent, which concerns the activities of a group of revolutionaries in London. The revolutionaries embody the “madness and despair” lurking just below the surface of the greatest of imperial powers. They plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory, which would be a great symbolic strike at modern science, the power behind all ideas of Progress and all imperial pretensions.

The actual bomb maker is a fringe member of the group known only as “the Professor.” The Professor is actually contemptuous of most of his fellow revolutionaries, who lose themselves “in reveries of economic systems derived from what is…” What is truly needed, argues the Professor, is “a clean sweep.” The Professor recognizes Nothing outside of himself; he is pure nihilist, pure emancipated Ego. The Professor is Max Stirner’s dark apostle. What interests the Professor, what only interests the Professor, is complete annihilation, a return to zero. All questions of morality and law have been reduced to this one practical problem: “a dependable detonator.”

The Professor literally embodies his convictions; he goes about in public always with explosives strapped to his body. Well known by the police, he walks the streets unmolested, one hand in his pocket grasping his detonator. Guided by a singular and pure vision, he fears no one. Conrad, the consummate artist, is highly sensitive to the forces at play in turn of the century Europe and, in the Professor, he has embodied the force of annihilation. The Professor is the Avatar of Nothing or, perhaps more accurately, the Avenging Angel of Nothing. 

The Secret Agent does not end in some great climactic act of either terror or heroic salvation. The novel chronicles the pathetic madness and despair of its protagonists. As for the Professor, the very last paragraph finds him again freely wandering the streets of the greatest city on earth:

“And the incorruptible Professor walked, too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.”

The Professor embodies a force that would walk into and throughout the 20th century. The Professor represents the promise of liberation, with the realization of Nothing. In the coming great wastelands of Nothing, great Egos—freed from all restraint of morality and law—would dance around new golden calves. And Nothing would demand ever more recognition, ever more sacrifices.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

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