With the twentieth century only now starting to recede into the distance a little bit, spending a little time working out what one doesn’t believe in somehow seems to be a better use of time than deciding what one does.

For what it’s worth, here’s my five so far:

Nihi List Five

1. Boundless individual economic mobility

2. Crab sticks

3. Guy Ritchie

4. Twittering as an art form

5. Hypnotism

“It’s easy to be cynical,” people say. Does it follow then that being a nihilist is like falling off a log?

Rejecting all systems of belief or belonging on the basis of their existence, no matter how attractive or unattractive they might be?…

I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty difficult to me.

100% pure negativity has got to be pretty exhausting. How does the average nihilist get up in the morning? Do they have to set fire to the sheets to give themselves an impetus to get out of bed? (On the wrong side, obviously.)

Maybe the true nihilist never sleeps, just so he can pack the maximum amount of swingeing spite into the day.

Those same people who tend to profess a disbelief in everything also say, “do what you want as long as you’re happy”. It’s the ethics of the Knightsbridge Hippie:

Place yourself at the centre of the universe!

Choosing a position in the middle of opposing forces and seeking to balance their flow through the body is the first principle of the physical expression of the doctrine of Taoism: ‘Yang’ approximate to the tendency to disperse, and ‘yin’ to the tendency to gather.

The movements of Taoism’s physical mode of expression—the ancient art of Tai Chi—attempt to describe this circuit of equal and opposite intensities in physical space with as little entropy as possible. Yet, it’s still almost impossible not to regard the Self as the epicentre of the flux.

Bertrand Russell’s view of Taoist precepts was of a system describing, “production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination”. Especially now, in the age of ‘free’ content, producing anything without a specific, fixed place for it assured is to be subject to the same kind of Janus-faced condition:

The maintenance of a dedicated passion and zealous commitment to a piece of work and a blithe indifference to whether or not anyone might ever value experience of it at some time in the near (or distant) future.

As Captain Beefheart so sanguinely said (from his position as a professional musician),

“Music should be free, because from where I got it, I didn’t have to pay for it.”

Photo by Carl Van Vechten (CC)

Writing for Esquire in 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned the necessity of accommodating two equal and opposite ideas in the head at the same time (appoximate to Keats’ ideas of negative capability), commented on here by Allen Ginsberg in an interview with John Lofton from Harper’s in 1990:

“…the quality of a very great poet like Shakespeare was his ability to contain opposite ideas in the mind without an irritable reaching out after fact and reason. Meaning that that part of the mind which judges, and irritably insists on either black or white, is only a small part of the mind. The larger mind observes the contradiction, and contains those contradictions. The mind that notices that it contradicts itself is bigger than the smaller mind that is taking one side or the other.”

But doesn’t even that place the writer’s Ego at the centre of things?

Paying even scant attention to the media, it’s tempting to think that maybe all that any of us has ever been, or can ever aspire to be, is an acted upon product of economic propensities: Skills, qualifications, career choices; relationships and peers even start to seem like nothing more than signs and signifiers of an upset balance of payments, or the almighty Budget Deficit inscribed in human flesh.

Is there more to life than this, and more importantly, is anyone writing about it, now that Vonnegut, Deleuze, Guattari, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson and J.G. Ballard are all dead?

The Occam’s Razor of Thatcherism/Reaganomics and is that it’s foolhardy to believe in anything other than yourself. But what happens when the individual realises he is no longer his own hero?

A lot of Chuck Palahniuk’s work is about the necessity of finding something larger than the self to believe in, and to hitch the wagon to, (especially ‘Fight Club’). As many contemporary writers and theorists have pointed out at length, the mind has a desire for belonging, if not a desire to be led (the source of and inherent attraction of fascism, and the psychological explanation of religion), but can anyone point me in the direction of any writers that have really addressed the problem of distortion by the writer’s Ego as the point of reference for everything?

Until we get past that, aren’t we all doomed to repeating the same literary mistakes of the last hundred years?

IMAGES: Screen grab from clip of ‘The Big Lebowski’ posted on youtube.com, all others used under CC Creative Commons licence.

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Andy is a freelance magazine writer and editor from the North of England. He has rapidly divested himself of his life and reassembled it so many times in so many different countries over the last several years that he feels like his hair is on fire. He is at work on a novel ostensibly about the British Empire.

One response to “The Case for Disbelief”

  1. Andy Johnson says:

    2009-06-04 04:31:37
    Comment by Becky

    People who say nihilism–or even its kid brother cynicism–is easy say it, in my opinion, for one of two reasons:

    1. They are natural cynics who have been convinced that there’s something morally/ethically/socially unacceptable about such a state of mind and are working their balls off to be liked, congratulated, or admired (by themselves or others). A self-loathing kind of situation resulting from a culture pathologically obsessed with a superficial or affected kind of self-improvement.

    2. They are natural hopefuls/optimists who are so extremely indifference/negativity avoidant that they mistake even healthy skepticism and critical thinking for cynicism; therefore doubt, which DOES come easily for most humans, is branded cynical.

    The idea that cynicism is a fundamentally neutral stance appeals to me, though the negative connotations associated with the word itself make for a tough sell in the sphere of debate. I think we need a new word for it, honestly. Cut bait. “Cynic” will not be salvaged.

    Are you familiar with Richard Rorty’s Ironist?

    Here is Rorty’s description (an excerpt from his book), posted at some dude’s blog:

    http://radio.weblogs.com/0126951/stories/2003/06/30/iAmAnIronist.html

    “I call people of this sort “ironists” because their realization that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed, and their renunciation of the attempt to formulate criteria of choice between final vocabularies, puts them in the position which Sartre called “meta-stable”: never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves.”

    I would add that this inability to take oneself seriously stems from the realization that no one around them can be taken seriously, either, in most cases. This core doubt is one of the preconditions, I’d say, of cynicism.

    Yikes. I’ve carried on long enough. Now that I look at what I’ve written, I’m not even sure it’s germane to your post. For what it’s worth, I have always been a fan of Taoism.

    2009-06-05 00:49:39
    Comment by Andrew Johnson

    Wow – thanks for such a considered comment and for entering into the kind of debate that appears to be rare across TNB. i.e. one which is not about obscure punk rock or the relative merits of different bars in the New York metropolitan area, or whatever…

    I was not aware of this chap Rorty at all, but I have read the extract you recommended in light of David Foster Wallace’s oft-expressed theory of the tyranny of irony, which I wholeheartedly agree with, but find extremely difficult to put into practice. I think there’s no better illustration of the absolute limit of irony and the destructive effect of it on writing than the mocking voice he puts in the mouth of the caustic ur-ironist:

    “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.”

    TBC…

    2009-06-05 02:35:01
    Comment by Becky

    I think it’s important that I admit I’m sympathetic to Rorty’s Ironist (not necessarily the same thing as a literary ironist).

    The link to cynicism comes from the notion that “anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed.” My problem with contemporary concepts of cynicism is that cynicism is often characterized as a synonym for pessimism. Though it is certainly possible and even likely that a cynic would also be a pessimist, they are not necessary conditions for one another. My feeling is that pure cynics tend to avoid good/bad qualitative notions of things, preferring statements like, “it just IS.” They may believe, for example, that people are essentially self-serving but reject the assumption that it is necessarily a bad thing.

    If one person rescues another from a burning building because the rescued owes the rescuer money, for example, hasn’t the rescuer still saved the rescuee?

    Not a very realistic example, but you see my point.

    Anyway, Rorty’s Ironist is not defined by her opinion of human nature in the way a cynic is, but there is a similarly neutral quality to it. A sort of moral neutrality. In the Ironist’s case, it stems from an awareness of the failings, limits, and malleability of language and perception. A distrust not of human nature (which tempts qualitative judgments) but of humans’ ability to perceive and communicate their situation, beliefs, and opinions in an unfettered, purely logical way. Sort of the embodiment of postmodernism.

    The end result, though, is similar to that of a cynic: The Ironist realizes (or believes) that people cannot, in many cases, be believed or trusted (in Rorty’s words, “taken seriously”). The main point of departure between an Ironist and a Cynic (or definitions of Cynics), as I understand it, is that the Ironist’s life is further complicated by the realization that “people” includes her. This is where, I think, the irony actually comes in.

    And it is handcuffing. How can an Ironist (Rorty’s kind, not the literary sort…though Rorty’s kind may also be a writer) be in the world in a positive and generally happy way, given the knowledge that everyone, including herself, is essentially full of shit? This, I don’t know. I didn’t read that far into the book. I should also offer, as a disclaimer, that I read Rorty’s theory many years ago, so I may not be representing it 100% accurately (and certainly not in its entirety).

    2009-06-05 18:32:07
    Comment by Andrew Johnson

    Even more interesting stuff, Becky. Thanks…

    With regards the people and the burning building – I think the level of cynicism depends if the creditor returns the debtor to the flames after getting the money back. (But then there’s a very fine line between a cynic and an arsehole.)

    There’s a really insightful portion of ‘Capitalism and Scizophrenia’ about the level of mistrust in an author’s mind going as far as taking in the author himself. The example used is Proust’s oeuvre as a collosal joke that Proust is playing on himself—as in, even Proust thinks the artfully constructed fey, hankie-waving persona he spends thousands of pages constructing is full of shit. I love this idea, (and it certainly makes ‘In Search of Lost Time’ a lot more readable). Proust is not the unreliable narrator, he’s the unreliable author. That’s pretty powerful.

    The “noncircular argumentative resource” that ‘final vocabulary’ represents reminds me of some of Klossowski’s ‘Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle’, as in “the violent oscillations that overwhelm an individual so long as he seeks only his own centre and ignores the circle of which he is part”, but we’re back to taoism there.

    I think in contrast to Rorty’s fretful “ironist” or the traditionally embittered cynic, the neutral position is the maintainance of a capacity for joy at the ridiculousness of anything that takes itself too seriously, especially a writer’s own meticulously erected position, which is often hilarious. Especially now, when everyone is a content creator and the traditional Author—as in the supposedly ‘enlightened’ intellect floating high above six billion datastreams, with expensive quill and triple-barreled name—is beginning to look really rather silly.

    I think I might read this Rorty character – thank you so much for pointing me in this direction.

    2009-06-06 03:58:47
    Comment by Becky

    I never thought of the Ironist as fretful–more critical. But self-criticism could certainly make a person fretful, I suppose.

    Triple-barreled name.

    Regarding the unreliable author…I can’t help but think of J.L. Borges’ apocryphal book reviews, in which he places himself, as himself, in fictional situations with fictional books and writes what, to anyone who didn’t know any better or wasn’t attentive, would appear to be normal literary criticism of an actual book. There’s a sense of surreality, one or two things that are just too bizarre to be believed, but the POV is one of familiar, self-serious scholarship.

    In Borges’ case, the subjective nature of books, history, theory (text in general) is what is actually in question, but it’s interesting that the best vehicle he seems to have found for addressing these issues has to do with weirding the identity of the author/narrator…who is him but not him. Borges writing Borges writing a book review. At once playful and creepy.

    Things are getting a little tangential now, so I’ll stop, but I hope you’ll enjoy Rorty. I’m not positive, but I think he may be a linguist by education…if not, very language-centered philosophy, anyway. In that way, ideal for application to literature.

    2009-06-04 05:51:08
    Comment by Elizabeth Collins

    Hmmm…I was a philosophy major a million years ago (well, specifically, the philosophy of religion). I think it’s interesting how almost everyone goes through a phase of existentialism, maybe even nihilism. Then, later, perhaps, they come back around.

    Believing in nothing is depressing. Being an Ayn Randian is absurd and, I think, cruel. Then again, believing everything you’re told to believe by your school or church is probably stupid.

    And I think Chuck Pa-howeveryouspellit is overrated as a writer (I also just read a review of his latest work which says the same thing). ‘Fight Club’ was ok.

    But having said that, the more I know, the less I am sure that I know. Maybe that is cynical. I think it’s pretty neutral. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    2009-06-05 01:11:58
    Comment by Andrew Johnson

    Thanks for a thought provoking comment.

    I give props to anyone able to take on any kind of philosophy major and make it through to the end without going completely Nietzsche. I know I certainly couldn’t manage it.

    I’m a Palahniuk fan in the absence of another other living American writer I’m aware of doing anything interesting at all (except perhaps for Thomas Pynchon). Lots of his stuff adheres to pretty standard Chuck-Schtick, but his positive mission is pretty clear, and I respect that.

    I don’t think more doubt is cynical at all. In light of Becky’s fascinating comment above, I suspect more doubt is actually more brave, just as long as it doesn’t kill hope.

    And I agree that that weird Ayn Rand renaissance was a disturbing turn of events.

    2009-06-04 05:58:52
    Comment by Becky

    “Believing in nothing is depressing.” <——-Final vocabulary! Final vocabulary! Right there! 😉

    2009-06-05 18:39:21
    Comment by Andrew Johnson

    Even more interesting stuff, Becky. Thanks…

    With regards the people and the burning building – I think the level of cynicism depends if the creditor returns the debtor to the flames after getting the money back. (But then there’s a very fine line between a cynic and an arsehole.)

    There’s a really insightful portion of ‘Capitalism and Scizophrenia’ about the level of mistrust in an author’s mind going as far as taking in the author himself. The example used is Proust’s oeuvre as a collosal joke that Proust is playing on himself—as in, even Proust thinks the artfully constructed fey, hankie-waving persona he spends thousands of pages constructing is full of shit. I love this idea, (and it certainly makes ‘In Search of Lost Time’ a lot more readable). Proust is not the unreliable narrator, he’s the unreliable author. That’s pretty powerful.

    ‘Infinite Jest’ is not called “Infinite Jest” for nothing.

    The “noncircular argumentative resource” that ‘final vocabulary’ represents reminds me of some of Klossowski’s ‘Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle’, as in “the violent oscillations that overwhelm an individual so long as he seeks only his own centre and ignores the circle of which he is part”, but we’re back to taoism there.

    I think in contrast to Rorty’s fretful “ironist” or the traditionally embittered cynic, the neutral position is the maintainance of a capacity for joy in the life-affirming ridiculousness of anything that takes itself too seriously, especially a writer’s own meticulously erected position, which is often hilarious. Especially now, when everyone is a content creator and the traditional Author—as in the supposedly ‘enlightened’ intellect floating high above six billion datastreams, with expensive quill and triple-barreled name—is beginning to look really rather silly.

    I think I might read this Rorty character – thank you so much for pointing me in this direction.

    2009-06-05 05:29:18
    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell

    You had me at Nihi List Five

    Best band name ever.

    2009-06-05 06:05:17
    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell

    Who, btw, once they are formed, should totally play at Barbes, which is this groovy little bar around the corner from my place out here in Brooklyn…

    2009-06-05 06:26:24
    Comment by D.R. Haney

    They ain’t playing in L.A., baby. I’m on it.

    2009-06-08 12:56:19
    Comment by Bave

    I was gonna fall off a log once – couldn’t be arsed. Sounded rubbish anyway.

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