“The Intelligent, Post-Modern Woman’s Guide to Nihilism”

by Caspar Da Gama
(a Portuguese ‘heteronym’)

[Note: I have asked Mr. Da Gama – this suave, internationally educated member of “the Portuguese gentry” (as he described it to me), now a fellow graduate student (though he is studying English and Italian literature in the Comp. Lit. Department, while I am studying “Religion and Literature”)—to provide readers with a brief formulation of his “philosophy of life,” in the manner of NPR’s “This I Believe,” but more in-depth. It is certainly not one that I agree with, but I felt that a ‘heteronym’ —for that is what Mr. Da Gama is, in reality—would be a useful tool for expressing certain perceptions or thoughts that have occasionally haunted me, though they are contrary to my own practice, both in life and in thought. His title, as I take it, is both accurate and rather a joke—alluding to George Bernard Shaw, I believe. – Sam Buntz.]

I am, for lack of a better or more accurate term, a nihilist—I have no steady, stable system of beliefs, and, in fact, I abhor such structures. Practically, this makes me just as adverse to all rational, optimistic, scientifically-minded atheists as it does to Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the whole lot of starry-eyed believers. I find the religious perspective even more intolerable as it becomes infected with these perniciously modern qualities—the less God becomes an irrational Force, and something more like a rational, optimistic, mild-mannered, scientifically-minded, beetle-shaped little person, who has measured out the rings of Saturn with a big compass, and measured out electrons and protons with a much smaller compass. When your average atheist—like, say, Richard Dawkins—looks at the world, he sees a set of physical, natural laws that have governed the universe changelessly forever—have even called it into existence—and will continue to do so for another period of endless duration. Like the Deity of the Monotheists, a Dawkins-type atheist—by no means worthy of the true Nihilist’s merit-badge— sets up his own neat and nifty vision of the cosmos with a big compass and a little compass—his mind is his God, and there is little pragmatic difference between it and the tyrant of the Old Testament. Yet I see no continuities within my own ego that would make it capable of discerning such eternal patterns any more than I sense a power within it that would make it capable of discerning a creator deity.

When I—the genuine, sincere, and (more or less) joyous nihilist—look at the cosmos, I don’t see a changeless architecture of physical laws. I see what I call “The Swirl.” “The Swirl” is just the endless flow of impressions passing by all of us at all hours of the day. The laws of nature we observe can in no way be declared absolute—they are but the customs of “The Swirl”—semi-stable patterns in the cosmic flux or flushing—and they probably will break down at some point in the future or simply become irrelevant. This Swirl is not only what transpires outside of me, but inside of my self: the dark eddy of experience is all that I—insofar as “I” even exist—am capable of discerning. I don’t know whether it is inside of me or outside of me, or whether there is an inside and an outside. It just goes on and on… We live amid spontaneity and chaos—and the fact that some things seem stable within this chaos can easily be put down to the fact that within The Swirl there are so many weird potential events bubbling up into existence that some of them just happen to take the form of stable, non-chaotic patterns. But still, even those supposedly unbreakable laws of nature—to say nothing of spiritual laws!—have bubbled up, have been formed incidentally, temporarily: they may just be functions of our own perceptions. They probably weren’t ultimate and probably never will be—they themselves are the products of vagary, of The Swirl—the state in which we live, where nothing can be accepted or believed, affirmed or denied. All of this, all the time, is being continually re-made and broken apart: “cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air,” as T.S. Eliot put it. Lucretius’ definition of the world as a “burning rampart” thrust out into the midst of space is also rather compatible with what I mean.

Some scientists are interested in learning why and how, if God doesn’t exist, we seem to be able to observe and comprehend the entire universe (our minds seem adjusted to it)—and they have proffered some tentative solutions to this problem: for instance, by suggesting that we live in but one of many universes, and this just happens to be one that our sensory organs have become particularly well adjusted to. But I reply that we aren’t observing “the universe”—we are just observing the perpetual bubbling of phenomena—impressions that continually batter against our senses. We just happen to call the total form of the phenomena—what I just referred to as “The Swirl”—the “universe.” Why do we perceive these phenomena? We do not know and have no real need of a hypothesis. Whence does it come from? Where? All futile questions—we simply know that something is taking its course. It occurs. It happens. “The rest is silence.”

Yet there is still the miracle—horrible word, but I use it—that we are here: that we are conscious, that something comes and tickles our membrane—whether that something, the “What” which Epicurus said was unknowable, comes from outside or inside of our minds is probably an unanswerable question. Yet there is richness in this profusion of sensual experiences—there are juices to be squeezed. Contrary to Epicurus, who was correct on so many other issues, we are not to practice a limited-engagement with this world, not to cultivate only moderate pleasures in order to reduce pain – I mean, you might do that, if you really wanted to. Obviously, since there is no real imperative to do anything in particular—at least, I sense and feel none within or outside of myself—you might just lead a boring, moderate, pleasurable life. But as a truly committed nihilist, the belief in the pursuit of pleasure may even be too much of a belief—too much of an ethos. No one would’ve ever experienced the exhilaration of climbing Everest or any of the real, breathtakingly painful passions—which all have a strange pleasure that matches the sufferings they dictate—if they’d abided by this rather dim code. Sure, one might grow numb after so much stimulus—but one is sure to be splattered against the wall of oblivion within the next ninety years or so, so what harm is a little numbness in the course of things, especially if what proceeded it was a felt intensity?

Living as we do in The Swirl, there is no set of commandments (beyond human fantasy) to behave in one way or another—but, considering this, why not reach for the most wildly delightful experiences, rather than constructing a new fantasy, a new moral code (like Epicurus, Dawkins, and the dim-witted remainder)? I’m not suggesting narcotic addiction or thrill-killing—since those mainly only appeal to broken minds, anyway, and possess little appeal to the still relatively “normal” functioning run of people (though becoming a conquering Napoleon or Alexander may make more than enough sense)—but why not attempt the heights? This doesn’t mean one necessarily needs to become some sort of extreme snowboarder or surfer to “live it up”—though those are also very live options—but it does mean that one might as well “live it up” in whatever way strikes the imagination as being most daring or fiery. As Emerson said, “I write on the lintels of the doorpost, ‘Whim.’” In the absence of God, in the absence even of physical laws or so-called “Nature,” human whim takes the central place—it becomes the supreme power, next to Death, which necessarily is truly supreme, since it will have the last say.

The obvious objection to this whole philosophy is that sadness hides behind these attempted exaltations—that consciousness of the void is, at the end of the day, a sad consciousness. But the sadness that hides behind these affirmations only makes the exaltations greater, more meaningful: because they take place against a background of tragedy, of descent into sure oblivion, the quest for these intense experiences is all the more poignant. The light flickers for a second, and then the grave closes all. In his characteristically direct fashion, Edward Fitzgerald/Omar Khayyam phrases the problem accurately: “Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise! / One thing at least is certain – This Life flies; / One thing is certain and the rest is Lies; / The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.” Fitzgerald / Khayyam’s solution to this state of existence was to get well drunk. That’s my solution, too—yet “wine that never grew in the belly of the grape” is on the nihilist’s menu, and merely literal wine is but one option, and probably one no one will want to stick with for life. As Fitzgerald/Khayyam goes on to state, heaven—and this is true for my own “philosophy” (if it deserves that title)—is “but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire.” Naturally, too much candy gives one a stomachache and drugs do much the same – to fulfill desire, for a true nihilist, is not to gorge, but to strive hard to satisfy the finest, sharpest desires – to out-write Shakespeare or to kill the White Whale.

At this point, I feel content to rest—doubtless, my friend, Sam, or one of his comrades-at-arms—probably a Sufi or a Hindu—will have some strong objections to this philosophy. But if we are to postulate higher worlds, visions and spiritual delights, and all that gooey metaphysical candy—why, then, were we not informed of these realities in coming out of the gate? Why did we need to flail around in the darkness for so long, with no word of true re-assurance from any mouth, human or Divine? Why did our tears provoke no response, no echo from the Holy of Holies? As Wallace Stevens said, “What is divinity if it can only come / In shadows and in dreams?” My experience is that divinity is only a shadow and a dream – nothing has come from outside of me to teach me. I know only The Swirl, and advocate, still, the spontaneous joyousness of living-it-up in high Byronic-style—we were born enflamed with desire, and we will die when that flame flickers out in earnest. But in the interval, we can, perhaps, spread the fire around, stoke it to such an intense pitch that it will burn down this whole frame of things, steeled in the consciousness that our pain was meted to us by no conscious power, and that our joy was but our own most intense way of being, that it came from the mouth of the void and recedes into it. We fall joyous victims to the dark onward rush of Time and Fate and Death (all roughly synonymous terms) – and that is the best that we can hope for. As Omar put it: “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ, / Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.” And like Omar, when I’m gone, I would like you, Mr. Buntz, and any of your readers, to “turn down an empty glass” in my memory…


One thought on ““The Intelligent, Post-Modern Woman’s Guide to Nihilism”

  1. Pingback: “Remembering the Origin” | themutedtrumpet

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