Life’s Absurdity and the True Threat of Nihilism

Comedy, art, and why absurdity is better than nothing

Image by Jimmy Conover, from Unsplash

A number of months ago, I started studying a second language (German). This went against advice I heard from somewhere years ago, that there’s a downside to being bilingual which is that the bilingual person no longer feels perfectly at home in his or her native language. The more languages you speak, the more danger you face of appreciating the arbitrariness of any symbol system.

I found that learning another language is like rummaging through someone else’s home. That which seems strange as you peruse the stranger’s bookshelves, noticing the furniture layout, the wall decorations, and the nooks and crannies is to the stranger the comfort of home.

I’ve lived in English for some decades, mentally speaking, but when starting to learn the syntax and vocabulary of German, for example, you’re liable to have the paradoxical sense that the language is both alien (to you, the learner) and familiar (to native Germans).

Take, for example, the cute-sounding German word for onion, “Zwiebel.” Why does this word sound funny to my ears? Maybe because it rhymes somewhat with “weevil” or because it starts with “Z,” a letter rarely used in English. There is, of course, no good reason for thinking that “Zwiebel” sounds odd but that “onion” is normal or somehow a more dignified label to apply to that vegetable.

Surely when I first learned to speak my native language, “onion,” “dog,” and “house” seemed likewise equally bizarre sets of squiggles or sounds, to my child’s mind. But this is the point: when you learn a second language as an adult, the experience of that language’s unfamiliarity almost invites you to step outside your native language, too, as if you were encountering the familiar words for the first time.

Standing in someone else’s house, you might reflect on what it would have been like if you had lived there. That rug which you’re seeing for the first time would instead have been the rug you’d have seen thousands of times, whenever you walked down that hallway and into the living room. You’d have seen it so often that you’d no longer think of it as a rug, but as part of the background impressions making up your feeling of being at home.

In the same way, a native language isn’t really a language at all to the native speaker. I don’t think of English syntax as a set of rules, nor do I think of “onion” as a noun or as a morpheme. None of the linguist’s technical ways of classifying languages matters to me when I’m speaking English, because English has been etched into my brain.

Native-language users don’t use language explicitly in any technical way; we follow the rulers if we’re fluent, but when reaching for our words we don’t think of them as linguistic items, because the use of that language has become second-nature to us. In using our native language, we’re expressing ourselves. But although that language becomes the default way of thinking for us, we can see it for what it is and temporarily lose the feeling of familiarity with it or of our at-homeness in it.

Driving a car, too, becomes second-nature so that while driving you treat the car as an extension of yourself. If you become lost on the road, you may momentarily snap out of that familiarity and start to think of the vehicle objectively, of how odd it is to be sitting in the driving’s seat with a steering wheel in your hands.

Nihilism from Objectivity

All of which is meant as an analogy for the problem of nihilism. Nihilism is the sense that nothing is worth believing in, that there’s no such thing as knowledge, morality, or justice, that all ideals are hollow and all meanings and purposes illusory.

The idea isn’t really that the nihilist knows any of this to be so, because that negative knowledge would make nihilism self-refuting. Nihilism is better thought of as a feeling of alienation — not just from your job or a particular government or pastime, but from the human endeavour.

Everything which has been normal for people for thousands of years — communicating with symbols, solving problems with intelligence, forming social relationships, striving to achieve goals — can seem as arbitrary and ultimately pointless as feeling comfortable in your home or your car, or as your preference for “onion” to “Zwiebel.

This way of framing the problem of nihilism owes much to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s arguments in The View from Nowhere. Nagel pointed out that objectivity is depersonalizing and alienating, since it extricates us from our deepest concerns and is thus opposed to our inclination to immerse ourselves in them.

Caring about something depends on a subjective perspective or on a kind of narrow-mindedness. To treat the thing objectively is to pretend we have no feelings so that we can notice what the thing really is. As far as reality goes, from the most universal, external, scientific perspective, all of our personal concerns are insignificant, since they’ll all count for nothing when the sun engulfs our planet.

Objectivity versus Immersion in our Concerns

This critique of reason goes back, past Nietzsche, to Immanuel Kant who said that unleashed-reason lands us in contradictions and irresolvable disputes. There are useful boundaries that should be placed on reason, even though it’s possible to attempt to think beyond them and beyond problems grounded in actual experience. Kant, then, was pragmatic and conservative, whereas the nihilist is a purist about rationality.

The distinction here was well framed in a scene in The Matrix, in which Neo expresses some doubts about his status, doubts that were fuelled by the Oracle, and Morpheus tells him “there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

Living well entails immersing ourselves in our subjective standpoint so that we feel at home in our endeavours and can enter into that second-nature relationship with our tools. This means we have to care about what we’re doing, which in turn requires that we trust in those purposes and techniques. Our cognitive capacities, however, are at odds with each other, which should be expected considering the artlessness of their evolutionary origin.

We want to live well, because of our genetic programming and our childhood training in socialization, but we have this divine or demonic ability to think outside the box, to objectify and to divorce our consciousness from our personality.

Religions have long taken notice of our divided nature. Buddhists, for example, speak of the inner peace that comes from seeing past the illusory meanings posited out of self-absorption and out of a futile craving for infinite satisfactions. In Mark 14:38, Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Here Jesus inverts the nihilist’s contention. For Jesus, the “willing spirit” is about transcending our selfish, animal habits and focusing on the big-picture need to please God. But for the nihilist, objective transcendence is a curse rather than a blessing. Far from being “weak,” our body directs us to keep caring about our small-minded private lives even when we know the absurdity of the bigger picture.

Of course, the difference is that idealists such as Jesus, Plato, Marx, Martin Luther King, and Ronald Reagan believe certain ideals can be fully rationalized, whereas the nihilist thinks reason pushes us to the point of recognizing that absurdity is the deepest, most universal quality.

Reason is Socially Subversive

Is it true that reason is like a corrosive acid dissolving everything that might matter to us? I do think philosophy and authentic religion subvert most of what’s taken for granted in popular discourse. From the standpoint of ideological purity, most actual human behaviour is disgraceful.

We’re kept from dwelling on the broader implications of scientific objectivity, because science empowers us with its technological applications. Idealists and purists become spoilsports and Nervous Nellies. Philosophy and the cults of true-believers go underground, allowing the appalling spectacles of popular culture to take center stage.

Just to take one example, it turns out that rats are sentient, social creatures that laugh, play, and feel empathy, yet we experiment on them and strive to exterminate them. Again, subjectively and anthropocentrically speaking, the answer is clear: rats get in our way, so we’re at war with them. But objectively, ignoring our cosmically-arbitrary, self-serving biases, there’s no moral excuse for the mistreatment of fellow sociable mammals.

True, reason makes nonsense of morality as well. Nevertheless, we might still object to the ignorance and callousness that are responsible for the demonization of rats in popular culture. Ignoring the rat’s interests is one thing; doing so without understanding that that’s what’s going on is another.

Nothingness and Absurdity, Comedy and Aesthetics

In any case, I suspect the nihilist errs in equating absurdity with “nothing.” The nihilist wants to say that objectivity deprives us of any reality-based direction in life. To understand the situation fully is to see how every move in the game is nonsensical, every strategy just as easily shown to be futile by an unbiased presentation of the total body of evidence (including the evidence of our existential, cosmic status as hapless creatures in an indifferent universe).

But what the nihilist misses is the funny side of absurdity. Indeed, comedy is premised on the absurd. One way a stand-up comedian amuses the audience is by treating an absurd scenario with the utmost seriousness. Monty Python excelled at that type of comedy. So if reason proves that the world is absurd, in that none of our concerns fully captures anything that’s really going on, all of those concerns being gratuitous byproducts, that mismatch would seem to have comedic potential.

Moreover, by attending to how things are in themselves, to their physical dimensions and other objective characteristics, reason overlaps with the artistic appreciation of aesthetic properties. To regard a painting as valuable because of its price in the art market is to assess the painting out of self-interest. But to ignore the painting’s utility and to focus on the work as an object, on its colours and imagery and internal coherence is to assume an aesthetic stance which is very similar to the scientific one.

The difference, of course, is that the scientist studies nature whereas we assume that only artifacts have aesthetic value. But that distinction seems fallacious. Although nature is godless and mindless, there can be no doubt that natural processes are immensely creative. For example, gravity and the physical dimensions combine with giant molecular clouds to create stars and entire galaxies, including solar systems like ours and creatures like us.

Denying aesthetic merit to natural products while awarding that merit to human ones, because only the latter are intelligently designed would hardly be a strictly-logical judgment. On the contrary, that judgment would be anthropocentric or perhaps just semantic. The more alienating, depersonalizing perspective shows us that minds aren’t needed for creativity. The universe is far more self-creative than any puny creature could hope to be.

Once again, then, far from leaving us with nothing at all, reason presents us with the aesthetic dimension, with nature’s prodigious creativity which in turn is an objective basis for certain motives. Much of ethics, for example, might be reconstructed in aesthetic terms, as Nietzsche seemed to think. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia article on him, many passages in Nietzsche (especially in The Gay Science) “connect value creation to artistic creation, suggesting that Nietzsche took artistic creation and aesthetic value as an important paradigm or metaphor for his account of values and value creation more generally.”

What I’m suggesting goes a step further, though. Aesthetics isn’t just a useful metaphor in reestablishing a value system after reason’s slaying of God; rather, aesthetic values may be preeminently reality-based. Indeed, aesthetic values may be the only ones that survive rational scrutiny, because aesthetic properties are left intact by the objective analysis of nature’s creative processes.

What kind of lifestyle features only comedy and an artistic appreciation of the aesthetic dimension? Perhaps the true threat of nihilism is that reason may force us in the end to consider that question.

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Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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