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Nihilism in Art

10 Feb 2021 09:20 - 08 Jan 2022 10:04

    • Nothingness is fascinating; it exerts a kind of inexorable gravitational pull on consciousness. Like its close relative death, we know it is our ultimate fate and spend a lot of energy trying to not think about it; that is part of what makes it fascinating.
    • A great deal of contemporary art seems to share this fascination, it seems like the great theme of the modern and postmodern era. It's not a topic I seek out, but I keep seeing it poking through many of the works I admire. So this is mostly just a list of various works of art I've encountered that seem to be somehow grappling with nihilism as such, implicitly or explicitly.
    • Caveats:
      • Obviously this is not meant to be a comprehensive survey or anything like that. I actually have no idea what this page is supposed to be. An unplanned collection of works that speak to me, and speak to me about the unspeakable nothingness from which everything comes and returns. Stuff like that does capture my interest.
        • Perhaps more than it should, one should pay more attention to the things of the world, not the vaster chaos outside of it. It's an unhealthy interest in part, I'm somewhat ashamed of it.
      • In almost no case would I describe any of these works as advocating nihilism, which would be silly. Artworks should be wary of advocating anything, and advocating nihilism is inherently self-undermining. They are trying to describe a quality found in the world, one which resists description.
      • It's always a mistake to try to reduce an artwork to a philosophical position; and anyone making art has already escaped the more obvious forms of nihilistic akrasia.
      • I'm mostly excluding pop music because there is just so much nihilistic posturing to be found there that it isn't very interesting. I don't care about teenage nihilists; I want to know how mature adult nihilists work.
        • This might be the pinnacle of the genre though:
      • On this topic, my ability to impose structure on my output breaks down completely. So this page is far out on the "random scrapbook" end of the scale, whose other end is "coherent bounded piece of writing".
    • Literature

      • David Foster Wallace appeared to be trying to write himself out of nihilistic depression, and ultimately failing. Infinite Jest is largely about the corrosive effects of addiction on meaning-making; and his unfinished final work The Pale King takes place inside an IRS office, that is, the most boring and meaningless place conceivable.
      • The character Bartlebooth in George Perec's Life: A User's Manual devotes his life to an elaborate act of artistic meaninglessness, which mirrors the book itself, and ultimately fails even at nothingness.
      • Dostoevsky, Turgenev introduced nihilist characters
      • Goncharov, Oblomov
      • Conrad, The Secret Agent
      • Camus
      • Ballard
      • Beckett
      • Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress
      • Melville, Bartleby (and aspects of Moby Dick)
      • Goncharov, Oblomov
        • What is Oblomovism?
          • The feature common to all these men is that nothing in life is a vital necessity for them, a shrine in their hearts, a religion, organically merged with their whole being, so that to deprive them of it would mean depriving them of their lives. Everything about them is superficial, nothing is rooted in their natures... Even the best educated people, people with lively natures and warm hearts, are prone in their practical lives to depart from their ideas and plans, very quickly resign themselves to the realities of life, which, however, they never cease to revile as vulgar and disgusting. This shows that all the things they talk and dream about are really alien to them, superficial ; in the depth of their hearts they cherish only one dream, one ideal—undisturbed repose, quietism, Oblomovshchina.
        • Not sure this is exactly nihilism but it is obviously a disease of agency, a variety of akrasia.
      • Borges
        • Many of his stories flirt with metaphysical nihilism. The Library of Babel depicts a vast library which contains books with every permutation of letters, both meaningful and random, but the meaningful ones are obviously numerically swamped – it's a like a nihilist parody of what a library is supposed to be. The Aleph revolves around another metaphysical construct whose universality is so vast that it basically destroys meaningfulness.
          • There is a concept that is the corrupter and destroyer of all others. I speak not of Evil, whose limited empire is that of ethics; I speak of the infinite.
      • Kafka
        • However his major works are permeated by depictions of meaninglessness, absurdity, and the emptiness of authority.
        • “We are nihilistic thought, suicidal thought that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”
          • – Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
      • Lovecraft
      • Musil, The Man Without Qualities
      • Houellebecq
      • EM Cioran
        • How important can it be that I suffer and think? My presence in this world will disturb a few tranquil lives and will unsettle the unconscious and pleasant naiveté of others. Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history—greater than the fall of empires—I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence.
      • Philip K Dick His novels tended to be haunted by spectral forces of death, decay, and dissolution, with the characters enmeshed in a collapsing world, fighting a hopeless spiritual struggle with something that sure feels like the big Nothing. He himself was not very nihilistic; rather, he was always fighting back against it.
      • Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs
        • Top-notch pulp nihilism. Lecter has some resemblance to Anton Chigurh or Judge Holden (Blood Meridian); a supernatural figure who represents the universe's massive hostility/indifference to human values.
        • I collect church collapses, recreationally. Did you see the recent one in Sicily? Marvelous! The facade fell on sixty-five grandmothers at a special mass. Was that evil? If so, who did it? If he's up there, he just loves it, Officer Starling. Typhoid and swans - it all comes from the same place.
        • Weird Studies Episode 61: Evil and Ecstasy: On 'The Silence of the Lambs'
          • This episode (which is about the movie, not the book, but the movie followed the book very closely) emphasizes the theme of the individual vs institutions, and how Lecter refuses to be categorized.
          • Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences.
          • Murray: He's some kinda vampire? Clarice Starling: They don't have a name for what he is.
          • There should be a name for this (ipsissimosity? haecity?), and it seems related to the Russian flavor of nihilism, which was more anti-institutional than anti-everything.
    • Movies and TV

      • The Coen brothers have a very obvious nihilistic streak and it sometimes gets directly incarnated in their films (eg Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men or the tornado that appears at the end of A Serious Man – cinematic depictions of the universe's pitiless and antihuman forces of destruction). And of course there are actual literal nihilists in The Big Lebowski, as well as the greatest commentary on nihilism of all time.
      • Kubrick has a cold eye and his movies tend to revolve around people whose agency is sapped by inimical systems (I think that covers Dr Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, and to some extent 2001 although there it is balanced out by Clarke's optimism).
        • Given Kubrick’s comments in rare but revealing interviews throughout his career, it would be fair to say that he dwells upon the nihilistic condition of contemporary culture in order to point beyond such a condition, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s active nihilism. In good dialectical fashion, he highlights the negative in order to indicate our positive capacity for creative and individualistic selfcreation.
      • The character played by Matthew McConaughey in the first season of the HBO show True Detective has some pretty good nihilist lines. His performance and show as a whole comes just up to the edge of pulp ridiculousness without quite going over. Spoiler: his nihilism is shallow since the conventions of drama require him to also be a moral hero.
      • Rick and Morty is exuberantly nihilist in a dozen different ways, but most notably in how it makes use of multiverse theory – if you die in this universe, it really doesn't matter a bit since versions of you are still alive in an infinite number of other universes.
      • Vivarium (2019)
        • This movie is pretty bad; an intellectual horror movie about suburban anomie, but I'll mention it here because its central image – a nightmare world of infinitely repeating tickytacky houses – is a good visual depiction of emptiness.
        • The infinite array of identical houses recalls Borge's The Library of Babel a bit. Also a nightmarish scene in Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which was a childhood favorite of mine.
      • Funny Games (2007)
        • A flat-out depiction of total moral nihilism (these two blank characters show up and start torturing and murdering a family for no reason at all). Quite a disturbing and hateful experience to watch; not recommended.
    • Music

      • Warren Zevon
      • The Legendary Pink Dots – Zero Zero
        • We checked out all the prophecies. We studied fat philosophies We made a graph... We chanted ooooommmmm "omni Padhni Disney Iceman Acme leary Marx Illuminatus Christus Clarke..." We'd watch for saucers in the dark. We'd hunt lost arks; Tried splitting quarks - when all we wanted was a Mark Just a something proving something's out there Are you listening? No chance
    • Visual Arts

      • Andy Warhol's work might be considered as skirting the edge of meaninglessness. Jeff Koons' work is even more in that direction; it seems to be about its own emptiness.
      • Tinguley's Homage to New York Maybe interpreting this as nihilist is shallow – it's more like a transitory burst of energy, a form of art deliberately designed for impermanence. It's anti-eternalist, but affirming something: motion, energy, change.