Nihilism and Literature
Nihilism and Literature
Derived from the Latin word nihil, which means “nothing”; it appears in the verb “annihilate,” meaning to bring to nothing, to destroy completely. Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Jacobi used the word to negatively characterize transcendental idealism. The doctrine of nihilism asserts that all values are baseless, there are no moral distinctions, and existence is meaningless. Moreover, nihilists reject religious teachings in favor of scientific rationalism and utilitarianism. Critics of this philosophy maintain that nihilism constitutes a serious social menace, as it intends to negate all moral principles and reject religious values.
Nihilism has its roots in the Middle Ages, when religious heretics were charged with heresy and deemed nihilists. In nineteenth-century Russia during the reign of Alexander II, a political movement known as Nihilism advocated the assassination of Russian leaders, widespread terrorism, and political and social revolution. The philosophy of this movement influenced Russian literature as well. In 1862 Ivan Turgenev published the seminal novel Fathers and Sons, which popularized the term and defining characteristics of the philosophy through the character of Bazarov, the protagonist of the story. With the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917, nihilism as a philosophy and literary genre lost ground in the newly-Communist Soviet Union.
European philosophers were influenced by the concept of nihilism. The popularity of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who asserted that God is dead, impacted European literature in the early twentieth century. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, many intellectuals and authors contended that modern technological society further eroded the need for political institutions and religious values. Important authors such as Franz Kafka, Eugene Ionesco, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett explored the modern human condition and searched for new value and meaning in the world. In the United States, John Barth is considered one of the most important figures in modern literary nihilism, as evidenced in novels such as The Floating Opera (1956).
The Floating Opera (novel) 1956
The End of the Road (novel) 1969
Murphy (novel) 1938
En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (drama) 1953
Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus] (essays) 1942
L'Etranger [The Stranger] (novel) 1942
Caligula [Caligula] (drama) 1944
La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1946
L'Homme revolte [The Rebel] (essay) 1951
N. G. Chernyshevsky
Shto Delat? [What is to be Done?] (novel) 1863
Zapiski iz podpolya [Notes from the Underground] (novella) 1864
Besy [The Possessed] (novel) 1871
Bratya Karamazovy [Brothers Karamazov] (novel) 1879-80
Sein und Zeit [Being and Time] (essays) 1927
Einführung in die Metaphysik [An Introduction to Metaphysics] (essays) 1953
Der Prozess [The Trial] (novel) 1925
Das Schloss [The Castle] (novel) 1926
Also spake Zarathusa [Thus Spoke Zarathusa] (novel) 1883-85
Jenseits von gut und boese [Beyond Good and Evil] (essays) 1886
Zur genealogie der moral [The Genealogy of...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The Case Against Nihilism: Lessons and Refutations,” in The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, State University of New York Press, 1988, pp. 352-79.
[In the following essay, Crosby outlines the major lessons of nihilism and refutes aspects of nihilist philosophy.]
Man is that paradoxical being, unique so far as we know, who strives for a perfection which, if attained, would altogether deprive him of his nature.
—Stanley Rosen (1969:214)
1. SUFFERING AND DEATH
A man and his wife were returning to their home in separate cars. The husband arrived first and waited for his spouse, who had been some distance behind him. When he had waited much longer than he thought it would have taken for her to arrive, he got back in his car and anxiously retraced his path. He had not gone very far when he saw the scene of an accident before him, with the flashing lights of a police car, the glint of scattered glass in his headlights, and two smashed automobiles skewed across the road. He learned from police that his wife's car had been broadsided by another car running a red light and that the driver of that car was believed to have been drinking. His wife died soon after in the hospital. When reporters later sought the man's reaction to the accident, he could only respond:...
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Criticism: European And Russian Nihilism
SOURCE: “Egoistic Nihilism and Revolutionary Nihilism,” in The Russian Revolutionary Novel: Turgenev to Pasternak, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 4-38.
[In the following essay, Freeborn traces the development of nihilism as evinced in Russian literature and assesses the impact of nihilist philosophy and literature on Russian history.]
In August 1860 [Ivan] Turgenev spent three weeks in Ventnor in the Isle of Wight. During that short period, and in characteristically wet and stormy English summer weather, he conceived the figure of his most significant literary hero, Bazarov, of his most famous novel, Fathers and Children, published two years later. The reasons for Turgenev's apparently sudden creation of such a positive hero, at such a moment in his life and in such an unlikely place, involve the much larger question of the ‘revolutionary’ situation that existed in Russia on the eve of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.
The reforms upon which the Tsarist government had embarked after the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War were designed to modernise certain parts of the machinery of state while ensuring that the principle of autocratic rule remained unchanged. The linch-pin of the reforms was the emancipation of the serfs, but it was a linch-pin that, if allowed to slip, could easily precipitate the kind of peasant unrest that had assumed its most serious form...
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SOURCE: “Dostoevsky: The Nihilist Imagination,” in On the Dark Side of Russian Literature, 1709-1910, Peter Lang, 1987, pp. 145-81.
[In the following essay, Ponomareff explores Dostoevsky's spiritual conflict and views the nihilist perspective as the defining characteristic of his fiction.]
In his famous essay on Dostoevsky Freud made the culturally perceptive observation that the “compromise with morality” was “a characteristic Russian trait.”1 Dostoevsky's life fully corroborates this view and allows us to add to the study of the causal connection between a traditional moral ambivalence in the Russian writer and the nihilist consequences of this spiritual state on his spirit and his work. For, Dostoevsky began his life as a revolutionary and was in 1849 condemned to ten years of prison and exile in Siberia; but he ended his life, as Mochulsky has shown,2 a staunch conservative who enjoyed frequenting aristocratic salons and cultivated his friendship and connections with Pobedonostsev and the Royal family. Inner spiritual ambiguity marked his whole life. This is true if we look at his emotionally paradoxical life with his first wife Maria Isaeva3 (whom he married in 1857 while still in exile and who died of consumption in 1864); or if we contrast his passionate and disastrous affair with the “infernal” Apollinaria Suslova which had begun even while his...
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Criticism: Nihilism In The Works Of Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, And John Barth
SOURCE: “John Barth and the Novel of Comic Nihilism,” in Critical Essays on John Barth, G. K. Hall & Co., 1980, pp. 14-29.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1966, Waldmeir investigates John Barth's affinity with the nihilistic tradition and his preoccupation with suicide.]
When Nietzsche announced the death of God toward the end of the nineteenth century, he also added further stimulus to one of the obsessive themes of contemporary literature—the problem of the loss of value and meaning in human life and the search for new value and meaning to replace the old. And since Nietzsche's conception of the Dionysian was generally misinterpreted as a call for the abandonment of reason and intelligence (the Apollonian),1 one of the most frequent answers to the problem of value has been an effort to return to the primitive, the anti-intellectual, and the irrational.
But this attempt to replace the Western Apollonian ego with a Dionysian consciousness has never been entirely satisfactory. The return to the irrational in philosophy, literature, and politics has produced an important body of writing—Lawrence, Miller, the surrealists, some of the existentialists, for example—but it has also distorted the nature of man by its radical insistence on an absolute conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Such a view,...
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SOURCE: “Albert Camus: From Nihilism to Revolt,” in The Literature of Nihilism, Bucknell University Press, 1975, pp. 198-209.
[In the following essay, Glicksberg examines Camus' attitude toward nihilist philosophy as evinced in his work, contending that his fiction is actually “protests against the fate of meaninglessness.”]
Camus simply lived through and documented what Nietzsche saw looming up in the twentieth century: namely, the nihilism which would result while the technological world adapted to its horrifying discovery that God was very, very dead, and that there was no ultimate and absolute meaning to either human life or the universe: they simply were.1
There is nothing more incontestable than the fact that Meursault, in certain of his aspects, embodies that temptation toward an active nihilism and impersonality which constitutes, among others, one of the permanent characteristics of Camus's work.2
Camus had never expressed any nihilistic point of view as being his own. On the contrary, from the outset his explicit intention had been to counteract in his works what he felt were dangerous nihilistic tendencies of the twentieth century.3
An equally impressive example of the dialectic that transforms a...
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SOURCE: “Franz Kafka and Literary Nihilism,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 6, No. 3, September, 1977, pp. 366-79.
[In the following essay, Emrich analyzes Kafka's complex relationship to nihilism.]
That the political movement known as Nihilism originated in Russia is a well-known fact of modern history. Literary nihilism, a much less consciously organized movement, also has its origins in Russia. The word “nihilism” first emerges in Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons (1862), where the young Bazarov, a representative of Western materialism and radical sceptical thinking, is described as a nihilist. In the following violent debate over this figure, after whom revolutionary groups in Russia then called themselves Nihilists, although they had at first sharply rejected the figure of Bazarov as a caricature of their own intentions, Dostoevsky, whose own novels and theoretical writings were primarily concerned with the struggle against Western materialism, atheism, and nihilism, had the following to say:
Nihilism came into existence among us Russians because we are all nihilists. We were only frightened by the new, original form of its appearance. The dismay and worry of our intelligent men, who sought to discover the origin of the nihilists, was funny. They actually did not come from anywhere, but have always been with us, in us, and among...
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Barbiero, Daniel. “There Is No ‘No’ There: Contemporary Italian Nihilism and Metaphorical Reason.” Stanford Italian Review X, No. 2 (1991): 225-40.
Examines the particular kind of nihilism that affects contemporary Italian writing.
Burg, David F. “Another View of Huckleberry Finn.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 29, No. 3 (December 1974): 299-319.
Considers the final ten chapters of Huckleberry Finn, contending that “seen within the context of Mark Twain's emergent nihilism, his antimoral precepts, that ending constitutes both a valid formal completion of the novel and an emphatic declaration of the author's metaphysics.”
Crosby, Donald A. The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 456 p.
Comprehensive introduction to the concept of nihilism.
De Man, Paul. “The Literature of Nihilism.” In Critical Writings: 1953-1978, edited by Lindsay Waters, pp. 161-70. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Explores how eighteenth-century German literature and philosophy impacted German political events in the twentieth century, particularly the rise of Nazism.
Foulkes, A. P. The Reluctant Pessimist: A Study of Franz...
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