Nihilism and Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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).