Posts Tagged 'literature'

What Is It Like to Teach a Course on Nihilism?

nothingnessI noticed some time ago that my Kindle was filling up with books on nihilism. These were mostly related to philosophy and literature. The philosophical works covered topics like anti-natalism and suicide. The literary studies discussed a range of literature from French existentialists to Lovecraft. Among my books I found the following:

There were a lot more. It was interesting to see so many books, many of them quite recent, discuss the meaninglessness of life. Some of them analyzed nihilism into different kinds or types: theological nihilism, political nihilism, semantic nihilism, epistemological, alethiological, metaphysical or ontological, ethical or moral, existential or axiological nihilism. Oddly enough, what I thought was a taboo subject had become the centerpiece of modern philosophy and art. Nihilism also showed a surprising taxonomical richness. If life really was meaningless, it seemed like this fact was immensely interesting and meaningful to a lot of people.

There is a history of nihilism in literature as well and it can be traced for the purposes of an English literature course. Many works have to be excluded, but that always happens. One can begin with the decadents and the fin de siecle hellraisers, go through Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner and Beckett. One can read popular writers like H.P. Lovecraft, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and the more recent American Psychos and Fight Clubs. And one can end with the criticism of David Foster Wallace and the dystopian glory of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Ligotti. That’s precisely what we did.

The history traced the ways in which artists and thinkers dealt with the disenchantment created by modernity. Again, immensely interesting and meaningful works of literature. Going through this rich vein of bleak poetry and prose, students often began their comments with “I know nothing really matters, but …” One could see Western thought turning in on itself, trying to wiggle itself out of the abstract hell it had knotted itself into. We knew something like that would happen, but it was nevertheless fascinating to witness. There are two more lessons to go and that’s a shame, because it has been one of the most rewarding courses I have taught in my almost ten years of teaching literature. Something can come from nothing. Quite a lot, actually.