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Chesterton, Tolkien, and Virginia Woolf: the Unforeseen Surprise of Nihilism

May Thu 06, 2010

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It is not uncommon in the art of literature and film to find acute and even disquieting depictions of contemporary nihilism, the condition that seems, like a fog, to blur the meaning of oneself and the world. Our consciousness is overtaken by a sort of discomfort, and we lose sight of the reason and zest for life. In most depictions, this condition is seen as a disease from which you cannot truly heal, in front of which we can devise strategies and techniques of evasion in order to forget, or treatments to “contain” the problem - such as those related to moralism or legalism – but without being able to really overcome the tragedy of insignificance, that is, without going so far as to respond to this absence of what is true and real, the absence to which contemporary consciousness seems destined. In even other cases (probably the most common and often most successful), this loss is taken with the "gay" certainty (to use a word Nietzsche took from ‘post-modern’ thought and made his own) that, in the end, it would be an emancipation from the old “specters” of metaphysics and religion, which would finally no longer oppress us with their senseless questions, and unveil the absolute, unsurpassable nature of our finitude.

 

But there are some cases - few, indeed, but extraordinary - in which nihilism is not considered simply a disease to be remedied by analysis, removal or an heroic act of pure will, but is recognized as a secret though difficult resource of our being human, namely the irrepressible search for a true and objective meaning to existence.

 

Looking at the phenomenon of nihilism from this different perspective, what comes into focus, with the awareness of a loss, is the deepest seated need of our intellect and affections; that need that is not just a fleeting whim inside of us, but which shows itself, determining in one way or another every one of our actions, endeavors, and efforts as men and women acting in history and society. To put it briefly: nihilism can be seen as an opportunity to understand that men and women do not save themselves, but are saved only by something else that is greater than they, something that cannot be produced with theories or brought about by their own decision, but for which they can only await attentively, observe, and welcome (or, naturally, refuse).

 

 

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