Nihilism, Grace, & the (In)difference

Nihilism stands at the door. Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?

Nietzsche, F. W., Kaufmann, W., & Hollingdale, R. J. (1968). The will to power. Vintage Books ed. New York, Vintage Books. p. 7
There are many ways to fall. Falling gracefully is one of them.

Nihilism stands at the door, Nietzsche said, and he was right. That was in 1885 or '86, in his Will to Power notebooks, and with the phrase Nietzsche was prophesying the coming days, when values would be devalued, when the whither of things would be lacking, when violence and selling out would be committed in the same breath, both gratuitous, both overdone and without a grounding narrative.

Nihilism is in the house, has burst--or crept--through the doors of our culture, our home, turning it little by little into an anti-culture, and our home into homelessness. The age Nietzsche was prophesying was this our own age, and he foretold that after his death the age of nihilism would last two hundred years. There will be wars the likes of which have never been seen on this earth, he said. And he was right. Here we are, with conflicts and trauma abounding on the earth, all televised, all captured, all made to fit into a frame. Even our holiest and most singular moments can be found on a video streaming service or a blog somewhere. For those human beings who cannot so capture the stream of their lives, so much the worse for them. For the dominant angle of our times insists that the uncaptured is the unlived, and you might as well have never been if you did not get it "down for the ages" somehow. After all, there are so many ways to capture things now, so many media, so many methods to put the record straight and to settle things.

But there's a catch, and our capturing is in a double bind. For at the very instant we capture things and express our hearts within some frame or other, that frame is then seen as one frame among countless on a spinning reel, with moments, all of them equal, following one another madly and indifferently. Recall, the uncaptured is the unlived, so that means that our past as well as our present and our future are swept into reels and subjected to the tricks of a camera. Collective amnesia. We are all of us blinking constantly, with each blink the blanking of the blinks that went before.

Irony rules. We are trapped behind irony bars. Gates of irony enclose everything, our humor, our gifts, our tragedies, our grand speeches and declarations, our promises to our futures and remembrances of our pasts. It's hard to take any of it seriously anymore. In which case it is hard to be truly ironic anymore, since irony can be found playfully streaming only with the support of a bedrock of seriousness. Instead of irony, we suffer from a sort of blasé sadness that has a costume for every occasion, a poorly fitting, sad--ironic--costume. And we blink and pretend that we freely and out of the abundance of ourselves don these clothes, we pretend that blinking will protect us from the winter storms, shield us from the absurd heat.

This sad irony-entrapment infects everything, pens up the whole gamut of human affairs, so that a video to teach you to make lasagna and one reporting human carnage are given equal attention. We will find a niche for everything, and nick at ourselves with niches until we are all carved up and nicked away. The uncarved block has turned to woodchips--sawdust--our lives are becoming fractured and smaller at the same time as we are becoming stunningly conscious of larger and larger wholes. Now, going to the gas station to take your children to school is wreaking cruel havoc in unwitting communities, proposing to your lover with a sparkling ring enslaves children in 2022, cooking your Thanksgiving dinner spreads ignorance as well as thanks, tortures fields upon fields of species and, again, enslaves children, taking a pet home from the local shelter adds to the stockpiles of canned flesh in warehouses littered throughout the plains, just a far enough distance from the suburbs.

It all gives us all the sense of free-falling, of an intoxicating-terrifying flight turned fall turned dizzying chaos. As though we are each and every one of us turning into psychopaths, as though the world is losing all meaning, as though we are all of us mad and hot and seeking moment after moment for confirmation of our madness and heat. As though since the steam engine our only genuine purpose is to--let off steam.

There is a crude and wicked sensation to the whole thing, though far more crude than wicked since it is not--insightful enough to be wicked, not noble enough to be wicked. Our lamentations for the world, for the state of things, our poetry and essays, our celebrations, our surprises, even our acts of grace, have become too jerky and fitful--too graceless. When nihilism came to our door, we all became ugly hosts. There was no grace in how we answered the door or failed to answer the door, no grace in our mood when we might have heard the knock, no grace to how we opened the door or tried to keep the door shut, locked, bolted. No grace in how we asked our guest just how he got into our home. So now, at the end of the world, or the end of meaning, we are stuck with our graceless habits, scouring the earth clean (so clean) before we go for justification of our sordid lives. Even at the end of things, when noble and delicate--graceful celebrations and attention are needed most of all. But we blink away all the needs and neediness. Our needs are blank.

Grace is possible in times like these, but impossible to produce--ever. Grace in our thougts and gestures, in our affirmations and denials, in how we celebrate and how we give attention is like grace in life overall: uncontrolled, uncontrollable, a gift and a disaster at once. A gift because in grace there is a total sanction of absolute insecurity. In grace all things are suspended in their suchness, and the world is not meant to be this way or that. In grace our vulnerability is a given, we are all of us unshielded, unprotected, but delight in precisely this. A disaster: since grace does not respond even when it is most called for. Since grace can come and go like winds or rains or the clouds overhead. Grace in our falling is not necessary, is totally, utterly contingent. It reminds us of nihilism.

Too much of nihilism. Grace and nihilism are indistinguishable, and that is the disaster of grace. We want grace to lift us up and out of nihilism. At least some of us do, some of us who are tired of our general tiredness. But it does not and cannot. As much as grace lifts up, suspends, it also plunges down, is a down-going, and meets us on the horizons of our daily straining and satisfactions and frustrations. It is a soul-making thing, grace, like the demon that you chance upon or that chances upon you, perhaps the one already at your door now, which you are hesitant or fearful to answer, the demon already in your home, sleeping beside you, dreaming with you, concocting new stratagems and mythologies to encounter this wondrous world. A god that pushes us off the cliff to the market square below. Perhaps our flailing arms as we fall are a dance to the god after all.

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