Nihilism ‘ is more than an idea; it is a description of a perspective, a way a
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Nihilism ‘ is more than an idea; it is a description of a perspective, a way a person or a society actually lives. Most authentically, nihilism is less about thinking of yourself, self-consciously, as “a nihilist” than it is simply about an unconscious way of life you’ve adopted, or that a culture or society has adopted. In my view, ‘nihilism’ is a very appropriate description of where we are as a society today. It was perhaps an appropriate description of society during the first major pandemic of the 20th century — the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1917-18 — as the world had just about destroyed itself in what was to be the first of two major World Wars (the second beginning at the end of the 1930s, just in the midst of the worst economic crisis of that time, the Great Depression). There wasn’t much to be happy or optimistic about; using great machines and chemical weaponry for the first time ever, World War One wiped out millions, and then the pandemic finished the job, wiping out millions more coming home from the terrors of the Great War. In the ensuing years after this first pandemic of the 20th century, society was reeling towards economic catastrophe, and the divide between the rich and the poor was becoming extreme. Much of this is true for us today, making you wonder if history is nothing but a constant repetition of the same damn thing over and over again. By the 1920s, as the pandemic fizzled out (it was about 1920-21 when it came to an “end” — meaning, it became the familiar “seasonal flu” we’ve all dealt with at one point), the champaign and the jazz was flowing, as many starved or were left utterly behind by the great wealth being amassed for and by the very few. Europe was in ruins, and in Germany, buying a loaf of bread in the now devastated Weimar Republic meant having to cart thousands of German Marks in wheelbarrows. In 1933, as Germans sought to regain some mythic former glory once supposedly possessed by their previous “Reichs” (empires), in an effort to fill in the giant hole in their collective life, Hitler was democratically elected as Chancellor, and in only a few years his empire sought the eradication of the “racially inferior” while at the same time attempting to conquer Europe and as much of the world as was possible. The world fought back. Welcome to the grand finale of the first half of the 20th century: World War Two, complete with death camps, ovens to burn the murdered millions, Soviet gulags, and the American Atom Bomb to bring the butchery to a wonderful conclusion. What the pandemic didn’t take care of, human beings stepped in to assist with. After what was essentially some 30 years of death, torture, war, state brutality, and natural disaster (which is how I guess you’d classify a pandemic), one philosopher remarked on how poetry wasn’t really possible anymore (he actually was referring specifically to the Nazi murder factories, but I think the sentiment stands for the whole time period from 1914, the start of World War One, to 1945, the conclusion of the Second World War).
With that very long preamble, here’s my question to you: what do you think ‘nihilism’ means for you, and do you think that it is as an appropriate description of life today as it was during those years of terror from 1914 through 1945 — in other words, are we a nihilistic society today? Please provide any examples you can — new articles, pieces of music, artworks, anything that you think might capture the spirit of nihilism as it exists today (if, that is, you think of our present society as being nihilistic).