I asked a pretty provocative question fairly recently that’s actually a two-parter, and it deals with something that I personally hate but I think is worth talking about: nihilism.
The question was: Does nihilism have a place in culture? And if so, what?
I’ll give you my take on this, and it’s as lawyerly as you’d expect: YES AND NO.
NO. Nihilism doesn’t create. Nihilism is, to boil it down to is essence, the belief that life is meaningless. Therefore, any culture that is based on nihilism will eventually collapse and be subsumed by a culture that actually does believe in something, because you can’t create something out of nothing unless you’re God, and nihilists aren’t God. They think they speak with similar authority about “the way things really are” because they can totally see the true nature of life and existence, and it’s ugly and bleak and so on.
YES. Nihilism has a place in a culture’s art, but as a cautionary tale and not its defining feature. In the realm of fiction, it can be a fantastic motivating factor for a villain. Think of all the stories you’ve read or seen that involve an antagonist who believes that life is so awful it deserves to be destroyed. I know you can. I’ll tell you one right now that leaps off the top of my head: Kefka in Final Fantasy VI. Or how about the Joker in everything he appears in?
Nihilism is a good foil to use when contrasting evil against good, ugliness against beauty, and lies against truth. It can make the good, the beautiful, and the true shine all the brighter, for when juxtaposed against nihilism, they are shining beacons in an endless dark.
Nihilism seems to be trendy because we’re in a post-scarcity, post-meaning, post-sanity age with nothing left to do but eat ourselves. This is why nobody cares about our fine arts like painting and sculpture, poetry, and orchestral music: They and their practitioners are so deep into their theories, and their own buttholes, that they’re utterly incomprehensible and meaningless to regular folk, not to mention ugly. Pop culture is little better, but it’s the last bastion of anything resembling a culture that America has. This is kind of sad, and it’s actively under the same assault fine arts are, but there’s at least more resistance and alternative culture creation going on in the pop culture sphere.
But endless moping about the meaninglessness of everything isn’t a harmless amusement. It’s a dangerous idea that spreads despair and brutalizes people into looking into the sewer, metaphorical or otherwise, for meaning when they should be looking to something higher, whatever that may be. Instead of aspiring to lofty heights, those at the top would rather wallow in filth, and they want to drag you down with them.
Nihilism is a part of this plan. Just kill yourself, and so on. But I wonder if those who make money peddling such bleakness actually want to die themselves, or just want you to die live a miserable gray existence as you wait to die . . . while paying money for the privilege of consuming their product which reinforces the fact that life is meaningless, and pretty ugly to boot?
It’s a scam, in other words. Nearly everything in modern life pushed by official channels is a scam of some sort. That’s actually a fundamental feature of our age, at least here in America: The pathological inability of any institution to (a) perform its stated objective, and (b) tell the truth about anything. This goes for the arts as well.
Fight despair. Use nihilism as a cautionary tale or as the motivation for your villains. This will make your story ring true and connect with your audience, because deep down in their soul they know that they were meant for more than misery and gray despair.
No misery or gray despair in my books. Just fun and adventure. Check them out here.