The nihilist is someone who denies any absolute truth or reality because he believes that all our life experiences are doomed to a muddled ambiguity and are subject to infinite, arbitrary interpretations. His belief in the futility of pursuing absolute truth is the foundation of all his other beliefs. First, there is no right or wrong, no moral paradigm, no universal law to govern his behavior or to compel him to participate in the shared values of the community. Second, he believes, like Thomas Hobbes and Alexander Hamilton, that man must, in the absence of an innate conscience, contrive a variety of laws, a “social contract,” to keep the barbarians from taking over and that those who are in power can most effectively inculcate these laws into the masses by proclaiming these laws to be “natural” or “divine.” The nihilist is resigned to the widespread belief of this “lie” since he deems the collective delusion of divine or universal law a prudent manner to keep the “savages” relatively tame.
Third, the nihilist is resigned to his belief that he cannot truly know another person or even himself. All his perceptions of men, women, gods, and demigods are “guesses.” His attempts to grasp a firm understanding of someone, no matter how painstaking, are doomed to fail since his “understanding” is influenced by mythology, self-interest, tribalistic prejudice, and unconscious fears and desires.
His belief in the futility of knowing or understanding another person compels him to a life of solitude. Friendships are shunned for two reasons. Either people are not enlightened as he is and not worthy of his company or they are as nihilistic as he is and therefore they have nothing to talk about since their agreement regarding the emptiness of life also makes for feeble and redundant conversation. Perhaps a third reason he avoids his fellow nihilists is that their presence reminds him that he is not as unique as he would like to believe.
Further isolating the nihilist is his pessimistic attitude toward marriage. Since the nihilist believes we are hopelessly blind to one another, he looks upon marriage as a complete sham. As he sees it, living with a spouse for fifty years, contrary to Hollywood’s glorious narratives, does not lead to a continuously evolving intimacy that finds its happy conclusion with physical and spiritual oneness. The best case scenario for the nihilist is to simply acclimate to his spouse’s annoying habits, her quirks, her chafing remonstrations, and her unpredictable mood shifts. But getting used to her presence is hardly “knowing” her or enjoying a sense of nuptial unity. The marital arrangement simply means the nihilist must increase his tolerance for friction and irritation in what for him is not so much a marriage but an interminable prison sentence. Needless to say, the nihilist’s low expectations of marriage do not provide enough motivation for him to seek matrimony.
Fourth, the nihilist believes there can be no real order, only an illusion of order. Chaos is the norm. The reasons for this are simple. One is that people of good will and high scruples tend to be incompetent and abysmal in their self-promotion so that they rarely enjoy positions of power that would spread their harmony and good will. The nihilist agrees with Henry James who observed that “morons and madmen reign in high places.” Their reign results in chaos, incompetence, corruption, and a complete lack of accountability.
The nihilist is not shocked by the grotesqueries of the powerful; he has come to expect them and in fact almost relishes in their egregiousness, the worse the better, for the travesties of the powerful feed the nihilist’s appetite for cynicism.
Finally, the nihilist rejects the notion of self-improvement. He believes that we are forever stuck in whatever predicament we find ourselves in. This is because the overwhelming forces that stamp us as human beings—our genetic code and our environment—defy any notion of “free will” and personal transformation. Whether we are lazy, self-pitying, cowardly, melancholic, concupiscent, it does not matter. We are hard-wired a certain way so that our defective personalities do not respond to our most arduous attempts at change. As the Chinese put it, “Mei banfa”—nothing can be done.
Most often the nihilist does not know he is a nihilist. Rather, he lives in his learned helplessness and feels trapped within his limitations with a resigned stoicism. Not surprisingly, he does not exert any energy articulating his nihilistic condition. His nihilism has caught him unaware since he gradually has surrendered to his despair and is too apathetic to find the precise language to define his state of affairs. This is a logical consequence of his belief that all endeavors are futile ones.
The nihilistic gasbag is quite a different beast altogether. Overcome by giddiness that he has “discovered” that life has no meaning, he feels the need to trumpet his nihilism to others. The reasons are several. The first is to assert his intellectual superiority over those who the nihilist believes live in a childish illusion of absolute reality and moral order. The nihilist is so proud of the enlightenment he has found that allows him to, like Nietzsche, live “beyond good and evil” that he wants to make sure others know of his grand accomplishment. With a hearty flair, he will therefore advertise to the world that he has read and reread Fredrick Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, On the Heights of Despair, and the Short History of Decay. Possession of this Holy Canon of Nihilistic Musings will make the nihilistic gasbag exuberant, a condition that is contrary to the depression he is supposed to feel from reading the masters of nihilism and existentialism.
Why does the nihilistic gasbag tend to be so giddy? For one he feels that having no laws, natural or otherwise, gives him license to get in touch with his inner tomcat. Since he believes we are biologically hard-wired in a way that contradicts society’s notions of morality, he feels no need to prick his conscience with such dreadful and unnatural burdens as generosity for the less fortunate or fidelity to his mate. Determined to repel the inevitable criticism he will surely suffer for conforming to the excesses of a hedonistic satyr, the nihilistic gasbag will be prepared to retort any admonishments. To defend his incontinent carousing he will be well versed in the huge body of anthropological and bio-psychological work that proves conclusively that primates, including man, are incapable of monogamy. He will love to cite studies that show that over 95% of married men cheat on their wives and that in fact the number is probably higher, something like 99.99%, since men tend to lie on the various questionnaires that ask about their faithfulness. He will also love to throw in the “fact” that all married Parisian men have mistresses. He will point to other cultures as well where having a mistress or a concubine is a common fact of life and he will take great delight in showing that the more metropolitan, educated and productive classes embrace the illicit pleasures of the demimonde while it is the backward peasant classes who cling to primitive, oppressive notions of marital fidelity.
In a patronizing fashion, the nihilistic gasbag will concede that fidelity is a “good idea” for the mentally-challenged masses who need a crude moral structure in order to keep society relatively intact. As long as the bovine hordes stay married and make their mortgage and car payments, the economy and the metropolis should enjoy a modicum of stability. However, the nihilistic gasbag, fancying himself too smart to be duped by artificial moral laws, sees his debauched existence as proof that he is a member of an elite club of saturnalian intellectuals who are unshackled by backward society’s “neurosis” and “hysteria” that repress sexual fulfillment.
Another type of nihilistic gasbag will articulate his hopeless philosophy in order to justify his sloth and squalor. He is someone who hides his laziness and apathy behind an elaborate screen of nihilistic aphorisms. He will of course be fond of quoting Ecclesiastes which states that no matter how great our achievements we are all doomed to turn into dust. Since all aspirations are doomed to futility, he is resigned to an inert life of low expectations. Or put a different way, there is the famous scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall where Alvy Singer’s mother complains to the family doctor that her son isn’t doing his homework. Alvy replies: “The universe is expanding. Everything will fall apart and that would be the end of everything. . . . What’s the point?”
What is annoying about the nihilistic gasbag is his use of nihilism to justify his sour grapes, dismissing what he can not attain. For example in the 1960s, some nihilistic gasbags indulged in countercultural nihilism during their nomadic, “soul-searching” adolescence when it was easy to reject middle-class values and home ownership because they had no resources. But as soon as they made it big in the stock market or enjoyed an inheritance, they forgot all about their nihilistic treatises, which they had once so fondly disseminated with blow horns and microphones. Well-fed property owners, they now barricade themselves in gated communities while they look at the riffraff from afar, usually television or their home security surveillance cameras, hoping the mob “out there” does not get too excited by the very nihilistic doctrines of mayhem these gasbags used to promote.
In other words, the nihilistic gasbag is both a fraud and a malcontent who is either too lascivious, too slothful or too disenfranchised to commit himself to an ideal or a work ethic but who pretends to be superior to the rest of the world by expounding a philosophy that inverts his abysmal character flaws as virtues to others and himself.