And I forget just why I taste
Oh, yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
-lyrics from the Nirvana album “Nevermind” (1991)
I took a worldview class in college. The professor for the class actually understood worldviews, so rather than mere didactic note-taking on presuppositions we had a healthy dose of cultural participation. Of course, this meant we were held hostage to the professor’s musical horizons, but regardless it was not surprising that the postmodern worldview was introduced by the tunes of Nirvana.
It’s been twenty years since the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, an anniversary that’s almost impossible to mark without betrayal, as the New York Times notes. The celebration of Kurt Cobain’s indifference and depression is ridiculous and disrespectful. Not because his downer lyrics were unjustified, but because celebration was exactly what seemed antithetical to him.
Rewind back twenty more years. In the late 1960s, what would become known as postmodern philosophy was making its first major marks—Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, and Foucault’s The Order of Things had all recently been published. In culture, radical questioning was making inroads to the middle class. Amidst both the philosophical and cultural uncertainty, a young Stanford professor was working to reconcile the genuineness of these doubts with the misdirection he felt they had taken.
“Nihilism is an ideological interpretation imposed on the experience of nothingness,” wrote Michael Novak. “Most writers on nihilism have placed the experience of nothingness in opposition to the values of culture, as though that experience were a threat to it. I want to argue that the power of the experience of nothingness has been misperceived.”
Novak is now frequently identified as a neoconservative. Without defending the appellation, it can confidently be said that he was no such thing in 1968, while he was writing The Experience of Nothingness. Novak had a deep sympathy for the student unrest, and a deep incredulity to the war being protested. At this time, in fact, Novak labeled himself as a radical.
And yet Novak had a unique perspective on the nothingness that young people found themselves within. As he relates, he spent his youth and young adult life immersed in the Catholic Carmelite mystics: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese of Lisieux. All three figures are known for their profoundly deep spirituality, and yet all suffered through long experiences of nothingness. However, it was through their fidelity to that experience that their insights (and eventually, their ecstasies) were able to be faithful to real human experience. All three mystics are among the most widely read spiritual literature in Christian history, precisely because they did not abandon their experience of nothingness for cheap satisfaction - an easy way out that would make themselves feel better.
In Novak’s view, nothingness is a real experience, opened by the drive to question: “When I perceive the drive to question in its purity … I perceive the ambiguity of my own conscious life. I recognize the formlessness, the aimlessness, and the disunity implicit in my own insignificance, my mortality, my ultimate dissolution. … These insights are true insights. Not to experience them is to evade the character of one’s own consciousness. It is to live a lie. The experience of nothingness bears the taste of honesty” [emphasis added].
Society may be built on realities that we must construct, but that reality must be built in fidelity to our deepest experiences if it is to make any sense to us, as Novak suggested. And that reality is that any culture we construct is not eternal. To find that the things we construct are not eternal is the true experience that the experience of nothingness makes evident.
This is not a new discovery. It is the message of the book of Ecclesiastes, as well. As commentators from Jacques Ellul to Peter Leithart have pointed out, the Teacher in the book is not concerned so much with “Vanity” or “Meaninglessness” as he is with the evanescence of all things around him. The Hebrew hebel is something more like vapor. It is here, and then it is gone. Labor is a vapor, and yet productive labor is still the best thing for us to do in the present. Like Novak, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes is not merely giving an exposition of life without God, but a realistic view that is not overly beguiled by the promises of eternity in work, culture, or happiness itself.
According to Novak, there are values implicit in the drive to question: genuine questioning can exemplify honesty, freedom, and courage. And the embrace of these values, he says, can be a true way out of the experience that must not be ignored.
Michael Novak has made a helpful distinction between the experience of nothingness and the ideological outworking of nihilism that is unwarranted. This would leave a person merely with the experience, but again, we are back to Kurt Cobain and the postmodernism of culture, even if it is not the postmodernism of philosophy. Perhaps Novak is a little too cheery about the experience of nothingness. He fails to attend to the problem of futility—the inability to find answers—that makes nothingness so painful, so depressing, so “Nevermind.”
Maybe Novak would have something to say to Cobain. Maybe Cobain could have found a way out, through fidelity to the values that enabled his experience. However, in his own experience of nothingness, Novak has stayed faithful not only to values, but to the commitment of faith that he (rightfully) did not consider assaulted by his present experiences. Likewise St. Teresa.
And likewise the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecc. 12:13)—which is a simple lesson, the lesson of his upbringing, to be persevered when all other lessons have been unveiled as hebel. Through it all, he must serve God “… for this is the whole duty of man,” or literally in the Hebrew, “this is the whole of man.”
God’s existence can be questioned. The whole world can be questioned. Your own justification for yourself can be questioned. All of these can be done in all honesty. But to leave the Lord would destroy a man, for participation in God, loyalty to God, “is the whole of man.” To leave the whole is to leave the questions, and forego the very ability to question. To abide in the midst of questioning is painful, but the Teacher (and out best teachers, where they will be found) tells us that this is the true honesty that both legitimizes and gives true perspective to the question.
Bryan Wandel is a Research Fellow for the John Jay Institute and blogs at Humane Pursuits. He resides with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.
New York Times, Post-Grunge, Seattle Rocks On
Michael Novak, The Experience of Nothingness
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