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On Meaninglessness

In 2008, in a Facebook chain-letter-type project, I wrote about a moment that had happened a few years earlier, in 2005, I think:

[At the Kansas City Renaissance Fair] I was standing listening somewhat intently to this man playing hammered dulcimer. While listening, I looked around and saw the crowd. Everyone was intent upon his or her own interest. I was listening to the dulcimer player, but this person over here was headed toward a jewelry shop, and that one over there wanted a pickle on a stick. Everyone had their own trajectory, and no one would have traded their trajectory for someone else’s. And suddenly the whole thing seemed an allegory for all of life, with the fair offering a wide variety of ways of forgetting that we’re all going to die. And it seemed at that moment that all of the responses to the knowledge of death—religion, cynicism, art, alcohol—were all leveled by the fact of their shared status as ways of avoiding acknowledging death. Previously, during my years of Catholicism, I had always privileged the religious approach to life, but that moment knocked religion off that pedestal for me.

I have held on to that insight for all these years, but what it has done for me, mostly, is to make it slightly less likely that I will judge others for “how they spend their time at the fair.” I was at that time in a transitional moment, shifting from Religion to Work as the Big Thing that gave my life meaning and structure. So this little spontaneous allegory helped me to accept the legitimacy of other people’s ways of not thinking about death, but it didn’t lead me to wonder about my own shift in focus.

I’m in another transitional period now. My kids are almost grown up—they still need me, but the work I have to learn to do now is to hold on less and less tightly from here on out. In my job, there is no “next step” to strive for: there are no more promotions beyond the rank of professor, and I’m not going to become an administrator, because I don’t support the prevailing direction of higher education in America right now. I had lunch today with a friend I hadn’t seen since last summer, when I must have been visibly anguished about the place I work. It was the first thing she asked me about, and a little later, she asked, “Is there anything you’re working toward, any goal?”

I paused and thought. “No.”

I told her that I’m working on a book, that I think it will be good, and I will eventually finish it and get it published, but it won’t lead me to anything new. I am where I am, and I can’t see a path to being somewhere else. I told her that I recently turned forty-seven—officially now “late 40s,” as my friend Kim and I might say—and that I’ve been thinking this summer about coming to terms with how much less plastic the future is than it used to be. This is middle age.

I spent a fair amount of time during my sabbatical this past spring reading philosophy books about object-oriented ontology (OOO); most of the OOO thinkers take a certain playful and sometimes awe-filled delight in the world and its stuff. But then there’s the OOO nihilist, Ray Brassier, a contrarian who doesn’t even want to be associated with the movement. I haven’t read his whole book, only the preface (I’m not even sure I want to read his whole book, because he doesn’t try to be accessible to an audience of non-philosophers), but his summary of his book’s thesis has been niggling at me ever since I read it several months ago:

Nihilism is not . . . a pathological exacerbation of subjectivism, which annuls the world and reduces reality to a correlate of the absolute ego, but on the contrary, the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable. . . . Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity. (Nihil Unbound, xi)

I think that nihilism is a very intellectually defensible position, but a middle-aged person’s nihilism is going to look different than that of someone in their teens or twenties. We associate nihilism with anger and rejection, but perhaps a 47-year-old’s nihilist practice would be to not replace the Work that had previously replaced Religion with some other System of Belief . . . that is, with some other story about how “what I’m doing now has cosmic importance.” It might just entail enjoying the fair in a somewhat detached way, recognizing that the alternative is to wait in the parking lot for the heat death of the universe.

5 Replies to “On Meaninglessness”

    1. In your interpretation of the analogy, who are the people who don’t get so far as the parking lot? (I ask because I felt a bit unclear about whether the parking lot represents death or whether it represents disengagement and total apathy . . . and I’m the one who made the analogy, lol . . . so I’m curious how you read it.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not sure that it represents apathy, but disengagement and disconnection. For my part, I see many people have much fun, but I’ve rarely if ever been able to let myself engage in that fun to any great degree. (And, admittedly, when I have, it has most often been through, ahem, selective applications of traditional chemistries.) I’m happy to get other people to the fair, as it were, but I’m loathe to spend the money on a ticket to get in when I know most of my time will be spent not able or willing to enjoy what’s on offer–whether for consideration of the costs to be paid or for other reasons I’m not sure I’m equipped to get into.

        So if I and others more or less like me in that are the ones sitting in the parking lot, perhaps it is the apathetic and/or anhedonic who never make the drive–or perhaps they make the drive but get there too late to find parking. But I’m not sure on that point, either, and I worry that I’m pushing the metaphor too far.


      2. Ah, OK, I think I see what you mean. Like you’ve never really bought in to a Total Package of Life Meaning(TM) because of an essential reservedness or skepticism about TPLMs.

        Liked by 1 person

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