Literature, Philosophy, Nihilism: the Uncanniest of Guests. By Shane Weller
Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, page 356, March 2009
How to Cite
Madigan, P. (2009), Literature, Philosophy, Nihilism: the Uncanniest of Guests. By Shane Weller. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 356. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00460_38.x
- Issue published online: 16 FEB 2009
- Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
Pp. x, 234 , Basingstoke/NY , Palgrave Macmillan , 2008 , £45.00.
Weller, who has previously written two books on Samuel Beckett, here gives a virtuoso tour d'horizon of the continental philosophical tradition deriving from Nietzsche, including Heidegger, Adorno, Blanchot, Derrida, Agamben, Vattimo, and Badiou. He takes as his fil conducteur a contradiction central to Nietzsche's philosophy, which re-appears in the work of each of his later avatars and epigones: Nietzsche blamed nihilism for the ‘decadence’ and weakness of the will-to-power he diagnosed in his own era – the ‘last time’– but he paradoxically taught that a return to health and strength would come by maximizing nihilism, taking it to its limit, which is paradoxically the only effective way of overcoming it. This teaching gives rise to a series of apparent contradictions. By the Leibnizean principle of the identity of indiscernibles, the state of complete or maximal nihilism is indistinguishable from a condition that overcomes and banishes it. The ethical task of opposing nihilism is achieved through a will-less letting-go, the elimination of our desire to change things, and a joyous affirmation of things as they are.
Each of these philosophers privileges a certain form of the literary – in a canon descending from Hölderlin through Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Trakl, Pessoa, Mandelstam, to Paul Celan – as an exception to the general reign of nihilism through which, in a kind of ‘proleptic anticipation of the eschaton’, a revolt against the ‘system’ is both launched and (for the one poet) carried to its apotheosis, to inflame and inspire others. Weller could have done more to connect this line with the Romantic theory of the ‘genius’, the break with art as ‘mimetic’, making it literally creative and unprecedented, locating this post-Nietzschean development within the pessimistic ‘kehrseite der Romantik’; in place of such an historical study he has given us instead a close, analytical reading of each thinker, and in this endeavour he is superb.
As Weller points out, questions of consistency arise; or as he phrases it, nihilism returns with a singular ‘uncanniness’ to ‘haunt’ those who identify it as the enemy and then claim to give a strategy for overcoming it. For if, in our quest for certainty, our sceptical fever to uncover all unconscious assumptions that limit us and to violate them, we find ourselves committed by default to a blind, all-powerful Will, how can we prop up faith in an exceptional movement that claims to turn against the Will? Would not the Will respond as it does in Emerson's poem Brahma:
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings
Weller is brilliant at exposing paradoxes in these thinkers, each of whom diagnoses his predecessor as ‘not having truly overcome nihilism’ (thus justifying one more book), but falling ineluctably into the same net of contradictions himself. Weller has also read a library for this study, thus saving the reader the Herculean labour of ploughing on her own through a tradition that promotes opaque, hyperbolic, and otherwise unreadable prose. Here he gives you the key.