Navigating between nihilism and fanaticism


Illustration by Matt Kish

by Sean D. Kelly

My in-box has been flooded, and I know Bert’s has too, with e-mails from readers of All Things Shining.  It’s wonderful!  I only wish we could respond to each of you individually.  Unfortunately, that would be a full-time job, and we’ve already got those.  Instead, then, I’ll try to use this space occasionally to take up some of the more thought-provoking or difficult or perspicuous notes.  Or just the ones about which I think I might have something to say.

Let me start, then, with a difficult one from a reader named Gary, writing from Juba, South Sudan.  Gary says,

After reading your wonderful book, I have a question:  Might you give us on the “All Things Shining” blog examples of how you and Dr. Dreyfus and others practice in daily life the navigation between nihilism and fanaticism?

Well, the first thing to say is that there’s nothing particularly special about my life or Bert’s.  Both of us make mistakes, get unhappy, worry about what to do in various circumstances, and so on.  Our goal is not in any way to hold ourselves up as models.  But we do think there are models available, and one of the points of ATS is to read some of the great works in such a way as to reveal these aspects of what their characters are about.  In the case of navigating between nihilism and fanaticism, I think that Moby Dick’s Ishmael is a key one.  (Another character who would be good to look at in this context is Alyosha, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  We don’t talk about Dostoevsky in ATS, but if we write a follow-up then The Brothers K will almost certainly play a central role.)

For the time being, then, let’s take Ishmael.  The beginning of Moby Dick has Ishmael in a desperate state.  In the opening paragraph of the book he explains that he is suffering from “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”.  Now, we don’t get too much of an explanation here.  We don’t know in any great detail, for example, what Ishmael is unhappy about, or what form his unhappiness takes.  But in the context of the broader issues of the book it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think of this state as one in which the world has started to look, for Ishmael, as if it is lacking distinctions of worth.  Certainly, in any case, it is lacking shining things.  There aren’t too many of those in a damp, drizzly November.  So let’s take it as a working assumption that Ishmael’s opening state is one in which nihilism is threatening.  What is his response?

I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Now, going to sea here could be read, and perhaps it should be read, as a metaphor.  On such an account going to sea is unmooring yourself from the background presuppositions by which you have always been held, the presuppositions of your culture or society or upbringing that are so close to you that you don’t even notice you’re committed to them.  You do this not by focusing on yourself, though, but by focusing on others.  One of Ishmael’s goals in going to sea is find ways of life that don’t have the problem he is now encountering, ways of life that he can get in sync with, resonate with, and from which he can see meaningful aspects of the world to which his former way of life had closed him off.  Ishmael does this by literally going to sea, of course.  But one could just as well immerse oneself in literary worlds.

Illustration by Matt Kish

At sea Ishmael meets the hale and hearty pagan Queequeg.  Queequeg’s way of life seems to justify itself in the scene in which he lies on his deathbed, “nigh to his endless end”.  (He doesn’t actually die here, but it looks to everyone, including Queequeg, as if he will.)

But as all else in him thinned, and his cheek-bones grew sharper, his eyes, nevertheless, seemed growing fuller and fuller; they became of a strange softness of lustre; and mildly but deeply looked out at you there from his sickness, a wondrous testimony to that immortal health in him which could not die, or be weakened.

There are other indications in the novel that Queequeg’s way of life is in some way or another worth emulating. And one of the things Ishmael does is genuinely to emulate it. That is to say, he involves himself in the very ritual practices of idol worship that Queequeg finds so central to his life. Now, Ishmael doesn’t end up getting a whole lot out those particular practices. But he does seem to learn from Queequeg that you need to embody your way of life rather than simply to think about it.  And Ishmael commits himself to writing an understanding of the universe on his own body, the way Queequeg has one tattooed on his.

So what are we to make of this?  I take it that Ishmael’s way out of nihilism is to learn to share the various moods of his companions that reveal the world as meaningful.  This is one of the things that Ishmael is great at – he can get caught up in almost any mood.  Moods are interesting because they reveal things about the world that matter, things that if you weren’t caught up in the mood you wouldn’t be able to notice.  Ishmael gets caught up in the mood of agapic Christian love, for example, when he works together with his community to some rather trivial end (squeezing the sperm), and in that mood he experiences a joy that is like that of “the angels in paradise”; and he gets caught up in the isolated mood of Father Mapple’s Lutheranism when he listens to his sermon at the Whaleman’s chapel.  In various circumstances he finds himself caught up in Queequeg’s moods.  All these moods reveal different aspects of the way the world matters.  Getting in sync with revealing moods is a guarantor against nihilism, on Melville’s account.

But it is dangerous, too.  For some moods are maniacal, demoniacal, fanatical.  Some moods reveal a way the world matters only by closing you off to all the other meanings, only by making you narrow-minded and fanatical and joyless.  That is Ahab’s monomaniacal mood.  As Ahab says about himself, “I lack the low, enjoying power”.  (Perhaps one should be reminded here of Amy Chua, the Tiger Mama, whose extreme parenting techniques may be tied up with the fact that she is, by her own account, “not good at enjoying life.”  This actually feels wrong to me, but I’m not sure why.  Discuss.)

In any case, Ishmael even gets in sync with Ahab’s fanatical mood for a while.  “Ahab’s quenchless feud was mine,” he says, and he is caught up in that totalizing mood that organizes his understanding of everything that is.  Somehow, though, Ishmael manages to leave this mood behind.

I’ve written a lot already, so I won’t go on here.  But there is a serious question how Ishmael can leave himself open to moods that reveal the way the world matters without getting caught in a monomaniacal or fanatical mood, one that closes him off to all the others.  If getting caught up in revealing moods is a way to resist nihilism, then how does one resist the fanatical moods?  I’ll try to return to that question later, but for the time being I’d love to hear what people think.

Piece crossposted with All Things Shining