Utopian Nihilism

When I was a junior at UT, I took a class with Roland Vegso. He was a Hungarian guy who got his doctorate in literature from SUNY. Really great prof, and introduced a lot of fun literature to me – like Dadaism, which is one of the best things ever.

I remember the course for a couple of reasons. First: It was there that I realized that philosophers are horrible writers. Kant, for example. I wrote a paper on Kant, and Dr Vegso told me I needed a better understanding of Kant. He was right, but I don’t think that anyone has a good understanding of Kant.

Second, because a year later, as I was applying to writing programs, he said that my writing was ‘utopian nihilism.’ He said that didn’t make sense, and it shouldn’t be possible, but I pulled it off. (Of course, this explains why most of my stories get rejected from magazines. No one gets me, man.) So, naturally, as I do whenever I’m presented with a new idea, I retreat inward and think about the idea until I’ve either grown bored with it or convinced myself that I have mastered it.

So, let me tell you about my worldview:

(Forewarning: This is the most useless post you will probably read on the Internet. It’s one jackass’s attempt to just do some writing on a Tuesday morning and, rather than working on a story, he chooses to navel gaze for a thousand or so words. You’d probably be best off not reading this.)

It may be that ‘utopian nihilism’ isn’t the right term for it. I’d be tempted to call it ‘realism,’ or ‘pragmatism,’ but those are terms often used by Tea Party types when talking about why they don’t think the government should get involved in healthcare, but why the government should post the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls. So I’d say that I’m stuck with it, but ‘nihilism’ is equally bad.

It’s like talking about how you’re an atheist, and that defines your life. You define your life based on the absence of something, then don’t expect to be invited to parties. Many people get around this by calling themselves ‘humanists,’ which is much better, but has that vague air of pretension brought about by reading some Vonnegut essays in college and deciding to model your life after them.

So how do I define it? It goes back to Vegso’s course, specifically the meetings on Candide. Pangloss, the idiot professor, has a philosophy that best states, “This is the only world upon which we exist, thus: It is the best of all possible worlds.” Or something like that.

The mantra is put up to be satirized. Our world is clearly not the best. We have famine. We have war. Death. Hatred. All those things that make people read Camus and try to affect the apathetic air that only Camus could master. To claim that it is the best of all possible worlds is to ignore all of that. Surely, Voltaire not-says, we can do better? Surely we can imagine a world that’s better?

We can, but that’s not a good idea. Pangloss is – to a point – correct. This is the only world we have. It is the only world upon which you and I – at this moment – exist. We may disagree about the degree to which we exist on this world (are we projections of the universe, separate entities, but still the same? Or are we completely removed from one another), but we can agree that, if I punch you, you will feel it, and you will feel it here and not on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy. Thus, faced with the realization that we have no option but to exist on this planet, we must admit to ourselves that this is, by virtue of being the only thing we have to look at and to experience, as close to perfection as we can get.

See, it may be because of my background in Judaism that I hold this idea. Judaism is very much a materialist religion. The focus is not the life to come, nor is it being godlike, nor is it being Christlike (obviously), nor is it focusing on the connections between souls in some New Agey sense of the term. The focus is on the world in front of us. We are commanded by God to act in such a way that betters the world. All of the 612 commandments in the Torah – so the rabbis say – are given to do just that. While other religions may present ciphers about how or when their Messiah will come, Judaism holds that Moshiach will only come when all Jews follow the commandments. When they act righteously, in other words. (This, by the way, is a huge difference from Christianity, which says that grace is what brings a person to glory. In Judaism, the relationship between man and God is important [of course!] but equally important is the relationship of human to human.) So, from that perspective, the idea of looking at the world and complaining that it’s not perfect is absurd. If it’s not to your liking, then do something about it. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be perfect. Nothing will be – even Moses, who is chief among the prophets, screwed up!

Or, perhaps, it’s my sporadic forays into Zen that get me into this thought. “Desire is suffering,” is the common understanding of one of the tenets of Buddhism in general (and Zen). Many people take this to understand that Buddhism is an incredibly depressing religion. After all, Zen monks typically wear black, don’t they? They do, but black is very slimming and it’s hard not to look cool in black.

Jokes aside, Zen is not depressing. Zen is also not cheerful. It is also not ecstatic, mourning, or whatever else you may try to ascribe to it. It may help you with your delusions but–but I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Desire is suffering,” should be translated to “Excessive desire is suffering,” say many teachers. After all, you can’t crush desire. You will always desire to breathe. You will always desire to eat. Crushing those desires would definitely lead to suffering. Instead, Zen and Buddhism teaches adherents to look at their lives and see through the bullshit. To become – in a sense – the Dude. The Dude, after all, just wanted his rug back, you know?

This ties into the perfect world scenario because, in desiring a perfect world – that which, by definition, we cannot have – we are really weighing ourselves down with unrealistic expectations. We are, in fact, creating more suffering than there is in our goal to reach a land of no suffering. (In other words, we are attached to the idea of perfection.) By looking for perfection where it cannot exist, we are blinding ourselves to what is right in front of us. Pangloss’s statement, in a way, has a crack at the dharma. So, is it possible that Voltaire was a closet Buddhist?

Hell no. Just thought I’d mess with you for a second.

So where does this come in to everything we’re talking about? How is this ‘utopian nihilism?’ Well, it’s not. As I said before, nihilism isn’t a good term. It’s an absence of a term and, I think, a lazy cop-out to understanding the heart of the matter: In a world that, objectively, has no direction or meaning, we are not only free to define our own meaning, but we are required to do so. Nihilism – to the layman who has not studied philosophy – brings to mind Uli from The Big Lebowski: A drunken asshole passed out on a pool float because there is nothing to believe in. So, let us take that as the definition. You may disagree, and, to an extent, I do as well, but it’s more or less accurate. And as for the ‘utopian’ part of the label, well, we all know that ‘utopia’ is ‘no place.’ So, one could take that to mean that ‘utopian nihilism’ is just an acknowledgement that the world is imperfect, and perfection is impossible.

Okay, so what the hell does that mean? It’s simple: There is no objective meaning in the world. We are not here to make money; we are not here to dick around. We are not here to ____. We are here, though. That’s enough. Once you understand there is no purpose, then you may make your purpose. It’s the initial steps you need to take to get to that that are rough. Why are they rough? Because you need to get to that point where you understand that, just because humanity may be the only intelligent life in the universe, that doesn’t give you a license to be a dick.

In my mind, ‘utopian nihilism’ is just looking at the world and seeing that it’s all we have. Then, you make the leap from that to realizing that it would be a real shame to make the world be a miserable place.