Conclusion: the faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism. We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a fictitious world.
– Nietzsche, The Will to Power
...And ancient ideas are on fire, my love…”
- “My Son Cool”
What I hear in Guided by Voices, what I heard and saw in them live, is a resistance to nihilism.
Nothing matters: that is the essence of nihilism as we usually think of it in contemporary society. As a thought, it’s a belief in no preordained meaning or values, no guiding voice. As an urge, the contemporary version of nihilism heads in two directions. The first is a path of destruction, the violent seduction of death and oblivion; if nothing matters, then life is the freedom to obliterate itself. Even the destruction is meaningless. This is the sound, sometimes, of punk, but it could just as easily be the sound of death metal and slo-core and rap and folk and country and pop music. The style of the music only affects how smoothly we’ll digest our despair.
The second direction is apathy. If nothing matters, then even obliteration is meaningless. Why put up a fight? What is the point of energy, even a destructive energy? Another prophet, diagnosing himself and his times—which, said Anton Chekhov, is the artist’s only obligation (he was a doctor, too)—captured this apathy in five simple words which gurgled out from MTV in the early 1990s: “Oh well, whatever, never mind”. They were a critique of culture and a critique of the music of that culture, a critique, even, of the song that was carrying the critique forward. The message screamed by a man onstage to thousands, eventually millions, was pointless. It couldn’t really change the world, a despairing idea Cobain reflected sometimes by mumbling Nirvana’s first hit song incoherently and sometimes by singing it like Frank Sinatra. No one cared. We sang the words for him, and some of us thought it was grand.
The apathetic strain of contemporary nihilism is the most pervasive, probably because it goes down smoother. And it makes for good entertainment for more people. In fact, it has become entertainment. When nothing matters, the least offensive activity is that entertainment which seems to know, even broadcast the idea, that it doesn’t matter. Pop fluff. If it tries to argue otherwise—if, say, an attractive female country singer dares to speak her views about a war—it’s ridiculed. The dominant public response is one of hierarchy and authenticity, but is girded by the claim that since entertainment no longer has anything to say, and since this person is entertainment, this person has nothing to say. This person, in fact, is not so much a person. So what begins as apathy ends up being destructive.
The character of contemporary nihilism was prophesied by Friedrich Nietzsche, who not only defined but also accurately diagnosed it as the coming conflict of modernity. For this Nietzsche has often been vilified and grossly misrepresented; we have assumed that the doctor was in favor of the disease. Not so. Nietzsche disdained the despair and apathy that nihilism was just beginning to cause in the late 19th century. The scion of a family of Lutheran ministers, Nietzsche believed the cause of nihilism was religion, specifically religion’s emphasis on a perfect other world which made this one expendable. As man realized the other world did not exist, Nietzsche claimed, man realized the fraudulence of his other values—aim, unity, and truth—and so ceased to believe in this world, too. He recognized in The Will to Power:
Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking: the character of existence is not ‘true,’ is false. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world.
This is the secret understanding of the 20th century, the mad turnabout of the project of the Enlightenment, and one could argue it came to fruition between 1939 and 1945, when a murderous ideologue and his cohorts exterminated millions, and when, in response, one country dropped onto a surgical center a bomb that killed 70,000 people instantly in a nuclear flash. Within six years, the competing aims of progress, science, and humanism clashed and over 60 million people died.
Like Roth’s apprehension of the American spectacle, Nietzsche’s prophesized nihilism was part of the milieu into which Guided by Voices stepped forth. They resisted it. And though it’s tempting to say it couldn’t have been any other way—that the urges toward destruction and apathy were part of the world around them, and so what else could they do?—the vigor of their resistance and the complexity of their response suggest a conscious effort, soaked in beer though it might have been.
XI. Nothing for Something
For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals—because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these ‘values’ really had. We require, sometime, new values.
- Nietzsche, The Will to Power
“Buzzards and dreadful crows
A necessary evil, I suppose
There’s something in this deal for everyone
Did you really think that you were the only one?”
– “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”
Nihilism was an unavoidable condition—a necessary evil—but Nietzsche believed it could have a purpose. In doing so, his more nuanced understanding of the term paved the way for 20th century existentialism and postmodernism. A time would come, he said, when mankind would have to confront the fact that life is without an intrinsic, ordained meaning, that existence has no aim, unity, or capital-T “truth”—what then? The confrontation would allow us to reconsider the ways we establish meaning and values. Here, at least, the destruction seems to have a purpose: to raze the earth of its hypocritical institutions and beliefs so that something new and more honest can be built. The debate turns toward what those new values will be.
If Nietzsche was a nihilist, as we often accuse him of being, then he wouldn’t have elaborated a response. That his responses to the problem of nihilism are controversial and endlessly argued, though, is an understatement. They are essentially boiled down to two ideas, the “will to power” and the Ubermensch, each of which possesses tones of exclusion and aristocratic privilege. What has tarnished the philosopher’s reputation, besides his supposed atheism—springing from his statement that “God is dead”, though he meant moreso our conception of a god—are the uses to which these two theories were put into practice by Nazis and fascists, who in the early 20th century perverted Nietzsche’s new values into foundations for the supremacy of race and nation. Nowhere did Nietzsche advocate the death which they meted out; their totalitarian systems crushed the individualism Nietzsche held dear. The philosopher knew the abyss must be gazed into; they expanded the abyss.
A more positive view of Nietzsche’s brand of nihilism and what good can come out of it is expressed by the Paul Tillich. A Christian theologian and existential philosopher, Tillich had a different take on Nietzsche’s theory of the will power in his 1952 book The Courage to Be, wherein he describes how, for Nietzsche, “Courage is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of [its own] ambiguity, while the negation of life because of its negativity is an expression of cowardice.” The phrase “in spite of” is crucial; it leads us to the word “sometimes”: sometimes life is miserable, but to confuse that for always is a serious error. Nihilism is an absolutist theory; what Tillich calls “courage” here is not. This courage sees the relative ups and downs of life, never believes it can eradicate all suffering, and never mistakes the occasional ambiguity and wretchedness and darkness of living to be its absolute, essential characteristics. Even in the center of a century of mass murder.
Emerson’s sermon of self-assertion—a methodology—finds in this view of Nietzsche and nihilism its purpose. The guiding voice of God, by the middle of the 19th century (about the time Emerson’s Transcendentalists, having done their job, were falling apart), is replaced by the self and the self’s subjective desires. The step forward onto the stage, or to the podium, the pulpit, the head of the table can be motivated by life’s affirmation in spite of. What that voice chooses to say is not mandated by the aim, unity, or truth of a single source, which means it’s free to speak of the courage to be. Or it can advocate nothingness.
I don’t know that a moment of truth arrives for any artist in a clear-cut manner. But I do know that in 1986, Bob Pollard and company did something no one was asking them to do, and that by 1992’s Propeller, they had already begun to make something from nothing—to write and record music, to play it for people, to design countless album covers and to silkscreen them by hand—which was, at least, a blow against apathetic nihilism. Then they kept pushing.
Sometimes I define pop music as song, performance, stance, idea that ignores the issue of in spite of. It pretends to have or legitimately has no awareness of suffering.
Counterclaim: The world is bad enough, we don’t need to be reminded all the time.
Rebuttal: No, but it seems more honest and pragmatic.