The tenor of our age: nihilism born of egoism

When I die, my ability to experience will die with me. How I lived, how long I lived, and how I am remembered won’t make any difference to me because I won’t be able to experience it. From the perspective of experience, death voids everything. Unfortunately, from that very same perspective, living is not that much different.

Living is a series of loosely connected experiences of now, each of which is quickly forgotten. We overlook the ephemeral nature of experience because of the illusion of memory. Our memories are an experience of now masquerading as an experience of then. We don’t experience the past through memory. We don’t know it either. We imagine it. Whatever our imagination may conjure for us, there is only now, the experience of now, and nothing.

Nihilism to the left of me; oblivion to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle with now.

But, hold on.

I may not be able to experience again an experience that has past, but many past experiences effect my experience of now. I can’t experience again those many hours I spent reading, writing and studying, but the positive effects of those experiences stay with me. Likewise, I can’t experience again the cigarettes I’ve had, but their harm stays with me too. Experience may be the means through which we interact with the world, but living in the world is not reducible to our experience of it. There is much more to living than experience.

From this perspective — the perspective of living — the focus on the non-experience of death is myopic. The effects of my life will live on, for better and for worse, long after I am here to experience them. This longevity of effect is nothing like the immortality that the experiencing self craves, but it is the easy proof that death does not void everything. The experiencing self will be extinguished, yes, but its effects will persist long enough to be relevant, whether they are experienced by the extinguished self or not.

So, on closer inspection, the fact of death, in itself, is not the source of the nihilism that is often associated with it. Instead, it is the myopic focus on experience. If outcomes only matter to me when they are directly experienced, death may seem like a good reason not to care about any outcome at all because, at some point, all experience will come to an end. However, that very same focus on experience will likely lead someone to also disregard or ignore outcomes that they don’t directly experience while they are living. If a person’s own experience is the only thing that matters to them, why would they care about what’s happening in the next house, the next city, or the next century? The short answer: they wouldn’t.

Nihilism blooms not in the corpse of god nor in the ever-present fact of death nor in the loss of faith and tradition. It blooms instead in the belief that a person’s own experience is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Nihilism is a product and consequence of egoism, in whatever form it happens to express itself: religious, philosophical, or economic. It this relationship, I think, between egoism and nihilism that best explains the tenor of our age.

What You Say About Her Company Is What You Say About Society: Today’s Hedda Gabler, A Mean Mean Pride

All’s well that ends well and Schaübhne Theatre Company’s revised and updated production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler ends very well.

The final moments of this production border on gloriousness. Unfortunately, the 130 minutes that proceed them are nowhere near as satisfying. Overall, this up-dated version of Ibsen comes across like a well-executed soap opera intermittently punctuated with rare moments of aesthetic brilliance.

Hedda Gabbler, our heroine, is bored and petulant from the very moment we meet her. We soon learn that she has married someone she doesn’t love because, of all her suitors, he is the only one willing to foot the bill for her pampered but boring lifestyle.

An old love re-enters her life, riding a wave of unexpected success. Hedda, fueled by a toxic mixture of bordeom and jealousy, decides to destroy his life and, effortlessly, she does. Her game, however, does not play out as she hopes and, because of her own criminal actions, she ends up at the mercy of someone who intends to take full sexual advantage of his power.

In one last desperate attempt to rail against the people and the world around her, Hedda kills herself. Unfortunately, for our heroine, her final act of defiance is ignored by the very people she intends to defy. Their indifference carries with it a hint of ridicule.

I suppose, in the late 19th century, Hedda’s situation might have engendered some sympathy because, at least in that context, it is more plausible to believe her existence is largely determined by her social circumstances. Even so, it is difficult to sympathize too much with Hedda because the aristocratic tragedy of her circumstances seems to be only that she is forced to marry beneath her station.

In the early 21st century, however, Hedda’s situation does not generate any sympathy. She is simply a spoiled brat who plays with pistols instead of surfing the net, who destroys the lives of old lovers because it is more vivid than HDTV, and who kills herself because she can’t be bothered finding a good lawyer.

On the one hand, it is plausible that the production intends to satirize the lifestyle of the German middle class, generally-speaking, and the 21st century Hedda, in particular, and the satire is lost on me because the play is performed in German, with French and English surtitles. Moreover, this more charitable reading helps justify performances, costume choices, and staging choices that are reminiscent of television soap opera.

For example, at one point, the German actor seems to use the word “kitsch”, the French translation uses “kitsch”, and the English translation uses the word “sentiment.” The expression “kitsch” brings with it a host of conations not at all captured by the word “sentiment.”  The result is the francophones in the audience have a big laugh that simply does not translate.

On the other hand, as far as I can gather from his interviews, director Thomas Ostermeier expects us to sympathize and identify with Hedda. From this I can only infer he also expects us to identify with her ennui, her disdain for the people around her, and her nihilism.

And with that discovery, we return to the final glorious scene.

Hedda lies dead, her suicide ignored. Suddenly, the conventions of realism are ruptured, as Hedda’s hopelessly naive husband discovers his home is revolving. He carries on as if nothing is really the matter. He ignores the absurdity of his metaphysical reality in the same way he ignores Hedda’s reaction to it.

I suspect Ostermeier’s intention is that we are meant to feel sympathy for Hedda whose last desperate effort at glory in an absurd world is ignored by a mediocre and naive middle class who likewise ignore the absurd foundations of their existence and carry on living as if nothing really is the matter.

On this reading, the final scene is a beautiful yet tragic homage to our nihilist heroine.

In contrast, in this final scene, I see a spoiled brat, whose last pathetic and self-indulgent tantrum is rightly ignored, along with the snobbery and metaphysical absurdity that motivates it. Her nihilist tragedy is, for me, a moment of delight. She is the fool, and the last laugh is on her.

The world’s middle classes are rightly criticized for many of their life choices, however, the decision to ignore the tantrums of a spoiled nihilist and to choose life in the face of its metaphysical absurdity is a choice that should always be celebrated — whoever makes it.

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