The Varieties of Nihilistic Experience, Part 2: Moral Awakening in a World of Nothing
Several years ago a few students in my Sophomore Great Books Theology class asserted the impossibility of making universally normative moral judgments. They predictably trotted out the conventional reasons for making this universally normative moral judgment, from differences in cultural and religious background to the prevailing fashion for submitting to what passes as tolerance, and I dutifully played along by encouraging their moral agnosticism. By the time the class ended, I had succeeded in directing a few students to admit the impossibility of condemning the Nazis. After virtue, indeed.
The next class I tried to demonstrate the absurdity of such a claim and to clarify the nature of our shared moral values and language. To begin I passed out a faux Grade Policy Amendment explaining that, due to a growing concern among college admission boards that grade inflation in American high schools was running rampant, Xavier was beginning the process of changing the way it graded student performance. Starting that very day, our current grade scale was suspended for all Great Books courses; no longer would an average of between 94-100% earn a student an A for a course. Instead, for a class the size of my Sophomore group, only the top five grades in the class would earn an A. The next seven grades would earn a B, the next seven a C, the next five a D, and the final three an F. Conceivably, a student with an 88% could fail the course and have to repeat it the following year, if that was one of the three lowest grades in the class, while a student with a 95% might earn a B or possibly a C, depending on how the other students performed. “This is, after all,” I said, “a Great Books course. Most of you have earned straight A’s forever, and you’re a bright, competitive bunch.”
To support me in this ruse I made an official-looking handout detailing the new policy, which I had signed by the Dean of Students, my department chair, and the Great Books Program Coordinator. It certainly captured their attention. Some of the same students who the previous day were asserting the impossibility of saying, “This or That is wrong”, were saying exactly those things now. One student called the new policy fascist. All agreed that it was unfair to change a grade policy a month into the semester, especially on such terms. Any reasonable person would.
I’ll admit a perverse sort of enjoyment watching them squirm, as their confusion gave way to fear and then anger. After about ten minutes of back-and-forth, with me offering the occasional bromide such as “Well, isn’t fairness determined by the people in charge, as a few of you said yesterday?” and “Life itself can often appear unfair, so you should get used to this kind of thing,” I admitted the scam. Their relief was palpable. Many students cheered, while two of them leaned over their desks and hugged each other. I was forgiven for the cruel hoax, and we spent the rest of the class period discussing how easy it is to speak the language of moral relativism in the sheltered environment of a classroom when universally normative moral rules are taken for granted by everyone, but how difficult it is to take that language seriously when someone begins to put that relativism into practice. Especially, for Great Books students, when grades are at stake.
Had we been reading Flannery O’Connor, I might have said something like, “We all need a Manley Pointer when we think conventional morality is too simplistic or outdated for sophisticates like ourselves.” For in stories like “Good Country People” O’Connor exposed both the subtlety and the failure of our attempts to hide behind our cleverness in order to avoid goodness. She often did so by highlighting our modern attraction to Nothing, which Andrew Ellison wrote about in the first part of this series, using the Man in Black to illustrate “ironic nihilism.” O’Connor dramatized in her fiction the lethal consequences of nihilism by illustrating what happens when its devotees leave the altar of Nothing and venture out into the real world, accompanied not by the promise of “Pax vobiscum” but by the warning “Tu es solus in toto.”
Hulga Hopewell, the 32-year-old philosophy PhD of “Good Country People,” learns just how alone she is when she tries to reveal the emptiness of life to Manley Pointer, a young Bible salesman whom she assumes is a typical cornbread rube deluded by biblical religion. As a cultured intellectual stuck in an environment inhospitable to her soaring insights, Hulga sees in Manley a pupil to whom she can teach the wisdom of Nothing by seducing him. I won’t spoil the story by revealing all the details, which reveal O’Connor’s mastery of the short story form, but I will give away the ending by showing how Hulga’s attempt to seduce Manley goes horribly wrong and reveals the shallowness of her faith. (The story is available online here.)
Hulga’s most notable physical feature, one loaded with symbolic meaning, is her wooden leg, the result of a hunting accident when she was ten. After she allows Manley to remove this leg in the loft of a barn in a scene of physical intimacy that is unequaled in O’Connor’s fiction, Hulga, now completely vulnerable, realizes that she is no longer in control:
She gave a little cry of alarm but he pushed her down and began to kiss her again. Without the leg she felt entirely dependent on him. Her brain seemed to have stopped thinking altogether and to be about some other function that it was not very good at. Different expressions raced back and forth over her face. Every now and then the boy, his eyes like two steel spikes, would glance behind him where the leg stood. Finally she pushed him off and said, “Put it back on me now.”
“Wait,” he said. He leaned the other way and pulled the valise toward him and opened it. It had a pale blue spotted lining and there were only two Bibles in it. He took one of these out and opened the cover of it. It was hollow and contained a pocket flask of whiskey, a pack of cards, and a small blue box with printing on it. He laid these out in front of her one at a time in an evenly-spaced row, like one presenting offerings at the shrine of a goddess. He put the blue box in her hand. THIS PRODUCT TO BE USED ONLY FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE, she read, and dropped it. The boy was unscrewing the top of the flask. He stopped and pointed, with a smile, to the deck of cards. It was not an ordinary deck but one with an obscene picture on the back of each card. “Take a swig,” he said, offering her the bottle first. He held it in front of her, but like one mesmerized, she did not move.
What follows is the disenchantment not of Manley Pointer by the more worldly Hulga, but of Hulga herself, which begins when she recognizes that, as Johnny Cash said about the bad guys he only sang about, “these guys are really DANGEROUS!” Indeed they are, and Manley can only express surprise that Hulga has stopped playing along.
“Give me my leg!” she screamed and tried to lunge for it but he pushed her down easily.
“What’s the matter with you all of a sudden?” he asked, frowning as he screwed the top on the flask and put it quickly back inside the Bible. “You just a while ago said you didn’t believe in nothing. I thought you was some girl!”
As the realization of her predicament grows, Hulga lapses into the kind of reaction her earlier declarations of faith should preclude:
Her face was almost purple. “You’re a Christian!” she hissed. “You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all – say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re…”
The boy’s mouth was set angrily. “I hope you don’t think,” he said in a lofty indignant tone, “that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going!”
“Give me my leg!” she screeched. He jumped up so quickly that she barely saw him sweep the cards and the blue box back into the Bible and throw the Bible into the valise. She saw him grab the leg and then she saw it for an instant slanted forlornly across the inside of the suitcase with a Bible at either side of its opposite ends. He slammed the lid shut and snatched up the valise and swung it down the hole and then stepped through himself. When all of him had passed but his head, he turned and regarded her with a look that no longer had any admiration in it. “I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things,” he said. “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way. And you needn’t to think you’ll catch me because Pointer ain’t really my name. I use a different name at every house I call at and don’t stay nowhere long. And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga,” he said, using the name as if he didn’t think much of it, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
Nothing is a fearful proposition, Hulga learns, not a girl’s classroom philosophy or a game to play when the mood strikes us. Ralph Wood has claimed that “It is likely that O’Connor had Nietzsche in mind when she declared that she was a Catholic not as someone else would be a Methodist or Baptist, but as someone else would be an atheist. To be an atheist is to be obsessed with God’s terrible absence.” She recognized, as Nietzsche did, the totalizing claims both the gospel and atheism make on us, and in her fiction raised the questions Nietzsche and Heidegger did about the relationship between religious faith, doubt, and nihilism. As my students hopefully began to recognize regarding their moral posturing, so Hulga saw when exposed to the logical implications of Nothing: It is difficult to convincingly protest unfair or manipulative behavior when you have undercut the very basis of moral judgments by invoking “tolerance” or nihilism. There is a price to pay when we embrace Nothing.
Christians should be careful here, lest we miss our own share in the shortsightedness of my students and Hulga. There are gradations and varieties of nihilism, a fact that can get lost when we play the “It’s either Christ or Nothing” card. As O’Connor and Nietzsche knew, nihilism is often comfortably at home in the churches, and we would mistake their contributions to our understanding of the toxins at work in our society and culture if we limited nihilism to the anti-religion crowd. “[I]f you live today,” O’Connor wrote in 1955, “you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church it’s the gas you breathe.” In our age “the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens,” she added, “which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.”
It is crucial to note, however, that for Nietzsche the death of God meant not simply the conviction that there is no God, but that the human being has become the only court of appeal for values, convictions, and truth. There is no transcendent ground for anything, including moral values. Man becomes the only measure, and claims to the contrary are not even worthy of consideration and debate. In our day the altars consecrated to Nothing are approached most readily by those enchanted by the power of unencumbered choice. How to live ethically, spend my money, use my genitals, end my life, are determined by me. We can sprinkle religious language over this arrangement, if we so choose, but that often serves as little more than a type of guarantee that heaven awaits us. As David Bentley Hart notes in “Christ and Nothing,” our religion today, including that of many Christians, is a form of nihilism:
This may seem a somewhat apocalyptic note to sound. . ., but I believe I am saying nothing not almost tediously obvious. We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarist and, in a rather debased and degraded way, Promethean; the will, we believe, is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good. And a society that believes this must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics: the unreality of any “value” higher than choice, or of any transcendent Good ordering desire towards a higher end.
How many people in the West today does this describe? It’s not only “secular humanists” or “liberal Catholics” who attempt to live this faith. When my students express their discomfort with traditional moral language, they are illustrating how well trained they are in this ethos of personal volition, which provides the undergirding of contemporary views of tolerance and diversity. Shaking heads in disgust at their confusion often shields those who presume their greater fidelity to Christ and his Church from their own complicity in the very same behavior they condemn in others. The truth is that the banalities of so much of American culture, which even the most faithful Catholics are often implicated in, incarnate the fears announced by Nietzsche, who was not an advocate of nihilism but its most incisive prophet. He denounced the degradations it produced, even if, as Hart and others point out, he was wrong about its causes and solutions. In my next post in this series I will consider how Nietzsche’s reflections on “the Last Man” mirror contemporary American culture, religious and secular, as goodness, truth, and beauty get turned into commodities and Las Vegas and Los Angeles replace Athens and Jerusalem as reference points.