On Nihilism: Kay Ryan's "Nothing Ventured"

I confess confusion regarding the word "nihilism."

On Nihilism: Kay Ryan's "Nothing Ventured"

I confess confusion regarding the word "nihilism." It is a very serious word used by very serious people. They have thought about the world ending either in fire or ice. They have reached the conclusion that lacking belief in a moral order is the end of all things.

I would like to use the word. Not because I want to label people "nihilists" in order to dismiss them, but because contempt for life, indifference to the pain of others, unrelenting cynicism about a better world, and sheer ignorance are deep and cruel forms of emptiness. A strict legalism often accompanies them. For example, note the casualness of muttering "should have followed the rules" when watching what is in fact a summary execution.

"Nihilism" is very real. It is not contradictory or ironic to assert this. But is the term useful, or does it do more harm than good? I don't need to say someone is a "nihilist" if they are a murderer who indulges genocidal rhetoric. Precise descriptions are far superior to indeterminate adjectives, especially when some are prone to call both the murderer and the annoying kid in philosophy class "nihilists."

I believe the term has a use. Consider the riddle Kay Ryan wants her readers to ponder. "Nothing exists as a block / and cannot be parceled up." To fully understand her lines, I try to think about nothing. In a way it is impossible, but I'm also picturing a giant transparent cube. A space which lines have carved out, creating a shape and nothing more. There are blocks like these in everyday life. Office buildings which have closed and are devoid of people and furnishings. Or desolate downtown areas. There's not only a lack of humans, but a lack of any sense of life. The "nothing" they embody very much exists as a block. You could focus on a detail such as a humming fluorescent light or a parking meter in disrepair, but it only stands in for the overwhelming feeling that everyone is gone and that what matters doesn't.

Nothing Ventured (from poets.org)
Kay Ryan

Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
So if nothing's ventured
it's not just talk;
it's the big wager.
Don't you wonder
how people think
the banks of space 
and time don't matter?
How they'll drain
the big tanks down to 
slime and salamanders
and want thanks?

"Nothing… cannot be parceled up." Nothing cannot be differentiated. Ryan becomes a Presocratic philosopher, attributing to "nothing" what Parmenides said of "being." For him, all beings must be one if the term being had any meaning. Change, he held, was an illusion. But in "Nothing Ventured," "nothing" refuses diversity. You receive it as a "block" and that unity refuses you facts. Nothing is yours or anyone else's. That's the "big wager" of "nothing ventured." People who want to tell you everything is meaningless, typically because they have some rule you must follow, are actually making the "big wager." "Nothing" is most present, most like a immovable object, when someone in their ignorance asserts their rightness about everything.

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You might say that I have used a lot of words to arrive at the same problem. Just as someone throwing around the word "nihilism" carelessly can't tell the difference between a killer and someone annoying, haven't I conflated despair about meaningfulness with petty tyranny? I don't believe that's the case. After all, we bear witness to the destruction of tyranny large and small. People do say "the banks of space / and time don't matter" in order to steer others away from studying the origins of life and the universe. Only one kind of "bank" matters, yet those I've seen hoard wealth have no clue what is worth buying.

We bear witness to those who "drain / the big tanks down to / slime and salamanders." It's a funny image that entails a reversal of progress. The progress in this case is life on earth: the more primitive "slime" and "salamanders" are all that's left. But does human achievement--do meaningful things--depend on "big tanks" being full? I could circle back to the feeling of what nihilism is to explain this image, that feeling of emptiness I believe makes the term intuitive. But I think Ryan is trying to say that anything we believe we are depends on recognizing substance. You really do need big, full tanks of something in order to be grateful. As if it is better to have and be wrong as opposed to being correct on the most trivial grounds.