Poetry and Nihilism: Confronting the Nothing

My aim is to introduce the concept of nihilism as a philosophical and academic matter.

Poetry and Nihilism: Confronting the Nothing

In a few minutes I'm doing a guided discussion entitled "Poetry and Nihilism: Kay Ryan, Robert Frost, and Confronting the Nothing." The discussion will go well, but I wanted to make sure attendees had a place to see more structured remarks.

My aim is to introduce the concept of nihilism as a philosophical and academic matter. Nihilism is from the Latin nihil, "nothing;" it resides in the word "annihilation." (1) We're most familiar with it from trolls saying things like "nothing matters, so I can do whatever I want." There are obviously darker avenues that sentiment can travel.

However, the original nihilists were "a loosely organized revolutionary movement [in Tsarist Russia] that rejected the authority of the state, church, and family." (2) Let's not pass over this. Imagine a situation where everyone is not only telling you what to do but monitoring everything you do. They're constantly telling you what is approved and holy and true and that everything you do or think is immoral. You know, immoral things like scientific experiments, trying to figure out where the tax money really goes, marrying for love instead of meeting familial or societal expectations.

There are societies and times with totalitarian tendencies. In those situations, the rhetoric of social change can take on an anti-moral character. The most famous example of this might be Machiavelli, who lived in pre-Reformation Italy. He said a ruler could trust more in his subjects fighting harder for their property than they would their own families. It's a blasphemous, horrible idea. But governments in the Middle Ages were literal extensions of family. The king would be succeeded by his son, etc. Nowadays, governments recognize and defend rights centered around private property.

The rhetoric of nihilism, to be sure, is more direct. Perhaps too revolutionary for its own good. The anarchist Bakunin declared this: "Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of life – the passion for destruction is also a creative passion!" (3)

So at this point, we've got three ideas about nihilism worth exploring:

  1. "Nothing matters, I can do/say whatever" – this is a form of nihilism we confront everyday. It needs to be redirected, as silly as it can seem sometimes, because it attacks things we need like "community" and "trust." It also poses theoretical problems.
  2. Nihilism as a reaction against stifling moralistic societies. If those in power abuse their power and command all the moral language, your options for opposing them or building trust with other people are limited.
  3. Nihilism as a will to destruction. This sounds irresponsible to us and it certainly was radical in Bakunin's time. But in the 19th-early 20th centuries plenty of thinkers were familiar with Hegelian dialectic. Hegel read history as the unfolding of an Idea, and the Idea was full consciousness of human freedom. This unfolding of necessity would have a negative element, but the emphasis was on creation and freedom.

This is a lot for a short talk, I know. I haven't even spoken about Nietzsche and his take that nihilism generated by the Western philosophical tradition itself had to be overcome.

There's still so much more to say. I've found one poem helpful in narrowing and focusing my thoughts, Kay Ryan's "Nothing Ventured." Look at her second, third, and fourth lines:

So if nothing's ventured
it's not just talk;
it's the big wager.

Her lines are counterintuitive. We've all known people who are in a bad spot and aren't really trying. They're venturing nothing. Some kill 10 hours straight playing video games they don't even get better at (I feel seen writing this, tbh). Some are watching TV all the time to avoid their own kids. Some are taking bad jobs to get people to stop bugging them. How is that behavior "the big wager?" Ryan goes on: "Don't you wonder / how people think / the banks of space / and time don't matter?"

Nothing Ventured
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?

It's strange to consider that some who are paralyzed and some doing too much both make "the big wager." I mean, think about those who really sold out, who want to sell out. Who are grinding only for one really big payday. They don't need books in the way. How is everyone, without knowing what they're doing, answering one of the fundamental questions, if not the fundamental question?

I have to give Kay Ryan credit. She's showing that a soft nihilism, to use a Nietzsche-adjacent term, underlies a lot of our activity. More importantly, she's showing that we're all philosophers, good and bad ones, whether we like it or not. And if we're bad philosophers, we can do a lot of harm. "How they'll drain / the big tanks down to / slime and salamanders / and want thanks?" – I don't just read these last lines as a plea to think beyond yourself and stop hurting the world we live in. I read them as people trying to kill other people's ambition. A complete lack of respect for how others appreciate the world. It's strange to think about, but it does kind of make sense – you need some kind of ambition, some kind of drive, some kind of stepping beyond yourself or your little corner to not make everyone else miserable. If my reading is right, this is not an easy lesson to apply to our own lives.


(1), (2), & (3): Pratt, A. (n.d.). Nihilism. Internet Encyclodpedia of Philosophy. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from https://iep.utm.edu/nihilism/