Monday, February 2, 2009

Reginster - Nihilism

Under Reginster's interpretation, it would seem that pessimism stands as an antecedent to nihilism, inasmuch as it shares an understanding of the world which nihilism takes to an extreme. Whereas the pessimist believes in the impossibility of the of the realization of values in the world, the nihilist accepts this and also questions the possibility of there being any other world in which such a realization could occur and, hence, posits that there is no hope at all: it is not only that the world is hostile to our values but also that there is no possible world where they could be realized. This distinction mirrors somewhat Reginster's distinction between two forms of nihilism (though he does seem to maintain that this distinction is one between forms of nihilism and not necessarily applicable to the pessimism/nihilism distinction). The first form is that which is most focused upon, that the world does not contain value in itself and hence that we cannot be justified in any maintenance of a system of values. In addition to this, however, Reginster finds also another aspect; it is not only that there is no justification for our system of values, but also that the world is hostile to our values and there is no possibility of their realization in this or any other world. The first form focuses on our ability to maintain values and the second is a judgement on the feasibility of any value system to be maintained in any rational way. The two seem complement one another in their destructive power.

The Birth of Tragedy is imbued with a pessimistic spirit, with hints of the nihilism to come, but compared with later work and in general, it seems to avoid the most despairing nihilistic points and manages to sound rather optimistic. One of the most pessimistic moments involves Nietzsche's description of the story of Silenus, with the quote from Oedipus at Colonus, that "What is best of all is... not to be born, not to be, to be nothing" (42). While we must be drawn in by the gravity of such a statement, there is little hint of overwhelming systematic despair; the quote lends itself merely to pessimism. Indeed, the next page has the description of the Apollinian resolution of this despair with the emergence of a thirst for beauty, "just as roses burst from thorny bushes" (43). Again, on page 60, "man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence; now he understands what is symbolic in Ophelia's fate; now he understands the wisdom of the sylvan god, Silenus: he is nauseated". Even here, "art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing". Even when reaching for towards nihilism, he is drawn back, he is convinced by the overwhelming power of art, not questioning its legitimacy or its ability to truly engage us in such a way. He has not reached nihilism proper, for he has not let go of the hope that art can provide us with a meaningful existence. Can art do this? We should rather rephrase the question: can any form of self-deception do this? I believe so, but when we have reached the point of nihilism, we are taken by a possibly fatal disease which can be warded off with treatment but can always return and will show symptoms occasionally. Nietzsche has not reached beyond pessimism at this point, and so seems rather hopeful that art can serve a healing function; his solution at this point is the most attractive solution which will likely be found in any of his writings, at least for most readers.

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