Even contemporary philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, who think there is something real and uncanny to the concept of nothingness, are unperturbed by it. In his 1971 essay “The Absurd,” Mr. Nagel admits that nihilism “attempts to express something that is difficult to state, but fundamentally correct.” This sentiment reflects something true and enduring about our lives: the shock we feel, when stepping outside ourselves and adopting the “view from nowhere,” when we suddenly confront the dissonance between the great importance we devote to our daily activities and their ultimate inconsequentiality.Yet this state of affairs, as Mr. Nagel adds, is hardly reason for the romantic and heroic posturing of a Bazarov or Nietzsche—or, for that matter, a Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. Instead, he says, an ironic “What? Me, worry?” is the proper response to the cosmic unimportance of our situation. My life, in short, is little more than a cosmic episode of Seinfeld: rather than watching a show about nothing, I’m a walk-on in a life about nothing. Laugh tracks are optional.Nietzsche warned that our dignity is the first casualty of nihilism. On the 150th anniversary of Bazarov’s birth and death, we might wonder about the strange career of this view from nowhere. Is it possible that our age’s ironic response is a symptom of the disease that pretends to be the cure—a disease grown so familiar that we take it as a sign of health? Or perhaps, like Bazarov’s parents, we simply need to attend to what we have lost and seek to maintain its memory.
We (at least we in the West, the children of monotheism) used to believe that meaning was “out there”, defined by an ultimate authority, God. People and their actions were only meaningful in relation to these supposed external, eternal values; they had no worth of their own, only as symbols pointing to something else. As belief in monotheism waned, some people made one last desperate, panicked lunge to hang on to the validity of universal meaning. They replaced their outdated God with capital-N Nothingness in order to avoid taking responsibility for creating meaning themselves while accepting its inherent contingency.
Others have outgrown the desire to find preexisting truth revealed and are content with the temporary joy of building sand castles of our lives despite the omnipresent encroachment of the tide. Fuck it, dude, let’s go bowling.