Nihilism

Mediterranean Irony

A recent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in The New York Times, about goings-on at the Bank of England, put me in mind of a flavor of pessimism not obviously associated with England. Let’s call it Mediterranean irony. Here is Cohen’s opening paragraph:

Guildhall at the heart of the City can be a lulling sort of place after a long day. The statuary and vaulted timber ceiling of the medieval great hall lead the eye to wander and the mind to muse on Britain’s strangest quirk–its centuries of continuity. Grace is said, claret is served, glasses clink and dreaminess sets in. A keynote speech from a central banker is all that is required to complete the soporific effect.

Here’s an example of Mediterranean irony, by Albert Camus, a master of the form:

It struck me that I’d better see about dinner. I had been leaning so long on the back of my chair, looking down, that my neck hurt when I straightened myself up. I went down, bought some bread and spaghetti, did my cooking, and ate my meal standing. I’d intended to smoke another cigarette at my window, but the night had turned rather chilly and I decided against it. As I was coming back, after shutting the window, I glanced at the mirror and saw reflected in it a corner of my table with my spirit lamp and some bits of bread beside it. It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.

As in all forms of irony, the meaning  is hidden or oblique. The specific difference in Mediterranean irony, however, is that a happening of some moment is buried in a desert of ordinariness, in the barrenness of the everyday–a central banker at the “soporific” Bank of England delivers a policy speech that impacts the lives of millions around the globe; Meursault buries his mother in what turns out to be just another tedious Sunday.

Examples of Mediterranean irony show up everywhere–from Montaigne to Camus and well beyond–once you develop an ear for it. I’m not sure this is a blessing, especially if you think as I do that one of the greatest perils of our age is nihilism, but it is certainly one of the many gifts left us by the endlessly creative spirit of Mediterranean culture.

“If God held fast …

If God held fast in his right hand the whole truth and in his left hand only the ever-active quest for truth, albeit with the proviso that I should constantly and eternally err, and said to me: ‘Choose!’, I would humbly fall upon his left hand and say: ‘Father, give! For pure truth is for you alone!’ –Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 1729-1781, Philosophical and Theological Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge, p. 98.

This is doubtless one of Lessing’s most famous quotes. Earlier in the passage he says that greatness of character is measured by the effort put forth in the search for truth, not in one’s claim to possessing it. “Possession,” he says, “makes us inactive, lazy, and proud.” It is important to note that Lessing is not referring to logical truths (e.g. p or not-p), about which there can be no doubt. His fusillade is against orthodoxy–religious dogma in particular–with its attendant self-certainty concerning absolute truth. Against assertiveness and conviction in matters of human or divine knowledge, he counsels modesty and circumspection.

His argument, however, is not only about religion. It extends to all orthodoxies, including those of the very Enlightenment (his own age), with its own immodesty regarding the power of human reason. Claims regarding universal truths, about morality, for example, or the completeness of a philosophical system, ought to be resisted with an ever-present questioning. Absolute truth is not accessible to errant human beings–indeed one ought to choose that it be so, especially in the face of the double temptation to think and act as though we could become masters of the truth.

To our modern ears, the argument is unimpeachable. Lessing warns against the human impulse to craft absolutes, be they in matters of religion or of reason, because error-prone that we are, such absolutes will fail. It behooves us, however, to be clear-eyed about what follows from this path of thought. If there can be no solid justification for absolute truth–as was religion in the Middle Ages, or reason in the Enlightenment–then every turn on the road to our cultivated skepticism leaves us largely with two choices: either embark on a disciplined pragmatism, where we test every hypothesis and act on the best yet necessarily uncertain course before us, or give up entirely, exhausted from the effort, and let nihilism cast a pall over all thought, action and feeling.