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Varieties of Nothing

Originally Appeared in: SubStance: Volume 50, Number 2 | Published 2021

Maurice Blanchot’s thought and criticism lie at the nexus of modern reflections on nihilism. Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Mallarmé firmly plant the indissociability of nihilism and modernity in modern thought itself. And yet the multiple meanings of nihilism, from wanton enraged destructiveness to joyously ungrounded creativity, unsettle any particular conception of modernity. And that is already the case at the dawn of modern philosophy. For no sooner does Descartes introduce rationality and certitude into modern thought, freeing truth from doctrine and revelation, than Pascal initiates a reflection on nothingness that leads, in his view, not away from faith but beyond reason to faith. Blanchot not only recognizes a certain inseparability of Descartes and Pascal, but broaches the question of nihilism by boldly yoking Pascal and Nietzsche, supposed antipodes of modern thought. That juxtaposition has inspired my own reflections here because Nietzsche and Pascal have so richly, and ambiguously, nourished more recent thinkers, including Gianni Vattimo, for whom “nihilism is our (only) chance” (End of Modernity 23), and Pierre Bourdieu, who transmutes Pascalian divertissement into the sociological concept of the illusio as the stake in the various contests for distinction. Where do Blanchot’s reflections stand in relation to Vattimo’s engagement with Nietzsche and Bourdieu’s with Pascal? That question takes shape for me in its bearing on nihilism and belief in the modern age, in modernity, in modernism.

 For the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century antifoundationalist philosopher of postmodernism Gianni Vattimo, as for the early twentieth-century social theorist Max Weber, nihilism is first and foremost the condition of modernity. Through the complex, tumultuous, and violent processes by which religion and myth cease to be the glue or binding of social relations and cease to be the source or the ultimate reference of cultural and artistic creations, society becomes to that very extent bereft of—or liberated from—any supreme, organizing value. Weber dubs this condition a new polytheism insofar as individuals and groups are faced with the ordeal and the possibility of deciding among multiple, often contradictory and incompatible values by which to orient their lives. Vattimo dubs this condition postmodern and stresses how plurality and relativism open new possibilities of freedom.

Nietzsche is an essential reference point for both Weber and Vattimo, but unlike the relatively cool analysis by which they observe the unbinding and separation and autonomization, Nietzsche himself explores it—and lived it—as a conceptual-rhetorical-affective ordeal. Blanchot’s commentaries on Nietzsche exemplify his own precept that “Literature…in truth has meaning and value only as a passion lived by the writer” (Work of Fire 142). Thanks to the peculiar vocation of literary criticism, Blanchot recognizes that the key to Nietzsche’s ordeal and to his thought, however much one also takes into account his physical and mental suffering, down to the ultimate perforation and ruin of his mind, is his writing. Moreover, faced with the questions Nietzsche poses regarding nihilism, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence, Blanchot is perhaps unique in treating terms like nothingness, negative thought, and absence as ever capable of affirmation. 

How to account at once for Nietzsche’s lucidity and his fury?

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