By John Marmysz
Cultural critics commonly warn against the dangers of nihilism. Associated with the decline and decay of our highest values, nihilism traditionally has been treated as an unequivocal evil; something to be resisted and overcome at all costs. Today, the popular media is frequently denounced as promoting nihilism, with critics regularly bemoaning the corrupting influences of television shows and movies. This type of complaint stretches all the way back to Plato, who famously condemned artistic representations as dangerous distractions from the “real” world, three times removed from the Truth, and which thus plunge spectators into a state of illusion and falsehood.
In my book Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings (Edinburgh University Press, September 2017) I take issue with this common viewpoint, contending that while many popular motion pictures are indeed “nihilistic,” this is not an unequivocally negative thing. Instead, I argue that cinematic nihilism is potentially beneficial, reminding audiences of their mortal condition and offering opportunities to safely explore this condition unencumbered by excessively static and inert conceptions of objective Truth.
The term “nihilism” was first used by 18th Century authors such as Jacob Hermann Obereit, Daniel Jenish and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. These writers employed the term in protest against Kantian philosophy and its division of reality into noumenal and phenomenal realms. Since the objective, noumenal world must always be filtered and interpreted through mental concepts in order to be understood as phenomena, this division implied that the “real” world separate from human interpretation – the “thing-in-itself” – was unknowable by the human mind. Critics thus claimed that Kantian philosophy reduced objective reality to a veritable nothingness. This was “nihilism,” and it was intolerable. As a condition of distressing separation from real, objective Truth, nihilism was thus established as something to be avoided or overcome. Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger later developed their own influential accounts of nihilism, and following them, many contemporary critics came to emphasize the moral and existential consequences of nihilistic separation, which allegedly included despair, alienation and meaninglessness.
In Cinematic Nihilism I maintain that the negative consequences often associated with nihilism are not at all inevitable and that, in particular, the sort of nihilism found in film is potentially positive and constructive. I argue that film is nihilistic in two related ways. First, there is the inherent nihilism of film, consisting of the necessary separation between cinematic images and the reality that those images reflect. Paralleling the distinction between phenomena and noumena that inspired the first charges of nihilism against Kantianism, this nihilism of film is often criticized by those who object that certain movies are unrealistic and thus deceptive and deceitful. For instance, the film Trainspotting (1996) has often been subjected to criticisms of nihilism from philosophers, media critics, politicians and social crusaders because they think it glamorizes (and thus falsifies) the true horrors of heroin addiction. The film’s images, these critics claim, are so artfully constructed that, like prisoners in Plato’s cave, audiences are in danger of mistaking them for true reality, with potentially awful consequences.
This is related to the second way that film can be nihilistic. While there is always a separation between film imagery and the reality it reflects, often there is also a nihilistic message as part of a film’s internal storyline. So, for instance, in Trainspotting the characters within the story reject mainstream values, actively disparaging the morals and standards of polite, civilized society. This is nihilism in film; a sort of moral nihilism that undermines established ideals. Cultural critics regularly complain about this variety of cinematic nihilism, seemingly worried that audiences will absorb the morally reprehensible standards of on-screen characters and thus harmfully degrade themselves, others and their culture as a whole.
Not all films are about nihilism, and so not all films are nihilistic in this second sense. However, as movie imagery always involves representation of an absent reality, all films are nihilistic in the first sense. But this is not necessarily a bad thing for, along with Aristotle, I believe that one of the virtues of art lies precisely in its imitative nature. Going to the movies is an active choice, made by audiences who already know that the dramas they will be watching are imitations, distinct from the things they represent. In making this choice, audiences willingly engage in a nihilistic exercise of detached make-believe that creates a safe space – a buffer zone – between themselves and the dangers depicted on screen. In watching films with nihilistic content, audiences guard their own safety, which allows them the leisure to linger in consideration of the meanings and implications of the fictional dangers depicted on screen. Thus, it is the nihilism of film that encourages audiences to linger in the presence of nihilism in film. While imaginatively absorbed in a film world, audiences also know that this world is an objective illusion. But it is an illusion offering an opportunity to encounter troubling and distressing issues of importance to real-life people. In this way, film potentially trains us to learn the lessons of nihilism; and these lessons may, in turn, be useful in real life.
One of the lessons we can learn from nihilism is that our distressing separation from the highest ideals of aspiration has a productive potential, opening up a gap that makes room for activity and the endless, ongoing pursuit of goals. If nihilism is true, then there is no end to our aspirations toward Truth, Being, Goodness, and so forth since such ambitions are mental projections that lack independent, objective existence. They are abstractions, necessarily resisting concrete realization. We must always fall short, and yet that also means that there is unending room for improvement and that there is always more to do. If, on the other hand, nihilism was overcome, we would at some point successfully possess the Truth, we would become reconciled with absolute Being, and then there would be nothing left toward which to strive. So long as the distress of nihilism is an issue for us, however, we remain unsettled by our separation from our highest ideals and thus potentially retain the motivation to do things, staying active as we vainly push toward the completion of our most cherished projects. If we find the process of pursuing these projects inherently interesting and valuable, then perhaps nihilism is not such a bad thing at all since it guarantees that this process will never end.
The nine chapters in Cinematic Nihilism explore a variety of international films in which encounters, confrontations and overcomings of nihilism are depicted. The overall trajectory of the book illustrates the potentially negative consequences involved in overcoming nihilism, while highlighting the potentially liberating and creative consequences of remaining entangled in an ongoing battle with nihilistic distress. My conclusion is that it may, perhaps, be better to remain separated from our highest goals of aspiration rather than fall into the sort of smug, totalitarian arrogance that goes along with believing we have successfully and finally come to grips with reality once and for all. The best nihilistic films remind us of this so that we might guard against self-importance, overconfidence and the desire to oppress others in accord with our own reified notions of absolute Truth.
The following excerpt from the book illustrates some of these themes. It comes from the introduction to Chapter 9, which examines the life, work and films of Yukio Mishima, a Japanese novelist, playwright, filmmaker and actor who overcame his own nihilism through the commission of suicide.
Excerpt: Chapter 9: Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body
Yukio Mishima was a controversial Japanese author who, in 1970, disemboweled himself in an act of ritual seppuku. A self-avowed nihilist, Mishima devoted his career to finding a cure for his own lifelong spiritual alienation through an eccentric assortment of activities, including: writing, bodybuilding, political action, and an antiquarian return to Emperor worship and samurai ideals. Through the integration of art and life, he sought to transcend the decadence of his cultural inheritance, purifying and finally perfecting himself with a heroic death. In Mishima’s life, work and death we find dramatic examples of the creative potential, as well as the dangerous temptations, involved in the struggle to overcome nihilism.
Part of Mishima’s wide, international appeal came from his eagerness to embrace popular culture – including film – as a vehicle for the propagation of his own ideas and personality. In addition to writing for the stage, TV and movies, Mishima acted in a handful of productions, and also acted, directed and produced the short film Patriotism (1966), which was adapted from one of his own short stories. In Japan, many of his works have been made into movies, and in 1976, his novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea was produced in the UK as a major motion picture starring Kris Kristofferson. In 1985, Paul Schrader directed Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, in which portions of Mishima’s fictional and non-fictional works were dramatised in order to tell the story of the author’s life and extraordinary death.
The case of Yukio Mishima offers a unique opportunity to scrutinize the complicated operations of nihilism on at least three interrelated levels of analysis:
First of all, as he advocated and strove toward the unification of ‘action and art’ (Mishima 1982: 50), Mishima’s involvement with literature, film, the stage and TV highlights and dramatises the obscure gap always lurking between representations and the reality they purport to depict. Mishima’s art was never mere entertainment, but always evocative of the deeper existential struggles and issues with which he himself was engaged. This inevitably leads us to ask, ‘How close do we get to the “real” Yukio Mishima through his works, including the films that his writings inspired?’ We sense that there is an important relationship between the ‘real’ Mishima and the words on the page or the images on the screen, but we also feel that such representations inevitably fall short of depicting the full nature of this Truth. We feel that these artifacts must somehow represent Mishima and his ideas about the world, but just how well or how poorly do they do so? In the case of an artist like Mishima, this always remains a question, and as a result the ontological dimension of nihilism chronically and insistently intrudes upon our experience of the various works with which his name is associated.
Secondly, as Mishima was himself a nihilist, there is a further, ideological level to the literature and films with which he shares a connection. These works tell us something about how the man thought, reasoned and felt, and so the content (no less than the form) of these works encourages us to meditate on the actual, conceptual dynamics of nihilistic alienation and despair. In this, we are plunged into the philosophy of nihilism and the desire for its overcoming. As we follow along with its logic, we potentially come closer to a concrete understanding of how Mishima himself may have reasoned through the choices that ultimately led him to his unique end.
Third, and finally, in encouraging audiences to think through Mishima’s step-by-step march toward perfected oblivion, his writings and the films with which he is associated offer cautionary examples of the potentially poisonous results that might occur as a consequence of being swept up in the enthusiasm to defeat nihilism. While Mishima’s suicide can be seen as the culmination of his life project – the final step in his unification of ‘action and art’ – it is also the case that it was this very act that brought his creative life to a close forever. In eradicating the nihilistic gap between his real life and the ideal for which he longed, Mishima also decisively obliterated his future potential. If the truly interesting part of human existence rests not in the successful achievement of our final goals, but in the process of ongoing, creative struggle, then we might question Mishima’s suicidal desire to overcome nihilism. Perhaps a life of unresolved contradictions, failed aspirations and ongoing struggle has its advantages over a life in which success is connected to finality and the closing off of possibility. Maybe, indeed, nihilism is something that we should not seek to overcome.
In what follows, I shall address these three interrelated themes as I explore the life, work and philosophy of Yukio Mishima. The thrust of my argument will be toward the conclusion that the most interesting and profound properties of Mishima’s thought, his writings and of the films associated with his thought and writings, are those that leave us with a sense of the open-ended and ambiguous struggle involved in Mishima’s efforts to define himself. It is this ‘in-between’ area of creativity that makes Mishima’s nihilism interesting; not his premature and impatient desire to overcome his nihilistic despair. In this, I shall be critical of Mishima for too eagerly pursuing a resolution to the problem of nihilism and consequently of diminishing the profound depth that is potentially found in one’s struggle with – rather than one’s overcoming of – the void. The case of Mishima illustrates how in the overcoming of nihilism, spiritual peace and union with Being are prizes won at the cost of ongoing activity, struggle and creative aspiration. My contention is that these prizes are not necessarily worth the costs, since defeating nihilism entails the commission of either literal or metaphorical suicide.
John Marmysz teaches philosophy at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California.
Have an idea for a research post? Contact us here.