Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “nihilism”

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

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Creeping nihilism

One day at work some years ago there was a reorganisation in our department, and one person Nadia (not her real name) was designated as the “HR person”.

Some time later there was a quarrel between two co-workers that was disrupting the work of the department and it was being discussed at an executive meeting. I suggested that Nadia should deal with it, since “she is, after all, the Human Relations person.”

Everyone looked at me as if I was mad, and the head of department asked me what I meant. I said she had been designated as the “HR” person, which I had taken to mean “Human Relations”. Everyone else said, Oh, no, HR means “human resources”.

I then remembered seeing an advertisement in the Sunday Times a few years before, for the post of “Human Resources Manager”, and I’d even written something about it at the time — that the spirit of capitalist exploitation was entering our language to indoctrinate us. The Nationalist government had been doing it for years in their apartheid policy, of course, trying to dehumanise black workers and job-seekers by referring to them as “labour units”, who could be sent back to the homelands when they were surplus to requirements.

I was quite shocked to discover that such language had crept into a university, and had become so natural and familiar that everyone referred to it by an abbreviation, apparently known to everyone except me. Such dehumanising language seemed to be the very antithesis of the much-vaunted ubuntu, which was supposed be the philosophy of the new South Africa.

I was reminded of this this morning by a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup about the “harvesting” of human organs for transplanting. That too seems crassly insensitive and exploitative.

In that case it is not just me, but several people seem to find it so. One found the term “extremely distasteful”. Another said, “Sounds like you’re going at the body with a scythe, an unfortunate image. Or a grain harvester, even worse, perhaps.”

Another said:

It also sounds as if the donor was cultivated for the purpose, which isn’t impossible in these days.

At any rate, I wouldn’t support required organ donations. There is a big crew of workers who make a great deal of money transplanting organs. Why should any random individual be required to donate free organs to support this business? If it’s a question of requiring donations based on the need of the potential recipient, then shouldn’t the crew of workers be required to donate their efforts free of charge when the recipient doesn’t have insurance coverage?

There was some discussion of alternative words, though most thought they wouldn’t pass the public relations test: “salvage” and “cannibalise”, for example. Cannibalise is used analogously in the motor trade, when one cannibalises a scrap vehicle for spare parts to use on one that it still running.

The last word in that discussion so far is: “To me, the word is disrespectful towards the Grim Reaper.”

But these are just two instances of dehumanising language, words and phrases that become common currency. We may talk all we like about the spirit of ubuntu, but the very structure of our language is driving it out. Creeping nihilism, I call it.

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