The blank page behind the lines – By Emily Oldfield

An article concerning whether it is the ability to write, read and engage with text which actually establishes meaning, when confronting the philosophical approach of nihilism.

‘One person can head a rebellion’ – Kierkegaard


Far too often I am confronted with the often perceived infantile snort of an individual over a novel grumbling ‘What’s the point?’ And yet it is often I feel compelled to respond with ‘nothing’. It would be a definite deadener of conversation.


It is Nihilism which is the philosophical doctrine suggesting life is without purpose, without meaning.  The term nihilism was first popularized by the novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel “‘Fathers and Sons’’ and so seems somewhat intrinsic to the literary form, which I will explore in this article.  Nihilism is often criticized as a philosophical perspective due to the presence of paradox – to call myself a nihilist would be seemingly attributing a concept of meaning, human definition, to life! I am often told anyway, that the sensation of ‘pointlessness’ is the adolescent torture, the necessary experience.


Alternately, it could be considered that ‘pointlessness’ is a sensation representative of the breakdown of social norms between an individual and their community ties – I often see this attempted attribution of a definition symbolic of the attempts to ‘explain’ literature, especially unusual forms.  This breakdown of social norms however, is termed ‘anomie’, a popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his influential book, ‘Suicide’, and the word comes from Greek origins, meaning ‘’without Law’’. Yet it is this implied diminution of control I feel is often wrongly attributed to nihilism.  I have considered ‘anomie’ as a possible observable phenomenon in terms of my subjective analysis of poetry and prose, for example that of William Burroughs who would often write using the ‘cut up’ technique – arranging other text randomly into his own, often attributed to the ‘postmodern’ style. But as we see here, it is to these even extraordinary epochs of literature, people attempt to establish some sort of definition and purpose and in turn criticism, which seems somewhat of a regulating ‘law’ within itself.


So perhaps it is through text and writing that we can make connections and find meaning? Considering New Criticism, a trained approach to literature,one theorist,  Winsatt,  implies that textual work such as poetry is autonomous and he presents the ‘’intentional fallacy’’ and the ‘‘affective fallacy’’ to imply this. Winsatt argues that poetry especially, stands in itself. It is not defined by the reader’s response or some preceding intention. So from this perspective, it is judged as almost the direct case that the text should not have complete purpose for the reader, it is not to be used as means to end. If applied simultaneously to styles of textual ‘modernism’ where there is attempted deconstruction of literary styles and genres, it could be argued that the course of writing and reading is a failing attempt to establish meaning. This is lamented quite forebodingly by a number of theorists who propose the ‘death of literature’.

Indeed, it is the process of writing which is often filled with contrasts, and a lack of definition. Perhaps the contrast between the writer and the writing, is whilst I often find myself hating my own limits, the writing often  transcends them. I often find myself unable to process the pen stroke into a print which would even begin to reflect the sensations, the systems of mind, and yet when I write, it reveals what I held in only glimpses of thinking. I type words which are not mine – but a collection of others, those shapers and cultivators of language, and wonder how the mind at all, if at all, equates to them. The implication that my writing is just a recycling of that of others and therefore could lack meaning of its own was a wider consideration of the ancient Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus – who proposed that any given perception—say, of a written text—will always be perceived within a certain context (i.e. it is on a page, has a margin about it etc.) If this is the case, we can only speak of ideas as they occur in the context of the other things we use to perceive them and hence it seems we cannot appreciate the text as a single entity. In a continuance of literary history, it could be seen simultaneously with growing scepticism – ’’We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century – so could this mean that literature is the key example of nihilism, the meaningless?


But for me, it is inside the text, and within the subjective interpretation of it, where I can find meaning for myself. It is human perception that there is beauty – a human judgement – but as a common judgment it becomes an expression, put down in writing. In Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights, the eponymous setting, the home of Heathcliff, is referred to as a “perfect misanthrope’s Heaven.” I attribute my empathy here, in terms of that writing provides a somewhat ‘paradoxical heaven’ for myself, the contrasts of negativity and harmony.

In my perception, it is also that every being so enormously contrasts from another. This concept initially terrified me – the small hot shocks of an incompetent reality. Take for example the expression of ‘love’ – so completely different to each individual and perhaps the bitter irony that we appear to expect reciprocation. Jean-Paul Sartre’s quote, for example “Hell is other people”, somewhat aids this expression – the antagonism of ourselves often increases when observing others. Yet this is not necessarily the same as a void of indifference, or as I often feel, affection for some, whilst holding a vague abhorrence towards others. In Plato’s ‘Phaedo’, Socrates defines the misanthrope in relation to his fellow man: “Misanthropy develops when without art one puts complete trust in somebody thinking the man absolutely true and sound and reliable and then a little later discovers him to be bad and unreliable…’ . If misanthropy is considered simultaneously with nihilism, then this could imply the outlook as of psychological cause, almost as a self-effacing response to rejection. We could regress our argument therefore and imply that as “The Beat Generation” , a name coined by Jack Kerouac in order to describe the disaffected youth of the 1950’s and 1960’s, produced literature which  often shocked large audiences and continued to do so, marking literature which therefore possesses its own misanthropy. This could even seem compatible with nihilism, considering that much of the technique of the ‘beat’ writers was automatism – writing straight onto the page, often ignoring form and structure, and thus implying the meaningless nature of determined order.

But I wonder, whether my outlook upon what I perceive to be a ‘pointlessness’ in areas of literature, is therefore a minds manipulation of the sense, or a succinct perception. I often despair at the institutionalised ideology with the individual forced to a series of letters and numbers, scored to a mark- sheet, fuelled by expectations. Perhaps I am the ‘anomie’ then – in implying that expectation is nothing. We will all die, and a series of expectations only a collective mechanism to add structure, whilst we feel we can inhabit it.


But nihilism is not necessarily negative. Indeed, like depression, that may appear the external case. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer, evidently misanthropic as part of his reputation, wrote that “human existence must be a kind of error’’. An error of what? Indeed, depression is often considered an  error of the minds function – but I often wonder at how humanity feels it can hold a valid knowledge within a system we have forged to allow us perhaps a tiny chink of understanding.

Yet as I write, I participate within society through social facilitation. I cannot escape it. Perhaps it is my very pen to paper, fingers on the keys, which makes me the failed nihilist, ever intending to encompass some sort of meaning in everything I write.  This has meaning for me, as it will for yourself, and though perhaps not universal, still within the text itself. Perhaps it is the case then, that we can all inhabit literature, and that it is the meaning for the individual will be forever preserved.


One Response to “The blank page behind the lines – By Emily Oldfield”

  1. John D Rutter says:

    Interesting article Emily. If I may add tuppence worth on the side of the anti-nihilist lobby…

    Anyone who suggests that there is no point, that we are an accident or just happen to be there should be asked to listen to Beethoven’s ninth symphony (accompanied with a translation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy on which it is based) and explain it away in numbers, chemicals and chance. If we are a random collection of chemicals then how is it possible for such a work to exist. for that matter why do we have art, literature, music and this conversation? I don’t know the answer but Beethoven seemed to think it was something to do with the shared consciousness of all of humanity; a better answer than “nothing.”

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