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Why You Won’t Find the Meaning of Life

July 25th, 2012 - 5:35 am

A lot of people want to have it both ways. They don’t want to be religious (that is, to accept that God makes specific and serious demands on them) but to be “spiritual,” that is, to feel good about themselves without any sense of obligations. What unites Malick and Holt in their spiritual quest is a common starting point in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Before Malick was an auteur he was a philosopher, and published a university press translation of one of Heidegger’s books. Holt’s current book — no doubt a bestseller by now — begins with Heidegger’s famous question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” The trouble is that Holt doesn’t get the joke; he doesn’t even understand that it was a joke in the first place.

I don’t mean to spoil your morning by getting technical, but in case you care about the issues, they are summarized in my Asia Times Online review:

In the first pages of his new book, Jim Holt misquotes my old professor, Columbia University philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser:

“Professor Morgenbesser, why is there something rather than nothing?” a student asked him one day. To which Morgenbesser replied, “Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn’t be satisfied.”

Morgenbesser actually said: “If there was nothing, you’d also complain.” There’s a world of difference, as we shall see, between “not being satisfied” and “complaining”. Part of the difference, of course, is the unmistakably Jewish irony directed at the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a member of the Nazi party. Heidegger’s famous question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is the opening challenge of the German philosopher’s famous essay “What is Metaphysics?” and the jumping-off point for Holt’s peroration through the mysteries of Creation.

But there was a deeper point to Morgenbesser’s quip. To brandish Nothingness against Being is not an analytical procedure, but a complaint – specifically, the Devil’s complaint about Creation. Since the philosopher Parmenides taught a generation before Socrates, philosophers have confronted a paradox: We can neither think nor speak of “Nothing”, for the moment we employ the term, we are speaking or thinking about a thing, namely “nothing”. One can’t get at “Nothing” directly; one can only sneak up upon it through such things as boredom, violence and perversion.

As Holt quotes Heidegger:

The question [of Nothing] looms in moments of great despair when things tend to lose all their weight and all meaning becomes obscured. It is present in moments of rejoicing, when all the things around us are transfigured and seem to be there for the first time … The question is upon us in boredom, when we are equally removed from despair and joy, and everything about us seems to hopelessly commonplace that we no longer care whether anything is or is not.

Every German schoolboy (but few American writers) would recognize in Heidegger the voice of Goethe’s Mephistopheles, who tells Faust:

I am the spirit that denies!
And justly so; for all that time creates,
He does well who annihilates!
Better, it ne’er had had beginning;
And so, then, all that you call sinning,
Destruction, – all you pronounce ill-meant, -
Is my original element.

Mephisto is a manifestation of the primal chaos which envies the light, and seeks in vain to restore this chaos:

That which at nothing the gauntlet has hurled,
This, what’s its name? this clumsy world,
So far as I have undertaken,
I have to own, remains unshaken
By wave, storm, earthquake, fiery brand.
Calm, after all, remain both sea and land.

Faust observes that the Devil can do no harm in the large, and so engages in petty acts of destruction. “Go find something else to do, strange son of Chaos!” the philosopher scolds.

That is why Morgenbesser’s actual joke – “If there was nothing, you would also complain” – is as insightful as Mr Holt’s misquotation is misleading. Holt doesn’t get the joke; he doesn’t even understand that it is a joke to begin with. The question betrays the character of the questioner, both in the case of Heidegger and Holt. A predilection for Nothing is metaphysical nonsense, but it has an existential meaning: It is the complaint of the bored, the jaded, the jealous, the perverted against life. Goethe’s act of genius was to personify the metaphysical impossibility of Nothingness as a spiritual craving for Nothingness, in the stage personage of the Devil.

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