Modernism and Nihilism
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At the heart of some of the most influential strands of philosophical, political, and aesthetic modernism lies the conviction that modernity is fundamentally nihilistic. This book offers a wide-ranging critical history of the concept of nihilism from its origins in French Revolutionary discourse to its place in recent theorizations of the postmodern. Key moments in that history include the concept's appropriation by political activists in mid-nineteenth-century Russia, by Nietzsche in the 1880s, by the European avant-garde and 'high' modernists in the early decades of the twentieth century, by conservative revolutionaries in Germany in the interwar years, and by major theorists in the post-Holocaust period. Focusing in particular on the abiding impact of Nietzsche's claim that art is the 'only superior counterforce' to nihilism, Weller argues that an understanding of modernism (and, indeed, of postmodernism) is impossible without a reflection upon the decisive role played by the concept of nihilism therein.
significance, charged with meaning derived from its relation to the end”’ (Griffin 2007: 63). Griffin identifies Nietzsche as the paradigmatic figure in programmatic modernism, and Franz Kafka as Nietzsche’s counterpart in epiphanic modernism. While this disposition of roles might seem to suggest that programmatic modernism finds its fullest expression in philosophy, and epiphanic modernism in art, the history of modernism suggests no such neat symmetry. The distinction between two primary modes
nihilism. This is the side to Flaubert’s project on which Roger Griffin places the emphasis when he argues that the French writer’s oeuvre is ‘the fulfilment of a selfappointed mission to weave a new sacred canopy out of the poetic, world- creating, power of language and so transcend the “dead time” 79 80 MODERNISM AND NIHILISM that was corrupting society from within’ (Griffin 2007: 91). Any such conception of the aesthetic as saving has, however, to be placed in relation to repeatedly
Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love’, Tzara turns this negative energy back against Dada itself, declaring that ‘the real dadas are against DADA’ (38). This position is elaborated in the 1922 Lecture on Dada, in which Tzara states that ‘Dada is nothing’ and that ‘I parted from Dada and from myself the moment I realized the true implication of nothing’ (107; Tzara’s emphasis). The apparently nihilistic elements in Dada arguably find their most forceful expression in the declarations of
limit himself to an attack on Paul’s argument regarding the ‘new nihilism’. Rather, he engages in a polemical attack on the entire modernist movement, including KAFKA AND AFTER writers such as Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. According to Lewis, this movement is in fact nothing other than ‘romantic nihilism’ (Lewis 1994: 40), a label that he also applies to Nietzsche, ‘nihilism’ here being given an unambiguously pejorative sense. Disregarding Paul’s claims to the contrary, Lewis argues that
With this in mind, we can now turn to the postmodern engagement with the concept of nihilism, and consider whether a clear distinction can be made between modernist and postmodernist conceptions of nihilism, and whether the latter does take adequate account of the uncanniness of nihilism. Part III POSTMODERNISM AND NIHILISM This page intentionally left blank 5 OUR ONLY CHANCE? We have seen that, in both philosophical and aesthetic modernism, nihilism is repeatedly taken to be that which