Sunday 27 June 2010

Nihilistic vitalism and the modern 'anti-hero' of prestigious self-gratification

Nihilism* is unbelief in reality, unbelief in truth and the assumption that questions asking ‘why?’ cannot be answered. Nihilism is mainstream in secular modernity.

Earlier phases of nihilism include liberalism (relativity of truth, primacy of non-discrimination) and ‘realism’ or materialist rationalism – neither of which provide a basis for individual meaning, purpose or motivation.

Neither liberalism nor realism provide a reason to get up in the morning, or to do one thing rather than another – they offer no place or role for the individual except (tenuously) to serve the needs of abstract processes.

Vitalism is the antitheses of impersonal altruism, since it locates meaning, purpose and motivation in the satisfaction of human appetite – whether these appetite are spontaneous or culturally-refined and elaborated. Vitalism is the assertion that life is about each individual (but especially *me*) feeling good, doing what comes naturally, following their impulses, expressing themselves, and so on.

It follows that the ‘anti-hero’ of vitalism is the exemplary human – the ‘cynical’, selfish hedonist who does what they want to do (and not what they do not want to do) but is nonetheless is socially-indulged and admired (especially by women).

The vitalist anti-hero is the mainstream protagonist of the mass media – the ‘coolest’ and most yearned-after character in movies, novels, TV stories, popular music, sports... Even in high art – opera, drama, art novels - the cynical, selfish, hedonic, comfort-seeking vitalist has been a prominent character: in the past, as a subordinate sidekick (Sancho Panza, Leporello, Papageno...) but since the romantic movement often as the central focus.

Indeed, the ‘artist’ himself is a modern anti-hero, and the major appeal in being an artist is that it offers the hope of being admired for doing what you want and behaving self-indulgently.

Furthermore the rebellious ‘hero’ of official liberal modernity is most often actually an anti-hero of self-indulgence; someone who pursues their own gratification to extreme lengths, perhaps being persecuted for their intransigence in doing what they want instead of what is asked of them.

For example, pacifist conscientious objection is regarded as heroic when it is usually simply expedient. For example, the eminent English composer Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was regarded by his admirers as heroic for having been imprisoned for three months for his pacifist beliefs during World War 2.

Yet the most cowardly, selfish expediency would surely prefer three months in a London prison to the prolonged deprivations and hardship of wartime military service including a much increased chance of mutilation and death.

Why should it be regarded as heroic to make what was obviously the cushiest and most selfish choice? Presumably because this validates and socially-sanctions the easy selfish vitalism which is now socially-dominant.

Other modern ‘heroes’ include those who have suffered some degree persecution in pursuit of drug-induced euphoria or non-mainstream sexual gratification – in other words, their short term hardship was endured in the hope and expectation of longer term self-indulgence.

Selfish-hedonic vitalism is very obviously incoherent and destructive – but the strange thing is how (especially since the mid 1960s) we have been in a prolonged phase in which a counter-culture of nihilistic vitalism coexists with the mainstream culture which is characterized by nihilistic liberalism and rationalism.

The characteristic modern nihilist (i.e. the characteristic modern person) is therefore liberal in politics, a ‘realist’ at work, and a vitalist at weekends and on holiday.

But the covert ultimate nihilist fantasy is to be a an anti-hero of socially-prestigious hedonistic self-indulgence: to do just exactly what you want and when you want, especially to do that which is forbidden or impossible to liberals and realists, and yet to be adored for it.

In sum: the modern (nihilist) anti-hero is a rebel against realism in the name of vitalism under an excuse of liberalism.


*For a profound discussion of Nihilism see: