An Increase in Nihilism Plays Havoc With Mental Health
A Personal Perspective: Countering the current plague of anxiety and depression.
Posted August 26, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
To understand some of the puzzling trends in recent American literature, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the so-called “post-structuralist” theory that took hold in U.S. English departments in the 1960s. This theory, at its heart, is nihilistic—nothing can be trusted, nothing is certain, nothing is as it seems.
The best-known theorists—Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques (Dr. Deconstruction) Derrida—declared, among other things, that any statement could be shown to mean its opposite, that all texts—Hamlet or an ad for Cheerios—were of equal value (or non-value), that “meaning” within texts and in the larger world, was subjective and illusory, and that literary judgments were arbitrary and based primarily on power: who was listened to, and who was not.
Thought-provoking as these ideas are, they have, I believe, contributed to the growing alienation between poetry and readers. The problem, though, goes far beyond literature.
A scientific theory must be testable. To be considered true, that truth must be demonstrated, objectively and replicably, in the physical world. Literary theories are not testable. If they were, they would be scientific theories.
To gain academic traction, a literary theory need only appeal to other literary theorists. The post-structuralists, motivated perhaps by the time-honored French desire to “epater la bourgeoisie”—to shock or scandalize the respectable middle class—enjoyed flexing their intellects, pulling assorted rugs out from under their audience, and quite possibly, putting us on. Many American professors, however, took this intellectual flexing for E = mc2 gospel.
Post-structuralism might have faded out of fashion as literary theories tend to do. Instead, post-structuralist thought leaked from universities into the rest of Western culture, which had been drifting toward nihilism for some time.
Communication between people is essentially impossible, post-structuralist theory declared. The slipperiness of language and the uniqueness of individual experience doom us never to understand one another.
In any case, there is no absolute meaning, literary or philosophical. Standards, including ideas of good and bad, are relative and changeable, not dictated by an infallible God, but laid down by the powerful to exploit the weak.
A culture in which such ideas are weighed and debated among high-level thinkers may be admirably brave, creative, and open. A culture, though, in which such ideas are generally accepted as true—that culture is in trouble: concrete, physical-world trouble, and psychological trouble, too.
Strict reliance on the intellect to make sense of the world leads ineluctably to despair, rubbing our noses in the inescapability of pain and death. As Woody Allen quips in his book Without Feathers, “Whoever shall not fall by the sword or by famine shall fall by pestilence, so why bother shaving?”
As a rule, people need a sense of order, meaning, and certainty to feel hopeful and engaged in the world. They need to feel that they are accomplishing something worthwhile.
In the West, where religion was already losing its grip, nihilistic thinkers have succeeded, to a degree that might have surprised even them, in undermining the foundations of civilization itself, calling its most fundamental values and tenets into question. The founding mythologies of nations, cherished stories of heroism and or goodness past or present, the ideals that once made life understandable and rewarding, were “interrogated,” judged to be naïve and or perfidious, then pulverized and dumped on the landfill of history.
Existentialism arose, originally, from the collapse of certainties. Thrown into a meaningless world of suffering and death, hapless humans nonetheless have choice, and therefore, freedom, Existentialism proclaimed. We can choose our own morality, choose our own values and meaning, and choose how we will live. Not believing in God, we may still choose to behave as if He, or something worth believing in, exists.
Alas, as Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor eloquently states, such freedom is terrifying, and far too difficult for most of humankind. We search for experts to tell us how to live. We may seize upon exhausted traditions of the past, or leap to questionable new ideologies—Proud Boys, The People’s Republic of Whatever. And behind all of this, ready to leap out at any instant and overwhelm us, is depression, anxiety, and despair.
Our culture is suffering through a plague of mental illness. How could it be otherwise? To be psychologically healthy in a world that ends, for each of us, in pain and dissolution, people need something to hope for and believe in. We need the things untestable academic theories have helped to take from us—heroes to look up to, stories that inspire and teach, clear paths toward virtue and self-worth, and a sense that not only evil, but goodness is real. We need to feel the earth solid under our feet.
To avoid the Slough of Despond and Endless SSRIs, we need a sense of purpose and meaning to help guide us through our lives.
My next entry will address that need.
Allen, Woody. (1986). Without Feathers. New York, New York: Ballantine Books.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. (1950 ). The Brothers Karamazov. New York, New York: Random House.
Selden, Widdowson, and Brooker. (2005). A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, Ltd.