For some reason, I started reading the book Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings by critical theory professor Mari Ruti.
In the opening pages, she describes a scene from her childhood in Finland (this scene takes place in a sauna, of course), where she spots her father’s shriveled penis and asks if he’s going to die from the tumor between his legs. In her telling, she’s never been able to “take the organ too seriously” after this encounter.
She connects this childhood experience (you call that a penis?) to Lacan’s claim that “phallic authority is always a masquerade”. This masquerade plays on the fantasy within the social imagination of the powerful male, in possession of a member that would make Tom of Finland blush, who wields power that cannot be challenged. Look upon my johnson and despair.
Of course this fantasy is just that. It conceals the truth that all humans are weak, fallible and lacking, phallus or no phallus.
I recently went looking for a short story I recalled reading in my late teens. After some research, it seems that in my memory I had combined elements of two different stories by Kafka, “Before the Law” and “An Imperial Message”, then added my own twist.
In any case, my misremembered story still feels like something Kafka could have written. The rough outline is this:
A man is given an important message to deliver to the king of a distant kingdom. He travels day and night, finally arriving at the gates to the king’s castle. When he asks permission to enter, the guard tells him that no one is allowed in, not now or ever. The man pleads his case, citing the importance of his message, but the guard does not relent. The man waits years, until finally the guard dies, leaving the gates unattended. The man breaks into the castle, but finds it empty. He moves deeper and deeper into the castle, but each new chamber is empty. Finally, he reaches the final door, the holiest of holies, where the king must surely be. He opens it to find an empty room of dust and cobwebs. The man sits down and weeps.
The guard is there not to protect the king, but to prevent the discovery that there is no king.
So, to review: the phallus is powerless, the throne is empty, and god is dead. Like Nietzsche, we’ve now arrived at the problem of nihilism.
John Marmysz’s Laughing at Nothing is a useful guide to the landscape. He lays out what he calls the three basic assumptions of nihilism:
- Humans are alienated from such perfections as absolute Being, Truth, Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc.;
- This circumstance of alienation is other than it ought to be;
- There is nothing that humans can do to change this circumstance.
The recognition that one has been longing after unattainable fantasies can be crushing. In the clichéd depiction, a nihilist is someone who does not recover from this insight. They spend their time loudly reminding those around them of the meaninglessness of existence, or live in a permanent state of rebellion, or lapse into quiet despair at the tragedy of the human condition.
But the central insight of Marmysz’s book is that one can accept the nihilist’s description of the world without becoming a “nihilist” in the popular sense. Referencing the work of Alan White, Marmysz describes “complete nihilism”:
Complete nihilism occurs when the radical nihilist stops regarding as worthwhile those traditional values that, in comparison, make the world of the here and now look bad. At this point, the world is re-enchanted and becomes valuable in and of itself. The complete nihilist is, in a sense, “beyond nihilism.” The longing for something better and more perfect is at an end on this last level. Nihilism has been completed and in this consummation “the complete nihilist, is no longer a nihilist.”
The post-nihilist is no longer disappointed by the difference between their imagined ideals and the world as it is. The nihilist-who-is-no-longer-a-nihilist is not forced into rebellion or despair, but is free to choose their own response. Like Seneca before him, Marmysz recommends laughter.
There’s a wonderful scene in the first season of True Detective, where Detective Russ Cohle visits Joel Theriot, a former revivalist preacher turned day-drunk. He tells Cohle what led him to leave behind preaching. The scene ends with Theriot saying, “All my life I wanted to be nearer to God. The only nearness? Silence.”
I imagine that young Mari Ruti, in different circumstances, might have laughed at the sight of her father’s shriveled penis rather than seeing it as a harbinger of his death. The messenger from my mis-remembered Kafka story could have sat in that empty castle and laughed at the absurdity of his situation.
Like an abandoned church that’s converted into a nightclub, the post-nihilist is free to create new meaning out of the wreckage of the past. You can take this radical freedom as far as you dare.