The following are (nihilistic) quotes that have inspired me, coming from different books I’ve read and enjoyed. They explore that ominous possibility that life is nothing more than a field of confusion and mystery. Regardless of their validity they are, in themselves, poetic views of the universe and expressions of the insatiability of the soul. They represent a growing trend amongst the newer generations that have been ‘wrestling with nihilism’ and the meaninglessness of a mechanical society. Ultimately, they can be viewed as lamentations of an existence that does not gives us any clear and distinct answer, and thus, the calling that we must stay afloat, somehow, in a metaphysically-impoverished time.
Quotes of Nihilism:
Don DeLillo, White Noise:
“…Let me whisper the terrible word, from the Old English, from the Old German, from the Old Norse. Death. Many of those crowds were assembled in the name of death. They were there to attend tributes to the dead. Processions, songs, speeches, dialogues with the dead, recitations of the names of the dead. They were there to see pyres and flaming wheels, thousands of flags dipped in salute, thousands of uniformed mourners. There were ranks and squadrons, elaborate backdrops, blood banners and black dress uniforms. Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.”
No sense of the irony of human existence, that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die.
Out in the open, keeping their children near, carrying what they could, they seemed to be part of some ancient destiny, connected in doom and ruin to a whoile history of people trekking across wasted landscapes.
We began to marvel at our own ability to manufacture awe.
The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear.
How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for awhile? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it that no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise.
…but I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.
“To plot, to take aim at something, to shape time and space. This is how we advance the art of human consciousness.”
You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools.
Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters (Chebutikin):
Maybe I didn’t break it, it just seems like I broke it. Maybe it just seems like we exist at all, and we really aren’t even here. I don’t know anything, no one knows anything.
Julián Marías, History of Philosophy (Section on Blondel’s philosophy):
We can perform an action only by closing off all other ways and depriving ourselves of everything we could have otherwise known or obtained. Every decision cuts off an infinite number of possible actions. And we cannot desist and suspend action, nor can we delay. If we do not act, something acts in us or outside us, and almost always against us […] I cannot be guided by my ideas, because complete analysis is not possible to a finite intelligence, and practical life does not tolerate delays: I cannot defer action until I obtain evidence, and all evidence is partial. Furthermore, my decisions usually go beyond my thoughts, and my actions usually go beyond my intentions.
Thomas Bernhard, In the cold:
We are mistaken if we believe we are in possession of the truth, just as we are mistaken if we believe we are in error. Absurdity is the only way forward.
Henry Miller, Sexus:
From the time you wake up until the moment you go to bed it’s all a lie, all a sham and a swindle. Everybody knows it, and everybody collaborates in the perpetuation of the hoax. That’s why we look so goddamned disgusting to one another.
August Strindberg, From an occult diary:
The only thing that gave me an illusion of happiness was wine! That is why I drank! It also mitigated the torment of being alive. It made my sluggish mind alert and intelligent! At times, in my youth, it stilled my hunger!
Iris Murdoch, Under the Net:
“There was something about fireworks which absolutely fascinated Hugo. I think what pleased him most about them was their impermanence. I remember his holding forth to me once about what an honest thing a firework was. It was so patently just an ephemeral spurt of beauty of which in a moment nothing more was left. ‘That’s what all art is really,’ said Hugo, ‘only we don’t like to admit it. Leonardo understood this. He deliberately made the Last Supper perishable.'”
Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn:
The thing was that he was dead, definitely dead for all time, and they, the living, were cut off from him now and forever, and today as well as tomorrow must be lived through, the clothes washed, the dinner prepared, and when the next one was struck down there would be a coffin to select and squabble about the will, but it would be all in the daily routine and to take time off to grieve and sorrow was sinful because God, if there was a God, had ordained it that way and we on earth had nothing to say about it.
Michel de Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond:
Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as that this miserable and puny creature, who is not even master of himself, exposed to the attacks of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the universe, the least part of which it is not in his power to know, much less to command?
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus:
… killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it… It is merely confessing that it ‘is not worth the trouble.’ Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering.
Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Epistolae rerum senilium:
Distrustful of my own faculties… I embrace doubt itself as truth… affirming nothing, and doubting all things…
John Gardner, Grendel:
It’s good at first to be out in the night, naked to the cold mechanics of the starts. Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly – as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink.
…this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity.
I too am learning, ordeal by ordeal, my indignity. It’s all I have, my only weapon for smashing through these stiff coffin-walls of the world. So I dance in the moonlight, make foul jokes, or labor to shake the foundations of night with my heaped-up howls of rage. Something is bound to come of all this. I cannot believe such monstrous energy of grief can lead to nothing!
Blaise Pascal, Pensées:
When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe in its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, or what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.
Louise-Victorine Ackermann, Pensees d’un Solitaire: (quoted by William James)
When I reflect on the fact that I have made my appearance by accident upon a globe itself whirled through space as the sport of the catastrophes of the heavens—when I see myself surrounded by beings as ephemeral and incomprehensible as I am myself, and all excitedly pursuing pure chimeras, I experience a strange feeling of being in a dream. It seems to me as if I have loved and suffered and that erelong I shall die, in a dream. My last words will be, ‘I have been dreaming’.
Bertrand Russell, A Freeman’s worship:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation henceforth be safely built.
Will Durant, Our oriental heritage (The Story of Civilization, Part I):
How can this feeble brain, that aches at a little calculus, ever hope to understand the complex immensity of which it is so transitory a fragment? (Chapter XIV – The Vedas as Literature)
… ideas are illusions, and all words are untrue; that people deluded by flowery speed cling to gods and temples and “holy men,” though in reality there is no difference between Vishu and a dog. ( Chapter XV – The Heretics)
Even reason is not to be trusted, for every inference depends for its validity not only upon accurate observation and correct reasoning, but also upon the assumption that the future will behave like the past; and of this, as Hume was to say, there can be no certainty. ( Chapter XV – The Heretics)
… knowledge was described as confined to the relative and temporal. Nothing is true, they taught, except from one point of view; from other points of view it would probably be false. ( Chapter XV – The Heretics)
This “transcedendental unity of apperception,” this “mind” that weaves sensations and perceptions intho thought, is a ghost; all that exists is the sensations and perceptions themselves, falling automatically into memories and ideas. (Chapter XV – The teaching of Buddha)
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums:
Are we fallen angels who didn’t want to believe that nothing is nothing and so were born to lose our loved ones and dear friends one by one and finally our own life, to see it proved?
I am emptiness, I am not different from emptiness, neither is emptiness different from me; indeed, emptiness is me.
… I’m gonna die because there was nothing else to do in the cold loneliness of this harsh inhospitable earth…
Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee:
… all that remains, our reflections, our obstinate search for the final cause, our admiration and hopes – all these in truth are no more than our feeble cry, as in the depths of the unknown, we clash against what is more unknowable still…
… we can recognize only the surprising and occasionally hostile forms that the extraordinary fluid we call life assumes, in utter unconsciousness sometimes, at others with a kind of consciousness: the fluid which animates us equally with all the rest, which produces the very thoughts that judge it, and the feeble voice that attempts to tell its story.
Norman O. Brown, Life against death (the psychoanalytical meaning of history):
Mankind today is still making history without having any conscious idea of what it really wants or under what conditions it would stop being unhappy; in fact what it is doing seems to be making itself more unhappy and calling that unhappiness progress.
The Faustian restlessness of man in history shows that men are not satisfied by the satisfaction of their conscious desires; men are unconscious of their real desires.
Stanislav Grof, Realms of the human unconscious:
Existence appears not only nonsensical but monstrous and absurd, and the search for any meaning in life completely futile and, a priori, doomed to failure. People are seen as thrown into this world without any choice as to whether, where, when, and to whom they are to be born. The only certainty in life appears to be the fact that its duration is limited and that it will end. The fact of human mortality and the impermanence of all things is seen as Damocles’ sword hanging over us during every minute of our lives and annihilating any hope that anything has meaning.
Another important dimension of the “no exit” situation is the feeling of pervading insanity; subjects typically feel that they have lost all mental control and become permanently psychotic, or that they have gained the ultimate insight into the absurdity of the universe and will never be able to return to the merciful self-deception that is a necessary prerequisite f0r sanity.
Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms:
That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.
We complain of the darkness in which we live out our lives; we do not understand the nature of existence in general; we especially do not know the relation of our own self to the rest of existence. Not only is our life short, our knowledge is limited entirely to it, since we can see neither back before our birth nor out beyond our death, so that our consciousness is as it were a lightning-flash momentarily illumination the night….
J. P. Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne:
For the first time he had felt fear about life, for the first time he had truly understood that when life had sentenced you to suffer, this sentence was neither a pretense nor a threat. How meaningless it was, empty, empty, empty. This hunting for yourself, slyly observing your own tracks — in a circle, of course; this pretending to throw yourself into the stream of life and then at the same time sitting and angling for your yourself and fishing yourself up in some peculiar disguise! If only it would seize him: life, love, passion — so that he wouldn’t be able to invent it, but so that it would invent *him*…. it was sweet to dream himself so bitterly insignificant.
She would be confused by torment and pain and seek a deadening solace by throwing herself to the floor like an inanimate object, too full of hideous rottenness and dregs, a carcass of herself, too repulsive to be the seat of a soul… gradually a harsh, brutal indifference came over her, and she stopped despairing just as she had stopped hoping.
John Zerzan, Elements of Refusal:
To use language is to limit onself to the modes of perception already inherent in that language.
William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch:
You were not there for The Beginning. You will not be there for The End…. Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative….
Henry David Thoreau, WALDEN:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation… A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
E.M. Cioran, On the heights of despair:
I too have a hope: a hope for absolute forgetfulness. But is it hope or despair?
I am not proud to be a man, because I know only too well what it is to be a man.
One should not forget that philosophy is the art of masking inner tormets.
Universal category and form become illusory and irrelevant when confronted with the irreversible annihilation of death.
My tears would drown the world, as my inner fire would reduce it to ashes.
Isn’t music the art which best expresses infinity because it dissolves all forms into a charmingly ineffable fluidity?
Men gnerally work too much to be themselves.
Though fully aware that the source of unhappiness is in us, we nevertheless turn a personal defect into a metaphysical deficiency. (!!)
Man has forgotten the meaning of silence.
Whether you suffer or not, nothingness will swallow you forever… nothing created by man will endure.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations:
All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time – it will all be the same.
Namkhai Norbu, Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light (non-fiction):
‘…appearances and all outer and inner phenomena, which arise like diverse reflections in a mirror, are nothing more than radiant manifestations of emptiness which have no instrinsic self-nature, there is nothing one should consider to really exist.
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day:
The spirit, the peculiar burden of his existence lay upon him like an accretion, a load, a hump. In any moment of quiet, when sheer fatigue prevented him from struggling, he was apt to feel this mysterious weight, this growth or collection of nameless things which it was the business of his life to carry about.
He could be both sane and crazy. In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which.
Why do people just naturally assume that you’ll know what they’re talking about?
Vladimir Nabokov, Despair:
All is dark, all is dreadful, and I do not see any special reason for my lingering in the dark, vainly invented world.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground:
I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear it or not, why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect. But I was not equal even to that. I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness – a real thorough-going illness.
Sean Scully, Resistance and Persistence (Rothko, Bodies of Light):
Rather, I think the sight confirmed what he already knew: that the edges of the world and everything in it are blurred by mystery and sadness.
With regard to the gods, I cannot know either that they are or that they are not, or what they are like in figure, for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.
Knut Hamsun, Hunger:
I felt I was myself a crawling insect doomed to perish, seized by destruction in the midst of a whole world ready to go to sleep.
Eugene O’neill, The Iceman Cometh:
I saw men didn’t want to be saved from themselves, for that would mean they’d have to give up greed, and they’ll never pay that price for liberty. So I said to the world, God bless all here, and may the best man win and die of gluttony!
Charles Bukowski, Septuagenarian Stew:
Harry glanced at the drivers of the cars. They seemed unhappy. The world was unhappy. People were in the dark. People were terrified and disappointed. People were caught in traps. People were defensive and frantic. They felt as if their lives were being wasted. And they were right.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying:
we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the end of the night:
To hell with reality! I want to die in music, not in reason or in prose. People don’t deserve the restraint we show by not going into delirium in front of them. To hell with them!
Juan Valera, a letter to Ruben Darío:
Hoy priva el empeño de que no haya ni metafísica ni religión. El abismo de lo incognoscible queda así descubierto y abierto, y nos trae y nos da vértigo, y nos comunica el impulso, a veces irresistible, de arrojarnos en él.
A very loose translation:
Today we’ve become destitute by the fact that there is no longer metaphysics or religion. The abyss of the incomprehensible becomes then discovered and open; and it attracts us and gives us vertigo, and transmits that impulse, sometimes irresistible, of diving into it.
Fernando Pessoa, A factless autobiography:
Whenever someone tells me he dreamed, I wonder if he realizes that he has never done anything but dream.
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought :
There is much in being that man cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known. What is known remains inexact, what is mastered insecure.
Fernando Pessoa, The Keeper of Herds:
I have no ambitions nor desires.To be a poet is not my ambition,It’s simply my way of being alone.
E.M. Cioran, Tears and Saints:
All nihilists have wrestled with God.
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death:
Man’s very insides– his self– are foreign to him. He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him, right near his pounding heart, but for that reason all the more strange.
What would the average man do with a full consciousness of absurdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness.
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz:
All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but in truth it is at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, a something which we can use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us.