• Paul D. Wilke

Progressing Our Way to Nihilism

Love and Pain, 1895 by Edvard Munch

First, we killed God and called it progress, the leaving behind of superstitious myths. We were told that God was simply the product of the human imagination, created as a reflection of our most noble aspirations. Real intellectuals came to scoff at such naive beliefs. With God out of the way, humanity could finally become its own god, soaring to new heights, but now without the chains of dogma and theology holding it back. God was but an ideal of the infinite created to give purpose and meaning to our finite existence, a light to protect us from the shadows. We thought we didn't need that rubbish anymore. Instead, we had fast food. We had warm beds. We had porn. We lived and died in soft safety. We had Prozac and Viagra to keep us up. We were fat and happy, or at least one out of the two. What need for a Supreme Being when we could indulge ourselves in sensuous pleasures like capricious Greek gods? None, it seems. But did we lose something along the way? What was the price for all this progress?

Then we got rid of heroes, disposing of those exemplars of mortal virtue whose lives and deeds we admired. These were our lights defining human excellence, revealing the heights of greatness that were humanly possible. We knew we could never be perfect like God, but we could model ourselves on the best among us. Statesmen, authors, warriors, philosophers, theologians, saints, artists, activists - these were the noble souls that guided us to better selves. Our heroes now, such as they are, are athletes and entertainers, ephemeral and soon forgotten in this permanent now. In any case, we no longer accept claims to human greatness. 'Human greatness' is now an oxymoron. How strange to put a mere mortal on a pedestal, someone no better than you or me! We only need wait, give it a little time, and some long-forgotten scandal or unflattering quote will chop the hero down to size! Everybody poops, even Achilles. Remember that hero-slaying thought. Now cue the laughter. "Heroes are only people just like us," we remind ourselves dismissively, missing the point by a country mile. No heroes are allowed in the Land of the Level unless they sing or dance or score goals or make tons of money! Mammon is not a hero. Celebrity is not heroic. You are not either. What then? A culture with no heroes exists lost in a house of mirrors, wandering aimlessly and searching for an identity it can never find again.

Next, we laughed at the patriots, turning the love of country into a crude chauvinism. We rolled our eyes when they spoke solemnly of duty and sacrifice to the nation. Why? To what purpose? To wage wars for Walmart? For Exxon? At some point, patriotism became the simple man's ideology, something dim-witted rubes clung to along with their God and guns. Only fascists and rednecks still got excited about flags and anthems. "And anyway," the finger-wagging scolds would declare solemnly, "what is the nation but a collection of myths, lies, and hidden crimes? What's to admire? Throw it all away," they demanded, "it's nothing but another false idol for men! Set yourselves free!" And so we cosmopolitans did, but nothing of similar grandeur filled the void.

And then they came for eros, yet still no one raised any objections. Somehow, romantic love became an anachronism, an emotion only to be indulged vicariously through television and movies, those two digital condoms for our souls. Never fear, though, for nature abhors a vacuum and the human heart does as well. To fill this other void, the label makers went to work. Letters of the alphabet were handed out as badges of belonging, distinctions were made, sour labels for dour people to wear proudly as they prance and preen through life basking in the sacred glow of the self; identities they called them; these symbols of individuality finally set us apart from the rabble to express ourselves however we wanted. Whatever that means. These were not labels for love, sadly, but joyless boxes for self-expression that people put themselves and others in. Romance gave way to partnerships, so very efficient, optimized, like thriving little enterprises. But no ache, not anymore, the ache of love was gone, the heat of passion too, and no longing either, for nothing was left to ache or long for. We snicker now at such displays of vulnerability. Cue the laughter. To read something like Poe's Annabel Lee today is to enter an alien emotional universe that no longer exists, one of longing, loss, desire, and passion. We can't speak those languages anymore without digital aids. Our emotions only stir when stirred artificially. We've forgotten how to feel on our own. That may be the saddest truth of them all.

Rest easy, my friends, it's better this way. What we've lost we've gained in efficiency and comfort. Who needs the heat of passion when you have air conditioning? Why feel anything when it might hurt? And if you don't like it, take a pill to pretend it's otherwise. Or jack into the Matrix and forget that you can remember how it used to be, or how it could be still. Or whatever. Who gives a shit? No one is listening anymore anyway in this digital blinking world without soul. No God, no sublime heroes, no grateful nation, no eager lover; nobody, nothing, and no one left but ourselves alone with our headphones on, our heads bowed, worshiping our electric gods. This lonely moment is the prize.

Congratulations, we have a winner!

The cheese stands alone.

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