For many many months my living room has been so cluttered with books as to be truly offensive even to myself, so yesterday I discovered a decent and inexpensive bookcase, bought it and quickly filled it full of books. Peace! And an unexpected one at that. Now could anything comparable occur to my writing? For my mind is cluttered with more writing projects than I can count, and I continually move between them writing here there and everywhere, certainly no real order is thereby realized, and now I can’t think of my writing without thinking of deep disorder. One such project that has been suggested to me is a genealogy of nihilism.
As a good Nietzschean ‘genealogy’ is a fundamental word and category for me, but I have seldom openly employed it and I can believe that the time is at hand for that. Nietzsche himself devoted a great deal of attention to the genealogy of nihilism, but for the most part this occurs in his notebooks, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to bring this genealogy into a coherent whole. One matter is clear, however, and that is that for Nietzsche it is the Biblical God who is the primal source of nihilism, and this is just why the death of this God is the origin of the most ultimate liberation and joy. Now I sense that a good move could be made at this point by centering upon the American God, a God already envisioned by Blake as Satan, and conceived by Hegel as the “Bad Infinite” or the purely abstract God. This is the God who is not realized until the historical realization of the death of God, which both Blake and Hegel could know as occurring in the French Revolution, and a revolution itself only made possible by the American Revolution. Blake’s America is not only his first prophetic poem, it is also the first imaginative enactment of the death of God, and we would not be irresponsible in looking upon this short epic as the inaugural unveiling of a uniquely American destiny. Now if this is a genuinely nihilistic destiny, as perhaps not openly unveiled until our own time, then a quest for the genealogy of nihilism would simultaneously be a quest for the genealogy of America, or of a deeper and darker America.
Commonly our understanding of nihilism is an abstract one lacking all real concretion, although this does occur when a Nietzsche or a Dostoyevsky is called upon–then nihilism can be very concrete indeed, and not only concrete but overwhelming. But perhaps this is all the more true in our great American poets. Here American poetry could be genuinely unique, just as it is seemingly unique in the paucity or fragmentariness of its evocations of God, for it is in our greatest poetry that God is most absent or most paradoxical. So, too, our greatest poetry is our most nihilistic poetry. Even when this is in a minimal form, as in Dickinson, it nonetheless has a genuinely nihilistic effect; in its maximal form, as in Wallace Stevens’ greatest poems, it can be understood as being nihilism incarnate.
If we are to speak of an American God, and a uniquely American God, this cannot be done apart from speaking of a uniquely American religion, a religion alien to American studies, and alien if only because it is so little understood. Yes, we associate it with the first separation of church and state, but we ignore the context of that separation, failing to recognize that this occurs with the very advent of a truly secular society and world, so that American religion is truly unique in being the first religion to realize itself in a fully secular world. Of course this, secularity had long been damned by Christian spokesmen, some of whom were capable of identifying secularism and nihilism—and indeed the most secular Western thinkers were the most irreligious or atheistic thinkers. In realizing itself in a truly secular world, American religion underwent an ultimate risk, which many theologians like Jonathan Edwards recognized. Yet there is also real power in this unique realization of religion, as manifest in the strength of American religion today, as opposed to the weakness of its European counterparts. Now it is true that fundamentalism is far more powerful in America than elsewhere, just as it is true that conservative or reactionary politics and a deeply conservative religion cohere in America as they do not elsewhere, but these very conditions are inseparable from their truly secular ground, for such fundamentalism is new historically, only coming into existence with the advent of a fully secular world.
The fundamentalist God is an alien God as earlier manifestations of God are not. The very literalism with which this God is apprehended is inseparable from an assault upon all higher culture. But that very assault is a decisive sign of an overwhelmingly secular world, and a secular world apart from which no such fundamentalism would be possible. Once genuinely liberal expressions of Christianity were powerful in America. Now that power has withered away. And just as a conservative Christianity is far more powerful in America than it has been since the Puritan era, both American churches and American theologies are now and for the first time exercising deeply sectarian roles. Now virtually all religion is a truly sectarian religion, and this is new historically, and one posing a new crisis for religion. While this crisis can be known as a consequence of the historical realization of the death of God, this is a far more universal religious crisis than previous ones, with no expression of religion whatsoever unaffected by it. A revealing characteristic of our intellectual worlds today is the absence of all language about God, or all open language about God; this, too, is truly new historically, and it clearly demonstrates how expressions of religion today can only be sectarian expressions.
Many know this condition as one making possible, and for the first time making possible, the genuine freedom of religion, one free of all secular constraints, and thus free to be wholly and only itself. Thereby this could only be a culturally neutral religion, or one free of all higher culture, or all culture that is not essentially and only religious. Hence it is simply unimaginable as an actual expression of religion, just as its God would be both unimaginable and inconceivable. Even as many neo-orthodoxies have sought just such a condition, they thereby make manifest a truly inhuman quest, or even a nihilistic quest. Would it be unrealistic to look upon neo-orthodox theologies in our world as expressions of nihilism? Do they not entail, and necessarily entail, an ultimate and absolute No-saying to all expressions of culture, inevitably knowing culture itself as an expression of idolatry? Do not Pascal, Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky come very close to this? And if these are the very thinkers who most purely understand nihilism, is such understanding possible apart from a deep openness to or immersion in nihilism? Is a genuine quest for religion possible in our world that could be free of all pathologies, and does this distinguish our world from every previous historical world? Or is depth itself necessarily pathological in our world, a world in which surface and only surface is all in all, thereby for the first time realizing all depth as being pathological? Perhaps these questions are inseparable from our contemporary condition, but they make manifest that our condition is a religious condition, or is finally one, and hence a condition that is inseparable from fundamental religious or theological questioning.