Death of a Nihilist or Obituary for a Nobody
By Ewan Morrison.
It was once the case that to have your death celebrated by the media you had to have been a person who lived and died for their beliefs, or at least perished with those beliefs intact: a shining example to us all on the importance of steadfast convictions. One thinks of Ghandi, Jean-Paul Sartre, JFK, Martin Luther King or even Ayatollah Khomieni. In the last few years — due to the media’s requirement for such spectacles even when the substance is lacking — the death of lesser figures who stumbled blindly through life lacking all conviction has created comparable hysteria. In fact, it may even be that these figures-of-no-qualities have eclipsed the great believers in terms of attention. All of this was predicted a decade before by my old friend, the bedsit philosopher, it was a process he termed ‘the levelling of society to the lowest order.’ He saw in it ‘the ironic revenge of the plebs, the rise of the nobodies.’
Unfortunately, my friend’s death a few years back, passed entirely without notice in the history of world events. It was a non-ceremony to which even his closest friends were not invited — we did not in fact hear of his passing till almost a year afterwards.
You see, my old friend was a self-proclaimed nobody while being, ironically, perhaps the most extreme individual I have ever encountered. He was a nihilist who pursued the meaninglessness of everything to its zenith. Among the many things he did not believe in were ceremony, sentimentality and in his later years, friendship itself. As for funerals, I recall he did not even attend the funeral of another close friend, as he said such ceremonies were a breeding ground for ‘the worst kind of sentimental historical revisionism,’ although, inexplicably, he wept for days at the funeral of Lady Di. He was a man of contradictions (although he would have chastened me for the use of such a cliché), a man who made it his conviction in life to have no convictions and who once stated: ‘beliefs are for those who are too afraid to be caught in the act of changing their minds.’
He was in possession of an almost unlimited repository of such aphorisms. ‘Wilful stupidity seems to me to be the only intelligent course of action,’ was an old favourite, as was ‘the only way to be a successful nihilist is to do absolutely nothing.’ True to his word, my old friend achieved almost nil in his life, other than perhaps, inspiring fury and an edgy, distrustful kind of admiration among a handful of acquaintances.
Even though he hid them from me through our ten years of fraternal union, some facts need to be said about my old friend. I lived with him in the early years of the nineties and he signed-on for most of those years, devising ever more ingenious ways of evading work and the wrath of the DHSS. We lived in a run-down hovel and suffered from what I would now consider malnutrition, multiple allergies (due to mould infestation and poor sanitation) and the early onset of alcoholism. Although he was rarely sober, and seldom lifted a finger to eat or do the dishes; from his bedside, which was scattered with the works of the great philosophers, I learned the principles of nothingness, or what people outside our door now call Post-Modernism. He was its prince and lived and died for its causeless cause.
You may have gathered by now that my friend was something of an aesthete. He prided himself on being born on the 15th of October and sharing his birthday with Frederick Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde and Michel Foucault, all of whom he quoted constantly (it was impossible to ever get his opinion on anything without him whipping out a quote or aphorism to throw back in your face). My old friend always lied about his age (wildly), some people thought him in his forties, others in his twenties; he claimed that books had made him an old man by the age of eighteen. He liked to think of himself as ‘un-timely’ and often claimed that he would have been happier living in the late 19th century, in the time of decadence, dandies and death by consumption or syphilis.
He took his belief in the relative nature of all values to a high degree in his clothing, insisting that every garment should clash with every other. On some days this would involve, leather chaps, dirty ‘Kerouac’ sneakers, a T-shirt with JESUS SAVES written on it and a cowboy hat. In this he unified the 90’s ethos of the slacker with the 1890’s ideal of the debauched aristocrat and there were days when he embodied this — dressed rather like a cross between Cobain and Byron, with antique trench-coat, cravat and an ironically chosen 70’s vinyl Winnie the Pooh pyjama top. This was offset by the ladies foundation he wore, sometimes on a face covered in stubble, an effect he called ‘pornographic’. The look was well ahead of its time and became something the media called ‘Heroin Chic’ in 1993. Naturally, as soon as his style appeared on TV he claimed it had been stolen and swiftly disavowed it.
The period that followed saw him as a skinhead with eyebrows shaved off and drawn back on with eyeliner. A look which many thought gay, but, although he liked ‘queers’, he found people who called themselves ‘Gay’ to be clonish and plebeian in their desire to be accepted by the status quo. ‘Equal rights?!’ he quipped scathingly, ‘don’t they see? When we’re all the same then no-one will have any bloody rights.’
He prided himself in being an autodidact, but he had studied for a bit at art school, then cultural studies in some uni. He never finished anything he started. If he had admitted to being anything it would have been being an artist, although his medium was vague and ever-shifting. He had abandoned painting because it was bourgeois, then taken up photography only to give it up because it was ‘too easy’, he then took up conceptual art — a thing which suited him for a while as he didn’t have to actually make anything. He ultimately gave this up too as it had become fashionable with the Young British Art scene and he despised all trends. As for youthful energy, he said: ‘There’s nothing more exhausting than other people’s enthusiasm.’
One really had to see him in the midst of normal people to grasp his talents. He had a thing for sneaking into parties and gallery openings to steal alcohol, and while he was at it, he’d take a few moments to diagnose the stupidity of those he encountered. (His system was, I believe, some horrible corruption of Socratic Method.) He led people into self-contradiction, making fools of them, leaving them to spin in the dizzying realisation that they actually subscribed to the opposite of the belief they thought they did.
I recall how one night at a gallery opening in Shoreditch, he got into a discussion on the alienation of the masses, in which he tricked an avowed Marxist into proclaiming that the masses had to be enlightened, saved from false consciousness and ignorance.
‘I quite agree,’ he stated, ‘what we need is education, to wipe the slate clean and start again.’
‘Absolutely,’ agreed the Marxist.
‘Yes, like Pol Pot.’ He proclaimed ‘Let’s start with the proles in Hackney, a bullet to the head, that’ll teach them!’
He often took it a little too far, offending not only leftists, but feminists, post-colonialists, right wingers, Christians, vast swathes of the politically correct, vegans and people of colour. True to his non-convictions however, he did not choose one ideology over another and in some parody of democracy, managed to offend absolutely everybody equally. It was a form of sport for him as it had been for Wilde.
‘Liberals,’ he proclaimed, ‘Pah!’ They seem to be the only people who can still get away with trying to make everyone else just like themselves.’
It should be noted that my good friend’s philosophy was absolutely ahead of its time. He claimed to have been brewing it since the late seventies, but it was only really in the early nineties that his ideas about the ‘End of History’ achieved public visibility. (The Post-Modern philosophers had plagiarised him he claimed.)
Sure enough they were involved in the same project, the philosophers from the universities and he from his bedside or barstool — there was no single truth to save us, there are only many so called truths, all competing for dominance — we had to reject the old isms and live without the old certainties.
All of this was the very air that my friend breathed. As he watched the Berlin wall fall on television, he played The Winner Takes it All by Abba on vinyl, ‘in homage’. It seemed some tragic commentary on the hollow victory of Capitalism; and to illustrate Nietzsche’s line that History is written by the victors. It was a deeply crass and crude gesture but also rather moving.
In a moment of enthusiasm I once tried to explain to him that his thinking was essentially deconstructive.
‘Please desist.’ He shouted back. ‘There’s nothing shallower than people trying to be profound!’
Wit was his weapon, but also his undoing. Very much like Wilde, my good friend fell foul of his own intelligence and of his all too human weaknesses. Once you have offended so many people they have a tendency to pretend you do not exist. As I, at that time, was indulging my friend financially, offering him care and charity, (two things he did not believe in) and as I could not live forever on the dole and had to try to find work, (another thing he despised) he in turn turned his venom on me. The work that I found caused him to vent his spleen. Throughout the 90’s I struggled to be a television journalist, working in arts programs, then as a television director. ‘Bringing culture to the masses are we?’ He laughed, ‘watch they don’t shit it back in your face.’
His critique of television I believe now was apt. A full decade before the invention of Reality TV and Big Brother he announced, ‘I don’t know why you bother to make programs at all, just stick some plebs in a room with four cameras and the masses will be perfectly content to watch them eating, drinking and taking a shit, night and day.’ He made many other predictions which turned out to be prophetic. The death of Cobain, the rise of New Labour, media spin and panic culture. The day the Berlin Wall fell, he said ‘I suppose we’ll have to attack the Arabs now.’ He was concerned that the future would be governed by paternalistic nanny states and declared ‘The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.’ As TV was my livelihood, I was, in the eyes of my old friend, an idiot and so I had to part company with him and leave him to his rants and his drinking. I turned against him, and in time came to despise him, to see him as weak, but dangerous. His aphorisms I came to see not as a sign of intelligence but of a kind of ignorance. He never went any further than negating what someone else had just said, taking their propositions and inverting them. ‘Work ennobles man’ someone would say, and my friend would reply: ‘Ah yes, but have you ever seen a noble that worked?’ And people would pause and stroke their chins and nod and say ‘How true, how true. You may have a point there.’ But he never had a point and I saw the vacuum at the heart of such wit; to be forever living in negative, never progressing beyond reaction, never moving beyond ironic reprocessing. I only discovered later that each of his aphorisms had been pinched from other people, and that he was at heart a rather shy, scared individual. It was inevitable that he finally succumbed to alcoholism. I recall he once said: ‘In the absence of a reason to live there’s nothing quite like a life-threatening addiction to get one out of the bed in the morning.’
In the years since we parted company I tried to chase his forever judging voice from my head and discovered, the hard way, what it was like to be a nihilist in a world in which people believed or pretended to believe in causes. I still had many of my old friend’s ways within me; I’d even, over the years, memorised his aphorisms so as to impress people, but all these affectations had to be erased. It was when it came to making life choices that I fully realised how crippling his philosophy was. There were media strikes in the early nineties and I had to choose on one occasion to cross a picket line. Should I be a Scab and a union breaker? I did not believe in socialism after all, but neither did I believe in freelance labour under capitalism. These questions required immediate action, not more questions. Am I really selling out if I don’t believe in integrity in the first place? Should I marry the woman I am with, even though I don’t believe in marriage, Christ, the church or even the state that would ratify such an arrangement? Could I do it ‘ironically’? Should I have children, even though I do not believe that they are a gift to the world, or a blank slate on which we write the future — or even that my DNA is worth replicating? The obvious choice was to do nothing, say no to all options. Achieve nil. But I did not want to end up like my friend and so forced myself to suspend my tendency towards disbelief. I acted like I had conviction in these things as I closed my eyes and took something that looked a lot like a leap of faith.
A decade later, still with an uncertain future financially, on my fourth career, divorced with two children, I can see that the end result was that I made all these choices and lived out all these projects half-heartedly and then abandoned each in turn. My old friend never told me that this would be the ultimate cost of living under the rule of moral relativism.
I had abandoned projects, but life went on. I then had to face the fragments left over by my abandonments. Most troubling of all were the problems posed by my children. How can you raise kids if you believe in nothing? Is it wise to instill a distrust of all belief systems in children, or must you first teach them what belief is? Is this not essential in positing any goals that are to be worked towards? To show that there is always an opposing perspective may help expand lively enquiring minds, but with the very young, you have to start with building blocks. You cannot teach a child that it’s wrong to hurt other children by ironically invoking relative values and saying: ‘well, actually in other cultures, children are tortured and enslaved.’ Ultimately, I learned I had to try to have some values. My solution, I know, was weak and a tautology, as my old friend would have pointed out.
‘To be able to teach my children how to live I have to believe in something, therefore I believe in my children.’
‘Don’t you see the void beneath such a ludicrous proposition?’ he would have said.
This last conversation never took place.
In fact my friend didn’t die. That was a lie. He never existed. Or rather he was who I used to be. I killed my friend a few years ago because if I hadn’t done so, he would have destroyed me. I now live a straight, irony-free existence with many responsibilities and I face a harder ongoing struggle than he faced, and that is living day to day with nothing to guide me. Yet, I’m still here and perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned is that you cannot practice relativism in solitude. You need another to react against, a proposition to protest, you need to accept that you might be wrong too and not sit there mulling over things but take action. Call this understanding or friendship if you will, or love. In the absence of all other values, relating to another person is perhaps all there is to go on. I have found this to be the case. I live through other people’s values and for other people.
Still my old friend haunts me.
‘Hope is the last refuge of the hopeless,’ he would have said as he threw back the last of his stolen wine with a wry smile.
[More Ewan Morrison in 3:AM.]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ewan Morrison is the author of the novels, Swung, Distance, Ménage and the collection of short stories, The Last Book You Read. Ménage (July 2009, Jonathan Cape) is the story of three nihilistic young YBA iconoclasts whose ménage a trois becomes the subject of their scandalously successful art, a process that nearly kills one of them. A kind of Withnail and I meets My Fair Lady.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 5th, 2009.