What brand of ‘nihilism’ was Stirner’s own, then? In his chapter on “Stirner and Existentialism”, Paterson opts for a critical examination of Stirner “from within the general existentialist perspective”; his chapter on “The Nihilist” completes the juxtaposition of Stirner and atheistic existentialism.
In the previous chapter, I have reviewed the core existentialism presented to the reader in Der Einzige and shown it bears little resemblance to the anemic portrait by Paterson.
The common ground of Stirner and ‘existentialism’, he tells us, is the vision of a world without God and hence without any unifying or directive principle; it is the vision of a meaningless world, in which there are no inscribed purposes or true values; it is…strictly no ‘world’ but rather a moral and metaphysical chaos.
He approvingly quotes a theologian, Helmut Kuhn, on this point. The world of the atheistic existentialist is ‘a world without signs’ and therefore ‘something less than a world — a mere congerie of obtrusive existents’; it is an unstable collocation of brute facts, inexplicable, purposeless, absurd; it is the obliteration of the world in the sense of a meaningful and familiar totality’, … a dumb and massive plenitude without form or direction…
In such a world the “individual has no role except to invent for himself a role”. Presumably in such a God-awe-full world, one just asks God what the meaning of the world is, gets handed a Bible, and out pops one’s role in life and life’s work no doubt embossed on the bookmark. Quite so.
In the meaningless, nihilistic world of the existentialist qua atheist, “no meaningful life could be lived”. In a hand-off to another theologian, Helmut Thielicke this time, Paterson has the nihilist go on living in spite of himself: only because he “has a conception of ultimate validities and values”.
Even so much as ingesting food, for these gentlemen, is to be not a true nihilist no, not ever? Quoting Thielicke here, the nihilist is “compelled ‘to go on living with the threat of the deadly abyss, to dwell on a thin crust of ice’, because ‘nobody as yet has ever lived in the watery wastes beneath the ice” and that about says it for Thielicke.
But Paterson announces that Stirner is advocating exactly that, the impossible life under the thin crust of ice. It is, he says, “precisely such a life ‘in the watery wastes beneath the ice’ which he sets out to portray in the character of the Unique One”.
There is furthermore a “leap” involved from nihilism to affirmation, a discontinuity:
The movement in transition is a ‘leap’, not a development…. For that reason any particular cause embraced, any objective pursued, any principle adopted in consequence of that transitional move remains unrelated to the move itself. It is something on which the chooser ‘hits’, a ground upon which he lands after his leap in the dark
Against those revisionists like Kierkegaard would affirm that the abyss is precisely faith, and independence from the nit-picking of reason, this revanchist view is that life in the abyss is, back to the myth of Faust, the opposite of the “Light”, but has been mapped by someone neither Kuhn nor Thielicke considered in their sermons, namely, Stirner.
His leap is made deliberately, and yet he differs from the garden variety existentialist who allegedly holds fast instead to the “authentic individual, with his rooted, stable, indivisible concerns” . When Sartre, says Paterson,describes those who hide themselves from their true situation as ‘cowards’ and ‘scum’, he seems to be applying a standard of objective moral judgment of the very kind which he declares…impossible if we are to begin to live authentically. If existential authenticity means…that there are no objective and given standards in terms of which our lives can be judged, then the authentic individual is hardly entitled to pass judgment on those who do not make this frank recognition and like him found their lives upon it…
Objective for whom? Given, by whom? Stirner said, and Sartre said, the answer is society. It is not that Paterson is incapable of grasping this point, he just has an ulterior motive:
Stirner would reject the existentialist concept of authenticity, then, both because he rejects the ideas of personal integrity and dedication of purpose which are contained in this concept [of authenticity] and because in practice [it] tends to be used by existentialists, illicitly, as precisely the kind of moral standard or personal ideal which habitually excites Stirner’s most vigorous loathing
The fact is that existentialists and Stirner are on the same ground in rejecting, at a minimum, God-base morality, or morality founded suprapersonally or on theology or the authority of divine texts. The existentialist objection might be that such a morality is really no morality, despite its ideological superstructure it is demonstrably human, all-too-human and very demonstrably inhuman. This kind of exposition seems to muddle the issue only because Paterson is here projecting on Stirner his own objection to existentialism so defined. Stirner objects to ethics that forget the source and impute some nonexistent transcendent source, but that is what Paterson either cannot imagine or admit.
If someone shouts “bastard!” to a sideswiping pedicab, or to a Gestapo interrogator, does one need a holy writ to pass judgment and make the comment?
No, Stirner must reject the existentialist idea of authenticity, Paterson thinks, because integrity is a moral standard and Stirner doesn’t allow himself any moral standards. However, ‘authenticity’ is really the missing link as it is part of the connotation of the uniqueness in German and carries this from the Greek root, meaning self-origination. He would have been on safer ground arguing that the existentialists took the idea from Stirner, and then grilling them with lots of holy sauce for doing so: that would have been honest.
All that stands out here is the major premise assumed but never shown: that anyone who denies moral standards in theory denies moral standards in practice. One retort may already be in the pages of Der Einzige where Stirner spoke of the “babble of fools”, those suffering from “the fixed ideas of morality, legality, Christianity,” and of the “shrunken heads” and “maniacs” at large in the society of his time.This was not an ‘absolute’ moral judgment, one in need of an imprimatur from Higher Authority, nor a mere ad hominem, but a forthright observation about those possessed by ‘absolutes’.
We may recall that Stirner was used to dealing with cafe intellectuals, and the rhetoric of his book reflects this. It would have been foolish to write to academics such as Paterson, whose objectivity curiously resembles exorcism. Academia is in my view an audience before which Stirner was and is doomed, as his true audience is elsewhere, in the wider and less cloistered world of popular culture and what Aristotle called practical wisdom.
Part of the Stirnerian rejoinder today should be that religion is basically a dangerous drug that like many drugs produces delusions of grandeur, weeness, or both depending on the social circumstances.
In the titanic struggle between simplemindedness and muddleheadedness, Paterson has stoked a new claim from the old coals, arguing that having rejected authoritarian or supra-personal ‘given’ standards, therefore no personal judgment is allowed. It recalls the cleric whose wife, at supper time, inquired of him what he was doing in the loo for so long, and his reply from behind the door that God had instructed him to carry on until he completed his mission there.
As the tone of The Nihilistic Egoist waxes and wanes from dinning to thunderingly whimperous, the author unfolds a gripping psychological drama: the “final irony” of the existentialist’s dilemma is that on one hand he has set his entire cause on himself — for our author, on the “total meaninglessness of existence” — but he cannot “steel himself to enter and make his abode in the nihilistic void which has opened up beneath his feet.”
No, our nihilist must revert to the Gods he is trying to depose, creating a “philosophy of disloyalty” out of existentialism.
Stirner had addressed this nonsense in advance, because “if I cannot or dare not write something, perhaps the primary fault lies with me” — which follows from the fact that “if I am weak, then of course I only have weak means” . To turn this robust idea of self-reliance into a “philosophy of disloyalty” is a daffy way to score points against what Paterson and the Siamese Helmuts take to be existential philosophy.
For Stirner, on the other hand, when the theory by which I live becomes unlivable, I throw out the theory, not myself. The haunting of philosophy, by contrast, has always taken the opposite tack, sacrificing flesh to ideas. Need one probe much more to see which of these approaches is coded internally to fight unfreedom, and which to articulate it?
Well, what else can we saddle existentialism with? It is not only lack of commitment, but relativism and spectatorship in regards to life as well. Thielicke’s view went like this:
The moment I become a spectator and detach myself from life, looking at it as a kind of panorama that lies below me, all absolute values are become confused and are sucked into the engulfing stream of events.
O…kay. Could anything better illustrate, 150 years after Stirner, another episode of “the shamelessness of the Sacred”? From this point on Paterson allows himself to coast with no brakes:
Meaninglessness, the essential nullity of everything, is for Stirner the governing and universal phenomenon, the key feature of the individual’s experience, draining it of all significance and value.
Even more, meaninglessness for Stirner is “the household demon which he himself unleashes, it is his personal mark which he deliberately stamps upon experience,…which he has freely chosen and wholly wills.” As a result “the metaphysical desert which he inhabits is ultimately a desert of his own creation; in looking into the abyss he is ultimately looking into himself.” Nihilism, meaninglessness, eatinglessness, what are we missing? Uh, maybe suicide?!
How disloyal of oneself not to commit suicide once all absolute values are sucked away! No, the nihilist of the Stirnerian mark cannot do this, he “holds out”, lives a meaningless and futile existence outside the church, and thus according to our author perforce is committed to “a life of permanent inconsequence”. As opposed, one imagines, to the cleric’s life of permanent nonsequitur here.
So not only is the nihilist sentenced to starvation, as eating itself has been logically invalidated, but life itself now: the only true nihilists are out in the alleys: rootless,
vagrant, detached; frivolous, unstable, irresponsible; squandering his fluid and transient being in a consciously promiscuous career or deliberately gratuitous acts of repudiation: in the solitary and arbitrary figure of The Unique One is personified everything that is negative and destructive. On the grim, predatory features of the ruthless egoist Stirner has etched the hollow, dissipated features of the uncaring nihilist.
One thinks of the words of Joni Mitchell’s nihilistic housewife with her Hockneyan summer lawns hissing in chorus, ‘Nothing’s any good!’.This free dissociation with Der Einzige becomes even more urgent:
[Der Einzige ] is the portrait of deliberate and controlled disintegration. It is the portrait of a cynical, sophisticated, and rootless opportunist, ambiguous and evasive in his refusal to define or commit himself, deviously artificial in his avoidance of private obligation or public role. The Unique One is a portrait of refined incoherence, studied irresponsibility, accomplished purposelessness,. He personifies the motiveless, the arbitrary, the gratuitous.
Not only is the egoist willing to do abuse others, but himself as well! This should hardly come as a surprise in the annals of philosophic lunacy:
If Stirner’s portrait…is a documentary guide to the exploitation and abuse of others, it is also a study in the artistry of self-abuse, for The Unique One’s enjoyment and consumption of the world is at the same time a consumption and dissolution of himself: his self-creation is an incessant self-destruction.
Presumably, then, gratuitousness is the only alternative to a plenum of absolutes. Stirner’s ‘self-possession’ fares little better. It underlines for the egoist again the incoherent nature of “all his undertakings, born in tedium and executed in indifference”:
And the metaphysical disorder of this world is of course mirrored and embodied in the personal disorder of The Unique One himself, which is also an artificial and completely deliberate disorder. This immediate and symbolic transition, from the original natural, untotalized meaninglessness into the artificial totalization of meaninglessness which is the nihilist’s chosen world, is the nihilistic equivalent of the existentialist ‘leap’ or ‘conversion’…. And of course the logical discontinuity of [this] transition from Nothingness to Nothingness, its sheer gratuitousness, is again reflected in the nihilistic personality of The Unique One, in his desultoriness and motivelessness, in his severance from others and the world, and in his chosen mode of being as a kind of rupture in the world, down which it perpetually vanishes to be ‘swallowed’ and ‘consumed’….
To recap this syllogism. premise one, to reject God and all absolutes is to affirm the meaninglessness of it all. Premise two, Stirner rejects God and all absolutes; therefore conclusion, Stirner must affirm, with a vengeance, the totalized meaninglessness of everything under the sun.
At first one’s suspicions grew regarding Paterson’s contamination anxiety, but finally we can breath a sigh of relief that the figure of “Stirner” being examined and surgically described has been reduced to a bogey man, a spook, to merely sheets.