It was this nihilism or lack of interest in the outside world and intense focus on the self that in an odd way made me reflect on the bombings in Brussels this week by ISIS. On his way to Spain, to fight in the civil war, the very politically engaged George Orwell dropped in to see Miller, one of whose books Orwell had reviewed positively. It struck me that this meeting represented in a small way a meeting of two ends of the literary (and philosophical) spectrum. Miller (like Nin) would never have dreamed of driving south, crossing the Pyrenees and joining the combatants (of either side). Engagement with Art and Life (especially in the form of Sex) not Politics was his credo, he took a distanced Nihilistic (or more positively put Buddhistic) viewpoint. Not that he had no political views, he disliked American consumerism and did, late in his life, sign a pledge not to pay his taxes in protest against the Vietnam war but generally speaking and in his writing he was more interested in the personal and the private life of the individual. Orwell, on the other hand, felt he had no choice, given the epoch he had been born into but to put politics at the heart of most of what he wrote. The industrial complex meant that life WAS public, there may be some Winston Smiths fighting to preserve an inner private life but essentially that was not possible. The political superstructure controlled not only the physical environment but, with control of the media and language itself, it controlled the mental environment.
Another writer I was reading this week was Derrida and I was reminded that, in a tangential way, this Orwellian notion of control over language tapped into elements of the semiology of Roland Barthes and Saussure’s Structuralism and more relevantly into the pessimism of Post-Structrualism. Forty years ago in ‘Of Grammatology’ Derrida was talking about the death of writing (or what he called the signifier of the signified). Writing (which had become, and overcome ‘language’, and now ‘comprehended’ language) or the signifier of the signified, that is, the rubric of meaning, the logos, the foundation stone of Western civilisation at least, had, in effect, eaten its own tail. Meaning was always open to an erasure, we stood on the shifting sands of a logocentric idealism (even the sciences because they were founded on the same self defining ‘language’), and that ultimately there was no meaning, meaning was meaningless. For some this was (and still is) gobblydegook, the reason I raise it is simply that it seems like another nihilism, a response to the a-political, the nuclear, the artificial, the computer created, the virtual, the multinational corporatized world etc.
Believers in the ‘so called Islamic State’ seem to me also nihilistic, though obviously in an alternate actively political and apocalyptic way. ISIS identifies the corruption of the ‘West’ as a corruption of ‘true’ meaning and sees the solution in death or rather in killing. On the Radio Four programme ‘The Moral Maze’ one of the guests repeatedly said that ISIS was not an existential threat to our way of life and I agreed. ISIS are rather like the Anarchists in Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’. They cause terror by killing more or less at random. But that randomness is precisely what makes their position one of powerlessness with relation to meaning. If the populace of the world can be killed at random by ISIS, then these ‘soldiers of god’, who have not one brave bone or sense of empathy, become simply another maker of tragedy like a tsunami, full of force, empty of meaning. One of the thirty people killed in Brussels this week may, for arguments sake, have believed that ISIS were justified in killing anyone, a child say, if they were born in (or travelled within) Belgium. That, de facto, if you are born in the ‘West’ especially (but anywhere will do) it is morally justifiable to kill you. Whether you are a Muslim, a six year old child, a man, a woman, elderly, religious, non-religious, agnostic, left wing or right wing, angry at the world or happy with it, any nationality, if you’re from anywhere in the world, believe anything, well... in fact, you the individual are irrelevant. For a believer in ISIS the point is that they need someone to kill, killing is the beginning and the end. They do not wish to convert, persuade or convince. Reason, logic, humanity, faith, religious belief none of this is relevant. They don’t even need much in the way of hate, for how can you hate those you don’t know?