130 years ago Nietzsche claimed we were experiencing unprecedented change: “Whither are we moving? [...] Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?" The change was one of meaning and value. Nietzsche saw that a new age was rising in the Western world: the age of nihilism. With it has come new tendencies in depression.
The nihilism which is said to characterise our age is a consequence of major changes in our civilisation. Morality formerly gained its authority, for many people, through Christianity. With the widespread decline of religious belief people have also lost faith in morality, in the sense that they see it as something purely subjective. This is a cultural problem with a direct effect on the inner lives of individuals. In an increasing vacuum of values we witness the rise of socially destructive trends such as neoliberal ideology, and that which the Melbourne writer Anne Manne calls in her excellent book The Life of I, “the new culture of narcissism.” Neoliberalism and the narcissism in our culture are economic and social expressions of nihilism. This nihilistic culture enters into our lives as a corrosion of our spirit, disabling us emotionally and in our actions, leading to a form of depression.
The moral structure of this nihilistic culture involves a loss of intrinsic values, replaced by extrinsic ones. That is, we become beings with no intrinsic value, standing alone, alongside other beings with no intrinsic value, in a world of no intrinsic value. What matters is performance, usefulness, function, consequences - external things are the means through which one gains value. To the degree that a person fails to achieve according these new values, then they are devalued to the point of despair. And even for those who do succeed, but who are sensitive to the spiritual poverty of these values, despair waits for them in the shadows.
Nihilistic depression typically involves an experience of numbness, emptiness, incompleteness, meaninglessness, boredom...an utter deflation, an emptying of life. It can be directed toward others as envy and hate or toward oneself as self-loathing. In contrast to the self-loathing of guilt-based depression, this takes the form of shame rather than guilt. Guilt says I have done a bad thing, shame says that I myself am bad. Bad, unworthy, defective, unlovable, destined to contempt and abandonment.
In the film adaption of Cormac McCarthy's play The Sunset Limited, White has been halted in his suicide attempt by Black. Detained in Black's apartment, White explains his nihilistic vision of life which has led to his depression and desire to suicide:
Rage is really only for the good days. The truth is there's little of that left. The truth is that the forms I see have been slowly emptied out. They no longer have any content. They're just shapes. Only a wall, a tray, a world, a man. A thing, dangling in senseless articulation in the howling void. No meaning to its life. Just words. Why would I seek out the company of such a thing? Why?
Elsewhere in the film White describes his contempt for his colleagues, his absence of friends, his loathing toward his family, and his sense that everything which previously gave life value (for example his love of Western intellectual culture) is empty. For White there seems nothing left to do but die, and to die with bitterness, with a sense that the world is poisoned. But even this contempt is "only for the good days"; beyond that there is an even greater despair, as though rage expresses hope.
When reading White's words above, I remember that Sigmund Freud suggested that depression involves a disconnection between affect and language (between the "thing system and "representation system" of the psyche). The disconnection is a problem because there is separation precisely where we need unity. In White's words, what is emptied is not simply emotion as a feeling, but emotion as connection. Depressed people, notes psychoanalyst Darian Leader, are divided beings in this respect. The philosopher Martin Heidegger drew our attention to the fact that human existence is fundamentally, essentially, relational. Individualist philosophies are false. From the womb to the tomb we exist in and through others: through relationships, as webs of care and meaning. At its heart nihilism is a loss of such connection and care. This loss of love is never neutral in us; rather it is painful, as depression can be, and even bitter, hate-filled. Lacan said that the Christian injunction to love one's neighbour as one loves oneself must be ironic, for people hate themselves. Certainly depressed people often do, whether they realise it or not. (Usually not.)
Is there an answer to nihilistic depression? Yes. It lies in value. In revaluation, as Nietzsche said. In creating value, in injecting value into life. Genuine value. Value is real because it is an expression of how we treat one another, and other people are real. So is oneself.
The details of this journey forward will differ, of course, from person to person.
Art: Tigran Tsitoghdsyan
Author: Matthew Bishop