The Experience of Nothingness, by Michael Novak, Harper Colophon Books, 1970
In my teens and twenties I often experienced extended bouts of dark moods. One could call them depression, perhaps, although I prefer melancholia.
These bouts are difficult to write about because language, or at least English in my hands, fails to grasp their essence. I could say they were marked by feelings of overwhelming hopelessness and pointlessness about existence, but that would be wrong, because there were mainly no feelings, and the absence of feelings was itself painful and paralyzing. And even this statement doesn’t quite approach the silent, immobilizing emptiness spiralling downward.
Fortunately, by my late twenties I left these periods of bleakness largely behind. I think meditation, and physical activity in the martial arts, helped enormously. But I also found when I was visited yet again by desolation that reading certain books would, if not relieve the condition, at least give it a … space within which to work itself out.
For me what worked was one particular book by Krishnamurti, that interesting and deep man of spirit, called The Wholeness of Life. It is a series of dialogues primarily with the physicist David Bohm, who shared a radical austerity of inquiry in coming to understand ourselves and the human condition. I had a number of books by Krishnamurti but for some reason that particular book, with its severity and abstruseness, was the right foil for my bleakness of spirit.
But even more important for me during those periods was the book The Experience of Nothingness by Michael Novak, found one day in the remaindered bins at Barnes & Noble in New York City perhaps 40 years ago. I still have it, a thin paperback, with the remaindered punch hole through the cover in the upper right.
At the time I was also reading and inquiring into Buddhism, especially Zen, where one can hear much about emptiness and fullness and so forth. But none of it seemed to touch on the experience of emotional nothingness the way this book did. I knew nothing about the author. But it is helpful to keep in mind that this book came about in the midst of the counterculture of the late 1960s and the upheavals spawned by the Vietnam War.
The book is divided into four sections: 1) The Experience of Nothingness, 2) The Source of The Experience, 3) Inventing the Self, and 4) Myths and Institutions.
I will take a look briefly at each section in turn.
The Experience of Nothingness
What got me to walk out of the bookstore with this newly purchased slim volume in hand were statements such as this from the very first page:
“The experience of nothingness is an incomparably fruitful place for ethical inquiry. It is a vaccine against the lies upon which every civilization, American civilization in particular, is built.”
In this first section, the author chronicles what can be one course for the development of this experience. First pervasive boredom as regular life loses meaning, then slow collapse of shared cultural values as they too begin to seem a sham. Then helplessness.
“It is also the recognition that those who wield power are also empty, and that I, too, if I had power over my own life, am most confused about what I would do with it.”
Novak also points to the culture’s lack of inculcation in the young of discernment about what is beautiful and brilliant. “For it is demanding to teach children ethics, beauty, excellence; demanding in itself, and even more demanding to do so with authenticity.”
In the end, he says, for those of us who come to see emptiness all around, “To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.”
But more encouragingly, “Whatever the massive solidity of institutions, cultural forms, or basic symbols, accurately placed questions can shatter their claims upon us.”
The author examines the various myths which shape the sense of reality in universities, but that’s not so interesting here. But I did find insight in such statements as:
“The fact that a man abjures the word “myth” and thinks of himself as hardheaded and exclusively realistic does not count as evidence that he is not acting out a myth; on the contrary, it furnishes an index to the power of his myth over his mind.”
Novak uses the metaphor of “horizon” to link a person and his world in a mutual defining relationship.
“In a certain sense, the concept of horizon is anti-humanistic, for it does not suppose that ethical action is wholly conscious or wholly self-originated. On the contrary, the concept of horizon emphasizes that the self and its world interpenetrate at every point.”
So, Novak goes on to say, “The experience of nothingness arises when we consciously become aware of — and appropriate — our own actual horizons…. We do not know who we are. Yet we keep inventing ourselves.”
The Source of the Experience
There is considerable discussion in the context of the times, during the Vietnam War, when the emptiness of the American myths about itself became more apparent. At the time, I was not too caught up in that dimension of his discussions. That emptiness always seemed obvious and unremarkable to me. My concerns were much more self-centred….
The author discusses the uncertain foundations of “objectivity,” and how it relies on the cultivation of specific subjective states.
“But largeness of mind and soul is quite different from a pretended objectivity. For a pretended objectivity serves the establishment, the well off, and particularly the government.”
When the claims of objectivity from various institutions come to be shattered, the experience of nothingness begins to appear.
“The source of the experience of nothingness lies in man’s unstructured, relentless drive to ask questions. … The capacity of the ‘drive to question’ to question itself — is what makes it the source of the experience of nothingness.”
So then what of nihilism — defined as the rejection of all religious and moral principles? Novak invokes Camus’ arguments in such works as The Rebel to distinguish between the honesty inherent in the drive to question compared to the dishonest and inhumane conclusions of the worst of nihilists such as say Hitler or others of that stripe. The main distinction is the recognition of the community of human suffering.
Inventing the Self
Necessarily, Novak brings up the nature of ethics often. For him, “it is not generality or universality that gives an action its ethical weight, but precise and complete appropriateness. (His emphasis.)
“…The primal formlessness of the drive to understand leads to experience of the void. But the capacity of my drive to question every one of its operations creates for me an ideal of authenticity and honesty.”
So what is acting well? “Acuity in perceiving the point of complex ethical situations, acuity in hitting the mark, is the pivotal capacity. … but the heart of the matter is singularly difficult to hit, while the number of ways by which one can miss it are nearly infinite.”
Following Aristotle, Novak says that to become a good man is to grow in the courage to discern honestly, and in the courage to act as one discerns.
In the end, we will choose the myths we will live by. Kurt Vonnegut said in Cat’s Cradle that we should “live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Novak puts it this way:
“But excellence in health and morality are measured by a choice of myths that maximize personal and communal development in these four values: honesty, courage, freedom and the ability to value other persons for themselves.”
Myths and Institutions
In this last section of the book, Novak explores what the experience of nothingness can mean for our political institutions.
To him, institutions do not exist to be effective, but chiefly to provide reassurance. So politics becomes the realm of illusion and education the realm purely of technocratic effectiveness for the benefit of institutions. What currently passes for democratic institutions are inadequate.
“The experience of nothingness teaches a man the poverty and limitations of all symbols.”
In politics, the author notes: “Certain key words repeated again and again are mentally restful to political audiences. To attack the prevailing symbol structure of a group is to awaken the threat of chaos. It is also to arouse intense opposition….”
He declares: “The promotion of conditions in which men can with increasing frequency become honest, courageous, free and brotherly is the criterion by which institutions are judged. Institutions have no other purpose.”
Towards the end of the book, Novak concludes, “The myth appropriate to the new time requires a constant return to inner solitude, an unbroken awareness of the emptiness at the heart of consciousness. It is a harsh refusal to allow idols to be placed in the sanctuary.”
A note about the author, Michael Novak
As I mentioned briefly above, when I first encountered his book, the author Michael Novak was unknown to me. And really that background was of no interest. But it’s intriguing to find out that at the time of book’s writing, he was a Catholic theologian who obviously had been working through his own dark night of the soul.
In later years, he went on to become perched on the far right branch of American politics. Back during Obama’s second election campaign, I was thinking then of writing something about how influential this book was in my life, so I looked up the author. Not that Obama has turned out so great, but the opinions on display on Novak’s blog at the time were on the irrational far edge of the Tea Party spectrum. It’s interesting that it is difficult to find much record of those positions now — his blog and current writings are positioning him as an elder statesman.
Other sources have described him as “a founding member of the ‘theocon’ political faction, a loose grouping of Christian writers closely associated with neoconservatives who blend religiously informed social conservatism with foreign policy militarism.”
His thought, and approach to life, must have changed. Another lesson about idols in the sanctuary.
I remain thankful, though, for this book that he made as a different, younger man. It greatly eased my more youthful version.
Photo source note: A cover similar to my copy, from the Strand bookstore blog, another great Manhattan bookseller.