Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fundamentalism and Nihilism

I think of a broad range of categories and types as I read this from Eagleton's After Theory.
This is just what the fundamentalist is unable to do. He cannot accept contingency. His life anticipates death, but in all the wrong ways. Far from the reality of death loosening his neurotic grip on life, it tightens it to a white-knuckled intensity. The fundamentalist tries to outwit death by the crafty strategy of projecting its absolutism on to life, thus making life itself eternal and imperishable. But is it then life the fundamentalist is in love with, or death? We have to find a way of living with non-being without being in love with it, since being in love with it is the duplicitous work of the death drive. It is the death drive which cajoles us into tearing ourselves apart in order to achieve the absolute security of nothingness. Non-being is the ultimate purity. It has the unblemishedness of all negation, the perfection of a blank page.

There is, then, a profound paradox to fundamentalism. On the one hand it is terrified of non-being, of the sheer sprawling gratuitousness of the material world, and wants to seal the fissure in the ramshackle structure with a stuffing of first principles, fixed meanings and self-evident truths. The world's contingency, its improvised air, reminds it intolerably of the fact that it could easily not exist. Fundamentalism is fearful of nihilism, having failed to notice that nihilism is simply the mirror-image of its own absolutism. The nihilist is almost always a disenchanted absolutist, the rebellious Oedipal child of the metaphysical father. Like his father, he believes that if values are not absolute, there are no values at all. If father was wrong, then nobody else can be right.

There is, however, a deeper affinity between nihilism and fundamentalism. If fundamentalism detests non-being, it also is allured by the prospect of it, since nothing could be less open to misinterpretation. Non-being is the enemy of instability and ambiguity. You cannot argue over its content, since it has no content at all. It is as absolute and unmistakable as the moral law, as unequivocal as a cypher. The fundamentalist is an ascetic, who wants to purge the world of surplus matter. In doing so, he can cleanse it of its sickening arbitrariness and reduce it to strict necessity. The ascetic is revolted by the monstrous fecundity of matter, and is thus a prey to nothingness. For him, there is simply too much being around the place, not least--from the viewpoint of the Islamic fundamentalist--in the West.


At 6:35 AM, Blogger -epm said...

Oddly, the self described Christian fundamentalist (in North America, anyway) is not ascetic; quite the opposite in fact. They tend to attribute material wealth to Godly blessing and edification of the rightness of their beliefs. They seek to purge not "matter" but sensuality.


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