The Arts reflect the spirit of the age and literature is no exception. Nihilism, a worldview that rejects ultimate meaning and purpose in life, heavily influenced the literature of the early 20th century, in which this philosophy was illustrated and addressed. The influence of nihilism is particularly evident in The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and “The Wasteland”.
The early 20th century was ripe for the advent of nihilism. Indeed, its arrival had been predicted by one of the most influential philosophers of the previous century, Friedrich Nietzsche. “What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries,” he wrote in his notes which would be published in The Will to Power, “I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of nihilism.” The nihilism that Nietzsche viewed upon the horizon was the inevitable consequence of the undermining of traditional Western thought that was underway in his own day.
Darwinian evolution, the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, the First World War, and the consequent decline of the Christian faith in the Western world were the primary contributors to 20th century nihilism. Darwin’s theory left mankind bereft of his own unique status in the natural order. Freud transformed man into a psychological marionette whose invisible puppeteers were the various neuroses that he had developed from repressing (largely sexual) desires. World War I with its incredible death toll and socio/political upheaval left the modern world wondering what had happened to the utopian vision inspired by the industrial revolution. And looming over everything like a great, gray thundercloud was the solemn declaration of Nietzsche, “God is dead”.
Nietzsche’s declaration seems to capture the spirit of the age better than any other. When the ultimate Absolute is stripped away, where does humanity get its existential bearings? What remains for man when objective beauty, truth, morality, and immortality have vanished? To quote Nietzsche once again:
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? 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? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” (The Parable of the Madman)
While these questions occupied the minds of many philosophers in the early twentieth century, the First World War was the catalyst that caused their consideration outside of the ivory tower of academia. The horrible events that took place between 1914 and 1918 shattered the illusion that the civilized world was morally progressing as millions of men were slaughtered in a mechanized massacre that proved to be more pointless with each death. Western civilization was stripped of its ideological finery and compelled to grope its way through the “infinite nothing” that had been predicted by Nietzsche’s madman. How could this have happened? What will become of mankind? These were the questions that modernist authors attempted to address in the years that followed the war.