a review of Shane Weller’s Modernism and Nihilism
To consider the concept of nihilism, Simon Critchley once remarked, is to take up the trail of ‘Ariadne’s thread’, a theoretical route through the labyrinth of history. For Critchley, the story of nihilism is the story of what it means to be modern, and to read the philology of nihilism, of the nihil, is to look through a lens at modernity’s underside. Shane Weller’s survey of the web of relations between Modernism and Nihilism proceeds from the same supposition. His book unpicks the thread where it’s at its most knotted, in the high modernist literatures of the early twentieth century. For Weller, what’s at work in the works of the modernists – from Tzara to Kafka to Cioran – is a discursive puzzle for which ‘nihilism’ would seem to be the key, the master term that could unlock and make sense of the modern. Yet the thrust of his thesis is the fact that it fails to do so; the way that whatever it touches is rendered resistant to interpretation. So, on the one hand, thought and talk about ‘nihilism’ is ubiquitous across modern culture: wherever the modernist moment is, nihilism sits alongside it. On the other, modernism proves unable to reduce nihilism to its propaedeutic, its explanatory toolkit. Rather, nihilism is what haunts modernism, as its ghost or double, a tense co-presence forever unsettling its meanings.