You Cannot Acquire Experience by Making Experiments. You Cannot Create Experience. You Must Undergo It.

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Nothing, Nihilism, and Meaning [2 of 2]


Click here to read part 1 if you have not already. 

That disappointed us a lot. In fact, it disappointed us so much that we almost lost heart, because it rendered everything… completely meaningless. And it didn’t help in the slightest that more and more people were beginning to think that the heap was indeed meaningful….[1]

This quote finely illustrates the non-objectivity of morality about which Teller warns. Newspapers, presses, and television producers came from across the globe to come see what the children had done, and they all came to agree that, indeed, their pile of objects was meaningful. All it takes, however, is one gainsayer, one naysayer, one dissenting shutterstock_360673847.jpgvoice, to dissolve this momentous achievement. Even if 99% of the world agreed the pile was meaningful, Pierre Anthon, that 1%, was all it took to abolish this claim, to ruin the dreams of everyone, to send everyone into a glum dejectedness. If everyone agrees, the pile is meaningful; if everyone disagrees, the pile is not valuable; and if even just one person disagrees, it pulls the rug from under everyone, it completely attenuates the foundation upon which all meaning is built. Agnes points out, though, “Either the heap was the meaning or else it was not. And since everyone had agreed that it was, it couldn’t just stop not being it again.”[2] In logic, there is a simple principle: A=A, but A≠non-A. Something cannot be something and not-something at the same. The press says the heap is meaningful, yet Pierre Anthon says it is not, so who is correct? There is a major conflict, as the majority says one thing, but the minority says another, and if there is no overlap, then it is not absolute, it is not objective. Since the two cannot agree, it cannot be that it is meaningful, for there is always lingering doubt. Pierre Anthon has yet another argument up his sleeve to respond to this very dispute:

‘Meaning is meaning. So if you really had found the meaning, you’d still have it. And the world’s press would still be here trying to figure out what it was you’d found. But they’re not, so whatever it is you found, it wasn’t the meaning, because the meaning doesn’t exist!’[3]

Unknown.jpegWith these volatile words Pierre Anthon challenges the absoluteness of morality by questioning everyone’s attitude toward it. Were the pile absolute, were it really the essence of meaningfulness, not only would it remain meaningful and in the attention of the press, but it would be—and I find this idea very original and fascinating—inscrutable; that is, if the intrinsic nature of meaning were manifest in the pile, if the pile was the physical form of all meaning, it would be impossible to understand. Here, Pierre Anthon makes an intriguing argument. Had meaning been present in the pile, the press would still be “trying to figure out what it was” they had found; however, I think it would extend beyond the press and to experts, such as academics, because if it, the pile, were truly meaningful, it would require an investigation of a greater magnitude. Accordingly, because the press left, the pile was not as universally meaningful as the kids theretofore thought. Like Pierre Anthon said, if it were meaningful, it would be truly revolutionary, and the attention on it would increase a hundredfold. To find the meaning of life is life-changing! Thus, the pile is not meaningful, and meaning has yet to be found, and, in these circumstances, meaning does not exist.

Central to the book is its discussion of what exactly the nature of “meaning” is. The children refuse to believe that nothing matters, because, “We were meant to amount to something.”[4] To them, it is unthinkable to live in a meaningless world, so they devise a plan to gather everything that is meaningful to them and assemble it into a giant heap for easy viewing. Throughout the book, the characters refer unendingly to “the heap of meaning,” almost exhaustingly, as though it is some kind of idol they worship. Indeed, rz43z.jpgevery time I saw the word “meaning” or “heap of meaning,” I subconsciously capitalized it, like it was some kind of metaphysical entity, The Meaning, a transcendent, noumenal Platonic Form, unfathomable through reason alone, an a priori truth of a type. There are times, though, when it is important to distinguish “meaning” from “the Meaning,” as the latter is the apotheosized form, into which the former slowly degenerates, and it becomes the sole end for which the kids search. Slowly, as the novel progresses, comparable to Lord of the Flies, the elusive Meaning becomes more and more obscured, with the kids lowering themselves deeper into the abyss, as the Meaning corrupts their minds, turning into blind devotion, at which point everything is deferred to it. Everything the kids do is justified since they are doing it for the Meaning. It matters not if a finger is lost or a pet dies—it is all done for the Meaning. Nothing is more important than the Meaning. Anything that is not the Meaning is subordinated thereto, turning into an end-justifies-the-mean kind of situation. Agnes says, “We had found the meaning and thereby the meaning of everything.”[5] In this quote, the first usage of “the meaning” should be capitalized, for it represents the Ideal which underpins reality and all value, while the second should remain uncapitalized, referring only to significance. It is evident at this point in the book that the kids have become utterly obsessed with the idea of Meaning, so much so that they feel they have discovered the meaning of life through their pile. In order to decide what goes into the heap of meaning, the kids take turns dictating what the next person is to put it, the criteria being that it has to be the thing which they value most. The first person who goes gives up their most meaningful possession, then they decide what the next person gives up, and then they make the next person give something up, etc. As this goes on, the possessions grow more and more personal and more and more demented and disturbing. One of the girls, Ursula-Marie, is forced to cut her hair that she values dearly and put it on the pile, whereupon Agnes comments,

Cutting off Ursula-Marie’s hair was worse than cutting of Samson’s. Without her hair, Ursula-Marie would no longer be Ursula-Marie with her six blue braids, which meant that she no longer would be Ursula-Marie at all. I wondered whether that was the reason the six blue braids were part of the meaning, but I didn’t care to say it out loud. Or leave it unspoken.[6]

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 3.37.02 PM.pngAgnes states that Ursula-Marie’s hair was what made her Ursula-Marie, that, without it, she was not herself anymore. It is like she lost something, something that was a part of her. However, it is silly to think that a person is defined by their hair, much less their identity. Obviously Ursula-Marie is still Ursula-Marie, yet at the same time, there is something missing, like the hair added something, not extrinsically, but intrinsically. The question becomes: Is it the possession itself or the owner which grants meaning? Had those blue braids belonged on someone else’s head, they would not be as important, but they were Ursula-Marie’s, and she dyed them blue, meaning if she had dyed them any other color, such as red, they would be just as meaningful, inasmuch as it was her personal doing, something self-determined, something Ursula-Marie in nature, an action distinct to her, that no one else can have—it is unique to her and her alone. This being the case, meaning is an intrinsic thing. Meaning must have some other qualification, besides being intrinsic. Jon-Johan is the last person to give up something meaningful. Being the last, he got no exceptions: He had to give up his index finger. Tears in eyes, panicked, unable to deal with this reality, he protests fervently, but to no avail. One of the middle schoolers, Anna-Li, indifferently replies, “‘[I]f it didn’t hurt… there wouldn’t be any meaning in it.’”[7] In addition to being a part of someone, meaning must also involve either hurt or loss; if you lost this particular thing, it would be like losing a part of yourself. As Thoreau once said, “The cost of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” Thus, while we may have material possessions, which are otherwise useless, and for which we pay little in terms of life, there also things that are meaningful, that have value, the kinds of possessions in which the kids are interested, for which we pay a great sum of life. For instance, Jon-Johan dedicated his life to playing the guitar, aspiring to be as good as The Beatles, and his finger, unlike his guitar, had more meaning, as it was a part of him, and, should he lose it, it would pain him deeply, for it would cost some of his life—literally. Although nothing is too extreme if it is done for the Meaning, right? “There was definitely something that mattered in spite of everything, even if that something was something you had to lose,” reassures Agnes.[8] Behind all the nihilism, beneath the deepest of curtains, there is some vestige of meaning in life. The greatest realization is that this lonely presence exists to be lost. After all our hard work, after toiling relentlessly and passionately for some kind of hint as to the meaning of life, we must realize that it is only there so long as we lose it, for if it is permanent, it is not meaningful. Sometimes, our fruitless questing after meaning is the very thing which obstructs it from being found. Because meaning is intrinsic, not outside images.jpegof us, it remains to be found within. Yet another trait of meaning is that it cannot be evaluated with money. As the age-old goes, Money cannot buy you happiness. Meaning cannot be valued with money, but with life, as Thoreau said. “Meaning is not something you can sell. Either it’s there or it isn’t. Our having sold the heap of meaning had deprived it of its meaning,” Agnes confides after selling the heap of meaning to a museum.[9] Hesitantly, she adds, “If there had been any.”[10] Once something is sold, so too is its value. An antique from a relative will have value to a specific person, but once it is sold, it no longer holds a story; it becomes just an object whose value is dictated by money alone, not by personal significance. In fact, I would argue that giving something a price devalues it. Pierre Anthon refuses to see the heap of meaning on the grounds that it is not meaningful; but were it actually meaningful, “‘Then there’d be nothing I’d rather do.’”[11] As an afterthought, he slyly scorns, “‘But it doesn’t [mean anything], or else you wouldn’t have sold it, wouldn’t you?’”[12] Could this mean that there might possibly be meaning? Pierre Anthon hints that the heap would have been meaningful, had it not been sold. Is he teaching them a lesson? Is he imparting wisdom secretly? This idea is cemented further when he lectures his friends, who have broken out into a fight over the meaning, about the meaningless of life and the futility of searching for meaning: “‘Oh so that’s [pointing to the heap] the meaning!… The meaning, ha! If that pile of garbage ever meant anything at all, it stopped the day you sold it for money.’”[13] Alas! the pile did have meaning! That is, until they sold it, until they put a price on it. Pierre Anthon then goes around the room, pointing out his friends’ hypocrisy and naïveté, asking them mockingly about their possessions and whether they were worth being sold. To Frederick, who gave up the Danish National Flag, the Dannebrog; Hussain, a devout Muslim; Jon-Johan, whose finger was cut off; and Sofie, who gave up her virginity, Pierre Anthon gives the following tirade:

‘I’m glad I’m not going to war with you [Frederick] as my general!… And the prayer mat, Hussain? Don’t you believe in Allah anymore?… What price was your faith?… And Jon-Johan, why not let your whole hand go, if you’re willing to sell your finger to the highest bidder? And you, Sofie, what have you got left, now you’ve sold yourself?’[14]

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 3.39.18 PM.pngGerda even added her hamster Oscarlittle, whom she loved dearly to the heap, upon which he presently died. Pierre Anthon makes an incredibly profound point here, a point we often do not stop to consider: At how much would you value that which is dearest to you? If you had to give up a pet, a child, a husband or wife, your parents, or some other meaningful possession, for how much would you be willing to sell it? Are things like pets, national flags, faith, limbs, or innocence tradable? Everything has value so long as we do not put a price on it.

“Pierre Anthon had won.”[15] At the end of the book, Pierre Anthon gives his lecture then leaves, having taught his friends a valuable lesson. In a moment ripped straight out of Golding, his friends, bewildered, confused, tired, distraught, vitiated, hurt, and frustrated, lunge at him, tackle him to the ground to take out all their pain on him, punching and kicking. His neck is broken, his eyes black and blue, blood all over, one eye Unknown-3.jpegbulging, a leg twisted, and an elbow broken. “It was his fault, all of it…. It was his fault that we had lost our zest for life and the future and were now at our wit’s end about everything.”[16] Blamed for causing his friends to become nihilistic, to lose their faith in the world, the friends use him as a scapegoat for all their abhorrent actions, forgetting that they were responsible for their own actions (there are better defense mechanism for nihilism than killing!) as payback for all the pain he has caused them, leaving his contorted, inert body to burn in a fire, which then swallows up the fateful barn in which they began their heap of meaning. Quite a twist ending, yes? In the end, though, I think we must all give Pierre Anthon some justice, despite his nihilistic, hateful, and impractical way of thinking and living. Deep down, despite his professed nihilism, Pierre Anthon harbored a secret wisdom. Ought we renounce life and seek meaning thoughtfully? It is only too late in life that some people will adopt nihilism, for it is only then, at the close of life, that they find they can surrender themselves to nothing. Yet Pierre Anthon realizes this wisdom early on, and he actually does something about it—he is very much wise beyond his years. I have held out on providing and citing counterarguments to nihilism only because 1) I did not want to attempt to answer the meaning of life and 2) I wanted to tell the message of the book as it is, not refute it. Hence, a quote which provides some solace against the gaping threat of nihilism:

Often the underlying thought seems to be that real values can only exist if they are permanent. But why should something in itself valueless acquire value by being permanent, or belonging to a set of things which is permanent? The value of my having just passed my exam and the disvalue of having painfully stubbed my toe are surely not affected if the sun will explode in eight billion years and I myself face annihilation somewhat sooner? [17]


[1] Teller, Nothing, p. 170
[2] Id., p. 189
[3] pp. 190-1
[4] p. 5
[5] p. 187
[6] p. 98
[7] p. 148
[8] p. 110
[9] p. 204
[10] Ibid.
[11] p. 200
[12] p. 201
[13] p. 213
[14] pp. 213-4
[15] p. 215
[16] p. 217
[17] Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “The Meaning of Life,” p. 488

For further reading:
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy by Richard R. Popkin (1999)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
Morals and Values
by Marcus G. Singer (1977)

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)