Literature is notorious for attempting to define meaning, and even more notorious for doing it badly. Probably because writing is a conduit for philosophical and personal exploration, authors often attempt to assign value to certain events or character traits, in an effort to explain, shape, define, justify, condemn, and understand the micro-workings of the universe.
Have you ever tried to define meaning – as in the meaning of life – in any way that makes sense to anyone outside your own head? It's a bitch of an assignment. And in their bewilderment, most writers end up with a neatly folded napkin of a character or allegory. A napkin that lays stationary on the table when you shake it, but after a meal, loiters on the floor as used napkins do after a big plate of BBQ chicken.
Meaning is so subjective. A conundrum. But the concept also has a kind of wonderful ambiguity. You'll never be right, but you'll never be wrong. You just have to write about it succinctly.
Personally, I've found the best way to tackle meaning when I write, is to approach it from a postmodern, existential nihilistic perspective. You see, nihilism is typically defined as the denial of the existence of truth or absolutes. In other words, if your character adopts the position that "meaning" is meaningless, they'll never have to apologize for anything, and you'll never have to explain or justify anything.
Nihilism comes from the Latin word "nihil," meaning nothing. Generally, Nihilists believe there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator, and that there is no true morality. Nihilism is often described as a belief in the non-existence of truth, and often also implies rejection of custom and a cynicism towards secular ethics. It dismisses received moral values, and often rejects morality outright, viewing it as baseless.
An existential nihilist differs in that he believes truth is unattainable within the confines of human circumstance. But knowledge is not objective or without bias, and for that reason the existential nihilist admits he can only ever be subjectively convinced he will never be certain of anything.
From Friedrich Nietzsche's own pen; “A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that does not exist.” Basically, existential nihilism posits that if the world is meaningless or without purpose, existence – all action, suffering, and feeling – is ultimately senseless and empty. But despite this fact, humans still have responsibilities. Life alone is reason enough for living.
Philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre coined the term “Existence precedes essence.” Sartre believed it was pointless to debate about self or human nature. Not so much because they don't exist, but because it doesn't matter. Jacques Derrida, famous for his philosophical theories of deconstruction, also believed that humans would never be sure that what we know corresponds with what is. Since we participate in only an infinitesimal part of the whole, we are unable to grasp anything with certainty. Therefore, only after humans abandon delusion and see life for the nothing it is, will we stop focusing on what it isn't (and likely never will be).
Nihilist literature tackles meaning by philosophically defying moral sensibility, truth, beauty, love, or whatever else the writer and her presumed audience values. It tends to shuck regard for current social mores, giving the author greater leeway to explore sensitive themes.
In the world of literature, Albert Camus – the Nobel Prize winning author of The Stranger – is a doozy of an existential nihilist. In Camus' Caligula, when the emperor fails to escape the human predicament by dehumanizing himself with acts of irrational violence, he secretly arranges his own assassination. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus – condemned to an eternal fruitless and uphill struggle – is human existence. The Plagu' conveys the futility of doing one's best despite an absurd world. And Camus' last novel, The Fall, posits that life is worsened by blaming action and complacency on a lack of meaning. For more examples of authors that pack a nihilistic punch, read William Shakespeare, Émile Zola, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Samuel Beckett, Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk, and Bret Easton Ellis. They have all approached both character and plotline from a nihilistic world viewpoint.
The common thread in all existential nihilist literature is the representation of a character's struggle with the emotional anguish arising from confronting nothingness. But the beauty of a world lacking tangible meaning is that there are absolutely no guidelines to tangle with. Nothingness not only gives your character an out, but it also gives you something deeper to write about. Nothingness forever bars your character from knowing why, yet allows and requires an author to invent meaning. An author can virtually write about anything and make it work.
The key is that the reader, the character, and the author cannot rely on convention or motive. Life alone is reason enough for acting. It is reason enough to do whatever the character does – within limits that are set up or defined by the author. An author's character need not be constrained by conventional morality. The theme need not follow social contour. Since there is nothing to justify, prove, explain, or bemoan, all you have to do is sit down and write it.
Of course that's just my very subjective, and if you're following, meaningless opinion.
Jennifer Edelson is a former practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at: email@example.com