Last Sunday, an article by Bryan Wandel appeared in First Things which caught my eye. It caught my eye not only because it concerned the same subject as my first two guest posts here on CatholicVote, but because it mentioned a little book which I thought I was one of the few people on earth to remember: The Experience of Nothingness by Michael Novak.
Columnist George Weigel also mentioned it a few weeks before, I soon discovered.
If there is something of a rebirth of interest in this little book, that would not be a bad thing. I read it five years ago and have never forgotten its precise prose, and the clarity of its argument.
The book is probably forgotten today because at some point it was dismissed as a hip 1960s book—like something by Timothy Leary or Charles Reich. Well, the truth is that it is a hip, 60s book, but one with lasting value—a more appropriate comparison is with Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation.
What Novak does is take what European thinkers have called “nihilism”—or Angst, or emptiness—and examine it as it was experienced. In this sense it is similar to Charles Taylor’s attempt, in his recent book, A Secular Age, to examine secularism as an experience, and as it was experienced in history. What Novak finds—after going through novels, essays, diaries, political histories—is a certain irrefutable pattern to the experience. This pattern also exposes an underlying truth: that there are certain things which claim our affection no matter what our circumstances are—honesty, courage, freedom, community.
I don’t agree with everything in the book—I think Novak’s overstates the arbitrariness of the way we make sense of our experience in the world. There is more inherent order to everyday experience than perhaps his highflown rhetoric would acknowledge. But this book has an interesting force as social criticism. Especially when it deals with politics. For that reason, if nothing else, this book is worth a read. Here is a taste:
Politics is the realm of illusion. Politics is the restless man’s mysticism. It has its own magic, rituals, symbols, doctrines. Politics is the art of power, yes, but it is primarily the art of shaping consciousness. The primary locus of politics is human consciousness. Politics issues from the end of a symbol. Who controls minds controls guns.
You can get the book here.