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This article is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 2, November - December 1979.

Reflections on Nihilism Stanley Rosen


 [This important essay, first published in Man and World (1968) we have pleasure in re-printing as a prelude to Stanley Rosen's Nihilism Ten Years Later, to be published in our next issue.]


I
WHETHER poets are the legislators of society or the valets of their age, their song at its best provides us with the "shock of recognition" that eludes the language of philosophers. No more clear and distinct formulation of the ambiguity of the contemporary spiritual experience could be imagined than this single line by Allen Tate: "We are the eyelids of defeated caves". The shock communicated by poetry, however, is an impulse to understand what we have recognized, or to engage in discursive reflection rather than the despair of silence. In proposing to reflect upon Nihilism, I want to do something more than offer an exegesis of the verse just quoted. Caves have depths from which one may at least hope for resources by which to cancel the merely negative characteristics of defeat. The analysis of the contemporary Nihilist situation, like the exploration of Tate's cave, requires not merely that we be prepared to walk in the darkness, but also to look again at the excessively visible. To speak of "the contemporary situation", for example, is of course to run the risk of alienating one's audience by invoking the memory of platitudes. In fact, one might define the Nihilistic dimension of the contemporary situation precisely as the alienation from ...


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