Annihilation and utter night: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and a modern(ist) old nihilism

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Elysia C. Balavage (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Anthony Cuda

Abstract: “What is the source of refreshment in nihilism?” T. S. Eliot asks in a 1950 interview with Leslie Paul. Although Eliot was perhaps speaking rhetorically, his question is a perceptive one. After all, if nihilism depends on humans’ empty existence to exist, then how can such an idea sustain itself? How can we resuscitate God after Friedrich Nietzsche infamously declared Him dead in 1882, an event that paved the way for the ominous nihilism of The Will to Power (1901)? More broadly, how can nothing function not only as something, but the thing that will save modern value systems from the infinite abyss? To address these quandaries, it takes an intimate and extensive knowledge of two competing perceptions of nihilism: Nietzsche’s “new” 20th-century nihilism, an idea that declares all values meaningless, and the “old” nihilism that Nietzsche abandons. For Nietzsche, nihilism is a cataclysmic event, and the nothingness left behind is absolute. It stands menacingly on the other side of the threshold, threatening modernity with complete collapse. On the other hand, Benedict de Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, and Georg W. F. Hegel—the philosophers of old nihilism—see creative potential in nothing and interpret God not as deceased, but reimagined. In this dissertation, I argue that W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot each pose similar questions in their work, and their knowledge of nihilist philosophers guide them toward a generative view of nothingness. My project expands and complicates the impact of Nietzsche’s nihilism on modernism. Through a brief historical exploration of nihilism, I show that the new Nietzschean nihilism commonly understood to have heavily influenced modernism—both as a literary and philosophical movement—is contested by a productive nihilism which predates Nietzschean publication and subsequent influence, thus eliciting divergent interpretations of loss and nothingness. While much scholarship focuses on modernism from the perspective of Nietzschean nihilism, I identify a countercurrent within literary modernism that draws upon an “old” tradition of nihilism that removes the negativity of nothingness, reclaims absolute annihilation, and instead imbues it with the generative capability to resist total emptiness and desolation. Specifically, my project analyzes Eliot’s and Yeats’s readings of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, who all participate in an “old” tradition of nihilism that Nietzsche abandons. The poets’ readings of “old nihilism” forge a generative view of nothingness in their work, which thus shields them from the loss of value that the new nihilism fosters. In this way, the metaphysical notion of God is not “dead” for modernism, but reimagined.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2019
Generative, Modernism, Nihilism, Nothingness, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats
Yeats, W. B. $q (William Butler), $d 1865-1939
Eliot, T. S. $q (Thomas Stearns), $d 1888-1965
Nihilism (Philosophy) in literature
Nothing (Philosophy) in literature

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