Existentialism is a pretty ubiquitous term, as my History of Theatre professor once said to me. Essentially existentialism is the examination of the individual and how their own free will shapes the path that their life will take. This is going on the idea that there is no grand scheme or cosmic force that affects the universe or its events. An existential crisis may lead the individual to ask the questions, “What makes life meaningful? Does life mean anything at all?”
Well, a nihilist would say “no”. The word nihilism literally comes from the Latin word meaning “nothing”. A nihilist rejects all conception of intrinsic value in life and existence. There is no meaning to life, so why even try to seek it? Why bother with anything if there’s no point to living?
Take Sherlock. In the beginning, the show seemed like a fun modern imagining about a socially inept detective and his everyman best friend solving crimes and righting wrongs. But at some point…the story changed. By the last season, Sherlock and John were no longer solving crimes. It seemed like all their characters seemed to exist for was to suffer. It was no longer a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end, but just a montage of pain and suffering. It’s like the writers didn’t give a shit anymore about telling a story or honoring the original material. They just wanted to squeeze their money’s worth out of teenage girls in love with Burberry Cumbercooch’s lizard face. The writers presented these mysteries, like how Sherlock survived falling from atop a tall building, or where it was all leading with Moriarty, only to laugh in the viewers’ faces for daring to care about the story in the first place.
Or better yet, look at Star Wars. The original trilogy is a masterpiece in story telling. The reveal of Luke Skywalker being Darth Vader’s son is revered as the most amazing plot twist in cinematic history. People became enchanted with this idea that stories could be clever and tie together in ways you would’ve never seen coming but make perfect sense once the answer is revealed. But the new movie, The Last Jedi, seems to spit on one of the core reasons the original movies were so beloved. The makers knew that people would be speculating about Rey’s origins, because her character was purposely made mysterious to get you wondering about her, only to tell the audience that Rey’s parents are nobodies. There’s no grand plan, it’s just nothing, and the makers think you’re stupid for picking up on clues specifically put there for you, and for trying to solve a mystery when there never really was one in the first place.
Oscar Wilde once said “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” And nothing has proven him more right than this new age of social numbness, what I call neo-existential nihilism. It seems like humanity is caught in a backwards slide, losing more and more of our empathy day by day. A giant halfwitted bigot is running the United States, Congress is doing nothing to stop him, there’s a new hate crime or school shooting every week, and the only people who seem to give a damn about standing up to it is high school students–the same ones who are getting slaughtered. We live in a time when we care more about getting to own guns than the lives of children. It’s an idea that sounds like it belongs in a gritty dystopian society YA novel, but it’s not. It’s our horrifying reality now. Did we really, as a people, become so disenfranchised with our own species because of Columbine, and 9/11, and all of humanity’s other atrocities, that we lost the ability…to care?