Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
Well, I can’t help but think Friedrich Nietzsche would be chuffed! I imagine him sitting in his hereafter, one that he totally did not believe in, hearing that Wendy Syfret is busy reinstating his nihilist philosophy, and making a much better job of it than the Nazi regime.
Reading The Sunny Nihilist by Wendy Syfret, one realizes that Wendy is a sensitive soul, the type that silently sobbed in school toilets from the sheer pressure of eight-year-old life. It’s a generational thing. Baby Boomers (1946-1965) and Generation X (1966-1976) might not understand. But Millenniums and Generation Z will, no doubt, be nodding sympathetically. It’s all about pressure of being your very best and finding meaning. Meaning is all well and good, says Syfret, when it has an end point, or is a guide in a crisis, but western culture has gone overboard on meaning. Epic journeys associated with meaning have turned into grubby scavenger hunts. The commercial world has co-opted it for economic gain, and now we are pressured into finding meaning in everything. I think she has a point. It brings to mind a tattooed, bejewelled Johnny Depp, accompanied by a pack of wolves while striding through a desolate landscape in the service of a men’s aftershave (or is it a cologne?), the name of which is lost in between audience groans.
Millenniums and Generation Z have endured all of the above, all of their lives, constantly living with the pressure of optimising, to be their best selves, to make a difference. The expectations are never-ending.
But Syfret was not just a sensitive little girl, she was, and is, intelligent. She calmed herself simply by realising that IT JUST DOES NOT MATTER. Life is mind-blowingly random; she cites the lottery of a conception that resulted in her being – one sperm, one egg, one time. Amazing! But Syfret goes further:
I’d think about the notes in human history that had to align for me to occur. … an unknowable mass of violent singularities, tangles of matter, energy, space, gravity, quarks protons and neutrons forming epochs and ecosystems over the past 13 billion years or so.
Her life really didn’t matter in the scheme of things, because there is no scheme. By adopting a nihilist approach, believing there is no meaning or truth to be found, she felt immense relief, unlike previous adherents of nihilism who fell into depressive existential crisis.
Although … science has clearly provided many ‘truths’, and given that the above quote could only be known via scientific knowledge, it could be said the men and women responsible for scientific discoveries really do matter! But, of course Syfret is mainly concerned with cultural messages, constructions that favour the oft-maligned white, middle-class male. She promotes an ideology of ‘letting-go’ of cultural pressures – appreciate the moment, be amazed and grateful for your birth, and eschew cultural pressures. Embrace your pointlessness and that will stifle egotistical thinking, making space to be kind.
Syfret really gets into her stride in, ‘The Sunny Nihilist in Love’. Like all systems of meaning, romantic love as we experience is invented and learned. She harks back to Ancient Greece mores, then cites Laura Ashe, Associate Professor of English, Oxford, on tragic love stories and meaningful sorrow. Quotes French author and memoirist François de La Rochefoucauld: There are some people who would never have fallen in love, if they had not heard there was such a thing. She also refers to Dr Victor Karandashe, concerning the different cultural experiences of love, and shifting attitudes within western history. Working her way through to Romanticism in late eighteenth-century Europe, when romantic love became a ‘life-giving force’. And so on, until arriving at clear headed Simone de Beauvoir. She didn’t suggest love completes you or makes you whole, but that it carries you while you find these answers yourself and express your own agency. This is a must read chapter ladies!
For the benefit of over-stressed cohorts, Syfret also elucidates her cheerful nihilism in chapters about meaningful work, neural systems and God, and, how nihilism can, and did, go wrong. Ending on ‘How to be a Sunny Nihilist’ and ‘The Pleasure of Pointlessness’. It does get a tad repetitive; this work could probably be reduced to a lengthy essay, although Syfret has an amusing turn of phrase that affords enjoyable reading. Targeted at millennials and Gen Z, this is an amusing book that provides a realist view of human life.
By Wendy Syfret
ALLEN & UNWIN