Nihilism, Reason, and Death: Reflections on John Barth’s floating Opera

  • Stephen Nathanson
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 12)


Nihilism is the view that nothing has value. The nihilist knows, of course, that people strive after things and treat them as valuable, but he believes that such pursuits cannot be justified by reason, that they are vain and fruitless. Just as money is, after all, merely paper, so all the things which people think are valuable are ultimately inconsequential. 1


Suicide Attempt Life Worth Living Floating Opus Principled Indifference Meaningful Living 
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  1. 1.
    Though I take nihilism to be the doctrine which denies the existence of value, the term “nihilism” is used in a variety of ways. My understanding appears consistent with the explanation given by R. G. Olson in ‘Nihilism,’ in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), V, 514ff. For a broader range of nihilisms, see C. I. Glicksberg, The Literature of Nihilism (London: Associated University Presses, 1975), pp. 9–33; and R. C. Solomon, ‘Nietzsche, Nihilism, and Morality,’ in Nietzsche,ed. R. C. Solomon (Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Books, 1973), pp. 202-9.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The philosopher most often cited as a nihilist is Nietzsche, but even in his case, the interpretation is controversial. For an attack on this view, see R. Schacht, ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism,’ in Nietzsche,ed. Solomon, pp. 58–82.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Barth’s comments on his work are from ‘John Barth: An Interview,’ Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature,no. 6 (Winter-Spring 1965), 3–14.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The Floating Opera,rev. ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), p. 218. Subsequent page references to the novel will be made in the body of the paper.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Bernard Gert, The Moral Rules (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 26–39.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., p. 30.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    ‘A Moral Principle About Killing,’ in Beneficent Euthanasiaed. Kohl (Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1975) p. 109.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
  9. 9.
    For an illuminating discussion of suicide, see Brandt’s essay, The Morality and Rationality of Suicide,’ in Moral Problem,ed. J. Rachels (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 363–87. For an account of how death can be an evil though it involves no suffering, see Thomas Nagel’s ‘Death’ in the same volume.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    A possible case of this sort is discussed in B. Williams, ‘The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,’ in Moral Problems,ed. Rachels, pp. 410–28.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Edward Hacker has suggested to me that a perfectly indifferent being would have no motives and, hence, would be incapable of any ction. Barth develops a similar idea in connection with the character of Jacob Horner in The End of the Road.Google Scholar

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© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1982

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  • Stephen Nathanson

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