All the way down

Review of Under the Nihil (pronounced like the river Nile), by Andy Nowicki.


Many saints are lunatics.

Catholic figures such as St Catherine of Siena seem driven by inner demons that combine with contemporary values. The same might be said of secular martyrs – soldiers who insist on doing ever more tours of duty in some unwinnable hellhole; Western doctors choosing to work in African war zones; animal shelter ladies. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden.

A normal person lives his life, tries to get a job, get married, raise kids and pay off the house. He might give twenty bucks to the Salvos at Christmas, help the odd beetle back onto its feet and consider himself a good sort. For the average person, it is enough to obey the law and not to be too obnoxious.

The protagonist of Under the Nihil decides at a young age to become a priest. He is troubled, socially awkward, unpopular. Religion gives him strength and direction. One day, he thinks, I’ll be a priest and everything will be okay. I’ll have a vocation helping others. He prays and waits for this release from his uneasy life.

This hit a nerve.

But after years of training he fails the final hurdle: the psychological test. The seminary kicks him out because he’s nuts.

Utterly lost and without direction, he sinks as low as he can go and ends up in a mental hospital. And then he is visited by Mr X, who offers him cash for participating in an experiment. All he has to do is take the drug nihil, allow himself to be monitored and report his reactions. The substance is supposed to make all one’s cares and inhibitions fade away; to make the subject totally nihilistic.

And so he does.

The psychotic adventures that follow will not be to everyone’s taste and indeed many readers will have trouble appreciating this book. Like Notes From the Underground, it demands either experience with this psychological state or at least the openness to imagine it.

Under the Nihil examines the human need for faith and the consequences of ripping it away. Avoiding didacticism, it allows the reader his own interpretation. I’m still not sure what to think. On one hand we require some sort of faith to cope with life’s hardships, but on the other this can become a crutch which prevents us from dealing with reality.

Think of the belief or value most precious to you: religion, democracy, liberty, utilitarianism, family, equality, love. Whatever it is that gets you through your darkest days.

What if it were suddenly taken away? What would be left of you?

Can a man live without the thing that nurtures his soul? If he can’t, what does that tell us about him? And if he can, what does that mean?

Under the Nihil is a short book, perhaps a novella, and that’s fine. Most books are overwritten. A miserable and disturbing story, it leaves me eager to read more by Nowicki.

20 comments

  1. jewamongyou · March 17

    As a formerly religious person myself, I can speak to your question. Some of us in that situation, end up acquiring new faiths, or new purposes in life. This can be combined with a measure of hedonism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gunner Q · March 18

    “Think of the belief or value most precious to you: religion, democracy, liberty, utilitarianism, family, equality, love. Whatever it is that gets you through your darkest days. What if it were suddenly taken away? What would be left of you?”

    Some Christians call it “going through the Valley of Death”. It’s not something the survivors brag about or even talk about in detail. Sure, God loves everybody… but the people He particularly loves, He tests to the breaking point and sometimes beyond. The fact of His jealousy-driven cruelties is not a popular doctrine in Current Year Church.

    “A miserable and disturbing story, it leaves me eager to read more by Nowicki.”

    How Russian of you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. luisman · March 18

    Reblogged this on Nicht-Linke Blogs.

    Like

  4. luisman · March 18

    I lost faith early in life at around 14. One reason was the stupidity and hypocrisy of the church representatives, the other was a really evil family member who overemphasized her christian virtue. My first reaction was to hate or be at least very suspicious towards everyone who claimed to be virtuous due to their believes. This may have protected me from falling for other popular false belief systems like Maoism and Marxism. It was only around mid-life that I recognized how a common belief system binds most European people of all continents together. If it fails, bad shit happens, like the 3rd Reich, like pedophile priests, like getting overrun by Moslems, Socialists, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. dickycone · March 18

    This sounds very interesting just based on the premise alone. Since you say it’s short, I’ll have to try to read it.

    I could probably do worse with some of the Biden bucks that are being irresponsibly rained down on me than support Terror House. Do you have any other Terror House favorites you’d recommend? Shorter is better since I have little kids and work pretty long hours, but I’ll consider anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gunner Q · March 19

    I read 6 to 6 based on your recommendations. It turned out to be the kind of book I read to feel better about my own life. That dude had problems.

    Like

  7. Kentucky Gent · March 19

    “A normal person lives his life, tries to get a job, get married, raise kids and pay off the house.”

    Nikolai, if this is supposed to be shaming of radical believers, it has backfired (at least, for me). It is just more inspiration to strive for holiness!

    “Many saints are lunatics.”

    I suppose it must seem that way to an advocate of “normalcy”. But no, actually the saints are the sane ones. They are detached from the temporary things of a temporary life, and focused instead on the eternal things of the next life.

    I’d knock off the saint-bashing, if I were you. God takes special care of his friends, and the enemies of his friends don’t fare well in the long run. Kyrie Eleison

    Like

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · March 19

      Did you read the article about Catherine of Siena?

      Like

      • Kentucky Gent · March 22

        Yes. Well, I started to read it. But when I figured out it was negative, I quit reading. Saint-bashing is against my religion πŸ™‚

        Like

      • overgrownhobbit · March 22

        Also…many Saints are Lunatics is click-bait for “when (if?) does self-sacrifice out of loyalty to a person, a place, or an ideal become lunacy?” Or possibly “What if measurable psychotics are known to be overrepresented in Catholic, atheist, Confucian, or Maoist belief systems?”

        I hope. Otherwise one soecfically Catholic saint diagnosed from 700 years away begs “citation needed” and “define your terms” (“saint” “many” and “lunatic”. Whoa. That’s a lot to pack into one sentence!)

        Like

        • Nikolai Vladivostok · March 22

          I should have said ‘all’, that would have set the cat among the pigeons.
          Nowicki is a conservative Catholic.

          Liked by 1 person

          • overgrownhobbit · March 22

            *snickers* True dat. Not Catholic. Not my circus, except in the fair-play sense.

            Sorry to imply that being click-bait-y was bad. I meant that one should assume hyperbole for literary effect. With the caveat, of course, that if you *meant it* = intellectually bankrupt.

            The questions are reasonable: You’re insane, she’s passionate, I’m committed to my faith.

            Like

  8. overgrownhobbit · March 22

    Consider: value most precious to you [… ] family, […] What if it were suddenly taken away? What would be left of you?

    Okay. I picked just that one. What would happen if I discovered my mom, grandma, and daughter all hated me: they view me with disgust, dislike, resentment, and distrust? (Grandma from beyond the grave via long-lost diary)

    You are right. It would break me. The objective reality of half a century discovered to be fraud. All the events and interactions of decades, confirmed, by third party confirmation to have been in my head. It turns out I am typing this on break from the lockdown unit of the psych ward…

    Oh wait. I am not.

    Mr. Vladivostok, the thing about “belief” and “faith” is that it must be based on reality. And no, you do not get to define “reality” as “physical objects I can measure.” Not on a blog attempting to sell a book that explains stuff using math and reason. Neither of which are physical objects.

    Figuring out what you believe and why it is justified is a challenge. Many people get it badly wrong. Just like maths. I still believe in algebra.

    Like

  9. Trebitsch · March 22

    Everybody believes what they want to believe. Christian Faith is a grace of God, but one must ask for it and “ask and you shall receive”. The punishment for the unbeliever is because belief is a function of the will! Those who do not believe do not want to believe, or have rejected the divine grace offered. As a corollary it is said by one of the church fathers that “Heresy begins below the navel”, as the most common excuses for faithlessness is that the faith is “sexually opressive”.

    Like

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · March 22

      Neither my review nor the book are arguing against faith.

      Like

      • Trebitsch · March 22

        I understand. I just wanted to clear up a common misunderstanding about the faith. Like the nonsensical surprise that “How can you believe that?”. Once you have any faith, evidence for it is found everywhere. Without it there is evidence for faithlessness everywhere. Evolution comes to mind, as the most ridiculous quasireligion trying to make atheism “reasonable”.
        Anyway, cheers from someone who had to memorize: Lenin zsil, Lenin zsiviot, Lenin budjet zsity. (Not in cyrillic, though).

        Liked by 1 person

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