Note: My recounting of events from Dark Souls lore, particularly my chronology, is at odds with a number of resources on the internet. I am aware of this, and I am pretty sure those resources are incorrect.
An unfortunate number, aware of Friedrich Nietzsche but unfamiliar, accustomed to brand rather than particulars, associate him with “nihilism” which is correct insofar as he talked about it a lot, but the direction is wrong: Nietzsche did not sell nihilism–he reacted to it. The true Nihilists were Russian pseudo-revolutionaries, and their brief but cacophonous time on their country’s political stage was perceived by the Russian mainstream as one of the gravest cultural threats of the age. Samzdat’s summary is better than mine:
“Nietzsche took the term “nihilism” from a Russian movement that was kind-of-vaguely-left-wing-but-not-really-maybe. It’s hard to say with any precision, because their whole thing was not having set beliefs and terminal values. Assuming you aren’t Jonah Goldberg or a tankie, neither “violence” nor “caring about the people” is a left/right thing. In Nechayev’s words: “Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction.” The nihilists were professional revolutionaries, not idealists, and they wanted tear it all down first, build up later. The Nihilists grew moderately popular, the liberal press freaked out, one of their ringleaders killed a member for defecting, the liberal press really freaked out, Dostoyevsky wrote a book based on it, Nietzsche liked a theater adaptation of the book. The end.”
Accordingly, the Nihilist’s conception of “nihilism” is only a fraction of Nietzsche’s, but it begins with two thoughts:
- What authority do I respect? None.
- What must I respect in my quest to dismantle the illegitimate (by thought 1) authority I see around me? Nothing.
Last essay, I remarked on the bleak long-term of the dying Fire, but it turns out there are alternatives on a substantially expedited timeline.
The city of New Londo (after some time: Londor) is Dark Souls’ Russia. Parallel to Russia (from a certain historical point of view) it was a peak of civilization in a post-Gwyn world. This is indicated in its name (the “Old Londo” was Anor Londo, city of the gods) as well as its leadership (the four kings of New Londo were bequeathed a piece of Gwyn’s soul when he left to link the Fire, making them essentially divine). Also like Russia, New Londo had a bit of a problem with edgy, anti-establishment philosophy.
Nominally, this started with Kaathe. He showed up and taught some enthusiastic acolytes something called “Lifedrain,” in very literal terms: the art of draining Humanity. While you probably already see the metaphor coming together, I want to take a moment to savor that artistry. Like souls, Humanity is a currency in Dark Souls–but in a more abstract sense. You can’t really buy things with it. Rather, it allows you to reverse your own Hollowing, which in turn allows you to kindle (read: affirm) bonfires (representations of the Flame) and summon allies (read: bond to other ideals). In more philosophical terms, a hollow ideal can sway neither Truth nor other ideals. In order for an ideal to be un-hollowed, it must be affirmed, and the only thing that can do that is Humanity. I want to be clear that I’m not nerding out over game mechanics here: These terms are extremely precise, and I believe they were chosen carefully. To then interpret them within the metaphor: When Kaathe’s Darkwraiths drain the Humanity from their surroundings, they are hollowing, making small, making ugly, carrying out Nechayev’s “terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction” upon everything they touch.
Looking at this as a generalized existential threat, you should notice right off the bat that this is much the same endgame as the Last Man, but it’s process is much quicker, more vicious. It’s fitting: Nietzsche distinguished between active and passive nihilism, why shouldn’t Dark Souls differentiate passive and active darkness? But there’s another dimension to the metaphor. Just as souls are fragments of the First Flame, Humanity, explicitly, is fragments of the Dark Soul. That has implications. If we rely on our Humanity to affirm our ideals, and our Humanity is a lie (because the Dark Soul is literally Platonic Untruth), doesn’t that present problems for the project of affirming anything?
The Darkwraiths’ answer seems to be “hell yeah!” They get the four kings in on their uprising, and in their vehement affirmation that there is nothing worth affirming, they spawn an Abyss in New Londo’s depths that grows rapidly, obliterating all remnants of the Flame there and everything it might have illuminated, leaving a metaphysical landscape that looks sort of like this:
Understandably, the powers that be (Gwyn’s children and knights) are concerned. The Abyss is rather dark and rather frightening, but it’s also extremely caustic to the rest of Lordran’s metaphysics. With a severity that somewhat mirrors the Russian elite’s response to its own nihilists, those powers have New Londo flooded, killing everyone inside and stopping the Darkwraiths and their Abyss from advancing any further.
Now, if that was the whole story, I could have squeezed it into last essay and moved on, but, historical comparisons notwithstanding, the Abyss is more than just a happenstance in Dark Souls’ collective setup. The creation of the Abyss in New Londo introduced a type of antagonism to the metaphysical status quo that had never really been conceived to that point, the real-world equivalent to, say, a revolutionary movement that has concluded that everything is wrong and must be destroyed. And though the flooding was essentially the end of the Abyss in New Londo, the problem didn’t just go away. Part of that was perceptual: Though the imminent threat was gone, it’s underlying cause–the Dark Soul, the thing Gwyn freaked about in the first place–was still around. The other part of it was that more Abysses started showing up.
I’ve written a few hundred words now on the fairly close allegory to Russia, and perhaps you’re convinced it’s real. However, just in case you aren’t, I’m going to continue harping on the point. The aforementioned Samzdat summary is good. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have quoted it, but it’s misleading. The response to Nechayev’s murder of Ivan Ivanov ultimately landed him in prison, but it was certainly not the end of Russian nihilism. The real-world Darkwraiths that Nechayev inspired went on to bigger and worse things, like murdering Tsar Alexander II, attempting to murder his successor, and forming the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which contributed to the Russian revolutions of 1917 and, ultimately, the formation of the Soviet Union. That this process ended in communism, which, while perhaps not ideal, seems preferable to widespread terrorism and oblivion, is worth contemplating, but I won’t get into it here.
My point, rather, is that nihilism was an active political force for some time, and in that process, it drew a fair amount of philosophical interest from people who were, in the end, opposed to it. Nietzsche, of course, falls into this category, but Dostoyevsky flew even closer to that particular nihilist hell. By most most accounts, he never was a nihilist himself (he was a devout Christian all his life), but his choice in book clubs got him gulaged like one, and he proceeded to spend the rest of his life writing arguments against their philosophy. Importantly, though beating on nihilism in the press was fashionable at the time (most anti-nihilist works were straight propaganda), he argued honestly, depicting his characters as traveling paths of good but flawed intention. In that sense, he fought nihilism on its own terms–though he opposed the Abyss, he still learned to walk it.
If you’ve played the game, you know where we’re at now. If you haven’t, well, Dark Souls has one of those too:
Artorias the Abysswalker was one of Gwyn’s four greatest knights, and though he was exceptional in a number of ways, his biggest claim to fame was that he could traverse the Abyss without dying, which he accomplished by some vaguely-described covenant with its “beasts”. Despite this covenant, he was still devoted to Gwyn and still hunted the Darkwraiths, which seems odd, given that they are the Abyss’ principal agents, until you consider that we’ve already explained what that looks like philosophically. He just used the fantasy-warfare equivalent of an asymmetric rhetorical strategy: He cut out the horrific fuckery of the Abyss’ metaphysical properties, so he could pursue a fight with the Darkwraiths in which the stronger warrior would win (and there weren’t a lot of warriors stronger than him–modeling it as a debate would be somewhat akin to pitting an average Russian nihilist against the angel Gabriel).
I’m going here partly because reading Artorias as Dostoyevsky is fun, though it’s kind of ridiculous and not really the point (reading him as Nietzsche has its own interesting parallels). The much more realistic conclusion to draw from juxtaposing their personal histories is that metaphorically, Artorias’ role is much like the one Dostoyevsky played in the political theater of Imperial Russia: He was an ideal, beholden to Light and Truth, nonetheless metaphysically resilient to an aggressive Untruth, able to engage it (and in many cases defeat it) on its own turf. But I also go here because the end of Artorias’ story has much more to say about the danger of the Abyss than the flooding of New Londo.
Artorias fights the Abyss, and he’s fairly successful, and that’s admirable and impressive, but if you check the score, God just threw himself on a bonfire to keep the Dark at bay. Presumably at some point, it’s going to spit out something that Artorias can’t handle.
Fast forward a few years to the kingdom of Oolacile, where a serpent showed up and convinced the people of the city to delve below and disturb the grave of a “primordial human” interred there. They do this, the creature (Manus, Father of the Abyss) wakes up, and its “humanity runs wild”, unleashing another Abyss and opening up a sinkhole under the kingdom. The architectural collapse is something to behold, but more importantly, the Manus’ influence drives the citizens of the kingdom stark raving mad.
Artorias arrives on the scene to find the source of this new darkness and kill it. He does not. Instead, he gets his ass handed to him and goes mad too, but he goes down in history as the savior of Oolacile anyway because it’s at this moment that a stranger shows up, murders both him and Manus, and exits just as quickly, leaving everyone to believe that it was Artorias who saved the day.
Some of the takeaways are obvious. Nietzsche said something about the abyss gazing into you–that certainly seems to be at play here–but it’s meaningless without the philosophical backing. Go back to the start of the metaphor, what does the Abyss mean? It’s a sudden, calamitous dearth of affirmation, an aggressive move to strip all values of importance, and metaphysically speaking, that’s really dangerous. Even if an ideal is strong enough to stand on its own in that type of memetic environment, it loses its connection to other values, which is why Manus does not kill Artorias. Instead, Artorias goes mad, becomes an argument against the Truth and Light he so ardently supported, because he’s now a symbol out of context, and we’ve all seen how that goes.
Those of you paying close attention to the precise sequence of events here might also conclude that (since he’s obliterated at least two cities now) Kaathe seems to be a bit of a dick. You shouldn’t; that’s a trap. Kaathe and Frampt are Glycon, and Glycon was a sock puppet, a lie, a transparent hoax, a metaphysical blip. This is why they never actually do anything, even on a metaphysical level (they just tell other people to do things), and more importantly, this is why, should you decide to extinguish the fire, they are the ones waiting to serve you. They’re lies. They’re all that’s left, and when everything is a lie, all lies are obvious.
At a higher level, though, the Abyss didn’t extinguish the Flame, and active nihilism didn’t take over the world (though you can argue that it did kill a shocking number of people), so what gives? How does this play into the great choice that Nietzsche frames for civilization?
Well, it turns out Nietzsche’s passive nihilism is pretty subtle. Most people haven’t read Nietzsche, his ideas aren’t terribly intuitive, thus, reaction to it tends to be subconscious, systemic, or both. But since we are, he argues, on the path to nihilism, all of our options are inherently reactions to nihilism. The importance, then, of active nihilism, of the Abyss, is that it’s giant, it’s unignorable, and it forces us to contend intellectually with the debasement of our values. We are not awesome at that, but I’ll be exploring Dark Souls’ portrayal of our attempts in the next few essays.
At this point, we’re starting to move beyond the setup, beyond the allegory to Nietzsche’s Great Noon, to reactions and implications that I do not think are entirely Nietzsche’s own. Perhaps Miyazaki had something to tell us in that respect. Perhaps that’s a lie, perhaps it’s coming from me. I do not believe it is, but in all this discussion of the Dark, wouldn’t that be appropriate?
Image 1: Literally a black screen
Image 2: From Pinterest, I do not own it
Image 3: MS Paint amalgamation of a screenshot from Dark Souls and the Wikipedia image for Glycon. I made it, but I claim no ownership of the component images