The Unmeaning of Life
There’s a telling moment in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade learns of his partner’s death and proceeds to very calmly roll a cigarette. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two—hell, Spade was sleeping with his partner’s wife—and yet Spade feels compelled to avenge his death. As Spade says, “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” There’s no compelling reason for Spade to redress his partner’s death other than his own seemingly arbitrary moral code.
Or take Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic novel Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, angered by the hypocrisies and failings of Christianity, begins preaching a new nihilistic gospel, calling it The Church Without Christ. But no matter how hard he tries to separate himself from Christianity and those who preach it, he is unable to fully escape (even the suit he purchases causes people to mistake him for a Christian preacher). He finds himself falling further and further into despair, and by the time the novel ends, perhaps in a desperate attempt at redemption, he has blinded himself with lime, placed broken glass in his shoes, and wrapped barbed wire around his chest. Hazel essentially martyrs himself for his intense faith in nothing.