Merriam-Webster' s definition of nihilism:
1 a : a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless b : a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths
2 a : a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility b capitalized : the program of a 19th century Russian party advocating revolutionary reform and using terrorism and assassination
I think anyone who has read James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity" would have to say it takes a nihlistic viewpoint, and I'd argue the same about "Postman Always Rings Twice", and many other noir novels, including those by Jim Thompson, Jason Starr, Charles Willeford, etc..
I think the concept of nihilism is too strong to describe any of these books or writers. None of these authors are making sweeping statements about the circumstances of society or life in general. They're telling specific stories about specific people which may be applied to some extent as metaphors for their readers. Nonetheless, few of us live lives like Dolly Dillon in A HELL OF A WOMAN, or Jake Blake in WILD WIVES. To anyone who really considers the problem it's hard to doubt that "truth" is a relative term and there is no empiric evidence of "moral truth." Still, their is empiric evidence of cause and effect, even though these two elements (as Pynchon points out in AGAINST THE DAY) are actually one, the first inevitably leading to the second which is really the end of the first: if you keep killing you will, in all likelihood, be apprehended and killed or incarcerated depending on who catches you.
This neither implies nor states that "conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility." What all criminals have in common, collarless or white collar, is low self esteem. They don't believe they can accomplish their objectives without taking advantage of other people. As Springsteen put it: "...There's just winners and losers, and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line. I'm tired of being stuck on that loser end, so tonight I'm gonna meet a man and do a little favor for him."
When a person is so downtrodden they can't see a win/win possibility, that's when they tend to cross the line. You and I, and even the guy in the song, knows exactly how this is all going to go down. But when he goes to meet that man, it's a kind of surrender. He's saying, 'I give up. I'll take a chance with my freedom.' And if it works this time, he'll take another chance... and another.
This does not mean the entire structure is bad. It means that circumstances can push people toward poor choices. The choices are ours, though. We do have the choice.
Frank Chambers and Walter Huff, very different characters, are, neither of them sophisticated enough to be nihilists. They haven't given it that much thought. Are they both chronically depressed in different ways? Yes. Do they both have low self esteem? Of course they do. Are they likely to go out to meet a man and do a little favor for him? Probably not. Neither is that naive. But will they walk down an ally to meet a beautiful blond with their gats buttoned under their coats? Yep, they're just dumb enough for that.
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