Book Review: All for Nothing by Rachel K. Ward

Contemporary Decadence and the Trauma of Truth

All for Nothing. Ward, Rachel K. New York: Atropos Press, 2010.  305pp.

Tara Aveilhe

Rachel K. Ward’s thoughtful and challenging 2010 publication, All for Nothing, explores the concept of decadence in contemporary culture through a series of 247 philosophical aphorisms on thematic topics ranging from fortune and vanity to attraction and desire. “Today, there is no lack of meaning,” writes Ward, “but rather a decadence of meaning combined with a lack of consideration of ontological truth.” Today, the seemingly unfashionable notion of universal truth (shared truths about our being, existence, or reality) has been superseded by an emphasis on subjective meaning and the fulfillment of individual desire. We live in a continuous cycle of desire, and once desire is fulfilled it is simply replaced by a new need, want, or goal. “The result is momentary investments, giving all for nothing that lasts,” says Ward. This human-centered, or anthropocentric, world view places emphasis on what we can have, do, see, experience, or acquire during our life span, but does seem to account for truths that might exist before, outside of, or beyond ourselves. Ward asserts that it is only through grappling with universal truth that we can overcome our cycle of decadence and desire.

Rather than presenting her ideas in a traditional narrative format, Ward instead offers a mélange of quotes, observations, and examples from literature, theory, and media of the past two centuries. Her references range from religious/philosophical texts (Bible, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jean-Luc Nancy, Kant), literary texts (Fitzgerald, Eliot, Neruda, Waugh), and popular media (fashion magazines, film, advertisements). According to Ward, we are on a decadent quest for something that will satisfy our need for meaning, and we have looked (and continue to look) to a variety of meaning-making activities and ideologies to satisfy this need. Ironically, her examples and aphorisms are themselves decadent, offering only small tastes meaning, glimpses of  satisfaction, leaving the reader hungering for more coherence, more conclusive connections. According to Ward, the form of her text functions to illustrate the force of decadence in order to point to the unfinished, temporal nature of being. Within Ward’s aphorisms, we will find numerous examples of modern efforts at meaning-making, but we will not find the truth.

The final sections of the book turn from contemplation of desire and decadence to the contemplation of universal truth, to the possibility of being released from decadence. “Opposing movements in culture, from sustainability to globalization, seek to resolve this decadence but are also subject to the force of desire,” states Ward. “The book proposes the solution in the challenge of absolute truth.” The challenge of absolute truth is that once we attempt to name it, to attribute particular values to it, it becomes disruptive rather than unifying. The willingness to be in dialogue with truth, to give consent to its existence without needing to own it, acquire it, or reach it, is the greatest challenge of all. This concept has also been the primary challenge for philosophers throughout the centuries. How do we write truth if we cannot name it? How do we recognize it if we cannot see it? According to Ward, truth lies at the vanishing point, at the unnamable limit that lies beyond all of our conscious desires. “That unnamable limit does not have to be a dark point at which all collapses, it may be an illuminated limit or escape,” says Ward. “For each vanishing point is a point of emergence.” But, it is easy to forget, because it is easy to lose sight of the vanishing point, to pretend it never existed. It is easier to let our sight slip, to turn to other, more present pursuits. This turning away from and refusal to move toward the vanishing point results in decadence, in a sense of longing and desire for something lost. Ward calls desire “the appendix of the spirit” – an organ that has forgotten its function. Our desire is directed toward that which can never be fulfilled. Can we ever re-learn its use?

Ultimately, All for Nothing is an ontological inquiry, as well as a philosophical call-to-arms. We have suffered a trauma of truth (deconstructionism is implicit in this), and the results are not all for our benefit. If nothing else, Ward asks that we consider what we have lost in our refusal or forgetting of universal truths.

The Horror Timeline of the 1890’s: From Tabula Rasa

Horror Timeline of the 1890s:

In this decade, and into the next one, the Grand Guignol flourished on the Paris stage (and was still around a lot later). The term originally referred to a puppet (possibly the work of one Laurent Mourquet a century before), but came to refer to brief plays based around violence, murder, rape, ghostly apparitions and suicide. There was indeed a Théâtre du Grand Guignol, but the art-form was most prominent in Montmartre. London also played host to several seasons over the next fifty years, in a less intense form, notably in 1920-22. [1930s].

1893

A popular and transitional author in the move from historical to contemporary settings for horror stories was Ambrose Bierce. This year saw the publication of Can Such Things Be?, a collection of ghostly tales following on from his grimly realistic war stories. He was also known for his black humour, as demonstrated by The Devil’s Dictionary (1906, under the original title The Cynic’s Word Book).

1895

The King in Yellow collects two series of linked stories by Robert W. Chambers, and H. P. Lovecraft [1923] was a fan. As well as several names taken from Chambers’ work (some taken in turn from Bierce), the direct ancestor of The Necronomicon can be found in the linking element ‘The King in Yellow’, a play which brings a strange doom on those who read it.

1896

Herbert George Wells publishes The Island of Doctor Moreau, not his first work, but his most macabre. The two succeeding years see The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, novellas of science horror. The latter has been adapted many times, the most notable being Orson Welles’ memorable radio play [1938] and the [1950s] movie.

1897

Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker publishes Dracula, or The Un-Dead. [1456], [1922], [1925], [1927], [1930s], [1960s], [1970s], [1990s]. ‘Dracula’s Guest’ is a related short story, and not necessarily a missing chapter as is widely thought. Other works by this Irish stage manager are not as memorable, and include The Lady of the Shroud in 1908, and The Lair of the White Worm in 1911, which desperately needed Ken Russell [1986].

1898

The American writer Henry James publishes the novella The Turn of the Screw, ‘the favourite ghost story of people who don’t like ghost stories’ [86], an early presentation of the evil child tale. It was adapted memorably as both opera (by Benjamin Britten in 1954, libretto by Myfanwy Piper), and film (Jack Clayton’s dead creepy The Innocents in 1961).

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“Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentwood chair” - taken circa 1900, photographer unknown.

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“Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentwood chair” - taken circa 1900, photographer unknown.

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Ectopagus (laterally conjoined) dicephalus dibrachius tripus twins.

From Part IV of the collection of pictures of congenital abnormalities that form the basis of the four-volume atlas Human Monstrosities by Barton Cooke Hirst (1861-1935) and George Arthur Piersol (1856-1924), published 1891-93.
From Mütter Museum: Historic Medical Photographs
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Ectopagus (laterally conjoined) dicephalus dibrachius tripus twins.

From Part IV of the collection of pictures of congenital abnormalities that form the basis of the four-volume atlas Human Monstrosities by Barton Cooke Hirst (1861-1935) and George Arthur Piersol (1856-1924), published 1891-93.

From Mütter Museum: Historic Medical Photographs

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“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Life, death, and meaning of existence are intertwined. (Woman gazing into boudoir mirror forms shape of skull.) 1892.
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“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Life, death, and meaning of existence are intertwined. (Woman gazing into boudoir mirror forms shape of skull.) 1892.

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Expressive Head (c. 1900) by Jaroslav Panuška.
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Expressive Head (c. 1900) by Jaroslav Panuška.

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Grief, 1898, by Oskar Zwintscher.
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The Kiss of Death, Edvard Munche 1899.
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The Kiss of Death, Edvard Munche 1899.

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(Source: ellamorte)

Child with Skull (1893) by Magnus Enckell.
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William Butler Yeats

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; 
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow, 
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day 
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; 
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, 
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

- William Butler Yeats, 1888.

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