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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 346-363

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Atheism and Sadism: Nietzsche and Woolf on Post-God Discourse

Michael Lackey


"Modern consciousness is Godlessness. . . .
I mean Godlessness in a strict sense." 1

In the western world, twentieth-century literature has been an extended experience of atheism and sadism. Lest this claim not seem dogmatic enough, let me put it differently, more boldly: this century has been an attempt to ingest and digest Nietzsche, to cannibalize the Übermensch philologist, first in order to comprehend the strength and depth of his vision, but second to enact his philosophy. 2 Were this a standard academic essay, I would define atheism and sadism, identify and analyze a few texts that best corroborate my thesis, and draw some conclusions about the twentieth century. But sadism and atheism are not things to be defined, prediscursive conceptual entities waiting for the poet's or the scholar's turn of phrase to disclose their essences. In fact, atheism nullifies prediscursive truths and thereby alters the relationship language has to that which it signifies. 3 In what follows, I bring atheism and sadism into a single constellation. By interacting with post-God writing, and by textualizing and intertextualizing sadism, I detail the radical shift in thought that Nietzsche articulated but that the twentieth century has lived. [End Page 346]


"we could say that the death of
man links up with that of God." 4

God's death leads to the death of the subject. Michel Foucault certainly draws this connection clearly enough when he claims that "God and man have died a common death," 5 or that "it is not so much the absence or the death of God that is affirmed as the end of man." 6 Not surprisingly, whenever Foucault announces the death of the subject, he specifically alludes to Nietzsche, for as Richard Schacht says of the German philosopher, the God-hypothesis and the subject-hypothesis are so inextricably linked that when one is undone, so too is the other. 7 Jean-Paul Sartre arrives at a similar conclusion in Being and Nothingness when he tells us that "the passion of man is the reverse of that of Christ." For Sartre, if Christ lays aside his divinity by becoming human, then humans lay aside their humanity by constituting themselves as an "In-itself," an act "which escapes contingency by being its own foundation, the Ens causa sui, which religions call God." In other words, humans found themselves as an In-itself, as something metaphysical or divine, and in doing so, they lose their humanity "in order that God may be born." But since "the idea of God is contradictory," according to Sartre, humans lose themselves in vain. 8 For this reason, Sartre insists that "there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it." 9 In "The Ends of Man," Derrida describes the situation thus: "What was named in this way, in an allegedly neutral and undetermined way, was nothing other than the metaphysical unity of man and God, the relation of man to God, the project of becoming God as the project constituting human-reality." 10 In each instance, human-reality presupposes the non-contingent reality of God, but since God has become a suspect concept, so too has the "human."

No doubt, we could find evidence of God's and the subject's common death as early as 1834, but Virginia Woolf is one of the first to articulate clearly and consistently the consequences of atheism on subjectivity. 11 While we could consider this idea in many of Woolf's works, I will focus my comments on Orlando and The Waves. To understand Woolf's critique of "God" and the church, it is important to note that two sets of binary oppositions are established in the opening pages of Orlando: Christian/Pagan, male/female. 12 The novel begins with the young Christian--for there could be no doubt about his religion--"in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor." 13 Against the [End Page 347...


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