Not So #ForeverAlone

William Irvin, a professor of philosophy at King’s College, has written a book on the overlap between existentialism and capitalism — not the crony tax-and-bailout kind that epitomizes modern-day America but rather the laissez-faire brand idealized by libertarians:

I define existentialism as a philosophy that reacts to an apparently absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person. … The main link between existentialism and libertarianism is individualism. In both systems of thought, the individual is primary and the individual is responsible.

Irwin’s book, The Free-Market Existentialist, is subtitled Capitalism Without Consumerism. It’s a little strange to connect existentialism with anti-consumerism for over 200 pages (I would give it a chapter, tops), though admittedly the emphasis on authenticity has always been at odds with the bourgeois materialism disdained by the likes of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (a theme best expressed by that book and film regarding a certain pugilistic fraternity). Yet ultimately what is and isn’t consumerism is in the eyes of the consumer. We all know people who spend their money unwisely but very few of us eat and sleep between Spartan white walls furnished with a single lawn chair and a mattress on the floor. I have been somewhat mystified by the recent publishing boom in coloring books aimed at adults — or at least I was until I remembered that I periodically enjoy buying and assembling Lego sets, which I find soothing and peaceful. Is it consumerist to blow my money on children’s toys? To a stranger the answer is probably yes, but to me the calm it brings is worth the expense. As Nietzsche said, there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of them.

While embracing existentialism doesn’t require a concomitant bear hug of libertarianism (or even capitalism), a natural fit between the two exists for the reason Irwin underscores: both position the individual in the bull’s-eye. Put differently, existentialism is not defined by its compatibility with libertarianism as it is with its incompatibility with centralized or autocratic systems that throw personhood into chains. In an interview with Nick Gillespie, Irwin commented that Sartre’s apologism for Stalin and Mao (and Castro too — Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir nearly wore their tongues to stubs licking Che Guevara’s Soviet-issue calfskin) is something that “just always puzzled me.” It’s less puzzling when you consider the context of Paris in the 40s and 50s. Hitler hated Communists as much as he hated Jews (having read Mein Kampf, I’m not sure he even distinguished between them), so when the German tanks rolled through the Arc de Triomphe, many French Communists took their fight underground. After the war, when the Resistance literally climbed out of the sewers and catacombs, they became the rock stars of French society. Poor Jean-Paul, who had also fought with the Resistance, found himself sitting in the Parisian cafes espousing a philosophy of individualism to crowds of Marxists who, like Hegel watching Napoleon at Jena, believed that individuals were disposable — that only waves or movements mattered and only a person’s contributions to the revolution were worthwhile (Marx was the ultimate exploiter of labor). It is impossible to reconcile a philosophy of individualism with its goateed antipode, though Sartre sure tried (that’s what all that nonsense is regarding anguish in Existentialism and Human Emotions: “For every man, everything happens as if all mankind had its eyes fixed on him,” etc.), and eventually his desire to fit in with the cool kids outweighed his attachment to the philosophy he christened, so he abandoned it. It’s notable to reflect that at the end of his life Sartre deserted Communism too, and death found him a sad and broken figure as lacking in fidelity to his own ideas as he was to Beauvoir.

In his promotional pieces for Reason, Irwin complains that he is “all alone” at the intersection of the invisible hand and the uphill struggle against the boulder. It may usually begin with Ayn Rand for some but not for me — I can’t stand Rand. I arrived at the crossroads by my belief in the sovereignty of the individual and my skepticism of authority, aided and abetted by the literature of Camus, Chandler, Sartre, Salinger, and a whole bunch more. If it happened for me, it probably happened for others too. Irwin isn’t as alone as he thinks.

The Cult of Irrationalism

The word cult is often thrown around to describe things somebody doesn’t like, things like Islam, Scientology, or the brand loyalty of Apple users. It’s usually wielded pejoratively toward something that stands in opposition to a larger orthodoxy like mainstream Christianity or Chrome usage, but a better definition of a cult is a group that neither tolerates dissent nor criticism of the group’s leaders or doctrines — at least that’s how it was used when I was in school. In that sense Islam is not a cult, though some subgroups certainly are; and I doubt even the most extreme Apple-heads qualify. Scientology does sound like a cult based on what I’ve read although I think it’s more of a criminal syndicate than anything else, but that’s a post for a different time.

Just up the street from me in New Haven, Erika Christakis has found herself tied to the altar beneath the cultists’ sacrificial knives. In response to the hysteria incited by a benign email she wrote about Halloween costumes, Christakis, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center with nearly a dozen alphabet blocks of advanced degrees after her name, announced that she would stop teaching and focus on her research, far from the teeth and claws of the Dionysian mob. She and her husband will remain as masters at one of the undergrad residences, though likewise her husband will take a sabbatical next semester to work on his research.

It’s difficult to imagine how such a kitchen match as Christakis’s email, which you can read in its entirety here, could create so much smoke. With typical academic navel-gazing but harmless language, Christakis merely suggested that cultural norms of what constitute appropriate Halloween costumes should derive from within the student body and not from top-down authority. That Summer-of-Love sentiment was apparently too John Galt for the mob who confronted her husband on campus. If, like me, you’re confused about what precise opinion or phrase it is that the students objected to, you won’t find it no matter how hard you look because this isn’t about rationalism. Rather the Yale protesters, like their fellow travelers at too many other colleges, have embraced an anti-Enlightenment emotionalism, a kind of dark angry Romanticism, where feelings and demands for “safe spaces” supposedly transcend logic, and where the marketplace of ideas, whether spoken, emailed, or worn on October 31st, is somehow a jack boot stomping on them. Don’t bother to question it either, because to question it is just freedom of speech, which in the words of one recent Brown University grad, “should be valued but not when it infringes upon the freedom of others.”

I cannot blame Christakis for retreating into her work. It’s difficult to imagine who is the worse for it: Christakis, who after years of studying and working and paying student loans has now had an income avenue closed to her by the horde (apparently she was paid for each course she taught); or those students who were not among the protesters, who have now lost access to Christakis’s knowledge and experience. What’s really eye-opening here is how quickly statements of inclusion for women and minorities go out the window as soon as one of them strays from the cult’s dogma; and how loudly the cult claims to speak for women and minorities but how cynical they are in silencing a woman when she fails to chant in unison. Erika Christakis is too good for Yale.


Reanimator Helles LagerProving that while H.P. Lovecraft might be problematic for the World Fantasy Convention the rest of the planet gives exactly zero fucks, Narragansett has released the third offering in its Lovecraft Series, the Reanimator Helles Lager.

“Herbert West — Reanimator” was Lovecraft’s first fiction sale, an episodic story in six parts for which he was paid $5 per installment. They appeared in the magazine Home Brew in 1922. The story follows the titular character and his nameless narrating assistant from their medical-student days at Miskatonic University to a small practice in Bolton, Massachusetts to the French lines of the Great War to an exclusive practice in Boston. All the while, West pursues his obsession with conquering death through science by injecting corpses with a special chemical cocktail. Intentional or not, a fine sense of gallows humor permeates as the pair by turns loot graves and smuggle corpses into West’s lab, only to either run screaming from or be beaten unconscious by the serum’s successes. A recurring joke sees West’s experiments often ending in gunfire, which is the only way he can return his cadavers to a second death.

The cans, illustrated by Rhode Island artist Aaron Bosworth, reference the story’s third chapter in which West injects a dead boxer with his serum, then prematurely buries the corpse when the juicing apparently fails. The chapter is also the most cringe worthy in the whole tale: the boxer is black, and Lovecraft pulls out the stops describing the character in subhuman terms. I believe Lovecraft’s life can be divided into two periods: the time before his 1926 separation from Sonia Greene (their divorce was never finalized); and the time afterwards, when he returned from New York to Providence, exhausted, starved, and humbled. “Reanimator” is definitely a product of the first period. Lovecraft never held anything that could be considered a regular job until 1920 — when he was 30 years old — and only began regularly traveling outside of Providence two years later. For all his autodidacticism, his views and political opinions were ignorant and provincial. Alas, we live in a season when to be ignorant and provincial in the 1920s is a social crime a hundred years later; when Princeton administrators capitulate and scrub every reference to Woodrow Wilson from the college he once presided over, it is only a matter of time before Brown students take sledgehammers to the Lovecraft plaque outside the John Hay Library or any of the other memorials scattered throughout the city.

Narragansett’s Reanimator is a resurrection of their retired helles bock, richer and denser than their standard lager, and at 6.5-percent ABV, slightly less drunkifying than their other Lovecrafts. It’s already my favorite in the series; I only wish they had offered it over the summer when lagers go better. There are those who may smash the award statues and claim that what someone wrote or said a century ago marginalizes and silences them today, but Cthulhu is indifferent to their complaints — as are brewers, drinkers, publishers, readers, and just about everybody else.

Me on the previous entry in the series, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

The Doom That Came to the WFC

The World Fantasy Convention has decided to redesign their award statuettes in response to a petition complaining about H.P. Lovecraft’s racism. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is none too happy about it. Meanwhile, over at Black Gate I threw some gasoline on the fire debating whether Lovecraft’s racism was more him or his times:

No one will argue that Lovecraft was a well-adjusted individual; from sex to seafood, a psychiatrist would have worn out an IKEA’s worth of sofas itemizing a complete list of the man’s phobias. I contend those same anxieties are precisely what make Lovecraft’s writing so much fun. If his racism was more vile than that of his neighbors and contemporaries, then it originated in that same pool of existential paranoia from which only madmen sip. It was part and parcel with his oversensitivity to smells, his finicky eating habits, and all the rest. H.P. Lovecraft may have been a genius. He was also crazy.

I don’t believe changing the award is the worst thing, and Joshi is certainly overreacting (“I will do everything in my power to urge a boycott of the World Fantasy Convention among my many friends and colleagues”). As Jayn commented on my post, “the definition of ‘fantasy’ nowadays includes Lovecraft’s horror as only a subset.” Let the WFC focus on a broader range of material; with endless homages and entire conventions dedicated to celebrating his work, Lovecraft isn’t going to be swallowed by Lethean lake waters anytime soon.

Read my whole post here.

On the Wagon

CC BY Dwight Burdette
CC BY Dwight Burdette

Wil Wheaton posted a list of Seven Things I Did To Reboot My Life which might as well be subtitled, Because Now I’m in My 40s. For this guy, all of them hit close to home:

Drink less beer.

I love beer. I mean, I really love it. I brew it, I write about it, I design recipes of my own, and I’ve structured entire meals around what food will pair with the beer I want to drink. The thing about beer, though, is that it’s really easy to just keep on drinking it until it’s all gone …

Like Wheaton, I’m invested in beer culture: I like to collect the glassware and I’m always DTF local craft creations (especially pilsners, which are a terribly underrepresented minority in a world of IPA privilege). But also like him, I’ve lately discovered that drinking alcohol isn’t as easy as it used to be. A good buddy of mine — a friend I used to drink with as a teenager — recently told me he started cutting back on his evening adult-beverage intake because just a couple of beers puts him in a bad mood the next day. I’ve had the same experience, though the following morning I’m not so much grumpy as I am groggy and addlebrained. The reason, Wheaton points out, is due to our metabolizing alcohol as sugar, which means drinking two or three beers at dinnertime is like chugging two or three bottles of Mountain Dew right before bed and then expecting a full night’s sleep to ensue. Even after a pair of seemingly innocuous low-APV drinks I don’t sleep as deeply. As Wheaton says, “it turns out that drinking alcohol to help you go to sleep does not result in good sleep, but does result in feeling like shit when you wake up.” Hence I’ve joined the temperance movement, at least on school nights.

Wheaton’s whole post feels semi-autobiographical for me, from the endorphins produced by writing, to trying to make more time to read, to his preference for running over lifting weights. This is 40, I guess.

It’s Over

The towns of Darien, Easton, Monroe, Trumbull and Wilton will pay Ronald Terebesi $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from a fatal 2008 police raid in Easton.

The U.S. Supreme Court previously denied an appeal by the five Connecticut police departments. The high court’s action meant a federal lawsuit by Terebesi, formerly of Dogwood Drive in Easton, could go forward against the Easton, Monroe, Trumbull, Darien, and Wilton police departments, the named police defendants in the case, and the municipalities of Easton and Monroe.

“Mr. Terebesi is satisfied,” according to Gary Mastronardi, Ronald Terebesi’s lawyer, a former member of the FBI. “Money is always important; what he feels is equally significant and quite impressive is that in order to get us to accept it they had to agree to allow judgments to enter against each and every one of the defendants, both the municipalities and the individual defendants, for multiple violation of his constitutional rights.”

Full story here.

My coverage of the whole saga here.