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.

It’s All Papier-Mache

True Detective 62If Twitter is any metric, viewers have been struggling with this season of HBO’s True Detective. I discovered the show halfway through its first season and was immediately ensorcelled by its reinvention of pulp luridness into a contemporary setting: writer Nic Pizzolatto had stripped the genre of its fedoras and ratatat James Cagney patter but retained the outré crimes, dysfunctional protagonists, and hardboiled dialogue — this last refashioned from purple Chandler metaphors into philosophical, albeit sometimes plagiarized, poesy. It seems much of the disappointment stems from wanting a repeat of season 1, wherein Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson prowled the landscape of a Southern Gothic, uncovering decadent families involved in ancient conspiracies. But rather than retread the tires of the old Dodge Charger, Pizzolatto has damned his S2 characters to the wasteland of the California noir, where the politicans are crooked, the dames dangerous, and the cast of characters byzantine. This in particular seems to confound the Tweeple, though so far all of the chauffeurs have been accounted for. Some people can’t handle the deep trip.

Upon landing, film noir so reverberated on Gallic shores that it was the French who christened the genre; and Albert Camus deliberately wrote the first half of The Stranger in what he called “the American style,” perhaps best exemplified by Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Noir reflected an existential awakening on two separate landmasses. We are taught in school that existentialism was a Continental movement of the 1940s and 50s, and so it’s strange to think of noir as an expression of an American variety. But as George Cotkin argues in his book Existential America, the official canon of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, et al. was selected by American academics smitten with postwar Europhilia who deliberately ignored a homegrown strain reaching at least as far back as Hawthorne and Melville. “Existence precedes essence,” quoth Sartre, by which he meant there is no such thing as destiny, that God has no plan for us; we are born and proceed to invent ourselves by the millions of choices we make during our lifetimes. But noir — both the cinematic and the literary kinds — had been saying a similar thing long before Sartre formalized it.

“Man is condemned to be free,” Sartre wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions. We are brought into the world without our permission, free to do anything we want, unrestrained by determinism or “a fixed and given human nature.” This, our universe, is not so different from the amoral dimension of noir, where there is no afterlife to punish crimes or reward good deeds — the only law is what you get away with. One of these worlds might have more chiaroscuro than the other, but in both we are free to murder our husbands for the insurance money, just as in both we are free to become fraud investigators and bring murderers before juries. We decide.

In a very tense opening to a recent True Detective episode, detective Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell) confronts gangster boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) over whether Semyon knew the name of a man he had given to Velcoro — a man Velcoro believed to have raped his wife and whom Velcoro subsequently killed in vengeance — was, in fact, not the name of the actual rapist. Velcoro accuses Semyon of manipulating him into the murder to gain leverage over a cop. Semyon replies:

I didn’t get you to do anything. I gave you a name and you made your choice. And that choice was in you before your wife or any of this other stuff. It was always there, waiting.

There was no coercion or con; Velcoro had already chosen to be the kind of man who prefers vigilantism over the justice system: his wife’s rape just gave him an outlet to express it. “And didn’t you use that man to be what you were always waiting to become?” Semyon asks. We don’t need to actually visit the African savannah to know whether we will shoot the endangered lion; we’ve already chosen beforehand to be big-game hunters or not to be big-game hunters. “The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre added. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.”

True Detective 53Velcoro later tells his partner-in-investigation Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) that he’s a bad man. This isn’t exactly true; though he has done bad things, it’s after his confrontation with Semyon that he begins living authentically — he realizes he is responsible for his choices, which can no longer be foisted onto Semyon or circumstances. He sacrifices his custodial rights to preserve his son’s well-being; he refuses to take advantage of a drugged Bezzerides. Velcoro chooses to do good. The same can’t be said of Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), whose terror at being outed as the closeted homosexual he is ends up getting him shot. “You’d just been honest about who you are, nobody’d be able to run you,” Woodrugh’s lover and blackmailer tells him. Inauthenticity can leave you dead on the pavement as the end credits roll.

I have no idea how it will fall out in Sunday night’s finale; I have two competing theories of whodunnit. Afterwards I will miss Pizzolatto’s wonderfully overwritten dialogue and my Monday mornings will be robbed of the mp3 shopping by which I recreate T Bone Burnett’s moody soundtrack. I will just have to sit back and wait for the flat circle of time to revolve to season 3.

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Linky Links

Apologies for the staleness hereabouts; my nose has been to the grindstone. I hope to have more exciting news and updates this summer. Meantime:

Megafauna Extinctions. Another nail in the coffin of the overkill hypothesis: “a scientific review has found fewer than 15 of the 90-odd giant species in Australia and New Guinea still existed by the time people arrived.” As in the Americas, climate change is suspected. Fingers still point to human responsibility in the extinction of New Zealand’s moa, however, just as Paleo-Indians probably played a role in pushing stressed mammoths over the edge.

Albert Camus. The first full English translation of his Algerian Chronicles recasts Camus solidly as an Algerian writer, not a French one, a man who wrote explicitly about his birthplace and shared little in common with Parisian intellectuals.

Herman Melville’s House. Arrowhead, the Massachusetts home where Melville wrote Moby-Dick and “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” is undergoing renovations to return it to a closer approximation of its appearance circa 1870. The addition of the porch is odd since it was built after Melville moved out.

The Rebel on the Range

Henry Allen in the WSJ on the film I consider to be the first revisionist Western:

Only “High Noon” can explain “High Noon.” It is no more explainable than Michelangelo’s David, a world in itself, self-defining. The artistic genius of the movie is that somehow we utterly support Kane, though we can’t say why.

It shows us what existentialism called “authenticity.” Kane defines himself by what he does rather than what he is. If his motive is honor, it’s an honor so foolish as to be dishonorable. No psychoanalytic agonies drive him—he takes sole responsibility for himself and the people affected by his decision.

With Amy taking up a gun too, Kane wins the fight.

There is no better expression for existentialism than the Western. The Western throws a spotlight on the person by himself on a vast and empty stage, a dry and thirsty landscape haunted by bad men. And yet — Kane is saved by his formerly pacifist wife. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Harmonica has his vengeance on Frank only after working with Cheyenne and Jill to eliminate Frank’s gang. There’s no army to help either man; there’s no tin-starred justice or the weight of the state to put things right. They ate their vegetables and paid their taxes but nobody cares. It’s just the individual, alone — alone except for the commitments made to others who’ve found themselves dropped into the same bleak universe.

Fly Swatting

For reasons near and dear, I enjoyed this narrative of a dad entering a standup-paddling race with his six-year-old:

As the starting horn blasts, we hang near the back of the pack to stay clear of the really gung-ho racers. But soon I realize most of these folks are pretty new to SUP. Like a cheetah in a herd of wildebeest, I’m off. My inner competitor is awakened.

I start stroking. And we start passing. I decide then and there I’m not going to let anyone pass us. Nobody.

“Shit. The guy with the kid just passed us,” I hear a pair of twenty-something guys laughing. “That’s not good.”

Others weren’t as chill about it. In particular, a fit brunette in her early 40s on a tricked-out SUP whines as we pass.

“That’s not fair. His kid is paddling too.”

She’s serious.

Oh really? I think to myself. Wanna borrow my 45 pounds of extra baggage?

I haven’t done any SUP racing (yet) but I can totally imagine this same scenario playing out in my life. The woman is healthy and wealthy and yet somehow believes she’s being disadvantaged.

Over the last few years I’ve been enrolling in fewer road races even though I’ve been running just as much or — especially in 2009, when I was training for the NYC Marathon — more so than ever. I think that as my running has become more internalized, more ingrained and inscribed — it’s not something I do, it’s something I can’t not do, if that makes any sense — I’ve begun to prize the solitude of it above all else. Just experiencing the mile I’m in is what I want. A few months back I blocked an account on Twitter — the feed of some big racing group — because its manic aphorisms were being retweeted into my timeline, stuff like, “If you didn’t come to win, go home,” and I was like, Oh fuck you. Block. I’ve encountered similar stuff in real life too, from people like the woman above to race officials — most often from race officials, in fact, who are usually school coaches too small-minded to divorce the act of running from competition. The only people who need to worry about winning are elites, and just because the majority of runners aren’t elites doesn’t mean we should cower at home in shame. You compete against yourself. That’s the beauty of running.

Last night Mrs. Kuhl and I watched Fight Club, which I hadn’t seen since its 1999 theatrical release. And just as before, I was enthralled by a film so existentialist it might as well beat you into the basement concrete with a copy of Existentialism and Human Emotions. Yet if you click over to Wikipedia and read the various critical interpretations of the movie, you’ll find nary a word about Sartre or Camus or inauthentic living. The closest you’ll find is a reference to Tyler Durden being a “Nietzschean Ubermensch” — which he is, although it’s clear the writer means it only in the physical sense of Brad Pitt’s six-pack.

Is there any of Nietzsche’s concepts so misunderstood as the Ubermensch? Maybe will-to-power. The Ubermensch has been distorted into a villain, into a Greek god, genetically sculpted yet callous to anything but his own wants. Whereas what Nietzsche intended was neither somatic nor carnal; rather the Ubermensch is that person who transcends the pettiness of others, who rises above social conformity to embrace his passions ideals, whether they’re running or paddling or veterinarian medicine or whatever. To exist and enjoy existence, like a father and son on a paddleboard, free of the moral judgments of those who desire to reduce you. “I see you wearied by poisonous flies,” spoke Zarathustra, “Before you they feel petty, and their baseness glows and smolders against you in invisible revenge… Flee, my friend, into your solitude and to where raw and bracing air flows. It is not your lot to be a swatter of flies.”

The Apathetic Agnostic

I was laboring over a longish response to this Slate piece by Ron Rosenbaum calling for a distinction to be drawn between agnosticism and atheism. Then I remembered my blog is on the googlenets, and I imagined the comments section of the finished post going something like this:

I clicked here from someplace and I know fuck-all about you but based on what you wrote about atheism I think you’re stupid and terrible.

Actually, I didn’t say anything bad about atheism. I simply said agnosticism is a fundamentally different approach to the issue —

What “issue?” There is no “issue.” Because there’s no God.

Well, you see, from an existentialist point of view —

Are you an atheist?

As an existentialist, the existence of God is not —

Then you think God is real?

He might be. But even so, ultimately his will is inscrutable and therefore —

Where’s your proof!? You have no proof.

Well, a theist would answer that by saying —

Do you believe in Santa Claus too?

No. But the question doesn’t really have any bearing —

Your arguments are weak. You are an idiot.

I have a four-year degree in philosophy and religion, and I believe I can contribute to the —

Well, la-de-da! Look at Mister Fancy Pants! You still suck.

And then I said, screw it. I’m good.