Ed Ruscha

momaruschaAs I strolled through an exhibit of Ed Ruscha’s work at the de Young Mueum, I fell into a mood that was at once melancholy and humorous. Although the curator’s descriptions of his paintings and photographs emphasized Ruscha’s connection to western landscapes, roadways and cities in California, I myself actually felt absorbed into a world existing nowhere in particular. The exhibit’s repetition of images and words drew me closer not to California or the West, but to open spaces existing in no-place and at no-time. Instead of the western United States, what I experienced in these paintings was the evocation of a vacuum of nothingness.

This reaction was particularly powerful when viewing Ruscha’s “Standard” Paintings. Ostensibly depicting a single gas station, the initial canvases are done  in simple, straight lines with red pumps and a sign that juts outward to the left:









However,  one’s mind is progressively moved away from the initial clean, modernist rendering itself toward an increasing void as, in successive paintings, the station is consumed in flames:









then rendered in dark shadows, as though the station is now burned out and charred:








until finally fading to nothing more than embossed outlines with no color at all:









If you just focused on the initial image, you might think that it was intended merely as a neat and tidy modernist representation of a service station. It is only when viewed  in the context of the other paintings that you experience the progessive destruction of the initial image’s cleanliness, rigidity and control; as though you were watching still shots from a movie about impermanence. The gas station slips away, and what initially seemed comforting and solid is gone, leaving nothing but an outline of an absent entity. In me, this elicited both a chuckle and a shudder. I chuckled in response to the clever way the artist drew my thoughts from something-ness to nothing-ness, while shuddering in the presence of the resultant void.

Throughout the exhibit – from stark, linear representations of streets, to bleak paintings of box-like industrial buildings – a mixture of  humor and melancholy continued to bubble up in me. I think it was the recurring juxtaposition of straight, simple lines against bleak, dark emptiness that provoked this response. On the one hand, the linearity of the paintings suggest stability, order and structure. On the other, this same linearity helps to highlight the open blankness of the backgrounds over which the lines and angles hover. Perhaps it is this incongruity that was the source of my ambivalent reactions to other Ruscha pieces such as “Hollywood/Vine”:








or “Untitled”:








Appropriately, the last paintings in the exhibit were renderings of the words “the end.” The ambiguity evoked here was manifold. Certainly, there was the literal sense in which the exhibit, at this point, was now coming to an end, but there was also the broader reminder that all things must come to an end. The vertical lines on one piece – evocative of scratches inscribed on celluloid film stock – make viewers think of the end of a movie, or more generally of the end of the use of film in the digital era:








The apparent rustiness of a “dead end” sign suggests the end of the road; or perhaps the decay leading to the end of life itself:









And the final piece in the exhibit, “The Absolute End,” signals not just the last painting in the exhibit, but leaves viewers with thoughts about the complete end of everything:









On my way out of the gallery, I checked myself to verify that I still existed. And yes, as far as I could tell, I was still there. However, as I walked through Golden Gate Park, back to the car, my attention kept being called to the backdrops of things; the spaces against which the trees, cars, flowers and the people around me made an appearance.

I chuckled and then shuddered.

Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings.

videodrome-3I’ve signed a contract with Edinburgh University Press for the publication of a collection of essays to be titled Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The completed manuscript is due to the publisher by the end of January 2017.

The peer review process has so far been quite rigorous (and sometimes stressful!), but I think this has helped to shape and clarify the aims and purposes of the book. I’m excited about the result.

The collection consists of essays addressing nihilistic themes in an international variety of popular films. Some of the essays have previously appeared in journals such as Film and Philosophy, Film International, Screen Bodies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and The International Journal of Scottish Theatre and ScreenOther pieces new to this collection include an introductory essay addressing the philosophical history of nihilism and its relation to film; an updated and revised treatment of nihilistic themes in George Romero’s Dead films; an essay on Fight Club; and an essay exploring the nihilism of Yukio Mishima.

Part of the fun of working on this project includes selecting screen grabs from the various movies discussed in the book as illustrations. I also get some say in the cover design. Currently, I’m thinking that the image above, from David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, would make a great cover!

Mammoth Lakes

John and JunekoWith the summer quickly coming to an end, my wife and I decided to take a four day vacation in Mammoth Lakes, CA. This is a destination we had never been to before, although when we were teenagers we did make an abortive attempt to visit. In those pre-internet, teenage days our paper map was more misleading than helpful, and we ended up wandering about on the west side of the Sierras, looking for a nonexistent route that would take us to Devil’s Postpile National Monument – which sits on the east side of the Sierras – and on to the town of Mammoth Lakes. This time around, as middle-aged adults, we were wiser and equipped with Google Maps, so the 300 mile motorcycle ride unfolded smoothly and without too many confused meanderings.

Our route took us east on highway 4, through California’s Central Valley and Gold Country, over Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, and then south to Mammoth Lakes on highway 394. We followed a slightly more circuitous route on our return trip, adding another 100 miles in order to avoid too much backtracking. 400 miles is too much distance to cover during one day in the saddle, and by the end of the trip my rear end was bruised and sore. My wife was sore as well, but she avoided the lasting, visible damage that I incurred. I think I either need to travel fewer miles or get a pair of inflatable pants in order to continue these long distance rides.

FZ1My bike is a 2005 Yamaha FZ1. The guys at the shop refer to it as “the last of the good FZ1’s” due to the fact that 2005 was the final year in which this particular model was carbureted. All models since have fuel-injection; a feature which I personally believe would be a benefit to me, since at high altitudes – like we experienced on our ride to Mammoth Lakes – my Yamaha has a tendency to hesitate during acceleration, making it necessary to vigorously rev the throttle in order to raise the engine’s rpms to avoid stalling. Fuel injection, as I understand it, would eliminate this problem.

Other than that issue, the FZ1 is a great bike. It has a 1000 cc inline four engine that is very powerful, making around 130 peak horsepower. It is relatively light and maneuverable, and despite my complaints about developing a sore butt during our latest trip, it is also quite comfortable for two-up riding. Just avoid super long distances in one go and you should be OK. I’ve modified the FZ1 with a 4 into 1 Yoshimura exhaust (complete with a new jet kit that also probably doesn’t help with high altitude performance), and a Corbin “Gunfighter” seat. I’ve replaced the sprockets, chain and various oil seals here and there. The only really major repair the motorcycle has required during its 50,000 mile life  is replacement of the fuel pump.  Overall, this is the most reliable bike I’ve ever owned. It has safely taken my wife and me on many memorable rides over the years, and although I have been looking for something new, it is with some feelings of hesitancy and regret that I consider selling the FZ1. I’m so used to this bike that I’m not really sure that I want to let it go.


The first leg of our trip took us on Highway 4. Running east/west between the SF Bay Area and the foothills of the Sierras, it is a route we found attractive mostly for its directness to our intended destination. There are a few interesting sights along the way, of course. Traveling through the Delta region, we passed over some picturesque bridges that span waterways cutting through the lush farmland of the western portion of the Central Valley. The smell of cow manure and chemical fertilizers hang in the air in these places, stirred up by the tractors that plow fields of crops while sending plumes of dirt and dust into the air. This, by the way, is why there is an elevated incidence of lung cancer in the Central Valley: particulate matter suspended in the air from farming.

The city of Stockton lies right between the Delta and the approach to the Sierra foothills. Stopping there long enough to get our bearings straight, we lingered in a neighborhood that was a cross between rural farmland and urban ghetto, parking beneath a sign that read “Vandals will be prosecuted.” There was a surveillance camera atop the sign, and as we looked over our map, a number of cars carrying young men drove past us, scrutinizing our presence. We felt like we might become victims of a drive-by shooting, so we rode over to a gas station where I tried to get directions. This, however, was the kind of place where: 1) Most of the people I tried to talk to ignored me, and 2) No one seemed to have any idea of what lay outside of the city limits. There was, finally, one young man who reassured me that we were probably headed in the right direction. Once we got around the detours and road construction that were causing us some confusion we would be headed roughly where we wanted to go. It turned out that he was right, and we eventually did find our way to Copperopolis, the first town marking our departure from the Central Valley and our entrance into California’s Gold Country.

CopperopolisImagine driving onto a movie set that is supposed to depict a small, clean American town and you will no doubt picture in your mind something like Copperopolis. As we exited the highway and entered the village, my wife and I thought at first that what we were looking at was a brand new suburban housing development. After stopping to fill up for gas and giving the place a closer look, however, it turns out that this was actually Copperopolis itself. Although originally founded in 1860, the town has been completely rebuilt from the ground up. As their website proudly states, this is “A whole new town with a historic past.” Tidy as a pin, and artificial as a movie set, Copperopolis consists of a nice little central square, complete with bandstand and gazebo, surrounded by brand new buildings fashioned in an old west style. As we rode around the downtown, we saw no people. The place looked abandoned except that there were sandwich board signs out in front of some of the businesses assuring visitors that they were open and operating. We passed by some restaurants, a day spa, an art store and an ice cream parlor. Honestly, it felt weird. I was reminded of the movie A Boy and His Dog, in which the main character finds himself held captive below ground in a comical yet menacing facimile of an all American town. To be fair, Copperopolis certainly feels safer than Stockton, and it sits in an ideal location to cater to visitors to Gold Country.

SonoraDeparting Copperopolis, we hit highway 49 and traveled south. The temperature had suddenly spiked to an almost unbearable degree, and so we stopped in Sonora for refreshments. Sonora is a charming old mining town, first established in 1848. Years ago, we spent a mini-vacation here, staying the night and attending a very lively karaoke performance put on by local singing talent. I still recall our amusement when listening to a long-haired redneck’s rendition of Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” during which he strained beyond his own abilities to hit the high notes of the vocal crescendo. There was also an older woman who sang Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” in a flat monotone that was reminiscent of the Flying Lizards. This time around, we stopped at The Heart Rock Cafe downtown, right along Washington Street. Air conditioning, bagels and cold drinks energized us to continue our journey down highway 49 and then onto highway 120, which would take us through Yosemite National Park.

RoadHighway 120 is beautifully scenic, though arid at points. There is an ascent into the Sierras around Big Oak Flat that is quite spectacular.  The road winds higher and higher, it becomes hotter and hotter, and the view of the scenery below becomes more and more panoramic. Other than the heat, the one annoyance of traveling this route is the fact of frequent traffic stoppages due to road maintenance. I’ve lost count of the number of times that we sat in the blazing heat for 1o or 15 minutes, waiting uncomfortably for the road to open so that an escort vehicle could lead us past construction areas. Regardless, the countryside is beautiful and once we reached the top of the winding rise at Big Oak Flat, it was a pretty straight shot through Groveland and on to the entrance to Yosemite.

Yosemite ValleyThe views from Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park are absolutely spectacular! What begins, from the west side, as a heavily forested road finally gives way, toward the east side, to breathtaking views of rocky peaks, alpine lakes and granite mountains. As we cruised at a leisurely pace along this road, I found myself overcome with a sense of ease and well being. Despite loads of tourists, the presence of this landscape transported me mentally into of a serene world where things are simple and uncomplicated, yet monumental and awe inspiring all at once. All I had to do was go on autopilot, maneuvering the motorcycle down the roadway, easing through curve after curve, while a vast valley of rock unfolded before my eyes. These formations, formed by millions of J&Jyears of glacial activity, lay there, meaningless and uncaring. This is about as permanent as anything that I will ever experience in my lifetime. Here, I had the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than myself. I suppose that’s the feeling religious people cherish; but while their God is beyond this world, mine is within it and made of stone. The Hindus claim that God, or Brahman, is “Thou before which all words recoil,” suggesting that the infinite nature of the Holy is something that human language is incapable of conveying. This is how I feel about the grandeur of Yosemite. Words cannot describe it.

Tioga PassThe descent through Tioga Pass, out of Yosemite and then south on highway 395 was the last leg of our journey to our final destination. This is a section of road that I had never traveled before. It is quite scenic, certainly, but in contrast to the views we had just witnessed, the long, straight, fast road made me more impatient for our arrival at Mammoth Lakes than anything else. Besides, my backside was definitely aching and my stomach growling.

The town of Mammoth Lakes is, I’ve heard, the single most popular destination for skiers in the US. During the summer months, it appears also to be extremely popular with mountain bikers, as the ski runs, devoid of snow, now become paths that are tackled by hundreds of two wheeled adventurers. The town reminds me of Lake Tahoe, with hotels and restaurants spread over a 25 square mile area that is surrounded by forests, mountains and lakes. So while you are, in a sense, amongst nature, you are not at all far from the buzz of civilization. Families with kids and tourists are in abundance. During our stay I consistently heard British, German and Japanese accents in the crowds of shoppers and restaurant patrons. There is a Starbucks. There is a Von’s grocery store. We stayed at the Westin Hotel in The Village, a small, central collection of hotels and shops that serves as a hub of activity near hiking trails and the entrance to Devil’s Postpile National Monument, which was to be the location of our first hike the following day.

After an excellent meal at Gomez’s, where my wife had fajitas and I had a really good fish dish called “Wahoo Mexicana” (which, incidentally was so good that I had it again the night before our departure), we walked around town a bit, only to discover that the 8,000 foot altitude was robbing us of oxygen. Yes, this is the high country, and you need to acclimate. Both my wife and I were huffing and puffing as we climbed the high flight of stairs to the hotel, and the next morning when I went for a swim in the hotel pool, my heart was pounding in my chest like pneumatic hammer.

On day two in Mammoth, we caught a bus from The Village to the Adventure Center, where we then boarded a park bus to go into Devil’s Postpile. Tourist information suggests that you take public transportation to the entrance of the national monument, but what they don’t tell you is that the town busses stop running at around 5pm, which was after the time that we finally came out of the park. Luckily, the park bus gathered up us few stragglers and gave us a lift back to town at the end of the day. Otherwise, we would have been facing a 5 mile hike back to the hotel.

Unless you have a permit to camp in the park, you are not allowed to bring in your personal vehicle, and so the park busses ferry hundreds of hikers into the valley each day. The ride is a bit unnerving, as the roads are little more than winding, single track fire lanes that are shared by full-sized busses going in opposite directions and piloted by drivers who seem very confident in their abilities to drive fast. Radio communications between busses alert them to oncoming vehicles along the way so that they don’t have unexpected encounters as they barrel up and down the steep and narrow roadways.

PostpileOnce off the bus, the hike out to Devil’s Postpile itself was short and easy. The postpile is a curious array of volcanic columns that, upon cooling, formed into regular, hexagonal basalt posts jutting out of the earth about 60 feet into the sky. They look artificial; as if extruded from the ground by a massive Playdough Fun Factory. Hiking up a trail to the side of the feature allows you to view the posts from the top. From this perspective they form a surface that looks like a tiled floor stretching to a cliff and sudden drop off. Though Top of Postpilenot on the spectacular scale of Yosemite’s natural wonders – like Half-Dome or El Capitan – Devil’s Postpile is amazing in its own way. Here you feel like you are peeking at a mere portion of the Earth’s inner power, frozen as it bursts through the crust. Standing at its base, I imagined traveling downwards, along the path of one of these posts, finally diving into a sea of molten rock at the center of the planet. Paff!

Rainbow FallsFrom the postpile, it is about a 2 mile hike out to Rainbow Falls, an almost perfect, 100 foot high waterfall that cuts through a river canyon. The trail to the falls leads through a forest, much of which was burned by a massive fire in the 1990s, but which is now in the process of rejuvenation. The vistas are vast and well worth the exertion of the high altitude hike; although here, as in most places that we hiked, there is a veritable traffic jam of people on the trails.

Warning SignIn order to avoid the rude surprise of a missed bus, on our second full day in Mammoth we took the motorcycle up Lake Mary Road in order to hike around Horseshoe Lake and then up to McLeod Lake. This region is studded with a variety of small lakes and sits at an altitude that allows for some wonderful views. One of the first surprises that greeted us were signs warning against swimming in the water or even sitting on the beaches. Apparently, during recent earthquakes, poisonous gasses were released from the ground, and they now seep up and collect in low lying areas, potentially causing anything from headaches to death! As testament to this hazard, there are swathes of dead trees near Horseshoe Lake that have been killed by exposure to the natural toxins. Despite all of this, the lake was filled with swimmers and kayakers, and the beaches were well populated with sunbathers and picnickers. I didn’t see any dead bodies, so either these people were lucky or the signs are a hoax.

McLeod LakeThe highlight of the day was the hike out to McLeod Lake. Up a steep, forested rise, it sits less than a mile from Horseshoe Lake. Nestled among the trees, this small alpine lake was uncrowded and the waters were warm enough to dangle your feet in. Surrounded by mountains and silence as we sat on its shores, I could imagine that we were far away from civilization. This was perhaps the most relaxing part of our visit.

Half DomeAfter a good meal and a good night’s sleep, we mounted the FZ1 and headed back through Yosemite on our return trip to the Bay Area. Along with perhaps a thousand tourists, we took a quick detour down into Yosemite Valley in order to view some sights that we had not seen for many years: El Capitan, Half DomeYosemite Falls. The scene from this lower, valley level perspective really put me into a state of awe. Standing there, staring upwards, I felt very tiny. It was not just the fact that my body was so small in comparison to the rock formations towering above, but also my conception of the time frame over which these features had been formed. My own life, in comparison, is nothing but a blip on history’s radar screen. The granite that makes up El Capitan, on the other hand, is over 100 million years old. During the hundreds of years that people have been visiting this place, I’m just one of billions of human ants that have appeared and then disappeared, briefly standing in the shadows of this peak.

“Thou before which all words recoil.”


The Philosophy of the Joker

The Philosophy of The Joker – Wisecrack Edition

Written by Tom Head and directed by Jared Bauer, this well researched and very nicely made short video addresses existential and nihilistic issues related to the Joker, a character from the Batman comics and movies. Alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer and Jean Baudrillard, there are also references to John Marmysz!

Paul Christensen, 1941 – 2016.

Paul @ TablePaul Christensen died on June 18th, 2016.

Paul was a professor of sociology at the College of Marin for over 40 years, serving as the chairman of the sociology department and as chief negotiator for The United Professors of Marin. A controversial figure on the COM campus, Paul was a tenacious fighter for worker’s rights, brokering one of the strongest teacher contracts in place at any US college. His efforts in this regard earned him a hated reputation among many COM administrators, while also earning him the gratitude and admiration of many of his peers.

Students, likewise, had widely polarized opinions of Paul. Some loved him while others hated him. Comments posted on Rate My Professors range from the laudatory to the insulting, with his outspoken, sometimes “vulgar,” manner being appreciated by some as “awesome” and condemned by others as “repulsive.” Either way, student opinions of Paul were never luke-warm. He was a teacher who left a lasting impression on anyone who sat in his classes.

I am one of those students who loved Paul. In 1982 I had just graduated from high school and was more concerned with riding motorcycles and listening to punk rock music than I was with studying. I began attending the College of Marin mostly to appease my parents, and it was during my first semester there that I enrolled in Paul’s social deviance and problems course. The class, unsurprisingly, was filled with a large number of nonconformist youth, including a gorgeous girl with a purple crew cut who eventually became my wife.

Paul had what it took to grab my attention as a 17-year-old. He was big, – well over 200 pounds – bald and aggressive. He lectured in an informal style, hands in pockets, freely using profanities. During one discussion on the dynamics of state power, I vividly recall him warning the class how in the real world, challenging police authority gives cops the permission to “kill your ass!” Such gruff vulgarities turned some students off, but at that point in my life, Paul was exactly what I needed. He spoke frankly about violence, power, sex; all in a down-to-earth manner that was startling but also attention grabbing and entertaining. Here was a teacher who appealed to my teenage sensibilities, showing me that academic study did not require the adoption of inauthentic affectation or pretension.

I recall being overwhelmingly excited that a block of the social deviance and problems class was devoted to the study of punk rock. In connection with this, Paul introduced students to Dick Hebidge’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a book that remains a landmark in subcultural studies, and to the works of Erving Goffman and Edwin Pfuhl. At that pivotal point in my life, he showed me that it was possible to apply serious academic theory to things of intimate importance to me; things that were a part of my own experience. He taught me that I could bend my educational experience to fit my own passions and interests rather than passively allowing myself to be bent by the school establishment.

After leaving the College of Marin – and because of Paul’s inspiration – I went on to study sociology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I eventually decided to switch my focus to philosophy; a switch that Paul at one point told me amounted to “the same thing.” All through the years I pursued studies in philosophy, Paul’s influence remained present in my mind, and indeed, I count him as one of three professors throughout my life who have (knowingly or unknowingly) been my most important guides and role models. With his death, only one of these role models now remains.

My relationship with role models has always been fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, I need them. Their presence in my life offers concrete proof of what it is possible to achieve, giving me confidence that my own dreams and hopes are not completely implausible. On the other hand, I’ve found that if I get too close to my role models and start to see their flaws, they begin to fall in my eyes. For this reason I have found it necessary to keep them at a bit of a distance if I hope to retain my sense of idealistic admiration.

This certainly applies to my relationship with Paul Christensen.

After earning my Ph.D. in philosophy, I eventually returned to College of Marin as a professor, and thus became Paul’s colleague. It was impossible for me to shake off the feelings that I had developed toward him as a student, and though I periodically socialized with him and other COM professors, I retained the need to keep him at arm’s length so that he would not become too familiar or commonplace to me. This eventually became harder and harder for me to do.

As Paul’s physical condition began to decline, and as I became increasingly unnerved by what looked to me like a disregard for his own health, I one day made a comment about his overindulgence in alcohol; a comment that he did not receive very well. He became angry at my impertinence, telling me that his drinking habits were none of my business. He was right of course, and I apologized. Nonetheless, I told him, he really did not understand exactly how important he was to me. It was a confession I felt I needed to make, and it stopped Paul in his tracks. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and I could see the previously welled up anger dissipate in an instant. Although he didn’t say anything in response, I’m certain that he knew what I was getting at; or I at least hope he understood what I was getting at, since it was one of the last times that I talked with him before his death.

Without Paul Christensen my life would have been very different than it has turned out to be. I already miss him very much.


304I first learned about the 1953 novel Limbo sometime in 2003 after reading an account of the book in a history of science fiction. The short description of Limbo’s bizarre plot was enough to ignite my curiosity, and when I finally did obtain a used and tattered copy of this 400 plus page novel, I was immediately and totally absorbed.

I just finished rereading Limbo, and my original impressions have been reconfirmed. Hilarious, terrifying, and profound, Limbo is a political allegory that is still chillingly relevant to our current world conditions.

The plot of Limbo is unique and bizarre. After the Third World War much of the population of both the US and the Soviet Union has been destroyed by nuclear bombs. As a reaction against the horrors of the war, a philosophy of pacifism sweeps the globe. Called “Immob” – short for “immobilization – this philosophy holds that all of the world’s problems result from aggressive human activity. The solution, according to Immob, is passivity and non-action. To accomplish this change in human life, people are encouraged literally to disarm themselves through voluntary amputation of their arms and legs; a practice called “volamp.” The greater the number of limbs a person removes, the higher their status in society rises. Amputeeism thus becomes a visual marker of prestige.

ImmobA schism develops among the proponents of Immob. On one side there are the “anti-pros” and on the other the “pro-pros.” The anti-pros reject the development of prosthetic limbs to replace removed arms and legs while the pro-pros argue for the use of prosthetics. Because of the heroic sacrifice of amputees, pro-pros hold that they should be honored with state-of-the-art artificial arms and legs that give them the ability to become more physically dexterous than ever. The amputees adhering to this interpretation of Immob range from uni- to full quadro-amps who strut around in fashionable short sleeved shirts and short legged trousers in order better to show off their high-tech replacement limbs. The anti-pros remain fully immobile, lying passively in baskets while being catered to by attendants and displayed like babies in store windows. In this, they see themselves as morally pure exemplars of absolute passivity.

The pro-pro position is adopted by the new governments of the US and the Soviet Union, who compete in yearly Olympic games, demonstrating their aptitude with newly designed and engineered prosthetics. Little do the citizens of either country realize, however, that secretly both governments have been developing weaponized “arms” just in case another conflict between nations erupts. Among their arsenals are flame-thrower arms, rifle arms, and helicopter arms, all of which can be mounted on the stumps of amputees, making them into super-cybernetic warriors; the very opposite of pacifists.  Despite the removal of limbs, it appears, the aggressive death drive remains just as strong as ever and human nature is unchanged despite Immob philosophy.

The story begins in Africa, where the narrator, Dr. Martine, has fled in order to escape western civilization. He is a deserter from the US military, having stolen an airplane at the very beginning of World War III, escaping the cataclysm and landing in a small, primitive island village where he has taken a wife and fathered a child. Here he acts as the village’s medical doctor, conducting lobotomies on those who are overly aggressive or violent; a procedure called “Mandunga,” one of the traditional practices of this African culture. An unintended side effect of Mandunga is that in addition to making people passive, it also eradicates the sex drive. Sex and aggression, it turns out, are intimately connected with one another in the very structures of the brain. Remove one and the other is also affected.

The entire culture of this African village revolves around being passive and nonaggressive. Anyone who exhibits any form of belligerence or hostility is considered insane. In fact, the history of this people is rooted in their migrations from the mainland in order to flee, rather than fight, against oppression and victimization by other tribes. These migrations have landed them on an isolated island where they have settled into a comfortable and docile way of life.  Villagers  drink “rota,” which drugs them into a passive state, and they eat smooth, soft tapioca; another symbol of their blandness. The surgical procedure of Mandunga has been developed in order to correct any reisidual signs of aggression in the inhabitants.

Martine becomes increasingly troubled by his own participation in all of this, and so he finally decides to leave, going back to the US in order to see what has become of his home. Back in the US, he is shocked to discover that his own notebook, left behind when he deserted the military years before, has become a sort of Bible to both the Americans and the Soviets. In this notebook he had offered the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the amputation of people’s limbs was the solution to war. Without limbs, people could no longer fight one another. They would become passive and do no more damage to the world. All of this was intended as a joke. However, in his absence a man by the name of Helder – who was once Martine’s team mate in the military and is now the leader of the US – has interpreted Martine’s notebook literally and unironically, footnoting and annotating it in order to develop the philosophy of Immob, which has replaced all other ideologies. Martine, in returning to the US, finds that his own words have been the twisted inspiration for a new totalitarian philosophy of pacifism.

"Dodge the Steamroller." 2011. Sculpture by Paul Segers inspired by the book Limbo.

“Dodge the Steamroller.” 2011. Sculpture by Paul Segers inspired by the book Limbo.

“Dodge the Steamroller!” This is the slogan of the new world order. The steamroller symbolizes all things that threaten to flatten and destroy the individual, such as war and exploitative governments. A statue prominently displayed in front of one of the main government offices depicts an enormous steamroller crushing a man beneath its wheel, his arms frantically raised skyward. This image replaces the cross or the flag as a reminder to citizens of what their cultural values are. Violence, aggression and belligerence crush the individual.   Yet, in the very process of trying to avoid the steamrolling effects of external, violent forces, society has produced yet another form of oppression. The emphasis on pacifism taken to an extreme has ironically come to crush and distort the natural, aggessive part of human nature. By pushing down the urge for violence, this urge has popped back up in perverse and distorted ways. Over the course of the story, Martine endeavors to expose and subvert the misrepresentation of his writings, ultimately fleeing back to Africa, where his own son is also engaged in a rebellion against the passivity of the village culture.

The main theme that permeates Limbo has to do with the ambiguity of human existence. Referencing Nietzsche, Freud, James and many others throughout the story, Berhard Wolfe consistently emphasizes how any attempt to eradicate this ambiguity is doomed to pervert and distort human life. It is the struggle between the animal and the spiritual that makes us who we are; or as Wolfe puts it, the battle between “dog” and “God.” The juxtaposition of these palindromes highlights how the beastly and the elevated are just different sides of the same human coin. We are both dog and God rolled into one, and whenever we try to cleave off one or the other side of this contradiction, we become deformed and disfigured. What is perhaps most perverse is that we take pride in our own disfigurement, and like the characters in the world of Limbo, we trumpet it as an improvement on nature. Early on in the story, before leaving the African island, Martine sums up the book’s main point:

Rule: every blob of protoplasm teems with ambivalence, yearns at one and the same time to freeze and to blow up. A community committed to stupor might decree all excitants to be illegal, drive them underground and force feed their devotees with sedatives and anesthetics, but riot will out. In a sense these two loggerheadstrong plants were only symbols of the two linked psychic poles: the Dionysian, the blowtop, the oceanic, headed for abandon and the ultimate in sensation and all-engulfing consciousness: and the Apollonian, bedded down in mildness and limit and order and even-tempered restraint and a certain programmatic heavy-liddedness. (p. 33)

Humans are a contradiction. The Dionysian side wants wild abandon, disorder, activity and passion. The Apollonian side wants restraint, order and control. Without Apollo, all becomes chaos, and we destroy ourselves. Without Dionysus, all becomes static boredom, and we likewise destroy ourselves. Apollo and Dionysus, Eros and Thanatos, pull us in different directions: toward oneness and connection, on the one hand, and toward separation and disconnection, on the other. This is the human struggle. We are who we are because of a tension between opposing forces inside of us, and as Wolfe writes, “Short of the final achievement of inertness there was to be no real inertness, no untainted ease, no indivisible peace.” (p. 257) The mistake of all forms of utopianism is that they seek to perfect humankind; but in perfection humankind ceases to exist.

It is thus fitting that Limbo ends with with the conclusion that we should not seek to resolve human contradiction, but that we should embrace it and live within its confines. The book begins with an emphatic “NO,” printed in letters large enough to take up a whole page, but it ends with an equally emphatic “YES” that also takes up an entire page. The attempt to unite “no” and “yes” is the task of the narrator as he tries to accept that humans are both no-sayers and yeah-sayers: “I am the original no-yesman. Name should have been NOYES.” (p. 388)

In the end, Martine decides that the only appropriate way to honor the absurdity of human nature is to laugh at it. In laughter, Martine tells another character, there “is a sort of short-circuited sob” (p. 384) that at once recognizes the irresolvably incongruous nature of the human condition while also demanding joy from it. It is a response that is both passive and active all at once: saying “yes” to the absurdity of life, accepting it for what it is, while also saying “no” to false promises and final solutions.

Today the media is filled with an enormous number of shrill voices claiming to possess final solutions to the world’s problems. This is nothing new. In every generation, there are arrogant demagogues and know-it-all leaders, and there are always masses of people willing to put their faith in them. One of the pernicious dangers that humankind constantly faces is the delusion that we are so much more advanced than those who came before us, and that we are are no longer prone to the same faults of past civilizations; that we are on the verge of some major breakthrough that will finally, once and for all bring about heaven on earth. This is the sort of nonsense that Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo warns against. It is a hilariously frightening parody of extremist thinking and our attraction to it.

“Everything Will Be OK.”

51QWkzLkfRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Finn Janning, a philosopher who lives and works in Barcelona Spain, has written a very perceptive and sympathetic review of The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel titled “Everything Will Be OK.”

Dr. Janning’s blog also contains an interesting collection of essays, creative non-fiction and other reviews in both English and Danish. I recommend checking it out.