The Sublimity of The Forbidden City and The Great Wall

 

As we disembarked the plane in Beijing, I got my first indication of how hot it was going to be during our three week stay in China. I was wearing a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie on the flight, but as my wife, Juneko, and I stepped into the 100-plus degree heat, I immediately realized that no sweatshirts would be needed here. Going outside was like entering a misty sauna. On the cab ride to the hotel I asked our driver if the hazy dampness hanging in the air was indication of an impending storm. All he said was “Yeah,” which was not a real answer. He just didn’t understand what I was asking. In fact, the gray mist we were breathing was the infamous Beijing pollution, and the dampness was just normal summer humidity.

Prior to our trip, while still in San Francisco, we had waited 5 hours and 20 minutes at the Chinese consulate to file forms for our visas, so I was prepared for our arrival in Beijing to involve long waits mixed with doses of chaos. Happily, that was not so. Though the Beijing airport was crowded and bustling, things went very smoothly and we were out and into a cab within an hour. The ride took us on a busy, modern freeway, through a few traffic jams and past rows of high-rise buildings; some adorned with familiar names like IKEA, SONY and Mercedes Benz, while most others were marked with Chinese characters. Watching the signs buzz by, I started to understand what it is like to be illiterate. Even though I had a rough sense of the identities of the places passing by my window (office buildings, corporate headquarters, apartment buildings, gas stations and so forth) I was unable to understand the finer details of things. Street signs, billboards and the notices in shop windows were all in a language I could not understand. My first glimpses of Beijing, thus, were of a place at once familiar and mysteriously exotic. I was reminded of the cityscapes in the movie Blade Runner: bright signs written in Chinese characters, tall buildings and dark, oppressive, gray mist.

We stayed at the China National Convention Center Grand Hotel in the northern part of the city, right next to the Olympic Village where the summer games were held in 2008. Looming nearby is the 750 foot-tall Olympic Tower, which serves as a landmark and point of orientation when wandering the area. At The Grand Hotel – and the convention center to which is attached – the staff spoke English, and throughout our stay they were very helpful in arranging transportation, giving us directions, and exchanging cash. Our accommodations were clean and comfortable as well. The hotel has a serviceable gym and an indoor pool, as well as a couple of restaurants with food that is not as great as the folks who serve it. Our first night we ate at the hotel cafe, where I ordered spring rolls and a pot of good green tea while my wife ordered a BLT with fries. I ended up eating most of the BLT, which was weird, as it was made with pickles but no mayonaise. The “bacon” was something more like limp ham. Nevertheless, it was late by that time and we were hungry, so at least we didn’t starve.

The morning after our arrival, we took a stroll to an indoor shopping mall just down the street. Neither the haze nor the heat had dissipated, and so by the time we had walked three blocks, we were soaking wet with perspiration. Luckily the shopping mall was air conditioned and also served as a subway stop, so after a cold drink at Starbucks, we bought cards at the station and took a ride downtown to The Forbidden City, just the first of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites that we would visit over the course of our stay.

The Forbidden City lies just across a busy roadway north of Tiananmen Square. Exiting the subway we (again drenched in sweat) entered through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is adorned with an enormous portrait of Mao Zedong. We were crushed among the crowd of people surging forward as visitors were channeled between barricades and fences along the sidewalk. Entering the main grounds required that we go through a check-point and show our passports to guards who typed our information into a computer. Wherever you go in China, they know who you are, and they know where you’ve been!

 

The Forbidden City covers over 180 acres and contains 980 buildings with a total of 8,728 rooms. It was built in the 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty and served as home to the Emperor until 1912. Apparently, it was customary for the Emperor to sleep in a different room every night so that potential assassins would never know exactly where he was. That, of course, was in the days before high tech surveillance. In 1860, British and French forces controlled the Forbidden City during the second Opium War. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

 

Guidebooks say you should devote two to three hours to this site, but a full day is more realistic. The place is huge, and with the temperature soaring to 111 degrees (and a heat index of 136 degrees!) during our visit, we had to take frequent breaks to sit in the shade and drink water in order to avoid heat stroke. The City is laid out in a series of successive palaces. You pass through gates in the palaces, which open up onto enormous courtyards, one after another. It seems to go on and on, giving visitors the impression of infinitely expanding space. This was once considered to be the center of the world by the Chinese, and the Emperor lived and ruled within its heart. To control this much space, to corral it between walls, moats, gates and palaces was a dramatic symbol of power; something the British and French obviously understood during their occupation in 1860.

After wandering around the palaces, statues and stairways (and periodically seeking shade) for a few hours, we eventually made our way into the Museum of Clocks, which holds a collection of antique Chinese time pieces, some small, some the size of a small house. While the grounds of The Forbidden City demonstrate a mastery of space, the Museum of Clocks demonstrates that the control of time was also of great importance to Chinese rulers. Time and space comprise the backdrop against which all things in our world unfold, and by enclosing both of these dimensions within the walls of this royal location, Chinese Emperors conveyed the scope of their control and power; a power subsequently seized by the British and French, then by the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and finally by the communist revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong.

It was mid-afternoon when we left the Forbidden City, exiting down a road lined with stores and street vendors. We boarded the subway – thankful to dry off in the air conditioning – and tried unsuccessfully to find a vegetarian restaurant that had good reviews in our guidebook. Instead, we ended up in another air conditioned shopping mall where we feasted on vegetarian Subway (brand) sandwiches before taking the other subway (public transportation) back to the hotel. At this point our first full day in China was coming to a close and I felt as if I had been beaten and tortured by a group of the Emperor’s guards. All I wanted to do was drink lots of cold water, take a shower and go to sleep.

I awoke the next morning, which was Friday, thinking it was Thursday. This was because in traveling from North America to Asia, we lost a day. I had a splitting headache – probably from dehydration – and generally felt like crap. I reflected on how glad I was that we were not scheduled to go anywhere until Friday. Then, the phone rang and the front desk clerk said: “Your driver has arrived to take you to The Great Wall.” I guess we were going somewhere after all!

Our driver spoke no English, so a smile and a handshake – and trust on our part that he knew where we wanted to go – had to suffice as an introduction. We boarded the van and set off on the hour and a half trip north to the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall. Our route took us on a superhighway and then onto a series of narow country roads. The tour busses and cars had to squeeze by one another while also endeavoring to avoid collision with unhelmeted riders on scooters and bicycles. The misses were mostly near misses. Our route took us through farmlands lined with orchards and fruit stands selling peaches, cherries and apricots.

We arrived at the gates of the park, and after purchasing tickets, walked down something resembling a main street; although it was not part of a real city, but an artificially constructed attraction. This is when it started to hit me how similar this place is to the US. Sure, there is not yet a Great Wall back home, but if Trump gets his way and there is one someday you can bet that it will be commercialized pretty much the same way as here. Just like in China, it will probably be accompanied by fast food restaurants and folks selling trinkets, souvenirs and t-shirts.

At the end of “main street” we boarded a bus, which thankfully was air-conditioned, and rode up a steep hill to the actual entrance to the attraction. This entrance, again, looked like an artificial village. From our vantage point below the ridges and the peaks we could see the turrets and the snaking lines of the wall above. Never mind the touristy nature of the place, this sight, I must admit, provoked a feeling of awe in me. It was a feeling similar to what I remember experiencing when I first saw Niagara Falls, Wat Arun in Thailand, or La Sagrada Familia in Spain. I had seen pictures of each of these wonders previous to encountering the real sights first-hand, so you might think that upon actually visiting them that they would be robbed of some of their visual novelty and power; that they might pale in comparison to their media representations. For me, that was never the case. Here, standing beneath The Great Wall, it was just the opposite. The images I had previously seen instead primed me to know what to look for. They gave me a frame of perspective that allowed my mind to start grasping the magnitude of what it was that we were now in the presence of.

The Great Wall is over 13,000 miles long; over four times as length of the US. Viewing the mountainous ridges along which this structure rests, my heart raced and my breathing halted. At first I saw the closest structures – the restored watchtowers and battlements directly above – but as my eyes traced the lines of the fortification, I was overwhelmed by its seeming endlessness. The Wall goes on and on. One watchtower is connected to another, each one looking smaller than the last until the Wall disappears into the hazy distance. The terrain here is steep and rugged, making me wonder about both the mechanics and the logic of constructing such an enormous structure in this particular location. It was, of course, not built all at once. It was begun around 200 BC, with construction continuing over hundreds of years, as various segments went up piece by piece until they were at last connected together. But why here? Why in a place where the mountains stand as a natural barrier? Mongol invaders during their 13th Century conquest of Beijing just went around the Wall anyway, so the barrier was not even effective. These thoughts only added to the uncanniness of the whole experience of looking at The Wall. Hundreds of years of persistent effort, expense and labor have resulted in an architectural artifact both absurd in its conception and awesome in its execution.

A gondola took us up the side of the mountain to The Wall itself. The view from the gondola was of the surrounding forested mountains and the valley below. A woman in the car behind us had a panic attack, crying in terror as we ascended upwards. When we disembarked, she was still weeping, but being comforted by her family. Fear of heights, I guess.

It was a short walk from the gondola to the first of the watchtowers, where we rested in the shade, drinking water and seeking relief from the sun. The place was busy with tourists – we heard Spanish, German, English, French as well as Chinese being spoken – but it wasn’t as crowded as we had seen in some pictures. Perhaps the heat was keeping people away. In any case, everyone was soaking wet and commenting on how hot it was. It was probably well over 100 degrees. I overheard a woman say to her partner that she’d like to walk to the top of the ridge, but was sure that she would pass out if she tried. I felt exactly the same. There was no way that I was going to be able to go very far.

From our starting point we could travel in two directions. One direction would take us up the ridge to what looked like an amazing vantage point overlooking the valley. However, I would only be able to make that trip if I got a piggy-back ride and if we had an overnight stay at the top. The other direction was more level, so that is direction in which we walked for a couple of hours. During that time I alternated between feeling awful and feeling exhilarated: we were actually on The Great Wall! I turned to Juneko a few times to declare, “We’re in China!” Amazing.

Soaked through and through we made our way back down to the exit, which involved a toboggan ride to the bottom. The toboggan ride was kind of silly, but better than suffering through further sweatiness while hiking down the mountainside. After reuniting with out driver we hit the road, arriving back in Beijing in time to get caught in their terrible afternoon traffic. That evening we had an $8 dinner of seafood rice and pork buns before turning in for the night.

According to Kant, the sublime experience occurs in two variations: the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical sublime has to do with the awe inspiring sense of infinity arising from an encounter with seemingly endless repetition. The dynamic sublime involves the sense of awe we feel when in the presence of seemingly infinite power. The Forbidden City and The Great Wall each provoked both of these sorts of experiences in me. The wide open courtyards and the palaces of The Forbidden City drew my mind toward thoughts of numerical infinity while also encouraging me to contemplate the enormous political power required to marshall the forces required to construct and control the grounds. The breathtaking scale of The Great Wall, with its battlements that stretch into an unseeable distance, likewise left me awestruck in contemplation of the enormous, seemingly infinite, amount of will, labor and administrative power required to complete such a monumental project. These Chinese monuments are truly sublime in both of the Kantian senses.

And there were more sublime sights yet to see. The next ones would be The Summer Palace, The Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong. I’ll write about those in a future posting.

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Top Ten Nihilist Songs

A playlist of 10 nihilist themed songs.

1. Flipper – Nothing

2. Rancid – Nihilism

3. Sacripolitical – Nihilist Void

4. Fear – No More Nothing

5. Agent Orange – No Such Thing

6. Sex Pistols – No Feelings

7. GG Allin – No Rules

8. Fuck Ups – Negative Reaction

9. Angry Samoans – Lights Out

10 UXB – Anti-Everything

Welcome to Beijing, China.

The word “monumental” sums up my impression of China. From the Great Wall to The Forbidden City; from The Summer Palace to The Temple of Heaven; from The Hanging Monastery to the Yungang Grottoes; the sites we visited during our summer trip to China were without exception monumental both in their mammoth scale and historic importance. This massive country, home to the world’s largest population of human beings, is also home to the world’s largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sights. They say everything is big in Texas, but the state of Texas would fit about 15 times over into the People’s Republic of China.

I’ll save my descriptions and impressions of China’s awe-inspiring cultural sights for a future blog posting. In this posting, I’d like to set the scene, sketching out some of the everyday details of what it was like to be in China, how it was different from home and explain both what endeared and annoyed me about the place. In short, what I’ll describe here is my own experience of culture shock.

My wife and I were in and around Beijing for three weeks this August, seeing the sights and attending the 24th World Congress of Philosophy. I was invited to participate in a session on the philosophy of humor at the Congress, giving us an opportunity not only to meet some interesting scholars but also to explore a city we had never been to before. Initially, I had some apprehension about the trip, as China is notoriously restrictive of free speech and expression; harsh in its treatment of those who the government deems subversive. How was this going to affect the free exchange of ideas that are a necessary part of a philosophy conference? I worried about what could happen to Westerners like ourselves who might say or do the wrong things in a totalitarian, communist country with unfamiliar rules and customs. Were we taking a chance with our freedom? Could we end up in a Chinese jail?

These worries started to get put to the side once we arrived in the country and we experienced the friendliness of the Chinese people. Beijing is a city of 22 million people – more than twice the size of New York City – yet the people we encountered had the good natured affability that you would expect to find in a small town. Often, when we were on the street, examining our maps and trying to figure out how to get to a location, strangers would approach us and offer directions. Despite the fact that few of the Chinese people we met had much English (and we had even less Chinese) through cell phone translation programs and hand gestures, we had little trouble communicating with the Beijingers who came to our assistance. My suspicious American nature initially made me wary of their intentions, but it turned out that they wanted nothing more than to be helpful and welcoming to us. If I had to single out one thing that I loved about China the most, the good-natured people would be at the top of the list.

We apparently were a novelty to the good people of Beijing. Strangers would often stop and ask to snap photos with us. Sometimes I would realize, while sitting on the subway or standing in a park, that I was being photographed by children who were watching me and giggling. Teenagers and adults alike would stare, laugh, and then approach us, snapping away with their cameras or cell phones before joining us to take a selfie. It was all very good-natured and prompted by the fact that they see so few non-Chinese faces, even in a city the size of Beijing. We felt like celebrities! I learned that by smiling and saying “Nee-how” (“Hello” in Mandarin) the ice was immediately broken with kids, adults and old-folks alike.

While the people of Beijing are friendly and curious, there are also always lots of them around, which often caused me to feel crowded and tense. On the street, the subway, the parks, in restaurants and at the stores, there were always hordes of bodies maneuvering around one another in a constant flow of movement and noise. One of the lessons I learned quite early on during our visit was that these hordes have an aggravating practice of ignoring the idea of queuing up for services. Whether it is waiting for the subway or waiting to pay for something at a store counter, I consistently found that I had to push my way insistently to the front in order to get anything done. And it’s not that there was any rudeness involved in this ritual. It just seems that standing in a line for anything is not a part of the Beijing custom. People seem to operate on the principle that if there is any open space somewhere ahead, one must move forward to fill it, even if someone else is standing ahead of you. In order to get anything done, you must take on the qualities of water, flowing ever forward and around the obstacles that appear in your vicinity. When you do so, there are no hard feelings, there is no anger, no accusations of impoliteness or impropriety from bystanders. It is as if the laws of physics have taken over.

This is also what happens with traffic on the streets. Despite the fact that Beijing has an excellent subway system, the roads are always congested with lots of cars, motorcycles and scooters. My understanding is that this is something that has been amplified in recent times with increasing economic prosperity, and as a result traffic jams have become a constant part of life. The cars, scooters and motorcycles on the roads – like the people in the shops – move ever forward to fill any spaces that appear in front of them, ignoring traffic rules, pedestrians, and safety concerns. I never saw any traffic police during our entire stay in Beijing. Drivers toot their horns regularly to warn those on foot to get out of the way as they blast through red lights, crosswalks and as they race down the shoulder of the street. Motorcycles and scooters zoom the wrong way down the road and weave around pedestrians on the sidewalk, abruptly stopping in front of you as riders park their vehicles wherever they can find space. Helmets appear to be optional. Aggravating things is the fact that most of the scooters are electric, so they don’t make any noise as they approach from behind. At night many of them don’t bother to switch on their headlights, zooming along like silent torpedoes seeking a human target. 700 people a day are killed in traffic accidents in China (260,000 a year), mostly pedestrians and motorcyclists, and I can see why. Being hit by a car was the most dangerous threat that we faced during our Chinese visit.

On the other hand, we never felt the threat of violent crime during our visit. None of the neighborhoods we visited felt dangerous and we never worried about our safety, even when wandering the dark alleys of the city’s hutongs (the old neighborhoods at the center of Beijing) at night. While I’m sure that there is crime in Beijing, the presence of so many police, guards and cameras on the streets goes a long way to deter bad behavior. Additionally, there are metal detectors and checkpoints at subway entrances and at the entrances to certain buildings, museums and attractions. We had the definite feeling of being safe, but we also had the feeling of being in a police state. The eyes of the authorities are everywhere; even at the philosophy conference, where in addition to cameras, metal detectors and guards there were also riot police stationed near the downstairs entrances to the convention center, looking bored as they leaned on their shields. I imagine there must be an official government rule that when a certain number of people gather in one place, a certain number of riot police must also be on duty. Given that the conference was a very large one – with around 8,000 attendees – it would figure that there would be worries about things getting out of hand. After all, you know how rowdy philosopher professors can get.

Two scarce sights were litter and homeless people. We saw one man sleeping in a tunnel near the shopping mall, but we were not sure that he was actually homeless. There were no tent cities or encampments anywhere we went in the city. Likewise, litter in the streets was almost non-existent. This probably was due to the fact that just about everywhere we went, workers were picking up rubbish, painting fences and emptying garbage cans. Maybe this also accounts for the invisibility of homeless people. Perhaps the government puts them to work sprucing up the streets. Apparently, Beijing’s unemployment rate is below 4%, so assigning citizens to cleaning duty may be something that kills three birds with one stone. In any case, I don’t think I have ever been in a city this size that was so spotless. Chalk another one up for communism!

Upon our arrival in Beijing, the city was in the midst of a heatwave, with temperatures soaring to 111 degrees. When you combine this with high humidity and the haze of the city’s smog, the conditions were not so good for walking around. Within a block, I would be soaked with perspiration, dripping wet and uncomfortable for the rest of the day. It was on this trip I really did discover my physical limits when it comes to heat exposure. After a sweltering visit to the Forbidden City on our first day (where the temperature soared to 111 degrees, and the ambient temperature was a blistering 136 degrees) and then, on the second day, to The Great Wall, I felt as if I had been beaten with a bag of hammers. My body ached, I was fatigued, and all I wanted to do was sit in an air conditioned hotel room sipping chilled bottled water. Luckily, the heat wave passed after the third day, the temperatures dipped to a more reasonable level, and the rest of our excursions took place under more comfortable conditions. The hazy smog even cleared on some days, revealing the blue skies above.

The food we sampled in Beijing ranged from mediocre to gross. Much of what we ate was bland (various noodle dishes and rice dishes), while a few things were outright awful (a squid dish cooked in some sort of tomato sauce; some kind of deep fried pasta with sugar sprinkled on top). There were some things that we were just not going to try at all (poached deer fetus; bull penis). Some meals were pretty good (baked tilapia; an eggplant dish; a vegetarian version of kung pao chicken), but overall the food was forgettable. Both my wife and I developed persistent diarrhea that to one degree or another haunted us for our entire three week visit. Whether this was due to the food or the local water, I’m not sure, but over the course of our stay we increasingly found ourselves visiting a Pizza Hut Bistro in the mall near our hotel, hoping to avoid strange foods that did weird things to our insides. The Pizza Hut Bistro was unlike any Pizza Hut in the US, as it served roasted broccoli, sandwiches, beer, wine and even escargot! While part of me felt ashamed for eating in an American fast food joint while in China, another part of me didn’t care. Give me dough, cheese and Coca-Cola!

It is well known that the Chinese government blocks and censors the country’s media, but it was a bit startling to actually experience this on a day-to-day basis. Sites like Facebook, Worldcat, and Google were inaccessible on my computer, although my wife did find that she could get to some of them on her cell phone. This caused a bit of annoyance and inconvenience when trying to communicate with family and friends back home. Strangely, WordPress was not blocked, which made me wonder about the consistency and logic of Chinese internet censorship. In a country that is inviting large numbers of foreign scholars to gather and mix with Chinese scholars in order to discuss controversial philosophical, social and cultural issues, does it make much sense to block social media? Apparently the Chinese people know how to circumvent much of the media censorship anyway, so it all seems like an absurd, losing battle. The silliness of it all was dramatized during our visit when government censors forbade the posting of pictures of Winnie the Pooh because the cartoon character seems to resemble the Chinese president, Xi Jinping! Who knew that Winnie the Pooh was so dangerously subversive?

While we did have access to international television programming in our hotel room, the TV screen would mysteriously go blank whenever stories that were unfavorable toward the Chinese government appeared. The first time it happened we were watching CNN, and I initially thought it was just a problem with the signal. But repeatedly, when any program that could be interpreted as critical of China appeared on TV, the screen would go black until the offending segment was over and some other segment had begun. Coincidence? Probably not.

Construction was constant while we were in China, continuing 24 hours a day, everywhere that we went. The night after we arrived at our hotel – which was attached to the China National Convention Center, right next to the Olympic Village – I noticed a strange sound emanating from the walls of our room. At sunrise, I realized that the sound was actually coming from a vacant lot across the street. It was the racket of three backhoes as they smashed up and excavated a full square city block of concrete foundation. This noise went on non-stop (for 3 weeks!) until shortly before we left Beijing. On the other side of the hotel, a new building was going up where workers swarmed like ants all day and all night long. When we visited Datong for an overnight stay, we were amazed to see an enormous portion of the old city being demolished on one side of the freeway while on the other side an entirely new section was being erected. Row after row of brand new apartment buildings and towers – bearing names like “London” and “Edinburgh” – rose, sparkling clean, new and uninhabited. Our guide told us that the city government was moving the entire population from one place to another in a drive toward modernization. Everywhere we went, things were being built up and torn down; an indication of the hectic nature of China’s current physical and cultural transformation.

In conjunction with all of this construction there were temporary barriers and fences that popped up overnight, making it hard to predict which walking routes would be accessible from day-to-day. One evening, when we were trying to get back to our hotel on foot, we got trapped in a newly erected fenced-off corridor that channeled us to a guard station where we were forbidden to pass. We had to turn around and back-track our way to where we had started in order to find a route out of the unfamiliar gauntlet. Sometimes these barriers had nothing to do with construction, but simply with crowd control, as we experienced when we tried to cross the street near Tiananmen Square by walking around an obstacle that was blocking a crosswalk. Immediately a chorus of shouts went up from the twenty or so police officers and guards loitering on the corner, directing us to fall back in line with the crowd being conducted along the sidewalk and through a check-point. It seems that in China, a lot of energy goes into channeling masses of people here and there, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

If one just highlighted the tall buildings, the chain stores, shopping malls, crowds, and luxury cars, Beijing would not seem much different from any modern, Western city in the US or Europe. It has bright lights, urban buzz, and lots of young people walking around with their faces buried in cell phones. There are Starbucks coffee shops, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Subways and McDonalds all over the place.  Underneath this surface, however, it is different. Everyday life is more monitored and controlled than it is in the West; for better and for worse. On the one hand, the Chinese censorship of free speech and the media seems silly and unnecessary to me. Couldn’t government personnel more effectively be put to use policing traffic in the streets rather than censoring internet traffic and appearances of Winnie the Pooh online? On the other hand, it may be the constant awareness of being monitored and watched that keeps the violent crime rate so low and the streets so clean in China. In fact, this is a trade-off that many people in my own country might be willing to make, although I’m not one of them.

China is currently in a state of transition, and my observations about the everyday rhythms of Beijing, I think, indicate something about the nature of the changes the country is undergoing. China is starting to open up to the outside world. It is inviting outside investment, encouraging private ownership of real estate, and it is attempting to become more involved in world-wide intellectual culture. But this process of opening up also drags behind it a long history of suspicion of the West (much of it well justified), and a fear of the potentially destructive consequences that go along with increasing individual freedom. I get the sense that China wants to engage more intimately with the rest of the world, but that it does not want at the same time to absorb all of the world’s evils. It is trying to open up, but it is trying to do so slowly so that it doesn’t sacrifice its own unique virtues.

And it certainly is the case that China has much to be proud of and much that it should preserve as it moves toward modernization. Even a Westerner like me – who dislikes the chaos of Chinese traffic, who detests their censorship, who is uncomfortable with their weather and who dislikes the food – can see that China is a culture that has much to teach the rest of the world even as it learns new lessons. It is a culture that draws upon thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, and we in the West should pay attention to what that wisdom has to offer.

In my next post I’ll reflect on some of the incredible, monumental cultural sites that we visited in and around Beijing.

13 Reasons Why

After watching the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why I feel emotionally exhausted, with no sense of catharsis or resolution; just a sad heaviness in my chest. I’m now a 53 year-old man, but this series stirred up all sorts of painful memories of my own high school years: memories of bullies, teenage despair, awkward and failed attempts at friendship, and of the oblivious (sometimes hostile) adults who stood on the sidelines. One of the strengths of this show – and what makes it so unsettling – is that, as in real life, no one is depicted as completely free from blame for contributing to the world’s misery and hopelessness. There are no clear distinctions between “good guys” or “bad guys.” Everyone is implicated in the suffering of those around them. The most sympathetic characters in the show are neither pure nor blameless. They’re just the ones striving to be honest about their guilt while making the truth known.

The central conceit of 13 Reasons Why is a series of 13 tapes recorded by Hannah Baker before she commits suicide. Each of these tapes chronicles the abuses she underwent at the hands of fellow students and the adults in her life – from social humiliation, to callousness, to rape – that drove her to kill herself. The tapes have been circulated among the culprits, and finally wind up in the hands of Clay Jensen, her unrequited teenage love, who then struggles with feelings of guilt about his own blameworthiness while trying to figure out what he should do with the information he has learned.

I became interested in 13 Reasons Why because much of the show was filmed in my hometown of San Rafael. As my wife jokes (echoing a character from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), seeing your own neighborhood depicted on screen makes you feel “certified.” It makes it feel as if the place where you live has significance beyond your own personal experiences. As I observed the film crews at work on our street, a sense of excited anticipation was provoked in me, priming my desire to see how our familiar, everyday surroundings would ultimately appear on screen.

In 13 Reasons Why, San Rafael landmarks are on prominent display. Mt. Tamalpias appears throughout the series as a visual anchor. The downtown police station, library and Fourth Street are regular backdrops. Key characters occupy houses located in the Gerstle Park and Dominican neighborhoods. San Rafael Hill, with its views of the San Francisco Bay and of the city below, provides a detached, aloof panorama of the landscape in which the despairing drama of the show plays out. Like tourists in our own hometown, my wife and I have now taken to visiting these various addresses and locations, seeing them in a new light, as if they have been illuminated by reflections from the television screen. In the process, our city has taken on a strangely glamorous but melancholic luminosity that merges fabricated gloom with our own real-life recollections of teenage sadness.

Mt. Tamalpais looming over the city of San Rafael.

Crestmont is the name of the fictional town that serves as the setting for13 Reasons Why. Early in the first season, one of the parents in the show mentions that her family moved away from the suburbs to this town for a better life. It is a curious, but quite apt, piece of dialogue that perhaps explains the appropriateness of San Rafael as a filming location. Technically, San Rafael is a suburb of San Francisco; however San Rafael is also the seat of Marin County, a place that has a reputation for being a world unto itself; a bubble of wealth, liberality, creativity and idealism. “Mellow Marin” is home to the Grateful Dead, the mountain bike, and as depicted in The Serial, is a place where alternate lifestyles and new-age therapies proliferate. It is also one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. All of this has led many people to regard the county with disdain, as too exclusive, too sheltered, too white and too privileged. 13 Reasons Why capitalizes on this reputation, challenging smug assumptions by showing that economic prosperity and cultural liberality do not eradicate real human suffering.

Obviously, not everyone who lives in Marin is rich, but the aura that is cast by the county’s wealth does affect everyone, sometimes resulting in callousness to the challenges faced by many Marinites. Everyone suffers through their own forms of unhappiness, and the unhappiness experienced by those living in conditions of privilege can sometimes be just as bad, if not worse, than the unhappiness of those who live in more obviously abject conditions. Oftentimes, there is more widespread sympathy for the plight of the underprivileged than there is for the suffering of the well-off, leaving privileged people to feel guilty about their own despair. After all, what do they have to be sad about when there are others in the world who struggle with poverty, crime and hunger?

The effect of this kind of callousness is illustrated in one especially memorable scene from 13 Reasons Why, when Clay is belittled by his high school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. After complaining about the atmosphere of hostility and despair at school, Mr. Porter makes a point of telling Clay that in his previous job at an urban high school he actually had to deal with students who had “real” problems. Clay’s look of betrayal is obvious enough that the counselor, and we the audience, know instantly the message that has been conveyed. Some suffering is more “real” than other suffering. The suffering of those who live in economically well-off areas is less legitimate than the suffering of poor people. Later in the season, it is this same attitude that is revealed to be one of the 13 reasons why the character Hannah Baker kills herself after Mr. Porter suggests that she just forget about being raped by the school’s star baseball player and get on with her life.

This all struck a personal chord, reminding me of my own high school years and how my teenage despair was compounded by feelings of guilt and shame for being in despair.  When I fell into states of depression, I was told by the adults around me that I should just be thankful that my life was as good as it was. I remember one of the school custodians, a middle-aged man, threatening me, a teenager, with violence when I was sitting alone and depressed, apparently because he thought I was being disrespectful to him. When I complained to the Vice Principal at San Rafael High School about being bullied, I was met with a disdainful, blank stare that I took to mean, “You have nothing legitimate to complain about.” When I eventually did fight back against one of my bullies, I was suspended. The message was clear: I was just a privileged whiner. My suffering was not genuine. After all, other kids have real problems.

It is a sad fact that those who are bullied often end up becoming bullies themselves. Such kids learn that one way to feel strong and to salvage self-dignity is to lash out at the world and the people in it, refusing to remain passive. This is a dynamic famously described by the German philosopher Hegel in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel claims that humans desire to see themselves reflected in the eyes of others and to gain their recognition. But in doing so, people endeavor to control the image of how others see them. This control results in a kind of enslavement of those whose acknowledgement we crave, and in this enslavement we reduce others to the status of objects, useful for the fulfillment of our own egoistic desires. However, in being enslaved to us, others come to learn the power of mastery and objectification, incorporating that power into their own consciousnesses and thus learning to break free from their masters. This is what Hegel calls the “master/slave dialectic,” and he claims that it is at work in all human relationships. In a sense, all human relationships are bullying relationships!

In 13 Reasons Why, the master/slave dialectic is on full display. The jocks in the school represent the masters; those who demand that others glorify and adore them, submitting to their desires, whether they be social, sexual or educational. These demands for dominance are expressed in the intimidation, assault and rape of other students. But we learn, as the season unfolds, that these “masters” have themselves been enslaved outside of school by their own dysfunctional family dynamics. The jocks’ abusive inclinations did not come from nowhere but rather grew out of the abuses that they themselves have suffered at home. Their trauma has become internalized and then vented on others at school.

This, however, initiates a cycle, and the students who are abused by the jocks at school in turn learn to lash out, either by abusing others or by abusing themselves. So it is that a bullied photography student finds that he can reclaim a sense of his own power by secretly snapping, and then publicly distributing, photographs of other students in intimate situations. Clay Jensen, from whose perspective the show’s story unfolds, takes his own revenge on the photography student, secretly snapping a nude photo of him and sending it out on social media in order to humiliate him. Throughout the season, these little acts of revenge build up but produce no feelings of justice or relief. Instead, the atmosphere of despair, anger and hostility just grows and grows as more acts of violence, humiliation and unkindness are piled one on top of the other. Meanwhile, the adults in charge seem disconnected from the pain taking place underneath their noses.

Again, I am reminded of my own high school experiences. Sometime in my junior year I came to the conclusion that none of the adults in my life were going to offer any help in dealing with the humiliation, violence or despair that were daily aspects of life at San Rafael High. I recall dreading going to campus and finally deciding that I was going to fight back. I would be just as cruel to others as they were to me. That was when I started to smart mouth teachers, school administrators and school narcs. I got into fights and was suspended. I realized that I could use my intellect to make fun of the jocks who tormented me, confusing and belittling them in front of other students. And it all made me feel more powerful, more clever and more in control than I had ever felt before in my life. But I also became more callous to the feelings of others, more arrogant, and more disdainful of people than I had ever been. Just like in the show, I alleviated my own suffering by making others suffer. I made myself feel big by making those who threatened me feel small. This coping strategy followed me into my post-high school life, and it has taken decades for me to learn how to abandon it.

Graffito on a water tower that sits on San Rafael Hill.

The only thing that feels inauthentic about 13 Reasons Why is the depiction of how kids from various and differing subgroups socialize with one another. So, for instance, Clay and Hannah attend (and are welcomed at) a party thrown by jocks and cheerleaders. Some of the jocks and popular kids appear at the cafe hangout frequented by Clay and his friends. Alex Standall, a kid who listens to The Ramones and Joy Division, dates Jessica Davis, the school’s most popular cheerleader. Maybe things have changed, but when I was in high school jocks and alternative kids did not date one another or attend the same parties. Maybe things are different now, or maybe this is just a bit of artistic license on the part of the show’s writers.

I would recommend 13 Reasons Why to those who are looking for something more than light, easy entertainment. It is a show that encourages viewers to reflect on their own victimization at the hands of bullies while also considering their own culpability in contributing to the suffering of others. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is not a show that offers catharsis or resolution. However, it does push audiences to think about their own complicated connections to others with depth and a sensitivity rarely seen on TV.

The Politics of Cultural Despair

Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair is a study that attempts to understand Nazism as a product of Germany’s unique cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the decades before the rise of Hitler. It was originally written as a doctoral dissertation (later to be published as a book in 1961), and focuses on three key intellectual figures who influenced the development of Germanic ideology: Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These three figures were social critics, diagnosing the decline of culture and presenting themselves as prophets of a new German spiritual rebirth.   In the Introduction, Stern describes his book as “a study in the pathology of cultural criticism” (p. 1), suggesting that these prophets of doom were simultaneously symptoms of their times as well as dangerous, pathological causes of Germany’s ill-fated drift toward Nazism.

Stern’s book is an engrossing analysis of the lives and works of a group of rather obscure thinkers whose ideas, in less odious form, also appear in the writings of other more well respected German authors; writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. But whereas Nietzsche saw the advent of cultural nihilism as something that each individual human being must live through and learn from, and whereas Spengler foresaw the decline of Western culture as an irreversible inevitability, Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller sought to offer a means of collective rescue; a strategy by which they could recover the spiritual heritage of their nation and thus reinvigorate German mass culture. In this way, they were, despite their shared prophesies of doom, optimists about the possibility of cultural renewal.

Stern uses the phrase “conservative revolution” to characterize the utopian strategies of these three figures. On the face of it, this might sound oxymoronic. After all, a conservative seeks, by definition, to “conserve” rather than to “revolt” against the status-quo. But in the case of Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller, their conservatism had nothing to do with defending the existing state of affairs, but with the defense of an idealized past, an “ancient tradition” (p. 1) before the dawn of modernity. In this ancient past, the German people were united by a religious bond of blood under a strong national leader. It was a time before the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the death of God. It was, however, a time that never really existed at all. These “conservative revolutionaries” were antiquarians, and their goal was to reestablish an imaginary past as a concrete reality in the present.

For Paul de Lagarde, this was to be accomplished with the founding of a new Germanic religion. This new faith was to be based on an interpretation of Christianity stripped of its supposed false dogmas while reasserting its true, original inspiration. Lagarde attacked and criticized the Jewish, Greek and Roman influences on Christianity, advocating the “liberation” of the Gospels from this background, which he claimed glorified Jesus’ death rather than his life. Instead, the true, original spirit of Jesus needed to be resuscitated. According to Lagarde, Jesus was primarily a rebel against the traditions and doctrines of Judaism, not the messiah foretold in the Old Testament or the supernatural “son of God” described by Paul. In line with this, a new Christianity should be focused on this world, becoming fused with the concrete characteristics and needs of the German people, thus creating a faith that would give meaning and purpose to the German state. It would “become the spiritual basis for a new state, for a new hierarchical community that would accept the teleological belief that God had placed men at different stations in life for different purposes” (p. 80).

For Julius Langbehn, the solution to Germany’s spiritual crisis was to be found not in religion (although at the end of his life he did convert to Catholicism), but in art. In his most well known and influential book, Rembrandt as Educator, he offers Rembrandt as “the personification of a cultural ideal” (p. 154) that could rescue Germany from its cultural decline. In the figure of this artist, Langbehn found the antithesis of the modern German. According to him, Rembrandt embodied all of the qualities needed in order for Germany to heal its wounds and rediscover its spiritual strength: sensitivity to the mysteries of Being, an awareness of the contradictions inherent in human life, fierce individualism, spontaneity, willfulness, and Volksthümlichkeit, the characteristic of “belonging to, expressing, yet transcending his people and its traditions” (p. 158). His overall solution to Germany’s cultural crisis was to rebel against the Modern drift toward reason and to return to a primal, tribal form of community using the artist as a spiritual guide.

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, like Langbehn, was an esthete who also looked to the artist as his hero. According to Moeller, Germany’s crisis was due to a forgetfulness of its primal spirit, and he believed this condition could be corrected by the propagation of a new breed of great, artistic men who would lead the nation toward a utopian future. As an admirer of Dostoyevski, he hoped to revivify the German spirit in the same way that he thought the Russian author had revivified his own country’s spirit. The rescue of Germany required the recognition that the Germans were in their essence, like the Russians, a “young” people, opposed to the “old” people of Britain and the US, and thus that the future belonged to them. Fate, therefore, dictated that Germany must expand its territory and accomplish the “domination of Europe” (p 253). In 1922, he published his most well known book, The Third Reich, which marked “the culmination of Moeller’s thought” as well as “the culmination of the Germanic ideology” (p. 311). In this book, he pronounced the need for a revolution that turned against the previous generation’s embrace of liberalism and modernity. German unity was to be reestablished in a nationalist form of socialism that would eliminate class struggle and reintegrate the workers with the goals of the nation as a whole in an organic, corporatist, hierarchical society.

Though not themselves Nazis, the dark sentiments and the proposed solutions advocated by these three authors were later integrated into the National Socialist platform. Their ideas proved popular because, like many Germans, they felt alienated from the world they inhabited, seeing it as a place where the old values and ways of life were withering away, producing an atmosphere of nihilism, anxiety, and increasing secularism. Populations caught in the grips of these kinds of feelings are prone to looking for saviors who promise a rescue; someone who understands the mood of alienation and who points the way back home. Stern observes that Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller were all “simultaneously proud and resentful of their alienation” (p. 327). On the one hand they proudly trumpeted their own uniqueness as “outsiders,” while on the other they aspired to transform the sick, decaying society around them into a place where they would no longer be outsiders. In so doing, they successfully channeled the mindset of a significant portion of the pre-World War II German population.  Yet the utopia imagined by these “prophets” never did, and never really could, exist. Writing in 1961, Stern points out that these men comprise a “cultural type” that has made an “appearance in all Western countries” (p. 328). In fact, they never go away because the problems they see in the world never go away. Reading about them now, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States during the 21st Century, it is clear their type still exists here, in our own land, and that they are still, tediously, proposing the sorts of “solutions” that they always have.

I think the most fundamental problem with this type of intellectual (both then and now) rests not in their pessimism or their prophesies of doom, but rather in their optimistic and arrogant conviction that they know best how to fix the world once and for all. Doom, of a sort, is inevitable (as Spengler suggests) precisely because the world changes. The old ways of life are under constant attack from the new, and for those who feel as if their own values have been pushed aside and undermined by newly emerging cultural forces, it can feel as if everything is coming to an end. And in a way, it is. Nothing stays the same, we can’t stop the forward motion of time, and we all are going to die. These are painful facts that are difficult to come to terms with, and I sympathize with those who are troubled by them.

But I don’t sympathize with arrogance. Socrates taught us that the highest wisdom consists in knowing that you don’t know everything, and this is a lesson that “conservative revolutionaries” (and utopians of all types, both on the right and the left) either never learned or have forgotten. In their conceit, this type never seems satisfied with just expressing their fear, sadness and mournfulness for a lost past. Instead, they optimistically try to put their ideas into action, making “the leap from cultural criticism to politics” (p. 327). In this, they hope to change the world for the better, but ironically, again and again, they seem to end up making the world worse than it was before.

I once told my wife that the shoddiest kinds of politicians are also artists. Artists are used to molding various raw materials, according to their own will, into a unique vision of aesthetic perfection. When this mentality is translated into political action, it easily becomes oppressive, totalitarian and unhinged from reality. Contrary to Langbehn and Moeller, I think artists are very poor models for political leaders.

Business people are probably even worse.

 

Cinematic Nihilism now on Edinburgh Scholarship Online

My book, Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is now available on Edinburgh Scholarship Online.

Edinburgh Scholarship Online is partnered with University Press Scholarship Online, which offers full-text online access to over 27,000 titles in 31 subject areas.