George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park

In 1973, an organization called the Lutheran Society commissioned George A. Romero to make a 16mm educational film addressing the hardships and the prejudices faced by elderly Americans. The result was The Amusement Park, an allegorical horror story about a 70 year-old man who is abused, attacked, and humiliated while wandering through an amusement park. The officials at the Lutheran Society decided the film was too strange, and it was pulled from public exhibition. But now, almost 50 years later, it has been restored and re-released by The George A. Romero Foundation.

The Amusement Park is only 54 minutes long, a bit disjointed, and most of the performers in it are non-professionals. These factors, however, only contribute to its surreal and unsettling impact. Romero’s compassion for the downtrodden was to become characteristic of all of his later movies, and it is interesting to witness this sensibility exhibited so early on in his career. While watching The Amusement Park, I felt as if I had entered a bad dream; a bad dream that obviously means something and that contains an important, social message.

The central character (played by Lincoln Maazel, who also later appears in Romero’s Martin) begins the film with a short monologue explaining the purpose of what is to follow. This tale, we are told, is intended to make the audience actually feel what it is like to be an elderly person in America, not simply to reiterate all of the objective facts about being old and underprivileged. It is an attempt to illustrate and dramatize the loneliness, poverty, and isolation that result from ageism.

As the story begins Massel sits in a white room, bloody, disheveled and distressed. Another neat, tidy, and dignified version of himself then enters and asks if he would like to go outside. His distressed self tells his chipper self that “There’s nothing outside,” and that if he goes outside “You won’t like it.” Here we get a foreshadowing of the horrors to come, and we also gat a taste of Romero’s message: those who have not yet experienced the humiliations of the world are not prepared to understand why it is that many elderly people withdraw and isolate themselves away from others.

Leaving the quiet, white room, the dignified version of Maazel encounters the hub-bud of an amusement park. A long line of elderly people wait at the gate, each carrying jewelry and – most symbolically important – clocks and watches that the gatekeeper takes from them in exchange for admission. On the soundtrack, obscured by carnivalesque sounds, we hear the ticking of a clock, indicating the forward movement of time and the advance toward death. As Heidegger wrote, we are all beings-toward-death, here for a finite amount of time before we pass away. Some of us repress this awareness, but the older one gets, the more urgent our consciousness of mortality becomes.

Maazel enters the park and accidentally bumps into a woman who, though she is unharmed, scolds the older man for being clumsy. His white suit is now stained by a drink that the younger woman has spilled on him. Unnerved, he next encounters a sign reading that in order to get on the rollercoaster, one “must have individual income over $3500.00,” not suffer from a variety of physical disabilities, and “must not fear the unknown.” Many old people are turned away, but our hero successfully boards the ride. When he disembarks, he assists a distressed, elderly woman to her wheelchair. It seems that the thrill of life’s rollercoaster is just too much for some.

Next we witness a train ride, after which young people disembark and are met by friends and family members who assist them with their small pieces of luggage. Two priests help one another carry a Bible, which appears as if it could be carried by only one of them. Meanwhile, an elderly woman sits atop a huge crate that no one will help her carry. Another elderly couple are given an eye test before being allowed to board the bumper cars, and when the wife collides with another car, she is berated for her age and told that she shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Our hero tries to intervene as a witness to the accident, but since he was not wearing his glasses his testimony is not counted as credible.

Now hungry, our hero – along with a large group of other old people – is belittled and ignored while a rich, cigar smoking man is lavished with attention while being served lobster and champagne. The old folks are forced to share an awful looking plate of what appears to be pasta, white bread, and chili. Disgusted, Mazzel goes to buy groceries at one of the park stands, but he is unable to carry all of the bags by himself and is ignored by others when he pleads for help. He ends up taking just a box of crackers and a jar of peanut butter, eating them while sitting on a park bench, where he is then accused of being a “degenerate” when he tries to talk with some little girls.

The one place where senior citizens are welcomed turns out to be a retirement home, populated by disabled old people who are cloistered away from the rest of the park, indoors. Fleeing, Mazzel loses his glasses and returns to the amusement park where he sees old people riding horses round and round in circles by a sign that reads “Inexpensive Public Transportation.”

Next, we see a young man and woman at a fortune teller, who reveals to them what their future holds. The young man ends up as an old invalid, taken care of by his old wife. They live in a slum and are unable to get medical care. Meanwhile, their slum lord tells a reporter that the elderly residents are at fault for the place falling into disrepair. Back at the fortune teller’s booth, the young man flees in horror upon hearing his destiny. When he sees Mazzel sitting on a bench, he angrily assaults him. Mazzel is then again beaten and robbed by a biker gang. Seeking medical attention, he is only offered band aids by doctors working in an assembly line medical clinic. Then, he is robbed again by a predatory huckster working with people who trick senior citizens into signing over the deeds to their homes.

A freak show displays old people who are mocked and ridiculed. When Massel leaves in disgust, he is pursued by a mob. Evading them, he seeks sanctuary at a church, but the priests put up a “Closed” sign that says they will be back at 9:30. Massel wanders to the “Lost and Found” area of the park, and while all of the children there are eventually reunited with their parents, the old people are left abandoned. A little girl motions for him to join her on the lawn, but in the middle of reading her a story the little girl’s mother gathers up their things and drags her daughter away. Massel now breaks down in tears and finally re-enters the white room from the beginning of the film where he is soon greeted by the chipper version of himself once again. The film has come full circle.

In a postscript, Massel warns the audience that we all grow old, and that while we are young enough “to take positive action” we should make sure that after our life in the amusement park we do not end up in a sterile, white room.

The existential themes in Romero’s The Amusement Park are obvious; so obvious that some critics complain that the film is unartful, beating audiences over the head with too much heavy-handed symbolism. But for me, that is precisely what is so effective about this little gem. Ostensibly conceived as an educational film, The Amusement Park adopts no pretense of being a piece of entertainment. It does not try to soothe us with subtlety or restraint. It is meant – as Massel tells us in the prologue – as a tool to force us into an experience of disorientation and distress, getting us to empathize with what it is like to be old and vulnerable in a world that neither values old age nor has any compassion for human vulnerability. In doing this, the film is more like an immersive shock event than it is a conventional motion picture. Its disjoined, episodic form evokes a bad dream, and as in all bad dreams, its imagery is symbolic, overdetermined, and distressing. Upon watching it, we are encouraged to turn inward, to reflect on our own vulnerabilities, to contemplate our own inevitable mortality, and to use the entire experience as a spur toward developing greater compassion for others.

The world we live in is the Amusement Park. It is the most awful horror story of all.

End of the Semester

The end of the spring semester at the College of Marin is now here, and as always, it is an occasion filling me with a melancholy sense of impermanence and the passing of things. This year my dark feelings have been intensified by the pandemic, which has hovered over academia like an anvil cloud.

Struggling through the frustrations of online instruction this semester, I continued to hope things would get better in the coming academic year, and that classes could resume on-campus, face-to-face in the fall. It turns out that hope is cruel. It generates anxious anticipation that is dashed by an unpredictable reality. And the reality is that all of my philosophy classes will remain online through the end of the year 2021.

Instructors at the College of Marin were offered the choice to schedule fall classes as hybrid courses, which would have opened the possibility of actually conducting meetings face-to-face. But then word came down from the administration about what steps we would have to take in order to make this happen. Each class would have to be divided into 10 person sections that would meet separately in order order to facilitate social distancing in the classroom. Additionally, we would have to schedule hour-long breaks between classes so that the rooms could be cleaned and sanitized.

A quick calculation of what all of this would entail made me realize the absurdity of such arrangements. I normally teach 6 courses per semester with 30 students in each class. Each class meets twice a week for 1.5 hours per meeting. That means that 12 weekly on-campus class meetings would turn into 36 weekly class meetings totaling 54 hours. Even if I taught half of my load online, meeting with only 3 classes on-campus would require 18 meetings totaling 27 hours a week. And don’t forget, there would have to be a 1 hour pause between each meeting so that the rooms could be sanitized. That would mean that I would spend virtually all day, every day, Monday through Thursday, on campus. Work with the remaining 3 online classes, as well as the preparation and grading for all classes, would have to be conducted during the remaining hours of the day, and over the weekends.

Someone made the suggestion we could conduct classes outside, or just meet with students once at the beginning of the semester in order to make personal contact. Meeting with students once may seem like a nice gesture, but pedagogically it seems to me that it has little, real purpose. And while I like the general idea of outdoor classes – walking in the sunshine while philosophizing as Aristotle did at his Lyceum – how many other classes would be meeting in the college quad and what sorts of distractions would this entail? We all would be required to wear masks, there would be no boards to write on, and when the weather became unpleasant, class meetings would have to be abruptly cancelled. None of this lends itself to a predicable schedule of effective instruction. I don’t see how the required curriculum could be addressed systematically or with rigor under such conditions.

And so I’ll continue to conduct classes on Zoom at least until 2022 arrives. This is a reality that has done nothing to brighten my mood, but at least I can look forward to having some some good philosophical conversations while I remain cooped up in my home office.

Life Against Death

Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, by Norman O. Brown. Sphere Books, 1968.

In Life Against Death, Norman O. Brown seeks to transform Freud’s pessimistic philosophical psychology into an optimistic roadmap showing the way toward a cure for humankind’s despair. It is a strange book – in Brown’s own words “a rather eccentric book” (p. 13) – but one that has provoked me to reflect on my own attraction to Freud and Nietzsche and to examine my own assumptions about the meaning of life.

Brown’s goal is to demonstrate that the human death instinct need not be opposed to the instinct of life. His contention is that if repression is overcome, death will be understood as a natural accompaniment to life and then human existence can return to an unconflicted state of contentment. He likens the consciousness that would thus ensue as Dionysian; a state of complete affirmation that “does not negate anymore” (p. 270). This would be akin to what is promised by Western and Eastern mystics who teach about the perfectibility of the soul; however it differs from mysticism insofar as it accepts the reality of finitude and death. Like Freud, Brown accepts human finitude, but unlike Freud he insists that humans can become perfect.

Today, Freud has fallen into a great deal of disfavor among scientists and the public, but it is undeniable that his ideas nevertheless permeate our culture and frame much of our thinking about the human condition. It is easy to dismiss Freud as a product of his times, as a sexist, classist, or as unscientific, but it is not so easy to dismiss the actual substance of his insights into the mechanisms of consciousness or the unsettling influence these insights have had on our culture.  Brown suggests that Freud remains of the utmost importance precisely because of the subversive and “shattering” effects that he has had on “Western traditions of morality and rationality” (p. 11). Freud has forced us to question the foundations of human existence and to confront what lies behind the highest ideals of our civilization. In this regard Freud stands alongside Nietzsche as one of history’s greatest iconoclasts, smashing dearly held idols and unmasking the vulgar, uncomfortable reality behind our collective fantasies.

The key to understanding Freud’s importance lies in the concept of repression (p. 16). Repression is a phenomenon in which one refuses to allow one’s self consciously to acknowledge a desire. Brown writes that Freud’s discovery of this phenomenon was initiated by his insistence that neuroses mean something. Neuroses do not appear out of the blue, with no source or purpose whatsoever. Behind these seemingly absurd phenomena lie causes. And yet a person experiencing an unpleasant neurosis cannot clearly explain why it is that the mental disturbance occurs. Since afflicted people do not know why they behave and feel that way that they do, and since their behaviors and feelings must have a mental cause, the cause must originate from a region of the mind that is not conscious. Hence, there must exist an unconscious mental realm. Freud’s groundbreaking hypothesis is that this unconscious realm is a repository of inhibited drives and desires that human beings refuse to acknowledge or accept. It is a realm of the mind that operates under the force of repression and in a state of “mental conflict” between the opposing energies of life and death (p. 17).

Freud insists this state of mental conflict is the “normal” state of human existence. We see this in what he calls the “psychopathology of everyday life.” In everyday life, normal people are forgetful, anxious, depressed, and obsessive. They dream, experience slips of the tongue, and laugh. Neurosis is our everyday state of being, and consequently the line between “healthy” and “sick” turns out to be a matter of degree. A healthy person is someone who has controlled his or her neuroses so that they do not interfere with life in a civilized society. A sick person is someone whose neuroses get in the way of civilized life. Humankind is universally neurotic, and to be “healthy” is simply to have a “socially usual form of neurosis” (p. 18). All of us exist in an ongoing state of psychic conflict, and what powers this neurotic conflict, according to Freud, is the struggle between irrational drives and our need to repress those drives.

Why do we need to repress our most fundamental drives? According to Freud, we do so as a way of mediating between our inner urges and outer reality. Our inner world is a place of unruly energy and passion that operates according to the “pleasure-principle” (p. 20). This is the world of the Id instincts, which seek immediate satisfaction and discharge. The realities of the outer world, however, require that we harness and discipline our inner drives, subjecting them to the “reality-principle” in order to navigate effectively through our environment. Consciousness is an adaptation of the human organism that emerges through the repression of fundamental drives and the channeling of those drives into the activities of life in the real world. Among these realities are the social realties we face as members of civilized communities. Thus, according to Brown, Freud “arrives at the same conclusion as Nietzsche,” with both claiming that “[n]eurosis is an essential consequence of civilization or culture” (p. 21).

Civilization is implicated in the shape and structure of human neuroses, and the unfolding of civilization just is the history of humankind. An understanding of history, then, constitutes an integral part of psychoanalysis. Brown writes that Freud came to the conclusion that history is a collective neurotic symptom and that consequently the particular neuroses of individual human beings must be understood within the context of history (p. 23). Freud called for an investigation into “healthy” and “unhealthy” cultures in Civilization and It’s Discontents, (a task that Nietzsche had already carried out in works like Beyond Good and Evil, Genealogy of Morality, and Twilight of the Idols), and Brown tells us that his own position is that this investigation should be regarded as the “central problem confronting both psychoanalysis and history” (p. 25).

“Why does man, alone of all animals, have a history?” According to Brown, the answer to this question is that man has a “desire  to become other than what he is” (p. 25). This largely unconscious desire is what propels humankind forward. Unlike other animals, we are perpetually dissatisfied with what we are, and it is the restless urge to overcome ourselves that keeps us actively unsettled and distressed. According to Brown, Christian philosophy purports to offer a path toward the overcoming of this restlessness – a cure for “the disease called man” (Chapter 1) – and yet it is ultimately unrealistic in it’s denial of human finitude. A thinker like Freud, on the other hand, recognizes the reality of human finitude and yet denies the perfectibility of humans. Freud condemns us to eternal unhappiness insofar as he conceives the fundamental human drives as binary opposites: life and death, or eros and thanatos. However, according to Brown, within Freud’s philosophical psychology there lies a dialectical pathway toward the reconciliation of these opposed, internal forces that was unrecognized by Freud himself. If death can be acknowledged as a property of life, Brown contends that we could resolve our inner psychic conflict, and come to rest internally content. And if human civilization could evolve to embrace the human erotic drive, then repression would disappear altogether, history would come to an end, and humans could embrace the here-and-now world as entirely perfect. In this, the reality-principle would be dissolved and replaced by the pleasure-principle. This is Brown’s utopian vision.

Brown suggests a key contribution of Freudian psychoanalysis is to “trace religious and philosophical problems to their roots in the concrete human body” (p. 119). The reason that this is so important to Brown’s project is that it opens up the possibility of anchoring all of our various anxieties, complexes, and neuroses in a singular, underlying reality, thus allowing us to dismantle the dichotomous and dualistic conceptions that have resulted in the repression of human desire. By rediscovering “the animal in man,” Freud opens up the possibility for us to “heal the war between body and soul” (p. 126), to become unrepressed and to overcome the need to sublimate our inner drives. While Freud himself did not fully realize the potential of psychoanalysis, Brown suggests that it is a science that holds the promise of allowing us finally to understand that ideas such as the “soul,” “civilization,” and “morality,” are abstractions that lead us away from the body, and thus away from true happiness. They are sublimations (and so forms of repression) that result from channeling our real drives and urges toward illusory projects doomed to frustration precisely because they are not concrete, bodily goals. The whole of civilization and all of its sublime products are nothing more than (vain) attempts to rediscover “the lost body of childhood” (153). Cultural artifacts are projections, fetishes, and fantasies through which we try to recapture the unrepressed and non-neurotic state of existence we once occupied as infants. But in so doing, we keep “life at a distance” (p. 156) and miss the true purpose of our existence.

The way out is to rediscover our Dionysian selves, according to Brown. The Dionysian ego would be one freed from the Apollonian drive toward order and structure. In this, our deepest, bodily drives would no longer be harnessed and controlled by social norms. This would be a life of polymorphous perversity: a state in which the life energies are freed to be experienced as they once were, throughout the body without socially constructed forms of repression.

In Part Five of Life Against Death, titled “Studies in Anality,” (pp. 161 – 265) Brown undertakes a psychoanalytical investigation into the bodily origins of literature, religion, and money. All of these cultural artifacts, Brown suggests, have their source in the pleasure once found by the infant in the regions of the anal canal. While we have fooled ourselves into thinking that these cultural artifacts are based on rational principles ( like the rules of language, morality, economic laws), the truth is that over the course of history humankind has progressively displaced its pleasure seeking behavior upwards and away from the anus, desiccating “the magic out of the human body” (p. 264), by desexualizing it, harnessing it, and subjecting it to the Apollonian force of civilization. All cultural artifacts are replacements for what we really want: unrepressed, bodily pleasure. And where has civilization  brought us? To the brink of nuclear war and environmental destruction. By repressing and sublimating our lower, bodily drives, we have tried to become something that we are not, in the process negating ourselves the world around us. We have split ourselves in two – into body and soul – and in the process have turned the aggressive death drive back against Eros, the life drive. Civilization has culminated in the war of the intellect against the body: a truly self-destructive outcome.

To understand that the death drive is, at its source, a manifestation of life itself is to start moving in the direction of overcoming the binary oppositions that have characterized Western civilization according to Brown. This will allow us to heal ourselves, to throw off the fetters of traditional civilization, and to rediscover the unity and oneness of our erotic drive. “What the great world needs, of course, is a little more Eros and less strife” (p. 281). Jackie DeShannon could not have said it any better.

Life Against Death is a fascinating book with an enormous reputation and following. And rightfully so. But while Brown’s interpretation of Freud is brilliant, I’m left puzzled by the author’s final suggestions for an unrepressed life. If all of civilization is the result of the repression and sublimation of Eros, then is he suggesting that humans need to completely dismantle civilization? Doesn’t this imply that we must give up on literature, religion, money, music? And if so, what then? Are we to spend our lives pursuing the “excremental vision” instead (p. 163), wallowing in the pleasures of anal eroticism? Maybe I’m too repressed to see the benefit of this kind of life, but I prefer Freud’s “pessimistic” approach to Brown’s utopianism. It seems to me that externalizing our distress in forms of artistic creation is a quite noble and worthwhile reaction to “the disease called man.”  While I’m in agreement with Brown that humans are animals that refuse to be what they are, I am not in agreement that this is a condition that calls for overcoming. It seems to me that the dissatisfaction of human existence is the engine pushing us onward. This is what we are, and perhaps in his search for perfection, Brown inadvertently denies the real truth of human existence: that we are, in our core, animals who must refuse to accept ourselves as we are.

I can imagine a life without religion and money, but I can’t imagine a life without music and literature. As Nietzsche once wrote, that would be a mistake.

Pandemic Sessions

While live music venues have remained shuttered and people have been sheltering in place, Sacripolitical has been working diligently on a 4-song EP and has pressed a limited edition 7″ vinyl record. Both are now available on Bandcamp!

Using plenty of masks and Guinness, The Pandemic Sessions is a DIY production, recorded outdoors in Marin County, CA from 2020 – 2021. The four tracks on the EP are: Shove It Up Your Ass!, Gogol’s Nose, White Suburban Brat Problems, and Incorporated. Each song screams defiance toward a world in utter disarray! This is punk rock music tempered in the furnace of our current times.

Purchase Sacripolitical’s vinyl 7″ (Shove It Up Your Ass! B/W Gogol’s Nose) and get unlimited free streaming of the full 4 song EP. Purchase the digital EP and get access to a bonus video, an interview with the band, and pictures from our pandemic recording sessions.

Nihilism has never been rendered in such dulcet tones.

https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/album/pandemic-sessions

The Lovecraft ezine Podcast

The Lovecraft ezine is an independent publisher, podcast, and online community, run by Mike Davis, devoted to Lovecraftian and cosmic horror. Mike has invited me to be a guest on his podcast, which airs live on Sunday, March 28th. It will also be available on Youtube, Spotify, iTunes and other platforms shortly after the live show.

It should be a lot of fun!

 

Religion and Nothingness

Religion and Nothingness, by Keiji Nishitani. Translated with an Introduction by Jan Van Bragt. University of California Press, 1983.

Decades ago, I was a member of the US Army Reserves, serving as a combat engineer. The engineer motto is Essayons: “Let us try.” We used to joke about this, laughing that while we might not successfully accomplish very much, we sure do try! Essayons is also the source of the English word “essay”: a short piece of writing that attempts to clarify a particular topic. That’s what I’m going to do in this blog post. I am going to make an attempt at writing a short, clear explanation of a very long, difficult, and enigmatic book that I have been struggling to understand for the past few months: Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness. I may not be completely successful, but in good Engineer spirit, I certainly will try!

Jan Van Bragt, the translator of Religion and Nothingness, writes that despite his best efforts to render Nishitani’s book from Japanese into English, “I cannot flatter myself that the results make for easy reading.” (p. x) The difficultly, he tells us, is the consequence of two major issues. First, Japanese authors tend to write in an indirect manner, “circumnavigating an issue” rather than directly and succinctly stating conclusions. Nishitani in particular engages in what Bragt calls “spiral repetitiveness,” (p. xli) orbiting around a point again and again, repeating it like a musical theme. To an English language reader, this can be tedious and distracting. Secondly, Nishitani uses the notoriously difficult jargon of Heideggerian philosophy combined with the mysterious terminology of Zen Buddhism, making his book often seems cryptic and sometimes baffling. To this, I would also add that the topic of Nishitani’s investigation by its very nature is abstract and hard to grasp, so no matter what method or language one used to approach it, difficulty should be expected.

The book is a collection of six thematically related essays, woven together in order to explore how “nothingness” is conceived in both the Eastern and the Western traditions of philosophy. The book’s main thesis, as I understand it, is that Eastern “nothingness” differs from Western “nothingness” in that Eastern thought conceives of nothingness as a productive kind of “emptiness” (sunyata) while Western thought conceives of nothingness in terms of a pure negativity (nihility) that leads to meaninglessness and nihilism. Nishitani contends that while both forms of nothingness are possible “fields” against which reality can unfold, nihility is ultimately grounded in the fundamental emptiness of sunyata, which collapses all apparent, worldly dualities into unity and oneness. If we can grasp sunyata, we can grasp the unitary, productive and positive ground of all Being. Sunyata is “the real form of reality” (p. 76).

Nishitani’s jumping off point is the question, “What is religion?” Religion, he tells us, originates from our search for purpose and meaning in life (p. 4). We find ourselves in a world, doing things, and we are prompted to wonder: Why do we do the things we do? What is the reason behind it all? This concern with meaning and purpose encourages us to look outside of ourselves, to the world around us, for answers to our deepest questions. In so doing, we set our inner experience up against the outer world and thus come to think of reality in terms of a subject/object, or inner/outer, relationship. The fragmentation of reality begins with this distinction and continues as we come to conceive of reality as a place populated by disconnected “things.” The Cartesian/scientific worldview is the culmination of this perspective, which reduces the world outside of the mind to bodies in motion. Nishitani associates this perspective with the Western, negative form of nothingness called “nihilty.” When regarded in terms of nihility, reality comes to be understood as a meaningless collection of objects. This is nihilism.

Both Western theists and atheists alike encounter nihility as a threat and thus must grapple with the specter of nihilism precisely because they both view reality through a subject/object lens. In the case of Western theists, God is the ultimate subject who has created the universe as an object separate from Himself. Humans, in turn, are separated from God and are compelled to relate their own subjective consciousnesses toward God as an object. For atheist existentialists like Sartre, the human self is in constant conflict with other people and the non-human world. We are condemned to struggle against reality and objectify it as something outside of ourselves. Thus, both Western theism and atheism fragment reality by emphasizing the separation and conflict between the self and the other; between the inner world of subjective consciousness and the outer world of objects. Take away all of the subjects and all of the objects in the universe and what remains is a terrifying, desolate nothingness: a “relative nothingness,” or nihility.

The experience of nihility emerges from questioning the foundations of reality and it culminates in the view that nothing is permanent and that there is no stable ground beneath either subjects or objects. However, a further kind of questioning, a “Great Doubt” (p. 18) is capable of destabilizing our belief in the distinction between subject and object (or inner and outer) . This Great Doubt is the threshold of religion. Religion is what encourages us to adopt a standpoint that is not the “self,” but which is the very condition that allows for the generation and possibility of self-consciousness in the first place. “So long as the field of separation between within and without is not broken through, and so long as a conversion from that standpoint does not take place, the lack of unity and contradiction spoken of earlier cannot help but prevail among the things we take as real” (p. 10). Great Doubt is what allows us to break through the fragmentation entailed by subject/object thinking and to repair the unity of reality. In this, “there is neither within nor without” (p. 41). It is here that the boundaries between the personal and the impersonal are dissolved, and all things are understood to be one. This primal oneness is a kind of nothingness; but it is not the nothingness of nihility. It is the positive, “absolute nothingness” of sunyata.

Nishitani sets up a contrast between the viewpoints of science and religion. Whereas religion rests on the belief that all things in the universe are interconnected and meaningful, science promotes a view that the world is “indifferent to the fact of man” (p. 49). Humans are material objects, just like all other material objects, ruled by the impersonal laws of nature. “Human interests make no difference” (p. 50). From the perspective of religion (in particular Western religion), on the other hand, the natural world has a purpose and a plan. It has been created by God for some overarching reason. It is teleological. During the Enlightenment, the conviction developed that with the use of logic and reason, humans could understand and control the mechanisms governing impersonal, passive matter, thus empowering us to seize the basic elements of reality and direct them toward our own desired purposes. This, according to Nishitani, developed into the idea of progress. While the universe itself was viewed as passive and impersonal, human intellect could harness its potential and direct it toward the fulfillment of human desires. For Nishitani, this is connected with the development of modern atheism and the Death of God. Modern humans feel themselves liberated from the control of God, but at the same time they feel themselves exposed to the nihility of existence in a world that lacks overarching meaning or purpose (p 57). Existentialism is a powerful philosophical expression of this awareness, but modern Christianity also must grapple with it.

In Christianity, God is conceived as a person, and a person is one who possesses free-will. To be free means to be able to act in a manner that is undetermined by forces outside of one’s self. But acting in a manner that is undetermined implies that one stands outside of the laws of nature. God, according to Christianity, created humans to be free, and so both God and humans must stand, in some sense, outside of nature. This “outside” is what Nishitani seems to intend as the nothingness grounding both God and humans in their freedom. But in Christianity, this nothingness is a non-productive nothing – a nihility – since absent a person (either God or a human), it could never produce anything at all. According to Christianity, it is God that willfully conjured Being out of nothingness. God is the productive element here, not nothingness. But then this places God in the same position as modern humans who must grapple with nihilism: God is a person, both free and exposed to the meaningless nihility that underlies Being. This is the point at which the idea of God as a person undermines itself, and “God is not God himself” (p. 67). Nishitani uses this as an opportunity to suggest that perhaps we should find a way of thinking about both God and humans as something other than mere “persons.”

Personhood is related to the experience of being alive. Nishitani reminds us that the word “person” comes from the concept of a persona, which is a mask through which one speaks and acts. A persona is an appearance (p. 70), a phenomenon. Behind the appearance, however, there is nothing. The persona just is the process of life that emerges out of an interaction between appearance and non-appearance. “It is not some ‘thing’ or entity different from person. It brings into being the thing called person and becomes one with it” (p. 70). Personhood, then, is made possible by the free-flowing “nothing at all” (p. 71) that always is active in the production of the personal point of view. Nishitani’s discussion becomes quite enigmatic at this point, referring to the “seeing of not-seeing” (p. 71) and to comprehending “the near side” (p. 70), but what I generally take him to be circling around here is the idea that a genuine experience of personhood cannot conclusively be summed up and exhausted. We are animated by a process of life that is not a thing at all. It is an active no-thing-ness, and it is a mistake to reify personhood into a static collection of qualities. Nishitani counsels us to abandon the “person-centered” perspective that objectifies our subjectivity, and to shift our attention toward the “revelation” of dynamic, productive, absolute nothingness, which is a “living nothingness” (p. 71). This is the nothingness of sunyata that stands behind persons the way life stands behind a mask.

Life as we experience it is more than just physics. Nishitani suggests that there are two, linked elements that govern our world. First, there are laws of nature. Second, there is an element of animate life that is capable of harnessing the laws of nature for its own purposes (p. 82). The laws of nature explain how it is that matter interacts with matter, but this does not explain how it is that human life comes to understand, intervene in, and utilize those laws for its own projects. For instance, Nishitani points out that machines are fully governed by natural laws, yet nowhere in nature do machines appear “naturally.” Machines are constructed by humans in order to liberate them from the need to perform certain types of work. In this way, while machines are, on the one hand, expressions of natural laws, on the other hand, they are also “the supreme emancipation from the rule of the laws of nature” (p. 84). Adherence to nature’s law here results in the freedom from nature’s law. Of course, this relationship is often “perverted” and human life can become “mechanized” when we allow the laws of nature, through the machine, to reassert control over human life (p. 85). But there is also danger in thinking that humans can be completely liberated from the laws of nature altogether. Humans are part of nature and should not be thought of as separate from nature. We are unique in being able to understand our nature and to use that nature in order to express our freedom. It is a mistake, Nishitani claims, to sever the connection between law and freedom. If we conceive of humans as mere matter, we drift into the nihilism of meaningless materialism. If we conceive of humans as pure will, we drift into the nihilism of the isolated, solitary, and alienated “self” (p. 86). To avoid these “nihilisms,” we must avoid the dualism of thinking of life as one or the other. Thinking of human life as either pure matter or pure will grounds us in nihility: negative nothingness. If we recognize both “body and personality” (p. 90) as integral components of human life, then we can become receptive to sunyata.

The problem with nothingness as nihility is that it conceives of “nothingness” as a being, as an “abyss” (p. 96) that opens up beneath our existence, threatening to swallow up all significance and meaning. Nothingness as sunyata, however, is not some “thing” outside of or beneath our existence. “Rather, it is to be realized as something united to and self-identical with being” (p. 97). Nothingness in this sense is not separate from being, but always in a relationship with being. It is a kind of “emptiness.” It is “being-sive-nothingness.” Here, sive is used by Nishitani as a way to indicate that being and nothingness are always related and intertwined with one another. They are not related in the sense of a subject and an object, but as a kind of unity. He uses fire as an analogy in attempting to convey his point, explaining how fire as fire cannot burn itself, and thus fire is something that both burns and that does not burn. Its identity is not constituted by a subject related to object, or as a substance and its attributes, but as a process of combustion and non-combustion that coexist simultaneously (pp. 112 – 118). To me, this example was not really all that helpful. What did come to my mind as I read this part of the book was Sartre’s discussion of nothingness as a hole within Being. A hole is not a “thing” but a lack that exists only in relationship with that which it negates. For instance, the hole in a doughnut does not exist apart from the dough. Likewise, the nothingness of sunyata does not exist apart from Being, but interpenetrates Being just as Being interpenetrates nothingness. They are inseparable.

When we cease to think of our world in terms of substances or in terms of subjects and objects, we are opened to the possibility of encountering Being on the ground of emptiness rather than on the ground of nihility. But, Nishitani tells us, this encounter “cannot on the whole be expressed in the ordinary language of reason” (p. 124). This is because reason forces us to predicate one thing in terms of another, splitting the world up into subjects and objects. From the perspective of sunyata, however, the world is one, and when we stand on this “homeground,” the language we use to describe the experience becomes paradoxical. This is the “knowing of non-knowing…where things themselves are all gathered into one” (p. 140).

Nishitani introduces a diagram to illustrate this perspective, suggesting that in the traditional, Western way of experiencing the world, it is as if we have positioned ourselves within the center of a circle, looking outward toward the periphery. From this perspective, the boundaries of the circle seem fixed and finite. Yet, if we shift our perspective to take account of the the infinite array of tangents that touch upon, and pierce, the boundaries of the circle, we start to comprehend that the center of the circle is a center only from a static and fixed position. On the field of nihility, the infinite tangents appear scattered and disjointed. This is nihilism. A further shift to the field of sunyata, however, brings a new unity to our experience of diversity, as we conceive of the countless tangents as unfolding on “a void of infinite space, without limit or orientation” (p. 146). This allows us to comprehend a unity in the diversity before us. On the field of sunyata, the center is everywhere, and all things are what they are in their own uniqueness while also remaining connected to all other things. “Fire is not fire, therefore it is fire.” “…a self that is not itself in being itself, [is] a self that is not a self” (p. 165).

What is the relationship of nothingness to time and history? According to Nishitani, we find differing approaches to this question in Western and Eastern philosophy and religion. In Western Christian thought, time and history have been conceived as the “once and for all” (p. 206) creations of God. They are how God reveals meaning to humans. In this, history is thought to have a single direction and purpose. This, according to Nishitani, is connected to the intolerance of Christianity. There is no room for alternate meanings or agendas; only God’s singular purpose is real. Nishitani believes that the historical consciousness of Christianity is an important turning point in human thought, since it contributed to the non-religious, Western view of rational progress and the conviction that history has meaning. Nietzsche attempted to turn against this tradition by reintroducing the viewpoint of the Eternal Return, in which time and history go nowhere, looping round and round like a snake biting its own tail. Despite their apparent differences, however, both Christianity and Nietzsche’s views of time are nevertheless grounded in nihility rather than sunyata.

Christian eschatology teaches that the end of history occurs within history. The final judgement is supposed to be an event ushering in a transhistorical dimension, but this event is itself historical. So how can a transhistorical Truth become historical while still being transhistorical? Only because behind it stands a personal God. It is because “God is a being,” (p. 215), a transhistorical “other,” the creator of all time and history, that His will can be revealed historically. The same goes for Nietzsche, who replaces “the life giving power of the Will for the God of Christianity” (p. 216). This, ultimately, is why Western approaches to time and history lead to nihilism: instead of grounding all reality in a singular unity, they fracture reality into subject and object, self and other. In contrast, Nishitani advocates the perspective of Zen Buddhism, which posits time “without beginning or end” which “cannot be thought without the totality of relationships that make up the world” (p. 238). From this perspective, self-centeredness evaporates and all of our karmic activity becomes a kind of purposeless “play” (253). Self is non-self. Work is play. Samsara is nirvana. All apparent opposites collapse into one.

In the last pages of Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani sums up this perspective:

In brief, in the circumincessional relationship a field can be opened on which contradictory standpoints – where the other is seen as telos, and where the self is seen as telos; where the self serves others and makes itself a nothingness, and where the self remains forever the self itself – are both radicalized precisely by virtue of their being totally one. It is the field of the “knowing of non-knowing” that we spoke of as no different from the “being” itself of things themselves. It is also the field of absolute freedom. (p. 284)

Sunyata, the field of emptiness, is the productive nothingness that allows for the absorption of all the world’s conflicting elements into a singular unity. Instead of clearing away and nullifying reality – as is the case for relative nothingness, or nihility – sunyata gathers together reality. For this reason, whereas nihility results in alienation, disconnection, and meaninglessness, sunyata results in synthesis, interconnection. and profound meaning. This seems, ultimately, to be what recommends sunyata over nihility for Nishitani.

Religion and Nothingness is a very difficult book. I feel as if my understanding of it is slowly solidifying through continuing reflection and by drawing connections to existentialist works, like those by Sartre, that are more familiar to me. At this point, one very useful distinction from Nishitani’s book stands out to me: the distinction between the absolute, productive nothingness of sunyata and the relative, negative nothingness of nihility. This distinction does go a long way in helping to explain why it is that Western philosophy, beginning with the Presocratics, has sought to avoid grounding reality in nothingness. If it is assumed that “something cannot come from nothing,” then it would make sense that all things must be rooted in one underlying substance: a singular “something.” Eastern thought, which presumes nothingness as a creative and productive principle, however, need not explain all that exists in terms of a singular substance. This is very helpful in clarifying a fundamental difference between the Western and Eastern versions of metaphysics.

But why choose one set of assumptions over the other? Nishitani argues that the Western viewpoint leads to nihilism, and that this is sufficient to reject nothingness as nihility. For those of us who embrace nihilism, however, this argument won’t work. On the other hand, the fact that the logical use of language breaks down with sunyata might be enough to encourage some of us to reject this form of absolute nothingness as irrational. I’m currently left with the feeling that Nishitani leaves us on the horns of a dilemma:

Do you prefer to remain in the grips of nihilism or to lapse into irrationality?

Very Little Sleep

Sam Golden’s 1984 album, Very Little Sleep, has been rereleased and will be available for digital download on February 5th from the newly reestablished Recordlike Records label. Thanks to Joseph Murphy for his efforts in hunting Sam down after all of these years and putting in the work to preserve this obscure bit of music history.

In 1984 I was 20 years old. Sam was one of my best friends and the drummer in our punk rock band, Sacripolitical. For years, Sam worked on this solo album, writing all of the songs, playing all of the instruments, doing all of the recording, and funding the pressing of the record. It truly was a labor of love.

Sam stored the records in his foster parents’ garage, losing many of them to water damage. He distributed copies to his friends, and apparently over the intervening decades some of them found their way into the hands of record collectors. The album developed a cult following and just last year one of these collectors tracked Sam down, bought the rights to the record and now has rereleased it in a digital format.

I still know all of the lyrics to Sam’s songs, and as they echo in my head memories from the past flood through me. I’m moved that his music has found an audience and has been rediscovered by a new generation of listeners.

Here’s a description of Sam’s masterpiece from the Recordlike site on Bandcamp:

While surrounding music industry forefronts shifted more towards bread and circuses, it should come as no surprise that this particular record—a total deviation of such—was the doing of a teenaged punk rock participant. Sam Golden’s Very Little Sleep was a promptly-abandoned pressing of five hundred LPs that had zero marketing treatment; most copies were actually destroyed. Its bass-baritone lead likens amateur dramatics, a sole protagonist crooning his most private love letters. Despite stage readiness, no song here was ever performed live, as giving this music an audience was not an immediate goal for Sam. Instead, his body of work serves mostly as a token of bereavement, of childhood maternal loss, memorializing the parent whose inheritance funded all production on the album. Crafted in Northern California 36 years ago, copies have since traveled outside the home state and country despite limited availability, all bearing the message “this album is dedicated to the memory of Peggy Golden.”Sam’s one-man band developed an unparalleled sound. Punk in nature for its layers of sarcasm and raw performance, but an anomaly above all.

New Year, Same Despair

2020 was a difficult year, and we all developed our own strategies for dealing with its challenges. As I withdrew into my personal cocoon of stay-at-home isolation, I tried to remain creatively active, engaged, and motivated. It’s been a struggle, and I periodically found myself slipping into the grips of depression, sadness, and passive despair.

The pandemic has revealed how many of the activities and services we previously took for granted can be done without. I don’t need to commute to campus in order to conduct classes. I don’t need to go to a gym in order to exercise. I don’t need to go to the market in order to get groceries. And yet, life continues, in substance, the way it always did, except that instead of running here and there to distract myself into thinking that I’m actively accomplishing things, I do everything while orbiting my neighborhood. I used to joke with my wife about how humans have a funny habit of spending lots of money going places, only to do all of the same things that they would do at home anyway. This has become more clear than ever.

I remind myself of the bright spots: spending more time with my wife, talking with students on Zoom and reading their thoughts, making music remotely with my friends, reading, writing, going on motorcycle rides. These activities have taken on special importance as touchstones that ground me when I feel like I’m spinning off into complete darkness. Nihilism can be be greeted in a variety of ways – passively, actively, with hostility, with welcoming arms – but, throughout my life, I’ve generally chosen to deal with the chaos of our world by striving to impose my own form of orderliness onto the disorderliness surrounding me. In this way, the pandemic hasn’t changed much. I still seek to carve out and sustain my own little realm amidst the world’s swirling confusion. While I recognize that nothing I do is important in the grand scheme of things, my touchstones have remained important to me personally, giving me reasons to keep going on.

2021 will offer much of the same. I’ve resolved that whatever else happens, I choose steadily to engage in the same activities and projects that I have always valued, and to lay the groundwork for whatever it is that comes after the pandemic. Ours is a world of impermanence, change, suffering, and unpredictability. The lessons of the ancient Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans are more relevant than ever:

Take charge of yourself.