The Fear of Nothingness in the West

I’ve started work on a paper, “The Fear of Nothingness in the West,” that will be part of a forthcoming collection titled Monograph on Zero. This monograph is part of an ongoing project by the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, which seeks to understand the historical origins of the concept of zero.

My contribution is intended as a contrast to other papers in the collection that focus on the Eastern origins of zero. Why is it that the concept of zero did not emerge – and in fact was resisted – in the West? Perhaps it has to do with the assumptions embedded in the thoughts of the first Western philosophers: the Presocratics.

Abstract: The Fear of Nothingness in the West, by John Marmysz

The fear of nothingness has deep roots in the West. Whereas Eastern “emptiness” is commonly associated with spiritual peace and creative potential, in the West, nothingness is more commonly associated with complete nonexistence, oblivion and the extinction of all value and meaning. In this regard, Westerners have traditionally conceived of nothingness as a dreadful and terrifying lack; something to be overcome and defeated rather than something to be embraced.

The roots of the Western fear of nothingness can be traced at least as far back as the Presocratics and their philosophical efforts to conceptualize an eternal, immutable, uncreated and stable substance out of which all things emerge. Despite the varied and ephemeral nature of the world’s appearances, the Presocratics suggested that there remains something stable, permanent and dependable underneath it all. Whether it be Thales’ claim that “all is water,” Anaximander’s claim that the universe arises from “Apeiron,” or Democritus’ assertion that everything comes from atoms, the strategy pursued by these ancient Greek thinkers served to offer the comfortable assurance that our cosmos has a steady and knowable foundation. The universe ultimately rests on one “thing” rather than on nothing at all.

In setting this precedent, the Presocratics influenced later Western philosophers, whose concerns concentrated on establishing fixed and substantial foundations for the world, while also repudiating systems of thought emphasizing the primacy of nothingness. Such systems came to be criticized as “nihilistic”; a moniker intended to highlight negativity and meaninglessness. It is only in recent times that Western thinkers have started to reassess this appraisal, coming to find something life-affirming in nihilism and in the experience of nothingness itself.

This paper examines nihilism and the fear of nothingness in Western philosophy, from its origins in Presocratic philosophy, to its reassessment in contemporary Western thought.

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The Pukes

(Note: This is part of a larger project chronicling the history of punk rock in Marin County, California during the 1980’s.)

The atmosphere was somber at the Sleeping Lady Café. It was September, in the year of Orwell – 1984 – and Ricky Paul, the lead singer for the Pukes had recently hanged himself, dying at the age of 22. The young people gathered that evening were there to remember, mourn and share their grief over his passing. Erik Meade, one-time member of the Pukes and other Marin bands, summed up the feelings of many when he said that along with Ricky, the Marin punk scene had died. The sentiment, while not literally true, successfully conveys Ricky Paul’s central importance for Marin punk during the early 1980’s.

The Pukes at College of Marin, c. 1983: (From left to right) Brook Johnson, Ricky Paul, Nicky Poli, and Mark Wolf

Creative, friendly and full of enthusiasm, Ricky was known and loved by just about everyone. His band The Pukes played often in Marin and in San Francisco. Whether at house parties or clubs, they always attracted a large throng of young, enthusiastic fans. The Pukes were so named because Ricky had the talent of being able to vomit on demand at key points during performances, to the delight – and often the horror – of those in the audience. Wolfing down large quantities of pizza or other junk food before getting on stage, Ricky would then stick his finger down his throat halfway through the set and upchuck, providing visual punctuation for the lyrics of one song or another.

“It always grossed us out, but it was the one thing that set us apart from other punk bands, so we never complained,” remembers Brook Johnson, founding member and bass player for the Pukes.

Audience members unprepared for the messy display inevitably recoiled in shock and disgust, sometimes experiencing something close to trauma.

“I’ll never be able to look at him the same way again,” one of Ricky’s College of Marin classmates, Kent Daniels, once lamented, his face flushed white in shock after witnessing the voluntary vomit launch for the first time.

Walter Glaser, back-up vocalist for the Pukes, and later, after Ricky’s death, the lead singer, recalled a show at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco when Ricky, after vomiting on stage, began throwing the mess at audience members; including a group of skinheads. “All the skinheads basically ran out of the club, which was hilarious, because they were the notorious ‘tough guys’ of their day. I remember the skinheads coming back in after we were done and I was scared they were going to kill us. But they didn’t. Instead, one guy, ‘Crazy Horse,’ introduced himself and said he thought we were cool!”

When he wasn’t puking on stage and screeching punk rock lyrics, Ricky spoke in a nasally, hoarse but gentle voice; described by one interviewer as half the time like “a 331/3 at 45, the other half like a 45 at 331/3.” He was thin and wispy in build, with hair of changing colors; sometimes shorn into a crew cut, sometimes grown out long and unkempt, sometimes fashioned into a mohawk. In a 1983 profile appearing in the Music Calender, Rebecca Solnit described him as “a self-acknowledged wimp. …a pale boy with prominent, fragile bones and eyes like myopic morning glories. His voice conveys his sincerity. It’s soft and hoarse, the aural equivalent of out-of-focus.”

Ricky Paul, c. 1982.

In contrast to his onstage persona, which was outrageous and confrontational, offstage Ricky was sensitive, tender and sweet with his friends and comrades. Juneko Robinson remembers the first time she met Ricky when he approached her at a Marin County bus stop. Recognizing her as a fellow punk, Ricky greeted her excitedly, exclaiming “Hey, punk rock!” before offering to share his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was something child-like and innocent about him, she remembers, even if when performing he had an unruly lack of inhibition.

When it came to confronting bullies, however, Walter Glaser remembers that Ricky was assertive, standing up for himself and unhesitant to tell them “to ‘fuck off’ to their face even when it seemed disadvantageous to do so.” He wasn’t gentle or a wimp when it came to “fighting against things that he thought were wrong in the world.” It seems that the anger and outrage that Ricky channeled into his onstage performances could also come out on the street if there was enough provocation; for example, when he once deliberately puked on the hood of a car occupied by one of his high school enemies!

So there was not such a clear incongruity between his on- and off-stage personae after all. Performing was just his opportunity to share with a sympathetic audience something of his own real-life disgust with the injustices of the world. Indeed, Ricky claimed that his Jewish identity and his identity as a punk were connected, as both groups are “oppressed minorities,” with a duty to confront and challenge a society that misunderstands and derides them. He felt that minorities and punks needed to make their voices heard. He thought speaking the truth about oppression was an act of rebellion against those who didn’t want to listen, who wanted to block their ears to the anger and distress of the outcast. Singing in a punk rock band, then, was the perfect outlet for those most authentic emotions that Ricky was struggling with throughout his life, and the band, rather than being a sideline, was central to who he was. As he once said in an interview, “It’s honest, the most honest thing there is.”

“Ricky once told me that the Pukes were his life,” recalls Brook Johnson. Brook had first been introduced to punk as a high school freshman in 1981 when he saw the Ramones play in Sonoma County. The next year he and his friend Mark Wolf started to talk about forming a punk band, and when they met Ricky things quickly came together. Sporting a green mohawk and possessing an enthusiastic, do-it-yourself attitude, Ricky wanted nothing more than to front the group as lead singer. Lacking a drummer, he encouraged his friend Nicky Poli to learn how to play and to join the band as well. Thus The Pukes were born. Within a month, they had developed something resembling a set of songs and played their first gig at the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, opening for another Marin punk band, U.X.B.

“We sounded terrible,” says Brook, “but a reporter from a local newspaper, The Marin Independent Journal, was there and did a story on us along with a photo.” In that article, the author, George A. Frasier offered his own assessment of the Pukes: “Primitive is not the word for the Pukes. They produce a cacophony that would send almost anyone over the age of 30 running from the room.” Despite (or because?) of this, the Pukes became something of a local legend, with people thereafter recognizing them as “that band with the singer who pukes on stage.”

Some of the songs played by The Pukes were just flat-out noisy, with Ricky moaning and screeching incomprehensibly against a background of droning guitar, bass and clunky drumbeats. “Sometimes he would freestyle the lyrics, making them up as he went along.” But they also developed more polished songs like Parents, or The Question Is?, which had an upbeat, catchy sound that successfully harnessed the raw energy and anarchic nature of the group’s talent to great effect.

There was nothing despairing or sad about The Pukes’ music. Even as Ricky spewed anger at his parents, the police, or at jocks, their mood was consistently buoyant, inspiring fans to dance, laugh and interact with the band. Part of this probably had to do with the fact that through this music audience and performers found solidarity and unity against common enemies. The song Parents complained about the bane of all teenagers: chores and rules set down by mom and dad. A song like Macho took good humored jabs at the jocks and tough guys who were the natural foes of punks in Marin, while Red Badge of Courage used the title’s literary allusion to comment on the ongoing hostility between punks and the police. If you didn’t listen closely to their music, it might be easy to dismiss it all as noisy, mindless punk rock. But once you really gave them your attention, it became clear that they were doing more than just making a racket. They were actually making a statement. Their music was social and cultural commentary done in true punk style, conveying what it was like to live as a punk in Marin County.

 

 

 

The song S and M Waltz was a particularly good illustration of how the Pukes gave voice to the Marin experience. It poked fun at the image of Marin punks as softies, as coddled residents of one of America’s richest counties, living in the seat of luxury and who were thus perceived as less “hardcore” than punks from San Francisco or from Huntington Beach:

“We’re not from San Francisco, or Huntington Beach!

This is the S and M Waltz;

Sonoma and Marin,

And we always dance the Waltz, no matter what county we’re in.

We do not thrash, and we do not bash!

We dance the S and M Waltz, around and around,

We like the Waltz, and the 3, 4 sound.

We like to waltz,

All day long.

But we do not thrash, ‘cause we are not strong.

We’re not from San Francisco, or Huntington Beach!

This is the S and M Waltz,

Dance it if you can.

We know you can’t,

‘Cause you’re such a Man.

We’re not from San Francisco, or Huntington Beach!’

These lyrics were delivered against a punked-up, “oom-pah-pah” musical backdrop that encouraged audience members to join together in pairs and perform an exaggerated version of the waltz, frantically running in circles about the dance floor. It all had an aggressive yet silly and fun-loving feel to it that resonated perfectly with the image of the Pukes themselves.

Ricky Paul playing the saxophone, c. 1984.

Toward the end of his life, Ricky became increasingly fascinated with beatnik culture and art, adapting his appearance with the addition of a beret and learning how to play the saxophone and bongo drums. This new interest served as his motivation to begin attending the San Francisco Art Institute.

Brook Johnson and Walter Alter both remember Ricky expressing irritation with the San Francisco art scene after he started attending the Art Institute. “He told me he had become disillusioned with the teaching approach and the negative, nihilistic work that was being encouraged by the faculty,” Walter Alter writes. “The last time I saw him several days before his death he looked worried and distracted, like something was up.”

Apparently Ricky would sometimes spend the night in Studio 8A of the Institute, which is where he was found hanged in September of 1984.

Brook recalls learning of Ricky’s death from Mark Ropiquet (AKA “Snoopy”) –then guitar player for the Pukes – after Ricky failed to show up for a scheduled film shoot. The true circumstances of his death are still a matter of controversy for those close to him, with speculations ranging from suicide, to auto-erotic asphyxiation, to a performance art piece gone wrong. Whatever the real truth, in the end it all amounted to the same thing: Ricky was gone, leaving his family and friends to mourn his passing, and his musical collaborators to struggle with how to carry on and to honor his memory in the future.

The Pukes didn’t die with Ricky, but they were transformed. Walter Glaser stepped in as lead singer and Dave Lister took over as guitarist. “In retrospect, I think we should have changed our name to something else. You could say we kept it out of respect for Rick,” Brook explains, echoing a sentiment also expressed by Walter: “Ricky was not only my bandmate, but also a good friend, a Marin punk legend and really, an inspiration to me. No one could fill Ricky’s shoes. We kept the band going out of respect for him.”

Walter Glaser, c. 1985.

The “New” Pukes wrote an original set of songs and continued to perform at venues in Marin and San Francisco. There was no more on-stage vomiting, but Walter had his own hilarious stage presence, altogether different from that of Ricky Paul. He sported a simple, down-to-earth style, with cropped black hair and a wardrobe rarely deviating from t-shirt and blue jeans. He would bounce around the stage – sometimes being silly, sometimes aggressively confronting audience members – all the while making exaggerated faces and hand gestures reminiscent of the Don Martin cartoon character Mr. Fonebone from Mad Magazine. His voice, like Ricky’s, was nasal and came from the back of the throat, but it was less high pitched, sounding more like the growl of coyote than the shriek of bobcat. His lyrics continued to lash out at familiar targets, but instead of parents and cops, now they denounced asshole drivers, tedious loudmouths, and the patrons at one of Marin’s popular punk gathering places, Café Nuvo:

I’m so hardcore, don’t you know,

‘Cause I hang out at Café Nuvo.

Everyone knows how punk I am,

Then I go home and listen to Duran Duran.

I got my boots for 35,

And I’m the toughest guy alive.

I need some pot so gimmee some dough.

I think punk rock is a fashion show.

Think I’ll go scam on a chick,

And brag about my 10 foot dick.

Picking up girls is such a gas,

So I can get a piece of ass.

These are the people that make me ill,

To the point that I could kill.

Stupid attitude I can’t bear,

They’re just fuckin’ jocks with short hair.

Walter says that all of the shows he played with the “New” Pukes were “really fun,” especially when the audience was filled with lots of friends. “The Pukes were a pretty beloved band amongst a small group of people.” That was certainly true; and it remained true all the way up until their final breakup sometime in the late 1980’s.

Sources:

Alter, Walter. “The Death of Ricky Puke,” (Blog posting).         <http://gordonzola.livejournal.com/125133.html > Last accessed 3/13/18.

Anonymous. “Odd One Out,” (Newspaper article. Source and date unknown.)

Cornell University Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.     <https://digital.library.cornell.edu/collections/punkflyers&gt;

Daniels, Kent. Interview with John Marmysz. December 17, 2018.

Frazler, George A. “The Punk Scene: It’s Alive and Ill in Marin County,” in Independent Journal, Friday, May 21 1982.

Glaser, Walter. Interview with John Marmysz. March 7, 2018.

Johnson, Brooke. Interview with John Marmysz. February 2, 2018.

Marin Underground (Compilation tape. c. 1985.)

Meade, Erik. (Myspace Page). < https://myspace.com/erik_meade/mixes/classic-the-pukes-friends-362755/photo/91231825> Last accessed 3/13/18.

Pukes Demo Tape. < https://youtu.be/j3onVSzX354> Last accessed 3/13/18.

Robinson, Juneko. Interview with John Marmysz. January 3, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Marin Punk Explained!” Music Calendar, November 1983.

The Affirmation of Life

Bernard Reginster’s book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism is an ambitious and thorough work. It proposes an interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy that emphasizes its orderly and logical structure, portryaing it as a consistent and coherent system offering a solution to the problem of nihilism and a strategy for the affirmation of life. Both in its purpose and tone, Reginster’s book reminds me of other works that approach continental thinkers and themes from a self-consciously analytic perspective; books such as David E. Cooper’s Existentialism, Antoine Panaïoti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy, and James Tartaglia’s Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. The Affirmation of Life sits alongside these other efforts as a well-argued attempt to bring some order to what can sometimes seem like a very disorderly and unruly topic.

Reginster points out in the introduction to The Affirmation of Life that interpreters of Nietzsche generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are those who approach his writings piecemeal, taking his aphoristic style as evidence that Nietzsche never meant readers to think systematically about his work, but rather to read his books as a kind of poetry that plays with recurring themes, observations and insights. Like the musings of a insightful but scattered mind, this approach treats Nietzsche’s books as compendiums of ideas and thoughts lacking system or method. Nietzsche does encourage this sort of reading at times; for instance in Twilight of the Idols writing, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (I 26)

On the other hand, there are those who approach Nietzsche more “globally,” focusing on a theme or doctrine that is taken as playing a unifying role in his overarching philosophical system. In this approach, the variety of ideas appearing throughout Nietzsche’s books are taken as logically connected parts that hang together with regularity and order. In these sorts of interpretations, one particular doctrine is generally thought to be the key to unlocking the real meaning of Nietzschean philosophy; whether it be the revaluation of values, the Superman, the eternal return, or the will to power. For these kinds of interpreters, Nietzsche’s writing style and his periodic denunciations of systematic thinking are distractions from the actual, underlying structure of his thinking process, which can be reconstructed by looking at the overall trajectory of his life work. If you do this, so it is claimed, one will discover that Nietzsche was concerned with thinking through some particular sort of problem in an orderly and deliberate manner.

Reginster’s reading of Nietzsche is aligned with the latter approach. However, unlike past interpreters he tells us that it is not a particular doctrine that lies at the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but a “particular problem or crisis.” (p. 4) This problem is the “crisis of nihilism,” which, in its most general sense, is “the belief that existence is meaningless.” (p. 21) Nihilism is marked by the distressing loss of confidence in goals and ideals that once gave human life meaning and purpose. Nietzsche’s writings are mostly concerned with nihilism as a European crisis; a problem that emerges in modern times with the increasing erosion of Judeo-Christian beliefs. This devaluation of traditional beliefs is a problem since, as of yet, nothing has emerged to take their place, and thus meaninglessness and lack of purpose threaten to infect European culture. According to Reginster, Nietzsche’s entire philosophical project is an attempt to address this threat and to offer a replacement for these lost values.

Reginster identifies two variants of nihilism. The first variant emerges from the devaluation of goals that at one time actually did give life meaning and purpose. The second variant is rooted in the conviction that any goals that could give life meaning and purpose are in fact unrealizable. In the first instance, nihilism emerges along with the realization that the things we once valued – our highest aspirations – are now things that have lost their value for us. So, for instance, a person might at one point in time value the aspiration toward being rich, but then at some later point in life come to the realization that money-making is not really all that important, and thus that the life he or she currently lives has become meaningless. The second kind of nihilism has less to do with the content of particular goals themselves, but with their realizability or attainability. So, for instance, a person might continue to aspire toward, and value, becoming rich, but come to realize that it is, in fact, impossible to actually achieve riches. The goal is not realizable even though it continues to be desired, and so, once again, life becomes meaningless.

Reginster argues that for Nietzsche, in order for life to be meaningful, our goals must both be valuable and realizable. To avoid nihilism, then, the purposes and projects we embrace must have the possibility of actually being accomplished. Otherwise, we will either become disoriented or fall into despair. Nihilistic disorientation is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are no longer valuable, while nihilistic despair is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are  unobtainable because they are not objectively real, but rather illusory projections of the human mind.

Nietzsche’s own conception of nihilism, Reginster claims, is ambiguous in the sense that his writings equivocate between addressing nihilism as disorientation and addressing nihilism as despair. The problem is that these two senses of nihilism actually seem to conflict with one another, since if one no longer values a goal, then its unattainability would not be a source of distress, and, on the other hand, if a goal can’t be realized, then by its very nature it becomes drained of value. In other words, if one is a disoriented nihilist, then there is no reason for one to also be a despairing nihilist, and vice versa. If you don’t value riches, for instance, then you won’t even care that they can’t be achieved. And, if you know that you can’t be rich, then the desirability of aspiring toward riches will vanish. Reginster argues that most interpreters underemphasize the ambiguity in Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism, but that nonetheless it is key to understanding his strategy for affirming life and overcoming both despair and disorientation.

The crux of Nietzsche’s strategy is, first, to reveal the groundlessness of traditional values and, second, to introduce a new highest standard of attainable values based on the will to power. So, the overcoming of nihilism proceeds in stages. The first stage involves revealing that the highest values currently driving western culture to nihilistic despair  – Judeo-Christian values –  lack objective standing. Since they are not objectively “real,” Judeo-Christian values are illusions that are “life-negating” in the sense that they encourage us to pursue goals that are unattainable (such as everlasting life in heaven). Revealing the inherent unrealizability of the values implied by this belief system undermines their value, and so this first stage of Nietzsche’s strategy liberates us from Juedo-Christian nihilism as despair. By revealing the illusory, and thus unattainable, nature of things like God and heaven, their desirability as aspirational goals vanishes. However, the elimination of these traditional values in turn provokes nihilistic disorientation. With the death of God, a void is left in place of the highest (unattainable) values, and the entire moral order that was implied by God’s existence collapses. We are robbed of our highest (unattainable) goals and aspirations, and life becomes, once again, meaningless insofar as there is no organizing center, no ultimate guiding purpose to life. Nihilism as disorientation is thus introduced.

The second stage in Nietzsche’s strategy is to offer a revaluation, showing that “life-negating values are not the highest values.” (p. 50) He does this, according to Reginster, by proposing the will to power as a replacement for the highest “principle” or ethical “standard” (p. 148). What this accomplishes is to introduce a this-worldly, attainable standard of value, as opposed to the other-worldly, unattainable standard advocated in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The main barrier in the way of advocating this new standard, however, is “the problem of suffering” (p. 159). Influenced by his reading of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche regards this problem as the issue uniting all western (and some non-western) moral systems. Whether it is Christianity, Buddhism, Utilitarianism, or Eudaimonism, the condemnation of suffering seems universal. But if, as all of these systems claim, suffering is an evil that to some degree will always remains a part of our life in this world, then the goal of eliminating suffering is itself nihilistic, since it involves the pursuit of something that can never be actually and fully realized in the here-and-now. All of those moral systems advocating the end of suffering are, thus, life-negating insofar as they promote the nihilism of despair.

The conclusion Nietzsche thus reaches is that any non-nihilisitic value system must embrace the inevitability of suffering, and he advocates the will to power as his solution. The doctrine of the will to power holds that the highest good is power itself, and power just is the “overcoming of resistance” (p. 177). Power is only manifested (as Schopenhauer had already suggested) in the course of its practical, concrete exercise. It is not a “thing,” but rather a process or “activity” (p. 196) that occurs when two forces encounter one another and clash. There is, in this sense, no such thing as potential, unexpressed power; only power actually manifested in the course of active expression. Power becomes manifest only when there is some obstacle to be overcome. Furthermore, any obstacle we encounter must offer some degree of opposition to our efforts. But opposition to our will is also what makes for difficulty, struggle and suffering in life.  With resistance, thus, there is always pain and suffering, but without it, there is no possibility for the exercise of will power and the sort of overcoming that makes us feel happy and joyful in our accomplishments. It follows, then, that if we are to value power as our highest value, then we must also value suffering.

By elevating the will to power to the highest of all values, Nietzsche accomplishes a revaluation that he believes satisfies both of the conditions for a meaningful life. First, since power just is the overcoming of obstacles, and since all humans value this sort of overcoming (regardless of the nature of the particular obstacle that they overcome), the will to power represents a goal that is intrinsically valuable. Thus it overcomes nihilism as disorientation. Second, since power is always concretely expressed in this world, it is, by its very nature, something attainable (in varying degrees) in the here-and-now. It is not an illusory, unrealizable goal. This overcomes nihilism as despair.

The last two chapters of Reginster’s book address Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence and his advocacy of Dionysian wisdom, suggesting that both are integral to the preceding interpretation. Just as the will to power offers an alternative to the belief in God, the eternal recurrence offers an alternative to the Christian ideal of eternal life in heaven. It is an attempt to conceptualize life as active, never ending becoming rather than as a static state of passive being. In this way it encourages us to embrace impermanence, which is at the very heart of the idea of will to power as a process. Finally, with the mythic figure of Dionysus, we find another alternative to Christian ideals. In Christianity, it is the beaten and battered Christ, and his condemnation of suffering, that inspires admiration, while the god Dionysus, on the other hand, represents the life-affirming celebration of destruction, suffering, and change as parts of the creative cycle of nature itself. In these ways, Reginster suggests, both Dionysus and the eternal recurrence are something like Nietzschean myths, offered as alternatives to the traditional Christian myths of God, Christ and heaven. For readers who embrace his revaluation in terms of the will to power, they represent life-affirming, non-nihilistic guidelines for how to live life in the here and now.

There is much more argumentative detail in The Affirmation of Life than I have summarized here. Reginster goes to meticulous lengths in building his own position, remaining very diligent in his reconstruction of competing interpretations of the material, and providing plausible counterarguments for why his own reading of Nietzsche is especially consistent and complete. It was a pleasure to follow along with the author’s thinking process, which exhibits an unusual amount of analytic skill and care for the material. My only criticisms of the book have to do with the lack of a concluding chapter and Reginster’s omission of any serious engagement with Heidegger’s major work on Nietzsche.

Given that the arguments in The Affirmation of Life are so intensely detailed and interlocking, it would have been nice if there was final summation of the book’s overall argumentative trajectory. As it is, the book ends rather abruptly, with a short but incomplete two page conclusion tacked on to the last chapter on Dionysian wisdom. I did a lot of underlining as I read through the book for a second time, and once I got to the end of its 268 pages, I had to go back through and reconstruct the overall argument for myself. I hope I got it all right. In any case, it would be helpful if, upon reaching the end of the work the author’s own summation was provided so that a reader like myself could be reassured that he got all of the pieces in the proper order.

The omission of Heidegger is a complaint only because it struck me, once I had finished the book, that there are aspects of his four volume work on Nietzsche that are directly relevant to Reginster’s interpretation. Heidegger, like Reginster, attempts to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s various doctrines – the will to power, the eternal recurrence, and nihilism – all play integral roles in a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. He also claims that the will to power is central to the revaluation of values and that the eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s way of attempting to think Being as a process of becoming. One of the major – and I think very interesting – differences is Heidegger’s claim that nihilism is not something that can legitimately be “overcome,” since instead of a problem or crisis, nihilism is actually an aspect of Being itself. I am curious as to how Reginster would respond to this Heideggerian reading of Nietzsche.

In any case, I highly recommend Bernard Reginster’s The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism to those readers who have a serious interest in Nietzsche, nihilism and who appreciate detailed, scholarly and meticulous argumentation. This is not a book that can be read through quickly or superficially. It is one that requires patience, time and focused attention. It is a difficult book in these ways, but as Reginster himself suggests, difficulty goes along with the overcoming of obstacles, which in turn makes us happy in the expression of our will to power!

 

Museum of International Propaganda

The building that houses the Museum of International Propaganda in downtown San Rafael used to be a children’s store where I would get shoes when I was a little kid. Now it’s eye catching entryway no longer displays the latest in children’s footwear, but rather a modernist banner announcing the museum’s name as well as startling artifacts like a bust of Stalin and a t-shirt of Barak Obama depicted as a Maoist. How times change.

This museum, opened in 2016, is run by Tom and Lilka Areton, who have traveled the world collecting an amazing and diverse assortment of propaganda art, which is now organized and displayed thematically in this small but incredibly compelling space. Tom grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and his wife spent time in the Soviet Union, so they know a thing or two about totalitarian regimes and their use of propaganda.

I had been trying to visit The Museum of International Propaganda since it opened, but because of its irregular hours, it wasn’t until recently that I was successful in actually getting inside. The occasion was a Thursday night lecture on 1970’s Italian leftist poster art, featuring film maker Lou Dematteis and Italian journalist Enrico Deaglio. The event was very well attended by a group of about 40 people, so things were quite crowded, but more than worth the price of admission, which only consists of a suggested donation.

Before the lecture, my friend and I wandered around the museum for a bit, looking at the truly jaw-dropping examples of propaganda art that are part of the permanent collection. In addition to the sorts of things you’d expect to find – like Maoist posters, Nazi statuary, and Soviet art – there are some unexpected and eye-opening artifacts – like a 9/11 themed Islamic prayer rug, a series of posters extolling the superiority of American culture, and politically themed Russian nesting dolls. In the back room, next to a poster depicting a post-revolutionary Chinese utopia, there is a wall-sized reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica, painted by the museum’s curator. The collection contains a good mixture of old and new propaganda from both the West and the East, reinforcing the message that propaganda is everywhere, and that we in the US are just as subject to its effects as people from other times and places.

The evening’s lecture began at around 7:30 with remarks from Tom, the owner, a really charismatic and funny guy, who shared some of his own memories of hitch-hiking in Italy during the 1970’s. He recalled when he and his wife were picked up by some friendly Italians, and in order to pass the time and entertain their driver, the two of them sang the Italian communist propaganda song Bandiera Rossa (The Scarlet Banner).  The driver thanked them and reciprocated by treating them to his own rendition of another song, which Tom and Lilka did not recognize. When they asked him what the song was, the driver laughingly replied that it was an Italian fascist propaganda song! I guess hitchhiking really does bring different kinds of people together.

After Tom’s remarks, the curator of the exhibition (whose name I unfortunately cannot remember) talked about his own experience as a college student in 1970’s Italy. He described a 15 day long communist festival where thousands of people were treated to free food and drink, as well as art, music and dancing. As he put it, it was, “Pasta, music and girls.” All of this was related to an upsurge in the popularity of the Italian communist party, which that year had garnered 37% of the vote in national elections. His vivid description of the festivities was eye opening, as I don’t normally associate communists with fun. I would expect anarchists to be behind something like this.

Lou Dematteis and Enrico Deaglio were up next, describing the radical political change that Italy has undergone in the years since the 1970’s. While the communist party and various socialist groups had tremendous support in the 1970’s, currently it is the far-right, neo-fascists who have risen to power. Much like in the US, authoritarianism is on the upswing, with the government tacitly lending its support to groups promoting xenophobia, nationalism and racism.

It was interesting to hear that Italy has been, until recently, a country with little immigration, but a lot of emigration. It used to be a place people wanted to leave rather than settle in. Most of the “immigration” issues in the past had to do with southern Italians migrating to the north, where they were treated as an unwanted presence. This kind of internal immigration has recently been overtaken by immigration from Africa, and consequently a racist element has developed which sees Africans as criminals and dangerous drug dealers (sound familiar?) Deaglio told of a recent incident in Rome in which a young woman’s body was found dismembered, and it was rumored that she had been murdered by African drug dealers. In retaliation, a flag-draped Italian fascist drove into the town square where her body was found and shot 8 dark skinned people, as well as firing his pistol into black owned businesses. Afterward, the government forbade any protests or anti-fascist demonstrations.

All of this, Deaglio pointed out, currently promotes an atmosphere directly contrary to that which prevailed in Italy during the 1970’s. Referring to the various examples of socialist and communist political posters on display behind him, he talked about an atmosphere of optimism that now seems to have disappeared from Italian politics. In the 1970’s, he claims, it felt as if Italy was moving in the direction of embracing the values of the left, with class consciousness, feminism and anti-racist sentiments being the norm. The posters on display gave illustration to this feeling, with images of women waving hammer and sickle flags, and groups of friendly looking young people embracing one another and smiling. These are not the sorts of posters that I normally associate with communist propaganda. There were no guns, no soldiers, no supreme leaders in sight. Deaglio said that this was, of course, all part of the calculation. There was a concerted attempt to put a friendly face on socialism and communism during the 1970’s, making Italians feel as if they had nothing to fear from it, and that it represented a progressive, young person’s movement. This all changed when in 1978 The Red Brigade kidnapped and then murdered Aldo Moro, Italy’s former Prime Minister and President of the Christian Democratic Party. There was no way to put a friendly face on that.

It was really fascinating to hear these first-hand accounts of a time gone by. I kept feeling, however, that what I was listening to was not mere history, but the description of a political cycle, a changing of the guard, giving insight into what we in the US are currently experiencing.

Propaganda is all around us, and after visiting the Museum of International Propaganda you will become more aware of the methods and techniques that continue to be used in order to manipulate people in the service of all sorts of political ends, both right and left.

Carsick

I was appropriately shocked when I first saw John Water’s film Pink Flamingos at a midnight screening in Berkeley sometime in the 1980’s. I was with my girlfriend, and I recall wanting to walk out during a scene when Divine gives a blow job to her son, Crackers. Funny how that was that part of the movie that made me so uncomfortable. It wasn’t the part where a chicken was crushed to death between two people having sex. It want’t the famous “singing asshole” scene. I wasn’t even that freaked out when Divine ate a pile of dog shit. It was the blow job. That was just too much.

Since then, John Waters has become something of a hero to me. I’ve seen all of his movies, read most of his books, and have attended his live stage show This Filthy World. He makes me laugh with his sardonic perspective on American culture, and I love how he challenges mainstream moral values and aesthetic sensibilities in his own peculiar, good natured way. I think what I appreciate most about Waters, however, is what I perceive as his weird and charming detachment from the twisted world that he inhabits. While associating with criminals and junkies, strippers and prostitutes, Waters has always seemed to me to stand above and apart from the decadence. I see him as a spectator who, while being lovingly fascinated by filth, perversion and obscenity, does not really take part in it himself. Though he lives, works and plays shoulder-to-shoulder with dangerous outsiders, I never had the impression that Waters himself was at all dangerous or threatening. In this way, perhaps I have tended to see something of myself reflected in him; someone who lives in this freakish world but is not of it.

This feeling was somewhat sabotaged for me when I recently read John Water’s Carsick. I found a remaindered copy at our local anarchist bookshop and eagerly dived into it, expecting to really like the book. While there is a lot of funny material in it, there is also much of Carsick that struck me as slapdash and at points even tediously annoying. With apologies to my hero, let me explain.

Carsick is divided into three sections. Part one, “The Best That Could Happen,” is the author’s fantasy about his imagined, best possible hitchhiking experience. Part two, “The Worst That Could Happen,” imagines the worst possible scenario. These first two sections are fictional while only the last section tells John Waters’ actual, real-life experience hitchhiking across the country.

My favorite episode appears at the end of part one when Waters imagines developing a temporarily magic asshole after being anally raped by aliens. His enchanted farts allow him to levitate, inflate flat tires, and bring Connie Francis out of an Alzheimer’s-like stupor! When Waters himself is magically farted on by his ride, Johnny Davenport, he grows a full head of hair. This all made me laugh out loud.

Perhaps the most touching chapter in part one has John Waters picturing himself being picked up by Edith Massey, who in real life died in 1984. He cries in joy when he discovers that she faked her own death to escape show biz and is now 94 years old “and still kickin'” (p. 48). Now running a second-hand pharmacy outside of St. Louis, Edith leads a quiet, happy life with her cat. Edith and John get a final chance to tell one another “I love you,” before Waters continues on his hitchhiking journey. I found this chapter to be very sweet, giving me the John Waters that I really like; a sensitive guy who loves his weird, freakish friends.

Many other episodes in the first part of the book left me with uncomfortable feelings. Waters writes a lot about his own sexual fantasies, which involve him giving a hand job to an outlaw demolition derby driver and getting all lustful over a bank robber who has a perpetual hard-on. It’s not that this material offended me, but it did violate my image of Waters as the detached, ironic observer. Instead of poking fun at the filthy decadence around him, in these parts Waters reveals a bit too much of his own lustful desires. It’s not that I am so naive as to believe that he doesn’t have lustful feelings, it’s just that by expressing them in the first person, my image of him as a gentle, harmless onlooker was replaced with an uneasy sense that he had become an old man on the prowl for younger men.

The second fictional part of the book chronicles Water’s worst imagined hitchhiking experiences, including psychotic fans, an involuntary tattoo, jail time, a goiter, and his death by decapitation, ending with eternal damnation in Hell. In the abstract, part two works better for me than it does in its concrete execution. Here we get all of the author’s worst possible fears, crammed together one after the other, and when I consider it as a whole, it strikes me at once as more funny and more solemn than it seemed when I was actually reading it. The material is absurd, but the ideas that Waters is working with here are quite serious: his own fears and insecurities about aging, his health, his fans, his sexuality and the vulnerabilities of being an old man.

It is interesting that Water’s desires (as expressed in part one) and his fears (as expressed in part two) often seem to be rooted in the same things. For instance, in part one he imagines being recognized by loving fans who take him on various absurd adventures, while in part two he imagines being threateningly pursued by a crazy fan who won’t stop reciting lines from all of his most infamous films. In part one he lustfully imagines gay encounters with some of the men who give him rides, while in part two, he fearfully imagines being picked up by a psychotically anti-heterosexual gay man named Blossom who forces him to participate in a crime spree. In part one he imagines being picked up by a police officer who sniffs poppers and loves the movie Hairspray, while in part two he imagines being thrown in jail by abusive police. Water’s desires and fears seem intermingled. He desires the very things that he fears, and he fears the very things that he desires.

The last, non-fictional section of the book is a little over 100 pages long, chronicling Water’s actual, real-life hitchhiking journey from Baltimore to San Francisco. A lot of people have commented on the possibility that the first two sections may have been included in order to beef up what would otherwise have been a very short and, honestly, unexciting travelogue. I don’t know if that is true or not. One thing that does come through, and that continues a consistent thread with the earlier sections,  is a focus on Water’s own fears and desires. In this third, real-life section of the book, his fears turn out to be largely empty and his desires are unfulfilled. He is never attacked or abused by anyone he gets a ride with, and although he lusts after some of the people who pick him up, nothing ever comes of it. All of the people that he hitches rides with turn out to be very nice, even though most of them have no idea of who he is. Assuming that he is just an elderly homeless man, all of these people are kind and generous to him. Others, like an indie band on tour, an ex-marine, and a middle-aged couple on vacation with their dog, do recognize him and are thrilled to pick him up. In contrast to the outrageousness of the first two sections of the book, however, nothing all that exciting really happens in this final part. Waters doesn’t even make the effort to explore the towns that he passes through on his adventure. Instead, he stays at chain motels, eats at chain restaurants and goes to the movies once. He is consistently anxious and uncomfortable, more concerned with his lack of expensive hand lotion than he is with meeting American outsiders. During his entire real-life hitchhiking adventure Waters seems more eager to get the journey over with than he is with observing and documenting the underbelly of America. This third section, thus, feels to me like a missed opportunity for the king of filth to explore American culture as it exists along Interstate 70.

The idea of John Waters hitchhiking across America is funnier than what is actually chronicled in this book. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the fictional parts of this story more than the real-life part. In the first two sections, the absurdity that transpires is more Waters-esque than the mundane, real life journey Waters takes in the last section. I also found myself unsettled to read about Water’s own lustful feelings; especially in the final section when he is wondering (in real life) if he is going to hook up with the men that he gets rides from. I know its normal for people to think these things, but in the case of John Waters, I hate to think of him as an old man on the prowl. I prefer to think of him as a detached observer and admirer of this filthy world.

But I suppose that has more to do with me and my own hang-ups than it has to do with John Waters, who, by the way, still remains one of my heros.

Good Price on Cinematic Nihilism

In case anyone is interested, Amazon is selling brand new hardcover editions of Cinematic Nihilism for $34; a huge discount off of the original publisher’s price, which is $110. This is a much better bargain than my own author discount.

Purchase is limited to one book per customer.

Cornell University Punk Flyer Collection

Cornell University’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections has a digitized assortment of thousands of punk flyers taken from The Johan Kugelberg punk collection and the Aaron Cometbus Punk and Underground Press Collection. Included are a bunch of flyers I’ve never seen before from Marin punk bands, including the Pukes, UXB, Ludovico Teknique and Sacripolitical.

Amusingly, Sacripolitical’s name appears on different flyers with three different spellings: Sacripolitical, Sacri-political, and Sacro-political.