The editors of Monograph on Zero have issued a call for papers. They are looking for an additional 5 – 10 contributions:
Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair is a study that attempts to understand Nazism as a product of Germany’s unique cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the decades before the rise of Hitler. It was originally written as a doctoral dissertation (later to be published as a book in 1961), and focuses on three key intellectual figures who influenced the development of Germanic ideology: Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These three figures were social critics, diagnosing the decline of culture and presenting themselves as prophets of a new German spiritual rebirth. In the Introduction, Stern describes his book as “a study in the pathology of cultural criticism” (p. 1), suggesting that these prophets of doom were simultaneously symptoms of their times as well as dangerous, pathological causes of Germany’s ill-fated drift toward Nazism.
Stern’s book is an engrossing analysis of the lives and works of a group of rather obscure thinkers whose ideas, in less odious form, also appear in the writings of other more well respected German authors; writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. But whereas Nietzsche saw the advent of cultural nihilism as something that each individual human being must live through and learn from, and whereas Spengler foresaw the decline of Western culture as an irreversible inevitability, Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller sought to offer a means of collective rescue; a strategy by which they could recover the spiritual heritage of their nation and thus reinvigorate German mass culture. In this way, they were, despite their shared prophesies of doom, optimists about the possibility of cultural renewal.
Stern uses the phrase “conservative revolution” to characterize the utopian strategies of these three figures. On the face of it, this might sound oxymoronic. After all, a conservative seeks, by definition, to “conserve” rather than to “revolt” against the status-quo. But in the case of Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller, their conservatism had nothing to do with defending the existing state of affairs, but with the defense of an idealized past, an “ancient tradition” (p. 1) before the dawn of modernity. In this ancient past, the German people were united by a religious bond of blood under a strong national leader. It was a time before the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the death of God. It was, however, a time that never really existed at all. These “conservative revolutionaries” were antiquarians, and their goal was to reestablish an imaginary past as a concrete reality in the present.
For Paul de Lagarde, this was to be accomplished with the founding of a new Germanic religion. This new faith was to be based on an interpretation of Christianity stripped of its supposed false dogmas while reasserting its true, original inspiration. Lagarde attacked and criticized the Jewish, Greek and Roman influences on Christianity, advocating the “liberation” of the Gospels from this background, which he claimed glorified Jesus’ death rather than his life. Instead, the true, original spirit of Jesus needed to be resuscitated. According to Lagarde, Jesus was primarily a rebel against the traditions and doctrines of Judaism, not the messiah foretold in the Old Testament or the supernatural “son of God” described by Paul. In line with this, a new Christianity should be focused on this world, becoming fused with the concrete characteristics and needs of the German people, thus creating a faith that would give meaning and purpose to the German state. It would “become the spiritual basis for a new state, for a new hierarchical community that would accept the teleological belief that God had placed men at different stations in life for different purposes” (p. 80).
For Julius Langbehn, the solution to Germany’s spiritual crisis was to be found not in religion (although at the end of his life he did convert to Catholicism), but in art. In his most well known and influential book, Rembrandt as Educator, he offers Rembrandt as “the personification of a cultural ideal” (p. 154) that could rescue Germany from its cultural decline. In the figure of this artist, Langbehn found the antithesis of the modern German. According to him, Rembrandt embodied all of the qualities needed in order for Germany to heal its wounds and rediscover its spiritual strength: sensitivity to the mysteries of Being, an awareness of the contradictions inherent in human life, fierce individualism, spontaneity, willfulness, and Volksthümlichkeit, the characteristic of “belonging to, expressing, yet transcending his people and its traditions” (p. 158). His overall solution to Germany’s cultural crisis was to rebel against the Modern drift toward reason and to return to a primal, tribal form of community using the artist as a spiritual guide.
Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, like Langbehn, was an esthete who also looked to the artist as his hero. According to Moeller, Germany’s crisis was due to a forgetfulness of its primal spirit, and he believed this condition could be corrected by the propagation of a new breed of great, artistic men who would lead the nation toward a utopian future. As an admirer of Dostoyevski, he hoped to revivify the German spirit in the same way that he thought the Russian author had revivified his own country’s spirit. The rescue of Germany required the recognition that the Germans were in their essence, like the Russians, a “young” people, opposed to the “old” people of Britain and the US, and thus that the future belonged to them. Fate, therefore, dictated that Germany must expand its territory and accomplish the “domination of Europe” (p 253). In 1922, he published his most well known book, The Third Reich, which marked “the culmination of Moeller’s thought” as well as “the culmination of the Germanic ideology” (p. 311). In this book, he pronounced the need for a revolution that turned against the previous generation’s embrace of liberalism and modernity. German unity was to be reestablished in a nationalist form of socialism that would eliminate class struggle and reintegrate the workers with the goals of the nation as a whole in an organic, corporatist, hierarchical society.
Though not themselves Nazis, the dark sentiments and the proposed solutions advocated by these three authors were later integrated into the National Socialist platform. Their ideas proved popular because, like many Germans, they felt alienated from the world they inhabited, seeing it as a place where the old values and ways of life were withering away, producing an atmosphere of nihilism, anxiety, and increasing secularism. Populations caught in the grips of these kinds of feelings are prone to looking for saviors who promise a rescue; someone who understands the mood of alienation and who points the way back home. Stern observes that Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller were all “simultaneously proud and resentful of their alienation” (p. 327). On the one hand they proudly trumpeted their own uniqueness as “outsiders,” while on the other they aspired to transform the sick, decaying society around them into a place where they would no longer be outsiders. In so doing, they successfully channeled the mindset of a significant portion of the pre-World War II German population. Yet the utopia imagined by these “prophets” never did, and never really could, exist. Writing in 1961, Stern points out that these men comprise a “cultural type” that has made an “appearance in all Western countries” (p. 328). In fact, they never go away because the problems they see in the world never go away. Reading about them now, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States during the 21st Century, it is clear their type still exists here, in our own land, and that they are still, tediously, proposing the sorts of “solutions” that they always have.
I think the most fundamental problem with this type of intellectual (both then and now) rests not in their pessimism or their prophesies of doom, but rather in their optimistic and arrogant conviction that they know best how to fix the world once and for all. Doom, of a sort, is inevitable (as Spengler suggests) precisely because the world changes. The old ways of life are under constant attack from the new, and for those who feel as if their own values have been pushed aside and undermined by newly emerging cultural forces, it can feel as if everything is coming to an end. And in a way, it is. Nothing stays the same, we can’t stop the forward motion of time, and we all are going to die. These are painful facts that are difficult to come to terms with, and I sympathize with those who are troubled by them.
But I don’t sympathize with arrogance. Socrates taught us that the highest wisdom consists in knowing that you don’t know everything, and this is a lesson that “conservative revolutionaries” (and utopians of all types, both on the right and the left) either never learned or have forgotten. In their conceit, this type never seems satisfied with just expressing their fear, sadness and mournfulness for a lost past. Instead, they optimistically try to put their ideas into action, making “the leap from cultural criticism to politics” (p. 327). In this, they hope to change the world for the better, but ironically, again and again, they seem to end up making the world worse than it was before.
I once told my wife that the shoddiest kinds of politicians are also artists. Artists are used to molding various raw materials, according to their own will, into a unique vision of aesthetic perfection. When this mentality is translated into political action, it easily becomes oppressive, totalitarian and unhinged from reality. Contrary to Langbehn and Moeller, I think artists are very poor models for political leaders.
Business people are probably even worse.
My book, Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is now available on Edinburgh Scholarship Online.
Edinburgh Scholarship Online is partnered with University Press Scholarship Online, which offers full-text online access to over 27,000 titles in 31 subject areas.
(Note: This is part of a larger project chronicling the history of punk rock in Marin County, California during the 1980’s.)
UXB was among the most noteworthy hardcore bands to emerge out of Marin County during the 1980’s. “They were not just one of the best Marin bands; they were one of the best punk bands of all time,” says John Marmysz, vocalist for Sacripolitical. Called the “pride and joy” of the Marin scene by fan Gordon Edgar, and “kinda the biggest band in Marin” by Walter Glaser of the Pukes, UXB was formed in 1980 by Bob Christman. Bob had discovered punk rock three years previously when he attended a 1977 performance of the Nuns, Dictators and the Ramones at Winterland in San Francisco. “I was blown away with the high energy, machine gun beat and cool looks. I had never seen anything like it before and I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. I saw GOD!” In a strange case of missed connections, Derek Johnson, who would become UXB’s lead guitarist, also was introduced to punk rock at that same concert, though Bob and Derek did not know one another at the time, even though they lived in the same Novato neighborhood.
The only Marin band to have a track included on the now classic Northern California punk compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, UXB was in existence for just three years. During that time, they performed regularly with local bands, while also appearing on the bill with many more well-know, legendary names in West Coast punk – bands like Black Flag, 45 Grave, Social Distortion, and DOA. With this sort of exposure, one might expect that UXB’s success would be assured, but despite frequent high-profile gigs, enthusiastic fans and positive critical reviews, Bob says that UXB waited in vain for “the call that never came.”
“To tell you the truth punk bands from Marin were looked down upon by the so called ‘core’ from the city. They thought we were just a bunch of rich kids from the ‘burbs. We were prejudged by everyone in the city as poser punks. This was coupled with having to deal with petty philosophical differences with the ‘punk powerbrokers.’ Even with the Marin County albatross proudly worn around our neck we did everything we could to change the narrative…by kicking ass!”
And kick ass they did. Musically tight and lyrically sophisticated, UXB was aggressively hardcore while also delivering a smart libertarian message. Bob reports, “I wanted us to be a more cerebral punk rock band using satire, metaphors and humor to get [our] underlying message across. I got tired of hearing ‘fuck this, fuck that…anarchy shit. …Many of our songs were written about freedom: freedom from oppression, personal freedoms, freedom of speech/expression, and 2nd Amendment freedoms.”
Take, for instance, “Die’s Song,” a pro-gun, anti-Dianne Feinstein number:
Should of known it wouldn’t work
You can’t take our guns away
We’ll stand up and bear our arms
To protest this constitutional rape
Die-anne, you’re a nazi are you a party member too?
Hitler tried it in ’35 and the same thing is going to happen to you.
Meet your new fuhrer… Dianne Feinstein
Hail to the fuhrer … Dianne Feinstein
Bow to no one… Die Feinstein
Do us all a favor and go die… Feinstein
Your Gestapo, your men in blue
Will do anything that you say
But the D.A. won’t prosecute
Cause he knows that he ain’t got a case
Die-anne, you’re a nazi and now we’re going to recall you
Don’t you know the only real crime was that White shot Milk instead of you!
Wave goodbye, die Feinstein
Cause you’re going to, die Feinstein
Guns on the crosses, die Feinstein
Political suicide, we’ll have the last laugh on you die… bye bye…
As Julie Resing (AKA BB Gunn), UXB’s bass player attests, “Making outlandish statements was part of the whole punk thing,” and indeed while UXB’s lyrics – written jointly by Bob and lead singer Peter Hansen – were audacious, unapologetic and belligerent, they were never uniformed or unintelligent. It was hardcore with a message: that people should refuse to submit to authority of any kind, whether from the left or from the right.
UXB began when Bob learned to play guitar and then convinced his best friend Peter Hansen (AKA Ira Hood) to ditch his “disco polyester for a black leather jacket” and take on the role of lead singer. Bob’s then girlfriend Julie Resing (AKA BB Gunn) learned the bass and Bob’s friend Daniel Dee was recruited to play drums. Derrick Johnston (AKA Brian Barbituate) was added in 1981 as a second guitarist in order to develop a heavier sound. Over the course of their career, the band went through a number of drummers, including Rick Wreck, Scott Williams and William Shore. With these frequent changes in the percussion section and with their many absurd, hilarious adventures together, Bob likens UXB’s career to that of the fictional band in the movie Spinal Tap. Despite the likeness, he insists that UXB “didn’t get a dime in royalties!”
Brooke Johnson, bass player for the Pukes and Sacripolitical, recalls that the first time UXB performed live, “they only had a few songs, so they just played their set twice.” However, after Derek joined the band, they developed a full repertoire (enough to fill an unreleased album) that they played with rare skill. “They were really good, tight and seemed to really have their shit together,” says Walter Glaser.
UXB’s razor-sharp sound was the result of frequent and rigorous practice sessions coupled with the able musicianship of the band members. “We didn’t get so tight by fucking around…we worked our asses off,” Bob recalls. As the self-confessed “taskmaster” (and sometime “asshole”) he made sure that everyone gave their all; and it showed. UXB’s music was dominated by the buzz saw roar of Bob and Derek’s guitars. While Bob’s rhythm guitar was raw and ferocious, Derek’s lead guitar was sophisticated and unusually complex for a hardcore band. Derek was the talent behind the innovative and unique hooks, fills and solos – like those heard in Breakout and Anti-Everything – that gave UXB’s songs their catchy but menacing appeal. Julie’s precision on bass contributed a bottom end to the rhythm section that audiences’ felt deep in their bones at the same time the guitars rattled their teeth. Put it all together and the resulting sound was powerful and aggressive, while still being tight and disciplined.
Lead singer, Peter Hansen, had an on-stage presence and commanding voice that constituted another huge part of UXB’s allure. Though he wasn’t an unusually big man, Peter, a construction worker, did exude a kind of working-class toughness that gave the band’s performances a sense of authenticity. He did not screech his lyrics, but actually sang them with a voice that, despite its husky, gravelly rasp, was able to hold a note and stay in tune. At times he would dye his crew-cut brilliant colors, like green or blue, but otherwise his style was simple and down to earth, consisting of jeans, a t-shirt, a thermal, or a Boston Celtics jersey. Bob remembers that Peter was a bit of an exhibitionist, enjoying his role as the center of attention; though he was occasionally upstaged by the only female member of the band, BB Gunn, who was singled out and praised as the band’s “smoking hot bass player” by one critic for both her musical talent and good looks.
UXB initially held their practices in the garage at Bob’s parent’s house in the suburban waterfront neighborhood of Bel-Marin Keys. Derek recalls that despite copious sound proofing, neighbors still complained about the bone-jarring percussion that would quake through their community when the band practiced. Noise complaints, coupled with the sometimes rowdy groups of teenage punks who would show up at practices, eventually created enough upset that UXB, in 1983, moved their gear south to a larger, rented warehouse in Sausalito. Bob recalls that the landlord of the new space was friendly and the acoustics were good, but “a few times each year a heavy rain in combination with a high tide caused flooding in the building… that’s why the rent was so cheap!” In order to keep their equipment dry, Bob and Peter constructed a raised stage, which transformed the practice studio into a club where UXB and other local bands could perform and hold regular shows. The place became known as The Shelter, and in addition to UXB, it hosted performances by bands such as the Pukes, The Fuck-Ups, Verbal Abuse, TOC, Urban Assault, and 5th Column.
Walter Glaser recalls, “The Shelter was awesome. It was about as punk as you could get.” Located on Gate 5 Road in a boat yard near the waters of the San Francisco Bay, The Shelter drew a diverse crowd of punks and weirdoes who usually – though not always – got along with one another. John Marmysz remembers “the police would often break up shows around midnight. One night as the police were coming into the club, UXB started playing a medley of the songs “White and Proud” and “Kill Whitey” in mockery of the cops. It was hilarious!” Nonetheless, according to Derek Johnston, “Most of the cops were cool and expressed concern about the safety of the young girls in what they considered an unsavory area.”
There was a lot of underage drinking and other questionable activity that would go on in the lot out in front of The Shelter, and at least once, a young punk rocker drunkenly stumbled and fell into the bay waters. Fights, though not common, did happen. On one memorable occasion, the audience ganged up on a fellow who would not stop smashing beer bottles on the dance floor. After repeated attempts to get him to behave, a crowd of angry punks beat him to the ground, kicking and punching him until he was forced to flee the building in fear for his life. So much for mellow Marin!
In addition to frequent gigs at local punk clubs, UXB also performed under some rather unusual circumstances to less than punk-friendly audiences. Perhaps the most infamous show they played was one that barely happened at all. Somehow invited to appear at a noontime homecoming concert at Redwood High School in Corte Madera, the band was warned that there was to be no use of profanity during the performance. Things were instantly off to a bad start when the Vice Principal saw that Peter had arrived at the school wearing a black t-shirt with the word ‘fuck’ printed on it repeatedly. When the Vice Principal demanded that the shirt be turned inside out, Derek protested and was verbally threated and jabbed in the chest by the hostile school administrator. Things only went downhill from there.
As they took to the stage, UXB’s opening number was Breakout:
Are you blind, can’t you see
We’re all just prisoners of society
Locked in the suburbs, they’re all the same
In life we’re numbers, ain’t got no name.
Breakout, fight the system
You’re not all alone
Breakout, let’s stand together
Propaganda on your TV
Say what you want but we don’t believe it
Fuck your rules, your conformity
We’re marching to an urban blitzkrieg
We don’t fight here among ourselves
We stand together and share your wealth.
Breakout, fight the system
You’re not all alone
Breakout, let’s stand together
The song includes only one occurrence of the word “fuck,” but this apparently was one occurrence too many. After this first number, the plug was literally pulled and all went silent. The abrupt halt to the music was followed by a volley of apples, soda cans, and full yogurt cups lobbed at the band by an assembly of angry football players. Bob recalls that he was “totally pissed off,” and, wielding his guitar like a baseball bat, started hitting “the yogurt bombs back into the crowd.” Derek remembers that Julie avoided being hit square in the face by a full soda can only because it was intercepted at the last minute by Peter, who reached out to stop it in mid-flight. At this point, the teenaged football players, whose anger was in full frenzy, began to converge on the stage. However, when they realized that the band members were ready to actually fight, the jocks pulled back, and things devolved into a shouting match.
Walter Glaser, Linda Sue Koscis and Robert Jupe Jr., all Redwood High students at the time, recall the fracas, with “people throwing food; maybe a few punches.” “It certainly woke my ass up!” Robert remembers. Enough chaos was generated that the police were called and the band was advised by the Administration to leave the campus immediately. With the help of the Redwood High punks, UXB loaded up their equipment and tried to make a quick escape. However they were again confronted in the parking lot by the angry mob, and once more they were pelted with cans, rocks and other projectiles. Derek had borrowed his brother’s truck for the day, and after he and Bob piled in to make their getaway, the ignition would not catch. Sitting ducks, they remained in place as the engine repeatedly sputtered and died as bottles and cans ricocheted off of the hood and the sides of the vehicle. Finally, the truck started and they peeled out, making tracks across the school’s playing field, jumping the curb, and then hitting the road just as a Corte Madera SWAT van and multiple cop cars made their arrival.
Despite the truncated performance, Bob remembers that the Redwood High punks were elated. They were “totally stoked that we shit on the jocks in front of the whole school!” Derek reports that one of the Redwood students thanked him, saying, “It was great to have someone give the jocks something back. Do you know what it’s like to have to go to school with those assholes?!” In one final afterword to the incident, Derek learned that when the new wave/pop band Tommy Two Tone later played a gig at the same high school, a riot again ensued. This time, however, the band was not lucky enough to escape before all of their equipment was trashed!
Another one of UXB’s memorable, Spinal Tap-esque gigs also occurred on a school campus; this time at Mills College, a then all women’s school in the East Bay. As Bob recalls, someone must have decided that the school needed “an injection of coolness that only a punk rock show could supply.” The problem was that the college was in “a place no punk would ever venture or even know existed. I guess the plan was to have a punk show and not have any punks show!” UXB was scheduled to hit the stage at 10pm, but when it appeared that there was going to be no audience, Derek decided to drop acid and the rest of the band proceeded to get falling-down drunk. When show-time rolled around, the inebriated band took to the stage for a 20 minute set that, according to Bob, was just terrible. “It sounded like a free form punk version of a Dead concert.”
It was then, Bob claims, that the band realized there actually was an audience that was hiding in the shadows at the very back of the hall, as far away from the stage as they could get. At one point, some of the elusive Mills College students finally mustered the courage to approach the stage for a closer look. Bob reports, however, that “as soon as eye contact was made they scurried back to their safe haven in disbelief as if we were creatures from another planet. They thought they wanted a punk rock show and we gave them a freak show that they will probably never forget. I know I won’t!”
Derek’s recollection of the same evening is quite different. It was the first live show he had played with UXB, and so as he recalls it, he was very eager to perform well. “No one was drunk or on drugs. We actually played a good set. And there were plenty of people slam dancing and enjoying the music.” What Derek didn’t realize at the time, however, was that they were sharing the bill with one the greatest of all San Francisco punk bands: MDC. “I saw their Marshall stack, but I just thought one of the other bands was borrowing it. I didn’t even know it was them until they took to the stage. If I had known, I would have included their name on the show flyer!” This incident, Derek claims, established a pattern that would continue throughout the time he was with UXB. He remembers being regularly left in the dark until the day of a show, which meant that he often had no idea with whom, or where, they would be performing. But then, sometimes the best things do happen at the last minute!
A case in point was the biggest concert that UXB ever played; a booking that Derek was not aware of until one week before the event. The show was at the LA Olympic Auditorium, in downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1924, this was the location of the 1932 Olympic boxing, weightlifting and wrestling competitions, but by the 1970’s and 1980’s, the venue had switched to hosting regular music performances; including high-profile punk rock shows. The concert that UXB was booked to play was a sort of punk rock Woodstock, featuring Black Flag, 45 Grave, DOA, Descendents, and Hüsker Dü.
The trip to and from LA was one of the absurdly memorable parts of this particular adventure. Derek traveled with his own girlfriend, drummer Scott Williams and his girlfriend, as well as UXB’s roadies – including Ricky Paul of the Pukes and a couple of Ricky’s female friends, dubbed the “Pukettes” by Derek. Peter drove separately in his own truck, which was decorated in an especially eye-catching way. Peter’s uncle was Bob Dornan, a controversial right-wing Republican and member of the US House of Representatives who had earned the nickname “B1 Bob” because of his stanch support of the B-1 bomber program. In ridicule of his own conservative relative, Peter had plastered his truck with Bob Dornan campaign posters, each of which was spray-painted with a large, black swastika! “It was a real sight to see a caravan of punks with crazy colored hair driving down the freeway like that!,” Derek recalls. They must have turned some heads, indeed.
Arriving in Southern California, the band and their friends stayed in Huntington Beach. The night before the big show at the LA Olympic Auditorium UXB practiced their set in their host’s backyard. Derek remembers that there was a good turn out of punks at the evening party, but mid-way through the performance they were interrupted by the “chop-chop-chop” sound of rotor blades. An LAPD helicopter appeared overhead, spotlighting the band and, over a loudspeaker, ordered them to disperse. Derek says that his instinct was to flip the cops off, but when he did so, his hosts warned him that such behavior was especially risky in LA, as the police wouldn’t hesitate to “beat your head in” if you showed them any signs of disrespect or hostility. Luckily, the party ended without anyone going to jail.
The next day UXB arrived at the Olympic Auditorium and set up their equipment. After “a lot of waiting and sitting around,” both Bob and Derek remember that the show went really well, with UXB putting on a great concert. “The entire set flew by and was well received by the So Cal punks,” according to Bob. After a “killer encore,” the members of the band went backstage to drink beer and congratulate one another on a job well done. As they were doing so, Bob recalls that Henry Rollins, the lead singer of Black Flag, came wandering around while making “primal grunting sounds” and “hammering the walls with his fists and his head.” As he continued to grunt and carry on, Bob came to realize that this was Henry’s “pre-show psych-up routine.” The backstage performance reached an amusing conclusion when Henry staggered over to a dirty drinking fountain, and bent over to take a sip. The fountain had been booby-trapped by some prankster, and so when Rollins turned the handle “a high pressure stream of water hit ‘ol Henry in the eye,” provoking laughter from the members of UXB.
After witnessing Henry Rollins’ amusing run-in with the water fountain, Derek recalls breaking away from his band mates, eating nachos and having a really good time mixing and socializing with the audience and members of Black Flag. Black Flag, in fact, ended up borrowing UXB’s amps for their headlining performance, which ended with a rousing rendition of “Louie, Louie.”
Though he would have liked to have spent more time in LA after the show, Derek says that he had to catch his ride back home with Scott Williams and his girlfriend. “Scott’s girlfriend was this kind of natural, hippy girl. She was sitting up front when we hit the freeway, and at one point during the trip she rolled a hash cigarette.” Taking a puff, she became nauseated from the smoke and began retching, and so frantically rolled down the passenger side window in order to be sick. The problem was that the car was moving at 70 miles per hour, and consequently when she vomited, it all came rushing back inside, creating a “hurricane of puke in the car.” Derek remembers thinking that the vomit looked like “pancake mix” as it splattered both himself and his girlfriend, who were sitting in the backseat. “It was all over my face and in my girlfriend’s hair.” This was a messy ending that would have certainly been appreciated by Ricky Puke had he been lucky enough to have been in the car.
In addition to their live performances, UXB also did a fair amount of studio recording. The song Breakout, from 1982’s Not So Quiet on the Western Front compilation, was recorded, engineered and produced at the Big Pink studio in Mill Valley. Afterwards, the band rented time at a 16 track studio in San Rafael, recording songs for an album titled In Your Face. The album, however, was never released because, according to Bob, “I ran out of time and money.” Two of the tracks from In Your Face – Die’s Song and Anti-Everything – were supposed to be released as back-to-back singles, but that also fell through. Anti-Everything ultimately appeared on the compilation tape Marin Underground.
Two other punk bands from around the same time period also bore the name UXB: one from the UK and the other from New York. The website Last FM warns readers not to confuse the Marin group with these other bands, but then mistakenly attributes an album released by the UK band, titled Crazy Today, to Marin’s UXB.
“All good things must pass,” and so in 1983, UXB broke up. “I always embraced change. If one did not evolve they would soon face extinction. That’s where I thought our music was headed.” Bob recalls that he tried to introduce a synthesizer at one point, hoping to augment the guitars and to add another layer of sound to the music, but some members of the band objected, claiming that it sounded like a “sell-out” and “too new-wavie.” “I said to myself, don’t you have to make money to sell out? This question brought me to the fork in the road.” These sorts of creative differences, along with personality clashes, expenses, work pressure and sheer exhaustion, led to the band’s breakup in 1983. The split was nevertheless amicable, and Peter and Derek went on to start a new band, called Ludoviko Technique.
Christman, Bob. Interview with John Marmysz. April 9, 2018.
Christman, Bob. Correspondence with John Marmysz. May 1, 2018.
Edgar, Gordon. “The Death of Ricky Puke,” (Blog posting). <http://gordonzola.livejournal.com/125133.html > Last accessed 3/13/18.
Glaser, Walter. Interview with John Marmysz. March 7, 2018.
Johnson, Brooke. Interview with John Marmysz. February 2, 2018.
Johnston, Derek. Interview with John Marmysz. May 11, 2018.
Jupe Jr., Robert. Facebook posting. April 1, 2018.
Last FM. < https://www.last.fm/music/UXB/+wiki > Last accessed 5/16/18.
Resing, Julie. Correspondence with John Marmysz. March 26, 2018.
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.
(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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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>
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.
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!