The Return of Sacripolitical

It’s been 25 years since my old band, Sacripolitical, played its final show at Club Chameleon in San Francisco. Chalk it up to punk nostalgia, middle-aged ennui, or simply an excuse to hang out with old friends; whatever the reason, we’ve recently been having a fun time getting together again and practicing some of our old songs. The newly reconstituted Sacripolitical is made up of: John Marmysz (vocals), Matt Schmidt (guitar), Mark Wallace (bass) and Gary Benson (drums).

When I was in my 20’s, the band was an important part of my life. In existence for almost ten years, Sacripolitical offered a cathartic outlet for my raging emotions as well as an opportunity to work together with good friends, creating music that still means something to me today. We played songs about the meaning (and meaningless) of life, sex, hope, crime, politics and war – always infused with a good dose of humor and irony. We performed in a lot of nasty little clubs, warehouses and living rooms for nothing more than the enjoyment of getting in front of a sympathetic audience and making a racket.

Now, in our 50’s, the band offers a similar kind of fun: bonding with old friends, sharing memories, and creating music for its own sake. At a time in life when so much of what we do seems focused on “sensible” and “practical” goals, it is nice to have a creative outlet that is its own goal and that needs no justification beyond itself.

In addition to the old songs, we’ve also started to write some new material. Here are the lyrics to Gogol’s Nose, a song inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story. It is something that Matt and I started to conceive in the 1980’s, but which only now, in the 2000’s, we have started to develop in earnest:

Gogol’s Nose

Gogol’s Nose! [4 X]

Opened up my eyes to the early morning rays,

The best night of sleep I had had in days.

Hopped out of bed and looked at my face,

Screamed in shock at what was not in place!

 

A void had opened up right above my lips,

A blank space, flat flesh! I started to flip!

The thing that allowed me to breath in fresh air,

Was completely gone; it was no longer there!

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time being so debonair,

Life could be so easy if you just didn’t care.

Make the right impression, you’re in a rat race.

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose! [4 X]

 

I thought to myself, “That fuckin’ nose!

He’s taken off, stolen some of my clothes!

I’ll need to track him down before he gets too far,

And leaves me with this embarrassing scar.”

 

So I ran out on the street and it was there in the news,

The headline in the paper was my very first clue,

My nose had been spotted wearing my cape,

Boarding a carriage and making his escape.

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time trying to be a big shot,

Life is so short, appreciate what you got.

You’re rushing here and there; haste makes waste.

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose [4 X]

 

I hailed a ride and without a pause,

I yelled at the driver, “Follow that schnozz!”

He looked at me strange, but I gave him some dough,

And with that we lurched forward and started to go.

 

It turns out that my nose was impersonating me,

Buying fancy clothing, booze and jewelry.

My reputation was on the line,

I must stop that proboscis and end his crimes!

 

I found my nose at work, insulting my boss.

I got him in a bear hug and I started to cuss:

“Listen motherfucker, this nonsense must stop!

Get back on my face, take a place in your spot!”

 

He broke from my grip and tried to get away,

But I punched him in the nose and blood started to spray.

My nose was now defeated and passively,

He whined, “Why on earth would you do this to me?”

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time playing to the herd,

And you think that the story of my nose is absurd?

Don’t do nothing special, don’t step out of place,

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose! [8 X]

 

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The Frolic of the Beasts

First published in 1961, Yukio Mishima’s novel The Frolic of the Beasts (Translated by Andrew Clare. New York: Vintage Books. November 2018) was only recently translated into English in 2018. It is a short work, reminding me of Mishima’s more well-crafted novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, which was first published in 1963 and then translated into English two years afterwards. Both stories deal with themes of aberrant love, moral transgression, murder and nihilism, but whereas The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea exhibits an elegant and graceful style, The Frolic of the Beasts is rather clunky and jagged in form. Since I don’t read Japanese, I’m not sure how much of this has to do with the original text and how much is related to the English translation.

The story begins with a prologue describing a photograph of three smiling figures – Yuko, Ippei and Koji – whose apparent happiness, we are told, conflicts with a “wretched incident” that will take place only a few days later. The photo was snapped at the harbor of a fishing village where the three characters live. Yuko and Ippei are married and own five greenhouse gardens near the village where they grow plants and produce for sale. Koji works for them; but there seems to be something secret and unspeakably intimate about the relationship he shares with his employers. This intimacy is confirmed by the photograph and then, at the close of the prologue, with the description of three grave markers that have been erected, against the wishes of villagers, in the local cemetery. Ippei’s grave lies on the right, Koji’s grave is on the left, and Yuko’s grave sits between them as a “reserved monument.” Ippei and Koji, it appears, have died, while Yuko is still alive, but anticipating death; and there is some sort of outrage involving the three that has scandalized the village residents.

The story unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards as the hidden secret alluded to in the prologue is slowly revealed. In Chapter 1, Koji is released from prison and returns to the fishing village of Iro where he is met by Yuko at the port upon his arrival. On the boat ride to Iro, Koji repeatedly thinks to himself “I have repented,” but when he meets Yuko, her first words to him are, “You haven’t changed.” She repeats this phrase as the two of them stop for lunch. “You haven’t changed one little bit,” she says to Koji, and he thinks to himself, “They were frightening words” (p. 22). The reader starts to understand that Koji has committed some sort of crime that has disrupted not only his own life, but the course of Yuko’s life as well. Koji longs for an assurance that he is different than he was before his incarceration – that he is reformed – but Yuko sees in him the same person that was always there: someone capable of violence. And yet, she is not afraid or repulsed by him. Rather, she seems protective of, and in fact attracted to, this young man. Yuko has even insisted upon becoming Koji’s legal guardian upon his release.

The two of them walk through the village, and while Koji starts to feel a sense of shame, Yuko commands him to hold his head high as they pass by the villagers who know about his crime. Eventually, they arrive at Yuko’s house where a fearful Koji is greeted by Ippei.

Ippei was a German literature scholar who once worked as a lecturer before inheriting his parents’ ceramics shop in Ginza. Koji was one of his students, hired to work in the shop. Upon becoming his employee, Koji discovered that Ippei, who is married to Yuko, was involved in a number of extra-marital affairs; something that his wife knew about but tolerated. In Koji’s eyes, “Ippei had everything.” In addition to having a beautiful wife and girlfriends, he was educated, intelligent, wore expensive Italian suits and went to exclusive hair salons. On the other hand, Ippei admired Koji for his youth; in particular his “ability to fight and express anger.” “Old age is all that awaits you. There is nothing other than that,” (p. 29) he told Koji, seemingly encouraging his young employee to grab hold of life while he could. Indeed this is what Koji did, falling in love with Yoku and beginning a secret affair with her.

While out with Yoku one day, Koji discovered a heavy, black wrench laying on the ground. Not really understanding why, he picked it up and put it in his jacket pocket. Reflecting upon this later while imprisoned, he interprets the incident as having some sort of metaphysical importance. Koji concludes that it was not he who actually decided to pick up the wrench, but rather that the wrench itself was a manifestation of some primal “will” that had become concrete and which sought to throw the order of reality into chaos. This section of Chapter 2 immediately brought the ideas of Schopenhauer to mind. Schopenhauer, of course, considered all things in the world to be manifestations of an underlying, unitary will, but this cosmic will was neither benevolent nor moral. Rather, it was energetic, violent and cruel. It would make sense that Koji, a student of German literature, would be familiar with these ideas and thus come, in retrospect, to understand the black wrench as the embodiment of a force that seeks to disrupt his world.

And this wrench does indeed change the course of things. When Yoku and Koji walk in on Ippei and his lover Machiko engaged in a romantic rendezvous, Yoku becomes upset and Ippei strikes her across the face. Koji’s inner feelings are confused as he observes all of this. “…he wasn’t sure whom he hated” (p. 49). He longs for this confrontation to lead to some sort of epiphany, a pulling away of the veil that will lead to the revelation of the raw perversity of human nature, but instead all he sees is “nothing other than things he had grown utterly tired of seeing: the mediocre concealment of human shame, the irony of keeping up appearances” (p. 47). This disappoints him. The concrete discovery of her husband’s infidelity, which Yoku knew about all along, is not greeted by her with the “delight” of one who has finally revealed a long suspected truth; instead she reacts in the stereotypical way that a spurned wife is expected to act. At this, Koji recoils instinctively and finds himself compelled to correct things by taking an action that will impart lasting and profound significance to this moment. He reaches into his pocket, grabs the wrench and strikes Ippei repeatedly in the head.

In Chapter 3 we learn about the aftermath of the attack on Ippei. The blows he delivered caused severe brain damage, reducing Ippei to a passive and persistently grinning idiot who needs to be cared for by his wife. This is the crime for which Koji was incarcerated, and though he tells himself that he has “repented,” he nevertheless also feels as if this act of violence was a necessary corrective to the ugly, stupid and senseless reality that would otherwise have been the destiny of these three people:

At the time, I could no longer endure that putrid world; a world bereft of logic. It was necessary that I impart some logic into that world of pig’s entrails. And so you see, I imparted the cold, hard, black logic of iron. Namely, the logic of the wrench. (p. 51).

The “logic of the wrench” defies the nihilistic meaninglessness of reality. It is an attempt willfully to alter the course of nature so that these three characters will no longer be doomed to the mediocrity of conventional, forgettable lives. While they may be demonized, pitied and reviled by others, “the logic of the wrench” assures that they will not be easily forgotten as boring, faceless, run-of-the-mill drones that are merely part of the herd.

Following his incarceration, Koji settles into life with Ippei and Yoku, working in their greenhouses alongside Teijiro, one of the couple’s other employees. One day, he accompanies Yuko and Ippei on a hike to a waterfall in order to make an offering at a sacred shrine. Koji thinks about how happy he is in this peaceful setting, but the hike is rather strenuous, Ippei becomes tired, and Yoku, upon their arrival at the shrine, begins to speak and act disrespectfully and sacrilegiously. She complains that the shrine itself is “dull” and “small,” and then starts to taunt her husband by asking him if he even understands the concept of sacrifice. Ippei seems confused, but Yuko persists, trying to get him to pronounce the word “sacrifice.” When he is unable to do so, she asks him if he understands what a “kiss” is and then grabs Koji, embracing him passionately as her husband watches. This enrages Koji, who slaps Yoku across the face and then turns to face Ippei, who stands passive and silent, that ever present grin fixed to his face. It is a look that terrifies Koji, and in order to escape this fear, he once again embraces Yoku.

Chapter 4 begins with Koji drinking alone one night in the only bar in Iro. It is here that he meets up with two young men – Matsukichi and Kioyshi – and the beautiful daughter of his co-worker Teijiro; a young woman named Kimi. Kimi is on vacation from her factory job, but oddly she does not stay with her father, nor does she spend any time with him. In the past, after the death of her mother, she had seemed to be quite happy living together with her father, but then, quite suddenly Kimi left home, and it became apparent that there had been some sort of falling out.

Koji sits with his three friends in the bar, becoming more and more drunk. Finally, the three young men leave with Kimi and take a row boat out to a small island where they go swimming and then dry off by a campfire. Matsukichi and Kioyshi steal Kimi’s ukulele, which they see as a symbol of her love, and row away, leaving Koji and Kimi stranded on the island together. At the campfire, Kimi tells Koji that she knows he really loves Yuko, but that “just for this one night she was prepared to make a sacrifice and act as a stand-in” (p. 99). But as they have sex, Koji thinks to himself how the experience is “nothing but a poor imitation,” not of Yuko, but of the idealized sexual images that he had conjured up in his imagination while in prison. Here we find yet another indication of the nihilistic theme at the center of the story.

The nihilist considers all existent things to be substandard and flawed when compared to the superlative ideals that human beings are capable of imagining. On earth, there is no such thing as perfect Truth or Justice or Beauty, and so reality as it exists is always defective, ugly and deficient. The only perfections that exist are idealizations, and, disappointingly, the ideal is always incapable of becoming real. Thus, Kimi’s actual beauty is a “poor imitation” of real Beauty, and at the end of the chapter Koji reflects on how the sandals she has left on the island will eventually decay, being “transformed into a dwelling place for an infestation of sea lice,” finally melting “into the great multitude of unearthly, formless material phenomena that exist on earth” (p. 101). Reality is a raw, unformed, ugly, meaningless mass of matter. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say, the world of physical existence is an existence that is “in-itself.” It is a vast absurdity that means nothing at all until human beings exert their willful interpretational efforts to make something out of the nothing; just as Koji did with his wrench. But even those human interpretations are ephemeral, doomed to decay and to die along with the people who formulated them. Nature is ugly and meaningless, and the best thing that a human can do in life is to commit crimes against nature in defiance of its absurdity.

The ugliness of reality is further unveiled in Chapter 5. Before Kimi leaves to go back to her factory job, her father, Teijiro, proudly confesses to Koji that shortly after the death of his wife, he raped Kimi, his own daughter, and this is why she hates him. Teijiro produces a photograph that he bought in Tokyo of a young school girl and a young school boy having sex. Smiling, he says to Koji, “What do you think? It looks a bit like her, doesn’t it?” (p. 108). Teijiro – like Ippei and Koji – is a criminal. In confessing his own crime, he expects Koji, who has also slept with Kimi, to participate in his perverted sexual titillation. It is an attempt to share a bond of corruption with Koji in whom he recognizes a kindred, aberrant spirit. But Koji is still resistant. He is still convinced that he has “repented.”

When Kimi stops to say goodbye, Yoku is present, and Koji senses that she is jealous. But, as it turns out, she is not at all jealous of the sexual affair that he has had with Kimi. She is jealous of Koji’s crime:

Yuko’s jealousy was directed not at Kimi, who was of no importance. It was directed, she said, at Koji’s crime.

The anguish she felt at not having a crime to her name like the one he committed had grown in intensity. Ever since the picnic that day at the waterfall, this thought had rooted itself blackly in her mind – she wanted to compete with Koji’s crime, to somehow be able to own a crime like his in order to at least stand beside him. (p. 119)

Yoku is the only one who possesses no crime of her own, and because of this, she feels lacking and weak. She is the only one in her household who has not willfully challenged the conventional course of life, but rather has simply allowed herself to be swept along by the actions of others. In order to correct this, she must commit a willful transgression against morality.

The story comes to a crescendo when, on a walk with Ippei, Koji confronts his former teacher and accuses him of being a “hollow cavern,” and an “empty hole” (p. 140) around which the entire household revolves. This former scholar has lost all inner thought. He is a perpetually grinning nothing that everyone else must cater to. He has become a being-in-itself, a dumb, ugly force of nature, propelled by inertia and necessity rather than by willful desire. Like a black hole, he sucks everyone around him into his orbit, in the process also sucking the energy out of their lives. However, as Ippei becomes increasingly agitated, it becomes apparent that there is some sort of willful, inner consciousness still alive within him. “What is it you want?” Koji asks, and finally Ippei responds, “Death. I want to die” (p. 144).

The book ends with a first-person epilogue in which a researcher recounts his visit to the town of Iro and his meeting with a priest who recounts his memories of Yuko, Ippei and Koji. The priest recalls how at dawn on a particular day, Yuko and Koji appeared at his temple, hand-in-hand, looking like a bride and groom. They confessed to him that they had strangled Ippei to death. The priest shows the researcher the photograph described in the book’s prologue, and explains that Koji had given it to him the day before the murder. This was used as evidence of premeditation in his court trial, and so Koji was sentenced to death, while Yuko was sentenced to be imprisoned for life. While in prison, Yuko and Koji requested that the priest arrange for three graves to be established in which Yuko would be buried between Ippei and Koji. The priest gives the researcher a photograph of the grave markers, and he in turn visits Yoku in prison, passing the photo along to her. She now can be assured that she has committed a crime that justifies her lying alongside her husband and her lover for eternity.

The Frolic of the Beasts echoes themes that are found in many of Yukio Mishima’s major works, like The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the Sea of Fertility. Like these other books, it is a nihilistic tragedy in which the main characters struggle, suffer and ultimately die in the vain attempt to impose their ideals onto a meaningless and resistant world. Their actions take the form of crimes against conventional morality precisely because it is conventional morality that serves to keep individuals tied to an everyday, normal and unexceptional way of life. In order actively to break free from passive mediocrity, the characters in Mishima’s stories find that they must challenge the world as it has been given. The given world – the world in-itself – is an ugly, meaningless nothing that absorbs and dissipates all human effort. It is like the ocean, which provides a dark and threatening backdrop to The Frolic of the Beasts (as well as to The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea). The ocean serves as a symbol of Being itself; a dark, formless and flowing reality giving rise to, and then reabsorbing, all worldly phenomena. Like waves that erupt on the surface of the sea and then melt back into the depths, individual human lives erupt forth from Being, struggle for a short time to make something of their short existence, and then are inexorably vanquished back into the formless void.

In Mishima’s stories, just as in his own life, individual perversion, crime and depravity become acts of defiance against a meaningless world. Though human existence is impermanent, at least crimes against nature can potentially leave a lasting scar on the face of Being.

 

Summer Road Trip

Despite having spent the bulk of our lives as residents of California, my wife Juneko and I had never visited San Diego, the state’s second largest city. In order to correct this oversight, we decided to make it the destination of a summer road trip. We would follow Highway 1 south from Marin County, stopping for a couple of nights in Morro Bay – another town we had never visited – before continuing on to our final destination. After three nights in San Diego, we then would head back north, stopping for a night in Pismo Beach.

The first leg of our journey took us through one of my favorite cities, Santa Cruz – where we stopped for coffee and pastries – and then through the Big Sur region of the California coast. Here, Highway 1 curves along the shoreline, elevated atop cliffs that drop off into the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This is where Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin lived, where the Manson Family lurked for a while, and where members of the Esalon Institute still meditate and frolic in New Age bliss. The views are amazing, but you have to keep your eyes glued to the road in order to avoid plunging to your death.

Near San Simeon – the location of Hearst Castle – we pulled off the road to take a gander at a long stretch of beach that has become a resting place for a colony of elephant seals. Lined up on the sand like slick, leathery logs of driftwood, the seals lay on the shoreline, taking in the sun while ignoring tourists who stand overhead snapping photos. They (the seals, not the tourists) reminded me of our own lazy dog who likes to bask in the heat on the deck at home. Replace our dog’s legs with flippers and he could join this sea-going pack; though he probably wouldn’t last long. I think these seals are much too rough, vulgar and wild for our civilized chihuahua.

We arrived in Morro Bay around 4pm, and after checking into the motel, we walked a few blocks down to the harbor to take in some sights and eat some dinner. The Morro Bay harbor is a working harbor busy with fishermen hauling in their catches. It is home to a Coast Guard station as well as an abandoned power station with three imposing smoke stacks. It also, incongruously, is a protected wildlife sanctuary. The tour book we carried with us takes a subtly disparaging tone toward the place, describing it as “working-class,” but for me, it was actually a refreshing change of pace from tourist locations like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Seattle’s Pike Place. The Morro Bay harbor is small, uncrowded and unpretentious. While I would not recommend the restaurant that we ate at our first night (I was served a weird, tasteless and unpleasantly mushy dish that was a combination of ground up abalone and scallops; something my wife described as “jackalope”), I would recommend spending a day wandering around the docks. As the men clean their equipment, sea lions swim about, lounge on the piers and bark at one another. Meanwhile, rafts of sea otters float on their backs, cleaning their fur, snoozing and eating. It’s really a very cool sight.

The next day, we went back to the harbor and walked to Morro Bay’s landmark: Morro Rock. Sitting on the coastline and jutting about five hundred feet above the water, Morro Rock is a volcanic plug so distinctive that it has been used for centuries by seamen as a navigation marker, and thus has been dubbed “The Gibraltar of California.” In the early 1900’s nearly half of the rock was blasted away to provide material for the construction of Morro Harbor, but in 1963 it was designated a national landmark. Visitors are not allowed to climb the rock, which is a nesting place for peregrine falcons and other sea birds, but you can hike to its base, becoming acquainted with hundreds of overfed ground squirrels that reside there and beg for food.

Morro Rock looms in the background wherever you go in the town of Morro Bay. It is always there, either appearing in the distance or hiding behind trees or buildings, just waiting to be revealed as you change your perspective. One especially good vantage point comes from taking a short hike up to the top of Black Hill in Morro Bay State Park. If the fog has cleared, from the peak of Black Hill you get panoramic views of the shoreline – punctuated by Morro Rock – as well as the town, the harbor, and in the opposite direction, the other volcanic plugs making up the “Nine Sisters” that stretch all the way down to San Luis Obispo. Climb back down the hill, and you can hike along trails that run along the Morro Estuary. Here you can take in bay views while encountering rabbits, birds and some of the most prosperous succulent plants that I have ever seen in my life. At the Bay View Café, located in the State Park, my wife and I ate clam chowder mixed with green chilies, a plate of fried clams and fish and chips. It was all reasonably priced and quite good.

The next morning we hit the road at around 9am, hoping to get past Los Angeles before 3pm. We had been warned after that time the traffic could become an almost impossible impediment. Despite arriving in the LA region well ahead of deadline (1:30 pm), we nevertheless did end up stuck in a traffic jam on Highway 101 that did not come to an end until we passed through Long Beach. There was nothing we could do except sit tight and repeatedly mutter, “Fuck!” as we spent about three hours slowly inching forward in southern California traffic, finally arriving in San Diego at around 6pm.

I had booked a good online deal at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gas Lamp Quarter, not quite understanding the atmosphere of the place. It’s a rock and roll themed hotel catering to party-goers and rowdy college students that is apparently bent on encouraging guests to overindulge in booze and sex. Along with wine and liquor, the rooms are stocked with condoms and lubricants! When we checked in, the concierge informed us that as guests, we were invited to attend their rooftop pool party the following evening. “There will be a DJ and half-priced drinks,” he informed us. Then he asked what kind of music we preferred to have piped into our room. When I said, “Punk,” he shot me a confused look. “That’s the first time anyone has asked for that. Sorry, but we don’t have it. Anything else? Heavy Metal perhaps?” My wife suggested Alternative music, which was a genre that did make sense to our friendly host.

Ironically, when the doors of the elevator opened onto our floor, the first thing we were greeted by was a wall sized photo of punk icons Sid and Nancy! In fact, photos of the Sex Pistols, The Ramones and Blondie appear throughout the property. Given this, I think the management of the Hard Rock Hotel needs to rethink some of their policies. I advise them to treat punk rock as something more than just a historical museum piece. Offer the option to have hardcore punk music piped into the rooms. Get rid of the condoms and lubricants and instead stock the mini bars with Guinness, Pabst Blue Ribbon and hypodermic syringes. Drain the pool and invite guests to use it for skateboarding. Instead of rooftop parties, set up faux dive bars with filthy bathrooms and urinals that won’t flush. This would open up a whole new marketing strategy, I assure you.

That night, we ate some terrible tacos at one of the numerous restaurants on 6th Street near the hotel and then spent a few hours sipping drinks and people watching from the front porch of an Irish pub. The Gas Lamp district is a bustling location, crowded with people of varied ages drinking and socializing late into the night. There are a lot of college kids, but also older folks and service members from the nearby Navy and Marine Corps bases. Tough looking, thirty-something men with shaven heads, baseball caps and tattooed arms saunter along next to softer looking, long-haired twenty-something young men dressed in kakis and collared shirts. The young women are dressed up in fancy dresses or dressed down in cut-off shorts and skimpy tops. Tattooed flesh is abundantly on display. Mixed in among the youngsters are middle-aged folks that might be the parents of college students. There is also a heavy law enforcement presence, which might be one of the reasons why the situation on the street did not feel like it was going to spin out of control despite all of the youth, hormones and booze. When I was a teenager, I would have hated this place. Now that I’m fifty four, it was actually quite relaxing to hang out until well past midnight, detached, watching the people pass by.

The next morning we ate breakfast at The Hob Nob Hill Restaurant, a place featured on the TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The food was fine, but not outstanding. It was the atmosphere of the place that was the real attraction, with its 1950’s style décor and upholstered booths. Afterwards we drove through Balboa Park and went to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. This is the largest zoo I have ever visited (also the most expensive!), covering over one hundred acres and housing more than 3,500 animals including capibaras, elephants, gorillas, and orangutans –and that’s not counting all of the bald, tattooed tough guys who wander the grounds drinking beer with their tattooed wives and tattooed children in tow. We spent about four and a half hours meandering along the paths, throughout the aviaries, and past the enclosures before getting on the “Skyfari” gondola that offers a bird’s eye view of the park from about one hundred feet above the ground.

After leaving the zoo, we ate dinner at another Guy Fieri endorsed restaurant called the Crest Café. I had a vegetarian sandwich that was very tasty and my wife had breakfast tacos, which she said were OK. Afterwards we walked around the Hillcrest neighborhood; a place that felt like a small Haight Ashbury, teeming with a wide and varied assortment of alternative-type people. Taang! Records is located here, and we spent some time browsing through their vinyl, which includes $300 copies of old punk records and $5 CD reissues of old Oi! Classics. The walls of the store are covered with records by bands from the old days: The Mentors, Slaughter and the Dogs, Cock Sparrer, GG Allin. There are posters, cassette tapes, old children’s record players, buttons, patches and all sorts of other punk ephemera for sale. If you are in San Diego, you must visit this place.

For our final day in San Diego, we drove to Coronado Island and visited the Hotel Del Coronado, a national historic landmark that was built in 1888. The hotel is a Victorian style building with red turrets that sit atop its white washed walls. The dark, hardwood interior of the lobby makes you feel as if you are in a cave when you first enter from the front steps, but once you exit the main building toward the rear, sunlight pours out over the lawns, the landscaping and the beach. There is a walkway lined with overpriced bars and food stands stretching along the shore next to the sand. The Hotel Del Coronado has appeared in movies such as Some Like It Hot and My Blue Heaven, and in television shows such as Ghost Story and Baywatch. Rooms at the hotel range from around $300 a night to over $1,000 a night. For that price you could buy some vintage punk vinyl.

We crossed back over Coronado Bridge for a final visit to Balboa Park, ranked as one of the best parks in the world by the Project for Public Spaces. Balboa Park covers fourteen hundred acres of land, and is home to a variety of museums in addition to the San Diego Zoo. We wandered through the lush grounds of the park for a couple of hours, looking at the Spanish inspired architecture and pausing next to the reflecting pools, before eating some excellent seafood tacos at Oscars Mexican Seafood and then heading back to our hotel for the evening.

The next morning we drove north on Highway 101, thankfully avoiding the awful traffic that delayed us when we were southbound, and headed toward our final overnight destination: Pismo Beach. Our stay here was not during the peak season, so the town was relatively quiet and peaceful. We were told by a shop owner that in July, things get pretty crowded and crazy, so I’m glad we visited when we did. The town is located right on the beach, which features waves for surfers and a long pier for those of us who just want to gaze at the ocean. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck intended to vacation here in the cartoon Ali Baba Bunny, but they made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

If they ever do make it to Pismo, they would enjoy the food at Cracked Crab, on Price Street. I’m still thinking about the deep fried brussel sprouts, a dish that is probably one of the best things I have ever tasted. The chioppino was also incredible, brimming with crab legs, mussels, clams, and shrimp. I felt like one of the otters that we saw in Morro Bay as I dug through the shellfish and stuffed my belly. Juneko had a crab sandwich that was also delicious.

After dinner, Juneko and I walked out into the darkness and onto the city pier, reminiscing about our thirty three years together. We talked about death, love and hope. Engulfed by the evening gloom, listening to the lapping of the ocean waves on the wooden pilings, the two of us gazed out at the black waters stretching out toward the horizon. The sea was virtually indistinguishable from the night sky, making it seem as if we were suspended in the midst of a shadow. Thin lines of white foam formed on the surface of the black water below, outlining waves that moved toward the shore, breaking and disappearing into nothing. Again and again, the same cycle of wave after wave erupted out of the watery void, repeating endlessly. Currents that led nowhere, accomplishing nothing, moved this way and that.

“We’re kinda like that,” I thought.

That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes

Abstract:

That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes

John Marmysz

College of Marin

USA

The term “cynic,” as it is commonly used today, tends to be associated with negative evaluations. To call someone “cynical” is to suggest that a person sees the worst in others, distrusts the motivations of others, and has a generally dark and critical perspective on the world and people in it. Today, a cynic is rarely thought of as an affirmative, happy or joyful individual; and if the cynical attitude is associated at all with humor, it is with a cruel, spiteful and mean-spirited sort of humor that holds others in contempt. This obscures the historical fact that the origins of the “cynical” perspective are actually found in a philosophy having more to do with the affirmation of life than with dismissive and negative criticism of others. This philosophy began with the ancient Greek figure Diogenes of Sinope (c.412 – c.323 BC), a man who was exiled from his homeland and who spent the rest of his days in Athens, living a barrel while using humorous means to educate others concerning the nature of a good life.

Diogenes’ use of humor remains an innovation that, while frequently highlighted and noted by scholars, has rarely been explored systematically and in depth. In this paper I shall offer a methodical analysis of the role humor plays in the philosophy of Diogenes. I shall argue that the cynicism authored by Diogenes is a philosophy premised on a number of doctrines – none of which are essentially negative in character – and that among these doctrines humor holds the central place. The cynical humor of Diogenes, I shall claim, is more than just a feature of his personality or a method through which he communicates his real message. It is, in fact, the foundation of the philosophy of cynicism itself.

William Shatner

On Thursday May 16th, after a screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, William Shatner gave a sometimes rambling, but always hilarious talk at the Marin Center in San Rafael, CA.

I had never before seen Shatner in person, so I was not prepared for how uproariously funny the man would be. He spoke about topics ranging from his relationships with other Star Trek cast members, to his misadventures with fermented cod, to his surreal encounters with Los Angeles police officers. With each successive story, Shatner got more and more ramped up, frequently digressing down dead-end paths before finally reaching a level of frantic energy that made me wonder if he was losing his mind before our very eyes. But through it all I laughed as hard as I can ever remember laughing in all my life.

This man is nutty, absurdly charismatic and has had more ludicrous adventures than Don Quixote. If you have a chance to hear him speak, go.

Ludovico Teknique

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

After the breakup of UXB in 1983, Peter Hansen, Derek Johnston and Scott Williams formed Ludovico Teknique. In need of a new rhythm guitar player and bassist, Derek posted flyers in local music, record and book shops, advertising for musicians friendly to the band’s punk influences, which ranged from Iggy Pop to The Angelic Upstarts.

It was during this period that Derek first met Mike Crowell at the Rafael Book and News, a beloved Marin newsstand and meeting place on 4th Street in downtown San Rafael. Located next door to the Rafael movie theater, the Book and News attracted a wide and diverse variety of patrons in search of everything from paperback novels and pornography, to movie and music magazines. It went out of business in the late 1980’s when George Lucas bought the building in order to expand his film archive, but in its heyday, this was where you could hang out, socialize and browse through magazines such as Violent World, Hammer’s House of Horror, Cinefantastique, UFO Report, Creem, Punk, Slash and hundreds of other titles. Juneko Robinson recalls that, “it was filled with a lot of stuff that appealed to young people. As a teenager, I remember saving my money so that I could buy a copy of The Encyclopedia of the Occult there.” The place was crammed full of books and periodicals found nowhere else in Marin. With narrow aisles that could accommodate only one person standing sidewise, the store was definitely not wheelchair friendly, and with about 500 square feet of tightly packed books, newspapers, magazines, tobacco, lighter fluid and matches, it was a also a fire hazard. Nevertheless, it was a one-of-a-kind gem that many long-time Marin residents still, today, remember fondly.

Derek was in the Book and News one day when he encountered a couple of metalheads who were looking through music magazines. “I heard one of them say ‘Judas Priest,’ so I leaned over to him and said, ‘Lame.’ Then he said something about The Scorpions, so I leaned over again and said, ‘Lame.’ Finally he looked at me and said, ‘Motorhead?’ I gave him the thumbs up.” The metalhead was Mike Crowell, who recognized Derek as the guitar player from UXB. Derek invited Mike to audition for the new band, and he soon became Ludovico Teknique’s first bassist. He also exchanged his long hair for a skinhead haircut. Kent Cates joined as rhythm guitarist, but was replaced by Ronnie Montana before the band’s first gig.

Ludoviko Teknique’s musical style was in some ways stylistically continuous with UXB, but it also in some ways took a different, more polished and experimental turn. “UXB’s songs were machine-gun like,” says Derek. “If you listen closely, a lot of the guitar parts actually resemble songs by the Circle Jerks. With Ludovico Teknique, I wanted a more ethereal sound. I was looking to do something a little bit different; something more arty.” The “artiness” of Ludovico Technique was reflected in many of the flyers that Derek made to advertise the band’s gigs; one of which invited audiences to “An Evening with Ludovico Teknique” against a backdrop of Greek statuary. The band bio – written by their “press guy” Lon Huber, a cashier at the Book and News – emphasized the band’s synthesis of arty inventiveness and punk belligerence:

“This power-mad, high-energy rock assault team has been known as an art band (tell that to the lead singer Peter and he’ll show you why he has a criminal record), but Ludovico Technique’s music is aesthetically confused enough to drive audiences to frenzies of “dancing” otherwise associated with animals lacking complex nervous systems.”

The bio goes on to suggest that, among all of the band members, it was only Derek who had “a complete sense of the unit’s direction, often sharing his personal philosophy with audiences by whipping full cans of Econobuy beer between songs.” At once aggressive and reflective, raw and polished, the contradictions in Ludovico Technique’s music sought an uneasy compromise between elements of 1970’s British Oi! and street punk (as evidenced by the band’s Clockwork Orange inspired name) and art-rock.

For some fans of UXB, the “ethereal” transition made by Ludovico Teknique was not immediately welcomed. Derek recalls the band’s first performance in 1983 at the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax. Instead of a ripped t-shirt, he had decided to appear dressed in a collared shirt and blazer in honor of their new image, but was greeted by jeers from a member of the audience taunting them as “sellouts.” As the band started playing their new set of songs, Derek remembers hearing that same voice yelling, “Play Jesus! Play Jesus!” The reference was to a song that UXB would regularly cover: the incredibly vulgar and sacrilegious Jesus Entering from the Rear, by the Phoenix punk band The Feederz. Derek could see that Peter was getting agitated by the heckler, and in exasperation Peter finally handed the microphone over to the obnoxious audience member, telling him, “You go ahead and sing it!” before storming off stage. Unsure if the other members of the band knew how to play the Feederz song, Derek nevertheless launched into Jesus Entering From the Rear, and John Marmysz, the obnoxious heckler, jumped up on stage to sing the song that would bring their first show to an end.

Ludovico Teknique went on to play regularly in Marin and San Francisco, garnering a dedicated following of fans and good reviews. One critic wrote, “Peter Hansen, formerly of UXB, is a strong lead sing, not too hysterical but histrionic enough for proper entertainment. Excellent lead guitar by Derek, very sensitive for hard rockin’.” When their music started to get local radio play, Derek reports feeling as if things were moving in the right direction. “After we played at the VIS Club one night I was approached by the club’s owner who told me he was interested in promoting us. I thought, ‘this could be good!’” In the end, despite their ambitions, and though Ludovico Teknique would be in existence a year longer than UXB, they would remain an underground, Bay Area phenomenon.

Over the course of three years, Peter and Derek were the band’s core members. Mike was eventually replaced by Darcy ? on bass, and just like UXB, Ludovico Teknique went through a long string of drummers – including Tony Short (from 5th Column and the Toiling Midgets) and Brookes DeBruin – until finally Gary Benson took over as their last drummer. Mike returned to play bass in the band’s last year of existence, 1986; an incarnation that Derek judges to be the band’s finest.

One of Ludovico Teknique’s best numbers, which received a lot of radio play on KUSF, was Blind Justice. Accompanied by a harmonica and female back-up singers, in this song Peter’s vocals fluctuate between punk-rock rawness and operatic grandeur. Peter and his wife had recently had a child, and his lyrics reflect his experience, lamenting the oppression of struggling, working class families by the rich and proposing a revolutionary change in leadership that would balance the scales of social justice:

Blind Justice

Your time has come to pay!

 

I see you drive by every day,

But you don’t ever stop and look my way.

Behind the blackened windows in your Mercedes Benz,

You secretly do condemn.

 

You rob our families, one at a time,

You’ve ripped off everything but our pride.

Well now finally on top and feeling free,

I can see you but you can’t see me!

 

You can have this for free,

A little shot of reality!

Righteous leaders for me!

I wanna see leaders like these!

 

Now I’ve got you in my sights,

And I think I’ll take my own sweet time.

Don’t you worry about your family,

Because you’ll get your justice tonight!

 

It’s a golden opportunity,

To return all the favors that you did for me.

Return your money with lightning speed!

The secret is a shot of reality.

 

Your time has come to pay!

You won’t have to suffer,

I will make you pay!

I wanna see leaders like these!

 

Your lawyers they can buy you time,

But there’s no place left to hide.

You will pay your debt to mankind,

‘Cause justice is no longer blind!

 

They can’t control the masses,

Or any man.

They don’t know the masses, NO!

It’s just an unpaid plan!

Blind Justice illustrates some of the ways that, while rooted in the hardcore punk sensibilities of UXB, Ludovico Teknique’s music was also evolving in a different direction. Their songs were becoming more musically complicated, and their lyrics, while still political and angry, started to focus on the personal struggles and frustrations of adult life.

Ludovico Teknique. From left to right: Mike Crowell, Derek Johnston, Peter Hansen, Gary Benson.

Peter’s appearance and behavior also started to evolve with the band. He grew his hair out, and, as Derek states, started to cultivate an “impressive set of dreadlocks.” His usual mode of dress was no longer “punk,” but was characterized by regular work clothes, and sometimes by a fedora that he would wear on stage. Derek reports that toward the end of the band’s existence, Peter became increasingly distant from his bandmates. Whereas in the past he had been very easygoing and tolerant, he began to exhibit a temper, which Derek recalls once seeing on display at a party. “He was holding his kid and someone sneezed right next to him. Peter blew up, yelling at the guy and threatening him with violence. Peter had always been someone you didn’t want to mess with, but I had never seen him react like that before.”

In addition to the pressures of adult life, it may have been the influence of drugs that were a factor in Peter’s changing demeanor. Peter had developed a heroin habit, and both Derek and Gary recall that this was something that increasingly became a problem for the band’s practice and performance schedule. Derek recalls one show, when they were headlining at the 16th Note in San Francisco, that the band was forced to take to the stage without their lead singer, who was nowhere to be found. They began playing their set, not sure what to do, when finally Peter appeared halfway through the first song. As he began to belt out the lyrics, Derek looked over, and Peter stared back at him wide-eyed, gesturing to his own rear-end. After the gig, Derek learned that Peter had shit his pants on stage.

Another time when Peter was shuttling band members and equipment in San Francisco, Gary recalls that he made an unannounced stop, double-parked his truck and ran into an apartment building. When he came out, he jumped back into the truck, and started speeding down the road. As he drove, Peter threw a heroin filled rig to the person riding in the passenger seat, ordering the passenger to inject it into Peter’s arm. After his fix, Gary reports that Peter acted normal, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Regularly, according to both Derek and Gary, Peter would disappear when they went into the city, saying that he would catch up with them later, but never reappearing. “We knew he was out looking for dope.”

“I don’t want to make Peter look like the only guy who did drugs,” Derek cautions. “We were all pretty loaded.” But it was Peter’s obsession with heroin that had the most profound impact on the group, affecting both their performances as well as influencing the message of their music. Take, for instance, the lyrics to the song Everything, which Derek calls “Peter’s ode to heroin”:

Everything

 

I run up the stairs, third floor on the right,

Give you a call and I walk up inside.

Surrounded by videos and blinking Christmas lights,

You’re perking your soup there in the candlelight.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie there on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re right beside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

 

When I see you, you always make me wait,

But I know you’re up to something now behind that iron gate.

When I try to phone you, you pretend like you’re not home,

Leave me freezing and shakin’ all night alone.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie here on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re deep inside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

 

Walk through back alleys in the early morning light,

If I don’t see you everyday I just don’t feel right.

Keep me awake as I knock up on your door,

I see you laying there stretched out on the floor.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie here on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re deep inside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

Ludovico Teknique continued performing into 1986. One of their last performances was on the bill with The Pukes, Sacripolitical, Victim’s Family and Fang at the Warehouse in San Rafael. It was a packed show with an enthusiastic crowd. Despite an ungrounded microphone that sent electric shocks through anyone who touched it, all of the bands played their hearts out, putting on tremendous performances; except for the headlining band Fang, whose lead singer was so intoxicated that he was unable even to stand up on stage. After the end of the show Derek and Mike approached the organizer, Mike Kavanaugh, asking to be paid, but Kavanaugh complained that Ludovico Teknique had not put on a very good performance. Besides, he pleaded, he had to reserve enough money to pay the “big name” act that evening, Fang! As a consolation, he offered them $7. Outraged by the injustice, Mike Crowell began yelling at Kavanaugh and spit in his face before storming out of the warehouse. Outside, he discovered the members of Fang crouched inside a sports car doing drugs in the parking lot. Still seething with anger, he proceeded to kick out their headlights with his steel-toed Doctor Martens before stomping away from the scene!

The year after the breakup of Ludovico Teknique, Peter Hansen was killed in a construction accident in Davis, Ca. He fell from the roof of the house that he was working on, hitting his head and dying at age 30. Despite his later drug problems, his bandmates remember Peter warmly and fondly as a friendly, kind and talented man. “He was just this very fatherly, nice sort of guy,” Gary recalls. Derek remembers him as “a really nice guy,” while Mike Crowell says, “He was a fantastic lyricist.”

After Ludovico Teknique, Derek Johnston went on to play guitar in a series of San Francisco acts, including The Noise Boys and The White Trash Debutants. Mike Crowell started a number of bands, the longest running being the Reducers SF, who still perform about once a year. Gary Benson continues to play drums, most recently in the band Earstu. Kent Cates currently plays in Altar DeFay. The other members that made up Ludovico Technique remain MIA.

Critique of Cynical Reason

Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason is a nearly 600 page survey of the history of cynical (and kynical) thought, from ancient Greece through contemporary times. It is an eccentric book, written in an oddball style; at various points scholarly, humorous, vulgar and wacky. At some points it’s just outright bizarre! Nevertheless, it is not boring. It is a book that is fun to read while also being filled with many provocative insights into the evolution of cynical (and kynical) thinking in western culture.

Although its title makes reference to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Cynical Reason reminds me more of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist. Both books are presented as phenomenological explorations of history from ancient to modern times, exploring the unfolding nature of philosophy, art, politics and religion. Additionally, both books end with the authors advocating the virtues of accepting the world for what it is, thereby allowing us to overcome the alienation of our thinking selves from the world we inhabit. But whereas Hegel’s book is humorless, often incomprehensible, and yet profound, Sloterdijik’s book is hilarious, usually intelligible, and often striking in its keen insights. While Hegel’s book leaves one with a heavy sense of gravity, Sloterdijik’s book leaves one with a light-hearted sense of whimsicality. Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to drain the dogmatic seriousness out of contemporary philosophy and transform it, again, into a Gay Science. This desire, as he reports in the Preface, is inspired by his own “childlike veneration for what, in the Greek sense, was called philosophy”: a discipline that he believes has become strangled and stunted in its growth. With Critique of Cynical Reason, he intends to reinvigorate the “dying tree of philosophy,” in order to produce “bizarre thought-flowers” (p. xxxviii). And, yes, many of the “flowers” that bloom in this book are indeed bizarre!

Sloterdijk begins his book by defining the nature of cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness” (p. 5). This paradoxical definition is, he admits, puzzling; for with enlightenment it would seem that “false” consciousness should melt away in the blaze of its exposure. To be enlightened about false consciousness would be to see through the lies one tells to one’s self and thus necessarily to expose and undermine the state of “falseness” in one’s thinking altogether. After all, if I know that I am lying to myself about something, maintaining confidence in the lie would be impossible, wouldn’t it? Not really, claims Sloterdijik. With enlightened false consciousness, what occurs is that people are fully aware that their beliefs and work efforts are based on some sort of lie, but they nevertheless continue to act as if everything is just fine. They carry on their life routines, going through the motions of day-to-day work in a state of melancholic awareness that their actions in the world are out of sync with their inner beliefs and understandings of what is really true and important. With modern cynicism:

A certain chic bitterness provides an undertone to its activity. For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they certainly see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. (p. 5)

Because of the circumstances that they find themselves living in, cynics feel that they are compelled to work in a particular job, act as if they adhere to a particular set of polite beliefs, and live in a particular manner that will allow them to prosper and thrive. Survival is seen as the reward for playing by the rules, even though, inside, the cynic thinks that the rules are fraudulent. “Thus, the new, integrated cynicism even has the understandable feeling about itself of being a victim and of making sacrifices.” (p. 5) Cynics adopt a protective social facade, but behind that facade is bitter sadness and angry resentment against a world that forces them to lie to others while telling themselves the truth. They are, thus, enlightened about their own false consciousness while continuing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to survive in a corrupt world.

Enlightened false consciousness doesn’t just happen out of the blue. It takes mental labor. In order to pursue enlightenment of any kind, one must abandon an old way of thinking in favor of a new, better way of thinking. For this reason, enlightenment is connected with a process of internal and external dialogue in which ideas and conflicting arguments must confront one another. This process brings pain, and so it rarely unfolds in a completely rational manner. In the unfolding history of enlightenment, Sloterdijk tells us that power struggles inevitably develop between the enlightened and unenlightened. Enlightened thinkers would like the unenlightened to give up all prejudice – including their attachments to tradition – in order to engage in open-ended, purely logical dialogue leading to an uncertain future. The unenlightened, on the other hand, desire to hold onto their comfortable illusions, viewing those who want to dislodge their beliefs as enemies rather than friends. Each side, then, ends up reifying the other. The unenlightened consider the enlighteners to be dangerous revolutionaries while the enlighteners regard the unenlightened as those who either are lying to themselves or those who harbor ill will toward the truth (p. 15). Since the traditional philosophical perspective (going back to Socrates/Plato) is that no one willingly hates the truth, enlighteners end up concluding that it must be socialization into some form of pre-existent, corrupt ideology that keeps the unenlightened from abandoning their false beliefs about the world. They must be brainwashed. So then, in order to rescue the unenlightened, the enlightened ones must fight fire with fire and adopt a strategy of “ideology critique” in order to “cut open” the opponent “in front of everyone, until the mechanism of his error is laid bare” (p.16). Abandoning pure reason and logic, the enlighteners resort to confronting and criticizing things like the economic interests or class membership of those that won’t listen to “reason,” in the process exposing just why it is they are so stubborn.  This amounts to what, in logic, is called an ad hominem attack, a strategy that strictly speaking is not “logical” at all, and thus not endorsed by philosophers, but which is regarded as a necessary evil under the circumstances.

Sloterdijk suggests that if used in the vein of satire, “ideology critique” allows enlighteners to demonstrate the sorts of laughable irrationalities that lie beneath the surface of everyone’s conscious awareness (including the enlighteners). However, in the history of the west, what we find is that ideology critique instead pretends to take on the character of a science, becoming dogmatic in its observations that those against whom the critique is leveled are uniquely “sick” and in need of a cure that only the enlightened can provide. When it loses its sense of humor, then, ideological critique also abandons its openness to ongoing dialogue, claiming to have the final, unquestionable solutions to the world’s problems. It thus descends into totalitarianism, which advocates a kind of functionalist pragmatism, teaching others how to remain “healthy” and productive by submitting to the ideological assumptions of the enlightened. A non-humorous, “scientific” ideological critique ends up teaching this lesson:  “Stop reflecting and maintain values” (p. 21).

Sloterdijk endeavors to recapture the humorous, “cheeky” (p. 101) nature of ideology critique as satire by looking back to it’s origins in the ancient Greek philosophy of kynicism. He uses the term “kynicism” (with a ‘k’) to distinguish the philosophy of Diogenes and his students from “cynicism” (with a ‘c’), the modern, non-humorous outgrowth of the ancient Greek tradition. With the appearance of Diogenes of Sinope, Sloterdijk tells us that we find “the most dramatic moment in the process of truth of early European philosophy” (102). Diogenes begins a rebellion against the idealistic form of thought advocated by Plato through his engagement in a non-linguistic method of argument that employs his own embodiment as a means of communication. Diogenes is an existentialist who, instead of chasing after “unattainable ideals” (p. 101), simply “says what he lives” (p. 102). His own body, and the actions that it carries out, become the premises and the conclusions in his arguments. Instead of verbally debating with others, Diogenes farts, shits and masturbates, shocking those around him, but in so doing, he also reveals the taken for granted assumptions about normal behavior in those who are shocked. His “shamelessness” is a subversive “low theory” (p. 102) that “refutes the language of philosophers with that of the clown” (p. 103), humorously demonstrating that the mainstream, polite and taken for granted mode of social life is a form of unquestioned ideology that inhibits and suppresses basic human nature. Instead of speaking against idealism, he “lives against it” (p. 104). In living against idealism, Diogenes is a materialist; but he is a materialist whose actions, because performed in public, also have a generalized, moral, imperative force. By acting out in public, he implicitly suggests that it is legitimate for others to do the same. If he had just performed his natural, private functions behind closed doors rather than in public, nothing would change. By shitting, pissing and masturbating in public, however, Diogenes demonstrates to others that they have nothing to be afraid of in turning against convention. His actions highlight how funny it is that people are so ashamed of what they do in private.

Sloterdijk argues that the history of cynicism after Diogenes consists of the progressive suspension of embodiment and the increasing exaggeration of thought and ideas split off from life. Philosophy eventually becomes just another form of ideology: ideas that are thought and argued about but not embodied in the day-to-day actions of life. By degrees, embodiment and idealism still do battle with one another in the arts, in religion, in politics, in warfare, in sex; but in a cynical (as opposed to kynical) age, the incongruity between the body and the mind, nature and convention, is increasingly approached non-humorously, with real, embodied rebellion being supplanted by new conventions of idealistic pseudo-rebellion, thus establishing new norms of behavior that are out of synch with real life. Even in subcultures like punk, which purport to resist the “system,” Sloterdijk complains that cynical cheekiness has become appropriated as a new ideology, a new cynical norm governing life in the nuclear age:

A short time ago, the leader of the English punk group, The Stranglers, celebrated the neutron bomb in a frivolous interview because it is what can set a nuclear war into motion. “Miss Neutron, I love you.” Here he had found the point where the kynicism of protestors coincides with the brazen-faced master cynicism of the strategists. What did he want to say? Look how wicked I can be? His smile was coquettish, nauseated, and ironically egoistic: he could not look the reporter in the face. As in a dream, he spoke past the camera for those who will understand him, the little, beautifully wicked punk devil who causes the world to rattle with unthinkable words. That is the language of a consciousness that earlier perhaps did not mean to be so wicked. But now, since the show demands it, not only is it unhappy, it also wants to be unhappy (p. 127).

 

He does, I think, have a point. Today, I am amazed at how even the most subversive and rebellious sentiments have been harnessed and domesticated for the cynical purposes of money-making and fame. Musical stars, actors, comedians and other celebrities express anti-establishment sentiments before going back to their mansions in the Beverly Hills. The parts that they play in movies or on TV, or the things that they joke about in their routines, are treated as completely divorced from real, embodied experience; and when it turns out that these stars do live lives resembling their artistic performances, the result is often public outrage. Fearing the loss of their careers, the offending stars then apologize and promise to mend their ways, changing their behavior to be more normal and in line with public expectations. It is supremely ironic that the very sorts of behaviors audiences pay to see depicted on the screen, hear sung about in songs or joked about in stand-up comedy are the same sorts of behaviors that they are outraged by in “real life.”

I’ve only scratched the surface of what appears in Critique of Cynical Reason. In addition to what I’ve covered, Sloterdijk offers a hilarious account of the symbolic meaning of differing body parts and functions (tongue, mouth, eyes, breasts, arses, farts, shit and genitals); he presents a “cabinet of cynics” including Diogenes, Lucian, Mephistopheles, The Grand Inquisitor, and “Anyone” (Heidegger’s Das Man); he gives an account of “cardinal” and “secondary” forms of cynicism; and he ends with a long section on the Weimar Republic that traces the development of increasing existential uneasiness among the Germans as a result of their progressive technical achievements. The thread that the author always pursues, sometimes grabs hold of, and sometimes loses altogether in the course of these sections is the exploration of a historically recurrent disjunction between the commands of the body and the ideological demands of culture, politics, and religion.

Sloterdijk ultimately wants to do more than simply describe the historical convolutions of cynical consciousness, however. He also wants to resurrect the spirit of Diogenes in present times, advocating a return to the kynical, rather than the cynical, way of life. He wants us to overcome the conventional abstractions that ultimately make human beings less, rather than more, happy, and replace them with an honest recognition of our embodied, lived experience. Instead of the “enlightened false consciousness” of cynicism, he wants to pair rationality with nature, encouraging us, like Diogenes, to satirically and humorously confront the absurd, contradictory demands that are always a part of being a social animal.