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.

 

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Cinematic Nihilism in Paperback

The paperback edition of Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now available for pre-order. Scheduled to be released later this year, it’s a bargain at $29.95!

Film-Philosophy Review

Daniel O’Brien of Glasgow University has published a perceptive and positive review of my book Cinematic Nihilism in the journal Film-Philosophy:

“Cinematic Nihilism is essential reading for film-philosophy scholars or anyone wishing to explore how a nihilistic approach creates positive potential for activity and achievement.”

The full review appears in the latest issue (Volume 23, issue 1) of Film-Philosophy, available online.

Home and Homelessness in Punk Rock

“A place to live, a place to own, a place to sleep, a place called home.”

–Sacripolitical, Meaning of Life1

Introduction

Since its emergence during the 1970’s, punk rock has offered both a refuge and a platform of rebellion to an unusually wide and diverse group of people seeking a place to be with others while resisting the homogenizing forces of mainstream culture. More than simply a musical style, punk rock comprises a subculture with a distinctive approach to art, literature, film, fashion, and life in general. As with many subcultural movements, punk’s existence is defined by a relationship with the mainstream that is at once both hostile and dependent. Its boundaries have been shaped, and have grown, through the negation and rejection of many taken-for-granted norms and standards governing polite, mainstream life, and thus while it strains against convention, it also relies upon the existence of the mainstream to act as a springboard against which to push. In this way, punk rock is an essentially reactive movement, its vitality derived from its own combative, rebellious attitude and the volatile reactions that this attitude provokes in outsiders. To be punk – in music, art, film, fashion or literature – is to upset the applecart, defiantly to reject the expectations, traditions, standards and norms of mannerly culture in order to incite reaction among outsiders and to unveil the arbitrariness of their taken-for-granted values.

But while punk rock is in its essence reactive and rebellious, it also harbors an inner refuge of companionship and community. For those who are a part of this subculture, it is a place where they feel at home among others who share their antagonism toward superficial conventionality; and in being at home with one another, punks have cultivated an internal set of symbols, practices and forms of communication. These subcultural artifacts have evolved out of objects and customs found in mainstream culture, yet the conventional meanings and significance of these objects and customs have been sabotaged and appropriated for use as instruments of refusal. Like a shared language, these symbolic instruments serve to unite members of the punk rock subculture while also setting them apart from outsiders who fail to understand punk’s private vernacular.

In what follows, I shall explore the ways in which punk rock serves as a kind of “home” for those who feel “homeless” within conventional society. First, I shall examine the general problem of spiritual homelessness and then explore the ways that subcultures help to alleviate this sort of alienation by providing a place where members can be-with-others. I shall then scrutinize some of the subcultural artifacts within the punk rock home in order to illustrate how they operate as instruments of subversive negation against conventional culture while also promoting internal cohesion within the punk community itself.

Homelessness

Homelessness is bemoaned as one of the pernicious problems of our time. To be without a home is to find one’s self exposed to hazardous elements – wind, rain, snow and cold ­– as well as to other dangers of the street – violence, hunger, exploitation. These dangers threaten physical safety and health, and without a reliable place of refuge where they feel safe, secure and among friends, the homeless have very little chance of flourishing as happy, authentic and fulfilled human beings.

However, it is not the case that a physical home ensures happiness; nor that happiness is impossible without a physical home. The problem of homelessness is not a problem merely because there are those who lack literal shelters or roofs over their heads. The issue is more challenging than that. Shelters and roofs are themselves important because of a more general, and fundamental, human need for access to some sort of “place” where, at least temporarily, one may withdraw from the world’s dangers. Such a place need not be physical, but it does need to be reliable and dependable in its accessibility, such that when one is threatened by discomfort, this place can be counted upon to offer its sheltering protection. A physical house that is unreliable in its capacity to keep one dry and safe is no home at all. A spiritual “home,” on the other hand, offers refuge unfailingly. A true home, then, is never simply a physical arrangement of bricks, beams and planks. It also always is a place where one feels spiritually secure and sheltered. In this sense, there are many houses that are not homes, and likewise there are many people without houses who are not homeless.

When Martin Heidegger observed, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world,”2 he was not referring to the shortage of housing that afflicts a large portion of the globe. Rather, he was making an observation about the spiritual malaise troubling humankind during these (post)modern times. Homelessness is the “destiny of the world” because, perhaps more than ever, people today experience life as alienated and groundless. The world we inhabit has come, increasingly, to feel like a threat rather than a refuge. It is a place we no longer understand, and which we struggle against, fearfully. We no longer trust or have fondness for our neighbors, leaders, legal, cultural or governmental institutions. We see them as dangerous: unpredictable, unreliable, inaccessible. In our preoccupation with these external dangers we have become fixated on the looming menace posed by others “out there,” entangling us in webs of distrust and enmity. In this distrust, like an unsheltered drifter in a hostile land, we feel exposed and vulnerable; “homeless” with no place to convalesce.

This sort of distrust alienates us from others, but it also does more than that. Since openness and engagement with others are mechanisms implicated in the development of self-understanding, distrust also potentially blocks us from knowing ourselves. To truly understand yourself, you must be part of a community where you feel safe, comfortable and welcomed; where you feel at home. “…home is not only the place where one is recognized,” writes Ralph Harper, “but also the place where one recognizes others.”3 Mutual recognition and meaningful dialogue among neighbors are necessary conditions for self-reflection, as it is through the dialectical process of conversing with others that we come to negotiate, construct and understand our place in the world. Socrates may have been the first philosopher fully to articulate this point at his trial in Athens thousands of years ago. A life worth living requires self-examination, but self-examination, Socrates told the court, also requires engagement with others in honest, open dialogue and discussion. In authentic Socratic dialogue, we cooperate with one another, jointly searching for Truth, challenging and questioning each other not out of hostility or competition, but out of love and concern. Trust is a necessary component of this sort of interchange. Without it things tend to devolve into mere bickering and antagonism. This is what Socrates found in his Athenian accusers, who were more concerned with eliminating him than with discovering the Truth. It was then Socrates realized that Athens was no longer his home, and so he willingly went to his death, stating, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”4

As it was with Socrates thousands of years ago, today we too often find ourselves in hostile territory, fearful and cut off, in the presence of people who refuse to listen to one another. Lacking the opportunity for genuine, Socratic dialogue, we also lose an intimate, relationship to our own true, inner nature. Our lives become drained of meaning, and thus the foundation upon which any real home is built begins to crumble.

Home-building

Self-understanding does not occur in a vacuum. It is developed, bit-by-bit, in a social context, Socratic style, through dialogue and being-with-others. In existentialist philosophy, this idea has been advocated by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, all of whom emphasize the “thrownness” of human existence. We are, these existentialists teach us, really nothing before we are thrown into a world with others, and it is only by being-with-others that we begin to construct our selves by struggling to come to terms with the realities of our environment and the people and things that inhabit it. This struggle can, at times, be distressing, hostile and dangerous, but it is how we carve out, negotiate and build a meaningful home for ourselves.

The world we find ourselves thrown into is not an empty space, but a place in which things already exist. Some of them are inanimate: things like rocks, tables, or pieces of paper. These sorts of things present themselves to us as raw material that can be manipulated and utilized for a variety of divergent purposes. We can, for instance, use rocks to build shelters, or we can throw them at our enemies. We can juggle those same rocks, or smash them into sand, and then use the sand for drainage in a garden. Inanimate objects have no wills of their own, but are governed by objective laws of cause and effect, and thus cannot be praised or blamed for the events in which they are implicated. Inanimate things like rocks mean nothing in-themselves, but only take on meaning and purpose depending upon the uses to which humans decide to put them. Rocks are neither good nor evil, but may be used for human projects having moral significance. The same rock may be used to build shelter or to commit murder.

Humans are different. Humans, according to the existentialists, do possess free will, and so their actions are not governed by objective laws of cause and effect. While the human body is itself a physical thing – like a rock, table, or piece of paper – it is a physical thing inhabited by consciousness. The human body in-itself means nothing, but when a human mind makes the choice to use that body for some purpose, the consciousness inhabiting that body becomes responsible for the course of action that follows. Whereas the rock that kills a man by striking him in the head is not morally or legally responsible for the death, the human being who wielded the rock, commanding his or her body to hurl it, is responsible. According to existentialists, it is only human consciousness that possesses this sort of responsibility, and this is what makes our lives unique and different from the other sorts of things that exist in the world. Whereas non-conscious, inanimate objects are “beings-in-themselves,” we are “beings-for-ourselves,” conscious, responsible, and active in the pursuit of freely chosen life projects.

The way that conscious, human beings build worlds around themselves is by choosing their manner of comportment toward all of the other things – both animate and inanimate – that exist. We choose the sorts of projects that we engage in by bestowing meaning and significance on some of the objects among which we are thrown while ignoring or avoiding many of the others. While I may be aware, for instance, that there are in fact rocks perched on top of the hill across the road from me, I might not attribute any significance to this fact, and thus ignore them, since they play no role in my current project of preparing for work. These rocks mean nothing to me; unless they happen to fall on the roadway and block my commute. Then they become a relevant part of my world by impeding and thwarting my chosen goal. They enter into my world and become a significant part of it by frustrating my project.

We consistently encounter other human beings as frustrating. However, unlike rocks, which are governed by objective forces of cause and effect, human consciousness is free and unpredictable. Because of this, unlike with rocks, it is in principle impossible to predict with any certainty what humans will do. While we are sometimes grateful, or at least don’t care too much, when their actions don’t interfere with our own chosen projects, it is a different story when our goals are thwarted by other human beings. It is then that hostility results, as we feel that those opposing us could act differently if they so chose, and so (unlike with a rock) we hold them responsible for blocking our goals and desires. When inanimate objects get in our way, we don’t feel as if they are plotting against us. When humans get in our way, on the other hand, we are made aware that our own minds are not alone in the world, but exist in conflict with other consciousnesses that are in pursuit of their own personal projects and goals.

Through dialogue, I may come to understand the projects of others and to calculate and negotiate the ways that I can synchronize my own projects with those around me, either by avoiding them, fighting against them, or cooperating with them. When people are successful at harmonizing their projects with the goals of others, a community emerges within which participants feel at home. The home thus created is a lived context within which one does not feel threatened or impeded in the pursuit of one’s most important goals and desires. Occupying this sort of place brings a sense of belonging and safety. And yet, this refuge only makes sense within a greater context, and in contrast to a place outside of the refuge; a place consisting of forces hostile to the freely chosen world of harmony. In order to establish a home, there must also be a place that is not home, a place filled with those who are not neighbors or friends, but hostile forces against which we define ourselves.

Subcultures and Home

When the mainstream world at large is experienced as hostile and dangerous, humans often find safe refuge in the formation of subcultural communities. Subcultures are associations that, on the one hand, disrupt “principles of unity and cohesion,”5 while on the other hand they enhance “social affiliation.”6 Thus, subcultures promote both revolt and conformity. These two seemingly contradictory aspects are integral parts of the home-making nature of subcultures. The first aspect – that which disrupts “unity and cohesion” – does so in rebellion against outsiders, while the second aspect – that which enhances “social affiliation” – does so by embracing conformity among insiders. Having both an “inside” and an “outside,” a subculture constructs an inner realm where members feel they belong by means of sheltering them from the outside world and its threats. In this way, subcultures carve sanctuaries out of the larger social context, negotiating territories where insiders might dwell while outsiders are kept out. As with any home, a subcultural home has boundaries within which members feel safe, shielded and protected while being-with-others.

Homes require furnishings, and likewise subcultural homes are furnished with things that members treat as significant and comforting. These things, as noted by existentialist philosophers, have no objective, pre-given meaning in-themselves, but only take on importance through negotiation and dialogue between members of the community, concomitant with their ongoing friction against the mainstream world. The sorts of things that subcultural communities come to embrace as meaningful are manifold: styles of music, clothing, food choices, literary styles and so forth. But regardless of what the particular artifact is, within a subculture these sorts of things acquire significance through the collective energies of members, who come to treat them as relevant touchstones by which to gain orientation within, and thus to navigate through, the world of friends and foes. For instance, when baseball hats of certain colors are used to symbolize gang membership, reactions to these hats will differ according to one’s own subcultural affiliations, cementing the boundaries between conflicting territories. While a fellow gang member will be comforted by the appearance of a hat of a certain color, a rival gang member will be threatened. A police officer will be put on alert, while a non-gang affiliated citizen might become apprehensive. When pieces of clothing or other sorts of artifacts are treated as symbolically significant by members of a group, those artifacts become markers acting to communicate social meaning, and thus to guide people in their interactions with one another. All of our worlds are filled with these sorts of significant objects that in-themselves mean nothing, but which become significant through their relationship to various human communities.

As they grow and historically evolve, networks of artifactual meaning emerge within and around subcultures. The objects and artifacts deemed significant by subcultural communities come to fill more and more cultural space, becoming connected to one another by a variety of linkages: spatial, temporal, and ideological. Comprising the cultural bric-a-brac of the subcultural home, these artifacts can, at times, create controversy and division between occupants of the home itself, just as friction often develops between family members over how to decorate and furnish a house. This is when internal debate erupts.

Dissent and negotiation play an important role within the development of subcultural communities. Sometimes disagreement leads to members breaking ties with their old affiliations, like rebellious children who leave home and set up their own, new domiciles. At other times it can lead to internal changes, with an extensive remodeling of the subcultural infrastructure. Sometimes, there is a reestablishment of the status quo, and members are brought back in line with tradition. Within any long-lived subculture, as with any home that is lived in for an extended period of time, there are bound to be changes in the arrangement of the décor. As these changes occur, the character of the home also changes, and indeed sometimes things might become so altered that older residents feel as if they have become homeless within their own home.

But while refuge and safety are certainly among the important characteristics of a home, change and novelty are also healthy. Residents too stuck in their ways become stagnant, complacent, and lazy. This was Socrates’ complaint about his fellow Athenians, who he likened to a sluggish horse that was in need of being roused and stirred up.7 As occurred in Athens, a home that becomes too static and unchanging starts to disintegrate. The oppression of individuals through hostility to internal dialogue and dispute undermines the original purpose of seeking a home in the first place: the need to be together in a context where people are comfortable interacting with one another as friends and neighbors, open to the free and open exploration of their authentic selves. Any place that discourages neighborly questioning, dissent or disagreement is not really a home, but a cage.

In order to concretize and illustrate the dynamics of home-building, in what follows I shall scrutinize various aspects of a subculture, first emerging in the 1970’s, that has proven especially enduring in its ability to provide a place of both refuge and dissent for its members. This subculture is punk rock, a movement in music, fashion, art and culture that has morphed over the decades in order to become a site both of safety and resistance for a staggeringly broad range of participants. I shall argue that this subculture has, over time, provided a home for nonconformists of otherwise vastly divergent natures by: (1) insistently resisting mainstream conventions, and (2) encouraging dissent and debate. I shall make this argument in the course of examining the meaning and significance of various artifacts central to the punk rock subculture.

Punk Rock

There have been countless claims made about the “real” origins of punk rock. Dick Hebdige writes that punk grew out of glam rock, and developed as a way to expose its “implicit contradictions.”8 Greil Marcus characterizes punk as a more generalized revolt against the “pop milieu.”9 Caroline Coon finds the “seeds” of punk in a reaction against disco and big music industry marketing of rock bands.10 Complicating the issue is the fact that from early on there were two distinct punk “scenes,” one emerging in the UK, around 1976, and the other centered on the nightclub CBGB’s in New York City at about the same time.11 Regardless of its specific historical origins, what is clear is that beginning in the 1970’s, something that became known as “punk” emerged as a distinctly new subculture, and it quickly spread beyond the US and the UK through music, fashion, literature and art.

This newly emerged punk subculture was characterized by a gleefully aggressive revolt against the manners, norms and values of mainstream society. In music, punk revolted against the idea that talent, training or major funding was necessary in order to play, perform or record songs. In fashion, punk revolted against the idea that clothing had to cater to conventional standards of beauty or to perpetuate traditional gender identities. In literature and art, it revolted against the idea that only the elite and the educated were legitimate creative voices. Punk consistently defined itself in terms of what it was against, utilizing symbolism, gestures and methods calculated to offend and repel defenders of traditional cultural standards while also unifying its members in a subversive web of meaning that was antithetical to polite tastes.

The Swastika

A dramatic example of punk’s subversive intent is found in its early appropriation of the swastika, which was worn on clothing, drawn onto or carved into skin, and displayed in artwork. Artists such as John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Sid Viscous, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, The Angelic Upstarts and The Ramones all, at various times, displayed the symbol; not because they were Nazis, but “because they weren’t Nazis.”12 The swastika had a transformed meaning for these punks, one serving to emphasize an aggressive disdain for, and rejection of, orthodox, middle-class values. It was an artifact that, by tapping into negative mainstream cultural associations, served as an indicator that members of the subculture were not only unconcerned with catering to conventional sensibilities, but that they were in fact hostile toward them. Greil Marcus sums up the meaning of this early use of the punk swastika in this way:

It meant…My dad’s a square, I hate him, I hate you too, I’ll smash your face in…And it meant that negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground.13

Although well aware of the mainstream social meaning that it had taken on after being used by the Nazis, the wearing of the swastika by punks was not motivated by racism or the advocacy of extreme right-wing politics. It was, rather, more like a gesture of rejection – a “fuck you” that helped solidify the boundaries between the punk and non-punk worlds. It was a device to “slow down” punk’s “assimilation into the wider culture.”14 By appropriating a symbol that itself had already been appropriated by the Nazis from earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, punks expressed disdain for conventional, mainstream sensitivities while also highlighting the fluid nature of cultural signs. As Thomas Mensworth (Mensi), the lead singer of the Angelic Upstarts said in a 1978 interview with Sounds Magazine, “it doesn’t mean anything, we only do it to annoy people.”15 The arrangement of lines into a twisted cross is a thing-in-itself and thus meaningless until interpreted and granted symbolic power by human consciousness; by beings-for-themselves. Punks gleefully played with this insight, and by aggressively displaying such a morally suspect and emotionally evocative image, punks, on the one hand, disrupted social unity and cohesion by provoking mainstream outrage while, on the other, they also (at least initially) established and promoted social affiliation between punks who shared an understanding of the symbol’s reconfigured significance.

In the 1980’s, the display of swastikas would become controversial within the punk rock subculture itself, as many punks objected that the symbol was starting to attract real racists into the fold. This internal counter reaction reached a crescendo when, in 1981, the Dead Kennedy’s recorded the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” whose lyrics explicitly criticize those who wear swastikas:

You still think swastikas look cool?

The real Nazis run your schools.

They’re coaches, businessmen and cops.

In the real Fourth Reich you’d be the first to go.16

Internal dispute among punks concerning the swastika continued to grow. The year following the release of Nazi Punks Fuck Off, the inaugural issue of Maximum RocknRoll appeared. It remains one of the longest continuously published punk fanzines, and a perusal of issue #1 illustrates the fact that in 1982, despite increasing criticism of those displaying swastikas from within the punk subculture, the matter was far from settled. Instead, spirited debate and dialogue continued. While the pages of MMR#1 are filled with editorials, interviews and news stories concerning complaints of racism, violence, bigotry, intolerance and drug abuse within the scene, images of swastikas also appear on at least six different pages. By contrast, anarchy symbols appear on only two pages.17 At this point in history it appears that robust, Socratic dialogue was still being nurtured within the punk community, with conflicting voices – and imagery – existing alongside one another, incongruously, like oddly matched, yet fascinating, furniture.

The anarchy symbol eventually came to displace the swastika as a less internally controversial, but still ubiquitous symbol of rejection, demonstrating that politics was never really the point. Though representing diametrically opposed philosophical ideologies in the popular mind, both the swastika and the anarchy sign nonetheless served to symbolize, for punks, an attitude of revolt against convention. It is interesting to note that in 2013 at an exhibit of punk fashion and history sponsored by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Punk: Chaos to Couture,”18 while the anarchy sign was on prominent display, swastikas were nowhere to be seen. It seems that some of the more offensive and controversial aspects of punk rock have required complete effacement in order to make the aesthetic palatable to mainstream audiences.

Underground Clubs

The punk impulse toward revolt had the effect of carving out alternative cultural territories, setting boundaries between outsiders and insiders. In addition to symbols like the swastika and the anarchy sign, other aspects of the subculture also helped to cement these boundaries. Underground clubs replaced mainstream venues as locations for the performance of music and the exhibition of plastic arts. These venues discouraged attendance by mainstream audiences as – in a time before the internet – shows were promoted mostly by word of mouth and among existent members of the subculture through the distribution of Xeroxed flyers instead of through mass advertising. Many of these performance spaces didn’t have stable physical addresses, but wandered from place to place, being set up in basements, community halls, parks and vacant lots. In this sense, punk venues embodied a kind of homelessness in their lack of a stable location or residence, and yet in creating familiar and comfortable places where members of the subculture could be with others, they also created an ephemeral punk home where, for the duration of a show, underground music or art fans could retreat from the mainstream world of mass marketed capitalist consumerism to share a world among like-minded rebels.

The renegade nature of punk performance spaces was buttressed by their existence on the boundaries of legality. The artist Mark Pauline, for instance, whose group Survival Research Labs19 put on elaborate performances in which homemade machines would dangerously do battle against one another – wielding chainsaws, shooting projectiles and spewing fire – staged many of his performances illegally in vacant lots.20 Even when these shows were sanctioned by city officials, they would still sometimes end with his arrest or citation for violations of safety guidelines (as happened when they performed at the ground breaking ceremony for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992)21.

Punk venues throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s were notorious for being raided by the police, with shows interrupted, and venues shut down. Existing on the fringes of legality contributed to an atmosphere of siege, as if punk culture was being persecuted and its members oppressed. “They hate us, we hate them. We can’t win. No way!” These sentiments from the song “Police Story,”22 by the band Black Flag, illustrate the feeling among punks that the state and the police were out to crush them; and while there is a palpable sense of outrage in such lyrics, there is also a sense in which these feelings were effective in promoting a sense of community among punks. An “us” against “them” attitude cemented the boundaries between the world of punk rock and the world of above ground, legal culture. When gathered together at shows, punks were reminded of their shared culture, and when these shows were interrupted by the police, they were also reminded of how at odds they were with mainstream society.

Fanzines

Being-with-others was also facilitated by the production and distribution of fanzines among punks. While most punk clubs were very short lived and temporary, fanzines provided a way for members of the subculture to remain in contact and to communicate with one another when not in physical proximity with one another before the advent of the internet. Self produced and Xeroxed in limited numbers, fanzines were personal magazines that chronicled the expanding infrastructure of the punk rock home. It was in these pages that relevant bands were interviewed and their existence documented. It was here that significant movies, art and events were highlighted, and that particular cultural controversies were debated and discussed. Anyone could make and distribute a fanzine. All that was needed was a typewriter or paper and pen, access to a copy machine, and friends to whom copies could be given or sold. Through fanzines, punks became further attuned to the detailed “furnishings” of the subcultural home that they occupied. It was in the pages of fanzines that many debates about the swastika played out. It was in fanzines that local bands were condemned, lauded or dismissed as part of the scene. Political protests were announced, books were reviewed, and personal opinions were unashamedly proclaimed about everything having to do with anything punk. Fanzines for punks served a purpose similar to academic journals for scholars, acting as a mechanism for the formation of a subcultural community based on the exchange of ideas.

The ideas shared by punks through fanzines, music and art, however, did not remain static. They evolved over time, and schisms within the subculture continued to develop. Earlier generations of punks aged, newer generations appeared, and as is common in all cultures, friction between them erupted. Jeff Bale, in an essay introducing the reissue of 1982’s music compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, complains that the new generation of San Francisco Bay Area punks had, by 1999, devolved into the same sort of “moral puritanism” that earlier punks revolted against; something “wholly antithetical to the individualistic, sardonic and freedom-loving spirit of punk.”23 Bale complains that the once relatively unitary punk movement had splintered into a variety of sub-subcultures, including “straight edge, humorless feminism, Krsna consciousness, and militant veganism.”24 These divisions, Bale suggests, had effectively undermined the purpose of punk, turning it into something dogmatic, moralistic and intolerant. Perhaps the most ironic illustration of this change is the fact that the very fanzine Bale helped to start in 1982, Maximum Rocknroll, by 1999 was run by an editorial staff that objected to his re-release of Not So Quiet on the Western Front.

Conclusion

Punk’s evolution illustrates the ways in which this long lived subculture provides a home for its members within which they may, on the one hand, define themselves in opposition to the mainstream while, on the other, engage in internal dialogue, dissent and realignment. The internal infrastructure of cultural artifacts – like the swastika, the anarchy sign, underground clubs, and fanzines – represent furnishings within the punk rock home, which over time have been rearranged, altered and replaced as successive generations have moved in to occupy the space set up by their predecessors. As with any home, this one also serves to make its residents welcome by keeping hostile onlookers out.

And yet it appears that punk has increasingly come to influence, and to be influenced by, mainstream culture itself. As more and more above ground cultural institutions sponsor punk art exhibits, musical performances and publishing projects, and as more and more companies seek to turn a profit by selling punk t-shirts, musical albums, and films, the walls of the punk home may be in danger of becoming completely breached, and the place that once offered refuge for rebellious outsiders may become overrun by the very sort of convention and conformity that punks mutinied against beginning in the 1970’s.

Notes

  1. Sacripolitical (1993). “Meaning of Life,” Peace: Under Our Supervision (audio recording). <https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/releases.> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Martin Heidegger (1993). “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 243.

 

  1. Ralph Harper (1967). The Seventh Solitude: Metaphysical Homelessness in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, p. 77.

 

  1. Plato (1997). “Apology,” in Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 38a.

 

  1. Dick Hebdige (1981). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen, p. 18.

 

  1. Ken Gelder (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London and New York: Routledge, p. 4.

 

  1. Plato, 31.

 

  1. Hebdige, p. 63.

 

  1. Greil Marcus (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 3.

 

  1. Caroline Coon (1978). 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 3.

 

  1. Stacy Thompson (2004). Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 10-32.

 

  1. Quoted in Thomspson, p. 28.

 

  1. Griel Marcus, p. 118.

 

  1. Malcolm Quinn (2005). The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. New York: Routledge, p. 11.

 

  1. Punk77. “Angelic Upstarts History Pt. 2.” <http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/angelicupstartshistory2.htm> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Dead Kennedys (1982). “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (audio recording). Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Maximumrocknroll (1982). Vol. 1, No. 1. San Francisco.

 

  1. Survival Research Laboratories. <http://www.srl.org/> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Industrial Culture Handbook (1983). San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, pp. 20-41.

 

  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013). “Punk Fashion is Focus of Costume Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” <http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2012/punk-chaos-to-couture> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. “SF Museum Groundbreaking Show Survival Research Labs” (1992). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjwWaUs_OmM> (Last accessed July 21, 2017).

 

  1. Black Flag (1981). “Police Story,” Damaged (audio recording). SST Records.

 

  1. Jeff Bale (1999). Liner notes in Not So Quiet on the Western Front (audio recording). San Francisco: Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Ibid.

Cinematic Nihilism now on Edinburgh Scholarship Online

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

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

The Affirmation of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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