The Madness Continues: Part 2

I recently chatted with Brendon Lemon on his podcast, The Madness Continues. We talked about the pandemic, humor, nihilism, philosophy, and other topics.

 

Shelter in Place

Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.

— The Plague, by Albert Camus

The shelter in place order has been active for about a month now here in California, and the reactions people are exhibiting in response to enforced isolation are dramatic. On the one hand, there are those who enthusiastically have embraced the stay at home order as if it is a new religion. In addition to praising the slower pace of life, they highlight the reduced rates of crime, the lower number of traffic fatalities, and the immense savings to the state that have resulted – apparently about a billion dollars for California so far. From this perspective, flattening the curve of the pandemic has been an unexpected reminder of a simpler, more relaxed way of life; one that it would, perhaps, be best to continue, to one degree or another, after the COVID-19 threat wanes.

On the other hand, there are those who want things quickly to “get back to normal.” They emphasize that there are too many people who have lost their jobs and joined the rolls of the unemployed. There are the business owners who have had to close their doors and are uncertain whether they will ever open up again. Worshipers are unable to pray together in their churches. Additionally there is the restlessness and anxiety of those who can’t stand to be confined to their homes. The boredom, the drinking, and an increased incidence of domestic violence all speak to the negative, destructive side of social isolation, which some people see as worse than the viral threat that provoked these measures in the first place. As a result, across the country, protestors have gathered to resist the stay at home order, claiming that not only has it put their livelihoods at risk, but it has also violated their Constitutional and religious rights.

I have friends who express both attitudes. Some are restless, impatient and angry about having their lives interrupted by the pandemic. They are resentful of the government for restricting their movements and telling them where they can and can’t go. Others have settled into a new, more relaxed daily routine that has, ironically, reduced their usual feelings of darkness and depression. With the pressures of work and social interactions diminished or eliminated, their lives have become much simplified and calmer.

I understand and sympathize with both groups. Though my own job seems relatively secure, I’ve been more anxious than ever about what would happen if I did get laid off and couldn’t pay my bills. My life would be altered drastically. But to a certain extent, it already has been. Though I’ve learned to use video conferencing to meet online with my philosophy students, it’s a poor replacement for our face-to-face conversations in class, which I miss. It feels like a big, important part of my life has been taken away, and I long, anxiously, for the day when it is restored. Additionally, while it might seem trivial, I’m sad that my band has been forced to cancel practices and postpone gigs. I miss the camaraderie found in playing music. I miss hiking with my friends. I miss family gatherings. I miss parties.

And yet I’ve also come to appreciate the slower, more unhurried pace of daily life under the stay at home order. I’ve been forced to abandon my normal, restless compulsion to go to the gym, run errands, and constantly be busy. Instead I’ve rediscovered the relaxation of just sitting on the deck with my wife my dog and my cat, snoozing and reading. I’ve become reacquainted with my neighborhood and neighbors now that I go running outside rather than on a treadmill indoors. I have more time to write and to just think.

So, I’m finding the pandemic is having ambiguous effects on my life; some bad and some good. And because of this, I don’t believe that things can, or should, go back exactly to the way they were before the pandemic. Life before the pandemic was never “normal” in the first place.

Before the shelter in place order, “normal” people were expected to spend most their days fixated on external concerns; on work, on entertainment, on errands, on the usual daily routines of conventional life. After the shut down of the economy, when many of the daily routines that encourage people to remain externally preoccupied collapsed, many of us have turned inward, asking ourselves difficult and uncomfortable questions about what is really important and what life is really all about. Instead of running here and there thoughtlessly taking care of business, forced isolation has encouraged some of us to engage in greater degrees of self-reflection and self-examination. And while many people have resisted this inward turn – through drinking too much, using drugs, or watching too much TV – I find myself increasingly welcoming the opportunity to do something that too often got neglected in my pre-pandemic life. The altered pace of the last month has reminded me that quiet, contemplative, non-productive thought is its own reward.

While philosophy has been the center of my private and professional life for a long time, the “normal” world discourages the pursuit of philosophy for its own sake. There is always the expectation that it should yield some tangible, useful result in order to be valuable: a publication, a presentation, a job, an answer. The shake up of my old routine has reminded me that this is a lie, that philosophical reflection is intrinsically valuable, and that a life without it is hollow. As Socrates said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It sometimes takes a crisis to remind us of this simple truth.

Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition

On February 28th, I participated in an author meets critics session at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in Chicago. This is the text of my presentation:

Author Meets Critics: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, by Lydia Amir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Critic: John Marmysz

Summary

In Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, Lydia Amir argues in favor of a worldview that she calls Homo risibilis; a perspective portraying humans as “ridiculous” animals. She characterizes the human condition as “ridiculous” in order to highlight our hopeless entanglement in the enduring incongruities and contradictions of life; incongruities between our ultimate desires and the impossibility of their final fulfillment. Humans, for instance, desire Truth, and yet our intellectual capacities are finite and unable to fully grasp the absolute Truth. We desire Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc. and yet we are incapable of actualizing these ideals. Human life, in its essence, involves vain and endless striving for things that are impossible to actualize. So long as we live, we are trapped by the irresolvable contradictions between our aspirational desires and our reasonable capacities; and there is nothing that we can do to resolve and settle these contradictions. They are simply part of the human condition. Human life is ridiculous in this sense.

Traditionally, this condition has been interpreted as tragic. In tragedy, darkness and sadness color our interpretations of the world, encouraging us to view our ridiculous condition as painful and dissatisfying. And yet, argues Amir, there is another option open to us. The ridiculous incongruities of life can also be interpreted through the lens of comedy, a perspective that sees the world as a joyful and happy place where everything is just as it should be. It is possible to make the shift from a tragic to a comic perspective on life, argues Amir, because both tragic and comic perspectives represent responses to incongruity. And it is preferable to view the world through a comic lens, she argues, because of the joyfulness and happiness that such a perspective brings.

The benefits of shifting to a comic perspective, according to Amir, are powerful. Instead of feeling crushed and stressed by life, the comic perspective helps relieve the tension generated by the absurdity of our existence, allowing us to become reconciled to, and satisfied with, our condition. This aids us in transcending the unhappiness we often feel about our lives. With humor and comedy, we can embrace our ridiculous condition, become liberated from our dissatisfaction, overcome our alienation, and embrace life for what it really is: an amusing, ongoing and never ending navigation through a world filled with contradictions and incongruities.

In the first chapter of her book, Amir makes a distinction between tragedy as an art-form and “the tragic vision” of life (p. 2). As a literary art-form, tragedy is derived from a prior, more fundamental vision of life that sees the world as torn between conflicting forces. This vision has been articulated in at least three ways, according to Amir: First, there is the “absurd” vision, championed by Camus (p. 11), which identifies a conflict between the human desire for meaning and the impossibility of satisfying that desire. Second, there is the Sartrean view that characterizes human beings as caught between the contradictory demands of the self and others [“Hell is other people”] (p. 12). Finally, there is the Kantian perspective that claims while humans are naturally drawn toward addressing metaphysical questions (Does God exist? Does the universe have a beginning? Is the soul immortal?) they nevertheless lack the capacity to answer these ultimate questions using reason (p. 13). In all of these cases, there is a disconnect between what humans desire and what they can ultimately achieve. We desire meaning, but it eludes us. We desire both to be individuals and to be part of a community, but these desires contradict one another. We desire answers to our ultimate questions about the universe, but our reason is incapable of answering these most important questions.

This all sounds very depressing and frustrating, and so it is no wonder that traditionally these reflections have contributed to a dark and tragic vision of life. If you accept these ideas, then our condition is one in which the most deeply held human desires must go unfulfilled. The tragic vision is one attempt to impart a dark sort of affirmation and meaning to this condition. But there is also another very common reaction in which thinkers rebel against the contradictions implied by the human condition, treating our shared human situation as a “problem” and thus as something that needs to be solved. In rejecting the tragic interpretation of life, many thinkers instead turn toward philosophy and religion to solve the “problem” of life.

Philosophy and religion have long offered various solutions to the incongruity between human desire and those things that humans reasonably can attain in life. If the inconsistency between desire and reason could somehow be dissolved, then all of our problems would be over. According to Amir this leads to three common “solutions.” First, there is the approach advocated by systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, Epicureanism, Pyrrohnism, and by such modern philosophers as Schopenhauer and Russell. In this approach, it is suggested that we renounce our unreasonable desires in order to reconcile ourselves with the way the world actually presents itself to us in reality (pp. 49 – 52). The second approach is one advocated by various Western religions and by Nietzsche and the German Idealists. In this approach, it is reason that is renounced so that desire can be partially or wholly satisfied (pp. 52 – 54). Finally, there are various forms of mysticism – such as Taoism – that denigrate both desire and reason, encouraging humans to transcend the apparent contradiction between what we want and what we can reasonably attain (pp. 54 – 55). What all three of these approaches share in common is that they view the human condition as a problem; as something to be solved and overcome. As such, according to Amir, their goal is to dehumanize us; to make us into something other than human. Amir’s contention, thus, is that none of these “solutions” are really desirable. Instead, she argues that we should strive to become reconciled to the inherently contradictory nature of the human condition.

Humor has the potential to help us do this. Although it is rooted in the same source as tragedy, humor, according to Amir, addresses the incongruities of life from a different perspective than does the tragic vision. A sense of humor finds amusement in incongruities, interpreting them as comedic rather than tragic, and thus derives joy and happiness from what might otherwise cause suffering and pain. Humor does this by being tolerant of multiple, but conflicting, perspectives. This tolerance derives from humor’s tendency to detach us from our emotions and from our own egoistic desires. Whereas the tragic vision is preoccupied with the suffering of the ego, the humorous attitude relinquishes egoistic desires, allowing us to look at ourselves and at the world objectively in terms of its incongruous nature.

Just as artistic tragedy grows out of the tragic vision of life, so too does the worldview of Homo risibilis grow out of a humorous attitude toward life. This worldview consists of the recognition that human life is rife with incongruities, and that one of the key incongruities characterizing our world is that between tragedy and comedy. Life is both tragic and comic, and instead of trying to resolve one of these interpretations into the other, Homo risibilis instead accepts the truth of this conflict and derives joy from the ongoing repetition of its contemplation. According to Amir, this worldview offers a complete affirmation of the world, sublating all lower level incongruities into an all-encompassing meta-perspective that neither claims to offer a final understanding of reality, nor that abandons the passionate engagement with life. Homo risibilis overcomes individual alienation by recognizing and accepting the world for what it is: a place of irresolvable contradictions and incongruities that are at once tragic and comic. And in doing this, it reaches a paradoxical conclusion: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). Through the perspective of Homo risibilis, the human condition is understood, paradoxically, to be congruous in its incongruity:

“The worldview I propose here amounts to a harmonious congruence with myself, others and the world, a situation that all philosophies seek to establish in their attempts to overcome alienation. [This worldview considers] conflicts as normal because they are constitutive of the complex being that I am and of the complicated relations I entertain with a world I do not fully understand” (p. 238).

Amir argues that Homo risibilis is the best alternative to the religions and philosophies that it competes with. Religions, in general, are inadequate, she claims, because they rest on something other than reason, and so are “lax” in their approach to understanding. They also, like many philosophies, rest on questionable metaphysical assumptions that must be accepted uncritically. Homo risibilis, on the other hand, is not dependent on any such beliefs, remaining open to new discoveries and skeptical of taken-for-granted assumptions about reality. In this, it is epistemologically skeptical (which Amir thinks is a benefit) and it presents an ethical picture of humankind as sharing a common condition, thus promoting compassion among humans while also encouraging joy and happiness in individuals.

Critique

Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously is thoroughly researched, and draws from a comprehensive body of both classical and contemporary scholarship in the philosophy of humor. Amir does an impressive job of synthesizing this literature and harnessing it in support of her own original argument in favor of Homo risibilis.

I do have a few criticisms, questions and comments concerning two related issues in Amir’s book. First, I will address Amir’s claim for the uniqueness of her proposal concerning Homo risibilis. Second, I will call into question Amir’s conclusions regarding what she characterizes as the necessarily affirmative psychological effects of the worldview that she proposes.

Amir compares her conception of Homo risibilis to the contemporary theories of Cohen, Critchley, and Marmysz (pp. 151 – 154), acknowledging that all of these theories present the humorous perspective as a manner of responding to the incongruities of the world while steering away from tragedy and encouraging the affirmation and embrace of reality. However, Amir insists that her perspective is even “more radical” than these other proposals insofar as it “enables a celebration of humanity, allowing the individual to accept finitude and grace his folly” (p. 152 – 153). My question in this regard has to do with the precise manner in which the proposal of Homo risibilis is “more radical” than these other theories.

It seems to me the most obvious way that Amir’s proposal might be considered more radical than other theories advocating humor’s affirmative power has to do with the ultimate meta-perspective that Homo risibilis carries us to, as described in Chapter 6 of her book. It is here that Amir suggests that a joyful state of mind emerges for the individual who reaches this epiphany. In this epiphanic state of mind, perception of the world’s incongruity seems to be dissolved when Homo risibilis comes to understand that the incongruity between tragedy and comedy is not incongruous at all, but a completely congruent aspect of a larger reality. To quote: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). In the end, it sounds as if Amir is gesturing toward a perspective in which there is a monistic sublation of the world’s contradictions in the thought of Homo risibilis. In other words, despite its contradictory and incongruent appearance, the world as a whole is not contradictory or incongruent with itself. It is a single, “harmonious” whole that is more than the sum total of the parts.

Now, if this is what Amir is claiming, then it seems to me that she may be very close to repeating a strategy that she criticizes in many other philosophies and religions. If incongruity is not a “problem” in the first place, then why does Homo risibilis feel a need to resolve the incongruity between the tragic and comedic elements of life into a “higher level” harmonious congurity at all? Recall that Amir suggests (in Chapter 2) that there are three “solutions” commonly offered to dissolve the troubling incongruities of the human condition: 1. Deny desire; 2. Deny reason; 3. Offer a way beyond both desire and reason. All of these “solutions” view the human condition as a “problem,” and are focused on eradicating the incongruities characterizing human existence in order to solve this problem. According to Amir, the denial of desire is common to many Eastern religions (like Buddhism), while the denial of reason is common to Western religions (like Christianity) and the transcendence of both desire and reason is common to mystical philosophies/religions (like Taoism).

Amir herself claims that humor helps us to be more “objective” and to distance ourselves from emotion. In this way, she characterizes humor as allied with reason (p. 180). So, in advocating an attitude of humor toward our condition, is she leaning in direction number 1: the denial of desire? Is Homo risibilis just another way of talking about a non-theistic religion of the sort that we find in Buddhism? In Buddhism, the goal is to accept the world as it is, independent of how we desire it to be. This is the point of nirvana, which to me sounds suspiciously similar to Amir’s suggestion that Homo risibilis allows the “individual to accept finitude” exorcising “hubris and egotism” (p. 153). It also sounds quite similar to non-dual Hinduism, in which the dichotomies of the world are transcended and all is understood to be a manifestation of one underlying and completely congruent, self-sufficient reality. In coming to understand tragedy and comedy to be completely congruent with one another, doesn’t the perspective of Homo risibilis execute a similar transcendence?

And this raises a further question for me. If humor is a reaction to incongruity, then once one attains the perspective of Homo risibilis, thus coming to understand the world as completely congruent in its incongruity, how can humor survive? Does Homo risibilis become a humorless perspective, something like a sublime form of mysticism?

The second issue that I’d like to address is Amir’s claim that the transition from a tragic to a comic perspective in Homo risibilis is necessarily accompanied by happiness, joy, and a compassionate, ethical attitude toward others. My thoughts on this issue started to materialize as I was watching the recent Academy Award winning film Joker. This film dramatizes precisely the perspectival transition that Amir describes in her book, with a central protagonist who inhabits a world of tragic pain and suffering but who then switches his perspective in order to view the absurdities of his world through the lens of comedy. The result, however, is not joy, happiness, or compassion, but rather psychosis, cynicism and brutality. The Joker becomes someone who treats the human condition as one big, sick joke. With the eradication of his own ego, he no longer cares if he lives, dies, or suffers. And he treats others with the same sort of detached cruelty that he treats himself.

Now, Joker is just a movie, but it does illustrate something that seems like a distinct possibility in the real world. Isn’t it possible that with the adoption of a comic perspective we might become so insensitive to the absurdity of the world that we could become less joyful, happy, and compassionate and instead become more insensitive, cruel, and cynical? Isn’t there a cruelty to laughter, humor, and comedy that is underestimated by Amir? After all, one of the oldest ways of explaining the power of humor and comedy, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, is in terms of superiority and dominance. According to this view, when we laugh at someone, we raise ourselves above the object of laughter, belittling and denigrating the target. We laugh down at people, making ourselves feel powerful at the expense of others. This suggests just the opposite of a compassionate stance in the humorist; one that potentially promotes a callous attitude toward the suffering of others. Is it possible that Homo risibilis could turn out to be more cruel than kind?

Conclusion

Overall, I find myself agreeing with most of what Amir argues in her book. I agree with her premise that the human condition is not a problem to be “solved” and that our reactions to life’s incongruities can take the forms of tragedy or comedy. I also agree that there are a number of affirmative aspects to the humorous, over the tragic, attitude toward life. However, I question whether it is desirable (or even possible) to adopt a final, meta-perspective that successfully and definitively synthesizes the comic and the tragic views of life.

Nonetheless, as with any worthwhile work of philosophy, it is the questions Lydia Amir’s book raises, rather than the answers that she provides, which make her efforts so interesting. The concept of Homo risibilis is one that I will continue to turn over in my mind for quite some time, and I look forward to further discussion of its precise contours, its meaning, it implications, as well as the methods by which it might be realized in thought.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook

Editor-in-Chief: Amir, Lydia

In cooperation with Destrée, Pierre / Gimbel, Steven / James, Christine A. / Marmysz, John / Olin, Lauren / Lintott, Sheila

Aims and Scope

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook covers the various intersections of philosophy with humor (and laughter, irony, and the comical), historically and contemporarily, descriptively and prescriptively, seriously and jocularly. It welcomes excellent academic papers of both the analytic and continental traditions, reviews of relevant books, announcements of forthcoming events, and a section dedicated to humorous short papers on philosophical topics.

Details

Language:
English
Type of Publication:
Yearbook
Keyword(s):
Philosophy of Humor
Readership:
Scholars, institutes, libraries

Editorial Information

Lydia Amir (Editor-in-Chief), Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA.

Associate Editors

Pierre Destrée, University of Louvain, Louvain, Belgium; Steven Gimbel, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, PA, USA; Christine A. James, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA, USA; Sheila Lintott, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA; John Marmysz, College of Marin, Kentfield, CA, USA;¸Lauren Olin University of Missouri, St. Louis, USA.

Editorial Board Members

Noël Carroll, CUNY, New York, NY, USA; Simon Critchley, The New School, New York, NY, USA; Daniel Dennett, Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA; Stephen Halliwell, Emeritus, St. Andrews University, St. Andrews, UK; Kathleen Higgins, University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA; John Lippitt, University of Notre Dame, Sydney, NSW, Australia; John Morreall, Emeritus, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA; Robert C. Roberts, Emeritus, Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA; Quentin Skinner, Queen Mary University of London, UK.

Submissions should be sent to the Editor at lydamir@mail.com.

APA Central Division Philosophy of Humor Meetings

APA Central Division, Chicago 2020

The International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

Program

Three groups meetings

 

Thursday, February 27 Thursday evening, 7:30pm – 10:30pm

 

G3P. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“West and East: Humor in the History of Philosophy”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH): http://www.philosophyofhumor.org

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).

Speakers:

1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

“That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes”

2. Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

“Clarifying Montaigne’s Thought through Homo risibilis: How the Philosophy of Humor Bears on Unresolved Problems of Interpretation”

3. Jonathan Weidenbaum (Berkeley College, New York)

“To Laugh in a Pluralistic Universe: The Relevance of William James for the Philosophy of Humor”

4. Choong-Su Han (Ehwa Womans University, Seoul, South Korea)

“An Elucidation of the Meaning of the Buddha’s Smile”

5. John Charles Simon (Independent Scholar)

“From Wildlife Biologist to Laughter Theorist: One Lone Scientist’s Relentless Pursuit of Obscurity”

 

Friday, February 28 Friday evening, 7:00pm – 10:00pm

 

G4U. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Author-meets-critics, Lydia Amir’s Taking Ridicule Seriously: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition.”

Chair: John Marmysz (College of Marin)

Author: Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

Critics:

1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

2. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)

 

Saturday, February 29 Saturday afternoon, 2:00pm – 5:00pm

 

G5D. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Philosophy of Humor”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH): http://www.philosophyofhumor.org

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).

Speakers:

1. Matthew Meyer (The University of Scranton)

“Between Tragedy and Comedy: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra IV as Zwischenspiel”

2. Lauren Olin (Center for Neurodynamics, University of Missouri- St. Louis)

“Comic Dispositionalism”

3. Michael K. Cundall, Jr., (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University)

“Why the Case for Humor and Health Isn’t as Weak as Thought: Methodological Paranoia We Can Laugh At”

4. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)

“Achenbach, Humor and Philosophical Praxis”

5. Dianna Niebylski (University of Illinois)

“20th and 21st Century Philosophies of Women’s Humor”

Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist

Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait, by Andrew Rankin. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018).

The front cover of Andrew Rankin’s Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist, condenses the book’s central thesis into a single image. At the top of the cover is a photograph of Yukio Mishma (taken from the book Ordeal by Roses) smelling a flower. Beneath this is a fainter, inverted version of the same picture, suggesting a reflection of the first. It is as if Mishima is gazing into a pool of water, like the mythic figure Narcissus, relishing his own reflected appearance. The implication is that Mishima, like Narcissus, was self-obsessed.

Rankin’s book effectively argues that Mishima’s self-obsession was expressed through his life-long aspiration toward a “solid identity” (p. 8). This ultimately culminated in his anachronistic identification with the samurai tradition; an identification that both embodied a by-gone era and that allowed for the final, symbolic purgation of that era when, in 1970, Mishima committed suicide by seppuku. According to Rankin, Mishima was not born Mishima; he had to become Yukio Mishima through a lifetime of self-obsessed reflection and effort (something that I have also argued in Chapter Nine of my book Cinematic Nihilism, “Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body”). This process began with a talented and intellectually brilliant Japanese boy named Hiraoka Kimitake who, in living through World War II and in experiencing the defeat and humiliation of his country by the West, sought to understand his place in a confusing world from which he felt alienated. Hiraoka Kimitake would, only after the war, become Yukio Mishima, a literary figure who strained against the limitations of the written word while striving to transform the abstractions explored in his books into concrete reality.

Rankin suggests that it is the problem of beauty that drove Mishima’s quest for a self. This problem is illustrated in what is perhaps one of Mishima’s greatest works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In this story beauty is characterized as an impossible goal that always eludes concrete realization. A monk named Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with a Buddhist temple that, while it is supposed to be the most beautiful of structures, nevertheless strikes him as falling short of its ideal. It is painfully shocking to the monk that the temple fails to live up to its promise, and he concludes that its physical existence is what holds back the manifestation of true beauty. Consequently, Mizoguchi resolves to burn down the temple in order that the pure, abstract form of its magnificence might be liberated.

Rankin’s analysis of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is very good, avoiding what I think are some of the mistakes made by many other interpreters of this particular work. He recognizes correctly that the problem with the temple in the story is not that it is too beautiful, but that it can never be made beautiful enough to express perfect, ideal beauty. It is the tangible nature of the building that holds back and degrades the ideal of beauty, and thus the only solution is destruction of its physical structure. Rankin applies this interpretation of the book to Mishima’s life, arguing that he was like both Mitzoguchi and the temple. In his turn toward body-building, Mishima attempted to make his own physique into a fleshy “temple” that he then suicidally destroyed in order to liberate his own self-created, ideal identity. In this quest both to create and annihilate himself, Mishima exhibited an extreme kind of aestheticism that was all consuming, narcissistic and decadent.

Mishima’s narcissism, however, was of a unique sort, according to Rankin. Whereas the original Greek myth of Narcissus has the central character unknowingly falling in love with his own likeness, Mishima instead was, all along, knowingly obsessed with himself. In the myth, Narcissus happens upon his reflection in a pool of water. When he realizes that what he sees is only a reflection – and thus is incapable of being possessed – he dies of a broken heart. When Mishima retells this myth, however, he replaces the pool of water with a “mirror image” (p. 75). This is an important difference, stresses Rankin, since while reflections in pools of water are natural phenomena that can deceive us, mirrors are unnatural, man-made implements that we already know cast our appearances back to us. Looking into a mirror, you know that you are looking at yourself. You know that the image has no substantial existence apart from your own body. There is, thus, no delusion when gazing at a mirror. You do not think you are engaging with other people. The mirror image, in this way, reinforces self-conscious self-involvement. This was Mishima’s frame of mind, according to Rankin. Mishima was a man who didn’t really care about interacting with others since he served as his own audience. His writing was a tool for him to create his own, self-enclosed world; a world that he eventually externalized in body-building. Lifting weights, Mishima watched his own muscles grow, becoming ever more self-obsessed with the transformation of his skinny, sickly body into a muscular, strong body. All the while, he knew that it was his own self that was both being transformed and observed. It was this dual, narcissistic process that came to dominate Mishima’s life. He was “intoxicated” with his own illusions (Chpt. 5).

Transforming his body eventually became part of a larger, public project of reactionary activism that, as Rankin writes, alienated him “from people on both sides of the political spectrum”:

Those on the left objected to what they saw as his crass glorification of wartime militarist dogma and emperor-centered fascism. Those on the right objected to his eroticization of the sacred imperial institution and to his ad hominem criticisms of the reigning emperor. Within a short time, so it seemed, the flippant aesthete had become a dedicated subversive. Hostile critics began to speak of Mishima as a “dangerous thinker,” a label that pleased him enormously (p. 121).

Being called a “dangerous thinker” no doubt was pleasing to Mishima in part because this is precisely the kind of thinking advocated by one of his philosophical idols, Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, Mishima was concerned with the advent of nihilism, and he became determined to find a way to combat and overcome this condition. Nietzsche had claimed that nihilism as a cultural disease results from an overabundance of the formal, structured and logical Apollonian force when it comes to dominate over the life enhancing – but potentially destructive – Dionysian force. Likewise, Mishima (inspired by anthropologist Ruth Benedict) diagnosed Japan’s cultural nihilism as stemming from an imbalance between the “chrysanthemum and the sword” (p. 126). The chrysanthemum, like Nietzsche’s Apollonian force, symbolizes tranquility and the gentle side of Japanese culture, while the sword, like Nietzsche’s Dionysian force, symbolizes Japan’s violent and cruel side. For Mishima, the chrysanthemum had come, after WWII, to dominate Japan at the expense of the sword. What was thus needed was a reaction against civilized softness through the cultivation of samurai viciousness. This project took the form of what Mishima would call “aesthetic terrorism” (p. 146).

The Shield Society was a militia formed by Mishima, consisting of himself and a group of about 100 young followers. Sanctioned and supported by the Japanese government, the stated purpose of the group was to protect the Emperor and to assist Japan’s security forces in combating violent insurrection. In reality, The Shield Society appears to have been viewed by authorities as a bit of a joke; the narcissistic project of Japan’s greatest author. From the perspective of Mishima himself, it seems to have been part of his own preparation for a spectacular death. Rankin writes that it was shortly after the formation of his militia that Mishima began to use the phrase “aesthetic terrorism” to describe various violent, but beautiful, political actions, rebellions, and assassinations from Japan’s past. In associating terrorism with beauty, Mishima seems to have been anticipating his final work of art, a performance piece in which violence, politics and art were combined in one spectacular event that would not only be the culminating point of Mishima’s identity, but would also be the final conclusion to his life. On November 25, 1970, Mishima carried out his final act of aesthetic terrorism, storming the office of the commandant of the Self Defense Forces along with four of his soldiers, and then committing seppuku. This act, both shocking and awe-inspiring, was his last and most stunning work of art, according to Rankin. It was, he writes, “the logical culmination of his life’s work and of all the aspects of his thinking that we have investigated in this book” (p. 172).

I really enjoyed Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist. It is well-written and well-researched. One of it’s greatest strengths is the fact that the author is fluent in Japanese, and so has been able to consult Mishima’s original texts, many of which remain untranslated. Rankin’s insights into these works offer fresh support for his analysis of Mishima’s psychological and artistic development, resulting in an unusually full and satisfying account of the Japanese author’s life-long struggles with self-identity. It is a well-argued and carefully assembled book that makes good use of previously neglected material. I agree with Rankin’s conclusions and admire his diligent research.

I have two criticisms, one having to do with the book’s tone and the other having to do with its philosophical content. First, while Rankin himself is impatient with what he thinks is a “dismissive” attitude toward Mishima by other scholars, the Introduction to his own book, I think, strikes its own unnecessarily dismissive tone toward English language writing that does in fact take Mishima seriously. The author sweepingly proclaims most English language accounts of Mishima as “lightweight” (p. 6). In a footnote he abruptly discounts Roy Starr’s book Deadly Dialectics as “unsatisfactory” (p. 175, fn 7), and he fails even to mention Damian Flanagan’s book Yukio Mishima (Reaction Books, 2014). While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of these other studies, they certainly don’t deserve to be summarily dismissed or ignored.

Second, while I do appreciate the serious attention Rankin devotes to Mishima’s own writings and ideas, the book exhibits a lack of depth when it comes to exploring some of the connections between those ideas and Mishima’s philosophical influences. Rankin is obviously an expert when it comes to the Japanese literary tradition, but his study lacks detail when it comes to the wider philosophical tradition of which Mishima was a part.  In particular, Rankin’s account of Nietzsche’s philosophy is quite thin, missing important subtleties about how the Nietzschean dynamic of nihilism  is replicated in Mishima’s obsession with the conflict between the ideal and the concrete. Ironically, this is something that might have been addressed had Rankin engaged more charitably with Roy Starr’s book.

Overall, however, I would enthusiastically recommend Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist to anyone fascinated by Yukio Mishima’s writing, his life, or his psychological development. It is an exceptional book.

Wintertime Despair

It’s a pattern I recognized in myself long ago. As wintertime approaches, the confidence, enthusiasm and hopefulness I felt earlier in the year have been replaced by self-doubt, lack of motivation, and feelings of doom. It’s always the same. On the outside, things are going great. I’m physically active, intellectually productive, and involved in creative projects. Yet on the inside things are less than great. I’m distracted, detached, and unable to concentrate. My mind flits this way and that, unable to rest for very long on one thing. It’s the despairing, down-side of an ongoing cycle that has been a part of my psychology ever since I can remember.

And yet, I feel lucky that I’m able to recognize my moods as parts of a cycle. It gives me the power to put these feelings into their appropriate place and not submit to rule by them. The seasonal rhythm of emotional ascent and decline going through my head, once recognized, encases all feelings – of both happiness and despair – within a frame of reference. None of them will last forever. They are all part of an ephemeral flux and flow, leading nowhere in particular, circling back on one another like a roller-coaster traveling on an infinitely looping track. There is no problem to solve or any deep-seated issue to come to terms with. I’m just along for the ride, and am aware that the downward descent will at some point inevitably lead to an upward climb, which will itself be followed by yet another descent, and so on.  In this regard, I’m different from those who seek cures for their dark moods. Pills, therapy, religion, and politics bring solace to some people, but I reject them all as aids to the alleviation of my own up and down mental roller-coaster ride. I prefer to just let the ride continue, learning how to observe it with the detachment of a spectator on the sidelines.

This is the power of indifference; a lesson I’ve adapted from the Stoics and Buddhists. Every attempt to change the pattern of inner life produces consequences too complicated to predict or control; consequences often worse than the conditions we seek to overcome. Take a pill to alleviate sadness and the changes in brain chemistry lead to illness. Become involved in politics and end up oppressing and killing others for your cause. Discover religion and soon find that you’ve also lost yourself. Dive into therapy, and end up thinking that you are the only one who knows the true path to well-being. It’s all part of the push and pull of events in the mental universe. One thing leads to another, and another, and another, and another, and so on. The illusion, from my perspective, is that any of it will ultimately culminate in a final, static state of happiness and satisfaction. And here is where I diverge from the Stoics and the Buddhists. There is no bliss, no Nirvana at the end of it all. One path is just as legitimate any other path. They all lead nowhere. The journey is its own reward or punishment.

For me, a perspective of detachment is the most helpful vantage point from which to regard the absurd and ongoing processes of inner life. Detachment, however, is not the same as passivity. In detachment, the activity of life continues to go on, uninterrupted, whereas in passivity, there is a hostile effort to sabotage the cycles of life through withdrawal. The more passive one becomes, the more the patterns of life fracture through one’s non-participation. The world continues to act on you, even as you relinquish power over it, and things become increasingly chaotic and unpredictable. In detachment, on the other hand, one does not withdraw from feelings, commitments and obligations, but rather cooly allows the already established patterns of the mental world to continue in a more or less predicable way. In detachment, actions strengthen the integrity of lived patterns so that the chaos of existence can be enclosed within those patterns. Passive people allow themselves to get pushed around unpredictably by the world. Detachment, on the other hand, enables one to remain actively engaged in shaping and channeling the world’s chaos while, on a meta-level, remaining aloof and distant from the whole process, like a bystander observing a roller-coaster as it thunders along its tracks.

And so, I have no desire to change a thing. My mental rhythms continue to pulse in their regular and predictable ways. As I watch, detached and indifferent, I’m still in the process of trying to learn just who it is that I am. I haven’t figured that out yet. And if you don’t know who you are, then what sense does it make to try and change yourself?