Seattle APA 2017

The 91st annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association was once again held in Seattle, Washington this year. I was invited to present a paper, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor, which met as a part of the conference.

My last visit to Seattle was also the first time I had ever been to the city. My wife and I had a great time, so we looked forward to seeing the place once again. Deciding to try something new this time around, instead of flying we travelled the 800 miles by car, with stops in Ashland and Portland. After the conference we drove back to the Bay Area in one day; a test of endurance that proved, due to torrential and blinding rain, to be the biggest challenge of the entire journey.

The quickest route from Marin County to Seattle is to get on Interstate Route 5, point the car north, and hit the accelerator while dodging 18 wheel big rigs and Highway Patrol speed traps. Route 5 through California is straight, long and mostly boring, cutting through farmland and rural towns up until you reach the area around Mt. Shasta, near the California/Oregon border. It is here that the road begins to get more interesting and curvy while the scenery becomes more awe-inspiring. As we climbed in elevation through the Cascades, we were treated to beautiful views of Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, and breathtaking vistas from the mountainous pass into Oregon.

Along the way through this region of California, we began to see signs proclaiming that we had entered the State of Jefferson; a proposed 51st US state. The push to carve this state out from Northern California and Southern Oregon dates all the way back to 1941, but recently there has been a renewed burst of enthusiasm, with the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors voting in 2013 for cessation from California. While much of the motivation behind the creation of Jefferson is rooted in the feeling that this area of California is more conservative – more “red” – than the rest of the state, there is, apparently, also an alternative, punk-inspired energy associated with the movement as well. On a recent visit to Yreka, the proposed capital of Jefferson, a friend of mine discovered a flyer authored by “Jefferson Crew,” a coalition that strives to foster a sense of community among small town punk scenes in the area:

Passing through Jefferson, we entered into Oregon and stopped for the night in Ashland. We had visited this destination many times before; both as a convenient stop while on motorcycle rides and as attendees at the town’s famous Shakespeare Festival. This time around we had dinner with a friend who had recently moved here with his wife and his new family. We had pints and mushroom burgers at the Standing Stone Brewing Company before turning in for the night and then continuing our quest.

A short, 300 mile northward jaunt took us to Portland, where we stayed the night at The Kennedy School, an elementary school, first opened in 1915, that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. The classrooms (complete with chalk boards) have been converted into rooms, the cafeteria into a restaurant, the offices into bars, and the gymnasium into a movie theatre. The school is located in the middle of a suburban area, and serves as a meeting place for locals, conference goers and travelers. Visitors wander the hallways, sipping beer and wine that has been made on the premises, browsing the restored decorations, antique equipment and old photos, or lounging in the soaking pool. That evening, after a salmon dinner, we went to see Rouge One at the movie theater, relaxing in one of the very comfortable couches that serve as audience seating. The seating was so comfortable, in fact, that I fell asleep halfway through the film.

The next day we set out on the final leg of our journey, arriving in Seattle after braving our way through a torrential downpour that made things downright terrifying. Visibility was only a few feet, and I spent much of this part of the drive keeping my eyes on the glowing red tail lights of the car in front of me, hoping that they didn’t drift off of the freeway while we played follow the leader. Happily, as the skies cleared, and as we saw signs for Sleater-Kinney Road, we knew that we were getting close to our destination.

The APA Conference was, once again, held at the Westin Hotel, in downtown Seattle. I’ve written in previous postings about how the character of the APA has changed over the years. It has evolved from an organization that was at one time mostly unwelcoming to non-analytic philosophers into one that now seems enthusiastically to embrace a wide range of continental and non-western perspectives. In addition to the session on humor and philosophy that I participated in, I attended a fascinating panel discussion that addressed Hegel’s response to nihilism, another panel on the positive aspects of negative emotions (like envy and disgust), and a really interesting symposium addressing inconsistencies in the arguments of Socrates as he is depicted in the early Platonic dialogues. Conversation was lively and people were friendly.  I had the chance to meet and chat with an advisor of mine who I had not seen in many years, as well as discussing potential book projects with a commissioning editor from Palgrave Macmillan. This felt the way a conference ought to feel. We were able to mix with people of like interests, gaining exposure to new perspectives, and sharing ideas with others. The conference was certainly a success.

On our previous trip, we didn’t explore the downtown sections of Seattle too extensively, but this time we spent more time walking the streets and exploring various neighborhoods. One of the places we visited was  Left Bank Books, an anarchist collective that sits on prime real estate, right in the middle of the tourist area at Pike Place Market. I love the fact that this radical, independent bookseller is nestled among overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops, sitting right down the street from the very first Starbucks cafe. It has an amazing selection of literature, ranging from poetry, to philosophy to history to fanzines. While there, I purchased a copy of Beating the Fascists and dropped off a couple of copies of my own book, The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel. 

Afterwards, we walked up to Belltown, where I dropped off more copies of the novel at Singles Going Steady, an incredible punk rock record/DVD/memorabilia shop. I spent a while talking with the guy working the counter who, as it turns out, originally comes from my own home of Marin County. We reminisced about old times, sharing memories and swapping opinions about our favorite bands. Afterwards, across the street, my wife and I played videogames and pinball at Shortys, a hipster bar with lots of atmosphere, good pints and friendly staff. We also went shopping at Gr8Gear, an old-time, no nonsense army/navy surplus store where we were attended to by a very friendly Sikh man who helped us find the correct sized hats and pants while also recounting his adventures in the navy. We then wrapped things up by joining a street march and protest that was conveniently winding its way through the streets as we emerged from the store. While the protest was no “battle in Seattle,” it was, I think, an appropriate capstone to our visit.

I’m looking forward to seeing Seattle again. After this second visit, I feel as if I’m more familiar with the lay out of the city and the areas that I would like to return to for further exploration. The place feels friendly, and the culture is agreeable to my tastes. If they could just dial the rainfall back a notch and raise the temperature, I could even imagine living here.



Mammoth Lakes

John and JunekoWith the summer quickly coming to an end, my wife and I decided to take a four day vacation in Mammoth Lakes, CA. This is a destination we had never been to before, although when we were teenagers we did make an abortive attempt to visit. In those pre-internet, teenage days our paper map was more misleading than helpful, and we ended up wandering about on the west side of the Sierras, looking for a nonexistent route that would take us to Devil’s Postpile National Monument – which sits on the east side of the Sierras – and on to the town of Mammoth Lakes. This time around, as middle-aged adults, we were wiser and equipped with Google Maps, so the 300 mile motorcycle ride unfolded smoothly and without too many confused meanderings.

Our route took us east on highway 4, through California’s Central Valley and Gold Country, over Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, and then south to Mammoth Lakes on highway 394. We followed a slightly more circuitous route on our return trip, adding another 100 miles in order to avoid too much backtracking. 400 miles is too much distance to cover during one day in the saddle, and by the end of the trip my rear end was bruised and sore. My wife was sore as well, but she avoided the lasting, visible damage that I incurred. I think I either need to travel fewer miles or get a pair of inflatable pants in order to continue these long distance rides.

FZ1My bike is a 2005 Yamaha FZ1. The guys at the shop refer to it as “the last of the good FZ1’s” due to the fact that 2005 was the final year in which this particular model was carbureted. All models since have fuel-injection; a feature which I personally believe would be a benefit to me, since at high altitudes – like we experienced on our ride to Mammoth Lakes – my Yamaha has a tendency to hesitate during acceleration, making it necessary to vigorously rev the throttle in order to raise the engine’s rpms to avoid stalling. Fuel injection, as I understand it, would eliminate this problem.

Other than that issue, the FZ1 is a great bike. It has a 1000 cc inline four engine that is very powerful, making around 130 peak horsepower. It is relatively light and maneuverable, and despite my complaints about developing a sore butt during our latest trip, it is also quite comfortable for two-up riding. Just avoid super long distances in one go and you should be OK. I’ve modified the FZ1 with a 4 into 1 Yoshimura exhaust (complete with a new jet kit that also probably doesn’t help with high altitude performance), and a Corbin “Gunfighter” seat. I’ve replaced the sprockets, chain and various oil seals here and there. The only really major repair the motorcycle has required during its 50,000 mile life  is replacement of the fuel pump.  Overall, this is the most reliable bike I’ve ever owned. It has safely taken my wife and me on many memorable rides over the years, and although I have been looking for something new, it is with some feelings of hesitancy and regret that I consider selling the FZ1. I’m so used to this bike that I’m not really sure that I want to let it go.


The first leg of our trip took us on Highway 4. Running east/west between the SF Bay Area and the foothills of the Sierras, it is a route we found attractive mostly for its directness to our intended destination. There are a few interesting sights along the way, of course. Traveling through the Delta region, we passed over some picturesque bridges that span waterways cutting through the lush farmland of the western portion of the Central Valley. The smell of cow manure and chemical fertilizers hang in the air in these places, stirred up by the tractors that plow fields of crops while sending plumes of dirt and dust into the air. This, by the way, is why there is an elevated incidence of lung cancer in the Central Valley: particulate matter suspended in the air from farming.

The city of Stockton lies right between the Delta and the approach to the Sierra foothills. Stopping there long enough to get our bearings straight, we lingered in a neighborhood that was a cross between rural farmland and urban ghetto, parking beneath a sign that read “Vandals will be prosecuted.” There was a surveillance camera atop the sign, and as we looked over our map, a number of cars carrying young men drove past us, scrutinizing our presence. We felt like we might become victims of a drive-by shooting, so we rode over to a gas station where I tried to get directions. This, however, was the kind of place where: 1) Most of the people I tried to talk to ignored me, and 2) No one seemed to have any idea of what lay outside of the city limits. There was, finally, one young man who reassured me that we were probably headed in the right direction. Once we got around the detours and road construction that were causing us some confusion we would be headed roughly where we wanted to go. It turned out that he was right, and we eventually did find our way to Copperopolis, the first town marking our departure from the Central Valley and our entrance into California’s Gold Country.

CopperopolisImagine driving onto a movie set that is supposed to depict a small, clean American town and you will no doubt picture in your mind something like Copperopolis. As we exited the highway and entered the village, my wife and I thought at first that what we were looking at was a brand new suburban housing development. After stopping to fill up for gas and giving the place a closer look, however, it turns out that this was actually Copperopolis itself. Although originally founded in 1860, the town has been completely rebuilt from the ground up. As their website proudly states, this is “A whole new town with a historic past.” Tidy as a pin, and artificial as a movie set, Copperopolis consists of a nice little central square, complete with bandstand and gazebo, surrounded by brand new buildings fashioned in an old west style. As we rode around the downtown, we saw no people. The place looked abandoned except that there were sandwich board signs out in front of some of the businesses assuring visitors that they were open and operating. We passed by some restaurants, a day spa, an art store and an ice cream parlor. Honestly, it felt weird. I was reminded of the movie A Boy and His Dog, in which the main character finds himself held captive below ground in a comical yet menacing facimile of an all American town. To be fair, Copperopolis certainly feels safer than Stockton, and it sits in an ideal location to cater to visitors to Gold Country.

SonoraDeparting Copperopolis, we hit highway 49 and traveled south. The temperature had suddenly spiked to an almost unbearable degree, and so we stopped in Sonora for refreshments. Sonora is a charming old mining town, first established in 1848. Years ago, we spent a mini-vacation here, staying the night and attending a very lively karaoke performance put on by local singing talent. I still recall our amusement when listening to a long-haired redneck’s rendition of Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” during which he strained beyond his own abilities to hit the high notes of the vocal crescendo. There was also an older woman who sang Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” in a flat monotone that was reminiscent of the Flying Lizards. This time around, we stopped at The Heart Rock Cafe downtown, right along Washington Street. Air conditioning, bagels and cold drinks energized us to continue our journey down highway 49 and then onto highway 120, which would take us through Yosemite National Park.

RoadHighway 120 is beautifully scenic, though arid at points. There is an ascent into the Sierras around Big Oak Flat that is quite spectacular.  The road winds higher and higher, it becomes hotter and hotter, and the view of the scenery below becomes more and more panoramic. Other than the heat, the one annoyance of traveling this route is the fact of frequent traffic stoppages due to road maintenance. I’ve lost count of the number of times that we sat in the blazing heat for 1o or 15 minutes, waiting uncomfortably for the road to open so that an escort vehicle could lead us past construction areas. Regardless, the countryside is beautiful and once we reached the top of the winding rise at Big Oak Flat, it was a pretty straight shot through Groveland and on to the entrance to Yosemite.

Yosemite ValleyThe views from Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park are absolutely spectacular! What begins, from the west side, as a heavily forested road finally gives way, toward the east side, to breathtaking views of rocky peaks, alpine lakes and granite mountains. As we cruised at a leisurely pace along this road, I found myself overcome with a sense of ease and well being. Despite loads of tourists, the presence of this landscape transported me mentally into of a serene world where things are simple and uncomplicated, yet monumental and awe inspiring all at once. All I had to do was go on autopilot, maneuvering the motorcycle down the roadway, easing through curve after curve, while a vast valley of rock unfolded before my eyes. These formations, formed by millions of J&Jyears of glacial activity, lay there, meaningless and uncaring. This is about as permanent as anything that I will ever experience in my lifetime. Here, I had the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than myself. I suppose that’s the feeling religious people cherish; but while their God is beyond this world, mine is within it and made of stone. The Hindus claim that God, or Brahman, is “Thou before which all words recoil,” suggesting that the infinite nature of the Holy is something that human language is incapable of conveying. This is how I feel about the grandeur of Yosemite. Words cannot describe it.

Tioga PassThe descent through Tioga Pass, out of Yosemite and then south on highway 395 was the last leg of our journey to our final destination. This is a section of road that I had never traveled before. It is quite scenic, certainly, but in contrast to the views we had just witnessed, the long, straight, fast road made me more impatient for our arrival at Mammoth Lakes than anything else. Besides, my backside was definitely aching and my stomach growling.

The town of Mammoth Lakes is, I’ve heard, the single most popular destination for skiers in the US. During the summer months, it appears also to be extremely popular with mountain bikers, as the ski runs, devoid of snow, now become paths that are tackled by hundreds of two wheeled adventurers. The town reminds me of Lake Tahoe, with hotels and restaurants spread over a 25 square mile area that is surrounded by forests, mountains and lakes. So while you are, in a sense, amongst nature, you are not at all far from the buzz of civilization. Families with kids and tourists are in abundance. During our stay I consistently heard British, German and Japanese accents in the crowds of shoppers and restaurant patrons. There is a Starbucks. There is a Von’s grocery store. We stayed at the Westin Hotel in The Village, a small, central collection of hotels and shops that serves as a hub of activity near hiking trails and the entrance to Devil’s Postpile National Monument, which was to be the location of our first hike the following day.

After an excellent meal at Gomez’s, where my wife had fajitas and I had a really good fish dish called “Wahoo Mexicana” (which, incidentally was so good that I had it again the night before our departure), we walked around town a bit, only to discover that the 8,000 foot altitude was robbing us of oxygen. Yes, this is the high country, and you need to acclimate. Both my wife and I were huffing and puffing as we climbed the high flight of stairs to the hotel, and the next morning when I went for a swim in the hotel pool, my heart was pounding in my chest like pneumatic hammer.

On day two in Mammoth, we caught a bus from The Village to the Adventure Center, where we then boarded a park bus to go into Devil’s Postpile. Tourist information suggests that you take public transportation to the entrance of the national monument, but what they don’t tell you is that the town busses stop running at around 5pm, which was after the time that we finally came out of the park. Luckily, the park bus gathered up us few stragglers and gave us a lift back to town at the end of the day. Otherwise, we would have been facing a 5 mile hike back to the hotel.

Unless you have a permit to camp in the park, you are not allowed to bring in your personal vehicle, and so the park busses ferry hundreds of hikers into the valley each day. The ride is a bit unnerving, as the roads are little more than winding, single track fire lanes that are shared by full-sized busses going in opposite directions and piloted by drivers who seem very confident in their abilities to drive fast. Radio communications between busses alert them to oncoming vehicles along the way so that they don’t have unexpected encounters as they barrel up and down the steep and narrow roadways.

PostpileOnce off the bus, the hike out to Devil’s Postpile itself was short and easy. The postpile is a curious array of volcanic columns that, upon cooling, formed into regular, hexagonal basalt posts jutting out of the earth about 60 feet into the sky. They look artificial; as if extruded from the ground by a massive Playdough Fun Factory. Hiking up a trail to the side of the feature allows you to view the posts from the top. From this perspective they form a surface that looks like a tiled floor stretching to a cliff and sudden drop off. Though Top of Postpilenot on the spectacular scale of Yosemite’s natural wonders – like Half-Dome or El Capitan – Devil’s Postpile is amazing in its own way. Here you feel like you are peeking at a mere portion of the Earth’s inner power, frozen as it bursts through the crust. Standing at its base, I imagined traveling downwards, along the path of one of these posts, finally diving into a sea of molten rock at the center of the planet. Paff!

Rainbow FallsFrom the postpile, it is about a 2 mile hike out to Rainbow Falls, an almost perfect, 100 foot high waterfall that cuts through a river canyon. The trail to the falls leads through a forest, much of which was burned by a massive fire in the 1990s, but which is now in the process of rejuvenation. The vistas are vast and well worth the exertion of the high altitude hike; although here, as in most places that we hiked, there is a veritable traffic jam of people on the trails.

Warning SignIn order to avoid the rude surprise of a missed bus, on our second full day in Mammoth we took the motorcycle up Lake Mary Road in order to hike around Horseshoe Lake and then up to McLeod Lake. This region is studded with a variety of small lakes and sits at an altitude that allows for some wonderful views. One of the first surprises that greeted us were signs warning against swimming in the water or even sitting on the beaches. Apparently, during recent earthquakes, poisonous gasses were released from the ground, and they now seep up and collect in low lying areas, potentially causing anything from headaches to death! As testament to this hazard, there are swathes of dead trees near Horseshoe Lake that have been killed by exposure to the natural toxins. Despite all of this, the lake was filled with swimmers and kayakers, and the beaches were well populated with sunbathers and picnickers. I didn’t see any dead bodies, so either these people were lucky or the signs are a hoax.

McLeod LakeThe highlight of the day was the hike out to McLeod Lake. Up a steep, forested rise, it sits less than a mile from Horseshoe Lake. Nestled among the trees, this small alpine lake was uncrowded and the waters were warm enough to dangle your feet in. Surrounded by mountains and silence as we sat on its shores, I could imagine that we were far away from civilization. This was perhaps the most relaxing part of our visit.

Half DomeAfter a good meal and a good night’s sleep, we mounted the FZ1 and headed back through Yosemite on our return trip to the Bay Area. Along with perhaps a thousand tourists, we took a quick detour down into Yosemite Valley in order to view some sights that we had not seen for many years: El Capitan, Half DomeYosemite Falls. The scene from this lower, valley level perspective really put me into a state of awe. Standing there, staring upwards, I felt very tiny. It was not just the fact that my body was so small in comparison to the rock formations towering above, but also my conception of the time frame over which these features had been formed. My own life, in comparison, is nothing but a blip on history’s radar screen. The granite that makes up El Capitan, on the other hand, is over 100 million years old. During the hundreds of years that people have been visiting this place, I’m just one of billions of human ants that have appeared and then disappeared, briefly standing in the shadows of this peak.

“Thou before which all words recoil.”


A Nihilist’s Impressions of Spain

The very first thing I noticed upon leaving the airport in Madrid was how much graffiti there is in Spain. It is everywhere. It is on walls, windows and cars. It is in bad neighborhoods as well as in good neighborhoods. It is on government buildings, businesses and personal residences. It is in the cities and in the country. It is ubiquitous. Our friend Anselmo told me the reason why there is so much graffiti here is because the Spanish people are not afraid to express themselves. “In America,” he said, “I have seen students led out of high school classrooms in handcuffs for no good reason. This would never happen in Spain. We are not afraid of the police. We say and do what we feel.”

The idea that the Spanish people are unafraid to express themselves helps me tie together my experiences of this country during a 3 week visit this summer. This was my first time traveling to Spain, and during our vacation my wife and I stayed in Madrid, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona, so we had a chance to briefly sample a few differing regions of the country.  The impression I came away with in general is of a culture exceedingly enthusiastic about forms of expression that are bodily, kinetic and bordering on primal. Though the cities and towns we visited are all very old, the place feels like it is pulsating with youth, activity, vitality and movement.  Graffiti is one especially permanent and visible manifestation of this ethos, however it does not end there.

My wife had visited Spain about 8 years previous, and one of the things that she found shocking was that hardcore pornography appears on regular television. When we stayed at a hotel in Valencia, I saw this with my own eyes while flipping through the channels in our room. I came across a number of stations broadcasting not only male and female nudity, but close up images of sexual penetration. One program I stumbled across focused only on the torsos of a man and a woman. There were no faces; only bodies grinding away in embarrassing (and quite frankly hilarious) detail. Keep in mind that this was not cable, but regular broadcast TV. It was one click away from another channel airing children’s cartoons.

Nudity is also at home on Spanish beaches. I must have a bit of a prudish streak, since I found it unnerving to see so many women, both young and old, going topless while at the seashore and at public swimming pools. Young female flesh appears side by side with old female flesh without any indication of self-consciousness or concern,  just as male flesh, both old and young, does the same. The rational part of me affirms this sort of display as an indication of a healthy and natural comfort with the body and with aging. My discomfort with this behavior is, I recognize, just an irrational expression of my own cultural upbringing. After all, everyone is born naked.

Bullfighting is as traditionally Spanish as baseball is American, and yet it appears that this is one form of cultural expression now quite controversial in Spain. Emotions run high about this activity among Spaniards, with some defending bullfighting as an art while others condemn it as animal cruelty. Apparently, the city of Barcelona has made the practice illegal, while in most other cities bullfights take place as part of local festivals. We were unable to make it to a bullfight during our visit, but I really was interested in seeing one. The idea of a person doing ritualized battle with a bull in an arena while being cheered on by crowds is as strange and foreign to me as porn on broadcast TV or public nudity. It is something with which I am not comfortable, but which also has an exotic feel that exudes the Spanish preoccupation with corporeality, movement and bodily expression. Human beings and bulls are placed in a ring, paired together as beasts who exercise the brute force of their bodies for the entertainment of the audience. It is almost as if this highly ritualized performance is an attempt to, ironically, strip away all civilization and return participants to a primal state of animality.

Now, if free expression in Spain consisted only of graffiti, pornography, public nudity and killing bulls in a ring you might question the worthiness of Spanish culture. However, food, art, religion, dance and music are also forms of expression that Spanish people are extremely passionate about, and which are accompanied by a pronounced emphasis on bodily engagement.

While in Spain, I ate more squid, “pulpo” (octopus) and other forms of seafood than I have ever previously consumed in my life. I ate seafood paella, pulpo on potatoes, and calamari both in sandwiches and on its own. The flavor, the texture and the odor of spanish food are among the most wonderfully appealing of Spain’s offerings.I did not care to sample the roasted suckling pig that the city of Segovia is famous for, however, nor did I eat much of the ham that, like graffiti, is to be found everywhere in Spain. Tying in with the bodily, primal nature of Spanish culture, it was interesting to observe that in supermarkets, ham is carved directly off of the intact legs of pigs, which are prominently displayed with their hoofs still attached. Like public nudity, I found this to be unnerving, but perhaps also a healthy sign that the Spanish people are comfortable with, and aware of, where their meat products come from. There is no denying that the tasty “jamon” you are eating is made possible by the death of an animal when you see its fur and hoofs hanging there right in front of you.

The art galleries and cathedrals of Spain are filled with paintings that give creative expression to the bodily and fleshy nature of the Spanish view of life. I found that the more churches and art galleries we visited, the more blurry my memories of particular paintings and pieces of architecture became. There is just so much extraordinary, awe-inspiring art and architecture here that my feeble mind became overwhelmed. What I was left with, however, was a sense of the fragility of the human body, a feeling for its passions, its sufferings and its finitude. Paintings by Goya, such as Saturn Devouring His Son, are vivid in my memory, as well as the creepy, fleshy and hellish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, such as The Garden of Earthly Delights, which we saw hanging in the Prado. We viewed countless paintings of Christ on the Cross as well as countless tombs of artists, political figures and religious luminaries. We saw paintings by Velazquez, El Greco, Picasso, Dali, among many, many others. Death, bodily suffering, tragedy and the absurdity of life were constant themes in the artwork that we viewed at various places throughout our visit.

Tragic themes and bodily engagement were also key to the flamenco performance that we attended at a place in Madrid called Casa Patas. I was not all that enthusiastic about going to see a dancing show, but my wife was insistent that this would be a memorable and moving event. She was right. As the show progressed, I felt myself being swept up into the passionate intensity of the performers. A woman and man did the dancing, but just as integral to the show were the musicians: one on percussion, two on guitar and two singing and clapping. All of the performers were attuned to one another, shouting, yelping and encouraging each other as their intensity built to a crescendo. The dancers danced alone, but as they did so they watched the other members of their troop with intense scrutiny. As they stomped out rhythms with their feet, they danced faster and more passionately, sweating and contorting their faces into expressions that became looks of ecstasy as the show came to its culmination. The musicians as well became progressively more and more ecstatic, seemingly lost in the music, the movements and the overwhelming intensity of the performance. At points I felt like I was watching something that I shouldn’t be seeing. It seemed as if the performers were oblivious to the audience, and that they had been transported into some other intimate, private world. As the show came to an end, I wondered how they could go on for so long in this manner. I myself felt wrung out and exhausted just being an observer!

Bodily expression, movement and an awareness of finitude are the themes that kept coming back to me again and again as we made our way around Spain. This truly felt, to me, like a culture struggling with the “truth” of nihilism. The historical significance of this preoccupation became more clear to me when I told our Spanish friends that I wanted to make a visit to Valle De Los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), otherwise known as the Franco Monument. This, it turns out, is one of the few things that raises the hackles of Spanish people and provokes a reaction of embarrassment and disgust. Commissioned by the dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1936 until his death in 1975, this monument is an awe-inspiring piece of fascist architecture. It is located about 30 miles north of Madrid in the mountains, and serves as a functioning Catholic Basilica and Benedictine Monastery, as well as Franco’s tomb. A stone cross, the tallest in the world, sits on the mountain top. At the base of the mountain, a Roman-style facade acts as an entry way to the interior of the structure, which burrows deep into the mountain, opening into a space that is more vast in square footage than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As you enter, you are greeted by fascist styled statues of the Angel Gabriel wielding his sword, tapestries of the Apocalypse, statues depicting the “allegory of the armed forces,” and murals of military battles. On one side of the church’s altar Francisco Franco is buried and on the other side lies Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish fascist party. Our friend Anselmo tells me that Franco is buried face down so that if it turns out he is not in fact dead, he will start digging his way to the center of the earth!

Franco claimed that this was intended as a monument to peace, but to my eyes it looks more like a glorification of might and warfare. When I told our friends that I wanted to see this monument, they said, “That is like wanting to visit Hitler’s grave!” They did drive us up there, but they themselves refused to go inside. I also noticed that they avoided telling anyone afterwards where we had been. This is a place that opens up some very uncomfortable memories for Spaniards. It is a place that many Spaniards would like to see obliterated and forgotten.

In his book Ghosts of Spain, Giles Tremlett reports on how Valle De Los Caidos still serves as a beacon for fascists from around Europe, and it is just this legacy that explains why progressive, modern, left-leaning Spaniards are incapable of looking at the Franco Monument as fascinating, awe-inspiring or beautiful. It just seems too painful for them to recall that this was a country that until 1975 was fascist. The Franco Monument, with all of its Apollonian structure, control, and ponderous gravity, is a symbol of everything that Spanish culture today seems to be reacting against. As a t-shirt I saw in a Madrid street market suggests, the Spanish people now want to “drink, eat and fuck.” They want to be free of the oppression that came from almost 4 decades of fascist rule. The Dionysian energy that was bottled up for so long now wants to come to the surface and find its expression freely and without hinderance. Of course this energy was never absent, even under Franco. It was always there. It can be detected in the kinetic movements of flamenco and bull fighting. It can be experienced in the paintings of Goya and El Greco. You can taste it in Spanish food. The difference is that now it is also apparent in the liberated nature of everyday life where graffiti, pornography and public nudity are ubiquitous.