— On Assholes

This smart review in the New York Times Book Review suggests that my use of Sartre’s play No Exit in the Chapter called “Society” isn’t entirely convincing.  That may have been just the obligatory criticism, but, looking back, I think the point could have used more fanfare.

As important as mutual recognition is to us, Sartre thinks we never really achieve it.  Surfers certainly understand the problem.  In the line up for waves, surfers often find themselves in a struggle to be seen.  The fraught arguments about right of way, about who burned or snaked whom, and who is going to get their ass kicked, are really about exacting respect, about being recognized as an equal.  Surfers even have a name for what Sartre called The Look: “stink eye,” so to register a complaint, and maybe invite an argument.   For surfers, “hell is other people” rings true, even in the most beautiful of surroundings.

But then maybe the waves start pumping after a tide change.  And that thing we fought about before, whatever it was, now doesn’t matter so much.  It’s all good, when

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After I wrote that Kant probably isn’t the surfer’s philosopher in this excerpt, Bob Hocket (law prof. at Cornell), who catches on fast, thought that might be too quick.  Our exchange on Facebook nicely explains how the experience of the sublime might help one manage one’s own asshole feelings (at least if you’re not a proper asshole already).

Bob writes:

“A quick thought on Kant here, which might be a bit of a stretch but what the hell: One thing I’ve always found moving – or perhaps recognized as compelling – in Kant was the sense of awe, or ‘Achtung,’ as he put it, which he said both the ‘starry heavens’ and the ‘moral law’ tended to induce in him. It’s always seemed to me that we are all under something a lot like an *obligation* to allow *space* in our lives to *experience* that ‘Achtung,’ and to experience it with regularity. For this experience seems the very

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A new book by yours truly (from Doubleday, here at Penguin/Random House).


An excerpt from the Introduction is at lithub, here.

Or try this excerpt, at Outerknown, on the sublime, the gnarly, and the beautiful.

Or this bit, at UCI, on the seven EZ steps to surfer success.


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This review at NPR, here, nicely notes the ebb side of flow:

“The concept of flow factors heavily into the equation. But James takes that obvious corollary and dives deep, tying the way the tides behave to the ebb and flow of ego in the creative process.”

Persisting through the ebbs, accepting them appreciatively, in good faith, is as important as the moments of peak attunement in transcending the self.  That’s a key point  in Ch. 4 of Surfing with Sartre (called “Flow), as a corrective to psychology’s focus on “optimal experience” and the self-help imperative to chase it.  In surfing and creative pursuits, you often just patiently wait.

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Think of the minutes in the approach to climax and compare them to the minutes after the orgasm. What a difference a few minutes makes — definitely less focused, suddenly more prone to reflection. The transformation is so sudden, one might ask what explains it? Here it’s hard not to psychologize or neuro-psychologize: those must be some powerful chemicals juicing through the brain, which then just turn off, damming the floods of engrossing pleasure.

Surfing, by comparison, is wonderful not because of a brain-juiced adrenaline rush (though there’s that), but because of what all of the enjoyment is about, beyond one’s mere state of inner experience. It’s about the the way one is harmoniously related to what lies beyond — to the wave, to its next moment, and to the ocean that’s serving it up.


My full post at Powells.com is here.

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My beef with Sartre (in the book) in cartoons!


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In a review for the Sierra Club Jonathan Hahn nicely brings out the theme of disconnection:

“There is an entrenched and dangerous malady of disconnection that defines our contemporary moment, James wants to contest. Disconnection—or to put it more precisely, lack of attunement—defines modern life, whether it is a disconnect between work life and leisure life, between industrial societies and the environment those societies are exploiting, between computer screens and the world those screens are supposedly making more accessible. We are out of tune with nature, with leisure, with each other. Climate change ends up being as much a symptom of the 40-hour workweek as the blind greed of ecological exploitation. “The old-style capitalism put us out of attunement with the world’s available resources,” he writes.

Enter: surfer-being.

A theory of attunement is exactly what James—an avid surfer—is after here, and the surfer serves as a heroic foil against which all that is wrong with our beleaguered modern moment can be compared.”

Read the full review of _Surfing with Sartre_ here.

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It really is one of those things one should try before one’s death, like dragging paint across a large canvass. In surfing a wave, you’re carried along by a wave’s natural momentum, but not passively. You’re actively sensing the wave’s coming moment, skillfully adapting your body and weight as appropriate from one moment to the next. When you adapt attunedly, you find yourself sliding along the wave face as it curls and breaks, with speed, flowing lines, and stylish efficacy.

Why surf? For the fun of it, of course. But mainly for the reasons why it is joyful – because it’s a sublime and beautiful thing to do in one’s limited time in life.

It was in Tahiti around 1770 that Captain James Cook first laid eyes upon surfing…. Continue reading here.



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A brief excerpt at Outerknown, here, which begins as follows:

“The gnarly, in surfer speak, is one form of the sublime. When a wave, or wave moment, is dangerous, terrifying, or just really heavy, it is not necessarily said to be beautiful as well. That much squares with Edmund Burke’s preoccupation with the sublimely gnarly in his 1757 treatise on the subject …”

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