— On Assholes

Does surfing suppress the inner asshole?

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 contrary of that ‘fight or flight’ mode of life that we often fall into, and that tends to harden and make assholes of all of us. I don’t know whether Kant himself would have counted ‘making space for occasions of Achtung’ as morally obligatory, but surely he would at least have counted it salutary, in view of its role in rendering us more receptive to the Kantian ‘moral law’ itself. In that sense, I am tempted to say there is something a bit like a Kantian – or at any rate quasi-Kantian – case to be made for surfing itself, or perhaps better put, for surfing and its functional equivalents.”

I do a lot on Kant and the sublime the book (which Bob is now reading), though never quite with Bob’s excellent twist: that we’re obliged to leave space and experience it regularly. That might even be in Kant’s third critique!  Even if it’s a stretch as Kant interpretation (the third critique is tough going), I think Mill had a similar idea, which I explain in the book.  It relates to Kant’s bad criticisms of the Tahitians in the Groundwork, who he’d heard of after James Cook encountered surfing [which, beyond the book, is noted here].

Bob replies, drawing from his own experience, in these wonderful remarks:

“I remember Mill talking in his autobio about his revelation along these lines after his ‘crisis’ in his early 20s. In my own case the pattern is more or less as follows: regularly get caught up in various seemingly urgent (often political) projects; feel my grip on everything growing white-knuckled; drift into ‘fight-or-flight’; feel myself becoming an asshole, at least internally; try to rationalize it as justified in virtue of the putative benevolence of the projects themselves (sort of ‘Marx versus the reactionaries’); then something happens to remind me that there really is no excuse for being an asshole, especially once one recognizes the pattern; thereafter, feel this intense sense of having violated a kind of obligation – as if I had sort of wronged or dissed the universe, or as if I had used a beautifully, conscientiously crafted Ming vase as a spittoon or ashtray. (I think now of that moment in ‘No Country for Old Men,’ in which Anton Chigur tosses a foul wet sock toward the body of a man he’s just killed in the bathroom.) Then I tell myself, ‘never, ever again forget.’ And yet I forget, each such occasion subsequently feeling like a profoundly broken promise. A particularly interesting link to surfing, perhaps: the ocean in particular always reminds me of that ‘promise,’ and of how profoundly indecent it is to break it, lapse back into fight-or-flight, and revert to at least internal assholery. The ocean, that is, reminds me that I am repeatedly a moral failure who allows himself not to be touched by that sense of Achtung. Perhaps were I only to spend more time with it …”

Terrific stuff!  I present the passage from Mill’s autobiography as a surfer answer to Schopenhauer on work.  And though I pick up the asshole in the chapter called “society,” which is mainly about the surfing line up, I never make Bob’s point about fending off one’s own asshole tendencies.

I’d like to do that in a further book about sports, assholes, and the future of capitalism,
which will join asshole and surfer theory in an argument for a less competitive kind of society. We compete in games and sports, with more time for them, and save ourselves from Rousseau’s destructive status contest and the many resulting societal ills. I discuss the problem and solution in the surfing book, but I hope to develop the point  properly with details about further fixes for asshole management (of the sort that Bob and I should collaborate on; he’s a law and finance ace).

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