Robert Morrison And Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche And The Buddha

Two recent books on Nietzsche and Buddhism–Robert Morrison’s Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities, and Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy–do an exemplary job of examining, sympathetically and rigorously, some related questions of enduring philosophical interest: What is the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism? What were Nietzsche’s views on Buddhism? Was he grossly mistaken in his reading–if any–of Buddhist texts?

The answers these two texts provide are roughly similar.

First, Nietzsche had mixed views on Buddhism: he praised it for sounding the same alarm he was to a decadent culture confronting the loss of its most cherished ideals and ‘fictions’; he criticized it for what he saw as its nihilistic, world-denying aspects. This latter viewpoint, as both Morrison and Panaioti are at pains to point out, rests on a systematic misunderstanding of key Buddhist concepts and theories. Nietzsche was handicapped in this regard, ironically for someone who was a philologist, by his lack of fluency in the Indian languages–Sanskrit and Pali–essential for reading original Buddhist texts; he had to rely, perforce, on indirect access to the Buddhist corpus. Some of this indirect access, notably, was provided by Schopenhauer, who extracted from Buddhism a pessimism that Nietzsche ultimately found untenable and defeatist.

Second, Nietzsche and Buddhism share points of resonance or ‘affinities’ at several points: they both are committed to: a no-self theory of the self that denies the substantiality of an enduring self, a theory which they describe as a ‘delusion’ and which serves to underwrite many other species of pernicious theorizing; a metaphysics that eschews ‘substance‘–indeed, the no-self theory of the self serves to underwrite a no-object theory of objects or no-substantiality theory of substance (Buddhism employs the notion of “co-dependent arising” to deny independent, non-contingent existence to any thing or substance); a rigorous practice of self-overcoming or self-mastery, a key component of which is the mastery of perspectives that are free of the various illusions and delusions that contribute to ‘world weariness’ or ‘pointless suffering.’ Moreover, both can be understood in ‘medical’ or ‘therapeutic’ terms; they both aim, through their philosophizing, to ‘cure’ a certain kind of perplexity that has led to intellectual and physical ill-health. And they both do it with an emphasis on practice, on modifying and altering the very ways in which we think and live.

Both Morrison and Panaioti know the relevant literatures exceedingly well; they’ve clearly mastered the Nietzschean corpus, and engaged rigorously with original Buddhist texts. (They both seem to be fluent in Pali and Sanskrit and often contest older translations of technical terms in these languages.) They write clearly and do a wonderful job of making difficult Buddhist material more accessible. Morrison does this to a greater extent as he engages in several attempts to provide new interpretations to Buddhist terms and theses–not all of which will find approval with scholars of Buddhism, but they will applaud the attempted rigor of his interpretations anyway.

Much academic writing these days is sterile and unreadable; these two books provide a much-needed counterpoint to that claim.

A Teachable Moment For The Republican Party

That famous Republican Party discipline (or, ideological commitment), the one that made sure that many of Barack Obama’s legislative priorities were derailed through relentless parliamentary grandstanding, that ensured the federal government’s operations were shut down, producing misery and inconvenience for many, that produced budgetary brinksmanship of the highest order and negatively affected the national debt rating, it also ensured a stinging defeat for the Donald Trump-Paul Ryan effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Freedom Caucus–that benign moniker which identifies a group of apparently sworn nihilists determined to gut government from the inside out–did not find the modified Republican replacement for ‘Obamacare’ sufficiently heartless; it healed too many, served too many; not even the prospect of doing damage to Paul Ryan’s risible and entirely concocted image as a policy wonk was enough to deter them from their opposition to the bill. (The Trump Administration’s attempts to placate this crew led in turn to so-called Republican ‘moderates’ to threaten to abandon ship; causal responsibility rests solely with the Freedom Caucus.)

Captain Trump and the USS Republican Party were headed for the shoals, and that’s where they ended up. Capitol Hill is not a campaign rally venue. There are old lessons here to be learned, apparently.  In writing of the various Athenian power struggles that preceded the Battle of Marathon against Persian forces (The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon, And Its Impact on Western Civilization, Bantam, New York, 2013, p. 80), Jim Lacey makes note of the struggles between the aristocrats Isagoras and Cleisthenes:

With Isagoras deposed, Cleisthenes and his supporters returned. Whatever his own predisposition, he now had to deliver on the promises he had made during his political struggles with Isagoras and the other noble families. He probably was also beginning to understand that it is easier for an adroit politician to manipulate the masses than it is to manage powerful competing factions.

It is small comfort for the American polity to realize that this bill failed because a Republican faction did not find it dastardly enough, because its primary architects were simply too incompetent to shepherd it through the legislative gauntlet. This same factionalization and incompetence could very well help produce a more radical version of another bill, which would gut comfort and safety elsewhere.

But there is another side to this story of Republican failure, which is that Republican representatives and senators chickened out of a ‘No’ vote because their constituents threatened them with electoral reprisals. They did so by calling in, by attending town halls, by sending postcards; in so doing, they proved, yet again, that old-fashioned citizen pressure on elected representatives works. Give the bastards hell, indeed. Elected Republicans are finding out–the hard way–that the President’s unpopularity is both deep and wide; it brings all the formerly somnolent members of the electorate to the yard; that loud presence has made the threat of disaster in 2018 more likely; and if there is anything that will help induce flight from His Orangeness’ apparently contagious success, it is the fear of contracting a fatal electoral disease.

Much damage could still be done to the Republic and its denizens; there are more bullets to be dodged; but also some lessons to be learned by those infected with hubris.

Larry Gopnik: A Serious Man Dealt a Bad Hand

Ethan and Joel Cohen‘s A Serious Man is a very funny, very bleak movie. It is very funny because it points out that life is really quite ludicrous, a gigantic joke at our expense; it is very bleak because it points out that life is really quite ludicrous, a gigantic joke…you see where I’m going with this. Life isn’t just one damn thing after another; very often, it’s just one damn painful, miserable, mystifying thing after another. Its terminus–death–doesn’t promise much more than a continuation of the same mysteries that plagued us during our conscious, waking lives.

Larry Gopnik is a physics professor–seeking tenure–who is used to abstruse mathematics making clear the perplexing details of the reality it purports to model; he can master its seemingly inexplicable formalisms better than he can the incomprehensible actions of the humans around him. His wife wants to leave him for another man, one who imagines himself a rabbi in disguise; his students don’t like the grades he gives them; his kids are proving, yet again, that you have no idea who your kids really are. And his rabbis and his faith can offer little consolation, except to descend into the kinds of homilies and bromides that can only comfort those who utter them. Life seems cruel, relentlessly, puzzlingly so.

Tales of middle-aged men encountering crisis and dysfunction at the workplace and at home are familiar to us (consider American Beauty for instance). Our protagonists sometimes transcend these cosmic misfortunes; perhaps they find new talents in themselves, or in those that surround them; perhaps they indulge in dramatic acts that are supposed to jolt them out of their grooves–they engage in various versions of getting tattoos, buying sports cars, or finding lovers half their age.  Larry Gopnik does none of these; rather, bemused and befuddled by the endless series of insult and injury sent his way, he seeks help again and again, hoping desperately that he will find answers and solace. (His encounters with his sexy, sunbathing-in-the-nude neighbor, despite involving the lighting up of marijuana joints, do not lead to therapeutic sexual consummation.) None, of course, is forthcoming.

A classic, well-worn trope in cinema that provides agonizing tension is the depiction of fragile hope: a condemned prisoner is promised deliverance, sees it on the horizon, and then has it snatched away. The narrative arc of A Serious Man is similar: we fear for Larry’s fate, we dare to hope as his star rises, and then, in the movie’s brutal, unrelieved ending, as storm clouds gather (literally), we learn that that hope was illusory. Life might not just be indifferent to us; it might actually be against us.

This last possibility is the most unnerving of all; it is hinted at by the movie’s epilogue, in which the Coen Brothers present us with a Jewish folktale, about a family who  might have brought a curse down on their heads by inviting a dybbuk across their threshold. Gopnik might be their descendant; perhaps he is merely paying for the sins of his ancestors. But the tale itself leaves it unclear which sin could have provoked the cosmos’ curse–bringing a dybbuk home or assaulting a harmless old man.

In the end, none of it matters. We will all die; we will often be miserable and unhappy; we will receive no satisfactory answers to our most anguished and persistent queries. This is an absurd state of affairs. No wonder we are a species whose laughter turns to tears, which often finds humor in the misfortune of others. We are a joke, and in our clearest moments, we know it.

Rust Cohle and Naked’s Johnny

As I watched Rust Cohle in True Detective, it occurred to me he reminded me–in some ways–of another character I had found memorable; Johnny in Mike Leigh‘s Naked, . Johnny doesn’t seem to have a quite as philosophically inflected take on life as Cohle, but his dialogue delivery makes his lines epics of rage and dry cynicism.

As Roger Ebert described him:

From the way he talks and certain things he refers to, we gradually conclude that he has had an education – is an “intellectual,” in that his opinions are mostly formed from words, not feelings….It’s not that we like him or approve of him, but that we must admire the dogged way he sticks to his guns and forges ahead through misery, anger and despair.

The Wikipedia entry for Naked notes:

Intelligent, educated and eloquent, Johnny is also deeply embittered and egotistical: he will fight and provoke anyone he meets to prove his superiority. His tactics of choice in verbal interaction are based on a particular form of intellectual bullying, uniformly directed at people less cultured than himself, and summed up in domineering, scholastic barrages drawn from eclectic sources. His overall behaviour is reckless, self-destructive and at times borderline sadistic, and shows a penchant for aggressive sexual domination at least twice throughout the film. He seduces Louise’s flatmate, Sophie, simply because he can, but soon gets tired of her and embarks on an extended latter-day odyssey among the destitute and despairing of the United Kingdom’s capital city.

During his encounters in London’s seedy underbelly, Johnny expounds his world-view (which in different instances seems to be fatalistnihilist or transhumanist) at long and lyrical length to anyone who will listen, whether Archie, a Scottish boy yelling “Maggie!” at the top of his voice he comes across in Brewer Street, or Brian, a security guard of acres of empty space, ‘a post-Modernist gas chamber’, whom Johnny marks down as having, ‘the most tedious job in England’.

Johnny’s condition[edit]

It is subtly hinted throughout the movie that Johnny’s unusual personality and behaviour could be the result of a variety of (presumably undiagnosed and untreated) medical conditions, including manic depression and whatever it is that causes him to experience episodic, severe headaches. In the scene in the top room of the flat, where an obviously concussed Johnny mistakes the landlord for someone else, Johnny seems to portray a young boy fearful of physical and maybe even sexual abuse from an adult, hinting also at a probable very early cause for his outlook and behaviour. These conditions are certainly affecting him physically, so much so that one of the characters he meets thinks he is about 40 years old, when he is only 27.

 Here are some of his epic rants.

Exhibit #1:

Louise: How did you get here?

Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.

Exhibit #2:

Louise: So what happened, were you bored in Manchester?

Johnny: Was I bored? No, I wasn’t fuckin’ bored. I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.

Exhibit #3:

Johnny: Has nobody not told you, Brian, that you’ve got this kind of gleeful preoccupation with the future? I wouldn’t even mind, but you don’t even have a fuckin’ future, I don’t have a future. Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up. Are you not familiar with the book of Revelations of St. John, the final book of the Bible prophesying the apocalypse?… He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead so that no one shall be able to buy or sell unless he has the mark, which is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, and the number of the beast is 6-6-6… What can such a specific prophecy mean? What is the mark? Well the mark, Brian, is the barcode, the ubiquitous barcode that you’ll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie, and every fuckin’ barcode is divided into two parts by three markers, and those three markers are always represented by the number 6. 6-6-6! Now what does it say? No one shall be able to buy or sell without that mark. And now what they’re planning to do in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society, what they’re planning to do, what they’ve already tested on the American troops, they’re going to subcutaneously laser tattoo that mark onto your right hand, or onto your forehead. They’re going to replace plastic with flesh. Fact! In the same book of Revelations when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?… Chernobyl! Fact. On August the 18th, 1999, the planets of our solar system are gonna line up into the shape of a cross… They’re gonna line up in the signs of Aquarius, Leo, Taurus, and Scorpio, which just happen to correspond to the four beasts of the apocalypse, as mentioned in the book of Daniel, another fuckin’ fact! Do you want me to go on? The end of the world is nigh, Brian, the game is up!

Brian: I don’t believe that. Life can’t just come to a stop.

Johnny: All right, I’m not saying that life will end or the world will end, or the universe will cease to exist. But man will cease to exist! Just like the dinosaurs passed into extinction, the same thing will happen to us! We’re not fuckin’ important! We’re just a crap idea!

Psychologizing, Immortalizing, and Unamuno Contra Nietzsche

As promised yesterday, here is Miguel de Unamuno on Nietzsche. In my first post on Unamuno, I had written that ‘there are streaks of ‘conventional’ conservatism visible in his fulminations against Nietzsche.’ The following is one such outburst. It occurs in the chapter that sets up Unamuno’s central thesis in The Tragic Sense of Life: ‘The Hunger of Immortality’:

There you have that ‘thief of energies’ as he so obtusely called Christ who sought to wed nihilism with the struggle for existence, and he talks to you about courage. His heart craved the eternal All while his head convinced him of nothingness, and, desperate and mad to defend himself from himself, he cursed that which he most loved. Because he could not be Christ, he blasphemed against Christ. Bursting with his own self, he wished himself unending and dreamed his theory of eternal recurrence, a sorry counterfeit of immortality, and, full of pity for himself, he abominated all pity. And there are some who say that his is the philosophy of strong men! No, it is not. My health and my strength urge me to perpetuate myself. His is the doctrine of weaklings who aspire to be strong, but not of the strong who are strong. Only the feeble resign themselves to final death and substitute some other desire for the longing for personal immortality. In the strong the zeal for perpetuity overrides the doubt of realizing it, and their superabundance of life overflows upon the other side of death. [Nietzsche is not named directly here but, instead, is footnoted via the ‘he’ in the first sentence above.]

Sympathetic readers of Nietzsche will find plenty to disagree here: the accusations of nihilism and self-pity, the claim that ‘his is the doctrine of weaklings’, the resignation of Nietzsche to ‘final death’ (this is especially an oddity as it occurs a few sentences after noting Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence).  But these criticisms of Nietzsche are not novel, of course; most arch-critics of Nietzsche have made them too. The irony implicit in a man perpetually racked by illness writing so eloquently on ‘health and strength’ has not gone unnoticed, for instance, and neither has Nietzsche’s religious upbringing, nor his anxiety over romantic failure (with Lou Salome) and publication and recognition. There is plenty in Nietzsche’s life to prompt such readings then. And because Nietzsche dished out so many dressings-down in his writings and suggested much philosophical theorizing amounted to involuntary autobiographies of its authors, he himself invites such polemical counterblasts built on relentless psychologizing.

It is not something that he would have minded, I suspect. The vigor of his polemics have clearly provoked Unamuno and shoved the proverbial burr under the saddle. Unamuno has been forced to admit he has read Nietzsche and found him a threat to the doctrines he aims to expound and defend in his book; he knows that unless Nietzsche is defused and defanged, his writing will continue to mock them.

For a man who feared lack of attention the most, this is not such a bad outcome. For the final irony is that Unamuno himself immortalizes Nietzsche by this attack.