Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Reviews Of Books I've Never Read

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre battling one of the Spiders of Nothingness after being subjected to Albert Camus' Existential Shrinking Ray.
Right off the bat, can you think of a better title for a philosophical treatise? Although if had been me, I would have called it, Being and Nothingness And If Those Are The Only Two Choices Should You Even Bother To Hem Your Pants? Sartre really missed the boat on this one regarding the title but luckily he wasn't a one-trick pony as many other existentialists can be with their constant moping and moaning and pipe smoking, complaining about the temperature of their coffee and just generally being a real pain in the ass of non-being. I have had the advantage of living well into the modern age and thus able to ascertain solutions to philosophical problems that in Sartre's day could cause a man to chain smoke, become myopic and sleep with women who looked good in men's cardigans and were equally adept at both Ping Pong and writing les belles lettres to international despots.
A budding, young existentialist, already suffering from the onset of existential myopia, trying to glean the facts about the relations between Marxism, essence and being and how these affect the growing of root vegetables in the French countryside.
Now, to really understand the philosophy, we must look at the root of the word, existentialism. Exit, from the English, meaning a doorway or some other such opening through which one might pass to gain access to the outside world; stench, from the Gaelic, meaning to stink up a room, thus causing you to look for the exit to acquire fresh air and alism from the Latin meaning Al Lism, for all your home, business or car insurance needs. With the origins of the word broken down into their most integral forms, we can attain a deeper understanding of the existential milieu that includes not just complex thoughts and the connections between existing and slowly burgeoning ideologies, but also the proper length for a smoker's pipe stem, can mustache wax be used on shoes and the proper restaurant etiquette when confronted with a runny omelet served by an idealist with a badly-fitted toupee.
An existentialist toupee chart from the 50's, which helped identify philosophical opponents so that they might be overly stimulated with caffeinated drinks until they would begin to quiver and shake, making it easier to take advantage of the situation and punch them in the stomach or hit them with a copy of Kierkegaard's Fear And Trembling across the back of the head, rendering them unconscious and ready for an existential indoctrination. 
Here, a dapper Al Lism, of Al Lism Home, Business and Car Insurance, shows off his new properly-fitted toupee, that helped him kick-start existentialism and kept his head from resembling a runny egg.
 What few people realize is that existentialism has been around since the caveman times. Before God, there was only mammoths, many of them woolly although that had no bearing on the caveman's dialectic reasoning when confronted by those beasts of yore, but the actual physicality of the creature left an indelible imprint on the prehistoric person's brain, which was then translated into images etched into the walls of the cave, itself a Freudian symbol of the womb but as Marx would say, it was just a temporary transference of the libido into materialistic culture. And we're just talking loincloths and stone axes so you can imagine how out of hand this stuff has become in our modern world. Truth is, if cave people had access to bath bombs and Mmmm-Muffin-licious kiosks back in their day, the whole course of human evolution and civilization might have been changed. And then, where would that leave existentialism? Begging for spare change in the trough of history, that's where it would be. 
An accurate depiction of early man facing an existential crisis before the mighty tusks of a woolly mammoth. Notice how the neanderthal hunter's feet are bound by a solidified plastic base symbolizing the battle between religious doctrine and the onset of the new sciences. The woolly mammoth of course senses this, which only increases his appetite.
That being said, existentialism has come a long way, including better clothing, Brylcreem and the ability to talk other people into deboning your meat, fish and poultry. Which is where Sartre comes in, along with his old friend-turned-nemesis, Albert Camus. And it is the foundations of this love-hate relationship that houses much of the impetuous force of the book, although Sartre would beg to differ, but he's dead so his opinion is meaningless. So is Camus for that matter so whatever I say now, you'll have to take my word for it. Anyway, Sartre was also a big fan of Marxism and tried to bring the two isms together to make a prism through which the light of optimism would pass and be broken down into a rainbow of depressing shades and hues. Camus, too, liked Marxism, but only for the uniforms, not for its socio-political view. Witness the picture below. Don't be fooled. It's really Camus dressed as Stalin and one of the earliest pieces of evidence documenting the split between Camus and Sartre, as Sartre felt he made a better Stalin at kids' birthday parties and could deliver the existential message in one fell swoop with plenty of time left for cake and ice cream. Camus, meanwhile, didn't really go for the whole Marxist thing and felt it negatively affected his Ping Pong game.
In fact, the whole middle section of Being and Nothingness focuses on Ping Pong and the existential dilemma posed by the rhythmical and ultimately tedious bouncing of the ball back and forth endlessly between two opposing forces, creating a kind of philosophical black hole in the "space of being" until the ping and ponging cancel each other out, matter disappearing into anti-matter and thus nothingness is born out of something-ness and the players exist in the purest existential state, a phenomenon Kierkegaard dubbed the "bratwurst of non-being," because of its sausage-like casing. Not to be outdone, Heidegger took it one step further and built the Bratwurst Of Non-Being Cart, that he personally manned, dispensing wieners and philosophy simultaneously. 
A very rare photo of Heidegger behind the counter of his Bratwurst Of Non-Being cart in Munchstein, Germany. Although grainy, one can just make out Heidegger preparing his condiment trays in accordance with the dialectical dictates of the Frankfurt School of Frankfurters.
Camus though, used the Myth of Sisyphus as his example of hopeless and absurd endeavor in the face of existence, while Sartre was a Ping Pong guy all the way. As Sartre relates in the book, "Hey, any jackass can roll a rock up and down a mountainside forever but it takes a certain kind of person to return a volley from Chin Li Bao Ming, The Ping Pong Demon of Beijing, and not wet your pants in the process.
Sartre demonstrating his famous technique with his lover and Ping Pong partner Simone de Beauvoir. Camus, with his girlfriend, Camilla Forceps de Bruntmire, looks on with glee but the subtext of the photo illustrates women's oppression at the hands of the Ping Pong paddle, itself a symbolic representation of male-dominated society.
But this fear and trembling was about to take on new heights as Camus perfected his Existentialist Shrinking Ray and later Death Ray, which he turned on Sartre one day in a fit of rage after a heated debate over the perfect size for suit lapels. The existentialists back in the day were notorious dandies and a similar argument had already occurred days earlier over pants pleats, serving as the catalyst for Camus' simmering anger. It is exactly these biographical touches that Sartre includes in his book, which lend a kind of humanism and personality to material that would otherwise be as dry as Nietzche's mustache hair, especially after the flanken soup he loved so much had dried in the bristles.
Camus testing his combination Existentialist Shrinking and Death Ray on gophers during one of his annual vacations to Saskatchewan. There's a Albert Camus statue in Regina in thanks for all the shrinking of groundhogs he did at no expense to the good people of the prairies.
The last chapters of Being and Nothingness deal with Sartre's adventures after being shrunk and his especially harrowing battle with the Spiders of Nothingness. These horrendous arachnids lived in his attic and once he was reduced to an edible size, they wasted no time in attacking the famed existentialist. Sartre describes their mandibles as "gleaming with the sheer hopelessness of human endeavor and dripping with a foul-smelling secretion worse than bleu cheese wrapped in old, stiff sweat socks that had been used as ejaculatory receptacles by Benedictine monks during summer vacation in the French Alps." Luckily, as Sartre recounts, his Ping Pong training paid off as his fast reflexes and formidable backhand sent the spiders running for the hills (or attic in this case), except for the ones he killed and drank of their blood in a sudden lust for life that no existentialist had the right to enjoy.   
Eventually Simone de Beauvoir talked Camus into returning Sartre back to his normal size (after promising him that he could spank her with a Ping Pong paddle too), but the scars ran deep and the two men would never speak again, except about nothing and only when the other had left the room. Thus, being and nothingness, played out in a drama between two great philosophical minds, much like the above image illustrates, wherein the moose and the mammoth meet in a state of being spanning the very dictums of time itself but with nothing to say because, well, the moose speaks moose and the mammoth speaks mammoth and never the twain shall meet. Isn't this really what the existential crisis is all about, Sartre would ask if he'd lived long enough to see these two magnificent creatures meet and I'd agree or maybe it was me asking and he'd agree, I'm not sure anymore, I'm a little mixed up so obviously I've achieved my existential destiny. Thank you Jean-Paul Sartre, thank you and thank you to the moose and the mammoth too, for never have I felt so much about nothing and much ado about something and a new respect for flanken soup although I'd take a bratwurst, even a non-existent one, over the soup any day. I also realize I have been amiss since I have gone a whole review without talking about silverfish and the killing abilities of Sartre's work. It's not a hefty work, this Being and Nothingness book but let's explain it this way, which I think you'll find most satisfactory. Silverfish equals being. Then, smack with the book. Presto, nothingness where once there was a silverfish. How's that for existentialism you stinking little vermin.

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