Surfing With Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning

I found Surfing With Sartre during a bookstore meander back in the spring. When it was still there in October, I took it as a sign from the book gods and took it home with me. Oh, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned bookstore browse! Which is probably why Amazon is opening up brick-and-mortar stores.

Surfing With Sartre, Aaron James
Image courtesy Anchor Books

Author: Aaron James

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.55 stars

Language scaling: B2 (except the occasional quotes from other, older, deader philosophers or surfing terminology)

Summary: Surfing as a framework for philosophy: how does the physical act of surfing embody philosophical concepts? Do surfers have a paradigm with sound philosophical grounding?

Recommended audience: Surfers, philosophers, socialists

In-depth thoughts: There’s been a tradition of _____________ and Philosophy books: The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Beatles and Philosophy, etc. etc. and frankly I’ve found them dubious, with the philosophical connections to mindless pop culture tenuous at best. But Aaron James is more thoughtful than that, and even though he could have called the book Surfing and Philosophy and thrown it on the pile, this is a much more thorough examination, and with much better grounding.

Sartre was apparently into water skiing. Who knew? (Now you do!)

James has a knack for simple, elegant explanations of knotty philosophical concepts. His writing is conversational but steers clear of condescension. My own quibbles are of the Not For Me variety: leaning more on the surfing framework more than I was expecting (so much surfing terminology throughout that is defined much less clearly than the philosophical terminology) and a needless aversion to singular “they” (“he or she” is so damn clunky!). I’m mostly on board with James’s philosophy, so I don’t have any arguments against his thesis, though I did note the occasional “I’m a white guy doing OK for myself” blind spot and what I would consider contradictions. For example, it’s a bit odd for someone who’s genuinely concerned about climate change and the state of the planet to be so glib about the many long-haul flights they take just for the sake of a hobby, and even to encourage others to do the same. There’s a tension here that I don’t think James really resolves.

That unresolved tension, and the fact that reading the book was essentially preaching to the converted, is why I didn’t rate the book higher. James is an agreeable and lucid writer, so I can imagine in the hands of another person, this might lead to a major paradigm shift. No regrets, though: the book is en route (hopefully now in the hands of?) one of my philosophy nerd friends, so I’m glad I coughed up the money for it.

Asymptote Fall 2018

Image courtesy Asymptote Journal

I usually like to take my time and savor each and every piece in Asymptote before I link to my favorites here, but between NaNoWriMo and work that is simply not going to happen. I made time for cursory reading, at least, and my work did not go unrewarded!

I love Antoinette Fawcett’s essay on Translating Bird Cottage. I don’t have the luxury of spending days, weeks, months to find the right word, to research women’s undergarments in the early 20th century, to do field studies—but I understand the drive to do so. There is always the attendant obsession with finding just the right word, but there is also (if you are translating a piece you love, for the sheer love of it and in the hope that you can bring a thing you love to people who wouldn’t experience it otherwise) the desire to connect with the writer, to walk in their footsteps, to live in the story, to be their companion (or maybe be them). It’s the same reason I had to visit Walden Pond last year, and the reason I carried America Day by Day with me while I was in New York in 2016.

Ana Amaral’s “The Odyssey” (translated from Portuguese by Margaret Costa) is sweet and charming, and a welcome respite from our trash fire world.

Abdelleh Taïa’s reflections on language and multilingualism as an escape (translated by Hodna Nuernberg) are brief but compelling, or they at least touch on things I’ve been thinking about recently.

For Swedish speakers interested in English, or English speakers interested in Swedish, you can listen to Ann Jäderlund read some of her poetry in Swedish while you read Joel Duncan’s translations.

Friday 5: Over Under Sideways Down

A portion of Gyeongbukgung palace reflected in the water on a sunny autumn day.

What are you so over?

Our collective disdain for things we (rightly or wrongly) associate with young women: selfies, pumpkin spice, duck face, vocal fry…

 

What’s something you’ve got under wraps?

If I told you, it wouldn’t be under wraps any more!

 

What does it take to get you sideways, and what’s your preferred method?

There’s a Dave Barry joke about how it’s a universal truth that everyone, regardless of race, religion, sex, or age, believes that they’re an above-average driver. I’d suggest that it’s the same with alcohol tolerance. That said, my experience seems to indicate I’m more or less justified in said belief about myself. So if I’m going to get sauced (which doesn’t happen too often now that I’m a professional adult and such), I head straight for the Long Island iced teas.

 

What’s coming down the pike?

Work, mostly. New-job work and some potential favors-for-friends work.

 

What’s the last thing you read directions for?

I went to Oriental Supermarket with my sambo the other week to pick up yujacha in advance of winter. No yujacha to be found, but I found some “make at home” ddeokbokki sauce and the appropriate ddeok and followed the cooking instructions to the T.

Worth it.

Friday 5: “Nine times?” “Nine times!”

If you were to play hooky on your next regular work day with no negative consequences, and if you could only spend the day by yourself, what out-of-the-house fun activities would you pursue?

Honestly? I think I’d park myself at a bar that opened at lunch, order some snacks and a stor stark, and catch up on reading while WhatsApping absent friends. Maybe go to one of the many, many museums in Stockholm that I haven’t been to yet.

 

In the same situation, what stay-home fun activities would you pursue?

Same as above, but change out the stor stark for a whisky.

 

If you played hooky specifically because someone else needed the time off, who in your life would be your accomplice and what would be first on the agenda?

This is a tough one because anyone in my life who needs the time off is on another continent. The first item on the agenda, though, would be a quality fika of some variety or another. Start the day off with caffeine, sugar, and good conversation!

 

When did you last visit a museum, and what item on exhibit impressed you?

I visited the Army Museum and the Nobel Museum during Kulturnatt earlier this year. No particular item really had the same effect on me that “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” has on Cameron, but I appreciated the Army Museum’s exhibit on wartime literature. (I also took the moment in the Nobel Museum to complain about Kazuo Ishiguru and Never Let Me Go but that’s my own private beef.)

If I’m allowed to go back to much earlier museum visits, one of my favorite pieces is “Love and Friendship (The Sacrifice of the Arrows of Love on the Altar of Friendship),” in my beloved Philadelphia Art Museum.

I think it outclasses any other work of art anyone’s ever attempted to make to grapple with unrequited romantic feelings for a close friend.

The other is one from the Art Institute of Chicago (the same museum Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron visit in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, weirdly enough).  “Into the World Came a Soul Called Ida.”

A dark, dreamy oil painting of an aging woman in her boudoir, looking into a handheld mirror and powdering her face.

What’s something you’ve recently gotten away with?

When the green lines went down from a power outage back in September, I didn’t bother blipping my card on the (very, very full) bus ride home. To be fair, since I have a monthly card, that’s not really “getting away” with anything; it’s not like I saved a fare or any money!

Friday 5: Stay and Let Me Look at You

Nothing like tackling some Friday 5 questions about September in November!

Image courtesy Chris Lawton

(Earth, Wind & Fire) Why are you dancing in September?

My last month of freelance life before buckling down for the nine-to-five.

 

(Neil Diamond) September morning still can make you feel what way?

Cozy. Refreshed. After a million years I’m still so entrenched in the academic school calendar that September and autumn feel like a new year.

 

(Green Day) What are some things you have to endure until September ends?

Again: my last month of freelance life before buckling down for the nine-to-five.

 

(Kool & the Gang) What place or thing is your September love?

It’s now the right season to switch from the fruity teas to the spicy teas. So much chai!

 

(Willie Nelson) What is your September song for the rest of the month?

I still haven’t seen Crazy Rich Asians but I’ve long been a fan of Awkwafina so I love this cover: