Thomas Merton on “The Joyce Industry”

Thomas Merton is a fascination for me. He was a well-travelled not particularly religious Protestant with a degree from Colombia who became a Trappist Monk in Kentucky. He told a priest that reading Joyce had “contributed something to [his] conversion.” What about reading Joyce would make someone want to become a monk?

I’ll have to dig into that further. For now, I just want to take down some notes on Merton’s essay, “News of the Joyce Industry” which he wrote in 1969. It is a criticism of much of the scholastic study of Joyce at the time. Twenty dissertations appeared on Joyce between 1960-1963 and 5 books on Joyce had been published annually since 1960. (Just think of all that is out there now. There are endless podcasts, youtube channels and even Spotify channels on Joyce’s works!)

I am going to start at the end of his essay where he refers to an essay by William Blissett who quotes E.M. Forster on Joyce and Nietzsche on Wagner:

Forster remarked that “even the police are said not to comprehend [Ulysses] fully” (which comment still applies to those who take upon themselves the office of morally or politically “policing” Joyce’s work). But he added that when one had gone to the trouble to read one of Joyce’s big books, one will naturally tend to be pleased with his own achievement and call it “a great book, the book of the age. He really means that he himself is a great reader.” And Nietzsche said the same of Wagnerians. Lured into the mystery of Wagner, the hide-and-seek symbols, “in the midst of Wagner’s multiplicity, fullness and arbitrariness, they are justified, as it were, in their own eyes – they are ‘saved'”.

Merton says these two quotes explain the Joyce Industry. What matters is not what you say, but the ritual of saying it. Just as long as you make an effort to prove what you are saying, it doesn’t matter what it is. Nobody cares all that much because as long as you “pay enough homage to the Joyce establishment”, you can get away with anything.

Some Joyce scholars, according to Merton, “want to transubstantiate the bread of Ulysses and Portrait into the unearthly and arbitrary substance of their own fantasies.” What these scholars fail to realize is that Joyce accepted ambivalence and lived with it. He knew he had not escaped the rigidity of his Catholic upbringing, but he also knew he never would escape it. He broke with the Church and his parents subculture, but he did not renounce the ambiguities and conflicts built into Western civilization. The conscience of James Joyce:

…was the conscience of a European of the post-Victorian era, of a man in a sophisticated, complex, self-contradictory culture about to fall apart in World War I.

Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents helps “to understand what lay behind the comic judgment of society and its repressions in The Portrait of an Artist and Ulysses. “There is a big difference between a rigid puritanical repression of sex and “a civilized experience of ambivalence toward it.”

There are several scholars Merton does recommend:

  • William York Tindall, Hugh Kenner, and S.L. Goldberg are absolutely necessary for a full appreciation of Joyce.
  • English novelist Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) called Here Comes Everybody: an Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader, the emphasis being on the healthy catholicity of Joyce (little c).
  • A collection of essays: James Joyce Today: Essays on the Major Works.
  • Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. This was an abandoned project which was published in 1968. Merton said the unique interest lies in its imperfection and total lack of any “finish”.

From Merton:

The Giacomo notebook represents a pivotal development in Joyce’s ideas about love, from the erotic idealism of A Portrait of the Artist to the more ironic and mature realism of Ulysses. It deals specifically with the theme of spiritual seduction – and with the curious ambiguities involved in it… Joyce in Giacomo is clearly both Stephen and Bloom and, as Ellmann remarks in his introduction, the sardonic influence of Svevo is not unlikely. What comes clear in Giacomo is that Joyce, now middle-aged, has acquired the necessary ironic distance simultaneously to be in love and to see himself faking – or “forging” – his love. Giacomo Joyce is a lucid, ironic description of the involvement of art, eros, and social custom, of life, literature, and manners, of race, culture, history, in an essentially comic experience of love. It marks the crucial point at which the comic genius of Joyce emerges to full maturity and awareness.

Lesson 8: My mind is preoccupied with past thoughts.

Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball

The meaning of Lesson 8 is very literally that no one really sees anything. According to Wapnick, all we “see” is a projection of what we have been thinking. The point of these lessons is to help us realize that we are not really thinking at all because our thoughts are rooted in the past, or the fear of the future. (Remember the unholy trinity: sin (past); guilt (present); fear (future)? I’m still struggling with this concept.) As long as thoughtless ideas preoccupy our mind, the truth is blocked. Recognizing our minds have been blank is the first step to opening the way to vision.

The purpose of today’s exercise is to train the mind to recognize when it is not thinking at all.

The mind cannot grasp the present, which is the only time there is. It is preoccupied with the past and, in fact, does not understand time. The only wholly true fact about the past is that it is not here.

I seem to be thinking about my brother, my scared dog, my son’s cat, my daughter, rain, colds, crazy hair, having to clean the house, my husband, plants that need watering, big bellies, and dust. But my mind is preoccupied with past thoughts.

ACIM says the only wholly true thought one can hold about the past is that it isn’t here. The mind is blank when it pictures the past or anticipates the future. Therefore, the purpose of this exercise is to begin to train our minds to recognize when they are not really thinking at all. Thoughtless ideas preoccupy the mind which blocks the truth. Recognizing it isn’t filled with real ideas is the first step to opening the way to vision.

Wapnick says that it is not simply that we see only the past (Lesson 7), but we see only the past because we think only according to the past. What we see outside comes from what we think inside, a major theme of the text: “projection makes perception”.

Wapnick says the statement, “the wholly true fact about the past is that it is not here” means that our existence is literally made up. This should terrify us. If it doesn’t, it is because we aren’t paying close attention to what it says. We literally do not exist. And not only is our existence an illusion, all existence is an illusion.

A little further explanation from Wapnick:

The ego’s present is not this “present,” what A Course in Miracles refers to as the “holy instant”. As this experience is not rooted in time, it is also not rooted in sin, guilt, and fear. It is rooted in the right-minded presence of the Holy Spirit, in which vision – not based on the past, and certainly not on specialness – becomes the means for love to guide us from within.

He goes on to say, “If you are a creature of the past and there is no past, then it must mean there is no you.” He says this should horrify us. Maybe I’ve intellectualized it too much over the years, but it seems reasonable that there is no me. At least in a sense. Of course, I’m understanding it from my own definition of “you” and I’m not exactly sure what Wapnick is referring to by “you”. It reminds me of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball – I am nothing, I see all. We’ve all had glimpses of that experience, right? We don’t necessarily have the language to express it and so we are left speechless.

Wapnick keeps going: “Not only is our existence an illusion; indeed, all existence is an illusion, for it contrasts with the reality of being.” That doesn’t make much sense to me. How do you define being and how do you define existence? This gets tricky. Heidegger worked out very intricate differentiations of types of being (Dasein and Sein) and these don’t necessarily contradict existence. For Heidegger, the primal nature of being is Sein, while Dasein is revealed by projection into, and engagement with, a personal world. It is a never-ending process of involvement (kind of like Nietzsche’s never-ending process of becoming), as mediated through the projections of the self. It makes sense to claim that there is a difference between entities and the being of entities, but does it make sense to contrast existence and being? I don’t know. I don’t have a good grasp on any of this, yet, but I’m sensing Original Sin is sliding into Wapnick’s definitions here, too. (Or maybe he is very intentionally including it?)

To conclude, Wapnick says that by ending our practice with: “But my mind is preoccupied with past thoughts”, we are asked to practice in the central aspect of the process of forgiveness: bringing the specifics of our illusions to the non-specific truth of the Holy Spirit.

Lesson 1: Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] means anything.

The Revelation of St. John: 11. St. Michael Fighting the Dragon by Albrecht Dürer (1498).

When I say “that basket does not mean anything”, it feels different to me than when I say “that cat does not mean anything” or “that hand does not mean anything”. Yet, ACIM says the purpose of the exercise is to not make allowances for some things over others. One thing is like another. 

We are asked to be non-judgmental, which of course is very difficult to be. Wapnick says that’s OK that we are judgmental because the purpose of this lesson is to help us realize that we are coming to ACIM with a set of premises and a hierarchy of values we’re not aware of.

He quotes from the Text:

“To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning. No belief is neutral. Every one has the power to dictate each decision you make. For a decision is a conclusion based on everything that you believe. It is the outcome of belief, and follows it as surely as does suffering follow guilt and freedom sinlessness.” (T-24.in.2: 1 -6)

This reminds me of Nietzsche’s lion stage in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The task of the lion is to kill the dragon whose name is “Thou Shalt!”. Not only must the lion kill the dragon, he must destroy every scale (each with it’s own thou shalt!) on the dragon. As a child, the “thou shalt” is important because it helps us integrate with our society. But once integrated, we have to be willing to question our value systems in order to remain truly vital and alive. 

Wapnick says this lesson contains the complete thought system of ACIM. There is no difference between any of the things in this world. They are all part of the illusion which reflects the thought system of the separation. We create a hierarchy of illusions, but it’s still the exact same illusion. When we become aware of this, we begin to realize our whole life is based on a lie.

The lessons are meant to be humbling. I don’t want to walk around believing my hand (or the cat) is the same as an easily replaceable inanimate object. I do believe my body is real and that I am in the world. (And that my cat is real and in the world.) But Wapnick says that if I believe this, I cannot believe in the reality of God.

I no longer believe in the God that was handed down to me as a child, but that’s not the God ACIM refers to. I think God in ACIM is probably more like what writers and philosophers have called “the ground of being”. Bodies, like inanimate objects, deteriorate and turn to dust. What deteriorates is not. What is really real, Is.

Wapnick says that if we could do these lessons perfectly, we would have no need of them. The idea of the lessons is to notice how we don’t practice them in our every day lives. If you find yourself having no more difficulty applying the lesson to your hand as to a pen, Wapnick suggests that you think of breaking the pen and then breaking your hand and noticing if you are able to place the same value on both.

The reality is, we have a hierarchy of values. The point of the lesson (and all of ACIM) is to make us mindful of that hierarchy.

[The picture of the woodcut above is The Revelation of St. John: 11. St. Michael Fighting the Dragonby Albrecht Dürer (1498). Dürer may have been thinking of the inner struggle of the Catholic Church at the time, but his woodcut reminded me of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton translated the war between angels and Lucifer as the origin story for Satan. After St. Michael slays Lucifer (the dragon), Lucifer and his fellow angels are cast out of heaven. The only power Lucifer can gain over God after the fall is his persuasion over human beings to turn away from God in favor of the sensual, material experiences of earth. Mythologically speaking, it is the separation.]

Gerald Jampolsky and Healing the World

Years ago, I read a book by Gerald Jampolsky called Love is Letting Go of Fear that had a profound influence on my thinking. Jampolsky was among the handful of people who read ACIM before it was published. Judith Skutch gave him a photocopied version she had received from Bill Thetford and Helen Schucman.

In looking for Kindle books by him on Amazon, I found Finding Our Way Homewhich Jampolsky co-authored with his wife, Diane Cirincione. I purchased it and finished it one sitting. It was a very enjoyable read! The idea that love is our goal and forgiveness is our single function fits perfectly with my idea of ACIM (and spirituality in general). I was somewhat bothered, however, by the heavy focus on receiving guidance about trivial things like asking what you should do about your car being blocked in a hospital parking lot.

I agree that we receive inner guidance when we silence our screaming egos long enough to listen, so it’s very practical advice. I don’t think that is what ACIM is ultimately about, however. So I decided to check out another book by Jampolsky called Poetry and Notes to Myself: My Ups and Downs with A Course in Miracles which was also a very quick read. Again, quite enjoyable but much of the focus was on receiving guidance so I finally re-read Love is Letting Go of Fear,the book by Jampolsky that had so much influence on my understanding of ACIM decades ago,

I can see why Love is Letting Go of Fear was so influential for my younger self 30 years ago. I used to believe that religion/spirituality was about saving the world. The possibility that we could save it single-handedly through love and forgiveness was especially appealing. Then I read Nietzsche and the other existentialists and found that I agreed with the idea that the western focus on a future, more perfect world, is problematic. This world is viewed as faulty and so rather than being here, in the world now, the focus is on some future world that has been perfected through missionary religions, the “right” political thought system, futuristic technology, an escape to heaven…

Spiritual traditions claim that they have received their wisdom through divine guidance. If you believe your choice is “right” because you were guided by something beyond yourself/ego to make that choice, then it feels justified. But ACIM says nothing about the outcome of our practice being a perfected world and I think Wapnick would probably agree. It’s message is existential. Our thoughts create our reality. Change our thoughts, our reality changes. But to expect a perfect world to be created by perfect thoughts is the stuff of the ego.

Let me try to explain… if our thoughts are merely projections, then isn’t the choice to listen for inner guidance just a projection, too? Granted, it is undoubtedly healthier, cognitively speaking, to feel happy with your choices, but your decision to be at peace with your decisions and to view the outcomes of those decisions as positive is likewise a choice, not some sort of absolute truth reigning down from on high.

ACIM is about non-dualism which helps people have the courage to accept things as they are. In some ways, I think this was one of Gerald Jampolsky’s primary goals in working with sick children. He created the Center for Attitudinal Healing, which now exists all around the world, to help children who were suffering from cancer and other illnesses let go of their fear of being sick and dying. He modified the principals in ACIM to help children discover joy through a shift in perception. (Thus, the name: Attitudinal Healing, not bodily healing.)

So why does Jampolsky’s writing (and that of his wife) place such a heavy focus on inner-guidance and healing the world? I think it’s probably the same reason Robert Solomon says Sartre, who coined “bad faith”, was ultimately in “bad faith”, too. Sartre was so mired in the Cartesian philosophy that he didn’t realize he had dropped God but maintained the guilt. All of Western society remains trapped within that “Christian guilt” mindset because it has been an integral part of Western thought for thousands of years. It is such an integral part of our thought system that we don’t even realize it is there. The world “out there” continues to be viewed as guilty and in need of perfection.

I genuinely appreciate Gerald Jampolsky because his approach to dealing with personal hardship through healed relationships with ourselves and others is very practical. And while I do agree with Jampolsky that all of life is relational, maybe we need to quit insisting that the world needs to be peaceful? That it needs to be healed/saved? Everyone has their own idea of how that salvation will come about and many of the ideas are in direct conflict with one another. Perhaps we need to forgive our misperceptions of the world, too?

Jampolsky constantly says that you can’t simultaneously be fearful and loving. But if you believe the world needs to be healed/fixed, isn’t that belief based on a fear that something is justifiably wrong with the world? How can you forgive the world while simultaneously fearing it? I am hopeful that Wapnick can help me figure that out this time through ACIM. According to Wapnick, ACIM is more specifically about letting go of the guilt that causes our fear.

I’ll try to read something by Hugh Prather before I begin the lessons because he was another person who very much influenced my views on ACIM and it looks like he was close friends with Jampolsky.

Letting Go of God

Dreyfus said that a lot of students in his class on Heidegger (which is standing room only and students waiting outside the door to get in) would fail because Heidegger is incredibly difficult to understand.  Dreyfus warned students that if they don’t have the appropriate philosophical background, they need to consider dropping the class. My philosophical background is limited so chances are, I’d fail his class.  But if I was in school at Berkeley and if there were no Berkeley Webcasts and I had the opportunity to take his class, I’d willingly take the risk.

My interest in philosophy is far more spiritual than it is academic. In specific, I am interested in philosophical ideas that merge with mysticism. Since the Enlightenment, academia has lumped mysticism in with magic, sorcery, the supernatural and all things irrational. This is tragic because authentic mysticism is intensely rational. Yes, it is also considered to be transrational, but the stepping stone to transrational thought is rational thought, not irrational thought.  (For the sake of clarification, let’s use A.R. Lacey’s definition of rationalism – any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification.)

Mysticism flirts with atheism because transrational thought makes the question of the existence of God irrelevant.  Mysticism is NOT an atheism, however, because it does not make the claim that God does not exist.  However you answer the question, “Does God eixst?” (“yes, there is a God” or “there is no God”) – merely points back to the question itself. Both atheists and theists have made the question important by insisting they hold the “right” answer, but mystics consider the question irrelevant because mysticism is rational. “God” (by any other name) cannot be known rationally, therefore any rational question about God does not apply. It makes no sense, whatsoever, to insist upon the existence or non-existence of God. If you insist upon God’s existence, then you are likely more into supernaturalism and magic than authentic mysticism. If you insist upon the non-existence of God, then chances are you worship rationalism in the same way theists worship a supernatural God. True, a lot of mystics use the term “God” to point to what is transrational.  But this does not mean they “believe” in the term.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents the parable of the madman. This madman runs out into the crowds exclaiming “God is dead”, and realizes he is at least 300 years too early for people to understand what he is saying.  Nietzsche isn’t telling theists that God is dead.  He’s telling secularists that God is dead.  Atheists may claim there is no God, but they don’t yet understand that God is dead.  Human beings created an ideology based on a concept that served humanity relatively well for centuries. The concept is no longer viable because we killed it. As Dreyfus said in his Existentialism in Film and Literature class, we abstracted it out of existence.  And as long as we believe in objective truth, we are forced to maintain a belief in a God’s eye view that has the ability to see this truth. Secularists haven’t eliminated God.  On the contrary. The role of God has been reassigned to science and reason. God is dead, but we don’t yet know it.

Many years ago, I was having great difficulty maintaining a belief in God and went through a frantic journey trying to find out everything I could about the history of the Bible, the history of the Jews, the history of Rome, Greece, and whatever else I thought might help. Through a series of connections with various bloggers (mostly on the now defunct Vox), I ended up at Hubert Dreyfus’ “Existentialism in Literature and Film” class I just mentioned. This sent me on an entirely new trajectory.

These days, I can say with confidence that I do not believe in God.  That is not to say I don’t think God exists. I simply think the question is irrelevant. I can’t even begin to tell you how long or how scary it has been for me to admit this to myself. There have been years of darkness associated with this admission because I simply have not wanted to acknowledge God’s death.

I think what was most difficult was letting go of the belief that there is an objective truth waiting to be discovered. I really thought I’d figure it out one day – that it all would make sense…

I still have so much to unlearn!

The Terror of History: Lecture 1: Escaping the Terror of History

There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent, untill at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words: “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is for ever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”

According to Nietzsche, the Greeks were the first to recognize the meaninglessness of life (tragedy) so they created the gods of Mt. Olympus in order to live. The gods justify the life of man.

We are always caught between two forces. On the one hand, as part of our cultural and intellectual heritage, there is the Apollonian, the sense and desire and need for order and to “know thyself”. On the other hand, there is the Dionysian, the need to get out of the self and become one with the world.

How do we deal with the terror of the world? Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), says we do so in three ways:

  • Religion. Religions are culturally specific. In the west, there has been a tendency for magic to become religion. Magic is a way to try to control nature and keep terror at bay. Magic might work for a little while, but not all the time. Primitive man creates this sort of religion. It is an acceptance of the way things are. Another way religion works is by shifting the responsibility of the way things are to God. As cruel and as inconceivable and unacceptable, it is God’s wishes. This has worked for centuries. There is a supernatural entity who is now responsible for the terrors of the world. In the Western tradition, this is a patriarchal figure that takes care of you and solves all your problems. The first answer in the West to problems is religion, and it works. There is an empowerment that comes to those who surrender to God. But not everyone is willing to accept this answer.
  • Embracing the material world. An example is Bush telling us to go to Disneyland to forget our troubles after 9/11. You can go shopping at the mall, get lost in the wonders of food, traverse the world. But does it work? Like magic, it doesn’t last. People tend to get bored with it after a while.
  • Embracing the aesthetic world. Seeking beauty and knowledge as a way to make sense of the world.

According to Ruiz, the escaping of the terror of history is the making of meaning.

I Heart Huckabees (2004)

We had a lovely Thanksgiving meal, yesterday. There were lots of leftovers so we all stayed home and watched “I Heart Huckabees”, tonight. (My daughter wanted to see it.) I don’t remember the last time I saw this movie, but it has been on my list of all-time favorites since it first came out. I am quite certain I understood it far better this viewing than I have previously, however.

SPOILER WARNING!!!

Albert goes to the Existentialist detectives to make sense of a series of coincidences.  It can’t just be a coincidence that he’s bumped into the same man three times in three different places, can it?  The Existentialist detectives (played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) keep telling him that everything is connected. I took this too literally on my previous viewings.  What I now think they mean by this is that Albert has made all of these connections in his mind.  So what the detectives do is help him work through his constructed meanings.  It is not as though coincidences are necessarily meaningful in themselves (as if God or the universe or whatever is trying to send him a special message).  Their meaning is dependent upon the meaning that has been constructed by the person experiencing the coincidence.

You have to be honest about your thoughts and actions if you are going to deconstruct the meaning you have created.  Albert continually lies to the detectives about various circumstances.  He even lies to them about what he claims to be coincidence.  They claim he is betraying himself.  That’s pretty much how it goes, isn’t it?  We deny certain aspects of our being because we are too ashamed to reveal them, and then that denial gets projected outward onto others. In Albert’s case, he projects it on to Brad.

The French nihilist claims nothing means anything.  The world is chaotic, full of anger and suffering, and ultimately meaningless.  The Jaffe’s are constantly countering this view, but in the end it is clear that they are actually in cahoots with the nihilist.  And this makes sense!  Yes, everything is meaningless.  But that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless!!

For centuries, we’ve been under the assumption that meaning exists outside of ourselves.  So when we discover that there is no meaning being imposed by God or the universe, the automatic assumption is that the world is meaningless.  But the only reason this idea would make someone nihilistic is if they were still wishing that an external source provided meaning for them. They would rather have meaning imposed upon them than take responsibility for it.  So when they discover it isn’t imposed upon them, they default to “nothing means anything, it’s all meaningless”.

I think you sort of have to go to that dark space of meaninglessness in order to discover that just because there is no externally imposed meaning, that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless.  You have created that meaninglessness.  It hasn’t been imposed upon you by some external source.

It made sense for Albert and Tommy to “defect” to the “other side” and work with the nihilist who says the world is nothing more than a chaotic mess of anger and suffering.  I think in my own development, that’s kind of how it has worked for me.  I started with a sort of superstitious belief in God that I finally had to let go.  I turned to A Course in Miracles, but I didn’t really understand it because I had managed to take my belief in a personal God with me into my studies of ACIM.  Lots of ACIM students do this.  You see it all the time.  It becomes nothing more than a shallow New Age religion that you use to keep suffering at bay.  But despite my efforts, life happened and there were many difficult things that put me into a seriously dark place for a while.  That’s when I started reading the existentialists (Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Hesse, Conrad..)

The main thing I got out of reading the existentialists was the idea that we need to stop denying the darker sides of our natures – that it is the attempt to rid ourselves of what we see as our more animalistic side (the Karamazov side in The Brothers Karamazov, the wolf in Steppenwolfe, the “savages” in Heart of Darkness, etc.) that has created the horrors of the current age.  For centuries we have been assigning “sinful” to our animal nature thanks to Augustine’s fallen man theory (or more likely, a misinterpretation of Augustine’s fallen man theory), but this assignment has not served us.  It has hurt us.  And now that the Enlightenment has killed off the traditional worldview of God, we are destined for nihilism if we don’t also finally let go of the idea that meaning is somehow externally begotten.  The rationalists and empiricists may adamantly claim they don’t believe in God, but they still hold on to the idea that there is some sort of external meaning giver.  There is an external absolute Truth just waiting to be discovered by science.

As Nietzsche said, faith is constantly placed in a future world, not in this world.  This is why he said nihilism was unavoidable.  The Christians put their faith in getting to a perfect future place called Heaven.  In order to get there, they have to deny this world and their animalistic urges.  Empiricists place their faith in a future world made perfect by science and technology.  Perfect nature, perfect the human being, and the world will be better in the future.  Either way, the faith is in something otherworldly and external and promises a world free of suffering.  This world must be denied in order to “achieve” this otherworldly, pain-free futuristic place.  The denial of this world is what concerned Nietzsche and why he said we were headed toward nihilism.  These days, there are Christians who have reason to destroy the environment because they see it as bringing on Armageddon which will get them to Heaven faster.   Others (like Brad) distract themselves with the material pleasures provided by science and technology and turn a blind eye to what is happening to themselves and their environment in the pursuit of this material success.

Buddhists talk about the middle way and I think that is what Tommy and Albert discover and what the Existential Detectives and the Nihilist want them to discover.  The Existential detectives gloss over human suffering, but the Nihilist goes straight to the heart of it, even creates suffering in order to help Tommy and Albert understand.  Yes, everything is ultimately meaningless and the world is full of senseless suffering, but that doesn’t mean life is not meaningful.  Brad and Albert are very different people, but they are the same in their suffering.  Albert and Tommy describe this interconnection as absolutely fantastic, but also nothing special because “it grows from the manure of human trouble… No manure, no magic.”

There is also the existential issue of authenticity.  Brad’s dismantling finally starts to occur when the existential detectives point out repetitive behavior Brad uses as propaganda to promote himself.  He repeatedly tells a story about Shania Twain and tricking her into eating a chicken salad sandwich with mayo.  The story helps to project a certain image he likes to portray.  But when he does this, is he being himself?  The question is repeated over and over again – “How am I not myself?”

How can you be anything other than yourself?  You are who you are, there is no one else you can be.  And yet, we all engage in behavior attempting to be someone we are not.