I just bought one of those neat little metallic signs that asks “What if the hokey pokey IS what it’s all about?” Needless to say, I am looking forward to proudly displaying this on my wall.
This sign may contain the secret of the universe as well as the answer to that perennial human question about the meaning of life (assuming that our household pets never burden themselves with this nonsense). Maybe the hokey pokey is what it’s all about after all. Sometimes I think we get a little too serious when we contemplate these deep, yet necessary questions. The hokey pokey might be as good as anything else we might come up with. Another inspiration for me is “A Serious Man,” the clever 2009 Coen Brothers’ film about a modern man, Larry Gopnik, searching for the meaning of life. He is tormented by this question until he receives enlightenment from his rabbi (the film is in many ways a modern retelling of The Book Of Job) who tells him to find wisdom in the lyrics of the songs recorded by the Jefferson Airplane, that iconic rock group who helped define the so-called “Summer of Love” back in the day. Maybe the true meaning of life is found, for instance, by listening closely to the group’s 1967 hit, “Somebody To Love,” which asks us to consider that when the truth is found to be lies, maybe all we need is somebody to love. And, perhaps even more meaningful is the rabbi’s contention that the meaning of life might somehow be connected to our being able to recall the names of the original members of Jefferson Airplane. Can you do this without Googling the answer? And can you correctly pronounce all their names?
One of the reasons why I chose Philosophy as my undergraduate and graduate minor so many years ago (hint: there were no smartphones back then) is because I enjoyed asking questions and seeking out meanings in the oddest of places. I hope you can see the influence of all this in my weekly columns. For me, Philosophy is little more than continually asking “Why?” and perhaps being a little annoying in the process (remember that Socrates was brought to trial because he asked too many questions). After all, nothing is learned until we ask a question, whether it is about the identities of Jefferson Airplane members, the hokey pokey, or the reasons why we have to die (the central question asked by the world’s oldest written story, “The Epic Of Gilgamesh”). When you think about it, we are all born as little philosophers until our educational system replaces curiosity with test-taking (I take revenge on this fact every time I walk into a classroom and ask my students to create something new that can’t be reproduced on a ScanTron sheet). Our curiosity about life’s larger questions still survives, however, especially in the wee small hours of the morning. According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s new book, EVERYBODY LIES: BIG DATA, NEW DATA, AND WHAT THE INTERNET CAN TELL US ABOUT WHO WE REALLY ARE, a study of Google Trends and other resources tells us that “the hours between 2 and 4 a.m. are prime time for big questions: What is the meaning of consciousness? Does free will exist? Is there life on other planets?” And, I suppose we might also find time watch cat videos and keep up with the feud between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift while considering those larger philosophical issues.
When people tell me how useless a degree in Philosophy is, I point to this column as evidence (hopefully) to the contrary. This column wouldn’t exist were it not for those courses I took and the books I read in preparation for my degree–books like Arthur Lovejoy’s THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING, Plato’s many Dialogues, Heidegger’s BEING AND TIME, Erving Goffman’s FRAME ANALYSIS, Colin Wilson’s THE OUTSIDER, Theodore Roszak’s THE MAKING OF A COUNTERCULTURE, and D.T. Suzuki’s various Zen studies. And, I have never forgotten the impact the Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album “Surrealistic Pillow” made, and continues to make, on my still-a-work-in-progress life. And, yes, I can name each and every one of the original band members, although I am not a very good practitioner of the hokey pokey.
My favorite philosopher these days is Chuck Klosterman, the author of a dazzling series of essays about popular culture that have inspired more than a few of my columns. These essays have been collected into several books, beginning with SEX, DRUGS, AND COCOA PUFFS: A LOW CULTURE MANIFESTO (2003), culminating (at this point) with BUT WHAT IF WE’RE WRONG: THINKING ABOUT THE PRESENT AS IF IT WERE THE PAST (2016) and X: A HIGHLY SPECIFIC, DEFIANTLY INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE EARLY 21st CENTURY (2017), which is an anthology of the pieces he has written for various publications, including The New York Times, Esquire, ESPN, The Guardian, and SPIN. At this point, I have not read his two novels, but I do highly recommend his HYPERTHETICALS: 50 QUESTIONS FOR INSANE CONVERSATIONS (2010), a set of 50 cards that are ideal for stimulating some rather unique discussions. I have borrowed and stolen many of Klosterman’s ideas in other columns, including the one I presented a couple of weeks ago.
As I mentioned in that recent column, Klosterman likes to take something that seems rather inane, like that iconic 1990 show, “Saved By The Bell,” and turn it into a meditation about how Zack Morris might very well be the most significant person of the last 50 years. As he says, the object is to use a given text to “provide a superstructure for subtext,” which is another way of saying that deeper meanings can be extracted from the most seemingly-mundane or silly things. His topics generally revolve around music or sports, with plenty of side trips into movies, literature, TV shows, and celebrities. One of my favorite essays in his new collection is “My Zombie, Myself,” in which he uses the current (which is about to become passe) walking dead phenomenon to consider some larger issues like how the true zombie apocalypse more closely resembles the endless onslaught of email we receive every waking moment. Trying to annihilate this constant stream of text is perhaps more exhausting and exasperating than trying to stop the zombies; and at this point we should be asking whose brains are we trying to kill–theirs or ours? As Klosterman advises, “Continue the termination. Don’t stop believing. Don’t stop deleting. Return your voice mails and nod your agreements. This is the zombies’ world, and we just live here.” This puts a whole new spin on the week-after-week monotony of “The Walking Dead,” doesn’t it? Maybe the show should be renamed “The Inboxed Dead.”
Well, that’s it for this week. Time for a little hokey pokey, accompanied by “Somebody To Love.”
See you next week. In the meantime, read a few Chuck Klosterman essays.