Bum: “Not even a quarter, or a nickel? No change at all?”
Professor: “Sorry. If I had some, you can rest assured that I’d give it to you, but I just don’t have any.”
Bum: “Why can I ‘rest assured’ of that? I don’t know you.”
Professor: “True, but I know you, more or less. I have spent decades lecturing and writing on the plight of the underprivileged. So I understand your hardship enough to know that if I honestly had any money to spare, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to you at once.”
Bum: “All these decades you’ve spent lecturing and writing about someone like me, did no one ever pay you?”
Professor: “Of course they did.”
Bum: “And yet, you haven’t got a quarter or nickel to spare with the guy that earned you a paycheck?”
Professor: “I resent that remark. I’ll have you know that I have given a large sum of money over the years to various charities to help people in need.”
Bum: “Good for you. That still doesn’t put either a quarter or a nickel in my hand, right now.”
Professor: “You’re judging me for not being able to give you money, right now? A bit self-righteous for a man who spends his days begging for a portion of other peoples money, don’t you think?”
Bum: “No judgment here, honestly. I’m just following your train of thought, which I admit can seem pretty ‘self-righteous’. Probably about as self-righteous as being told that someone knows me, just because they’ve written something about poor folks here and there.”
Professor: “I see. Well, allow me to clarify: While I don’t know you personally, I do understand, because of my extensive research and studies on the subject, the hardship that comes along with residing within the parameters of today’s socioeconomic hegemony.”
Bum: “Parameters of what?”
Professor: “Socioeconomic hegemony. It’s a phrase I coined in one of my papers. Roughly it means that the conditions of a person’s environment are so dominating that they are naturally setup to be disadvantageous to the underprivileged in said environment. You understand?”
Bum: “I understand what you said. I don’t understand what good it does to have it said.”
Professor: “Identifying and defining a problem is the first step to having it resolved.”
Bum: “When did you first write this?”
Professor: “About 30 years ago.”
Bum: “How long until it starts to ‘resolve’ the problem?”
Professor: “It doesn’t work that way.”
Bum: “Why not?”
Professor: “Because social theories aren’t meant to fix people’s problems just by the power of the pen. People have different perspectives, and one social theory can yield an innumerable sub-theories on how to implement reforms. Not to mention, there is always nuance to consider.”
Bum: “So some other guy can come up with a different ‘social theory’ about the exact same problem your social theory talks about, and his would be just as good as yours.”
Professor: “I think you’re getting confused, remember we’re talking about hypothetical thought experiments here.”
Bum: “So they’re imaginary.”
Professor: “No, they are normative descriptors of reality.”
Bum: “How do you know they’re describing reality, if they haven’t been tried out yet? That is what hypothetical means, right?”
Professor: “It’s more abstract than that.”
Bum: “I bet. But I still don’t see the point of coming up with all of these social theories, if they can’t actually resolve the problems they’re addressing. Seems to me like a man might as well be doing nothing and still get the same results.”
Professor: “I told you, social theories recognize a problem and allow for the future assembly of working models to be implemented by society.”
Professor: “Yes, hypothetically.”
Bum: “See that building over there? 30 years ago I was part of the crew assembling the foundation of dozens of buildings just like it, all over town. Most of them are still around. People can use them, live in them. They can like them or hate them. But they can’t ignore them. If they decide to get rid of them, they have to put some physical effort into removing them from the spot we put them on. You understand what I’m driving at?”
Professor: “Not really, no.”
Bum: “Before we put down the foundation, when we were barely carving out the dimensions on the ground, the buildings were what you would call hypothetical. Now, 30 years later, I guess someone a little better with words than me, would say that these buildings are ‘descriptors of reality’, at least in the little, tiny spot of reality where they stand. You couldn’t describe the area where these buildings are without mentioning the buildings themselves.”
Professor: “Okay, I get what you’re driving at, but you’re wrong. This is completely different from my academic discipline; you’re simply not comparing like with like.”
Bum: “Yeah, probably. All I know is that 30 years ago, we identifies a problem: no building in this spot. Now, 30 years later, problem is resolved: building is there, whether someone likes it or not. 30 years ago, you identified a problem; now, 30 years later, you’re identifying of the problem all those years ago hasn’t done squat to resolve whatever problem it is you felt needed to be identified in the first place–because if it had I wouldn’t be sitting here like this, would I? So, let me ask you, are you sure your social theories are actually describing reality, or are you just defining reality to your liking, and cramming your social theories into it so you can have something to lecture people on?”
Professor: “My theory is sound, but to understand it properly would take many years of study. Hence, this conversation is inconsequential. Here’s your quarter, and have a nice day.”
Bum: “Much appreciated, good sir. You have yourself a good one, too.”
Years back, I had originally given up on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy halfway through Book Two because the main character, Quentin Coldwater, is such an insufferable, self-absorbed piece of shit that the thought of being trapped in his head for another book and a half seemed unbearable at the time. But the Covid quarantine got me to revisit the trilogy from the start again, and while my first impression of Quentin remains unchanged for that first half of the trilogy, the character’s development by the end of Book Two does actually soften me to his flaws and failures, to the point that I found myself fully emphasizing with him by Book Three as the hero of the story the narrative seemed so eager to convince me that he is not. Perhaps it was a clever ploy of reverse psychology, or subverting expectations on the part of the author, but whatever it was, it worked perfectly in the grand scheme of the narrative as a whole.
Throughout the books, we see Quentin be a lousy friend (practically dropping all his past contacts once he gets to Brakebills), a dishonest boyfriend, and a bit of a glory-hog whose concerns lie less with the safety of those around him, then fulfilling his own interest in coming out on top of the adventure he thinks he needs so he can escape the monotony of his life. But it’s in the aftermath of having experienced all of this (roughly at the closing of Book Two) that we get to see a shift in his perspective. Which retroactively makes a lot of sense, on account that he would need to experience the consequences of his hubris before being able to set out on a genuine journey of growth and finally learn from his mistakes. As a character, it wouldn’t make sense for him to have either the knowledge or experience to understand how to deal with the situations around him maturely, nor would it have been realistic or relatable. In fact, I’m pretty sure that had Book One started out with a character that was mature, reserved, amicable, and fully resourceful right from the start, I probably would have complained that such a trope is too boring and lacked any real character depth to bother with (being a nitpicky critic comes so easy to us in the audience, doesn’t it?)
Some worthwhile reads payoff eventually is the lesson here, and deserve to be carried through to the end. And having gotten to the end of The Magicians trilogy, I see why the author wrote Quentin as such a little shit at the beginning of the story, and why it was even necessary to do so, regardless of how much it irked me at the time of reading on the first go at it.
The concept of the overman (Germ. Übermensch) is one of the most recognizable (not to mention, most misinterpreted) philosophical propositions associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, most prominently explored in what is arguably considered to be the philosopher’s magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
From the prologue onward, Nietzsche’s title character conveys the importance of the overman in the greater scope of human development:
What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.
Here Zarathustra is emphasizing how the intellectual evolution of humanity is largely encapsulated by mankind’s repeated (some would even say, obsessive) desire to identify where and how our species truly fits in with the rest of the natural order. In this pursuit, we have almost always began and concluded with the presupposition that, as a living organism, man must—by some measure—stand apart from and ultimately transcend the rest of his material surroundings. Hence, in our reasoning of ourselves as the most exceptional of living creatures, we inadvertently declare our existence (i.e. human existence) as the most serious of considerations rationally conceivable; thereby clumsily demoting the existence of all else as something far less serious, in comparison to our own, and giving credence to the anthropomorphic ideal that all of physical reality exists with human priority in mind. And just as in this view we—i.e. modern man—have “transcended” in our perspective beyond the lowly underpinnings of the natural world all living beings are undoubtedly slaves to, so too Zarathustra claims will the overman “transcend” over the lowly underpinnings that intellectually, spiritually, and morally, enslave us.
Nietzsche reasons that because nothing within the harsh reality of nature itself warrants a belief in the transcended existence of man, the means by which we have come to justify our presumed higher status in the natural order is by appealing beyond the confines of nature, declaring the true spirit and virtue of man in the world to be a matter ordained by something wholly otherworldly. All on the assertion that we are not egotistically designating ourselves a favored status in physical existence, but are just humbly accepting the role that has been cast for us by something greater than physical existence itself. This is where Zarathustra draws a contrast between man and overman, because while the overman also identifies his existence as residing on a higher “spiritual” plane to the rest of the living world (at least in comparison to modern man), he will feel no need to credit his transcendence beyond the realm of the physical world—because “the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”
According to Zarathustra, the reason we are inclined to look beyond the confines of the earth to give our lives on earth value, is ultimately due to our innate feeling of helplessness over the frailty encompassed in our finite existence. Thus, we seek—and, if need be, concoct—infinite answers on which to escape the dread of mortal life; an exercise that only serves to take man’s mind and hopes away from the earthly domain he resigns in. Zarathustra sees this as a great toxin paralyzing the spirit of human life, and calls on man to emancipate himself from such restraints:
I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they decaying and poisoning themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.
Zarathustra considers mankind’s continued attempt to give meaning to life by virtue of appealing to a “greater”, “higher”, “transcendent”, otherworldly “beyond” to be a misguided effort that prevents man from ever overcoming the harsh reality of life—and death—because it causes them to repeatedly look for guidance from assumed metaphysical forces, instead of coping with the physical forces causing them grief in the first place. By Zarathustra’s standard, one cannot be truly fulfilled in life as long as the knowable source of life (i.e. earth) is marginalized in favor of a presumed better, unknowable, realm of existence:
To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.
Such a perspective breeds contempt for the earth, and, by extension, the life housed by the earth; fostering a sense of resentment towards one’s own physical existence, and an unyielding desire to be free from it permanently. Zarathustra proposes the dawning of the overman to be the antidote to this depressingly nihilistic view of life.
However, the overman should not be mistaken as a bringer of happiness and contentment. Quite the opposite, as the hour of the overman is described by Zarathustra as the “hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.”
Zarathustra does not view happiness and contentment as necessarily benign reactions, because they often serve to numb the individual to the depressive forces pulling him or her down in life. To truly overcome the depressive forces suffocating one’s existence—i.e. to be the overman—one cannot steer clear of the chaotic, destructive, and frantic realities of life, because these deemed displeasures of life are as much a part of life as any deemed model of happiness could ever be.
The true means by which man overcomes such chaotic forces is to embrace them wholeheartedly; not seek to escape their destructive reality, but to motivate oneself through them and rise higher in one’s own being:
“Where is the lighting to lick you with its tongue? Where is the frenzy with which you should be inoculated?
“Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lighting, he is this frenzy.”
It is clear that Nietzsche conceives of the overman as the symbolic representation for humanities potential progression towards a more life affirming existence. However, it is a progression that Nietzsche did not foresee as anywhere near set in stone in our social evolution:
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.
Despite what has come to be the dominate perspective on this subject in popular culture, Nietzsche did not envision the overman to be any one individual or group [and he certainly did not envision it as any one particular race or nationality]. Rather, the overman to Nietzsche is a frame of mind human existence ought to be striving for if it is to mature past the confines that are suffocating its creative and intuitive spirit.
However, Nietzsche did not believe that modern man was heading towards the path of the overman. Rather, the philosopher foreshadowed that if society continues to advance forward in its current direction, the likely outcome will be a degenerate caricature of what once existed of humanity, having Zarathustra declare to his unreceptive audience: “Let me then address their pride. Let me speak to them of what is most contemptible: but that is the last man.”
The last man is the antithesis to the overman. He is the zenith of mediocrity and degradation of life. He does not aspire, he does not innovate. He cannot create anything or progress anywhere from the spot he happens to be standing on; nor would he ever want to. He is content, and wishes nothing more than to remain in his contentment. The last men do not care about overcoming the harsh realities endemic to life; they simply wish to be sheltered from it; festering away in a mundane existence of riskless bliss:
Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams.
Because they avoid all manner of conflict and discomfort, the last men will be too fragile to confront the hardness of life (ironically causing them to recoil for more of the sort of sheltered existence that has left them so vulnerable to begin with). And by attempting to avoid—or more accurately, deny—the cruelties and chaos that make up life, they are avoiding and denying a vital aspect of life itself.
To the last men the concepts of ambition, success, and power have too many possible dangers associated with them to even be contemplated, because to attempt to succeed and advance creates the potential to fail and disrupt one’s cozy contentment in life. Thus, partaking in work no longer stems from a desire to accomplish a particular task, or even to earn a living, but to preoccupy one’s time with an inoffensive routine:
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still want to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
The world of the last man is bland and colorless; where creative fortitude has been sacrificed in favor of comforting sameness. The problem Nietzsche sees with this mentality is in its capacity to render human ingenuity sterile and restrain the most creative elements in society, because it is a world where “everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.” Although all will claim and even believe themselves to be happy due to the contentment surrounding them, it is a very artificial happiness made possible solely by the fact that the imaginative spirit of humanity will have been dulled too much for anyone to be capable to protest the mediocrity that is their mundane existence. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” In other words, when one seizes to care enough about life to find things within it worth combating against, life has become equivalent to death.
Zarathustra’s brief proclamation that, “one must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves,” conveys that Nietzsche did not believe that contemporary man had reached the level of debasement of the last man, yet. However, he does make it clear that he believed that modernity was gradually setting us on that path.
No doubt he would have considered such modern values as egalitarianism and democratic governance to be antecedents of this trend. And admittedly there is certainly something to be said about the paradox of how it is exactly that with the advancement of security and comfort in the modern world, the continued rates of severe depression has increased exponentially (with no signs of leveling out). These may be issues that modern society ought to take seriously, and seek possible remedies to, but whether the ideal of the overman is the means by which these issues are to be best resolved remains to be seen.
Perhaps it’s manageable to contain the chaotic and destructive realities of life, and embracing their rightful place within the natural order; all while striving for greater security and comfort for as many people as possible. It may be true that by seeking to find a middle ground between Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the overman and the last man, we are sacrificing the creative and spiritual potential of humanity, in favor of finding simple contentment in life (i.e. instead of living truly fulfilling lives, we are just trying to survive through them). By all accounts, the answer to this dilemma depends on what priorities one has for oneself as an individual and society as a whole. And finding a consensus on the path forward human nature ought to be taking is certainly an obstacle too challenging to overcome—possibly even for the overman.
 The German word Übermensch is variably translated as both overman and superman, depending on the translation one uses. For this essay I decided to use “overman”, popularized by famed Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann, as I believe it better conveys the philosophical underpinnings that the term is meant to encompass by its originator.
I have an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories. Now, when I say this please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t actually buy into the stated details of conspiracy theories, I’m just fascinated by how much devotion and faith people put into them. How a person will take several halfway demonstrable, halfway ludicrous details, and then loosely connect them into something which at first glance sounds like a plausible narrative, but on any close inspection falls apart under the most basic level of scrutiny.
Despite what some might think, I am wholly unconvinced that either intelligence or education plays a significant role in deterring people away from believing in conspiracy theories, because such theories are not really about filling the gaps of our mind’s ignorance and shortcomings. It’s about satisfying a base desire for witnessing something greater, higher, that is closed to the majority of the “deluded” masses. This is what makes conspiracy theories appealing to its proponents.
I was still young when Lady Diana died in 1997, but I was old enough to take note of the reactions people around me had to the news. It took about four minutes after hearing the news for several members in my family to staunchly announce how they didn’t accept the “mainstream” story. Why didn’t they accept it? What tangible evidence did they have to make them doubt the news report? Essentially none, but it didn’t matter. There suspicion was that the simple answer must be a distraction to cover up the real story. Or, as one person put it, “I cannot believe that there isn’t more to this whole thing.” This sentence, I believe, captures the mindset most of us have, most of the time, when we are confronted with some awestruck piece of data.
Of course, the official report of the incident was that Diana and her boyfriend died after crashing in a road tunnel in Paris, due to the driver losing control of the vehicle. But this just wasn’t grand enough for some people, who to this day maintain that there has to be more to it. And no investigation will be enough to convince any of them otherwise, because any investigator who comes up with a different conclusion will simply be evidence of the greater conspiracy. Most conspiracy theories follow a similar line of reasoning, regardless of the facts or details presented to them to negate their favored narrative.
We have an innate aversion to simplicity. Just repeating a story we hear isn’t enough, we need to add more complex details onto it to make it more digestible for wider consumption; refine it and move the narrative forward with facts we think ought to be included with the official details.
It can’t be that politicians are simply corrupt and self-serving, they must also be secretly operating under the direction of an unknown shadow government, which is menacingly pulling the strings behind the curtain. And (occasionally) this shadow government has to be made up of shape-shifting, inter-dimensional lizards, whose bloodline traces back to ancient Babylon; or a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles using the blood of their child victims to maintain their youth and power.
It’s not enough to say that life on earth is simply adaptive to its environment, there has to be more to it; some kind of grand purpose and intent operating on a level too complex, too powerful for out meager minds to fathom. This line of thinking is even stronger when we don’t have enough facts to draw any kind of clear conclusion, in such a case we’ll reason that even a conspiracy theory is better than no theory.
Simple reasons and answers are often not enough to do the job for us, because simplicity can never meet the expectations of our innately suspicious imaginations. What does satisfy our suspicion is a narrative that goes counter to the mainstream. That only those of us who are of the most elite intellect can grasp: “The Illuminati may be fooling you but it’ll never fool me.”
Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is the layer of excitement they bring to everyday facts. It is stimulating beyond belief to lose oneself in all the various plots and details of a hidden world, even if its veracity is only verified by a very questionable set of complex circumstances; this just makes it more exciting. The other part of the appeal is the strange level of remote plausibility it brings to the table. For instance, there is no denying that people have conspired in the past (and still do today), often for ominous reasons (an example being the documented long history of unethical humane experimentation in the United States). And this air of remote plausibility is more than enough to keep peoples suspicions on high alert, except when it comes to scrutinizing the various details being used to support the particular conspiracy theory they have chosen to embrace.
We know that the human mind is in many ways constrained in its ability to rationalize the world, thus we are constantly seeking the higher, the greater, the unimaginable as our answer of choice. The strange thing is that as the answer we are seeking becomes more nuanced and complex the simpler it will begin to seem to us, and we will insist that our highly elaborate, immensely complicated and circumstantial answer, is really the most simple and obvious of them all. Because by that point we have already accepted the narrative of the conspiracy, where the grand conclusion is being used to fill in the details, instead of the observable details being used to arrive at the most possible conclusion (be it simple or complex).
Many people will attest how it is in the awe of nature that they find themselves most inspired and most elevated to gain knowledge of the great splendors surrounding life’s beauty. In the world of literature, few articulated this sentiment better than William Wordsworth, who insisted how it is in the very nature of man to rob this same beauty he is seeking to understand of its essence by reducing it to trivial functions and mechanics. William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” (1798) captures this perspective perfectly, as the English poet expresses his discontent with the cold materialism of the Enlightenment tradition, by appealing to the reader’s numinous instincts and pleas for the superiority of observing the world through a romantic lens.
As a poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring,” is written for the salvation of the human soul: “To her fair works did Nature link the Human soul that through me ran.” Here, Wordsworth is establishing the idea of Nature (always written with an uppercase “N”) as the unifying theme of life, and that the human soul is a cumulative product of its work, whose place lies inseparable from its origin. But he continues, “And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”
Whereas the poet begins with the concept of Nature as the creator and preserver of man’s soul, and thereby the ultimate source of his being, he is now introducing the danger that is bound to occur whenever man seeks to define Nature (and his place in it) by his own terms, rather than allowing Nature to define him, because any objective method of analysis demands for him to remove himself from his subject matter. Hence, in this pursuit of knowledge man will fail utterly by foolishly distancing himself from the thing he is attempting to get closer to.
According to Wordsworth, this has already happened and is shown in our inability to reflect on Nature through the acknowledgement that our presence is as much a part of her order as any other organism we might scientifically observe: “The birds around me hopped and played, their thoughts I cannot measure: –But the least motion which they made, it seemed a thrill of pleasure ” or, put more succinctly, what the poet probably means to say is how their thoughts he need not measure, because it does nothing to enhance the joyous sight either for himself or for the gleeful birds. The very fact that the birds themselves are unable to reflect on the science of their pleasure, yet are still aware of the basic principles of great joy without the need to analytically deconstruct, suggests to Wordsworth that the utility of man’s rational approach to seeing Nature is deeply flawed.
The imagery Wordsworth uses is one of finding tranquil solace in simplicity, calling on man to recollect with the true provider of his senses, i.e. Nature. Wordsworth argues that it is to his great shame that through man’s desire to study the natural world he has positioned himself outside the workings of Nature, observing it as if he is not a central component of her. Wordsworth illustrates this in his poem by describing the manner by which all the individual parts and players found in the natural world—the flowers, the periwinkle, the birds and trees—while still remaining independent agents, never fancy themselves as being outside the workings of the grand scheme; instead basking in the beautiful harmony of Nature’s order. Man, on the other hand, is spiritually torn; he instinctively knows that he is a part of Nature, and feels a cosmic urge to better understand her, but the more he interjects his anthropocentric lens to pursue this end the more likely he is to drive a wedge between himself and the true essence of Nature’s work.
In the poem, Wordsworth speaks from a first-person perspective, expressing his veneration for the serene beauty of Nature, and his utter disgust at how man remains oblivious to her all-encompassing presence (note, always referring to Nature in the feminine, and personalized, her). After describing the various parts making up the spirit of the natural world, the poet states, “And I must think, do all I can, that there was pleasure there,” to proclaim his break from the empiricist view of life. It is important to note how he says that he must do all he can to preserve the notion in his mind that all these seemingly harmonious creatures of Nature are indeed infused with pleasure. This is perhaps a subtle reflection by the poet on how, as a man, he is also subject to fall to the same empiricist vice if he neglects to notice his place as a product within the natural order.
This sort of thinking follows in line well with the Romantic tradition Wordsworth writes in, especially works such as “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” where he explains how “a Poet, is implied nothing different in kind from other men, but only in degrees.” A poet only differs from other men in his ability to reveal the truth (in Wordsworth case, this is to reveal what he perceived as man’s true relation to the spirit of Nature) to his fellow brethren. Moreover, this suggests to the reader that despite the pessimistic slant about the tattered tendency of man expressed in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” there is in Wordsworth eyes still the glimmer of hope for man to reform his follies by embracing the pure emotion Nature has endowed him with, which will enable him to accept his self-evident role as an interdependent piece of a grander scheme of her beauty.
In the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth further describes the poet as “the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love.” At first glance this seems to contrast sharply with his closing lines in the poem:
If this belief from heaven be sent, If such be Nature’s holy plan, Have I not reason to lament What man has made of man?”
But does not this condemnation of man’s perversion of his own place in Nature’s plan also reveal a deeper appeal to man’s dignity? It is clear that Wordsworth considers man to have deluded himself in his mechanical approach to studying Nature, but does not his stern tone convey sorrow at what we ourselves have done against nature with the greatest gift Nature has bestowed on us: our minds? In Wordsworth eyes, the poet knows the great potential of man, and has no choice but to shutter and weep at its foolish squandering, where he neglects his creative spark of emotion for the less spiritually fulfilling cult of Reason (which Wordsworth associates with the Enlightenment that preceded him intellectually just a short generation prior). And it is the poet’s duty to expose this treachery, not as a condemnation but as a defense of human nature.
In Wordsworth’s work, Nature is god—with a lowercase g. It is the absolute, the model on which all life is centered around. Man is sinful in the sense that he has alienated himself from Nature, and will find salvation only by returning to its good graces. A feat that can only be accomplished by freeing oneself from the baggage of society’s materialism, and return (more so spiritually, than physically) to our proper place within Nature’s own divine plan, as dependent components of its transcendent essence.
Though Wordsworth was a professing Anglican, his musings on nature cannot be called religious in an orthodox sense of the word, but he is still a deeply religious figure if one takes into account his adherents to the belief that man’s spiritual soul needs to be nourished through the adoration of his creator, the true reason for his existence, i.e. Nature herself. Wordsworth appears to be realistic about the prospect of man’s recognition of this, and even suggest that man’s very nature prevents him from reaching the ultimate goal of completely submerging into the omnipresence of Nature’s power. Nonetheless, the fact of man’s spiritual limitations should not prevent him from striving to be as spiritually fulfilled as possible, using the Romantic ideals at his disposal to ascend himself and society to a plane of better understanding his place in the finely detailed workings of the universe.
The great reflection described by Wordsworth in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” serves the function of giving man a framework on which to build his own mental shrine to the aesthetic beauty that encompasses his surroundings, and pay devotion to Nature’s work. Yes, it is idealistic, and unashamedly so. Aiming to tell man how to think, rather than what to think; constantly holding a mirror to his face, and firmly reflecting back to him the self-evident truth of his disposition; forever tied in with the essence of what to Wordsworth is his soul’s being: Nature’s eternal spirit.
Throughout the history of American cinema in the 20th Century film narratives served as a decent reflection of where the general public consensus stood in regard to America’s domestic or foreign affairs. Westerns in particular played a vital role in being able to encapsulate the nation’s mood, and broaden it by promoting a nostalgic wanting for the country’s simpler, if largely mythical, frontier past.
Although the initial tone of this cultural molding was done in favor of the American ideal by the likes of John Ford and Michael Curtiz, the impact of Vietnam, the collapse of President Johnson’s Great Society, and the near universal betrayal felt by the nation through the Watergate scandal, all worked together to gradually shift the tone in the public consciousness, and as a result, the movie narrative right along with it. John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape from New York is the culminating product of this trend, set in a dystopian American in the not too distant future (1997), the once heralded ideals of lawfulness, respect and responsibility in governance has vanished, leaving less than a handful of individuals who still embody the true rugged sense of American virtue.
The film begins by introducing the audience to the events that have led up to the dire world America has found itself in. In 1988, the crime rate has risen by 400% (no doubt an allusion to the growing crime rate seen in American urban centers in the 1970s), and Manhattan island, of the once great city of New York, has been turned into a maximum security prison to keep the dangerous forces of society at bay. Left to roam on their own in the streets of Manhattan, the thugs, murderers, and crazies, forge a Hobbesean social order in their own image, which while confined, is ultimately without constraints.
The central plot of the movie is a symbolic parallel of the disillusionment Americans have been experiencing towards their government for the better part of the preceding decades, and what happens when the authorities responsible for creating such an environment find themselves at the receding side of the contempt they have created.
In the film, the President of the United States is forced to crash land in the Manhattan prison-state after his plane is hijacked by the anti-government terrorist group National Liberation Front, from which point on he is left at the mercy of the criminals running the area (primarily the self-appointed Duke of New York). Both of these casual events are brought about from the policies the President himself either enacted or was associated with through the system that helped foster it. Therefore, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy for the man, a message Carpenter may have intended on the grounds that he opted to keep the character nameless throughout the plot, leaving him to be the ideal bureaucratic representation of any and every administrative and legislative figure of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, the protagonist is the rogue fugitive Snake Plissken, whose role in trying to save the President is one of staunch reluctance brought on through outright entrapment by the state authorities; a strong nod to the fuming Vietnam draft generation.
Whereas in the past the heroes of cinema, in particular Westerns, fully displayed a sense of idealist fervor towards protecting and living up to the quasi-mythical notion of what America is and ought to be, Plissken shows no such romantic illusions. The sub-plot of having to rescue the President in time for him to attend a summit with the USSR and China to divulge information on nuclear fusion, vaguely explained as vital for “the survival of the human race,” is treated with utter disinterest by Plissken who sees his own personal survival as being of far greater importance than the political quarreling between despots.
This general mood is a clear indication of the cynicism the American public had been feeling about its government, and the breakdown of the American myth in cinema signaled an end to “the sanctioning of ‘cowboy’ or vigilante-style actions by public officials and covert operatives who defy public law and constitutional principles in order to ‘to do what a man’s gotta do.’” However, rather than disappear completely, the envoy of the American spirit was simply transferred from the national scale to the disgruntled individual, which is what Plissken’s character is meant to signify. He was a war hero, turned criminal in a country that is probably unrecognizable to him from the one he once fought for, and possibly once believed in. Hence, the old nostalgia characteristic of the Western is still present, but the prospect for hope in the future has been extinguished.
Snake Plissken is easily recognized by every character he happens to run into on his rescue mission in New York, often being met with the bemused statement, “I heard you were dead.” To which he once tellingly responds, “I am.” If Plissken is meant to be the stand-in for the American public at large in the midst of a corrupt, disengaged social order, than as the remaining glow of what was once the shining light of American values, the aforementioned greeting takes on a highly pessimistic overtone. “In a healthy society the political and cultural leaders are able to repair and renew that myth by articulating new ideas, initiating strong action in response to crisis, or merely projecting an image of heroic leadership.”
But in the dystopian society Escape from New York depicts, the political leadership is not so much portrayed as too tyrannical to project a heroic image, but too impotent to even attempt it. The President is easily kidnapped, and his life is held at the will of the lowest sectors of society, and even with all the vast resources of the nation unable to do anything about it; this is not an image of a power that has over-asserted its might, but the measly shadow of a tamed and defanged creature. The fate of the country and the world is at stake and the people (or person, in Plissken’s case) are too disillusioned to give a damn.
The final conversation Plissken has with the President after rescuing him is the most revealing, as Plissken asks him, “We did get you out. A lot of people died in the process. How do you feel about that?” Coming from Plissken this sort of curiosity is interesting, because it shows that behind the cynicism and lost hope there is still at least a memory of a former ideal, when such things may have seemed to matter. Of course, the President’s response of mindless political rhetoric only works to further cement the disgust Plissken has for the public figures running the country. A sentiment many Americans in 1981 would have easily identified with.
In contrast to similar movies like Deathwish, which explore the widespread cynicism prevalent in America in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York leaves the viewer with no foreseeable remedy for the decadent situation. In fact, judging by the act of sabotage by Plissken against the President’s urgent message to the other superpowers of the world, the message Carpenter appears to be trying to convey is that although things are bad now, things will get worse, with no prospect of recapturing the optimism of a bygone era. No doubt resonating fears in the audience of an imminent last man scenario, where the cherished ideals of yesterday are not just fading away, but ultimately not worth fighting for.
Ian Fleming’s 007 James Bond spy novels earn their place in the mystery genre for setting up an archetype that’s been recreated and rebranded across genres and generations. As well as for creating a character whose name transcends recognition beyond just its source material.
As far as the writing goes, Fleming obviously was fond of writing on topics he personally had an interest, and elaborating on said topics in as much extensively long-winded detail as possible. Seriously, paragraph after paragraph is written, stretching across a multitude of pages, going over card game rules, drink selections, and food preferences. After reading a James Bond novel I can give you a better recollection of Bond’s breakfast than I can of my own. In a way, I suppose it makes sense that a spy’s head would force the reader to focus on even the most mundane of details as a means of training oneself to register all facts about one’s surroundings. However, it is also forgivable if a reader tires of the elaborate and intricate descriptions of every glass of orange juice, suitcase, and burnt toast crumb between all the more interesting espionage action scenes.
James Bond in the books is also very much a character of the mid-20th century. Hence, his widespread display of casual chauvinism and colonial-minded racism in service of Queen and Country are inherent traits that don’t get softened in the course of the novels, as the film version does through the decades and into the turn of the century.
Although not the best written spy fiction, the 007 series is definitely worth a read even if only to get a historical glimpse at the origins of a character that’s become a cultural icon, and which will undoubtedly continue to evolve on the silver screen as the times demand it.
The eternal recurrence is most heavily referred to by Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1883 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it serves primarily as a thought experiment proposed by the title character (Zarathustra) that is meant to designate a supreme achievement of human development; the ascension to a higher type of consciousness in man.
In Zarathustra, Nietzsche conceives of a cyclical universe, where every event is ever recurring, across an infinite stretch of time, forever. Nietzsche’s intent is to focus the mind of his readers on a possible reality in which every action they had committed (all faults, setbacks, mistakes, and wrongdoings) was bound to be repeated by them, an infinite amount of time. Where they would be forced to endure their shame and grief over and over again, unable to change or improve on any past misdeeds, for all eternity. And then to ask the question: “Would you be willing to bear such a reality?” Would a person be able to cope with knowing that s/he will have to helplessly live through all the pains, heartbreaks, bad decisions, and grief that s/he has already struggled through once in life? And would this person, aware of this eternal recurrent, still manage to affirm a will to live?
Nietzsche believed that most people alive would decisively shriek a unanimous “No!” to such a proposition, because it would seem too bleak and fatalistic a fate to have to eternally return to one’s life’s errors, infinitely doomed to recommit one’s sins (for lack of a better term). Nietzsche saw this as a reflection of the destitute modern man has surrendered himself to; the wanting denial of one’s true existence. He contrasted this with what he called amor fati (Lat. love of fate):
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it (Ecce Homo, “Why I am So Clever,” section 10).
To be able to look at the compilation of one’s life, with all one’s mistakes and regrets, and still unashamedly proclaim one’s desire to relive it all as is (with no intent to alter one’s past actions), is according to Nietzsche the ultimate affirmation of life—a full embrace of one’s existence, a testament to the arrival of the overman (Ger. Übermensch).
Although the eternal recurrence was a central theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche seemed to have somewhat abandoned the thought experiment in much of his later work (he makes no mention of it in either Beyond Good and Evil or On the Genealogy of Morals). However, this appears to be a hasty conclusion, since Nietzsche does make continuous references to the basic sentiment found in his 1883 philosophical novel, and seems to be expanding on the same core concepts in his later writings.
This eternal return, and its importance in signifying the coming of the overman, is Nietzsche’s attempt to offer a possible redemption narrative for humanity. A means by which man can take the fatalistic nature of life, and surpass its dire implications by ascending beyond them into a realm of complete oneness with all the facts and events that come together to compose one’s life story. Yet, this redemption is not inevitable, for man (or “modern man,” as Nietzsche would say) is in a constant state of rejecting amor fati, and moving away from self-acceptance, in favor of finding acceptance with “higher” ideals, that are imagined to dwell exterior and superior to oneself. This is the fate of what Zarathustra called the “last man”—the alternate fate of mankind—the final descend of mankind to a sheepish, complacent shell of what he once was, living in fear of his own existence.
The greatest myth surrounding the notion of a good worker rests on the misconception everyone has regarding what constitutes having a good work ethic in the first place. The definitions employers have in mind when thinking of a good worker involves a somewhat contradictory set of characteristics: be assertive, yet obedient; innovative, but reserved; simultaneously equal parts independent-minded, and conformist.
The reason why these sort of schizoid expectations exist among the management class of the workforce is due to the fluid nature of the definitions they work with. The only thing of importance to employers is whether or not the worker is maximizing gains and profits for them, and the proper adjectives believed to have been necessary to accomplish this goal will follow from there (always after the fact), and will be adjusted as situations call for them to be; regardless of whether the call of the current situation contradicts the call of the previous.
Employees, on their end, hold to an equally self-deluded (and self-defeating) model of what it means to be a good worker. Putting aside sheepish mindsets that essentially boil down to tautologies like “good workers do work that please their bosses,” the popular notion of being a good worker for most people is showing dedication to one’s job, and putting in the hard work to prove it. And legions of hard working, dedicated members of the workforce will follow this line of thinking from their first days of employment, up to their retirements, without so much as a decent pension to their names when it’s all said and done.
What is the actual truth of the matter? It’s simply: When it comes to being a good worker, a dedicated employee, an asset to the company, your actual work ethic is irrelevant—it is only the perception of your work ethic that matters. In work, like in most sectors of life, perception is the reality of every situation, be it an accurate representation of the facts or not. If you are seen and referred to as the company wunderkind, despite the fact that your only solid idea/contribution was a halfway decent suggestion over a decade ago (which someone higher up than you on the totem pole mistakenly credits you for) you will be seen and treated as what you are believed to be, not as you are. Likewise, if you have a reputation as the company screw-up on account of one misstep years ago, it won’t matter that you’ve been consistently contributing 100% of backbreaking labor to every project since then; you will forever occupy the lowliest peg of the company ladder, because it’s easier for people to continue to see you as what they believe you to be, than to have to put in the effort to update their faulty perception.
Is this an unfair system? It is human nature, and by virtue of being human you cannot escape from it.
Setting the record straight on a few things, first:
Before trying to define themselves as good workers, the obvious question people ask is what sort of career should I enter to give me the greatest return for my laboring investment? And if you gave your education some forethought, the answer may be as obvious as the question. However, the truth is that most job skills are largely interchangeable, and most educations are merely a formality necessary to be better positioned to get a job in the first place. Hence, you should approach any occupational endeavor armed with the correct understanding of what it means to be perceived as a good worker in said line of work, rather than waste time actually trying to become one.
Having said all that, do not insult either your intelligence, or mine, by asking if this means that one can be a lazy, incompetent worker and still get ahead. The sorts of people who immediately jump to this brainless conclusion are the sort looking to find anything to negate the truth of their wasted lives’ efforts. You understand perfectly well that what’s meant is not an excuse for laziness, but a strategic manipulation of a flawed system in your favor. Which in summary just means that it is simply pointless to waste time on things that serve no greater purpose for your benefit.
Who moved your cheese? I DID, now do something about it!
A key part of this drive to not to waste time is the fact that you should never settle for a job that offers no advancement. While you have to incorporate niceties and diplomacy in your social interactions, your work life will be one area in which a self-serving attitude will be easily mistaken for a healthy dose of ambition. Yes, you will still need to be perceived as affable and likeable from various cliques that make up your fellow workforce, but you will also be rewarded for looking out for yourself first.
Of course, you will never be able to speak of what you are doing in such open terms, but the higher-ups that will enable your professional advancement will recognize it and respond appropriately. The reason being that many of those in such positions are as self-interested as you; meaning that they can and will serve your bottom line, at least for as long as both of your bottom lines align. It’s also why you should feel no remorse at undermining even these actors who at one point helped you, because in reality they were merely using you to help themselves. This last bit is perfectly acceptable, as long as you recognize it and manage to stay one step ahead of them.
This is the core of the topic at hand, though it is easier asked than explained. Many of your breakthroughs in this endeavor will come from the work you put in at the beginning of your career’s journey. It is never too early to reason out who within the structure will be an asset to your professional advancement, and who will be a hindrance, and to map out your interactions accordingly.
Most of the people you see around you will be of no use whatsoever—either towards your benefit, or your detriment—so do not waste time thinking about the sheep meandering about complacently in their lowly positions. The people who are most of benefit to you will be the ones ranked above you. Having said that, keep in mind that while endearing yourself to supervisors and managers is fine, it is also too roundabout of an approach for a long-term strategy. There will always be one boss, or at most a handful of bosses, and this group is the one your sights need to be on from day one, because it is their ranks you aim to join (and, if need be, displace) one day soon.
Dropping the Deadweight:
There is another group of people you need to identify from the get-go of your career: the deadweight. They aren’t always easy to spot, but every job has them, and by the time you do realize which ones they are, the last thing you want is to have tied yourself to them in any way whatsoever. You have to be cognizant of the fact that certain employees are simply not meant to rise anywhere beyond the position they currently occupy, and because association is shorthand all humans use to judge the characters of those around them, you will be perceived as occupying an equally lowly position in the hierarchy if you associate with these kind of people (and, remember, perception is the key to everything here). That doesn’t mean to ignore them, or speak down to them, especially since you may still need their collective support to buttress your own rise upward, but it does mean that you need to draw clear boundaries between yourself and them. If you want to move up, you cannot waste any time on those who serve no purpose other than to keep you down.
You will also encounter those who start out as assets, but then become deadweight as the tide turns against them. This is why it is never wise to place all bets on one game and hope it works out in the end. Humans—being only human—make missteps, and can fall from the favorable positions they once held. And you do not want to be standing too close to anybody when their fall becomes inevitable. This is yet another point where perception comes into play.
Welcome to Backstabberville! Population: You
Give the impression of being on everyone’s side while being on no one’s other than your own. It’s a talent of manipulation that takes considerable skill to carry out successfully, but only because so many people lack the resolve to keep with the script and never get comfortable in any one place, allied to any one person. The best way to accomplish this is to never reveal too much about yourself, while learning as much as possible about the person you are interacting with.
When people disclose information about themselves, no matter how seemingly mundane and trivial, they are leaving themselves vulnerable to you, because they will associate you as someone who knows them—the true them—and will therefore recognize you as someone who they will need to appease out of fear of being exposed. You will never need to say anything about it, or even hint at it; this feeling will naturally overcome them as they realize how much they’ve confided in you. You will suffer from no such handicap, since you will have offered no valuable details about your person to them. And they will not bother to ask for any, because everyone prefers to talk about themselves, while paying no mind to the consequences of their narcissistic solipsism until it’s already too late. This flaw in human reasoning will serve your desires well, if you take care to use it to your advantage.
The best way to ensure that you are taking full advantage of it is by keeping yourself guarded from others. However, care also needs to be taken not to come across as a total outcast, lest you risk leaving yourself exposed during pivotal moments when a consolidation of powers is required.
Go to the company outings, mingle at the happy hour, and overall endear yourself to everyone enough to give off the impression of a well-adjusted person. Although your real goal in doing this is to get a chance to develop a personal rapport with those in the company that can aid your advancement, but by making a habit to attend most of these social events with your coworkers, it will establish you as someone for whom socializing comes easy, setting up a positive reputation around you where no eyebrows will be raised when you do get the opportunity to strike up a conversation with the boss of the company, and charm him or her over to your good graces.
Beware though of the fact that nobody likes an ass-kisser, including the people whose asses are getting routinely kissed. Your goal is not to give the impression that you are subservient to the boss, but a potential equal. When the chance arises, always give constructive feedback, and do it confidently. A good rule of thumb by which to manage office interactions is to speak in exact statements when you want something done, and speak in questions when you want someone else to do something for you.
When an occasion calls for a more passive approach, phrasing your wants as simple questions goes a long way in ensuring that you’ll get your way in the end. Saying something as innocuous as, “Are we still doing it by way of xyz?” is covertly powerful because it plants the idea in the listeners heads that this is the way it must have always been done, whether they were aware of it or not, and will cause them to update their thinking on how they’ve been doing it up to that point out of fear that they have been doing it wrong all along. Even if someone replies to the question in the negative, and goes so far as to insist that you are wrong, people’s innate desire to avoid conflict and confrontation will force them to accept it as nothing more than an innocent question on your part. It might even work to increase your favorability rating with them, since you appear to be someone trying to get to the bottom of how things ought to be handled, as well as someone who welcomes corrections when faced with them.
Another easy way to get your way is to ask, “Are you still going to have that assignment/project ready by this Friday?” since it implication that this is something that they should have been working on all along, and to not accept it now would be to admit to a lack of capability to complete the task—and nobody wants to appear to be incompetent (even if all evidence points to the truth of just that). Overall, this passive form of manipulation to get your way by way of asking strategic questions is admittedly best utilized against those occupying a lower rank or expertise than you in the company. When it comes to dealing with higher-ups a more assertive tone is necessary.
When the boss asks for your input regarding something the rest of the team hasn’t made up their minds about, always have a readymade reply on hand for any situation. This means staying on top of the trends of the industry you happen to be working in, as well as understanding just basic Management 101 talking points that are freely available literally everywhere. Once you throw an idea on the table you assert an aura of authority on your person. Because you are the one that got the ball rolling it will be easy for you to claim ownership of everything that gets added on to whatever it is you proposed, even if the final contribution sounds completely different from what you said. No matter if it’s better than what you initially said, and no matter whom it was that improved on your idea, do not let up the impression that the entirety of the brainstorming session gets credited to you. The best way to maintain this impression in this situation is to speak in firm statements, and to never allow the talk to end without asserting a quick summary on what was just discussed, while adding your endorsement to the plan.
You might be thinking now, “What if it ends up being a bad idea? I don’t want to get the blame for something that wasn’t even really my idea.” But this is myopic thinking. How often does your boss have a lousy idea, only to never have to deal with the repercussion personally? If we’re being honest, probably quite a lot. The same logic must apply to your reasoning, if you are in fact doing everything to climb the ranks of the company. That conversation in which you took ownership of the new path forward for the company is not the last and final word you will have about the topic. Once everything starts coming together on the project, stay alert to the trajectories that are at play, and keep your interactions with the people who matter in accordance to whatever the numbers tell you. This means that if everything is going well, continue to speak of the project as “my project”; if the numbers look like they aren’t working out as well as expected, dilute the responsibility away from you personally by shifting your language to the “team’s project.” Once again, perception will come into play, and whatever is most repeated will become the fact of the matter.
The important thing to keep in mind in all this is that every move you make, and every word you speak, is by design a power play, and power plays come with some amount of risk. Your goal is to reap the benefits when the risk pays off, and minimize the fallout against yourself if it goes bad.
Oh, and one final thing: always be sure to read the tone between the lines of what’s in front on you, and to always be on lookout for subtle clues of what’s really being presented, and the underlying theme being highlighted. Or, to put it plainly: