Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West?

The headline jumped out at me: ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’ to Give “Buddhism Naturalized” Talk. Wow. Most dangerous? Really? I had to learn more.

The man’s name is Slavoj Zizek, and he’s a Slovenian philosopher who will be speaking at the University of Vermont this Oct. 16. Now, what I wanted to know was why is he the ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’. Unfortunately the article, actually a press release posted on the UVM website, didn’t tell me. But it did say that Slavoj Zizek has also been called the “Elvis of cultural theory.” Whoa, that’s a big claim.

Sorry, Slavoj, but Elvis is still the ‘Elvis of Cultural Theory’ to me.

Naturally, I dug deeper. According to a post I found on what makes Zizek so dangerous is “his analysis of the worldwide ecological crisis, the biogenetic revolution, and apocalyptic economic imbalances.” Hmm, does that make him more dangerous than say, Al Gore? Maybe, but I’m not sure about it. Nor am I sure about why he’s the “Elvis of cultural theory” either. Maybe he swivels his hips when he gives talks.

Not yet satisfied, I went to Zizek’s Wikipedia page and found out that he was born in 1949, and that his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology (which makes me think of the 1977 Bunuel film, That Obscure Object of Desire for some reason) was published in 1989. He has a lot more accolades than just the two I noted above; he’s also “one of the world’s best known public intellectuals”, “the thinker of choice for Europe’s young intellectual vanguard”, and according to the Telegraph in the UK, “the hippest philosopher in the world.” Damn, he must be a force to be reckoned with then.

I also learned that he’s a dogmatic Marxist. Cool! Me too! Who other than Groucho had more insight into society, economics and politics?

I am the most dangerous Marxist in the world.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”

Yep, for my money, Groucho’s dogma can’t be beat.

If you go to Zizek’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see about half-way down a notice that reads: This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Well, that stopped me right there. I don’t want to read something I can’t understand. What’s the point?

I did learn one final fact, and that’s that Mr. Zizek is an atheist. Which begs the question, why is an atheist giving a talk on Buddhism? I wish people would stick to their own area of expertise. I’m a Buddhist so I don’t go around giving lectures on Zurvanism. Of course, one reason for that is because I’m not sure what it is. I have a sneaky suspicion that Zizek doesn’t know much about Buddhism either.

So, what does Slavoj Zizek have to say about Buddha-dharma? Here’s one example, from an essay titled From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism:

“Western Buddhism” is such a fetish. It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

I never thought of it that way before. I think when I was in college I thought a lot about the frantic pace of the capitalist game, but it was too frantic. I couldn’t keep up. I was 32 when I officially became a Buddhist (my kind of Marxism and Buddhist don’t conflict). Since then, I’ve just been trying to overcome some suffering, find some enlightenment, and maybe help a few people along the way. But now, I may have to rethink things, because I certainly don’t want to have a fetish.

And while I’m thinking about it, I would like to know where you can withdraw your inner Self. Perhaps at a spiritual ATM? My ego tells me I’ve given too much of my self away. I think I want some of it back.

Zizek also says that “Nowhere is this fetishist logic more evident than apropos of Tibet, one of the central references of the post-Christian “spiritual” imaginary.” I think that means he’s not too hip on Tibet, but I can’t really tell because that sentence makes no sense to me. It must be too technical to understand.

I should be ashamed of myself for making fun of this guy. Obviously, I don’t know anything about him. I’m sure he’s a fine fellow, a great thinker, and probably a blast at parties. But then, in my book anyone who allows themselves to be billed as the most dangerous philosopher in the world West is sort of asking for it.

Besides, I feel there are too many philosophers around these days anyway. I’m all in favor of a moratorium on new philosophies.  Do we really need any more? I can’t handle what we got now. I say just say no to any new “isms.”

Or, as Groucho put it, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

The one and only Groucho in Horse Feathers.


The Joy of Marxism

The Three Marx GurusI am a Marxist. To the left is a rare photograph of my three principle gurus, Harpo, Groucho, and Chico. Last week at a press conference in New York, the Dalai Lama announced that he, too, was a Marxist. Unfortunately, we’re talking about two different kinds of Marxism.

Frankly, I don’t care if the Dalai Lama is a [Karl] Marxist or not. It’s not going to have much of an impact on the world economy. I don’t see eye to eye with the Dalai Lama on everything, but I think he is a nice guy and just about the only person in the world today consistently giving deep teachings on Madhyamaka philosophy and God love him for it. While I have not been able to find a complete transcript of the press conference, from what I’ve read about it apparently the Dalai Lama did draw a distinction between Marxism and Communism,  for whatever that is worth.

Now, as a True Marxist, I believe that a little socialism is a good thing and that too much capitalism can be bad. After all, as Groucho said, “Money cannot buy you happiness, and happiness cannot buy you money.”

Few are aware that Groucho was a student of Madhyamaka philosophy. Here’s a couple of passages that demonstrate what I mean.  The first comes from Nagarjuna’s Averting the Arguments (translated by JL Garfield):

If I had even one proposition,
It would be just as you have said.
Although if I had a proposition with the characteristic
that you described I would have that fault,
I have no proposition at all.
Thus, since all phenomena are empty,
at peace, by nature isolated, how could there be a proposition?

Groucho, the master philosopher, proclaimed this in Horse Feathers:

I don’t know what they have to say,
It makes no difference anyway,
Whatever it is, I’m against it.
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I’m against it!
Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood:
Whatever it is, I’m against it.
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
I’m against it!

Both avert every argument. There is essentially no difference between the two, except that Groucho’s verse rhymes. Where Nagarjuna rejects all propositions based on emptiness, Groucho rejects them based on contrariness. But contrariness is merely a state of being that is ultimately empty, so there you are.

Groucho’s sense of space and time is comparable to that of another Buddhist philosopher, Dogen. In Moon in a dewdrop, an anthology of Dogen’s works, Kazuaki Tanahashi writes, “To become familiar with Dogen’s concept of the time-being, we may need to remind ourselves that all phenomena are in motion, and that motion is perceived in relation to time.” He goes on to say that since every motion is relative, motion for one person may be stillness for another, and naturally the opposite would hold true.

There is a scene in Animal Crackers, where Groucho, as Capt. Spaulding, the African explorer, arrives past the time he was expected at the party. Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is exasperated that her guest of honor is late, and when Groucho does finally make his entrance, it is only to say:

Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going. I’m glad I came but just the same I must be going. I’ll stay a week or two, I’ll stay the summer through, but I am telling you, I must be going.

From Mrs. Rittenhouse’s perspective, Groucho has just arrived and should be staying, and especially since he is the guest of honor, she expects him to be in motion no longer. However, Groucho’s penetrating insight into space and time and deep compassion compels him to tell his hostess that he is always in motion, and further suggests that time is a continuum not marked by coming and going. In this way, Groucho echoes Dogen’s words: “Should you reckon one-sidedly that time only goes by, you will not comprehend time as something that has not yet arrived.”

I much prefer the Marxism of Harpo, Groucho and Chico, to that of Karl. He had only one good line and that was about religion being the opiate of the people, and no jokes. The Marx Brothers, on the other hand, had plenty of jokes and awfully good lines, such as Chico’s “Mustard’s no good without roast beef,” and Harpo’s immortal “Honk, honk.”

I must also admit that in addition to being a Marxist, I am an Lennonist:

God is a concept by which we measure our pain. I’ll say it again. God is a concept by which we measure our pain.

I’m not sure what Lennon means by that exactly. I don’t know what anyone means. The only thing I know for sure is that everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my monkey.