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Aaron James

Skye Cleary interviews Aaron James about his new book, Surfing With Sartre.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s not normally associated with surfing: he much preferred being in a Parisian café than in nature; and as you say, surfing is more often associated with waves than wisdom. My first instinct was that Albert Camus would have been more connected with a Mediterranean lifestyle of sun, sand, and surf. So why Surfing with Sartre?

Sartre has long passages in Being and Nothingness (1943) about why skiing exemplifies freedom. At one point he pauses to note that waterskiing, a kind of ‘sliding’ upon water, is even better; he calls it ‘the ideal limit of aquatic sports’. So he’d be the first to welcome a phenomenology of surfing. However, I think that leads you away from his view of freedom toward a more embodied, embedded, achievement-oriented perspective, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty articulated. The surfer’s view contrasts with Sartre’s dour existentialism on a whole range of questions, so Sartre is a natural interlocutor. But I do engage with Camus as well.

You ultimately disagree with Sartre though. So can you say something about how a surfer’s experience undermines Sartrean existentialism?

Aaron James
Aaron James
Portrait photo © Skye Schmidt

A key difference is that the surfer’s exercise of skill – in knowing how to be ‘adaptively attuned’ to constant change – is valuable for its own sake as a sublime and beautiful way of spending one’s limited time in life. So the act of surfing can’t itself be absurd, as some existentialists accused the universe of being; at least not in the sense of a conspicuous gap between pretence and reality, which is Thomas Nagel’s definition of absurdity. While surfing on a crowded day can be absurd given our expectations of what surfing should be, the basic act of riding a wave for its own sake has no larger pretences, so it doesn’t purport to have any larger meaning that would be undercut if it turned out that life was meaningless in some general or cosmic way.

Even if the universe as a whole were meaningless – as Sartre, the disappointed romantic, would maintain – there’s still plenty of genuine meaning in life for a person: in surfing, in other exercises of skill, or in attuned relations with others, done just for their own sakes. Sartre treats this sort of individual meaning as somehow created from nothing, ex nihilo, from one’s free choice – for example, to be a surfer. But that’s a mistake about the value of surfing from the surfer’s perspective. Surfing is not worthy because it’s chosen, as Sartre would say; rather, it’s eminently worthy of being chosen, and chosen for one’s limited time in life, for intrinsic reasons; in other words, just because of what it is.

Can ‘adaptive attunement’, the essence of surfing, be applied to non-surfing realms?

Surfing is a relationship between a person and a wave, but it has a social analogue. In walking a busy city street, for instance, you’re constantly adapting your walking, slowing, or shifting sideways – being attuned to what other pedestrians are doing. Many skillful activities involve a form of ‘adaptive attunement’, and if they aren’t surfing properly speaking, or not even ‘crowd surfing’, the general way they are similar to surfing highlights a key part of their meaning and value.

The concept of ‘flow’ is a strong theme throughout the book. Why is it important?

When psychology and self-help books talk about flow, they treat it as a state of ‘optimal experience’ that can be controlled from within by mental self-discipline. That’s basically a neo-Stoic perspective, which I believe derives from Viktor Frankl’s account of the Stoic-like methods that helped people survive Nazi concentration camps. But surfers surely know something about flow, since for them going with a flow is a way of life, often quite literally. And they’ll tell you that flow ain’t all in the head. Flow is the real, dynamic relationship – the coalescence between skill and circumstance – that emerges between surfer and wave. It’s a kind of self-transcendence that Stoicism, existentialism or Buddhism don’t capture very well. Surfing also helps us see what’s so valuable about flow, what all the fun and experiential enjoyment is ultimately about. Maybe ‘adaptive attunement’ is close to what Buddhism is after, but in surfing the goal is more modest and comes by a much easier route. You don’t need to abandon desire, or lose your concept of self, or meditate, or even be very disciplined, beyond surfing regularly. You grab your board and just paddle out, motivated by your firm loving attachment to waves and surfing them.

A surfer’s lifestyle, you suggest, can be an antidote to consumerism and global warming. How?

Since work as we now practice it creates greenhouse gasses, one way to benefit society is to work less and do something less resource-consuming instead, such as going surfing. So, surfers aren’t lazy good-for-nothing freeloaders who should really get a job; they’re the new model of civic virtue! The workaholic is the new problem-child. I mean, an important way we might mitigate climate change, along with more urgent measures, is to cut back the work week and set up a basic income so that people can work part-time. I think a lot of people share the surfer’s preference for time over money. If it can be made feasible for them, many people would be willing to work less and hit the lake or the beach – or do more gardening, or art projects, or get to know their spouse, or spend time with the kids, whatever. In economic parlance, more leisure for everyone is potentially an efficient adaptation which leaves no one worse off and asks no sacrifice of anyone. This is the sort of climate adaption we might really get used to, and so maybe actually implement, at least eventually. And in that case, we’re definitely morally obliged to do it, as we’d reduce the risks of profound injury to future people. So who could complain? I should go surfing and do my bit for society? Twist my arm!

• Skye C. Cleary is a visiting lecturer at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York, and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love (2015).

Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning, by Aaron James, was published by Doubleday in 2017.

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