Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.
Stacks of pop philosophy books, from the late Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on down, have sought to equate everyday activities with a deeper understanding of reality and self. In Aaron James' new book, Surfing with Sartre, he uses the surfboard as a vehicle of enlightenment. It seems, at first glance, like a simple task. "Go with the flow," after all, might as well be the mantra of both the surfer and the sophist. But there's much more to Surfing with Sartre than that. Erudite yet engaging, the book strikes a winning balance between waxing wise and catching waves.
James is best known as the author of the bestselling Assholes: A Theory, an examination of why such people are the way they are, and what their role is in society. Surfing with Sartre, though, feels much more like a labor of love. James is both a professor of philosophy and an avid surfer, and his passion is palpable on the page. The book skips around from topic to topic — epistemology, socioeconomics, neurochemistry, ethics, religion — with a playful spryness, all the while drawing parallels between the techniques and mindset of the surfer. The concept of flow factors heavily into the equation. But James takes that obvious corollary and dives deep, tying the way the tides behave to the ebb and flow of ego in the creative process — not to mention the theories of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has posited that creative flow is an altered state of existence.
The existentialist notions of Sartre naturally loom large. In one illuminating passage, James compares the philosopher's play No Exit — source of the famous quote "Hell is other people" — to the difference between surfing on a crowded beach or alone. But James doesn't stop there; he weaves in the work of many other philosophers, including Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. And while surfing is his main focus, it's merely a synecdoche for all human pursuits that require our full creative and cognitive presence — or our souls, as James puts up for debate.
For all its heady discussion of philosophy and the technical aspects of surfing, Surfing with Sartre is surprisingly lively. James cannily navigates the metaphysics of Leibniz and the point breaks of Malibu with equal ease. His tone is conversational, even when it's dense with ideas, and sprinkled with surfer lingo like "hosing," "hyped swell," and "shellac the lip," not to mention a humanizing bit of profanity here and there, as befits the man behind Assholes: A Theory. James cooks up a different antagonist in Surfing with Sartre: Workaholics, whom he affectionately calls "troublemakers" due to the impossible pace they set for society.
James tackles many of philosophy's age-old conundrums — How do we know we exist? Are the things we sense real? — but he's more concerned with a pragmatic issue: How do we balance labor and creativity, work and leisure, while living in a capitalist system that pulls and prods us toward an ideal of efficiency? His answer is simple, yet nuanced, and he delivers it in a refreshing way that eludes moralizing. "In the surfer's easy self-transcendence, she remains herself, desires and all, but becomes attuned to things beyond herself." Taking his own advice, he infuses Surfing with Sartre with just the right mix of personal insight and universal scope. The author himself playfully calls his book "comically grandiose," and it's exactly that, a work of both ambition and humility. Ultimately, it's as concerned with peace, fulfillment, and humanity's future as it is about the spray of salty surf on a summer's day. In fact, the two are the same. And his departing lesson is profound in its clarity: Surfing — like life — should be a thing of both pleasure and meaning.