Nietzsche Would Have Loved Summer Camp.

One of Zarathustra's many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Singing one of Zarathustra’s many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Song of the day: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

Today marks the middle of the summer at North Star Camp in Hayward, Wisconsin.  This morning, over a hundred boys between the ages of eight and fifteen finished up their four-week session in the North Woods and returned home to their families.  About sixty others are spending the day with their parents, four weeks of camp under their belts elastic waistbands and another four to go.  And tomorrow afternoon, the reinforcements will arrive: over a hundred new campers to replace today’s departed for the next month.

For the first time since 2003, I am not taking part in the North Star revelries.  After five summers as a camper and six on staff it was time to move on to the next chapter of my life (that of being a struggling writer).  I miss camp, and I probably always will.  But the lessons I learned there over the past eleven years will continue to form an integral part of my personality.

I could extol the benefits of being a camp counselor for the next year, without pausing to eat or drink or sleep or go to the bathroom, and still have more to say.  Others, from Fortune 500 CEOs to education professionals, have covered that ground thoroughly.  Camp teaches grit, fosters multidimensional growth in children and teenagers, and aids in the development of leadership skills.  What they haven’t done, though, is an analysis of camp from a Nietzschean perspective.  That’s why I’m here: to tell you that he would have looked at camp and seen a paradise for the will to power.

Two summers ago, instead of telling my 13-year-old campers a made-up bedtime story or playing guitar as I usually did, I pulled out a well-worn copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and explained to them my rudimentary understanding of Nietzsche’s thought.  They found it fascinating, but I hadn’t yet read The Birth of Tragedy or Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, so the job was far from complete.  Most crucially, I lacked a real understanding of the Apollonian and Dionysian, the two opposing forces that drive art and creation.  To fully comprehend them, I suggest you read The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s earliest significant work, but here I’ll summarize.

The Apollonian, named after Apollo–the god of order, among other things–is the impulse to create forms out of the world, while the Dionysian–named after Dionysus, who represents self-less ecstasy–is a sort of nihilistic energy that stems from the absurdity of human existence and inspires spontaneous action without care for harmony or forms.  In an ideal world or work of art (Nietzsche cites Greek Tragedy pre-Euripedes as the epitome), the two work together, with the Dionysian energy constantly being shaped by the Apollonian into a form that we can understand and then subsequently destroying that form to create a new one.  It’s helpful to think of the Apollonian as a mask and the Dionysian as sheer inspiration behind it.  Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian can’t be expressed in human language or sense, but without the Dionysian, the Apollonian remains a lifeless facade with no energy to shape into forms.

When they’re described like that, the Dionysian seems pretty horrible to behold–existentialist philosophers would spend the next century grappling with the meaninglessness and terror of life that it brings to mind.  But the Apollonian alone is just as bad.  In Nietzsche’s mind, you can’t live in denial of this world’s fundamental lack of objective meaning, morality, and values and simultaneously experience life the way it naturally happens.  So life’s goal becomes one of overcoming your tendency to let the Apollonian dominate and instead allowing the Dionysian to express itself–an impulse Nietzsche calls the will to power and an aspiration he terms the übermensch.  And at camp, the comparative absence of “real world” formations makes it much easier for this balance to be achieved.

When kids go to camp, they often leave behind home lives where their days are rigorously scheduled, where there isn’t much time or mental space for them to think and create for themselves.  When they aren’t being shepherded from school to extracurricular activities, they have access to TVs and phones that might set limits on their creative and intellectual development.  Of course, for some creative types technology has opened vast new realms of innovation–the existence of pre-teen YouTube celebrities is proof that not every kid uses a screen for zombification only–but for many others it’s just another obstacle in the way of their self-overcoming, another Apollonian form that suppresses the Dionysian impulse for absurdity and spontaneity.

At camp, though, kids enter a universe outside of their parents’ colossal shadow and the distracting, overwhelming fray of modern society, where it is nearly impossible for a child to exert independence.  All camps have rules to ensure the physical, emotional, and social safety of all campers, and most of them have some sort of schedule of activities each day.  But compared to life outside the camp bubble–and this is particularly true of overnight camps, where the bubble is more complete–social formations are less structured and free time abounds.  With the guidance of a steady, open-minded counselor, the Dionysian energy that elsewhere finds itself in chains can break loose and contribute spectacularly to the development of campers’ values and creativity.

One of my favorite examples of a camp-fueled Dionysian outburst occurred two summers ago at the lunch table.  A couple of my campers, seemingly out of nowhere, began singing a number from Les Miserables between bites of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  I don’t know how “I Dreamed a Dream” gets stuck in a thirteen-year-old boy’s head, but it apparently had happened and now we were all listening to them impersonate Susan Boyle.  Would this have occurred at their houses back in the Chicago suburbs with their parents?  As a camp counselor your interactions with parents are minimal, so for all I know they may come from families that regularly bring Broadway to their meals…but I would venture a guess that no, this was an anomaly.  I found it highly entertaining, though, and wanted to see it continue in a way that would a) not become stale and annoying after two minutes and b) involve more of the group.  So on the spot I announced, “This is now an OPERA LUNCH.  You all must SING instead of speaking.”

What followed was the most memorable lunch I will ever eat.  My campers devised melodies on the spot to ask for the milk and tell each other about their morning activities, occasionally belting out a soprano proclamation at the taste of their food or dropping down to (a pubertal approximation of) a baritone to discuss what their rest period plans would be.  Fortunately none of them were tone-deaf enough to make me regret my decision.  By the time we were clearing the table, things had progressed into full-blown a capella versions of “Defying Gravity,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and the obligatory grand finale: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  There it was: the Dionysian energy of music transfigured into the Apollonian formation of a normal lunch, and the ordinary transfigured into the extraordinary.

The most important aspect of camp is this freedom to create at all times.  The moral framework and creative interests the campers have developed at home come with them, but in the context of a new community without the cloying influence of the outside world they find their potential as value-creators, if not completely unfettered then at least possessing a far-lengthened leash.  And so long as their creation remains on the side of affirming life and others’ freedom to create for themselves, there needn’t be any problems or moral issues with this type of expression.  They can come home with an appreciation for their ability to exert Dionysian power through the lens of the Apollonian (even if they don’t have those terms for it) and, hopefully, attempt to carry the lessons they’ve learned at camp into the rest of their lives.

I doubt Nietzsche considered the possibility that his thought would be applied to summer camps.  But if he could have spent four weeks at North Star, I think he would have shared my appreciation for the place.  It’s not quite Zarathustra’s mountain, and it probably preaches a little too much reliance on friendship for his liking, but overall it’s hard to find a place where the will to power can shine through more powerfully.

To all the campers who returned home today, I say, “Keep it up,” and to all the campers who remain, I say, “Make it life-affirming.”  As for me, I’ll continue to strive to make the world more like camp–a place where the Dionysian doesn’t have to be chased.



Mountains Shrouded By The Cloud

This perfect impression of an iconic German Romantic  painting is brought to you by the irresistible pull of Instagram and Facebook.

This perfect impression of an iconic German Romantic painting is brought to you by the irresistible pull of Instagram and Facebook.

Song of the day: “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead

As amazing as the Internet is, sometimes–no, most of the time–it’s just a huge drag on my creativity.  Hours that I could spend writing music or conceiving stories or experiencing life as it happens are instead gobbled up and turned to shit in the bowels of YouTube, Netflix, or (in my case) Wikipedia.  My latest mind-numbing vice is hockey blogs, which I follow avidly even though the NHL season won’t begin until October, and even cracking open my laptop to write this piece has required me to put my phone on the other side of the room and close out of all irrelevant tabs on my browser.  When used properly, tools like Google Drive and email prove vital to my creative collaborations…unfortunately for my goals, they share the same platform as all the distractions, and I inevitably end up frustrated that I haven’t reached my potential.  The best solution to this problem is to hit the reset button and get away from technology completely.  That’s why yesterday I chased the Dionysian to the summits of Donner Peak and Mount Judah, two mountains in the Sierra Nevadas north of Lake Tahoe.

My self of a decade ago would never have believed that I willingly sought out a five and a half-mile hike over eight thousand feet above sea level, but then again my self of decade ago hadn’t been at summer camp long enough to appreciate nature and hadn’t read up on his philosophy.  Back then, I wrote letters home to my parents espousing my hatred for the outdoors; now, exploring the beautiful wilderness–and simultaneously escaping the grasp of the modern, technological world–is vital to maintaining my sanity, creativity, and childlike exuberance.  Some great philosophers of the nineteenth century back me up on this point.  In his essay “Nature,” Emerson wrote, “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.”  Nietzsche’s mouthpiece Zarathustra made his home in the mountains, and retreated back there every time he grew weary of trying to teach the virtues of the übermensch to lower men.  And of course Thoreau spent a year at Walden–admittedly not quite the middle of nowhere, but certainly a far cry from the overstimulating dog days of the information age.  I came to Lake Tahoe intending for it to be my Walden or Zarathustra’s cave, and to truly make that happen I would need to go to a place where real reflection was possible: away from a screen.

It is ironic, then, that despite my deliberate journey in search of inspiration in the mountains, I found myself unable to shake off the ironclad grip of technology.

The Internet involved itself from the very conception of the adventure.  Instead of driving into the town of Truckee in search of a trail map, I used to search for the Tahoe area’s best hikes.  It’s second nature at this point, to the extent that I don’t know if I would have even thought of searching for a physical trail map if I hadn’t been able to pull up the list of hikes online.  I probably would have thrown in the towel then and there and resigned myself to another day of aimlessly browsing the comments on Chicago Blackhawks blogs, playing cribbage, and vegetating by the pool.  Any opportunity to rejuvenate my creative spirit would have been crushed immediately.

But alas, we found a suitable hike (Level: Moderate, Distance: 5.5 miles, two summits) and I set off with my uncle and cousin around 11:30 AM, using Google Maps for directions to the trailhead.  In the days before smartphones, we would have needed either a physical map or the advice of a friendly local to reach our destination.  Google made things much more convenient, but the very act of having my phone out tempted me with distractions (the Internet, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) that never would have been available otherwise.  As we whizzed past the pristine Donner Lake and wended our way up into the foothills of the mountains, my eyes kept flitting from the magnificent scenery outside the car window back to the 2″x4″ screen in my right hand.  I won’t say I was completely out of the moment, but even when my awe at the beautiful drive prompted me to encapsulate it in a photograph, my phone remained squarely in the center of the experience.

Finally, we reached the trail and I was forced to put my phone in my pocket because the rocky, uneven, uphill path required all my attention.  For the first time all day, I felt the joy that Emerson described: total accord between my body and mind, endorphins pumping into my brain as my legs propelled me along over precarious stones and through sweet-smelling pine forests.  My plan for inspiration was working, thoughts were racing into my head–I considered the wisdom of the rugged terrain, the insignificance of humankind compared to massive mountains, and whether or not the desire to climb to their peaks represents arrogance or mere aspiration.  These are all questions people have pondered since the dawn of civilization, when kings built tombs that reached toward the heavens and Gods were thought to live atop cloud-shrouded Olympus, and when I wasn’t bonding with my uncle and cousin through conversation I was bonding with my forebears through a shared fascination with high places.

No escape.  NO ESCAPE!

No escape. NO ESCAPE!

Still, though, technology got in the way.  Every cool tree, every breathtaking vista, and every funny sign had to be captured, dragged off, and whored out on the Cloud to my friends via Snapchat and Instagram.  Now that technology has given us the power to “share the moment,” we can hardly resist bragging about the cool shit we see and do, whether we realize we’re bragging or not.  Reach the summit of 8019′ tall Donner Peak?  Snapchat it and sell the moment as social capital.  Reach the summit of the even taller 8243′ Mount Judah?  Another Snapchat and even more social capital.  Eat a sandwich at the top of Mt. Judah?  Yet another Snapchat, adding humor as a bonus to the already astounding view.  I used each of these highlights of the hike as a commodity, relying on technology to do so, and the act of taking out my phone drew my attention away from the reason I had come out here in the first place.  In the end, how much of the moment did I lose in the process?  How much of any moment does our constant connection to the Cloud destroy?

Looking back on the day, things didn’t turn out too badly; I still managed to draw inspiration from the hike and the Snaps and Instagram posts that distracted me didn’t detract too much from my experience.  I’m actually really proud of my attempt at recreating Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, since I find the painting reminiscent of Zarathustra and am pleased that my philosophical journey was on my mind.  But when push came to shove, I proved unable to separate myself from the Internet and its horde of nefarious stepchildren.  It’s telling that out of all the thoughts I had on today’s trek, any of which could have made for a great piece, my frustrating inability to escape technology is the one that provided fodder for today’s post.

The Internet is incredible but so, so dangerous to those of us who get lost in its matrices.  And not even climbing over eight thousand feet above sea level could help me see all the way out of its labyrinth.

I’m A Little Worried About My Future

Photoshop is high on the list of software I need to buy.

Photoshop is high on the list of software I need to buy.

Song of the day: “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel

I suppose watching The Graduate is a time-honored tradition by now for people at a crossroads in their lives.  For me, going to Lake Tahoe on a family vacation with no clear way to earn a living wage when I return was the proper moment.  It’s been just over two months since I bade Vanderbilt farewell, and since then I’ve wandered around Europe and slowly begun looking for ways to apply myself in the working world.  So far I’ve got a few writing opportunities, but that’s about it.  With a sterling resume and a bright future through the door ahead, I really haven’t turned the knob yet.

So watching Benjamin Braddock fend off the successful adults congratulating him for his accomplishments and pressing him about his next step was almost like looking in a mirror.  I’m about Benjamin’s height, our academic careers through college are probably similar, and we both came home from school agonizing over how to transition into the adult world.  People ask him when he’s going to graduate school, encourage him to get into plastics, and coddle him with a ridiculous scuba suit without asking him what he wants to do…and if they asked him, he’d probably respond the same way I would: “I have no fucking idea.”

Instead of pushing forward and throwing himself out into the working world or continuing his studies, though, Benjamin spends the next several months getting a real adult education from Mrs. Robinson and completely checking out in all other facets of life.  And I can’t really blame him for that.  Mrs. Robinson is really attractive, and once Ben gets past the initial (extreme) awkwardness he probably learns more about life from sleeping with her than from first twenty-one years combined.  He sees what the adult world is like for many adults: a dreary, daily slog devoid of passion, where people who don’t lose themselves in their work and the cult of success lose themselves in alcohol and meaningless sex.  At one point he even calls out Mrs. Robinson for being this disgusting shell of a human being, but that’s what he’s slowly turning into as he wiles the days away drinking by the pool before his nightly sojourns at the Taft Hotel.  Benjamin Braddock, thrust ahead all his life by external pressure and his own crippling fear of failure, has finally discovered that none of what came before truly matters–and, what’s more, his desire to find something truly meaningful has vanished in the process.

This is my greatest fear: to devolve into Benjamin’s nihilism and passionless existence.  It would be so easy in the short run just to give up, declare life meaningless, and simply waste away.  All it takes is someone to show you that fleeting pleasures can get you by.  But I don’t have a Mrs. Robinson to be that guide, and whenever the thought of becoming that type of hollow man enters my head I get anxious, because I know how profoundly unhappy I would be and how badly I would feel for disappointing everyone who loves me.  So instead I think about the other type of passionless existence, the one that Benjamin has to escape at his graduation party–that of starting a job about which I do not care.  I know that after a thorough job search I could find a way to make decent money in consulting or advertising, get my own place in the city, and spend my days doing work that leaves me with a desire to numb my mind each night.  But would that be worth the risk of forever quelling my search for a true passion?  Would I end up settling–and worse, would I ever forget that I settled?  My heart tells me that now is not the time to take that chance, because my true passion is still out there, it’s still worth searching for, and when I find it I will reach a new level of happiness called total fulfillment.

Benjamin only discovers the power of true passion when he falls in love with Elaine.  Of course, his affair with her mother has made winning her over damn near impossible, but that’s what is so beautiful about the second half of The Graduate.  Ben’s transition from jaded rebel to dogged Quixote happens almost immediately and all of a sudden everything matters again–or rather, one thing truly matters and that one thing becomes everything.  And even if Ben had failed to get Elaine back after his disastrous confession to her, even if he hadn’t stopped her wedding and beaten down her fiancee and her father and carried her off into the sunset on a bus, his failure would have been beautiful because it was failure in the pursuit of meaning.  It’s the sole thread that unifies all existentialist philosophers–no matter whether true meaning is found in God, or in the manifestation of the will to power, or in the radical freedom and individual responsibility we hold in a godless world, all that matters is that we create our own values and find the reason to get out of bed every morning.  And so we can’t help but respect or even envy people like Sir Benjamin Braddock, Knight-Errant of the California Coast, who so fully subsume themselves in a goal that they measure their life solely by its achievement (as long as the goal isn’t malevolent).  They cause us to reflect upon our lives and consider whether we care about anything enough to go to the lengths that these shining examples of meaning did.

And that’s what I’m doing here in Lake Tahoe–reflecting.  This is a unique time in my life.  I’m not yet tied down by any responsibility except the one I have to myself, to find what I really care about.  That isn’t to say that I don’t care about my family and friends, because I very much do; it’s just that I don’t feel fulfilled solely off of their love.  So starting now, surrounded by beautiful mountains under a bright blue sky, I’ll spend the next few years on a quest for that ultimate fulfillment.  All I want is to have something or someone to ride off with in the back of a bus, to have that “oh shit what’s next” moment, and then to realize that what’s next doesn’t matter, because I’ve found what truly matters to me.

For this week, though, I think it’s fine if I do that while drinking a beer at the pool.  After all, Benjamin Braddock turned out alright, and he was a little worried about his future too.

*An aside: The Graduate may have the best soundtrack of any movie ever.  I adore Simon and Garfunkel.


What Am I Doing Here?

If I live my life to the creative maximum, will I also try to prevent a horse from being flogged and spend the last ten years of my life as a mental invalid?

If I live my life to the creative maximum, will I also try to prevent a horse from being flogged and spend the last ten years of my life as a mental invalid?

Once and for all, I decided to create a blog that wouldn’t grow obsolete over time.

I’m no longer inside the safety of the Vandy bubble, so the website I maintained for my radio show there has been passed down to a young protege.  And I’m no longer traipsing around Europe with two of my best friends, so it would make no sense for me to convert my account of our travels into a personal space to rant about life afterwards.  That would be like the million false endings of Return of the King except if the movie had continued past Samwise closing his door and just showed him getting older and fatter each year.

So a new website was necessary.  Luckily WordPress doesn’t have a limit on how many websites I can create.  The only inconvenience was having to create yet another Gmail account, but I suppose in the long run that will actually be a benefit–when Chasing the Dionysian inevitably becomes world-famous, I won’t need to sift through all the spambots commenters’ messages in my personal inbox.  Meanwhile, back in reality, I’ll check the new email every day and sigh when the only comments are from my mother and maybe my grandma.

So why did I name this blog Chasing the Dionysian, you ask?  Great question, I was hoping this would come up!  I even thought to prepare an answer for you!

During my college years I came to several major realizations about my life and myself, but two are particularly relevant to this story: first, that I love the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; and second, that I am going to make my living as a creator.  That’s a really vague term, I know, but I think Nietzsche would’ve been a fan.  After all, he based his entire value system on the concept that there should be no such thing as a set value system–no permanent definitions, morals, religion, not even a permanent attachment to our own past.  For him, the one constant that underlies life is the will to power, which is an instinctive drive to say “yes” to life as it happens and constantly reshape what we believe in most firmly.  To grasp any value, lover, or past identity for longer than the moment is to chain ourselves to something that denies life and remove ourselves from the freedom afforded by constant change.  The formless force that drives us to overcome these bastions of self is called the DIONYSIAN, and the person who can express it continuously is the UBERMENSCH.

As much as I love Nietzsche’s ideas and as much as I will defend him from people who associate him with Nazis (a tragic result of his anti-Semitic sister altering her brother’s works after his 1889 mental collapse), I don’t think I will ever be the Ubermensch.  I don’t think that’s attainable for anybody.  We like other people too much, we steadfastly maintain our beliefs, we can’t escape ruminating over the decisions and events that have defined who we are today.  The person who truly overcomes themselves lives a lonely life.  Is that worth it?  Not to me.

But I can still let Nietzsche inspire me, particularly on my creative side.  I want to write blogs and movies and books and webseries.  I want to interview interesting musicians and film their performances and put them up on YouTube.  I want to make music myself and maybe join a band and quit the full-time job I don’t have yet because I just don’t know what I want out of life and I’ve had to fight the paralysis of indecision for the past I-don’t-know-how-many months.  I am untapped creative potential without focus, and I live in a world of distracting people and newsfeeds that hinders my development as a creator.  But if I keep Nietzsche in mind and always ask myself what the life-affirming, value-creating choice would be in any given situation, I think I will turn out alright.

Maybe one day I’ll actually turn into Dionysus and I’ll throw myself a massive Bacchanalia and anyone who likes my blog posts will be invited.  But until that day, I’ll just be a young man in Chicago, trying to create something new every minute as I navigate through the craze of my 20s.  Check back here as often as you want for updates on how that’s going, what I’m thinking about, and maybe some cool features.  Or don’t check back at all–Nietzsche would admire your fierce independence.