BOOK REVIEW: Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning, by Aaron James — October 2017

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

I’ve always had a vague idea that in another life I’d like to be a surfer. Now I know for sure I’d like to be one, having read Surfing with Sartre, and wish I weren’t too old to start now. This is a book of popular philosophy—not written for academic philosophers but for the educated general reader. It’s been compared to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and if you know that book the comparison is apt—it has the same informal tone, friendly attitude, and enthusiasm for big questions—although Pirsig taught English, not philosophy, as Aaron James does, at UCLA. James is also a lifelong surfer and this is what makes his book worth reading. 

He starts right out talking about riding waves and keeps it up pretty much all the way through.  Each time he does it, you can feel what he feels: the swell of the ocean under you, your body moving in response to the wave, salt water on your skin, the sun on your face. The experience of surfing is at the center of the book—which makes it a work of phenomenology, in the tradition of Husserl and Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty  and Sartre—meaning it’s focused on subjective experience as the means to truth, rather than starting with abstract ideas. Though you might not think it would work, James uses the nature of the surfing experience to define concepts such as freedom, control, flow, being, and transcendence. And contrary to expectation, surfing turns out to be an excellent lens through which to view such ideas. So, for instance, when it comes to the question of transcendence, his experience of surfing, in which the ocean is really there determining his every movement, means that he does not believe that we are “one” with the universe in a religious sense, or that there is no self, in the Buddhist sense, but rather that in our relation to the wave, we can achieve a kind of self-transcendence as we respond to it from moment to moment.  For him, consciousness and its objects remain two not one, although it’s possible to lose oneself in the experience of riding a wave.

The last third of the book contains discussions of society, nature, and work as these issues are brought into focus by surfing. James uses people on surfboards waiting for waves as his model of political organization. Except in rare cases, where a local strongman constitutes himself head honcho and referee, the surfing line-up is a roughly democratic affair, with agreed upon rules—whoever is in the best position gets to take the wave, a person who has waited a long time is deferred to, highly skilled surfers are granted an edge, and so on. As they jostle for position, “drop in” in front of each other, quarrel, yield or fail to yield the right of way, apologize, or curse one another out, the emphasis shifting back and forth between conflict and cooperation, the surfers embody democracy’s messiness, contentiousness, and egalitarianism.

Under the rubric of work, James pursues the countercultural notion that, in our ecologically fragile world, working less is a positive contribution to planetary well-being. It’s been shown that at times of greater unemployment like the period following the 2008 crash, carbon emissions go down sharply. In his critique, our workaholic culture, which encourages people to earn more money in order to consume more goods, is ruinous for the planet, and not nearly as rewarding as sliding down the surface of a great wave. For James, the surfer, who spends as much time as possible on the ocean, valuing quality of experience over status and material possessions, represents the economic model of the future, since the work week will eventually have to be reduced to 20 hours if we’re to survive.

What I liked best about James’s book, in addition to the clarity of his explanations, the friendliness of his approach, and his fearlessness in posing big issues, is his concept of adaptive attunement, a term he derives from his experience as a surfer. The idea of adjusting moment by moment to the exigencies of a situation, as a surfer adjusts to a wave, giving ground when need be, advancing briskly when that seems called for, poised to receive whatever signals the universe may be sending at any given instant, and adapting oneself to the message immediately and without question—this I find both attractive and practicable. It requires attending minutely to what’s happening in the present, being open and receptive, listening to and obeying one’s intuition, and relaxing into what is. The relaxation is key. From surfing, James has absorbed a sense of ease and confidence, of trusting that the world is not out to get him, that communicates itself to the reader, so that the very reading of his book partakes of the surfing experience he describes. I’ll close with a passage that contains some of the fine discriminations as well as the buoyancy and hope that animate his work.

The moments of connection do bring feelings of belonging, of being at home, though not of “belonging inseparably” to the world. You can still know the surfer feeling of being out of place, in pushing against heavy, unforgiving surf, or of being separated, for being in a funk, never quite getting attuned to the waves that day. The surfer sense of “oneness” is felt as a definite achievement in being, as a success in a kind of good relationship, which easily might not have come. The surfer feeling of connection is better described as a relation of harmony, the harmony in adaptive attunement, between a person and a wave and its sea.

If you enjoyed reading that paragraph, I recommend you give this book a try. ~