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Bill Hicks and the ride

As noted elsewhere, I had a pedantic politics lecturer at university who loved the comedian Bill Hicks—probably had been an undergraduate when Hicks was in his prime. This lecturer had a Red Indian on his door complete with words to the effect “the original threat to Homeland Security” or some similar play on post-9/11 anxiety—perhaps it also referenced the trail of tears too. He was a deeply unpleasant man. As with all once-popular entertainers, perhaps Hicks has really vanished now—only significant for Gen Xers, like my lecturer, who grew up with him. Then again, perhaps not: the video above has 1.7M views on YouTube, and they can’t all be nostalgic Gen X politics lecturers—there is probably still a fairly vibrant Hicks market out there.

The viewpoint Hicks puts forward here, “it’s all a ride”, derives from Spinoza via Nietzsche. I do not mean that Hicks necessarily read Nietzsche, but you have to remember that by the early 1990s, when this video was recorded, Nietzsche had soaked into Western culture for about a hundred years—from cheap editions sent to German soldiers at the front during WWI to popularisations by journalists who did two seminars on Nietzsche in college, Nietzsche seeped into the popular consciousness. By 1948, in the Hitchcock film Rope, you have both extensive references to Nietzsche “his theory of the superman” and Freud—“Freud says there’s a reason for everything, even me” jokes the narcissistic female love interest, a New York beauty journalist engaged to a Harvard undergraduate.

So I am sure that Hicks channels Nietzsche in this clip. In fact, his idea that life is a rollercoaster could be put in more sophisticated classical terminology, per Nietzsche: amor fati—love your fate, accept what is necessary. In this case, Nietzsche channeled Spinoza. It was the 17th-century Jewish philosopher who asked us to imagine a stone that fell through the air, if it were conscious it would have the illusion that it willed its fall—yet that would only be an illusion. For Spinoza, a strict scientist, the human predicament is the same: we are all just stones on a trajectory from the scientific cause-and-effect viewpoint. The way to remove suffering is to understand that we are just stones, to understand that our fall is necessary—it is only when you fight against what must happen that you suffer.

Hence, amor fati—although Nietzsche sometimes attacked Spinoza, he largely regarded him as the philosopher with whom he was most in sympathy; and, indeed, the notion that if we can understand what is inevitable within us we can remove suffering itself anticipates Freud—understand the compulsion to repeat and you will no longer experience neurosis, neurosis being “suffering about suffering” (you will just experience the pain—not the drama around it, the drama being caused by the illusion you control your inevitable fall).

There is a quasi-Calvinist aspect to Spinoza’s outlook: if everything is determined—there is no free will, it always had to happen that way and always will—then your capacity to understand you are “a stone” is also determined too. Only a certain group, the Elect, is determined to be able to understand that everything that happens is inevitable and, therefore, there is no “real suffering”—“you” did not cause this situation, since “you” are just a stone falling along a certain trajectory; it is an illusion that “you” cause good or bad things to happen. It’s just a ride, man. It’s just a ride—life is a rollercoaster.

Hence some people—Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Hicks—will be predetermined to understand we run on railway tracks and hence will take a genuinely philosophical view as regards the vicissitudes of life, whereas as other people will struggle against it—torture themselves with counterfactuals (“I should have done that, I should have done this”)—and, accordingly, suffer. Their actions make about as much sense as a stone that protests its fall, yet it is determined they are unable to understand the situation.

Psychologically, there is a good reason why Hicks liked this idea. Hicks was primarily an alcoholic and secondarily a drug addict. He quit booze eventually, although he died from pancreatic cancer in his early 30s—almost certainly brought on by excessive booze. You can see why an alcoholic, a man with an external locus of control, would like “it’s all a ride”: I wake up and cannot remember what I did last night—possibly it was something terrible, something excruciatingly embarrassing. I’m not sure. I pop three or four cans, just to get started. For a little while, I worry about last night—then I remember, “It’s all a ride, what happens happens”. For the person with an external locus of control, the Spinoza-Nietzsche outlook—based in material science—provides a perfect alibi for irresponsibility. “I’m just a stone, I’m just a drinker—it’s a cause-and-effect relation, if it happens then it happens. It’s gotta happen—it would always happen that way, always would and will do.” Responsibility: absolved. “It’s just a ride, man. Just the way the tracks turn. I’m just a stone…”

In fact, this outlook feeds into the wider narrative around “addiction”. The addict is seen as inherently cursed from birth, he has a disease—and a disease is a scientific phenomenon, a cause-and-effect relation: the addict is cursed to ride the tracks, and so we cannot—as Spinoza and Nietzsche would say—judge him for what he will inevitably do anyway. This is as stupid as chastising a stone for falling. “Naughty stone, how dare you fall that way! Pull yourself together. You could have hit someone! You could have hurt someone!” Clearly, to act in such a way is primitive and irrational. We just need to understand the addict (understand the stone)—possibly, at some point, we will invent a pill that will divert his trajectory; and yet that is also just something that will (or will not) happen—there is no free will from the scientific perspective, the pill will either be discovered or not (it is either biologically possible to cure alcoholism with a pill or not); and, until that time, we just need to understand the addict in his inevitable trajectory (“He has a condition, for chrissake!”).

Notice that Hicks ends his amor fati speech with a skit that counterposes the forces of “love” (which I take to be the Democrats) with the forces of “hate” (which I take to be the Republicans)—the people who like guns versus the people who like Medicare, I think. From the rollercoaster viewpoint, it is, of course, unreasonable to chastise people and tell them to “pull themselves together”—Hicks cannot help being drunk, and, anyway, when you tell him off he just drinks more anyway because you made him feel sorry for himself…In the Hicks interpretation, the forces of love are scientific—they offer unlimited Spinoza-Nietzsche inflected understanding, they get that “it’s just a ride”; every man is subject to forces beyond his control for which he has no responsibility (external locus of control)—forces that range from gravity itself (the stone again) to his genetics (these genes are associated with alcoholism). There happen to be unscientific and irrational people who refuse to accept the inevitable and so disapprove of certain behaviours—as they are determined to do so, yet they are just emotional and, in a sense, “stupid” stones who think they can alter their trajectory through will (yeah, right).

Hicks fans like to pin “the rollercoaster speech” as deeply profound—personally, I always found it to be somehow dead. In fact, if you listen to Hicks speak he doesn’t sound too happy about his supposedly profound insight that “it’s all a ride”—he doesn’t sound particularly liberated or joyful (the joyful wisdom) at the insight that life is a rollercoaster and you just gotta ride it (as Robbie Williams sang). Rather, Hicks sounds a bit disappointed and melancholic—“It’s just a ride, it’s just a ride” (sigh). In fact, I don’t think he really believes what he says is true—it certainly doesn’t sound like it. The Nietzsche-Spinoza idea that to see everything as inevitable liberates a person, offers a Stoic comfort for those able to do it, is not true. Instead, it creates an irresistible lassitude—yeah, I guess, what happens happens, sure….whatever. “Well, I’ve got an addiction, mate. I’ve got a condition. See, I got a note from the doctor for me methadone…”

Notably, Alcoholics Anonymous—basically the only demonstrably effective treatment for alcoholism—does not offer the Spinoza-Nietzsche take on the condition. Admittedly, it does ask participants to say that they are “powerless before their condition”, although this is not framed in a scientific cause-and-effect way. Indeed, the whole AA system is predicated on acceptance of a “higher power”, of whatever kind the person chooses—even “a something”. In other words, AA claims that individuals can be responsible for their actions and that their responsibility for their actions takes place within a context that is superintended by a higher metaphysical power.

The Spinoza-Nietzsche view would be to say: “You have a disease, it has a necessary cause-and-effect relation within it; essentially, you can’t help yourself and you’re going to do what you’re going to do—possibly, at some point, we will find a pill to suppress the processes that cause you to drink. What we want you to know, however, is that we don’t judge you for what you cannot control; and we’re here to facilitate your recovery to the extent that we can modify your behaviour with peer-reviewed and empirically-tested interventions.” Amor fati.

You notice how this divide between the scientific and metaphysical connects to politics—the scientific view lets people launder responsibility, since they are just rollercoaster cars on a track “love” means, per Hicks, pure uncritical acceptance of “the inevitable” (the inevitable train wreck?). Hicks was clearly on the left and the Spinoza-Nietzsche view facilitates this because it abolishes responsibility, the stone falls as it falls (it cannot be judged as responsible for its trajectory)—the rollercoaster goes where it goes, Bill Hicks drinks when he drinks (what can you do?).

The liberated Spinoza-Nietzsche elite are scientists: they only think in cause-and-effect terms, they only study the trajectories of stones—and this itself dovetails with the left-right divide in contemporary politics, the left is purely scientific. In such a way, the Spinoza-Nietzsche position, so popularised in the 20th century, damages people: it tells you that there is nothing you can do and there is solace in that—you are not really responsible, you certainly cannot will yourself better. Yet life is a pilgrimage, not a rollercoaster.

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