When In Rome, Kill Me

In 1991, (the) Pixies didn’t need much in the way of a light show to back up their short, shouty songs of biblical retribution and science fiction. A klieg light would flood a giant white sheet, which would dramatically drop to reveal a knitter, a magician, an occasional computer programmer, and a sweaty bloke in a plaid shirt unleashing fire and brimstone in the form of the opening bars of Rock Song.

Pixies at the SECC, 1991

The problem with unleashing such audio-visual violence in a warehouse on the banks of the Clyde is that before the third song is completed, the stage will have collapsed, and roadies will be carrying the injured out of the crowd onto what’s left of it on flight cases. I was unscathed, though, and while I’d only heard… six (?) minutes of the headline act, it remains the best snippet of live music I’ve ever seen.

And as befits a band formed by advertising for a bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. Please – no chops the support acts were pleasingly varied. Hometown heroes Teenage Fanclub, fresh from their fifteen seconds as the next Nirvana on Saturday Night Live, but still unable to tune their instruments, were followed by the third best band to come out of Leeds.

Better than The Bridewell Taxis? Thanks!

Cud were fronted by a Northern P.J. Proby who’d been poured — mostly — into leather pants and was crowned by seaside sunglasses and a majestic mane. And they were incredible fun. So much so that I couldn’t have been more excited to see them again next year during my first freshers’ week at the University of Edinburgh. The root of all this excitement was probably Epicurean’s Answer, lead singer Carl Puttman’s favourite Cud song (it says here).

I perceived myself not as an Epicurean, but a Stoic type. Sure, I liked a drink and a night out clubbing, but I was emerging blinking from a year as vice-captain of the high-school to embark upon a four-year law degree and was, frankly, fairly buttoned-up. My Britishness, while largely free of the bludgeonings of chance, was of the Invictus strain.

“I’ve just been forced into an arranged marriage with a tortoise.  Still, mustn’t grumble.” — Alexei Sayle

The idea of being a Puttnam-esque man-mountain of machismo and Epicureanism — even in an ironic, art-school fashion —  must have seemed an impossibly exciting alternative to the stiff upper lip. But I was a teenager, and the subtleties of Stoicism and Epicureanism escaped me. As this article on the Buddhist concept of “near enemies” recently pointed out,  “Ancient Greek Stoicism is one thing; stiff upper-lipped, repressed British stoicism another.”

Is this column about near enemies or bondage? Or both?

In writing this post, I’ve read Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at CUNY, describe the modern association of Epicureanism with hedonism as a result of “sustained Christian slurring,” particularly in Justinian times. It turns out that while Epicureanism is hedonistic in declaring pleasure to be the sole intrinsic good, its conception of the absence of pain as the greatest pleasure, and the road to ataraxia as living modestly and gaining knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires, leads to a kind of ascetic outlook. Apparently a number of the members of the school adopted vegetarianism, because Epicurus did not eat meat.

“No, I’m looking for ataraxia, the lucid state of robust tranquility. Now, bugger off!”

There’s a useful little primer on Stoicism here (via the Near Enemies piece), and while the schools were created in opposition, it’s surprising to this modernist to find such similar mindsets in Epicureanism and Stocism. Or not — we are talking about two groups of contemporaneous classical philosophers.

You called?

What’s more, Greek Stoicism, as I now understand it, does not elevate suffering for its own sake. On the contrary, it’s an exercise in contemplating how, by becoming better human beings, we can lead a happy, fulfilling life. And for the stroke survivor — for anyone who’s survived their life to this point — the role of suffering and failure in Stoicism is instructive. As noted in the primer above, the Stoics instruct that there is life after failure. Not that a catastrophic injury is a failure, but it can feel like one; it has a bunch of similar identifying features.

But Marcus Aurelius had the following to say in the writings that became his Meditations:

Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

P.S.  I don’t think my sweaty-palmed description of the Ilford Adonis Carl Puttnam did him justice. So here’s Cud in their strange and sexy prime:

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8 thoughts on “When In Rome, Kill Me

    1. Thank you so much, Joyce! Good luck with the procedure you describe in the latest Tales Of A Stroke Patient. What interesting stuff!

      With all my transatlantic activity recently, I’ve been (minimally) “droppy” myself. My old physiatrist mentioned something about a kind of lightweight, sprung brace for times that exhaustion drags my toes. But I was too exhausted to remember the details. Does the description ring any bells?

      Looking forward to hearing how well things have gone. In the meantime, as a wise woman once said, “See you later!”

  1. I think the only rational comment is: I was into Heidegger before Heidegger was cool. Which also evokes a rapid descent to Godwin’s law, conveniently.

    Or perhaps: I dunno I sort of stopped reading after the prolegomena but hey I’m sure the new stuff is good too

    (N.b. I have not read any Heidegger but I have the kant; the jokes are more structural than philosophical though)

    1. I’ve counted infinity philosophy gags in that comment, but it’s only one of the small infinities, so I’m guessing I don’t win the prize…?

      Today in the comments to last week’s post, Friendoftheblogron mentioned the concept of wabi-sabi. I’ve decided that wabi-sabi (all lower case) would be a great name for your math-rock/Japanese grindcore band.

      I had to wiki wabi sabi.

      1. Just saw this.

        I’m glad you wiki-ed wabi-sabi. One of my fave concepts.

        (The past tense of wiki needs to standardised by the Language Authority. I have no idea how to properly spell it. )

  2. “Ataraxia” – what a good word. I’m sure it’s one of the ones I’ve never said out loud and have never had a reason to use ever. But then again I’m not at all a Stoic.

    Also, one of the reasons I’d never become a Buddhist is that I’m not really down with renouncing desires, detachment, etc. Pleasure is good. Enjoyment is good. I think in a lot of ways, emotion (good and even bad) equates to God.

    I guess I would be an Epicurean.

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