Thursday, May 25, 2017

“Not Your Grandma’s Tao”: A Review of The Tao of Cool, by William Douglas Horden

(Ithaca, NY: Delok Publishing, 2017). ISBN: 978-1544629834 (paperback)


“You’re not cool, you’re chilly. And chilly ain’t never been cool.” [George Carlin, from one of his HBO specials]
You best get ready—this isn’t your (normal? regular?) traditional review. I am not even sure, after reading The Tao of Cool, that a review is even a COOL thing to do, nontraditional or not. Nothing about this book, which is [loosely] (as in, shares a common word in the title and the same number of chapter-poems) based on the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is presented in an expected way. For instance, the subtitle is on the back of the book, and reads: “Deconstructing the Tao Te Ching [:] from the Notebooks of Snafu Trismegistus [,] Bodhisattva of Universal Cool.”
Now, (normally) I would question such a statement. In one of my other lives as an academic editor, at least once a year I edit papers from a writer who promotes himself as a “thought leader.” That always makes me cringe. But, in this case, Bodhisattva of Universal Cool sort of elegantly, exactly sums it up.
As I sat down to read The Tao of Cool [perhaps it’s even better standing up… a problematic psoas muscle kept me from testing this idea], my academic side dutifully pulled my copy of the Tao Te Ching, translated by D. C. Lau. Turns out, synchroserendipitously, that I had read it exactly 13 years ago. Cool, I thought.
Perhaps not so much.
What is a deconstruction, anyway? I am not going to pull a definition from some online dictionary, because I am now cooler than that. I’ve done my share of deconstruction, which, to be of any value, involves some kind of re-construction. But isn’t that what authors (cool ones anyway) always do? Everything is through a lens, through experience, just like the actor.
And that seems to be the coolest, most hipikat [definition on p. 9 of the Introduction] way to engage with The Tao of Cool. The deconstruction came and went in the sublime Darkness of the writer’s toil—what we get between the covers is pure Light.
Horden pulls no punches in the Introduction. He tells it like he sees it. “It” being a, well, scathing survey of the politico-social landscape. He says that the book has taken “twenty years to ripen” (p. 5), which seems to be the requisite time for any novice to become a master—and it takes a master to produce a work like this. Perhaps the Introduction is a good litmus test to see if you are cool enough to withstand the barrage of wisdom that takes the uncool and melts it into oblivion. If you can’t get through the first 10 pages, read something else, as Horden says (better than I) on page 1.
I have to say, prior to reading the 81 chapters, I thought I was pretty cool. But when one reads, in chapter 6: “Only the profoundly Uncool talk about spirituality/religion/and the sacredness of everything” (p. 18) I had to question where I was on this particular scale. The more I progress, the less I talk, but talk I still do.
For those inclined to make a comparison between The Tao of Cool and Lao Tzu’s text, try chapter 10. Then, really, just put Lao Tzu away. Flipping back and forth, line by line, is the opposite of Cool.
Chapter 15 and some subsequent chapters brought to mind what the Beats were doing with words and mind-jazz decades ago (“The Uncool is muzak./The Cool is Jazz,” p. 88). Lines like “Dig./True hipkats are so far gone they’re already on their way back” (p. 27) recall Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso. If anyone was channeling hipikat outside of the actual jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, it was them. Difference is, the Beats were chasing story down a highway full of traps—they were ultimately consigned forever to a town called Uncoolsville when the rhythm-car spit-spit and blam-blammed amid their own frailties and distractions. Jim Morrison was on the right track for awhile as well, especially with his poetry: “The Cool is always having a near-death experience” (chapter 25) but he ultimately kept going. Same with Hunter S Thompson, who came to mind during my read of chapter 41. Before we judge any of these would be hipikats too harshly, however, it seems that especially Kerouac and his buddy Neil Cassady weren’t too far off the mark, as chapter 45 tells us: “Joyriding is better than anything else” (p. 57) and the whole group—especially in this case, Corso—got close considering “A healthy fascination with death is hipper/than an unhealthy fascination with life” (p. 62). Maybe Tom Waits is a hipikat. If he is, he’s too Cool to say.
If I have any hope of being Cool, even for a moment, I had better leave it here, and give Snafu Trismegistus, the Bodhisattva of Cool, the (nearly) last word:
“Setting your watch to geological time takes astronomical Cool” (p. 52).
Dig.




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