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The gnarly, in surfer speak, is one form of the sublime. When a wave, or wave moment, is dangerous, terrifying, or just really heavy, it is not necessarily said to be beautiful as well. - Aaron James

Surfing is full of metaphor and symbolism. Yes, we are hedonistically dancing across waves, but we are also slicing and slashing great profundities. And those beatific moments between rides when we get to think and ponder and meditate on the great mandala that is the point where sea meets sky—is there anything closer to the Divine?

Aaron James is a lifelong surfer, Lower Trestles lip smacker, bestselling author, UC Irvine philosopher, and Harvard PhD. In his most recent book, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning, he uses the experience and ethos of surfing to explore key concepts in philosophy. He makes an argument that I think we can all get behind: in these anxiety-ridden and screen-addled times, communion with nature is a moral imperative (i.e., work less, surf more).

Here is an excerpt—

The gnarly, in surfer speak, is one form of the sublime. When a wave, or wave moment, is dangerous, terrifying, or just really heavy, it is not necessarily said to be beautiful as well. That much squares with Edmund Burke’s preoccupation with the sublimely gnarly in his 1757 treatise on the subject (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful). Burke distinguished the sublime from the beautiful, but too sharply. He invited the unfortunate notion that they are opposed. It’s true that the sublimely gnarly and the beautiful are opposed. The gnarly is never beautiful. But the sublimely beautiful is possible and real, and the music of the surfer’s worldly experience.

Author Aaron James Navigating the reef at Nias. Harvard PhD and UC Irvine philosopher Aaron James navigating the reef at Nias.

The Beach Boys song, “The Girls on the Beach,” put the genuine insight ironically: the beauties lying around, “with tans of golden brown,” are “all within reach,” at least “if you know what to do.” The average Joe has no idea at all what to do, how to be so bold as to make that approach. So Joe must behold the sublime sight from a distance, in admiration, awe, and a certain paralysis of the will. And of course the girls on the beach are very beautiful, which means the beautiful and the sublime can splendidly mix. They mix in the low drama of everyday life, in a place as ordinary as a summer beach. Or in beholding an undulating sea. Or in whales breaching just off shore, ever so slowly, in flopping antics. Or in the unruly bustle of a place like Indonesia, amidst the wafting smell of burning coconut husks, and a milky turquoise, wind-groomed Sumatran wave.

If the olden use of “awesome” refers to the sublimely gnarly, a newer meaning in surfer speak refers to welcome and surprising breaks from the mundane in ordinary life. A mildly sublime break from the usual mundane happenings calls only for a moment of pleasing wonder, and maybe a laugh or a hoot. What’s not spoken of but felt is the sense of dependence upon and harmony with what lies mainly beyond one’s control. The sublime becomes familiar in the everyday ordinary. This is what the Beach Boys called “good vibrations,” the heightened harmonious dependence that saturates the life of stoke. Even in ordinary activities, perhaps after a surf, this sense of favorable connection sweeps away the mundane, the drab, the blah, the why-am-I-even-here melancholy that can get a person bummedly asking existential questions about whether all the tedium, humdrum, and monotony could really, really give anyone enough reason to live. As Kant put the idea, the sublime “calls forth our power … to regard those things about which we are concerned (goods, health and life) as trivial.” As surfers often put the point, “problems wash off in the water.”

Thus it often happens that life is full of wonder, on a completely ordinary day, on this very afternoon, whatever else might happen, simply for being in the water, for surfing this wave. It is good to be here, alive, sumptuously present, seeing plainly what matters, and what matters not, what is trivial, and what is truly worthy of one’s time in life.

Surfing with Sartre can be purchased here



Jamie Brisick is a writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991. He has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina, Roman & Williams: Things We Made, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. For more of his work check out & @jamiebrisick