A Fuck You to Western Philosophy


Sanders, Ed. A VALORIUM EDITION OF THE EXTIRE EXTANT WORKS OF THALES!: THE FAMOUS MILESIAN POET, PHILOSOPHER, PHYSICIST, ASTRONOMER, MATHEMATICIAN, COSMOLOGIST, URSTOFF-FREAK, ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR, & MADMAN. New York: Fuck You Press, 1964. With an introduction by Aristotle. Four side stapled mimeographed sheets.

One of the most distinctive features of Fuck You Press is its sense of humor. Its publications are fun to read and you get the feeling that Sanders had a great time printing them. The Valorium Edition of Thales is the Fuck You equivalent of a Henny Youngman one-liner. The edition consists entirely of blank pages. Wha? As Sanders, a classicist as well as a freak (or maybe a freak because he is a classicist), knows, Thales left behind no surviving writing. Thales was a pre-Socratic philosopher who Aristotle considered the father of Greek philosophy. In the modern age, Bertrand Russell stated that philosophy started with Thales.

What seems on the surface to be a mere novelty item is in fact a smart comment on the history of Western Philosophy. Charles Olson was a great influence on Sanders as a poet and an intellectual. In his poetry and prose, Olson championed the Pre-Socratics as an alternative to the philosophic tradition that begins with Socrates and was made dominant by the writings of Plato. Thales is a charged figure who was interpreted in different ways by his predecessors. For Olson and for Sanders, Thales would, on one level, represent the Pre-Socratic tradition. Olson championed a return to the thought of the Pre-Socratics as a means to rebuild Western Civilization. Thales was a materialist and a naturalist who relied on the basic elements, such as water, as a means to explain the phenomena of the world. Thales was also a man about town: a politican, mathematician and scientist actively involved in his community. These aspects of Thales would appeal to Olson and Sanders.

On the other hand, Thales turned away from myth as a means to explain the world and relied on logos. Logos explains the world in terms of abstract argumentation. Olson sees the Platonic tradition with its privileging of the ideal and reliance on abstraction as the great error Western civiliation. Olson decried the abandonment of myth as a means to relate to the world since myth retained an element of magic and wonder. Thus, Thales can be seen as a fore-father of Western Philosophy in the Platonic tradition.

The Valorium edition of Thales reminds “readers” that all the philosophy attributed to him is based on, in essence, myth and stories, since Thales, like Socrates, refused to commit his thoughts to paper. Western Philosophy, Sanders suggests, is based on nothing, on blank pages, and is in fact one big joke. Thus the seemingly most inconsequential publication from Fuck You Press actually provides a commentary on the history of Western Philosophy. Olson drove home similar points in his marathon sessions at Black Mountain and elsewhere. Unlike Olson, Sanders wrote with an ironic stance and with an irreverent sense of humor. This is one of the main characteristics of second generation writers like Berrigan, Sanders, and Padgett which is missing from Olson. One can see why a first generation New York poet, like Frank O’Hara, would occupy center stage for these poets as opposed to, say, John Ashbery.

JB

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