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All Things Sheening: Reading Charlie Sheen to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

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In a recently published book, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly argue that the crisis of our current age stems from the indecision and resulting nihilism that come from our having lost the system of values provided by monotheism. In the Christian age our correct course of action in all matters was clearly set forth, but now, every decision becomes a crisis. Aggregate these crises and the result is a culture of nihilism. Dreyfus and Kelly argue that the way out of this state is by taking the stance of the Homeric age in which we marvel at the surfaces of things and revel in the mystery of our world. We need to get caught up in the whoosh of the moment.

Now, in a book entitled All Things Sheening: Reading Charlie Sheen to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Peter Ludlow and his former graduate advisor Charles Parsons* challenge the Homeric solution offered up by Dreyfus and Kelly. While Ludlow and Parsons do not take issue with the Dreyfus/Kelly critique of our current situation, they reject the thesis that the way out is found in the Homeric age. Rather, the way out of our predicament is found in the tiger-blood fueled insights of Charlie Sheen. "Forget whooshing," they argue, "it's about winning."

Beginning with a nod to the Dreyfus/Kelly diagnosis of our current crisis, Ludlow and Parsons draw on the music of recent Internet phenomenon Rebecca Black. Ms. Black clearly illustrates the contemporary crisis of the secular age when, in her song "Friday," she is confronted with a daunting choice.

Kickin' in the front seat

Sittin' in the back seat

Gotta make my mind up

Which seat can I take?

Rebecca Black, in effect, is articulating a situation that is definitionally nihilistic on the Dreyfus/Kelly model: nihilism is "the idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other." Indeed, should I kick it in the front seat or the back seat? As Ms. Black saw, the fragmented system of values of our current age sadly provides no guidance.

This is the sort of crisis that is now endemic in the contemporary world, but Sheen, Ludlow and Parsons contend, would never be paralyzed by a decision like this. As evidence they turn to a recent interview with Sheen:

I probably took more than anybody could survive. I was banging seven-gram rocks. Because that's how I roll. I have one speed. I have one gear: Go.

Indeed, one can scarcely imagine Sheen fretting over where to sit. See the seat, take the seat. Don't think, do. Go.

Sheen even resists the choices themselves when they are grounded in bad faith dichotomies. When a Good Morning America reporter asks him if he is bipolar he rejects the attempted entrapment engineered by the nihilist reporter: "I'm bi-winning," he responds.

Critical to living sheeny is that one infuse one's life with poetry and magic, and that confronted with obstacles one brings these powers to bear on those obstacles. Although capable of defeating enemies with brute force, Sheen shows us how to defeat them with a combination of this poetry, magic and a few well-chosen words:

I'm sorry, man, but I've got magic. I've got poetry in my fingertips. Most of the time -- and this includes naps -- I'm an F-18, bro. And I will destroy you in the air. I will deploy my ordinance to the ground. -Sheen

I have defeated this earthworm with my words. Imagine what I would have done with my fire-breathing fists. -Sheen

One might respond that Charlie Sheen just is a Homeric hero brought to life -- that by endorsing the Charlie Sheen path, Ludlow and Parsons have ipso facto endorsed the positive thesis being put forward by Dreyfus and Kelly. Indeed it is worth comparing the Dreyfus/Kelly paean to the whoosh-worthy Nureyev with Sheen's own self-assessment:

Nureyev's charisma was palpable; he stood taller, smelt better, walked prouder, and simply outshone all the others around him. -Dreyfus and Kelly


I am on a drug -- it's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available because if you try it, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body. -Sheen

I'm different. I have a different constitution, I have a different brain, I have a different heart. I got tiger blood, man. -Sheen

If you borrowed my brain for five seconds, you'd be like, 'Dude! Can't handle it, unplug this bastard!' It fires in a way that's maybe not from, uh... this terrestrial realm. -Sheen

Comparisons like this might lead one to argue that winning just is whooshing -- that the Ludlow/Parsons just is the Dreyfus/Kelly proposal, but this move is anticipated. Sheen is no mere Greek hero, according to Ludlow and Parsons. Greek heroes were (usually) deferential to their gods and previous heroes. Charlie Sheen shows us that winning means we must move beyond. We must destroy our idols by out-winning them.

The run I was on made Sinatra, Flynn, Jagger, Richards, all of them look like droopy-eyed, armless children. -Sheen

Indeed, Sheen may just as well have added the names Achilles, Theseus, Odysseus and Hercules to the list.

Finally Ludlow and Parsons take up the issue with the way that quantitative ways of measuring time have made us temporally uncentered agents no longer living in the moment. Here again they return to the music of Rebecca Black to illustrate their point. Ms. Black observes that though we may want to enjoy Dionysian revelry, we are inextricably thwarted by quantitative measures of time. Again, they turn to her poignant if nihilistic lyrics.

Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday

Today is Friday, Friday (Partyin')

We-we-we so excited

We so excited

We gonna have a ball today

Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwards
I don't want this weekend to end

And then, as if to punctuate the end of revelry, the song immediately cuts to a rap break. The effect is heartbreaking. But, as Ludlow and Parsons observe, there is still hope. We can become temporally centered and live in the moment again. They close with a final quote from Charlie Sheen as their antidote to our temporal predicament: "Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them."

*Charles Parsons actually had nothing to do with this, but you knew that.