“The Theory of Cool”

by Sam Buntz

“Cool” is about leaving things out.  It’s about what you don’t need—and, more purely, about not even having needs in the first place.  The metaphorical kernel of the term obviously relates to temperature.  Something is literally “cool” when its particles have slowed down—when it attains a state of stillness and calm, as opposed to a state of frenetic energy.  Cool is (to use mystical Catholic terminology) an example of the via negativa or “negative way”—a method of arriving at the truth by pleasantly saying “No” to as many things as possible.  When you finally reach the Still Center, where there’s nothing left to say “No” to, you have successfully attained the Apotheosis of Cool.

In American culture, Cool is inextricably tied up with music.  The Jazz Cat and the Rock Star continually play at Cool, and try to define it within their body of work.  True—they might be addicted to heroin, addicted to groupies, addicted to any number of vices.  But they try to act as though they aren’t phased by these things—although they might be partaking in outrageous excess, they need to affect an attitude of being able to do without it.  The excess is incidental—it doesn’t stick around to poison the stillness at the core of the musician’s being.  This attitude is, of course, ultimately a total lie and a fake (the vast majority of the time)—but it’s a legitimate and necessary part of the image.  The artist needs to strike us as being “in this world, but not of it”, with a personal body temperature much lower than that of this infernal climate.  Authentic art—even if it is expressing emotions that are heated or frenzied or un-cool—often comes from a place of contemplative Cool.  A heated person can’t focus, can’t put it all together.

There are numerous false claimants to Cool.  They think Cool is a matter of style—but Cool style needs to emanate from the Coolness of the actual person.  It can’t simply be used to coat over the exterior of someone who continually projects glowering hostility (there are many examples of this in the world of celebrity).  Nonetheless, it’s useful to analyze the superficial trappings of Cool.

For instance, everyone knows that sunglasses are Cool, but people don’t usually speculate on why they strike us that way.  I believe it’s more than a mere cultural construction that doesn’t have any greater metaphorical meaning.  Shades are another way of fending off the excessive brightness and heat of the world—whilst peering through sunglasses you seem to see a world that is, in point of fact, much cooler (in the literal temperature sense).  They help create the illusion of being a toned-down person, living in a personal world that is equally toned-down.

Interestingly, people want to be around someone who possesses Cool and detachment.  Rather than being a turn-off—striking others as being passionless and something of a dry stick—Cool has the power to refresh.  To appropriate a Biblical phrase, it is like “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”  Cool isn’t like being dead or indifferent—it just isn’t capable of being upset or knocked off kilter.  It’s centered—and that’s something people, often unconsciously, desire for themselves, as well.

As for genuine icons of Cool, the Buddha is perhaps the archetypal image—even people who aren’t actually Buddhists will put his statue in their Brooklyn lofts or San Diego love-shacks just so it’ll manifest waves of placid cool.  To the contrary, if you were to put an image of, say, my namesake, the Prophet Samuel, in your apartment, it’s going to have a far different effect.  Samuel was assuredly a bad ass—but he didn’t have Cool.  He was too interested in making burnt offerings and hacking Amalekites to pieces to ever fully enter into Cool.  (As for Jesus—I think we can easily grant that Jesus possesses Cool, and the same goes for the Virgin Mary.  We don’t really know what Jesus was like when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple, but presumably he wouldn’t have seemed overly worked-up.)  But the Buddha was “an ocean of mercy without motive”—someone who demonstrated compassion, with no ulterior agenda: hence, his overwhelming Coolness.

Buddhism and Stoicism are probably the two philosophies that draw closest to the Cool (not that there aren’t equally good religions and philosophies—there are paths distinct from the Cool, such as the “Exuberant,” which I want to talk about another time).   Zen Buddhism’s whole aesthetic is related to the “less is more” aspect of the Theory of Cool—being able to say “No”.  No one realized how cool, say, a single rock could be, until some Zen practitioners managed to situate that rock in a garden comprised of other rocks.  But in order to bring out that epiphany of Cool, someone need to place the rock into such an aesthetically emptied-out landscape—when stripping things down to their basic state, a kind of luminosity emerges.

Even if Steve Jobs didn’t act all that Cool in his day-to-day life, he famously managed to incorporate Cool into Apple’s product design: leaving out a simple “on-off” switch on the iPod.  It was a pure way of saying “No” to something that everyone had said “Yes” to for years and years.  And the hip spare-ness—the ultra-Cool emptiness—evident in the design of Apple’s other products is pretty evident as well.  You see this in any number of Taoist and Zen-influenced paintings: the empty spaces are as important as the drawn-on spaces.

The Cool is a big part of art and music, but it’s also central to American mythology. We routinely see the myth of the cowboy or gangster or renegade cop who is able to do what needs to be done, even if its morally dubious, and still somehow retain his integrity, thanks to his detachment and his acquaintance with Cool.  Elmore Leonard frequently wrote this kind of character—and he (or she) exists in Tarantino films and many more places besides.  This takes us back to the Bhagavad Gita, where the warrior Arjuna is forced to participate in something that would normally be wrong—a war against his own family members—with the promise from Krishna (an incarnation of God) that if he can make war while retaining inner detachment, he won’t recur any negative karmas, being freed from any possibly bad consequences of his actions.

The best example of Cool I might be able to think of comes from a story about the Zen Master Hakuin.  Hakuin was a monk, known around town for his purity and virtue—but, one day, a young woman in the town got pregnant.  Her parents pressured her to tell them who the father was, and, eventually, she claimed that it was Hakuin.  So, once the baby was born, the parents brought it to Hakuin and forced him to raise the child.  After they finished accusing him of seducing their daughter, all he would say in response was “Is that so?”  Thus, Hakuin treated the baby as his own—providing the kid with food, diapers, and all the rest.  Yet, some months later, the baby’s mother broke down and admitted that the father was actually a young man who worked in the local fish-market.  The parents went to Hakuin apologizing profusely as they explained the situation, before taking back the baby. Throughout this whole concluding discussion, the only comment Hakuin offered was, “Is that so?”

And that, dear reader, is Primordial Cool.

(Note: to read more stories like the one about Hakuin, check out Zen Flesh, Zen Bones edited by Paul Reps–which is where I got the tale from, in the first place.)


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