Fun and Games


2. The History of Dudeism:
American Dudey

By Oliver Benjamin

The famous baseball-playing philosopher Yogi Berra had this to say about progress: “The future ain’t what it used to be!” That is, we all once believed that with the right know-how and a little elbow-grease, all human problems could soon be solved. After many false starts, however, we’ve since awoken from this adolescent pipe-dream and recognized that the world is too complex for easy answers. The future ain’t what it used to be. For many of us, there is no longer any heaven, no utopia, no easy retirement at the end of the rainbow. And frankly, we’re all a bit pissed off about it.

Modern-day dudes, however, never labored under such delusions. The truly dudeish have always known that, like a giant tourist kiosk at a city square, life proclaims only “The time is now” and “You are here.” All else are merely advertising brochures.

Contemporary dudeism in fact arose in opposition to the promises of modernism, industrialization and citification, and all the Faustian bargains they slyly purveyed. The very term “dude” was originally coined to refer to a small group of well-heeled and educated east-coast Americans who, sensing that true life was elsewhere, traveled westward into the wilds in search of a more honest existence. According to some accounts, the countryfolk they encountered called them “dudes” because of their “duds” or finely-tailored clothing. The word has been enshrined in the modern “dude ranch” – a place where city slickers today can engage in romanticized cowboy rituals.

The dude movement (or “dudement”) grew out of this anitmodern impulse, and has its earliest proponents in the American Transcendental movement of such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. All three were champions of the idea that truth could be found not in artificial abstractions, but in simple living and individual contemplation of nature. Of these three, however, only Whitman was a true dudeist. Whereas the other two dabbled in dudeism only long enough to bolster their literary careers, Whitman truly hit the road – holding down a series of various jobs in scattered towns, all the while writing paeans to nature that smacked of sensuality, sex and voluntary idiocy. Thus it’s only natural that Bill Clinton presented Monica Lewinsky with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, just prior to receiving his own series of various jobs. Even presidents must prostrate to nature from time to time.

It is because of this hybrid lineage, both educated and earthy, that the modern meaning of the word “dude” harbors such contradictory connotations. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Whitman, “Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” The categorical dude is both self-consciously cool and self-mockingly humble. He discovers wisdom by the wayside and finds inspiration in the unexalted. He is a man of many hats, which is why many see him as a fop. But none of them stay on his head for long. This is how The Dude can be both the cocky hero in Quincy Jones’ 1981 song “The Dude” (“a scholar with the dollar you can plainly see”) as well as the sheepishly hedonistic hippie in 1997’s The Big Lebowksi (“the laziest man in Los Angeles county.”) As the latter says while being interrogated by a cranky tycoon, “I’m The Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or ‘his dudeness’ or ‘duder’ or ‘el duderino,’ if you’re not into that whole brevity thing.” Even at his most cocksure, The Dude strives to be accommodating.

Perhaps the most exemplary American dude of the 20th century was the Pulitzer prize-winning author Ray Stannard Baker, who not only wrote biographies of presidents and anti-racism tracts, but also secretly penned a series of popular books under the name David Grayson. In his first installment, “Adventures in Contentment” he tells how he abandoned the city and a life of ambition for more honest toil out in the countryside. Despite his highbrow education, Grayson comes to discover that in many ways the life of a farmer is awash with profundity and satisfaction and offers lessons far greater than those found in the civilization he left behind. In one telling scene that inversely mirrors The Dude’s face-off with the rich old man in The Big Lebowski, farmer Grayson interrogates one of the local elite as to what benefit all his money has accrued him. “You must prove to me,” Grayson demands, “that I can be more independent, more honest, more useful as a millionaire, and that I shall have better and truer friends!” To which the aristocrat evocatively replies, “I don’t believe you’d have any truer friends.”

And herein lies the key to dudeism: the true dude is not in search of money, nor is he covetous of status or glory or fame. He is only in search of that most important of all elixirs: friendship. An acquisition, in fact, of which all those other assets serve to stand in the way. When he abandons the city it is not so that he might find wheat fields or fresh air, but that he might find honest amigos, unsullied by the civilized mandates of ambition and competition. Friendship for friendship’s sake. Thus it came to be that David Grayson’s next book was entitled “Adventures in Friendship.” His was a philosophy which all aspiring Ph.Dudes must take to heart.

At the end of The Big Lebowski, when The Dude has blown his chance at solving an unsolvable mystery, forfeited his claim to reward money that never was, and buried a friend caught in the crossfire, he falls back upon the one thing he has, and has always had: his best buddy Walter, and the eternal solace of bowling. As the film reaches its shaggy-dog conclusion, the seemingly misplaced narrator, a cowboy called “The Stranger” ruminates on the westward drift of Western culture, a quest long since culminated at this curious Los Angeles shoreline. His last words are “catch ya further on down the trail” even though this is its logical end. Critics of the film have uniformly lambasted this seemingly superfluous narrator, but looking at dudeism in its proper historical context, it is clear why we need him: he is the cowboy that helped transform the Victorian dandy into the dude he is today. At the limit of the land, and our territorial imperative, it is only the friendly, freethinking Dude that can determine where the next trail will lead.

For the moment, however, The Dude will just continue “takin’ her easy for all us sinners,” something which, like The Stranger, we might all take comfort in, rather than condemn. Dudeism from Lao Tzu to Lebowski is nearly complete here: Continuing far enough westerly, The Dude will find himself once again in the East.

Tao of the Dude 1 -
Zen and the Art of Dudeism

Tao of the Dude 2 -
The History of Dudeism - American Dudey

Tao of the Dude 3 -
Dude Vagabond, Secret Agent, Man

© All rights reserved. Dudeism is deeply inspired by The Big Lebowski
(as well as several other sources) but is not affiliated with the film in any way.