The Long Dark Knight of the Soul

No, the Dark Knight does not refer to Batman, who is celebrating his 75th anniversary right now. It refers to Sir Roger Casement, an Irishman who was knighted by the King of Britain for his humanitarian exploits and then a few years later was hanged for treason.

The Dream of the Celt

Casement is the subject of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Dream of the Celt.. It follows Casement’s life from nursery to noose. Except for the way it jumps around in time and the obviously fictionalized patches, it reads like biography. Casement was an Anglo-Irish Protestant who was fascinated by exotic places ever since his father told him about battles he fought as a dragoon in India and Afghanistan. When Casement heard about Stanley and Livingston as a boy, he knew he wanted to go to Africa. And so he did, working with Stanley himself for a rubber company.

Roger Casement

Even though he did not have a college education, Casement rose to the rank of His Majesty’s Consul to part of the Belgian Congo. He had seen some of the brutalities committed by Stanley (and some of the paradoxical kindnesses, too), but the stories that came down the Congo River were awe-inspiring in their cruelty. He obtained permission from the government to go upriver and observe with the purpose of writing an official report. What he saw was too terrible to repeat here. Whips made of hippopotamus hide were on every belt. The rubber from the trees was harvested with impressed labor and whole villages were destroyed.

Casement had believed that colonialism would bring trade, education, medicine–civilization in short–to Africa. Instead, it brought slavery and murder. (Casement was a friend of Joseph Conrad, who came to the same conclusions.) Casement wrote his paper and it made him famous. A few years later he went to the Amazon and did the same thing again with respect to the doings of a British-owned rubber company. Some reforms came of these efforts, but the guilty largely went unpunished. Casement, on the other hand, was rewarded with a knighthood.

So Casement seemed like a decent, upstanding subject of His Majesty. But he wasn’t. All the time he was looking at what Europeans did to Africans and Indians, he was thinking of what England had done to Ireland. Wasn’t it basically the same thing? No, the English no longer routinely murdered the Irish, but they had wiped out almost all of Irish culture and did not allow the Irish to rule themselves.

Thus it was that Casement became an Irish Nationalist. When World War One came, he concocted a plan to get the Germans to arm the Irish, who would rise up simultaneously with a German attack on British bases in Ireland, thus giving the tiny Irish forces a chance to achieve independence.

Things did not go as planned, and some of the more extreme nationalists staged a rebellion without any German assistance at all. They were promptly slaughtered. Casement was caught sneaking back into Ireland and tried for treason. Although Vargas Llosa tries to keep us in suspense about Casement’s fate, it is obvious what is going to happen to him from page 1.

What lessons are we to draw from all of this? I think the big one is that no government can truly be trusted unless it rules by consent of the governed. Belgium and England believed in individual rights, but when Belgians and Englishmen allowed themselves to be blinded by the glitter of gold, they would stop at nothing to get it, up to and including torture and mutilation of the innocent. The natives had no say, no effective weapons, no idea of the big picture of what was being done to them. It was far worse than what the Anglo-Americans did to Indians in the U.S. It was even worse than what white America did to African slaves.

The tragedy of it all is that Indians and black Africans of the colonial period did not have the culture or technological skills to play a part in the civilizations they encountered. Their only hope was that public opinion and the consciences of the ruling classes would prevent the worst abuses. That’s a slender reed to lean on.

The Irish case was different. Thanks to some extent to the British, they did have the culture and technology necessary for self-government. They did not have to depend on the good will of their colonizers and they did not want to. A few years after Casement’s death, they won their independence.

Flag of Ireland

There is a lot more to the novel than I have indicated. The sights and sounds and smells of Africa and Amazonia are vividly recreated. We get a lot of Casement’s inner life. The British tried to discredit Casement by releasing excerpts of his private diaries, which purportedly showed that he was a homosexual. Vargas Llosa accepts the authenticity of these claims, although he portrays some of what was in the diaries as fantasies and not real encounters. There’s an eerie parallel between the oppression of the Africans, that of the Indians, that of the Irish, and that of the gay. In no case is the oppressed allowed to be himself and love in an uncomplicated manner.

Some of my readers probably know that Vargas Llosa is libertarian who defends capitalism by citing Friedman and Hayek. I think colonialism might be one of the thorniest problems for those who like to extoll the virtues of nineteenth-century liberalism. Vargas Llosa meets that problem head on and never lets us get too comfortable with our nostalgia, while never suggesting that collectivism is the answer.

Mario Vargas Llosa

So what kept me engaged in this book? I really don’t like dreary settings and inevitable doom in my art. What kept me going is that through it all, Roger Casement was an idealist. He was an idealist even when he was wrong, as he was about the benefits of colonialism and the virtue of reviving the Gaelic tongue. He was sometimes tired, sometimes sick, but he never gave up on trying to find the truth and do what was right, as best he saw it. Lesser men would have become cynical or defeated in the face of the things he witnessed, but he remained determined and even hopeful. To my mind that makes him a hero, even though he didn’t live to see the ultimate victory of the causes he fought for.

After all, what is more heroic than struggling to find the truth and bring it to the world.

Honor in the Concrete

Steven Knight’s tidy little film Locke has given me more to think about than any other recent movie. The story concerns Ivan Locke, construction director for big buildings in the UK. It is the evening before millions of metric tons of concrete are to be poured in the foundation of a 53-story building, the biggest pour outside of nuclear reactors in European history.

Locke is in love with his buildings. He goes on at one point about how this one will be visible from twenty miles away and cast a shadow a mile long at sunset. He doesn’t work for his employer or for the money–he works for the building. He is a master of his profession. Give him a problem and he’ll solve it.

Poster for Locke

But now he faces a problem that’s a little harder to solve. It appears this quiet, organized man who loves his wife and sons has made a mistake and the consequences are going to be very painful. I’m not going to spoil the story by telling you what the mistake is. Let me assure you it’s nothing revolting like child molesting or even embezzlement. But it was a moral lapse.

Locke means to put things right, to the extent that that is possible. He gets in his car and drives to London in an effort to do so. The entire movie takes place in his car and Tom Hardy, with his sleek beard and sleeker Welsh accent, is the only actor we see. All the dialogue is on the car phone. Locke abandons the building and leaves the pour to his assistant, who is good at his own job but not up to the task. He has to explain to his wife why he’s not coming home. He has to face the wrath of his boss. But he’s made his decision. He’s not going to let the bad situation he’s caused get worse.

So what is this movie actually about? Honor. Locke is going to do the right thing even if his life crashes around his head. Now, I am very suspicious of honor. As a student of the Civil War era, I’ve seen a lot of Southern pseudo-aristocratic honor, which is the honor of arrogant hypocrites who like to rape women. I also think of honor killings in the Middle East. Cultures of honor are often cultures of collective shame and violent retribution. I know that not all honor is like this, but let’s say that honor has left a really bad taste in my mouth. (For another view, see Kirsti Minsaas’ review of the movie Rob Roy at http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/121008-minsaas-robroy.php.

This film redeems the concept of honor for me. It redeems it for me because there is no pomp in Locke’s honor. He is just a rational man taking responsibility for his deeds. He’s basically an Objectivist with some emotional baggage. He speaks in terms of solving problems. If he has a tragic blindness, it’s one that perhaps some Objectivists would share with him: he believes that every problem can be solved if you just “draw a circle around it.” The movie teaches him some powerful lessons on that subject. But he does not swerve from his course.

This is a thinking person’s movie. Look at the pun of the protagonist’s name: Ivan Locke. Ivan is Russian for John. Ivan Locke pours concrete. John Locke believed that only concretes exist. And Ivan Locke is trying to hold up something like an implied social contract when he goes to right his wrong, echoing John Locke’s political concept.

This film came at a serendipitous time in my writing. I’m working on a book called Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life. During the last two or three days I have been writing about the nature of adult wonder, which I define as the virtue of choosing to be open to the world and not taking it for granted. One of the examples I give is how I feel wonder at the operation of conscience in a man. (Think Oskar Schindler.) Ivan Locke gives us an impressive example of a man of conscience to wonder at, a man as solid as concrete, a demonstration that a tragic hero is still a hero.

Authenticity and Ecology

I often take what you could call an ecological approach to problem solving. I don’t believe in forcing a solution on a situation except when it’s absolutely necessary (which it sometimes is). Instead I would rather harness the natural forces in the situation to take care of the problem. And I would take a hard look at what I or other people are doing that might be creating the problem in the first place.

This is definitely the way I look at achieving authenticity. The path to yourself consists largely of getting out of your own way and then following your natural desire for awareness. These two steps are trickier than they sound, but the solution still comes from within.

The alternative is the force-fit. I think that that way of solving problems is emblematic of Western thinking. It can be very powerful, but sometimes it makes problems worse. For example, children who don’t want to go to school are routinely made to, sometimes kicking and screaming. That’s the force-fit. But at the English school Summerhill, no child is forced to do anything (beyond obeying certain elementary safety rules). Many stay away from classes at first, sometimes for months. But eventually their desire for learning and the atmosphere of trust that has been built up motivates them to go.

When I worked as a Big Brother at a Youth Service Bureau back in the early 1980s, I took a course in parenting. It advocated never using punishment (the force-fit), but instead using natural and logical consequences. If your child refuses to go to bed at bedtime, let him go to school sleepy the next day so that he gets it. If he doesn’t come home for dinner when called, don’t let him go out after school the next day. He can try again the day after. This is an approach to child rearing based on causality (the natural ecology of the situation) rather than on duty (the force-fit).

Adult examples abound as well: heart surgery is the force-fit. Healthy eating and exercise are the ecology. I know some readers are going to bristle at any positive mention of ecology, but if you look at the situation dispassionately, you can see the merits of what I am saying. The idea of a self-correcting free market is a kind of ecological system, and government intervention is the force-fit.

When it comes to authenticity, the force-fit, which simply doesn’t work, is to “express your feelings” and to try to act earnest. The ecological approach is to stop acting like anything, go into yourself and shrug off the hype until you are centered. Then just be yourself.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. You will probably need to identify some bad concepts and habits in your life and check them against reality. However, doing this in a centered state is a whole lot easier than in a hyped up one.

And I don’t mean to imply that the Good Life can be achieved by purely psychological or spiritual means. Philosophy is also essential. In Killing Cool I write about the importance of the concept of the Primacy of Existence, which is the principle that says that reality is independent of the mind. A lot of inauthenticity comes from trying to shape the world purely by one’s wishes.

A good philosophy can help one achieve authenticity in many ways. But that philosophy must be lived from the inside, as it were, and not something forced onto one’s life.

A Little Therapeutic Writing

I need to write my way out of my situation. I’m feeling sick, both physically and emotionally. I’m going to talk about the negative situation first, then I’m going to get to the positive, therapeutic part, so be patient.

The physical part might be the flu or an ear infection. I’m not sure. For about five days, I’ve had trying headaches, some dizziness, a sore throat (that’s actually been with me off and on for maybe a month), and strange tingles on my upper torso.

Emotionally, I’ve been down, perhaps, because of what I’ve been reading. Joyce Carol Oates, judging by her early novel, Expensive People, has a disgusting sense of life. She sees the suburbs as completely shallow and alienating. Only really superficial people can find any contentment there, and then only at the price of distorting their souls. Her narrator is a little boy who murders his mother, which is a lot more interesting than anything else in the story, let me tell you.

This is far worse than my other recent novels. While Sigrid Nunez’ The Last of Her Kind was partly about a horrible person, a sixties radical named Ann Drayton, the story is generally upward-moving That is in large measure because it is narrated by another woman, Georgette, who, though not very ambitious careerwise, does struggle to make herself educated and to find love (which she succeeds at). There is no sense that Nunez’ world has gunk clinging around the edges, as there is in Oates.

Sometimes the descent from Mount Olympus is rocky. I need to remind myself that a novel need not be by Rand to be healthful. I don’t think I should read another novel about a disturbing character like Drayton for awhile, even if she is balanced off by a Georgette. I think I’ll read another novel by Ward Just. Life is no birthday party according to Mr. Just, but even tragic events take place in a rational universe.

Colin Wilson. Looks harmless enough, doesn’t he?

To make matters worse, I am reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Somebody compared my forthcoming book Killing Cool to it, so I thought I would check it out. I think what that somebody meant is that I was writing as an independent thinker with a new, middle-level abstraction to offer. In that sense Killing Cool is like The Outsider, but not otherwise.

Wilson published his popular work when he was 24 (I am 51, by the way). It is about existentialism, despair, nausea with existence, unsavory sexual encounters and other bon bons from modern literature, all allegedly supporting the idea that the man who sees the farthest is the one who sees that life is just nothing.

I reject this idea – intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, spiritually, categorically. It’s not that I haven’t had some of the experiences that Wilson describes – I have, and probably more than the average person. It’s just that I don’t blame reality or humanity for those times when I’ve been ill, or clinically depressed, or unable to find uplifting cultural resources – or for those times when I’ve tied myself up in knots with all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing or context-dropping. When I feel overwhelmed by these things, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” (And no, I don’t “get high with a little help from my friends”!)

So now, I’d like to “accentuate the positive” for a little while. Sing along if you think it will be good for you.

First and always, I am happy about my marriage. My wife and I have been together for 25 years. I will respect her privacy by not describing her to you; I will just say that we get closer and more supportive of each other all the time.

Second, my writing is going very well. I published a long essay for Kindle earlier this year. It has sold well over 500 copies so far. I am very proud of its content.

In addition, as you can tell, I started a blog, and I’ve been pleased with most of what I have posted on it. My favorite essay, “The Bust of Caesar,” was published on Joshua Zader’s Atlasphere. I should mention that Joshua has been a very good friend to me, setting up the blog, giving me advice and making my essay look really good!

Best of all, in the writing department, I am mostly finished with my first book, Killing Cool. It is a collection of essays about living in reality, getting centered and developing authentic feelings. In it I offer a vision of life as it might be and ought to be. I’m not sure I can boil this vision down to just a few sentences, but I see it as a life in which you feel present, not scattered or rushed. Your self-awareness is a glowing, serene majesty.

Things that excite you are energizing, but don’t make you hyper – instead they make you feel more deeply your connection to the world. You feel at home in reality and you are comfortable sharing a space with those you respect, in mutual awareness. Playfulness, yes; games, no. Earnestness trumps cynicism every time. This sounds a bit woozy, perhaps, but I ground it in practical advice in the book.

It does bother me some that to talk about better ways of living, I have to analyze the

Rembrandt, self-portrait

bad ways of living that many or most people engage in. I don’t want to be negative, but I think it’s true that when you’re drawing you can’t depict the light without depicting the shadow. I have tried very hard to sketch the lifestyles I’m criticizing respectfully and without sarcasm. Sometimes it is a little hard to spend time with people who face life through a mask, rather than exposed to the fresh air. But I keep remembering my vision of life and I keep making sure that gets into the book, too.

Another recent source of pleasure has been the refinding of an old friend from high school whom I have not seen in 30 years. I thought she was pretty special then, but I actually didn’t know her that well. I think she’s more special now. I look forward to what unfolds. She’s been a big help with Killing Cool.

There are a lot of other positive things I could write about here. My job is going better than it has for years, as an example. But I just want to mention one more thing. It may seem trivial to you, but it’s not to me: Pinterest.

For those of you who don’t know, Pinterest is a website, free for now, that allows you to collect images and videos and “pin” them on “boards” organized along whatever lines you wish. The pinning tool makes this extremely easy, and some members have thousands, even tens of thousands of “pins.”

I love looking at pictures. I own literally hundreds of photography books. Buying them was getting to be a financial drain and it was often frustrating trying to find what I wanted. Pinterest solves both of those problems.

Maybe I should explain why pictures are so important to me. I have a deeply aesthetic appreciation of the world. I am a very intuitive thinker, especially for someone so devoted to classifying things. In addition, I have this cognitive quirk: I have almost no visual imagination. If you asked me to close my eyes and imagine my wife’s face, I couldn’t do it. The best I could probably manage is to remember a photo I took of her. This is probably due in part to my having involuntary eye-movements called a nystagmus. It’s hard for me to perceive stable images of things.

It’s much easier if they are just pictures. So I get my visual, aesthetic stimulation looking at pictures. My color vision is very good and I have a geometric mind, so I gravitate toward well-composed photographs, preferably color, although I like some black and white, too.

Pinterest has been a blessing for me: a way to find beauty without spending money. And more: it has convinced me that the world is inexhaustible. The more I explore, the more I find. The internet isn’t just pictures of cats! And who knew there was Art Nouveau architecture in Riga?

And have you ever heard of temari – Japanese balls made of fabric scraps and embroidery? Galileo said that the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics. If that’s true, then this little geometric confection could be seen as a microcosm.

temari ball by Dana

OK, you might think that’s going a little overboard for a ball of string, but it’s not for me. This is why I love William Blake, who saw God as a geometer.

At any rate, I am not inviting you to share my particular ecstasies. I am trying to regain my normal sense of the world, which illness and bad writing have taken from me. And it’s working. I feel much better. I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn through my mind. Please share something of your own experience.

Ancient of Days, by William Blake, 1794

The picture of the mountain is by Anton Jankavoy. Its source is here.

The Last of Her Kind

I tend to read streaks of related books. They can be related by author or by subject. I think everybody reads streaks by author. Right now I’m in the middle of a Ward Just streak and a Howard Swiggett streak. (I hope to write an essay about Swiggett someday.)

I really like streaks by subject. Last year, doing research for a book I’ve been writing, I read four novels and one play about intellectual mentors who lead their protégés to commit crimes and/or get themselves killed. (The best of these is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.) This intersects with another streak about boarding schools and colleges.

My latest streak is about radicals, terrorists and extreme altruists. The first book was Ward Just’s The American Ambassador, and I’m planning to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Marge Piercy’s Vida, as well as a non-fiction work about Theodore Kaczynski.

I just finished the second in this streak, a novel entitled The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez.

I loved this novel. It tells the story of three women starting in 1968: Georgette, the narrator, who is looking for love; Ann, Georgette’s roommate at Barnard, who is a stone radical; and Solange, George’s sister, who runs away from their squalid home and abusive mother at the age of 14, embarking on a physical and spiritual odyssey. In these three women we have three of the paradigmatic types of young females of the era: Cosmo girl, radical and hippie. (All we’re missing is a women’s libber.)

It doesn’t have a lot of plot and it’s not told in perfect chronological order. It’s more like a new friend telling you about herself, partly in order, partly with vignettes strung together by association and partly with events revealed only when she feels she can reveal them. One Amazon reviewer labeled this narrative “stream of consciousness.” I generally hate stream of consciousness story telling, and I easily followed the logical and emotional thread of Georgette’s account, so that was not a problem for me. It’s really an imagined memoir.

I’m trying not to give away more than is necessary to communicate the set-up of the story, but since the jacket copy refers to the central event of the story in vague terms, so I feel that my doing so as well does not constitute a true spoiler. Ann does something very violent which changes her life and several lives around her. Nunez is brilliant in creating a situation of perfect ambiguity, in which Ann’s action can be seen as either justified or irresponsible, depending on your premises (rather like Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th). This action superbly integrates Ann’s character, the political beliefs of the people involved, and the tenor of the times. We see this action from the perspectives of quite a few people in the story and it is a good example of the starkly different interpretations people can have of an event.

The novel focuses mostly on 1968 – 1978, but it covers events since then as well, alluding obliquely at the story’s end to 9/11. I really enjoyed following up on the story’s characters. We’re so used to seeing a 1960s radical or hippie frozen in time, forever 20 years old, that we forget that such people grow and change – or fail to grow and thus destroy themselves.

Please do not get the idea that this novel is a nostalgic tale of those “far out” times. It’s not. While we view the characters through Georgette’s generally sympathetic eyes, we are frankly shown the consequences of their beliefs and actions, and many of those consequences are brutal. At the same time, the novel does not shy away from showing how unpleasant being poor and/or black in America can be. I could imagine that both a hard-core liberal and a hard-core conservative could enjoy this book if they were honest with themselves, because it is perfumed by the air of truth.

Author Sigrid Nunez

In some novels by and about women – Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is frequently alleged to be an example – men come off rather badly. At first this seems to be true of The Last of Her Kind, which had not one but two rapists, various drug dealers and Mick Jagger among its characters. But some of the minor men, though they seem like losers, are genuinely nice guys. And just when you thought there were no wonderful men in Nunez’ world, we encounter one: decent, loving, cultured, loyal. And we see him grow.

Georgette is a narrator who is nice to spend time with. She may not be some people’s idea of ambitious, but she is earnest, a good observer and well read. She drops in interesting references.

One of these references is to a French philosopher named Simone Weil (1909 – 1943). When some in the press compare Ann to Patricia Hearst, Georgette compares her to Weil. Weil was a hard-core altruist. When she was six years old and heard that the soldiers fighting in WWI had no sugar, she refused to eat any herself. During WWII she basically starved herself to death in sympathy to citizens in occupied France living on meager rations. In between she taught Greek classics, became sympathetic to Roman Catholicism without being baptized (she came from a family of agnostic Jews), and expounded mystical ideas on God, the self, the void, beauty, etc.

French Philosopher Simone Weil (1909 – 1943)

Weil was definitely anti-materialist. She gave away most of her salary. She often slept on the floor. She probably died a virgin, because, although an affectionate person, she did not like to be touched. T. S. Eliot likened her to a saint, and she had a considerable influence on both existentialist and Catholic thought in the decades after her death (although that influence has waned since the 1970s).

Weil and Ann from the novel are each in some sense “the last of her kind.” Both are altruists all the way down, although Ann has sex and is an atheist. Ann is definitely a lot angrier than Weil, who could be beatific in her enraptured contemplation of God.

Perhaps Ann has more in common with Bill North, Jr., the terrorist in The American Ambassador. Both have nothing but contempt for their parents. Like Bill, Ann does not call her parents Mom and Dad, but Sophie and Turner. Both have no sympathy for those who do not share their views. There is a slight difference between them in that Ann generally thinks it possible to make a difference working from within the system, while Bill is so alienated from bourgeois capitalism that he sees kidnapping, bombs and murder as necessary and deserved. Simone Weil, from what I’ve read so far, was not a violent or hateful person. She did try to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but she was so near-sighted and such a bad shot that no one would let her get near a gun!

I am trying to build up a portrait of the radical/terrorist/altruist type. What I am seeing so far is that they all belong to what I call the Cult of Suffering, by which I mean the intellectual-emotional position that the suffering of others should be our primary fixation in life, while the health and happiness of the fortunate (including ourselves) is not important and may even be a sign of exploitation. I am sure there are commonalities that I do not have enough examples of to identify yet. I don’t think I see what Ayn Rand called “the hatred of the good for being the good,” but the jury is still out. It’s a little risky to use fictional examples in my sample, but I feel they can illuminate the often tangled and diffuse mass of information surrounding real figures.

I think such a study – which I admit I am carrying out unsystematically – could be valuable in understanding the operation of morality and in figuring out how we can have a stable society. Besides, it’s interesting!

I invite you to share any insight you have on these subjects or any book or movie recommendations.

Lessons of The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather was one of the biggest bestsellers ever. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part One and Part Two, are often placed near the top on lists of the greatest movies ever made. But is there anything else to these stories besides violence and well-dressed criminals?

The movies – and to a lesser extent, the novel – get to me in several ways. At one level, The Godfather draws me in just because it is about serious people. The Corleone family are very focused on their enterprises. They are not trifling or easily distracted. They deal in matters of life and death, and they generally decide these matters with great planning and deliberation. Things do not turn out well for the people in the story who act impulsively or venally.

Furthermore, the Corleones have discipline. They are trying to get something done and they toe the line in the effort. The Corleones value loyalty to the group. Renegades and deviants do not fare well in this world. In addition, the Corleones have a culture of accumulated wisdom. Don Corleone’s ideas are what steer the family through its trials.

It is a rare thing in a motion picture to see serious people acting rationally and strategically, and even if it is in the irrational context of crime, it is a pleasure to watch. The book, but even more the movies, convey a kind of weight that is lacking from most stories. These people are so wonderfully not frivolous!

You might think that this sort of seriousness might be found in other stories about business, i.e. legitimate business, but there aren’t a lot of examples of this. I can think of one outstanding exception: Executive Suite. Most books and movies about business usually portray executives as ridiculous or amoral. At least The Godfather doesn’t portray its characters as ridiculous.

Nina Foch and William Holden in “Executive Suite.”

In a way, that the Corleones’ enterprise is crime is almost incidental. While they use violence to solve problems, we don’t see the day-to-day criminal activity that is the foundation of the their empire. We don’t see the gambling parlors or the union racketeering or any of the rest of it. We do know that the Corleones won’t touch prostitution or drugs, which makes them slightly less abhorrent, if not exactly noble.

The first two Godfather movies – the only ones worth considering – feature two exquisite characters: father and son Vito and Michael Corleone. (The concept of the exquisite refers to a portrayal of character that is at once archetypal and concretely realistic. Such a portrayal involves the integration of unexpected or even paradoxical attributes. For more on the exquisite, see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

What makes Vito’s character exquisite is the juxtaposition of a ruthless violence with a style of reasonableness and traditional values. Vito is not some Scarface-like screaming maniac. He is imperturbable. He is willing to negotiate. (Although his idea of negotiating sometimes involves making you an offer you can’t refuse.) Further, and this is clearer in the novel than in the film, he is straight-laced about sex – he expresses contempt for one of the other Family leaders for being a pimp. And he does not wish to get into the drug business.

Michael describes Vito to his future wife Kay as a man of great responsibility, like a senator or a governor. And that’s part of the key to Vito’s character: he is the head of a family and he takes care of that family. He has a certain kind of twisted parentalism, as befits the moniker “godfather.”

Another element of Vito’s character is that he believes himself to live in a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world. As a refugee from Sicilian Mafia violence who emigrates as a child to the jungle of Little Italy, he is somewhat justified in this belief. He sees society as a great war of all against all. And the morality of war is different from the morality of peace. In a world of war, it is Machiavelli’s rules that apply, not Jefferson’s. Vito is a lot like The Fountainhead‘s Gail Wynand in this regard.

Vito has no taste for cruelty, however, and although he is quite comfortable with ruthless coercion, he would never harm a woman or a child. He is not a sociopath. He is just making sure that he and his are safe in a world fraught with peril.

We could take the Corleones to be modern-day Medicis, a dynasty using cunning and the occasional act of violence in order to survive and prosper in ever-dangerous times. If Italian Renaissance history is not your thing, we could compare the crime families in The Godfather to the Great Houses of Frank Herbert’s Dune, who are into vendettas, poisons and swordplay.

Lorenzo de Medici

By either analogy the Corleones can be seen as a kind of nobility, at least in the fantasy world they occupy. Perhaps we might see nobility in general as the ability to maintain dynastic survival in a world of violent competitiveness: nobility as evolutionary fitness over the long term. If you are a force to be reckoned with, you are noble, but if you are a wood chip in the flood, you are of no account and are common.

Vito’s son Michael is similar to his father in some ways and different in others, but is still exquisite. Like Vito, Michael is a “reasonable man.” He is ruthless, too. And he does not enjoy cruelty for cruelty’s sake. But he is not rooted in traditional values and except for one romantic encounter, which significantly takes place in Italy rather than America, he is cold. Almost the first thing he does after his father dies and he assumes unequivocal command of the Corleone Family is to murder the heads of all the other five families in New York. This goes beyond what is necessary, since only two of the other families had plotted against him. His father never felt it necessary to be the only one left standing: Michael is driven by a desire for safety, which is nice way of saying that he is paranoid.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

At the same time his men are butchering half the gangsters of New York he also has his sister’s husband garrotted, because he was a traitor. In doing so, Michael wounds his sister enormously. This, Vito would never have done. In The Godfather, Part Two, Michael’s paranoia escalates until he drives off his wife and his adopted brother. Then he has his real brother murdered.

To understand the message of Michael’s life, we might wish to consider a concept that has long circulated through the Objectivist and libertarian worlds: the prudent predator. This type embodies the question: what if you could commit crimes with virtually no chance of getting caught? Wouldn’t doing so be in your “rational self-interest”? I believe the answer to this question to be No. My point, however, is not to rejoin that debate but to note that Michael Corleone is a great example of the type. And The Godfather, especially Part Two, has something to say about the type, because it chronicles what happens to a prudent predator.

The type has been dealt with in literature before. One common device in good stories about evil, like The Godfather and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, is to show that even when evil does not get punished by the law, it still suffers by its internal logic. Call it “the operation of cosmic justice.” It is the operation of this principle that makes the Godfather stories moral, even though none of the major characters is ever tried for his crimes.

One reason why the prudent predator is impractical is that he sees other people not as people, but as objects to be used. This view is not conducive to the good life, needless to say. Michael never gets arrested, but he does become a social atom. He is capable of hurting anyone, even his own brother, and by the conclusion of The Godfather, Part Two, he is a solitary being, living in his beautiful lakeside house with his haunted memories. If the survival of the fittest is the rule you choose to live by, then as the winner you get to survive by yourself.

You might think that Vito is a prudent predator as well, but Vito is too well connected to other people. Maybe his connection to others and his somewhat traditional values are just superficial. Maybe deep down he could become like Michael. But he gets through life without descending to that depth. I would say that this is because he is from an Old World culture.

Vito doesn’t get through life unscathed, however. He is shot and badly wounded by rival criminals because he refuses to modernize by entering the drug trade with them. His traditional values, if that’s what they are, are not enough to protect him from the logic of criminal “progress.” An Old World man like Vito is not going to flourish in the remorseless evolutionary struggle of the New World. But if the modern American world forces a Vito to die or become a Michael, and if that world forces a Michael to become a murderous robot, then can we say that being a prudent predator pays?

So what do Part One and Part Two add up to? Part One chronicles the descent of a once good man into evil. Part Two shows how he suffers due to his fall, while also showing his father’s rise. In the long run, the Medici approach might work for a time among rooted, Old World, types, especially in the Old World where clients look to their patrons with loyalty, but it does not work among “individualistic” Americans, who eventually force godfathers to become monsters. Michael ends up like a shark, the perfectly ruthless killer whose fate it is to swim alone.

At the level of Michael’s character, we could see the Godfather movies as a tragedy. Michael’s tragic flaw is loyalty to his father, whom he sees as a great man. This loyalty is what motivates him to join the family business and commit his first murders when his father’s life is in danger. (Francis Ford Coppola’s friend George Lucas tried to craft a similar tragic flaw for Anakin Skywalker in the second Star Wars trilogy, but it was not convincing.)

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker

So the Godfather stories are at once a tragedy, a portrayal of human seriousness and twisted nobility and a commentary on the prudent predator. Such richness is what makes great art. But there is an additional dimension.

One overarching theme of the story, in my opinion, is the importance of creating a just society. In a society like Sicily or big city America, would-be great men are crushed and have to resort to violence to protect their self-esteem and the ones they love. No doubt some men rose to legitimate greatness from such a milieu, but it probably took a titanic struggle and an almost irrational optimism to do so. It would be understandable for other men to think they had to play by Machiavelli’s rules.

I don’t think that in the end The Godfather is really about crime and criminals. For one thing, the Corleones are a fantasy. Real criminals are almost all thugs, not Renaissance princes. And crime just doesn’t carry that much thematic weight. So what is the story about if not crime?

One way to understand a novel or movie is to look at its social context. For example, the movie The Untouchables, which tells the story of Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone, is “really” about the War on Drugs and how we have to embrace ruthless means to fight it. On the other hand, Public Enemies, which tells the somewhat similar story of Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of John Dillinger, is about the War on Terror and how we have degraded ourselves by the way we have fought it. The Untouchables is from 1987 and Public Enemies is from 2009, and this is not mere coincidence.

The social context in which The Godfather stories were created was threefold: 1. the Civil Rights Movement, which had turned to Black Power, because a number of vocal African-Americans believed that America’s 300-year war against black people was not going to be ended by a few Congressional acts. 2. The Vietnam War, which showed that even the Federal government could not be trusted. 3. The battle against police corruption, especially in New York City, which revealed the dirtiness of the law. (This third story is taken up in another movie with Al Pacino, Serpico.) The Godfather, novel and movies, are a commentary on what happens when the social contract is not honored and indeed is not honorable.

The Godfather illustrates what happens if injustice, oppression and corruption are allowed to create conditions of war in American society. The oppressed turn to violence and domination in an attempt to protect themselves and to establish a reliable social order. A certain type of powerful person will either try to rise within a just society or exercise his power to create a new one, in this case, a society within a society. And such men will exploit opportunities created by society, especially victimless crime, the laws against which are after all another form of injustice and oppression.

These attempts to establish a safe and prosperous zone outside of mainstream society do not work, of course. In fact, they engender something that is as bad as the conditions that spawned them. But ambitious, intelligent and indomitable men will create their “families” or gangs or sometimes even new religions, if they are not allowed to achieve their greatness through normal channels.

But as I say, the criminal class is beside the point: The Godfather stories aren’t about criminals: They are great men who will not be squelched. They are about 1960s radicals. They are about Malcolm X. If you don’t want a war of all against all, then those in power and those who can influence those in power must establish a just society. That was a message for The Godfather‘s time, and for ours.

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
Malcolm X

American Ambassador, American Terrorist

What goes on in the mind of a terrorist? How can they see the world so differently from most people and so coldly commit acts of violence? Ward Just, a foreign correspondent turned novelist, addresses these questions in The American Ambassador (2003), which tells the story of (you guessed it) an American ambassador whose son becomes a terrorist.

This is a novel worth reading. The draw is the ambassador’s son, who one evening just walks away from his parents in Hamburg and finds himself a marxist terrorist group to join. Soon he’s kidnapping, bombing and murdering with the rest of them. At one point someone asks him why the other terrorists accept him when they hate Americans, and he replies “Because I hate Americans more than they do.”

We get a good look inside the son’s head. What we see there is not marxist cant, but a pervasive moral stance. The son believes there are two kinds of people in the world: the exploiters and the exploited, and the exploited will not be free until the exploiters are dead.

He sees his parents as exploiters who live in a dream world. When the ambassador is posted to central Africa, they employ local houseboys whose real names they do not even learn, only their “Christian” names. The parents, as the son sees it, are hypocrites who pretend to be concerned with others. The novel is fascinating in showing how he interprets people and events in a completely different way from his parents and from normal people in general. He hates Thanksgiving, for example. He distances himself from his parents. He never refers to his father as “Dad” or even “my father,” just as “the ambassador.”

He falls in love with the daughter of another terrorist. She’s damaged. Perhaps she’s a bit autistic, or perhaps she just lives in her own world. She has been traumatized by her father and one of his comrades. The son loves her because she seems like a pure innocent. He coaxes her out of her shell a bit. Soon she murders with an almost beatific attitude.

The son is a great example of how the marxist only sees “objective conditions.” There is no allowance for good intentions or unintended consequences. Unless you’re a victim, he won’t see your side of things at all. His detachment as chilling, as evidenced by an incident when he was in boarding school in which he stood by while his roommate beat up a teacher.

Unfortunately, there is too little of the son and his angel-assassin. A lot of the novel is spent with the parents, who are nice people but not all that interesting. We follow Dad through his medical trials. As a diplomat in Africa he was almost blown up by rebels/bandits when the son was five, and he is plagued by small bits of shrapnel embedded in his flesh. One of them works its way to his neck and paralyzes his left hand. I’m sure that this is all terribly metaphorical, but I just didn’t get it. The telling of the African incident, first from the father’s view and later from the son’s, is effective, however.

Mom is a slightly interesting character. Her resentment of Dad and her occasional drunken eagerness to tell inappropriate truths in front of guests gives the reader some hint of where the son gets his problems from. This connection is underdeveloped, however.

One of the problems with Just’s novels – and this is the third I’ve read – is that he stretches a short story or novella’s worth of story out to the length of a novel. That’s somewhat less true here, but the stuff with the parents goes on too long. Absolutely worth reading for the son, however.

Ward Just

I admit to being curious about terrorists. I think it was Allan Bloom who said that people were drawn to them – or maybe it was to Nazis – because of their extreme existential commitment to values, a commitment that some people envy. What he means is that some people believe that you can’t derive values from reason but that you just have to commit to them by an act of pure will. Some people admire such acts of will. Some people even find this kind of “strength” sexy.

I don’t find terrorists sexy or admirable in any way. I also think we have to carefully distinguish between what the terrorist’s motivation is and what people project onto terrorists. From my limited study of the subject, I don’t believe that most terrorists are existentialists, although they do like living on the edge.

And I am not at all interested in religious terrorists. I am more interested in groups like the Weather Underground or the Baader-Meinhoff Gang. How can people see the world that way?

Ulrike Meinhoff as saint. A well-known journalist, Meinhoff co-founded Germany’s Red Army Faction. She was probably murdered in jail.

I’ve read a couple of Objectivist sources who say that terrorists are nihilists. I’m not sure what that means and it doesn’t seem to apply in all cases. The American Ambassador offers a plausible counter-interpretation. I think if we were to put its terrorist in Objectivist terms, he would be an extreme intrinsicist, someone who saw truth and value as things that exist completely “in themselves” with no participation of a subject. In other words, the terrorist makes no allowances for the thought processes needed to arrive at true ideas or good values. You’re just supposed to “see” truth and goodness. If it’s not obvious to you, then you’re rationalizing, and that makes you a bad person. Obviously, there is no tolerance for disagreements among people of this kind.

The son is also a member of the cult of suffering. He sees almost nothing else. He seems to have no regard for any of the good things America has produced and he has no plan for what happens after he and his little band topple the colossus. He feels the pressure of all that suffering like a weight on his head, and he can’t think of anything else.

This is all deplorable, of course, but it’s not nihilism, unless by nihilism you mean not having any positive values, only negative ones.

I think that the ultimate fascination of terrorists, for me at least, is that although they come from more or less the same culture I do, they don’t think anything like me. And it’s not just a matter of different beliefs, but a wholly different way of occupying their space and seeing the people around them. It’s like encountering someone who’s color blind – what’s that like? A color blind person doesn’t see things I do and sees things I can’t. How a terrorist reaches this point and how he or she can possibly escape it, are questions of great moral, political and psychological importance.

Descending Mount Olympus

As on Objectivist I used to have this little problem: nothing was ever good enough. I could find something irrational or immoral in almost anything. Ayn Rand’s thought was for me a launching pad for negativism. My mother summed it up in a perfect bon mot when she said I followed the philosophy of “Objectionism.”

Objectionism is not Objectivism, of course. But Rand did sometimes see the dark side of things too much, and that influenced me in my youth and ignorance. Still, I take responsibility for not more aggressively seeking out good things.

My problem has manifested itself in many areas of life, but one especially troubling area has been literature. Before I encountered Ayn Rand, I used to love to read fiction. It was mostly science fiction (this was in my teens) but some other stuff too. After I became a serious Objectivist when I was 21 or 22, my fiction reading dropped off dramatically. This was especially troubling because I married a writer. I almost couldn’t read her work.

The problem had a twofold cause: 1. Nothing could compare to the heroes and themes of Rand’s novels. 2. Rand had convinced me that the prevailing culture was wicked, except for a few exceptions, most of which I would not touch with gloves on (such as Mickey Spillane). As a result I felt the world, and literature, to be gray and shallow and full of irrelevant chattering. It took me many years to challenge and defeat the twin sources of my difficulty.

It’s not that I didn’t read anything. When I was in my thirties I thought of writing a book about The Fountainhead, so I did some research by reading several of Victor Hugo’s novels and a couple of Dostoyevsky’s. I liked them; I didn’t love them. Otherwise, for the most part, the 1980s were a long literary dry spell for me.

Two novels my wife and I read in the 1990s made a big difference, although they weren’t quite enough to break the logjam. The first was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. In it a group of college students engages in an ancient ritual, which leads them to murder one of their own. After stories like The da Vinci Code, this sounds like a cliché, but it was a fresh idea when Tartt came up with it. More importantly Tartt used this set-up to talk about two things a lot deeper than ritual: the issue of reason versus passion and the operation of cosmic justice. I would describe The Secret History as “American Dostoyevsky”

Somewhat later my wife stumbled across a novel we both came to love very much, David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident. This is my favorite novel after The Fountainhead (and yes, before Atlas Shrugged, which I think is overrated as literature by its fans). I have tried to encourage Objectivists to read it, with no luck, even though the nature of reason is one of its primary themes. Maybe the reason why Objectivists are not drawn to this novel is that it is about black people. Not that most Objectivists are racist, but perhaps the culture and problems of black people seem to be too specific to be of universal philosophical significance. Rand always seemed to imply that slavery and by extension Jim Crow, were non-essential in America, when of course, they were actually near the heart of American identity.

But I am getting sidetracked. Although The Chaneysville Incident gave me hope, I didn’t find much else like it. However, it did help get me reading again. I picked up a little science fiction again (Octavia Butler mostly), but sci-fi, mysteries and the like do not nourish me, and I resumed my steady diet of non-fiction.

Then I found a novel, which, though I didn’t know it then, started something good for me: Louis Auchincloss’ The Rector of Justin. In his many novels and short stories, Auchincloss chronicled the upper-class Protestant set in New York and Boston. This did not bode well, since I have no interest in novels about class (which is why most British literature leaves me cold). But this one worked for me.

The Rector of Justin follows an idealistic headmaster of an Episcopalian boys school from 1875 to 1946, giving us an interesting slice of American cultural history. But it is the central figure, Frank Prescott, who fascinates. He has the intellect, wit, energy, ambition and idealism of an Ayn Rand hero, although many of his principles are wrong, since he is a Christian and a minister. He doesn’t build the world’s tallest building or anything like that, but he does found and build up a successful school, one which he hopes will lift the American character. The true meaning of this man’s life, and whether he should be counted a success or a failure, are the fascinating foci of the story.

Judge Learned Hand, the model for Frank Prescott’s appearance

Frank Prescott was kind of a bridge between Rand’s heroes and the protagonists of more typical novels. It’s not that Prescott helped me diminish my expectations or anything like that. It’s that he helped me see how an interesting, even exceptional character did not have to be a god. And further, Prescott helped me relate character to events, trends and ideas in the real world. It matters to his character that Prescott’s father died in the Civil War. Howard Roark’s father might have fought in the Spanish-American War, but it doesn’t make any difference.

It took awhile before the effect really took hold, but eventually, my literary muscles started to unclench. I decided to find interesting novels about interesting people. They didn’t even have to be about heroes, per se. But they did have to have remarkable people or situations or psycho-epistemology. Furthermore, they had to have a plot and some kind of theme that I found worthwhile. This makes it sound as if I’m casting my net more widely than I really am. I do usually demand some fairly serious intellectual content in a novel and a rational universe and characters who think. (The intellectual content can be completely between the lines and does not entail characters giving speeches or the author lecturing.) I’ve read more novels in the past two years than I had in the previous two decades.

I think a lot of my problem was that I believed, with Rand, that the highest function of literature – almost its only worthwhile function – was to present a moral ideal. Even Dostoyevski’s stories could be seen as sort of a negative ideal – what man could be and shouldn’t be. Although giving the reader the experience of a hero is important, taking it to Rand’s extreme is a very limiting view of literature.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Rand: maybe this view is Objectionism, not Objectivism. Still, sometimes it seems as if Rand saw no middle ground between worshipping heroes and trolling the sewers. Where Objectionism leads me to see things in black or white, I now tend to see – not shades of gray – but a spectrum of color.

Take a wonderful novel I just finished: Ward Just’s A Dangerous Friend. The story is about the early days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. We follow a junior manager at a non-government organization (NGO) based in Saigon devoted to “nation building” (and collecting a little intelligence on the side). The manager tries to get a French colonial rubber plantation owner to yield some information, but the Frenchman has been unmolested by the Viet Cong and wishes to remain neutral. The story builds to a painful climax from there.

There is no hero in this story. There are several sympathetic characters, but no one I would in any way put up on a pedestal. There’s not even a character whose point of view is supposed to be comprehensively right, except maybe the unnamed narrator. (The junior manager does become wiser by the story’s end, however.) The head of the NGO and the Army end up looking pretty bad. The point of the story is to show the kind of thinking that led the Americans to defeat in Vietnam. The real “dangerous friend” is the United States. It is fascinating and illuminating. Some of the characters are close to exquisite. (For more about the “exquisite character,” see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

But A Dangerous Friend does not exist to show things as they could be and ought to be. It helps us understand ourselves (us Americans) as we were and are. It is especially relevant give our recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it has a good plot. (And no, it’s not naturalism – characters make free and meaningful decisions.)

Three or four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to get through this small gem of a novel. I would have found it “dreary and depressing,” I would have lamented the lack of a focal hero to admire. And so I would have missed out.

Reading Ayn Rand, especially The Fountainhead, was a peak experience for me. But it was a peak I stranded myself on, with very little air to breathe. It took me decades to descend that peak – I still have a ways to go. But now I’m finding more and more good things and I’m ready to rejoin the human race. I finally feel I’m reading up to my potential, and I’m happy.

Have you had an adventure in reading you’d like to share? Leave a comment about how you’ve grown as a reader and what you’d like to see more of.

Brave New Us

The two most read dystopian novels in English are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Despite the common vision of a totally controlled society they are fundamentally different. In Orwell’s nightmare vision, people are controlled by what they fear, but in Huxley’s, they are controlled by what they desire.

I would say that America is tending in both directions at once. After 9/11, the regulatory state, already bloated, has started becoming a security state. Torture, assassination and imprisonment without trial became acceptable (at least to the government) and the executive branch has made clear that it will use these methods even against American citizens. If there were another large terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it is quite credible that our society might tip over into a “permanent state of emergency” style of dictatorship. This is more similar to 1984.

Preventing Orwell’s vision from being realized is an urgent concern, but in the long run I think the more likely threat comes from the Huxleyan direction.

It’s easy to dismiss the threat of a Brave New World-like order, because many of the “innovations” of Huxley’s 26th century do not exist in our world: We do not hatch all babies from bottles, we have not abolished marriage and family, we don’t divide people up into Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon castes, and we do not have the perfect drug, Soma.
But of course, Huxley wasn’t really warning us against these literal specifics. They were not even on the horizon in 1932, when he published his novel. What he is warning us against is the danger of basing society on safety and pleasure and being willing to foreswear passion and risk to do so.

Have we no tendency in this direction?

Promiscuity is a Citizen’s Duty
We have not gone so far as to abolish romantic love, but dating is on the decline in favor of “hooking up,” temporary arrangements with NSA (no strings attached). Furthermore, the “enlightened” attitude is that any sexual proclivity is acceptable as long as it is practiced “safely.” I stopped reading the advice column “Savage Love” at about the time its author defended drinking other people’s urine, if that’s what thrills you. He got a doctor to say it was safe, you see, so that made it OK.

Huxley’s characters do not practice anything so blatantly degrading, but they do celebrate orgies. No doubt they have wiped out sexually transmitted diseases, so that makes it OK.

The similarities to Brave New World are not all driven by a desire for pleasure and security. The (understandable) desire of women today to establish themselves professionally is pushing back the childbearing years so far that assisted reproductive technologies somewhat similar to Huxley’s have to be used in some cases. It’s just a matter of time before an artificial uterus will allow women who can afford it not to have to carry babies at all. I seriously doubt that most women would want to forego the connection they feel to their unborn child, but some ambitious and/or rich ones will. It could become a trend.

Moreover, the divorce rate and the frequency of childbirth out of wedlock demonstrate that relationships and commitment are in decline. We’re not to the point where they only last a week or two, as in Huxley’s world, but the idea of a lifelong passionate partnership does seem to be on the wane.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World

Safety is Our Watchword
I mentioned before that any sex is OK (in some people’s eyes) as long as it was safe sex. Safety is an obsession in our society. You can get arrested for driving your child around without a car seat, even though people over 30 or so managed pretty much just fine without car seats as children.

Speaking of safety, I remember reading about how some concerned people started handing out bottles of water at “raves,” dances where the drug Ecstasy is consumed, because dehydration is a serious risk when exertion and E are mixed. Apparently, drugs are OK as long as they are used safely. No, we don’t have Soma, Huxley’s perfect narcotic with no side-effects, but pot and E come pretty close, and there is a very casual attitude among young people toward using them. A student I knew at George Washington University once defended to me her friends’ use of marijuana. They only partook on the weekends and they studied really hard during the week. It’s not a problem if it doesn’t keep your from working hard when you need to and you use it to unwind. This is not the drug use of the pothead or stoner, but rational, controlled use, and that makes it OK. Huxley’s characters use their drug the same
way.

Digging Holes and Filling Them Up Again
Brave New World is based on a kind of Keynesian economics where innovation and efficiency are often eschewed so as to maintain full employment. Their society creates “semi-moron” members of the Epsilon caste to operate elevators instead of just having automatic elevators. Only games (such as the hilariously named Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy) that require extensive equipment are allowed.

Is this kind of thinking so different from the thinking that has underwritten the bailouts and stimulus packages? What’s important is making work and keeping the wheel turning, not actually using capital and labor efficiently. Efficiency is secondary, because on our view and Huxley’s, the economy is driven by consumption, not production. We, and Huxley’s citizens, don’t want real progress. What we want is social stability. Moreover, people in the twenty-sixth century, like people increasingly now, are driven by an anticipation of consumption rather than an ambition toward production.

What’s on the Feelies Tonight?
In Brave New World, a “savage” named John is brought to civilization from a reservation. He is not like the other inhabitants of the reservation, who are Indians; his parents were from “civilization” and his mother was stranded there, accidentally impregnated and forced to carry the baby, which normally would have been aborted, to term. She teaches the child to read and he gets his hands on a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, which he memorizes. Although he holds some truly awful religious ideas, such as self-flagellation, which he has gotten from the Indians, he is Huxley’s representative of the twentieth-century viewpoint in the world of the future.

John is amazed at the puerility of “civilization.” Except for one of the World Controllers, who has a library of forbidden works, no one knows anything about Shakespeare or any other artifact of culture. As a teacher in the real world, I am constantly amazed by what my students (all college graduates) don’t know. A couple of our readings in class involve Richard Wagner. All the students I have asked to read these passages aloud have mispronounced his name, and when I have polled the room, 90% of them say they have never heard of him. (Although when I hum “The Ride of the Valkyries” they usually know that.)

Ignorance of higher culture is bad enough, but our popular culture is often far worse. Look at the state of contemporary television. It’s true that our best shows are among the best shows ever (e.g. The Wire and Mad Men), but the worst shows today, which vastly outnumber the good ones, are among the worst shows ever. I am referring to reality TV and to what you might call horror TV. The Jersey Shore, The Real World, and Keeping up with the Kardashians are far worse than The Beverly Hillbillies or even Gilligan’s Island. I could easily see Huxley’s future including reality TV, with its gossip, shallow idiosyncrasies and attention to utterly unimportant events in utterly unimportant people’s lives. The chattering quality of the genre fits right in with the atmosphere of Brave New World.

It is obvious that many, perhaps most, Americans no longer feel that they have to hold themselves up to any kind of cultural standard. Even bare logic has gone by the wayside. A show like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which started out as chic science fiction, descended into mysticism and ever-more-twisted plot contrivances. J. J. Abrams’ Lost had about as much logic and realism as a peyote-induced hallucination.

But many people get caught up in these shows. They don’t know any better. They don’t have the attention spans for anything more sophisticated. I once praised Mad Men to a group of smart and educated (but young) co-workers. Only one had seen it. She agreed that it was good, but said that nothing much happened in it. I guess it didn’t feature enough explosions.

One innovation in Huxley’s world is the “feelies,” which are movies where you can physically feel things along with the characters. Needless to say, this is used to sensationalistic ends, with scenes such as making love on a bearskin rug. Well, we don’t have the feelies yet, but we do have IMAX, which is a similar idea.

We love spectacle more than ever, but where half a century ago, spectacle would have meant Lawrence of Arabia or Spartacus, which were meaningful stories with interesting characters, now it means The 300 or The Dark Knight Rising. In a kind of gruesome irony, comic book movies are becoming almost the only way we can have a moral theme in the movies at all. Movies with any moral complexity, such as Bridge on the River Kwai, the original Flight of the Phoenix and Cabaret, are much less common as major motion pictures, although the indies still keep such things alive on a smaller scale.

brave new world – brianday – on flickr

Sending a Message
One noteworthy feature of Brave New World is the use of hypnopedia and conditioning on children. Recorded moral precepts are whispered under their pillows as they slept, and electric shocks are used as aversion reinforcers on some. Members of the lower castes who are destined for exclusively urban life are conditioned to hate nature, for example.

We don’t go this far, of course, but there are similarities between Huxley’s world and ours in this area. Some people think they can make their babies smarter by playing Mozart for them, an idea rather like conditioning. This is harmless, because, Mozart is a good thing to expose children to, even if it doesn’t make them smarter.

Less harmless, unfortunately, is the belief that if we reinforce a child’s self-adoration at every turn, it will foster better self-esteem, ambition and drive. According to Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, what it creates is narcissists. Twenge and Campbell mention a ditty that many kindergarten teachers like to teach their charges. It goes like this: “I am special, I am special, Look at me, Look at me.” What’s the takeaway from that song? I wonder. It also sends the wrong message to give every child in the sports league a trophy. T-shirts for four-year olds that say “Princess” or “Rock Star” are not devised to foster realism in the young.

Narcissism isn’t a problem In Huxley’s world, where children are programmed for social stability, but it is in ours because they are programmed to reach (somebody’s idea of) success. That is a significant difference. But the common element between Huxley’s world and ours is the belief that children are programmable.

It might be retorted that parents have always tried to train their offspring. True, but the way the inculcation of “self-esteem” works, it is more of an attempt to hypnotize the child into believing something rather than encouraging achievement as the foundation for true self-esteem.

Greek Letters, Not a Fraternity
At this point a reader might protest that, while there are similarities between Huxley’s world and ours, there are crucial differences, too. In Huxley’s world they have a caste system and we don’t. Everyone in the future is engineered in the bottle to be an Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta or Epsilon, with the Alphas being brilliant and the Epsilons being “semi-morons.” We have nothing like this, right?

Well, we certainly don’t plan anything like this, but we do have something a bit like it and we do subtly and not-so-subtly encourage it. I am referring to both the Advanced Placement track in high school for the “Alphas” and the deplorable public high schools for the “Deltas” and “Epsilons.” We are perfectly content to doom a certain segment of the population, usually black and Hispanic, to a limited level of performance rather than to figure out how to lift them out of it. We are content to have a reliably available group of people to drive the buses and tend the lawns.

To some extent this situation is an unintended byproduct of century-old trends in American education, such as progressivism, which hold back Alphas and Epsilons alike. But as the saying goes, when a white person gets a cold, a black person gets pneumonia. We could improve everyone’s education, and that might ensure that truly no child gets left behind. Progressivism, I might add, was largely driven by social considerations. Instead of doing the moral thing and lifting up disadvantaged children, especially the black children who are disadvantaged largely because of what society did to their forebears, we have reached a disturbing pass where the Alphas and the Betas find the Deltas and the Epsilons amusing and even emulate their underclass style of baseball caps, hand gestures and music.

Not only does this demonstrate that the “top” of our society does not really know what to do with itself when it’s not at work, but also it demonstrates that the differences between top and bottom are accepted even embraced by a large segment of the population. (Let me hasten to add, that when I refer to Alphas and Epsilons in our world I do not mean actual levels of intelligence so much as education and social standing.)

The Consequences of Getting It Slightly Wrong
So how did our society get to be like Huxley’s? In answering this question I take my cue from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Our society, or “regime” as Bloom calls it, is based on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and especially John Locke who put the fear of violent death and a desire for comfort above all other values. What is required to achieve these ends is a society based on the needs of the body in this world, not the soul in the next. Note that in Hobbes’ and Locke’s way of thinking, we should be more avoiding a negative than seeking a positive.

For a long time, the ideal man was to be found in Locke’s vision of a prudent, reasonable person who was industrious and not self-indulgent. You might say that this ideal was necessary to build up to a self-sustaining level of comfort. In recent decades we have reached that level. At least we think we have, judging by the low rate of savings and the high rate of consumer debt in the U.S. We believe that we can afford to be self-indulgent.

Hobbes explicitly and Locke implicitly turned their back on religion and honor and other divisive and distracting features of the old regime. We have done them one better by deciding that a concern with spiritual matters (and I do not mean just religion) is passé. Popular culture has come into its own. Comic books are now studied in the universities. Using what I call the DeCurtis principle, after Rolling Stone reviewer Anthony DeCurtis, anything is serious if it is taken seriously.

Using this principle, it will not be necessary to ban Shakespeare, as they have done in the 26th century. All we have to do is elevate Batman to the same level. Then why bother with Shakespeare when Batman is so much easier—so much more . . . accessible?

Much of how we view high culture is based on social considerations, as it is in Huxley’s world. Some academics want to expand the “canon,” not on the basis of merit, but of race and sex. No doubt there are worthy works by women and minority authors that have been neglected, but it should be the worthiness that is the deciding factor for teaching them. Race and sex shouldn’t enter into it at all. These academics are not using considerations of stability, as in the 26th century, but of equality. But doesn’t that amount to the same thing?

In sum, what our society and Huxley’s have in common is that both value safety and pleasure above pretty much anything else, both think consumption rather than production drives the economy and the spirit, both devalue love and commitment, both are satisfied with sensations and eschew art, and both accept an implicit or explicit caste system. Considerations of comfort and social stability matter more than passion and ideals.

The picture I paint of our world is not pretty, but it does appear to be what we wanted. Perhaps it is even the society we deserve. Are there countervailing trends that could save us from ourselves? I will look for some and get back to you.

New York Times Review of Sam Harris’ Free Will

The July 15 New York Times Book Review ran a review of Sam Harris’ Free Will. Reviewer David Menaker spends most of the review summarizing and quoting Harris’ book and then at the end, after many paragraphs of neutrality, tells us what he thinks.

What Menaker thinks is that Harris is probably correct. He thinks that’s sad, because determinism will no doubt damage virtues like courage and leadership. He opines that we may need the illusion of control in order to get on with our lives.

This is a common package, which we might dub the Humanistic Fatalism. It consists first of all in letting the latest scientific obsession roll over one, because after all science knows best (as it did about the cause of ulcers, right?). Next the victim sees all the negative consequences of the scientific belief. Later still, it is concluded that we have to pretend we have free will (or aren’t beasts, etc.). Lastly, depression, a longing for lost confidence.

There is something disturbing about resignation in the face of claims that are little better than sheer nihilism. It’s as if the so-called leaders of our culture had simply lost their nerve – or indeed their minds. Another chapter in the Decline of the West.

Fortunately, we do not have to let science (or more exactly, science-influenced philosophy) roll over us. There are champions of free will out there, for example Raymond Tallis, who says that man is more than an animal and we are more than our brains. (And he is an atheist, as am I.)

On a smaller scale I would add myself to the list of free will’s defenders. I wrote a response to Sam Harris in which I addressed his philosophical, neurological and introspective arguments against free will. I charge Harris with unwitting dualism – not of mind and body, but of conscious and unconscious processes. I discuss the category of action in which free will most resides and which Harris utterly neglects: actions involving deliberation. And I conclude with a sketch of what free will is actually like.

I don’t claim to have proven that free will exists – that cannot be done any more than you can prove that you are conscious. But I do point out where it operates. Right now it operates in you, as you focus on my remarks and choose to follow them.

I don’t get into this in the essay, but I am increasingly disturbed by Harris’ worldview. He wants everything to be safe and blame-free. He wants brain-scanners to tell us what would make us happy. If there is to be a Brave New World, he will have been one of its Founding Fathers.