The Plot Against America

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Who knew that Philip Roth, best known for his obsession with sex in novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and The Breast, also wrote an alternate history–and a very good one at that? The point at which Roth’s novel deviates from real-world history is 1940. Germany is at war with the rest of Europe, but America retains its isolationist stance. FDR clearly wants to join the fight and institutes measures which technically void our status as neutrals, but forces at home like the organizations America First and the German-American Bund oppose any involvement.

The deviation occurs when Charles A. Lindbergh, dashing hero pilot, isolationist and anti-Semite marches into the Republican National Convention and captures the nomination for president. Running on a platform of “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War,” Lindbergh sweeps FDR from the White House.

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After taking office Lindbergh reaches an “understanding” with Hitler and the Japanese and, true to his word, keeps us out of the war. But President Lindbergh has a domestic agenda as well. He wants to “integrate” American Jews into broader American society by sending their boys to work on farms and having businesses (under pressure) relocate employees from Jewish enclaves out to the hinterlands. How far will this policy go? You’ll have to read the book, but I will say that things eventually get pretty ugly.

Now this is an interesting story in itself. A good what-if yarn. But the way in which Roth chooses to tell it is fascinating. He uses his own family, with himself as a nine-year-old boy narrating, as the focal characters. We don’t follow Charles Lindbergh around; we just see him in the newsreels. Instead we follow little Philip Roth around, as grown-up Roth imagines an alternate history for himself and his kin.

First, let me say that Roth is brilliant at showing the naive and sometimes strange perceptions and fears of a little boy. At one point little Philip contemplates running away to Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town, a thousand miles away. This is some of the best treatment of the world through a child’s eyes I’ve seen since To Kill a Mockingbird.

But the real interest is not just little Philip but his family, including uncles, an aunt and a cousin–and beyond them the wider Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey. How do they respond to the threat of a quasi-fascist president? Do they collaborate, rebel, stand their ground, go down in flames or what? What interests Roth is not so much the affairs of the mighty but the question of what will Roth’s father, an insurance salesman with an eighth-grade education, do when ordered to move to Kentucky and leave behind everything he knows and loves? Roth the author is in the singularly fortunate position of being able to portray his father as a hero.

But not everyone in the Roths’s community is a hero. There is a local rabbi who acts as a Judas goat for Lindbergh, helping give the aviator credibility as a non-anti-Semite. And there is Philip’s cousin, who refuses to wait for America to enter the war and goes off to Canada to join up. His is not a happy trajectory.

One fascinating character is the gossip-columnist-turned-commentator Walter Winchell. Winchell is basically a loudmouth with a lot of listeners, like somebody on Fox News, but he is Jewish and he publicly and vehemently denounces Lindbergh. We only see him from afar, but what happens to him is at the heart of the story.

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Are there any themes here? Well, clearly the main one is: How the pressure of external events reveals character. Clearly some people in the story have a higher moral standing than others. The larger political story throws that into high relief.

Another major theme is the role of violence in social life, how some people struggle to live without violence and how in others violence burns just beneath the surface.

Still another theme is the greatness of the American system. The Jews in Roth’s environment are not Old Country sorts of people: They affirmatively define themselves as Americans. They believe in America. Can the American system right itself after almost capsizing? Well, you’ll have to read the book to see just whether that happens. I did find the ending a little bit unsatisfying, but it was in line with Roth’s themes.

I respect this novel, because, without descending into a naturalistic obsession with “humble” folk, it deals with “ordinary” people under stress and shows their true mettle. For me this is part of “Descending Mount Olympus” wherein I find my way to literature that doesn’t deal with the world’s greatest architect, but with people (some of) whom have an interesting kind of greatness anyway.

So that’s two novels now by an author I thought I would never like. I wrote about the other one here: “Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk”. Now I’ve got a third one on order. Will this be as far as I can go with Philip Roth? Time will tell.

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The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with writing Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I don’t think it’s nice to label people. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment almost exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it.

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I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are or are not Pretending a false self and sense of life. I didn’t want to rely too heavily on fictional examples because I wanted to make a point about the state of actual Americans. But I’ll share some of them here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about them in real life. Examples: Humphrey Bogart, Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Al Pacino, etc. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil. My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Perhaps the best example of a Pretender character of either sex isn’t American but Scottish: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Watch that movie and you will get the concept.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post Star Wars.

Sometimes you get a Pretender/non-Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearingen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In both cases the Pretender is smarter than the non-Pretender and is either morally ambiguous (as in the case of Doc Holliday) or downright evil (as in the case of Al Swearingen). In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

I don’t mean to say that Pretenderism is a smart person’s disorder. Plenty of dumb characters don their macho or torchy airs. John Wayne’s swaggering characters aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re certainly not intellectual either. But many of them are Pretenders.

John Wayne in Brothers

John Wayne in Brothers

Many characters are Pretenders by default, because nobody could authentically be like that. I am not sure their creators are aware of the Pretender concept. But other artists are aware of it, even though they haven’t worked it out as explicitly as I have. I believe Mark Twain knew that Tom Sawyer in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a Pretender, and I believe that Harper Lee knew that Scout, Jem and Dill were proto-Pretenders in To Kill a Mockingbird.

How about farther back in literary history? Julius Caesar, in Shakespeare’s play, seems to have been a Pretender, talking about himself in the third person and posturing. I think Shakespeare at some level understood the concept. Hamlet, although he pretends to be mad, is not a Pretender, because his act is self-conscious.

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Sometimes I joke with my wife that I see a Pretender under every bed, like Joe McCarthy and the communists. But joking aside, Pretenders are quite common in literature and in real life. You just have to learn how to spot them. And there’s a very good chance you’ve done some Pretending yourself, especially when you were younger, even if that is not your ultimate character type.

The Deception Game

Alan Turing and his friend Christopher are sitting under a tree at boarding school. Alan asks Christopher what he is reading, and Christopher says it’s a book about codes. Alan says, “You mean, like secret messages?” Christopher replies, No, a code is something everyone can hear but no one understands, and Alan replies, Isn’t that just talking? Everyone says something but means something else.

There in a nutshell is the character of Alan Turing The Imitation Game, the new film about the life of the British mathematician and codebreaker. I assume the reader is familiar with the basic story of Turing’s life, and so I will not withhold spoilers.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Everything in Turing’s life (as it is shown in this film) involves deception: He exchanges love notes with Christopher–but they have to be in code. He endeavors to break the German Enigma code, which is a deception. He has to hide the fact that he is a homosexual. He is required to lie about his work during the war and cannot take any credit for saving thousands or millions of lives and shortening the war.

The irony of Turing’s having to lie is that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (although it was not identified as such in Turing’s time) and is not a natural liar. He doesn’t even get jokes, he’s so literal-minded. There’s a hilarious scene where he’s pressed into service as a wing man in a bar and people keep kicking him in the ankles when he almost spoils their lies.

So the open and honest Turing is forced to be deceptive. But can he keep it up? The framing story is how he gets caught out as a homosexual and sentenced to chemical castration for it. Here the movie drops the ball by having Turing tell the story of his wartime experience to a copper who suspects him of being a spy.

The truth is less melodramatic and more poignant. When asked about the burglary of his house that brought him to the police’s attention in the first place, the real Turing blithely told them that a friend of his boyfriend did it. Perhaps Turing got tired of telling lies or perhaps he was such an open man that he didn’t see why he should conceal the simple facts. Either way, Turing suffered terribly for his honesty, and in the end probably committed suicide.

This bungle aside, the movie does have a consistent theme, and that is that some people are too good for this world, a world where, due to the malice of nations, deception is a necessity. God bless Alan Turing.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk

Just a few days ago, November 12, would have been Coleman Silk’s 88th birthday, if Coleman Silk were a real person and still alive. But he was neither. He died on November 11, 1998, and he was the problematic hero of Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain. I am fascinated by Coleman, his story and its complex themes. (There was also a good film version of the novel made with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, which led me to the book.)

Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman from the film version of The Human Stain

Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman from the film version of The Human Stain

Coleman was a professor of classics at the imaginary Athena College in Western Massachusetts. For many years he was also the dean of faculty. During that time he cleared out the deadwood on the faculty, brought in fresh blood, made people compete for raises and perks and generally revitalized the college and the town it was located in. He was bold, purposeful, unafraid to make enemies and to all appearances a very rational man. When he retired as dean in his late sixties to spend the last years of his career teaching, he seemed to be a blessed man, with an audacious painter for a wife and four grown children.

This was in the 1990s when moral hysteria about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky dominated the headlines. Coleman ran afoul of a similar moral hysteria. When calling the roll for the fifth session of a class he noticed that there were two students who had never attended and whom he did not know. He asked the class, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”

Now, some of my readers may not be old enough to know that “spook” was once upon a time a derogatory slang word for black people, not as bad as the n-word, but still offensive. Unfortunately for Coleman the two MIA students were African American.

Apres that, le deluge: an endless procession of meetings, accusations, desertions by faculty who felt slighted by his meritocratic actions as dean. Coleman refused to back down or apologize. There was nothing to apologize for, in his mind. His wife, Iris, who had not shared his bed in years, shared in his cause. Just when the furor was perhaps about to calm down, Iris had a stroke and died the next day.

Coleman resigned from the faculty after the funeral and went a little mad. He gathers up the documents from the racism case and storms over to the house of his neighbor Nathan Zuckerman, whom he barely knows. Zuckerman is a novelist, the narrator of this novel and a stand-in for Philip Roth. Coleman wants Zuckerman to tell the story of his unjust treatment and the “murder” of his wife. Zuckerman politely declines, but the two older men become friends.

Coleman determines to write the book himself. One night he has Zuckerman over for their weekly game of gin rummy and forties music, and all the tension and madness is gone from Coleman. He has dropped the idea of writing the book. For the first time in their acquaintance, Coleman is happy. In a wonderful scene, he even gets Zuckerman to dance with him. What has changed? With the help of the new drug Viagra, Coleman has embarked on a love affair. Through his sexuality, Coleman’s life force, always formidable, has reasserted itself.

There is just one problem: He is 71 and a retired college professor and his lover is a 34-year-old cleaning lady and milk maid. She is the abused ex-wife of a crazy Vietnam vet (whom Roth humanizes rather than treating like a cliche) who blames her for the death of their two children. Apparently not a good match, yet it is. These are two people who have lost a lot and who find sanity in each other and redemption through sex. And their sex is not just animal coupling: They spend time together–but the sex is the core of it.

Soon the voices of moral hysteria are raised again. A Yale-educated French female deconstructionist from the college sends him an anonymous letter. His daughter won’t talk to him. And then there’s the crazy ex-husband.

There’s a lot more to this novel I don’t want to reveal: Coleman has a big secret. It is a huge twist near the middle that colors the whole story. I am going to have a little trouble saying what I love about this novel while talking around the twist, but here goes:

As far as I have been able to tease out, the novel has four interlocking themes. First, is individualism. Coleman is very much a self-made man. He refuses to be part of his own group’s “we” or to be part of anyone else’s pre-packaged “they.” This theme is realized in many ways, including in the way Coleman keeps his own counsel (to put it mildly) and the way in which he does what he thinks best no matter what anyone, including his family and colleagues think of it. A lot of the novel is told in flashbacks (reconstructed by Zuckerman) and Coleman’s career as an amateur boxer gives us great insight into this aspect of his character.

Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman Silk

Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman Silk

The second theme is the unpredictability of fate. Some people at some times just get crapped on, benevolent universe or not. This theme is most realized in Coleman’s mistress and her ex-husband, but also in Coleman’s encounter with the forces of Political Correctness and in a youthful love affair that just can’t work out. Zuckerman references Sophocles at this point. Unsaid in the air is the famous quote from Oedipus the King, “Count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.”

For a time I worried that this was Roth’s last word on Coleman and on the universe, but it is not. It’s more complicated than that. What saves Coleman from his madness and his mistress from her loneliness is that life force. That life force is the third theme. Roth seems to be a bit sex-obsessed (One of his novels is called The Breast.), but he seems to allow that Coleman’s ambition to be an individual is just as valid an aspect of the life force as sex. But what he doesn’t allow is the idea that just making speeches without taking action is a valid aspect of the life force.

And what Roth, and therefore Zuckerman and also Coleman object to is misguided notions of purity, the kind that generate moral hysteria. The fact that life, at least any life worth leading, is messy, is the fourth theme of the novel and the one which gives rise to the title. But far from being an objection to life, that messiness can save a life.

I am not completely won over by Roth’s integration of his themes, but their interplay is fascinating, as is Coleman’s character, especially with that twist. I think that someone who takes a principled stance on life would do well to consider the life of Coleman Silk.

There’s another level to the novel that is interesting to ponder, but which is only implicit. Zuckerman in the end does write about Coleman, but not just about the “spooks” incident and the death of his wife. He writes about Coleman as a boy and a man. But he does so with only minimal input from Coleman. The rest he gets from other sources and from his imagination. Zucherman is not an omniscient narrator but a reconstructor of a life. He fills in gaps based on his knowledge of Coleman’s character, but he often does not try to create dialogue or flesh out action. There is much more “telling” and much less “showing” than I would normally want from a novel, but it works for me because Roth is such a good storyteller.

Think about it: You’re an interesting person and there are a lot of interesting things about you including one or two big secrets. Now imagine you’re friends with a novelist who is so impressed with you that after you die he writes your life, without extensive help from stories you’ve told, a diary, letters, etc. How would that come out? Would it resemble you very much? It’s hard to believe that Zuckerman got all the details right–but what am I saying? There is no Coleman Silk apart form Zuckerman’s story, and there is no Zuckerman apart from Philip Roth. It is a testament to Roth’s talent that Coleman Silk (and the other characters in the novel to a lesser extent) seems like an actual person, exquisite in his reality.

So Happy Birthday, Professor Silk. And Thank You, Philip Roth.

Announcing Killing Cool

I am happy to announce the publication of my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Due out September 2014

Now published

The book is about the way in which many Americans live in a fantasy, creating a fantasy self and a fantasy version of reality. This false self is often based on an artificial sense of life that is pasted over one’s real sense of life. Examples include people who try to be cool or chronically ironic, macho or ultra-femme, but there are hundreds of other types. Such people do not live in reality, often do not have a firm sense of what reality is, or possess a firm sense of the reality of other people.

I deal with many variations in eleven essays. In the title essay I treat two types of Cool and how they both depend on a mystical notion of the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age. In “Sex and Power, Hugs and Wonder” I discuss a pair of erroneous, and common, theories of values: one that says that our values are basically those of animals and one that says that our values are basically those of children. “Faith and the Bubble Universe” deals with ways in which Christianity can entail a kind of fantasy world and the nature of legitimate versus illegitimate error. “The Vampire and the Last Man” examines the troubling popularity of vampire stories and attempts to ferret out its causes. The concluding essay, “The Sleeper Awakes,” offers three ideas that could help the reader better live in reality.

The approach of the book is autobiographical and compassionate. My observations grow out of my own experiences and I share those experiences in an effort to make philosophy, psychology and culture criticism approachable. And although Killing Cool is technically a work of ethics, I do not moralize or condemn, but instead offer understanding for the people who trap themselves in boxes–and try to light the way out of them. I point out a lot of problematic character types in American society, but I suggest methods for growing out of them, too.

If real reform is to come to society, I believe that Killing Cool is a good place to start. Arguing about politics is to little avail when the arguers are living in a fantasy world: They will not hear the arguments anyway. The way to break the logjam is to entice people into choosing reality. Then we can have a real discussion.

Killing Cool is available on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle ebook. You can preview the book there.

Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions and feedback. If you are interested in reviewing the book, please contact me for a reviewer’s copy at keefner.books@hotmail.com.

Surrender in The Fountainhead

Guest blogger Carrie-Ann Biondi is an associate professor of philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College and Co-Editor-in-Chief (with Irfan Khawaja) of the journal Reason Papers.

It’s my contention, which may sound counter-intuitive to many Objectivists, that the title of this post is not an oxymoron.(1) But isn’t surrender to give one’s self up to an enemy, to relinquish ones’ values, to give in to the less-than-best? Isn’t that immoral on Ayn Rand’s view? Well, it depends on what one means by “surrender.” Rand was sensitive to and used multiple senses—both positive and negative—of the word “surrender.” After combing through The Fountainhead with this issue in mind, I was surprised to find at least fifteen instances of this word throughout the novel and that most of the uses are positive ones. There are three contexts of use, with one being negative and two being positive. I’ll describe and briefly analyze these three contexts of use, and conclude both that Rand by far uses “surrender” in a positive way and that she is right to do so. (2)

First, here is the negative use of “surrender,” when it means to give up one’s values. There are only a few places where this occurs, most prominently in relation to Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey. One instance occurs when Peter visits Howard Roark after he is fired from John Eric Snyte’s firm and then opens his own office: “Keating wondered why he should experience that sickening feeling of resentment; why he had come here hoping to find the story untrue, hoping to find Roark uncertain and willing to surrender” (p. 130). Another instance is when Ellsworth counsels giving in to flings rather than pursuing true love: “When consulted on love affairs, Toohey counseled surrender, if it concerned a romance with a charming little pushover, good for a few drunken parties . . . and renunciation, if it concerned a deep, emotional passion” (p. 302).

In both of these cases, Peter and Ellsworth hope that others will pragmatically surrender in cowardly fashion either to convention or meaningless whims. In short, they hope that others give up on being people of devoted principle. Both of them are viciously motivated. Peter, who is second-handed, lacks integrity and resents Howard’s independence and sterling character. Ellsworth desires to control others and gets perverse pleasure from emotionally manipulating others so that they will become dependent on him. Peter is one of his victims in this regard.

Second, here is the most common positive use of “surrender,” which occurs in a sexual context and reflects Rand’s views about the passionate response of one romantic partner to another. While Rand focuses primarily on a female’s surrender or submission to a man, she also has an interesting scene where Howard surrenders to Dominique Francon, so I include that here as an illustration of Rand’s broader point about the nature of romantic love. Its occurrence is always between Howard and Dominique. Here are a few examples (though there are at least six like this):

“It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt . . . . He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him—and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted. Then she felt him shaking with the agony of a pleasure unbearable even to him, she knew that she had given that to him, that it came from her” (p. 218).

“Then she looked at him. She stood naked, waiting, feeling the space between them like a pressure against her stomach, knowing that it was torture for him also and that it was as they both wanted it. Then he got up, he walked to her, and when he held her, her arms rose willingly . . . her mouth on his, in a surrender more violent than her struggle had been” (p. 274).

“She tried to demonstrate her power over him. She stayed away from his house; she waited for him to come to her. He spoiled it by coming too soon; by refusing her the satisfaction of knowing that he waited and struggled against his desire; by surrendering at once. . . . He would lie at her feet, he would say: ‘Of course I need you. I go insane when I see you. You can do almost anything you wish with me.’ . . . The words did not sound like surrender, because they were not torn out of him, but admitted simply and willingly” (p. 311).

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

While some commentators have found problematic the violence mingled with pleasure in passages like these, what is clear from both the larger context of the novel and Rand’s own remarks (3) is that she intended this kind of intensely pleasurable form of surrender as a positive experience. Despite the inverted language that Dominique uses at times (as the internally conflicted person she is for almost the entire novel), she loves Howard. Their love-making is an ecstatic submission of the best in Dominique to what she adores most in Howard. This is Dominique at her most whole-hearted until she resolves her internal conflict at the end of the novel, when she finally embodies with ease a desire for unified happiness in public and across her whole life, awakening at last “with the sun in her eyes”: “[S]he knew that she could not have reached this white serenity except as the sum of all the colors, of all the violence she had known. ‘Howard . . . willingly, completely, and always . . . without reservations, without fear of anything they can do to you or me’” (p. 669). As Lloyd Drum remarks, “Ultimately Dominique’s surrender contains all of the basic themes of The Fountainhead. It is more than a surrender of the body to bodily pleasure. It is a surrender of the soul to the ecstatic possibilities of the human spirit.” (4)

Third, here is the less common positive use of “surrender,” but which is arguably the most general and powerful. It concerns the sense of surrender that, as Joshua Zader insightfully notes, is “closely aligned” with love and occurs “in some spiritual and personal growth traditions.” (5) There are three instances when Howard, Dominique, and Gail Wynand each surrender out of love, but not in a sexual context. The first instance occurs when Steve Mallory is working on the sculpture of Dominique for the Stoddard Temple, but without much luck until Howard walks into the back of the room: “Then he saw what he had been struggling to see all day. He saw her body standing before him, straight and tense, her head thrown back, her arms at her sides, palms out, as she had stood for many days; but now her body was alive . . . a proud, reverent, enraptured surrender to a vision of her own, . . . the moment touched by the reflection of what she saw” (p. 336).

Joan of Arc, 1879, Jules Bastien-Lepage (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

Joan of Arc, 1879, Jules Bastien-Lepage (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) (6)

The second instance occurs when Howard relaxes after a swim at the home he has built for Gail and Dominique: “She [Dominique] thought: This is the tribute to Gail, the confidence of surrender—he relaxes like a cat—and cats don’t relax except with people they like” (p. 586).

The third instance occurs when Gail reflects on his power in relation to Howard while they are on a cruise together on Gail’s yacht: “As he stood at the rail, watching Roark in the water, he thought of the power he held in this moment: he could order the yacht to start moving, sail away and leave that redheaded body to sun and ocean. The thought gave him pleasure: the sense of power and the sense of surrender to Roark in the knowledge that no conceivable force could make him exercise that power” (p. 603).

What is striking about this third use of “surrender” is the experiential and moral rightness of it. Somehow, this is not a giving in to some force external to one’s agency, but rather, is a profound expression of one’s deepest sense of self. These three individuals are most truly themselves when they surrender to a love they feel for one another that is rooted in a love of their own best selves. I find Scott Schneider’s gloss on this idea helpful: “In all three cases, the surrender is of one’s will to emotions/values. In the negative case, they are false values or anti-values. In the positive cases, struggling against these values would be contradictory, since the values in question go to the person’s core, and surrender is the recognition of that.” (7)

Surrender as an integrative expression of one’s highest values can be seen as a spiritual journey toward self-understanding, growth, and wholeness. When commissioned by Hopton Stoddard to build the Stoddard Temple, Hopton articulates (as the conduit for Ellsworth’s planted words) the non-religious spirituality that Howard has about his self/work in the face of Howard’s admission that he does not believe in God:

“We want to capture—in stone, as others capture in music—not some narrow creed, but the essence of all religion. . . . The great aspiration of the human spirit toward the highest, the noblest, the best. The human spirit as the creator and the conqueror of the ideal. The great life-giving force of the universe. The heroic human spirit. . . . You’re a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark—in your own way. I can see that in your buildings. . . . [W]hat I want in that building is your spirit . . . , Mr. Roark. Give me the best of that” (pp. 319-20).

Howard is then described as having “learn[ed] something about himself, about his buildings, from this man who had seen it and known it before he knew it” (p. 320). This is the very thing that Henry Cameron also saw and told Howard about at a more fundamental level, when he saw a photo of Howard’s first office shingle “Howard Roark, Architect”:

“And I know that if you carry these words through to the end, it will be a victory, Howard, not just for you, but for something that should win, that moves the world—and never wins acknowledgement. It will vindicate so many who have fallen before you, who have suffered as you will suffer. May God bless you—or whoever it is that is alone to see the best, the highest possible to human hearts” (p. 133).

All of these religious/spiritual words are Rand’s own way of reaching toward something about the self, a loving embrace of one’s true self in its richest complexity that often reaches and moves beyond discursive, conscious thought. If we trust, perhaps surrender, to the best within us and listen to what it shows us, then we can grow as individuals and in connection with the best in others. “[T]he highest possible to human hearts” is found there in those places beyond words in the world and in our self in that world. It is often precisely consciously held beliefs—false ones—that get in the way of individual wholeness. The examples of Dominique and Gail show this point. They both fight Howard tooth and nail because of their fears and false beliefs. Dominique’s salvation is that she finally embraces in a fully embodied and integrated way her love of what Howard rather than Gail stands for. She finally gets one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxims, which could have been uttered by Rand: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. . . . It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Many might not be comfortable with Rand’s uses of “surrender” in The Fountainhead, but her carefully chosen language is undeniably there and needs to be contended with for what it is. The language of surrender provides insight into what it means for heroic man to be a person of “self-made soul” and to become who he potentially is.

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(1) This essay began as a July 29, 2014 Facebook post of mine, “Surrender in The Fountainhead,” in partial response to a more general Facebook discussion on the nature of submission, surrender, and obedience and whether any of these could be compatible with Objectivist principles concerning rationality and choice. I would like to thank various participants in both the general and specific discussions for their thoughts and feedback on this topic. My gratitude especially goes to Kurt Keefner for engaging in extended discussion on this topic and his generous invitation to share his blog space, and to Joshua Zader for his feedback on and promotion of these discussions.

(2) All citations to The Fountainhead are to the 1971 New American Library edition.

(3) For example, Rand’s remarks such as rape’s being “a dreadful crime” and “if it’s rape—it’s rape by engraved invitation,” seem intended to convey the consensual nature of Dominique’s sexual surrender to Howard; see Letters of Ayn Rand, ed. Michael Berliner (New York: Plume, 1997), pp. 282 and 631.

(4) Lloyd Drum, July 29, 2014 comment on my July 29, 2014 Facebook post “Surrender in The Fountainhead.”

(5) Joshua Zader, July 29, 2014 comments on his Facebook re-posting of my July 29, 2014 Facebook post “Surrender in The Fountainhead.”

(6) This description of Dominique reminds me of the painting “Joan of Arc” that I chose to include above in this post. It’s stunning to see in person, especially her eyes beholding a vision of her own.

(7) Scott Schneider, July 29, 2014 comment on my July 29, 2014 Facebook post “Surrender in The Fountainhead.”

Surrender, But Don’t Give Yourself Away

As part of a discussion on Facebook, my friend philosopher Carrie-Ann Biondi defended the occasional positive connotations of the term “surrender.” At first this idea stuck in my craw. I knew she did not mean “turning the other cheek” or “Resist not evil” or any such New Testament notion of being submissive, but I was concerned that surrender inherently meant splitting oneself in two, into the part that surrenders and the part one surrenders to. Carrie-Ann assured me that this was not the case and later wrote an essay about usages of the term “surrender” in The Fountainhead. After further consideration, I think I pretty much agree with her about the positive connotations. I’ve run her essay as a guest blog here so that the reader can check it out, and I’ve written a follow-up essay in which I’ve tried to elaborate and extend her ideas. I don’t claim to have captured everything that Carrie-Ann meant, but I think I’m on to something worthwhile regardless.

There seem to me to be several kinds of surrender that are healthy. They are diverse, but they have a similar underlying emotional dynamic. The overall pattern seems to be that one exerts a kind of control that one gives up in favor of allowing oneself to be vulnerable to something or someone. When I say “vulnerable” I mean allowing oneself to be affected by something without the attempt to protect oneself from it or manage it, so that you’re “giving yourself” to whatever it is.
Here is my heart, open to the world.
I prefer the metaphor of vulnerability to the metaphor of surrender, but “vulnerable” does not have a verb form, so I will use “surrender” with the caveat that what I mean is “allow oneself to be vulnerable.” Let’s examine some of the forms of control and surrender and look for deeper commonalities.

A first and basic kind of control is what we might call self-management. In this variety a person is focused on a goal and drives oneself to achieve it. One’s actions and even one’s mental states are planned and disciplined. This form of control is most prominent among ambitious people, but it can be found to varying extents in almost anyone who is not completely impulsive. People who self-manage to a high degree can have trouble letting beauty or tenderness into their lives, and to do so they have to learn to relax and surrender to the moment instead of always living in the future. We see an example of this in the scene in Atlas Shrugged where we first meet Dagny and she hears the melody of Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto. She tells herself “Let go—drop the controls—this is it.”

Randy Elrod's portrait of Dagny Taggart
Randy Elrod’s portrait of Dagny Taggart, available at http://www.randyelrod.com/dagny-taggart-atlas-shrugged-my-latest-watercolor-between-the-pages-series/

Second, we have the control of reserve. Even very open people do not completely expose themselves to strangers. One has to get to know and trust a person before one “surrenders” to them by “letting them in.” To let someone in is to allow oneself to be vulnerable to them. This form of surrender can range from friendship to romantic love. This is the paradigm example of surrender as trust.

Our third kind of control is sexual. One does not let just anyone in—to one’s bed or body. While I do not wish to overstress this matter in the way Ayn Rand does, I would say that this is a somewhat asymmetrical situation, that men do most of the pursuing, women do most of the resisting (controlling) and surrendering. Women are more physically vulnerable to men than the other way around, although men and women are of course both emotionally vulnerable where romantic love is concerned.

Fourth is what I took Carrie-Ann to mean in an earlier discussion of surrendering. Here the form of control is refusing to admit that you are wrong when at some level you know you are. What is necessary here is to surrender to reality, or, to be exact, to give up the false belief you have been clinging to in favor of what you really know (at whatever level). Maintaining the false belief dis-integrates the self, because you are holding your deeper knowledge at bay and compartmentalizing yourself. Surrender in this situation heals the breach. Note that even in this epistemological situation there is still an element of vulnerability because you take a chance on your ability to survive without the false belief.

A quote from Eugene Gendlin is appropriate here:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Fifth and last for this essay is the desire to overmuch control one’s experience that in Killing Cool I label “Pretending.” What one Pretends is a false self defined by a pseudo sense of life, as when one tries to be hip or chronically ironic or inappropriately seductive. When one Pretends, one falsifies reality and reduces other people to convenient cartoon figures. In the book I develop several methods of addressing the problem of Pretending. One of them, which I call centering, involves letting reality in and thus could be said to be a form of surrender or allowing oneself to be vulnerable.

Due out September 2014

Due out September 2014

There is a sixth form of control and surrender I wish to discuss, but it would take a disproportionate amount of space, so I will save it for another essay. I’ll say this much about it: It has to do with the nature of focus. Focus, or paying attention is how we cognitively engage the world. But as it turns out there are several ways of focusing one’s attention and they have different effects on the organism. It may be advisable to stop focusing in the typical Western, problem-solving way sometimes for the sake of mental health. Doing this may also be experienced as a kind of surrender.

So what is the common emotional dynamic to all these forms of surrender? I would say that it is trust. Trust means letting your guard down and allowing yourself be vulnerable. Normally when we think of trust we think of trusting another person, but trust more fundamentally means trusting yourself. Before you can “drop the controls” or admit that you were wrong, you have to trust that you can handle the situation, that being vulnerable won’t get you killed or badly hurt emotionally. Even when one is sure of this, there can still be a raw edge to the experience of vulnerability that makes the experience that much more piquant and valuable, much like love—for there can be no love without trust, no trust without vulnerability, no vulnerability without surrender.

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.