The Civil War Re-Imagined in Music

A lot of good music is associated with the era of the American Civil War. Everyone knows “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

But even into the present the Civil War occupies a powerful part of American musical consciousness–and not just American, as we shall see. Musicians in the last few decades have tried to put their own stamp on the Civil War experience, using history to capture their own sense of life and their favored narrative of the war. What follows are five songs of this kind.

The first two re-imagine the experiences of a white Union soldier and a white Rebel workingman. Ironically, neither was written by Americans. The Civil War’s fascination is not limited to the nation in which it took place.

1. The Horror of War
“Gone to Shiloh” was written by the great British songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It is from a 2010 album called “The Union,” a collaboration between John and Leon Russell (1942 – 2016), who is best known as a songwriter. Russell was as American as they come. John and Russell are joined in the vocals by Neil Young, another non-American, this time from Canada.

The song concerns a farmer named Luther who leaves his family to go fight for the Union. He ends up in the Battle of Shiloh, which was one of the bloodiest of the war. As he walks away from his farm in the rainy season, Young sings:

He’s headed for a different kind of thunder
And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men.

Listen to the instrumental ornaments of the song: It begins with a watery piano part, suggesting a recording from the Civil War era, even though Thomas Edison did not invent the phonograph until twelve years after the war ended. A snare drum calls the soldiers to march and a trumpet imitates a bugle. The song is slow and has a trudging rhythm to it, like a line of weary soldiers. It is elegiac, a quality shared by many re-imagined Civil War songs, and although it speaks of flags and standing shoulder-to-shoulder, it in no way glorifies combat. Rather is suggests how terrible it is.

The song takes us to the middle of the battle, where “time passes slowly when flags and bullets start to fly” and Union victory and Luther’s survival are not certain. But at the end of the song the three singers intone ominously:

After all of this
If we should prevail
Heaven help the South
When Sherman comes their way.

2. A Common Man Ground Underfoot
While “Gone to Shiloh” was composed by British songwriters and tells of the experience of a Union soldier, our next song was written by a Canadian songwriter and tells of the experience of a Confederate workingman. The Band, as the performers came to be known, were originally a group of Southerners known as the Hawks who followed rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins to Canada. Eventually, all the Southerners dropped out and were replaced by Canadians, except for Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm.

After breaking up with Hawkins the group came to America and backed Bob Dylan, developing a folk-based, country-influenced, old-timey sound, with hints of rhythm and blues and early rock. Miraculously this melange blended together as an indelible sound. They came into their own in 1968 and eventually recorded ten albums with their original line-up. Their farewell tour was immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s wonderful concert film “The Last Waltz” from which this video originates.

The Band featured various singers, but most of the songs were written or co-written by Canadian guitarist Robbie Robertson, although there is some dispute over authorship. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was written by Robertson and sung with a Southern twang by Helm:

The song concerns a workingman named Virgil Caine and his experience with the war. Notice his name is Caine, i.e. Cain, the man who killed his brother, an apt name for a partisan in a civil war. During the song, Caine is gradually crushed by the war. He loses his position working on the railroad because the Northern cavalry tears up the tracks. He ends up doing menial labor and is robbed of his product, like the slaves themselves. I believe the reference is to passing Confederate troops “requisitioning” firewood.

Now, I don’t mind chopping wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never
Have taken the very best

Finally his beloved brother is killed:

He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up
When he’s in defeat

Note the double entendre with “raising Cain.” After the rebel defeat, Virgil’s family can no longer behave boisterously. They have been crushed into the mud.

You might wonder whether it is morally acceptable to sympathetically portray a Confederate’s life. It’s problematic. As a poor working white, Virgil almost certainly didn’t own slaves. But he fought for those who did.

I am of two minds here. On the one hand, I think that a man like Virgil deserves to be heard and that we ought to extend him, if not actual sympathy, at least a sympathetic listening. But on the other, the song can be seen as an enactment of the “Lost Cause” narrative, in which Southerners romanticize their defeat and glorify their efforts. I think that the song is saved from the worst of that narrative by Virgil’s loss of status. It reflects what soldiers said at the time: “It’s a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” There is no “the South shall rise again” pride to this song.

I seriously doubt that Canadians bought into the racist aspects of Southern history. What I would suggest they were intrigued by was the humbleness of Virgil Caine and the poignancy of his situation. The group no doubt could relate to the American South, which through its black and white musicians, was the origin of the group’s sound–and indeed of the sound of most of the world’s music today. For this song, the group is joined by a brass band of the type you would hear playing military-style songs in the park. The Band clearly wanted to snuggle up to those roots.

3. Free and Jubilant
The next song’s performers, Last Forever, are as hard to classify as The Band. They are clearly in the folk-music orbit, but their music was written (or often adapted from older sources) by Harvard-trained classical composer turned folk-music aficionado Dick Connette and might feature something like a string quartet or a saxophone (definitely not a typical folk instrument!). Some have referred to the group’s music as “chamber folk.” The singer is the late Sonya Cohen, whose family on both sides were heavily involved with modern folk music.

The song, “Down the Road,” was based on a 1928 song by an old-time African American band called Cannon’s Jug Stompers. “Feather Bed” sings of the experience of a black man from the time of the end of the Civil War, when he was joyful, to the time of Jim Crow repression, when he gets into trouble with the law. I don’t know when “Feather Bed” was written. It might itself be a re-imagining of the Civil War era, but it seems to extend well beyond that time, so it is out of the scope of this essay. It is an enjoyable song, however, so here is a link to it.

Unlike our first two songs, Last Forever’s is not elegiac at all. It portrays what Connette, probably correctly, imagines to be the jubilation of a former slave freed to go where he wants. There is some harkening back to the travails of bondage, but the focus is forward-looking:

Once again notice the instrumental parts: a really energetic drum set, trombone, and banjo, backed by Connette on spinet (a kind of small piano). The overall sound is quite similar to New Orleans brass band music. (You might have heard this kind of music in depictions of New Orleans funerals, where brass bands are often to be found, but they are used in all sorts of situations.) However, brass bands do not typically use the banjo, which would be drowned out by the horns and which have been supplanted as a rhythm instrument by the drums.

The inclusion of a banjo in “Down the Road” is, if I may digress, interesting in its own right. It is featured on the song Connette adapted “Down the Road” from, but that was virtually the last gasp of its usage in the African American musical community, at least in the part that was recorded. The banjo is based on an African instrument and was an integral part of black music in America until the 1920s or 30s. It was even used in Louis Armstrong’s early jazz recordings. But it became associated with oppression and degradation. As black author Claude McKay wrote in 1929, “Banjo is bondage. It’s the instrument of slavery. Banjo is Dixie.” For this and other reasons, the banjo was largely abandoned by black musicians and became associated with white musicians in bluegrass and other “country” genres, only being reclaimed by black artists more recently. (Here is a stunning example of that reclamation: Rhiannion Giddens’ haunting interpretation of the spiritual “Round About the Mountain.)

I have no problem with Connette, who is white (or at least appears to be white in his photos), putting himself in the mind of a black man. That’s what empathy and a knowledge of history are for. The historical references in the lyrics, by the way, are really choice. The first two verses are both worth quoting:

I remember back before the war,
I had trouble knocking at my door.
But along come Father Abraham,
With a pistol in his hand.
Ooh baby, down the road I’m bound to go.

It all began with Captain Brown,
The man who turned this world around.
Now you got yours and I got mine–
The bottom rail’s on top this time.
Ooh baby, down the road I’m bound to go.

“Father Abraham” is of course a reference to President Lincoln, but more specifically to the song “We are Coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 More,” written by sometime minstrel-song composer Stephen Foster, of all people. You can hear it here. “Captain Brown” is a reference to John Brown, who tried to start a slave insurrection in 1859 and whose mouldering body inspired not one but two Union songs. “The bottom rail’s on top this time” is a what a black Union soldier is supposed to have said when he realized he was guarding his former master.

Thus we see Connette pulling off a triple somersault of cultural appropriation–the best kind, where human beings share their achievements while giving credit to those who originated them.


4. Free, Sad, and Angry
Another amazing song about the experience of emancipation comes from singer, songwriter, and bassist Laura Love. It is fitting that Love, whom I love, has re-imagined part of the Civil War era. She has spent much of her career reinventing herself as a kind of hillbilly musician. (She is from Omaha and is the daughter of renowned saxophonist and bandleader Preston Love.) Well, The Beach Boys weren’t really surfers, either. Self-reinvention is the American Way.

The song “Saskatchewan (Juneteenth)” is from Love’s 2007 CD “NeGrass.” The term “NeGrass,” pronounced KNEE-grass, is a portmanteau for Negress and bluegrass. It is an imagined history of Love’s family starting from the end of the Civil War. After Love’s grandmother is freed, she decides to head to Canada, “where they don’t grow no cotton.” (The real grandmother didn’t make it, but there is a colony of African-American-Canadians there whose ancestors did.)

Some readers might not be familiar with the word “Juneteenth” in the song’s title. It refers to June 19, 1865, when word of emancipation finally reached Texas, the last stronghold of the Confederacy. It is celebrated by some black people as their Fourth of July. Although “Saskatchewan” concerns emancipation, it is not jubilant like “Down the Road.” Listen for yourself:

Juneteenth has been declared a day of observance or a full-fledged holiday by 42 states and the federal government. There is a Juneteenth celebration flag that features red, white, and blue colors, a Texas star and a rising sun symbol:

Juneteenth flag

“Saskatchewan (Juneteenth)” is not upbeat, as “Down the Road” is. It speaks bitterly about the anguish of being bought and sold. It is angry and determined. It does not forgive. Its message is “I am going to get the hell out of Texas.” But it is still hopeful about the uncertain future.

5. Mourning and Healing
Our last song, paradoxically, was not written about the Civil War at all. Folk fiddler Jay Ungar wrote “Ashokan Farewell” as an expression of his sadness at the end of the Ashokan Music and Dance Camp one year. It is a mournful waltz featuring one or two fiddles, a guitar, and a bass or banjo. Filmmaker Ken Burns used it repeatedly in his epic documentary The Civil War. It is the only song on the soundtrack that was not written in the 19th century. (It was also featured, incongruously, on an album entitled “Songs of the Civil War.”) At one point in the documentary a letter from a major killed in the war is read over the tune. It is exquisitely beautiful, and I recommend listening to it at some point, but it does not use the full song, so I will not feature it here. Here is the version used most in the soundtrack:

This is to my mind one of the best pieces of American music ever written. It is appropriate for inclusion in a series about the most American of wars. But it also fits because it is mournful and promises healing.

I do not in any way question Jay Ungar’s achievement in writing and performing this song. He really wasn’t thinking about the Civil War. What bothers me to some extent is Ken Burns’s use of it.

The Civil War spawned a number of narratives, such as “the Brothers’ War” and the romanticized “Lost Cause.” In the Brothers’ War narrative in particular, mourning, an ideal of shared healing and a kind of nostalgia are emphasized. There clearly was some of that at the close of the Civil War, and it only increased over time. But for Union and Confederate veterans to consider themselves to be brothers, black veterans who fought alongside Northern soldiers and the black slaves the North came to fight for, had to be written out of the story, thus giving rise to a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle racism. (For more about the development of this narrative, check out the book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.) Racism in the North only increased as the generation who had fought for emancipation and who had found comradeship with their black brothers-in-arms passed away. Then came the narrative that the war was caused by “fanatic” abolitionists rather than by entitled Southerners. This narrative persists in some history textbooks until this day. (See James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me for more about the staying power of this narrative.)

Ken Burns does not shy away from the horrors of slavery. But he seems to me to have understated the nearly psychopathic qualities of Southern leaders who massacred black prisoners, kidnapped freed blacks into slavery when they invaded Pennsylvania, and raped black women for two centuries. Maybe we can muster some sympathy for workingmen like Virgil Caine, but the planter class, the Confederate government, the Confederate idea, and all their works and pomps, must be renounced. Through I am sure no intention of his, Jay Ungar’s beautiful song has been pressed into service of an unacceptable re-imagining of America’s most troubled time, even as it is a fitting statement of grief and poignancy.

Nietzsche said about the French Revolution in Beyond Good and Evil: “Noble and enthusiastic spectators across Europe have, from a distance, interpreted their own indignations and enthusiasms into it, and for so long and with such passion that the text has finally disappeared under the interpretation.”

Have things gone so far regarding the American Civil War? I would like to think not. But I think an attitude of “let the facts speak for themselves” is simple-minded. We need heuristics that will allow us to understand history. And I would go so far as to say that you need correct ethical premises, too. If you don’t see that racism is to be taken seriously, then you’ll go looking for causes of the war other than slavery. If you take a perfectionist moral stance that does not recognize that the best is often the enemy of the good, then you will end up wrongly condemning pragmatic leaders such as Abraham Lincoln.

Our five songs each have an, admittedly partial, interpretation of their own to offer. “Gone to Shiloh” is about the horrors of war. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about the suffering of the common man. “Down the Road” is about the joy of freedom, while “Saskatchewan (Juneteenth)” does not let you forget what slavery was like. “Ashokan Farewell,” as Ken Burns used it in his re-imagining of the Civil War, was, perhaps too much a nod in the direction of the Brothers’ War narrative, but was also legitimately about mourning and healing. I think we need all these perspectives, and many more, to capture the whole truth about the Civil War. They are facets of a blood-red gemstone.

Sing, Little Bird!

One of the things I love most about early baroque music as compared to most later classical music is that it can be realized in so many ways. You can pretty much use whatever instruments you have lying around, and the bass part is usually only sketched, not written out. Starting at about the time of J.S. Bach, the “tyranny of the composer” set in, and there was much less latitude for how music was realized, although of course there is enormous freedom of tempo, phrasing, instrumental balance, etc. But especially in the 1600s the balance of power in interpretation was much more heavily weighted in favor of the performers than in later music.

A song where this varied realization is obvious is Stefano Landi’s “Augellin.” Landi (1587 – 1639) was a minor composer of the early baroque era. He is best known for having written the first opera on an historical, as opposed to a mythological subject (Sant’Alessio), and for having invented the overture.

The song itself is simple, just 21 bars repeated, in 6/8 time. 6/8 time is similar to 3/4, which is waltz time. You count it as ONE two three FOUR five six. An interesting thing about the song is that it has no bass part written out at all, not even sketched. I suppose it could be sung as a solo a cappella, but every recording I have ever heard created a bass part.

The lyrics are typical of the seventeenth century: a frustrated lover sings about his cruel lady. In this version, he entreats a little bird (augellin) to keep singing its love song while his “Sun,” that is, his lady, is deaf to his entreating. Finally she kisses him, he feels the dawn, and he tells the bird to sing for both its and his delight.

Here is a beautiful version of the song, performed by the Russian group Canto Vivo. The video has a fixed camera but I enjoy watching the musicians because they look like they come from the seventeenth century.

This rendition features a lute and a baroque guitar, which seems plausible as a realization of the song at the time it was written, because it is not too elaborate. The lute intro picks up little phrases from the melody, cunningly interspersed with typical ornamental motifs, but the lute and guitar provide energetic and integrated support once the singer begins. I couldn’t find a version of this song for sale, so I just transferred the video to an mp3 file. I won’t do that if I can buy it, because it goes against my ethics.

Of course, a group can have a few more than the basic one or two accompanists and still sound good. Here’s a performance by the European group L’Arpeggiata, directed by Christina Pluhar, which is distinguished by its use of the hammered dulcimer. The singer is an angelic tenor from Naples named Marco Beasley. The lyrics are below, and I think they repay a little attention.

You can buy the whole wonderful album from Amazon.

Little bird

Little bird
You chase your love
All the time
From beech tree to pine;
Spreading the good word
You strengthen
My lament with your song.

My Sun is too proud,
Too haughty,
To my great sorrow
Beloved Chloris, beautiful Chloris,
Hates me, is ungrateful,
Cruel, and deaf to my pleading.

Let her not be cruel
Anymore, I would die
If she were;
Hush, hush, now
She offers kisses
To my lips, my dawn.

Fly on little bird
And don’t shy away
From making
A new song;
From your amorous breast
Show in full
Your joy, and my delight.

English translation by poet Paul Archer of the text of Augellin by Stefano Landi (1587-1639). See the copyright notice below.


Che’l tuo amor
Segui ogn’hor
Dal faggio al pin;
E spiegando i bei concenti
Vai temprando
Col tuo canto i miei lamenti.

Il mio Sol troppo fier,
Troppo altier,
Del mio gran duol
Clori amata, Clori bella,
M’odia ingrata
A’ miei prieghi empia e rubella.

Non sia più
Cruda no, morirò
S’ella è qual fù;
Taci, taci, che già pia
Porge i baci,
Al mio labro l’alba mia.

Segui augel
Né sdegnar
Di formar
Canto novel;
Fuor del seno amorosetto
Mostra à pieno
La tua gioia, il mio diletto.

Copyright notice. The translation is provided as an aid to musicians and audiences. Publication of the translation in print or digital formats is expressly forbidden unless permission from the author has been first obtained and acknowledgement of authorship is duly made. Permission will usually be granted so please contact Paul Archer with details of how you wish to make use of the translation.

So far we have two rather different-sounding renditions of the same song. But we can top that. Sometimes old wine can be placed into new bottles, which I suppose the New Testament would find acceptable. Next up is a version by a jazz group led by Francesco Turrisi. The singer is the talented Spanish-British Clara Sanabras, whom I have been following for years. Listen to her emphasis on the word “rubella” (“deaf”) in the lovesick lover’s line “deaf to my pleading.” Also, when she says “taci” it really sound like she means “hush,” unlike in the other versions. In general, I like the stresses and dynamics of her singing best. She seems to feel freer to inhabit the character of the singer, to act it out. The other two interpretations rely more on the sweetness of the singers’ voices and the pure beauty of the melody. You see this kind of theatricality in opera of course, but I don’t much care for opera, at least not yet. I know it from modern popular music, which is quite acted out. Perhaps Ms. Sanabras delivers the song that way because she is primarily a popular singer.

There is some very nice improvisation going on here. A departure from the sheet music is something jazz shared with early baroque music. I don’t know whether the lute intro to the Canto Vivo version was improvised on the spot, but it seems to contain many of the same techniques as a jazz improvisation, breaking up and stitching together pieces of the melody. As you listen to Turissi’s version, follow the piano part, which is quite wonderful.

You can buy the song from Amazon.

Well, there you have three strikingly different versions of one of my favorite songs, and I hope you share my wonder at how the same basic thing can sound so different. And I hope you found a new song for your listening joy, too!

I am putting one more link way down at the bottom, which I think most people should ignore. It is the score of the song. If you press “play” a computer will play the notes in a somewhat robotic manner. Using the metronome icon, you can change the tempo. I enjoyed looking at the score because even though I can’t read music very well, it gave me a little insight into how the song is constructed. This is in the nature of a toy, rather than a thing of beauty, however.
Augellin che’l tuo amor by Tommeke86

Man and Nature in The Fountainhead

One could describe great literature as being like great architecture: all the elements pull together and buttress a central theme. Characters, plot, setting, style, and the other aspects of a story contribute to an idea or sensibility that lets us experience something important about the world in a concretized yet subtle way. A great work of literature is rich with telling details, compelling language, and pregnant motifs. This richness is in keeping with two related major functions of art: to heighten the subtlety of our discernment of the world and to stylize experience. The degree of complexity and/or subtlety of a work is what separates “literary” fiction from “popular” fiction (which of course has its place but is not as beneficial to an sensitive person as literary fiction is).

Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is an outstanding example of this kind of integration. Its central theme, according to its author, is “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in men’s souls.” This is a philosophical theme and the book could reasonably be classified as a “novel of ideas,” but The Fountainhead is not a tract and is not a vehicle for communicating Rand’s philosophical beliefs. Rather it is a means of creating an experience for the reader.

Like any great work of art, The Fountainhead has its subordinate themes. Most of these sub-themes are never made explicit, but exist as systems of motifs, reinforcing the main theme and lending it texture and ornament. In this essay I will explore perhaps the most important such sub-theme of The Fountainhead—“the relationship of man and nature”—pointing out examples and commenting on their relation to other aspects of the novel.

Let us begin at the beginning. When the novel opens we see the its protagonist, Howard Roark, standing naked and alone on a cliff above a lake. I call this initial short section the “prologue” because it precedes the plot proper and because it echoes the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with its image of a great man standing alone on a pinnacle. Starting with this introduction, Roark is linked with certain grand elements of nature:

“The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff.” Here we see Roark associated with the three elements that follow him all through the novel: Sky, Stone and Water, the last being a motif Roark shares with Roark’s love interest, Dominique. The tableau of Roark and the floating rock at his feet suspended in space is a symbol for planet Earth existing in dependence on man for its meaning.

From his pinnacle Roark contemplates nature both as material to be used in pursuit of his life’s work and as a respite from that work, a place to relax, to swim, to be alone and alive. That he has just been expelled from college is not even real to him when he looks at the stone and wood surrounding him. Roark clearly feels at home outdoors, and can be happy on his lonely promontory. He is the Natural Man.

Roark’s walk home from the lake takes him through part of the town of Stanton. Stanton begins with a dump, with the refuse of man. The forms of the town’s buildings are distorted and taken from the past and misapplied to their present purposes, much like an architectural dump. Here we behold the man-made world in a bad light; later we will see Roark redeem that world.

Soon we watch Roark as he is looking over some architectural drawings he has been making for himself in his spare time. The buildings in the drawings are described as being like those of the “first man,” a figure which shows up later in Roark’s courtroom speech and which may be an allusion to Nietzsche’s “Last Man.” The First Man is the Natural Man whose work is organically right and borrows nothing from anyone else’s. Nothing gets between the First Man and nature.

By contrast, Peter Keating, the Artificial Man who deals primarily with other men instead of with nature, is first seen overdressed, in a crowd of people inside a poorly-designed building encrusted with borrowed ornament, listening to its architect spout borrowed words, enduring a ceremony that has no meaning to him. He is embedded in an unpleasant, man-made environment and is sweaty and bored.

Rand develops the theme of man’s relationship to nature through the contrast between the creator, who is the First Man, and “second-hander” parasites like Keating and the novel’s villain, Ellsworth Toohey. As Roark says in his courtroom speech, “The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of man.” The creator is serene and confident because it is lawful nature with which he deals; the second-hander puts himself at the mercy of other men and becomes anxious and spiritually twisted as a result. Rand suggests that “natural” desires are good, and that society (to be exact, living through others instead of through oneself) is the source of all corruption. From Roark’s courtroom speech: “All that proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.” (This ethical principle is at best a sketch of Rand’s later view of good and evil.)

The use of architecture as the setting of the story is particularly felicitous because a building is an interface between man and nature. When Roark’s mentor Henry Cameron asks Roark why he wants to be an architect, Roark answers that it is because he never believed in God, that all he loves is the earth and that he wants to improve the shape of things on it for himself. (As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would speak it, “Remain faithful to the earth.”)

Those of Roark’s buildings that get described in any detail contribute to the man-and-nature theme. Roark, without quoting Louis Sullivan, who does not exist in the alternate universe of The Fountainhead, believes in Sullivan’s dictum, “Form follows function,” refusing to borrow tradition and irrelevant ornament—refusing to load artifice onto his works. At one point Roark compares a beautiful building to the beautiful functionality of the human body. Obviously he means a naked, “natural” human body.

Roark always uses setting to advantage and incorporates it into the themes of his buildings. The Austen Heller house (which could with justice be styled Fallingwater-by-the-Sea) “had not been designed by Roark, but by the cliff on which it stood.” Its vertical central lines and projecting balconies form a cross that mimics the cliff against the horizon of Long Island Sound. The Sanborn House is an exercise in expanses, with broad terraces rising gently from the nearby river and the surrounding gardens, summoning the sunlight into the house. The Stoddard Temple embraces the earth. Sunlight, stone and space are its materials, and its sole adornment is a statue of a naked woman.

The climax to the man-and-nature theme is the famous first scene of Part IV, with the boy on the bicycle. It is stressed here, as elsewhere, that nature is not the end for man but a beginning, background and challenge. The boy, despairing of man’s works, is riding through the leaf-filtered light of a spring day as through a vision. He sees a patch of blue sky ahead at the top of a hill, looking like a film of water. He pedals up the hill, imagining that at the crest he will see nothing but sky above and below. What he does see is the Monadnock Valley Resort with its fieldstone houses and its creator, Howard Roark, contemplating it. (Here again Sky, Water and Stone are all associated with Roark.) The sight jars the boy into realizing that not only nature but also man’s works can be beautiful. This scene is a lyrical tribute to man’s power to build on earth:

“There were small houses on the ledges of the hill before him, flowing down to the bottom. He [the boy] knew that the ledges had not been touched, that no artifice had altered the unplanned beauty of the graded steps. Yet some power had known how to build on these ledges in such a way that the houses became inevitable, and one could no longer imagine the hills as beautiful without them—as if the centuries and the series of chances that produced these ledges in the struggle of great blind forces had waited for their final expression, had been only a road to a goal—and the goal was these buildings, part of the hills, shaped by the hills, yet ruling them by giving them meaning.”

Read between the lines a little and you will see the novel’s thesis about the relationship of man and nature in a nutshell: Man may have come upon an earth created by “great blind forces” of nature, but he gives meaning to it. We cannot imagine nature as complete without man, and yet man is subtly part of nature.

Note the use Roark makes of the location of this project. He doesn’t create an “ant-hill” of a hotel (ants being the paradigm of social insects). He doesn’t level the valley’s steps. He retains for each individual house its own bit of private nature. Roark is not out to create a wholly human world, but to create a human place within the natural world. The man-made should not obliterate nature, but complete it. This is The Fountainhead’s version of the “conquest of nature.”

Observe also that for Roark’s draftsmen, the year Monadnock was built was “the strange time when the earth stopped turning and they lived through twelve months of spring.” Spring is the time in which many of the novel’s important events occur, and some of Rand’s most striking passages deal with descriptions of spring. Take one example from the beginning of the novel. It is Keating’s impression as he walks up to his house where Roark sits on the front steps:

“It was strange to see an electric globe in the air of a spring night. It made the street darker and softer; it hung alone, like a gap, and left nothing to be seen but a few branches heavy with leaves, standing still at the gap’s edges. The small hint became immense, as if the darkness held nothing but a flood of leaves. The mechanical ball of glass made the leaves seem more living; it took away their color and gave the promise that in daylight they would be a brighter green than had ever existed; it took away one’s sight and left a new sense instead, neither smell nor touch, yet both, a sense of spring and space.” This synesthetic perception of a mundane scene by Keating demonstrates not only the power of spring but also that he has the sensitivity of an artist, a vocation he let his mother sway him from following.

Spring, green leaves, and sunlight are recurring images in the novel (but not flowers, interestingly). The word “spring,” referring to the season, occurs three dozen times in the novel. (Summer is mentioned more often than spring, but with less symbolic significance.) And in one of Rand’s double entendres, a fountainhead is the source of a spring. (And one of Rand’s provisional titles for the book was The Mainspring.)

Contrast the scene with the boy on the bike with the scene later in Part IV in which Keating has lunch with Catherine Halsey and sees what she has become. All the touches are perfect. The luncheonette is cramped and feels sticky. There is green and white icing on some cake that reminds Keating of St. Patrick’s Day and the wonderful way it heralds spring, but which has no place being there on a gray fall day. Catherine is completely cut off from reality (i.e. nature) and moves entirely within a social world. The demolished soul of Catherine is surely the artificial at its worst.

It would have been in line with conventional wisdom for Rand to glorify Nature by damning the City. And there are hints of the corruptive force of the City in the novel, notably in Wynand’s experience of tenements, rotting wharves, and a Hell’s Kitchen from which he can never escape. But Rand redeems the City through the Natural Man and his works, demonstrating that the City does not have to be corrupt.

Roark loves the City, but notice that when he needs “recharging,” he heads for the country and especially to water: the cliff and lake near Stanton while he is in college, to the beach with Dominique during their initial love affair, to the lake on Wynand’s estate, and out in the ocean on Wynand’s yacht during the successful phase of his career. The only sport we see him engage in is both solitary and set in nature: swimming (always in a natural body of water, not in a swimming pool). He tells Wynand and Dominique that he wants to die some day stretched out on a shore, i.e. returning to the water. Water is a life-generating element for Roark, who is connected to both the man-made and the natural worlds.

Water is an emblem not only for Roark but also for Dominique. She wears dresses fragile like ice. She goes out onto the ocean on Wynand’s yacht. Her thick blond hair, cut like a helmet, moves like a heavy liquid. The glass objects on her dressing table look like ice crystals. When Dominique finally achieves her victory over fear she is lying by a lake. She is shown studying the trees and the sunlight as it reflects off the water. In an echo of the scene with the boy on the bike, right down to the sun-dappling, she realizes that the beautiful background that is the earth does not belong to second-handers like Wynand, but to people like herself and Roark—and she finally becomes capable of loving it. Could we say that her ice had melted?

The nature motifs in The Fountainhead are far too numerous to be mere coincidence. For example, at Roark’s trial the City stands visible through the courtroom window, framed by a tree branch. Wynand is reminded of a moment when Roark used the potential of a tree branch in his hands to illustrate that the meaning of life lies in working the materials the earth gives us, while Dominique thinks of the earth as man’s background.

(One could multiply these examples almost to the point of absurdity: Young Ellsworth Toohey, second-hander par excellence, is described as having a prodigious memory for names and dates—human artifacts—but as “not too good at mathematics, which he disliked.” This makes sense: Toohey’s world is other people, not nature, and as Galileo said, the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.)

In the final chapter of the novel, the “epilogue,” Dominique visits the unfinished Wynand Building. It is spring again. The building is set in the middle of a park (a patch of nature, but shaped by man). The building appears to her as the fire at the core of the earth that Roark loves bursting out to freedom. The novel ends as it begins, with a tableau of Roark, sky, stone and water. But now Roark is not alone, having Dominique to adore him, and instead of being naked in the woods, he is clothed and on top of a building he has designed in the middle of a great city. The arc from the initial tableau to the final tableau represents Rand’s thesis that the man-made is a development of the natural—and its culmination.

The man-and-nature sub-theme of The Fountainhead is well integrated with the other elements of the novel. It buttresses the image of Roark being the First Man, who deals with nature without the mediation of others, while the Artificial Men who think and live through others are ugly parasites. It allows Rand to show the meaning of life as working with the material nature gives us. It obviously ties in with the use of architecture in the story. And it is a potent symbol of Rand’s atheism/naturalism because it directs man toward the earth, even as it shows man’s works to be the completion of nature, taking Nietzsche’s idea of remaining faithful to the earth and doing it one better. All of these building blocks support and ornament the main theme of individualism versus collectivism in men’s souls.

Just as integration is Howard Roark’s principle of construction, never allowing him to separate setting, materials or purpose from the building as a whole, so too was integration Ayn Rand’s principle as a writer. As a philosopher she was unwilling to detach man from his proper setting, which is the natural world, as opposed to the supernatural or purely social world. As a novelist she uses the motif-system of man and nature to integrate The Fountainhead, tying together its theme, its characters, its architectural setting, its allusions to Nietzsche, its small touches, and its unique sense of life.

Although it could never be said that Ayn Rand was an environmentalist “nature-worshipper,” it is clear from her use of the man-and-nature sub-theme in The Fountainhead that her description of her intellectual system as “a philosophy for living on earth” was meant as the literal truth and not as a mere figure of speech. In The Fountainhead we see a man-made object as rich as nature itself.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life
Continue reading

Angel with No Name

The name of one of music’s most beautiful sets of sonatas is unknown. Written in the 1670s–no one is sure of exactly when–the only manuscript we have of it was donated to a German library in 1890. The title page was missing, so we cannot tell what the composer called it. The dedication page survives, so we do know who composed it, a German (or was he Czech?) musician named Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644 – 1704), remembered chiefly for his technically demanding works for the violin.

The music in question is certainly demanding. The set consists of 15 sonatas for violin and bass, all in different tunings of the violin strings, each one representing a sacred event or “mystery” from the Catholic rosary. Thus it is sometimes called “The Mystery Sonatas,” which seems apt given how little we know about it. After the 15 sonatas for the rosary comes a concluding piece for solo violin in standard tuning, representing the guardian angel. It is one of the most ravishing works in the classical repertoire. Listen for yourself to this gorgeous performance by Elicia Silverstein:

The concluding piece is in the form of a passacaglia, about which more later. In the surviving printed version, the piece is proceeded by an engraving of an angel, leading a child by the hand, providing care and counsel. Here is the engraving:

The name “passacaglia” refers to the structure of the composition. It features a melody flowing over a repeated bass part. The bass motif is called an “ostinato,” which is the Italian word for “obstinate,” since it refuses to go away. In this piece the ostinato is also played by the violin since there is no accompaniment. Look at the descending notes in the first bar of the first page of the score and you will see it. Then look at how those notes show up in every succeeding bar, no matter how complex the melody above it becomes. You just can’t leave it behind, which is why the piece is so demanding.

The descending ostinato is called a “lament bass,” because the downward motion is thought to give it a poignant feeling. I don’t hear it as sad so much as delicate and spiritual, like the angel floating down from heaven. There is a four-note version and a six-note version of the lament bass. I prefer the four-note version, which has been used many, many times in musical history, from the baroque to the present. Here is a clear and fun example.

I collect sets and parts of sets of The Mystery Sonatas. They vary widely in how they are realized. The sonatas are sometimes accompanied by one bass instrument, such as a lute, and sometimes by as many as four instruments, such as a harp, archlute, viola da gamba and keyboard–practically an orchestra. Most sets vary the instruments from sonata to sonata to avoid tedium, so for example, a harpsichord in one sonata might be replaced by an organ in another.

I was originally drawn to the versions that had the complex bass accompaniment, looking for a rich sound. Here is a good example by Patrick Bismuth. The sonata has two movements. The second, starting at 2:02, begins with an ostinato that is written to be played once before the violin enters. In Bismuth’s version, it is developed ten times by an increasing number of instruments, until it becomes its own set of variations on a theme, creating great anticipation for the violin. This sonata celebrates the coming of an angel to the Virgin Mary, telling her that she is to be the mother of the Christ.

(Note that the picture accompanying the video shows a gargoyle or some other medieval monster. The Mystery Sonatas were not written in the Middle Ages, but in the seicento, the seventeenth century, after the Renaissance, Shakespeare, and Galileo. As a side note, in the 1500s, Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and something of a physicist himself, laid some of the theoretical foundations for modern music.)

More recently I was drawn to one of the simpler versions of a sonata, with Dmitry Sinkovsky on violin accompanied by Luca Pianca on lute. Watch Sinkovsky play. His body coils and uncoils with the energy of the music and his eyes are gazing off into Heaven.

The Mystery Sonatas, especially the passacaglia of the Guardian Angel, have proven to be an irresistible challenge for contemporary violinists who play baroque music. There are at least two dozen sets available on Amazon. Not as many as of The Four Seasons to be sure, but quite a few for what is sometimes considered “specialty” music. This may be the best classical music most people have never heard of, and it is well worth exploring.

I invite my readers to leave examples of soaringly spiritual music in the comments, and I will add links here at the end of the essay. Don’t leave a long list; just send the one that your guardian angel gave you!

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is an off-Broadway musical that my wife and I recently saw in Washington, DC. It stars Miche Braden as the great blueswoman as well as three on-stage musicians who occasionally contribute dialogue. Interspersed between dynamic performances of Smith’s songs, Braden tells in the first person the story of Smith’s life from childhood to death. The narrative frame is that on the last night of her life, Smith was supposed to play an all-white venue. The manager tells her she must enter by the back door, so Smith walks off and goes to a black nightclub where the action is set.

My wife and I stayed after the show for a discussion with the playwright, the theater’s dramaturge and its artistic director. We learned that the play was a group effort: Angelo Parra developed the script in collaboration with director Joe Brancto and Ms. Braden after many readings and run-throughs. Braden arranged the music, nudging Smith’s songs in the direction of jazz and rhythm & blues to make them more varied and accessible.

I deliberately did not read up on Bessie Smith before writing this essay, although I listened to a few of her songs. I want to discuss the show as a self-contained production and use it as a jumping off point for some observations of my own. The Smith I refer to here is the one in the show, not the historical one. I hasten to add that I am not an expert on the blues, although I think I know in a general way what they are about.

“The devil’s music” is what some black churchgoers called black popular music like the blues. And it is the devil’s music by Christian standards: it embraces sex, violence, booze—and despair. Despair is a sin for some Christians because it implies that you think God is not omnipresent and good. But the blues stares despair in the face and sings right through it, without denying it. To many bluesmen, I imagine, those stiff-with-starch churchgoers seemed repressed to the point of being deluded, if not downright hypocritical.

The Smith of the show was a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed woman who liked both men and other women, but she could sing the roof off. She proved that, despite conventional prejudice, big, curvy women can be sexual powerhouses. The most memorable number in the production was “St. Louis Blues,” in which Braden and sexophonist—pardon me, saxophonist—Anthony Nelson, Jr. chase each other around the stage in a lascivious pas de deux.

In keeping with the nature of the blues, Smith was a warrior in the battle of the sexes, trading physical and emotional violence with her husband, but she was devoted to her adopted son, whom she called “Snooks.” Her husband vengefully had her son taken away from her by the authorities on the grounds of her moral unfitness as a mother. This is one of many painful moments in Smith’s life, and watching Braden portray Smith begging the judge to let her keep her child is heartbreaking.

The Bessie of The Devil’s Music is what I call “exquisite”—a perfect embodiment of a human quality. Bessie’s exquisite quality is that she lived the “lusty, lustful life.” “Lusty” does not mean “lustful.” It means “healthy and strong; full of vigor.” Smith was loaded with energy, she enjoyed sex with many different people, and she drank more than her share of “white lightning.” And of course, she made passionate music. (For more about the exquisite, see this essay.)

The video embedded above is of acceptable quality, but this video of a reimagined version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” in a blues style with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox will give you a better idea of the power of Braden’s singing.

The conflict of the staid churchgoer versus the lusty, lustful blues singer is an obvious instance of the soul-body dichotomy. According to this dichotomy human beings are a composite of an other-worldly soul and an earthy, earthly body. These components pull in opposite directions, with the soul usually trying to accept God’s will and the body indulging itself in the sins of the flesh. This view goes back at least to Plato, although it reached its obvious pinnacle in Christianity.

Many people who believe in this dichotomy try to reconcile or accommodate the warring factors, but many put one factor over the other, perhaps alternately. Either they suppress their bodily urges and spend a lot of time praying, or they give in to their bodily urges and just occasionally feel guilty and reach out for some kind of reassurance from the divine.

(“Bodily urges” here does not just sex and alcohol. It’s not simple hedonism. Dancing and smoking would count, too. And, of course, rousing, worldly music.)

This is of course a false dichotomy and it denies the possibility of rational, secular happiness and responsibility. Starting in the 18th century, with the Age of Reason, the tension between the warring factors lessened and the possibility of pursuing a refined happiness in this world became credible to many educated people in the West. The rising tide of political liberty in that era made it possible to build a rational life, and thus encouraged people to abandon the soul/body dichotomy or at least to relegate it to the status of a token belief, ritually observed.

The error of pitting soul against body is excusable in Bessie’s situation because of the circumstances black Americans found themselves in the first third of the twentieth-century, when both Jim Crow and the blues reached their zenith. Black people weren’t for the most part free to prosper in a worldly manner, and only a small fraction found a way to do so. It was, for example, very difficult for black people to enter the professions or to achieve a top position in the building trades. Oppressed and denied access to many of the good things in life, they would understandably be tempted to turn to the comforts of religion or to a celebration of life in the raw, sometimes both on different days.

(I am of course over-generalizing and exaggerating here. Many black people made different choices and were not impaled on the soul/body dichotomy. Furthermore, the same conflict existed in the white community too, but the greater opportunities that most white people had compared to most black people made their choices less stark.)

However, Bessie Smith was more than a tragic philosophical error. The woman was a force of nature. She had that pre-philosophical fire. It was not entirely directed at its proper objects or well integrated by the standards of a rational philosophy, but it was powerful. She made art. She didn’t give in to oppression. She stood up to the KKK. She created her own touring show with musicians and dancers and managed it well. She got her own railroad car so she and her company wouldn’t have to find a colored hotel. She refused to go in through the back door. But we cannot escape the fact of her dissolute lifestyle.

Did she have to be dissolute? One might cite Smith’s contemporary, the polished black singer Paul Robeson as a counter-example, since he was successful, stable, and not dissolute. But Robeson was the son of a minister and went to Rutgers on an academic scholarship. Bessie was an orphan who danced for coins in the street. And even Robeson’s greatest successes were with Negro spirituals and Broadway songs where he played a slave.

I mentioned that Bessie had the pre-philosophical life force. Some of my readers may think that there is nothing that exists that is “pre-philosophical.” But there is. Life is pre-philosophical. As I wrote in the essay linked above: “We need to remind ourselves that philosophy serves life, not the other way around. Philosophy helps our natural inclinations find their proper ends, but those natural inclinations and our zeal for living do not descend from philosophy—they motivate it. This way of looking at things leads to passion, and it is passion that makes one want to live, rather than merely wanting not to die.” Bessie may not have had a good philosophy, but she certainly had passion.

Bessie’s life would probably have been different if she lived in a more rational culture, but she didn’t. What happens if fully developed, practical reason is not encouraged, or even allowed, in a human life? Then the life force will gush like a volcano erupting in all directions. It’s still powerful, but not well ordered.

So am I justifying Smith taking the side of the flesh in the false dichotomy? Aren’t I leaving out the common sense secular life? Couldn’t Bessie have found a career selling hair care products? (That’s what Madam C.J. Walker, the most successful African American woman of the time, did.)

I think not. The artistic temperament craves self-expression of the kind that cannot find an outlet in conventional, commercial endeavors. Like black churchgoers on the other side of the false dichotomy, Bessie had something to proclaim. Not praise for God, to be sure, but assertion of her own self, a self that stood up and said, “Here I am, world. You can destroy me, but you can’t defeat me.”

For many, music is the form that such a proclamation will take. But why the blues? Couldn’t she have expressed herself through a more refined genre of music? Well, putting aside the unwarranted elitism that question implies, I would have to say that Bessie Smith was not going to become an opera diva. She was going to work within the genres of her time and place, and become what she was: “the Empress of the Blues.”

And it’s hard to separate the music from the lifestyle. If you’re on the road, it’s difficult to maintain a monogamous relationship. If you work at night, you’re likely to sleep during the day. If you need something to keep you up when you are onstage and to help you come down when you’re off, you’re likely to turn to alcohol or drugs. Because the performing life is both ecstatically emotional and boringly routine, it is a roller coaster, and it is too much to expect that someone in Bessie’s situation is going to lead a “normal” life.

No, it seems that we do have to excuse at least some of Bessie’s decadence. But that sounds so condescending! You don’t want to condescend to a force of nature, not to her face, and not to her ghost’s face either. We might say that Bessie lived in a tragic situation, but we should not even hint that she was pathetic. We have to say that, whatever her flaws, Smith deserved respect. You might not hold her up as a model for your children, but you should let yourself feel a deep kinship with her life force and the way in which she expressed it.

The real Bessie Smith

I keep emphasizing the dissolute side of Bessie Smith in order to pose a question: Why do those of us who have stable middle-class secular lives love Bessie’s music and her spirit? Why do we embrace the earthiness and even the vulgarity? The answer may seem obvious: Because it’s good. But that isn’t obvious. We happy moderns do not live the blues like many of Bessie’s generation did. We would never approve of such behavior in our children, so why do we enjoy the spectacle of it?

Perhaps the reason we love Bessie and the blues has to do with something lacking in our lives. We’ve left behind the energetic life of our forebears. Most educated people do not believe in a literal soul/body dichotomy, but we live a mind/body dichotomy. In our era, many of us sit in offices or at least do brainwork indoors detached from our bodies. And then to take care of our bodies, we go to the gym, which is an intellectual and spiritual wasteland.

Think of the famous quote from Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.” That’s taking the matter too far, but there is some truth to it. Passion wants to get out unless it’s defeated. In the last century or so, primarily through the vehicle of African American music, the whole world has broken through its desperation and begun to sing its song.

Maybe most adults would not allow their children to lead the lusty, lustful life, but they do so anyway. Some white kids of the last few decades, who’ve never been oppressed and who’ve had much greater educational opportunities, have chosen the lusty, lustful, self-expressive life, too. As one member of the audience pointed out after the show, many classic rock stars are rather similar to Smith. Their choices are understandable, at least up to the point where actual self-destructiveness begins. In modern society, few places exist for a young person with outsized passion and a desire for self-expression to go. I suppose one could pursue a career in classical music, but that is not a live option for most people, and anyway very few classical musicians get to be at the front of the stage, performing their hearts out. Our culture is certainly not as bereft of rational influences as the culture of Bessie’s time, but we have little place for ecstatic overflow in today’s ultra-controlled world.

One way to integrate soul/mind and body is to take Bessie’s devilish life and treat it like art. This is still a form of entente between mind and body, not a perfect blending, but that may be the best that can be achieved, since few activities in life tap into physical, intellectual and emotional energy all at the same time. I would say that showcasing someone like Bessie Smith in a “normal” middle-class theater is not settling for second best, and I don’t think it is condescending: it is an appreciation of what is humanly possible, a celebration, an embracing of that passion that makes all else possible.

That’s what the devil’s music does for us. It lets us bear witness to passion. And maybe, if we fan the spark, it will help us to kindle passion within ourselves.

(Note: The Devil’s Music does not seem to be touring as of this writing, but if you get a chance to see it, seize it.)

The Goddess of Love Makes Heroes of Us All

One of the world’s most famous videos, at least outside of the US, is for A.R. Rahman’s song “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” from the Indian movie Dil Se. Dil Se (From the Heart), which was written and directed by Mani Ratnam, concerns a radio news producer (played by superstar Shahrukh Khan) who falls in love at first sight with a mysterious woman (Mannish Koirala) whom he meets at a railroad station. I am going to spoil the story here, so skip to the next paragraph if you plan to see the movie. The producer pursues the woman for a week and gradually finds out that she, having been raped by Indian soldiers as a girl, has joined an insurgency against the government. She plans to be a suicide bomber. In the end our protagonist begs her not to blow herself up and to come away with him. He embraces her as the bomb explodes, killing them both. You can read more details about the film here.

Although the movie features a number of song-and-dance sequences, it is not Bollywood fluff. Our protagonist is a serious person and gets beaten up and drugged in his quest for the woman he loves. The political and military conflict in the film is realistic and frightening.

The video sequence comes a few minutes into the movie. Our protagonist has just been rebuffed by the mysterious woman and is standing in the rain, when apparently he has a vision, starring himself. Note that despite the label, this version does not contain subtitles.

The title of the song, “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” means “[Walk in] the Shade,” and it speaks in poetic terms of the beloved. It states that when one walks in the shade (or shelter) of love, one’s feet are in heaven, and continues in the same vein. I cannot find a version of the video with running English subtitles, so here is the song without the action but with the subtitles. Slightly frustrating, but it’s worth listening to the song twice anyway.

As you can see, the number was filmed on top of a moving train. What is not so obvious is that it was filmed without CGI or rear screen projections. It is just what it appears to be. The vocals were dubbed by Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi.

The flowing train and the rhythmic song and dance induce a lucid trance in me, an integration of the apollonian and the dionysian. The female dancer, played by Malaika Arora, is not a character in the film. She is not our protagonist’s lady love. She does not show up again, not even in another musical number. Her presence has been construed by some critics as a stage in Arabic poetry’s idea of the journey of love. I am of course distorting this symbolism by Westernizing it, but for me she is an Aphrodite, a Goddess of Love.

Our Goddess is frankly sexual, showing off her breasts, midriff and hips. Yet she is in no way lewd. She represents the ideal of healthy Eros. She gazes upon our hero, and he appreciates her charms, but they are not flirting. He, after all, adores someone else. I take it that she is a divine inspiration, which means, as the etymology suggests, that she is filling him with spirit, the spirit of love.

And inspired our protagonist is. He is moved to great eloquence in the song. At 3:25 he assumes a heroic stance on the locomotive, solitary and proud. The Goddess has turned an ordinary man into a hero. His perseverance and willingness to suffer in order to win his beloved is similarly heroic, demonstrating the connection between passion and heroism as it is commonly understood: the willingness to risk all in the quest for an ideal.

“Chaiyya, Chaiyya” has been covered and re-used in many different places, including, incongruously, in the Spike Lee film Inside Man. But nothing can top the original context of the elevation and journey of romantic love.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

The Lesson of Maecenas

“[I]t seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world.”
-John Williams, Augustus, p. 123.

These words are from a fictional letter written by Maecenas, one of Octavius Caesar’s advisers, to the historian Livy, in John Williams’ National Book Award-winning 1971 novel Augustus. Maecenas is addressing a question Livy asked about Octavius having lied when he told the Roman people that Mark Antony had bested the Parthians in battle. In answering the question Maecenas paints Octavius’ deception as a justified deception, since the people, dejected by decades of civil strife, did not need to hear about another defeat, but he detects the odor of moralism in Livy’s question.

Alex Wyndham as Maecenas in the television series Rome.

Maecenas is a cynic, and his boss, Octavius, later Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, is a master manipulator. Octavius and his men do not feel themselves to be bound by normal moral judgments and hold themselves above their fellows. For them, the end of saving Rome—while consolidating their own power, of course—justifies the means, including deception and murder. Clearly, such men are not going to be deterred from their course by any fear of being “judged.”

Yet, Maecenas does apparently care about Livy’s judgment, at least decades later when he writes to him. And note that Maecenas is being something of a moralist himself when he holds moralists in contempt—it’s just that his morals are Machiavellian ones. Perhaps Maecenas is a hypocrite, or just a man impaled upon his own contradiction.

Be that as it may, there is something to what Maecenas says in that judgment does often get in the way of knowledge, and I am going to apply Maecenas’ lesson to myself.

I am suspicious of many moral judgments, especially political ones. Ayn Rand once said that discovering evil in another person is a painful experience for a moral person. But commentators such as Ann Coulter and Bill Maher do not find it painful; they clearly relish pointing their fingers at objects they believe to be evil. Coulter imposes her outrage on the world; Maher imposes his smirk. Many religionists too seem to get a “high” from their moral wrath. Here Maecenas’ opinion is confirmed.

I am suspicious even of my own moral judgments. For example, why do I care that someone has a tattoo? It really bothers me. It seems wrong and repellent to me. Yet the worst thing I can say about it is that such a person will outgrow it or think it ugly as they get older and it blurs. Perhaps my intuition is correct that something must be amiss with someone’s self-image if they would want to put a decal on their souls. But does that make him or her a terrible person? Clearly not. Perhaps the person with the tattoo may not and never will be a great-souled person, due to his slightly warped self-image. So what? Almost nobody is a great-souled person although many people are still good, honorable and kind.

Why do I get worked up about this particular less-than-supreme category of human being (if that’s what they are)? Why am I obsessed with judging in this matter? I don’t do it for fun, as Bill Maher does, but there is some element of imposing myself on the world as a righteous, rational moralist. And many other followers of Ayn Rand seem to do the same, although about more serious subjects, warming themselves before the flames of their ire.

The feeling that accompanies my judgment of such people is not pain over their perceived limitations. Rather, I feel irritation and defensiveness: “Why don’t you see the world my way instead your own?!” I feel helpless because “nobody listens to me” (not that I’ve even ever tried to have a conversation about tattoos with someone who has one). And I feel alienated because “I’m alone in an irrational world.” At the very least my reaction is very much out of proportion to the provocation.

I can put these feelings in perspective by relating two foundational experiences from my childhood: Back in the early 1970s when I was about 12, my siblings regularly smoked marijuana around the house. Even at that age I thought that it was wrong. One day they persuaded my mother to try it. (My father was out of the picture by this time.) When she did, I ran from the room in despair and desolation and threw myself on a couch. Now I was completely alone in a house full of ______ people. (I didn’t have a word for it at the time.) Fortunately, my mother never developed a taste for it, and my feeling passed.

But even now, I feel an echo of that despair when I now see certain kinds of behavior, even minor behavior, that seem _______ to me. (“Irrational” is the word I settled on to fill the blank, but that word might just cover my feeling of abandonment.)

Fortunately, I’m introspective enough to see that this kind of judgmentalism is not really about its object but about me. I feel myself in some sense to be the center of a universe where others’ purpose is to reassure me. This feeling is understandable in a child, but it needs to be grown out of if one is to reach maturity. It is self-deception and even unintentional arrogance to act as if one is the center of the universe. To be objective, as an adult should be, one must first be, in a sense, humble and give up the belief that the world and other people revolve around oneself. One of the best pieces of boilerplate advice one can give, advice that fits many situations, is “It’s not about you.”

Instead of seeking knowledge about why people get tattoos or reminding myself that in my experience having a tattoo and body piercings and blue hair actually has a strong correlation with having a benevolent and friendly manner, I get upset and judge. But I really should stop judging long enough to seek knowledge about why this correlation exists and to think about whether I could possibly stand to have a nice person with a tattoo as a friend. Perhaps when I get past my judgmentalism I won’t want to get close to someone who has tattoos because of what I see as a warped self-image. Perhaps I’ll just be glad to encounter a nice person, even though I would not want any deeper contact. Perhaps it will depend on the kind of tattoo he has: skulls and Confederate flags are just never going to pass muster with me. And just maybe it will become something I don’t get bent out of shape over at all. But I’m not to the point of even considering these matters, much less addressing them, not at the level of my authentic core. And yet, these are the relevant matters to consider, if what I care about is my own well being.

I don’t want to be too hard on myself. I am not Maecenas’ useless and contemptible creature, and at least I know I need more humility, And I have reasons for being the way I am, experiences more deeply painful than the marijuana episode: In my early teens I watched two family members go from being basically sane individuals to being fanatic fundamentalist Christians. This encroachment of the irrational on my already fragile world was traumatizing. For the next 30 years I had nightmares of being chased by zombies (and this was before zombies became fun). Sometimes I thought I might succumb to the irrational myself and become a zombie. Maybe when I see something I perceive as irrational it “triggers” me. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to ask for a safe space and a cookie, and I don’t need trigger warnings before someone shows me a tattoo.)

My encounter with Ayn Rand in my later teens made my situation much better in that it showed me that a rational universe does exist. But it also made my situation worse in that Rand’s own alienation was contagious. I have discussed this tension here.

This bit of introspective reflection on my part is just the beginning of two journeys for me. The first journey is inner. Why do I judge and when is it appropriate, rather than a way of imposing my personality on the world? My intuition strongly suggests that, despite the somewhat justified resentment Maecenas feels toward those who would judge others, it is right to condemn as bad or even evil, people who willfully hurt others or who spit on life. But we would not want to extend this condemnation to people who have tattoos or who commit various peccadilloes.

The second is an outer journey toward grounding my intuition. It consists of an exploration of two related questions: What are moral judgments good for? And what standing do we have that justifies ever morally condemning another person, rather than merely observing that he is self-destructive or a danger to others? The two journeys will run in parallel for many miles, if not for the whole trip.

I have been thinking about these issues a lot while on my commute to and from work, during which I encounter a diverse assortment of humanity. Lately, I have been judging the people I encounter less and thinking about how they seek their happiness more. I see some things that I would never buy into myself as earnest efforts to achieve happiness, sometimes even beautiful efforts, even when I think they are ultimately misguided. I must say it lightens my step not to have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Atlas can shrug in more than one sense.

So apparently, even though his mission in life was to help an ambitious man achieve nearly absolute power, Maecenas has a lesson to teach in humility.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Heroes and Shipwrecks: Beethoven and Ayn Rand

When I got my copy of Leonard Peikoff and Michael Berliner’s Understanding Objectivism a few years ago I learned that it’s OK for an Objectivist to like Beethoven even though Ayn Rand didn’t. What a relief! I was on the verge of putting all my Beethoven CDs through the shredder!

Seriously, I am glad that Peikoff cleared that up, even though I never let Rand’s dislike of Beethoven stop me from loving him. (But I did allow Rand’s affection for Rachmaninoff to influence me into trying to like him more than I did.) I fear, however, that some of Rand’s followers have followed her particular tastes in an uncritical manner.

Obviously, it is not proper, even for an Objectivist like myself, to fall on every concrete tidbit that drops from Ayn Rand’s lips as if it were Holy Writ. Principles are what people should be interested in, not personal tastes. But even so, it is worth considering Rand’s opinion on almost any subject, teasing out what she meant, putting it in context, and seeing whether it has any applications to one’s life–even if only to dismiss that opinion when one is through (as in, for example, her views on homosexuality).

Rand’s opinion of Beethoven was, that his music has a “malevolent universe,” i.e. it portrayed a world where success and happiness are impossible, where we doomed in our struggles, even though we might perish heroically. (Objectively Speaking, p. 127, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz.) I am not sure what of Beethoven’s music she based this on–she said she heard it in “practically everything he had written”–but we can assume that she was familiar with his Fifth Symphony, with its famous strife-ridden first movement, which Germans characterize as “fate knocking on the door.”

Let us focus on that symphony as a stand-in for all of Beethoven’s work. That is not altogether unfair for the purposes of this discussion, since it is by far the work most people are familiar with, even though it would be a bad idea in general to take a single work as representative of a composer’s output. My contention is that we can see a surprising similarity between Beethoven’s sense of life, as represented in the Fifth Symphony, and Rand’s, as represented in Atlas Shrugged, even if Rand herself did not experience it that way.

Personally, I love the opening movement of the Fifth. It is extremely dramatic, and if it is strife-ridden, it is also striving. I can see how somebody might hear it as heroic but doomed to defeat, but the music doesn’t mesh with my sensibilities in that way. Instead I see it as part of a titanic struggle but not one where defeat is portrayed as inevitable. However, I would concede that this movement could legitimately be understood as a doomed struggle by some people. Almost everybody is familiar with the beginning of the first movement. It is worth listening to a recording of the whole of it, however. I like this video with score animation, because it makes it easier for people like me, who can’t read music, to follow along with the different threads in the tapestry.

Rand might have heard it differently from the way I do. Perhaps it meshed with her sensibilities in a way that made it appear heroic but futile.

“Sensibilities” are a complex, not a simplex. They are formed by one’s sense of life, which can be tragic, heroic, comedic, dreamy, and so forth in a thousand more subtle hues. In addition, sensibilities are formed by one’s experiences. (For example, I was so underexposed to classical music as a boy that I found the Brandenburg Concertos, which are quite accessible, too daunting in college.) And they are formed by what you could call “cognitive style,” by which I mean the manner of processing reality that one feels to be natural (a scientist, for example, focuses on the world in a different manner from an artist, even though both can be under the broad umbrella of the rational). No doubt one could add other factors.

There is no one right sense of life, no one right level of experience (since we all specialize in different things), and no one right cognitive style. As such there is no one right sensibility, and so, within limits, it is inappropriate to criticize someone’s taste in art. There are some limits to the foregoing, however, because some senses of life, levels of experience and cognitive styles are based on mistaken premises or are not life-promoting. For example, a person can be too intelligent to find completion in genre fiction and therefore need to grow. Or, to take another, balder example, the musical niche called death metal is a sign of a morbid sense of life that must be healed. Be that as it may, within such limits, a thoughtful, curious, nonjudgmental response to other people’s sensibilities is in order. This situation most obtains in music, because out of all the arts, we have the least understanding of how it wrings its effects.

Thus, something that some people love can just rub other people the wrong way and, again, within limits, there’s no right or wrong to it. Furthermore, I don’t think we have the tools to answer the question of why a given person loves or hates a given piece of music or composer or even musical period, I suppose we could guess the reason sometimes, but that would be highly speculative, and I am not going to speculate about Ayn Rand’s inner life here. At this point in time the matter seems irreducibly “subjective”–although that will probably change eventually with advances in neurology and cognitive science. But even if we can someday explain a person’s taste, that doesn’t mean that, again within limits, we can say that one taste is better than another. Having said this, I do think that it can fairly be expected of people that they try to explore and grow in their tastes, no matter what their starting point.

To follow up with a personal example, I know people who love the late Romantics–Wagner, Bruckner, and the like–but with occasional exceptions I cannot stand them. To me they seem bombastic and too much about emotion, and there’s no granularity to them: their music is all big, gushy sweeps of sound. Give me baroque music any time: rational, particulate, yet passionate in a self-aware way. This is music that gives the mind something to do instead of demanding that it feel what the composer dictates. However, despite my visceral dislike of late Romantic music, I appreciate its competence and can grasp its beauty in an abstract way. Furthermore, I understand how some people can find the baroque music I love tinkly or precious.

It would be interesting to correlate taste in music with other aesthetic tastes. For example, I love intricate, geometric visual designs, such as photographer David Stephenson’s pictures of domes. The picture on the cover of Stephenson’s book resonates for me with the geometric nature of baroque music and the grandeur of Beethoven’s both.

View this amazing book’s interior on Amazon.

What Rand was listening to when she made her evaluation of Beethoven is a bit of a mystery to me. It almost seems as if all Rand knew was that somewhat ominous opening music to the Fifth. I suppose one could find the slow opening of the Moonlight Sonata to be sad or the marching rhythm of the second movement of the Seventh Symphony to be funereal. I can only hope that that was not true for Rand, since to me (and I think to most listeners) they are not sad, but contemplative and majestic.

Going back to the Fifth, we should discuss it as a whole, and not take the famous first movement out of context. We wouldn’t read Part One of Atlas Shrugged and stop there, would we? It would appear to be a rather dark story if we did. Unfortunately, we don’t have a language to communicate our impressions of the symphony in. But maybe we do.

It’s hard to write about music objectively, but sometimes a gifted author can provide impressions of it in the form of metaphors, and we might find it illuminating to read what he says. E.M. Forster, in his 1910 novel Howard’s End, may just do the job. Some readers who do not know the novel may remember the 1992 movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The story is a symbolic treatment of the question of which class is going to inherit England, represented by a house called Howard’s End.

In Chapter V of the novel, several of the characters attend a concert that features Beethoven’s Fifth on the bill. I am going to edit the scene heavily and just present the character Helen’s impressions of the music, because it is so interesting to see a great writer like Forster translate music into words.These passages do not exactly reflect my experience of the symphony, but they are close enough to form the basis of a discussion.

“For the Andante [slow second movement] had begun–very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen’s mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third… Helen said to her aunt: ‘Now comes the wonderful [third] movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing’; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum…

“’[L]ook out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,’ breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

“For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then–he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

“And the goblins–they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes
[industrialist characters], or ex-President [Theodore] Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return–and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

“Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone. The music had summed up to her all that had happened or could happen in her career.

“She read it as a tangible statement, which could never be superseded. The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning. She pushed right out of the building and walked slowly down the outside staircase, breathing the autumnal air, and then she strolled home.”

The third and fourth movements of the Fifth Symphony are played without a break. Here they are. This video contains an annotated analysis of the movements which helped me better see what Beethoven was up to. It’s fascinating to follow along. Note that the annotator sees the dit-dit-dit-dah figure in the first and third movements as a “victory motif.” Helen might hear it that way in the first, but in the third she hears it as goblins tiptoeing.

So was it Beethoven’s goblins that made Rand think he was malevolent? Into every life a few goblins must fall. Rand created Dominique in The Fountainhead out of such a mood in herself, and yet Dominique has a weird kind of grandeur, because a struggle is never selfless. Dominique overcomes her goblins, as Beethoven in the Fifth does his. And as for Atlas Shrugged–there are numerous smutty little imps like James Taggart, scuttling about. And Hank Rearden faces a struggle almost as strifeful and titanic as the one portrayed in the first movement of the Fifth. The way in which Forster has Helen think of the famous first movement as “heroes and shipwrecks”—that is a great description of the first two-thirds of Rand’s novel, with Wyatt’s Torch being the foremost shipwreck (as Dagny sees it).

But like Atlas Shrugged, the Fifth Symphony ends in triumph. Most of the work is in the anxious key of C-minor, but at the beginning of the final movement we hear a C-major triad C-E-G, perhaps the most expansive and upward sounding sequence possible in such a context. You realize that all the grandeur you might associate with movie music, like John Williams’ themes from the Star Wars films, are but pale imitations of this music.

Ayn Rand began and ended Atlas Shrugged with a description of music, Richard Halley’s Fifth Concerto. The way she describes it, it could almost be Beethoven:

“It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.”

Beethoven might not portray deliverance as such in the finale of his Fifth, but he does give us the rising motion in that C-major triad and “superhuman joy.” And the goblins of Forster’s description are the ugliness and pain that could be escaped from. At least that’s how I hear it–and I think many of Beethoven’s admirers would hear it in the same way.

Halley’s Concerto would, if it were real, be wonderful spiritual fuel, but you can’t spend an entire concerto—or an entire novel—or an entire life–at this emotional pitch. Beethoven’s work is a narrative of heroes, shipwrecks, goblins, and warriors triumphant. Atlas Shrugged is a narrative of a gloomy future, the exhilaration of productive work; painful prices paid; imps; a stubborn, twisting torch; and finally non-contradictory joy. Sometimes I think Rand the artist was more emotionally complex than Rand the philosopher or even Rand the private person, better able to portray that the flame not only cannot be extinguished but also will sometimes be twisted and torn, even as it regains its hold. Success is possible, but one will always have to struggle to win it.

The Fifth Symphony and Atlas Shrugged both begin with something ominous and end in triumph, with some necessary (and realistic) negative notes mixed in—goblins in Beethoven’s case and the stranded and sobbing Eddie Willers (among other things) in Rand’s. I would go so far as to say that not only did Beethoven not believe in a malevolent universe, as Rand seems to have thought, but that his most famous work was similar to the sense of life of Rand’s most famous work. Beethoven storms the heavens and Rand rides on the John Galt Line. That’s a difference. But they both offer a dramatic, positive image of the universe with a respect for struggle. Compared to most other artists, that’s quite a similarity. That’s how the matter appears to my sensibilities; too bad they did not appear so to Rand’s.

So I guess it’s OK to like Beethoven. Not that you needed someone’s approval to do so.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Surrender in The Fountainhead.

Guest blogger Carrie-Ann Biondi is an associate professor of philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College and co-editor-in-chief 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.


(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.”

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

“A hero is one who wants to be himself.”

This quote from José Ortega y Gasset, at first blush, sounds plausible: heroes are good; wanting to be oneself is good. So just put them together.

This is bad logic, of course. But perhaps we can dig in and tease out some deeper meaning that is logically sound and worthwhile.

Before we get started, however, we need to dispense with a possible objection: Aren’t some bad people happy to be themselves? They aren’t heroes. I don’t think most bad people are happy to be themselves. Badness requires an evasion of one’s knowledge of what one believes to be good. People who evade reality do not want to be what they are.

However, we seem to be talking about bad people who have some kind of conscience (the thing that knows better). What about people who have no conscience, such as psychopaths? Well, I don’t think we should generalize from pathological cases. But at any rate, I would say that psychopaths don’t seem to enjoy being psychopaths much of the time. If what I’ve read is true, they are frequently filled with emptiness due to their inability to connect with others, and their frustration fuels their rage. They might not be psychologically able to conceive of being something other than what they are, but they clearly don’t want to be themselves in any affirmative sense.

From “When Your Child is a Psychopath” in The Atlantic.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the main discussion.

“Wanting to be oneself” seems to have two possible meanings here, but I think one is just the more superficial version of the other. The superficial version is what people mean when they say, “Just be yourself.” In other words, don’t put on anything to please others.

The deeper meaning is that one actively desires to be what one is. This entails not putting anything on to please others, but more fundamentally, not putting anything on to please oneself. I would venture to guess that the latter is as common as the former.

Many people want to be something other than what they are. They are trying to escape themselves, or at least, escape looking hard at themselves. Think of people who are “trying to be” something. I know a woman, a good woman, who is frequently “trying to be” black. She swaggers and uses foul language and says things like “Once you go black, you never go back.” (I am white and have a black wife and my acquaintance once said this to me. I told her it was insulting.) She says she throws around the n-word at home with her spouse (but not at work).

Of course, she has a stereotyped and degraded idea of blackness, but the point is that she is not really black in this way at all. No one is. She is adopting a pseudo-self based on a sense of life. She does this unconsciously; she probably thinks this black self is her real self, or at least an important aspect of her real self. (In my book, I call this “Pretending.”) There are myriad examples of this phenomenon we could muster: Wanting to be cool, wanting to be a macho man, etc. etc. Obviously, if you want to be someone else, you don’t want to be yourself.

(Perhaps I sound a bit clinical discussing such people, but let me assure the reader that I am genuinely saddened by their actions and do not regard them as a moral failing, at least not most of the time.)

Other people, and I suspect this is the larger group, don’t want to be much of anything. They simply take everything for granted. Things are just “the way they are.” Such people accept their social roles without reflection. A lot of people who see themselves primarily as “Mom” or “Dad” are like this (I’m not trying to knock parenthood by saying this. It’s all a matter of how you define yourself.) An appalling number of people take things in life for granted. For example, why is there marriage? What does it imply? Should we go about it the way others go about it? These questions never occur to many people.

(As an aside, the same lack of questioning extends to other subjects, too. For example, many people never think about the reason for and nature of government. They just take society as a big family (family is a thing that is frequently taken for granted) and they just want to focus society’s power and resources piecemeal on their “commonsense” goals. [Commonsense includes a large element of taking things for granted alongside the more beneficial element of practicing logic in a non-theoretical way.] This mode of thinking was given intellectual support in the philosophy of pragmatism.)

Unfortunately, many of these people take themselves for granted as much as they do everything else. They cannot be said to want to be themselves, except maybe in the sense of being comfortable with their social role. The deeper issue never arises for them.

But even among people who don’t take themselves for granted, wanting to be oneself is a difficult proposition. I’m no psychologist, but I would hypothesize that many people try to be something they are not, because they think being what they really are would mean extinction. This fear can have many causes. Perhaps most commonly, or at least most tragically, this fear arises from the experience of not being loved or even given what one need to survive by one’s parents or other caregivers. Someone in this situation may have to choose between life and being oneself, and most children are naturally going to choose life. Such people may eventually become heroes in Ortega y Gasset’s sense, but unless and until they do, their heroism consists of surviving.

But even when the issue does not center in so direct a manner on one’s relationship with one’s caregivers, many people seem to fear that facing themselves as they are would mean extinction—in the form of meaninglessness (which is often experienced as chronic boredom). This is a big problem in modern capitalist society, which is very good at producing things and at offering meaning to people who like to produce things, but not always so good at motivating less creative people who are now freed from the problem of immediate survival. Such people often turn to distractions and disguises to avoid the banality of their own lives, and we get cool and vampire chic and head banging and hip hop style—or just obsessive identification with one’s local sports team. All of this is a way of avoiding meaninglessness.

So how should one overcome not wanting to be oneself? My answer is by being calm at the core. When I say “calm” I mean “present” and “non-reactive.” I don’t mean “passive” or low-energy, and I don’t mean living in the moment. Being oneself means owning the present, the past, and the future as an integrated person.

When I say that a hero is one who wants to be himself, I do not mean that one should try to become a hero or even to try to become one’s ideal, at least in the sense of a direct grab. That is Pretending. What I mean is that one should strip away all the falsehoods and distractions until one unburies the presence within. And perhaps that presence is nothing more than a spark, but it is there. Expose the spark, be the spark, let go of everything else.

At this point we reach a paradox: What happens next is simultaneously a making-something-happen and a letting-something-happen. You maintain your spark and then you let the world show you things. You choose let your self suffuse your mind, your body, and your world, and you let them pull you in. Your spark becomes a flame.

Speaking of my own case, I look at life as a process of exploration and reclamation. At times in my life I have stood in my despair as on a tiny island. The world looked like a desolate gray ocean and I felt like a castaway. People seemed like zombies. Culture seemed obsessed with idiocy and idiosyncrasy. But my island, no matter how small it was, was mine. I knew I wanted more. I left myself open to new things. Sometimes I would browse almost at random. I would find a new thing, and my island became larger. I pushed back the sea. I would jump off in new directions, and my island would become an archipelago—disconnected, but related. Liberated, I added more territory, and my archipelago would become a small continent.

All of this was guided by the tiny flame within me, the belief that there was beauty and fascination and logic out there in the world, if only I tried hard enough to find it. I believed it because I saw those things in myself. I saw light over the edge of the pit I was in and I crawled toward it. The self I wanted to be was Life.

I went through this process most notably with discovering literature, which when I was in my early twenties seemed like a vast wasteland. (I wrote an essay about my journey here.) I’ve gone through it with ideas, more of which in other essays. And I’ve also gone through it in my own soul. A lot of my exploration involved learning how to stop “trying to be” something or taking anything for granted, and I wrote about that kind of exploration in my essays “The Pretender” and “The Sleeper Awakes” in my book.

I’ve also gone through my reclamation with people, too, most of whom once seemed hostile to my values, or at least gray and desolate. Now I refuse to have my continent be blockaded by superficial barriers. That woman I mentioned who sometimes is trying to be black? She believes a lot of things I don’t agree with, but there is something special about her when she is not trying so hard, and I love her.

Heroism is a dubious concept: it carries with the baggage of rescuing people who should ideally rescue themselves and of seeking adulation. I believe in a greatness that is attainable by almost everyone.

If I am in some sense a hero, it is because I wanted to be the spark, which was my true self, and I fanned the spark until it became a flame. You can do that too.

If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life