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:


Ms Silverstein will be appearing at Brooklyn’s Bargemusic on December 15, 2017.

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

Building Reason from Parts: The Flight of the Phoenix.

The Flight of the Phoenix is a 1965 survival film starring American actor James Stewart, German actor Hardy Kruger, and British actor Richard Attenborough (later famous as the director of Gandhi). It was directed by Robert Aldrich and written by Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Elleston Trevor. The story concerns the crash in the Sahara Desert of an oil company cargo plane carrying about a dozen passengers and crew. The plane has flown far from its flight plan in a sandstorm and is too far from civilization to walk out from. No one will come for the survivors of the crash. They have about two weeks worth of water; after that runs out they can expect madness and death.

One of the passengers, a German, is, as it turns out, an aircraft designer, and he comes up with a bold plan: build a new, smaller plane out of the wreckage of the old and fly to the nearest outpost of civilization. The men have all the materials and tools needed to do this; they just need to muster the energy and determination. To the pilot it sounds like a crazy scheme, but the French physician among the passengers tells the pilot that just having a project that gives the men hope will keep them alive longer. So they take it on.

The film is an excellent example of the integration of character, plot and theme, which we’ll get to in a moment. However, the movie is thrilling just in its setting. The desert dazzles the viewer with its torrid midday sun. The building and flying of the new plane, dubbed “The Phoenix” by one of the passengers, fascinates. The film is nothing if not dramatic: characters representing different principles clash over issues relating to the advancement of the plot. The story contains a diverse assortment of (white male) humanity: Americans, Brits, an Irishman, a Scot, a Frenchman, a German, a Greek and an Arab.

The primary conflict is between the pilot, Frank Towns (played by Stewart) and the designer, Heinrich Dorfmann (played by Kruger). The navigator, Lew Moran, (played by Attenborough) acts as mediator. Towns is an aging pilot who has flown every kind of plane ever built. Moran sarcastically suggests that Towns could land a plane in a tennis court. Before the crash he waxes nostalgic for the old days when the fun of flying was “just getting there,” and after the crash he torments himself with guilt and bitterness. He blames himself for the crash and for the deaths of the men killed in it. (In fact it is quite clear that he was not to blame and saved most of the men’s lives by his expert landing of the cargo plane on the sand.) He represents experience and practical reason.


James Stewart as Frank Towns

Theoretical reason is represented by Dorfmann. Dorfmann is a bit of a stereotype of a German engineer, cold and deaf to social cues. He clearly knows his way around planes and calculates every lift/drag coefficient on a slide rule he carries around in his pocket. (What was he doing in the middle of the godforsaken desert? He was on vacation visiting his brother the geophysicist! And of course he takes his slide rule with him!)


Hardy Kruger as Heinrich Dorfmann

Under normal circumstances these two men would probably ignore each other, but they have to work together. Heat and thirst and desperation exaggerate their salient characteristics and make tempers flare. But for anybody to survive Dorfmann must guide the construction of the new plane and Towns must fly it on the first try. They sulk and throw insults. The project would fail were it not for Moran interceding, reasoning with and cajoling the two angry, stubborn men.


Richard Attenborough as Lew Moran

So Towns represents practical reason, Dorfmann represents theoretical reason and Moran represents “social reason” or just plain reasonableness. I’m not trying to suggest that these categories are engraved in human nature in some sort of platonic taxonomy. In fact, they form a false trichotomy. Be that as it may, many people do “specialize” along these lines in society or have such divisions within their own minds. Towns is sentimental and generally emotional, where Dorfmann is calculating and arrogant. They battle for dominance. Moran, on the other hand, has very little ego and seems to be an alcoholic (I take this to be in keeping with his social reason, not his common sense, since drinkers are often known for their socializing.) Their conflicts and resolutions move the plot along.

(Even the characters’ names have meaning: “Towns” suggests a wider experience of the world, while “Dorfmann,” which in German means “villager,” suggests a narrower experience. “Moran” means “love” in Gaelic.)

Most of the minor characters also symbolize some aspect or failing of reason. The British army captain (played by Peter Finch) is a by-the-book dogmatist. The oil-rigger (played by Ernest Borgnine) has had a nervous breakdown and is not in his right mind. There is a good-natured roustabout (played by George Kennedy) who is referred to by another character as a “big horse” (and he is as cheerful and helpful as a horse). The Frenchman (played by Christian Marquand) is a humane and ironic psychiatrist named Renaud (which is a French word for “fox.”) The weakling accountant played by Dan Duryea is a mystic. The Scottish cynic (played by Ian Bannen, who received the film’s only Oscar nomination) is named Crow, but everyone calls him “Ratbags.” Even though the cast is fairly large, the filmmakers always keep the characters distinct and vivid. It is worth mentioning that you will rarely see a motion picture that has so many once and future Oscar winners in it as The Flight of the Phoenix.

I don’t want to give away any more of the details. Although I think it is obvious what the outcome will be in a general way, the pleasure is in getting there. It is not a given who will live and who will not.

So, despite being a survival story about grimy men with blisters, The Flight of the Phoenix has an abstract theme: the necessity of the different kinds of reason to work together if the whole is to survive. Interestingly, you see something of the same theme in the original Star Trek, in which Spock represents logic, McCoy represents emotion, and Kirk represents the strategizing will. Again, a false trichotomy in the philosophical sense, but one that reflects how some people live.

The Flight of the Phoenix is one of the films of my childhood. I must have watched it ten times when it came on TV on Sunday afternoons, and when I grew up I bought the DVD and watched it some more. When I was a child I enjoyed the surface drama and adventure. As an adult I still enjoy these things, but an understanding of the philosophical theme deepens my pleasure. It is part of me. I find a kind of transcendence in the resolution of the conflicting principles.

I believe that a lot of movies and novels work this way, offering hidden treasure. The characters don’t make speeches about what they stand for and the author won’t drop his theme in your lap, but there is more to them than meets the eye, if you only you only take the trouble to tease it out. I guess that’s Lit Crit 101, but many people don’t seem to practice it. Maybe a good place to start would be with a film like The Flight of the Phoenix that connects its plot, characters and theme so deeply. Would that all stories were so well integrated!

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Building Reason from Parts: The Flight of the Phoenix

The Flight of the Phoenix is a 1965 survival film starring American actor James Stewart, German actor Hardy Kruger, and British actor Richard Attenborough (later famous as the director of Gandhi). It was directed by Robert Aldrich and written by Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Elleston Trevor. The story concerns the crash in the Sahara Desert of an oil company cargo plane carrying about a dozen passengers and crew. The plane has flown far from its flight plan in a sandstorm and is too far from civilization to walk out from. No one will come for the survivors of the crash. They have about two weeks worth of water; after that runs out they can expect madness and death.

One of the passengers, a German, is, as it turns out, an aircraft designer, and he comes up with a bold plan: build a new, smaller plane out of the wreckage of the old and fly to the nearest outpost of civilization. The men have all the materials and tools needed to do this; they just need to muster the energy and determination. To the pilot it sounds like a crazy scheme, but the French physician among the passengers tells the pilot that just having a project that gives the men hope will keep them alive longer. So they take it on.

The film is an excellent example of the integration of character, plot and theme, which we’ll get to in a moment. However, the movie is thrilling just in its setting. The desert dazzles the viewer with its torrid midday sun. The building and flying of the new plane, dubbed “The Phoenix” by one of the passengers, fascinates. The film is nothing if not dramatic: characters representing different principles clash over issues relating to the advancement of the plot. The story contains a diverse assortment of (white male) humanity: Americans, Brits, an Irishman, a Scot, a Frenchman, a German, a Greek and an Arab.

The primary conflict is between the pilot, Frank Towns (played by Stewart) and the designer, Heinrich Dorfmann (played by Kruger). The navigator, Lew Moran, (played by Attenborough) acts as mediator. Towns is an aging pilot who has flown every kind of plane ever built. Moran sarcastically suggests that Towns could land a plane in a tennis court. Before the crash he waxes nostalgic for the old days when the fun of flying was “just getting there,” and after the crash he torments himself with guilt and bitterness. He blames himself for the crash and for the deaths of the men killed in it. (In fact it is quite clear that he was not to blame and saved most of the men’s lives by his expert landing of the cargo plane on the sand.) He represents experience and practical reason.


James Stewart as Frank Towns

Theoretical reason is represented by Dorfmann. Dorfmann is a bit of a stereotype of a German engineer, cold and deaf to social cues. He clearly knows his way around planes and calculates every lift/drag coefficient on a slide rule he carries around in his pocket. (What was he doing in the middle of the godforsaken desert? He was on vacation visiting his brother the geophysicist! And of course he takes his slide rule with him!)


Hardy Kruger as Heinrich Dorfmann

Under normal circumstances these two men would probably ignore each other, but they have to work together. Heat and thirst and desperation exaggerate their salient characteristics and make tempers flare. But for anybody to survive Dorfmann must guide the construction of the new plane and Towns must fly it on the first try. They sulk and throw insults. The project would fail were it not for Moran interceding, reasoning with and cajoling the two angry, stubborn men.


Richard Attenborough as Lew Moran

So Towns represents practical reason, Dorfmann represents theoretical reason and Moran represents “social reason” or just plain reasonableness. I’m not trying to suggest that these categories are engraved in human nature in some sort of platonic taxonomy. In fact, they form a false trichotomy. Be that as it may, many people do “specialize” along these lines in society or have such divisions within their own minds. Towns is sentimental and generally emotional, where Dorfmann is calculating and arrogant. They battle for dominance. Moran, on the other hand, has very little ego and seems to be an alcoholic (I take this to be in keeping with his social reason, not his common sense, since drinkers are often known for their socializing.) Their conflicts and resolutions move the plot along.

(Even the characters’ names have meaning: “Towns” suggests a wider experience of the world, while “Dorfmann,” which in German means “villager,” suggests a narrower experience. “Moran” means “love” in Gaelic.)

Most of the minor characters also symbolize some aspect or failing of reason. The British army captain (played by Peter Finch) is a by-the-book dogmatist. The oil-rigger (played by Ernest Borgnine) has had a nervous breakdown and is not in his right mind. There is a good-natured roustabout (played by George Kennedy) who is referred to by another character as a “big horse” (and he is as cheerful and helpful as a horse). The Frenchman (played by Christian Marquand) is a humane and ironic psychiatrist named Renaud (which is a French word for “fox.”) The weakling accountant played by Dan Duryea is a mystic. The Scottish cynic (played by Ian Bannen, who received the film’s only Oscar nomination) is named Crow, but everyone calls him “Ratbags.” Even though the cast is fairly large, the filmmakers always keep the characters distinct and vivid. It is worth mentioning that you will rarely see a motion picture that has so many once and future Oscar winners in it as The Flight of the Phoenix.

I don’t want to give away any more of the details. Although I think it is obvious what the outcome will be in a general way, the pleasure is in getting there. It is not a given who will live and who will not.

So, despite being a survival story about grimy men with blisters, The Flight of the Phoenix has an abstract theme: the necessity of the different kinds of reason to work together if the whole is to survive. Interestingly, you see something of the same theme in the original Star Trek, in which Spock represents logic, McCoy represents emotion, and Kirk represents the strategizing will. Again, a false trichotomy in the philosophical sense, but one that reflects how some people live.

The Flight of the Phoenix is one of the films of my childhood. I must have watched it ten times when it came on TV on Sunday afternoons, and when I grew up I bought the DVD and watched it some more. When I was a child I enjoyed the surface drama and adventure. As an adult I still enjoy these things, but an understanding of the philosophical theme deepens my pleasure. It is part of me. I find a kind of transcendence in the resolution of the conflicting principles.

I believe that a lot of movies and novels work this way, offering hidden treasure. The characters don’t make speeches about what they stand for and the author won’t drop his theme in your lap, but there is more to them than meets the eye, if you only you only take the trouble to tease it out. I guess that’s Lit Crit 101, but many people don’t seem to practice it. Maybe a good place to start would be with a film like The Flight of the Phoenix that connects its plot, characters and theme so deeply. Would that all stories were so well integrated!

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Arguing About Dunkirk

This film nearly broke my wife and me up. That it is to say, I wanted to walk out in the middle and she wanted to stay. I thought I had seen all there was to see and that the movie was on an utterly predictable course, and Stephanie thought that it was fascinating in the way it dodged all of the standard war film clichés. We stayed.

A lot of people have disagreed about Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic story of the evacuation of 400,000 soldiers from the German-surrounded French town of Dunkirk in 1940. The New York Times praised it to the skies; the Wall Street Journal thought it was a “dumbing down.” The New Yorker was schizophrenic: First it says that there are “many ways in which the film falls short,” but then it concludes that “the movie works.”

Before we continue, perhaps you should look at the trailer so that you can get a taste of what the film is like:

The film follows three different groups of men: a trio of soldiers at Dunkirk itself, over the course of a week; a trio of rescuers, over the course of a day; and a trio of British Spitfire pilots, over the course of an hour. Nolan, in one of his favored gambits, distorts the timestream so that the sequences looks like they are simultaneous, cutting between events that would have taken place hours or days apart. At the end, all of the time-sequences converge.

Several Times commenters referred to this intercutting as “amateurish.” I don’t think things are that simple. First principle of movie watching: judge the film by what the writer and director are trying to achieve. Clearly Nolan is after something more that mere dramatic effect. He seems to be saying that in crises everything feels as if it is happening all at once. He more or less succeeded in this effort, at least for me, although at times I was disoriented, not in the “good” way Nolan intended, but just in a jumbled way. Stephanie and I did not discuss this aspect of the film explicitly but I think we agreed that it was not amateurish.

Another thing that various reviewers and commenters mentioned is that Dunkirk never provides historic context. They wanted to see Churchill or the British high command. They wanted to see the evils of Nazism that the gallant British and French were doing battle with. Second principle of movie watching: make sure you are talking about the film in front of you and not some other film that you would have made. Dunkirk is not one of those war movies that begins with a map of Europe showing the different armies moving in animated arrows. It does have a map, but it’s a simple map on propaganda leaflets dropped by the Germans on the British to make them give up.

Third principle of movie watching: use the categories your teachers worked so hard to teach you in school, for example, point of view. War movies occasionally use the first-person perspective, in which we see the action through a character’s eyes as he is under fire or running away. In these cases, a shaky hand-held camera is usually used. This technique is often employed to portray fear. The first-person is used sparingly in Dunkirk, most notably when we look through a pilot’s machine-gun target sight on his plane.

However, war movies, like most movies, usually use the third-person point of view, in which the camera follows characters around and records what they say and do without explicitly getting into their heads. This is basically the third-person limited perspective. But many war movies mix in some third-person omniscient material. Here is where we get the maps and voiceovers, etc. Cutting to the high command can also be a way to insert something like an omniscient perspective.

Dunkirk is 97% third-person limited, and 2% first-person. It is utterly immersive. We never step back from events and see them from an outsider’s perspective. The closest we get is with Kenneth Branagh’s Admiral Bolton, who discusses the “big picture” with an army colonel whose name I did not catch. (Most of the characters in Dunkirk are not given names until the credits.) But even Bolton is trapped on the pier and might not get away; he is not some posh minister back in London. The only bit of omniscient narrative is right at the beginning where titles introduce the three settings and their time frames.

Here is where Stephanie and I started to part company. It’s not that I minded the immersive aspect. I didn’t miss the omniscient point of view. But I found one scene of men struggling to escape drowning after another a little tedious. Nolan was trying to convey their experience. I got that. But I didn’t need to see it so many times. I felt as if I were drowning. And even Stephanie felt that the Spitfire sequences were too much like a video game. As we’ll see, however, I was missing something big.

Some of the film’s critics are just crazy. USA Today’s reviewer said that the lack of women and persons of color in the story might “rub people the wrong way”! (One of the French soldiers, a face in a crowd, is black, and there are a few female nurses on one of the ships, but they are not really “characters.”) And the Times reviewer concludes her rave review with a bit of raving lunacy when she says that the fight against fascism continues.

This last comment is wrong on so many counts. The Germans are not even referred to as “Germans” in Dunkirk, much less as fascists, but only as “the Enemy” in the opening titles. The rest of the time they are off-screen and are not referred to as anything. Furthermore the Times reviewer is clearly trying to conscript Nolan (who is British) into her “resistance” to Donald Trump. Poor Nolan! Even though he’s British, everything he does has to be about American politics. By the way, such a big production as Dunkirk had to be conceived, written and shot long before Trump won the White House.

Not that isn’t fair to say that a movie is “about” something outside of itself, even something topical. Michael Mann’s fine film Public Enemies, with its cowboy police officers and use of torture, is clearly in part a commentary on the War on Terror. But Nolan is after something more universal in Dunkirk, and we shouldn’t try to cheapen him as the Times reviewer does. Fourth principle of movie watching: Don’t use artworks to advance your own agenda.

So what is Nolan’s agenda? If I had walked out when I wanted to, I would have missed it. Dunkirk’s setting is the evacuation of the soldiers at Dunkirk in 1940, but Nolan is not making a historical film about real events. It’s not a docudrama. It’s too stylized for that, with its grey palette and long sequences of pure cinema.

Nolan is clearly making a universal point about the chaos of war and the existential capriciousness of some aspects of life. But there is something else deeper, even evanescent to it. It is a story about survival, but more than survival. It is obviously about heroism, but not the obvious kind. Yes, the private ship crew that goes to rescue soldiers is heroic. Yes, the Spitfire pilots are heroic just for being there. However, something goes beyond this recruiting-poster version of heroism.

Almost all of the major characters have one special moment of understated heroism or humanity. Nolan doesn’t bracket it. He doesn’t put a halo on it. If you are not paying attention, you may not know what you are looking at. Fifth principle of movie watching: Pay attention to the bloody details! Don’t expect the point to be dropped into your lap.

No one gets up and makes a speech about what they’re doing. Most of them don’t even get to think about it for more than a moment or two. It happens in the cracks between giant blocks of grinding stone.

These are defining moments of character. That is, in my opinion, what the movie’s about. Do you have character, even when you don’t even know who’s shooting at you? Do you have character, even when someone has just killed your friend? Do you have character enough to stay when you could go?

It’s not about self-sacrifice. As the skipper of the rescue yacht says, “If we go home, there will be no home to go to.” Rather, it is about loyalty.

If I had walked out, I would have missed this. Fortunately, my better self made me stay.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life