The Perfecting of Howard Roark


Publicity still from The Fountainhead (1949)

There are four major ways to develop a character in literature. The first is by revealing something that we didn’t know about the character but that is not something new in the character’s make-up. An example of this occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird when we learn that Atticus can shoot a rifle. This revelation is surprising to his children and to us, because Atticus is portrayed as a non-physical man, but it does not represent change on Atticus’ part.

The second, third and fourth ways involve a change in the character. The second takes place when the character transforms his life at the level of fundamentals. An example of this would be Huckleberry Finn confronting his racism when he apologizes to Jim. The third way is more superficial: It involves the character gaining insight but not changing his personality in any profound way. Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game might serve as an illustration. He learns more about the relationship of intellectualism and life, but his personality does not change.

The fourth way steers a middle course between the second and third. Here the character gains insight and has experiences of an unexpected nature and thus changes in important, though not fundamental ways. This developmental path is ideal for authors who want to play out the logical conclusion of a character’s initial premises and to show how, in the case of good premises, a person with such premises can and should achieve his mature form. An example of this would be Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead.

I. Innocent at 22

While it would be easy for admirers of Rand to idealize the Roark who appears at the beginning of the novel and to agree with the character Steven Mallory that Roark does not change, that would be to miss a major point of the story, which is that the seed is not enough and the fruit must grow and ripen to realize itself.

Mallory is of course correct in saying that Roark’s sense of life and cognitive style do not change in any fundamental way, but at a somewhat less profound level Roark changes quite a bit. Untheoretical and naïve at the outset, he becomes philosophical and wise by the story’s conclusion. Detached and aloof to begin with, he finds connection to others even to the point of heartbreak.

Rand’s portrait of Roark is stylized and slanted to project his independence. Rand never shows Roark reading a book or attending a play or even listening to music, although a real Roark would surely do these things sometimes. Roark is shown against of backdrop of nature and man’s interface with nature, architecture. But beyond the stylization, Roark is supposed to be an extreme example of a certain type. Rand crafted him with the purpose of setting up a controlled experiment to answer the question, How would a man who was independent to the bottom of his soul evolve as person, especially in the modern American environment?

To facilitate this experiment Rand has Roark grow up along a developmentally delayed trajectory: He does not come to terms with friendship, frustration, love, pity, and tragedy until he is an adult. Although this path is not entirely credible in real-world terms, it does allow us to see how the independent man consciously (although not always self-consciously) engages features of life as an adult that most of us deal with almost completely implicitly as children. Roark starts out as a pinnacle of unselfconscious purity. Rand shows us what such a man must go through to realize his full, self-aware potential.

The Roark of the first portion of the novel is unfinished, untheoretical, unself-aware and socially passive. To be sure, his virtues are considerable: He is certain about what he wants to do with his life and how he is going to set about doing it. As he says to Henry Cameron, he wants to be an architect because he does not believe in God. But beyond this, his motivation, as he tells Henry Cameron, is primal—love of the earth—not philosophical in the usual sense.


Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

Using one of her favorite characterization gambits, Rand gives Roark the defects of his virtues. Here I do not mean “moral defects,” but “deficiencies.” Observe Roark’s thought processes early in the story. When the dean fires Roark from architectural school, he tells Roark that Roark would be more persuasive if he cared what the dean thought. This is a revelation to Roark. Somehow he had gotten to the age of 22 without noticing that he did not care what others thought. Presumably, this is because Roark had simply gone about his business without deliberately not caring what others thought—he was not being rebellious, defiant or willfully non-conformist. He just did what he did with an almost Zen attitude, but what he does is still shockingly unself-aware on his part.

Roark knows there is some important difference between the dean and himself. He tags it “the principle behind the dean” and thinks of in terms of a central impulse, like a theme in a building, rather than in philosophical or psychological terms. But he forgets the issue, which is the most crucial of his life, in terms of both his self-realization and his place in society, when he sees the setting sun’s rays on a stringcourse of limestone!

This is typical of Roark early on. He is so marvelously first-handed that he has trouble attending to aspects of social life that he needs to, aspects like why he receives the reaction he does and why people build incompetent buildings, and what it is that is the motor of his own life. The principle behind the dean would have been something most intelligent people would have figured out in an hour if they thought about it. And they would have thought about it as teenagers. It takes Roark another 16 years to get around to the matter.

Beyond a certain point Roark does not know himself or know much about life. His mind is uncluttered with thoughts about right and wrong in many areas. His modus operandi is a kind of untheoretical logic. He does not care about the world’s judgments on most subjects and so comes to neglect those subjects, even at his own peril. He is dangerously naive. When someone says he is “abnormal” or even “monstrous,” he just says “Probably.” When he begs Guy Francon to let him design a building his way, he unintentionally insults Francon. A more socially sophisticated person would not have implored Francon in this manner.

Roark gains in insight during the novel, and these insights engender changes in personality, if not his fundamental premises (unlike Joseph Knecht’s insights in The Glass Bead Game). For example, Roark learns that he is a religious man in his own way from of all people, Ellsworth Toohey, via Hopton Stoddard. This revelation of Roark to himself moves him considerably and surely adds a much-needed degree of self-consciousness to his character. Presumably it is this knowledge that enables him to build a temple.

It is easy to put Roark’s early independence and passion up on a pedestal, but that would be a mistake. Roark may be in some sense “ideal” for his stage of development, but in the long view, he is incomplete. Rand certainly does not mean the reader to see Roark as morally flawed in this regard, but she knows and tries to communicate that Roark has some growing to do and that his strengths lead him to fail to do some things he “should” do, such as to define his moral place in the world, and to do things he “should not” do, such as such as design buildings for Peter Keating.

In the human realm, Roark early on is inactive to the point of self-negligence. For example, he contacts Steve Mallory because he needs a statue. Apparently, it never occurs to him that he might simply enjoy the company of a person with Mallory’s view of human potential, although Mallory wishes he had met Roark outside of the context of a commission. And as he watches Mallory sob he realizes for the first time that he is engaged in a battle with part of the world and he feels a new emotion in the form of protectiveness for Mallory. This is a radically new form of connection for the paradigm of independence.

In the most striking example, look at how surprised Roark is to find that he needs Dominique after their first sexual encounter. What did he expect from a lover? Clearly nothing, because in his mid-twenties he never had that experience or even thought about the matter. Realizing that he needs Dominique is not a mere revelation of character on Rand’s part or just a new insight on Roark’s part—it is an experience of connection that represents a change in Roark’s personality.

Or consider Roark’s relationship with Peter Keating. Roark keeps on helping Keating because he feels sorry for him, or to be exact, because he feels sorry for Keating’s buildings. He just cannot stand by and watch a building be botched—even though he knows they will be botched every day. If he gave the matter five minutes thought he would see that he was not doing himself or Keating any favors with these acts of “mercy.” Further, agreeing to design the Cortlandt housing project for Keating is the biggest error Roark commits in the story, a clear flaw for which he is justly punished by the ordeal that follows. Roark’s dealings with Keating demonstrate one of Roark’s serious defects as a person, one that exists almost to the very end of the novel, and he cannot help himself because he has no theoretical framework.

II. Roark’s and Rand’s Ethics

It would be easy to say that Rand did not intend Roark’s actions with regard to Keating to be seen as immoral, just the product of “error.” That is Rand’s mature view of such matters starting with Atlas Shrugged. It is not clear whether she took this view in The Fountainhead. But whatever she intended, it is clear to any unbiased reader that what Roark does for Keating is professionally unethical. His love of the earth and his naivety have led him to do something that he should not have done. Even if we went along with the mature Rand and said that it was an error, it would still be a defect in Roark’s character. Ideal men don’t do other people’s work for them.

Rand’s view of error and immorality is more complex and less rigid than in Atlas Shrugged. Dominique is supposed to be seen as a frustrated idealist, not as neurotic, perverse and destructive. Steven Mallory is supposed to be seen as a good person even though he is a would-be murderer. Gail Wynand is supposed to be seen as more tragic than contemptible and as worthy of Roark’s love.

These are not views that Rand would have taken in her later thinking, at least not if she was consistent: Maybe Rand would have excused Dominique, but Mallory would have been condemned as someone who initiated force, even if it was against an evil person like Toohey—and the later Rand is unequivocal about the immorality of the initiation of force. Wynand would have been regarded as loathsome for the almost erotic anguish he takes in breaking great men. However, Roark is shown loving these people, thereby, in Rand’s later way of looking at things, sanctioning their wickedness. This is not presented as an error on Roark’s part. It is simply part of a more complex ethical worldview on the earlier Rand’s part.

I would argue that Rand’s view of morality in The Fountainhead still contains a considerable residue of Nietzscheanism. She is still interested in how primal forces of light and dark play out in the economy of the soul even as she works her way to the virtue ethics of her later thinking. To some extent her thinking is still pre-philosophical, despite the fact that one of the main points of the novel is that man needs to become self-conscious in his thinking about ethics.

That may seem like an untenable paradox given that Rand clearly intends her philosophy of individualism to be the culmination of the development of her ideal man in The Fountainhead, but I would argue that Roark’s observations about morality are barely philosophical at all. His conclusion that all that proceeds from the self is the good is not fundamental as part of a theoretical approach. He is clearly thinking and feeling his way to general principles that could be the basis of a later philosophy, as they clearly were for Rand, but he is not there yet. (Not surprising since Roark is not a philosopher.) This is the “philosophy” of common sense and sense of life and passion and fresh observations about man’s situation. I would argue that such thinking is and must be developmentally and historically prior to true philosophy, but that point does not take away from the fact that it is not “full” philosophy. We could call it “proto-philosophy.”

III. The Growth of the Middle Years

Rand walked something of a literary tightrope in portraying Roark’s process of growth. Given her commitment to free will in life and in literature, she didn’t want Roark to be “molded” by outside events but to be self-propelled. So she structured events to catalyze Roark’s development but at the same time was careful to show Roark learning and discovering what he needs to know for himself, rather than being shaped in the manner of naturalistic fiction. For example, in the episodes with his early prospective clients, like Mrs. Wilmot, who wants a Tudor house because her friends say she has an Elizabethan personality, we see Roark building the concept he would eventually call the “second-hander.”

These episodes are examples of insights that Roark gains, but that same time they are examples of real character change, as Roark’s thinking about his work and life in general becomes more explicit. Roark’s need to become self-conscious and philosophical in the broadest sense is at the heart of his character, and the novel’s. The necessity of philosophy is a major theme in Rand’s novels. Many of her major characters are clearly good, even great men and women, despite not being explicitly philosophical. Rearden and the other industrialists in Atlas Shrugged would be the obvious examples. One of the interesting differences between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is that Roark is shown discovering for himself what he needs to know onstage, while the heroes of Atlas Shrugged do their discovering offstage or are helped by others.

Roark’s growth is not a change, much less a reversal of fundamental character, as we see in Huckleberry Finn, but is a change in the sense of completion at a profound level. This could serve as an illustration of the fact that Rand, even in her later work, sees moral character as largely pre-philosophical. One becomes great by practicing virtues that one has arrived at through untheoretical logic, sense of life and moral models in art (although Rand does not speak of moral models in her fiction as she does in her later non-fiction works). These virtues are not arrived at through abstract reasoning from first principles. That comes later.

A clearer example of a change occurs after Roark’s commissions dry up and he goes to work in a quarry instead of finding work in an architect’s office. Roark is hard on himself in this period. The strenuous physical labor is a metaphor for the way in which Roark drives self-pity and despair from his heart. Nathaniel Branden interprets this self-discipline as emotional repression, but Rand clearly sees it as a step along Roark’s path to greater serenity. This is Roark bending he personality to his will.


Gary Cooper as Roark at the quarry

After the time of Roark’s self-exile in the quarry, he is humanized by his encounters with other people. Witnessing Dominique’s struggle and Mallory’s torment, Roark comes to see and feel how other great souls are crucified by the world. Roger Enright and Austen Heller help initiate him into a wider social world by making him buy a tuxedo and go to parties. While working on the Stoddard Temple he spends time with Mike Donnigan, Mallory, and Dominique, just having hot dogs and coffee and listening to Mallory tell stories. “Roark laughed as Dominique had never seen him laugh anywhere else, his mouth loose and young.” This is a far cry from the “contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint” described in the first scene of the novel. Clearly Roark is becoming different, even as he stays the same.

Even still, Roark has no words to say in his defense when Stoddard sues him over the temple: He just presents photos of the building. This is not a gesture, as Gail Wynand later opines. For Roark, the best evidence is the building itself. Roark’s defense, while eloquent in its own way, is completely unphilosophical—and ineffective. If he had repeated this performance at his next courtroom appearance, he would have gone to prison.

IV. The Sagacious Roark

The mature but unphilosophical Roark is displayed in the second half of the novel. Three examples: First, in Part 3, Dominique stops on her way to get her Reno divorce from Keating to see Roark at a worksite in Ohio. She is bitter at his having to build medium-sized department stores in small towns after having designed skyscrapers. He replies, “I don’t think of it that way… I love doing it. Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable.” The Roark at the beginning of the novel did not pay enough attention to other people to have made such a comparison.

Second, in Part 4, Roark has a remarkable conversation with Gail Wynand the first time Wynand shows Roark the site on which he wants his and Dominique’s house to be built. Roark displays a knowledge of the workings of guilt and forgiveness that would rival Nietzsche’s, leading Wynand to call him “wise,” which is not an appellation one would have been tempted to apply to Roark earlier in the novel. Roark, who has learned something about give and take from his friends and something about the power relations of love from Dominique, enjoys the teasing and testing he has with Wynand, both in this conversation and later. He becomes playful in an unprecedented way.

Finally, in his discussion of Cortlandt with Keating, Roark is friendly, even gracious to Keating, while making sure Keating really understands the conditions under which he will design the project for him. This is Roark at his most benevolent. Before leaving, Keating shows Roark his paintings, and Roark, reluctantly, has to tell him that it is too late for him as an artist. After Keating leaves, Roark “was sick with pity . . .There was shame in this feeling—his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment on a man, that he should know an emotion that contained no shred of respect.” Amazingly, Roark has gotten to 38 years old without ever having felt pity, another example of Rand’s experiment in delayed development. And look at Roark’s reaction to his own feeling: “He thought that there must be something terribly wrong with a world in which this monstrous feeling is called a virtue.” This experience surely changes Roark.

Roark’s growth to this point is a beautiful thing; he has become wise and gracious and happy in a more relaxed way. But he is not complete. While he has developed a degree of self-awareness and a set of personal principles, he is still not immune to the temptation to help Keating, to give his mind and energy to the world under a pretense. He still has no philosophy.


Image from 2Paragraphs.com

V. Howard Roark, The Realized Ideal

It is on his yacht cruise with Wynand that Roark finally has time and peace to think about the lessons of his life. He consolidates the observations he has made and finally unriddles the “principle behind the dean,” the principle that separates him from most people. It is not enough that Roark lives through and observes a great deal or that he acquires some practical wisdom. What he needs to do and finally does do is to think abstractly. He integrates his experiences into the beginnings of a theory, which he shares with Wynand in their discussion of the first-hander versus the second-hander. It is important that Rand has plotted this reflection to occur before Roark discovers the travesty that has been made of Cortlandt. This order of events demonstrates that Roark is not merely reacting to circumstances, but is taking the next step on his own initiative.

Roark’s transformation enters a final phase when he sees Cortlandt. He realizes that helping Keating those many times was a bad idea. More importantly, Roark decides he will no longer just mind his own business and do his work in the world. He will demonstrate to his fellow men that they have no claim upon him. This he does by dynamiting Cortlandt and speaking out at his trial. Because he has thought about individualism and collectivism both in society and in men’s souls, he is now able to offer a verbal, conceptual defense of his actions and to win an acquittal.

Two final encounters complete him as a man, both having to do with human relationships. Before the trial Dominique leaves Wynand and comes to Roark, and two things occur that have never occurred before: First, he is tempted to compromise out of love for Wynand, although Dominique convinces him by her attitude that it is useless, like all compromise. Second, he surrenders to his happiness with Dominique, displaying an unprecedented vulnerability and tenderness.

Last is his interview with Wynand about commissioning the Wynand Building. On the elevator up to Wynand’s office, Roark, in a last burst of naivety, holds out hope for Wynand, only to have it dashed at the sight of the composed ruin of a man he meets there. He accedes to the charade of formality that Wynand requests, in order not to shatter Wynand’s fragile control. Roark, who at the beginning of the novel would never have allowed anyone to wound him, now sees that some wounds never heal.

Except for the final, dialogueless, tableau of Roark atop the tower against the sky, this sad farewell is the last we see of Howard Roark. Are we to leave Roark on a tragic note? I do not think so, for two reasons: First, in the final tableau we see Roark at work on his greatest achievement, his statement about the earth’s imprisoned heart of fire bursting through and leaping to freedom. This is the essence of Roark, realizing his purpose in life.

Second and more importantly from the perspective of Roark’s growth as a character, Howard Roark has learned from Wynand, as well as from Dominique, the possibility, the price, and the limits of love. The overflow of a great spirit, important as it is, is not enough to save those he loves. They must stand or fall on their own. That Roark accepts this, that he neither denies the pain he feels over them nor gives up the admiration he feels for them, that he incorporates the struggles of those he loves into his building in the form of the liberation from imprisonment theme, demonstrates that Roark is at last able to stand in full wisdom, both practical and theoretical, dedicated to the earth and connected to other human beings. Howard Roark has become the self-perfected man.

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

A Tale of a Renaissance Man

In my review of Memoirs of Hadrian, I mentioned I was going to read another novel by Marguerite Yourcenar: The Abyss. I did, and it was well worth the time. The novel, published in 1968 and translated by Grace Frick, is traditional in form. Where Memoirs of Hadrian is told in the form of a fictional autobiography, The Abyss is a typical third-person omniscient narrative. The author contributes a degree of irony to the telling, but does not intrude. The descriptions are vivid, but we do not drown in details. The treatment of the characters is humane, i.e. they are portrayed with a reasonable amount of sympathy and not demonized, to the extent that that is possible in the brutal sixteenth century in which it is set.

The English title of the novel is not a translation of the French title. I think that was bad choice of words. In French, the title is L’Oeuvre au Noir. This means “the work in black.” In the author’s words it “designates what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance. It is still not clear whether the term applied to daring experiments on matter itself, or whether it was understood to symbolize trials of the mind in discarding all forms of routine and prejudice.”

Such trials of the mind form the heart of the story. Zeno Ligre, illegitimate son of a girl from a rich banker family in sixteenth-century Flanders, is on a quest to escape prejudice and discover knowledge. He was born at a time both dreadful and propitious for such an undertaking. While astrology and fanaticism still have a grip on the minds of the time, the foundations of modern science and medicine are being laid. While religious wars and the Inquisition bloody the land, it is still possible to wander from place to place, gleaning knowledge where one can.

Zeno is not based on any one thinker from that time, but he is representative of many great men. He is similar to Leonardo da Vinci, although Zeno is not an artist, but he is also similar to a host of other, more obscure figures of the Renaissance, such as Michael Servetus. Zeno is primarily a physician and publishes a book on the anatomy of the heart. But he is also a philosopher who writes about the nature of matter. And not least of all, Zeno is an alchemist, just as that proto-science was being transformed into real chemistry. (Alchemy also had a mystical-philosophical component, which Zeno draws the best from.)


An alchemist attempting to pierce the veil of truth

Perhaps most importantly, Zeno is a freethinker, an impatient, even brusque one. He forms his own opinions and is skeptical of religious dogma. In fact, he is an atheist at a time when a public expression of that sentiment meant certain death. Thus, Zeno spends a lot of his life speaking indirectly about or even concealing some of his fundamental beliefs. He also sometimes changes his identity, as when he lives under the name of Dr. Sebastian Theus when he returns to his hometown after a long absence.

The choice of aliases is telling on both Zeno’s and Yourcenar’s parts: Saint Sebastian was a martyr who became a gay icon, and “theus” means “god.” Zeno (like Hadrian) is predominantly gay (although he sometimes had relations with women), is constantly in danger of being martyred, and is a non-believer in God. (Interestingly, Yourcenar was a lesbian who had a number of frustrating infatuations with gay men. Perhaps that’s why she wrote about so many of them.)


The martyrdom of St. Sebastian

The novel does not concern itself with Zeno’s wanderings through Sweden and the Muslim world, but is centered on events Flanders and Germany before and after his wandering. We see how Zeno forms his basic identity (he starts out studying for the priesthood and is diverted by his interest in building mechanized looms), and later we see his interaction with clerics and common folk back in Flanders, when his wandering is done. These interactions are the real test of Zeno’s character.


Zeno as portrayed in the 1988 French film version of the novel.

Along the way we have a few interesting side-plots. One concerns Zeno’s beloved cousin Henry Maximilan Ligre, who leaves home to become a soldier and a poet. Henry represents another kind of escape from suffocations of “normal” life. Perhaps his story is Yourcenar’s way of saying that you do not have to be an intellectual to live a passionate and authentic life.

We also follow Zeno’s mother, who never cared for him. She becomes involved with an older merchant who leads her into trouble. The merchant is an Anabaptist. Anabaptism was a hydra-headed group of radical Christian sects that came into being in the early 1500s. Zeno’s step-father is a rich merchant who gets involved with the Anabaptist takeover of the German town Muenster in 1534 and the establishment of a brief polygamous, communistic, theocratic society there. Zeno’s mother and half-sister have the misfortune of being in the town at the time of the takeover and later siege. This is a long digression if you think the novel should be just about Zeno, but if you want to see Zeno in the context of his age, it serves an integral purpose.

Yourcenar is highly—and rightly—praised for her ability to take us into other times and into minds from those times. In the chapter entitled “The Abyss,” we see Zeno having an existential crisis as he ponders the earth spinning through space and the idea of human beings as in some sense interchangeable flesh. It’s hard to put our modern selves in the position of someone just realizing that there are infinite worlds out in space and that human beings are nothing more than meat-like tissue. Yourcenar’s imagination assists our own. Fortunately for Zeno and the story, the crisis does not last.

Zeno, despite the passion he feels for his quest for knowledge and freedom from dogma, is understandably bitter about living in a world where every town has a gallows and men are slaughtered by the thousands for following the wrong monarch. But somehow he always succeeds in not drowning in bitterness.

Zeno does grow during the story. At first he sees his patients as almost experimental subjects, but later he puts himself in danger in order to treat people he empathizes with. In some ways he “settles down,” although he never settles into thinking like other people. Furthermore, while he will dissemble to protect himself, he will not be a hypocrite.

Are we to take Zeno to be a great man, like Hadrian? In his own way, I think, yes. Zeno is portrayed as one of the pioneers of the modern world, struggling to leave the Middle Ages behind. It is easy to forget that being a Renaissance Man was not just exhilarating: One had to face both the dark night of the soul and the dark nights in prison. We are all in debt to these intrepid men.

One of the themes of both of Yourcenar’s major novels is the self-realization of great men who do not believe in gods and who do believe in themselves. If you are interested in the earthly, earthy details of such men’s lives and not just in seeing them as marble statues, then Yourcenar is an author for you. The Abyss is available on Amazon.


Marguerite Yourcenar (1903 – 1987)

The Defects of His Virtues, The Virtues of His Defects

As everyone knows, the novel and film Schindler’s List tells the true story of how Nazi party member Oskar Schindler, though he came to Poland to exploit Germany’s conquest of her, saved over 1000 Jews from certain extermination by using what would uncharitably be called the skills of a con man. A line from author Thomas Keneally’s introduction stays with me: “this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil.” Usually, according to Keneally, novelists write about the triumph of evil, and they choose to be “wise, ironic, piercing, to avoid bathos” when writing about the good. However, Keneally tells his story with a minimum of irony.

In Oskar Schindler, a man of dubious ethics, we do see the triumph of good over evil, not only in that he saved many lives from the evil Nazis but also in that Schindler’s own life was redeemed. And this triumph is pragmatic, not only because we can measure it in lives, but also because it involves a man sliding into good, when so many men pragmatically slide into evil or at least moral compromise. The difference makes us reflect on the relationship of virtues and defects of character.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler

We can put a magnifying glass to this relationship by focusing on character development in literature. (Keep in mind that most people only know Schindler as a character in a story.) A character can have the virtues of his defects, like Schindler, or, as is more commonly the case, the defects of his virtues. Let us first examine the more common case, as it is more straightforward.

The easy example of the defects of one’s virtues from real life is someone who is so “nice” that he, or perhaps more often she, gets taken advantage of. Things in literature are more complex but follow the same pattern.

An illustration of this pattern from classic literature can be found in the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus is a Stoic, a man of high moral character, an “honorable” man, as Mark Antony repeatedly reminds us in his funeral oration over Caesar’s body. Yet, as every point in the conspiracy to kill Caesar and save the Roman Republic, Brutus, in taking the high ground, makes the wrong choice. For example, Brutus’s co-conspirator, Cassius, wants to kill Mark Antony, who is wily and dangerous. Brutus squelches this notion, saying that Antony is only Caesar’s limb, which will be harmless when the head’s cut off and that no more blood should be shed than is necessary. This is a fatal underestimation of Antony, who of course ends up leading the army that eventually destroys Brutus and Cassius. Brutus is, yes, an honorable man, but honor, at least the kind that Brutus values, is not always what is called for in realpolitik, and in this context, Brutus’ virtues contain a deadly defect.

James Mason as Brutus
James Mason as Brutus

An example from more recent literature can be found the character of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Roark is the walking embodiment of the virtue of independence. He not only does not care what other people think; he does not even notice what other people think. For this reason, he can be quite naïve. He repeatedly helps his college roommate, second-hander fellow architect Peter Keating, with his design projects because he can’t let a bad building be built. This generosity, if that is the right word, gets him into a lot of trouble near the end of the novel but eventually he gains insight into philosophical truth and attains wisdom. But up until that point Roark’s virtues lead him to do bad things.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

Giving a character the defects of his virtues is a good way to build a story around a basically good person, because the defects lead him into trouble, which creates narrative tension. If the author takes a dark, Byronic view of life, the defect can lead to the character’s downfall, although perhaps the virtues redeem the situation, at least in giving the character tragic dignity. If the author takes a more benevolent view, then the defect is a set-up for growth and the triumph of virtues through adversity.

But with Schindler, things are the other way around. Here we have defects that contain hidden virtues. Schindler was an operator, a schmoozer, a sybarite and a man who took advantage of other people’s misfortune. And of course, he was a member of the Nazi party. But these qualities are exactly what he needed to outfox his fellow Nazis. Schindler spent years conning the local Nazis into believing that his Jewish workers were needed for the war effort so that they would be spared from the Final Solution. Part of how he did this was by “partying” with the loathsome Nazi officer Amon Goeth. Part of it was that he was a good liar who inspired trust by displaying geniality. Again these are qualities that would well serve a con man.

That much is plain from the story. What is not so clear is why he did it. It appears that under that bluff bonhomie he did have a conscience and that despite his predatory tendencies he did feel compassion. We see this compassion most clearly in the scene in the story where he hoses down the train carrying Jews to their destruction.

But I have to wonder whether part of his motivation was that he relished the challenge. He was an adventurer in some sense, after all, rather like a pirate. Perhaps he enjoyed the scheming and the trickery. Perhaps he enjoyed walking the tightrope. Maybe he was the Reynard the trickster, who enjoyed fooling the foolish. He may have felt most alive when dancing along the edge. We’ll never know for sure.

One difference between the novel and the film is telling on this point. In the film version, right before he makes his escape, Schindler breaks down and cries. “I could have got more,” he sobs. If only he hadn’t held on to his fancy car and his gold Nazi party pin, he could have saved more lives. He feels guilty for his high living and probably also feels a release from the burden of his actions over the years.

This breakdown is not in the novel, which seems more reflective of the real man. Here Schindler coolly stashes diamonds in hidden compartments of his car and drives off. There isn’t the slightest suggestion of guilt. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Schindler probably felt pride in his accomplishment. Some of this is a matter of interpretation of course, but that is normal in literature.

Sometimes we need heroes who do great deeds, not out of a sense of nobility or altruism, but simply because they enjoy the thrill of the chase. Oskar Schindler seems to have turned his keenness for living, which had been directed at scheming, boozing and womanizing and incorporated a better goal of saving lives.

The hero who performs great deeds out of zest is a familiar figure, at least in popular culture. (Think Robin Hood.) But zest is a morally neutral category. One can murder zestfully as well as save lives zestfully. Up until the time he started saving lives, Oskar Schindler’s zest seems to have synergized with his moral defects (and he remained a philanderer even as he saved lives). But when he decided to do good, his zest largely repolarized and became a tool of virtue. I would venture a guess that Schindler found it more satisfying to be zestful in this way, but the emotional quality is largely the same. This suggests that character is as important as abstract morals, at least in many cases.


The real Oskar Schindler

The view that the high rises from the low is well-known: It is the notion that unites Nietzsche and Freud. But I am not claiming that Schindler sublimated primal urges that were naturally crude. I am saying that personality is made up of half-conceptualized, half-realized virtues and defects that thrust against each other and that when integrated by good or evil intentions can form an exquisite whole. This is the stuff of literature, and I would assert that we need literature as well as philosophy for an understanding of character, in both the sense of characters in literature and the sense of ethical character. But that is the subject of another essay.

Oskar Schindler never did anything else great for the rest of his life. In fact he was a failure in business and at his marriage. He was dependent on the gratitude of those he had saved. But for a few terrible, yet glorious years, Schindler realized himself as few of us do.

Behold the Man

“In turning the pages of a volume of Flaubert’s correspondence much read and heavily underscored by me about the year 1927 I came again upon this admirable sentence: ‘Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.’ A great part of my life was going to be spent in trying to define, and then to portray that man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being.”
-Marguerite Yourcenar, “Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of
Hadrian

Hadrian was the third of the “five good emperors of Rome,” of whom Marcus Aurelius was the fifth, in the first third of the second century. He was a soldier and administrator who worked his way up in the eyes of his predecessor Trajan, until Trajan, on his deathbed, adopted him. According to Yourcenar’s novel, which is regarded as her masterpiece, he was the paragon of men, a man of great achievement and vision who drank life to the fullest.

His accomplishments were many, and given the political context in which he lived, admirable. He decided that the empire had expanded enough and ended the ceaseless wars Rome waged on its neighbors. He built new ports and encouraged trade. He untangled legal codes and made taxes more fair. He couldn’t abolish slavery (and probably had no inclination to do so), but he made it much more humane: he forbade the castration of slaves, he ended the practice of forcing slaves into brothels or the gladiatorial ring, he banished rich people who were cruel to their slaves. In addition, he increased women’s control over their own property.

In government, he professionalized his advisors and lieutenants and ended the practice of provincial cities sending bribes to the imperial household. He was relentlessly on the move until his health failed, inspecting and bonding with the armies, supervising construction, mending fences with hostile neighbors and internal factions (although he failed with the Jews, or they with him). He tried to build a system that would survive bad emperors and last for centuries.

As a man he dabbled with superstitious ideas like astrology and Mithraism, but he never let them control him. He did not let pride or vanity or fanaticism get the better of him. He thought much farther ahead than anyone else in his time, but he was a sensualist who tried many things, including women and men. The love of his life was a teenaged Greek boy named Antinous. When Antinous died young, Hadrian created a cult around him, littering the empire with statues of him and naming a city after him.

The novel takes the form of a memoir written for Marcus Aurelius, who was Hadrian’s adopted grandson. The memoir was written at the end of Hadrian’s life and we get a lot of meditation on poor health and dying, but the bulk of the novel concerns Hadrian’s healthy days – and Hadrian was a very healthy man. In fact, Hadrian, as Yourcenar portrays him, was, warts and all, one of the greatest men of the ancient world.

The book is beautifully written, translated from the French by Yourcenar’s partner Grace Frick, in collaboration with Yourcenar. It is not like a conventional novel, though. It does not have scenes and dialogue. It is all tell and no show, as you might expect a memoir to be. So it’s not for everybody. But if you are interested in the life of a colossus, as told by the man himself, you might give it a try. Here is a link to the book’s page on Amazon: Memoirs of Hadrian

I have another novel by Yourcenar in the queue. I’ll report on it if it meets expectations.

Announcing Killing Cool

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

Due out September 2014

Now published

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender in The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender, But Don’t Give Yourself Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quote from Eugene Gendlin is appropriate here:

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

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

Due out September 2014

Due out September 2014

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

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

Honor in the Concrete

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

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

Poster for Locke

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Therapeutic Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rembrandt, self-portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

temari ball by Dana

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

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

Ancient of Days, by William Blake, 1794

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

Brave New Us

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

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

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

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

Have we no tendency in this direction?

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

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

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

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

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brave new world – brianday – on flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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