Angel with No Name

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The real Bessie Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lesson of Maecenas

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

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


Alex Wyndham as Maecenas in the television series Rome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes and Shipwrecks: Beethoven and Ayn Rand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View this amazing book’s interior on Amazon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender in The Fountainhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arguing About Dunkirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge

Science, Womanhood, Beauty–this film has them all.

******

You always have to take biopics with a grain of salt–in this case with a grain of radium salts.

I have very little idea what the real Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie was like, beyond what I learned in school and read on Wikipedia. I know that she and her husband Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of radium and that she won it again after his death. I know that she succeeded as a woman in a man’s world and that she survived a scandal when she had an adulterous love affair with a married man years after Pierre died. I know one her daughters also won the Nobel prize. And I know that she did not understand the dangers of radioactivity (a word she coined) and died of prolonged exposure to it.

the real Marie Curie
The real Marie Curie

Marie Noelle’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge is not a naturalistic portrait of the great scientist, but uses her to make a point, which may or may not have been valid in the real Curie’s life. Noelle focuses on Curie the woman. This focus does detract from Curie’s genius. In fact, that is the point: You can be a genius and a feminine woman at the same time. The theme of the picture is “the embodied womanhood of a great mind.”

We see Curie working in the lab with Pierre or by herself, but we also see her in Pierre’s arms. For the Curies, science is an aphrodisiac. She obviously adores Pierre, but in one understated moment we see her correcting a mistake he makes on the chalkboard. The scientific establishment might disparage her as a woman, but the men she worked with and loved treated her as an equal.

Years after Pierre’s devastating death, she finds intimacy again with another scientist (because for Curie a shared passion for knowledge kindles a shared passion for love). Unfortunately he is married–to an “ordinary woman” who cannot compete with Curie’s ambition and brilliance but who does not want to surrender her husband and the father of her children. The lovers carry on their affair in secret. But can a scientist stand to conceal the truth?

Science is hard work. At several points we see Curie stirring a vat of hot liquid. At first I thought she was washing clothes, but actually she was purifying pitchblende to get radium. These are eloquent moments, because they suggest a bridge to Curie’s domestic life. With the help of her sister and father-in-law she raised two daughters. She teaches them science and in one inspiring scene she shows one of them how to climb a rope. This is authentic girl power–far superior, in my opinion, to anything we might get from Star Wars or Wonder Woman, because it is set in the real world.

It took me a while to see how the stylization of the film supported its theme of the embodied female mind. For example, we see a lot of Curie’s body in the movie. I thought this was strange, until I realized that the director (a woman who co-wrote the screenplay with another woman) was not going to let us just see a scientist walking around in a long black dress. No, Marie Curie had a body as well as a mind–a woman’s body. The actress who plays Curie, Karolina Gruszka, is beautiful, but not a mannequin. She is intense and determined even while emotions play subtly across her features.


Karolina Gruszka as Madame Curie

The most striking aspect of the film is the cinematography. The palette is dark and tends toward the blue end of the spectrum. This color scheme has symbolic significance: Dark blue is a “serious” color. Radium glows blue. And blue is the color of the Virgin Mary (aka Marie). Marie Curie is incorruptible like the Virgin Mary, but she is definitely no virgin. This palette, along with the consummate recreation of the places, clothing, technology and even hairstyles of the period, gives the film a “classic,” aged feeling, similar to the effect of the sepia palette of The Godfather. There is a kind of haziness to the light in some shots. I normally don’t like hazy photography, but in this case the haziness acts as a medium in which the actions take place, a medium of time and feeling. The style puts Curie’s struggle for equal treatment, as well as her womanhood, into a credible historical context. This poster captures the visual mood of the film:

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge has an important theme that it brilliantly captures in every aspect of its creation. The real Marie Curie might only have been a jumping off point for its makers, but oh what a journey they take us on.

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

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 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 does what he does 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 (although not as systematically as Roark eventually does). 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 his 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 in The Fountainhead 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 sacrifices. 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

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 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 does what he does 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 (although not as systematically as Roark eventually does). 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 his 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 in The Fountainhead 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 sacrifices. 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)