American Not-So-Pastoral

I have been obsessed with a novel and the film version of it, which will be released in October. It’s Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. It has a loose plot, but it’s really about the stresses placed on a reasonable man by horrific events. The man is a symbol for America.

It is the 1960s. The main character is Seymour Levov. Star athlete in high school, Seymour, though Jewish, looks so Nordic that everyone calls him the Swede. The Swede has a perfect life. He is married to a former Miss New Jersey, he runs a successful business, he has a beautiful home in the country, everybody likes him. That is, everybody but his daughter, Meredith, known ironically as Merry. A bright, charming child with a stutter, Merry becomes the teenager from Hell. She is angry about the Vietnam War, starts hanging out with communist revolutionaries and constantly defies and insults her parents.

Acting on the New Left injunction to bring the war home, i.e. to cause civil unrest in the U.S. as a protest against America’s involvement overseas, Merry blows up a post office in her sleepy rural village. The blast goes off at 5 am when the post office is closed, but an unlucky man, a universally loved doctor, is there mailing a letter on his way to work. He is instantly killed. Merry goes underground.

From there it gets more horrible. I won’t divulge the details, though I will discuss some of the themes. The Swede is baffled by what happened and drives himself crazy looking for an explanation. This parallels liberal America’s puzzlement over why their boomer children turned against them. Roth doesn’t settle for easy answers and we follow the Swede’s impressions, memories, anguish and confusion for most of the story.

There are two explanations for Merry’s descent into violence hinted at by Roth that I personally find convincing, although it’s not clear that Roth thinks we ought to settle on them. The first is that Merry and by extension her generation have been raised with no clear values. As the Swede’s brother says, the Swede is post-Jewish, his wife is post-Catholic and they moved into the country expecting to raise post-toasties. (Post Toasties were a popular breakfast cereal, a competitor to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and just as bland.) The Swede loves being an American and is grateful for the opportunities he has been given, but his notion of America has no intellectual content. It’s just baseball and serving in the Marines. He has never really thought for himself, perhaps because up until his forties, his luck had been so good, he never had to. He is coasting on the immigrant narrative of his recent forebears. His daughter, however, is an American vacuum waiting to be filled.

American icon Andy Griffith endorses the All-American cereal.

And this brings us to Roth’s second explanation of Merry’s rebellion. Merry is “selfless”, presumably because she contains a vacuum. She tries to become a mini-Audrey Hepburn as a little girl, she briefly adopts her grandmother’s Catholicism in her tweens, she becomes a violent leftist as a teenager and finally she becomes a religious fanatic, which the Swede learns about in a sequence too awful to describe.

The implication is that Merry became a political militant because that was what was in the air when she was an adolescent angry about her stutter. Her father and mother have nothing of substance with which to counter this transformation. You can see how this parallels one of America’s timelines: from vapid “Americanism” in the 1950s to political and cultural fanaticism in the 1960s to religious fanaticism in the 1970s. One reason why the book resonates with me is that I saw something a similar timeline in the lives of several people I have loved.

Roth’s novel is not for everyone. It is slow getting to the main story, it spends a lot of time inside the Swede’s head following his impressions and recollections, and the prose is dense with long paragraphs. It is not interested in the linear plot so much as in character and theme. On the other hand, it is searingly earnest (especially for Roth, who often deals in rabelaisian irony) and its descriptions are vivid and on target.

One thing I like about it is that it doesn’t tell you what to think. There is no character whose point-of-view you can fully identify with. You have to work to tease out the truth. And truth for Roth is not easy to come by. Sometimes the best you can do is to create a narrative and hope to learn from it.

Some readers may prefer the movie version, which comes out in October. Here is a trailer. A friend of mine felt that the trailer was cryptic and creepy. I assure you the movie will not be cryptic, but it definitely will have some creepy and painful moments. You can find the same qualities in Shakespeare, so hopefully that won’t put you off. In any case, it is a fascinating story about how America, without a solid foundation in ideas, cannot defend itself or its children.

Surrender in The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Therapeutic Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rembrandt, self-portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

temari ball by Dana

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

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

Ancient of Days, by William Blake, 1794

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

The Last of Her Kind

I tend to read streaks of related books. They can be related by author or by subject. I think everybody reads streaks by author. Right now I’m in the middle of a Ward Just streak and a Howard Swiggett streak. (I hope to write an essay about Swiggett someday.)

I really like streaks by subject. Last year, doing research for a book I’ve been writing, I read four novels and one play about intellectual mentors who lead their protégés to commit crimes and/or get themselves killed. (The best of these is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.) This intersects with another streak about boarding schools and colleges.

My latest streak is about radicals, terrorists and extreme altruists. The first book was Ward Just’s The American Ambassador, and I’m planning to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Marge Piercy’s Vida, as well as a non-fiction work about Theodore Kaczynski.

I just finished the second in this streak, a novel entitled The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez.

I loved this novel. It tells the story of three women starting in 1968: Georgette, the narrator, who is looking for love; Ann, Georgette’s roommate at Barnard, who is a stone radical; and Solange, George’s sister, who runs away from their squalid home and abusive mother at the age of 14, embarking on a physical and spiritual odyssey. In these three women we have three of the paradigmatic types of young females of the era: Cosmo girl, radical and hippie. (All we’re missing is a women’s libber.)

It doesn’t have a lot of plot and it’s not told in perfect chronological order. It’s more like a new friend telling you about herself, partly in order, partly with vignettes strung together by association and partly with events revealed only when she feels she can reveal them. One Amazon reviewer labeled this narrative “stream of consciousness.” I generally hate stream of consciousness story telling, and I easily followed the logical and emotional thread of Georgette’s account, so that was not a problem for me. It’s really an imagined memoir.

I’m trying not to give away more than is necessary to communicate the set-up of the story, but since the jacket copy refers to the central event of the story in vague terms, so I feel that my doing so as well does not constitute a true spoiler. Ann does something very violent which changes her life and several lives around her. Nunez is brilliant in creating a situation of perfect ambiguity, in which Ann’s action can be seen as either justified or irresponsible, depending on your premises (rather like Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th). This action superbly integrates Ann’s character, the political beliefs of the people involved, and the tenor of the times. We see this action from the perspectives of quite a few people in the story and it is a good example of the starkly different interpretations people can have of an event.

The novel focuses mostly on 1968 – 1978, but it covers events since then as well, alluding obliquely at the story’s end to 9/11. I really enjoyed following up on the story’s characters. We’re so used to seeing a 1960s radical or hippie frozen in time, forever 20 years old, that we forget that such people grow and change – or fail to grow and thus destroy themselves.

Please do not get the idea that this novel is a nostalgic tale of those “far out” times. It’s not. While we view the characters through Georgette’s generally sympathetic eyes, we are frankly shown the consequences of their beliefs and actions, and many of those consequences are brutal. At the same time, the novel does not shy away from showing how unpleasant being poor and/or black in America can be. I could imagine that both a hard-core liberal and a hard-core conservative could enjoy this book if they were honest with themselves, because it is perfumed by the air of truth.

Author Sigrid Nunez

In some novels by and about women – Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is frequently alleged to be an example – men come off rather badly. At first this seems to be true of The Last of Her Kind, which had not one but two rapists, various drug dealers and Mick Jagger among its characters. But some of the minor men, though they seem like losers, are genuinely nice guys. And just when you thought there were no wonderful men in Nunez’ world, we encounter one: decent, loving, cultured, loyal. And we see him grow.

Georgette is a narrator who is nice to spend time with. She may not be some people’s idea of ambitious, but she is earnest, a good observer and well read. She drops in interesting references.

One of these references is to a French philosopher named Simone Weil (1909 – 1943). When some in the press compare Ann to Patricia Hearst, Georgette compares her to Weil. Weil was a hard-core altruist. When she was six years old and heard that the soldiers fighting in WWI had no sugar, she refused to eat any herself. During WWII she basically starved herself to death in sympathy to citizens in occupied France living on meager rations. In between she taught Greek classics, became sympathetic to Roman Catholicism without being baptized (she came from a family of agnostic Jews), and expounded mystical ideas on God, the self, the void, beauty, etc.

French Philosopher Simone Weil (1909 – 1943)

Weil was definitely anti-materialist. She gave away most of her salary. She often slept on the floor. She probably died a virgin, because, although an affectionate person, she did not like to be touched. T. S. Eliot likened her to a saint, and she had a considerable influence on both existentialist and Catholic thought in the decades after her death (although that influence has waned since the 1970s).

Weil and Ann from the novel are each in some sense “the last of her kind.” Both are altruists all the way down, although Ann has sex and is an atheist. Ann is definitely a lot angrier than Weil, who could be beatific in her enraptured contemplation of God.

Perhaps Ann has more in common with Bill North, Jr., the terrorist in The American Ambassador. Both have nothing but contempt for their parents. Like Bill, Ann does not call her parents Mom and Dad, but Sophie and Turner. Both have no sympathy for those who do not share their views. There is a slight difference between them in that Ann generally thinks it possible to make a difference working from within the system, while Bill is so alienated from bourgeois capitalism that he sees kidnapping, bombs and murder as necessary and deserved. Simone Weil, from what I’ve read so far, was not a violent or hateful person. She did try to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but she was so near-sighted and such a bad shot that no one would let her get near a gun!

I am trying to build up a portrait of the radical/terrorist/altruist type. What I am seeing so far is that they all belong to what I call the Cult of Suffering, by which I mean the intellectual-emotional position that the suffering of others should be our primary fixation in life, while the health and happiness of the fortunate (including ourselves) is not important and may even be a sign of exploitation. I am sure there are commonalities that I do not have enough examples of to identify yet. I don’t think I see what Ayn Rand called “the hatred of the good for being the good,” but the jury is still out. It’s a little risky to use fictional examples in my sample, but I feel they can illuminate the often tangled and diffuse mass of information surrounding real figures.

I think such a study – which I admit I am carrying out unsystematically – could be valuable in understanding the operation of morality and in figuring out how we can have a stable society. Besides, it’s interesting!

I invite you to share any insight you have on these subjects or any book or movie recommendations.

Lessons of The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather was one of the biggest bestsellers ever. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part One and Part Two, are often placed near the top on lists of the greatest movies ever made. But is there anything else to these stories besides violence and well-dressed criminals?

The movies – and to a lesser extent, the novel – get to me in several ways. At one level, The Godfather draws me in just because it is about serious people. The Corleone family are very focused on their enterprises. They are not trifling or easily distracted. They deal in matters of life and death, and they generally decide these matters with great planning and deliberation. Things do not turn out well for the people in the story who act impulsively or venally.

Furthermore, the Corleones have discipline. They are trying to get something done and they toe the line in the effort. The Corleones value loyalty to the group. Renegades and deviants do not fare well in this world. In addition, the Corleones have a culture of accumulated wisdom. Don Corleone’s ideas are what steer the family through its trials.

It is a rare thing in a motion picture to see serious people acting rationally and strategically, and even if it is in the irrational context of crime, it is a pleasure to watch. The book, but even more the movies, convey a kind of weight that is lacking from most stories. These people are so wonderfully not frivolous!

You might think that this sort of seriousness might be found in other stories about business, i.e. legitimate business, but there aren’t a lot of examples of this. I can think of one outstanding exception: Executive Suite. Most books and movies about business usually portray executives as ridiculous or amoral. At least The Godfather doesn’t portray its characters as ridiculous.

Nina Foch and William Holden in “Executive Suite.”

In a way, that the Corleones’ enterprise is crime is almost incidental. While they use violence to solve problems, we don’t see the day-to-day criminal activity that is the foundation of the their empire. We don’t see the gambling parlors or the union racketeering or any of the rest of it. We do know that the Corleones won’t touch prostitution or drugs, which makes them slightly less abhorrent, if not exactly noble.

The first two Godfather movies – the only ones worth considering – feature two exquisite characters: father and son Vito and Michael Corleone. (The concept of the exquisite refers to a portrayal of character that is at once archetypal and concretely realistic. Such a portrayal involves the integration of unexpected or even paradoxical attributes. For more on the exquisite, see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

What makes Vito’s character exquisite is the juxtaposition of a ruthless violence with a style of reasonableness and traditional values. Vito is not some Scarface-like screaming maniac. He is imperturbable. He is willing to negotiate. (Although his idea of negotiating sometimes involves making you an offer you can’t refuse.) Further, and this is clearer in the novel than in the film, he is straight-laced about sex – he expresses contempt for one of the other Family leaders for being a pimp. And he does not wish to get into the drug business.

Michael describes Vito to his future wife Kay as a man of great responsibility, like a senator or a governor. And that’s part of the key to Vito’s character: he is the head of a family and he takes care of that family. He has a certain kind of twisted parentalism, as befits the moniker “godfather.”

Another element of Vito’s character is that he believes himself to live in a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world. As a refugee from Sicilian Mafia violence who emigrates as a child to the jungle of Little Italy, he is somewhat justified in this belief. He sees society as a great war of all against all. And the morality of war is different from the morality of peace. In a world of war, it is Machiavelli’s rules that apply, not Jefferson’s. Vito is a lot like The Fountainhead‘s Gail Wynand in this regard.

Vito has no taste for cruelty, however, and although he is quite comfortable with ruthless coercion, he would never harm a woman or a child. He is not a sociopath. He is just making sure that he and his are safe in a world fraught with peril.

We could take the Corleones to be modern-day Medicis, a dynasty using cunning and the occasional act of violence in order to survive and prosper in ever-dangerous times. If Italian Renaissance history is not your thing, we could compare the crime families in The Godfather to the Great Houses of Frank Herbert’s Dune, who are into vendettas, poisons and swordplay.

Lorenzo de Medici

By either analogy the Corleones can be seen as a kind of nobility, at least in the fantasy world they occupy. Perhaps we might see nobility in general as the ability to maintain dynastic survival in a world of violent competitiveness: nobility as evolutionary fitness over the long term. If you are a force to be reckoned with, you are noble, but if you are a wood chip in the flood, you are of no account and are common.

Vito’s son Michael is similar to his father in some ways and different in others, but is still exquisite. Like Vito, Michael is a “reasonable man.” He is ruthless, too. And he does not enjoy cruelty for cruelty’s sake. But he is not rooted in traditional values and except for one romantic encounter, which significantly takes place in Italy rather than America, he is cold. Almost the first thing he does after his father dies and he assumes unequivocal command of the Corleone Family is to murder the heads of all the other five families in New York. This goes beyond what is necessary, since only two of the other families had plotted against him. His father never felt it necessary to be the only one left standing: Michael is driven by a desire for safety, which is nice way of saying that he is paranoid.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

At the same time his men are butchering half the gangsters of New York he also has his sister’s husband garrotted, because he was a traitor. In doing so, Michael wounds his sister enormously. This, Vito would never have done. In The Godfather, Part Two, Michael’s paranoia escalates until he drives off his wife and his adopted brother. Then he has his real brother murdered.

To understand the message of Michael’s life, we might wish to consider a concept that has long circulated through the Objectivist and libertarian worlds: the prudent predator. This type embodies the question: what if you could commit crimes with virtually no chance of getting caught? Wouldn’t doing so be in your “rational self-interest”? I believe the answer to this question to be No. My point, however, is not to rejoin that debate but to note that Michael Corleone is a great example of the type. And The Godfather, especially Part Two, has something to say about the type, because it chronicles what happens to a prudent predator.

The type has been dealt with in literature before. One common device in good stories about evil, like The Godfather and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, is to show that even when evil does not get punished by the law, it still suffers by its internal logic. Call it “the operation of cosmic justice.” It is the operation of this principle that makes the Godfather stories moral, even though none of the major characters is ever tried for his crimes.

One reason why the prudent predator is impractical is that he sees other people not as people, but as objects to be used. This view is not conducive to the good life, needless to say. Michael never gets arrested, but he does become a social atom. He is capable of hurting anyone, even his own brother, and by the conclusion of The Godfather, Part Two, he is a solitary being, living in his beautiful lakeside house with his haunted memories. If the survival of the fittest is the rule you choose to live by, then as the winner you get to survive by yourself.

You might think that Vito is a prudent predator as well, but Vito is too well connected to other people. Maybe his connection to others and his somewhat traditional values are just superficial. Maybe deep down he could become like Michael. But he gets through life without descending to that depth. I would say that this is because he is from an Old World culture.

Vito doesn’t get through life unscathed, however. He is shot and badly wounded by rival criminals because he refuses to modernize by entering the drug trade with them. His traditional values, if that’s what they are, are not enough to protect him from the logic of criminal “progress.” An Old World man like Vito is not going to flourish in the remorseless evolutionary struggle of the New World. But if the modern American world forces a Vito to die or become a Michael, and if that world forces a Michael to become a murderous robot, then can we say that being a prudent predator pays?

So what do Part One and Part Two add up to? Part One chronicles the descent of a once good man into evil. Part Two shows how he suffers due to his fall, while also showing his father’s rise. In the long run, the Medici approach might work for a time among rooted, Old World, types, especially in the Old World where clients look to their patrons with loyalty, but it does not work among “individualistic” Americans, who eventually force godfathers to become monsters. Michael ends up like a shark, the perfectly ruthless killer whose fate it is to swim alone.

At the level of Michael’s character, we could see the Godfather movies as a tragedy. Michael’s tragic flaw is loyalty to his father, whom he sees as a great man. This loyalty is what motivates him to join the family business and commit his first murders when his father’s life is in danger. (Francis Ford Coppola’s friend George Lucas tried to craft a similar tragic flaw for Anakin Skywalker in the second Star Wars trilogy, but it was not convincing.)

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker

So the Godfather stories are at once a tragedy, a portrayal of human seriousness and twisted nobility and a commentary on the prudent predator. Such richness is what makes great art. But there is an additional dimension.

One overarching theme of the story, in my opinion, is the importance of creating a just society. In a society like Sicily or big city America, would-be great men are crushed and have to resort to violence to protect their self-esteem and the ones they love. No doubt some men rose to legitimate greatness from such a milieu, but it probably took a titanic struggle and an almost irrational optimism to do so. It would be understandable for other men to think they had to play by Machiavelli’s rules.

I don’t think that in the end The Godfather is really about crime and criminals. For one thing, the Corleones are a fantasy. Real criminals are almost all thugs, not Renaissance princes. And crime just doesn’t carry that much thematic weight. So what is the story about if not crime?

One way to understand a novel or movie is to look at its social context. For example, the movie The Untouchables, which tells the story of Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone, is “really” about the War on Drugs and how we have to embrace ruthless means to fight it. On the other hand, Public Enemies, which tells the somewhat similar story of Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of John Dillinger, is about the War on Terror and how we have degraded ourselves by the way we have fought it. The Untouchables is from 1987 and Public Enemies is from 2009, and this is not mere coincidence.

The social context in which The Godfather stories were created was threefold: 1. the Civil Rights Movement, which had turned to Black Power, because a number of vocal African-Americans believed that America’s 300-year war against black people was not going to be ended by a few Congressional acts. 2. The Vietnam War, which showed that even the Federal government could not be trusted. 3. The battle against police corruption, especially in New York City, which revealed the dirtiness of the law. (This third story is taken up in another movie with Al Pacino, Serpico.) The Godfather, novel and movies, are a commentary on what happens when the social contract is not honored and indeed is not honorable.

The Godfather illustrates what happens if injustice, oppression and corruption are allowed to create conditions of war in American society. The oppressed turn to violence and domination in an attempt to protect themselves and to establish a reliable social order. A certain type of powerful person will either try to rise within a just society or exercise his power to create a new one, in this case, a society within a society. And such men will exploit opportunities created by society, especially victimless crime, the laws against which are after all another form of injustice and oppression.

These attempts to establish a safe and prosperous zone outside of mainstream society do not work, of course. In fact, they engender something that is as bad as the conditions that spawned them. But ambitious, intelligent and indomitable men will create their “families” or gangs or sometimes even new religions, if they are not allowed to achieve their greatness through normal channels.

But as I say, the criminal class is beside the point: The Godfather stories aren’t about criminals: They are about great men who will not be squelched. They are about 1960s radicals. They are about Malcolm X. If you don’t want a war of all against all, then those in power and those who can influence those in power must establish a just society. That was a message for The Godfather‘s time, and for ours.

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
Malcolm X

Descending Mount Olympus

As on Objectivist I used to have this little problem: nothing was ever good enough. I could find something irrational or immoral in almost anything. Ayn Rand’s thought was for me a launching pad for negativism. My mother summed it up in a perfect bon mot when she said I followed the philosophy of “Objectionism.”

Objectionism is not Objectivism, of course. But Rand did sometimes see the dark side of things too much, and that influenced me in my youth and ignorance. Still, I take responsibility for not more aggressively seeking out good things.

My problem has manifested itself in many areas of life, but one especially troubling area has been literature. Before I encountered Ayn Rand, I used to love to read fiction. It was mostly science fiction (this was in my teens) but some other stuff too. After I became a serious Objectivist when I was 21 or 22, my fiction reading dropped off dramatically. This was especially troubling because I married a writer. I almost couldn’t read her work.

The problem had a twofold cause: 1. Nothing could compare to the heroes and themes of Rand’s novels. 2. Rand had convinced me that the prevailing culture was wicked, except for a few exceptions, most of which I would not touch with gloves on (such as Mickey Spillane). As a result I felt the world, and literature, to be gray and shallow and full of irrelevant chattering. It took me many years to challenge and defeat the twin sources of my difficulty.

It’s not that I didn’t read anything. When I was in my thirties I thought of writing a book about The Fountainhead, so I did some research by reading several of Victor Hugo’s novels and a couple of Dostoyevsky’s. I liked them; I didn’t love them. Otherwise, for the most part, the 1980s were a long literary dry spell for me.

Two novels my wife and I read in the 1990s made a big difference, although they weren’t quite enough to break the logjam. The first was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. In it a group of college students engages in an ancient ritual, which leads them to murder one of their own. After stories like The da Vinci Code, this sounds like a cliché, but it was a fresh idea when Tartt came up with it. More importantly Tartt used this set-up to talk about two things a lot deeper than ritual: the issue of reason versus passion and the operation of cosmic justice. I would describe The Secret History as “American Dostoyevsky”

Somewhat later my wife stumbled across a novel we both came to love very much, David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident. This is my favorite novel after The Fountainhead (and yes, before Atlas Shrugged, which I think is overrated as literature by its fans). I have tried to encourage Objectivists to read it, with no luck, even though the nature of reason is one of its primary themes. Maybe the reason why Objectivists are not drawn to this novel is that it is about black people. Not that most Objectivists are racist, but perhaps the culture and problems of black people seem to be too specific to be of universal philosophical significance. Rand always seemed to imply that slavery and by extension Jim Crow, were non-essential in America, when of course, they were actually near the heart of American identity.

But I am getting sidetracked. Although The Chaneysville Incident gave me hope, I didn’t find much else like it. However, it did help get me reading again. I picked up a little science fiction again (Octavia Butler mostly), but sci-fi, mysteries and the like do not nourish me, and I resumed my steady diet of non-fiction.

Then I found a novel, which, though I didn’t know it then, started something good for me: Louis Auchincloss’ The Rector of Justin. In his many novels and short stories, Auchincloss chronicled the upper-class Protestant set in New York and Boston. This did not bode well, since I have no interest in novels about class (which is why most British literature leaves me cold). But this one worked for me.

The Rector of Justin follows an idealistic headmaster of an Episcopalian boys school from 1875 to 1946, giving us an interesting slice of American cultural history. But it is the central figure, Frank Prescott, who fascinates. He has the intellect, wit, energy, ambition and idealism of an Ayn Rand hero, although many of his principles are wrong, since he is a Christian and a minister. He doesn’t build the world’s tallest building or anything like that, but he does found and build up a successful school, one which he hopes will lift the American character. The true meaning of this man’s life, and whether he should be counted a success or a failure, are the fascinating foci of the story.

Judge Learned Hand, the model for Frank Prescott’s appearance

Frank Prescott was kind of a bridge between Rand’s heroes and the protagonists of more typical novels. It’s not that Prescott helped me diminish my expectations or anything like that. It’s that he helped me see how an interesting, even exceptional character did not have to be a god. And further, Prescott helped me relate character to events, trends and ideas in the real world. It matters to his character that Prescott’s father died in the Civil War. Howard Roark’s father might have fought in the Spanish-American War, but it doesn’t make any difference.

It took awhile before the effect really took hold, but eventually, my literary muscles started to unclench. I decided to find interesting novels about interesting people. They didn’t even have to be about heroes, per se. But they did have to have remarkable people or situations or psycho-epistemology. Furthermore, they had to have a plot and some kind of theme that I found worthwhile. This makes it sound as if I’m casting my net more widely than I really am. I do usually demand some fairly serious intellectual content in a novel and a rational universe and characters who think. (The intellectual content can be completely between the lines and does not entail characters giving speeches or the author lecturing.) I’ve read more novels in the past two years than I had in the previous two decades.

I think a lot of my problem was that I believed, with Rand, that the highest function of literature – almost its only worthwhile function – was to present a moral ideal. Even Dostoyevski’s stories could be seen as sort of a negative ideal – what man could be and shouldn’t be. Although giving the reader the experience of a hero is important, taking it to Rand’s extreme is a very limiting view of literature.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Rand: maybe this view is Objectionism, not Objectivism. Still, sometimes it seems as if Rand saw no middle ground between worshipping heroes and trolling the sewers. Where Objectionism leads me to see things in black or white, I now tend to see – not shades of gray – but a spectrum of color.

Take a wonderful novel I just finished: Ward Just’s A Dangerous Friend. The story is about the early days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. We follow a junior manager at a non-government organization (NGO) based in Saigon devoted to “nation building” (and collecting a little intelligence on the side). The manager tries to get a French colonial rubber plantation owner to yield some information, but the Frenchman has been unmolested by the Viet Cong and wishes to remain neutral. The story builds to a painful climax from there.

There is no hero in this story. There are several sympathetic characters, but no one I would in any way put up on a pedestal. There’s not even a character whose point of view is supposed to be comprehensively right, except maybe the unnamed narrator. (The junior manager does become wiser by the story’s end, however.) The head of the NGO and the Army end up looking pretty bad. The point of the story is to show the kind of thinking that led the Americans to defeat in Vietnam. The real “dangerous friend” is the United States. It is fascinating and illuminating. Some of the characters are close to exquisite. (For more about the “exquisite character,” see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

But A Dangerous Friend does not exist to show things as they could be and ought to be. It helps us understand ourselves (us Americans) as we were and are. It is especially relevant give our recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it has a good plot. (And no, it’s not naturalism – characters make free and meaningful decisions.)

Three or four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to get through this small gem of a novel. I would have found it “dreary and depressing,” I would have lamented the lack of a focal hero to admire. And so I would have missed out.

Reading Ayn Rand, especially The Fountainhead, was a peak experience for me. But it was a peak I stranded myself on, with very little air to breathe. It took me decades to descend that peak – I still have a ways to go. But now I’m finding more and more good things and I’m ready to rejoin the human race. I finally feel I’m reading up to my potential, and I’m happy.

Have you had an adventure in reading you’d like to share? Leave a comment about how you’ve grown as a reader and what you’d like to see more of.