The Perfecting of Howard Roark

Publicity still from The Fountainhead (1949)

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

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

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

I. Innocent at 22

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Roark’s and Rand’s Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

III. The Growth of the Middle Years

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

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

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

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

Gary Cooper as Roark at the quarry

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

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

IV. The Sagacious Roark

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

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

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

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

Image from

V. Howard Roark, The Realized Ideal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Defects of His Virtues, The Virtues of His Defects

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

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

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler

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

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

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

James Mason as Brutus
James Mason as Brutus

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

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real Oskar Schindler

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

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

The Nun of Amherst

You wouldn’t think much of a movie could be made about someone like Emily Dickinson, who ended up as more-or-less an agoraphobe, but her inner life as it manifested itself in her connections with her family and friends propels the narrative along. The plot of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion concerns a fiercely independent woman’s quest for moral perfection and happiness in an imperfect world.


The movie portrays nineteenth-century New England claustrophobia in agonizing detail: Emily, brilliantly played by Cynthia Nixon, has a few extremely close, possibly too close, relationships with her family, friends and minister, mostly without physical affection. Every time she loses someone to death, relocation or marriage, a little chunk is pulled from her heart. Eventually she retreats to her house and won’t even see visitors, requiring that they stay at the bottom of the stairs while she talks to them from the doorway of her room.

The pace and dialogue are very stylized. They are not “naturalistic” in the way we expect movies to be today. Characters speak as if they’re writing, very formally and with paradoxical wit, something like Oscar Wilde, but without the froth. Some would find the pace boring, but Stef and I got into it after a few minutes. The photography was very good.

One thing that struck me was the use of music. There was of course no recorded music in the middle of the nineteenth century, so music was a glimpse of heaven. Characters were beguiled by it. The soundtrack was largely mute, but there was one sequence in which Dickinson is having some sort of ecstatic vision that is accompanied by an angelic voice that shades into a clarinet solo.

There were a lot of voiceover readings of Dickinson’s poems, all of which fitted the context of the story.

I very much do not recommend this film to everyone, but if you’re deeply curious about the inner life of a sensitive person of a certain time and place, this movie might be for you. Trailer for A Quiet Passion

Thus speaks a spirit not broken.

Interview with Anti-Death Penalty Activist Richard D. Kimble, MD

Today we are interviewing Dr. Richard Kimble. Dr. Kimble is famous as an anti-death penalty activist. His passionate opposition to capital punishment came as a result of his own experience of having been wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife in 1961 and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Dr. Kimble was spared by a train wreck that freed him en route to death row and was exonerated in 1967 after four years as a fugitive. But what has happened in his life in the 50 years since then? Dr. Kimble speaks to us at his home in Stafford, Indiana.

BWYA: Dr. Kimble, thank you for talking to us today.
RK: You’re quite welcome.
BWYA: I understand that congratulations are in order for your 90th birthday.
RK: Yes. I never thought I would make it this far.
Richard Kimble today
BWYA: If it’s not too painful, I’d like for you to recount the events in the 1960s that made you famous.
RK: Or infamous, at least for a time.
BWYA: Your ordeal began in 1961 with the murder of your wife, Helen.
RK: Actually, my “ordeal” as you call it, began about a year earlier. Helen’s pregnancy had come to term and it became obvious that she was going to need a C-section. When the procedure was performed it was found that the baby had died. When the surgeon tried to deliver the baby, he found it necessary to perform an emergency hysterectomy.
BWYA: But she recovered her health.
RK: Yes, physically. But she had terrible post-partum depression and suffered from enormous grief. I still very much wanted children, so I suggested adoption. The mere mention of the subject made Helen agitated. She thought that adopting a baby would be living a lie because the child would not be hers. She could not accept anything that seemed like a substitute for what she had lost. She took to drinking. I foolishly pressed the issue.
BWYA: Children meant a lot to you. Before you retired, you were a pediatrician, yes?
RK: That’s right. I have always loved kids and I thought children would make our marriage better. Unfortunately, perhaps in my own grief, I developed tunnel vision on the subject. We argued. A lot. She would become intoxicated to the point of falling down. A couple of times she bruised her face. The neighbors saw the bruises and heard the arguments and this laid the groundwork for the theory that I had been beating her.
BWYA: But you never did become violent with her, is that correct?
RK: Only one time. On the night she died she was drinking again and I grabbed a glass out of her hand. Needless to say, this led to a very tense moment. I was angry and walked out of the house. That was the last time I saw her alive.
BWYA: And what happened after you walked out?
RK: I drove out to the river to cool off. It was dark when I drove back. About a block from home I almost hit a man running from the direction of our house. He had one arm and the face of an animal. He was caught in the headlights for a few seconds, and then he ran away.
BWYA: I know this is painful, but what did you find at home?
RK: The front door was open and Helen was lying on the floor with the back of her skull cracked open. There was a lamp on the floor next to her that had obviously been used to beat her over the head. I tried to resuscitate her and after being unable to, called the police.
BWYA: How did the police respond?
RK: I think they believed me at first. They wanted to believe me. I was an upstanding member of the community, a children’s doctor. In those naïve times it was hard to believe that such a person would savagely kill his wife.
BWYA: And that’s when you met Lieutenant Philip Gerard?
RK: Yes. Strangely, we had never met before. Stafford was just large enough that you didn’t know everybody. And I had little occasion to rub shoulders with the police.
BWYA: What did Gerard do?
RK: He and his men took statements and then he started looking for the one-armed man.
BWYA: But he didn’t find the one-armed man.
RK: Oh, no, he found over 80 one-armed men, but they all had alibis or were missing the wrong arm or something else that ruled them out as suspects. He was quite thorough. After ten days they arrested me.
BWYA: And charged you with murder. Why not manslaughter? That would have been more in line with killing someone in anger, and it wouldn’t have carried the death penalty.
RK: The prosecutor was out for blood. Remember this was just a few years after the similar Sam Sheppard murder case in neighboring Ohio. His wife was beaten to death and he saw a “bushy-haired” man running from the scene of the crime. He was found guilty. Many people were outraged that he had gotten off too lightly by being sentenced to life in prison instead of death, so the state of Indiana took it out on me. The prosecution sold the jury this crazy theory that I had intended to kill Helen and make it look like a burglary.
BWYA: But what would have been the motive? After all, if you wanted to trade her in for a woman who could have children, you could have just divorced her.
RK: Well, getting a divorce in those days was not so easy, and according to the prosecutor’s theory I didn’t want to look like a heel for running out on my bereaved wife. Besides, Helen’s family had money, which I supposedly wanted to get my hands on. All that plus the bruises and the arguments was just enough to secure a conviction. The judge was up for reelection and didn’t want to appear soft on a wife-killer, so he sentenced me to death.
BWYA: But you appealed.
RK: Yes, I sat in prison through 18 months of appeals. The problem was that it had all been done legally. That’s one of the problems with the death penalty. Even when the system goes the way it’s supposed to, it can still kill an innocent man. Eventually, I ran out of appeals and was being transferred to a prison that had the electric chair when the train derailed.
BWYA: That’s something I was wondering about. Why were you being transported on a train handcuffed to a cop, instead of being transported on a secure Department of Corrections bus?
RK: That was luck. The bus had broken down. Gerard didn’t want to wait for it t be repaired, so he transported me himself.
BWYA: A detective lieutenant doing a prisoner transfer? Isn’t that a rather lowly task for him?
RK: Yes, this was an early sign of his neurosis about me. Gerard believed in the sanctity of the law with all his heart. For him our legal system was as just and impersonal as a monument. Yet he always harbored a little doubt about me. So he overcompensated by obsessing about me. He wanted to get me into the electric chair himself so he could relieve the tension.
BWYA: And then the train derailed.
RK: Yes, that was luck, too. I found myself lying on the ground with a handcuff on my wrist and no Gerard.
BWYA: But that seems impossible. Gerard’s hand would have come off before the handcuffs would have broken open.
RK: Yes, that’s a mystery. Maybe Gerard didn’t snap the handcuffs securely on his own wrist. Maybe, and here I am speculating, he actually unlocked himself from me in a half-conscious state because he felt I was innocent. At any rate, I was freed from him and I began to run.
BWYA: How did you survive?
RK: At first I stole things: a file for the handcuffs, clothes, food, hair dye. I stole rides on freights trains and trucks. When I got far enough away I changed my appearance and began taking odd jobs. I still stole things occasionally. I felt bad about it, but I was desperate, and I never took anything from someone who appeared to be poor. Maybe that’s a rationalization for being a thief, but I wasn’t going to freeze to death because my morals kept me from taking a jacket. After I was exonerated and built my practice back up to the point where I could afford to, I tried to track down everybody I had stolen from and repay them. Most of them refused to take my money.
BWYA: You’ve mentioned luck a few times. Have your experiences made you believe in the operation of fate?
RK: Not in the operation of some sort of divine plan, but in some kind of ironic chance. Why did Helen and I have an argument that particular night she was murdered? If we hadn’t, we would have gone out to dinner and not been there when the one-armed man broke in. Why did the transport bus break down? Why did the handcuff come off of Gerard’s wrist?
BWYA: It must have almost seemed like predestination. Like you were being sent on a journey of suffering.
RK: Let’s not get religious about this. I don’t think there’s any purpose in suffering. That’s why I became a doctor: to alleviate needless suffering. My suffering was not part of any divine plan.
BWYA: You saw a lot of America in your years on the run.
RK: I saw a great deal of America in those years, some of it was not very pretty.
BWYA: Why did you stay in the U.S.? Why didn’t you take work on a freighter and go to Brazil, where you could make a new life where they couldn’t extradite you?
RK: Because I didn’t want a new life. I wanted to be Richard Kimble again, be with my family, work in my profession. For that I needed to find the one-armed man. I wasn’t sure what to do with him when I found him. I wasn’t even sure he had murdered Helen, but I knew he was the key.
BWYA: It was a miracle you weren’t captured in all that those years. Fate again?
RK: It wasn’t fate. It was that Wanted poster. The pictures didn’t look anything like me. (Laughs a little.) It was the hair. Prematurely gray and that awful brush-cut – a little dye and a more natural style and I looked like a new man. That poster probably saved my life. And by the way, I was captured several times. But events always conspired in my favor. Perhaps you’re right about fate. But no, usually I was freed because of the kindness of strangers. That’s not fate, that’s free will. People aren’t naturally good – I came to know that in my travels. They have to choose to be good. Fortunately for me and for the world, most do make that choice.
Richard Kimble's Wanted poster
BWYA: All the while you were being chased by Lt. Gerard.
RK: Yes, Gerard was obsessed with my capture. He traveled from place to place trying to run me down. He even spent his own money to do so when the police department wanted him to give up and leave the matter to the feds, who were normally in charge of tracking down interstate fugitives.
BWYA: Do you have any idea about the source of his obsession?
RK: I think so. I got to know Gerard pretty well over the years. He regarded society as being based on the absolutism of the law. He did not see himself as personally responsible for bringing me to my death. Others found me guilty. Others sentenced me to die. His job was to execute the law, that is, to help execute me. What drove him crazy was the uncertainty. He knew at some level that there was a very large reasonable doubt in my case. He couldn’t admit that doubt, because to do so would be to admit the law was imperfect. Eventually, he tried to achieve a psychological compromise between my proven guilt and seeming innocence. According to his fantasy, I in my lonely desperation had come to believe my own story and had latched on to some random one-armed drifter to support my delusion. He thought I believed myself to be innocent. Of course, this was all some kind of projection on his part. In reality, it was he who believed I was innocent.
BWYA: So his anxiety fueled his relentlessness toward you.
RK: Yes, but at the same time – and here’s the really fascinating thing – he never stopped looking for the one-armed man. He would have said that it was his job to keep looking but really it was his doubt that drove him. He had nightmares that after I was executed, he would find him. He was running as much as I was.
BWYA: Eventually, after four years on the run, you were exonerated.
RK: That was due to Gerard. He got a lead on the one-armed man, whose real name we never did learn, but who we called Fred Johnson. He followed up on that lead trying to lay a trap for me, but when he came face-to-face with Johnson, he saw the truth. It’s lucky for him that he didn’t have a stroke. I heard later that he almost strangled Johnson.
BWYA: And you fell into the trap.
RK: Well, I had no choice. I didn’t want to keep running just for the sake of running. I wanted to catch up with Johnson and try to get my life back. As things developed, somebody bailed Johnson out and Gerard caught me.
BWYA: And he took you back to Indiana. Without cuffs this time.
RK: Yes, I had no motive to run. It looked as if the person who bailed Johnson out was from my hometown. It looked like Johnson was heading that way. Going there was maybe going to get me answers. Gerard promised to keep my arrest out of the papers in exchange for my waiving extradition and I gave him my word I wouldn’t try to escape.
BWYA: Even though you might be speeding to your own death.
RK: I had no more reason to run. I had no life left. I was about to give up anyway.
BWYA: But you eventually found your answers.
RK: Yes, what we found out was that a friend of mine – a so-called friend – was in the house the night Helen was killed and watched while Johnson murdered her.
BWYA: Why would he just stand by?
RK: He was scared. He ran away, afraid for his reputation. He didn’t think the police would blame me. By the time I was charged he felt it was too late to come forward.
BWYA: But in the end he did testify on your behalf.
RK: Yes he did, and he had made a very credible witness because he was ruining his own life by speaking up. And so I was exonerated.
BWYA: But the one-armed man was never charged.
RK: No, Gerard shot and killed him when he was about to shoot me. What an irony: While taking me to my execution, Gerard saved my life.
BWYA: That was fifty years ago. By most people’s lights, that should have been the end of your story. You were a free man. You and Gerard were reconciled, at least to the extent that was possible, and you walked off into the sunset with your soon-to-be new wife. You should have disappeared back into small-town obscurity.
RK: God knows I tried. My picture had been on the front pages of too many newspapers. I just wanted a normal life.
BWYA: And for a while you had one – before you became famous again.
RK: Not exactly a normal life, no. I had terrible problems after my exoneration. I had post-traumatic stress disorder and I had been concussed several times and I had been shot a few times in the leg. I was in the approximate condition of a soldier returning from battle. I had nightmares for years, and I abused alcohol. The worst of it was the guilt. If Helen and I had not argued, if I had not walked out on her, she would not have been killed. I had real trouble forgiving myself for that. Fortunately, my second wife, Jean, was very supportive and my practice provided scaffolding on which to build again.
BWYA: You had some trouble reestablishing your practice, though.
RK: Yes, the “friend” who testified on my behalf died a couple of months later of an aggressive cancer. Some of the neighbors began to whisper that he had testified in order to save me because he had nothing to lose in helping his friend. This was ridiculous. He did not know he was going to die when he testified, but he did know he would be branded a coward for not having come forward at the time of the murder. But because of the whispers, many people wouldn’t bring their boys and girls to see me; they still thought I had killed Helen.
BWYA: Ironically, it was Gerard who saved your career.
RK: Yes. His son developed childhood arthritis, and he brought him to me for treatment. Always brought him himself, didn’t let his mother bring him. He got the other officers to bring their kids to me too, and soon the tide of public opinion turned and I had my practice back.
BWYA: So you had your profession back. A new wife. Your PTSD was manageable. But no children.
RK: No. I didn’t think I could be a good father until I had straightened myself out. And I was 40 when I was exonerated. A little old to be starting a family. I didn’t know I was going to live into my 90s. [laughs] Jean wanted kids, but she understood. Eventually, she became a nurse at my practice and we had kids vicariously through my patients.
BWYA: But you did have children of your own eventually.
RK: Yes. After the end of the Vietnam War, there were, as you may remember, a lot of refugees from the communists. Boat People, they were called. A number were orphaned children. Jean and I adopted one. And then another. Until we eventually had four. They had been through something a little like what I had been through, losing loved ones to violence and having to run away, so we had a bond. Three of them grew up to be physicians and the fourth is an activist on behalf of refugee children.
BWYA: So you did get your normal life after all. But you didn’t stay obscure.
RK: No. The death penalty had been struck down for a few years because the Supreme Court found that it had been unfairly applied. Big surprise. But it was reinstated in 1976, and I became increasingly concerned about innocent men being put to death.
BWYA: You didn’t oppose capital punishment on moral grounds though.
RK: No. I thought and still think that depraved murderers ought, in a state of perfect knowledge, to be executed. I didn’t lose any sleep when Ted Bundy died. But justice miscarries so often in the U.S. that I believe that the only way to keep form killing innocent men is to not kill anybody. And that would include Ted Bundy. The slope is just too damn slippery, the temptation too strong. About 150 convicted murderers have been exonerated since capital punishment was reinstated. God knows how many others who were executed might have been exonerated.
BWYA: So in the late 70s you became an activist.
RK: Yes, I was a kind of poster child against the death penalty. It was easy for many people to ignore poor black men or trashy white men being put to death. But here I was, white, educated, a doctor. If I could be wrongly sentenced to die, no one was safe. I started appearing on platforms and participating in panel discussions. I became well known again and appeared on many news programs. It was ironic, because I really had sought obscurity.
BWYA: Surprisingly, you were joined by an old acquaintance.
RK: Yes, Philip Gerard joined me on more than a few stages. He became an expert on how bringing the death penalty into a case actually makes it less likely that the accused will get a fair trial, not more, as you would expect.
BWYA: Did you become friends?
RK: No, that was not possible, given all we had been through. But we did achieve a degree of cordiality. I had saved his life once and he had saved mine in effect twice, so we couldn’t hate each other. He was an interesting man and had done a lot of introspection about our relationship. I think it changed him and he became more nuanced about his principles. Once we were on a panel discussion and a fanatical woman in the audience asked him “Don’t you think it’s enough that murderers get years of appeals?” And Gerard replied, “I thought that once, but experience” – here he looked at me – “has caused me to change my mind.”
BWYA: Did you see him much after that?
RK: Only one time. He asked for me on his deathbed. I was hesitant, but I could not refuse. He took my hand and said, “For a long time, I thought I was going to watch you die. I’m glad it’s the other way around.”
BWYA: It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that American lives don’t have third acts, but yours has had a third, with your children, and a fourth, with your activism. Are you happy with how it all turned out?
RK: Yes, but I still have nightmares occasionally.
BWYA: Do you think your experience as a fugitive has in some way made you a better person?
RK: I’d like to think I was a good person before, but I could be insensitive and selfish, as I was when I pressured Helen to adopt, and I was a bit too concerned with superficial things such as golf. A lot of the impurities, if you want to call them that, were burned out of me by my time as a fugitive. I saw many bad people and many good ones along the way. That filled me with a sense of wonder, I supposed you’d call it. I learned a lot about empathy and finding quick connection with people, which has helped me as a physician and an activist. And with my activism, I found a calling beyond my profession, so I suppose all in all I am a better person. But I still refuse to call it fate. In the end I’m just a small-town pediatrician who got unlucky and then got lucky again.

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.

The Underbook

I am going to re-direct my blog to a large degree. I will still publish occasional book and movie reviews and thought pieces, but now I will add evidence for and commentary on my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life. I wanted the book to stay a reasonable length (it’s 260 pages), so there are lots of examples I did not use.

When William Safire wrote his novel about the Civil War, Freedom, he provided extensive documentation in aftermatter he called the underbook. That is what I am going to provide now.

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The Plot Against America

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Who knew that Philip Roth, best known for his obsession with sex in novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and The Breast, also wrote an alternate history–and a very good one at that? The point at which Roth’s novel deviates from real-world history is 1940. Germany is at war with the rest of Europe, but America retains its isolationist stance. FDR clearly wants to join the fight and institutes measures which technically void our status as neutrals, but forces at home like the organizations America First and the German-American Bund oppose any involvement.

The deviation occurs when Charles A. Lindbergh, dashing hero pilot, isolationist and anti-Semite marches into the Republican National Convention and captures the nomination for president. Running on a platform of “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War,” Lindbergh sweeps FDR from the White House.

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After taking office Lindbergh reaches an “understanding” with Hitler and the Japanese and, true to his word, keeps us out of the war. But President Lindbergh has a domestic agenda as well. He wants to “integrate” American Jews into broader American society by sending their boys to work on farms and having businesses (under pressure) relocate employees from Jewish enclaves out to the hinterlands. How far will this policy go? You’ll have to read the book, but I will say that things eventually get pretty ugly.

Now this is an interesting story in itself. A good what-if yarn. But the way in which Roth chooses to tell it is fascinating. He uses his own family, with himself as a nine-year-old boy narrating, as the focal characters. We don’t follow Charles Lindbergh around; we just see him in the newsreels. Instead we follow little Philip Roth around, as grown-up Roth imagines an alternate history for himself and his kin.

First, let me say that Roth is brilliant at showing the naive and sometimes strange perceptions and fears of a little boy. At one point little Philip contemplates running away to Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town, a thousand miles away. This is some of the best treatment of the world through a child’s eyes I’ve seen since To Kill a Mockingbird.

But the real interest is not just little Philip but his family, including uncles, an aunt and a cousin–and beyond them the wider Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey. How do they respond to the threat of a quasi-fascist president? Do they collaborate, rebel, stand their ground, go down in flames or what? What interests Roth is not so much the affairs of the mighty but the question of what will Roth’s father, an insurance salesman with an eighth-grade education, do when ordered to move to Kentucky and leave behind everything he knows and loves? Roth the author is in the singularly fortunate position of being able to portray his father as a hero.

But not everyone in the Roths’s community is a hero. There is a local rabbi who acts as a Judas goat for Lindbergh, helping give the aviator credibility as a non-anti-Semite. And there is Philip’s cousin, who refuses to wait for America to enter the war and goes off to Canada to join up. His is not a happy trajectory.

One fascinating character is the gossip-columnist-turned-commentator Walter Winchell. Winchell is basically a loudmouth with a lot of listeners, like somebody on Fox News, but he is Jewish and he publicly and vehemently denounces Lindbergh. We only see him from afar, but what happens to him is at the heart of the story.

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Are there any themes here? Well, clearly the main one is: How the pressure of external events reveals character. Clearly some people in the story have a higher moral standing than others. The larger political story throws that into high relief.

Another major theme is the role of violence in social life, how some people struggle to live without violence and how in others violence burns just beneath the surface.

Still another theme is the greatness of the American system. The Jews in Roth’s environment are not Old Country sorts of people: They affirmatively define themselves as Americans. They believe in America. Can the American system right itself after almost capsizing? Well, you’ll have to read the book to see just whether that happens. I did find the ending a little bit unsatisfying, but it was in line with Roth’s themes.

I respect this novel, because, without descending into a naturalistic obsession with “humble” folk, it deals with “ordinary” people under stress and shows their true mettle. For me this is part of “Descending Mount Olympus” wherein I find my way to literature that doesn’t deal with the world’s greatest architect, but with people (some of) whom have an interesting kind of greatness anyway.

So that’s two novels now by an author I thought I would never like. I wrote about the other one here: “Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk”. Now I’ve got a third one on order. Will this be as far as I can go with Philip Roth? Time will tell.

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The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with writing Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I don’t think it’s nice to label people. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment almost exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it.

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I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are or are not Pretending a false self and sense of life. I didn’t want to rely too heavily on fictional examples because I wanted to make a point about the state of actual Americans. But I’ll share some of them here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about them in real life. Examples: Humphrey Bogart, Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Al Pacino, etc. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil. My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Perhaps the best example of a Pretender character of either sex isn’t American but Scottish: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Watch that movie and you will get the concept.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post Star Wars.

Sometimes you get a Pretender/non-Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearingen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In both cases the Pretender is smarter than the non-Pretender and is either morally ambiguous (as in the case of Doc Holliday) or downright evil (as in the case of Al Swearingen). In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

I don’t mean to say that Pretenderism is a smart person’s disorder. Plenty of dumb characters don their macho or torchy airs. John Wayne’s swaggering characters aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re certainly not intellectual either. But many of them are Pretenders.

John Wayne in Brothers

John Wayne in Brothers

Many characters are Pretenders by default, because nobody could authentically be like that. I am not sure their creators are aware of the Pretender concept. But other artists are aware of it, even though they haven’t worked it out as explicitly as I have. I believe Mark Twain knew that Tom Sawyer in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a Pretender, and I believe that Harper Lee knew that Scout, Jem and Dill were proto-Pretenders in To Kill a Mockingbird.

How about farther back in literary history? Julius Caesar, in Shakespeare’s play, seems to have been a Pretender, talking about himself in the third person and posturing. I think Shakespeare at some level understood the concept. Hamlet, although he pretends to be mad, is not a Pretender, because his act is self-conscious.

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Sometimes I joke with my wife that I see a Pretender under every bed, like Joe McCarthy and the communists. But joking aside, Pretenders are quite common in literature and in real life. You just have to learn how to spot them. And there’s a very good chance you’ve done some Pretending yourself, especially when you were younger, even if that is not your ultimate character type.

The Deception Game

Alan Turing and his friend Christopher are sitting under a tree at boarding school. Alan asks Christopher what he is reading, and Christopher says it’s a book about codes. Alan says, “You mean, like secret messages?” Christopher replies, No, a code is something everyone can hear but no one understands, and Alan replies, Isn’t that just talking? Everyone says something but means something else.

There in a nutshell is the character of Alan Turing The Imitation Game, the new film about the life of the British mathematician and codebreaker. I assume the reader is familiar with the basic story of Turing’s life, and so I will not withhold spoilers.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Everything in Turing’s life (as it is shown in this film) involves deception: He exchanges love notes with Christopher–but they have to be in code. He endeavors to break the German Enigma code, which is a deception. He has to hide the fact that he is a homosexual. He is required to lie about his work during the war and cannot take any credit for saving thousands or millions of lives and shortening the war.

The irony of Turing’s having to lie is that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (although it was not identified as such in Turing’s time) and is not a natural liar. He doesn’t even get jokes, he’s so literal-minded. There’s a hilarious scene where he’s pressed into service as a wing man in a bar and people keep kicking him in the ankles when he almost spoils their lies.

So the open and honest Turing is forced to be deceptive. But can he keep it up? The framing story is how he gets caught out as a homosexual and sentenced to chemical castration for it. Here the movie drops the ball by having Turing tell the story of his wartime experience to a copper who suspects him of being a spy.

The truth is less melodramatic and more poignant. When asked about the burglary of his house that brought him to the police’s attention in the first place, the real Turing blithely told them that a friend of his boyfriend did it. Perhaps Turing got tired of telling lies or perhaps he was such an open man that he didn’t see why he should conceal the simple facts. Either way, Turing suffered terribly for his honesty, and in the end probably committed suicide.

This bungle aside, the movie does have a consistent theme, and that is that some people are too good for this world, a world where, due to the malice of nations, deception is a necessity. God bless Alan Turing.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk

Just a few days ago, November 12, would have been Coleman Silk’s 88th birthday, if Coleman Silk were a real person and still alive. But he was neither. He died on November 11, 1998, and he was the problematic hero of Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain. I am fascinated by Coleman, his story and its complex themes. (There was also a good film version of the novel made with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, which led me to the book.)

Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman from the film version of The Human Stain

Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman from the film version of The Human Stain

Coleman was a professor of classics at the imaginary Athena College in Western Massachusetts. For many years he was also the dean of faculty. During that time he cleared out the deadwood on the faculty, brought in fresh blood, made people compete for raises and perks and generally revitalized the college and the town it was located in. He was bold, purposeful, unafraid to make enemies and to all appearances a very rational man. When he retired as dean in his late sixties to spend the last years of his career teaching, he seemed to be a blessed man, with an audacious painter for a wife and four grown children.

This was in the 1990s when moral hysteria about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky dominated the headlines. Coleman ran afoul of a similar moral hysteria. When calling the roll for the fifth session of a class he noticed that there were two students who had never attended and whom he did not know. He asked the class, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”

Now, some of my readers may not be old enough to know that “spook” was once upon a time a derogatory slang word for black people, not as bad as the n-word, but still offensive. Unfortunately for Coleman the two MIA students were African American.

Apres that, le deluge: an endless procession of meetings, accusations, desertions by faculty who felt slighted by his meritocratic actions as dean. Coleman refused to back down or apologize. There was nothing to apologize for, in his mind. His wife, Iris, who had not shared his bed in years, shared in his cause. Just when the furor was perhaps about to calm down, Iris had a stroke and died the next day.

Coleman resigned from the faculty after the funeral and went a little mad. He gathers up the documents from the racism case and storms over to the house of his neighbor Nathan Zuckerman, whom he barely knows. Zuckerman is a novelist, the narrator of this novel and a stand-in for Philip Roth. Coleman wants Zuckerman to tell the story of his unjust treatment and the “murder” of his wife. Zuckerman politely declines, but the two older men become friends.

Coleman determines to write the book himself. One night he has Zuckerman over for their weekly game of gin rummy and forties music, and all the tension and madness is gone from Coleman. He has dropped the idea of writing the book. For the first time in their acquaintance, Coleman is happy. In a wonderful scene, he even gets Zuckerman to dance with him. What has changed? With the help of the new drug Viagra, Coleman has embarked on a love affair. Through his sexuality, Coleman’s life force, always formidable, has reasserted itself.

There is just one problem: He is 71 and a retired college professor and his lover is a 34-year-old cleaning lady and milk maid. She is the abused ex-wife of a crazy Vietnam vet (whom Roth humanizes rather than treating like a cliche) who blames her for the death of their two children. Apparently not a good match, yet it is. These are two people who have lost a lot and who find sanity in each other and redemption through sex. And their sex is not just animal coupling: They spend time together–but the sex is the core of it.

Soon the voices of moral hysteria are raised again. A Yale-educated French female deconstructionist from the college sends him an anonymous letter. His daughter won’t talk to him. And then there’s the crazy ex-husband.

There’s a lot more to this novel I don’t want to reveal: Coleman has a big secret. It is a huge twist near the middle that colors the whole story. I am going to have a little trouble saying what I love about this novel while talking around the twist, but here goes:

As far as I have been able to tease out, the novel has four interlocking themes. First, is individualism. Coleman is very much a self-made man. He refuses to be part of his own group’s “we” or to be part of anyone else’s pre-packaged “they.” This theme is realized in many ways, including in the way Coleman keeps his own counsel (to put it mildly) and the way in which he does what he thinks best no matter what anyone, including his family and colleagues think of it. A lot of the novel is told in flashbacks (reconstructed by Zuckerman) and Coleman’s career as an amateur boxer gives us great insight into this aspect of his character.

Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman Silk

Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman Silk

The second theme is the unpredictability of fate. Some people at some times just get crapped on, benevolent universe or not. This theme is most realized in Coleman’s mistress and her ex-husband, but also in Coleman’s encounter with the forces of Political Correctness and in a youthful love affair that just can’t work out. Zuckerman references Sophocles at this point. Unsaid in the air is the famous quote from Oedipus the King, “Count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.”

For a time I worried that this was Roth’s last word on Coleman and on the universe, but it is not. It’s more complicated than that. What saves Coleman from his madness and his mistress from her loneliness is that life force. That life force is the third theme. Roth seems to be a bit sex-obsessed (One of his novels is called The Breast.), but he seems to allow that Coleman’s ambition to be an individual is just as valid an aspect of the life force as sex. But what he doesn’t allow is the idea that just making speeches without taking action is a valid aspect of the life force.

And what Roth, and therefore Zuckerman and also Coleman object to is misguided notions of purity, the kind that generate moral hysteria. The fact that life, at least any life worth leading, is messy, is the fourth theme of the novel and the one which gives rise to the title. But far from being an objection to life, that messiness can save a life.

I am not completely won over by Roth’s integration of his themes, but their interplay is fascinating, as is Coleman’s character, especially with that twist. I think that someone who takes a principled stance on life would do well to consider the life of Coleman Silk.

There’s another level to the novel that is interesting to ponder, but which is only implicit. Zuckerman in the end does write about Coleman, but not just about the “spooks” incident and the death of his wife. He writes about Coleman as a boy and a man. But he does so with only minimal input from Coleman. The rest he gets from other sources and from his imagination. Zucherman is not an omniscient narrator but a reconstructor of a life. He fills in gaps based on his knowledge of Coleman’s character, but he often does not try to create dialogue or flesh out action. There is much more “telling” and much less “showing” than I would normally want from a novel, but it works for me because Roth is such a good storyteller.

Think about it: You’re an interesting person and there are a lot of interesting things about you including one or two big secrets. Now imagine you’re friends with a novelist who is so impressed with you that after you die he writes your life, without extensive help from stories you’ve told, a diary, letters, etc. How would that come out? Would it resemble you very much? It’s hard to believe that Zuckerman got all the details right–but what am I saying? There is no Coleman Silk apart form Zuckerman’s story, and there is no Zuckerman apart from Philip Roth. It is a testament to Roth’s talent that Coleman Silk (and the other characters in the novel to a lesser extent) seems like an actual person, exquisite in his reality.

So Happy Birthday, Professor Silk. And Thank You, Philip Roth.