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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The real Bessie Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes and Shipwrecks: Beethoven and Ayn Rand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View this amazing book’s interior on Amazon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A hero is one who wants to be himself.”

This quote from José Ortega y Gasset, at first blush, sounds plausible: heroes are good; wanting to be oneself is good. So just put them together.

This is bad logic, of course. But perhaps we can dig in and tease out some deeper meaning that is logically sound and worthwhile.

Before we get started, however, we need to dispense with a possible objection: Aren’t some bad people happy to be themselves? They aren’t heroes. I don’t think most bad people are happy to be themselves. Badness requires an evasion of one’s knowledge of what one believes to be good. People who evade reality do not want to be what they are.

However, we seem to be talking about bad people who have some kind of conscience (the thing that knows better). What about people who have no conscience, such as psychopaths? Well, I don’t think we should generalize from pathological cases. But at any rate, I would say that psychopaths don’t seem to enjoy being psychopaths much of the time. If what I’ve read is true, they are frequently filled with emptiness due to their inability to connect with others, and their frustration fuels their rage. They might not be psychologically able to conceive of being something other than what they are, but they clearly don’t want to be themselves in any affirmative sense.


From “When Your Child is a Psychopath” in The Atlantic.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the main discussion.

“Wanting to be oneself” seems to have two possible meanings here, but I think one is just the more superficial version of the other. The superficial version is what people mean when they say, “Just be yourself.” In other words, don’t put on anything to please others.

The deeper meaning is that one actively desires to be what one is. This entails not putting anything on to please others, but more fundamentally, not putting anything on to please oneself. I would venture to guess that the latter is as common as the former.

Many people want to be something other than what they are. They are trying to escape themselves, or at least, escape looking hard at themselves. Think of people who are “trying to be” something. I know a woman, a good woman, who is frequently “trying to be” black. She swaggers and uses foul language and says things like “Once you go black, you never go back.” (I am white and have a black wife and my acquaintance once said this to me. I told her it was insulting.) She says she throws around the n-word at home with her spouse (but not at work).

Of course, she has a stereotyped and degraded idea of blackness, but the point is that she is not really black in this way at all. No one is. She is adopting a pseudo-self based on a sense of life. She does this unconsciously; she probably thinks this black self is her real self, or at least an important aspect of her real self. (In my book, I call this “Pretending.”) There are myriad examples of this phenomenon we could muster: Wanting to be cool, wanting to be a macho man, etc. etc. Obviously, if you want to be someone else, you don’t want to be yourself.

(Perhaps I sound a bit clinical discussing such people, but let me assure the reader that I am genuinely saddened by their actions and do not regard them as a moral failing, at least not most of the time.)

Other people, and I suspect this is the larger group, don’t want to be much of anything. They simply take everything for granted. Things are just “the way they are.” Such people accept their social roles without reflection. A lot of people who see themselves primarily as “Mom” or “Dad” are like this (I’m not trying to knock parenthood by saying this. It’s all a matter of how you define yourself.) An appalling number of people take things in life for granted. For example, why is there marriage? What does it imply? Should we go about it the way others go about it? These questions never occur to many people.

(As an aside, the same lack of questioning extends to other subjects, too. For example, many people never think about the reason for and nature of government. They just take society as a big family (family is a thing that is frequently taken for granted) and they just want to focus society’s power and resources piecemeal on their “commonsense” goals. [Commonsense includes a large element of taking things for granted alongside the more beneficial element of practicing logic in a non-theoretical way.] This mode of thinking was given intellectual support in the philosophy of pragmatism.)

Unfortunately, many of these people take themselves for granted as much as they do everything else. They cannot be said to want to be themselves, except maybe in the sense of being comfortable with their social role. The deeper issue never arises for them.

But even among people who don’t take themselves for granted, wanting to be oneself is a difficult proposition. I’m no psychologist, but I would hypothesize that many people try to be something they are not, because they think being what they really are would mean extinction. This fear can have many causes. Perhaps most commonly, or at least most tragically, this fear arises from the experience of not being loved or even given what one need to survive by one’s parents or other caregivers. Someone in this situation may have to choose between life and being oneself, and most children are naturally going to choose life. Such people may eventually become heroes in Ortega y Gasset’s sense, but unless and until they do, their heroism consists of surviving.

But even when the issue does not center in so direct a manner on one’s relationship with one’s caregivers, many people seem to fear that facing themselves as they are would mean extinction—in the form of meaninglessness (which is often experienced as chronic boredom). This is a big problem in modern capitalist society, which is very good at producing things and at offering meaning to people who like to produce things, but not always so good at motivating less creative people who are now freed from the problem of immediate survival. Such people often turn to distractions and disguises to avoid the banality of their own lives, and we get cool and vampire chic and head banging and hip hop style—or just obsessive identification with one’s local sports team. All of this is a way of avoiding meaninglessness.

So how should one overcome not wanting to be oneself? My answer is by being calm at the core. When I say “calm” I mean “present” and “non-reactive.” I don’t mean “passive” or low-energy, and I don’t mean living in the moment. Being oneself means owning the present, the past, and the future as an integrated person.

When I say that a hero is one who wants to be himself, I do not mean that one should try to become a hero or even to try to become one’s ideal, at least in the sense of a direct grab. That is Pretending. What I mean is that one should strip away all the falsehoods and distractions until one unburies the presence within. And perhaps that presence is nothing more than a spark, but it is there. Expose the spark, be the spark, let go of everything else.

At this point we reach a paradox: What happens next is simultaneously a making-something-happen and a letting-something-happen. You maintain your spark and then you let the world show you things. You choose let your self suffuse your mind, your body, and your world, and you let them pull you in. Your spark becomes a flame.

Speaking of my own case, I look at life as a process of exploration and reclamation. At times in my life I have stood in my despair as on a tiny island. The world looked like a desolate gray ocean and I felt like a castaway. People seemed like zombies. Culture seemed obsessed with idiocy and idiosyncrasy. But my island, no matter how small it was, was mine. I knew I wanted more. I left myself open to new things. Sometimes I would browse almost at random. I would find a new thing, and my island became larger. I pushed back the sea. I would jump off in new directions, and my island would become an archipelago—disconnected, but related. Liberated, I added more territory, and my archipelago would become a small continent.

All of this was guided by the tiny flame within me, the belief that there was beauty and fascination and logic out there in the world, if only I tried hard enough to find it. I believed it because I saw those things in myself. I saw light over the edge of the pit I was in and I crawled toward it. The self I wanted to be was Life.

I went through this process most notably with discovering literature, which when I was in my early twenties seemed like a vast wasteland. (I wrote an essay about my journey here.) I’ve gone through it with ideas, more of which in other essays. And I’ve also gone through it in my own soul. A lot of my exploration involved learning how to stop “trying to be” something or taking anything for granted, and I wrote about that kind of exploration in my essays “The Pretender” and “The Sleeper Awakes” in my book.

I’ve also gone through my reclamation with people, too, most of whom once seemed hostile to my values, or at least gray and desolate. Now I refuse to have my continent be blockaded by superficial barriers. That woman I mentioned who sometimes is trying to be black? She believes a lot of things I don’t agree with, but there is something special about her when she is not trying so hard, and I love her.

Heroism is a dubious concept: it carries with the baggage of rescuing people who should ideally rescue themselves and of seeking adulation. I believe in a greatness that is attainable by almost everyone.

If I am in some sense a hero, it is because I wanted to be the spark, which was my true self, and I fanned the spark until it became a flame. You can do that too.

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

Building Reason from Parts: The Flight of the Phoenix.

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

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

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

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


James Stewart as Frank Towns

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


Hardy Kruger as Heinrich Dorfmann

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


Richard Attenborough as Lew Moran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Reason from Parts: The Flight of the Phoenix

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

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

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

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


James Stewart as Frank Towns

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


Hardy Kruger as Heinrich Dorfmann

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


Richard Attenborough as Lew Moran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge

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

******

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

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

the real Marie Curie
The real Marie Curie

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

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

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

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

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


Karolina Gruszka as Madame Curie

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

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

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

The Perfecting of Howard Roark.


Publicity still from The Fountainhead (1949)

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

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

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

I. Innocent at 22

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

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

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

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

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


Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

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

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

This is typical of Roark early on. He is so marvelously first-handed that he has trouble attending to aspects of social life that he needs to, aspects like why he receives the reaction he does and why people build incompetent buildings, and what it is that is the motor of his own life. The principle behind the dean would have been something most intelligent people would have figured out in an hour if they thought about it. And they would have thought about it as teenagers (although not as systematically as Roark eventually does). It takes Roark another 16 years to get around to the matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Roark’s and Rand’s Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

III. The Growth of the Middle Years

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

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

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

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


Gary Cooper as Roark at the quarry

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

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

IV. The Sagacious Roark

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

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

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

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


Image from 2Paragraphs.com

V. Howard Roark, The Realized Ideal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfecting of Howard Roark


Publicity still from The Fountainhead (1949)

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

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

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

I. Innocent at 22

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

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

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

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

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


Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

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

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

This is typical of Roark early on. He is so marvelously first-handed that he has trouble attending to aspects of social life that he needs to, aspects like why he receives the reaction he does and why people build incompetent buildings, and what it is that is the motor of his own life. The principle behind the dean would have been something most intelligent people would have figured out in an hour if they thought about it. And they would have thought about it as teenagers (although not as systematically as Roark eventually does). It takes Roark another 16 years to get around to the matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Roark’s and Rand’s Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

III. The Growth of the Middle Years

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

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

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

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


Gary Cooper as Roark at the quarry

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

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

IV. The Sagacious Roark

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

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

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

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


Image from 2Paragraphs.com

V. Howard Roark, The Realized Ideal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Emily Dickinson: A Quiet Passion

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.

Poster

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.

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