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

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

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

American Not-So-Pastoral

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

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

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

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

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

American icon Andy Griffith endorses the All-American cereal.

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

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

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

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

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

The Underbook

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

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

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The Plot Against America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Pretender Goes to the Movies

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

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

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

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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

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

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

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

John Wayne in Brothers

John Wayne in Brothers

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

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

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

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

The Deception Game

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

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

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman Silk

Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman Silk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcing Killing Cool

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

Due out September 2014

Now published

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender in The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Dark Knight of the Soul

No, the Dark Knight does not refer to Batman, who is celebrating his 75th anniversary right now. It refers to Sir Roger Casement, an Irishman who was knighted by the King of Britain for his humanitarian exploits and then a few years later was hanged for treason.

The Dream of the Celt

Casement is the subject of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Dream of the Celt.. It follows Casement’s life from nursery to noose. Except for the way it jumps around in time and the obviously fictionalized patches, it reads like biography. Casement was an Anglo-Irish Protestant who was fascinated by exotic places ever since his father told him about battles he fought as a dragoon in India and Afghanistan. When Casement heard about Stanley and Livingston as a boy, he knew he wanted to go to Africa. And so he did, working with Stanley himself for a rubber company.

Roger Casement

Even though he did not have a college education, Casement rose to the rank of His Majesty’s Consul to part of the Belgian Congo. He had seen some of the brutalities committed by Stanley (and some of the paradoxical kindnesses, too), but the stories that came down the Congo River were awe-inspiring in their cruelty. He obtained permission from the government to go upriver and observe with the purpose of writing an official report. What he saw was too terrible to repeat here. Whips made of hippopotamus hide were on every belt. The rubber from the trees was harvested with impressed labor and whole villages were destroyed.

Casement had believed that colonialism would bring trade, education, medicine–civilization in short–to Africa. Instead, it brought slavery and murder. (Casement was a friend of Joseph Conrad, who came to the same conclusions.) Casement wrote his paper and it made him famous. A few years later he went to the Amazon and did the same thing again with respect to the doings of a British-owned rubber company. Some reforms came of these efforts, but the guilty largely went unpunished. Casement, on the other hand, was rewarded with a knighthood.

So Casement seemed like a decent, upstanding subject of His Majesty. But he wasn’t. All the time he was looking at what Europeans did to Africans and Indians, he was thinking of what England had done to Ireland. Wasn’t it basically the same thing? No, the English no longer routinely murdered the Irish, but they had wiped out almost all of Irish culture and did not allow the Irish to rule themselves.

Thus it was that Casement became an Irish Nationalist. When World War One came, he concocted a plan to get the Germans to arm the Irish, who would rise up simultaneously with a German attack on British bases in Ireland, thus giving the tiny Irish forces a chance to achieve independence.

Things did not go as planned, and some of the more extreme nationalists staged a rebellion without any German assistance at all. They were promptly slaughtered. Casement was caught sneaking back into Ireland and tried for treason. Although Vargas Llosa tries to keep us in suspense about Casement’s fate, it is obvious what is going to happen to him from page 1.

What lessons are we to draw from all of this? I think the big one is that no government can truly be trusted unless it rules by consent of the governed. Belgium and England believed in individual rights, but when Belgians and Englishmen allowed themselves to be blinded by the glitter of gold, they would stop at nothing to get it, up to and including torture and mutilation of the innocent. The natives had no say, no effective weapons, no idea of the big picture of what was being done to them. It was far worse than what the Anglo-Americans did to Indians in the U.S. It was even worse than what white America did to African slaves.

The tragedy of it all is that Indians and black Africans of the colonial period did not have the culture or technological skills to play a part in the civilizations they encountered. Their only hope was that public opinion and the consciences of the ruling classes would prevent the worst abuses. That’s a slender reed to lean on.

The Irish case was different. Thanks to some extent to the British, they did have the culture and technology necessary for self-government. They did not have to depend on the good will of their colonizers and they did not want to. A few years after Casement’s death, they won their independence.

Flag of Ireland

There is a lot more to the novel than I have indicated. The sights and sounds and smells of Africa and Amazonia are vividly recreated. We get a lot of Casement’s inner life. The British tried to discredit Casement by releasing excerpts of his private diaries, which purportedly showed that he was a homosexual. Vargas Llosa accepts the authenticity of these claims, although he portrays some of what was in the diaries as fantasies and not real encounters. There’s an eerie parallel between the oppression of the Africans, that of the Indians, that of the Irish, and that of the gay. In no case is the oppressed allowed to be himself and love in an uncomplicated manner.

Some of my readers probably know that Vargas Llosa is libertarian who defends capitalism by citing Friedman and Hayek. I think colonialism might be one of the thorniest problems for those who like to extoll the virtues of nineteenth-century liberalism. Vargas Llosa meets that problem head on and never lets us get too comfortable with our nostalgia, while never suggesting that collectivism is the answer.

Mario Vargas Llosa

So what kept me engaged in this book? I really don’t like dreary settings and inevitable doom in my art. What kept me going is that through it all, Roger Casement was an idealist. He was an idealist even when he was wrong, as he was about the benefits of colonialism and the virtue of reviving the Gaelic tongue. He was sometimes tired, sometimes sick, but he never gave up on trying to find the truth and do what was right, as best he saw it. Lesser men would have become cynical or defeated in the face of the things he witnessed, but he remained determined and even hopeful. To my mind that makes him a hero, even though he didn’t live to see the ultimate victory of the causes he fought for.

After all, what is more heroic than struggling to find the truth and bring it to the world?