Previous month:
July 2008
Next month:
September 2008

August 2008

Lucy At the Bay

Clare took these, last summer or fall sometime I think. I really like the colors in this one. (Click the images for larger versions.)

The noble dog faithfully awaits her master’s return from the sea.

Sometimes the noble dog needs to take a little time for herself.

A sail! A sail!

Patience rewarded as the sun sets (and the planet tilts slightly, apparently).


No, I don't. Really.

I had a bit of car trouble yesterday—the engine cut out several times and I thought I was going to get stranded on the Bayway, which is a bad place to get stranded. But I managed to limp off the bridge and get the car to a shop. When I picked it up I saw that the bill included this summary of my description of the problem:



It's A Weird World

Every now and then I'm struck by what has to go on behind the scenes to keep the wheels of modern life turning. Much of it is admirable for its complexity and ingenuity, and fascinating for its unnoticed importance. Some of it is less so.

If I stop and think about it, I know that the Coca-Cola company must go to a lot of trouble and expense to make its products look attractive. But I'm not often faced with what that really means. For instance, that the company has a vice-president for design, who is no doubt paid a fortune every year, and who no doubt commands a budget of many fortunes, and whose whole working life, as well as those of his many subordinates, revolves around the designs printed on bottles and cans of flavored water. Moreover, his work is reported as important business news, which—weirdest of all—it is.


Sunday Night Journal — August 24, 2008

Taking A Chance On Love

When as a young man I first heard of Pascal’s wager, I thought it was a silly and trivial way of approaching the question of Christian faith. But thirty years later it makes much more sense to me; in fact it almost seems like the only way to choose. (The idea of the wager, simply stated, is that if Christianity is true you stand to gain a great deal by believing and to lose a great deal by not believing, but that if it is false you risk nothing except being wrong.)

I don’t believe very many people at all have real certainty about the question of God’s existence. On the believing side, there are a few people to whom he speaks directly—very few, in my opinion. I don’t mean people who have a strong sense of conviction that they know what God wants them to do, but those who have had real, direct and unmistakable communication. As far as I can tell God rarely does this, and usually when he does it’s because he wants the person to do something really extraordinary; everyone else has to manage with less. On the non-believing side, certainty is intrinsically impossible; the most the unbeliever can say is that he sees no reason to believe.

I’ll go a bit further and say that most who claim certainty on either side have not fully understood the question. They may have never truly considered the arguments for the other side. I often find non-believers arguing against an idea of God which is far from the real Christian idea, imagining that we believe only in a particularly powerful person, an entity like other entities. (I suppose the same is true of many believers.)

Or maybe I should say that they, believers and non-believers alike, have not fully understood their situation with regard to truth and knowledge. They have not become certain by virtue of an incontestable proof in the way that they have become certain that in plane geometry the sum of the angles of a triangle is always 180 degrees, or that the acceleration produced by gravity is 32 feet per second per second. Scientific skeptics have a point when they say that science has raised the standards for what constitutes proof, and I think that most of us who have absorbed something of the scientific worldview—which is almost everybody in the modern industrialized world—are always conscious of a certain reservation or humility in our claims for religious certitude.

So one considering the possibility of belief, considering whether to take the leap or not, must look at the world and at himself and consider both the plausibility and the consequences of each choice. Pascal’s wager is largely about the consequences, and I’ve been thinking about it in those terms for the past few days, but less with regard to a future life than to the here-and-now.

The question may be put this way: do you choose to believe that the world is what it so often seems, a meaningless succession of physical phenomena of which human life and consciousness are an equally meaningless side effect? Or do you choose to believe that the meaning we see in life is really there, not simply in our minds and emotions but really there, objectively, in the universe itself—that it goes all the way through to fundamental reality?

Another way to put the question: which, in the end, is victorious, love or death? If love goes all the way through the fabric of things to some ultimate source, to a fountain from which all lesser reality springs, then death must die, and love must always live. If not, then love is only a brief spark in an endless night. Is romantic love just a product of hormones and instincts, or is it a response to something truly precious and wonderful in the beloved? (Can we say that something or someone is objectively wonderful?—I think yes, we can.) Is love for children and family and friends just a product of the mechanisms required for the survival of the species, or does it have a meaning in itself, as a communion of souls? Is human love no more than the same impulse that causes a cat find a warm lap on a cold day, or is it a participation in the divine?

If the universe and human life have no ultimate meaning—if there is no God—then I can imagine something better than the universe, and therefore I myself am, in a sense, better than the universe, in that I have created, if only in my mind, a better world. It’s puzzling that I should be able to do this—more puzzling, I think, than skeptics generally grant. How could a meaningless universe produce a creature capable of meaning? “We don’t live in a perfect world.” True enough. But how do we know that? How, in a world that is not just imperfect but a closed material system, did we even get the idea of perfection?

If you can’t know with absolute certainty whether love or death is the ultimate victor, which victory will you choose to hope for and to live by? Here’s where I get back to the wager: if you choose love and are wrong, it doesn’t matter in the long run. The one who did not believe is just as dead as the one who did, but the one who did has lived, for his time, in a world in which the attainment of the deepest longings of his heart was possible, even if never reached. The one who believes has chosen something better than the world. And why should he not?

I desire infinite love, infinite truth, infinite beauty. The idea of God includes those things. He would be worthy of my love even if he did not exist.

(That love is a risk is common knowledge; Sinatra sings the title song here.)


Music of the Week: Two Songs by The Clientele

I was about to skip Music of the Week, not having had time to write, but instead I’ll point you to a couple of wonderful songs from The Clientele’s wonderful album, Suburban Light, because I was listening to them on my drive this weekend and thinking how much I like them. If you’re old enough to have nostalgia for the English music of the mid-’60s, or if you just like the music, or maybe just if you’ve ever been in love, these are likely to push your buttons.

“6am Morningside” (1:54):

“Reflections After Jane” (3:47); I don’t know what the video has to do with the song:


Silence, Love, Pain, Darkness

But you love to let me go into a cloud where knowledge does not dwell and where all things are still and wrapped in love and you.

I love the cloud, the silence, the love, and you; and I love the pain, the darkness, and the strange rain of things that happen by your will to me when you desire that I should retire from the cloud and go to search for your footprints in the dark of men’s souls....

The cloud of “not knowing,” the dark, the rain, the pain, the cold, the tempter’s laugh, his loathsome touch, the slimy things of hell, the dank rivers of pride, so still, so black, the pains that come and go, the wood that holds me tight—oh, Love, for you and souls, give those to me and I will call them joyous ecstasies.

—Catherine de Hueck Doherty


Here’s a picture I don’t much like

I’m supposed to be driving up to north AL on Saturday. Probably we’ll only get a very heavy rain and some strong but not very destructive winds. Probably. What does this stupid storm think it’s doing? They aren’t supposed to behave like this. If it sticks to this path and speed it will be within fifty miles or less of my house for 24 hours or so. You probably can’t see the details unless you click on the image and get the larger version.


Mr. Incredible On the Fallen Human Race

We watched The Incredibles last weekend—very entertaining; I recommend it. I had never seen an entire Pixar movie, and the animation really was pretty amazing, although the plastic look of the people bothers me.

The movie opens with Mr. Incredible, a superhero, being interviewed on TV, and in light of the recent exchange here about whether or not the human race is fundamentally flawed, I was amused when Mr. Incredible opened his interview with this complaint:

No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved, you know? for a little bit?


Stupid! Stupid!

This is my favorite scene—no, let’s say rather the scene I remember most—from Plan 9 From Outer Space, which as you may know is widely considered to be the worst movie ever made:


Sunday Night Journal — August 17, 2008

A Crack in Everything

Human beings are natural system-makers. From the moment our brains are developed enough to do so, we try to organize the flood of data pouring into them. This is natural and essential for our survival in a world that doesn’t make survival easy. And we don’t stop there, with systems of thought that help us live and prosper physically; we want the whole thing to make sense—where it came from, how it works, what it’s for, where we fit in, what’s right, what’s wrong. We even have scientists and philosophers and theologians who make such efforts their main line of work.

There’s a natural tendency to expect these systems to contain everything: to account for all physical phenomena, to answer all spiritual questions, to remove all the uncertainty from moral decisions. But that’s expecting too much. I don’t believe any system constructed by the human mind and comprehensible by it can resolve all our questions. Inevitably it ends up constricting us rather than freeing us as we try to force reality into the neat boxes it provides.

Happily, life has a way of breaking into our systems, either shattering them completely or humbling them, putting them back into their proper role as useful tools, as servants and not masters. Leonard Cohen has a nice line in his song “Anthem:”

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

A crack is usually a form of damage, the result of stress or impact. The cracking of a closed system may occur only as the result of some sort of violence or trauma, painful but necessary if the light is to enter. Much of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction describes the infliction of such damage upon someone’s neat but false system.

I’ve been thinking about this in reference to the discussion about Ayn Rand and objectivism that’s been taking place here in response to my last two posts about them. Even aside from what I regard as its fundamental errors such as materialism, objectivism strikes me as an example of a system that tries to encompass too much. Its proponents find it liberating, but everything I’ve read connected with it, including Atlas Shrugged, makes it sound suffocating to me.

Christians are as liable as anyone else to over-systematize in this way. The grand systematizer of Christianity is St. Thomas Aquinas (Protestants might say John Calvin). One sometimes sees in over-zealous Thomists a tendency to make the theological system greater than the faith itself, to treat it as a machine for generating precise and detailed answers to any possible question. Misused in this way, it can actually serve to keep God at a distance.

If Thomas himself had any tendency to put too much trust in his own theological reasoning, he was placed out of danger by that famous vision he had toward the end of his life which left him able to say only that it made all he had written seem but straw. And it seems providential that the story became known, and a permanent reminder to all who would come to revere his work that its whole purpose is to point beyond itself.

But although Christians may over-systematize (clumsy term) in this way, the condition can’t persist indefinitely because its central element is also the crack, the huge and gaping crack, that lets in the light: Jesus Christ himself. You could say the crack is the system: not an idea, but the incomprehensible man who is also God; not an abstract statement answering a question you may not have asked, but a person who hears your question, reads your heart like an open book, and gives you the response that you—you specifically—need to hear in order to find your salvation. I say “response” and not “answer” deliberately; it may not be an answer at all, in the sense that it resolves your question. Quite likely you will not like it, or even understand it, but it will be something that will lead you toward becoming the person who does understand it.

I thought of that at Mass tonight, when the Gospel reading was the incident where the Canaanite woman asks for Jesus’s aid on behalf of her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). His response is outrageous: he compares her to a dog with no right to the food meant for the children of the family, the children of Israel. What a thing to say! Wouldn’t most people have cursed him in response, or at least stormed off in fury, telling everyone they met that this purported holy man was a jerk? But the woman doesn’t do that; goaded in this way, she drives unhesitatingly straight on to the truth he wants her to see, and presumably wants the others present to see. “…yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” He hasn’t simply given her what she wanted, but changed her, made her soul deeper and richer.

And where we want to see a neat resolution of the most difficult problem of all, the problem of evil and suffering, there is no direct response at all: only the man himself hanging on the cross, and the desolate words “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?” And then the Resurrection, and the invitation: take up your cross and follow me.

= = = = = = = =

Someone who calls herself only Anna C has put together a very nice sequence of photos as a video for “Anthem”:


Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #6

What a lovely, graceful, gracious, serene, generous, and noble work. Not profound in itself, perhaps, as compared to some of the other symphonies, it seems to imply a consciousness of profundity, a sense that, yes, there are great questions and probably troubles to be dealt with, but at the moment life is showing us its benevolent face and we are content with that. Although there is plenty of movement in it there is an underlying peace—not at all a naïve peace, a peace that has not known or has forgotten war, but an almost transcendent peace, a peace proper to the aftermath of the Third and Fifth. The brief thunderstorm opens no abyss, but serves only as a contrast to the prevailing fresh sunlight and temperate breezes. This is life as we would like it to be, and as Beethoven too rarely experienced it: joyful activity and joyful contemplation, with the occasional storm, invigorating but not dangerous, serving only as a contrast and to keep the meadows green and the brook flowing.

I was never really grabbed by this one in the past, but I’ll put it among my favorites now. At this point the favorites—3, 4, 5, and 6—outnumber the non-favorites, which rather distorts the meaning of the term.


The Abomination of Desolation

Standing where it ought not (cf. Mark 13:14), i.e., next door:

From the time we moved here in 1992 until six months or so ago, there has been a patch of woods on the west side of our house (on the east, north, and south, too), even though we live in town. A few times we discussed with its owner the possibility of purchasing at least part of the lot directly to the west, where the property line is only ten feet or so from our house. But we didn’t have much money at all to spare, and the owner wasn’t especially reasonable or cooperative.

Several years ago, right before Hurricane Katrina, she finally sold the lot, for more than we had paid for our house and lot together. After Katrina, we hoped the new owners might change their minds about building on it, and more than two years went by with no action. Then six months or so ago they cleared the lot and we knew the end was near.

Now it’s happening. My wife has been documenting the calamity in a Flickr album here. It wouldn’t be so bad if our house weren’t so close to the property line—as you can see from the photo above, the new house is very much in our face.

I keep telling myself to count my blessings, that this is still a great place to live. But it’s still depressing.


Translucence (again)

(click for larger)

Apparently I like the look of light shining through things. This is a banana leaf, on a tree in our yard. It isn’t quite the picture I wanted but it will do until I take a better one. Banana trees will grow fairly large here, although they are often killed back to stumps in the winter. The gardening editor of the local paper claims you can coax them into bearing fruit, if you’re careful and lucky.


Strange World

“It is, perhaps, the strongest mark of the divinity of man that he talks of this world as ‘a strange world,’ though he has seen no other.”



The Bay in a Bad Mood

The view from under an umbrella during a thunderstorm a couple of Saturdays ago. I really like watching storms come across the bay.

(click for larger view, as usual)

Tomorrow I’ll post something more cheerful.


For All Your Large Hadron Collider Information Needs

Go visit All Manner of Thing. This stuff rather interests me although I don’t understand much of it; one of the things I’d like to do when or if I get to retire is read a few pop-science books on contemporary physics.

Ok, ok, the truth is that I really just wanted an excuse to post this wonderful video, to which someone provided a link in the comments at All Manner:

Apparently there are people who believe firing up this baby will destroy the planet. So if you happen to see a Higgs Boson, let CERN know and maybe they’ll just drop the whole thing.


Sunday Night Journal — August 10, 2008

A Few More Notes on Ayn Rand

(Please excuse the bulleted list; there is still more to say here than I have time for, and this is a way of doing it more quickly.)

  • What she got right.

    • As I mentioned last week, I think she’s right to insist on appreciation and recognition of the intelligence, creativity, and labor involved in scientific and technical progress.

    • She is fiercely dedicated to the truth and hates lies, lying, and liars. In Atlas Shrugged she hits very effectively the sort of lying that happens in institutions where everyone is concerned with avoiding blame—the lying that’s accomplished by euphemism, evasion, and silent agreement not to say aloud what is actually intended.

    • She disdains the sort of man or woman whose only real skill is manipulating a bureaucracy for his own benefit.

  • One reason the Rand phenomenon interests me is that although she and her supporters are generally looked at as being on the socio-political right and are loathed by the left, many of her fundamental beliefs cross that divide. This is an instance confirming the often-made observation that our “right” and “left” are (in general—there are many exceptions, etc. etc.) more precisely described as “right-liberal” and “left-liberal,” with “liberal” referring to 19th century or classical liberalism, i.e. secular pragmatism. I conjecture that this does not so much prove Rand’s influence as shed light on her appeal; the American mind is already open to her philosophy. Here are some of the common features; some of them are clear ideas, some are only attitudes:

    • Atheism. I mean both the hard angry atheism of Dawkins (and Rand) and the soft “spiritual but not religious” atheism of less dogmatic souls. I also mean, less obviously, the unacknowledged practical atheism of many nominal Christians for whom Christianity is mainly a vehicle for achieving practical results: social justice for the left, prosperity and freedom for the right. Both judge Christianity by its utility in “the real world,” meaning the material world.

    • Individual sovereignty. I could almost say individual deification; many years ago someone wrote of “America’s evolving religion of self-worship,” and both right-liberals of Rand’s stripe and left-liberals tend toward it, seeing the individual as an “imperial self” (I can’t remember who coined that term), which appears out of nowhere owing nothing to anyone. Right-liberals emphasize this in the economic and political sphere, left-liberals in the personal sphere, especially and obsessively in all matters pertaining to sex.

    • A very high regard for one’s own intelligence combined with contempt for those considered stupid, a category which includes most people. Everybody except me is an idiot is a sentiment to which intelligent young people (and of course some not so intelligent) are naturally inclined, especially when their superiority seems unrecognized and unappreciated. It’s a natural tendency, but mature people get over it. Randians and many on the political left have made it a fundamental part of their view of the world.

    • Rejection of the idea of the Fall and of original sin. I don’t mean here rejection of the Christian doctrine specifically, but of the fundamental recognition that we live in an inherently flawed world and that every single human being in it is inherently flawed, a mixed bag of good and bad, true and false, strength and weakness. And that our ability to make it right is very limited.

    • Incomprehension of and intolerance of disagreement. Disagreement in good faith is not possible; only wickedness and stupidity suffice to explain resistance to the obvious truth. Therefore whatever is wrong with the world is so because the stupid and wicked people will not accept my/our prescription for putting it right. This has as a corollary a burning resentment that Those Other People Are Ruining Everything. Atlas Shrugged practically boils with it. I don’t mean anger over specific words or deeds on the part of opponents, but anger that they exist at all. You see it on both sides of our political debates. I think its violent implications are not sufficiently noted.

  • I make a distinction between deep and shallow atheism. The atheism of objectivism is shallow, as is apparent from the entry on atheism in the Ayn Rand Lexicon. Deep atheism understands (if only unconsciously) the problem of time and death, the human need for God, and the implications of his absence. Shallow atheism thinks all such thoughts are nonsense and a distraction from immediate material concerns. Deep atheism can produce great art. I’m not aware of any produced by shallow atheism.

  • I noted the absence of humor in Atlas Shrugged. Here is Ayn Rand herself on the idea of laughing at oneself: “[To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous .... The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.” That needs no further comment.

  • Eight or ten years ago when I drove a car with only a radio, no tape or cd player, I sometimes listened to a morning comedy show which included occasional visits from a character called Mad Max, who delivered enraged rants about everything from Bill Clinton to people who don’t use their turn signals, punctuated with—you have to imagine this in a sort of lower-class southern accent through gritted teeth—“It makes me so damn mad..” One of his standard lines was “Why don’t they just shut up and quit ruining my life?” I thought of him many times while reading Atlas Shrugged.


Bernie Mac, R.I.P.

I don’t mean to pretend that I feel a deep personal loss at the death of comedian Bernie Mac; celebrities die frequently and I don’t feel obliged to note their passing. I did watch his sitcom sometimes, although I’m generally not a fan of sitcoms, and he was sometimes very funny, and seemed a decent man, and I’m sorry he died so young.

But I’m posting this mainly to pass along this line: in one episode a group of people from his church has come to live with him, I don’t remember why, and Bernie Mac says at length to the ranking clergyman: “Bishop, you gettin’ on my nerves in the name of the Lord.”

I’ve had many occasions to recall that observation.


Music of the Week: The Mermen - A Glorious Lethal Euphoria

The Mermen are an instrumental trio roughly classified as neo-surf, but the relationship between their music and that of, say, Dick Dale (“Misirlou”) or The Chantays (“Pipeline”) is about like that between Beethoven’s symphonies and Haydn’s. This album might be described succinctly as Dick Dale meets Jimi Hendrix. The reverb and the minor-key melodies—that general early ‘60s vibe—are here, but they’re only the starting point for a pretty wild ride, sweetly beautiful or hard-rocking passages spiced with howling and shrieking distorted guitar, a combination of melody and noise that I love.

I’ve forgotten how I first heard of the group, but it was a good ten years ago that I bought this album. I was very taken with it, and in fact I put it on a desert-island list here a year or two ago. But I hadn’t listened to it for some years until I got a yen for it last week. It doesn’t seem quite as good as I remember, but it’s still really fine. My favorite tracks are the long ones, especially the nine-minute-plus “Between I and Thou” and “And the Flowers They’ll Bloom,” which are basically fairly simple, pretty figures that serve as a basis for variations exhibiting a wide, wild range of guitar colors and dynamics.

This was the first time I’d ever listened to the album on my home stereo—I had previously heard it only in the car, where there is almost no bass detectable. I was a little surprised to discover that the group has a real thunder-lizard low end. And the bass player is really good.

I looked for some Mermen videos on YouTube and found some, but none that really sound like this album. If the videos, mostly recent and all live, are a fair sample, their live sound is simpler and less saturated with feedback and distortion than their recordings. You can hear samples from this and their other albums here (you have to scroll down to get to this album).


Edith Stein and Ayn Rand

The parallels and divergences are interesting. Both were intellectually gifted Jewish women, one born in a city which is now part of Poland, one in Petersburg (which I think, from what little I know of Russia, makes her pretty European). Rand disdained the very idea of God, came to America and had a successful career as a philosopher-novelist. Stein gave herself to God, became a Catholic and a Carmelite and a philosopher-mystic, and was swallowed up by the Nazi death machine.

Rand (actually Leonard Peikoff, her intellectual heir, by her own declaration, speaking in The Ayn Rand Lexicon):

“God” as traditionally defined is a systematic contradiction of every valid metaphysical principle. The point is wider than just the Judeo-Christian concept of God. No argument will get you from this world to a supernatural world. No reason will lead you to a world contradicting this one. No method of inference will enable you to leap from existence to a “super-existence.”


…the fullness of the world we perceive with our senses holds more than what we can understand through the methods of natural science…..This world with all it discloses and all it conceals, it is just this world that also points beyond itself as a whole to him who “mysteriously reveals himself” through it. It is this world, with its referrings that lead us out beyond itself, that forms the intuitive basis for the arguments of natural theology.

Among the many interesting questions raised by this juxtaposition are these: which demands that more be accepted on blind faith? which stands in greater opposition to ordinary experience?


St. Dominic & St. Teresa Benedicta

Today is the feast day of St. Dominic. Or yesterday was, if you’re in Europe or points east (from the American perspective), as it’s already past midnight for you. Tomorrow (or today—August 9) is St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. These are two saints who mean a lot to me, especially the latter, and I had wanted to post something about them but haven’t had time. Perhaps I’ll add something to this tomorrow. In the meantime, click here to see Fra Angelico’s St. Dominic—an example of that ugly medieval art so detested by Ayn Rand. And here for Edith Stein (here for information about her, in case you don’t already know her story).


Why I Read Eve Tushnet (2)

She keeps reading my mind and then putting what’s there into words better than I can. Again, she’s talking about a comic (or, as some prefer, graphic novel). I don’t know that I want to read “a horror comic about an advertising designer being stalked across the Atlantic by a murderous child,” and if the review had been written by anyone else I probably wouldn’t have read it. But I’m rewarded with this:

One of the horrors of human life—maybe the central horror—is that we can commit irrevocable acts. We can do things that we can never take back. Even the Christian promise of salvage can seem incomprehensible: Can even God heal the damage I’ve done, redeem and repair and transform what’s been broken?

Without Christ, without afterlife, without baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, salvage is, if possible, even harder to comprehend.

(Here is the whole review.)

Yes, the promise of salvage is hard to believe. Yet not to believe in it can seem almost unbearable. Maybe not even almost. I sometimes wonder how many people are prevented from even looking toward God by the despairing sense that nothing can ever repair the damage in their lives. After all, it’s in the past, where it can never be touched. But God is there, then, just as much as he is here, now. Not was, is.


Russell Kirk: Old House of Fear

I picked this up a day or so after finishing Atlas Shrugged, wanting something completely different, and that’s what I got. This novel comes to life instantly; within a few pages I was drawn into its world and felt that its characters—only two in the lengthy opening scene—were alive. The title had me expecting a haunted house story, especially since I knew Kirk had written ghost stories, but this is more like Eric Ambler with a good touch of Charles Williams. I thought of Ambler’s Light of Day, in which a protagonist who initially seems pretty ordinary (well, actually, sort of on the scummy side, unlike Kirk’s hero) gets drawn into danger and reveals unsuspected abilities.

In an odd coincidence, Old House has a few things in common with Atlas Shrugged, and the comparison is not in the latter’s favor. Old House, for instance, includes a steel tycoon, who seemed more alive within the first page or two than Rand’s hero ever did. And both books are romances, in both senses: they tell a very unlikely story not necessarily intended to be realistic, and they are in part love stories. And the hero and heroine of Old House are really rather too gifted and capable to be believable. And yet I did believe them for the moment, which was not the case with Rand’s people.

To tell you the truth, I never would have expected this from Kirk. I expected something self-consciously quaint, mannered, discursive, maybe a bit pompous. I did not expect a taut action and adventure yarn. It could be made into a spectacular movie. Give it a try if you want something relatively brief and undemanding, but not without substance. My only complaint is that the end is predictable and a bit of a letdown, but getting there is a delight.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

He was a giant. I don’t have anything in particular to say that isn’t already being said wherever his passing has been noted, but I thought I ought to make some observance of it. If you have time and haven’t read his famous Harvard address, here it is.

I’m feeling a little guilty because ISI gave me a review copy of their Solzhenitsyn Reader and I never followed through and actually wrote the review. I recommend the book, though, if you’ve never really sampled Solzhenitsyn. I don’t know that he was a great writer from the purely literary point of view, but nevertheless he was a giant.


Sunday Night Journal — August 3, 2008

Ayn Rand, Crank

In a passage quoted in Leonard Peikoff’s introduction to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand reveals that she misunderstands the nature of fiction. She refers to it as “a process of translating the abstract into the concrete,” but that’s not what it is, at all. Another writer for whom English was not his native language, Joseph Conrad, gave us a far wiser description: “ itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.”

Conrad succeeded in his aim, and so did Rand. Her mechanistic conception of fiction produced a mechanistic novel, in which the characters are puppets moved by ideological strings, forever making long clumsy speeches to each other, even when they’re supposed to be in love, and the narrative itself, in spite of its 1100-plus pages, seems a long tiresome exercise in driving home one single point. (I did think it picked up a bit after the first 900 pages, but then I came to the Slough of Despond, the 60-page ranting manifesto delivered by John Galt in a speech which would have had to last for some three hours, and which is surely among the most tiresome things ever written.)

The plot of Atlas Shrugged can be summarized briefly. The industrialists of the world become fed up with the encroachments and injustices of socialism and decide to teach the world how dependent it is on them by withdrawing from all productive activity. As they do so, their industries collapse, or in some cases are deliberately destroyed. And as the socialists try ever more desperate measures of state control and redistribution, industrial civilization disintegrates into rule by gangsters who make themselves rich in the name of the people.

I’ll grant that there is a useful point there. Regardless of whether one thinks industrialization is fundamentally a good thing or not, it has certainly been a spectacular achievement of human ingenuity and energy, and most of us—most people who will read this—live in abundance and comfort because of it. And yet we have a tendency to treat the wealth it produces as something akin to a natural resource, something that just appeared spontaneously and requires no effort to preserve, leaving us only the question of how to distribute it. It’s worthwhile to be reminded that it was the product of intelligence and an enormous amount of hard work.

But the novel which is supposed to teach us this, among other things, is, to my taste, simply lifeless. Others apparently find narrative excitement in it; I found none. Had enjoyment been my guide, I would have given up on the book after a hundred pages or so. It was sheer determination that kept me plodding on until the end. I had wanted to read it in the first place because it is apparently a very influential book, and I wanted to understand why and how—why people like it, and what it teaches them. And I insisted on finishing it because I didn’t want to state a firm opinion of it without having given it every chance. Now I can say without any qualification that I think it’s a bad novel in the service of a bad idea.

The bad idea is radical atheistic individualism or libertarianism, which sees every individual as a sovereign and competent king or queen who deals with other kings and queens on terms of pure self-interest and according to Rand’s very narrow view of rationality. The individual owes nothing to anyone, and every exchange between persons is a commercial transaction, usually in fact and always in principle. Rand’s sacred symbol—I’m not joking—is the dollar sign. She regards any sort of altruism not based on a strict exchange of value as a destructive obscenity, and likewise those who teach it, whether for religious or secular-socialist reasons.

And so she presents us with a set of characters who are clearly divided into good people and bad people. The good people are producers: strong, intelligent, competent, and lean. The bad people are parasites: weak, stupid, incompetent, and fat; again, I’m really not joking or exaggerating. And one feels that the driving force of the book is less admiration of the good people than hatred of the bad. It often feels like a vast and implacable flood of anger and contempt.

Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and therefore grew up in the early days of the Revolution. The family business was expropriated by the communists, and presumably this was the source of her rage against “the looters,” as the government’s agents of confiscation and redistribution, as well as its beneficiaries, are called in the novel.

She has been called a fascist, and she and her supporters insist that this is false and unfair. They’re right, as far as her stated convictions are concerned. She is passionately anti-collectivist and therefore no more tolerant of fascists than of communists. She explicitly and vehemently repudiates violence in any and all situations apart from defense against a direct attack. And yet I can see why people accuse her of fascism: it’s the intensity—I think it’s fair to say the violence—of her hatred and contempt for those who do not meet her standards. Here’s just one of many typical examples:

“She could not descend to an existence where her brain would explode under the pressure of forcing itself not to outdistance incompetence.”

Or this, the most extreme of a number of instances I marked:

“…he saw what Paul Larkin must have been at that time—a youth with an aged baby’s face, smiling ingratiatingly, joylessly, begging to be spared, pleading with the universe to give him a chance….Rearden knew what the boy he had been would have felt: a desire to step on the obscene thing which was Larkin and grind every wet bit of it out of existence.”

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the strange pathologies in evidence here. Perhaps a longer essay is in order, because I remain almost as puzzled by the book’s popularity as I was before I read it. What is it that speaks so strongly to so many people? Do most of them see themselves as one of the supermen? Do they think it might be a good thing if the word “give” were forbidden, as it is in the secret utopia of the capitalists in this novel?

Make no mistake, Atlas Shrugged, and, I assume, Rand’s work in general, is utopian. And like all utopian schemes hers must eventually come to grief on the reality of human nature, and end with the bitter conclusion that human beings are simply not worthy of it. Rand seems a sort of capitalistic and individualist inverse of Marx, falling off on the opposite side of a balanced and truly rational conception of what human beings are.

Perhaps most of the books admirers are like those who admire John Lennon’s “Imagine”—picking up only the superficial ideas and missing the implications. I think most people hear “Imagine” and think Yes, it would be nice if people stopped hating and killing, completely missing the song’s totalitarian implications. Similarly, it may be that many of the admirers of Atlas Shrugged come away thinking, Yes, enterprise and competence and personal responsibility are good things, and don’t absorb the rage and the dogma of pure self-interest.

Several hundred pages into the book I noted to myself that it contained no love, no children, and no humor. It did eventually bring in a notion of love, a rather strange and constricted sort of love which is more accurately called admiration: the producers love the work of their hands, and they get involved with each other romantically, but even their romances have a weird ideological charge, being defined as an exchange of value. And two perfect (in Randian terms) children do appear briefly in the capitalist utopia, the offspring of two perfect producers. But I never saw any humor whatsoever—no intentional humor, anyway, although some things struck me as unintentionally funny, such as the constant application of adjectives like “lean,” “hard,” “superlative,” and “incomparable” to the heroes and the heroine. (There is only one heroine, Dagny Taggart—a name which I find amusing and can’t help pronouncing as DAGNY. TAGGART. And another weird quirk of the book is that she is worshipped in turn by each of the three major heroes and gives herself to each with a submissiveness that made me wonder if the sequel to Atlas Shrugged is The Story of O.)

Humorlessness is one of the characteristics of a crank, and judging by Atlas Shrugged a crank is what Ayn Rand was: not stupid, but narrow and shrill; not entirely wrong, but fixated on one inadequate idea which she thinks can explain everything; hostile to and uncomprehending of any disagreement. Believing that she has absorbed all philosophy and religion and that almost all of it is nonsense, she only demonstrates how little she really understood. And like everyone who denies that there is something fundamentally and inherently amiss in the human condition, something that no mere idea or program can remedy, she ends up as one more proof of the truth she denies.