How Ayn Rand Captured The Magic Of American Life

Rand expressed the glory of human achievement. She tapped into the delight a human being ought to feel at watching another member of our species doing things superbly well. The scenes in “The Fountainhead” in which the hero, Howard Roark, realizes his visions of architectural truth are brilliant evocations of human creativity at work. But I also loved scenes like the one in “Atlas Shrugged” when protagonist Dagny Taggart is in the cab of the locomotive on the first run on the John Galt line, going at record speed, and glances at the engineer:

He sat slumped forward a little, relaxed, one hand resting lightly on the throttle as if by chance; but his eyes were fixed on the track ahead. He had the ease of an expert, so confident that it seemed casual, but it was the ease of a tremendous concentration, the concentration on one’s task that has the ruthlessness of an absolute.

That’s a heroic vision of a blue-collar worker doing his job. There are many others. Critics often accuse Rand of portraying a few geniuses as the only people worth valuing. That’s not what I took away from her. I saw her celebrating people who did their work well and condemning people who settled for less, in great endeavors or small; celebrating those who took responsibility for their lives, and condemning those who did not. That sounded right to me in 1960 and still sounds right in 2010.

Second, Ayn Rand portrayed a world I wanted to live in, not because I would be rich or powerful in it, but because it consisted of people I wanted to be around. As conditions deteriorate in “Atlas Shrugged,” the first person to quit in disgust at Hank Rearden’s steel mill is Tom Colby, head of the company union:

For ten years, he had heard himself denounced throughout the country, because his was a ‘company union’ and because he had never engaged in a violent conflict with the management. This was true; no conflict had ever been necessary; Rearden paid a higher wage scale than any union scale in the country, for which he demanded—and got—the best labor force to be found anywhere.

That’s not a world of selfishness or greed. It’s a world of cooperation and mutual benefit through the pursuit of self-interest, enabling satisfying lives not only for the Hank Reardens of the world but for factory workers. I still want to live there.

via How Ayn Rand Captured The Magic Of American Life.

Literary Status Envy: “Peddle your angsty crap elsewhere, lit-fic wannabes! Let’s put SF back in the gutter where it belongs!”

The victims of literary status envy resent the likes of David Weber, and their perceived inferiority to the Thomas Pynchons of the world; they think the SF field is broken and need to be fixed. When they transpose this resentment into the key of politics in the way their university educations have taught then to do, they become the Rabbits.

The Evil League of Evil is fighting the wrong war in the wrong way. To truly crush the Rabbits, they should be talking less about politics and more about what has been best and most noble in the traditions of the SF genre itself. I think a lot of fans know there is something fatally gone missing in the Rabbit version of science fiction; what they lack is the language to describe and demand it.

via SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy.

“Mists of Avalon” Author, Marion Zimmer Bradley, was a child abuser — says her own daughter

Marion Zimmer Bradley, celebrated science fiction and fantasy author, recipient of the, cofounder of the Society for Creative Anachronism, posthumous recipient of the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement, has just been revealed by her own daughter Moira Greyland as a repeat child molester, who not only countenanced her sometime husband Walter Breen‘s relationship with an underage boy, but also violated her own daughter,  and other children, of both sexes, repeatedly, over many years.

I apologize to anyone this offends, but this is already public information and I am simply repeating it. Walter Breen’s convictions are a matter of public record, and reinforced by Bradley’s own public statements on the subject. This goes far beyond any notion of Fifties homophobia. And also, I apologize to Moira Greyland if sharing this upsets her further, but her statement is already being shared elsewhere, and I’m just adding a little more exposure on top of what’s already going on – with some good purpose, I hope. And I apologize if this article title for one moment appears to call into question what she said, but I’m adding it in case TeleRead needs a fallback position and I’ve been wrong all along. But so far it looks like anything but.

Cue the excuses. Via Marion Zimmer Bradley was a child abuser – says her own daughter « TeleRead: News and views on e-books, libraries, publishing and related topics.

D. H. Lawrence on Edgar Allan Poe

This is just genius:

POE has no truck with Indians or Nature. He makes no bones about Red Brothers and Wigwams.

He is absolutely concerned with the disintegration-processes of his own psyche. As we have said, the rhythm of American art-activity is dual.

(1) A disintegrating and sloughing of the old consciousness.

(2) The forming of a new consciousness underneath.

Fenimore Cooper has the two vibrations going on together. Poe has only one, only the disintegrative vibration. This makes him almost more a scientist than an artist.

Moralists have always wondered helplessly why Poe’s ‘morbid’ tales need have been written. They need to be written because old things need to die and disintegrate, because the old write psyche has to be gradually broken down before anything else can come to pass.

Man must be stripped even of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes a ghastly process.

Via DHL Chapter 6, hat tip to Tyler Cowen.

Why I Like Dick

Consider the reality we’re living in today. Schoolchildren kept in line by use of drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall. Technology that is as exasperating as it is necessary. Criminal syndicates operating at the speed of light from the other side of the world. A president with a record so convoluted and opaque that it’s impossible to tell what is false and what isn’t. (See Dick’s short story, “The Mold of Yancy,” in which a presidential candidate is totally unavailable and never seen outside of his video ads, because, it turns out, he doesn’t actually exist.) Masses of people living in virtual alternate universes — game clubs, social media — in preference to dealing with the world as it exists. An encroaching surveillance state intent on tracking every living individual at all times under every possible circumstance. A would-be aristocracy slowly separating itself from the masses. Effectively invisible weapons that can kill from high altitude without the victim even knowing he was targeted.


What is this but a Philip K. Dick universe?


Dick, it seems, was a far superior prophet than the colleagues who disdained him, because, unlike many of them, he had a line on human nature, which never changes.

via Articles: Philip K. Dick and Our Predicament.

The Real Hero of “The Princess Bride” Is Inigo, Not Westley

Almost everyone who knows me has had to suffer through me talking about Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. The short version: all hero stories share common elements, character types, and motifs; these elements are present in mythology, religion, and in movies today.

For example, have you ever noticed in cinematic hero stories that it’s always “two guys and a girl”? Harry, Ron, and Hermione; Luke, Han, and Leia; Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity; hell: Bo, Luke, and Daisy. There’s usually an “old man as mentor”: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Professor Dumbledore, Uncle Ben. There is the death of a father. There is a gift of magical assistance. And so on, and so on.

I’ve been wondering for a long time now how “The Princess Bride” fits into the Campbell analysis. I have recently realized that the real hero of “The Princess Bride” is not Westley; it is, in fact, Inigo Montoya.

To illustrate, let’s compare the characters of “Star Wars” to those of “The Princess Bride”:

Character Type              Star Wars       Princess Bride
--------------------------  --------------  --------------
The Pirate                  Han             Westley
The Swordsman               Luke            Inigo
The Girl                    Leia            Buttercup
The main villain            Darth Vader     Count Rugen
His overseer                The Emperor     Humperdinck
Whose father gets killed?   Luke's          Inigo's
Who does the killing?       Darth Vader     Count Rugen
Who avenges his father?     Luke            Inigo
Who gets the girl?          Han             Westley

The one whose father is killed, learns swordplay, seeks out his father’s murderer, and confronts him as part of a final attack: that is the hero. That means Luke/Inigo are the heroes, and Han/Westley are the pirate characters who get the girl in the end. Westley is central to the plot, and the main story is about Westley and Buttercup, but Westley is not the hero; Inigo is.

Here’s another fun bit: for the final attack, it is the pirate who plans it, but it is the swordsman who must confront the villain.

Plot Element                Star Wars       Princess Bride
--------------------------  --------------  --------------
The target                  Death Star 2    The castle
Attack planned by           Han Solo        Westley
Villain killed by           Luke            Inigo

Once again, the hero appears to be Inigo, not Westley.

I know, it’s heresy. But still.

Harry Potter III: The Prisoner of Azkaban

What a wonderful series. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: if this is what kids are clamoring to read, then I have hope for the future. Not only are the morals good, but the storylines are preparing the readers for other literary works, including not only Greek and Roman mythology, but also such things as C. S. Lewis’ “Narnia” and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

Near the end of the third Potter book, Dumbledore (so much more than just an “old-man-as-mentor” archetype described by Jospeh Campbell) counsels Harry after Harry has mercifully spared a traitorous informer against the Potter family: “This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry. But trust me … the time may come when you will be very glad you saved [his] life.” Anyone who reads that, who has also read the Lord of the Rings, will recognize immediately the similarities to the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo at the door to Moria about Gollum. Kids who read Harry Potter are thus ready to be introduced to Lord of the Rings, and will recognize the motif in the same way.

The Potter books are simply stunning; I can’t believe I waited this long to read them. The movies don’t do them justice by half.

Incidentally, I have a guess about the Harry/Hermione relationship; I think it will mirror the Luke/Leia relationship. But who knows? 😉

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The reputation of the Harry Potter series is well deserved. I picked up the first one yesterday and finished it today; the style is easy to follow, and the story engaging. But above all, it has positive things to say about good character. One of my favorite bits comes right at the end; Dumbledore, the head-master of Hogwart’s school of magic, has this to say after 11-year-old Harry perseveres in the face of terrible odds and manages temporarily to defeat an inexorable foe:

“Nevertheless, Harry, while you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time — and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.”

If that’s not both a description of adult life, as well a moral call to fight evil when it appears, and keep fighting even though victory cannot be guaranteed, then I don’t know what is. If this is what kids are reading these days, then I think we will be all the better for it.

I can’t wait to get started on the next one. 🙂

“The Mission” by Dana Priest

Dana Priest is (was?) a reporter for the Washington Post; I understand that she was the military and intelligence reporter for that paper. In “The Mission” she details several recent military missions from Kosovo to Kandahar, gives biographies on military personnel from top General officers to infantry grunts, and describes the daily lives of soldiers and special forces operators while in training and while in the field.

Among other things, she points out that the State Department has (de facto) abdicated to the military much of State’s responsibility for creating and communicating foreign policy. Military personnel are used as ambassadors and diplomats, and are given broad authority to accomplish ill-defined non-military goals.

I have heard her speak via C-SPAN and other programs; her stand appears to be that we need a civilian “nation-building” (or “re-building”) department to help nations get back on their feet after our military goes in (for whatever reason, from peacekeeping in Bosnia to ouster in Iraq). She believes that the military is not suited for what are essentially civilian tasks: policing, hospital building, water supply, electricity production, economic invigoration, and so on. We must remember that the military is a tool for destruction, and ever more for selective and precise destruction, not for construction. For example, see her chapters on the soldier who murdered an 11-year-old Albanian girl; it is a true story, and while representative of a vanishingly small minority of military personnel, it serves well as analogy as to why military training and culture (which is good and necessary for military purposes) do not translate well into civilian activities under military sponsorship.

I find that I agree with Ms Priest. In a way, her work ties in nicely with Thomas Barnett’s NewRuleSets ideas: the military needs to be able to kill people and destroy materiel, but then we need a civilian counterpart corps to rebuild what earlier tyrants have destroyed or prevented from being built in the first place.

Note: The idea of having this rebuilding corps is **not** a way of saying “the US needs to fix what it breaks after invasion” (even though we do). For example, don’t tell me that the USA decimated Iraq as a whole, because it’s not true; Saddam did more to damage the people of that country in 30 years than we are capable of conceiving. This hypothetical civilian rebuilding corps would help get the people on their feet (after we militarily remove the tyrants who drove the people down) by building or improving existing institutions and organzations and services.