Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hell is the Impossibility of Reason: Anne C. Heller, "Time", and the Nadir of Criticism of Ayn Rand

On July 7, New American Library published Ideal: The Novel and the Play, a slim volume that includes an early story written by Ayn Rand circa 1934 in two different formats. The novel was published for the first time; the play has been previously published in The Early Ayn Rand: Selections from Her Unpublished Fiction (1984. New York: Signet, 2005) and Three Plays (New York: Signet, 2005). Rand chose not to publish the novella version at the time with good reason, as Leonard Peikoff explains in his introduction, and the works are neither perfect nor an appropriate introduction to Rand’s fiction. However, the novel, the play, and Leonard Peikoff’s notes are fascinating and affecting to anyone familiar with Rand and her significance. In the cynical, nihilist, amoral twenty-first century, new Ayn Rand fiction, especially extolling values and their ineluctable role in human life (Ideal’s theme), is nothing short of a lifeline.
Predictably, Anne C. Heller, author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2009), and the editorial staff of Time magazine have a different view (or propagate one, anyway).
This would not be notable except for the bizarre, brazen depths they have sunk to attempt to express it (such attempts are more or less coherent if unprofessional and logorrheic).
The Time article is behind a paywall. (I’ll leave the subject of the irony of a gaggle of wealthy altruists and “serious”, “earnest” journalists charging you money to read their priceless articles for another time.) Heller has published what is evidently an identical or near-identical version on her website (annecheller.com). You can treat yourself to this consummate professional’s prose there. Be forewarned: to paraphrase Mary McCarthy (who was talking about Lillian Hellman), almost everything she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”. It also contains complete “spoilers” of the storyline (as does my necessary response below).
Heller, as she boasts on her website, “is a magazine editor and journalist and the author of two books” (the other is a biography of Hannah Arendt). Her curriculum vitae includes a professorship in Vermont and stints as the fiction editor of Esquire and Redbook (which give the term “pulp fiction” a new meaning). I do not think she was well known before publishing her Rand biography (I had certainly never heard of her). Especially by the time it was published, almost all of its customers would be fans of Rand who would not tolerate (much less pay for) the run-on drivel in her review or snide dishonesty on her website. (On a recent visit, she quoted Ideal’s protagonist Kay Gonda grossly out of context with the line, “I’m a murderess”—Gonda is not—and quoted a review of her book that stated it was “far more interesting than anything in Rand’s novels”, which is not even true if studying it as a barometer of a decrepit culture.) I did not read her book, but it was putatively neutral (if not mildly positive). She certainly does not write like an editor. If this review, as published on the website, has been approved by Time’s editors, they do not edit like editors, either. (I realize that I do not write like an editor either, but I neither get paid to edit nor do I have access to an editor.)
Everything about Heller’s review is objectionable: its miscues; the sprawling, overlong, near ramble of the style; its factual inaccuracies (the surname of one of Rand’s most beloved character’s is misspelled); its paucity of understanding of Rand’s work; and even its punctuation. (One would think that, even in the Endarkenment, a professional editor would know when and how to use semicolons.) This writer, who presents herself as a qualified biographer/reviewer, regurgitates the false factoid (unquestioned in mainstream circles) that Friedrich Nietzsche is Rand's primary philosophical influence. He was a profound early influence, but, even then, his influence was more symbolic/poetic than philosophical. Rand's primary philosophical influence is Aristotle (and, to a much lesser extent, Thomas Aquinas and Benedict Spinoza). It is impossible to address every single fatuous falsehood in the prolix review. Here are some.
After the sixth word of her review, Heller apparently believes that a drop of Paul Ryan’s name is prudent. This gross irrelevancy is a hint that this writer has an agenda far beyond her appraisal (honest or otherwise) of the book she is purporting to review.
Almost immediately following (and long before she addresses the purported subject of the piece), Heller, somewhat predictably, addresses another irrelevancy: a young Ayn Rand’s abandoned novel The Little Street. This subject almost needs its own essay. To be somewhat brief (context demands that I be no briefer): at the age of twenty-three, Rand planned to write a novel with a hero that was inspired in part by the public statements and deportment of a murderer named William Hickman. She abandoned the project. Around 1997, her estate published the notes in Journals of Ayn Rand. I do not have a copy at hand, but I am fairly confident that the young Rand explicitly wrote (in her private journals) that she was inspired by “the public Hickman” (specifically his indifference to others’ views or social convention) and not “the private Hickman” (i.e., the killer). Then, she condemned Hickman’s “moral degeneracy”. (This is an objective, contextual appraisal of an irrelevancy you will be hard pressed to find in the shrieking echo chamber of lies and half-truths that is modern culture. I have no recollection of reading that section of Journals of Ayn Rand when I read the book so it made no impression on me, and the Estate of Ayn Rand obviously had no reservations publishing it, even in a hostile culture. )
At some point in the last decade, an obsessed leftist with too much time on his hands noticed it and added it to the stock library of anti-Rand tropes, as if the private notes of a twenty-three-year-old, even in their most unflattering (and wrong) interpretation are important in a culture of Che Guevara T-shirts, The Motorcycle Diaries, and admiration for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (Capote himself evidently admired the real-life killers in his book). Heller should have read Journals of Ayn Rand when researching her book, and she should have known that Hickman has nothing in common with Ideal’s Johnnie Dawes. In the interest of objectivity, I cannot comment on Danny Renahan, the protagonist of The Little Street, as I do not currently have access to a copy of the journals. Heller says that he murders a pastor. Assuming she is being accurate here, Rand should be commended for abandoning the project. It would have been antipodal to her philosophy, which was still inchoate at the time. That Heller spends so much time on this impertinent subject, from a project that was never even written, and the publication’s board apparently did not see the propriety of cutting it, confirms not only the bias of a vile media, but the Left’s loss of confidence in reason. Instead of reviewing a book and sharing her opinion of the book (and the reasons for it), Heller tries to inspire a visceral reaction from the reader with an extended account of an irrelevancy, piling up emotional material which tends to cloud dispassionate thinking. Evincing the confusion and dishonesty to be expected in an exemplar of a subjectivist, conformist culture, Heller spends the opening and second-longest paragraph of her review parroting the false “narrative” of The Little Street, preposterously asserting that Rand “made a hero” of Hickman. 
In the next paragraph, Heller mentions Ryan again when she adds that Rand’s novels “have been cited as inspirational by Ryan, Rand Paul, and a number of their funders.” As if politics is the only (or primary) appeal of Rand’s work and almost all of those inspired by Rand are political figures (and “conservative”), Heller doesn’t mention that those inspired by Rand include Ralph Lauren, Jimmy Wales, Mark Cuban, and Hugh Hefner (and at least two left-leaning public school teachers of my acquaintance). Heller finally mentions Ideal at the end of the second paragraph, after another reminder of The Little Street, curiously quoting conservative National Review writer Whittaker Chambers positively (in Time magazine of all places) as if unwittingly channeling what was the most disgraceful review of an Ayn Rand novel until last Monday. Heller, who should know better, then writes the following fatuous, ludicrous sentence: “Rand hated ordinary people with a vengeance.” She does not define “ordinary,” but a biographer of Rand should be well aware of the dishonesty of that sentence.
The biographer recounts the story of Ideal, including its protagonist, movie star Kay Gonda, and the suspicions (ultimately unfounded) that she is a murderess. While wanted for questioning, Gonda visits six fans who wrote her eloquent letters perspicuously expressing their admiration for the spirit she projects on screen. She wants to know if the kind of intransigent value-orientation she portrays and that she glimpsed in the fan letters really exists. She asks each of them (who believe her to be a murderess) to let her stay in their homes for one night to hide from the police. Dawes, a penniless, dispirited young man, confesses to the murder and commits suicide before Gonda can tell him her alleged “victim” had committed suicide himself.
As a brief aside: Heller impugns Rand’s realism and knowledge of the Los Angeles she knew at the time in one of the clunkiest, least professional sentences in this monstrosity of a review. Referring to Gonda’s fan Jeremiah Sliney as “a cowardly chicken farmer (really, and on Ventura Boulevard!)”, Heller implies that a chicken farm on the San Fernando Valley’s Ventura Boulevard in 1934 strains credulity almost as much as Franz Kafka’s human cockroach or Thomas Mann’s X-ray obsessed Hans Castorp. As one who lives within spitting distance of Ventura Boulevard, I am well aware of the Valley’s bucolic state at that time (and the occasional makeshift backyard mini-chicken farm to this day). See this website. Here is an excerpt about Tarzana, California in the 1920s: “It was never considered a ‘town,’ it was a poultry and rabbit farm development. The intersection of Ventura Boulevard and Reseda Avenue or possibly Street as it was then called which extended northerly through Northridge and perhaps another Runnymede development, was not known as Tarzana until after the Post Office was established.” I wouldn’t expect Heller to know as much about the San Fernando Valley as I do, but the professional (and her editors) could have found that and similar websites in seconds (as I did). (For more details and photographs, see Roderick, Kevin, The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times Books, 2001)
Heller concludes her tour de force with an evading misgrappling of the work’s theme and Gonda’s goal (she does not search for someone who would “gladly die for her” and tries to stop Johnnie), disingenuous faint praise of Rand, and more unconsciously ironic Whittaker Chambers quotes. She somehow finds parallels between Johnnie Dawes and his “undoubting fanaticism” and recent, high-profile mass murderers (including James Holmes, who expressed no commitment to ideals of any kind).
Whatever mistakes Rand made in the writing of Ideal, her theme of the crucial importance of values in human life is correct. Heller’s appraisal is as wrong as her spelling of Hank Rearden’s name and her ignorance of Ventura Boulevard’s topography in the 1930s. And the insinuation that Ayn Rand, who logically and passionately upheld the sacred inviolability of each human being and his individual rights, would even tolerate (much less approve of) murder—or that such an act is not antithetical to her philosophy—does not even rise to the level of disgracefulness. The idea (such as it is) that Ayn Rand, who praised the American “common man” (though she never would have used the term) with gratitude and respect in fiction (the characters of Mike Donnigan, Cheryl Brooks, Eddie Willers, et. al.) and nonfiction ("Philosophy: Who Needs It", "Don't Let It Go", "A Nation's Unity", et. al.) hated "ordinary" people (a term she likely wouldn't use) is shamefully dishonest from a source who should know better. (On the Ford Hall Forum stage in 1972, Ayn Rand said, "There are no little people in America." One wonders if she would retract such a statement had she lived to read some of her biographies.)
Why do the ciphers of a Pragmatist, amoral culture equivocate non-aggressive fidelity to rational values with killers? (They don’t seem to mind communists and Muslims, some of whom really do kill, as their own manifestos and scriptures command them.) Have they forgotten the intransigent, reluctant extremist Martin Luther King, Jr. and his comments in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? Why do the gatekeepers of a putatively tolerant, "open-minded", and non-judgmental culture not admit the culture's foremost voice of reason in their pluralistic, eclectic farrago of a culture, which is careening toward the hell of anti-culture?
It is impossible to consistently practice any wrong belief system (whether Pragmatism, Leftism, or religion), and examining the contradictions inherent in them are either counterproductive or best addressed elsewhere. Since they are all impossible to practice consistently, instead of questioning their own views and admitting that they are wrong, their unregenerate disciples conclude that consistency is impossible and/or evil. It is not surprising that such people would react to the foremost theorist to the contrary with blind hatred, lies, and half-truths (since they cannot refute her philosophy or her fiction).
Another clue, however, is courtesy of Leonard Peikoff, in his first book The Ominous Parallels. “When modern savage-emulators portray their vision of man, they do not believe the witchcraft they borrow; they do it not in terror, but with a snicker; while their counterparts in the humanities, expressing the same vision, take pride in being ‘flexible’: they are not disturbed if someone denies the Oedipus complex, and substitutes as the key to human nature an inferiority complex or an orgasm complex or a collective unconscious or any equivalent, so long as it is an equivalent, which leaves a single constant untouched.” (The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America. New York: Stein and Day, 1982, p. 220, emphasis in original)
Rand touched that constant and overthrew it. The fact that her detractors are obsessed with a novel she didn’t even write—a nonexistent novel that is better known than most of their favorites, which they are forcing on uninterested public school charges with unlimited funds and praising in worthless publications virtually no one reads anymore—is tantamount to her success.

In a quarter-way rational culture, Anne C. Heller and the editorial board of Time would be sleeping under a bridge. But even in this one, Ayn Rand made her own world (Heller got that much right), and those perceptive enough to recognize its truth can still be transfigured by it in what is still, as Rand would put it, a benevolent universe.


Update, 07/22/15: Robert Tracinski reports (with a link to his source, Newsbusters) that Time's editors removed the reference to Holmes in their paywalled version. Apparently, they left in the reference to Dylann Roof. For all of their attention (or lack thereof) to fact, truth, context, and reason, they might as well have left the reference in (it is not significantly different or worse than the rest of the piece).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Civilizational Ennui"--An Effect, Not a Cause

With every passing day of disastrous news, it is more and more challenging to find the sense of purpose to comment on the paradoxical spectacle of unreason and lingering civilization that is the Endarkenment. (As I type this, early reports about the latest "mass shooting"--this one from Chattanooga, Tennessee--suggest that it "may be" a "domestic terror incident".) Sometimes, however, it is necessary to say something in between more pleasant endeavors, such as work and reading. (I am currently reading Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy and just finished the section on Kant and German Idealism--i.e., the beginning of the Endarkenment.)
     A few days ago, the latest disgraceful U.S. president boasted about his latest act of appeasement toward the largest state sponsor of "terrorism" (Islamism), Iran. Iran has essentially been at war with the United States since 1979, when Iran attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran--and then-President James Earl Carter, Jr. immediately started a trend of Pragmatist appeasement from which none of his successors has significantly deviated. Many commentators have castigated the current president's "deal" as well as or better than I can.
     One exception (or near-exception) is the inestimable Mark Steyn, one of the most perspicacious writers close to the mainstream (a regular Fox News guest is close to the mainstream). Yesterday, the indefatigable, prolific conservative published an essay titled "Serious Times, Unserious People" which is characteristic of much of his work: trenchant commentary that is hard to dispute--except that it does not quite penetrate to the root of the problem. Still, it is as good as "mainstream" commentary gets--which is why I single it out (the others are not worth the attention). Steyn asserts that the United States is appeasing Iran due to "civilizational ennui"--in other words, standing up to bellicose dictatorships would distract us from "the small, sensual pleasures of our electronically pampered lives". He recounts a pertinent exchange between Hillary Clinton and a journalist. After the former issued a short statement about the Islamic Republic of Iran, the journalist asked her if she would be attending a Taylor Swift concert that evening.
     Any ennui, to say nothing of civilizational ennui, is a serious problem, but it and appeasement are both symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Psychology and foreign policy are consequences of more fundamental views--and altruism and multiculturalism have saturated this culture since the nineteenth century. It takes time for ideas to reach their logical conclusion, especially in a culture and nation founded at the end of the Enlightenment and explicitly representing the implicit egoism and explicit individualism of the Enlightenment. This is why American foreign policy continued to be robust, pro-America, and pro-individualism (exceptions such as the draft aside) through the Second World War. By the 1970s, however, the rise of the New Left and Just War Theory had brought foreign policy in line with the rest of an unserious culture of progressive education, welfare statism, and a false dichotomy of mindless entertainment and modern "art". "Unseriousness" itself is a consequence of a culture-wide abandonment of reason and the intellect. Generations brought up to abandon their mind and conform to the whims of the group will eventually adopt catch phrases like, "Lighten up!" Thought is an attribute of the individual mind, reason is the human means of survival on Earth, and they are serious activities. A cynical, nihilist culture that has explicitly and gleefully abandoned reason, as this one has for the faith of the religious right (which, unfortunately, includes Steyn) and the feelings of the altruistic left, but still goes through the pretense of fidelity to its antithetical founding principles, will die eventually unless there is another philosophic revolution. It will be destroyed or superseded by a more consistent one. Iran may be evil, but its representatives are convinced otherwise. Western "leaders" wring their hands in a trance of multiculturalist self-doubt and cheek turning, secular and religious (Democrats and Republicans are not much different).
     Steyn has a point--we are pampered in a way, and an intellectually primitive culture is not ready for technology (which is a vestigial afterglow of the Enlightenment that clashes with the absurd and absurdist miasma of atavistic modernism all around us). The spectacle of subliterates streaming amateurish professional videos on smartphones certainly has a surreal, unsettling quality. Seemingly disparate aspects of culture are indeed interconnected and integrated. But an individual with the right ideas can use technology and enjoy small, sensual pleasures in between more essential, soul-nourishing contemplation (I bring Durant to Disneyland and brought an Anthony Trollope novel to the Vans Warped Tour) even as almost everyone else misuses technology and automatically wanders through lives exclusively devoted to small, sensual pleasures. A culture with the right ideas underpinning it would conquer civilizational ennui and leave room for priceless technological convenience and whatever consequent small pleasures are worth saving.
     Civilizational ennui is an effect, not a cause, of national suicide. A return to Enlightenment reason, individualism, and liberty (as opposed to today's faith/feeling, collectivism, and egalitarianism) would stop both (and much more).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Vincent Bugliosi: 1934-2015

Former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, defense attorney, and author Vincent Bugliosi died in Los Angeles on Saturday. He had cancer. He was 80.

     The famed attorney/author from Minnesota prosecuted 106 felony trials. He lost one of them. (He never lost a murder case.) He apparently represented three defendants (and won acquittals for all three). Unfortunately, he lost two consecutive elections (running as a Democrat), in 1972 and 1976, for Los Angeles County District Attorney. (Angelenos still occasionally elect Republicans if they are sheriffs, district attorneys, and city council representatives from the Chatsworth area.) Perhaps the increasingly rare confluence of two positive traits, ability as a litigator and a commitment to justice, ensures that an individual is a poor campaigner.

     That commitment to justice, in a pragmatist culture, probably distinguished Bugliosi as much as his puissance as a trial lawyer. (Despite the fact that Charles Manson did not directly commit murder, Bugliosi convicted him. Decades later, Marcia Clark et. al. could not convict Orenthal James Simpson, as Bugliosi lamented and excoriated in his book Outrage.) His reputation as someone who was fair and accommodating to defendants as a prosecutor (in Outrage, he recounts his reputation among lower class defendants for being affectionately known as "bad"--which means good in street argot) suggests a commitment to justice above racking up successful prosecutions and "lock 'em up and throw away the key" sentencing that the "law and order" zealots relish. (Perhaps Bugliosi would have won his elections if he had been more conventional in that regard.) According to Wikipedia (yes, I know--but this particular datum is likely accurate), he refused to take cases of high-profile defendants after he became a defense attorney when he thought the defendants were likely guilty.

     Bugliosi had many flaws beyond his venial hick-from-rural-Minnesota writing style. He was a partisan Democrat at the very least. (If his book The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder was slightly hyperbolic, then his book-length defense of Clinton shenanigans and attack at those who tried to hold him accountable was downright shameful.) In a systemically dishonest and unjust Pragmatist culture, especially, those flaws are not paramount.

     As I noted in previous installments about the 1960s media-created hoax known as "The Boston Strangler", the media in the United States, as an institution, was thoroughly imbued with the anti-principles of Pragmatism (and other deleterious ideas) before the legal system. There was a time (now passed) in which the still somewhat accurately named justice system was still more or less committed to actual justice (the truth and accuracy of verdicts, the actual guilt or innocence of individuals accused of actual--non-victimless--crimes, and reasonable sentences). By the 1980s, the corruption of the legal system was essentially complete. Bugliosi was not such an anachronism when he prosecuted the turning-point cases of the Charles Manson family, but he likely became one by 1976 (when he lost his second consecutive election).

     One of the many topics few people discuss anymore is Bugliosi's commitment to justice in the Robert Kennedy assassination. Despite his reputation as an anti-conspiracy theorist (he eventually authored Reclaiming History, a prolix attempt at closing the case of the murder of Bobby's big brother from an "Oswald did it alone" perspective), Bugliosi long maintained that Sirhan Sirhan did not act alone at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the early morning hours of June 5, 1968 (and likely did not fire the fatal point blank shots to the back of Senator Kennedy's head). In his second campaign for District Attorney, a significant part of his platform was his vow to reopen that case if he were elected. I have been unable to find his later views on the lesser-known assassination committed in his jurisdiction (it's one of many topics "polite society" would prefer to evade). His curious, counterintuitive views on the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy evinces a commitment to objectivity (at least in his evaluation of crimes from the perspective of an attorney and investigator) that is perhaps more important than the veracity of his specific beliefs.

     In a disingenuous, irrational, over-charging, over-prosecuting, over-sentencing, anti-principled, unjust Endarkenment of pragmatism, Bugliosi's principles were his principal virtue. While the competence and truthiness (to use a malapropism attributed to one of his nemeses) he concretized were gone (at least as a paradigm of legal culture) long before him, this writer cannot help but think that something, silently and without notice, died on Saturday.
   

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Los Angeles's Big (Real) Wage Cut for Working Poor

Above, I correct this morning's latest banal, unprofessional, false (or at least incomplete and misleading) headline from the Los Angeles Times.
     Or, if you prefer: Los Angeles's Big Calamity for the Working Poor.
     The actual, risible headline (all spelling, syntax, capitalization, etc. sic): "L.A.'s big raise for working poor". (Three unprofessional professionals are credited with writing the article.) The article reports that the Los Angeles City Council predictably passed legislation that would raise the "minimum wage" (which is actually zero) in the city limits to $15 per hour by 2020.
     The latest absurdity in the newspaper's journalistic theater of the absurd should be so obvious--its errors and implications so arresting--that even the concrete-bound lummoxes of the Los Angeles Times should notice them (presumably most of them took a high school economics class prior to the mid-1990s) and write better-worded and more accurate headlines.
     One should never leave aside the ethics of outside parties (particularly government officials) dictating the terms and conditions of a voluntary relationship (and, contrary to the culture-wide Marxism and its ludicrous term "wage slave", it is a voluntary relationship). One should also not ignore the racist and eugenicist origins of minimum wage legislation. However, in an amoral, pragmatist culture (with a morality/practicality false dichotomy and an average attention span the length of a hardcore song), practicality is the primary topic of interest.
     Relatively basic economic concepts such as purchasing power, nominal (or money) wages versus real wages, falling prices as the primary determinant of purchasing power, elasticity of demand for low-wage labor, minimum-wage laws as a near-guarantee of rising prices (and therefore lower purchasing power), and minimum-wage laws as a guarantee of unemployment are basic, easily accessible, and established beyond all doubt. (Indeed, there is much more consensus among economists of the deleterious effects of such legislation than there is among scientists on the subject of "climate change".) On a more abstract level, the long-term and diffuse effects of minimum wage legislation on the entire population (including but not limited to the competition for jobs with wages previously well above the "minimum" driving down those wages, the increased taxes--including those of the working poor--to pay for compensation to the newly unemployed, and the stifling of innovation--including the creation of new jobs, goods, and services--due to those increased taxes and decreased economic activity) may require a population with a majority of people not conceptually crippled by progressive education and the rest of modern culture. Even accounting for the Endarkenment, however, the stark, incontestable economic destruction wrought by such legislation should be what the endarkened call a "no-brainer". Even those low-wage earners who keep their jobs and get a (nominal) wage due to the legislation will not get a real wage raise (and will likely get a real wage cut) when accounting for the less immediate effects of the law (no matter who notices those effects, if anybody). And there is certainly no excuse for the political and journalistic analogue of pre-nineteenth century medicine (the effects will certainly be analogous to a crosscut saw amputation with whiskey anesthesia) in 2015. It is no less absurd than firefighters pouring gasoline onto fire, or "Gasoline fights fire" as a respected newspaper headline. (This law was apparently inspired by similar, recent legislation in the even-further-gone city of Seattle. There are already reports of small businesses closing and "low-wage" workers noticing that actual wages have declined. Even ignoring the relatively high cost of living of the City of Devils--which itself has as much to do with "progressive" policies as much as housing demand and was probably cited as a "reason" for the law and which is one of the factors the law actually WILL raise--any "raise" any of the working poor will receive that is larger than the average "progressive"'s understanding of economics will be despite the legislation, not because of it.)
     The namesake of this weblog referred to this city as Los Angeles the Damned. What he would call it now is probably not printable even in today's newspapers.
     I hope Henry Hazlitt loved his thorough, cogent, valid work and died "rich", because he would have been better off writing comic books like Steve Ditko if he wanted his crucial, desperately-needed, corrective ideas to have the tiniest modicum of impact.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Snapshots of Endarkenment: A Sunday at the Theaters

Two products of modern culture and its ineluctable deterioration that I (coincidentally) watched within hours of each other yesterday represent two sides of one of the many false dichotomies tearing apart what’s left of Western civilization. (The latter connection is the primary reason they are paired and contrasted here.)
The first is a new feature film: Mad Max: Fury Road.
The second is a play: The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side.
The film can be succinctly summarized as action without significant characterization.
The play can be succinctly summarized as characterization without significant action. 
Neither is quite as execrable as some of the standard fare in each’s respective category (though the film’s score at the Internet Movie Database, 8.8 out of 10 as of now, is almost as absurd as its porcupine-like vehicles, its villain reminiscent of John Travolta in Battlefield Earth, and some of its other visuals). Not only do the Hollywood stars deliver respectable performances (unlike writing and directing, acting in general is better than ever), there is genuine, clearcut heroism in the film that is welcome in a “gray”, naturalistic/modernist culture (the film is, after all, entertainment, not modern “art”) as well as a few oases of poignant benevolence amidst its 120 minutes of malevolent, McLuhanesque mayhem. The play’s cast is actually affective and effective considering their source material. Neither is particularly recommended except as a barometer of a culture well on its way to total disintegration.
The standard caveats apply: this cranky curmudgeon has low expectations for everything new in modern “art” and entertainment and doesn’t like much of it (perhaps the resultant reviews slightly underrate their subjects as a consequence—but only slightly). Prior to viewing the new film, I had never seen a Mad Max film and do not really know the series’s story arc or iconography (I accepted the invitation to accompany a likeminded writer friend with similar views who would just as soon not be identified here). As one who generally studies and revels in writing and cinema prior to my lifetime, I may be under-qualified to evaluate frantic, frenetic twenty-first century blockbusters and ambiguous, open-ended twenty-first century character studies “fairly”, on their own terms (as opposed to evaluating the terms).
As William Greeley and others have noted, there was a time when screenwriters and playwrights integrated plot and thought, action and character, story and theme (and sedulously supplied abundant amounts of each, seamlessly fused together). With the rise of literary and filmic naturalism (in art) and mindless B-movie spectacle (in entertainment), the two have been disintegrated as has so much else in a culture of disintegration.
Like other current and recent blockbusters, Mad Max: Fury Road is a technician’s film as much as anything else, and technical work is distinct from writing and directing. It is generally not compatible with genuine creativity. The endless parade of kinetic objects flying across the screen; the interminable, wordless fights (every four hours or so there’s about a line-and-a-half of dialogue, or does the film just seem that long and sparsely worded?); the monster trucks; the eccentric personages (one ostentatiously makes noise with a futuristic electric guitar while riding on the front of a gargantuan vehicle); and the soundtrack (including both mismatched poignant music and more consistent earsplitting anti-music); surely deliver the kind of (literally) sensational fusillade that satiates the modern blockbuster consumer’s appetite for destruction. The audience of off-duty production assistants and technicians at the Arclight Cineramadome in Hollywood responded with the expected Jeff Spicoli-esque inarticulate, colloquial exclamations at the most mind-deadening modern action shots. What story exists in this latest dystopian wasteland is neigh on incomprehensible, especially without familiarity with its predecessors, amidst the beleaguered editor’s cutting and assembling of speechless visuals. (There was a time when sequels and follow-ups like Return of the Pink Panther and Batman Begins were coherent to those unfamiliar with previous films, but those days, too, have apparently passed.) There is some genuine dialogue and acting towards the end, but, as with so many other post-1980s pieces of Hollywood, it seems perfunctory, an obligatory, inchoate (and less than sincere) going-through-the-motions to satisfy fading sensibilities. Director George Miller deserves credit for forsaking trendy, lurid close-ups of gore. (Miller is obviously from an earlier, more tasteful generation—if only he consistently followed its mores. My companion authoritatively informed me that 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, co-written and co-directed by Miller, is teeming with thematic content, however trendy and false. There is no discernible, explicit theme or philosophy in this effort.) Unfortunately, he occasionally dabbles in Guy Ritchie-style extreme closeups of objects that flout human perception as well as near-subliminal flashbacks that are incomprehensible to series newcomers—these are conisistent with a culture-wide assault on and distortion of human perception and cognition. (Writer/director Sylvester Stallone used somewhat similar, less jarring flashbacks in Rocky Balboa that were nevertheless completely comprehensible to series newcomers.) The location, costuming, and makeup are reminiscent of the Tattooine scenes of Star Wars (some of the post-apocalyptic survivors evoke the dress and gait of Jawas and Tusken Raiders). The onscreen monster trucks are apposite as this experience is essentially yet another cinematic equivalent of a monster truck rally. It is Wrestlemania with better acting but less characterization.
The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side falls squarely on the other side of the false dichotomies. As inconsistent, eclectic modern plays that sprawl across the naturalism/modernism axis go, it is intermittently entertaining, funny, and engaging. (It is mostly relatively realistic naturalism but panders to the woozy metaphysical-mystery worshipers near the end in what is either supposed to be a mystic experience or the character’s hallucination—the lack of clarity ensures it is a modernistic touch regardless of the playwright/director’s intention. Unusually, the playwright directed the play.) The story (which is mostly intelligible and “realistic” in a manner that already guarantees a ranking above much of its competition these unfortunate days) chronicles the lives of four members (two male, two female) of a contemporary version of a hippie commune at the intersection of Stanton and Ludlow Streets in Manhattan. (They receive rent-free lodging and victuals, and one of the guys receives support for his underground newspaper, from the wealthy building owner/heir. In exchange, they run his “vegan fast food” restaurant on the ground floor. The four share one “romantic relationship” and engage in bisexual trysts and “foursomes” that are not dramatized during the play’s scenes--unless extended bisexual kissing counts.) This is the Los Angeles premiere of a play that debuted in the city in which it is set (and apparently gained some notoriety, even in contemporary New York, for an actor’s erection.) The apartment set of the current Hollywood production is somewhat confusing: An imposing painting of Ernesto Guevara’s menacing collectivist visage adorns a wall at stage right, but a sign printed with the legend “Private Property—Keep Out” adorns a wall off stage left. (If this was supposed to be an Hegelian synthesis indicative of the confusions of young idealists or the compromises noble leftists must make with the fortunate remnants of capitalism that still remain, it eluded my ken.) There is a graffito consisting of the word “PEACE” (with an anarchy symbol for an “a”) and a Guy Fawkes mask (the aspiring journalist, at least, is an anarchist) that clashes with the notorious militarist and government-employed hippie persecutor Guevara. There are also posters for Easy Rider and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—but no indication from the set design or music references (the entire music collection is superannuated vinyl) of anything that occurred after 1973. The most far-fetched, reality-flouting aspects of the play (at least until the modernist anti-conclusion) center around the male residents of the apartment. They are named after Billy and Wyatt, the main characters of Dennis Hopper’s famous film. (It is actually one of the most misinterpreted films in history. The original Billy and Wyatt could have been named Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent—they are actually capitalists with long hair. Hopper, who portrayed Billy, was a Republican, incidentally.) This Billy and Wyatt bear little resemblance to their shamesakes—they have short hair and large muscles. (How the journalist, an indolent drug addict, could maintain those muscles is also beyond this observer’s considerable powers of comprehension.) The story unquestionably takes place in the present—there is at least one sleek cellular phone and all kinds of post-Sixties (and -Nineties) slang and terminology. The first act or so (there are three, with intermissions after the first two) is one of the more enjoyable pieces of recently-written theater I’ve seen (it’s not saying much even though I have seen a few plays)—the viewer must be inured to the coarseness, permissiveness, and inarticulate nature of twenty-first century culture to appreciate any of it. Playwright/director Derek Ahonen writes in the program: “I really care about these characters. I hope that you do too.” If the play’s quality had sustained past its first half, he may have succeeded. There is some skillfully negotiated drama as the journalist’s puerile (even by today’s standards) and provincial younger brother visits from the midwest and is shocked to discover his brother’s lifestyle and living arrangements. (This ensures that the fairly extensive nudity is not even gratuitous as the other three waggishly greet the awkward brother in the nude. Unlike in New York, there was no erection in Sunday’s performance.) There is a copious amount of intellectual discussion (by the standards of an obscurantist, anti-intellectual culture) that is neither pedantic nor didactic but integrated with the characterization.  (Contra some reviews, the play is not limited to interminable sex talk, even if it is, eventually, interminable.) The atheistic journalist discusses freshman metaphysics with his mates, and the three-hour play has more than enough time for politics. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the intellectual dialogue is platitudinous, clich├ęd leftism (perhaps by design). Even when it is not, it is usually invalid. The smarter female character inverts the truth when she opines that if most people were as responsible as their landlord, capitalism could work. When the landlord subsequently arrives and drops a bombshell (and the smarter woman’s words come back to haunt her), Ahonen’s story still had the potential to rise far above a low culture. Unfortunately, it’s too long and it settles for trendy irresolution and ambiguity as it drags toward its non-conclusion. Even then, the performances are uniformly impressive.
The integration of a Casablanca, a Rocky, or a Cyrano de Bergerac is almost entirely absent from modern writing. (The Shawshank Redemption may have been a swan song of sorts.) Since both sides of this false cultural divide provide essential elements that are missing from each side (and I require at least some art and entertainment that is set in my own unfortunate time and/or written from its perspective), I continually look for the best of each side with low expectations and a certain reluctant tolerance for Endarkenment. The false cultural divide is yet another aspect of the culture’s split between mind and body. Neither of yesterday’s “shows” is likely to be entirely satisfying to an objective observer, not even for one with a reluctant tolerance for this split, though either may satisfy its nonobjective partisans (as the film’s IMDb score, if not the play’s mixed reviews, suggest). Although their exiguous virtues would likely elude all but the sharpest observers, Mad Max: Fury Road may provide a starving romantic with a tincture of heroism and benevolence; The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side (while it takes no ethical side on any of its egregiously flawed characters) may even inspire a thoughtful objective viewer to think a little about implicit philosophy and explicit human relationships. And, in the culture of anti-heroes and anti-thought, that may count for something.



Mad Max: Fury Road
Produced by George Miller, Doug Mitchell, and P.J. Voeten
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris
Directed by George Miller
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult
Kennedy Miller Mitchell/Village Roadshow Pictures/Warner Bros. 

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
Written and Directed by Derek Ahonen
Featuring Adam Brooks, Heather Mertens, Agatha Nowicki, Ben Reno, Patrick Scott Lewis, and Jordan Tisdale
The Matrix Theatre, Hollywood (through May 24)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fifteen Books

Here is a list of books I compiled when I was asked to "come up with 10 books that have influenced you or stuck with you in some way." It was published elsewhere on September 1, 2014. I thought it should be reproduced here. (Obviously, I added an addendum of five.)







1. McKeon, Richard, ed.  The Basic Works of Aristotle.  c. 335 - c. 323 BC.  New York: Random House, 1941.
These are essential writings from the progenitor and architect of Western civilization.

2. Hugo, Victor.  The Toilers of the Sea [Les Travailleurs de la Mer].  Trans. James Hogarth.  1866.  New York: The Modern Library, 2002.
One of the first of many neglected classic novels, this one, to use one of its author's favorite words, may be ineffable ("bittersweet" certainly doesn't cover it).

3. Mencken, H.L.  Notes on Democracy.  1926.  New York: Dissident Books, 2009.
This was probably even more risible with alcohol prohibition raging and twentieth-century politics and popular culture waxing.  It is still funny, but, in hindsight, this author's marginalization, the new prohibition (I'm not just referring to the "War On Drugs"), and the legacy of twentieth-century politics and culture is even less excusable (and more than a bit alarming).  He saw it all coming, and he was all the rage among flappers and others with high school educations who were able to understand his vocabulary, historical references, and logic without a Department of Education or No Child Left Behind.

4. Rand, Ayn.  The Fountainhead.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
This ode to individualism, egoism, and life's grandeur embodied in diverse and heterogeneous major and minor characters (you don't remember Steven Mallory? re-read it) is not understood to a fraction of the extent to which it is admired.

5. Rand, Ayn.  Atlas Shrugged.  New York: Random House, 1957.
Contrary to what the mainstream commentators of a disgraceful culture will tell you, it's all here: an integrated, unprecedented philosophic system; romanticism; realism; more diverse, vivid, heterogeneous characters; science fiction; renascent epic literature; economics; the ethics of suicide; heroes of every economic class; villains who are almost invariably rich; "gray" people (and areas) in context (the context being that the fundamentals are fundamental); the camaraderie and respect between geniuses and "common people;" ad infinitum.  (That might scratch the surface.)  Ignore it, and fail to understand it, at your own risk.

6. Lee, Harper.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  New York: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.
Heroism and individualism next door.

7. O'Rourke, P.J.  Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991.
Notes on Democracy, End of the Century Edition.  The title and subtitle speak for themselves.  In a halfway rational culture, it would be required reading in every high school (along with most of the books on this list).  No matter who you are, you'll find at least a little to agree with here (and you'll laugh uncontrollably).

8. Ledgin, Norm.  Diagnosing Jefferson: Evidence of a Condition that Guided His Beliefs, Behavior, and Personal Associations.  Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons, Inc., 2000.
Thomas Jefferson is one of the most misunderstood (and, lately, maligned) figures in American history.  Whether you agree or disagree with this controversial book's thesis, you'd be unlikely to finish the book without a revaluation of the book's subjects.

9. Peikoff, Kira.  Living Proof.  New York: Tor, 2012.
Romanticism of and for the twenty-first century (which desperately needs it), this novel managed to rekindle hope and light in me (no easy task) amidst a culture of despair and darkness.

10. Peikoff, Leonard.  The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West are Going Out.  New York: New American Library, 2012.
It's not "negative"--it is a concerned, realistic battle cry.  It is certainly the kind of "complex" (and integrated) approach to philosophy that a disintegrated culture desperately needs.  "To save the world is the simplest thing in the world; all one has to do is think," its author once wrote.  Read this, and learn how.  (The subtitle is Kira's.)


Addendum: Almost everything you think you know is wrong.
These books certainly "influenced and stuck with me"--and since they address misunderstood and/or neglected and/or distorted topics, I couldn't fail to mention them.

Hazlitt, Henry.  Economics in One Lesson.  Revised Edition.  New York: Crown Publishers, 1979.
This man (as well as Mencken, who called him "one of the few economists who could really write") was actually published in The New York Times frequently when it was still worth the paper it was printed on.

Fumento, Michael.  The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS: How a Tragedy has Been Distorted by the Media and Partisan Politics.  New York: Basic Books, 1990.
It's not dated because the (public) credulity and ignorance and (government and media) dishonesty still exist and are even worse now.

Kelly, Susan.  The Boston Stranglers.  Third Edition.  1995.  New York: Kensington, 2013.
It's not a justice system.  It hasn't been since the 1950s (at least).  And the press deteriorated before the legal system did.

Ruddy, Christopher.  The Strange Death of Vincent Foster: An Investigation.  New York: Free Press, 1997.
After reading the above books, this shouldn't have surprised me, but, somehow, it did.  Miquel Rodriguez, where are you?

Anonymous.  Failure of the Public Trust.  Self-published, 1999.
The subject is the same as Ruddy's book, but this is more thorough, accurate, and convincing (and it's available for free online).






Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review of Mark Steyn's "America Alone: Imagine the World Without Her"

My review of Mark Steyn's book America Alone: Imagine the World Without Her has been published at ParcBench (thanks again to Gregory Zeigerson). Click the link to read it.