Saturday, January 16, 2016

Wonderful Crazy Night: Elton John at Disneyland

Note: this has also been published at the other weblog.

On March 25, 1947, the individual now known as Elton John was born.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened.

The culture of the middle of the twentieth century was an alien realm, mostly for worse, from the perspective of a perspicacious observer today. However corroded “serious culture” and politics already was, the results had not yet metastasized in popular culture and economics. Americans, still relatively free and on the gold standard and the Breton Woods monetary system, produced genuine wealth and real prosperity on a grand scale in nearly every corner of every city and town, from the enterprising small business owner to … Walt Disney. Motion picture studios and record labels still produced large quantities of intelligible, stylized “products” that depicted life as exuberant, or, at least, exciting and fascinating, with characters that were heroic and dignified, or, at least, not depraved. Musical compositions had melodies and a modicum of instrumental skill and complexity, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to the early rock and rollers who also inspired … Elton John. He would synthesize both styles into something unprecedented during what was arguably popular music’s apogee. Introducing him and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin as they were inducted into a worthless, meaningless institution not worthy of inductees or even orator, W. Axl Rose referred to it as “my classical music”.

Popular music has long since degenerated into the worst kinds of rap and punk (and worse), and even The Walt Disney Company now dabbles in aesthetic modernism (and more than dabbles in propaganda of the worst sort). But the Enlightenment has not entirely faded yet, and when two of its waning rays meet, it is a cause for celebration.

Last night, Elton John and his tight, versatile band performed on Disneyland Park’s Plaza, in front of the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, while cameras were rolling for a forthcoming television special celebrating Disneyland’s sixtieth anniversary. Thousands celebrated.

Although rumors had been circulating for days, they were not entirely confirmed even after Friday morning’s park guests saw a stage set up with a draped grand piano. (The “release form” signs acknowledging the ongoing filming of Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special were not out of the ordinary.) Throughout the day, after a soundcheck with a choir exposed said piano as a familiar red Yamaha, they were just about confirmed.

After an unusually early iteration of the nightly Disneyland Forever sixtieth-anniversary fireworks display, an emcee greeted the gathered crowd and gave the usual directions/encouragement for the sake of the camera crew and television footage. Around 7:59 PM, the choir and band took the stage. Band members included original Elton John band guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson (unfortunately, bass guitarist Dee Murray died over twenty years ago). Flamboyant erstwhile percussionist Ray Cooper may have been present; my view of the auxiliary percussion stand was blocked. The percussionist behind the bass drum emblazoned with Wonderful Crazy Night", the title of the new Elton John album, was likely John Mahon. Normally, I would complain, but Elton’s piano and, later, Elton, were blocking the percussionist (and Davey Johnstone). To a roaring ovation, the star singer/composer/performer/knight ascended the temporary stage in a characteristic full-length coat with his initials embroidered on the back. He’s older than Disneyland, and he and Taupin addressed some of the concerns of advancing age more than a decade ago in “Weight of the World”. Although my companion said he was transported to and from the stage in a wheelchair, he looked nimble and agile enough onstage, and his voice, while worn with age, has the weathered strength of experience. Unlike many of his peers, when he started singing, he sounded indubitably like himself.


What he started singing was “Circle of Life”, the song he wrote with Tim Rice for Disney’s The Lion King, the first John/Disney collaboration and one of the more satisfying cultural artifacts of an otherwise dismal decade. It’s not one of my favorites (even from that film), but it was hard for anyone but the most cynical modernist and pop culture detractor not to feel empowerment from the music (including that voice) and gratitude for life itself. Indeed, Elton John, even Disney at its best, is more than pop culture. It is art in a culture of dumbed-down pop non-art and modernist anti-art, from the ironic realism, surprising subtlety, and texture of the animators to the rock-classical concept album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA, 1975) (which I had the privilege to see Sir Elton and company perform in nearly its entirety at Madison Square Garden in 2005). The band’s and choir’s performance was a harmonious blend. Johnstone was hard to hear in the mix, but the “pop” aspects of Elton John’ s pop have never overemphasized the talents of the backing band. The entire ensemble contributed to an integrated whole that emphasized the quality of the songs over the competent musicianship. For the first song in question, Rice’s lyrics are slightly too maudlin in their post-hippie ethos, but they are well-written and do not detract from the music’s majesty. The musical, exuberant “Yeah!” that climaxed the song cemented its effectiveness in the moment. Afterwards, Elton enthusiastically engaged the audience with his trademark earnest gestures and expressions without any of the smug self-importance and seeming condescension of so many performers. The audience chanted his name. When he sat back down at the piano, he said, “It’s great to be back at Disneyland. I’ve never played here. I’ve never been here at night!” He announced another run-through of “Circle of Life” for the audio and video crew. Before running through the song again, he puckishly banged the F major seventh chord that punctuates the beginning of “Bennie and the Jets” followed by the impish grin and finger to mouth of a lovable child caught doing something vaguely naughty but harmless. Then he sang “Circle of Life” with the same conviction and soul. Keyboardist Kim Bullard’s synth doodles added whimsical color. Afterwards, Elton said, “How about a cheer for the choir; they’re amazing.” 

After doodling at the piano a little (it sounded like “Take Me to the Pilot”), the pianist said, “No fireworks from beginning to end of the song, all right? This is a song called ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’. You’ve never heard it before, and it’s the title song from our new album. So, pretend you know it.” Wonderful Crazy Night (Capitol/Mercury) will be released February 5 and is available for pre-order in multiple editions and formats. All of its songs have Taupin lyrics, and it is the first album with the band since 2006’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sequel The Captain & the Kid (Interscope). “Wonderful Crazy Night” may or may not become a future John/Taupin classic, but the songwriting team is an active cultural treasure, and the song is a joyful, rollicking romp that was perfect for the occasion. Elton’s welcome and familiar skillful piano fills, chords, and glissandos do provide the song with the characteristics of a John/Taupin classic. A fireworks spectacle lit the castle and backdrop. At song’s conclusion, Elton remarked offhand that they had to wait for another set of fireworks.

During downtime, he continued, “About 50,000 people work here every day … 80,000 people come through the park every day. That’s 130,000 people a day that come through this park. When I came over on December the 23rd, I thought there was 330,000 people: the busiest day of the year.” He announced another run-through of “Wonderful Crazy Night” for the camera eyes and microphone ears. “And they’re going to spend more money on fireworks! You’ve been amazing, by the way. Thank you so much.” Someone in the audience yelled, “You’re the amazing one!” and the amazing one bounced another F major seventh chord off his red Yamaha, with the predictable response. He followed this with a longer “teaser”: a full chorus of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, the perfect song from The Lion King with perfect, enlightened Tim Rice lyrics. It seemed much longer in the moment, and the absence of the rest of it was acutely felt. Then the ensemble played another rousing version of “Wonderful Crazy Night”, and the glorious twenty-five minute set was over, capped by a director’s further instructions for the capturing of incidental B roll footage.

These are trying times, and the continuing popularity of perennial icons like Disney and Elton John is a testament to the paucity of artistic culture in the West’s post-twentieth century doldrums. The audience gathered last night seemed to have some idea of the significance of the occasion even if few had the slightest idea why it was significant or how profound it really was in an unspeakable culture of vulgar, atonal, cynical, snarky trash. To the credit of the institutions behind the performance, what could have been pointless nostalgia was not. “Circle of Life” may have been predictable, but it is still relatively new in the context of a songbook of hits and artistic obscurities stretching back several decades now. And it was not only new; it was appropriate as well. And “Wonderful Crazy Night” is not even out yet. In a time when even Bruce Springsteen (of all unlikely artists) has succumbed to the nostalgia of “The River Tour 2016”, Elton John’s indefatigable commitment to new music is notable and admirable.

I recommend Disney animated classics (through The Lion King, but no later), even with their necessary limitations, and I recommend a visit to the Disneyland Resort if it’s logistically and financially feasible in the false, government-engineered "prosperity" of this "extended recovery". I cannot recommend Elton John enough [personal favorites include the aforementioned John/Taupin autobiography Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the secular gospel Peachtree Road (Universal 2004)among many others]. But if neither is to your taste, find your own skillful, representational celebration of life. Or, better yet, make your own, if you can. And support others who do, from your local school/theater group/small concert hall to the aging baby boomers who still fill the arenas and stadiums (and movie screens). You need it, and so does a dying culture.



Capitol and Mercury will release Wonderful Crazy Night on February 5, and the Disney ABC Television Network will air the Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special later in February. Check the listings.


Elton John

Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special
The Plaza
Disneyland Park
Disneyland Resort
Anaheim, CA, USA
Friday, January 15th, 2016

set:
Circle of Life
Circle of Life
Wonderful Crazy Night
Can You Feel the Love Tonight [excerpt]
Wonderful Crazy Night





My friend Mindy captured all of the spectacular images. Thanks, Mindy.

Words and music, impeccably integrated and impeccably delivered ...

Nigel Olsson, who started playing with Elton in 1970, looks on.

Important, but not self-important.


My sources tell me that Kim Bullard is the brother of underrated vocalist/lyricist Mike Tramp, best known for fronting White Lion.


Band of brothers: Matt Bissonette's brother is Greg, best known for providing the beat behind David Lee Roth, Steve Vai, and Billy Sheehan.



Nigel Olsson, senior band member--even more senior than Davey Johnstone

Captain Fantastic--not self-important, just important

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Countdowns

A few brief notes:

The inestimable Mark Steyn has recapped the year with a brief overview of, and links to, some (or all) of his articles this year. It is well worth your time. I particularly recommend his writing on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and what he calls Big Climate.

Robert Tracinski has a new website up with his usual year-end recap of what he considers to be the top stories/topics of the year. His latest concerns the academic left, their institutions, their spawn, and their ineluctable and inexorable downward spiral over the decades (with a prediction that may or may not turn out to be prescient). Here is #3, "The Year the Chickens Came Home to Roost", in his "Top Stories of the Year" series; #4 and #5 are accessible at his site (with the top two forthcoming).

I would write more, but I am preparing to enjoy one of the irreplaceable values a declining (if not already declined) culture still has to offer: an annual homecoming live performance by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (here is a review I wrote of their latest album; here is a review I wrote of two of their recent performances).

The frame of the Gregorian calendar is somewhat arbitrary, but New Year's Eve is an appropriate time to reflect on the last revolution around the Sun. Much of my writing this past year has yet to be published (here or anywhere else). However, I think it was the most productive year yet. (The concert review linked above was one of a few diverse pieces published elsewhere. That was a first.) The culture wanes, but I wax.

Whether or not I will continue to use this platform, I am determined to see that 2016 is even more productive. As I see the continued effects of logically-developed false and invalid ideas metastasize throughout the entire culture, I conclude that time is running out. However, despite the headlines, the universe is an agreeable, favorable place; many (most?) human beings are still astoundingly good; and there is still tremendous value in the culture.


Happy New Year



Jeffrey Falk
Red Bank, New Jersey, USA
December 31, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Creed": Much Better (and More Original) Than Anyone Could Reasonably Expect

In a scene in Ryan Coogler’s Creed (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. 2015), Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) asks Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) about Johnson’s biological father, Apollo Creed. Balboa tells him that he was the best: he uses the word “perfect”. When Johnson asks how Balboa beat Creed if that was so, Balboa holds time responsible. “Time takes everybody out; time’s undefeated.” This is an important theme deftly dramatized by Cooler and his co-screenwriter Aaron Covington; this theme and its deft dramatization are one of the reasons Creed succeeds more than yet another new adaptation should.

I had resisted seeing Creed for some time since its November 25 release date. Primarily, I skipped it for weeks because I thought it was the only “Rocky” movie not written by Stallone and directed by John G. Avildsen or Stallone. I also agree with Bob Dylan that nostalgia is death and regarded yet another sequel as another nail in the coffin of a once-vibrant, fascinating culture. I had read a negative review in L.A. Weekly that seemed plausible. To quote myself after seeing Rocky Balboa nine years ago yesterday, “Sometimes it’s great to be wrong.” (There is nothing great about L.A. Weekly.)

Let’s stipulate that Creed is not perfect. It eventually succumbs to too much nostalgia and mimicry of the “Rocky movies”, and it dabbles in a contemporary vulgarity that represents the worst of the trends that succeeded and countered the ethos those movies represented. (No one expected Sylvester Stallone to graphically pretend to vomit onscreen; the deterioration of aesthetics and standards accelerates exponentially.) But Creed is not so much a Rocky movie; it has its own themes, character, and stylistic panache. Coogler’s direction is often a seamless hybrid of the best of classic and contemporary filmmaking. Since it is not so much a Rocky movie, and Balboa, though lovable as ever, has his first supporting role, it is entirely appropriate that others wrote the screenplay and directed without Stallone’s help (especially considering some of his recent track record).

Creed begins in Los Angeles in 1998, with Mary Anne Creed (The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Rashad, who has never played the role before) pulling very young Adonis Johnson out of some kind of reform school/juvenile hall. Johnson already has a penchant for fighting, and Creed takes him under his wing because he is the son of her late husband and his mistress. Seventeen years later, Johnson, who has an undefeated underground boxing career in Tijuana clubs, quits his executive job in Los Angeles to pursue his career dream: fully-professional boxing. His surrogate mother tries to talk him out of it, and, when she fails, she shuns him. Johnson moves to Philadelphia to enlist the training services of Balboa, who also tries to talk him out of it. When he also fails, he eventually takes the son of his former rival and best friend under his metaphorical wing, at least until a twist of fortune starts to hamper his ability to do so. This metaphorical knockdown is unlike any of Balboa’s previous knockdowns, and it contributes to the story’s uniqueness. Coogler and Covington adroitly weave and integrate the subplot into the film’s theme, and any film with such integration is a lifeline in a culture of disintegration.

It is impossible to dramatize such a story and such characters without some looking back, and there’s no reason to completely avoid references to the past. Creed is teeming with obscure and semi-obscure references to the Rocky saga. For much of the film, Coogler executes them with subtlety that manages to be effective and paradoxically striking. (Although the specific piece is not listed in the credits, what sounds like variations on Bill Conti’s elegiac French horn piece “Mickey” from Rocky III quietly whispers in the background of the score during some of the references to characters time has taken away in the film’s fictitious universe.) Those characters would talk about those people and topics while keeping them on the periphery of their attention in a world and lives that have moved on. Coogler understands this or writes and directs as if he does.

Although, like every film with Rocky Balboa, Creed is not about boxing, Coogler’s boxing sequences are more realistic than Stallone’s. There is more of the constant hugging one sees in actual matches (though the punches are still too loud). Furthermore, Coogler’s directing style retains the stationary camera and long shots and takes of a more cultured, classy era while employing smooth, panoramic tracking shots during the training and match sequences that compliment the graceful footwork of a nimble prizefighter. Unlike his McLuhanesque contemporaries (including, ironically, Sylvester Stallone), Coogler’s cuts and tracks are seamless and stylized. Incorporating modern street patois, sartorial trends (tattooed boxers), and modern anti-music, Creed manages to reflect its dark times while also transcending them, reminding the discerning viewer that there are still lingering embers as the cultural fire continues to wane in intensity.

Some of the film’s modern touches are inevitable. Some are debatable. (There is the anti-music of rap, but Johnson’s love interest, portrayed by Tessa Thompson, composes and performs better contemporary R&B music.) Some are unfortunate, such as the modern, reflective titles that announce each boxer and his won-loss record. Also, by the film’s end, the director and writers tilt too much toward nostalgia, with unsubtle, classic Bill Conti music (unequivocally identified in the credits) and familiar boxing trunks. And the end, as perhaps expected, leaves room for sequels in the age of sequels. These are relatively minor problems. Creed is not Furious 7000 or Pirates of the Caribbean XXIV: Jack Sparrow’s Gouty Balls Part II. It is its own film (Dumas and Balzac wrote long series of novels), and it is a romantic, realistic, and integrated one. In an age with few of any, much less all, of the above, it deserves to be celebrated, whatever its flaws.

Postscript: The financially successful Creed may be a new franchise (or semi-new spinoff) followed by sequels, but it is the end of an era, of sorts. It is the last film co-produced by Robert Chartoff of Chartoff Winkler Productions, who co-produced every film with the Balboa character to date (as well as Raging Bull, among others) but died in Santa Monica on June 10 at the age of eighty-one. Creed is dedicated to him. His son William (along with his partner’s sons) have, like Creed’s titular character, adopted his father’s profession and also co-produced the film.




Creed
Produced by Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King Templeton, William Chartoff, Charles Winkler, and David Winkler
Story by Ryan Coogler; Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington
Directed by Ryan Coogler 
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, and Tessa Thompson

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. (in association with New Line Cinema)



"Creed poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Six Days Later

The Endarkenment turned another corner last week.

     As virtually everyone knows, last Friday the Islamic State perpetrated a series of horrific attacks at multiple locations in Paris, an historic, cultural, and symbolic capital of Western civilization which has birthed the likes of Voltaire and Hugo. (Elsewhere that day, a lethal attack in Kenya of similar scope left scores of victims. While it is not as culturally significant as the assault on reason and civilization in Paris, it is also noteworthy.) [See note below--11/20/15.] These attacks were ideologically similar to but much more ambitious and devastating than the January 7 attack on the headquarters of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo when two Islamists murdered magazine staffers for publishing cartoons that depicted Mohammed. Last week’s attacks were horrific but not surprising to those who have been paying attention and understand the nature of ideas and the consequences of appeasement (which means they were probably surprising to most people alive today). As of Wednesday evening, the death toll was well over one hundred. The count of injured victims was well over three hundred. As of Thursday morning, the alleged mastermind of the attacks was killed in a police raid.

I was away from home and computer for an extended time during and after the attacks, which is one of the reasons I have not posted much until now. Another is that more prolific commenters (Mark Steyn, to name one) have said most of what needs to be said. (They are relatively unusual in a militantly non-judgmental culture of relativists, appeasers, and cheek-turners, including many “libertarians”.) A third is that, when dealing with broad abstractions and fundamentals, their application in relation to concretes and specifics is a job for policy makers and generals (who are failing miserably primarily because they have the wrong fundamental ideas and abstractions). After a while, the rare integrator in a culture of disintegrators sounds like a broken record (to use a trite simile). The menace of “terrorism” (which is symptomatic of a deeper cause, the Islamic religion) has the same fundamental solution as the ongoing economic meltdown, the dumbing down of the Eloi, the increasing sloth and ennui of a once-robust culture, etc. Follow reason. Embrace the individualism and secular reason that once lit the lamps of Enlightenment and liberty.

     In addition to an increasingly rare antidote of generalized Enlightenment in the metastasizing Endarkenment, I have a few things to add that may be semi-unusual.

     One observation is mostly personal, but I was particularly saddened that the site of one of the attacks was Le Bataclan, a concert venue built in 1864 on le boulevard Voltaire. On June 25, 1998, the extraordinary Dream Theater (who would be a household name in a rational culture) recorded their live album Once in a LIVEtime (EastWest Records America 2CD, 1998) in the venue. It is appropriate, symbolically, that one of the last bastions of exultant expertise and musical brilliance in a dying genre and culture has a connection to one of the prominent sites in one of the most significant, coordinated, and extensive attacks on the West.

     Another is more general. 

     Although nothing significant has changed in the past week in terms of the day-to-day lives or quality of life of most people (yet), those who identified Friday’s events as a turning point are correct. The Islamic State, an exceptionally wealthy and organized organization that is starting to display the characteristics of an actual state (such as controlling territory), carried through a notable series of attacks. One might reasonably say they won the battle. Western leaders will likely respond according to the inertia of the Endarkenment, with more appeasement, more welcoming of “refugees” (who were numbered among Friday’s attackers), and more of a siege mentality at home, treating everyone but Muslims with suspicion and more feckless “security checkpoints” and laws and “safety precautions” while the inchoate police state continues to rise around a once-free West. (Matt Drudge and others are reporting that the Transportation Security Administration misses 75% of dangerous weapons.) Both the multiculturalist left and the religious right are fundamentally the same on this issue (as they are on so many others), which is why there are no significant improvements in policy and nothing significant changes. And that means there will be more (and worse) attacks. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to metaphysics as well as physics: When nothing changes, everything gets worse.

     It is true that the ongoing jihad against the West is not “the fault of all Muslims”. That is also irrelevant. It is the fault of Islam. It is impossible to practice any bad ideology consistently, and most don’t come close. The exceptions are the consistent exemplars of the ideology. Human beings are generally good, including most Muslims, but that does not mean that Islam is not evil and that its consistent embodiments are not waging war against the vestiges of human civilization.

     A perspicacious thinker with whom many reading this are familiar once said to me, “There’s still a lot left to lose.” That was a few years ago, and more lights have been snuffed (even before last Friday), but the lights are not completely out yet. From weblogs to Dream Theater live albums to technology to human camaraderie, it is still easy enough for the intellectually disarmed to evade the Endarkenment and the intellectually aware to live in defiance of it. And defy they should. Islam means “submission”. Don’t submit (to Islam or anything else). A war (which is what it is—the enemy certainly sees it that way) starts with one mind and body at a time. Like everything else in life.

     Even if leadership and general competence were better, practical responses to the crises are no longer enough. Current and not-so-current events should have indicated by now, even to the pragmatic and the status quo supporters, that the global crises are philosophical. The (global) culture needs a paradigm shift down to its deepest roots, or Friday’s attacks will soon seem comparatively trivial (and today’s status quo will be as dead as the gold standard and rifle ranges in downtown Los Angeles).

     In “The Duel Between Plato and Aristotle”, the epilogue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), Leonard Peikoff wrote, “To save the world is the simplest thing in the world. All one has to do is think.” It should be simple enough, but few are up to the task anymore. Hence the spectacle of millions of Facebook profile pictures modified with the superimposition of the French tricolor flag while a tiny fraction of those might seriously examine the problem and its solutions. If most individuals of the older (meaning post-teen) generations aree irrevocably stunted by Pragmatism and the culture it spawned, it would be imperative to try to educate children properly and encourage genuine critical thinking and inductive reasoning.

     With an entrenched education monopoly, that may be a hopeless undertaking. But the universe is a benevolent place (contrary to the conventional culture and its headlines and horror movies), the human mind (virtually each individual one, including those of the aged) has enormous potential, and a conscientious, rational individual should keep fighting (intellectually and otherwise) as long he can.



*Update, 11/20/15: A reader and friend has informed me that the aforementioned attack on Kenya occurred months ago. Reports circulated on the Internet that day by people who ignored and evaded the categorical differences between the attacks and used them to assert that the Western media and its customers and viewers do not care about Kenya and Kenyans. I was busy working at the time of the reports and was not able to read them in as much detail as I would have liked. 


"Bataclan, Paris 6 April 2008" by CĂ©line from Dublin, Ireland - Bataclan - Paris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bataclan,_Paris_6_April_2008.jpg#/media/File:Bataclan,_Paris_6_April_2008.jpg

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Next Day

Yesterday, there was another "mass shooting" in the United States. Reports of the number of victims vary. The perpetrator was shot by police.

     Although they are becoming more common, which should be noted, they are still rare. Concomitantly, the odds of an individual experiencing one are still much lower than those of many other relatively common categories of death and serious injury, including those of innocent people shot by police, that the media generally does not report and the public generally ignores.

     Predictably enough in an irrational, statist culture, the latest news inspired yet more calls for (more) "gun control".

     There is some good news associated with the shooting.

     A hero at the scene of the shooting likely prevented what would have been more injury or death. Chris Mintz was unarmed (whether by choice or, directly or indirectly, by government decree), but he was able to charge the gunman and likely prevented him from killing and injuring more people. Although Mintz was shot seven times and is seriously injured (according to a cousin, he will have to relearn to walk), he is expected to recover.

     From the Old Testament to its putative antipode, modernist literature, human beings have been repeatedly told that humanity (to use a politically correct term--this politically incorrect troglodyte is on his best behavior again) is evil, low, base, and guilty by nature. There is evidence to the contrary almost everywhere (not always as obvious or extraordinary as Chris Mintz, but present nonetheless), even in a desperate, anti-human culture like this one. Look for it. These days, your psychological well-being may depend on it.

     And, while you're still far more likely to be killed senselessly in any number of other situations, "mass shootings" are becoming somewhat more common, and that should be noted, too. The solution is not "gun control" (unless it is control of the government's guns--see George Reisman's linked article above), but a culture of reason--a second Renaissance.

Update, October 4: Various press reports now state that the gunman shot himself (and that Mintz was armed but chose not to use his weapon).

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).