In business ethics classes, students are supposed to become what they are studying. Ethical. In light of this miraculous transformation, Upstate College is cancelling the study of zoology, veterinary science, biology, mathematics, philosophy and modern languages – though admittedly too late to prevent the emergence of exotic animals, protozoa, equations, Platonic Concepts and sweet incomprehensible murmurings from assorted classrooms.
The victory over desire is extremely painful. Proust tells us that we must forego the fervent dialogue endlessly carried on by each of us at the superficial levels of our being. One must “give up one’s dearest illusions.” The novelist’s art is a phenomenological epochē. But the only authentic epochē is never mentioned by modern philosophers; it is always victory over desire, victory over Promethean pride. (René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel)
The descent of the absolute into the empirical world is the moment of its undoing. As soon as we posit an absolute difference between victim and persecutor, the underlying symmetry of their relation reasserts itself. When the SS torturer becomes the villain of the war film, he is turned into a sacrificial figure, a scapegoat, [a] structural equivalent of the Jud Süss in Nazi cinema. (Eric Gans, Signs of Paradox)
I. No account of Ayn Rand’s (1905 – 1982) sprawling, morally incoherent end-of-the-world story Atlas Shrugged (1957) can begin elsewhere than in an acknowledgment of the way in which the novel’s fascinating spectacle can draw a reader in despite himself. This is the book’s secret, which the present essay aims to investigate. The British writer Colin Wilson gives a typical account. He first became conscious of Rand’s work while lecturing in America in the autumn of 1961; university students would ask him his opinion about her. He responded that he had never heard of Rand, whereupon, as he writes, “somebody presented me with paperback copies of her two major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – the latter more than 1,000 pages long.” Delving into the former, Wilson found himself “immediately put off by the rhetorical tone of the opening,” which he quotes: “Howard Roark laughed… He stood naked at the edge of a cliff,” and so forth. Turning to Atlas, Wilson writes, “I remembered that I had seen some of this book before [when] a correspondent had sent me its last hundred pages: an immensely long speech, made over the radio by a man called John Galt… to justify individualism.” Galt’s speech struck Wilson as “too wordy” and he had, on that former occasion, “given it up.” Now, when students would ask what Wilson thought of Rand, he “inclined to be dismissive – a typical female writer, a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language.” In the autumn of 1962, however, confined to bed by a severe case of influenza, Wilson revisited Atlas, “determined to give it a fair trial.” Pushing himself through the first twenty pages, Wilson at last –
Read the book from cover to cover in two days, and immediately followed it with The Fountainhead. I had to admit that I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice. It is true that this is partly her own fault. The cover of Atlas Shrugged has a rather badly drawn picture of a naked Titan, his head thrown back, his arms spread apart, against a fiery red background; the back cover has a picture of Miss Rand, her head also thrown back, her eyes very wide open, the lips slightly parted as if seeing a vision. It was all a bit Wagnerian; and although I love Wagner’s music, I am inclined to be impatient of literary Wagnerianism – as in Faulkner or Wolfe… But one thing was immediately obvious from Atlas Shrugged. Miss Rand has the ability to tell a story… with a minimum of clichés.
In Wilson’s judgment, Atlas “has a great deal in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.” Like those, “it is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom.” Pace Wilson, while one might acknowledge some few similarities, Atlas shows little of the political or psychological acumen of Orwell or Huxley, and none at all of their individual stylistic felicity – but this stands as a parenthesis to the criticism. No subtlety kept Wilson riveted for two days and a thousand pages but rather Rand’s broad-stroke depiction of a grand industrial Götterdämmerung across the three parts of the novelistic tapestry. Rand has the technological infrastructure of North America collapsing into ruin, often with incendiary effects, while a gangster regime that has superseded the federal government systematically loots the national economy. Moral invertebrates like James Taggart, who oversees the destruction of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway, or the Al Capone-like Cuffy Meigs, the gang-leader just before the final catastrophe, exercise a kind of morbid glamour as Rand demonstrates the drastic consequences of their larceny-dissimulated-as-altruism. The protagonists, Dagny Taggart (James’ sister) and Henry “Hank” Rearden (owner of a steel mill), search an obliterated landscape for signs of the elusive Galt, who might be either the evil agency behind all of the massive decay (“the destroyer”) or the genius-inventor whose deus ex machina of a free-energy motor will save civilization.
“‘The friendship of a blockhead shun,’
Said Israel’s monarch, David’s son.”*
Samuel Low, “The Fool’s Friendship” (c. 1800)
“And all that pity you are made your prey.”
Thomas Otway, The Orphan (1680)
It may strike some readers as odd that I so often quote or allude to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of history’s more decidedly anti-Christian thinkers. Indeed, I most often quote The Antichrist, his most decidedly anti-Christian book. The Antichrist is, as they used to say, strong meat, but a Christian who has the stomach for strong meat may learn a good deal from it. Nietzsche himself believed he had diagnosed Christianity as the pathology of Western Man; I would say he has diagnosed morbid pity as the pathology of postmodern Christianity. Continue reading
Christopher Mihm is a Minnesota-based producer and director of radically inexpensive, independently financed entertainment films whose maneuver is that they disguise the impoverishment of their production values by mimicking the low-budget, black-and-white B-grade science-fiction films of the 1950s. They do so with consistent comedic brilliance. Mihm came on the scene in 2006 with his Monster from Phantom Lake, filmed for around ten thousand dollars, according to his website. The Monster makes allusions to a number of vintage man-in-a-suit shock-and-horror movies, such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), except that Mihm plays his story as a farce rather than as a straightforward fright-drama. In its farcicality, The Monster also recalls films of more recent vintage, such as The Toxic Avenger (1984), from Troma Studios, and its several sequels. The Troma films, however, were always crass and garish: That was their idiom. Mihm’s approach to farce, as well as to pastiche, is civilized rather than vulgar, and even at times rather gentle. Mihm clearly loves the films that he spoofs, and as he has found his feet in his self-defining genre a humane interest in his characters has increasingly informed his work. Mihm followed The Monster with It Came from another World (2007) and Cave Women on Mars (2008). The former riffs on the alien-possession motif of Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The latter, Cave Women, stands out as Mihm’s best film thus far even though since 2008 he has completed at least seven others: Destination: Outer Space! (2010); Attack of the Moon Zombies (2011); House of Ghosts (2012); Terror from Beneath the Earth (2012); Giant Spider (2013); X: The Fiend from Beyond Space (2014); People in the Wall (2014); and Danny Johnson Saves the World (2015).
These later films have their merits although the growing number of them means that their quality will be uneven and that the filmmaker will have begun to repeat himself. None of these later efforts quite succeeds in surpassing Cave Women in its achievement. Destination, for example, which tries to supply a sequel to Cave Women, runs fifteen minutes too long and never directly picks up the story of its alleged prequel. What a pity! It would be interesting to know what might have happened in an actual follow-up. Cave Women, on the other hand, enlarges what might be called the meaning-capacity of its narrow conceptual niche, the contemporary low-budget retro-pastiche with science-fiction attributes, as played for laughs. Mihm’s planetary romance – casting its net of allusions both widely and deeply – suggests that, in this rare case, a deliberately cheap production, made to be risible for its apparent incompetency, might become the inadvertent carrier, so to speak, of a culturally serious insight. The network of allusions contributes abundantly and essentially to the film’s self-transcendence, but other factors play a role.
The blurb on the thirty-five cent Ace paperback likens Charles Eric Maine’s 1958 novel World without Men to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ordinarily – and in consideration of the genre and the lurid cover – one would regard such a comparison skeptically. Nevertheless, while not rising to the artistic level of the Orwell and Huxley masterpieces, World without Men merits being rescued from the large catalogue of 1950s paperback throwaways, not least because of Maine’s vision of an ideological dystopia is based on criticism, not of socialism or communism per se nor of technocracy per se, but rather of feminism. Maine saw in the nascent feminism of his day (the immediate postwar period) a dehumanizing and destructive force, tending towards totalitarianism, which had the potential to deform society in radical, unnatural ways. Maine grasped that feminism – the dogmatic delusion that women are morally and intellectually superior to men – derived its fundamental premises from hatred of, not respect for, the natural order; he grasped also that feminism entailed a fantastic rebellion against sexual dimorphism, which therefore also entailed a total rejection of inherited morality. In World without Men, Maine asserts that the encouragement of sexual hedonism, the spread of pornography into the mainstream of culture, and the proscription of masculinity are inevitable consequences of the feminist program, once established. The sixty years since the novel’s publication – as a thirty-five cent paperback – have vindicated Maine’s notable prescience as a social commentator.
Although World without Men might not measure up fully to 1984 or Brave New World, Maine, who was a talented storyteller, worked on a higher level than most of the genre writers represented in the Ace catalogue. Indeed, in its narrative structure, World without Men trades in at least one formally modernistic gesture. It gives glimpses out of chronological order of a progressive biological and cultural catastrophe so that the reader must reshuffle events into their actual, causal sequence. Part One, “The Man,” takes place in the Seventieth Century, and Part Two, “The Monkey,” late in the Twentieth. Part Three, “The Girl,” takes place seventy-five or a hundred years after part two. Part Four, “The Patriarch,” takes place sometime in the indefinite far future, but before 7000 AD. (References to Christ as having been born some “seven thousand years ago” permit specification of the date.) Part Five, “The Child,” recurs to 7000 AD and shares certain personae with “The Man.” Thus “The Man,” “The Patriarch,” “The Girl,” and “The Child” are long-term sequels to “The Monkey,” which chronicles the development of a birth-control drug called Sterilin, while probing the consciences of the pharmaceutical researcher, a man, who creates it, and the corporate mogul, a woman, who aggressively markets it. World without Men anticipates certain features of the current faddish ideology calling itself transhumanism, criticizing it in advance of its appearance.
I am a very obscure dissident academic, but I occasionally receive messages from dissidents of even greater obscurity who are in need of encouragement and advice. Some have been geographers, some have been from other fields, but all were lonesome, some were angry, and not a few were afraid. One of these correspondents wrote to me first a few years back, and we have exchanged a few messages since then. This morning he wrote to say that he has come under a full-scale SJW attack, with blue-haired paratroopers dropping from the sky and metrosexual landing craft disgorging intersectional infantry onto his poorly defended beaches. Continue reading
This course will use film to discuss philosophy, and philosophy to discuss film. Many of the film selections will be science fiction because, despite the name, that genre of film tends to be an exploration of philosophical and even theological questions.
Rationale for Including the Written Word
Written philosophy, fiction, and literature will also feature prominently in the course because those who are the most literate tend to have the most insightful, interesting things to say about what they are viewing, and also to understand what they are viewing better. Many directors of meaningful films assume that their art house audiences are readers who are used to applying themselves assiduously to intellectually demanding tasks, thinking about what they are engaged with, are comfortable with ambiguity, and do not expect easy answers.
There was an attempt in the 1990s to argue that students who did not read were just “differently” literate – they were “media savvy.” This idea turned out to be chimerical and not supported by the facts. Continue reading
“If you would pray acceptably . . . withdraw from the world, see that you carry not the world with you.”
Phillippe Sylvestre Dufore, Moral Instructions (1760)
Radical thinkers would have you believe that it is a great advance to discover the politics behind science, art, religion, sports, sex, or whatever else you can think of. The fact of the matter is, that their “discovery” is a reversion to the entropy state of human consciousness, and that the discovery of hidden political agendas was coeval with the birth of human speech. When Prometheus gave man fire, most men immediately sat down and hashed out critical theories that defamed Prometheus, deprecated fire, and exposed the gift as part of a wily Titanic conspiracy. Continue reading
In an interview with Joe Rogan, Sean Carroll claims that of all the physicists on earth, there are perhaps one hundred who will admit to being interested in what the equations of quantum mechanics imply about what actually exists and the nature of physical reality. Showing too much interest can jeopardize a physicist’s career, and render him nearly unemployable if he specializes in that area.
The remaining physicists are happy to use the equations of QM without worrying about what they actually mean. Thus, they have memorized a set of algorithms and they become living proof of the truth that an algorithm, a set of instructions to answer well-defined questions, can be followed with no real understanding. This, unfortunately, is the case in the majority of mathematics classes, where students mechanically follow the equations while failing to understand what they actually doing or what the equations really mean. Students who never develop beyond this are incapable of making new discoveries or becoming real mathematicians. Just as someone could hypothetically follow driving directions, getting to the programmed destination, while having no idea where he was doing to end up.
Could this failure of imagination and interest be why nothing much has happened in physics for nearly a hundred years, compared with the early twentieth century and the rise of relativity and QM? Things like Higgs Boson, the God particle, were postulated long ago (1964) and merely experimentally confirmed with the collider.
“In the old music of his native tongue.”
John Greenleaf Whittier, “Miriam” (1871)
I was yesterday sitting with a friend who was born and raised in the heart of Appalachia, and who upon opening a box lunch remarked that he “had eaten bigger sandwiches.” The remark was not out of place, since the sandwich was diminutive, but my immediate thought was that it had been a long time—too long—since I last heard this sort of idiomatic American speech. My people were not from Appalachia, but the menfolk were fond of ironic understatement, and hearing that “old music” moved me with a nostalgia like that which is said to have moved Swiss mercenaries when they heard a cowbell in some foreign land. Continue reading