From Promethean Pride to the Holocaustic Imagination: Atlas Shrugged

Rand Soviet Style

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982)

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.

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Christopher Mihm’s Cave Women on Mars (2008), Sex, & the Movies (Beta)

Cave Women Lobby Card

Lobby Card for Cave Women on Mars

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.

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The Wonderful Horrible Integrity of the World

Horror: … from Latin horror, “dread, veneration, religious awe” …

What is true at any time and place is true at all others. Truth is non-local, instantaneous, ubiquitous.

This is obvious in respect to the eternal and a priori truths, as of mathematics, metaphysics, and so forth.

But it is as so for a posteriori truths as for a priori.

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Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony: Art Transcending Politics

This essay originated a few years ago in a request by the Sydney Traditionalist Forum for articles on the topic of Politics and Transcendence.  The topic is not only compound but complex, associating itself with numerous difficulties.  The term transcendence, for example, usually associates itself with religion and art rather than with politics although writer-thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon and Nicolas Berdyaev have characterized mass political movements as relying on a type of pseudo-transcendence.  Yet insofar as such movements invariably establish themselves in dogmatic materialism an observer might better characterize them as anti-transcendent or immanentist.  In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, indeed, the Western nations find themselves subjugated without exception under such anti-transcendent regimes.  The liberal elites of Europe and North America, like their Jacobin precursors, promulgate a totalitarian doctrine that opposes itself to all inherited hence also to all dissenting ideas or forms.  Among these ideas or forms are those of the aesthetic realm.  Modernity strongly prefers functionality to beauty and agitation of the emotions to genuine tragic pathos.  It prefers mediocrity to merit and therefore downplays the implications of art, and wherever it can it replaces art with politicized kitsch.  Art participates in the sacred, where it originates, and, as sacred, art poses a threat to the pervasive denial of transcendence.  Artistic achievement demonstrates, moreover, the inequality of talent; it establishes standards that undermine the regime’s goal of equality.  Modern life is nevertheless replete with shallow substitutes for transcendence in which the de-natured subject experiences physiological and psychological effects that he feels as type of ecstasy, but it is merely the pseudo-transcendence previously mentioned.  Fear and pity pose a danger; entertainment and diversion serve to mollify the masses.

Gustave Le Bon remarks in his study of The Crowd (1895) that when the suggestible individual loses himself in the irrational multitude, he enters into a mental phase “hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness” which is characterized by “violence of feeling.”  It is no wonder that the crowd’s appetite should run to the insipid and at the same time to the nasty.  Regimes want this result, as it increases the malleability of the masses, immobilizing them temporarily in simple satiety, while convincing them of a specious independence.  Le Bon writes that, “the improbable does not exist for the crowd,” which falsely regards itself as a superhuman entity.  Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, agrees with Le Bon.  In Freedom and the Spirit (1927), Berdyaev writes of the pseudo-mysticism typical of political movements in an age of crassness and a purely materialist worldview: “There are orgiastic types of mysticism in which the spirit is swallowed up by the ‘psychical’ or corporeal elements, and remains wedded to them.”  According to Berdyaev, “true mysticism frees us from the sense of oppression which arises from everything which is alien to us, and imposed, as it were, from without.”  In modernity, real transcendence is vanishingly rare while false transcendence is a common – one might say the commonest – occurrence, existing in many only slightly varied and equally jejune forms.

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Traditionalism: A Primer

Moreau Hesiod & the Muses (1860)

Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898): Hesiod & the Muses (1860)

Fish know not that they swim in the sea, nor birds that they swoop in the air.  No more do the denizens of the prevailing era know that they live out their lives in a philosophically narrow, righteously conceited, anti-human, and anti-natural dispensation, calling itself modernity, which can trace its immediate beginnings only to the Eighteenth Century, and which represents a radical break with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom gleaned painfully from a massive human experience.  No doubt but contemporary modern people, when they hear an invocation of the Eighteenth Century, locate that century in a periwigged past, thinking that it could not possibly have anything to do with them, as they exist, in the transient now.  This very attitude betokens, in fact, an essential feature of modernity, which idolizes the present moment as the figure of a so-called progress that is self-consummating and that makes obsolete everything belonging to any moment in the historical continuum that precedes it.  Indeed, the modern mentality necessarily rejects history; it is fundamentally non- or anti-historical, which also makes it anti-memorious, devaluing not only history, but memory.  Thus the modern mentality has conveniently forgotten the violent origins of its perpetually disruptive mode.  The mendaciously self-designating Enlightenment, rejecting the moral and intellectual inheritance of the European Middle Ages, viciously attacked the vestiges of the past and in so doing set the stage for the mayhem and terror of the French Revolution.  The violence of modernity would perpetuate itself through the centuries, murdering a hundred million people in the middle of the Twentieth Century, always in the righteous name of that selfsame progress.  The convulsion of modernity, however, provoked a response, and that response took the form of Traditionalism – a critique of modernity that seeks also to curb modernity, and to curb it for the sake of a human restoration.  In Traditionalism humanity remembers itself.  Traditionalism attempts to revive an immemorial wisdom and to place it once again at the memorious center of institutions.

The earliest representatives of Traditionalism gained prominence with the onset of revolutionary agitation in France in 1789.  The Terror of September 1793 to July 1794 and the executions of the royal family, beginning with Louis XVI in January 1793 and concluding with Louis’ ten-year-old son and heir apparent in 1795 galvanized them.  The Jacobins labeled the original Traditionalists reactionaries.  But the term reaction requires a context.  Reaction originates, in fact, in the revolutionary mentality itself, which reacts, or rather rebels, against the Tradition.  Such names as Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821), René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), and Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) stand at the center of Traditionalism and produced the heart of its classical expression.  In Contra Mundum – Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition (2017), Thomas Garrett Isham makes an important point about both Maistre himself and the loosely organized movement that Maistre initiated.  Isham tells of Maistre’s adherence to the Catholicism in which he came to manhood and of his loyalty, both as citizen and public servant, to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.  When in 1792 the Revolutionary Army invaded Savoy, the Piedmontese départment where Maistre’s parents had brought him into the world and raised and educated him, the magistrate and senator experienced the bloody barbarity and atheistic intolerance of revolutionary-nihilistic politics at first hand; the dispossession of his property and his forced exile to neighboring Switzerland provoked in Maistre a colossal reorganization of his philosophical and theological assumptions.

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Ontological Relativism: Our Civilization’s Latest Thing

Philosophy at its best is the study of basic reality. It helps people to think more accurately. At its worst, philosophy is irrelevant or malevolent. Let the buyer beware.

One way to divide philosophy is into ethics, epistemology and metaphysics.  Each can be ruined by being relativized.

The classic expression of ethical relativism is Pope Francis’s infamous “Who am I to judge?” In moral relativism there is no morality for all, just for individuals. Ethics is subjective (relative to the subject who is ethicizing), not objective (the same for everyone.)

Epistemological relativism says “Your truth is not my truth.” Everyone (or maybe every tribe) has his own truth. Alethic relativism (it sounds better in Greek) makes all truth relative to the subject, the individual.

These last two have been popular for decades, because relativism means you cannot be wrong.  But there’s a new kid on the relativistic block. When the postmodern dude or dudette says “I self-identify as a[n] insert descriptor here” he is spouting ontological relativism. Continue reading

The Gillette Syndrome

Gillette Syndrome   When an individual or organization acts against its well-being, because of the requirements of its consciously-professed beliefs.

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We see in the news that Gillette has taken a major hit, no doubt largely because of its infamous commercial accusing its natural customer base (people who shave) of being sinners against the new state religion of liberalism.

(ht Dalrock.)

Why would they knowingly offend customers actual and potential?  Because nowadays everyone is supposed to agree with feminism, which requires, inter alia, badmouthing men. Continue reading

There Is No Such Thing As Rule of Law

Rule of Law is often cited as one of the distinctive characteristics of the West, and of Western cultures, which has enabled the West and kindred cultures to rise above despotism, corruption, and poverty. And so it is. The keeping of the Law is traditional in the West.

But, the Law is only as good – can do only so much good – as the men who keep it. It is men who by their acts keep to the Law, enforce and adjudicate it honestly and as fiduciaries of the nation, or who do not; who transmit the tradition they have inherited, or who traduce it.

Rule then is always of men.

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Delius: On the Heights

220px-Fritz_Delius_(1907)

Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934)

Sir Thomas Beecham described the English-born, German-descended composer Frederick “Fritz” Delius (1862 – 1934) as the last great advocate of beauty in music.  About a decade ago, I contributed an article to the website of the International Delius Society entitled “On the Heights: Frederick Delius and the Secular Sublime.”  What I denominated “the secular sublime” holds this interest to Traditionalists” The “secular sublime” is a concession by materialists to the apologists for another world, the Platonic world of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.  Delius, who thought of himself as a Nietzschean, and who set excerpts from Thus Spake Zarathustra in his musically magnificent Mass of Life (1906), nevertheless devoted his art to beauty, setting himself in contradiction with the implication of materialism, that beauty is an illusion. Delius lived in Florida in the 1880s, nominally managing an orange grove. He is the first serious composer to incorporate Negro tunes and harmonies into symphonic music — beating Gershwin to it by fifty years.

I link my article here.  My articles from more than fifteen years ago tend to embarrass me, but this one eschews the first person, is reliant on evidence throughout, and manages to be fairly well-written.  I reproduce below the first two paragraphs of the article followed by a number of Delius’s works in performances uploaded to (the loathsome but unavoidable) YouTube platform.

Others might have known the Bradford-born, Dutch- or German-descended composer Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934) longer than did Eric Fenby, the old man’s amanuensis for the late flowering of his music in the last six years of his life, but none save his wife Jelka (née Rosen) knew him so plainly, or, as an artist, so intimately, not even old friends like Balfour Gardiner or Sir Thomas Beecham.  Fenby lived through most of the period 1928 – 34 in the Delius household at Grez, a village on the river Loing, some forty miles southeast of Paris.  While working out the daunting problem of how to take full-score musical dictation from a creative artist blind and paraplegic, he saw daily his idol in the idol’s unscreened candor.  Transparent to Fenby, who in his saintliness of dedication overlooked the rudeness habitual to the self-proclaimed disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche, Delius remained largely opaque to himself, a supreme egotist, and now and again an insufferable bigot in the prejudice and tenacity of his views.  To read Fenby’s beautiful, tactful first-person account of his residency chez Delius, written and published soon after the master’s death, is to confront in particularly high relief the paradox that a great artist need not be a great man.  When one speaks of greatness in a man, one usually means magnanimity or largeness of soul.  Fenby has magnanimity – a capaciousness of spirit that opens itself to other spirits – but Delius rarely if ever reveals this quality, as a person.  He occasionally reveals it, as an artist, but his receptivity to others remains confined, even in his art, to a narrow range of types close to his own.  Indeed, Delius appears detached from other human beings generally, rather like an Ibsen protagonist or the central figure of a Knut Hamsun novel.  Consider the man’s relation to his wife.

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Nicolas Berdyaev: The Person, Freedom, and Inequality

Berdyaev 03 Elsk-Berdiaev-Tsankov-c1930-400

Nicolas Berdyaev (Right) with Friends (ca. 1930)

In the view of the Russian religious thinker and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), freedom arises from no causality whatever – for if freedom arose from causality, it would operate under determination, in which case it would be shackled, not free.  Freedom belongs to spirit, which is to say that it belongs to the person; and the person, bearing within himself the image of God, exercises his freedom positively by the Imitatio Dei of willing the good in the two closely linked modes of love and creativity.  Through love and creativity, moreover, people differentiate themselves from one another.  Some people distinguish themselves as more capable of love than others; these people – some of whom number among the saints – reap in higher degree than others both the delights of love and the tragic pathos that attends love in the mortal realm.  Likewise some people distinguish themselves as more creative than others, whether in the arts or in business or in scientific endeavor; or, simply, in the ability to socialize and to form friendships and initiate sodalities spontaneously.  Those who can create at a high level, like those who can love prodigiously, form a justified, if not an acknowledged, aristocracy, and while indeed they enjoy satisfaction in their creativity, they also experience its annoyances, not least of which is to fall under the resentment of lesser talents of invidious proclivity who cannot measure up to, much less surpass, the standards that emerge from the self-working-out of genius.  Because freedom emerges from no causality whatever, it partakes in mystery.  To treat freedom as a concept rather than living it, to find an explanation of it, would be to reduce freedom to a mere natural phenomenon and thereby fully to ensconce it in the domain of causality.  According to Berdyaev, freedom springs forth from the same Ungrund, or endlessly self-replenishing abyss, as the boundless will-to-goodness of God; and it springs forth as the Will and the Gift of God.

As freedom partakes in mystery, it entwines itself with faith.  As freedom produces inequality, it entwines itself with politics.  In freedom, then, faith and politics find themselves in conflict.  Faith on the one hand corresponds to a spiritual condition, which struggles ever to remove itself from the trammels of the fallen world so as to seek the good, and to create it, freely, beyond causality.  Politics, on the other hand, corresponds to an adaptation in respect of that selfsame fallenness.  In politics, men experience the temptation to exercise freedom minimally by yielding freedom to an objective – or as Berdyaev would put it, an objectivized – authority or totality.  Politics, as the present moment so clearly demonstrates, always tends towards an authoritarian totality.  Because politics adapts itself to humanity’s fallen condition, it necessarily adapts itself to envy and resentment, which it attempts to placate.  The only way, however, to placate envy and resentment is to limit the scope of genius – and that means to limit the scope of love and creativity in the realm of freedom.  Politics thus always declines, not only towards an authoritarian totality, but at the same time towards a leveling, egalitarian totality; politics as an authoritarian-egalitarian totality positions itself as essentially anti-person and anti-freedom.  This tendency in politics is magnified by the incomprehensibility to the faithless of the paradox that evil must share the same prerogative as good because otherwise freedom would annihilate itself.  The faithless believe that through the imposition of the authoritarian-egalitarian totality they can prevent evil.  Berdyaev recurred to these themes and propositions throughout his authorship.  His early Philosophy of Inequality (1923) treats of them; so do his middle-period Spirit and Reality (1939) and his late-period Slavery and Freedom (1944).

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