I've been away from the blog for a few days due to the death of my grandmother, Elsie Sandefur, on Thursday night. We had the funeral on Tuesday, and will be heading to Colorado next week for the internment in Leadville, which is where she and my grandfather spent their summers. My grandmother was a very interesting lady. Here is the talk I gave at the funeral.
At times like this, we think about what it means to live a full life; whether my grandmother got all out of life that she could, and whether each of us is taking advantage of this marvelous and temporary gift. We are each born into a world without our choosing, and must each choose how to spend it before it is gone. When it is, we ask whether a person spent it well; if she used her gifts; if she participated in the fleeting moments, great and small, that make up a life.
My grandmother spent her life well. She helped build the planes that won World War II. She made furniture, and painted, and performed in a chamber orchestra. She traveled to Peru and Argentina. Born at a time when women did not become archaeologists, Grandma not only obtained a PhD, but did so at the age of 65, after raising two sons, and she went on to found the UCLA Bone Lab. She once helped smuggle a computer across a third world border. She served a research fellowship at the Smithsonian. She once bought a potion of frog’s blood from a witch doctor in a Peruvian marketplace. Few of us can say that!
And she took great joy in the gentler pursuits: in her family, in the company of her brothers and sisters and her friends and her grandchildren. She adored and depended on my father. She delighted in the holidays, in the decorations and traditions and the giving of gifts. Sometimes we actually got physically tired from opening so many presents! Simply put, she enjoyed participating in life; she was genuinely interested in the little details of experiences, and the stories of other people’s histories.
Humans are momentary beings, and we live through our stories. We tell our lives through stories and interpret the world through stories. And when we die we are left not with things but with thoughts, not with profits but with experiences, and it is through the memories we create that each of us lives on. When we think of Grandma, all of us think of the stories: she put ketchup in her chili; she saved used Christmas wrap. She once excavated a dog that she found buried in the hill beside her Colorado house, and took the bones back to the Bone Lab. Years later, the former owners came to visit, and asked if they could see the grave of their beloved dog. Grandma took them up to the site, and stood quietly, no doubt smiling to herself, as the couple paid their respects….
I hope we will all think of our favorite stories about Elsie Sandefur. And if there is a lesson to be drawn from her life, it is to invest ourselves in the life all around us. For there is nothing more to our existence, and nothing less. The great poet E.E. Cummings once wrote,
may my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living whatever they sing is better than to know and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry and fearless and thirsty and supple and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong for whenever men are right they are not young
Ayn Rand is a writer of enormous spiritual and intellectual power. Her perception, her willingness to call things as she sees them, and her absolutely sincere devotion to each individuals’ greatest potential are so overwhelmingly attractive, and, I believe, so well founded, that they draw hundreds of thousands of new readers every year. The fact that, a half century after its publication, Atlas Shrugged remains one of the hottest selling books available is a testament to her power both as a thinker and as a fiction writer.
This last is something that needs emphasizing, because Rand’s many detractors so often dismiss her as a writer of no redeeming virtue whatsoever. This is typical of the emphatic energy that people put into their denunciations of her—and indicative of the fact that many of these detractors are motivated by something other than a reasonable appraisal of the facts. (Of course, precisely the same could be said in reverse of her obsessive acolytes.) But the fact is that Ayn Rand was a great writer of fiction, a brilliant prose stylist, and a deeply insightful creator of characters. She just wrote it all in the wrong century.
What Anne Heller recognizes, that few others have, is that Rand was a nineteenth century romantic novelist living in a twentieth century, post-war world; a world fixated on existentialism, abstract expressionism, anti-heroes, atonal music, psychoanalysis, relativism, pragmatism, protest and dogma. Rand provided compelling explanations for all of these phenomena, which stood opposite the world she spoke for and that originated the language in which she spoke. Rand’s idols were Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Victor Hugo. One need merely read The Idiot to see what Rand was doing in The Fountainhead; one need merely read Hugo to see what she was doing in Atlas Shrugged. Indeed, compared to the often tedious and preachy Hugo, Ayn Rand was a master of self-restraint and subtlety.
So, of course, if one has no taste for romanticism—or for the values she believed romanticism particularly suited to articulate—one will have little admiration for Rand’s work. And yes, of course her writing has its quirks. John Galt is simply not an interesting human being. (In my two readings of the novel I have always been able to picture the characters—except him; he always remains faceless to me.) Her sex scenes are bizarre, and sometimes even questionable on her own philosophical terms. (Rand seemed to believe, to paraphrase Milton, that man lives for reality, and woman for reality in man—precisely the principle she denounced in The Fountainhead.) But in her abilities to express theme in plot, diagnose characters' philosophical roots, caricature the ludicrous principles of statists, compose the perfect geste, even to name characters, she was ingenious. Yet these are usually ignored by critics. And as for her philosophy, I believe it fundamentally sound. Yet here, too, Rand is treated with angry contempt much of the time; most of the time she is simply ignored.
This treatment is unfair. Brilliant people are often idiosyncratic, even abusive; very often they are unpleasant and overbearing. Countercultural figures are typically moreso, and when they are set into the world of the 1960s, it should not at all be surprising if their personal stories became the stuff of legendary chaos. None of this changes their intellectual achievements. Of course, Rand’s detractors—National Review, to name an obvious example—never pass up a chance to use her character flaws as an opportunity to argue that her philosophy is wrong. To them, it’s a parable of hubris. And, maybe it is that, to some extent.
But if Rand’s personal story is going to be used against her, it ought to be used for her, too. Ayn Rand was a brilliant, largely self-made figure; a female writer—an immigrant, no less, from of all places Soviet Russia—who wrote not one, but two genuine classics of American literature, that remain best-sellers to this day. A woman who spoke in sophisticated philosophical terminology—who inserted sixty page lectures on philosophy into adventure novels, for crying out loud!—who is not only celebrated, but adored by average people who read her works for personal enjoyment. She created timeless icons of American literary culture. This woman who arrived in America in the 1920s speaking only beginning English, went on to write a 1,000 page novel that college students gladly devour. That is an astonishing achievement. That she also, in the process, helped transform the American political landscape by participating in the formation of a powerful pro-free market movement makes the achievement incredible.
Not to mention, to people like me, a deeply personal story as well. Not long ago, a Rand admirer writing at Noodle Foodasked people to say what Objectivism means to them. It’s a great big question. I think I’d have to say, as my short answer, that to me it’s the introduction Rand wrote for the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead. In that passage—oh, how vividly I remember reading it as I was walking home from high school up Lilac Avenue in Rialto, California—she speaks of the spirit of youth; the spirit that she sought to reach in the novel. The spirit of youth, she says, is like a fire that for so many people goes out gradually, or is intentionally doused by those who think that maturity consists of giving up principles. But some hold on to it, refusing to betray it. That was a song that harmonized with my heart, and still does. That’s the song that Rand brought to her literature. And if a life like that proves anything, it’s that human achievement is real; her life is at least equally a testament to man’s greatness.
Anne Heller’s biography doesn’t pull punches. She is as honest and as objective and as forthright as Rand’s own principles would demand. She pays Rand the compliment of treating her like a serious person who deserves respect, praise, criticism and blame. She goes out of her way to explain statements by Rand that are easily misunderstood and frequently misrepresented—and she rightly criticizes her regrettable traits and expressions. Her book is meticulously—indeed, very surprisingly—well researched. It is a story of serious, devoted, brilliant, talented, and flawed people. It is not the dreary finger-pointing we’ve seen too much of in the past decades—Nathaniel Branden hardly comes off as the innocent victim here—but a work of serious, yet sympathetic journalism. In the end, it is deeply…one might say romantically…tragic.
Of course, there are many of Rand’s followers today who will jump to the castle walls to pour hot oil down on Heller. Rand touches something so deep in people, something that in other people is touched by religion, that some of her followers really do act like fanatics or fundamentalists. This is very sad. It’s certainly not a way to honor a woman whose first principle was to think for yourself and to never curtail your vision of life to suit what others demand.
What’s great about Heller’s book isn’t that it reveals more facts than Barbara Branden’s biography—although it does; there are many interesting new details—or that it is so well written; it’s that Ayn Rand And The World She Made is so honest, so, in a word, objective. Rand is a real person to Anne Heller—a brilliant, clever, sometimes over-the-top writer; an astonishingly original thinker with, alas, too little education in the history of philosophy; a passionate, intense, idealist who, sadly, imposed such a weird rigor on herself and others as to leave her dark and alone at the end; a woman who believed—and rightly so—in the indomitability of the mind and its capacity for greatness, but who was capable of breaking long friendships over trivialities, fudging the nature of her marriage, and watching hours of game shows and Charlie’s Angels. None of this detracts from her greatness; none of it detracts from her ideas. What it does is to take Ayn Rand gently down from the pedestal—not as a vandal, or as a worshipper would, but as one would who recognizes that she’s not a God, but a human being. And to Ayn Rand, “human being” was never an insult.
Heller’s book does have its flaws. I think she tries too hard to show a Jewish or a Russian influence on Rand—possible, but hardly a major influence, I think—and she sometimes slightly oversimplifies Rand’s views in a way that will play into the hands of her eager detractors. For instance, Heller writes that Rand’s philosophy is basically an elaboration on Rand’s childhood desire to get “what I want.” Well, of course, it’s not just about doing what you feel—as Heller acknowledges elsewhere in the book—but Rand certainly would say that “what you want” is and must be important to you, and that a world that denies you “what you want” simply because you want it is a profoundly evil one.
These are very minor quibbles with an otherwise outstanding book—written just as a biography ought to be. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year and I very highly recommend it.
My friend Erik Peterson points out a problem with the recent Star Trek movie that I had not considered:
I liked the movie way more than you did, even though it wasn't perfect. Maybe I'll get around to posting what it got right at some point.
The one thing they're going to have to get better at, though, for my tastes, is aliens. Here's my nerdy rant: The two monster aliens on the snow planet were just wrong. I know most moviegoers don't think about stuff like this, but would millions of years of evolution on an ice moon really produce a bright red monster with thin limbs that look like'd be worthless for retaining heat? A mouth that opened so wide, that heat could escape from? A ton of saliva that its body would have to constantaly be keeping warm to keep its teeth from freezing shut? Wouldn't fur have been a favorable mutation? Okay, maybe we could explain the saliva thing by saying its so viscous it's like anti-freeze, but that alien looked completely out of place on that planet. It looked like what it was--like somebody told some designer, "Make a cool looking alien to chase Kirk," instead of asking the question that forms the joy of real SF: "What's the most interesting type of creature that this enviornment would naturally evolve?"