Wonders of the world they wrote

So, the other night on a whim I read Ayn Rand’s Anthem. I’ve looked into Objectivism as a philosophy as a few times, though never with any particular understanding of its appeal to some people, but this was my first serious foray into the fiction of the often verbose Ms. Rand.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. A couple of years back, I saw a high school production of her play, “The Night of January 16th.” I was not particularly impressed with the script, though the actual performance was pretty good.

Anyway, Ayn has become something of a running joke among my peers. There was a period of time where a copy of The Fountainhead was rolling around the backseat of my friend’s car, and we’d occasionally read random passages of pretentious dialogue or florid descriptions out of it for a laugh.

Anthem, owing to its short length, avoids many of those problems; the story is so short that the printers have done everything possible to pad it out–the font size is enormous (and changes about twenty pages in), the columns are narrow, the leading is huge, and there’s an extra space after every paragraph. As if that weren’t enough, a second version of the novella is included, photocopied from an earlier manuscript, complete with the author’s handwritten editing. They really wanted to justify charging 7.99 for a story that weighs in at 90 pages, padded out.

About 15 pages in, my overwhelming impression was that I preferred this story when it was “Harrison Bergeron.” Halfway through, I realized that Rush’s “2112” concept album was a closer adaptation of the story than their song “Anthem.”

And before I knew it, the book had devolved into a chapter or two of soapbox lecturing, and then it was over. It wasn’t a bad story, mind you. And I’m always a sucker for a good dystopia story. But there were some significant problems with it, which cast harsh light on Objectivism as any kind of viable philosophy.

First, and perhaps least relevant to the philosophy, is just how blatantly anti-feminist the story is. The only female character follows around the protagonist like a lost puppy looking for guidance. I understand that Ms. Rand was a bit of a sub, but this is ridiculous. She barely had a personality; she was purely object.

Our heroic protagonist, Prometheus (née Equality 7-2521), was the pure, unfiltered Randian hero: brilliant, willful, and instantly skillful at whatever he puts his hands to. In his post-apocalyptic quasi-medieval society, he and another lowly street-sweeper manage to find an abandoned subway tunnel. Through pure trial-and-error experimentation with the remnants of 20th century technology, he rediscovers steel and electricity, and he singlehandedly reinvents the lightbulb. Ultimately, he decides to share this discovery with the scholars, but is refused and threatened with death. He flees into the woods, where he proves to be a fantastic hunter (his first flung stone kills a bird, and he’s able to fashion a bow and arrows–and use them with great skill–with no apparent prior knowledge or training). At some point, the one girl he knew in the city shows up, having followed him. Eventually, they come across an abandoned centuries-old cottage in the mountains, with its own generator (which our hero is able to repair). He reads voraciously from the cabin’s apparently prodigious library, then comes up with names for himself (Prometheus) and his bride (Gaea). He decides that community and altruism are evils, designed to keep folks like him from achieving their potential, and leading to the stagnation of society and the stifling of independent thought. He determines that he needs no one else, and so he will return to town eventually to liberate the other free-minded ones like himself.

Yikes, where to begin? I’ll leave aside the evolutionary benefits of altruism at this point, they’re purely incidental to the problems with Prometheus’s reasoning. Isolation and independence are all well and good for him, but they don’t translate into a real-world viable option. See, Prometheus is only able to become self-sufficient because he is the luckiest man on the damn planet. He literally falls into advanced technology that, for whatever reason, still kind of works, and then fumbles his way through several centuries worth of scientific progress. He manages to leave town with little problem, despite his violation of various serious laws. He manages never to eat anything poisonous while living in the wilderness for a fairly extended period of time, bumps into his girlfriend in the vast woods, and finds a pristine, untouched, undamaged house from centuries earlier. This might make for decent fiction, but you can’t count on such wondrous luck in the real world, and that’s a nail in the coffin for Objectivism as a viable way of life. Sure, selfishness works when you’ve got everything else going for you.

You know, except when it doesn’t. Somehow, in his rant at the end of the book, Prometheus fails to recognize that it’s dependence on others and their altruism which got him to this point. He found the entrance to the subway with his friend, International 4-8818, needed his help to open it, and had to trust him to put himself at risk in order to keep the finding (and their subsequent experimentations) secret. He needed Liberty 5-3000 (who he’d later rename Gaea) to keep their conversations and interactions secret. He needed the humans of the past to share their innovations with the rest of the world, so that he might rediscover them. And, you know, if Gaea’s going to fulfill her role in recreating an individualistic human society, he’s going to need her around too. Selfishness only works when you’re actually self-sufficient, which no one, not even our dear Prometheus, is.

Anthem, to an astute reader, is more an indictment of Objectivism than a promotion of it. Prometheus’s speech at the end reeks of sour grapes and undeserved feelings of superiority, and it utterly ignores how much he’s relied on other people to get anywhere near self-sufficiency. And then, after decrying altruism and denouncing society, he resolves to return to the city to liberate others like him and bring them to his mountain home. Last I checked, that sort of action qualified as altruistic, and a collection of people living together was the necessary component of a society.

It really demonstrates the problem with Objectivists: they claim that altruism is a general negative and that people ought to be able to get by on their own skills and merits. Then they run headlong into reality, in which people actually do need one another. They’re ultimately put into a position of perpetual complaining, that they’re better than society and they don’t need other people and altruism is bad, but not actually being able to do anything about it. Objectivism is a philosophy of inevitable cantankerousness.

This just in: Bush’s favorite song is “Rock the Casbah”

So, does anyone remember back in 2005, when one of the big news stories was that Bush was reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger while on vacation? At the time, I thought it was funny merely for the insinuation that our beloved Commander-in-Chief can read, let alone that he could read chapter books. After all, he reportedly eschewed his one-page daily briefings on national security, which led to missing that one way back which said “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.,” and as I recall led to some sort of tragic event.

But I realized recently that there was another layer of humor to the story, one which I have to imagine, originates somewhere within Bush’s cabinet, whether it’s with whoever recommended he read the book, or whoever decided to publicize it. It’s someone with the same sick sense of humor that would cause a man to crawl under tables making fun of his inability to find WMDs, the same disregard for tact that would cause a man to jokingly sing about bombing Iran, or to suggest that he was going to give an IED as a present.

You see, The Stranger is about a man named Meursault (literally, “death-leap,” if I remember correctly) who kills an Arab for no real reason, and goes through his trial, imprisonment, and execution feeling absolutely no remorse, and really not caring about anything at all.

Someone played a joke, somewhere along the line, and I for one don’t particularly find it funny. It hits a little too close to home.

Especially if your home is in Baghdad.

Where “The Secret” Ends

The Little Blue Engine
By Shel Silverstein, from Where the Sidewalk Ends

The little blue engine looked up at the hill.
His light was weak, his whistle was shrill.
He was tired and small, and the hill was tall,
And his face blushed red as he softly said,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

So he started up with a chug and a strain,
And he puffed and pulled with might and main.
And slowly he climbed, a foot at a time,
And his engine coughed as he whispered soft,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

With a squeak and a creak and a toot and a sigh,
With an extra hope and an extra try,
He would not stop — now he neared the top —
And strong and proud he cried out loud,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!”

He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
He slid down and mashed into engine hash
On the rocks below… which goes to show
If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain’t enough!

Closing the book

I just finished Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark about a minute ago. I’ve been working through it for months, reading bits and pieces of it whenever I had free time, and upon seeing how gorgeous it was outside and that there were only about 35 pages left, I resolved to finish it today. I ended up coming inside for the last bits, due to rising breezes and diminishing sunlight.

Anyway, especially for the last couple of months, I’ve been experiencing a weird phenomenon with the book. I’ll be discussing some issue one day, and then while reading the next day, I’ll find that Sagan has addressed the same issue. A couple of weeks ago, it was the matter of scientists’ ethical obligations and whether or not to mark some fields as “off-limits.” Then it was SETI and astrobiology, and the matter of teaching science and critical thinking in school, or about a dozen other topics. I’ve had a little chuckle to myself when I’ve recently thought “he must have been psychic.”

The other phenomenon I’ve experienced is the sheer wealth of information contained within that orange-black-and-white tome. I’ve found myself craving a highlighter, that I might go over the passages that really stand out and speak to me, but I’d have a book positively dripping with yellow. I’ve been honestly and without hyperbole describing it as “the best book ever written on the subject of everything.” I lament the fact that I won’t be able to keep all this in my head for the rest of my life. The passages throughout this book are so perfect, so useful, so relevant, that I’d like to have them at my fingertips for quoting and showing off in various arguments and other writings.

So, as I finished the acknowledgments, these two phenomena collided. Dr. Sagan had anticipated this, too. I nearly cried.

The book is indexed.

Thanks, Carl. You’re the best.

Some Pig

My wireless mouse died the other night. Spectacularly died, actually. I thought it just was a matter of replacing batteries, but they were leaking acid after I put them into the mouse. I went through two sets of batteries before I concluded that it was the mouse, not the double-A’s, that were the problem.

So, I went to the local Wal-Mart at 11:45 to find a new mouse. I ended up picking up a wireless mouse/keyboard combo, since my wireless keyboard died earlier in the year. I wish I’d paid attention to the manufacturer of my current mouse before I left, since I ended up replacing it with something by the same company, but it worked well through two years, so I’m not too upset.

Salutations!Anyway, while I was walking around the electronics section, trying to decide what to get, the various TVs out front were showing the new live-action “Charlotte’s Web.” I didn’t catch the film in theaters, though I heard it ended up being pretty good. It was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I even re-read it just a couple summers ago.

But one thing I never caught, one thing that didn’t even occur to me until that night, is that Charlotte’s Web is a scientific fable.

So, if you don’t remember the basic story, it goes something like this: in the latest litter of pigs, one is kind of a runt. John Arable, owner of the farm, decides to kill it, but his daughter Fern persuades him not to. He gives it to her as a pet, and she names it Wilbur. Wilbur’s a cheerful and inquisitive pig, and he befriends the various animals on the farm, particularly a spider named Charlotte. When he discovers that he’s going to be Christmas dinner, he enlists Charlotte’s help, and she makes a web over his pen, with the words “SOME PIG” woven into it. The amazing sight saves Wilbur’s life, and its repetition allows him to survive indefinitely.

Anyway, when the first amazing web appears, the family and townsfolk gather round and proclaim it a miracle. They attribute it to some special properties in Wilbur, or to magic–God is never mentioned explicitly, but I seem to recall that a pastor is involved. They look at this incredible phenomenon, and in it they find justification for all sorts of mystical thinking and magical powers.

But, in reality, this spiderweb was actually the work of a spider. And while that might seem obvious, no one even seems to consider it. The only magic is the natural magic of altruism and love, embodied in a selfless act to save a friend. Reality is less surprising, perhaps, than magical fantasy, but the reader recognizes that the real story is far more amazing, far more beautiful, and far more poignant than the popular myth.

To me, recognizing that human imagination can never quite match the natural world in terms of rich, unexpected, awe-inspiring majesty, is the heart of the scientific pursuit.