We got the story of Atlantis first from Plato, who got it from his ancestor, Solon, who got it from the Egyptians. Now mainstream historians and archaeologists don’t believe it existed. Joseph Campbell was quoted as saying there hadn’t been enough time for humans to develop a high civilization earlier than the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Indians, but that’s not accurate.

We’re now aware that our kind of human being has been around for at least 100,000 years, maybe 200,000, or even longer. Considering that the history we know much about (beginning mostly with writing) is only five to six thousand years, that leaves plenty of time for a high civilization to develop. Why don’t we see traces of these civilizations? Maybe we do. Graham Hancock has spent more than twenty years writing about the evidence for a previous high civilization, most recently in Magicians of the Gods. 

There are many megalithic monuments around the world. In most cases we have only vague ideas when they were built, and how is a complete mystery, though archaeologists (in some cases) think they know. The most obvious examples are the Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx, though there are many more.

The above two are probably the most famous monuments in the world. We, with modern technology, might be able to duplicate the Sphinx, but it would take a major effort. as it’s 260 feet long and 65 feet high, and carved out of bedrock. Few people nowadays would be willing to make that kind of investment.

The Great Pyramid is not only immense, but mysterious. The first mystery is how it was built. It has well over a million stone blocks in it, most of them weighing at least a ton, some well over a ton. The ceiling of the King’s Chamber is roofed with slabs of about 70 tons apiece. How would you, first of all, cut the stones very precisely, then move them, and finally place them with extreme precision? Precision is one of the other mysteries of the pyramid, but far from the last.

The timeline of civilization says that agriculture began around 8,000 BC, and towns were necessarily built, since people would have to stay in one place to farm. That makes a place like Göbeckli Tepe particularly mysterious.

It’s a site in southern Turkey, the beginning of which has been dated to about 9600 BC, making it the oldest known megalithic monument in the world (with one possible exception). It seems to have been used for more than a thousand years, then covered up. That it was covered is convenient for archaeologists because it means that the organic material covered can be accurately dated. It must be from when each area was covered, rather than from when it was built, which means the structures could be much older, but these are certainly old enough.

And it’s IMMENSE! The archaeologist interviewed by Graham Hancock five years ago said that after eighteen years of continuous excavating much more is still buried than has been uncovered.

Making it even more mysterious, the builders seem to have been hunter-gatherers. How did they acquire the skills, when they had to spend most of their time acquiring food in order to survive? Besides, the best workmanship so far uncovered is also the oldest. What does that mean?

That’s a parallel with ancient Egypt, which had few pyramids built before the Great Pyramid, but nonetheless created it as a masterpiece of architecture; then, within a few hundred years, apparently forgot how pyramids are built. Those built in the late third millenium BC are ruins. For a monument 4500 years old, the Great Pyramid is in pretty good shape. Why would the oldest Egyptian monuments so exceed more recent ones? The obvious hypothesis is that they had learned from a predecessor civilization, rather than developing the necessary techniques themselves.

Even older is the Great Sphinx. About 25 years ago it was studied by geologist Robert Schoch, who determined the erosion of its body was from rain, and lots of it, not wind. It seems that the last time there was lots of rain in Egypt was about 5,000 BC, so Schoch decided it couldn’t have been built any later, which means it might have been built much earlier. But according to the commonly accepted historical timeline, there were no high civilizations that could have built anything like it or Göbekli Tepe anything like as early.

There are some four hundred legends of the Great Flood around the world, including in the Americas, where legends from the Middle East are unlikely to have reached. The Flood was universally believed to have occurred by Europeans until about two hundred years ago when Enlightenment thinkers reacted against the Bible and the idea of the supernatural. Ice ages were conceived of partly as a way to account for things like boulders found in geological areas they weren’t related to. But an ice age doesn’t preclude a Great Flood, or vice versa. The first could have led to the latter. And a supernatural cause isn’t necessary either.

But a Great Flood, or equivalent calamity could explain why we don’t know about civilizations predating Sumeria, India, and Egypt. Written documents from before the calamity haven’t survived–or haven’t been found yet, though one of the Assyrian kings claimed to have a library of books from before the flood, which he claimed to be able to read, which apparently since have been lost –so our information about it is only legendary.

But legends, especially widespread ones, usually have some truth to them. If such a catastrophe had happened, what would a high civilization do, especially if it saw it coming? It would probably try to preserve as much of its knowledge and wisdom as it could. How would it do that? One way would be to teach the skills of civilization to other humans. According to widespread legends, that’s precisely what happened.

One legend is about a being named Oannes who wore a fish suit, but had human feet and, after teaching skills of civilization all day to humans of what is now southern Iraq, retreated to the sea for the night.

Another group were the Seven Apkallus in the northern Middle East, who are depicted as looking like part men and part bird.

A third was Osiris, who taught the ancient Egyptians, then is said to have traveled around the rest of the world to teach others.

A fourth was Quetzelcoatl in Mexico, who arrived from the eastern sea with a group of other teachers, but ran into a hostile god who apparently objected to his trying to end human sacrifice in the region.

Yet another was Viracocha in the Andes in South America. Interestingly, both Viracocha and Quetzelcoatl are depicted as WHITE men with full beards, unlike the natives of both regions, who were and still are dark skinned. Their whiteness may help explain how the Spanish were so easily able to take over the Aztec and Incan empires: they looked like the revered legendary gods. By the time the natives found out they weren’t, it was too late.

Not only does this ancient culture seem to have sent out missionaries of a sort, but Hancock suggests that monuments like Göbekli Tepe and the Great Pyramid were built as time capsules to prevent antediluvian knowledge and wisdom from being lost. The catch is that a civilization must have attained a high level of knowledge to access what’s in these time capsules. We seem to only now be getting there.

Another way to preserve knowledge is orally. There are also numerous legends of spiritual teachers whose traditions go back thousands of years. Could these traditions have been begun by a civilization (or more than one)  both spiritually and technologically advanced?

Hancock notes that there are things about the statues found at Göbekli Tepe that remind him of ancient statuary he’s seen elsewhere in the world. These statues seem to be part human, part animal, with human arms extending across their bellies with fingers almost touching, and holding things that look like bags. Hancock remembers artwork in Mexico with similar figures, as well as in Easter Island. If this is accurate, they may have been products of a worldwide civilization.

Other mysterious sites are in western South America: around Cuzco, Tiahuanaco, Lake Titicaca, etc. Again, structures are built of unbelievably large stones precisely cut and set. When Hancock asks the archaeologist who, with his father, has been studying the area for over a hundred years, how the building was done, the archaeologist thinks there was lower gravitation (perhaps a device to make things lighter?) allowing stones to be put into place relatively easily. The archaeologist also thinks the stones were subjected to extreme heat to make it possible to shape them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and fit them together. In this case too, the most ancient monuments are the most impressive. Later South American civilizations were also impressive, but couldn’t compete with their predecessors.

Even older than Göbekli Tepe, apparently, is Gunung Padung in Indonesia. Hancock points out that Indonesia is the remains of a fabled extension of the Indian subcontinent called Sundaland, which was destroyed by flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes, probably during the time the last Ice Age was ending. It was supposed to have been a large and fertile land with mountains and at least four river systems, and with schools of wisdom too. Gunung Padung, in the local language, means Mountain of Light or Enlightenment.

It was believed to be a natural hill until archaeologist Danny Natawidjaja and his team began using ground penetrating radar and other techniques to survey the area. Then they realized that it was a pyramid, and began using radiocarbon dating on organic material underlying the surface structures, then from tubular drills penetrating to much deeper levels.

The first results were dated between 500-1500 BC, but lower levels gave increasingly older dates. 3,000-5,000, 9600, 11,000, 15,000, then 20,000-22,000 and even earlier, which means they began to be built before the end of the last Ice Age.

The end of the last Ice Age was the beginning of a tremendously traumatic period in earth’s history, when many animals, and even a number of genera (related species) went extinct. The worst part of it seems to have been between 10,800 BC and 9600 BC, called the Younger Dryas, when temperatures, which had been getting warmer, suddenly got colder again. Before that time North America had been home not only to the Clovis people (who may have gotten there two or three thousand years before), but to mammoths, horses, camels, giant sloths and beavers, and saber-toothed tigers. None of these species were alive at the end of the period, and though the Younger Dryas was a worldwide phenomenon, North America (maybe the Americas in general) seems to have been hardest hit. What happened?

Some scientists now think that a large comet came very near to earth and parts of it separated, several chunks hitting the immense glaciation covering most of what is now Canada. Ice and ground vaporized, and were propelled into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun, which caused the downturn in temperatures that lasted about 1200 years. It also started an immense flood from the melted glacier and a very large lake that then was located approximately on the US/Canada border. An area in eastern Oregon called the “scablands” seems to be the result of this flooding.

The scablands are a large area in which canyons were eroded, and some scientists now think, very quickly. The archaeologist Hancock interviewed said it wasn’t just water, but soil, boulders, and huge chunks of ice running very fast through the passage that became the scablands. There’s still very little topsoil in the area.

This seems to have been a very large but localized flood. The extreme erosion happened because the flood, immense as it was, was still confined to relatively small passages. That amplified the force of the liquid mixture in its ability to erode.

Whether there was actually a universal flood remains an open question. There were certainly local floods that surpassed any seen before, and there have been reported fossils of whales in mountains in Alabama and Ontario. Were these relatively recent fossils, from only about 10,000 years ago, or are they much older? Also reported have been a cave in England full of bones of hippopotami and a site where mangled bodies of polar and equatorial animals were mixed together. The latter case sounds like evidence of a universal flood. The former may be something else.

Fascinating as tracking down evidence of Atlantis or other ancient civilizations may be, it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it? Hancock gives some reasons to believe it does.

One is that the various legends of the Flood often include the idea it happened because of human wickedness. High as our civilization is, our behavior often isn’t admirable. Consider the way we treat each other and the world in which we live. Cruelty and exploitation characterize our behavior. If God is watching, it’s quite possible She is displeased.

But there are other indicators. One is a column in Göbeckli Tepe that draws attention to the winter solstice when our sun aligns with the center of the Milky Way galaxy when rising in the constellation of Sagittarius. That’s been where it rises since 1960, and will continue to be through 2040. The The Mayan calendar also predicted an age ending and one beginning in this period.

A precessional cycle; that is, the wobble in the earth’s rotation that causes constellations to seem to move slowly across the sky especially in relation to the equinoxes and solstices, is not quite 26,000 years. We are about half a precessional cycle from the time the asteroid some scientists tell us hit the earth and started the Younger Dryas period, that is, more than 12,000 years ago. There are meteor streams which come near us cyclically, and Hancock believes ancient astronomers in Göbekli Tepe, Egypt, and Mexico left us warnings that the cataclysm that destroyed their civilization may return to destroy ours. If an asteroid of, say, one mile in diameter were to hit the earth, it would destroy our civilization, and possibly the whole human race. Humans who could survive such a catastrophe would be those used to surviving on very little, the hunter-gatherer societies that remain today.

We have the science and technology to possibly be able to ward off such a collision, if we could detect the body coming soon enough. It would take quite an effort, but the potential is there. But will we make the effort? If the danger is now, we’d better start planning pretty soon.

I’m not very optimistic. Hancock says that when NASA became aware of the danger in the late 20th century, they were told to play it down. We’ve heard a lot about climate change, and while some accomplishments have been made, they haven’t been enough to make a substantial difference. If an asteroid collides with earth, climate change will be the least of our problems–it will probably occur too, but so will explosive destruction, fire, flood, earthquakes, volcanoes, as well as a possible new ice age.

If one wants to see such a collision as punishment for our collective sins, it would be ironic if it came after we had ALREADY made great progress in destroying ourselves and our civilization by refusing to change our destructive habits in terms of how we treat our habitat and our fellow humans.

I hope my pessimism is misplaced. Right now I see few signs that it is.

Genesis as History


I watched a movie last night expressing what I guess are current views of Creationism, some of which I can buy, some of which I can’t.Of course Creationism sees the Bible as being accurate historically. I don’t entirely disagree, but think there are contradictions.

The movie began with a rationale for believing in the Great Flood, something I tend to agree about. The geologist appearing in the movie calls the Grand Canyon convincing evidence for the Flood, seeing the geologic layers revealed in it as having been laid down suddenly and catastrophically, rather than gradually over millions of years, as mainstream science contends. I think that’s possible, whether it was a local flood or worldwide. There’s a less known site in this country, in eastern Oregon, which some scientists believe was similarly eroded by huge volumes of water moving very fast. They think that one was caused by an asteroid striking the ice pack then covering most of what is now Canada, vaporizing or melting large amounts of ice, and also releasing water from a large lake, just as the geologist believes about the Grand Canyon.

The viewpoint the movie cleverly takes is that of catastrophism, which was anathema in mainstream science for quite awhile.

There’s other possible evidence for a Great Flood too: that the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Caspian Sea in Asia are saltier than they ought to be for their apparent ages. There are also two salt lakes in the Middle East at high altitudes, Lakes Van and Urmia. Lake Titicaca in South America is also at high altitude and is a salt lake, but it seems to have once been a seaport that got lifted up when the Andes mountains were formed.

So far I can agree with much of what the movie says. But part of its quarrel with the conventional dating of the Grand Canyon is, according to the geologist, that the various dating methods for ancient stone and fossils do not agree. That’s certainly a problem, but not enough of one to justify the belief that the world is only 6,000 or so years old. That figure has been a dogma among certain Christians since the 18th century, which makes it questionable in itself.

One of the examples used to justify that figure is a site in which there are fossils in many layers, and the geologist says that each layer shows its own ecosystem. He attributes this to the Great Flood washing over the world more than once. Were this true, it seems to me the fossils would be jumbled up together, as sites reported by other sources state.

The Creationists seem to be on firmer ground questioning natural selection as the evolutionary mechanism. Not that it doesn’t work in producing variations within species, but the idea that all life on earth has a common ancestor is hard to believe. For this to happen, one would have to expect new species being produced from other species. There are variants of many species (cats and dogs are two examples), but those are different breeds, not different species. We haven’t seen new species being created since human beings began to write about 5,000 years ago.

For another thing, it would take a very long time for life to begin from bacteria and differentiate into vegetables, marine life, amphibians, and mammals. Creationists have a point when they question if enough time could have passed. There’s a point in the fossil record (I think after the dinosaurs went extinct) that an explosion of new species occurred. How did that happen? If the asteroid strike which made the dinosaurs extinct was that destructive it’s hard to see how much of any kind of life could have survived, especially many species with no obvious ancestors.

But part of the reason for the question about time scales involved seems to be the Creationist desire to prove Genesis literal. Thus they talk about the process of creation described in Genesis as only taking literally six days. Why is that so important?

One question the movie didn’t address was that of Cain: if his parents were the first humans, as we who read the English translation of the Bible are supposed to believe, how did Cain, after leaving his family, find someone to marry? Let alone found a city? The sensible solution to this is that in the original Hebrew the Adam and the Eve were treated as generic human beings instead of individuals. The story of the Fall would refer to individuals at a later time.

But the movie sees dinosaurs as being part of the punishment of humans for the Flood, and representing the corruption and violence of the world after the Fall of Man. Then it has the dinosaurs dying in the flood, which must have taken place (according the their version of the age of the earth) not much more than 4500 years ago, or about 2500 BC. Again, the questioning of timelines by the movie’s makers doesn’t really provide evidence to suggest that the earth isn’t much older than that. It does suggest that tests to determine the ages of rocks, artifacts, fossils, etc, don’t agree with each other, which does call science’s view into question, but doesn’t give positive evidence.

Another question the movie doesn’t address is one that started people thinking about evolution in the first place: how did life survive the Great Flood in the Americas (where are there are flood legends, just as in Asia) when the animals couldn’t have possibly been taken to or picked up by Noah’s ark? And the thing that really began to make scientists think was the variation in animals and plants around the world. The New World had examples of both that the Old World didn’t, and species in isolated places (like solitary islands) developed in unique ways. The New World also DIDN’T have species found in the Old World, like horses and elephants, fossils of which were found later. But different species and variants within species were an example of evolution at work in isolation from other parts of the world, though not an example of new species being derived from old. It also doesn’t explain the evolution of humans from apes, though we do seem to be closely related to them.

I don’t object to Creationists questioning the findings of science if they do so in a rational way. Scientists can be biased and make mistakes too. What I DO object to is trying to rationalize taking the book of Genesis literally, as well as other Christian dogma, unless there’s very strong evidence for it.

Called Out of Darkness


I haven’t read many of Anne Rice’s novels, not being particularly interested in vampires, but her memoir, Called Out of Darkness, looked interesting when I saw it in the library. It’s about her childhood experience of religion, her retreat from it, and her eventual return.

Her childhood was in a time not so long ago, from my perspective, since it overlapped with mine. It was a time when almost everyone was religious (at least nominally Christian) and there was no air conditioning, which we didn’t miss, not having experienced it. One may have little to do with the other, but it was a more natural time in that respect, and Americans in general were more innocent.

Rice’s life has been unusual in part because she wanted to be a writer without having facility in reading books. So her experience of religion (Catholicism in her case) was direct. She loved the churches and services she and her family attended. She never remembered NOT wanting to go to mass, and she also loved the priests and nuns she came in contact with. Two of her aunts were nuns, and she was impressed with the selfless way in which they lived. She also liked the nuns who taught her in school (though she adds the nuns were tougher on the boys than the girls). Of course this was well before the sexual molestation scandal hit the Catholic church, and probably few even imagined such a thing in those days.

It felt to her like a gigantic family because growing up in New Orleans everyone she knew was Catholic, and all the holidays were religious. She loved them all. She thought, at one point, of becoming a nun, but was dissuaded by her father. In retrospect she says that this was just as well, since she didn’t have the temperament for it.

Temperament, among other things, became problematic for her as she entered her teens. She was annoyed at being treated like a child, since she never felt like one (at least since being a very young child), and being a girl, and a Catholic girl at that, was also a problem.

That’s because, in the 1940s and 50s going steady was a mortal sin, as were hugging and kissing. This was one of the things pushing her away from the church.

Another thing, not specifically Catholic, was the attitude of some about her going to college. One person tried to persuade her it would be better for her to major in something other than journalism, since she would be unlikely to find a job in that field. Another tried to persuade her that highly intelligent people were unhappy. College, she says, is when she put that kind of thinking behind her.

A basic problem was that the Catholic church had come out against the modern world in the previous century, and that was agonizing for Rice, because she desperately wanted knowledge, just as she desperately wanted sex. The only acceptable way to have sex was to be married and have children. There WAS no acceptable way to the kind of knowledge she wanted when so many of the authors she wanted to explore were atheists, or at least not Catholic. She had decided she needed to attend college and work at becoming someone, and that meant a Protestant college, as there was no Catholic university she could possibly afford.

And when she met other students just as hungry for knowledge as she, she also discovered they were good people without being Catholic. They weren’t careless sinners, but thought about what they wanted to do and how to behave ethically.

Talking to a young priest about her doubts, he told her, after he found out about her old-fashioned Catholic upbringing, that she would never be happy outside the church. Though he meant well, she was no longer a Catholic when she left the room, she says.

There had been a mixture of art and mind in the church she had attended as a child. Now that was being taken away from her. So she stopped being Catholic.

“I could not separate my personal relationship with God, and with Jesus Christ, from my relationship with the church.” This, she says, was the real tragedy: she felt she had to stop believing in God in order to leave the church. She left it for 38 years.

It made sense at the time. The church lied to her. God wouldn’t damn people for kissing, masturbating, or thinking. If he did, he couldn’t be called loving, and loving is the way Rice perceived God and Jesus as a child. She tells how a very old nun beamed at her once and said it was wonderful because her soul was pure. That was the manifestation of God and Jesus she wanted to believe. But that’s not what the church told teenagers and young adults.

She adds that from childhood on the church gave people lies to tell outsiders. For instance, that the Inquisition hadn’t executed anyone–that was done by secular society. But secular society and the Catholic church hadn’t been separate in those times. This, she says, was a first-rate Catholic lie.

She could have gone to an opposite extreme and become promiscuous, for instance. Instead, she married the young man she had known for several years, and stayed with him for the rest of his life (he died fifteen years ago). And theirs was, for the most part, a gender equal relationship at a time when that was probably unusual. She wanted to become something, and he thought she should. They argued as equals about the things that passionately interested them, sometimes scandalizing their friends.

These passions, contrary to what one might think, had little to do with the new movements that had begun in the 1950s and were becoming public in the sixties. Rice says she had missed the civil rights movement because she’d moved to California before it became front page news. She was looking at the past, so didn’t pay attention to Vietnam, and didn’t realize that assumptions about race and gender were being overturned. Feminism she thinks was a movement too painful for her to participate in at the time. She was trying to understand the past, especially the World Wars, and was unaware of the present. She admired secular humanism as she found it in San Francisco and Berkeley, and still does today, she says–much against the fashion in some sectors of society.

Two things then happened to change her life significantly. Her daughter became sick and died before turning six. This led her to write her first novel, Interview with a Vampire, which not only established her as a writer, but also as a person separate from her husband. Now, when people spoke to her it was because they wanted to talk to HER, not her husband.

The other was that they had another child, and decided they needed to stop drinking, which they did, thus avoiding the bad health, inability to work at high capacity, and possible early death that comes with alcoholism.

Then, as a wife and parent, she pursued her writing.

She wrote about people shut out of life for various reasons. Vampires are outsiders. So are witches. So are castrati. And since she didn’t write in the intellectually fashionable way, she attracted readers who sometimes never read anything else.

The arc of her writing was to lead her back to God, she says. She found this particularly in the historical research she did to create her novels, most especially in the survival of the Jews which, according to what she’d learned in school, shouldn’t have happened. She’d been drawn to a brilliant Jewish family she’d met (and had babysat for) in her early teens, and was heartbroken when they’d moved away. In her later life she had many Jewish friends, and was as impressed with their determination to do right as with the Catholics she’d grown up with.

Then, in 1988, she moved back to New Orleans with her family, and found that the huge Catholic family she had left there accepted them the way they were, quite against her expectation. When she was growing up Catholics were told to shun anyone who married outside the church, divorced, or did a number of other things the church disapproved of. But she wasn’t judged for those things or for having written about witches and vampires. Suddenly the church felt inclusive, that ordinary Catholics were no longer willing to automatically exclude minorities who transgressed on some dogma, no matter what the church hierarchy might say.

In the late 80s and 90s Rice’s faith in atheism was beginning to crumble, she says. She traveled to religious sites and collected religious relics. The natural world and artistic world both spoke to her of the existence of God. Not only that, but twentieth century American was still obsessed with Jesus, and not just the fanatics. Jesus Christ Superstar is a frivolous example, but there were also many books written, and a whole new genre of popular Christian music became commercially viable. Probably some of this was fanatically dogmatic, but not all of it.

Rice says of her own novels that they rebelled against modernist literature in telling stories in old-fashioned ways, but not against the modernism the Catholic church opposed. Her characters were isolated individuals who didn’t live according to dogma, maybe especially not according to sexual dogma. Her novels, she says, are committed to sexual freedom and gender equality–all the things that had been going on in the 60s and 70s which the Church had generally opposed, and which she had generally been oblivious to. Overall, she says, they’re the story of her return to faith from atheism. Atheism hadn’t exactly been wrong, in the context of a church that rejected so much of the modern world, and hence of life, but ultimately it was unsatisfactory for her.

The world was telling her of God’s existence and love, and eventually she surrendered to it, realizing that she didn’t have to understand everything. God did and does. She only had to play her part.

At this point, she says, came a miracle: she didn’t know ANYTHING about the contemporary church. If she had, she might never have felt able to return. She didn’t know about the church’s rejection of ordination of women (she had once wanted to become a priest), or of the polarization between Right and Left within the church, nor about the pedophilia scandal that had only recently broken. All she knew was that the Catholic church of her childhood still existed, and that this was her way to return to God.

Not, she says, that she could consider herself an actual Christian during this time. She didn’t live an unChristian life, but it wasn’t especially Christian either. The essence of it was a struggle how to proceed. The Christian life means to entirely substitute God’s will for your own, and that’s where many of us hesitate. Rice had numerous employees; would God demand a sacrifice so she could no longer employ them? Many Christians have suffered persecution, often physical persecution as well as emotional. Would that be demanded?

Then she realized that, as a writer, it was her role to write what God wanted her to write. So that’s what she began doing. As she did, she discovered that the only version of the life of Jesus that resonated with her was the orthodox version: he was the Son of God, and performed all the miracles recorded in the New Testament. She says she read many of the books that question the New Testament, and found the scholarship slipshod, one place where I would probably disagree with her, though my knowledge of the the question is far from complete.

For Rice, the Incarnation is what is important, so she dubs herself a Christmas Christian instead of a Passion Christian. The Passion and Atonement leave her cold compared to the idea of God being born a child of a mortal woman. A woman, moreover, who had become pregnant outside of wedlock, giving rise to obvious rumors. While the Passion may be as or more important, it’s not what moves her.

She also began reading the Gospels, the rest of the Bible, and Biblical scholars as well. What she found, she says, is that she couldn’t see the Gospels as anything but written by first-person witnesses. She couldn’t see the books as collaborative or edited, something else I would probably disagree about. She finds tremendous depth in those books, as the Church has always insisted, but cannot force anyone to believe.

The other thing she realized was that she was called on to love everyone. Literally. It’s easy to condemn Christians and everyone else for not doing this, or not doing it well enough. A temptation, she says, we always have to resist.

She includes a prayer written by St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,                                      Where there is hatred, let me sow Love.                                             Where there is injury, pardon,                                                                Where there is doubt, faith,                                                                   Where there is despair, hope,                                                                Where there is darkness, light,                                                             And where there is sadness, joy.                                                          O Divine Master, grant that I may                                                          Not so much seek to be consoled as to console;                               To be understood as to understand;                                                   To be loved as to love;                                                                            For it is in giving that we receive–                                                        It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;                                              And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

Rice tells us of finding a statue of Christ on the cross reaching down to embrace St. Francis. She found it three times: once in an antique shop, once in a church in Brazil, and then in the church she was attending as this memoir was written.

I think it’s significant that the present Pope is Francis, and that no other Pope before him had taken that name. I think that was because the Church went through a time of great hatred, some of which began about the time of St. Francis, with the crusade against the Albigensians. That crusade was the birth of the Inquisition, model for future police states, which led to the persecution of the conversos (the Jews who had converted to Christianity in Spain, but continued to practice Jewish worship), the great wars against the Protestants, the persecution of the witches, and finally to the ideals embodied in the US Constitution about the separation of church and state to avoid religious wars. Maybe the appearance of the present Pope and his choice of the name Francis is significant. Maybe it means that a majority of Catholics are tired of the hatred that made them embattled in many places and separated religion from science.

And if that’s true for a majority of Catholics, maybe it’s true for a majority of people in general: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist, despite the horrors still perpetrated in the world, too often by religious people.

Rice notes the religious obsessions with sexuality and gender, and wonders if these could not be made secular as much (but not all) of science has. Science tells us something of how the stars are made, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also see them as lights created by God to guide us. We can also, if we wish, see God in every human, every animal, and the whole natural world. That would be a more optimistic view of the universe than seeing the world as merely the story of random chemical reactions.

Unless, of course, God were to continue to be viewed through the lens of dogma and power. When God is only a tool of the powerful, organized religion loses its point. It has nothing to offer the rest of us, especially the poorest, most vulnerable, and most persecuted.

Anne Rice had, it seems, to leave her church and return to it to realize just how significant it was to her. Her path won’t be the same path as anyone else. But her story can serve as an inspiration, rather than a roadmap.




Lavondyss is a quest story by Robert Holdstock about an ancient forest in England bigger than it looks from the outside. A stream runs through it which becomes a river deep inside. Not only is the the forest larger in space, but in time as well, with spaces in it extending back as far as the Ice Age.

Tallis Keeton’s older brother, Harry, has disappeared into the forest, and his family mourns him. He says goodbye only to Tallis, then a young child, and seems to be in pain. She thinks the pain is in his chest, but doesn’t understand. She wants to rescue him, but doesn’t know how.

As she grows older she becomes obsessed with the forest, which seems to act on her; she sees human figures out of the corners of her eyes, stories come to her, she discovers the real names of fields and trees, and makes masks symbolizing various states of consciousness.

The first one she makes she calls “the Hollower”, after the opener of roads (holloways) that lead from the world of the living to the world of the dead, roads which heroes walked leading to worlds where the heroes sometimes became trapped–as Harry apparently had been. She makes more masks too.

A story comes to her about a king and queen with three sons. The youngest, Scathach, is exiled to a castle made of “stone which is not stone”, and is unable to return.She finds a tree she names Strong Against the Storm, which is a hollowing place where she can have visions, where a passage can open between worlds, and there she has a vision of Scathach grievously wounded on a battlefield. Carrion birds are coming for him, and she performs a childish sort of magic to keep them away.

Her parents don’t understand. They know she’s been distracted from the ordinary world, especially when she quits school, but don’t  understand what she’s trying to accomplish, and she rarely feels she can even try to explain. She does try sometimes, to her father, and he does try to understand.

She is only thirteen when she actually meets Scathach. Born in the wood, but with a father from the outside, a scientist who had been investigating and trying to understand the forest, and had eventually entered it and become the shaman of a primitive tribe, fathering two children, performing the rituals necessary for the tribe, and continuing his observations of the different peoples traveling up the river headed for Lavondyss, the heart of the great woods. Scathach speaks English and is able to explain some things to her, but urgently needs her help to return home deep in the forest. He needs her to hollow, to open a path so he can find his way home. Just when she has persuaded her father to help her Scathach persuades her to help him find his way in the forest, promising she can quickly return. She goes with him, hollows a way into the forest, but quickly becomes lost. For eight years.

Scathach’s father feels her coming. The creatures of the forest aren’t natural, though they live. They’re shaped by the powerful subconscious fantasies and problems of warriors and shamans, and the father, a shaman himself, sees things around him changing.

One of those things is the boy not really his son who was actually born from the forest and is about to change the tribe in which he lives by changing all their rituals. He is preparing for this by eating the marrow out of the bones of the tribe’s dead to get their memories and dreams. Eventually he will kill his father and eat his head, giving him even more access to powerful thoughts and dreams. He is a mythago, a sort of archetype created by the forest out of powerful images dreamed.

He tries to kill his father the shaman, and almost succeeds. Once the shaman has healed enough to travel Tallis and Scathach take him up the river as both seek Lavondyss. Scathach, as he is a warrior, must fight in the battle of Bavduin, a sort of apocalyptic battle in which hecatombs of men are killed. He hopes to find the friends he journeyed with and lost.

Tallis wants to enter Lavondyss so she can free Harry, and doesn’t know exactly how to do so. After Scathach and the shaman both leave her she enters a ruined castle she has found, one she had glimpsed before in previous hollowings. It is made of petrified wood–stone that is not stone. There time speeds up, a tree grows into her body and turns her into wood. Ages pass.

It is usually winter in the wood, but now she finds herself in extreme winter, and the family living near her are trapped in it. They didn’t realize the extremity of winter coming in time, and don’t have the food to go south, and barely have enough to survive where they are. The youngest son of the family is an artist. He finds Tallis and chisels her out of the tree, then plants her at the head of the grave of his grandmother, who has just died.

As he does so, his father comes behind him, kills him, and eats as much as he can, then runs away. The mother follows him, kills him, and returns. She and the two older boys eat the remains of the younger son to survive, then the middle son allows birds to peck his eyes out. This breaks the magic Tallis realizes she had made in trying to protect Harry. Harry is the middle son, but the loss of the son’s sight has also freed Harry. His spirit thanks Tallis and disappears, telling her he’ll soon see her again.

The wooden statue embodying her is burned, but not entirely, and from what is left she metamorphosizes eventually back into her previous body and leaves Lavondyss, realizing it is the place of events that resonated with humans and which became myths on which human behavior is founded (just as human survival is founded on ecology). Time is plastic there, as can be human, plant, and animal forms.

Returning to the tribe where she found the shaman, she finds the boy who has now killed the shaman and eaten him. She also finds Scathach, who has survived the Battle of Bavduin.

The next scene is of Tallis as an old woman still living in the forest and near death considering her life. She enjoyed her subsequent life with Scathach, though he died too soon, but still hasn’t found Harry.

Until she dozes and he comes to her. He helps her stand up and leads her to the edge of the forest where she sees her father. She has returned to the very moment she entered the forest. She hasn’t destroyed the family, and now can heal it. And though she still hasn’t found Harry, hope remains for him. And for the grandson she leaves behind in the forest, with directions for finding the old lodge where there are records of the shaman’s researches.

But just after that a scene from earlier in the novel repeats. Harry arrives at Tallis’s funeral and is grief-stricken. He cries out, as Tallis had heard him many years before, ” I’ve lost you. I’ve lost you. And now I’ve lost everything!”

From one of Tallis’s masks comes an answer in Tallis’s voice: “No, I’m here. I’ll come to you, Harry. Wait for me. Wait for me…”

In interviews Holdstock said he was deliberately working with myth in this book and others in its series. The progenitors of ancient stories are still more ancient, and the versions we know are often romanticized. Robin Hood isn’t mentioned in chronicles until 1377, but his story is probably much older, and may be related to that of King Arthur, whose story may go back as far as the Bronze Age.

Lavondyss is a sequel to Mythago Wood, in which the author set up the premise on which the stories are based, but the sequel is far superior. The premise is about the role myth plays in human life, in our subconscious minds (much larger and wiser than our individual consciousnesses). The story is both deeper and more complex, not only about questing, but about courage, determination, and loss. The end, which always makes me emotional, suggests that loss may not always be forever, and that healing is possible, in spite of loss.


The Arts in Public School


I went to two concerts last week. Two of my grandchildren were participating, one in choir, one in band. They’re only sixth graders, so they didn’t spend a lot of time onstage, but I hope by the time they hit high school they’ll have a lot more skill and still enjoy performing.

Music is the kind of thing that many people don’t feel is really useful. I think that depends on what your criteria are. Do children make money from performing? Not usually. Does that mean only children should perform who can do so professionally? I don’t think so.

I’ve been singing in choirs off and on most of my life. It’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, but I enjoy it, and I’ve gotten to sing some pretty nice material. While I have a reasonably good voice, I’m not a real musician, and can’t compete with anyone who is. But singing in a choir isn’t about competing, it’s about cooperating. If I were of professional talent I could do it much better, but I can still enjoy it. The same can be true for my grandchildren.

I don’t know that any of them have the talent or drive to be professional in music, sports, or drama. If they do, I hope they can succeed at whatever they choose, but if not, they can still enjoy their efforts in any of those directions.

Sports can teach young people discipline and the right way to work in order to succeed, as well as being enjoyable in itself. So can drama and music. Music, in particular, helps young brains make more connections between neurons, which can be positive, no matter how the neurons are employed. Better functioning brains can aid in success, whether it’s in music or some other discipline.

I worry, though, about cuts in funding to schools. As I understand it, school funding usually comes through property taxes in the neighborhoods the schools serve. The disadvantage of this approach is that poor neighborhoods don’t get schools as well funded as wealthy ones. Nationally, the attitude toward school funding is announced by the decision to cut funding for meals for hungry children. Considering that hungry children can’t very well be expected to concentrate on what they’re supposed to learn, this means that a large percentage of the population is being prepared to fail, not succeed. Shame on parents too irresponsible to feed their children before school, but when hungry children are being refused food, who is being punished?  I don’t think the authors of such legislation are serving their constituencies very well, arousing questions about their real motivation.

The issue is the same for programs like music, drama, and sports. The returns on those investments may not be immediate, but in my opinion, are worthwhile. Of course, if one’s interest is to turn the nation’s schools, elementary and secondary as well as collegiate, into profit-making institutions, one is announcing that one’s concern is for those making the profits, not for those they’re supposedly serving.

My grandchildren apparently live in a pretty good neighborhood, because they have music programs (I don’t yet know about any others) that serve the middle school as well as high school children. My grandchildren are only beginning their exposure to the arts. By the time they graduate high school I hope they’ll have had a lot more exposure, whether they choose to pursue it further or not. I’d like to see children in all parts of the country getting the same chances. I think their lives would be enriched. If public school funding has to be cut (and I’m not convinced it does), I think this is the wrong place.


Bob Dylan and the Band


That’s the name of a movie that shows the influence both had on the music of the late 1960s and early 70s. A lot of the story is probably familiar to those of us interested in the music of that time, but there are still some insights to be gained.

Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly singer who started out in the 1950s put what would become known as the Band together, beginning with drummer/guitarist Levon Helm, from Arkansas. Hawkins visited Canada looking for alternative places to play, and found them. He also found there were musically talented Canadians. The rest of the Band was recruited there.

They got to be pretty good, too, since they played a lot of gigs and rehearsed a lot. After two or three years of performing with Hawkins they decided they could do just as well on their own, and left him. They hadn’t been on their own too long (and hadn’t yet encountered fame or fortune) when Bob Dylan heard of them and hired them for the world tour he was about to undertake.

Dylan was by this time a Big Name. He had begun as a folk singer, enhanced his reputation by becoming a deft writer of protest songs, a la Woody Guthrie, an idol of his, but hadn’t stopped there. His lyrics began to expand beyond protest songs and love songs into philosophy. Not the kind of songs most fans of popular music had ever encountered. As his lyrical reach grew, he began to want to hear other sounds–amplified sounds. The folk music community had one stringent principle: electric music was not allowed.

Dylan more or less stuck his toe into electric music on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. The first five or six songs were electric; the last four acoustic. To my ear, the acoustic songs were better, both sonically and lyrically. Other fans saw the album differently.

Nor were they reassured when his next album, Highway 61 Revisited, came out. It was ALL electric, and the lyrics were even further out than before. It was after this album that he decided to perform with a backing band at all his concerts (though I believe he also did acoustic music for part of them). That’s where the Hawks (who would become the Band) came in. He had a world tour planned, and needed a reliable group behind him.

First he hired Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, guitarist and drummer. They prevailed on him to hire the rest of the group, which he did. But they were surprised to find that they were booed up and down at each concert. Helm didn’t like that, and may not have been too thrilled about their reversion to a backup band either, since he was the leader, and the usual lead singer. He decided to leave.

The rest of the group went on with the world tour, with the addition of drummer Mickey Jones. The boos followed them, and became irritating to Dylan, if not the others. It wasn’t as if the fans didn’t know he was playing electric music: He’d been playing it for the last album and a half, and a third album, Blonde on Blonde, released during the tour, continued the trend. The albums sold well, and so did the tickets, but it seemed that a sizable percentage of the audience bought tickets in order to boo.

In 1967 he and the group returned to this country, and he went to rest in Woodstock, New York. He needed to. His manager had overbooked him, and he’d been using amphetamines (at least) to keep going. It was in Woodstock that he had a motorcycle accident, broke a bone in his neck, and decided not to play the upcoming tour. The Band was living in a hotel in New York City until he invited them to come and live in Woodstock. They did, and there began to collaborate with him. The result was what became known as the Basement Tapes.

Dylan was paying the Band, which meant they didn’t have to find gigs. They could just relax and explore music they liked and were familiar with, as well as music they didn’t know. Dylan sat upstairs typing out songs, then brought them down to the basement, where the Band ran through them, and recorded them. They probably also just jammed, and maybe turned each other on to music they didn’t know. The Band didn’t know much about folk music. They may have known more about country and bluegrass. One of the narrators of the movie asks where the idea came from to record the songs. He thought the idea came from Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who wasn’t crazy about Dylan not performing in concert. That meant less pay for him. With recorded songs he could give some to other artists (the Byrds;  Peter, Paul & Mary; and Manfred Mann at least) and get paid for the publishing. It seems that Dylan was surprised, about this time, to discover that Grossman owned fifty percent of his publishing. The narrator points out that the songs emanating from Woodstock were what started the whole bootleg recording phenomenon.

In the late 1960s Dylan had enormous power in popular music. It was partly his influence that caused the explosion of American rock & roll. His next official album, John Wesley Harding, was (the narrator points out) pretty much acoustic, as if Dylan was  saying, You want acoustic? Here it is.

It wasn’t what anyone had expected, and in addition to his next album, Nashville Skyline, greatly influenced a lot of bands to pay attention to country music at a time when many people thought country musicians were a bunch of redneck racists. The Byrds and Rolling Stones were two who paid attention. Then came a couple of albums by the Band.

Dylan hadn’t recorded with the Band. He’d gone to Nashville to record the two albums with studio musicians he’d worked with for Blonde on Blonde. But while they were in Woodstock the Band had found an identity when they didn’t have to worry about the next gig. They started writing and recording their own songs, as well as some by Dylan (at least one a collaboration), and more or less consciously decided to go against the psychedelic fashion, as well as their own loud and fast history. So they began their first album with Tears of Rage, a very slow and emotional song written about parents and children written from the parental point of view. That was WAY against the fashion. So was the photo of them with their families of origin, whom they obviously cared about. So was the instrumental break in Chest Fever which sounded, as their producer put it, like a Salvation Army band. No screaming guitars, but all of them playing like virtuosos.

Even more influential was their second album, The Band. Every single cut was at least good, if not great. The subject of the whole album was the world as seen from the South, which Robbie Robertson (who wrote most of the lyrics) had gotten from Levon Helm. The narrator raises the question as to whether Helm really appreciated the view that Robertson gave of his world. What Helm really DIDN’T appreciate was that Robertson gave himself the lion’s share of the songwriting credits. Helm thought the rest of the group, who had contributed to the arrangements, should get credit too.

That made things a bit tense, and the Band didn’t have that kind of success again. They still came up with some nice songs, but not as consistently. Part of it was partying too hard, which interfered with their ability to work. Approaching the mid-seventies their career was no longer in good shape. Neither was Bob Dylan’s.

Some people seemed to think that Dylan’s turn in the direction of country was because he was happier. He was married and beginning to have children with his wife. But in a memoir he contradicts that view. He was happy (we can probably assume) with his family, but wanted to protect them, and that was difficult because so many people wanted a piece of him. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, another very charismatic figure, had the same problem. Dylan had it first and, arguably, may have had it worse. He may not have said so explicitly, but strongly implies in the memoir that he deliberately did work beneath his capacity to deflect attention away from himself and his family.

That was a tricky line to walk. He didn’t want to become totally unpopular. He still wanted to have an audience to work to, but he didn’t want people to constantly be in his face either. In the memoir he says that in the mid to late eighties he realized that he hadn’t been doing very good work for quite some time, and the beginning of that may well date back to the early seventies. Once one deliberately does less than one’s best, it’s hard to find one’s best again.

One step in that direction was when Dylan asked the Band to go on the road with him again. According to the narrator of the movie, they did very well together. Dylan tried recording with the Band, but that didn’t seem to work very well. In concert, though, they were able to follow him. When he played with other bands later on he became notorious for changing keys and arrangements abruptly, which could easily throw most people off. Apparently the Band was able to follow him.

But there were to be years of struggle ahead for both. Dylan went through his Christian phase, which turned a lot of people off, including me, and, as he writes in his memoir, began finding his way back to doing what he really wanted to do in music: work consistently, explore what he wanted to explore, but not be looked on as anybody’s savior.

Robbie Robertson left the Band about a year after the tour with Dylan, making the Last Waltz movie to celebrate the occasion. The rest of them didn’t want to leave the road, so found other guitarists and regrouped. They made at least one more album, but nothing to be compared with their earlier work. Richard Manuel, their piano player, committed suicide. Rick Danko, the bass player,  died in the late nineties, and Levon Helm about 2012.

It’s a shame that their career ended so ignominiously, but they, along with Dylan had a large influence on the music of the late sixties and early seventies. It wasn’t just Dylan who moved things towards the country side. The Band’s first two albums influenced the same people Dylan did, including the Grateful Dead, as psychedelic a band as there was out there. Their album, Workingman’s Dead, was completely different from their previous albums, and pretty clearly inspired by what the Band had done. The Rolling Stones started playing country-influenced songs in the early seventies too.

That era was a pretty amazing one in terms of musical talent and openness to a variety of influences. Dylan was clearly one of the leaders in that respect, and greatly influenced the Band, as well as a LOT of other people. But a lot of people influenced each other too. The Beatles were among the influences to make Dylan go electric, while he influenced them (and a lot of others) in writing lyrics, as well as what one could write ABOUT. Those musicians continue to influence later generations, though the music business doesn’t look very similar to what it was then. The elder statesmen may not be actively influencing much anymore, but their older influence is still felt.


Ayn Rand


I’ve written about Ayn Rand before, partly because I dislike a lot of the people who claim to be inspired by her, partly because I never cared much for her novels, which a lot of people like. But in reading The Passion of Ayn Rand, a biography by Barbara Branden who knew her intimately in the 1950s, it becomes clear that she was in many respects an admirable person who accomplished a great deal, but also lived a tragic life.

One of her misfortunes was to be born in Russia just as the country was beginning to descend into revolution. That was just after the revolution of 1905 that made some sweeping political changes in the country, but not enough to prevent the 1917 revolution that ushered in Communism. Her family, being moderately well off, suffered more than some from the dislocations of revolution and civil war, but survived. She was also Jewish, but told Barbara Branden that she never encountered anti-Semitism in Russia, though the country was notoriously inclined that way.

By that time Alice Rosenberg, as her family named her, had decided she wanted to be a writer, and that liberty and heroism were perhaps the values most important to her. When relatives in the USA contacted her family, concerned about how and whether they had survived the civil war, Alice Rosenberg told her family she HAD to go to the USA. Her family wasn’t enthusiastic, but agreed to arrange it, if possible. It turned out to be possible, though she came close to being refused.

By 1926, when she immigrated, she had seen less than wonderful things in Russia. Lots of hungry people struggling to survive, violence, people prevented from attending university or getting good jobs because of the social class they belonged to, rather than any crime they had committed. Unsurprisingly, she became a committed anti-Communist, having seen the way the system operated close up. Things got worse in Russia after she left.

Once in this country she began to work at becoming a writer in an unfamiliar language. She went to Chicago first to stay with the relatives who had helped her immigrate, then to Los Angeles to attempt screenwriting. She happened to meet Cecil B. DeMille,  who was impressed with her, and gave her work as an extra and other odd jobs before allowing her to write screenplays. She was moderately successful at that.

In Hollywood she also found her husband, who physically incarnated the fantasies of a hero she had had, though his character wasn’t particularly heroic. Marrying him provided her with citizenship so she didn’t have to return to Russia, where she could in no way have had the writing career she had visualized. She wanted to write about heroic individuals. That wouldn’t have been acceptable in Stalin’s Russia (unless they were Communists–and Communism was unheroic, in her view), and it took a long time for what she wrote to become acceptable here.

There was sympathy for Russia among American intellectuals of that time, a feeling that Communism just might help save the world. Rand knew it would not, but few people she tried to tell would listen in the twenties and thirties. Her first novel, We the Living was set in Russia and somewhat autobiographical. The main male character of the book catches tuberculosis, and has to go to a sanatorium; the heroine takes an unwanted lover so he can stay there, which sets up an unhappily dramatic climax. She is then killed trying to escape the country. The book sold poorly at first, but eventually sold more, especially after her better-known novels became popular.

The Fountainhead was next, about an architect unsuccessful because his work is too original. He has a friend, also an architect, who has little originality, and tries to succeed by copying. He gives this friend the design for a housing project which no one will allow him to build himself. His condition is that the project must be built exactly as he designed it; when a change is made, the architect blows the project up. He won’t allow his design to be watered down, nor allow anyone to have his work without meeting his price.  There’s a happy ending after that, too. The architect is prosecuted, but declared innocent.

Rand said the hero of that novel was her ideal man: in conflict with society, but not with himself. She contrasted him with three other men. One, the untalented architect friend who wasn’t the ideal man, but didn’t know it.  Another, stronger and more intelligent, runs a newspaper that tells the lowest common denominator what they want to hear. He could have been the ideal man, but wasn’t. A third is a critic who is not the ideal man, and knows it. He’s the villain of the novel.

The hero’s friend, unable to be the ideal man was, Rand told Branden, based on a woman she met who was obsessed with her career and very hard-working, but who rubbed Rand the wrong way, not because of her ambition or her work-ethic, but something else. When she asked the woman what was important to her, the woman replied that if no one else had a car, she wanted to have one; if everyone wanted a car, she wanted to have two. Rand was disgusted, but felt this pointed up a distinction between frivolous selfishness and actually HAVING a self that wants to accomplish something worthwhile. She called the latter “selfish” in a truer sense of the word. She saw the woman as being what she called a “collectivist” rather than an individual. A “collectivist” because for her success was strictly in relation to other people rather than a course chosen and pursued because of its meaning to the individual.

The Fountainhead became popular enough to have a somewhat successful movie made of it. But her REALLY popular novel was the next one, Atlas Shrugged. The idea behind this one is that the talented people, the ones whose ideas–translated into reality–are crucial to making society work, go on strike. Their complaint is they’re being told to work for the good of society (including those who deserve nothing, being unwilling to make efforts themselves) and are made to feel guilty for wanting their talent and work to be recognized and celebrated. This aspect of the novel is deliberately obscured at first, while Rand sketches in the decadence of the society which makes demands of its most talented members. Only towards the end does it become clear what is happening.

My memories of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are unclear, as it’s been fifty years or more since I read them. I didn’t really buy into Rand’s views, but what I remember most about Atlas Shrugged in particular is its insistence that its readers MUST agree with its point of view. For me that was off-putting, to say the least. It seemed almost like Stalin’s “correct line”, which all Communists were expected to believe.

Rand saw Communism and Socialism, both popular in America in the twenties and thirties (at least among intellectuals), as collectivism, and capitalism as individuality. She identified collectivism with the idea of the nation being more important than the individual, as seen in the Germany and Soviet Union of the thirties. These weren’t very attractive to those aware of the people they persecuted, though their propaganda deceived some into thinking they were positive phenomena.

Capitalism Rand liked much better because it gave people from almost any social class a chance. She found technology thrilling as a demonstration of what rationality and intellect could achieve, and saw this as examples of individuals being true to themselves.

But to what extent is this true? The production of technology is dependent on large organizations, just as totalitarian governments are. Is individualism encouraged in these organizations, other than at the very top? Why does the history of large corporations include intense hostility to unions, including the willingness to wound and kill strikers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Have not the leaders of industries been as intoxicated with power as have dictators? Their aims haven’t been exactly the same, but they still required power over others to achieve them. Rand saw slavery as being inefficient, and if one’s aim is innovation, that’s certainly true. But slave-owning societies are stratified, which means innovation happens among the upper classes. Is this why industrialists hated unions? Industrial workers weren’t slaves, but weren’t far from being enslaved, having to work extremely long hours, often in dangerous working conditions. Their opinions weren’t wanted. Contemporary conservatives like to differentiate between “makers and takers”. Just who is in each group?

Does it make sense to identify genius and innovation with free market capitalism as Rand does? Capitalism has encouraged innovation, as Rand says, but is it the only system under which innovation can occur? The ancient Romans were notable builders. The ancient Egyptians even more–we still can’t duplicate some things they built. Did either society have free market capitalism? Both were slave states.

Which raises the question, for whom is the free market free? For the owner of the means of production and distribution, but is that true for the ordinary worker too? Historically, it hasn’t always been.

And technology isn’t all positive either. Rand didn’t approve of environmentalism, claiming that industrial civilization had lengthened human life, which was true–just not the entire truth.

‘”City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific technological problem, not a political one, and it can be solved ONLY by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.

Actually, we have discovered that filthy rivers and smog ARE in part political problems because the people causing the pollution are often unwilling to clean it up, and are willing to lobby to assure they don’t have to. How would Ayn Rand analyze the recent issue in Flint, Michigan, in which many people, including children, suffered lead poisoning, which causes serious neurological damage? Or instances where a poisonous insecticide is often found on produce? Technology will fix it, but technology also caused the problem, and will not fix it without the political will to do so.

Rand points out that average human life-span increased in the industrial age. Again, partly true. Ancient civilizations like Rome and Crete had sewage systems, which later European cultures did not, until relatively late. Life spans increased, at least in part, because humans discovered that antisepsis prevented sickness, something realized by medical science, which also contributed antibiotics, as well as medicines to control diabetes and heart disease. This is the same science that tells us pollution is bad, not only for us but for the other forms of life on which our lives ultimately depend. Ecology is thus the justification of altruism and collectivism, both dirty words in Rand’s lexicon. We can’t survive without nature, and our powers are now great enough to be able to destroy large numbers of plant and animal species in greater numbers than since the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. To say that we have not yet destroyed ourselves in this way is not to say that it can’t be done, nor that we’re not in the process of doing so. It’s instructive how easy it is to fall into a false dualism in which nature is seen as something to be conquered rather than to be cooperated with, and human achievements are to be celebrated even though they may poison humans, plants, and animals. The world’s ecosystem is flexible, but human activities on a massive scale affect it, and seem likely to ultimately have regrettable consequences. That dualism would see the extinction of plant and animal species as nothing to be concerned about, since that point of view sees humans as more important than the rest of the world.

“Ecology as a social principle condemns cities, culture, industry, technology, the intellect, and advocates man’s return to ‘nature’, to the state of grunting subanimals digging the soil with their bare hands.”

Some say science doesn’t care what you believe. Nature REALLY doesn’t care. It would be nice to be able to retain and expand our current standards of living, but that may not be practical. There are only so many natural resources of the type we use to power our urban civilization, and if we’re unwilling to change our lifestyles, nature may do it for us. The outcome of that conflict remains to be seen.

Rand sees rationality, the most important tool of the intellect, as being more important than any other aspect of humanity. But another view sees the instincts and emotions as being fully as important, so that when their development is neglected, the person, culture, or society becomes unbalanced. This imbalance causes unnecessary conflict within individuals, between them, between them and the larger cultures and societies. Rand’s view of ecology is this conflict writ rather large. An example is the overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. An obvious way to redress the imbalance would be to plant more trees. Instead, we clear-cut forests for profit. Profit is not inherently immoral, but there are ways of achieving it which are.

A recent article in the New Yorker presents evidence that rationality wasn’t evolved to assess truth, but to make sure we didn’t get screwed by others, since our most effective means of survival has been cooperation–a way to argue better, in other words. If so, this perspective makes Rand’s position special pleading on the basis of identity–she was a genius, and deserved to be treated better, as do all geniuses. This may be true, but it’s interesting that conservatives (the main group to whom Rand has appealed) generally dislike identity politics.

The conflict, writ smaller, was shown when Rand embarked on an affair with a man 25 years younger, in spite of his wife (her biographer). and in spite of her husband. She had the power to persuade everyone to go along with it, though neither her husband nor the wife was really comfortable. Ultimately, this led to a break between her and many of the young people who gravitated to her and her views after the publication of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She exacerbated the problem because she couldn’t admit she was in any way to blame.

Barbara Branden makes clear that Rand’s views were very rigorously thought out, and that her novels were very carefully written to express just what she meant, and in a language of which she was not a native speaker. Her view of man as a potentially heroic being who often falls short of that level can be seen as admirable, though I quarrel with her view of man being superior to nature. Not many individuals have the strength to choose their own path and persist in it despite conflict with or disapproval from their society. I would suggest that not all such individuals are on a productive path, nor do all of them agree with Rand’s views.

There seem, for instance, to be alternatives to Rand’s lone genius view of creativity. Collaboration may occur more frequently in music than in writing. Collaboration between a composer and a lyricist isn’t unusual, and in a band context a piece may evolve from communal input instead of being shaped only by one person, and even be seen as being superior because of that input. That’s not to say one form of creativity is superior to another, only that there’s more than one approach.

Rand considered religion (or mysticism) to be a chief hindrance to rationality. But at least two 20th century men attempted to approach the apparently immaterial spiritual world scientifically, ie, rationally. One man who did so made much the same comment as Rand put in the mouth of one of her characters: that he would love to be able to have acquaintances with whom he could interact as equals. He wasn’t jealous of anyone approaching his level, he wanted them to do so, contrary to some popular narratives. His intellect was not inferior to hers, but he recognized other aspects of the human being, and taught them, as well as the intellect.

Rand accomplished a great deal in writing novels of ideas that interested and influenced a great many people. Not everyone will agree, but I think it’s tragic that she drove many people away from her because of her insistence that she was right and others were wrong, as well as her misuse of her power to persuade others to allow her behavior that hurt them. And while I think she had great insight, I think some of her views were tragically misguided, and are likely to have tragic consequences. She was more determined and powerful than most, but just as capable of being mistaken.