Sunday, March 22, 2009
By: John A. McCurdy
22 March 2009
Critics today occasionally still ask whether the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen should rightly be regarded as poetry or not. Poetry shouldn’t depend on melody and instrumentation, they charge.
It’s an old-fashioned argument, but one that can be made.
Then there are those who take it for granted that Dylan and Cohen are poets in the traditional page-bound sense. Pressed to support the claim they often point to the fact that Dylan’s work continues to elicit a steady stream of interpretative tomes and tributes. Or they refer to the fact that Cohen’s songs are commonly anthologized in undergraduate literature textbooks or studied in university and high school classrooms.
But can we respond to the question as to whether or Dylan and Cohen’s songs are poetic with any confidence? In Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, author David Boucher’s answer is yes. Grounding his arguments in the artistic theories of R.C. Collingwood, Michael Oakeshott and Federico Garcia Lorce, Boucher posits the existence of three types of modern poetry: poetry of magic, which recreates the phenomenal (external) world; poetry of imagination, which stirs and educates the inner (subjective) world of emotion; and inspirational poetry, which operates solely according to the logic of imagery.
Boucher is generally successful in showing how Dylan and Cohen’s songs can be read as specimens of one or another of these types of poetry. Dylan’s work is described as having evolved from being a poetry of magic (here his early politically committed songs are exemplary) to poetry of inspiration (as in the imagistic masterwork “Desolation Row,” from 1965’s seminal Highway 61 Revisited). Meanwhile, Cohen served a much longer poetic apprenticeship (his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies appeared in 1956), so that he attains a level of imaginative poetry at roughly the same time as Dylan, on his 1966 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Boucher’s book seems troubled though by what feel like internally incompatible elements. Though he performs many insightful close readings of key Dylan and Cohen songs, he also populates the text with a large volume of biographical, performance-based, and historical information. He does this in an effort to establish biographical and historical context. Yet it’s not always clear how this broader material directly supports his reading of both singers’ imaginative and inspirational songs.
In this respect, though Boucher touches on the question, it remains unclear precisely how Dylan and Cohen’s songs achieve imaginative or inspirational status. At what point does a song, as opposed to a poem, register meaning and achieve its distinguishing effects? At what point and to what extent is any work of art constructed by the reader? Viewer? Listener? Audience? The poetry question, as it relates to popular music and popular culture, remains on the table.
Whether or not Boucher achieves a breakthrough in terms of better understanding the relationship between poetry and popular culture, he is clearly passionate and deeply informed about his topic. Possessing a superior grasp of the vast literature written on Dylan and Cohen, he effectively presents what must be its leading insights. Though some of the biographical and historical content seems extraneous to the book’s theme and purpose, this material remains fascinating in its own right and is presented in an invariably sober manner. Consequently, one finds politically and psychologically grounded histories of the postwar American folk music movement and counterculture in Boucher’s book, alongside a set of unsentimental biographies.
Hank Williams emerges as Dylan and Cohen’s formative musical and cultural influence. Later Dylan turns to Johnny Cash, to Harry Smith's now famous Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), and ultimately to Woody Guthrie. Elements of Dylan’s early politically committed career receive due attention after years of critical fixation on his ‘going electric phase.’ How many younger Dylan fans know, for instance, that Dylan “sang to a crowd of over 200,000 people at the March on Washington rally” in 1963 “on the same stage that the Reverend Martin King Jr., deliver his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” Fewer perhaps than one might suspect. Boucher’s book is particularly valuable for the thorough manner in which the historical importance of the pre-“Like A Rolling Stone” Dylan is affirmed. He also makes connections across Dylan’s full catalogue. That 1979’s Slow Train Coming “was so intensely religious should not have come as a surprise,” he writes, for “Dylan’s early albums, beginning with the first, Bob Dylan, were obsessed with death and God” (p. 216).
Then there is Boucher’s reconstruction of Cohen’s biography, which turns out to be as conflicted and tormented as Dylan’s – if not more so. Some will know that Cohen experienced intense manic depression until as recently as the late 1990s. Fewer will know however that his interest in Zen Buddhism dates to the early 1970s; that his greatest early popular influence, Hank Williams aside, was Ray Charles; or that one of the most fruitful ways to interpret his work is as an running commentary on the undeniable battle between the gendered sexes. On this latter point Boucher expands, taking his cue from “There Is a War,” an early 1970s Cohen song:
“This war between men and women to which he refers is one that is a battle of the wills, a ruthless and vicious struggle to the psychic death, and in which women have the upper hand. Everyone knows, Cohen says, that women are the mind and force that hold everything in place. His album I’m Your Man  represents for him a truce in this war, perhaps even a peace” (p. 197).
Happily such choice insights are to be gleaned in abundance from David Boucher’s Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll.
*Original review of Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, by David Boucher published in Say3 Magazine, November 2005, pp. 34-35.
Professor David Boucher's Website: http://www.caerdydd.ac.uk/euros/contactsandpeople/profiles/boucherde.html
David Boucher's Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Dylan-Cohen-Poets-Rock-Roll/dp/0826459811
Tiananmen Square 1989 – one of those truncated media-inspired phrases that set loose journalistic images lodged in the minds of Westerners; image-memories of Chinese soldiers, held back by pro-democracy demonstrators, numbering one million strong for a time, crowded into the precincts of Beijing’s historically-charged central public square. Out from the photos and film footage emerges a single, simple, unforgettable image – Associated Press journalist Jeff Widener’s early June 1989 ‘Unknown Rebel’ photo.
Significant not just for seeming to evoke the mood and meaning of ‘Tiananmen Square 1989,’ the ‘Unknown Rebel’ records as well the final moment of the weeks-long Chinese citizens’ occupation of the square. Soon after the photo is taken Chinese government crackdowns commencing, fanning out across the Beijing night. Thousands of dissidents are rounded up. Many are charged with political crimes and imprisoned. Some are tortured and executed.
Sixteen years old at the time and increasingly interested in the burgeoning global human rights movement, I found myself deeply moved by this ‘Unknown Rebel.’ I cut his picture out of a popular news weekly and taped it in a prominent position on my bedroom wall. Whether it marked a beginning or an end was unclear at the time, but five months later the Berlin Wall fell. Viewed by many as a document of hope the ‘Unknown Rebel’ came to encapsulate the post-Soviet promise of democracy and human rights for all.
The “Unknown Rebel” remained on my bedroom wall for several years, his back to the camera, a constant reminder of the rights and freedoms I often took for granted in the consumer-comfort West. I slung my backpack full of textbooks and subversive novels over my shoulder behind him each morning, as I got ready for school. I completed my homework and hung with my girlfriend most evenings behind his back. In either instance he didn’t seem to notice – he just continued standing down that line of jerking, halting tanks.
I moved my bedroom to my parent’s basement in early 1995. Along the way the ‘Unknown Rebel’ was either lost or damaged and discarded. Whatever the cause of his absence my new bedroom walls didn’t seem to register any loss. I venture a hypothesis: his absence as the apotheosis of the peculiar sense of loss experienced by so many in the mid-1990s. Images culled from Rwandan and Balkan genocides cut down simple illusions about a global liberalism bringing about an end to history, as Francis Fukayama would have had it. World leaders spoke increasingly of economics and less of politics when mentioning China. If not global democracy, they asked, why not global free trade? After all, they assured us, trade and commerce go before democratic reform. U.S. President Bill Clinton called this policy ‘constructive engagement.’
It is now 2005, ten years since the ‘Unknown Rebel’ came down from my bedroom wall and I am waiting still for democracy in China. Perhaps, as Bruce Cockburn once put it, I’ve been “waiting for a miracle.” Well, actually, according to pundits, the miracle arrived in economic garb some time between 1989 and 2005 – first in the form of the mid-1990s ‘Asian Tiger’ economies, followed closely by the phenomenon of ‘China Rising,’ with its red-hot economic growth and trade statistics. In the year 2004, for instance, China alone accounted for one third of the total increase in the volume of world trade (Arrighi 78).
There is even a sizeable elite consensus today that China, or East Asia, is set to dominate the future global economy, along the United States. We are promised not a ‘New American Century,’ but rather a ‘Pacific Century.’ In one recent version of the ‘Pacific Century’ Business Week imagines a ‘global triumvirate’ consisting of China, India and the United States. “China and India will be both allies and counterweights to America, at the expense of Japan and Europe,” managing editor Robert J. Dowling writes (16).
Meanwhile voices in the U.S. Congress, while continuing to harp on the so-called ‘War on Terror’ mutter privately about China’s seeming threat to global U.S. hegemony. In the past this scenario might have been expected to provoke a new ‘Cold War.’ Yet, as world historian Robert B. Marks has written, “[c]ommon economic interests … vastly complicate relations between the United States and China” (160). Indeed, it often seems that many of these Congressional voices belong to conservatives who fear China less for its military potential than because they are cognizant that the U.S. is in a position neither to bully nor to disengage from China.
Some elite American media commentators have tried instead to strike a balanced view, calling on U.S. political leaders to drop ‘constructive engagement’ in favour of ‘constructive management’ (Schwarz 27-28). As Wang Jisi writes in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the West’s future with China need not be viewed in ‘zero-sum terms.’ In fact, he notes, “such a simplistic view may threaten both country’s national interests. Black-and-white analyses inevitably fail to capture the nuances of the situation” (Jisi 47).
Thus the question of China-U.S. relations and of the future of global leadership (should such leadership prove necessary) will not one of lightness versus darkness – of St. George slaying the Dragon – but of grey ambiguities and deepening interdependence. Think Gandalf the Grey rather than Gandalf the White.
Will economic liberalization lead to political liberalization in China? As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs write in Foreign Affairs, any answer comes down to the deeply uncertain equation between ‘development and ‘democracy.’ Pointing to the fact that the growing distribution of wealth in China and Russia has not produced clear signs of democratic reform, they note that:
“the link between economic development and what is generally called liberal democracy is actually quite weak and may even be getting weaker … authoritarian regimes around the world are showing that they can reap the benefits of economic development while evading any pressure to relax their political control” (77-78). The Chinese Community Party (CPP), for example, regularly co-opts China’s rising entrepreneurial class, thirty per cent of whom are card-carrying party members (Kennedy 80).
Still, there are at least two important quasi-democratic movements active in China today. Significantly their existence is not directly related to China’s expansive economic growth over the past twenty-five years. The first and earliest of the two is the Anti-Dam Movement, which gained impetus in 1992 when the CCP flooded millions of acres of agricultural and other land in rural China to construct the infamous Three Gorges Dam. The project led to the often-forced relocation of 1.3 million people, most of whom are traditional peasantry (Forney 34-36).
Today grassroots resistance to other dame ‘mega-projects’ continues in hundreds of locations throughout China’s many provinces, though, thanks to active government media censorship, few of these groups are aware of each other’s activities. Slowly, though, connections are being made between different activist groups through circulation of indigenous underground documentaries (36). For many in the so-called Third World development claims raise both environment and human rights concerns. At the time of ‘Tiananmen Square 1989,’ who thought the leading form of dissent in China would one day grapple with issues of both human rights and environmental protection in the same breath?
China’s growth since the early 1980s has lifted twenty five per cent of the population out of ‘extreme poverty’ (Keller D3). Yet this growth has come at great expense to workers who often are exploited in sweatshop conditions, and to Chinese citizens more generally, many of who have developed serious illnesses from industrial air pollution (Beecher 26). Land, air and water have been poisoned and many backs broken to achieve international development acclaim. Chinese activist and pro-democracy groups will undoubtedly engage human rights and ecological issues together for the long-term.
The other major dissident movement in post-Tiananmen Square China is the Falun Dafa (Falun Gong), an ostensible health and spirituality movement overtly opposed to the new materialism of Chinese society. In its struggle to operate free of government interference the movement directly confronts CPP authorities concerning rights to free expression, free assembly, and freedom of belief. By the late 1990s Falun Dafa had attracted more card-carrying members than the CPP itself, marking it as the most significant potential rival to old party rule in China since the days of the ‘Unknown Rebel.’ Accordingly the old guard has long since initiated a political crackdown on Falun Dafa that continues today.
We return, in the end, to Business Week and its future projection of a global economy led by a Chinese, Indian and American ‘triumvirate.’ We return, that is, to the probable projection of a ‘Pacific Century.’ Which values, political practices and economic policies are likely to guide or govern such an entity? For starters it’s doubtful that the material standard of living enjoyed by most Europeans and North Americans can be extended to the third of humanity living in China and India today. Additionally, if the Chinese ‘economic miracle’ is a product of globalization, as most claim it is, the world may ultimately be in deep trouble. James Howard Kunstler is the author of the recently published study The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. As Kunstler writes in the Guardian newspaper this past summer:
“Today’s transient global economic relations are a produce of very special transient circumstances, namely relative peace and absolutely reliable supplies of cheap energy. Subtract either of these elements from the equation and you will see globalization evaporate.”
Thus, talk of a Chinese ‘economic miracle’ – of more or less conventional modernization in East Asia – sounds both unsustainable and highly contingent. In a world ripe with potential sources of conflict, potential is certainly there for the promise of the ‘Unknown Rebel’ to be lost or discarded in favour of continued authoritarian rule in China. After all, as many commentators note Chinese leaders still value stability above all other values.
What of the potential influence of the United States, Europe, or Canada, on China? All three entities suffer from their own democratic deficits and internal political weaknesses. The United States specifically, once viewed by many as a ‘benevolent hegemon’ or indispensable power of last resort against tyranny, has not only spent its international legitimacy (Arrighi 50) in a false ‘War on Terror,’ but daily slouches closer to a uniquely American brand of political authoritarianism. In short, there is a distinct danger that a mix of authoritarian states will dominate a ‘Pacific Century.’ Some may be more dictatorial than others, yet most, if not all, will profess little more than the superficial outward trappings of democracy.
If the Twenty-First Century is to be a ‘Pacific Century’ than Canadians must begin to grapple with the significance of the China-U.S. dynamic in international relations. Canada will belong to any ‘Pacific Century’ if by virtue of nothing else that its geography, abundant resources, and heavy reliance on Central and East Asian immigration. What should its role be? Prime Minister Paul Martin hinted at an answer recently when he told Chinese President Hu Jintao, “We believe that both economic development and better governance requires not only openness and transparency but an understanding of the importance of human rights” (Laghi and Curry A4).
Beyond our role as Canadians, we are global citizens and many of us would seek to contemplate the China question (and that of global world order) from a post-national perspective – perhaps via a cosmopolitan or socialist framework. If so, is the vision of a ‘Pacific Century’ one we too can work with? If not: why not?
-Arrighi, Giovanni, “Hegemony Unravelling – I,” New Left Review 32, Mar/Apr 2005, pp. 23-80.
-Beech, Hannah, “They Export Pollution Too,” Time, 27 June 2005, p. 26.
-Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce and George W. Downs, “Development and Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 5 (Sept/Oct 2005), pp. 77-86.
-Dowling, Robert J., “The Rise of Chindia,” Business Week, 22-29 August 2005, p. 16.
-Forney, Matthew, “Power to the People,” Time, 27 June 2005, pp. 34-36.
-Jisi, Wang, “China’s Search for Stability With America,” Foreign Affairs, 84, No. 5 (Sept/Oct 2005), pp. 39-48.
-Keller, Tony, “What to do about Africa – and the U.S.,” Globe and Mail, 14 May 2005, D3.
-Kennedy, Scott, “Diving China’s Future,” World Policy Journal, Winter 2004/2005, pp. 77-87.
-Kunstler, James Howard, “Globalisation is an anomaly and its time is running out,” Guardian, 4 August 2005.
-Laghi, Brian and Bill Curry, “Chinese leader talks talk with PM,” Globe and Mail, 10 September 2005, A4.
-Marks, Robert B., The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2002).
-Schwarz, Benjamin, “Managing China’s Rise,” Atlantic Monthly, June 2005, pp. 27-28.
“Reading China’s Rise: The Promise of the ‘Unknown Rebel’ and the Coming Pacific Century,” was originally published in Say3 Magazine, November 2005, pp. 15-18, 51.
If you’re like me – in fact, if you’re like most Canadians – you’ve experienced a recent and quite personal surge of interest in our nation’s history, as well as in our potential to chart a political and cultural course distinct from that of George W. Bush’s America. This recent surge of interest in things Canadian appears to date to Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s March 2003 announcement that Canada would not join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. One notable national commentator recently characterized the move as an “unprecedented act of diplomatic autonomy” , another as ‘a defining moment for Canadians” and as “the most popular decision taken by the Chretien government” . Furthermore, to others Prime Minister Paul Martin’s decision to reject formal Canadian participation in Bush’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program seems informed, at least in part, by the spirit of Chretien’s earlier move.
That these unquestionably momentous developments may signal the possibility of hope for Canada’s ostensible commitment to higher principles at home and abroad was brought home to me on a bus ride to the protest against the Iraq war held in downtown Toronto on March 19th*. As our contingent of Hamilton anti-war activists relaxed – some talking on cell phones, others quietly reflecting or snoozing – activist Ken Stone, of the local November 16th Coalition, confided to me that he had nearly lost hope for Canada as a sovereign nation in the aftermath of 9/11, but that more recent Iraq and BMD developments had changed his mind.
Stone’s sense of hope resonated with that same aforementioned enthusiasm for things Canadian I’d been feeling. I looked forward to my first trip to Ottawa since adolescence – planned for Easter weekend – with greater relish. Soon, I told myself, I would be standing proudly on Parliament Hill, would soon be walking the same streets as our nation’s leaders, might soon trace the footsteps of the man Richard Gwyn once named the Northern Magus – Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Still, just beneath the surface of my enthusiasm a chronic and perhaps distinctly Canadian fatalism languished, insisting – then as now – that hope for an independent, sovereign, prosperous and just Canada was little more than fantastical, perhaps even moralistic and delusional .
A week later – out from under the shadow of Toronto and up on the Canadian shield – I received an impromptu walking tour of a portion of downtown Ottawa that began in Chinatown and headed over to Bank Street where the fair trade Bridgehead coffee shop served as a makeshift destination (we opted, in the end, for an odd mix of beers, dessert and appetizers at the equally popular Manx Pub a few blocks east). Along the way my fellow travelers discussed the pros and cons of buying or renting in this or that neighbourhood while I kept my eyes open for signs of political and diplomatic life.
Gradually, foreign embassy sightings were more frequent. After attempting to decipher the stained glass windows of the city’s Museum of Nature we crossed a nearby street and stood in front of the gates of an embassy whose flag fell limp and tangled. One friend guessed we were standing in front of the Iraqi embassy. The other then implored us to move on, intimidating video cameras seeming to record our every word and gesture.
On Easter Monday we drove to the Quêbec side of the border to hike the trails around Meech Lake. Up in the hills I kept expecting clusters of first ministers - crouched over and conferring quietly about political strategy - to come walking around bends in the trail as though the fourteen years between the present and the 1987 deliberations over the Meech Lake Accords had been temporarily erased. On the journey back to the car I was as much delighted as disappointed when all that materialized were two fearless deer, who drank from the lake beside the trail.
On the way to Meech Lake I had imagined another car on the road ahead of our own, driven by the Northern Magus himself – his three sons and four sets of cross country skiis in tow. For many years now I’ve been haunted by his ghost, with whom I seem to share the ether along the waterfront trail by the bay in Hamilton. Somehow I’ve come to associate his spirit with the buzz and rose perfume that hover in late summer over the parks and gardens of Ontario. Still, this vision of him driving down the road had been rather blurry. It may have dated from the late 1980s or perhaps the early 1990s. No matter – it was merely some time during the Mulroney interlude. For probably the first time in my life I found myself daydreaming in red and white.
The scene shifted though as I recalled another, detailed in Trudeau’s Memoirs. While conducting research for his book at the National Archives Trudeau received a phone call from then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Later that day the two meet in the Prime Minister’s Office. “‘Would you be willing from time to time to give me some advice on foreign affairs?’” Mulroney asks, to which Trudeau replies “‘Yes, and the first piece of advice I give you is this: be friends with the United States – the Canadian people like the Americans – but don’t be subservient to the American government, because Canadians are a very proud people’.” 
Later I wondered exactly what sort of pride Trudeau had had in mind that afternoon. Was it the silent pride that may have taken rare outward form in the wake of Iraq 2003? Or was it the ostensibly federalist pride that the English-speaking Canadian majority demonstrated in their rejection of the Charlottetown Accords of 1992 – a move that, according to Trudeau, “established the locus of the sovereignty of Canada [in] the people”?  Indeed, was it at all likely that these two species of Canadian pride were in fact one and indivisible?
The modern Canadian identity has been shaped and reshaped by innumerable factors but surely key among them are such vital developments as Quêbec’s ‘Quiet Revolution’ as well as the long-standing foreign policy back-and-forth of American ‘activism’ and ‘isolationism.’ The Canadian experiment seems to depend for its success and viability on keeping Quêbec within the federal union (a range of federalist practices have evolved throughout our nation’s brief history) while also keeping the Americans at arms’ length. The Canadian dynamic would seem three- rather than two-fold, for since the 1860s the nation has increasingly been the sum of its often neo-colonial relations with the United States, as opposed to the sum of its original colonial relation with Great Britain), as much as it has also been the sum of Quêbec relations with the Rest of Canada (ROC) – though some debate whether even this odd conglomerate still exists.
I would like to think that there might today be one integral Canadian pride, though the concept may depend on a federalist and thus partisan bias. I would also like to think that should this integral pride exist that it manages somehow to translate into distinctly Canadian activity at the levels of both internal and external affairs.
*The November 16th Coalition, founded in 2002, is a Hamilton-based activist organization whose focus lies in mobilizing citizens to take progressive action on issues of war and racism.
. Richard Gwyn, “Surviving Survivalism,” Literary Review of Canada, December 2004, p. 4.
 Reg Whitaker, “Living with Bush’s America,” Literary Review of Canada, January-February 2005, p. 5.
 Rondi Adamson, “Rejecting Missile Defence: Will Canada’s Decision Help Our Standing in the World?” Toronto Star, 27 February 2005, A16.
 Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Memoirs (McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993), p. 358.
 Trudeau, Memoirs, p. 364.
“Daydreaming in Red and White” was first published in Hamilton, Ontario’s Say3 Magazine, No. 5, June 2005, pp. 21-22.
By: John A. McCurdy
One thing the millennium’s passing surely spawned in excess was “Top 100” lists. This was especially true in the United States, where to gauge popular reading tastes, publishers and politicos sponsored dozens of online surveys. Most top positions on these lists were dominated by the works of the Soviet defector Ayn Rand, a woman of Russian birth who was recognized in the initial Cold War years as America’s most dramatic champion of pure capitalism and rugged individualism.
The immense popularity of her works today has its origin in the cult Rand deliberately built up among conservative New York intellectuals in the 1950s and early 1960s around her powerful and domineering personality. In concrete terms she founded a society based around a philosophy called Objectivism: a system of neo-Aristotelian logical axioms covering all the branches of philosophy and arguing that the universe is knowable and that rational self interest is the only moral base on which to found human relationships and the wealth of nations.
In its early years the Objectivist movement boasted a number of influential members, among them Alan Greenspan, director of the U.S. Federal Reserve, as well as the popular psychologist Nathaniel Branden, with whom Rand fell hopelessly in love and whose wife Barbara would publish the definitive study of Rand's life and work, The Passion of Ayn Rand, in the early 1990s. While Rand’s ideas were said to have had an influence on the formative thinking of countless think tank directors in the United States the high regard expressed for her work in the noted “Top 100” lists must also be attributed to aggressive marketing of her books in bookstore chains and on college campuses throughout the English-speaking world in 1970s and 1980s. Her enduring popularity with talk radio pundits and the entrepreneurial middling classes, for whom her work functions an elevated specimen of the self-help and positive thinking genre, are also key factors in her success.
Her bestselling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and popular essay compilations The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) and The Romantic Manifesto (1972) indubitably fit the Cold War glove of the postwar period. Rand and her college minions detested the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the counterculture and likely spurned Paris ‘68. Yet, if Rand’s Objectivism could be said to have apologized profusely for American anti-Communism with its ceaseless harping on the evils of “collectivism” her ideas ultimately represent an extremist variation on the Anarcho-Capitalism of Murray Rothbard. Consequently while her works sell in the millions and claim fans from almost every walk of life, they receive scant attention from academia and hardly so much as passing mention in the mainstream liberal press. Her works might thus be regarded as subcultural, spread as they are by word-of-mouth, much as the seminal New Age works of the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, were disseminated - A Course In Miracles (1987), The Celestine Prophecy (1993). Globe & Mail television critic John Doyle dropped Ayn Rand’s name last month more or less out of the blue, pronouncing her a proto-fascist and using the reference merely to denounce an insipid new movie whose protagonist was an architect - just as is Rand’s most famous protagonist Howard Roark, from 1943’s The Fountainhead.
I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead thirteen years ago at the insistence of a new friend I’d made at an evangelical Christian summer camp that the book was a must-read. I took the plunge against my better judgment and indeed was thoroughly infected by the passion and seemingly boundless integrity of Howard Roark, the novel's self-contained protagonist, a genius modeled on American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. About the only thing Roark lacked was a bed buddy - not a lover - and he soon procured one in the person of Dominique Francon. A dissolute teen bursting with insights, energy, potential and idealism, I related instantly and intimately with Roark, pictured naked and in repose like a Greek statue in both the opening and closing passages of the novel, his contempt for convention setting fire to the mind.
So committed to his ideals and “intellectual property rights” was Howard Roark - the phallic ‘fountainhead’ of creativity and wealth - that when his “collectivist” foe Ellsworth Tooey threatens to alter the strict functionality of his greatest architectural work for less than pristine purposes, Roark sees fit to blow the building up with dynamite. With the conniving mediocrities and the socialist meddlers of the world, Rand insists, there can be no compromise. Think Conrad Black, withdrawing support in the late 1990s from a Canada supposedly opposed greatness only add Black taking dynamite to his former corporate headquarters and subtract his current legal battles - for Roark recognized the supposedly moral basis of propertied exchange and never in a lifetime would have thought to pull a fast one just to make a buck.
Roark gets his day in court, an opportunity to deliver an eloquent and matchless Hollywood speech so persuasive that even his enemies are deflated and his petty detractors converted. Such was the holding pattern in Rand’s later work, particularly in Atlas Shrugged, where Howard Roark morphs into the equally matchless steel baron Hank Rearden. Roark had refused to compromise, to play the game. Rearden, on the other hand, leads a powerful clique of inventors, investors, and industrialists, on a strike against state bureaucracies, thoughtless consumers, and resentful workers, in an attempt to show the world precisely who Atlas is and how in fact the world is kept from collapsing.
Thinking back the big ideas these novels touted - and perhaps only an outsider to American society and a Soviet defector at that could ever have embraced Yankie capitalism with such single minded naivete - not only utterly fail to impress me today: they also failed to hold my enthusiasm hostage more than month or two at the time. I distinctly recall renouncing Objectivism internally only a short while after announcing my conversion to Objectivism publicly. Any lingering doubt moreover was definitively despatched with a reading of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.
My hope in approaching Ayn Rand's work had been deeply personal: to make a clear break with my Baptist roots by taking one big step from the sanctuary of my childhood and youth into the pages of Ayn Rand’s books and the meticulously ordered corridors of her logical axioms. For a moment there was bliss and certainty, but a roving mind, drawn to philosophy, was bound to dig deeper than Rand’s tidy idealism, first to that moment of existential awakening Jean-Paul Sartre evoked so poignantly in Nausea (1938), followed by a period marked by psychological despair and the finite resignation of Wittgenstein, who accepted in his Tratatus Logical Philosophicus, that “the world is all that is the case.”
Ayn Rand’s hero - the author she most aspired to emulate - was nineteenth-century French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, and her favourite Hugo work, Les Miserables. While it seems crass to admit to it now, at nineteen years of age a close friend and I went to the musical when it came to Hamilton a little over a decade ago. There we encountered no axiomatic certainties or flawless heroes, but instead a criminal and the lives of the destitute, redeemed as they were through love, compassion and redemption. Deeply moved by the story I cried in public for the first time since childhood. Those tears - and others that would come afterword - meant more to me then and more to me now than any tidy programme purporting to correct the human condition and set the world aright overnight without first traveling the path of the heart.
"A Memoir on Ayn Rand" was first published in the Spring 2004 issue of McMaster University's humanities quarterly Between the Lines.