Ayn Rand, Charles Bukowski, and I-and-I

Charles, Ayn, and Wes

Charles, Ayn, and I-and-I enjoying  walk on Folly Beach

Yesterday, as a sort of throw-off laugh line, I mock-consoled a friend on Facebook who mock-lamented that his fourteen year-old-daughter had discovered Charles Bukowski.[1]  So I replied to his message: “Look on the bright side, at least she’s not reading Ayn Rand.”

This attempt at humor pissed off a couple of folks who consider Ayn Rand worth reading, who implied I was narrow minded in suggesting that my friend’s daughter should not be exposed to Rand’s[2] philosophy of Objectivism.

Anyway, in case you haven’t read Rand, here are the first four paragraphs from “Introduction to Objectivism,” from the Ayn Rand Institute’ website:

Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, begins by embracing the basic fact that existence exists. Reality is, and in the quest to live we must discover reality’s nature and learn to act successfully in it.

To exist is to be something, to possess a specific identity. This is the Law of Identity: A is A. Facts are facts, independent of any consciousness. No amount of passionate wishing, desperate longing or hopeful pleading can alter the facts. Nor will ignoring or evading the facts erase them: the facts remain, immutable.

In Rand’s philosophy, reality is not to be rewritten or escaped, but, solemnly and proudly, faced. One of her favorite sayings is Francis Bacon’s: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”

Reality — that which exists — has no alternatives, no competitors, nothing “transcending” it. To embrace existence is to reject all notions of the supernatural and the mystical, including God.

***

In my teaching days, in trying to explain existentialism to 15-year-olds, I first established that the images we perceive depend upon the nature of our sense organs.  For example, my late dog Saisy wasn’t aware that she didn’t perceive colors, so if she could understand and answer my question, “What color is a bullfighter’s cape,” she’d probably say “grey.”

Of course, I’m able to perceive the color red, but the fact that Saisy couldn’t – that she perceived the world differently – didn’t make her world any less real.  I certainly couldn’t detect those magnetic odors that drove her to abandon eye for nose on our walks, but, likewise, my inability to perceive those smells didn’t make my world any less real, only less detailed.

As Saisy zigzagged, huffing her way along the shoulder of 6th Street staring at the ground and I glanced upwards at an autumn moon in the blue of the sky, we inhabited two very different universes, yet, of course, they are essentially the same place.

saisy eye

Self-portrait in Saisy’s Eye

The great American poet Richard Wilbur makes the same point much more powerfully in these lines from his poem “Epistemology.”[3]

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

To narrow the discussion, the differences between the perceptions of individual human beings can also be radically different.  For example, when I read a novel, I never encounter visual images; no movie plays in my head.  Rather, I hear the sounds of words that conjure associations that engender vague cloud-like impressions.  When I read, I don’t really look at the construction of words, hence my atrocious spelling, not to mention my piss poor proofreading.  I sometimes wonder if the fact that at 67 I still don’t need reading glasses lies in that I have virtually never peered hard at anything in my life.

My wife Caroline, however, does “see” when she reads, so, in essence, our reading experiences are much, much, different; we inhabit two different reading universes, as it were.

None of this, of course, is news.  Wordsworth is 1798 writes of a world that “we half perceive and half create,” and John Hiatt agrees in “A Thing Called Love” when he sings “Whether your sunglasses are off or on/You only see the world you make.”

william and john

William and John

If you take these ideas to the extreme – that we possess a unique world that is ours –  then, as Sartre says, “everything is permitted,” and you end up with a whole lot of solipsism.

The sages of the East provide a better alternative, I think.  Yes, the world we see is an illusive reflection of our senses, the veil of Maya.  However, rather than granting each individual absolute dominion over the world he “creates,” the sages posit that the very idea of individuality is what is illusive – that my perceiving myself apart from that pine right outside my window is false.  I breathe its oxygen while it takes in carbon dioxide; the sun above is actually is embedded in the page I turn, a page that once existed in pine tree wood pulp.

The entire subatomic world is one – I and the universe am one – and to see more clearly, I need to dismantle the elaborate ego I have constructed, that pompous museum filled with flattering self-portraits, films projected on the broken mirror of memory, and other artifacts that distort what is.

museum

From the surfing wing of the WMoore Museum of Memory

This philosophy – the opposite of Rand’s radical individualism – offers , I think, some hope for an endangered planet: if people could accept the complex inter-relatedness of everything, they might so blithely be building golf courses in deserts on a planet with a finite water supply.

Perhaps somewhere out there – some carpenter’s son, some itinerant carpet salesman, some software engineer  –  is about to receive an updated revelation to shed some much-needed light.

It does seem to happen every 500 years or so, so we’re long overdue.

***

Anyway, bravo for intellectual curiosity, and for Charles Bukowski, who, like Ayn Rand, is not to everyone’s taste.

Here’s a link to a poem of mine extolling poor ol’ Charles.


[1] I think in reality he was rightfully proud of her intellectual curiosity rather than upset that she might be exposed to what Baptist preachers call “filth-uh.”

[2] My wife Caroline pointed out that no one ever refers to Ayn Rand as Rand, the way they do with other philosophers like Marx, Kant, Hume, etc.

[3] Boswell’s account of the incident that prompted Wilbur’s lines: After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell: Life

 

 

A Teachable Moment Botched

Time is the school in which we learn — John Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Yesterday before class, a petite, clear-eyed fifteen year-old announced that she has decided that she doesn’t want to grow old, that she wants to make great contributions to the world, and then die at 60. She added, “Mr. Moore, that means that if that happens, then 25% of my life is over!”

This is what we call in the my business[1] a “teachable” moment, and I botched it. I should have called on Alexander Pope, that four-foot, six-inch[2] colossus:

In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,

While from the bounded Level of our Mind,

Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,

But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize

New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!

So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,

Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;

Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,

And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:

But those attain’d, we tremble to survey

The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way,

Th’ increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,

Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Although our flowers fade (I too had pretty plumage once!), the world becomes increasingly more interesting as we gain perspective, and as the social preoccupations of adolescence dissipate, the “cool people,” if given the choice, would rather hang with Charles Bukowski than Wink Martindale, with Joan Didion rather than Kim Kardashian.

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

Joan Ddidion

Joan Didion

But, like I said, I botched it. I turned to of all people Marcus Aurelius and paraphrased the following:

Were you to live a thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest life amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, not yet what is still to come — for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess?

Like, I said, I botched it. I told her and the rest of the students to think lineally only so far ahead that they can salvage more of the present for their enjoyment, in other words, to get that rough draft out of the way early Saturday morning so it won’t be squeaking like a wobbling wheel in the back of your mind all day. But I told them not to think too far into the future, not to dream about their freshman year at Duke or their wedding day or their future contributions to humanity.

I write this as my beloved is receiving a blood transfusion and have come myself to live the advice I gave those students yesterday. It’s always now. The future is not ours. The past is kaput. I hear a bird’s staccato chirp outside my open window on this gorgeous Saturday and wish him or her the best.


 

[1] Schools, alas, have taken on the corporate model, though they still give lip service to the “family” metaphor.

[2] 1.37 meters for my European readers