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

 

 

Late and Soon: Falling out of Lockstep from the Ranks of the Conventional, Sighing, TGIF Zombie Corps

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . .

                                                                    Wm. Wordsworth

In his long life, Richard Wilbur has never lost his Wordsworthian sense of childlike wonder. Wilbur’s heart leaps up, not only when he behold[s] a rainbow in the sky, but also at such overlooked mundane wonders like the turbine-vent [that] natural law/ Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof.

Many of his poems grapple with the relationship between metaphor and perception, suggesting that poetry works its magic in casting the commonplace (by the way, that diner is located on a planet swirling around a star hurtling in concert within a galaxy spinning into the vast abyss of space/time) – [ahem] casting the commonplace in strange ways that paradoxically help us to shake off the staleness of familiarity so that we suddenly can perceive the spectacular it-ness of the whatever.

Here Wilbur in an English sonnet called “In Praise of Summer” wonders why we need the distortions of jazzy description to jar into seeing:

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur, as it were, offers poetic language as a sort of perceptual slap in the face, awakening us to the unseen wonder right there before us while at the same time lamenting our inability to see freshly in the first place..

Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird’s tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray . . .
Richard Wilbur, “Lying”

Seeing is half-creating, as Wordsworth himself puts it in “Tintern Abbey.”

Nevertheless, in Wilbur, our consciousness is both a wonder and a curse – sometimes in the same poem.  For example, in “A Question from Milton,” the poetic speaker dismisses prelapsarian consciousness as boringly 2-D:

In Eden palm and open-handed pine
Displayed to God and man their flat perfection.
Carefully coiled, the regulation vine
Submitted to our general sire’s inspection.

Yet in the very last stanza of the same poem he suggests that Adam should

Envy the gorgeous gallops of the sea,
Whose horses never know their lunar reins.

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise, As sometimes summer calls us all, I said The hills are heavens full of branching ways Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead; I said the trees are mines in air, I said See how the sparrow burrows in the sky! And then I wondered why this mad instead Perverts our praise to uncreation, why Such savour's in this wrenching things awry. Does sense so stale that it must needs derange The world to know it? To a praiseful eye Should it not be enough of fresh and strange That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur as a young man studied under the mighty Robert Frost, who echoes this post’s epigraph in the first line of his poem “Directive:”

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather . . .

The past, a simpler time, childhood.

All three poets – Wordsworth, Frost, and Wilbur wish we could chill, notice the glint of sunlight on that discarded aluminum soda can up ahead (rather than focusing our life force somewhere deep down in the mine shaft of self-absorbed work-based anxiety), that is, to have our childlike vision and sense of wonder restored.

However, if the office below is your workspace, good luck with those mind-forged manacles.

Chances are after 40-hour week cooped in your cubicle, you’re probably looking for something a little stronger than a shot of chiasmus and splash of synecdoche to get away from it all.  It’s going to take something stronger than Wilbur or Wordsworth to appreciate the it-ness of the StickyNote slapped on the particle board next to your computer.  But you gotta eat, right; the kids need braces; it’s the price we pay.

As one highly successful minstrel put it: They dope you with religion and sex and TV.   To evoke a cliche that the cubicles pictured in the above office suggest, contemporary corporate life is a competitive and repetitive rat maze where functionaries (what Marx called workers) glance repeatedly at digital clocks’ counting down the hours and minutes until 5 o-clock liberation and the slow creep of gridlock home.

Day after day, each missed sunset and rising moon are subtracted from the finite number of future possibilities.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

And, of course, the soulless dissatisfaction with getting and spending isn’t limited to the corporate world.  Stroll down the halls of any Monday-thru-Friday workplace on the fifth day PM, and you’ll hear folks murmuring psalms of praise, not to Jesus, Yahweh, or Allah, but to Odin’s wife Freya/Frigg.

Day by day our world becomes more complex, and it sometimes seems that somehow there must be some diabolical conspiracy among the top 1% – the they in Lennon’s song – who have hypnotized us and led us onto this dizzying not-so-merry-go-round of consumption.  Even in rather seemingly slow paced professions like teaching, the proliferation of voicemails, emails, committee meetings, etc. means longer school days and school years.

Yet, truth be told.  We have only ourselves to blame for falling lockstep into the ranks of the conventional, sighing TGIF zombie corps.  A brave few souls, sons and daughters of Blake, refuse to conform.

Take my former student and now friend, David Connor Jones, who for the last few years has been living out of his car roaming the North American west “like Caine in Kung Fu. meet[ing] people, get[ting] in adventures” and encountering gorgeous vistas that would raise the hair of Richard Wilbur “[l]ike quills upon the fretful porcupine.”

photo by David Connor Jones

It, of course, takes great courage to be free.  When I was in the USSR in ’89, the citizenry wasn’t digging perestroika, preferring the safe status quo.

At any rate, we should at least try to take Wilbur’s advice, to remember always the miracle of our being, to savor this very second, no matter in a cubicle, a jail cell, or worse.  We should strive to attain Buddha-consciousness in this here very life now, so as Wilbur puts it a bit more eloquently, we can find ourselves

In the same clearing where, in the old story,
A holy man discovered Vishnu sleeping,
Wrapped in his maya, dreaming by a pool
On whose calm face all images whatever
Lay clear, unfathomed, taken as they came.
Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep”

David Conor Jones