Hannah Krening reviewed the anti-totalitarian theme of Ayn Rand’s novelWe the Living, as well as its literary qualities. This was a December 17 talk for Liberty Toastmasters.
Recently a local reading group I attend reviewed Ayn Rand’s dystopian novelette Anthem. That book served as my introduction to Rand many years ago, and rereading it proved rewarding.
In our discussion, we explored a variety of topics:
* The romance between the two lead characters, Equality and Liberty, develops as Equality becomes an independent thinker and scientist. This anticipates Howard Roark’s comment in Fountainhead, “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I’.”
* The way Equality values his scientific work anticipates the relationship between the heroes and their work in Atlas Shrugged. It illustrates Rand’s view that material objects are not valuable in themselves, but only in relation to individual values and consciousness.
* For Rand, totalitarianism necessarily results, ultimately, in total economic collapse. The central reason for this is that political controls prevent individuals from acting on their own reasoned judgment, ultimately chilling reasoned thought as such. In the long run capitalism and technological progress cannot survive totalitarian controls. Contrast the primitive society of Anthem with the (in some ways) highly technical societies of other dystopias, such as Brave New World and, more recently,Hunger Games.
Below are the review questions used for our group (and others are free to reproduce these for purposes of discussion).
1. What is the ego? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction)
2. How do the conditions surrounding the writing and publication of Anthem relate to the book’s theme? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction, Rand’s 1946 foreword)
3. What are the principles and laws of the story’s society, and what are the emotional consequences of Equality 7-2521 breaking them? (Chapter I)
4. What is the connection between the collectivism and the technological regression of the story? (Chapter I)
5. Why does Rand place the budding romance between the discovery of the tunnel and the Unspeakable Word? (Chapter II)
6. What is the relationship between the advancing scientific discoveries and the building romance? (Chapter III, Chapter IV)
7. Why does Equality say “our new power defies all laws?” Is he right? (Chapter IV)
8. Why does Equality think “this wire is as a part of our body?” (Chapter V)
9. Why does Equality believe the Council of Scholars will accept his gift? Why is he wrong? (Chapter V, Chapter VII)
10. What is the significance of the observation that the electric light “would bring ruin to the Department of Candles?” (Chapter VII)
11. How does Equality’s self-discovery connect to his love of the Golden One? (Chapter VIII, Chapter IX)
12. How does Equality’s independence mesh with the Golden One’s deference toward him? (Chapter X)
13. What is the “world ready to be born?” (Chapter X)
14. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I am the warrant and the sanction?” (Chapter XI)
15. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others?” (Chapter XI)
16. How does Prometheus retain his independence while learning so much from others? (Chapter XII)
17. How can one man stoke “the spirit of man?” (Chapter XII)
Yesterday I wrote an article blasting the left for smearing Congressman Doug Lamborn for using the term “tar baby,” a reference to African folklore.
On the air, Boyles mentioned the African “gum baby” as a precursor to the American “tar baby.” (The original sort of tar was made from pine pitch and so closely related to gum.) I thought I’d track this down.
Google pointed me to a Kansas publication The Pitch, where Gina Kaufman writes:
While coauthoring African Tales of Anansiwith her father, Mackey discovered “Anansi and the Gum Doll,” the African ancestor of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.” The dialect written into the Brer Rabbit stories is actually a remnant of the oral tradition of Ghana, and the wiley Brer Rabbit is the descendant of a trickster spider…
This tipped me off to the book, Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. That work (by Wendy Hesford) states the following (page 170):
The tar-baby image appropriates an African folktale. The basic elements of the tale are that a trickster approaches a figure made of tar, rubber, orj some other sticky substance. The trickster speaks to the figure and holds it until it can be apprehended. Versions of this folktale have been reported from the Guinea coast area, the Congo, and Angola, and are repeated throughout Africa. See, for example, “Anansi and the Gum Doll” and “Brer Rabbit” (Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend).
I see that book remains for sale, though I’d have to buy a bound copy to read it. But, by now, the fact that the tar baby story comes from African folklore is incontestable.
I’m in the middle of preparing my notes for a talk on the religious themes of Harry Potter. I came across some material that I thought about citing but that’s a bit too goofy to use in the talk. So consider this an outtake.
On her web page, Denise Roper quotes some material from her book, The Lord of the Hallows:
“How in the name of heaven did Harry survive?” asked Professor McGonagall at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (SS 12) This is the first of many examples of how the language of Christianity is used throughout the series. … In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mr. Weasley asks, “Good lord, is it Harry Potter?” (CS 39) Draco refers to Harry as “Saint Potter, the Mudbloods’ friend.” (CS 223) Dumbledore even leads the Hogwarts students and faculty in “a few of his favorite carols” at Christmastime. (CS 212) In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the manager of Flourish and Blotts says “thank heavens” (PA 53)… and Remus Lupin says “My God.” (PA 363) … In these numerous references and in many others, there is evidence of a belief in the Christian God in the world of Harry Potter. (The Lord of the Hallows pages 69-70) [Various page numbers Roper cites include abbreviations for the relevant Potter book.]
My initial response to that is simply: “Oh my God.”
For good measure, Roper adds:
[T]here are jokes about a wizard being “saint-like” or “holy” (George on page 74 [of Deathly Hallows]). That George Weasley would call himself “holy” (“hole-y”) refers to his missing ear, which was cursed off during a battle with the Death Eaters. St. George was a Christian saint…”
Sorry, but that’s just silly.
To take but one example, Lupin says “My God” when he discovers that Scabbers the rat is actually Peter Pettigrew. Obviously he’s using the phrase as an expression of surprise, akin to “unbelievable.” We live in a culture with deep Christian roots, so it’s not surprising that people often use religious-sounding language in basically non-religious contexts. Tons of people say things like “God damn it,” “Jesus Christ,” “Christ Almighty,” “Lord help us,” and so on, when they don’t actually intend any religious meaning.
If religious humor is enough to indicate religiosity, then I have a few to tell you about the priest who walks into a bar.
Now, it’s true that the mere presence of words like “Christmas” in Rowling’s magical world indicates a shared religious tradition with the Muggles. That’s not surprising; the stories are set in England, and wizards do not formally segregate themselves from the non-magical Muggle world until 1689 (see page 13 of The Tales of Beedle the Bard.) But the incidental use of Christian language indicates nothing more profound than that.
Roper also makes some valid points about the religious themes in Harry Potter, but, to learn about such topics, you’d do much better to read my essay for eSkeptic, “Religion in Harry Potter.” Or read my book.
Anonymous commented August 2, 2011 at 7:52 AM
When viewed through a strict Christian lens, Harry Potter is nothing more than black magic and witchcraft.
Ari commented August 2, 2011 at 8:02 AM
The comment by anonymous is false, for reasons I explain here:
Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 7:44 AM
According to the Holy Bible, if it is not the Holy Spirit, it is Black Magic.
You pick where Harry gets his power.
Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 8:02 AM
I followed the link you provided. I read it. You are a good writer however this is no substitute for your lack of Biblical understanding and lack of Biblical Faith. Using David Kopel, a man I know and respect, is no excuse. David’s comparison of Harry Potter and CS Lewis is a mistake by David. CS Lewis purposely used subject matter children could relate with, to spread the message of the Holy Bible. The chosen tactics of CS Lewis are questionable as he did have a past with the occult prior to conversion. To compare CS Lewis to Harry Potter implies J.K. Rowling was also using an understandable subject matter to transport the Christian doctrine. David Kopel and his comparison are irrelevant and misleading. Shame on David.
As an avid reader of the Holy bible, I can say this. God is incredibly possessive. If it does not originate with Him and glorify Him, it is from the dark one. In Gods Eyes, there is no in-between.
Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 9:21 AM
… and I think “anonymous” has successfully self-parodied!
antiplanner commented June 21, 2012 at 9:21 AM
So automobiles, computers, and refrigerators, none of which “originated with Him,” must all be from “the dark one.”
In reading Ayn Rand’s essay “The Goal of My Writing” for a reading group, I was struck by the following passage:
There is no dichotomy, no necessary conflict between ends and means. The end does not justify the means — neither in ethics nor in esthetics. And neither do the means justify the end: there is no esthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt’s great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef. …
Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them — but are not proper subjects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake.(The Romantic Manifesto, pages 166-167)
This got me curious; if I’ve ever seen that work before, I didn’t remember it. Wikipedia features a vivid reproduction of the work.
My own reaction to the work is that it’s disturbing, a little gross and unsettling. And, oddly, it’s bathed in light. (It is a Rembrandt, after all.)
Interestingly, just a few paragraphs later Rand paraphrases Aristotle: “It was Aristotle who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them ‘as they might be and ought to be.'”
But, in looking up the relevant passage in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” I found another quote equally relevant (see the fourth section, page 2318 of the second volume of the Revised Oxford.) The Philosopher writes:
It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood… And it is natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. That explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind…
To Aristotle, then, our appreciation of “still lifes” (or deaths) derives from our love of imitation and learning.
But that pertains only to “the general origin;” what about advanced art? A bit later (section nine, pages 2322-2323) Aristotle offers the discussion invoked by Rand:
From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of think that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary. … Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do…
I think Aristotle must be right about imitative art; early cave art often features animals. And often budding artists develop their skills by painting scenes around them or even other great works of art. But I think there’s something more to a good still life beyond the artist showing his skill and the viewer reflecting on the imitation. Instead, a well-painted apple lets us think about apples in a new way. We see a “universal apple,” a presentation of how “such or such a kind of” apple “will probably or necessarily” appear. So good art seems to cross the barrier from sheer imitation to projection.
Does Rembrandt’s ox compel us to contemplate the misery of death? Even friendly critics seem to think so. I picked out a couple more or less at random:
Rembrandt van Rijn’s butchered “Carcass of Beef” (also known as the “Flayed Ox”), 37 x 27, hangs, skinned in a dark shed, dominating the center foreground of the painting. … Rembrandt has sumptuously developed the planes and forms of what, to most people of his day -– and ours –- would be merely a dead animal of utilitarian use, a source of physical nourishment… He sees in a dead beef — turns it into — a miracle of artistic beauty, and poetic and spiritual profundity. … Rembrandt has reached his highest artistic level in this work…
The artist paints this raw and drying thing with the reverence and respect with which he painted all things, including the crucifixion of Christ. [Compare.] For, this painting of a slaughtered ox or beef, hanging upside down in a darkened storeroom, can’t help but be likened to a crucifixion, with the spreading rear legs like arms affixed to a cross. …
He does not back away from death and the idea of dying. In a way, he embraces it here, as if a means of resolving its pain and fear. He has dealt with death in the loss of his first wife, Saskia, and at least two of his children.
[T]he weakness of life and possible death at any moment are linked to the idea of vanitas [emptiness or death]. This stands for ephemerality, and reminded the Dutch people in the seventeenth century of their short and meaningless lives. The motive encourages a morally correct life and shows people that earthly delights are only short lived. The time in heaven after death is all that counts and life should be lived as a preparation for that time. Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox could be such a vanitas symbol. His painting can clearly be placed in the tradition of paintings with dead oxes and other animals. These carcasses are often combined with the homo bulla motive or other Christian encouragements to live your life like a respectable Christian.
While I think the comparison to the crucifixion is strained, surely there’s something to the idea that Rembrandt painted the carcass to contemplate death.
I think we can look at the ox at the imitative and the universal level. At one level, it is a viscerally stunning and richly textured work; though the object is “painful to see, we delight to view” its representation in art (at least in the sense of being fascinated by it). At another level, we think, “Every living thing dies, just like this ox.”
While the “vanitas” could be taken in the Christian sense to mean the frailty and angst of a short life, it can also be taken in a more positive, this-worldly sense. As a friend put it succinctly on Facebook, “Always live like you only live once.” I think it is worth contemplating death sometimes, for it reminds us to live well.
If an artist painted nothing but works like the flayed ox, that would indicate the problem Rand describes. But a single artwork can take a narrow slice of life, and one that need not be cheery and positive. I recognize the general problem Rand is discussing, but her example doesn’t seem to illustrate it well.
The final film based on J. K. Rowling’s novels, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, is a fabulous movie, featuring great production and effects and fine acting. I especially enjoyed the addition of Ciaran Hinds as Aberforth, Albus Dumbledore’s brother. Michael Gambon turns in his best performance as Albus, and it is wonderful to see Gary Oldman (briefly) return as Harry’s godfather.
My wife and I watched the double feature, and viewing the two parts back to back was definitely the way to go. The second part returns to Dobby’s grave, giving his death some of weight and emotional impact lacking in the first part.
We saw the film in 3D, which seemed distracting at first, but I quickly got used to it. I didn’t think I’d enjoy the 3D, but it did give the both the architecture of the castle and the interactions of the characters lifelike depth.
The rest of this review contains spoilers.
After the three leads leave the safe house on the beach, their first major test comes with breaking into Gringotts bank. Here the effects and cinematography become especially stunning with the rail ride to the vaults. Helena Bonham Carter, still dressed as Bellatrix, carries Hermione’s persona perfectly, and her misplaced courteous vulnerability creates a lot of fun. (Also, Emma Watson’s Hermione looks awesome in the black witch’s dress.)
Soon we meet Aberforth outside Hogwarts castle. Unfortunately, while Ariana Dumbledore’s image appears in a painting, we learn little about her backstory. Thus, the film leaves viewers mostly ignorant of Albus’s past mistakes and redemption, something central to the final novel. True, even a two-part film must omit some elements of a lengthy novel, but the film devotes a hefty sequence to a trivial exchange between Harry and a Hogwarts ghost.
The trio’s return to the school and reunion with the other students bear the expected excitement and triumph.
The first battle sequence plays forcefully, filled with drama and impressive effects. This transitions well into Harry’s eventual confrontation with Voldemort. Snape’s backstory, including his love for Harry’s mother, comes across exceptionally well. (Much of the last half of the film drew audible sobbing from among the audience, largely due to this sequence.) And Alan Rickman performs the part in tragic beauty; he’s perfect, really. And both the resurrection of Harry’s parents and guardians and the King’s Cross segment come across very well.
Unfortunately, I thought the film muddles the final battle a bit. For no reason that I can detect, the film alters Neville’s killing of the snake, and it totally discards the final public dialogue between Harry and Voldemort. That’s too bad, because that meaningful exchange serves to educate the partisans of both sides about the basic facts concerning Voldemort and Snape.
I really enjoyed the epilogue, except it inexplicably shortchanges the son of Lupin and Tonks, wasting the earlier setup of his appearance.
In all, it is a great movie and a deeply emotional and satisfying conclusion to the series.
For in-depth analysis of the themes of the novels, see my book, Values of Harry Potter.
In the first, I discuss the basic values of the novels. Harry and his allies fight for their lives and safety, for the safety of loved ones, and for a wold in which they can live and work in peace, free from tyranny.
In the second, I discuss the religious elements of the novels. (See also my follow-up note about Ratzinger’s letter.)
Finally, I discuss the political themes of the novels, particularly the corruption of the Ministry of Magic and the rise of Voldemort’s tyranny.
With the latest and final Harry Potter film opening tomorrow night (after midnight), I’ve been busily discussing J. K. Rowling’s novels and my own work of literary criticism about them, Values of Harry Potter.
Yesterday I sat down with Diana Hsieh of Noodle Food to record a 40-minute podcast. We discuss the Potter films and the basic appeal of the novels. We also talk about the novels’ values, religious themes, psychology, and politics. (Clarification: Generally one fights a dementor with a Patronus and a boggart with “riddikulus.” But, to Harry, a boggart appears as a dementor. This will make sense to you only if you’re read the books.)
Today Skeptic Magazine published my article, “Religion in Harry Potter,”for its weekly online newsletter. I review the themes of immortality, Christ-like love, free will, and faith. As readers of my book know, I recognize important religious themes in the Potter novels but don’t think they play a very large role in motivating the characters.
Last week, Boulder Weekly published my article, Harry Potter explores life’s big questions.” It begins, “Parents who take their children to see the Harry Potter films enjoy a fun family night. But unless they dig deeper into the stories, parents miss a great opportunity to explore life’s biggest issues with their children.” I touch on the psychology, politics, and basic values of the novels.
I conclude that piece, “The stories offer thrilling literature alive with dragons and magical duels. But readers miss a great deal if they ignore the rich themes of psychology, politics and philosophy. Harry never had parents able to share these discussions. Your children do.”
I hope you’ll check out the complete works!
How time slips by! Back in May my book Values of Harry Potter got a little media attention — and now the final film of the series opens next week!
Over at Big Media, Jason Salzman, a left-leaning bulldog of an investigator, discusses my chapter, “News Media in Harry Potter.”
Salzman has some criticisms. He doesn’t like my mention of Paul Krugman’s article on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting as an example of bad journalism. Salzman thinks I “could have come up with better examples from the spectacular archive of journalistic foibles.” He’s probably right. However, I just picked some examples basically at random that happened to be well-known to me. I don’t think readers will have much problem adding to the list.
But Salzman thinks I basically make my point that the series presents both a negative and a positive conception of media. He grants, “There seems to be an obvious lesson in the dangers of state control of the press here…”
But Salzman ends on a pessimistic note:
I noticed that Armstrong did not say the truth “will” prevail without quality journalism [though it “can”], and he’s right. You have to wonder today, with serious journalism struggling, whether enough of the truth will get out there for our experiment in democracy to have a happy ending.
So maybe the lesson in the Potter series that Armstrong lauds isn’t the one we really need. We need more books showing how the truth doesn’t prevail in the end when journalism is forsaken or corrupt. That’s where things look to be heading to me.
I, on the other hand, am thrilled and excited by the many new opportunities made possible by the blogging and social media for citizens to engage with journalists, correct reports, and even report the news. For a great example of this, one need look no further than Salzman’s own accomplishments.
For May 31, Denver Diatribe invited me to join the weekly podcast. We discussed the political themes of the novels, especially the corruption of the Ministry of Magic and the tyrannical rise of Voldemort.
The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published April 29 by Grand Junction Free Press.
The same day Atlas Shrugged Part I arrived in theaters, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I came out on disk. A few days later the Oscar-winning King’s Speech followed. These films vary dramatically in content and quality, yet they share an important theme: the fight against tyranny.
The hastily produced, low-budget Atlas Shrugged hardly does justice to Ayn Rand’s epic novel, though it remains basically true to Rand’s story and offers some good cinematography and acting. (It also offers some really bad acting in parts.) The film opened April 15 in Denver and other larger cities.
While the film misses the rich psychological complexity of the novel, it conveys Rand’s critique of the political oppression of producers. The basic story is that a railroad executive and steel manufacturer go into business together to rebuild a Colorado rail line of vital economic importance. Meanwhile, bureaucrats and politically connected “businessmen” join forces to shackle and loot the producers. Mysteriously, the nation’s top producers begin to disappear.
Part of the power of Atlas Shrugged is that much of the real world sounds remarkably like the novel. FreedomWorks even put a quiz online, asking, “Can you tell the difference between quotes from elected U.S. government officials and [villains in] Ayn Rand’s iconic book Atlas Shrugged?” Often it’s difficult, with President Obama threatening to soak the rich and Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., castigating the iPad for displacing jobs.
Unlike the low-budget, limited release Atlas Shrugged, the Harry Potterfilm consumed an enormous production budget and earned the box office to justify the expense. Like Rand’s works, the novels of J. K. Rowling offer richly complex characters that challenge the filmmaker.
While Rowling and Rand would clash over various political and philosophical issues, the writers would agree about the importance of defeating tyrants. The basic story arch of the Potter series follows Voldemort’s rise to dictatorial power and Harry’s quest to stop him.
(For more detailed discussion of Rowling’s work, see the Expanded Edition of Ari’s book, Values of Harry Potter, at ValuesOfHarryPotter.com.)
In many ways Voldemort resembles one of the 20th Century’s most vicious tyrants, Hitler, particularly in his bigoted cruelty. The King’s Speechtargets Hitler directly.
Mostly The King’s Speech is about a man with a speech impediment, a stammer, who works hard to overcome it. Only the man is King George VI, and his ability to speak becomes vitally important when he must lead his nation to war.
The King’s Speech richly deserves its awards, having presented an inspirational story with a phenomenal cast on a limited budget. The film offers two lessons to the producers of Atlas Shrugged. First, a great film can overcome meager funding. Second, a film climaxing with a long and important speech, whether the king’s speech or John Galt’s speech, can keep the audience riveted if properly set up and presented. (Galt’s speech does not appear until the third part of the story.)
True, as Christopher Hitchens warns us, The King’s Speech downplays the missteps of George VI. For example, Hitchens writes for Slate, “When Neville Chamberlain managed… to hand to his friend Hitler the majority of the Czechoslovak people, along with all that country’s vast munitions factories,” George congratulated and supported him. Yet George and the English came through in the end, and that counts for a great deal.
When you watch The King’s Speech on disk, be sure to listen to the original address on which the related scene of the film is based (or catch it on YouTube). It is moving seven decades later.
King George says, “We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle, which if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world. … Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might makes right.”
The films about Harry Potter and George VI portray the defeat of a tyrant who would institute that primitive doctrine. Somebody like Hitler or his fictional counterpart Voldemort takes might, brute force, to its logical conclusion and attempts to impose universal enslavement.
Rand too had intimate knowledge of tyranny, having lived through Russia’s bloody revolution and escaped the oppressive Soviet regime, which slaughtered even more people than the Nazis did.
But Ayn Rand went further and fully articulated the opposite principle of “might makes right,” the principle of individual rights, according to which each individual holds the right to his own life and the fruits of his labor. If we wish to restore vitality to the “civilized order in the world,” it is the principle of individual rights for which we must fight.
The King’s Speech is spectacular, and the Potter film is very good. The film based on Rand’s novel, though flawed, is good enough to view and at times very moving. But, after you enjoy these movies as works as art, take to heart their warning against tyranny.
Benpercent commented May 6, 2011 at 9:20 AM
*Toy Store 3* is also another good film about combating tyranny. The toys actually find themselves in a dictatorship imposed within a daycare center where some “elite” toys live at the expense of other toys, and they work to establish a voluntary society.
Overall, it seems there’s a lot of films coming out lately about the evils of statism, at least implicitly. Could this be a sign of good ideas percolating in the culture?