Category Archives: Aesthetics

Pulp Fiction, Politics, and a Whiff of Rachmaninoff

I should have heard that name long ago. It has frequently come up in headlines about the surge of the political right in the US; occasionally, in the European context.

Donald Trump’s Role Model Is an Ayn Rand Character — Ayn Rand-Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow ObjectivistsTrump Administration Embraces Ayn Rand’s Disdain for the MassesTrump’s Favorite IntellectualThe New Age of Ayn Rand: How She Won over Trump and Silicon Valley

Ayn Rand, a Russian-American novelist and philosopher, and a powerful influence, apparently, on neoliberal and libertarian mindsets. Her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged  has sold nearly 9 million copies, according to the Ayn Rand Institute that takes an aggressive part in its promotion. Pulp fiction with spurious philosophical pretense, according to the vast majority of critics. For a coterie of cultish followers, however, “the greatest novel ever written”. I quote Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion (2007, p. 5), a publication that deceptively resembles a scholarly volume — until one starts reading.

Atlas Shrugged. I have repaired my ignorance and worked my way, hopping, skipping and jumping, through its 1200 pages.

Admittedly, it has an ability to hook into the mind. A certain stickiness, like a tune that you can’t get out of your head, which doesn’t mean it’s good or likeable (or bad). The question is what makes this novel sticky. To my mind, it is above all the contradiction between the work’s intended rational vision and its core sentimentality.

Sentimentality: it’s all about infantile, magical wish-fulfilment. Magic has to fill the gaps in the author’s vision of the blessings of laissez-faire capitalism, a kind of hero-economics, in which the producer is inventor, the inventor producer, and in his rigorous pursuit of self-interest automatically — that is, magically — benefits society, clashing only with his inferiors, never with his equals (never mind the masses).

This hero-entrepreneur makes no attempt to enter the arena of political debate. Instead, he “shrugs” and withdraws into a mutual admiration society. At best, or worst, he sermonizes. With his sixty page radio speech the novel’s superhero John Galt beats notorious bores such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez (and loses the reader).

Magical wish-fulfilment is present in the secondary story line, which is a kind of Lover’s Progress. With three heroes to one heroine (railroad executive Dagny Taggart), the choice is hers, and nibbling a bit off each of them she finds the next superior to and more excitingly violent than the former. From playing mate (Francisco) through working mate (Rearden) to superhero and Redeemer (John Galt).

Its ethics should clearly ban Rand’s ideology from the broad christian base of American conservatism; but as for inconsistency, there seems to be no limit to what people are willing to live by. Just as Rand has concocted her philosophy by inverting christian and socialist values (greed is good; altruism is evil), the imagery of her fiction reflects and inverts socialist and christian iconography.

Rand defies christianity by projecting inverted features of Christ onto John Galt, who, stretched out naked on an electric torture-bed, laughs at his torturers. (Laughter, in Rand’s world, has nothing to do with humour, which is mercilessly absent. It expresses feeling superior.) To make the message quite plain, in the closing sentence the dollar sign replaces the symbol of the cross in a blessing of the earth:

He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.
(2007 Penguin ed., p. 1168)

(I wonder whether those in the Rand cult “dollar themselves” at rituals.)

In appearance, the hero-industrialist-entrepreneur resembles the worker-hero or heroine of socialist realism. Physically perfect, muscular, backlighted, hair waving in the wind.

He saw a girl standing on top of a pile of machinery on a flatcar. She was looking off at the ravine, her head lifted, strands of disordered hair stirring in the wind. Her plain gray suit was like a thin coating of metal over a slender body against the spread of sun-flooded space and sky. Her posture had the lightness and unself-conscious precision of an arrogantly pure self-confidence. (p. 562)

(Hair, by the way, is almost an obsession. Disheveled hair, a strand of hair across the face, “their hair mingled like the rays of two bodies in space that had achieved their meeting” (p. 750), and so on.)

Underground, unacknowledged sentimentalism explains much of the stickiness of this novel. On a more positive side, the author manages to guide the reader through its excessive length by using well-proven mystery devices. The gradual revelation of her superhero John Galt and his entrepreneurial conspiracy is of these the most obvious, but least interesting. More attractive, almost subtle, is the introduction of the composer Richard Halley and his Piano Concerto No. 5. Dagny first hears it in her imagination, during a train ride, unaware of the fact that she is mostly imagining it herself, prompted by someone whistling the theme in another compartment.

She sat listening to the music. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.

Somewhere on the edge of her mind, under the music, she heard the sound of train wheels. They knocked in an even rhythm, every fourth knock accented, as if stressing a conscious purpose. She could relax, because she heard the wheels. She listened to the symphony, thinking: This is why the wheels have to be kept going, and this is where they’re going. (p. 13)

She recognizes it as Halley, well knowing that she has never heard it before, and gets a hint of its identity by the whistler’s admission that it is Halley’s unknown Concerto No. 5 (not a symphony). As she later learns, it is subtitled Deliverance (an allusion, obviously, to christian “Redemption”). The composer has “delivered himself” by withdrawing from concert life and joining John Galt’s secret mutual admiration society. That’s where the story line stops holding interest.

Meanwhile, the reader may try to find real world references for Rand’s fictional music. Halley’s fourth concerto

was a great cry of rebellion. It was a “No” flung at some vast process of torture, a denial of suffering, a denial that held the agony of the struggle to break free. The sounds were like a voice saying: There is no necessity for pain—why, then, is the worst pain reserved for those who will not accept its necessity?—we who hold the love and the secret of joy, to what punishment have we been sentenced for it, and by whom? (p. 67)

The four piano concertos suggest an allusion to Rachmaninoff. And despite his very different emotional world, tainted by melancholy rather than rebellion and triumph, Rachmaninoff’s surging and soaring melodies and intense emotionality may well have been an inspiration for the author’s descriptions. Unsurprisingly, the older fellow Russian emigre was among the author’s favourite composers (though not, it seems, acquaintances). So, the reader is well justified in imagining something Rachmaninoff-like.

(Rachmaninoff, by the way, was as fond of fast cars and boats as Dagny Taggart is of fast trains. The chapter about Dagny’s first ride on the John Galt Line — at a record 100 MPH — stands out from the rest of the book in effectively conveying her exhilaration.)

The musical-literary leitmotiv of Halley’s Concerto No. 5 might function very well as a cinematographic device, as so much in this novel brings to mind movie clichés. Its setting is presumably contemporary (1950’s), but situation and characters seem rather to belong to the thirties, the age of rail and radio. It was also the time when Rand started to become critically engaged with US politics. Roosevelt’s New Deal was too reminiscent of the communism which had come down hard on her family. This retrospective aspect is ignored in the recent (2011-2014) mediocre and unsuccessful movie version, set in 2016. I can more or less imagine what the Coen brothers might do with the novel. Transposed to the screen in a fairly literal manner, in 1930’s black and white, it would almost automatically turn into satire.

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The Art of the Branded Self

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

At the advanced age of 60 and with a name designed to be garbled, the painter Roald Häkschle has unexpectedly made it into the major museum circuit. It makes one wonder what makes a painter successful in an age in which the art of painting itself seems to be an anachronism.

The first requisite is, I guess, a simple formula. Better stick to one idea and keep repeating it. A Häkschle is easily recognized by its limited subject matter — blind walls and pavements, minutely rendered repetitive surfaces that never seem to be part of any solid construction. Subdued colours: shades of red, yellow and (occasionally) blue.

And of course we recognize a Häkschle through the omnipresent figure of the painter himself, foreshortened, with heavy legs and a little head, dressed only in a short raincoat, under a 1940s type of hat. Always gazing away from us, showing his gray ponytail (which, I’ve heard it whispered, is false). Continue reading

The Bad, the Ugly, and the Shameless

Aesthetics and ethics. If ever there was a time to rethink these concepts and how they relate, it is now. As it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow (if we’re still here).

One thing baffling about Trumpian anti-culture is its utterly shameless inversion of values — of transforming vice (lying, denigrating, boasting, bullying) into a kind of anti-virtue. But even more striking is the way bad morals, bad taste, and shamelessness are perfectly aligned. The bad taste of gold plated office buildings, golf courses and pageants. A caricature of the nouveau-riche, even though the man is old-riche and has had ample opportunity to better his judgement.

In The Netherlands a little row has occurred these days over a news blog called GeenStijl (roughly translatable as Bad Taste). ‘Tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive’ by its own definition, it attempts to convert vice into a kind of anti-virtue without altering its substance. Not so much a channel of free, anti-establishment speech, as a depressingly sordid puddle of racist and sexist abuse.

Continue reading

Doggy Sentiments

Dog wet and freezing © Lodewijk Muns 2014

I’ve known a man who hated all living things that bore a human imprint — from cultivated landscapes to house plants and pets. An unlivable state of mind, of course, and probably not quite sincere. But understandable: the craving for the wilderness, the feeling that being human is a curse.

We can’t escape from our humanity, and can’t escape from our own imprint upon nature, which in the grand perspective belongs to natural history too. Parks and pastures, cows and horses, cats and dogs can be beautiful, moving or charming, within bounds (excluding lap dogs, daffodils and feral pigeons). Despite the fact that their likableness is largely the product of our own making them to our liking.

Why do we (or most of us) like dogs? — Because they have been bred to live with us and milk our sentiments. It’s not their fault if large-eyed and furry they may look like a Disneyfied version of themselves. We should, I suppose, admire nature’s adaptability to us and try to improve our own adaptability to nature.

Stories about smart dogs following hikers are common enough. I’ll add my own to the lot, for sentimental reasons.
Continue reading

On to Cape Wrath (3)

Daffodilia Is Everywhere

A garden and a landscape are different things, obviously. A city garden is an enclave, an artificial miniature habitat where plants meet that never meet in nature. But outside the city gardens are often open to the landscape, or part of it.

One might hope that people who choose to buy a house in a spectacular setting –  Scottish highlands, Dutch polders, wherever – have an eye for it. That looking out of their windows they enjoy the hills or moors or pastures, and shape their place in harmony with its surroundings.

But often this is not the case. It is above all the commercially averaged aesthetics of the garden centre that dictates garden design, a standardised vision of what a garden ought to be. Situated in the landscape, such a garden often looks like a petty act of protest.

Cottage, Glen Achall © Lodewijk Muns 2016

Cottage, Glen Achall

And in spring it is the daffodil that dominates the scene.

As a product of nature it is beyond criticism. But in its garden varieties it has lost whatever charm it may originally have had (like the tulip and so many other flowers). The garden daffo is a crudely coloured bugle that waddles spastically on an overlong stalk (“fluttering and dancing”, in Wordsworth’s flattering description). Mute fanfares in a show of shameless self-celebration.

Given the bloated reputation and popularity of this flower, it might be interesting to organize a Worst of Narcissist Excesses photo contest. There were some precious places on the trail that I failed to shoot (much better than the modest patch pictured here). I still hesitate to collect the characteristically ugly and unlikable.

The winning contribution might as well be Dutch, for this nation has not only a strong tradition of growing and exporting the daffodil bulb, but its obsession with planting it all over the waysides may exceed even that of the Brits.

Shapes Moved With Sound

Or the Birth of the Animated Cartoon from the Spirit of Music
Tönend bewegte Formen oder die Geburt des Zeichenfilms aus dem Geiste der Musik. 

Listening to Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche (in a 1919 recording conducted by Eugène Ysaÿe) it dawned upon me: before there was the animated cartoon, there was animated cartoon music. In fact the piece dates from 1888 (the original four hand piano version from 1885) – that is, from a period when the animated cartoon was just developing. The first public screening of an animated projection (by Charles-Émile Reynaud) took place in Paris in 1892, but his Pauvre Pierrot does look poor and suggests that, indeed, the spirit of the cartoon was there musically before it took shape graphically.

But what makes this music cartoonish? – Chabrier called his piece Joyeuse Marche, not Marche Joyeuse, and I’m not sure what that word order implies to the native French, but it seems to me that the composer thought of a walk (a silly walk) rather than a march. Listen to it (preferably in an early recording), and I bet you won’t be able to stay in your chair. You’ll start walking around in a funny way – jerky, angular, and a trifle too fast, like an early cartoon character. Not with those rounded corners, those stereotyped retards, that make modern computer animation look like swimming in syrup.

Music consists of animated forms, the 19th century music critic Hanslick thought, but he was at a loss what to do with the idea: what does it mean, animated? – The answer came from the movies.

Duck Family Values

I don’t know when it started to bother me; not anyhow until I was past the age of reading Walt Disney’s Donald Duck (subtitled Een vrolijk weekblad in its Dutch version, a merry weekly). There is a strange pattern of incompleteness in this family. Neither the grandmother, nor the rich uncle, nor Donald or his niece have living partners; and all the children (two sets of triplets) are orphans, of uncertain parentage.

This seems to be a preferred pattern in comics. Try to imagine Tintin with a boy- or girlfriend. Intimacy doesn’t rise above the level of his problematic friendship with an aging single man, a drunken sailor. Duck-type family relations dominate Suske en Wiske (known in English as Spike and Suzy/Willy and Wanda). Like the Duck triplets they live with a second degree relative, their aunt Sidonia, whose strongly emphasized sexual unattractiveness seems to block more intimate relations with the story’s true antihero Lambik (Ambrose).

The life of the greatest Dutch cartoon character, Olivier B. Bommel (Oliver B. Bumble) is overshadowed by absence – that of his “good father”. His friend Tom Poes (Tom Puss) is too sexless to have a mate. That the elderly OBB develops a belated, prepubescent infatuation with his widowed neighbour may suit his quixotic character. But that his very last adventure ends in marriage is, to my feeling, a serious break of the story code (and I prefer to leave this episode unread).

There may be something disconcerting, oppressive, constraining in the image of the regular two parents family. Having been raised in an incomplete family myself, I feel familiar with this perspective. But the popularity of the story pattern suggests that there is an orphan in every child. And adult.

Not only do most readers unthinkingly accept the Duck family’s pervasive incompleteness; they also go along with its incestuous sexuality, implied in Donald’s dating his niece Daisy (Katrien in the Dutch version). An official reading calls her a non-relative, but this is not what I remember from my merry weekly. It also leaves her family name unexplained (a widow? – unlikely).

It is the subject of a longstanding debate in aesthetics: how does fiction make us accept (in some sense) not only counterfactuals, but also inconsistencies, contradictions, and what we might call counter-ethics? I think the explanation must be sought in the fact that we accept all these together: they all piggyback on our playful acceptance of the counterfactual qua fiction. The trick (the magician’s and storyteller’s trick) is sleight of hand, to make it happen in degrees, to lure the attention away from any factual, logical or ethical offense.

What goes for ducks doesn’t go for people. But it remains amazing how much we allow those ducks.