In the introduction to the author’s collection of essays on art, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand observed that “[i]t is impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man’s higher potential and what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men — over the brief span of less than a century — before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) and the last memory of man’s greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.”
Rand disclosed that:
As a child, I saw a glimpse of that pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history…”
The prospect of catching a glimpse of what Rand observed, thought and wrote about in the afterglow is reason enough to read this outstanding series of her writings. I first read this book as a young artist, when I was dancing and writing in Chicago. I was struck by its lucidity. As a child of modern, progressive, state-sponsored education, I instantly recognized in her assertions that I, too, had been deprived, demoralized and damaged as a student. Making a point about those who had given up on achieving the best in life, Rand referenced those she described as “drained, embittered hulks whimpering occasionally about the hopelessness of life.“
In a world dominated by movies and shows about goblins, dragons, gargoyles and other horror or fantasy figures, with the rare heroic figures reduced to sniveling misanthropes in disguise, it’s hard not to notice that most of what the author of Atlas Shrugged wrote about and forewarned against between 1962 and 1971 came true. But Rand primarily wrote about art she admired, loved and revered. For example, starting with Western philosophy in her introduction, she identified Thomas Aquinas as “the bridge between Aristotle and the Renaissance, spanning the infamous detour of the Dark and Middle Ages.”
Capping the commentary, which she wrote in New York City in the month of June of 1969, she noted that “[o]ur day has no art and no future. The future, in the context of progress, is a door open only to those who do not renounce their conceptual faculty; it is not open to mystics, hippies, drug addicts, tribal ritualists — or to anyone who reduces himself to a subanimal, subperceptual, sensory level of awareness.” [Emphasis Rand’s].
The rest of The Romantic Manifesto unfolds from there. Delving deeply into what she called the psycho-epistemology of art, the philosopher begins, of course, with the best premises for art, paving the way for an exploration of her school of art, which she calls romantic realism. Rand always defines and contextualizes her terms. For example, in “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” she explains that “the myth of a supernatural recorder from whom nothing can be hidden, who lists all of a man’s deeds…That myth is true, not existentially, but psychologically. The merciless recorder is the integrating mechanism of a man’s subconscious; the record is his sense of life.“ [Emphasis Rand’s].
What he does not know is that every day of his life is judgment day — the day of paying for the defaults, the lies, the contradictions, the blank outs recorded by his subconscious on the scrolls of his sense of life. And on that kind of psychological record, the blank entries are the blackest sins.“
Possibly anticipating future readership, she goes a bit further:
A sense of life, once acquired, is not a closed issue. It can be changed and corrected — easily, in youth, while it is still fluid, or by a longer, harder effort in later years. Since it is an emotional sum, it cannot be changed by a direct act of will. It changes automatically, but only after a long process of psychological retraining, when and if a man changes his conscious philosophical premises.”
I’ve gained immeasurable value from reading and re-reading The Romantic Manifesto, which I celebrated with scholars at an event for the 50th anniversary of its publication at Southern California’s Ayn Rand Institute last year. Whether discovering whether, why and how to judge works of art, which has been part of my own livelihood as an intellectual, or finding fascinating paintings, dancers, musical compositions, plays and other works of literature, this book challenges everything you think you know about the arts.
Examine art and cognition with Ayn Rand as she breaks down each of the arts. Consider her identification of how humans perceive art through the senses and can access its rewards with the mind. Rand accounts for every imaginable aspect, detail and nuance of the fine arts, whether music, architecture or motion pictures. For example, with regard to dance, she asserts: “Every strong emotion has a kinesthetic element, experienced as an impulse to leap or cringe or stamp one’s foot, etc…The dance stylizes it into a system of motion, expressing a metaphysical view of man.” [Emphasis Rand’s].
However, the woman who created Objectivism, a philosophy for living on earth, to help herself write fiction also addresses various arts-related fields of endeavor, questions and issues, from circus performances to photography. Each point she makes contains often masterful clarity and consistency.
Note Rand’s explanation of dance:
Dancers are performing artists; music is the primary work they perform — with the help of an important intermediary: the choreographer. His creative task is similar to that of a stage director, but carries a more demanding responsibility; a stage director translates a primary work, a play, into physical action — a choreographer has to translate a primary work, the composition of sounds, into another medium, into a composition of movements, and create a structured, integrated work: a dance.”
Of course, the most in-depth and compelling parts of The Romantic Manifesto involve her insights on reading, writing and literature. These thoughts are remarkably relevant, timely and enlightening. By the time you’re done reading a particular section, you’re likely to have a better understanding of what you like about what you like to read and why you like it. “… At the end of the novel the reader must know why the characters did the things they did,” Rand wrote. “…The author has to be consistent in his view of a character’s psychology and permit him no inexplicable actions, no actions unprepared by or contradictory to the rest of his characterization.”
“The theme of a novel can be conveyed only through the events of the plot, the events of the plot depend on the characterization of the men who enact them — and the characterization cannot be achieved except through the events of the plot, and the plot cannot be constructed without a theme.“ She concludes: “… A good novel is an indivisible sum: every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization.“
Again and again, Rand provides examples, illustrating her points and affirming her convictions. About I, the Jury author Mickey Spillane, she wrote that he “… [p]resents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness.”
Don’t read the book strictly for specific arts guidance, though. The principles of art are deep, rich and often ingenious. This is like reading a comprehensive true story of ideas about art in terms of interlocking essentials. After defining romanticism and identifying a key difference with a heinous distortion of romanticism, for instance, she claims: “Romanticism demands mastery of the primary element of fiction: the art of storytelling — which requires three cardinal qualities: ingenuity, imagination, a sense of drama.”
Yet the biting brilliance of Rand’s late 20th century non-fiction, evidenced in her periodicals, lectures and underappreciated collected works, such as The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, always comes through. Can you not think of Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and every middling Netflix or streaming film everyone’s raving about when you read this pointed cultural criticism, which turns out to have been a keen forecast?
… Today’s romanticists are escaping not into the past, but into the supernatural — explicitly giving up reality and this earth. The exciting, the dramatic, the unusual — their policy is declaring, in effect — do not exist; please don’t take us seriously, what we’re offering is only a spooky daydream.“
Consider social media and the constant droning by today’s leading “influencers” about statistics, metrics and analytics and the smallness of today’s prevailing stories when reading this part of her essay “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age”: “Naturalism … substitut[es] statistics for a standard of value. That which could be claimed to be typical of a large number of men, in any given geographical area or period of time, was regarded as metaphysically significant and worthy of being recorded.“
“What one reads today is not naturalism any longer: it is symbolism; it is a presentation of a metaphysical view of man, as opposed to a journalistic or statistical view. But it is the symbolism of primitive terror,” she wrote, making me think of Oscar’s recent Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. “According to this modern view, depravity represents man’s real, essential, metaphysical nature, while virtue does not; virtue was only an accident, an exception or an illusion; therefore, a monster is an appropriate projection of man’s essence, but hero is not.“
“[T]he romanticists presented heroes as “larger than life“; now, monsters are presented as “larger than life“ — or, rather, man is presented as “smaller than life.” [Emphasis Rand’s].
Other comparisons, such as the scads of mindless, mediocre Marvel Comics-themed films, come to mind as Rand writes about the bastardization of writer Ian Fleming’s James Bond depictions in movies. And, in Rand’s magnificent “Art and Moral Treason”, there is the scathing prediction of the postmodern “Millenial” generation, college-bred youths filled with chronic terror in the eyes while blindly submitting to indiscriminately wearing a mask:
When I saw Mr. X for the first time, I thought that he had the most tragic face I have ever seen: it was not the mark left by some specific tragedy, not the look of a great sorrow, but a look of desolate hopelessness, weariness and resignation that seemed left by the chronic pain of many lifetimes. He was 26 years old.
“He had a brilliant mind, and outstanding scholastic record in the field of engineering, a promising start in his career – and no energy to move farther. He was paralyzed by so extreme a state of indecision that any sort of choice filled him with anxiety – even the question of moving out of an inconvenient apartment. He was stagnating in a job which he had outgrown and which had become a dull, uninspiring routine. He was so lonely that he had lost the capacity to know it, he had no concept of friendship, and his few attempts at a romantic relationship had ended disastrously – he could not tell why.
“At the time I met him he was undergoing psychotherapy, struggling desperately to discover the causes of his state. There seemed to be no existential cause for it. His childhood had not been happy, but no worse and, in some respects, better than the average childhood. There were no traumatic events in his past, no major shocks, disappointments or frustrations. Yet his frozen impersonality suggested a man who neither felt nor wanted anything any longer. He was like a gray spread of ashes that had never been on fire.“
Buy ‘The Romantic Manifesto’
Ayn Rand wrote that in 1965. But the great radiance with which she begins the story of her romantic manifesto pre-dates the 55-year mark.
“It has been said and written by many commentators that the atmosphere of the western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period,” she wrote in the introduction to The Romantic Manifesto. I think it’s probably true. But Ayn Rand, in presenting her philosophy of art, gives the reader something extraordinary: power tools and a battery recharge with which to find, regard, contemplate, revere and create works of art on your own.
Cameron Mackintosh’s slightly changed production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables retains its glory. I decided to see the revised musical, after having seen the original 1989 production several times in Los Angeles. Les Misérables recently returned to Broadway with new staging, which is mixed, and scenery inspired by Hugo’s paintings, which adds a flair, in downtown Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center toward the end of its run there.
The 19th century France-themed Les Misérables is an unforgettable story. The musical version softens the villainy while keeping the plot’s redemptive theme for every character that does wrong to any degree. The songs “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Bring Him Home,” “One Day More,” and a great favorite, “Red and Black”, make this beloved musical one of the most popular in theatrical history.
This great musical is unique for its idealism and seriousness and this version did not disappoint. Nick Cartell’s Jean Valjean had a commanding presence. His “Bring Him Home” was easily the show’s most emotional performance. Other cast standouts include an actress named Phoenix Best as Eponine, a conniving ghetto girl who falls in love with a French aristocrat enlisted in an anti-government rebellion; she turns romantic, defies her father and fights for her true love. Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras was captivating in every scene, especially leading “Red and Black”, stupidly renamed “The People’s Song” against the very core of its meaning in this version. The actors playing the Thenardier couple overacted. Gavroche was too precocious (there is such a thing for this character, which entirely relies upon innocence for its full impact) though I think the part and the boy’s lines were rewritten to pander to modern parents, families and audiences.
The best performance belongs to Josh Davis as Javert. I’ve never liked this character and I still do not. I’m planning to review a few recent TV and movie versions of Les Misérables, which I’ve recently seen, and gained a new appreciation for the rationalistic policeman character. But Davis, whose physical, vocal and acting ability added dimension to his portrayal, delivered what for me is the first performance that makes his suicide truly meaningful, organic and impactful to the plot. I’m not a fan of the new set, which dominates the stage, though I was surprised at how much I like the infusion of pieces suggested by Hugo’s art. The barricade remains central to the performance.
Overall, I was as moved as ever, possibly more so because I’m older. What strikes me now, as against 30 years ago, when I first saw Les Misérables on the stage, is that the world has grown darker, more perverse, more desperate. The show’s explicitly Catholic underpinnings resonate less with the audience than its searching themes of wanting to examine and know who am I, what am I doing here on earth and how can I be my best. It was impossible during the often pin-drop perfect performance not to think of those young rebels in Hong Kong, and now also in Teheran and in countless other silent and unknown rebellions from Saudi Arabia to Communist Cuba, China and North Korea. I’ve the sense that I was not alone. Couples, families with children, older and younger adults of all types were held by the power of “Red and Black” (I refuse to call this poetry by its mangled title the people’s song) with the soft yet searing plea by an idealist to his fellow men:
It is time for us all
To decide who we are
Do we fight for the right
To a night at the opera now?
Have you asked of yourselves
What’s the price you might pay?
Is it simply a game
For rich young boys to play?
The color of the world
Is changing day by day…
Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!
Les Misérables endures, especially in the streets, back alleys and hushed halls of Hong Kong, where the anti-Communist rebels, young and old as in Les Misérables, unite, gather and mobilize despite China’s barbarism, brutality and oppression to sing the 1989 musical’s triumphant final “song of angry men who will not be slaves again”. In Pittsburgh this Thanksgiving, its banner waved with wonder, power and inspiration still.
The 2,800-seat Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, formerly a movie palace called the Stanley Theater before a $42 million renovation in 1987, affords intimacy and grandeur. Named for Mike Benedum, the son of West Virginian farmers and merchants who became a self-made, wildcat oil tycoon who made a charity after his only child died in 1918, the Liberty Street theater is nearly perfectly proportioned. I plan to return.
Based on a stage play, The End of the Rainbow, Judy starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland takes too many falls. This biographical film, directed by Rupert Goold, is relatively innocuous.
Its maudlin theme is that this woman, an astonishing movie star (Judgment at Nuremberg, A Star is Born (1954), Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, Easter Parade), singer and entertainer whose alcoholism and drug addiction killed her by age 47, was doomed. But Judy is neither dramatized at the proper depth for the caliber of its subject nor does it accomplish a successful depiction of Garland, who married several men including Vincente Minnelli and Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) and mothered three children, all portrayed here.
Judy’s mixed success is not necessarily Zellweger’s fault. She’s a fine actress with a good record. But she’s either been misdirected, misguided by the script or ventured out of her league playing Garland, whom Zellweger portrays in fragments. Just when you’re willing to go along with the depiction, and there is both resemblance and success in her performance, an overly mannered tic or expression betrays the actress and you’re out of the movie. Judy is telescoped in flashbacks and her final London stage engagement, so end-stage career acts are portrayed. Zellweger (Chicago), singing in her own voice, hasn’t got the pipes.
Domineering movie studio types, a tracheotomy, attempt at suicide, custody battle with Luft over the two kids, poverty, a crush on Mickey Rooney and the chronic need stemming from the child star’s damaged ego to gain intimacy with an audience; all of these, much of it happening off screen, drive Garland’s addiction to drugs and booze. A party at daughter Liza’s, who’d go on to face similar struggles, leads to another marriage to another man that needs and doesn’t satisfy Judy. Addiction’s vicious spiral gets its due.
Judy doesn’t give Garland her due. It’s possible to make a late life movie about her without depicting her in her finest vocal form. Yet Judy gets bogged down in too many disparate segments without any single theme. Her London engagement, for example, becomes the focal point for her swan song, Judy suggests, leading to a climax in which she gains some deeper form of audience bond. This would’ve been more effective, however, with better seeding through exposition.
Oddly, Zellweger’s created more of a smaller-scale caricature of the maudlin caricature that’s been the mainstay of the gay male adoration than a convincing portrayal of a real-life falling star. There are finer moments, especially with a gay couple in an arc that nicely cashes in on the best of Judy‘s subplots and themes. Jessie Buckley (the fireman’s wife in Chernobyl) has a lovely turn as Judy’s main contact during the London show. An actor named Finn Witrock (La La Land, TV’s The Normal Heart) plays one of the men who becomes one of the husbands. Michael Gambon is fine, too, and Judy looks and sounds terrific.
Judy Garland deserves something either deeper or lighter than Judy. This is because something about her stardom and demise has been lost, very, seriously lost and fouled up, since she self-destructed. A scene in which her doctor, giving her an injection as he admits his childhood admiration for her portrayal of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, gets at what this movie needs and lacks.
After skimming the surfaces of her sordid past, which is all Judy ultimately does, he urges her toward proper self-care, an idea rooted in egoism which is only, very rarely properly practiced let alone properly understood. Liza Minnelli, whose thoughts on her mother are very serious, deep and profound, lives and talks as though she gets what egoism means. So does Elton John. Both are addicts and survivors, for the moment, and, like Judy Garland and others such as Whitney, Elvis and Amy Winehouse, they’re stars whose ability radiates.
Judy, to paraphrase the poem that, if realized, gets and keeps you clean and sober, hasn’t the wisdom to show the difference.
Every adult who reads can probably gain from reading Me by Elton John. It’s not that what he writes about his music, work and life is especially philosophical, though there’s reflection and insight in what he writes. It’s not that his autobiography is salacious, “juicy” or filled with shocking details, though he writes about show business, being gay and struggling with severe drug and alcohol addiction, so there’s plenty of shock. What moves me about Me is his remarkable ability to express why he finds inner strength in flaws and insecurities — Elton John doesn’t neatly wrap, curl ribbons and package it like that — and come out an egoist.
Buy the Book
Of course, he never uses that word. But, like the movie that his husband David Furnish produced about his life — Rocketman, hands down this year’s best motion picture — expressing selfishness as a virtue is crucial to what makes the audience rapt with attention. Egoism powers every tale of why and how he studies lyrics, thinks about composition, hides from humanity, feels ashamed, dresses up, has another drink, cuts lines of cocaine, jumps on the piano, dazzles thousands at Dodger Stadium and sees in meeting Elvis his dark and lonely future.
I suppose the value of Me depends to a degree on what you know about Elton John and whether you like his music, which spans half a century from the intimacy of “Tiny Dancer” and pop masterpieces “Crocodile Rock” and “Elderberry Wine” to the majestic introspection of “The One” and “Home”. Here is an artist who met, performed or composed with and survived the greatest and most enduring musical artists of our time — Elvis, The Beatles, Whitney, Michael, Prince — and lives to tell.
This should not be taken lightly. If you know or want to know about the culture since the 1960s and how one man who is among the wealthiest, most accomplished and powerful artists of the modern era escaped the self-sacrifice destroying civilization, read Me.
I think you’ll be amazed. I am, even as I write. Having lost loved ones to alcohol, drugs and various means of trying to evade reality, the greatest of whom introduced me to Elton John as a boy, I was already in awe of his courage, heroism and life. Me gives new reasons to look up to Elton John.
I also think you’ll laugh out loud. With help from writer Alexis Petridis, a journalist he acknowledges and thanks, Elton John’s dry wit entertains. His humor never denigrates or detracts. Hewinks more than he digs, often with cliches and metaphors, which makes his side lines more enjoyable because you know they’re not the point. Each of these lines made me laugh, sometimes while reading to the point that I had to put the iPad down and wipe the tears.
Rarely are there tears of sadness, though the second half of Me is rightly more somber as Elton John delves into details of his fall and rise. This is old hat if you’ve been there — to AA meetings, to interventions, grasping for the phone at three in the morning, stumbling to the toilet the morning after (or an hour after you’ve emptied a bottle into your bloodstream) — and you’ll breeze through Me like a roughened roadie on tour. If not, you’ll know that you’re blessed to not know what you don’t know and you’ll more deeply appreciatewho you are knowing who he is and has chosen to be.
Like all great stories, well, my favorites anyway, Me by Elton John is a story of the self-made man. As such, it is riveting. I was never exhausted while reading. I was gripped. Not only for personal reasons and never for curiosity in some lewd or peculiar detail. So, bitchy gossip types need not read this book—Me is not for them—and neither should their flipside doppelgängers, rationalistic bean counters that disdain anything but worshipping at the altar of trivia, statistics (pardon me, “metrics” and “analytics”) and neverending streams of pictures, games and nonsense.
Me, like Rocketman, is for the reader who thinks … for himself.
When Elton John does indulge in celebrity stories, and he covers all the known feuds, snubs and controversies, from Liberace to Madonna, it is never with a snivel or a sneer. He’s never the bitchy queen though he’s the first to admit that, at times, at his worst, he has been. Instead, he writes with ease and a sense of purpose as he looks back with clarity and humor — and he gets to the point. For example, reflecting on his eccentric wardrobe and his career’s catapult in Los Angeles, he writes:
The clothes from Mr Freedom weren’t outrageous because they were sexy or threatening, they were outrageous because they were larger than life, more fun than the world around them. I loved them. Before I went onstage at the Troubadour, I put them all on at once. So instead of an introspective hippy singer-songwriter, the audience were greeted by the sight of a man in bright yellow dungarees, a long-sleeved T-shirt covered in stars and a pair of heavy workman’s boots, also bright yellow, with a large set of blue wings sprouting from them. This was not the way sensitive singer-songwriters in America in 1970 looked.”
That’s certainly true and John’s candor and insight shows a glimpse of the root of his appeal as a showman, as a composer, as a performer. His combination with the brilliant — Elton John at his saltiest might say fuckin’ brilliant — Bernie Taupin often writing lyrics with John’s astute sense of his audience, culture and the world at large, including what it needs in romanticism, is awesome. This is impossible to overstate.
The above quote subtly shows his disregard for the avant-garde, the pretentious, the chattering dilettante set and their darlings, including their penchant for holding up radical New Left terrorists, hippies and wannabes. Whether he knows it, and Me only barely implies that he does, Elton John the star stands opposed to that ethos. Me reflects this over and over.
Whether he’s adopting rapper Eminem as an AA charge, performing with pride at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding — and being handsomely paid for the endeavor — or refusing to profit from friends John Lennon’s or Princess Diana’s deaths, Elton John in Me writes as a man acting on principle.
This makes his memoir more enjoyable. Aside from learning details about his most indelible songs, concerts and famous friends, partners and meltdowns, John brings a brisk but substantial flair — not flamboyance — to the story of his life until now. Every flaw, every fact, every major chapter — from performing at the Troubadour in LA to suicide attempts and the agonizingly total detachment from his unloving parents — gets its due.
Ultimately, his life also gets his unyielding judgment. As he writes about his notorious shopping and tendency to bestow those he loves with gifts:
Over the years, I’ve had therapists tell me that it’s obsessive, addictive behaviour, or that I’m trying to buy people’s affection by giving them gifts. With the greatest of respect to the members of the psychiatric profession who have said that sort of thing to me, I think that’s a load of old shit. I’m not interested in buying people’s affection. I just get a lot of pleasure out of making people feel included or letting them know I’m thinking about them. I love seeing people’s faces when you treat them to something.”
Accordingly, he concludes with an estimate of his own value to himself:
I earned that money by working hard, and if people think the way I spend it is excessive or ridiculous, then I’m afraid that’s their problem. I don’t feel guilty about it at all. If it’s an addiction, well, I’ve been addicted to far more damaging things over the years than buying tableware and photographs. It makes me happy. You know, I’ve got 1,000 candles in a closet in my home in Atlanta, and I suppose that is excessive. But I’ll tell you what: it’s the best-smelling closet you’ve ever been in in your life.”
Elton John writes about the late Ryan White, who changed his life, and his efforts to eradicate the scourge of AIDS. He acknowledges and, strictly as deserved, pays tribute to his band, the elusive and mythical countryside Englishman-turned-American cowboy Bernie Taupin, his ex-wife, his ex lovers, his family, friends and business partners. He writes about everything you can imagine: “Honky Cat”, Lady Gaga, scoring The Lion King, composing Aida with Tim Rice, touring with an orchestra, playing piano, his sexual voyeurism, “Philadelphia Freedom”, observing Freddie Mercury on his death bed, trying to save George Michael from himself, going live with Aretha, making an album with Leon Russell, how he met the man who’d become his husband, his horrifying mother, his record album triumphs including The Diving Board.
In essence, it is as though Elton John, whether drunk, stoned or sober, grabbed the traditionalism (really, religionism) being shoved down his throat and crushed it with his bare hands, and that he did so at the risk of destroying himself in the process. As an artist, a craftsman, just as he took movies, albums, shows and Bernie Taupin’s poetry, he then proceeded to remake these bad traditions, ideas and practices and repurpose them into a radically new and improved approach to making a life of his own.
He’s done it—he did it—and this in reading Me is why you begin to realize how he came to be including why he came to be among the only Seventies superstars to make it out alive.
That this alcoholic and drug addict, working man and titan of industry, lifelong soccer spectator and pro sports team owner, husband and father lives to tell this tale is itself a testament to what he calls in the dedication his amazing life. Me is simple, humorous and, fundamentally, because he refuses not to see that “the sun’s been quite kind”, an absolute joy to read. The book lives up to the glory of its unrepentant and egoistic title, like a song graced by piano sung in his soulful voice, holding on exactly the right notes in perfect harmony.
OCON Cleveland, like OCON Pittsburgh and OCON Chicago, makes the most of its centrality of venue and location. I think today’s audiences are art-deprived, as I’ve written. So this year’s arts theme, pegged to the anniversary of a collection of Ayn Rand’s arts and literature essays, undoubtedly helps.
The best aspect of the conference is its venue, the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, which was built for the 2016 Republican National Convention (read my review here). Overall, the sponsoring Ayn Rand Institute’s best conferences in terms of the whole experience are the ones held in mid-American cities. OCON Cleveland squandered the opportunity to capitalize on the history of the location, unfortunately. There were no lectures on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, for instance, or other obvious Objectivism tie-ins. Tours of Cleveland are another missed opportunity.
OCON increasingly tends to be oriented to a lighter, less intellectual and educational and more social experience, so this is not surprising. Gone are the deep dive courses of yesteryear, when I could delve into details, nuances and aspects of my favorite artists such as Hitchcock, Hugo and Hawks. In Chicago, I studied Aristotle with an Aristotelian scholar for several sessions. In Cleveland, the same scholar was reduced to a single session.
I’ve heard it said that “young people” are to blame. I don’t accept it. Certainly, I think it’s true that the incessant and ubiquitous technology glut often depletes or mitigates one’s ability to focus. But offering less is a self-fulfilling prophecy. OCON ought to offer deeper, longer and more serious studies with streamlined teaching. Not in fragments that often turn into advertisements for whatever the speaker’s selling. There were too many ads, or plugs disguised as something other than ads, for my money at this year’s OCON. Let the trader principle play out and have an Austen Heller room in which to showcase, mix and trade. Also, the full schedule ought to be announced and advertised in advance, not doled out in spurts as if prospective customers are inclined to act on a whim.
Here are other criticisms: no greeting, let alone orientation, at conference registration — an announcement of the death of a prominent Objectivist intellectual mentioned as an aside (which turned out to be false and was retracted without apology) — and the worst part: an intellectual who’d denounced Leonard Peikoff was admitted and is sanctioned by the ARI, which is unfortunate.
Visiting and making new friends is a top value. I gained the highest value at OCON Cleveland in the lessons on bacteriophages (with a nod to Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis), PrEP, the scourge of mosquitos, CAR-T, Rachel Carson and CRISPR by the brilliant if breathless Dr. Amesh Adalja — behaviorism and Ivan Pavlov — Christianity’s dubious origins — interesting advice with cogent thoughts on Bob Dylan and criticism of being “inquisitorial” within the context of what the speaker calls personal, as against optional, values — and a lecture on Aristotle with insight into Rand’s thoughts on his philosophy of art.
Though I was unable to attend several major lectures and courses, I enjoyed Shoshana Milgram’s newest work on the splendor of Victor Hugo and I would’ve liked to have seen Dr. Milgram, an English literature professor and Rand’s biographer, on the arts panels. My personal favorite presentation was Stephen Siek’s marvelous, two-part lecture about and biographical introduction to Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose struggle, work and life are as larger than life, passionate and inspiring as his music. This type of mini-course makes OCON uniquely enriching. OCON ought to let those who attend be greedy for more.